4th annual Heraclitean Fire Christmas stuffing post

Because arbitrary traditions are important at Christmas.

As usual, I made a base of sausagemeat, celery, onion and breadcrumbs, and also as usual half of it is chestnut stuffing. But this year’s second, ad-libbed recipe has toasted almonds and dried apricots and peaches soaked in amaretto.

Now I ought to get on with roasting the ham that has been simmering away the whole time. Happy midwinter festival, everyone.

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Gooseberry liqueur, again

Just a quick update on the gooseberry liqueur I mentioned the other day. I have strained out the fruit and bottled the liqueur.

As you can see, it’s a very pale yellow; if anything it’s just slightly greener than it looks in this picture. And it’s very nice — gooseberry tasting, in fact — though it’s definitely better served cold.

I also now have a bowl full of vodka-soaked gooseberries in the fridge.

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Gooseberry liqueur

Much as I like cooked gooseberries, I was trying to think what I could do with some gooseberries that would keep that sharpness and fragrantness that they have when they’re raw. So I thought I’d try making gooseberry liqueur. I couldn’t actually find any recipes for it, but the basic principle of making fruit liqueur seems pretty straightforward, so I topped and tailed the berries, pricked them all over with a fork, and put them in a jar with a load of sugar and vodka.*

I’m going to leave them to soak for four or five weeks in a cool dark place, strain off the liquid into a bottle and then possibly leave it a little longer to mature. My ideal result would be a kind of gooseberry version of limoncello: sharp and flavoursome. But I’m just making it up as I go along, so I’ll let you know how it turns out in a few weeks.

* Just for my own benefit if I want to remember the quantities later: 800g of gooseberries, 300g of sugar and about 3/4 of a bottle of Stoli.

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Uncomplicated pleasures

Watching Chelsea get knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley, followed by a big plate of ribs, greens and Hoppin’ John.

My version of soul food wouldn’t pass the Southern Grandmother Authenticity Test, btw, but it was pretty tasty though I do say so myself.

Oven-dried tomatoes

Because the tomatoes at this time of the year are so watery and tasteless, I thought I’d try this trick to perk them up a bit.

oven-dried tomatoes, originally uploaded by Harry R.

The recipe is based on one from Madhur Jaffrey. The tomatoes are halved, de-seeded, sprinkled with salt, pepper, olive oil, garlic, chilli and fresh thyme, then cooked in the oven at 70C for about 7 hours. They have an intense, tomato-y flavour but still have a bit of squish to them: they’re not as chewy as sun-dried tomatoes usually are.

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Welsh rarebit

Cheese on toast is about my favourite comfort food, and today I had the urge to make Welsh rarebit [i.e. Welsh rabbit]. I couldn’t remember exactly what was in it, except that it’s a tarted-up version of cheese on toast. When I found a recipe for it I wasn’t terribly excited, though: it didn’t seem like the extra fuss would be justified by the result. But I made it anyway, and it was nice. The version I made was like this:

Toast four slices of bread on one side under the grill.

In a saucepan, melt together 8oz (220g) of grated cheddar, 1oz of butter, 1 tbsp of English mustard, 4 tbsp of brown ale, a dash of Tabasco and some black pepper.

Put the cheese mixture on the untoasted side of the bread and grill until brown and bubbling.

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Puy & pea soup

I cooked a ham over Christmas so I had ham stock in the freezer; which means pea soup. But I didn’t have many peas in the freezer so I added some Puy lentils (those little tiny green French ones). And it was very nice. The earthiness of the lentils and the freshness of the peas worked well together.

Puy & pea soup

I chopped up a potato and an onion and sweated them down for a bit, then added the ham stock, brought it up to the boil, added the lentils and simmered them for about 40 minutes. Then I added some frozen peas, simmered it for another 5 or 10 minutes, and blitzed it with a blender. It will probably be improved with a little seasoning, but bear in mind if you’re using home-made ham stock it may be a bit salty already.

I would have added some chunks of ham if I’d had any left, but it didn’t need them. And if you were being really perfectionist for some reason—like the Queen coming to dinner—you could pass the soup through a sieve before serving; but again, it was fine as it was.

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Ho Ho Ho!

