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Recipe: Potato and Leek Soup with Bacon and Kale

Potato & Leek Soup with Bacon & Kale

Potato & Leek Soup with Bacon & Kale

I have quite a few Christmas recipes up my sleeve, but lets take a break from the chocolate, the alcohol and the spice, and think about a comfortable Christmas lunch for the days before and after the crazy indulgent one. I am thinking soup, and who doesn’t love soup? Nourishing and soothing, soup is what I reach for when I am ill, or when I need comfort. Oh, and toasted sandwiches too.

I love an elegant simple soup but I like to spike these with some flavour bombs and textural contrast. Bacon and kale sit on top of this creamy dense soup and provide perfect flavour pops. I crisp the kale a little in the bacon fat too. I promise that even the most grey, most grim days will be redeemed with this.

Before I crack on with the recipe, a few things! I was thinking of launching a reader recipe request feature, what do you think? Are there any dishes that you have always been keen to know but didn’t know where to start? Let me know! I am also tweaking the site at the moment, adding new features and changing the design. The current design is temporary while I work on the site features. The changes are long overdue but I am doing it myself, so it is taking a little time. Your feedback here would be immensely valuable if you could take the time. Read more

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Salted Caramel Chocolate Truffles

Salted Caramel Chocolate Truffles

Salted Caramel Chocolate Truffles

I wondered about sharing these photos, I really did. I had to rush them before dashing to the airport, and I risked it, and got up at 6am to make them, because I really wanted to share this recipe with you. It is perfect for Christmas. Stress free and it takes a little care but otherwise, just fine, anyone can make these. Of course life and work intervened, and I was too busy in Germany and too tired at the end of every day to do any decent writing. So, here it is now.

Salted Caramel

Salted Caramel

But then the photos, I can’t help but think they look like I dug up some mushrooms and then coated them in fine soil. I can’t worry about this though, isn’t it much better that you get the recipe? And maybe a little reassuring to see that, yeah, you can make truffles, and they might look a little rough, but hey! They are still delicious. There aren’t enough hours in the day and there is plenty of other bothersome things, I shouldn’t worry myself so much about photos of truffles.

Or should I?

Anyway, lets drive on. You must make these. All you need is a little salted caramel from my recent recipe, some cream, some good dark chocolate, and some cocoa, and then we are all set.
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The Story of the Real Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena at Acetaia Pedroni, Emilia Romagna

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Acetaia Pedroni, near Modena

In a small town outside Modena, there is an acetaia called Aceaia Pedroni. Here they make balsamic vinegar, the real balsamic vinegar, and the Pedroni family have been making it in this location since 1862. Now run by Italo, 80 and his wife Franca (who still cooks in the family taverna), they make balsamic vinegar and some wines, including lambrusco and pignoletto (local sparkling wines).

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Italo, with his vinegars

We all know balsamic vinegar, but few of us know the real stuff. The Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (which it must be called by law) takes a minimum of 12 years to mature through a patient process of evaporation and careful management in a family of at least five barrels, called a battery. This process is protected and governed by law, and the vinegar and acetaia are checked by government representatives.

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The barrel batteries

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar starts with grapes, Trebbiano (a white grape) in Acetaia Pedroni’s case. These are gently crushed, now by machine, but before by children primarily, as it needed to be gentle. The grapes are then cooked and reduced to create a grape must. This must is fermented in batteries of barrels, some of which are ancient, as a balsamic barrel is never thrown out, it is repaired, sometimes by putting a new barrel on the outside but always keeping the old barrel, as this is where flavour is. A battery must have a minimum of five barrels, from small to large, each one increasing in size.

The acetaia, complete with confessional. The land used to be owned by the church but it is now owned by a collective of families.

The acetaia, complete with confessional. The land used to be owned by the church but it is now owned by a collective of families and has been for hundreds of years.

