Food Waste vs Food Safety

Lixo-reciclável-UFRNSo, it’s a new year again. Doubtless many of you will be in the throes of some hideous new eating and/or exercise regime which focuses on abject deprivation and much soul-searching as you route around the fridge at 3am, desperately looking for something which contains more calories than a rice cake.

I always see a new year as a punctuation mark; a comma rather than a full stop. Take a breath and reassess.

Over the festive period, I happened to visit many different homes. I was shocked to see how much food was thrown away after meals and parties. One person even threw out their leftover turkey because they didn’t want to strip the meat from the carcass. It seems it’s time to reassess our attitudes to food waste.

In the UK, there has been a welcome new wave of awareness about this kind of waste recently. At the end of last year, maverick chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his latest campaign; Hugh’s War on Waste. Much of this campaign is aimed at the food waste created by supermarkets through their rejection of less than visually perfect produce and the perfectly edible food they actually throw out at the end of every day.

Another aspect of the campaign is very much domestic. The average UK household throws away £700 worth of food a year. In 2013, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the average family spent £56.80 a week on food and non-alcoholic drinks. That means that the average household is throwing away over twelve weeks worth of food every year. Yet, The Trussell Trust, who runs 425 of the UK’s food banks, reports that from 2014-2015 over 1 million people were given emergency food. This is an insane imbalance.

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It is time to start making intelligent and informed choices about the food in our homes. Most of us buy the majority of our food at supermarkets and there is a lot of confusion about the different labels and dates on all our packaged food. Every year in the UK we throw away 7.2m tonnes of food and drink, most of which could have been eaten if we were a bit more knowledgable about labelling.

Supermarket food labels explained

  • ‘Best Before’ dates are about quality, not safety. When the date is passed, it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, simply that it might begin to lose its flavour and texture. It is still perfectly safe to eat.
  • ‘Use By’ dates do refer to food safety. The NHS guidelines recommend you do not consume anything after its ‘Use By’ date in case it does you harm.
  • ‘Display Until’ or ‘Sell By’ often appear near or next to the ‘Best Before’ or “Use By’ date. These are instructions for shop staff, not for shoppers, so you can safely ignore them.

It goes without saying that food safety should be of the highest importance in the kitchen. There are certain foods that should not be eaten if out of date. Meat, fish and eggs can all cause horrendous illnesses if consumed when they have gone off. However, due to all the red tape supermarkets have to adhere to, some of these dates are flexible. Food is often safe to eat after these dates provided that it looks and smells ok and that it is cooked properly if necessary.

Butchers, fishmongers and  greengrocers are not subject to the same health and safety guidelines and red tape as the supermarkets. Carrots from your local greengrocers or farmers market don’t come with a use by date.  Our grandparents did not have access to date-stamped food and just used their common sense.

Use your senses

  • Sight-If food has any kind of mould or looks very bruised or discoloured this is not a good sign. If that bag of spinach is weeping mass of mulch then clearly there is nothing to be done but if that block of cheese looks and smells fine, it probably is. You would not eat a bruised and wrinkled apple; that is from using your sight, not from what the packet may say.
  • Smell-I have a habit of smelling milk every time I open it. Everyone recognises the sour smell of milk that has gone off so if milk smells fresh, that usually means it is, whether it is later than the date on the label.
  • Taste-If it looks and smells ok, taste it. Trust your tastebuds. You will be able to tell if that yoghurt really has gone off. The human body is programmed to let you know if it doesn’t think something is fit for it to consume.

Sensible shopping

It is not rocket science to understand that eating what you buy saves money. If you throw out less food, you are wasting less money. Much of our eating habits depend on our shopping habits.

  • Make a shopping list. Try and plan out what you actually need before you enter the shop, rather than randomly grabbing what you think you want. Make a list and stick to it.
  • Never go shopping after exercise or if you are hungry. That niggle in your tummy will make you buy things you would never normally consider. I have brought home bags of  unnecessary food, as if in some sort of hunger-trance, after going to the gym. Worrying, pointless and expensive.
  • Think before you buy- will you eat those three packets of cereal before they go off, even though they are such a good deal?
  • Organise your fridge. When you unpack your shopping, don’t just shove everything in, so things get lost at the back-move the newest food to the back of the fridge and the older to the front, so that the older items get eaten first.

Leftovers

Just as some people delight in a fridge full of plastic containers and half eaten scraps, some people lose the will to live when they witness the same. If you like leftovers, then great. If you don’t, you have to work a bit harder to make sure they don’t end up in the bin. Just make sure you never put anything that is still warm into your fridge; this raises the internal temperature of the fridge and makes food prone to develop dangerous bacteria.

