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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Eccles Cakes


I haven't made Eccles cakes for a very long time. In fact I was probably still a schoolgirl when I did so. I remember baking them during our home economics class when we learnt how to make flaky pastry. My teacher was adamant that they should not contain either candied peel or spices, but I knew I had the traditional recipe. In spite of her comments I went ahead and made them as they should be and they were delicious. My pastry wasn't bad either so she couldn't give me a low mark even though she thought my recipe was wrong!

Ingredients
500g flaky pastry (ready-made, shop bought is fine)
25g melted butter
half teaspoon ground nutmeg
half teaspoon ground allspice
50g candied peel
100g sugar
200g currants

Method
Pre-heat the oven to Gas 7, 220C, 425F.
In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the sugar and butter and cook over a medium heat until melted.
Take the pan off the heat, add the currants, candied peel, nutmeg and allspice.
On a lightly-floured surface, roll the pastry thinly and cut into rounds of about 0.5cm thickness and 10cm diameter
Place a small spoonful of filling on to the centre of each pastry circle.
Dampen the edges of the pastry with a little water and draw the edges together over the fruit and pinch to seal.
Turn over, then press gently with a rolling pin to flatten the cakes.
Next, snip a V in the top with scissors. Place on a baking tray.
Brush with water and sprinkle with a little extra sugar.
Bake in a the hot oven for 20 minutes or until lightly browned round the edges
Place on a wire rack and allow to cool.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

It's a Coffee and Cake Thing

Café culture has become one of our past times over the years and I think we owe it largely to our holidays spent in Reykjavik.
Coffee is definitely big in Iceland, strong too and it usually comes with endless free refills. In fact, the refill is a positive sign that you're welcome to stay as long as you like, unlike in some coffee franchises in the UK, which expect you to drink up and then leave. Shame on anyone who takes too long, or dares to carry on reading a book long after their cup is drained!



View across Reykjavik's Faxaflói Bay to the island of Viðey


When we visit during the colder months a cozy café is a welcome respite from the often face-numbing arctic winds which race across the ocean.
On our recent trip we fell into Tíu Dropar on Reykjavik's main street, Laugavegur. It's a little homely place that sits just below street level, so the view out of the window gives one the amusing sight of feet going by – so it's more shoe than people watching!
I really like this place, it's more traditional than some of the other more swanky designer-style establishments in the city. It's popular with the locals too, which is always a good sign.
The small wooden tables are all snuggled into this warm and inviting room whose walls are hung with some interesting historical prints of local figures and old Reykjavik life. The crockery is rustic and slightly mismatched, adding to the charm. This place does not pretend to be anything that it's not – it's real through and through. I think you know what I mean when I say that, we've seen those places that try too hard to create a look and atmosphere, but it's so obviously 'themed'.



The unassuming entrance to the charming cosy café


The café offers a range of fresh sandwiches, salads, soups, etc, but we couldn't resist their homemade chocolate cakes. Historically, Icelandic people have a very sweet tooth and the array of tasty baked goods available is testament to that fact.
Traditionally, Icelandic housewives would always offer their guests plenty of of strong coffee and quantities of cakes, pancakes and pastries – and that was before the dinner finally arrived on the table!
Kaffe og Kaka

The name of the café comes from an Icelandic expression "bara tíu dropar" which literally translates as "just ten drops" and means something like; "I'm-just-asking-for-a-little-but-really-I-want-another-full-cup". Well, it was cold and windy outside, so we felt the same too.

Want to know more about Reykjavik? Click here

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Tomato Ketchup


Thank goodness I'm never going to grow sick of tomatoes! There's still lots left that need eating promptly. Yet another method of preservation is called for and what better than homemade ketchup.
Tomato ketchup is one of those store cupboard essentials that I can never be without. Not just reserved for the dipping of chips or dolloped next to sausages, it has other culinary uses too.
This homemade version is very different to the well-known commercial brands – it's less intensely red for a start and the flavour is, well, more sophisticated, for want of a better description.