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Salted Caramel (Perfect as a Sauce, on Toast, or Just Eating With a Spoon)

Homemade Salted Caramel

Homemade Salted Caramel (it is actually very smooth, but I was rushing this shot to get to the airport, and poured it hot into the glass, don’t do that!}

Christmas is on its way, there is no longer any denying it. I am woefully under prepared, as is my form. I just paid through the nose for my flight home this year for a start, which eats into every other Christmas budget. I guess all of the other ex pats must be very organised this year. After that, there is not a child in the house washed, as we would say at home. (Calm down dear, I haven’t had any children since my last missive, it merely means there is nothing organised and we can’t even see where organised might be, over the horizon).

However, I have some recipes to share that will help you be a bit more organised for Xmas, and that will make me feel a lot better. A good place to start is a lovely salted caramel, and it is something that every cook should have in their armoury besides. It is so easy, as long as you watch over it, as it will burn as soon as you stop to look at it. I burned my first batch this morning, and I have made it many times. Watch it carefully, and it will behave, I promise.

My salted caramel is very simple, and very quick. It is thick, but pourable, and a perfect Christmas condiment. It is a great gift too, if you make it late enough. It will keep in the fridge for a week or so too.

How to eat it? It is a perfect sauce for most desserts. It is superb on toast for a luxurious Christmas breakfast. Or you know, like nutella, you may just want to eat it with a spoon. Read more

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Your Guide to Wines for Christmas (Chosen by Me, In Partnership with M&S)

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I recently worked with Marks & Spencer to come up with a selection of wines from their range to give you some inspiration for Christmas. From fine wines to eclectic tipples, some of them are bargains, all are priced well. After all, we want more than one bottle to get us in the festive swing, so I like to buy great value wines as well as something special. I suggest some food too, and as we will all be overwhelmed with Christmas by the time it comes around, something a bit different from the usual festive fare in some cases. It goes without saying, but I had complete free range to do whatever I wanted here, and I was quite impressed with the options. Enjoy!

The Novice – For someone who’s just starting to appreciate wine

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You like wine, but you don’t know too much about it (although I expect you probably know more than you think). You probably let others pick from the list when you are out for dinner, but you are hosting Christmas, and so you would like some lovely wine with it. For you, I recommend the Wine for Every Course (Mixed Case of 6) for £85. Here, Marks & Spencer have put in the leg work, and selected some excellent classic wines. I have also selected some individual bottles so that you could put together your own. Perfect for impressing all of those visiting Christmas relatives!

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Starting with a bright champagne aperitif from Louis Chaurey (perfect with the treacle smoked salmon, bresaola and parma ham I have included with this); Pouilly Foumé from Mathilde de Fouvray, a dry elegant white from the Loire Valley. With hints of lemon, it is 100% Sauvignon Blanc, but it will challenge your perceptions on this grape if you are used to the bigger brand alternatives. An elegant rioja follows, full of ripe fruit flavour and a little spice, Maison du Tastelune Burgundy Pinot Noir offers a very smooth fruity and mellow wine. To finish, two sweets, a Sauternes from L’Or du Ciron to enjoy with dessert and a single harvest Royal Palace Colheita port from 2001, to sip by the fire after dinner. Sweet wine is very under rated. I love to finish my meal with one, sometimes choosing it over a dessert.

The Parents – Your parents or your spouse’s parents, this bottle shows you have a little decorum and distinction!

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When I go home at Christmas, I like things to be simple and easy, but good, of course, and a little bit of a treat. For this selection, I moved up the wine list a little and chose more expensive characterful rich red wines, which we had with lovely dry aged steak (simply spiced with some Calabrian chilli and aromatic with sage). These wines are confident, warm and friendly, with a little spice, and they will keep everyone happy.

