Friday food links – 15 April 2016

Tulip 'Orange Favourite'

I am full of cold, which explains both the lateness of this post, and the freezer-heavy, carb-heavy meals this week. I had been putting the sneezing down to hayfever, but then E started sniffling too, and I added a headache, and now it seems more like a cold or flu. Add all that to a new dishwasher delivery, and consequently, a kitchen in disarray, and the meals for the last few days have been particularly low-effort.

In the good patches this week, I have been doing some planning for E’s second birthday party, now only a week away. She is starting to have a bit more of an idea what this involves, but is still far from being able to demand anything in particular, which is a very happy place to be. I have already made two layers of sponge for her birthday cake (with a bit of toddler ‘help’), as well as cheese scones and some cream cheese pastry for the tea to go with it. To be honest, as long as there is cake, balloons and raspberries, she will think it’s the best day ever anyway. It’s important to keep perspective!


  • Roast chicken over rice with cinnamon – Five O’Clock Apron (excellent, and made brilliant fried rice from the leftovers)
  • Great-grandma Turano’s Meatballs (with rice and tomato sauce)
  • Buttermilk birthday cake – Nigella ‘Feast’
  • Wholewheat cheese scones – Delia’s Complete Cookery Course
  • Cream cheese pastry – Delicious magazine April issue
    • all stashed in the freezer for next weekend

Without a recipe:

  • Beef stew from the freezer, with potatoes and broccoli
  • Fish tacos
  • M&S fresh pasta with parmesan
  • Tesco pizza
  • Rhubarb fool
  • Fried rice with chicken, egg and vegetables


Friday food links – 8 April 2016

My favorite magnolia in London

This has been a four-seasons-in-one-day week: some days were blustery, with rain and hail, as well as blue skies and sunshine. Lots of the spring flowers are out – and I got to walk past this glorious 60 year old magnolia in Lincoln’s Inn this week too.

To keep with the spring theme, I made fresh ricotta at the weekend. It’s a pretty satisfying process, but I failed to plan how I would use it all in the week. I have hovered between tortas and cakes and tarts, and fiddly pastas, but then had to acknowledge that these were not weeknight projects. I’ve eaten some just spread thickly on toast and sprinkled with salt, but I couldn’t get through the whole tub in that way!

In the end I settled for spinach and ricotta stuffed cannelloni from a Cranks Bible recipe, using up a box of dried cannelloni tubes that have been lurking in the pantry for ages. As an added bonus, I also chopped the leftover roasted veg from Tuesday’s sausage tray bake into the filling, and topped it with leftover mozzarella from pizza at the weekend.

The main food occupation this weekend will be planning food for The Second Birthday Party. We’re not going over-the-top; just a family party – but I’ve already been persuaded by Pinterest to buy some coloured fabric bunting, so I think I should probably step away from the Pinterest boards now. But there’s still the cake to decide on. And it has to somehow improve upon Smitten Kitchen’s amazing banana monkey cake.


Without a recipe:

  • Sausage tray bake with tomatoes, onions and purple sprouting broccoli, served with sweet potato wedges
  • Chicken curry from the freezer
  • Oven fish and chips
  • Pork ragu lasagne
  • Sunday night pizza


Coming soon: a food processor banana bread recipe

A taste of spring: making fresh ricotta

Ricotta on toast with olive oil and salt

I read a New York Times article some years ago that really annoyed me. It was an edition of food questions and answers, and in the cooking section they posed the question “what should I stop buying and make instead?”. And their answer? Condiments. They actually suggested that the best thing to spend your precious home cooking time on was mayonnaise and ketchup!

The only reason I can think of to make your own ketchup is if you have a serious glut of tomatoes, and have exhausted all the tomato sauce, soup and purée options. But I can’t deny that there is something deeply satisfying about making very basic foods from scratch: things like bread, cheese, or jam. You can delude yourself into thinking you’re some kind of frontierswoman (only with central heating and YouTube). “In the event of an apocalypse”, you think “I can make my own bread! All I will need to find is clean water and ready-milled flour and I’ll be fine!”.   I have made plenty of bread, and quite a few jars of jam, but I hadn’t attempted cheese since cooking school. Smitten Kitchen wrote about making ricotta, and that post, and particularly the video of the company making fresh ricotta in Brooklyn stuck  with me.