Decapitated Father Christmas

The robust London sense of humour was on display at Borough market last week, courtesy of the bloke selling Christmas trees.

Also of interest at the market, some fine-looking fungi for sale. I have no idea what puffballs are like to eat—mushroomy, probably—but they look impressive.

puffballs for sale at Borough Market

These pictures are hosted on my Flickr account. And it seems like an apt moment to plug my photoblog Clouded Drab again, since the photo on the front page at the moment was also taken at Borough Market.


Because there’s nothing more restful than a West Country accent. From the British Library collections, listen to a recording from 1956 of Fred Bryant, a retired farmworker from Stogumber in Somerset, talking about making cider.


The picture is from the V&A: Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, ‘Apple’ (Malus pumila Millervar), watercolour, 1568-1572.

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Simon and Garfunkel sausage stew

I was picking a few herbs to put in a stew earlier and realised I’d picked parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Yes, I do know that the song is a traditional one, but it’s completely associated with S&G in my head. Despite the fact that they pronounce Scarborough with an ‘o’ on the end.

The stew was nice, either way. I sweated down some shallots, half an onion, a stick of celery, a tomato, a couple of cloves of garlic and a green chilli in olive oil and butter with some of the herbs. In a separate pan I fried off some smoked pancetta, then some free-range rare breed pork sausages then some mushrooms. I combined it all in a casserole and deglazed the frying pan into the casserole with a bit of water; then added a rinsed-off tin of borlotti beans, some fresh chicken stock and some more herbs, brought it to the boil and put it in the oven at 160C for about an hour and ten minutes, the last ten minutes with the lid off.

Sausage casserole isn’t a dish that has very positive associations for me. It reminds me of student cooking, and students are, after all, cheap and don’t know what they’re doing. And, at least in my day, we all seemed to drown everything in tinned tomatoes.

But you learn as you get better at cooking is that for most of these dishes which seem naff or old-fashioned, it’s not the fault of the concept, it’s the execution. Use good ingredients, treat them well, and the result can be delicious.

The recipe that really brought this home for me was meatloaf. I remember on the sitcom Roseanne, she was always cooking meatloaf for her family, and that was exactly the image I had of it: blue-collar utility food. Convenient, cheap and easy; one step up from a TV dinner. And then, in a book of Italian cooking, I found a recipe for something called polpettone; a rich, mouth-watering concoction of beef, chopped salami, cheese, onion, peppers, herbs, garlic, but a meatloaf by any other name. And as American as it seems now, it seems plausible that meatloaf actually is polpettone, taken across by Italian immigrants and naturalised, just as the equally American barbecue ribs are Chinese. That meatloaf is in fact as American as apple pie.

Aside from displaying the various facets of my food snobbery, I do have a broader point: there is no excuse for boring food. The whole craft of cooking is to make food interesting. Most ingredients are fairly dull on their own: it’s the cook’s job to enhance the flavour that’s there and add more favours as necessary. Things like sausage casserole, fish pie, beef stew, and meatloaf aren’t inherently bland: they’re only bland if they’re made that way.

Barbecue weather and frozen breakfast

It’s a measure of how thoroughly miserable the weather has been that I just used the barbecue for the first time this year. But today it feels like summer.

blue sky

I just did some lamb, tomato salad and potato salad. The lamb was marinated in olive oil, garlic, lemon and oregano for that Greek flavour. I came up with what seemed like quite a cunning trick for the salads, though: I boiled some Anya potatoes, drained the pan and left them sitting for a while in a French dressing (olive oil, wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, honey, salt and pepper). Then I poured that vinaigrette off the potatoes to use in the tomato salad, and chopped the potatoes and mixed them with mayonnaise and a bit of parsley. That way the potatoes absorbed some of the flavour of the dressing, and the dressing got some extra savoury flavour from the potatoes. I don’t know how much difference it made to the tomato salad; it was certainly tasty, but you can’t go far wrong with tomatoes, shallot, fresh basil and some French dressing. The potatoes were really good though.