Makes about 2 pints

Ingredients
3 lb ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 lb onions, roughly chopped
4 oz sugar
3 tablespoons mustard powder
1 teaspoon ground allspice
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 pint red wine vinegar

Method
Put all the ingredients into a pan and mix well. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes.

Allow the ketchup to cool slightly, then blend it to a purée in a food processor or blender. Press the purée through a sieve and return it to the rinsed-out pan.

Bring the ketchup back to boiling point, then take the pan of the heat. Transfer the ketchup to warm dry bottles and seal with airtight tops. Label and leave to cool, then store in a cool dark place. It will keep well for up to 6 months.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Reykjavik Kitchen Exhibition


We’ve recently returned from a short break in Reykjavik and whilst we were there we visited a small exhibition about food in Reykjavik. It runs until 23 November, so if any of you are there then, I’d recommend you go and have a look too.

The exhibition is in one of the oldest houses in Reykjavik and shares the building with Kraum – a shop containing work from 80 different Icelandic designers.
The displays take you through different periods in time, showing how the people of Reykjavik have changed their eating habits over the last hundred years. There are kitchen artifacts, old photos and handwritten recipes and although all the information is in Icelandic I found I could get a pretty good idea of the ‘story’... okay I’ve cheated a little – I picked up a leaflet which had an abridged version in English!

The story told in chronological order, begins in 1900 when Reykjavik was a growing town of 6700 residents.

1900-1930 Reykjavik was primarily a fishing town, and its residents lived on seafood but also had access to a variety of food in stores. Shortages often occurred due to communication difficulties and farm products, especially milk were affected. The diet in Reykjavik was considerably different to that in other parts of Iceland, where mutton, milk and butter were more readily available. In Reykjavik, the ordinary person’s daily diet was fish, skyr (a cultured dairy product, rye bread, margarine and coffee. Well-off people tended to indulge themselves in the Danish tradition – the Danish influence being strong at the time as Iceland was ruled by Denmark. Most common people ate fish twice a day, either dried, salted or fresh, with swede or rye bread. Skyr was also a daily food item. Rye was the main cereal staple, but all other types of grain had to be imported because of the harsh climate and short summers.

1930-1960 Import restrictions stretched right into the 1960s and many foreign foods disappeared from Reykjavik’s tables, this forced people to return again to domestically produced food.
As domestic food production grew quickly, the diet of the townspeople differed greatly by class and there were often great food shortages for poor people. Fish was still a common food for all classes, and in most families fish was the main meal three or four times a week. As no fruit is grown in Iceland, fruit was a scarce commodity, with its import being greatly restricted, as was the case for vegetables. Plots for growing vegetables were available to the residents of Reykjavik where they grew potatoes, carrots, swedes, rhubarb and kale. However, imported sugar was an important part of the diet, and sugar consumption in Europe seldom equalled that of the Icelanders.
During World War II the diet improved, and meat was seen more often on the table. The British and American occupying forces brought new things with them, and canned meat, beer, chewing gum and various delicacies became popular with the townspeople.
Even a group of idealistic vegetarians emerged, despite the import restrictions on fruit and vegetables.

1960-1975 Free trade was instituted in the period 1959-1971, and the selection of goods in stores increased greatly. International food culture began making itself felt, and various speciality food stores sprang up. Freezers and other home appliances had a dramatic effect on food preparation. The popularity of cured, pickled and salted foods dwindled, while fresh and frozen foods became readily available. Fruit and vegetables became an important part of people’s daily consumption. Self-service stores and shopping centres began to appear.

1975-2000 Exotic foods and food traditions came to Iceland with free trade and Icelander’s trips abroad. The hamburger and pizza generation grew up and turned to pasta, Mexican and Asian food. Fish, the everyday diet of the people of Reykjavik, became popular for holiday meals and restaurant courses, and people went out to eat more and more often, instead of the friendly shopkeeper on the corner, ever bigger shopping centres took over, and the selection of food became incredible. Fast food seized the day, and the family’s eating habits changed in the daily grind. The family meal lost its former status and became rarer. Around 2000, Reykjavik became a city of 111,000, and the food patterns became more like those of big cities abroad.

