Kill all aphids. A garden project.

London has recently enjoyed a spate of gloriously warm weather, rapidly bringing the garden to life. The grass is growing, birds are whistling, and next door have started yelling out in the garden as well as in the house. New seedlings have begun to push their heads through the earth like the xenomorphic Alien through John Hurt’s chest. It’s a terribly proud moment after the work and attention I’ve put in, but a plant tended and cared for will repay you bountifully. However, there is a blight with the sole purpose of eradicating (plant)life as we know it. Unscrupulous deviants with a penchant for anarchy. Bloody aphids.

FACT! Aphids reproduce asexually in the spring. Nearly all aphids you see will be female.

Aphids are little garden vampires that go around sucking the life out of young plants. They are a huge annoyance for gardeners. I have done a little research into aphids in an effort to understand their homicidal tendencies and have found hundreds of web pages with differing ideas of how to get rid of them – organically, of course. There are so many theories on the best way to eradicate an aphid infestation – squishing with your fingers, soapy water, boiled rhubarb leaf juice – but, as with everything in life, this seems too hard and I can’t be bothered to do it. I reckon the best and most hassle-free way, therefore, is to try and create an environment that encourages the aphids’ natural predators into the garden. And there is one predator more powerful, more terrifying, more slaughterous than all the rest. Yes, of course, the ladybird.

FACT! Ladybirds were sometimes (inexplicably) known as lady’s cocks. 

The mighty ladybird, the garden Buffy, destined to save the entire garden from the grip of demons, vampires and aphids. Ladybird larvae like to eat aphids, hence, ladybirds are a fine addition to your cultivated oasis. Hoverfly too (they can be Willow or Xander or someone).

“But Brooke, I beseech thee, how do you entice them in?” I hear you bleat.

Well, you can actually buy them but, apparently, bought ones will just fly away. Fair enough really. I wouldn’t want to keep them if it’s a violation of their free will and civil liberties. Therefore you need to attract them with plants. This is where I’m struggling a bit. So many sources say so many different things, different varieties of flower that ladybirds like. I’ve gone for a carpet-planting strategy, sowing a few different flowers and hoping some are right. Of course, aphids will attract the ladybirds too.

“Oh, but I’m afraid they will rise up and desert me the moment I have my back turned”.

Are you asking how you would keep them in the garden?  By constructing a ladybird hotel, obviously.

FACT! Steven Seagal has his own energy drink. He is also a reserve sheriff in Louisiana. (This appears to be common knowledge but I just found out. Very exciting.)

Ladybird house

You will need:

A drill, a hammer, a saw, some wire, some branches or sticks, a few garden canes (hollow), an off cut of ply (or similar), some nails and screws.

1. Make a triangular frame from the branches by screwing them together and tethering them with wire if needs be. I used an old cricket stump here.

2. Cut the ply (or whatever you’re using) roughly the same shape as your frame and nail to the back.

3. cut the canes into lengths comparable to the depth of your frame. This is where your lady’s cocks will live.

4. Pack the frame with the lengths of cane and also offcuts of your branches with a few holes drilled into them. Pack them very tight so they don’t fall out.

5. Use a screw and piece of wire to create a hanging loop. Hang your new, scrap-built ladybird house on a wall or fence that gets plenty of morning sunshine. They like that apparently. I’ve hung it over a veg patch that is going to be bordered by flowers.

6. Stand back and admire your ladybird house. Nurture and cling to the feeling that you’ve done something crafty and practical which is probably akin to, and as important as, Wren’s accomplishments with Saint Paul’s or Barry’s achievements on Westminster Palace. Whatever your level of pride, it’s definitely worth a cup of tea.


Pilau stuffed courgette with red lentil dahl

I love dahl. I love it I love it I love it. It’s the most comforting of all South Asian dishes. It has the ability to warm you on a cold evening and cool you after an abundance of chilli. It can be a robust main, a complimentary side or a spiced, thick soup. Heck, it can do anything it wants. It could be the school cricket captain and play lead guitar better than anyone else around. I even saw it get off with a girl I fancied after a disco once. And it will grow up to be an astronaut. I can’t find room in my heart for jealousy though, it’s just too charming.

Dāl (or dahl) is a derivative of the Sanskrit verbal root dal, which means ‘to split’ (*pushes glasses back up nose*). It basically means it is a dish made from pulses which have been husked and split so, theoretically, you can make it with pretty much any pulse you like (as opposed to what Christopher Woodhead told me). For me though (and to avoid an overnight soaking and hefty cooking time), I prefer red lentils. They have such a great texture and tend to look after themselves when cooking. I do find that they take on a fair amount of salt though, so be warned.

I was trying to think of something to serve with the dahl and decided I would like to try Pilau rice. I’d never cooked it before but had a reasonable idea what spices to use to get a good result. I did a small amount of research online and, needless to say, there seems to be around 100,000 different ways to go about it. Taking advice from Fleetwood Mac, I decided to go my own way with the rice and so, recipe drawn in my head, I headed home to make my spicy feast. Then I passed a market stall and I saw my first ever Globe Courgette.

