Szechuan peppercorns

Szechuan chicken wings

I’ve been shopping for spices again, but this time I think I went a little overboard. When I ordered 1kg of Szechuan peppercorns and 500g of curry leaves, I thought I’d have enough to keep me going for a while, but It turns out that spices are lighter than I thought. A lot lighter than I thought. And as a result, I now have a bag of curry leaves the size of a decent pillow and enough Szechuan peppercorns to last me and everyone I have ever met for at least a decade.

Yep – I’m really not sure what I’m going to do with those leaves, but if you’d like some let me know and I’ll have them shipped to you… 


Curry leaves

Szechuan peppercorns though – they are unbelievably  good. So good in fact that I’m annoyed it’s taken me so long to discover them for myself. They’ve always been there of course – providing the basis for that incredible mouth-numbing/tingling feeling you get with a really beautiful extra spicy szechuan pork and noodle soup (go to the New China restaurant on Gerard street if you haven’t experienced it. You can hardly see the soup for the chillies, I promise you won’t forget it).

Anyway, the good news is that you can create that same mouth numbing feeling at home by introducing a generous heap of ground szechuan peppercorns (along with loads of chilli, garlic and ginger) to your wok as you cook. You really must try it.

Chicken wings with Szechaun pepper

These are perfect for a sunday afternoon hangover. Hot, crispy, oily and spicy.

Get your wok nice and hot and pour in a generous amount of cooking oil (I use rapeseed oil). When it’s smoking, add your chicken wings (they should be half covered in the oil) and cook them through on all sides until golden brown.

In the meantime, roughly chop a large thumb of ginger and about 10 cloves of garlic, a red chilli and a few spring onions.

When the chicken wings are cooked, drain off the oil and throw in the chilli, garlic and ginger with the wings, along with a heaped tablespoon of ground szechuan peppercorns plenty of sea salt (I know that’s probably wrong but it really works) and a small tablespoon of Chiu Chow chilli oil.

Toss it all together in the wok for a couple of minutes until the garlic and ginger start to crisp up a little and then turn it all out into a bowl and throw in the spring onions.

That’s it – all done in less than ten minutes, spicy as hell and the most exciting thing you’ll have put in your mouth for months. And make sure you eat all the garlic and ginger bits.

(and there they are, the little beauties – in the jar on the right next to the turmeric)

Szechuan peppercorns

Chocolate tart

Chocolate Tart

6am. Sunday morning. Trying to psych myself up for a toe-curling run around the freezing fields of north north London and it occurs to me how my attitude towards running has changed since childhood. In recent years I’ve found that getting outside in shorts and trainers to be not only extremely physically rewarding, but also a fantastic way to establish the lay of the land when away from home. And it’s so good for the mind too – as long as you can reach escape velocity from the warmth of your kitchen and Country File repeats on BBC2.

Stark contrast then, from when we were fifteen and an early morning run was universally seen as the most harrowing punishment the school could inflict upon an unruly child. I expect though, that it was the menacing pack of power-crazed sixth formers screaming in our ears and forcing us to smash through the icy puddles and do press ups into them that turned an otherwise enjoyable cross country jog into something far less appealing. Interesting that people now pay good money for the same treatment every Sunday morning on Hampstead Heath.

Anyway, the lead up to the run generally starts with a strong cup of coffee and today, the bonus of a slice of last night’s chocolate tart. This one is really simple and while it might not sound very exciting, it’s a classic, and it’s really really good.

Chocolate Tart

Start by making a rich shortcrust pastry. I use James Martin’s recipe – 200g plain flour, 2 tbsp icing sugar and a small pinch of salt rubbed into 100g of cold cubed butter. Then add a beaten egg with a splash of lemon juice and water. Gently pull it all together into a ball and pop it in the fridge for 30 mins to cool and rest.

When it’s rested, roll it out thinly (thinner than a normal tart – you want the crust to be fine and crunchy) and place it in a well buttered loose bottomed tart tin. Prick the pastry all over with a fork and blind bake in the oven at 200c, covered with parchment and filled with baking beans. After about 15 minutes, remove the parchment and continue baking, up to almost 10 minutes. You’re not baking it any more after this, so you want to ensure it’s golden brown. Keep a close eye as you have to get this just right. Underdone and your tart case will be soft. Overdone and it will taste bitter. You do want a crunch though – it’s what works so well contrasted against the creamy filling.