Then I made some Frozen Breakfast ice cream, which would be a bit more radical if my typical breakfast was eggs, bacon, chips and beans. Or even toast and marmalade. But my current breakfast of choice is yoghurt, oats and honey; I put that in an ice cream maker and it was yummy. The freezing seems to bring out the sourness of the yoghurt, which I quite like. I toasted the oats a bit first in a dry frying pan to add a bit more flavour (which I don’t do at breakfast time), but I don’t think it was strictly necessary.

I suppose you could call it frozen yoghurt instead of ice cream, but that seems desperately 1980s to me. And it sounds a bit joyless and health-foody, which wasn’t the point at all. I certainly didn’t use low-fat yoghurt, which I think is the devil’s work.

Mmm. Toast and marmalade ice-cream. Now that’s an intriguing idea. Made with lightly toasted brioche, maybe.

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Kolokithokeftedes (sort of)

This recipe is my attempt to reconstruct a dish I had in Crete. I don’t know if it would pass the Greek grandmother test, but it’s probably close enough that she’d recognise what it was attempting.

Kolokithokeftedes [courgette balls/fritters/croquettes]

4 courgettes (zucchini)
3 spring onions (scallions), including most of the green bit
a clove of garlic
fresh dill
fresh mint
100g feta cheese

& plain flour and olive oil

Grate the courgettes, salt them, and leave in a colander for half an hour. Then squeeze out as much of the juice as possible.

Crush the garlic, chop the onion, herbs and feta, and mix it all together with the courgette. Season it (though remember the feta is quite salty). Form this mixture into little patties, flour them and fry them in olive oil. You can also just eat the raw mixture by the spoonful; it would make a nice salad in its own right.

A couple of notes: I pan-fried them in quite a couple of millimetres of oil; you could probably deep-fry them if you prefer. Handle them carefully and don’t poke them around too much, because there’s not much in the mixture to bind it together. Make sure there’s enough flour on them, because it helps them colour up and hold together. And make sure the oil is reasonably hot; you want the outside browned but the inside still green and fresh-tasting.

These were good, and certainly similar to the ones I had in Crete, though not quite the same, somehow. If I was going to change one thing I might put in marginally less feta, to let the green flavours come through better.

Hania, still.

Well, I’ve been to the Hania Archeological Museum, the Cretan Folklore Museum and the Byzantine Museum this morning, so I’m all cultured up good. The Archeology is not doubt a pale shadow of what iwould have seen if the Heraklion museum had been open, but they had some nice stuff. The Folklore Museum was probably the most fun; certainly the most colourful, since Cretan textiles are very flamboyant.  They taken a little house and absolutely packed it with tools, costume, knick-knacks; every conceivable aspect of everyday life from the nuptial bed to the threshing yard. Some of these, like the threshing yard, and illustrated with little models which have exactly the folk-art quality to go with everything else.

This afternoon I think I’ll do some flower ID-ing as preparation for the bio blitz, and take a few pictures.

I had some delicious kolokithokeftedes yesterday; the menu described them as ‘zucchini croquettes’ which didn’t sound that exciting, but they were made of grated courgette, cheese, dill and mint, maybe some onion, and they were delicious. Then I had some kind of slow-cooked baby goat which was also nice but didn’t excite me as much as the keftedes.

I was slightly disappointed in  Heraklion to see that all the trendier-looking cafes advertised themselves as espresso places. I mean America and the UK needed the Starbucks revolution because our coffee was crap, but Greek coffee is delicious. I hope it’s not just becoming an old man’s drink.

Thanks to the very helpful municipal tourist office I have a couple of days birding planned – to the Aghi Triada monastery on Aktrotiri and Agia Lake. So that’s good; I was starting to worry about how much actual birding I would be able to do.

The Incredible Hulk smoothie

Let me just make it clear, in case any of the lawyers from Marvel Comics (soft drinks division) should happen to be watching: by using the phrase ‘Incredible Hulk’, I’m not claiming that Marvel Comics endorse, recognise, or know of the existence of, this drink. Or indeed that it gives you a short temper or superhuman strength.

But you have to admit, it’s certainly green:

The flesh of a small pineapple and three kiwi fruit chucked in a blender, since you ask.