Have you seen one? They’re hilarious! Small, perfectly spherical little squashes crying out to be stuffed and roasted. A beautifully testicular member of the courgette family. Indeed, if you were to sit two alongside a normal courgette it would probably be enough to tip me over the brink of gaiety into a useless, tearful collapse. Me and all the other ten-year old boys. Anyway, with all thoughts of testicles aside, I sliced them open and stuffed them.

This serves 4. Easily.


Pilau stuffed courgette with red lentil dahl

For the stuffed courgette:

4 globe courgettes, tops removed and centre scooped out (keep this!)

300g basmati rice, well washed

1 onion, finely chopped

5 cloves

2 bay leaves

3 tsp cumin, toasted and crushed

3 cardamom pods

2 tsp turmeric

For the dahl:

200g red lentils, well washed

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 thumb sized piece of ginger, finely chopped

1 tsp cumin, toasted and crushed

1 tsp coriander seed, toasted and crushed

4 cardamom pods

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

1 tblsp tomato puree

650ml water

2 tomatoes, roughly chopped (optional)

Handful spinach, roughly chopped (optional)

Handful coriander leaves, roughly chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190C. Make the rice first. Fry the onion in a little oil until softened. Add the cumin, cardamom, turmeric and cloves and mix well. Add the rice and mix so the rice is coated in the spices. Add the bay leaves and then around 600ml boiling water. Bring it to the boil then turn it down very low and cover with a lid. Simmer until cooked – around 15-20 mins or so. In the meantime roughly chop and then fry the leftover courgette with a pinch of salt until cooked through. When the rice is cooked remove from the heat, take of the lid and leave for a minute or two to let any excess moisture steam away. Mix in the courgette and then spoon into the prepared squashes. Put the lids back on and place on a baking tray in the centre of the oven. They’ll take about 35 – 40 mins.

For the dahl, fry the onion, garlic, chilli and ginger until softened then add all the spices at once. Mix in the tomato puree and then the lentils and mix to coat. Pour in the water, bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer. Stir occasionally so it doesn’t stick and cook until the lentils are tender and the dahl is thick and oozy – you may need to add a splash more water. At this point check for seasoning (can take salt!) and mix in the tomato, spinach and coriander leaves if using.

Your baked courgettes should be just about ready (test with the tip of a sharp knife or a skewer) so put a healthy portion of dahl on a plate, drizzle with yoghurt and top with a juicy squash! I want it again.


Operation ‘Brockley Market Garden’

The vision

Actuality

Right, that time of year is upon us. Time to polish of the old trowel and get digging. Time to create life! When Laurel and I moved into our house the garden was a forest of weeds, rubble and general detritus. It took me ages to sort out. Every time I dug the garden over and removed the weeds they would grow back and I’d have to do it all over again. It was infuriating and endlessly boring but, finally, with the garden as ready as it would ever be, I bit the bullet and ordered turf, topsoil and fertilizer off the internet and waited for delivery.

Unfortunately I forgot which day it was all arriving and accidentally went out the night before on an epic, friend’s birthday mash-up.  My lawn arrived at 8am in a gigantic lorry and I was awakened by a gruff, rotund weeble violating my doorbell. He made a couple of indistinguishable noises and gestured to two huge pallets of turf and soil which he had parked in the middle of the road. My groggy mind was still trying to grasp what was happening when he thrust a sheet of paper into my hands, barked twice and drove off into the distance. I can’t remember exactly what happened next but I think I wept.

Lavender

That was two years ago and now, after all that hardship, disaster has struck. I have managed to seriously damage my lawn. I let it grow so long that it started to die and then left it that way over winter. Needless to say it requires a good deal of care now if I’m to pull off a miraculous resurrection. I am not, though, the main protagonist in the calculated murder of my lawn – I am merely an accomplice. The guilty party, M’lud, is Mr Flymo Mow n Vac. 

Rosemary

The term ‘Lawnmower’ indicates that you have a tool with the ability to cut, scythe, shear or trim an area of grass. Not so with a Mow n Vac. It has the ability to do nothing. Does Mow n Vac mean it will be as easy as hoovering the lawn? Again, no. It neither rolls nor hovers so is impossible to push and if you leave it in one spot too long it bores a spiral into the ground. It would be more productive had I crawled around and nibbled at the grass with my teeth. It cost around £50. I would have been better off spending the money on roller blades or a vaulting pole or something else with which I lack the ability to use.

With all this in mind, I have launched ‘Operation Brockley Market Garden’, a nod to the keen and inspiring growers at my local food market and a cheap pun on a military mission in 1944. It focusses on bringing life to the garden in time for summer and supplying homegrown produce for my cooking. I have been treating my lawn and nurturing  it back to life. I’ve sowed (sown?) beetroot, peas, broad beans and onions. I have even planted 3 raspberry canes, a gooseberry bush and an apple tree! I’m feeling positive about the garden’s chances this year and, with a new mower, reckon I can have a lovely sunbathing spot which is perfect for barbecues and growing my own ingredients for future blog posts.

I’ll keep you posted.

(Good gardener? Any tips? Please tell me. Please.)