Fresh ricotta

Ricotta is a soft, slightly grainy cheese that you may have come across in plastic tubs in the supermarket. It is used to fill pasta, to make flourless gnocchi (called gnudi), and can also be used for lasagne, cheesecakes and more. The supermarket incarnation is fairly uninspiring. Ricotta, meaning recooked, is made from the whey left over from making other cheese. When reheated with acid, more curds can be generated, and ricotta is made by draining these.

However, there is another ricotta, one that doesn’t resemble the authentic original, but something between a cream cheese and ricotta that is fresh, and lemony and makes you want to spread it thickly on toast. By heating not leftover whey, but milk and cream with acid, you can make something that is a hybrid between true ricotta and soft cheese. And by using good quality milk, salting it judiciously, and eating it fresh, you can make something really good to eat, rather than something that is just functional.

But more than the flavour or the (dubious) economy of making your own ricotta, its more worth doing for the science experiment thrill of seeing this cheese emerge from a pan of liquid. This transubstantiation, and the (fairly small) effort involved are more than repaid in fascination and satisfaction with the end result.

Of course, this isn’t something you really need to do every day, but the remarkably small effort involved means you can do it much more regularly than you might think. The best thing to do is spread it thickly on slices of toasted bread, sprinkle with coarse salt and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil. As Smitten Kitchen enthuses, it’s perfect summer food. But it’s also a way of imagining it’s spring, slightly before it actually appears.

Ricotta curds before draining

Behind the recipe: what happens when you make ricotta?

Why does ricotta form? Most cheese uses rennet, containing enzymes that cause the protein to cling together into curds, so that the liquid whey can be separated and drained off. Ricotta uses acid instead of rennet to create the curds. The acid you use will have some affect on the taste. You can use vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk (Serious Eats details the differences here). Lemon juice is the least precise but most delicious one of these.

You heat the milk, add the acid and then leave it to form the curds. Then gently drain off the whey through a cheesecloth or a a very fine sieve. Leave it for a short time for really soft cheese, let it drain longer for something firmer.

The essential elements are just enough heat, but not too much, and enough acid to start clumping the proteins together. I have had good results using a Thermomix to gently heat the milk, stirring all the time.

The cream is optional: it gives a lovely creamy result, a bit more like cream cheese than true ricotta. You can use single cream or whipping cream if that’s what you have.

Recipe: homemade ricotta

  • 1 litre whole milk
  • 150g double cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon (15g) lemon juice – about half a lemon
  • 1 tablespoon (15g) distilled white vinegar

On the stove:

Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan, just until you see the first bubbles appear at the edges, or until it reaches 85-90C on a thermometer. Stir as it heats to prevent the milk proteins catching on the base of the pan. When it is heated, stir in the salt, if using, and then gradually add the lemon juice and vinegar. Stir in very gently, and then leave for two minutes for the curds to form.

Meanwhile, line a sieve or colander over a bowl with a layer or two of damp cheesecloth, or damp paper towels. Spoon or ladle the curds very gently into the cheesecloth and leave to drain for 15-20 minutes. After that time, spoon the ricotta out of the sieve into a container and refrigerate. This will keep for four days in the fridge.

Spooning the ricotta curds

In a thermomix: (Adapted from a recipe on Super Kitchen Machine)

With the butterfly attachment fixed, add the milk and cream to the Thermomix bowl, and heat to 90C on speed 2. Turn off as soon as the 90C light comes on (will take around 10-12 minutes). Set 1 minute/speed stir and add the lemon juice and vinegar through the lid. Turn off and leave to rest for a few minutes to let the curds separate. Gently scoop the curds into a sieve or colander lined with cheesecloth. Leave to drain for 15-20 minutes, depending on how thick you want it.

Things to do with your fresh ricotta:

Spread it on really good toasted bread. Scoop it onto roasted veg as a salad.

Make ravioli or tortellini. Add it to pasta sauce.

Serve as dessert with fruit and drizzled with honey.

Make this excellent Jean-Georges Vongerichten recipe for squash on toast.


Friday food links – 1 April 2016

Vegetable prep/meal prep

This week was an example of what happens when I don’t plan meals for the week. Travel over the Easter weekend, and sickness immediately afterwards meant there weren’t too many meals to organise anyway. Even so, the wheels came off the wagon a bit, to be honest. What just about held things together was some slow cooker pork ragu, and a session of vegetable preparation, part Tamar Adler and part Shutterbean, that gave me vegetables as well as a lentil salad for lunches.