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From the new world, the Californian Joseph Swan Zinfandel (£30), a bolshy full flavoured wine with some pepper and fruit, perfect with steak. Also the Hay Paddock Harvest Reserve Syrah from New Zealand (£20), another powerful red but not jammy and overly sweet, which you may think lots of new world syrahs (shiraz) are. Moving up the wine list, for a special meal at home is the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Le Vieux Gres (£39), with lots of food, spice and pepper. I think with wine matching we tend to overthink a little, the best wine to drink with your dinner is the one you have (or want to drink). But also, it helps to think of it almost as a sauce.

The Connoisseur – The person who has their own carafe!

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Well, you are a connoisseur, so you don’t need me to tell you what to drink, but I feel that I need to point you in the direction of Marks & Spencer gold medal winning sparkling wines. Effortless Christmas fizz, for a fuzzy morning. You are welcome. I tried two, the first the Oudinet Cuvée Brut NV (at £25 a bottle, a great price for a good champagne).
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Beef Cheek Chilli

Beef Cheek Chilli

anc Beef Cheek Chilli

Beef cheek chilli is a gorgeous dish. Tender, robust and sublimely yielding, once you do the initial work, it basically cooks itself. The best bit? It is a relatively cheap cut of meat, and has a wonderful deep flavour and texture. Winner. You will find yourself buying this instead of steak for dishes like this, I promise you.

When I first started making chilli, I would make it using minced beef, and yes this is fine, but once I started to experiment with other meat cuts like shin and cheek, I could see that a chilli has much more potential than the one that I was making.

Then there are chillies to think about. I used to make beef chilli with whatever chilli I had, then I progressed to smoky punchy chipotle, and then, with an appetite for more and a geeky drive beneath it, I decided to explore different chilli combinations. Then I could see what all the fuss with chilli was about. Layers of chilli playing with the beef, enhancing it, some bringing searing heat, others smoke and others a low rumble. You can make your beef chilli as hot or as mild as you want, and you can make it really interesting. Chilli can be good, and chilli can be superb. Lets talk about a superb one.

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Beef Cheek Chilli (made with just one cheek on this occasion)

Beef cheeks are a terrific cut of meat. Easier to source now than before, as we all become more aware of cheaper flavourful cuts and the importance of nose to tail eating. Ask your butcher to get some in for you if you can’t find them anywhere, that is what I do. They need long slow cooking, and start firm and obstinate, but under that low gentle heat, they yield gently and let the chillies mix in.

I use three chillies for this dish: chipotle, pasilla and ancho. The chipotle brings smoke and a low throaty rumble, the pasilla is hotter but just medium hot and quite fruity and the ancho is medium hot too, with more of a sweet dried fruit flavour. I use a combination of three, with more chipotle. It results in a nice hot chilli, not in a face melting way but it will definitely warm your cockles on a chilly night.

Beef Cheek Chilli

Beef Cheek Chilli

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Chicken Rendang (In Partnership with Le Creuset)

Chicken Rendang Recipe

Chicken Rendang Recipe

This post was sponsored by Le Creuset. They asked me to write a one pot recipe and to choose one of their pots to cook it in. I fancied something spiced,  slow cooked and full of character,  so I settled on a rendang inspired by my travels to Malaysia. I chose a shallow pot that would aid evaporation, caramelisation and intensification of the sauce  (a 30cm shallow casserole, in lovely Marseille blue). 

Le Creuset Pot in  Marseille Blue

Le Creuset 30cm Shallow Casserole in Marseille Blue

I have been to Malaysia twice in the past year, to the tip of it in Langkawi, and the bottom, Sabah, Borneo. I love it there for many reasons. The monkeys (who can resist?), the rainforests and the gorgeous seas, the sandy beaches and the mangrove trees. Best of all is the food, seasoned with punchy aromatics and a little spice. Where India has spices, Malysia has aroma – galangal, lime leaves, lemongrass, lots of fresh turmeric – and slow cooked tender meats, bright fish, with sometimes funky undertones from fermented fish. For this project, I settled on a chicken (ayam) rendang, the perfect food for a chilly November. Read more