Try new recipes. Everyone opens the cupboard and feels utterly uninspired sometimes, so it helps to have a few things in the house that can used to jazz up the most mundane of ingredients. Tinned tomatoes, chilli flakes, honey, good olive oil, wholegrain and French mustard, Worcestershire sauce, ginger and garlic are just some of the things that always help a cook add essential layers of flavour.

The freezer is your friend

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I never have enough room in my freezer, as I use it like another food cupboard.

You can freeze so many things. If you know the whole loaf of bread won’t be eaten, freeze half of it. Milk, cheese and even raw eggs (separated) can also be frozen.

You can freeze all meat and fish for up to a year, just make sure it is well wrapped so it doesn’t get freezer burn. As long as any meat used was not frozen to start with, you can freeze things like curries, stews and soup after you have made them. Label them properly to avoid any surprises and make sure they are piping hot when you reheat them after defrosting, to get rid of any nasty bacteria. And never re-freeze something that was frozen.

You really can freeze most things. In reality, it is quicker and easier to give a list of things you cannot freeze. The basis is usually water content-the higher the water content, the mushier a food will be when it is defrosted.

  • Vegetables: Celery, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peppers (especially green), potatoes (especially raw), radishes, sprouts, salad greens
  • Fruit: Apples, grapefruit, grapes (unless you’re planning on eating them frozen) lemons, limes, oranges, watermelon, avocado, tomatoes (unless you are cooking them when defrosted)
  • Dairy: soft cheeses, cottage cheese, cream cheese, custard, eggs in shells, mayonnaise, sour cream
  • Soft Herbs: Basil, chives, parsley, etc

It’s actually a combination of small changes that make a difference. Less food waste means less money wasted, less environmental impact and less guilt. That’s a good enough resolution for me this January.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagliatelle Fatte a Mano con Funghi Porcini – Hand Made Tagliatelle with Porcini Mushrooms

Tagliatelle with porcini

Tagliatelle with porcini

One of the very best things about this time of year is the arrival of wild mushrooms. The UK is home to more than 15,000 varieties of wild funghi; some edible, some very much not. We are incredibly lucky to get beautiful chanterelles, morels, chicken of the woods, puffballs and many more varieties growing wild in our woods. What is so special is that they are truly seasonal and so you have to grab them when you can.

All our native mushrooms are wonderful, but if you are fortunate you might come across some porcini mushrooms in a local deli or larger food market. These are Italian cep mushrooms and the literal translation of the name is ‘piglets’. These are the mushrooms you can buy dried and soak them to add a deep richness in cooking, but fresh they are in a different league. The flavour is earthy, nutty, rich and meaty. It is unrivalled and truly worth the shockingly high prices as a seasonal treat.

Porcini in Borough Market, London

Porcini in Borough Market, London

Choose your mushrooms wisely when you are shelling out so much for them. They should be firm, dry and with as few dents and gauges as possible. Do not be alarmed about the dirt on them; this means they have come straight from the ground rather than being processed in a factory. Never wash mushrooms, as they will soak up water like a sponge and be ruined. Instead, use a clean cloth or soft nail brush to gently brush off as much dirt and debris as you can.

Porcini close up

Porcini close up

Pasta is a perfect partner to porcini and this is a very simple recipe; the mushrooms are so rich that you only want additional ingredients that will enhance, rather than mask the porcini. If you cannot find porcini, you can use a variety of supermarket mushrooms and add a few dried porcini that you have pre-soaked. It will not taste the same, but it will still be very good.

The only time consuming thing is making the pasta. You can, of course, buy fresh tagliatelle, but I would not use dried for this recipe. Porcini are so special they deserve the extra effort.

Tagliatelle Fatte a Mano con Funghi Porcini

serves 2 hungry people

Ingredients

For the pasta

200g 00 flour

2 large eggs

pinch of salt

fine semolina for dusting

For the sauce

250g fresh porcini mushrooms (or a variety of others such as portobello, chestnut and chantarelles)

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 large handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped

3tbs extra virgin olive oil

75g butter

Large splash of dry white wine

Squeeze of lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Grated parmesan to serve

Method

  1. Make the pasta.
  2. Clean and slice the porcini.
  3. Add the butter and olive oil to a large frying pan, warm over a medium heat until the butter starts to foam and add the chopped garlic. Fry for a few moments, making sure the garlic does not colour.
  4. Add the porcini to the garlic, butter and oil and cook down. Meanwhile, boil the water for the pasta.
  5. Add a large slosh of white wine and cook down until you cannot smell the alcohol anymore. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, which will only be a matter of moments.
  6. Taste the sauce, season and add the parsley. Add a squeeze of lemon juice.
  7. Drain the pasta, making sure to reserve some of the cooking water. Add immediately to the pan of sauce and mix well, adding small amounts of cooking water until the pasta is coated and glossy.
  8. Serve immediately with grated parmesan and a sharp Italian white wine.