Well, there you have it, a potted history of Reykjavik’s food culture.

Reykjavik has become quite cosmopolitan and experimental in the food arena over the last eight years. When we first visited in 2000 there were only a couple of ethnic restaurants in the city, but now that number has grown into a substantial quantity of establishments. The people of Reykjavik have embraced more diverse flavours and the chefs are not afraid to apply some kitchen alchemy to produce fusion style dishes using top quality Icelandic ingredients. Maybe fusion has had its day in Britain, but Iceland has had a fair deal of catching up to do – and it’s doing it very well.

The organisers of the exhibition, Matur-saga-menning (Food-history-culture) whose aims are to strengthen people’s knowledge of Icelandic food and to call attention to the cultural heritage of food traditions, are currently in the process of collecting old recipes from different regions and districts and this is high on the association’s wish list.
So, if I have any Icelandic readers out there who feel that they could help the association in their quest, you can get information to the association and/or join it on its website www.matarsetur.is.
You can also send a letter to:
Matur-saga-menning,
ReykjavíkurAkademian,
Hringbraut 121,
107 Reykjavik.

Matur-saga-menning website – all in Icelandic but has some interesting pictures from the exhibition. There are recipes too, but again, in Icelandic.
www.matursetur.is

A couple of Icelandic recipes from my previous posts.
Fiskibollur (Fish Balls)
Piparkökur (Icelandic Pepper Cookies)

For an insight into Icelandic cooking you can see some recipes here

The Icelandic Design centre
www.kraum.is

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Spicy Tomato Chutney


Today the house is filled with an enticing fruity, spicy vinegary smell, as I’m making chutney.
It’s just as well we’re not getting tired of eating the 35 pounds or so of tomatoes from this year’s harvest, but it is rather slow going. Time to preserve them, I think. I’ve already oven dried and bottled some, but this time I want to make something that will keep well and can be brought out at Christmas time.
I’m having to improvise a little, so this recipe, of sorts, can really only serve as guide, but I hope you get the idea.

You will need… Loads of tomatoes, chopped, probably about 3 lb. I filled a large colander.
3 medium sized onions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
8 oz sugar
white wine vinegar, approximately 4 fluid oz
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp black mustard seeds
half tsp ground cloves
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp kalonji* seeds
half tsp dried red chilli flakes
1 tsp salt

How to make it… It’s easy really. Just put all the ingredients into a large pan and mix well to combine. Place on the stove and turn on the heat to a gentle setting and slowly bring to a simmer.
Keep an eye on it and stir occasionally to make sure it is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. You must make sure it doesn’t catch and burn otherwise this will spoil the taste by making it bitter.
I left it on the heat for a very long time until it had reduced by half and took on a glossy jammy consistency.
Afterwards I left it to cool slightly and then ladled it into sterilised jars.

So, how did it turn out?
Well, considering that I made the recipe up as I went along, I don't think it turned out too bad.
The flavour is intense with tomato with an agreeable balance of sweet and sourness. The spices give a good background warmth and the whole fennel and kalonji seeds punctuate the chutney with their respective aniseed and earthy flavours.
Overall, the chutney has a good depth of fruitiness with layers of spicy fragrance.
I reckon it'll be a good partner to a mature cheddar cheese and also great for perking up any leftover cold turkey.

*Kalonji seeds are also known as black onion or nigella seeds.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Too Many Tomatoes


Actually you can’t have too many tomatoes, especially home grown ones. Fortunately they are so versatile that you never run out of uses for them.

There’s just the problem of using them all up before they turn squishy and mouldy, that’s when I thought about preserving some of them.

I think I’ve already perfected the technique of oven-drying them (there’s a description of how to do that in a previous post) so I thought why not put the oven dried tomatoes into a jar and preserve them in oil?

I made sure I sterilised the jar first, of course, to kill off any potential contaminants and then packed it almost to the top. Then I added a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar and topped it up with olive oil, making sure the tomatoes were completely covered. Then I just tipped the jar back and forth so that any air bubbles were expelled, then sealed it with the lid.