Chitting potatoes


Squash and goat’s cheese pancakes

I was recently watching Saturday Kitchen and had to question myself. Why do I keep watching this program? I can’t for the life in me figure out why I like it. Yes, the cooking is great but there are so many things I can’t get my head round. The interviews are completely nonsensical, crowbarred in around hectic cooking and constantly interrupted by bedraggled cooks trying to tiptoe around James Martin’s luxurious form. The Omelette challenge is easily the least exciting segment of any show on television, anywhere in the world, ever. Except for when Ken Hom does it with chopsticks. That’s quite good. And who are those two random people each week who just sit quietly for an hour before fighting for scraps with a minor celebrity? Are they prize winners? Did they compete for this honour?

Malton's finest.

There are probably many reasons (which escape me at this moment) why I watch it, but the big one has to be the enigma that is James Martin. Scruffy haired, dead-eyed, cyclist hating, housewives’ favourite James Martin. Let us admit straight away, he is not a natural presenter. He is stiff and awkward at times and there is always that addictive and dangerous feeling that something is about to go horrendously, irreparably wrong. He does, however, normally keep it together and if something does go awry he shrugs it off with charm and enviable nonchalance.

Plus, he really can cook. He cooks in a way that makes me think he would be a forceful albeit tender lover. When I mentioned this surprising observation to Laurel she agreed that it was an eerily accurate description of her view on James as well. I think there is a problem here.

Anyway, I recently had a look through his 1373 recipes on the BBC website and stumbled upon a host of brilliant meal ideas. I was inspired by one and decided it would be a perfect Pancake Day treat. Ah, well, better late than never…

Squash and goat’s cheese pancakes

300g squash, cut into small dice

100g crumbly goat’s cheese

1 sprig thyme, leaves picked and chopped

3 or 4 sage leaves, finely chopped

200g self raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

300ml milk

1 egg

A good pinch of salt and pepper

Mix the flour, baking powder, herbs, salt and pepper together in a big bowl and make a well in the centre. Mix together the egg and milk and pour into the bowl. Whisk well to create a smooth batter. Put in the fridge for a bit.

Fry the squash in a little olive oil for about ten minutes until tender. Add to the batter and then crumble in the goat’s cheese. Mix well.

Heat a bit of oil in a nonstick frying pan and fry the pancakes for about 3 minutes on each side. You want them to be crisp and golden, although I like them on the verge of burning so the edges are satisfyingly crunchy. I ate them with some cooked potato left over from the day before mixed with a drizzle of oil, scoop of mayo and dollop of mustard.


German pea soup

It’s been a while since my last post. I haven’t been away or anything – I’ve barely even left my sofa – I just work strange hours which limits the amount of cooking I do. Saying that, it has been an eventful couple of weeks. We’ve had snow. Not much but enough to make it feel like a proper year. I have given up drinking for the month of February. I feel good and I’ve got much more money! Charlie broke my pasta machine so I’m eagerly awaiting a brand new one and a gnocchi board to go with it.

Ok, maybe ‘eventful’ was slightly over the top (a lie) but it has felt very busy. Add to that the ongoing cold weather and endless tedium of the East London line and I found myself hankering after something warming and comforting to eat in front of ‘Arrested Development’ wearing my idiotic slippers. Also, there is nothing more reassuring than food which has the ability to invoke good memories.

Between the ages of 6 and 14 I lived in Germany. I have lots of great memories of living abroad but one of my favourite things was the Germans’ love of winter markets. Wandering the wood-shack stalls to browse handmade toys, giant gingerbread houses, nutcrackers and the like (incidentally, these are all items which, viewed out of context, can be terrifying) was an annual family event and we all happily braved the cold to go. There were two ways of warming up. For the adults you could get a cup of Gluhwein – a heavily spiced and sweetened wine served hot – or, if underage for booze, you could get hot pea soup.

This wonderfully sweet and heartily mushy concoction warmed you to the very marrow of your bones. It seemed to change texture as you ate, from a broth to a puree with a hint of mint and sometimes a kick of chilli or lemon. And the joy when you found the sliced frankfurter floating around somewhere near the middle! Glorious. I decided to try and make a veggie version using meatfree frankfurters and it proved successful. The main reason being that veggie frankfurters taste exactly like meaty ones. Better actually because you know they aren’t filled with pigeon or shoe leather or dog trotters or something.

Pea soup

400g peas (I use frozen garden peas)

200g veggie frankfurters, cut into chunks (I use Tivall frozen ones)

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 onion, finely chopped

1 litre stock

A good pinch of mint or basil, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

Fry the onion, garlic and carrot in a little olive oil until softened. Add 300g of the peas and stir well. Add around 3/4 of the stock and simmer for 10 mins. Blend well. Return to the heat in a clean pan and add the cut up frankfurter and the remaining peas. Check the seasoning and consistency; if it’s thick add a bit more stock. Heat until the sausage is cooked and then stir in your herb of choice. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt or cream and, if you fancy, a pinch of chilli or lemon zest. Or both. And croutons.


Sweet corn fritters

Just around the corner from my house is a very nice Thai restaurant called Smiles. I would recommend it to anyone; It’s a quaint, friendly place to eat, they do great tofu dishes and, if requested, they will walk my order straight to my door. The problem they have is that everything tastes like liquorice. The majority of their main dishes have a distinct aniseed flavour. They are still delicious but, once you’ve tasted one dish, the rest taste a bit similar; tofu with basil, chilli and liquorice, red curry with bamboo shoots, lime leaves and liquorice. (The menu doesn’t actually say that, by the way. Nobody would order.) It means I don’t eat there as often as I would if they just held back a bit on the anise. They also appear to be shut a lot on days I want to order. Turns out they’re just closed on Mondays.