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A Tomato Story

Homegrown Tomatoes

Homegrown Tomatoes

Tomatoes are probably one of the foods I buy most often. My post for Crudaiola is one of the most viewed on this blog so I assume lots of you adore them as much as I do.

Since I have been a ‘proper’ grown up and lived away from the parental abode, I have never had a garden. I couldn’t even grow herbs on the window sill as the sills were too narrow to balance a pot on and I was worried about the subsequent lawsuit after inadvertently knocking someone unconscious in the street below when it fell off.

At the end of last year that changed and I was lucky enough to move into a place with a garden. One of the first things I did was start researching how to grow tomatoes. I have long harboured a dream to grow my own produce, particularly tomatoes. I spend a small fortune on them as I buy so many.

This is not a gardening blog and I cannot claim to have any expertise whatsoever. Anything I have picked up is from the web and very patient in-laws who have kindly responded to my often inane questioning.

So, I bought the equipment I thought I needed and selected three types of seeds; Gardener’s Delight, as they are supposedly easy to grow, San Marzano’s, as they make the best passata in the world and are fiendishly expensive to buy, and finally Heritage, which seemed a little vague in name, but the variety of colours and shapes attracted me.

After sowing the seeds in a little tray in the darkness of one March evening, I was hopeful but not convinced anything would ever appear. The excitement I felt when the first shoots came through after only a few weeks was totally ridiculous.

Small shoots showing

Small shoots showing

When the seedlings get to about 4cm tall, they need transferring very carefully into small pots filled with seedling peat.

Small potted seedling

Small potted seedling

Then they need transferring to a larger pot again when they get to about 15cm and are showing the first buds and flowers. I can quite smugly tell you that this is called a truss.

Growing upwards!

Growing upwards!

As the nights were still quite cold, I kept the plants on a sunny windowsill until they started to develop their own truss’. I moved them outside around the beginning of May. I would like to tell you that this was because it was the appropriate time, but it was actually because my other half was so sick of the kitchen looking in like it has been invaded by trifids.

First tiny fruit appearing

First tiny fruit appearing

When the first few truss’ have appeared you can start to feed the plants.

Fruit getting larger

Fruit getting larger

Once a plant has developed a maximum of five truss’, you need to break the top of the plant off, as otherwise you risk having lots of green fruit that never ripens. You also need to keep pinching off the little shoots between the main stalks, so they do not take away the energy from the main plant.

San Marzano fruit

San Marzano fruit

With a little luck and a fair bit of sun, the fruit will start to ripen.

Gardener's Delight fruit ripening

Gardener’s Delight fruit ripening

And so eventually came the day when there were enough red fruit to pick and eat. Dressed simply with a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, they were, frankly, incredible. It was very special.  I love the fact they are bit gnarly in places and not all of them look perfect. They are authentic, rather than forced into perfection because that is what the public want to buy.

The sun has been somewhat lacking for the last few weeks and so I still have a lot of green fruit. I am hoping that we get a few sunny days, as they seem to ripen overnight when there is warmth and light. The constant rain has meant that some of the fruit has started to split, which is a little heartbreaking. I have picked the ones which are showing the slightest sign of ripening and put them into a bowl on the windowsill in the hope of ripening them fully.

There are a few things I would not do again. I would only plant 10-15 seeds.  The packet instructions suggested that only half the seeds would take but I have only lost two plants out of 45 throughout this process. Unless you are heading for commercial production, 43 plants are far too many for a domestic cook to maintain, however much you love tomatoes. It is actually bordering on insanity and has taken up far too much time and energy. Not to mention the amount I have spent on peat probably outweighs the amount I would have spent on tomatoes normally.

That said, some cliches exist for a reason and there really is nothing like the taste of tomatoes you have grown yourself. There is a wonderful feeling of productivity and pride that simply can’t be replicated by picking out a fridge cold plastic packet in the supermarket. This is a process I have enjoyed so much more than I thought I would. The time and care needed means you feel very invested in these little plants. I never thought I would be the type of person to find myself away for a weekend and catch myself worrying about how the tomato plants were doing in my absence! It all seems a bit too grown up.
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Gnudi della Ricotta Con Pesto – Ricotta Dumplings with Pesto

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Like everyone else, I am seriously unimpressed with the weather in the UK at the moment. The previous two years we enjoyed a plethora of beautiful sunshine over the spring and summer and it seemed like we were back in the groove of having long balmy evenings and weekends full of barbecues and outdoor frolics of various kinds. Like a ‘normal’ summer should bring. Not so in 2015. The few good days we have had do not make up for the overtly depressing fact that I am watching the rain pour down the window pane in mid August. I have a cup of tea next to me and a thick pair of socks on. Balmy it truly is not.