For the filling, take 250g of good dark chocolate, 70g of butter, 4 large tablespoons of honey, a big glug of cognac and melt them all together in a bowl placed over a pan of boiling water. Once melted, gently mix in 300ml of Creme Fraiche and pour the lot into the tart case. Leave it to set and serve it with a jug of double cream.

It’s really good with a glass of Sauternes (obviously).


Soup. Simple.

Lentil soup

We’re all still reeling from one of the strangest days in politics seen for some time. Possibly the most unpopular man in recent history has just taken power and we’re quietly scratching our heads and wondering what the next four years will hold for us all. And if the first White House press conference held by his press secretary is anything to go by, we’re heading into strange days. It’s now fairly clear that propaganda and misinformation will form the backbone of this next administration – I wonder how long before he attempts to bring in measures to gag the media? I wonder what it would take for him to be able to do it? I wonder if he has the means to exploit global events that will undoubtably unfold over the coming years in order to slowly put enough fear into the the minds of his people that they will voluntarily lay down and allow him to slowly, piece by piece take away their basic rights and their freedom of speech? He clearly doesn’t have the brains to do it, but I suspect the people he surrounds himself will. It’s scary.

Meanwhile, in Gentlemans Row, we’re making soup for lunch – and it’s a good one – all doable with a few basic ingredients that you have to hand.

Mixed lentil soup

Roughly chop an onion, a couple of carrots and a few celery sticks and fry them gently in a large saucepan with lots of butter and a little olive oil. When they have softened, add a handful of spices (I went for cumin, black pepper, dried chilli and salt), boiling water, a few sprigs of thyme, some fresh coriander stalks and some chicken stock. Then add a load of lentils – I used a mix of split red lentils and puy lentils. Let it all simmer away for about 20 mins and once it’s ready, blend it until rich and smooth. When serving, add a large dollup of yoghurt and a handful of finely chopped coriander.

It’s best eaten with a loaf of freshly baked bread. This Parmesan, chilli and olive bread worked pretty well…

Parmesan chilli and olive bread


Soufflé without the suffering

Smoked haddock and Gruyere

Too much fuss is made about the effort and precision required to make a souffle. So I can understand a degree of anxiety when faced with the idea of creating something not just tasty, but also visually perfect, which is why I focus on the former and pretty much ignore the latter (see the photo for evidence). And while these souffles may not look exactly like souffles, they do taste like souffles. and this one tastes amazing. I kind of ripped it off from Dean Street Townhouse, who’s smoked haddock souffle is so good, I’m unable to order anything else when I go there. In fact, by finally doing this at home myself, I’ve managed to free myself from their shackles and I will at last be able to move on and order something else next time I’m there (which isn’t likely to be soon given we’ve moved from Soho to Kings Cross, where I will now no doubt find a new hangout that offers something equally alluring to entrap me once again. It’s never ending).

So here goes. The only real trick is that once you start whisking the egg whites, you should try to get things put together and into the oven fairly quickly. You don’t want to be farting around for too long or your souffles will suffer. Apart from that, it really is very simple. Oh and feel free to muck about with the quantities depending on how fishy/cheesy/airy you want yours. I’m all about strong flavours as you may have noticed.

Smoked haddock and gruyere souffle (with two missing accents)
Start with about 200ml of double cream in a small pan and into it place a small fillet of really good undyed smoked haddock, probably only about 150g or so. Bring the cream to the boil, turn down and simmer for just a couple minutes and then leave to cool. When it has cooled, flake the haddock finely between your fingers. Lick your fingers, enjoy and then wash your hands. Grate in some nutmeg and finely chop a handful of dill and pop that in too.

In the meantime, make a small quantity of bechamel. Take about 20g of butter, melt it in a small saucepan, add about 20g of plain flour and mix together on the heat. Now take about 200ml of whole milk and add it very slowly, a little at a time, slowly loosening the roux until you have a silky smooth bechamel which you need to cook for a couple of minutes on a low heat. At this point, you should no longer be able to taste the four in the sauce. Season with a little salt and plenty of pepper. Separate 4 medium sized organic eggs and once the bechamel has cooled a little, whisk in the egg yolks.