They do, however, have a starter which (literally) blew my mind. Tod Mun Kao Pode or Sweet corn cakes to those of you not in the know. They are thin, crunchy, sweet and spicy little fritters which come with a little pot of homemade sweet chilli. I love them and had not had them in ages, so I decided to reproduce them at home. I failed horribly but, in the process, made really good fritters anyway. Mine were kind of airy and light, a bit scotch pancake-like in texture. I had them twice, both with different accompaniments. The second days batch were not as fluffy as the previous day. they were crunchier and denser. I think maybe it was something to do with baking powder not being active or something. I don’t really know. I’m not a scientist.

Sweet corn fritters

200g fresh or frozen sweet corn

6 spring onions, thinly sliced

1 red chilli, finely chopped

75g plain flour

3 eggs

40g sesame seeds

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp ground cumin

A handful of chopped coriander

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Whisk in the soy sauce and then the eggs. Stir in the corn, spring onion and chilli. The mixture should be quite thick and sticky. My Mum would call it ‘clarty’. Don’t ask. Fry in small batches in a little oil in a non-stick pan until fluffy and golden. That’s it.

It makes a decent amount of mixture so I had fritters twice. The first time was as a side dish to a tofu stir fry. I served it with a dip made by combining 2 tbsp honey, juice of 1 lime, 1 tbsp soy, 1/2 a sliced chilli and a handful of finely chopped coriander. Worked nicely. For lunch the next day I had it with some leftover cous-cous salad and fresh salsa.  


Homemade pasta with rocket, creme fraiche, basil and lemon

About once a month I get an obsessive impulse to clean out my food cupboard. It’s not the same as cleaning out your fridge; there’s no hygiene factor or risk of contamination, no mangy carrots or courgettes lurking at the back. It’s purely an exhibition of ‘anality’. I like it compartmentalised – tins and jars lower left, flours and sugars lower right, chocolate and treats upper left, etc, etc. Every time I embark on this fanatical cleaning venture, I always find a little something hidden away and forgotten about. Last time it was a bar of orange dark chocolate which I scoffed sitting on the kitchen counter, listening to the cricket on the radio. This time it was a bag of type ’00’ flour I had bought a couple of weeks ago with the intention of making pasta. So that’s what I did.

It’s been grey and rainy recently and I’ve been cooking a lot of hearty, ‘wintery’ meals designed to warm and soothe. The kinds of meals that are stuffed full of root vegetables, lentils and barley. Those dinners that sit on the hob long enough to steam up all the windows and make everyone unconsciously gravitate to the kitchen. Well, I’m sick of it. I wanted a taste of summer, something to trick myself into thinking of sun, sea and holidays, something fresh and relaxing. I wanted lemon and basil, basically.

I saw a vintage cookery show the other week. It was rubbish. Two old ladies cooking very old fashioned food in derelict houses in France. They did, however, make one thing that I liked the look of. They blended olive oil, double cream and wild rocket together to create a bright green sauce for pasta. I didn’t see any reason why lemon, basil and a bit of chilli wouldn’t work in there too…

Rocket and creme fraiche pasta with basil and lemon

400g type ’00’ pasta flour

4 large eggs

70g bag wild rocket, roughly chopped

300ml creme fraiche

Zest and juice of half a lemon

Good handful of basil leaves, roughly chopped

Pinch of dried chilli

1 onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Salt and Pepper

Olive oil

I just made a very simple pasta dough. Put the flour in a large mixing bowl, make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Whisk with a fork, slowly going from the centre outward until fully combined. Once you have a sticky dough, flour your hands and knead until a bit firmer. Add more flour if it’s still too sticky. Turn out onto a floured surface and flatten it with your hands. Set your pasta machine on the lowest setting (1) and run the pasta through. Move up to 2 and run it through again. Keep running it through at these settings (1 then 2, 1 then 2…) until the dough becomes springy and elastic – about 5 or 6 times. At this point you can start moving up through the settings. I was making linguine so I stopped at setting ‘8’ because I didn’t want it too thin. I have a linguine and tagliatelle attachment for my pasta machine, so I ran it through the thinner of the two. Voila.

The sauce was easy. Put 3/4 of the rocket, the basil, creme fraiche, lemon zest and lemon juice in a food processor or blender. Turn on at a low setting and drizzle in some of the olive oil until the mixture loosens and then stop. Fry the onion and garlic in a pan until cooked and translucent. Add the chilli and then the sauce, check the seasoning and allow to heat through. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water for 2 or 3 minutes and drain. Wilt the remaining rocket in the sauce and serve together with the pasta.

I served it with some roasted cherry tomatoes and a dusting of Parmesan, which went with it very well.


Fennel and leek soup

When I’m poorly I tend to fall back on childhood favourites in an attempt to make myself feel better, almost using memories as a placebo. I think everyone has their traditional sickness staples they can rely on to make themselves more comfortable; mine always included a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream, a bottle of Lucozade and a pile of Iron Man comics. And of course soup.

If I felt nauseous, my mum would make me drink a pint of milk. It took me many years to realise that it just made me almost instantly sick; a pretty old-school remedy with a slightly cruel edge but better out than in I suppose. It’s this harking back to my youth that makes me always crave soup when ill.