Just as a cup of tea always brings solice, food can often be a comfort in the days when you are desperate for a ray of sunshine in your life. My obsession with Italy and Italian food is well documented and shows no sign of abating. It is a cuisine that can simply radiate sunshine. This is one of those dishes.

Most people have heard of gnocchi- those gorgeous Italian dumplings made with mashed potato. Gnudi ( pronounced nu-dee) are similar but different, not least because they are made from ricotta cheese rather than mashed potato. The literal translation is ‘nude’ – you can think of them as naked ravioli; the filling without the pasta, but I don’t think this does them justice.

You can buy fresh gnocchi in the supermarket these days, but I do think they feel more like rubber in the mouth than the proper melting unctiousness of homemade. I have never seen gnudi in the supermarket and only in a few delis in Italy. Through this, you can be assured that you will impress your guests just through their uniqueness.

Quite simply, gnudi are dumplings made from ricotta, flour and egg, with a few other additions of deliciousness. Ricotta is a soft Italian curd cheese made from whey, which is drained and then lightly ‘cooked’- hence the word ‘cotta’ meaning cooked. It is light and creamy with a slightly grainy texture and delicate flavour. It’s intense creaminess belies the fact that it’s quite low in fat. I believe ricotta to be a very underrated and versatile ingredient that can be used in dishes as diverse as cheesecake, pastries and pasta.

If you have never tried gnudi or feel daunted about making them, I can assure you that the very small effort required is well worth it. They are actually easier and quicker than gnocchi as you do not have to peel, boil and mash potatoes. I can get a plate of these on the table in under half an hour.  The taste and texture is unique and incredibly moreish. They are lighter than gnocchi and as ricotta is such a fresh and clean flavour, these are a great vehicle for any sauce you want.

I have made them for a number of years and have tried a number of different recipes. The first was from the wonderful Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers from The River Cafe. The recipe is great but very time consuming as it requires the dumplings to be stored overnight covered in semolina to extract extra moisture. I’m all for extra effort if makes a real difference, but I have found this is time and effort that isn’t really necessary. I have come up an amalgamation of a few recipes, coupled with the addition of pan frying the gnudi after they have been boiled. This adds an extra texture, colour and crunch that works brilliantly with pesto. They taste great without this step, but I think it’s worth it.

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the Gnudi
500g ricotta
230g plain flour
2 medium eggs
2 large handfuls of grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

For the Pesto
3 big handfuls of basil
75g of pine nuts
1/2 clove of garlic
1 big handful parmesan cheese
100ml of extra virgin olive oil

Method

First make the pesto. Gently toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan or under the grill. Watch them as they burn very quickly. Put the garlic in a pestle and mortar (if you put it in a processor the heat from the blades will blacken the pesto) with a good pinch of salt and bash until a paste. Add the basil and grind again.

Grinding the pesto

Grinding the pesto

Add all the toasted pine nuts except a handful and grind again into a paste. Add the parmesan and half the olive oil. Mix and season to taste. Add the rest of the olive oil a little at a time until you have a rich emulsified sauce. Add the remaining whole pine nuts.

Pesto

Pesto

Now set the pesto aside and make the gnudi.

Put the ricotta in a sieve to drain the excess liquid for about 5 minutes. Place in a bowl and mix with the flour, eggs, parmesan and salt and pepper until it comes together.

Tip out onto a floured worktop and work into a smooth dough. Divide into 6 sections and roll out into long sausage shapes of about a 3cm diameter.

'Sausages' of dough

‘Sausages’ of dough

With a knife or pastry cutter, slice the sausages into pieces of 4cm.

Cutting the dough

Cutting the dough

Carry on rolling out and cutting until you have gone through all the dough.

Raw gnudi

Raw gnudi

Place the gnudi into a large pan of simmering salted water. They will sink straight to the bottom and float to the top when they are cooked. As they float to the top, remove with a slotted spoon and pop into a large frying pan with 2 tablespoons of hot olive oil. You will need to do this in two batches, or in two frying pans. Fry until golden and crispy on all sides.

Frying the gnudi

Frying the gnudi

Take the frying pan off the heat and mix in the pesto to warm through. Spoon into bowls and top with grated parmesan.

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

I don’t like repeating recipes on this blog. I feel that it short-changes my readers when you visit expecting something sparkly and new and it reads with a little too much familiarity.

I make an exception here, as I can claim it is a worthy variation, rather than a direct repetition. Every recipe I post has been tested at least three times, often many times more. I post recipes that I love and I hope my readers will love too. As a result I cook the food featured on this blog often in my everyday life. This does lead to tweaks and alternations that sometimes don’t work, but sometimes lead to something wonderful. This is one of those times.