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Doublehard Goans

I made ‘rechad’ spice paste today. It’s a recipe from Goa; Goa was a Portuguese colony, and the name is apparently from the Portuguese recheado, ‘to stuff’, because the Goans use it to stuff fish*. I used some of it tonight to make a particularly good Goan seafood curry called ambot tik which uses the paste with some tamarind to make a hot, fragrant, sour dish. I got both recipes from Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India. Her ambot tik recipe uses squid; I made it with prawns today.

I’ve made the paste a few times before, but I noticed something today. Her recipe calls for ‘about 45’ dried chillies, and even the first time I made it I thought that seemed a lot and toned it down to about 15. That still makes something with a kick to it, and my ambot tik tonight seemed quite hot enough to me. But actually the recipe calls for ‘1oz of dried chillies (about 45)’. She’s clearly using chillies which are bigger and heavier than mine – I’ve got the little tiddly ones, and 45 of them barely weigh enough to register on the scales. I weighed out an ounce, and I reckon my paste is about one-twentieth as fiery as her recipe suggests.

Even allowing for variable hotness in the chillies, all I can say is: OMG. Those Goans are like superheroes with lips and tongues and throats and indeed whole digestive tracts of steel.

*Similarly, ‘vindaloo’ is derived from ‘vin d’alho’ because it’s derived from a Portuguese dish made with wine and garlic.

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Food with a face

BBC News has the story of a hunter who shot a duck, and took it home and put in the fridge thinking it was dead. According to the BBC:

The plucky duck was taken first to a local animal hospital, and then to an animal sanctuary for more specialised treatment. A veterinarian at the sanctuary said he thinks the duck will live, but will probably never be well enough to be released into the wild.

There’s something odd about taking a duck to the animal hospital when you yourself were the one who went out and intentionally shot it. Presumably the hunter knows how to wring a bird’s neck? Why not just put the poor maimed bird out of its misery and then eat it?

‘Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring’

I’m just reading a book by Alice Thomas Ellis called Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring: A Gallimaufry. It’s a book about the history of food and it’s both very entertaining and extremely annoying. Annoying because it is indeed a gallimaufry (‘a confused jumble or medley of things’). The book is loosely organised into themed chapters, but within the chapters she cheerfully hops from topic to topic and period to period, often without so much as a paragraph break to mark an abrupt change of tack. The content is interesting enough to keep me reading, though. The emphasis is on English food from the 19th and early 20th century; more, I think as a reflection of Ellis’s collection of old books than for any other reason.

An example of the kind of thing I’ve been finding interesting. In the chapter about food for infants and invalids (the Victorians seem to have treated children as effectively invalids for several years) there’s some stuff about beef tea. I’ve seen references to beef tea in books but always assumed it was either like a consommé or broth, or something like Bovril (a beef concentrate sold in jars you can make into a hot drink). But no. Beef tea was made by taking finely minced beef and soaking it in warm water for a couple of hours. You can heat it, but allowing it to boil destroys the goodness. Obviously. One writer suggested serving it in a ruby-colored glass because, presumably, even Victorians found something slightly off-putting in a glass of warm, bloody water. And if you find that a bit icky, how about a drink for invalids called ‘liver cocktail’: half-cooked, sieved liver mixed with the juice of an orange and lemon and a pinch of sugar.

Much of the book is less repulsive, fortunatley, since just the idea of the liver cocktail makes me feel ill.

Stuffing, woodpeckers and James Brown

Well, both stuffings were good. The (more experimental) ginger one tasted great, though a little unexpected in an otherwise very traditional Christmas meal.

The local Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming this morning. They are always a very early sign of spring, but December still seems freaky. It’s been a weird old winter, weatherwise, and my woodpeckers are hardly the only sign of it. The newspapers have been going through one of their periodic phases of interest in climate change as a result, but I daresay they’ll move on to something else soon enough, and no-one’s behaviour will have changed much.

The other curious nature observation of the week was a heron in the garden with a pair of crows taking turns to sidle up behind it and try to tweak its tail feathers. Apparently for no reason other than a bit of fun.

The death of James Brown was sad news to wake to on Christmas morning. I listen to a variety of music – pop, soul, reggae, hip-hop, soukous, techno – but what it all has in common is that it has a bit of a groove to it. So as you can imagine, James Brown, the most sampled man in the world, has an important place in my personal musical pantheon. One of the great artists and great entertainers of the twentieth century. From a groove point of view, perhaps the greatest of them all.