I reckon that they should keep very well, and as long as I use them up within a month after opening, they should be okay.
I’m looking forward to using them in sauces, on pizza, in salads and who knows what else?


Buy the Jar

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Grilled Fresh Sardines with Roasted Marinated Vegetables and Gremolata


Sardines are great. It doesn't matter whether they're from a tin or fresh, they're always good. I picked up some Cornish ones the other day, and they were really fresh, smelling of the sea. Their plump silvery bodies looked so inviting.

Although sardines can be eaten whole I prefer not having to deal with any bones whilst eating them, so I set about filleting them. It was very easy as they were of a good size.

Sardines are an oily fish, so something that can stand up to that whilst cutting through the richness was needed to accompany them. Choosing to create a Mediterranean style dish, I slow roasted some tomatoes in the oven, which partly dries them and intensifies the flavour. Just halve some medium sized tomatoes and place them in a baking tray, sprinkle with a little sea salt and sugar and put in a low temperature oven for about 2 hours, or until they have shrunk to about half their original size.
I also cut some red and yellow peppers, courgette, and red onion into large chunks, tossed them in a little olive oil and roasted them in a medium oven until they had softened and taken on some charring at the edges.

The rest was easy. I put the tomatoes and rest of the vegetables into a bowl, added a small splash of red wine vinegar, a good slosh of extra virgin olive oil, a generous pinch of dried oregano, a few capers and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
This I just left to marinade all together while I made the gremolata.

I grated the zest of lemon into a bowl, then add a grated clove of garlic and finely chopped flat-leafed parsley and mixed together well.

All that was left to do was to cook the fish. I laid the glistening sardine fillets, skin side up on a non-stick baking sheet and seasoned with a little salt and pepper. There was no need for any oil – the fish had enough naturally.
Then I put them under a preheated grill on a very high heat, until the skins started to blister and crisp slightly. I didn’t need to turn them over as the fillets were thin enough to allow the heat to penetrate and cook them all the way through.

To serve, I piled the marinated vegetables on to plates along with any liquid and then placed the sardines on top and sprinkled with the gremolata.

Bread was all that was needed to mop up the sweet and succulent juice.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Oh Dear, No Skyr!

We’ve just got back from a very pleasant day on the South Bank in London – there’s a collection of photos here, if you want to look – and I have to say that it has ended on rather a low note.

The problem you see, is that we’ve become hooked on skyr, an Icelandic dairy product, and until we can get back to that beautiful country in the North Atlantic, we have to get our fix when we make the occasional visit into ‘Town’.
Only one shop sells it, or rather sold it, and that’s Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street (see previous post).

We scoured the chiller cabinet in the dairy section for a very long time, but to no avail. Feelings of desperation set in, so we had to ask a member of staff, who apologetically informed us that they no longer stock it.

Well, we feel very miffed and dejected. Come on Whole Foods Market, what’s happened? Please bring back skyr.
I know that there are a fair number of Icelandic people living in London who are missing it too.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Plum Crumble


You just can’t beat English plums for great flavour. They’re in season now, and if you’re like me, and can’t resist the lure of a Victoria or Marjorie Seedling, this is the best and really only time to find them.
Plums can have quite an astringent taste, but I find that this is one of their best qualities. Much of that special plummy flavour is in the skin, which I like to leave on for maximum taste.
On my visit to Whitstable, I ate at a restaurant named Samphire and ended the meal with a lovely pudding, made with apples, plums and topped with crumble containing Kent cob nuts. It was so delicious that I was inspired to recreate my own version.
Letting the plums take centre stage, I opted to leave out the apple altogether and just have more plums.
I personally think that this should be served with a good crème anglais (if you want to be posh) or custard if you’re traditional like me!