You may or may not have read my previous post about cantuccini which suggested several, rather traditional additions to the dough. After a recent trip to Italy, I was inspired to try out a chocolate variation, darkly rich with cocoa, chocolate chips and glistening green pistachios. Do not be tempted to use anything other than the best quality dark chocolate here. Even if you do not like dark chocolate, it is necessary here for the richness and depth of flavour which works so well with the pistachios. It is a fabulous combination and totally addictive. A worthwhile post, I hope you will agree.

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini
Makes about 30

Ingredients

250g plain flour, sifted
250g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
4 tbs good quality cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate)
150g good quality dark chocolate-60% cocoa solids or more is good.
2 eggs

Method

Heat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4 and line two baking trays with baking parchment. Shift the cocoa powder into the flour and mix all the dry ingredients together. Chop the chocolate into rough shards and mix into the flour. Beat the eggs and pour half into the dry ingredients. Mix.

Add the eggs until you have a dough which comes together and feels slightly sticky. You may not need to use all the eggs, so go carefully or the dough will be too wet.

Dust the worktop with flour and divide the dough into six. Roll each section out into a rough sausage shape, about 3cm wide, using a bit of flour if they stick. Lay on the lined baking trays, leaving a good 3-4 cm apart as they spread when they cook.

Pop in the oven for about 25-30 minutes and cook until they are a light golden brown. Take out and leave to cool for 10 minutes.

Turn the oven down to 150°C. Slice each section on a diagonal using a serrated blade into pieces of about 2 cm and lay back on the baking trays. Bake for a further 10-15 minutes but do watch them as they catch quite easily. They make be pliable when hot, but it is imperative that they are cooked through, as this is what gives you a fantastic crunch.

Cool on wire racks and store in airtight containers.

Watermelon and Mint Martini

 

Watermelon and Mint Martini

 
It is a sad fact that us Brits cannot cope with hot weather. It’s just not in our DNA. The sun pokes it head through our normally grey sky and suddenly men and women are wearing outrageously inappropriate clothing on public transport, as their exposed shoulders gently turn the colour of cooked lobsters. People whose usual idea of cooking is to pop a pizza in the oven decide that they are expert BBQ chefs, donning aprons with smutty slogans on and giving everyone food poisoning by sloshing the marinade used for the raw meat all over the bits that are cooked. 

Our rail tracks buckle, our parks frazzle and no shop can keep up with the demand for ice. That picnic with your family in the park that sounded like such a great idea rapidly unravels into a bitch-fest as people get cramp, get stung, get bored and get drunk. It’s not pretty. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives to these potential hazards of summertime. Deciding that hot pants are not a great look for the office and avoiding any picnic without waiter service are a good start. 

More positive still is to have a really cracking summer cocktail up your sleeve which is both delicious and genuinely refreshing. The ubiquitous Aperol Spritz is still alive and kicking (although when hideous chain pubs start serving it, it might be a sign to move on), but I urge you to try this absolutely delicious concoction of watermelon, mint and vodka, given to me several years ago by the Head Barman of the, now sadly defunct, Boxwood Cafe in London. It is so simple it barely warrants a recipe but this is a cooking blog so I need to give you one, just to make myself feel useful. 

Watermelon really does live up to its name as it is made up of about 92% water. This is very important for summer drinking, as it’s mainly dehydration caused by alcohol consumption that gives you that awful headache at about 4pm on a Saturday afternoon after deciding to drink rose wine from midday onwards. The water content in the watermelon in this recipe will help mitigate this. I only say help, not eliminate so please drink responsibly, keep hydrated, blah, blah, blah. 

The mint in this recipe is a brilliant compliment to the watermelon and makes the drink doubly refreshing. Temperature is key so make sure everything is as cold as possible before you partake. 

You can make this martini in a cocktail shaker if you want to look very efficient but this method means you can make a whole jug at a time, which can only be a good thing for everyone. 

Watermelon and Mint Martini

Makes 4

Ingredients

400g watermelon, roughly chopped into chunks

Handful of mint leaves

200ml good quality vodka

Watermelon slices for garnish

Method

If you have a juicer, juice the mint and watermelon together. If not, blend the watermelon and mint in a blender or with a hand held blender until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve.  Chill the juice until it is ice cold. 

Add the vodka, stir and serve in chilled martini glasses, with a slice of watermelon on the side. 

Chicken Caesar Salad

Chicken Caesar Salad

Chicken Caesar Salad

I find food phobias quite amusing. I’m talking about phobias, as opposed to allergies. Proper allergies (unlike those that people invent for themselves because they read somewhere that Beyonce is allergic to crumpets and that eliminating them from her diet has, literally, changed her life) can be awful. As someone who lives with someone with a severe fish allergy, I know from bitter experience that real food allergies are not at all funny.