Grate about 100g of gruyere (or parmesan) finely into a bowl and take 4-5 ramekins (depending on their size – you can decide if you want lots of small ones or one big one, or something in between for that matter – just use what you have), butter them liberally and then line them with some of the grated cheese so that it forms a light coating around each the ramekins. Take the remainder of the cheese, the bechamel, the creamy haddock and mix them all together in a large bowl.

Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks and fold them gently into the creamy, fishy, cheesy mixture. Fill the ramekins pretty much to the top and place them in a bain marie (the water should be boiling hot) and into the oven at 190c for about 8-10 minutes (longer if you’re doing on big one)

Take them out and serve immediately with a peppery green salad and crusty bread. Don’t worry if they’re a little runny in the middle – they’re better that way. Dean Street Townhouse serve them with a rich cheese sauce, which is also amazing – I’ll try that next time and add to this post it if I manage to make it to the keyboard afterwards.

And you have any souffles left, cover them and put them in the fridge for another day – as long as you didn’t overcook them, they’ll do really well second time around as twice baked souffles…

Poached pears and a crappy old year


Poached pears

Well that was a shitty 12 months wasn’t it? Although as a few people have already pointed out, calling it the worst year ever might be slightly overdoing it (google 1347 and black death for a good example of a marginally crappier year). It certainly did mark a low point for political intelligence and maturity though – it’s hard to think of a time when would-be leaders could have so little integrity and such scant empathy towards the people they seek to represent. In fact 2016 should go down in history as the year when politics regressed to the playground (hopefully very briefly) and we the masses paid the price for our collective lack of judgement and our gullibility in the face of a handful of deeply unscrupulous people and their utterly selfish motivations.

There were other far more important events that made 2016 a tough year, but as is often the case, these events also had positive consequences. This is the year that brought my sisters and I closer together than we have been for many years – something that I hope we will now maintain for good. And as I look back on this year, it occurs to me that it’s far too easy to glide through life disconnected to those people who are most important. So I for one will be spending less of 2017 on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and more time with my kids, my sisters and my parents (even if much of that time will be spent via FaceTime) – they are after all, far more important than photos of New York and food (that said, I will also, yet again, try to start writing in here far more regularly)

So let’s start with a new recipe that I tried out when I was with my sisters in Vancouver – it’s far sexier than it sounds and it’s something I’d wanted to do for a while…

Pears poached in red wine
Pick six equally sized pears (I used conference pears) preferably still with the stalks. Peel the pears carefully, without removing the stalks and place them in a saucepan sized such that they just fit, nice and snugly. Add a bottle of good red wine to the saucepan along with 200g of golden caster sugar, a cinnamon stick, a couple of star anise and maybe even a couple of cloves. If you got the size of the saucepan right, the wine should cover the pears fully (if not, you can top up with a little water). Bring the whole thing to the boil and then simmer very, very gently with the lid on for about 30-40 minutes or until the pears a soft to the touch. You can then let the pears cool in the mixture until half an hour before you’re ready to serve. At this point, remove the pears from the wine mixture and place them on a serving plate, then reheat the liquor until it reduces by at least half, forming a rich sweet sauce. Pour the sauce over the pears just before you serve them. They’re perfect served with a really good vanilla ice cream. Unexpectedly good.




Garlic overdrive


Am I the only person who thinks that the automated announcer at Heathrow T5 is – and I choose my words carefully here – demented?
“Stand clear of de doors” she implores, in a monotone that makes even Marvin the paranoid android sound cheery. And this, the first taste of a British accent that our overseas visitors get to experience when they arrive? Is it really a fair representation of how anyone in our country sounds? I’m pretty sure that I have never met anyone in real life who speaks in this way. My mate Yorick suggests that she’s Dutch (Yorick is also Dutch, but he seems to have a basic ability to annunciate, so I’m unconvinced). Can we please have a re-record and choose someone a little more cheery (and who can pronounce the word “the” properly?) Really, they can be from anywhere – Blackpool, Glasgow, Scunthorpe, Penzance, Leigh-on-Sea – anywhere just as long as they can spit a sentence out in a way which is representative of at least one small corner of our fair island.
In the meantime, as we wait impatiently for this ghoulish voice to be replaced, we may as well stick something in our mouths that will make us wince and smile all at the same time – so here come two dishes that will make you feel like you’ve been punched in the face with a big fat bulb of garlic. In a good way.