Cream of chicken soup to be exact. I’m certainly not the only one to go down this route. The Spartans pretty much only ate ‘black soup’ (pig’s legs, blood, salt and vinegar) and they were pretty healthy. Steinbeck mentions its healing reputation in East Of Eden. Even Gandhi’s son was prescribed chicken soup when diagnosed with pneumonia. Couldn’t eat it though – vegetarian.

Managing to crawl to the fridge (like a slug) I found a potato, a couple of leeks, some old dill and a bulb of fennel. Is that right? A bulb? Or is it a head? Anyway, a pretty good haul for some healthy, re-energising soup to clear the head and vitalise the soul. Or something.

Not much needed for this one. Let the ingredients do the talking.

Fennel and leek soup.

1 bulb/head fennel, sliced

2 medium leeks, sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 medium potato

A handful of dill, chopped

1 tsp oregano

1 litre vegetable stock

Ground black pepper

Melt a bit of butter in a pan and add the leek, garlic and fennel. Simmer until softened. Add the potato and oregano and mix well. Pour in the stock and then simmer for around 20 minutes until the potato is cooked through. Blend the mixture until smooth.

Quick aside here – at this point my blender broke. When I tried to detach the top, the bottom snapped off pouring soup all over the worktop. It was so frustrating I nearly cried.

Pour the mixture into a clean pan and bring back to temperature. Taste and season – I found that it didn’t need any salt – and stir in the dill. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt or a drizzle of cream and garnish with a bit of that fluffy stuff from the top of the fennel or a sprig of dill.


Beetroot burgers with chive tzatziki

Saturday mornings are a glorious thing. I was due to be working but that got cancelled so I got to have a wonderfully lazy day. Up at 9, tea and toast and an hour of Battlefield 3 before a hung over Laurel surfaced. Off to the market we went.

Last year some lovely, crafty and foodie folk decided to start a food market in Brockley. It has proved to be a massive success, selling amazing coffee, fresh fruit and veg, breads – well, you get the idea. My plan was to take a load of pictures, buy some beautiful vegetables and write a post about it. However, I forgot my camera so I will do a post about it next week. In the meantime I did get a large bag of great looking beetroot and some fresh herbs. I had been wanting to make a veggie burger for a while, so that’s how I spent my afternoon.

I found some great looking recipes online for burgers, ranging from beanie burgers to roast vegetable patties. I especially liked the look of this walnut beanie burger, and considered making these but ultimately decided to try something new using my market purchases. I’d never used beetroot in a burger before and just decided to try to combine it with things I thought complemented it.

Beetroot burgers with chive tzatziki

300g beetroot, grated

100g breadcrumbs (I used old rye bread. Went with the beetroot well.)

1 410g tin red kidney beans, slightly mashed with a fork

1 apple, cored and grated

50g pearl barley

6 small spring onions, chopped

A good handful of dill, roughly chopped

A handful of parsley, roughly chopped

1 large egg, beaten

A pinch of chilli flakes

Salt and pepper

For the tzatziki;

1 cucumber, quartered and deseeded

Zest of 1 lemon

1 clove of garlic, mashed

A big handful of chives, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

2 or 3 tablespoons of natural yoghurt

Couldn’t be simpler this. Cook the pearl barley as per packet instructions and set aside. Meanwhile, combine the rest of the burger ingredients in a big bowl and mix well.

At this point I tried frying a small burger to see what it was like. It was good but was more like a little beetroot rosti than a burger, so I blended half of the mixture and mixed it back in. This improved the texture somewhat. Up to you though.

Mix in the pearl barley (just for texture) and put the burger mix in the fridge for half an hour or so. Grate the cucumber and wrap in a clean tea towel. Squeeze out as much of the moisture as you can and then put in a bowl. Add the chives and lemon zest and mix well. Add the yoghurt 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing all the while, until you have the consistency you desire. Taste and season – it can take salt well! Fry the burger in a little oil over a medium heat until nicely coloured on each side.

I served the burger in a fresh roll with a dollop of tzatziki, a couple of slices of feta and some watercress. I think a bit of fresh horseradish might have been good in it but I didn’t have any. Eat it in front of the telly with a pile of fries on the side.


Marinated tofu with satay sauce

My brother bought me a sack of Monkey Nuts for Christmas. They were a confusing addition to a very nice hamper and I didn’t really know what to do with them. The rest of the gifts are much simpler to use –  the cheese, crackers and chutney will make a nice snack, the olives and jalapenos will top a pizza and the Christmas cake can have its disgusting icing thrown away and the lovely fruitcake eaten with coffee.

Monkey nuts though? I forgot they even existed. I thought they were awesome when I was 8 until I’d spent twenty minutes ripping 3 or 4 of them apart. The reward for all your hard work was pathetically unsatisfying and you ended up with that weird flaky skin stuff stuck to the roof of your mouth. And it’s messy. Don’t they come unshelled in bags now?

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful – the hamper was great and will all get used lovingly in various recipes (Zenf? Nice one!). It also turns out they were perfect for a recipe I wanted to try. It took me about an hour to peel them though…

I reckon you can use normal salted peanuts. Maybe lose the soy sauce in the satay though?