Phobias are very different. People often convince themselves that they dislike a food, even if it turns out they have never tried it. Apparently it takes children up to 15 times to be offered a food before they might grow to accept it and like it. A friend of mine maintains that she absolutely cannot eat raspberries because she hates the texture of the pips, but is quite happy to slather her toast with raspberry jam and not the seedless variety.

Sometimes your tastes change, adapt and generally mature. As a child I hated olives, despite my mother’s dogged perseverance with me. When I was about sixteen, I decided to try them again and realised I loved them. In contrast, I have tried in vain to like and appreciate coffee for many years without success. I have tried it in every form; strong, weak, iced, sweet. I have tried, but it still makes me gag. I suppose the suggestion is to keep trying things, even the things you believe you do not like. You may find you like them, you may not, but an appreciation of a wide range of flavours and textures in food is a wonderful thing.

Anchovies are a frequently mentioned phobia in food. Fresh anchovies are one thing, but the type that most of us come across most are the cured or marinated sort that often come in flat tins or glass jars in oil. A lot of people are convinced they cannot stand them.  They are a highly flavoured food, deeply savoury and intensely salty and so are not to many people’s taste. I am not convinced when I see chefs proclaim that if you melt anchovies into hot oil while preparing a dish, you won’t taste them, they will just add depth to the dish. This really isn’t true. The whole point of marinated anchovies is the strength of the taste. Lamb, slow cooked with anchovies is wonderful, but it still tastes of anchovies. Personally, I love them, but I do appreciate they are just too much for some people. They are certainly one of those foods that you may learn to love as you grow older, even if you hated them when you first tried them.

Despite its Roman name, Caesar Salad was invented in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico by a restaurateur by the name of Caesar Cardini. During prohibition, he found his restaurant flooded by booze-seeking Americans. To relieve the pressure on his kitchen he decided that this popular salad would be prepared at the table by the waiters instead. It was a very theatrical show, especially as the use of a raw egg as part of the dressing was seen as exciting and controversial.

Purists might protest at the addition of items such as chicken, bacon and extra cheese, but I think a shredded, plain cooked chicken breast works very well, as it adds substance but has a soft enough flavour to still let the dressing shine. It is the dressing that makes this salad special. The thick and creamy consistency coats the leaves beautifully. This, along with the freshness of the lettuce and the crunch of croutons makes for every mouthful being exciting and always a bit different. Anchovies are a fundamental part of the dressing of any reasonably authentic version of Caesar Salad. You can try using a few dashes of Worcestershire Sauce instead (which contains anchovies anyway) or leave them out if they cause you too much trauma, but give it a go. You might just like it.

Chicken Caesar Salad

Serves 2

Ingredients

– 1 free-range egg

– 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

– 1/2 crushed garlic clove-less if it’s a large clove

– 3 tbsp grated parmesan cheese

– juice ½ lemon

– ½ tsp sea salt flakes or ¼ tsp pouring salt (use none if you add anchovies)

– 1 Romaine or Cos lettuce

– 1 cold roast chicken breast

– freshly ground pepper

For the croutons

– 200g ciabatta bread

– 2 tbs olive oil

– 1 clove of garlic, crushed

 

Method

First make the croutons. Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Tear the bread into rough, mouth size chunks. Crush the garlic into the olive oil and drizzle over the ciabatta. Mix well so all the pieces of bread are coated. Spread in a single layer on a baking tray. Bake for about 15 minutes, turning halfway, until the pieces are golden and crispy.

If you are using anchovies, put them in a bowl and mash them to a thick paste. Crack the egg into a bowl and mix with the anchovies. Add the oil slowly while whisking so the dressing emulsifies. Stir in the lemon juice and garlic and taste. Season if necessary. You will definitely need to add salt if you are not using anchovies.

Tear the lettuce into pieces. Toss in the dressing so the leaves are evenly coated. Add the parmesan and toss again. Tear the chicken into strips and add to the salad. Sprinkle over the croutons, adding a few extra shavings of parmesan if you like. Serve immediately.

Kitchen Tip #20 Easy Lining for Cake Tins

Cutting roughly round the tin

Cutting roughly round the tin

I would love to pretend that I have reusable, pre-cut liners for all my cake tins that I wash after every use and pop back in the tins, ready to use next time.  The reality is that it is quite a way down my list of priorities and I always use greaseproof paper.  Lining round cake tins is a pain; the drawing round and the cutting out, which never ends up right anyway. However, I have found a cunning way of making it very quick and it always works. You don’t even need scissors for this, as you can just tear the paper where necessary.

Folding the paper

Folding the paper

Place your tin on top of the grease proof paper so that the edge of the tin lines up roughly with the edge of the paper. Cut straight down near the other side of the tin so you have a square which is roughly the diameter of the cake tin. You really don’t need to be accurate, as long as it is bigger than the cake tin.