We used to do this all the time in France and it then just disappeared from memory until I was at my sister’s a few weeks ago, so here it is again…
There are loads of ways of doing it, and I’m sure this isn’t the classic recipe, but it turned out pretty well in the end.
Finely chop all the following things and put them into a blender: a little tin of anchovies, a handful of black olives (don’t forget to remove the pits. And don’t buy pitted olives), a few small tomatoes, a few cloves of garlic, a handful of basil, plenty of salt and pepper and then lots of good olive oil and the juice of half a lemon. Blend it for a little while so that everything is chopped finely, but still has some basic form. Taste it and then add more of any of the above ingredients to your taste. The flavours should be very potent as you only serve this in small bites.
Now take a (proper french) baguette – not one of those flabby engligh ones from the supermarket – you need a skinny one for this. In fact, a ficelle, if you can get it would be best here, or a baguette a l’ancien. I know I’m starting to sound like a wanker here, but it will help, and I know you can get all of these things at any decent waitrose/wholefoods or whatever. Cut the loaf into thin slices and bake in the oven with a dab of olive oil to make little toasts.
Spread the anchoiade thickly on the toasts and you’re there.
Garlic overdrive part one complete – now for the killer…

Start by making your mayonnaise (don’t even think of buying it) – it takes less than a few minutes: stick two egg yolks, a sprinkle of sea salt, a decent amount of pepper, a tablespoon of dijon mustard and a good splash of white wine vinegar into a mixer/blender. Set if off at high speed and then start to pour your oil into the mixer very slowly – i tend to use a mix of sunflower oil and rapeseed oil. Don’t use just olive oil – it’s not right for this sort of thing – you don’t want the flavour of the oil to take over (that’s the garlic’s job). Keep pouring in the oil slowly and you’ll see the mix start to emulsify and lose some of its colour (although hopefully not all of it – that’s one of the best things about your own mayonnaise – it doesn’t have that sickly pale hue that we’ve all had to become accustomed to). Stop the mixer once you have a decent consistency (you’ll probably have used about 300ml or so). Have a quick taste – if it still has an eggy twang to it, you probably need a little more vinegar or salt, and you maybe need to mix it a little longer also. Anyway – you’ll know when it’s right.
And that’s your basic mayonnaise done.
I often use grainy mustard to give it texture, and you can add all sorts of herbs too if you like – tarragon is really good. You can also substitute some of the vinegar for lemon juice if you fancy. Have a play. Go crazy.

Now take half a bulb of garlic. Yep, half a bulb. Crush each clove with the back of a heavy knife, peel off the skin, chop very finely and add to the mayonnaise. And add more salt too. It should burn your tongue when you taste it. If it doesn’t, add more garlic. If you think you added too much garlic, you’re wrong (and you’re a pussy).

This was perfect accompanied by my Nic’s slow roast shoulder of lamb – see pic.
(and yes, the lamb accompanied the Aioli, which was of course the main event…)

Why the world gave us truffles

I haven’t had many relationships in my life and as a consequence, I’ve had few break ups. That said, apart from one of them, they all have one thing in common: a single moment when something changes from being ever-present to being non-existent. Few things in life are as abrupt or fundamental in how they alter your day to day existence (apart from those events far too sombre to cover on this blog).

It’s something I suspect none of us are really well equipped to deal with – shifting from having someone with whom you conduct a steady stream of communication with about your every day experiences and aspirations, to nothing. And the speed with which this change occurs is breathtaking – all it takes is a single conversation. Rather odd isn”t it?

Anyway, the good news is that the world is an expert in balancing life’s ups and downs, and that’s almost certainly the reason it gave us truffles, possibly the most exciting little cat-turd shaped foodstuff known to humanity. And so it was that on Christmas eve eve, I was in a department store in London looking for a gift for my father when I happened upon a counter selling Italian white alba truffles. I had to have one. And what better excuse than cooking dinner for my family on Christmas eve. So here it is – fifty quid’s worth of the most beautiful smelling ingredient you will ever use:


And here’s (in my opinion) the best way to cook it:

White Alba Truffle with Linguine

This could not be easier. And that’s the point. When you have something as special as this, you must keep it as simple as possible to ensure maximum enjoyment of its unique flavour.
(It will serve 6 people as a starter).