Marinated tofu with satay sauce.

For the tofu;

400g firm tofu, cubed

1 red chilli, deseeded and roughly chopped

1 stalk lemongrass, roughly chopped

2 tbsp toasted sesame oil

2 tbsp soy sauce

Pinch of coriander leaves

For the peanut sauce;

150g peanuts, toasted

1 stalk lemongrass, roughly chopped

1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 thumb-size piece ginger, peeled and chopped

2 shallots, roughly chopped

Juice of 1 lime

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 400ml tin of coconut milk

For the tofu marinade put the chilli, lemongrass, coriander, oil and soy sauce in a food processor and blitz. Put the tofu in a dish and pour over the mixture. Cover and put in the fridge for an hour or so.

Put the peanuts in the food processor and blitz, leaving a bit of texture. Remove and then put in all the rest of the ingredients, apart from the coconut milk. Blend into a rough paste. Heat some oil in a saucepan and add the paste. Cook until it’s fragrant – the smells completely dominate your kitchen! Add the peanuts and the coconut milk, stir and simmer until it thickens.

Meanwhile, fry the tofu pieces in a very hot, non-stick frying pan until nicely coloured on all sides. Pour the sauce over the tofu. I served it with toasted garlic noodles, sliced spring onion and some alfalfa I got reduced at Sainsbury’s. 


Mulling it over in Devon.

On a cold winters evening you can’t beat warming yourself up with something ‘mulled’. Your favourite tipple warmed through and spiced, a punch made with Christmas spirit and the smells of bonfire night. We drank (very good) mulled wine while attempting to peruse the Totnes Christmas market the other day. This was, incidentally, a horrible waste of time. There were so many people I couldn’t physically move for dreadlocks, soap sellers or a man with an owl. Enjoying my drink was impossible.

We made our own mulled drink to enjoy on Christmas evening sitting in front of the fire and watching Michael McIntyre shamelessly name-drop his entire audience, providing more ‘mince’ than any pie I’ve ever seen. It was funny.

I used apple juice for this recipe as one of our group doesn’t drink alcohol (whaaa?). It would be perfect with good cider. Or you can do what I did and add 50ml of Jameson’s at the end. Or both.

Mulled apple

If you use cider DO NOT let it boil or you’ll get rid of your  alcohol. Heat it at a slow simmer.

Makes 6 normal sized mugs or 3 novelty Christmas ones.

1.5 litres apple juice or good cider

2 sticks of cinnamon

8 or 9 allspice berries

8 or 9 cloves

A pinch of nutmeg

2 star anise

Peel of 1 lemon

Peel and juice of 1 Clementine

A thumb sized knob of ginger

3 tbsp maple syrup or honey

Put the juice/cider in a pan and add the syrup/honey. Start heating gently. While this is heating up add the allspice, cloves, star anise and nutmeg. Snap the cinnamon sticks in half and lob them in. Chop the ginger into a few rough sized pieces and put it in as well. Peel the lemon and Clementine into strips using a potato peeler.

I find that you end up with quite large amounts of pith on the strips and this can add a bitter taste to the drink. To remove this lay the strips of peel down with the pith facing up. Secure one end with the tip of your finger and push a sharp knife down flat onto the peel, facing away from your finger.

Push away firmly and you should be able to cut the layer of pith away leaving just the peel. Put it all in the pan with the juice and simmer for about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the sweetness if you want. If you want it more gingery just squeeze the pieces like you were making tea. Sieve before serving.

Put it in a cup. Blow into the cup for a bit. Drink.


Free music is good.

So, my band, exlovers, has put out a new track as a sample of the forthcoming album. Have a listen and see what you think:

News: ExLovers offer a taste of what’s to come.


A soup to cure your weekend excesses.

This Monday I started a new job. Sitting around on Sunday evening with an impending early start, I was reminded of times past when I had slightly overdone it on the previous two days. No matter how you spent your Sunday afternoon, you could never escape the drained, dehydrated and lethargic feeling you get after a heavy weekend. Not exactly how you want to be feeling when you have to board a tube with 4 million other people, crush your face into someone else’s armpit and then try to impress your new employers.

This brought to mind an old soup recipe I tried a while ago which, eaten on a Sunday evening, purges and re-energises. I served it with a simple loaf of homemade soda bread.

Carrot, ginger and orange soup.

To feel better, you will need;

400g carrots, sliced

1 large onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

100g red lentils (about half a ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ mug)

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

A large knob of Ginger, about 50g, finely grated

Juice of 2 oranges

1 tsp ground cumin

3/4 litre vegetable stock

Salt and pepper

Heat some oil in a saucepan and cook the onions until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and chilli and cook for a further few minutes. Sprinkle in the cumin and mix well. At this point I normally squeeze the grated ginger into the pan so that you get the flavour without the ‘dog hair’ like fibres. You could use muslin to do this but I didn’t have any so I used a cloth napkin. Add the carrots, half the orange juice and the lentils and mix well. You could swap half the carrots with butternut squash but, again, I didn’t have any. Mix well, season with salt and pepper and then add the stock. Put a lid on and let simmer for around 30 mins or until the carrots are tender and the lentils are cooked through. Put the soup in a blender, whizz until smooth and then pour into a clean pan. It should be quite thick at this point, which is where the remaining orange juice comes into play. Add a little bit at a time, stirring all the while, until you have a consistency of soup that you like. Taste and add a bit more salt and pepper if it needs it. Ladle into bowls, top with a scoop of yoghurt and a sprinkle of chilli and serve. Some torn coriander (cilantro for you Americans) tossed on top would’ve been nice too but I didn’t have any.