Take the tin off the paper. Fold the paper in half, turn 90 degrees, then half again and once more. Turn the tin upside down and put the tip of the folded paper at roughly the centre of the tin.

Measuring the cake tin with the paper

Measuring the cake tin with the paper

Make a rough mental note of where the paper comes to at the edge of the tin. Take your scissors again and cut the paper at this point.  Unfold and there you have it. A perfectly lined cake tin in about 20 seconds.

IMG_3394

Fig and Frangipane Tart

Fig and Almond Tart

Fig and Frangipane Tart

I am learning Italian and I love discovering new words, not surprisingly, especially ones about food. Le primizie is a new one for me this week. It means the fruit and vegetables which people can buy out of season. In the UK, we are used to being able to wander into our local supermarket and buy whatever we want, at any time of year. It often doesn’t work like that on the continent; in the local markets you find on nearly every village square, what you can buy is only what is in season. Although supermarkets are catching up in popularity, unlike the UK, it is rare to go into a supermarket in France, Spain or Italy and find strawberries in December.

I very much believe in the idea of ‘eating the seasons’. It seems the most natural and economical way to get the best out of fresh food. Out of season fruit and vegetables will often be such an expensive disappointment. I will always remember nearly fainting at the checkout at my local supermarket one Christmas when presented with a £20 bill for four boxes of fresh raspberries, having been asked to make a raspberry pavlova for a party. Unsurprisingly, they were like bullets and tasted about as appetising. It wasn’t a shock, but a valuable lesson. Just because you can buy something, doesn’t mean you should.

Often, seasonality in particular countries is the important thing. For example, those gorgeous tiny French Gariguette strawberries are perfect right now, but English varieties still have a way to go, despite being on sale already. Do not be tempted, your patience will be rewarded in a few short weeks.

As much as I want to eat fruit and vegetables that are in season, I also want to eat fruit and vegetables that taste delicious, no matter what time of year it is. I therefore advocate the ‘taste and see’ approach. If you like the look of something, it may still taste good, even if it’s not strictly the right time of year for it. If you buy any fresh produce from a market, you can ask to taste it first. Any vendor with pride in their produce will be happy to let you try it; you should be suspicious of one who won’t.

Figs are certainly not something that are in season in early May. The best figs are often the Turkish Black Bursa figs, which are deeply perfumed, jammy and sweet, but they only come to the markets at the end of the summer for a few precious weeks. However, last weekend, I was kindly given two boxes of some tiny, plump, blackish purple figs which looked remarkably like mini Black Bursas. The friend who gave them to me had no idea what they were called or where they came from. They were not bullet-hard and tasted ok, but completely lacked that beautiful honeyed softness that perfectly ripe and in season figs always have.

However, cooking figs changes them completely. Dried figs are eaten a lot in the Middle East, usually to fill in time and compensate until the new season starts. Baking acts as a sort of drying out. They shrink as the moisture evaporates and the texture becomes slightly chewy like a sweet. They taste considerably sweeter when they are baked, as the sugars concentrate during cooking. Cooking these figs was, therefore, the logical option.

Figs and almonds are a beautiful pairing. A frangipane simply acts like a cake mixture, but using ground almonds, rather than flour. It is a great friend in the kitchen as it is so delicious and works with so many flavours. It is also surprisingly easy to make. This tart needs nothing more than a good dollop of sour creme fraiche to set it off. If you haven’t got a friend with a mysterious glut of figs at the moment and don’t fancy paying extortionate amounts for supermarket ones, frozen berries such as blueberries or blackberries work equally well here. You can, of course, buy a pre-made sweet pastry case, but I have included the tart case in the recipe below, if you are so inclined. Do not be scared of pastry, you must be prepared to muck it up several times when you first try it but you will get the knack eventually. You will need a 28″ tart tin: loose bottomed or silicone are best. If you don’t have one this size, see my tip here.

Fig and Almond Tart
serves 8
Ingredients

For the pastry
225g plain flour
150g cold butter
25g icing sugar
1 large egg, beaten
2 tbsp ice-cold water

For the filling
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g caster sugar
4 eggs
200g ground almonds
50g plain flour
zest of one lemon
8-10 figs, top of the stems trimmed, cut lengthways into halves or quarters, depending on size

Method

To make the pastry, pulse together the flour, salt and butter in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, then the beaten egg  and pulse until just combined and pulling away from the edge of the bowl – add the iced water a tiny bit at a time and only if necessary. If you do not have a processor, rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar (or grate it in from frozen), the add the beaten egg. Bring together and add the water if you need it. Try not to kneed the pastry, just bring it together into a smooth ball. Wrap in clingfilm and pop in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Roll out the pastry until about the thickness of a pound coin on a lightly floured surface. Using a loose-bottomed 28″ tart tin, gently place on top of the rolled out pastry to check that the circumference of the pastry is at least 6cm wider all around than the bottom of the tin. Lift the rolled out pastry onto your rolling pin and place it over the tin. Carefully ease the pastry into the tin so that it starts to fit into the contours of the tin. Roll a bit of extra pastry into a ball and use it to push the pastry down into the tin. If you use a finger, the pastry is more likely to split. If it does, do not worry, simply use a sliver of excess pastry to glue it back together.