  • Lemon Meringue Cake – Nigella’s ‘Feast’ – a birthday cake for my mum

Without a recipe:

  • Pork ragu pasta
  • Pork ragu lasagne
  • Charlie Bigham Fish pie
  • Lentil salad with broad beans, tomatoes, roast broccoli


Friday food links – 25 March 2016

Product of toddler baking session: Idiot biscuits. Actually, she mainly poured sprinkles around, but kept her occupied.  Recipe:

I knew at the start that this could be a tough week. Lots of travel, a few end-of-year things at work, combined with lots of people on leave meant I already knew time would be at a premium. Add to that a bit of a sniffle for me, full on vomiting from E on Wednesday evening, and a bit of a grey and damp week, and it hasn’t been a brilliant time.

There have definitely be rays of sunshine breaking through, though. Last Sunday the sun came out, and it was actually warm, at least with the sun on you. I got into the garden and planted a few things, and generally felt better about the state of things. The first of my tulips have started showing their heads. And in between being a bit tired and under-the-weather, E has been very funny. In the Disney store, she spotted a clip of ‘Snow White’ playing on the monitors, and started dancing along with the dwarfs. I bought her a pack of farm animal stickers, and she sang ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm’ to them.

Knowing it wasn’t going to be an easy week, I planned some easy meals to get us through. A bought lasagne for midweek. A big batch of curry at the weekend that saw us through three meals. A fridge-tidying soup that covered a couple of lunches and a dinner too.


Without a recipe:

  • Charlie Bigham lasagne with a grated carrot salad and some radishes and cucumbers
  • Egg fried rice
  • Fish and chips from the freezer
  • A green minestrone, using up lots of leftover veg from the fridge, with a parmesan rind, a can of cannellini beans and lots of parmesan grated on the top.
  • Leftover coconut curry – reappeared twice


Milk bread

Milk bread

I sometimes feel that we mis-sell homemade bread. All of these ‘best bread of your life’ articles and books sell a particular vision: a craggy, very dark brown loaf, with a thick crust, and chewy, irregular interior. Loaves that take long and patient work and probably require a starter or levain of some sort. And it’s true that these loaves are achievable at home and all that time develops lovely flavours. But not everyone really likes eating them.

When you want to make a sandwich, or some really good, golden toast, that isn’t what you need. Sometimes there is a place for a soft, fluffy bread, with a thin crust that will toast really well, and won’t take three days to make. When that is what you’re after, and if that is your definition of really good bread, then what you need is a milk loaf, or a pain de mie.

This bread comes together in a few hours (although you can leave it overnight if that’s more convenient). It’s a great choice for sandwiches, toast, and even toasted sandwiches. It’s likely to be popular with children. It is gently golden on the outside, with a soft texture inside, but not as spongy and squishy as a cheap sliced loaf. A little sugar helps it to brown nicely when toasted. Not too much liquid means a nice even interior, without jagged holes that let the filling through.

Behind the recipe

All those macho, craggy loaves are flour, water, salt and yeast (or sourdough starter). Milk bread contains a number of other things: milk, butter and sugar. All of them get in the way of the flour a bit, and turn the interior from chewy and stretchy to soft and fluffy. You can also use eggs, or even a roux of cooked flour and water to soften bread. But milk, and a little butter and sugar make a nice soft loaf, but without too much richness.

The fat in the milk, and in the small amount of butter help to interrupt the gluten structure, and stop it from becoming too coarse and chewy. Baking at a high temperature for a short time prevents the crust from drying out too much and getting too thick and crusty. You can also cover the bread with a tea towel when it comes out of the oven to keep the crust soft. Some say that scalding the milk briefly will help to deactivate an enzyme in the milk, and allow the bread to rise a little more and be fluffier. I tried this with and without scalding, and couldn’t tell the difference. I warm the milk up to give the dough a headstart, and to melt and dissolve the butter and sugar, making them easier to distribute, but there’s no need to simmer it.

Milk bread recipe

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 2 tsp instant dried yeast
  • 150ml whole milk
  • 1 scant teaspoon sugar
  • knob of butter – 15g/1tbsp
  • 160ml water

Mix the flour with the salt and yeast.