Soda bread.

The easiest bread ever. Delicious hot out of the oven and also makes great toast the next morning. Most recipes call for buttermilk but I think it’s much nicer with yoghurt. Tastes less like a scone.

Slightly undercooked! Oops....

500g plain flour

400ml live yoghurt

2 tbsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp salt

Preheat your oven to 200°C. Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda together in a bowl. Stir in the salt. Add the yoghurt and mix until you have a basic dough. It is good if it’s a tiny bit sticky. Tip onto a floured work surface, knead for a minute or so and form into a rough ball; it should look scruffy! Place on a floured baking tray, dust with flour and, using a serrated knife, score the top with a cross. You can go pretty deep – about a third of the way through. put in the oven and bake for 40-45 mins. It should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Nomnomnom.


4 parts companionship, 1 part psychotic disappointment.

There are various points over the course of the year when video gaming over the Internet against faceless teenagers is just no longer rewarding enough. In fact it’s rarely ever rewarding considering nearly everyone I play against is better than me. There is not much that is more unfulfilling than being shot in the face a hundred times by the representative avatar of a carbuncle infested, friendless 13 year old with more time on their hands than all the incarnations of Doctor Who put together. Except Christopher Eccleston. He actually wasted everyone’s time. Possibly a harsh presumption of my average opponent too – I’m sure they have lots of friends on Xbox live.

Roll on ‘La Liga’, a 5-player FIFA 12 tournament between ‘friends’ in a remarkably hostile environment. I’m not saying playing a football simulation in a nice house in Hackney is akin to walking the streets of Mogadishu in a union jack two-piece, but it does often get a little bit nasty. It is, however, completely justifiable. The joint prizes are worth more than the love or respect of your friends – a beautiful, hand crafted trophy and the knowledge that you have managed to successfully make 4 people you normally care about feel small and worthless (or you have just put one particular player into an uncontrollable 3 day rage). All good fun, to say the least.

Impressive, huh?! It's actually about the size of an egg.

‘La Liga’ has a normal league format. You play each other twice, with 3 points for a win, 1 for a draw and obviously nothing for losing. It means that we often have very close leagues with the title relying on a result here or a late equaliser there. Not so on Saturday. Just after the halfway point it was all over, the trophy won with 3 games to spare. Not by me. Congratulations definitely in order, although to sum the winner up in one word I would have to choose ‘smug’. This makes it a teeth-gritting experience having to applaud someone whose downright duty it is to ram it straight back down your throat. Feelings in the room were mixed – one indifferent, one incensed and one, as usual, sitting somewhere between ‘oblivious’ and ‘mystified’. I think my feelings about this overwhelming thrashing were more complex. As the previous holder of the coveted prize, it was my obligation to pass the mantle with dignity, grace and respect. As already discussed, however, this was defeat. Defeat brings out the usual emotions; I was hurt, soiled, wounded and hurt. Nothing a post tourney trip to the ‘the Kenton’ wouldn’t solve.

For me video games are at their best when you are playing against a person sat next to you. Trash talk becomes an element of the game itself, trying to psyche out the other player in the hope they’ll make a mistake. Telling your opponent during a Street Fighter session, “I’m about to kick you in the face”, and then doing exactly that is tremendous fun. With one of our ‘Liga’ players you just have to say “offside” when they are attacking and they instantly stop playing. Idiot. To be fair, he really doesn’t know much about football. He once cheered in a pub by accident when Uruguay scored against England because he didn’t know who was who.

I suppose this blog is also meant to be about food. We ate 2 disgustingly large (and ‘meat’ infested) Papa John pizzas. Papa means father. I’m glad he’s not my dad.



5 jars of love and a bottle of skint.

This year, due to my overwhelming poorness, I have decided to make the majority of my Christmas presents. The plan is to be able to gift friends and family with a small homemade hamper full of lovely things that would be ideal Boxing Day accompaniments. I want these things to go perfectly with cold turkey and ham, cheese, bread and also something in there to cure the Christmas hangover. If your family is anything like mine, Xmas day is spent excitedly opening presents (often power tools), getting hammered on my Mum’s Japanese language Wii (!) by a seven year old, eating 4.9 metric tonnes of food and then getting so drunk you lose the ability to walk and/or see – neither of which you need to be able to do at this point anyway. Boxing day therefore is generally a day of meekly picking at leftovers, pretending you feel alright until the point where you actually do, then repeating the last step from the day before. I love Christmas.

If you are a friend or member of my family… Merry Christmas! This is what you’re getting…

Wholegrain mustard

You will need:

200g yellow and brown mustard seeds

A good pinch of crumbled dried chilli

250ml of good cider vinegar

1 tsp salt

4 tbsp runny honey

Put the mustard seeds, chilli and vinegar in a bowl, mix, cover with Clingfilm and set aside for 24 hours.