Pressing the pastry into the tart tin

Pressing the pastry into the tart tin

Trim the excess pastry from the edges of the tin. the easiest way to do this is rolling your rolling pin over the top to trim. Chill again for 15 minutes. Line with greaseproof paper and baking beans or dried pulses, and blind bake for 20 minutes. Remove the paper and beans, and bake for five to 10 minutes longer, until the base is dried and slightly golden. Leave the shell to cool, and turn down the oven to 150°C.

Lined tart tin

Prepared tart base

Now make the filling. Cream the butter, sugar and almonds together. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until combined well. Add the flour and lemon zest and mix well. Spread this mixture into the cool tart case. Slice the figs and place on top, cut side up, pushing the pieces slightly into the frangipane.

Adding the figs

Adding the figs

Bake for between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes until the mixture is nicely puffed up and the centre is set. The edges will catch a little due to the high sugar content, so you can cover with foil if it looks like it is getting too dark. Allow to cool before trying to remove from the tin to avoid breakage.

Fig and Almond Tart

Finished Fig and Frangipane Tart

Fatshaming Children

"Easter-Eggs-1" by Lotus Head from Johannesburg

“Easter-Eggs-1” by Lotus Head from Johannesburg. Wiki-Commons.

I very rarely watch television in the mornings, but yesterday I happened to be at the gym while breakfast TV was on. As I was waiting for the treadmill to start up, the screen popped up with Good Morning Britain. For those readers who don’t live in Britain, this is a magazine morning show on a channel called ITV. I was about to switch to a music channel when I noticed what was on the screen in front of me. An item was discussing chocolate Easter eggs and how much exercise is needed to work off the subsequent calories. So far, so obvious. What made my jaw drop was the reporter went on to ask two little girls how many chocolate eggs they had eaten over Easter, showing the total calories and then telling them how many hours of running or Zumba they would need to do to work it off.

The girls looked to be about seven or eight. They both looked a completely normal size and weight. As they listened to the reporter, they looked shocked and shame-faced at the results. Rather than being given the chance to enjoy a time of the year when everyone indulges in a little excess chocolate, they were being made to feel guilty and that their innocent consumption of the sweet stuff over Easter had serious consequences. I really couldn’t believe what I was watching.

As I thought about it, I became more and more angry. It demonstrated how easily a few words from an adult could have the most devastating effect on children’s self esteem and body confidence. I am almost sure I did not even know what calories were at that age, but I do know that children are aware of their bodies, food and exercise at a much earlier age these days. I do not have children, but I do have many friends with young children and I see many things in the world today to do with children and food that really worry me. So-called ‘perfect’ bodies are everywhere in the media; the idea pressed upon young children is that if they do not have a six pack or can squeeze into a size eight pair of jeans they are somehow not quite good enough. Conversely, we are surrounded by junk-food advertising, much of which is targeted specifically at children. The vicious cycle of dieting and binging can be set very early on.

It is a tricky issue; most of us are aware there is a childhood obesity problem in this and many other countries. Michelle Obama has famously made childhood obesity one of her target causes with her Let’s Move! campaign. The World Health Organization (WHO) regards childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century. Some statistics suggest that in some year groups, a third of school children are classified as clinically obese.

Children need to adopt a healthy attitude to food from a very early age. Fruit, vegetables, lean meat and fish are great. But, chocolate and sweets are also fine, just not all the time. Having chocolate at Easter is nothing to be ashamed of. Childhood is when many of the essential foundations for healthy living are made; habits, good or bad, picked up at this time will remain with you for life. An acquaintance of mine recently told me she was worried about her twelve year old daughter, as she had discovered that was was taking food from the kitchen cupboards and eating in secret. She went on to say that she herself has had food and weight issues her whole life. It made me wonder what she had said, in total innocence, in front of her daughter over the years.

There is no doubt that many children need to eat less fat and sugar and exercise more. Trying to prevent childhood obesity and all the subsequent health problems which come with it, is incredibly important for the future health of society. It just made me very sad to see how two little girls were made to feel so ashamed for enjoying a simple childhood pleasure. Surely there has to be a better way of encouraging healthy eating and exercise than that?