Add the milk, butter and sugar to a small saucepan and heat the milk just until the butter melts. Take off the heat and pour in the cold water, and wait until it has cooled down so it feels just warm to the touch. (Temperatures over about 50°C will kill the yeast – that feels very hot to touch).

Add the liquid to the flour and mix everything together with a wooden spoon until all the dry flour is gone. If you have time, leave it for 20 minutes for the liquid to be absorbed and to help develop the gluten (this is called an ‘autolyse’).

After that time, knead for about 5 minutes by hand, or with a dough hook on a mixer (or even in a food processor) until you have a smooth and springy dough. Put into a bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to rise for about 1.5 – 2 hours in the kitchen  – no need for a warm place – or overnight in the fridge.

When the dough has roughly doubled in size, and seems very puffy, briefly knead it and pat into an approximate square. Shape into a loaf by rolling it up, and put into a greased 2lb loaf tin. Alternatively you can shape the dough into two or three balls of dough and tuck them into the tin together.

Dust the top with flour, cover again with cling film, and leave to rise for about half an hour. While it is proving, pre-heat the oven to 210°C/190°C fan for about 40 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool before slicing – the bread will be gummy if you slice it while it’s hot.

This dough can also be made into rolls, for burger buns or sandwiches.

Bread rolls


Friday food links – 18 March 2016

Following Tamar Adler's advice and doing a batch of veg roasting and sautéing. Very satisfying.

I recently started reading Tamar Adler’s Everlasting Meal. If you’ve seen her extracts in the Guardian Cook supplement, you’ll have an idea of her tone. The language can feel a bit unexpected for food writing, but I think her ambition to imitate the approach of MFK Fisher is at least partly successful (and that’s a high bar). Among the digressions, there is a lot of practical advice.

This week, when the veg box arrived on Tuesday, I followed her advice to do a big batch of preparation all at once. So I roasted a butternut squash and a leftover sweet potato with a little chilli. I sliced and roasted a lurking fennel bulb. And I sliced and roasted cherry tomatoes, leaving them in with the oven turned off to get all ‘sunblush’ texture. Then I shredded the huge heap of cavolo nero and cooked it slowly on the stove with a little onion. This all made it easier to stick extra vegetables on the table this week.


Without a recipe:

  • No-knead bread
  • Fish pie – with prepared ahead roast squash and garlicky sautéed leftover broccoli


Friday food links -11 March 2016

Kew in Spring - crocuses

The week started slowly, as it is likely to do when you accidentally poison yourself by eating soft cheese that has been lurking in the fridge too long (oops). Then a busy week, with guests, which means not much in the way of innovation for dinner. Time to go to the old stand-bys, the things that can come out of the freezer: leftover roast chicken made into soup and risotto. Minced beef into ragu into lasagne. Chicken and lentils cooked all day for a mild, toddler-friendly curry (even if she only ate the rice anyway). Although mornings are still frosty, the sun is warm when it appears, and the tulips are well on their way now. I have the first broad beans (though Italian) in my organic box this week, so maybe spring is on the way.


  • Apple crumble – James Morton’s ‘How Baking Works’
  • Slow cooker ragu – ‘Slow Cooked’ – Miss South
  • Sake steak – Nigella’s ‘Feast’

Without a recipe:

  • Roast chicken, chipolatas, roast potatoes, roast butternut squash, broccoli
  • Lasagne  (using the slow cooker ragu)
  • Squash soup (with leftover roast squash)
  • Chicken risotto
  • Slow cooker chicken curry
  • Milk bread (again – trying to get the recipe right)


Friday food links -3 March 2016

Figuring out dinner menu for tonight: slow-roast pork shoulder from @deliciousmag , roast potatoes, chard and marmalade sponge puddings for dessert 😋

I’m just starting to emerge from a week of being submerged under a cold. The headache is lingering, but I think I’ve turned the corner, and the sunshine today is helping too. Given the shortage of energy around here, this week’s food was anchored by leftover roast pork from Saturday, and a pot of soothing dal cooked midweek.

Dal is a great food to have when you’re feeling under the weather. It’s not very demanding to cook – at least the way I do it. You end up with something as soft and undemanding as mashed potato, but with a bit more flavour (I like to simmer it with turmeric and ginger) and a feeling that it’s doing you some good.