Add the honey (delicious) and mix well. Put ¾ of the mixture in a food processor (I did it in a blender and it worked fine) and blend until crushed or a consistency you like. You can probably do this in a pestle and mortar as well. Mix everything back together and add the salt. Put the mixture into sterilised jars. I got 5 4oz jars out of this and a small amount for my friend Joe to take home with him. He will, however, never eat it because it doesn’t go with prawns.

This will store for months in a cupboard and once opened will keep for a couple of months in the fridge.

I also tried a version adding 50ml whiskey and removing 50ml of the vinegar. It was very nice but probably not as good. Try it! Also nice mixed through some fluffy mashed potato.

This recipe was inspired by Annie Rigg’s book, ‘Gifts From The Kitchen’. Buy it. It’s great.

Blackberry whiskey

This recipe is super simple. I won’t give you measurements because it doesn’t matter! I’m going with 3 F’s for this one. Fill, fill, fill!

Get enough blackberries to fill a sterilised, airtight Kilner jar (or likewise). Pour in golden caster sugar and keep shaking and filling until you can’t fit anymore in. Fill with whiskey (just use cheap stuff) and allow it to drip through the fruit and sugar. Keep topping up if it needs it. At this point I wish I had added a couple of drops of vanilla extract, but ive only just thought of that so there we are. Seal and put in a cupboard for a month or so. Basically you want the sugar to have dissolved in the alcohol.

I decanted it into 25cl sealable bottles by separating the fruit and liquid, putting around 6 or 7 blackberries in each bottle and then filling with the syrupy goodness. The leftover whiskey-soaked blackberries were delicious with ice cream. There was no more of the drink left. Honest.

There are more presents than this but I don’t want to give the game away. I’ll put up more after the big event.

Oh, as a footnote, I got all my jars and bottles from a lovely ebay shop called freeman-and-harding-the-jar-people. Brilliant service if you want jars. If not, I wouldn’t advise contacting them.


Waste not want not.

On Sunday my housemates and I gathered for a day of wining, dining and hangover refining. There’s something altogether fun and gratifying about making an effort as a group to create a meal that’s just a bit more special than usual. We polished our best crockery, laid the table and tucked into that invincible British staple, the Sunday roast. The usual suspects were in attendance – roast spuds, honeyed carrots, unrisen Yorkshire puddings – and my personal favourite; braised red cabbage. It’s sweet, it’s acidic, and it’s silky in the mouth. Pile a little bit into a Yorkshire pudding and fill with gravy. Awesome!

Anyhoo, after any roast dinner you invariably end up with pots full of leftover veg that normally goes to waste, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to use it up. I came up with red cabbage and feta fried pasties (snappy!). The sweetness of the cabbage goes well with the saltiness of the cheese and, served with a nice salad, is a lovely way to use up your leftovers in a light Monday meal. First up though, here’s how I make my slow braised red cabbage:

–       1 red cabbage, shredded

–       2 apples, cored and cubed

–       1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

–       2 tbsp white wine vinegar

–       1 cinnamon stick

–       a good grating of nutmeg

–       A sprinkle of sugar if you like it very sweet.

Shred the cabbage thinly, removing the hard white core. Heat a bit of groundnut oil (or other flavourless oil) in a heavy based pan and then add the cabbage. Keep stirring for 5 minutes or so until you start to see the vibrant purple seep into the oil. Mix the balsamic and wine vinegar together. Add the apple and 2/3 of the vinegar (and the sugar if you are using) to the pan and mix well. Put a lid on and place over a medium heat.  Keep checking on the consistency as it’s cooking and add a little bit more vinegar if it needs more liquid. Keep it cooking until it’s a texture that you like – I like to cook it a long time so that the apple breaks down and the texture is, for want of a better word, smushy. The great thing about red cabbage is, once cooked, it will be happy sitting and waiting for the rest of the meal. If anything it becomes tastier!

You will probably find that you have quite a bit of this left over the day after. Pop it in a parcel and fry the bugger.

You will need;

–       250g plain flour

–       100g butter, cut into cubes

–       1 egg beaten

–       Sunflower oil

–       Left over red cabbage

–       Feta, about 150g (or however much you want really!)

Put the flour and a pinch of salt in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and rub into the flour using your fingertips. Keep this up until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. You can also do this in a food processor but I don’t because I cant afford one! Or rather I keep spending all my money on other, less important and often stupid things. Mix in the beaten egg and bring together to form a ball of dough. At this point wrap in cling film and refrigerate for a half hour or so. I don’t know why you should do this; I just always thought you should! Crumble the feta cheese into the red cabbage and mix well. It’s good to leave some chunky bits of cheese in there, as they are a pleasure to bite through. Roll out the pastry so it is very thin; you want it to crisp up but without a stodgy layer below. Cut into circles, not too big, maybe the size of a small saucer. Heat about a half-inch layer of the oil in a pan until hot. Put a bit of the cabbage and feta filling in the centre of the pastry circles, wet the edges with a bit of water and fold over into a semi-circle. Seal the edges by either pinching with your fingers or, as I prefer, using a fork to stick it together. Put in the hot oil and fry until crisp and golden, about 4-5 mins on each side. Done! I purposely made too many because they are great either hot or cold. I ate them hot on the Monday with a nice bean and tomato salad and then packed a couple the next day for a snack while I was out, which ended up being eaten by other people anyway!