2nd annual Heraclitean Fire Christmas stuffing post

I’ve been making stuffing for Christmas lunch today. So since it’s practically traditional (i.e. I did it last year), here’s what I’ve made: some chestnut and prune stuffing and some ginger and almond. Both are loosely inspired by reipces I’ve seen somewhere but with a bit of tweaking by me. Both are made with a base of sausagemeat, onion, celery, breadcrumbs and egg.

The chestnut and prune was made with the addition of the liver from the turkey, chestnuts, prunes, brandy, and fresh parsley and thyme.

For the other, I added crystallised stem ginger, toasted flaked almonds, some lemon zest, mixed spice and Cointreau.

I’ll report back on how they are to eat. Happy Christmas, everyone.

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American oenophilia

Travelling in the Galapagos and Ecuador, obviously a large proportion of my shipmates and lodgemates were from the US. While I’m on the subject of transAtlantic foodiness: when did Americans all become such wine-buffs? I appreciate that the section of American society that turns up on Galapagos cruises and in Ecuadorian ecolodges is a fairly narrow one, but I still found it rather striking. None of them were capable of just quickly ordering a bottle of something; I haven’t heard so many discussions about grape varieties for years. And when the wine did come, they all had to express opinions about what it tasted like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of a nice glass of wine. I’d just rather drink it than talk about it.

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More ethnic food slurs

I was watching Antiques Roadshow at the weekend and some chap brought in an C18th* English silver sauce boat. The expert got excited because it was a rare early example; apparently before that point English food rarely had sauces but it was about then that some people started employing French cooks.

So far, reasonable enough and entirely plausible. But his explanation for why it should be so was that English ingredients were so good that they could be served plain and unadorned, whereas the French had developed a cuisine based around rich sauces in order to disguise the poor quality of the food. I’ve also heard almost exactly the same explanation for the heavy use of spices in Indian food and (English!) Tudor food: to disguise the flavour of meat that might have gone bad without refrigeration.

The trouble is, it’s obviously patronising crap. Bending over backwards to be fair: yes, with really good quality ingredients you can afford to just present them simply, and it’s a mistake to mess about with them too much. And yes, Britain has some very good quality basic ingredients; the rain makes it a great place to produce lamb, beef and dairy products, there’s some excellent seafood and good game, and some great fruit and veg like apples and asparagus and so on. For some of these products, the best quality stuff may have been better than the French equivalent.

But in a country where most people were peasants who were having a good year if they didn’t go hungry, I just don’t believe that the tiny elite who could afford to eat rich sauces and elaborate food were eating bad quality ingredients. That applies to C18th France, Tudor England and Mughal India. And with the Tudor refrigeration argument, I have to point out that most meat needs to be hung for a while – for several weeks, in the case of beef – to improve the flavour. It doesn’t exactly turn putrescent overnight, even without a refrigerator. The Indian climate presumably accelerates decay, but I still don’t believe that obtaining fresh meat was a problem for those with money. Conversely, however good the best British beef is, there must have been plenty of people in England eating all the crappy stuff that the aristos rejected.

It’s such a bizarre bit of unthinking snobbery to suggest that, just because British food is traditionally plain, anyone who cooks something more elaborate must have something to hide. It’s like suggesting that the Italians cook pizza to disguise the poor quality of their bread. A few decades ago, when few British people had any experience of all that fancy foreign muck, I can imagine the argument seemed plausible. But now we all eat Indian and Thai and Chinese and French and Italian food by choice, you’d think it would have become obvious that people like the flavour of spices and that people like rich sauces. These things don’t need any special justification.

I know I’m probably spending too much time on a trivial point, but I’m always baffled when I hear people confidently repeat arguments that must surely ring false even somewhere in their own heads.


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British food

I’m always somewhat irritated when someone from The Land of Industrial Food is rude about British cooking. If it comes from one of the great foody cultures (the Italians, the French, the Indians, the Japanese…) I’m willing to admit they’re talking from a position of strength. But the country of processed cheese, marshmallow fluff, and beer brewed with rice? Not so much.

That gripe aside, the blog is worth reading.

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