Without a recipe:

  • Dal, with sweet potato and chickpea curry from the freezer
  • A made-up pasta sauce with leftover roast pork and tomatoes
  • Ham hash – leftover roast veg, ham hock, with a fried egg on top, with cime di rapa on the side.
  • Weekend pizza
  • Pork stir-fry with broccoli and courgette
  • Milk bread (recipe coming soon)
  • Something between a quesadilla and a taco, with ham hock, caramelised onion, manchego and cime di rapa.
  • Foccacia with onions – from leftover pizza dough
  • Breaded fish with oven chips


Life-changing pasta advice

Did as I was told with the pasta tonight, following @rachelaliceroddy instructions on all the ways to get it wrong.

Advice on pasta? Really? It’s not that hard. No, it’s not, and really, I’m quite happy with the pasta I already make. Well, everyone eats it, don’t they? And what could I be missing? I know how to boil water, add salt, taste it to see if it’s cooked. What could a cookbook possibly teach me about cooking pasta?

I was browsing through Rachel Roddy’s excellent Roman cookbook ‘Five Quarters’, one of my Christmas books, and came across the inevitable chapter on pasta. Just as I was considering, as I often do, why I don’t make fresh pasta that often, and trying to remember where in the kitchen the pasta maker will clamp to the counter, I saw a page about cooking pasta where she confesses that her husband thought she was making pasta all wrong, and insisted on giving her some pointers.
I thought I knew what I was talking about when it came to pasta, at least as much as the next non-Italian, but then so did she. So I paused to read the directions, and then I put them straight to work.

The advice she repeats is likely things you have heard before, but I think it makes a real difference to actually follow them. So for once I weighed out the pasta, (200g for the two of us) and then measured the water into the pan (2 litres, using the marks on the inside of the pan) and then weighed out the salt (20g). That’s quite a lot more salt than I was expecting. I know that the water is supposed to be well seasoned, but somehow I was never tempted to take a sip of the rapidly boiling water, and made do with a generous shake of the Saxa. I turned out to have the amount of water about right, but needed probably twice as much salt – about a tablespoon for a two litre pan of water.

Then I cooked the pasta until the chalky centre had gone (go any further and my husband can’t tolerate it – something I attribute to his being taught to like pasta by a Roman). I saved a ramekin of pasta water – something I do sometimes, but not consistently. I warmed serving bowls and a large bowl, to mix the pasta in. I added grated parmesan to the pasta first, followed by the ragu, and a dribble of pasta water. Then I tossed the whole thing together and served it.

I find it hard to dislike pasta with homemade ragu, but I do think that this one had a more rounded flavour, and was better for following these directions.

Even when you think you know all there is to know about even simple cooking directions, someone can persuade you to think again, and bring something new to the party.

Starting as I mean to go on with @rachelaliceroddy 's broccoli pasta. Lick-the-bowl-clean good.

Why does this advice work?

When you cook dried pasta, water is absorbed into the pasta and swells and softens the starch. At the same time, some of the surface starch lifts off and dissolves into the water. When you boil pasta in too little water, it takes a long time to come back to the boil (as the cold pasta drops the temperature of the water a long way), and the concentration of the starch in the water is quite high. The starch isn’t really a problem: after all, restaurant kitchens reuse their pasta water for many servings of pasta at a time. But the real problem is that the pasta doesn’t have enough room to move about and can start to stick together in the pan as it cooks. This can mean it cooks unevenly.

Undersalting often makes the difference between good restaurant food and home cooking. It’s easy to assume that a recipe isn’t good, or that something is just a bit underwhelming, when a bit of salt can make all the difference. Because the pasta absorbs a lot of water, properly salting the water allows the pasta itself to be seasoned well, and tossing it with parmesan before the sauce also helps this process. When each bite of pasta is salted well, the taste is very different.

Finally, much has been written about using pasta water in the sauce. The starch left in the water helps add some gloss to the sauce. The extra liquid dilutes the sauce a little and helps it to cling to every groove and ridge on the pasta, something that’s particularly important when you’re using good pasta, made with bronze dies so it has a good craggy edge to it.

Finally, Harold McGee has tried breaking all the rules and cooking pasta in too little cold water – it sort-of works, but is not approved by Italian cooks!