Ingredients
For the plums
1 1/2 lbs plums
2 tablespoons water
sugar to taste
grated zest of half an orange
half teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the crumble topping
4 oz whole blanched hazelnuts
3 oz unsalted butter, cubed
3 oz sugar
4 oz plain flour

Method
Preheat the oven to at 180 C, gas mark 4.
Halve the plums and remove the stones. Place a large frying pan over a moderate heat and add a knob of butter. Put in the plums and add the water.
Add the orange zest and cinnamon and stir gently to combine.
Cook the plums on a low heat until they start to soften and let out some of their juices.
Now add some sugar, just taste the juice to check whether it's to your liking.
Remove from the heat and tip them into an ovenproof dish.

In another frying pan, dry roast the hazelnuts over medium heat, stirring all the time, until they take on a golden colour.
When they’re ready, remove from the heat and leave to cool, before chopping them roughly.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour and sugar. Add the butter and then gently work in the butter using your fingertips, rubbing and lifting, until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Add the chopped hazelnuts and stir in.

Spoon the crumble topping over the fruit and bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Pearl of Kent: Whitstable


There’s something about the sea that has an instant attraction for me. I’m not sure why, but it has a positive effect on my well-being.
Lately, we’ve both been suffering the strains of modern life, so a long weekend away was in order. Actually my husband likes the sea too so a break by the coast, somewhere, just anywhere was an absolute must.
We decided on Whitstable as it’s not too far to travel but is significantly different to where we live. Neither of us has ever been there before either, although a long time ago, I went on a school field trip to Broadstairs, which is further up the Kent coast.
Whitstable has everything I like about a costal town. It has a working fishing harbour, bringing in some of the finest seafood in the country, oysters in particular, for which it is famed. It isn’t commercialised in the sense that it has those awful amusement arcades and trashy pier attractions. There’s something left of the old days that gives it a true soul and character. I suppose it is so undeniably steeped in history.

Food and Lodging 
It is worth mentioning that we stayed in a bed and breakfast, as we wouldn’t normally choose to do so. Up until recently British B&Bs have had a notorious reputation that has, I confess, put us off in the past. We stayed at The Pearl Fisher, which thankfully blew away all those stereotypical images of old. Our hosts for the weekend, Gary and Jan Hartley-Trigg are a really lovely couple. They were always friendly and attentive but never intrusive.
Our room was tastefully decorated, complete with en-suite, and we were even able to choose a time slot for breakfast. Yes, the breakfast; absolutely fantastic. What a spread; our ‘first course’ consisted of a choice of cereal, fresh fruit and yogurt. Then the ‘second course’, cooked to order. There certainly wasn’t any skimping on the quality here, the bacon was thick and most certainly dry-cured, the sausages were of a high meat content and very tasty and the eggs were expertly scrambled to a beautiful creamy soft texture. Fried mushrooms accompanied this, with fresh grilled tomatoes and some slices of toast. There definitely wasn’t any sign of cutting corners and dashing to the cash and carry, these ingredients had been carefully selected, locally.
Replete with the fabulous Full English, we were then offered toast. We couldn’t refuse as we were itching to try some of the locally made preserves.
Well, that breakfast certainly set us up for the day!
The weather wasn’t particularly kind to us on one day; we were caught in a most torrential downpour of rain. Rivers ran down the streets and trying to shelter in shop doorways did little to keep us dry as the passing traffic sent up great splashes and soaked us even more.
We couldn’t really go anywhere now, as we were too wet! I don’t think sitting in a restaurant would have been good either for us or the proprietor! So it was back to our room via a Chinese takeaway to get changed. By a stroke of luck, our hosts offered to tumble-dry our clothes for us. Like I said, they were very thoughtful and attentive. I would highly recommend the Pearl Fisher to anyone.