Take a pack of linguine and put it in a large pan of salted boiling water with a little olive oil. Then take another small pan and in it, very gently heat a finely chopped clove of garlic with lots of olive oil (the best you can get your hands on), a big knob of butter and about a fifth of the truffle, sliced very thinly and broken up into the pan, infusing the flavours into the oil. Now finely grate a couple of handfuls of parmesan (not too much – you don’t want it overpowering the truffle) and chop a handful of flat leaf parsley – set them aside for now.

Once the linguine is perfectly cooked, throw it into a warmed bowl, add the heated oil mixture, season with a little salt (not too much as you have the saltiness of the parmesan) and plenty of pepper. Add more oil if required and the chopped parsley then gently mix it all together. Finally throw over the parmesan and shave the rest of the truffle on the top of the pasta, finishing with a last splash of olive oil.

Serve it up and receive great praise. I think this is the most exciting meal I have cooked in years…

Truffles and Linguine


When music fails to be the food of love…(and an onion tart)

I’ve been re-listening to The Magic Numbers debut album and it’s far better than I remember it being. It’s an album that I once owned on CD when I was working at EMI, but one that I must have lost – I expect it must have been a casualty of my divorce because it’s nowhere to be seen now.

And it makes me wonder – just how much money does the music industry make out of our failed relationships?

Consider a typical couple together for four years who each buy let’s say six albums per year. So, throughout the course of their relationship, they buy roughly fifty albums between them. Then let’s assume that the unfortunate pair are torn apart, and the inevitable process of distributing the albums between them begins. The thing is, there are going to be a bunch of those albums that they both want to keep (setting aside the angst-ridden memories that they will churn up every time they listen to them), meaning that the break up will be responsible for a little spurt of album sales – let’s say fifteen albums per break-up over the course of the months following each split? Seems a fair assumption to me.

Anyway, as it turns out there were over 150,000 divorces in the UK in 2012, and adding to that the breakups of those poor souls who didn’t make it to the alter (or to the registrars desk), let’s say there are roughly 300,000 breakups each year? So that would account for a whopping four and a half million album sales a year in the UK from break-ups alone.

And all this makes me think that if I were still at EMI, I’d be hot-footing it to the boardroom and trying to convince them to get the A&R guys to start making more records that drive people to infidelity, insecurity, insincerity, incontinence, impotence and as many other relationship killers they can think of that will drive up music sales to new record levels. My god – it could really work. Although thinking about it now, isn’t this exactly what they’ve been doing for years? Maybe they’re more devious than we thought, the machiavellian bastards…

P.S. I’ve just been discussing this with my friend who keeps his 1000 albums separate from his wife’s CD collection for this very reason, just in case (he clearly has great confidence in the future of his marriage).

And on that note, let’s turn to tarts…

Onion and goats cheese tart

Onion and goats cheese tart

Start by making a rich shortcrust pastry (using 200g plain flour, 100g butter, an egg, a pinch of salt and a little water and lemon juice) and pop it in the fridge for 30 mins to harden a little. Then roll it out and place into a deep, buttered tart dish ensuring you push the pastry gently down into the edges to minimise shrinking. Then trim the top (by simply rolling a rolling pin over the top of the dish to get a perfect cut) and pop it back into the fridge and heat the oven to 160c.

Now start making the filling – chop about five good sized onions (a mix of red and white if you like) and fry them gently in a pan with a few sprigs of thyme, butter, oil, salt and pepper. It will take about 20 mins until they are all soft and some have gently caramelised. Take them off the heat and put the pastry base into the oven covered in baking parchment and baking beans for about 15 minutes to blind bake.

While the tart base is baking, take a large bowl and whisk 5 medium eggs along with about 200ml of double cream, then season a little and add the onions with the thyme removed. Take a little pack of mild goats cheese and break blobs of it into the mixture leaving some behind for the top.

Take the base out of the oven and pour in your mixture and then top with more of the goats cheese. Put it all back in the oven at about 175c and let it cook for 30-40 mins. When it’s ready it will have risen above the tin and it will be beautifully golden brown.

Take it out and let it cool for about 20 mins and serve with a green salad and a crisp white wine. And make sure it doesn’t all get eaten straight away – it’s even better a day old (I just had a slice for breakkie – perfect)