Taste of the Sea 
Whitstable has become known as a foodie destination, and justly so, the seafood is first class, but it wasn’t my actual reason for going. Initially, I actually had no idea of its culinary claims, it was only the draw of the coast and it’s quaintness that attracted me. However we did sample some good food, but as I’m not really in the habit of doing restaurant reviews I’ll just say that it was all very good.
Oysters are Whitstable’s famous speciality. Everyday the boats go out to dredge for them, from the beds that are situated about a mile off shore. The catch may also comprise of other shellfish, such as winkles, whelks and cockles, which are sold fresh-caught and cooked at the quayside. It was refreshing to see children eating them, especially these days, when most kids are fussy and won’t touch anything unless it comes with fries from a certain burger chain.
Oysters, or any fish and seafood for that matter, can be rather expensive if bought in any of the restaurants, but if you're not too fussy about enjoying them outside from a plastic plate/cup, then do buy them from the Fish Market or West Whelks on the harbour. This is a sure way of saving some money and sampling top quality sea fare, plus sitting out in the open air with the smell of the sea always seems to improve the taste, I think.

Simple Pleasures
I found Whitstable to be a good place to relax. With no particular agenda to adhere to we spent our time wandering around the harbour and along the shingle beach or browsing the shops and galleries.
The town is an attractive place to artists, and I can see why, as I found it inspiring too. Occasionally, I like to paint and the quality of light and colour and quirkiness of the place has reignited my creative spark. I must get out those paintbrushes.
I get an enormous feeling of satisfaction having walked along the coast. Fresh sea air is so uplifting – you sort of feel exhausted and invigorated at the same time – so that must be a sign of it doing you some good.
Little rest stops here and there allowed us to stare out to sea, watching the windsurfers and fishing boats. Far on the horizon vast container ships, carrying cargo between Dover and Europe, moved slowly past a backdrop of wind turbines sticking out of the Kentish Flats. There’s been much controversy concerning off shore wind farms, but I happen to feel that they are not a blot on the landscape, but rather they’re an interesting feature, besides, this one is sufficiently far away so as not to be intrusive.

Shopping
The High Street has many shops for those looking for something arty or designer orientated. There are a couple of 'junk' shops for the collector, bookshops and clothes boutiques. Whitstable has pretty much everything on a small scale – there are no chain stores that I could see – Canterbury, about seven miles away, is your best option if you want those.
I am fiercely jealous of this town, for such a small place it is well furnished with several decent butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and bakers. It does have two small supermarkets in the centre, but I could have easily given them a miss.
There’s also the Harbour Village, a kind of market, selling crafts and local produce. I had the impression it was larger from what I’d read, so was a little disappointed. There was, however, a stall selling Kent strawberries and plums, and one of those will be used in a crumble featuring in a future post.

Is it Worth Going Back?
To put it this way, I didn’t want to go home. Three days just didn’t seem long enough.
Now that I’ve seen what Whitstable has to offer, I’d love to return for a longer period of time and maybe stay in self-catering accommodation. I have no qualms about cooking whilst on holiday and would welcome the idea of preparing a meal made from the freshly caught local seafood.
I noticed that there is a “Hands Off Our Harbour” campaign in operation. It would appear that certain developers want to regenerate the harbour into some kind of yuppie haven. Obviously the locals do not want this to happen, and neither do I for that matter, even if I am just a tourist. So just as long as it remains as it did when I last visited, I shall continue to return.

Further Information
Don’t be satisfied with the few pictures in this post, have a look at all of them on my Flickr page here

I highly recommend The Pearl Fisher Bed & Breakfast; it has a list of consistently good reviews on Trip Advisor
You can book online:
www.thepearlfisher.com

For those looking for art and crafts and local produce try:
www.whitstableharbourvillage.co.uk

More information about Whitstable, on what to do, where to eat etc:
www.whitstableonline.com 
www.seewhitstable.com

Saturday, 13 September 2008

HOW TO: Check Jam Setting Point

Achieving the right set does carry a certain knack to it. You could try using a jam thermometer but personally I find it a lot easier using a method that my maternal Grandma showed me. 
Before you start to make the jam, put a plate in the fridge. When it's cold you then drizzle some warm jam on to it and return the plate to the fridge to cool for approximately two minutes. You can tell that it has set when you run your finger through it leaving a crinkly track mark. If after two minutes the cooled jam is too runny, continue to boil the jam, testing it every few minutes until you have the right set.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Seafood Fortnight: 5-21 September 2008



It’s time again for another food awareness day/week/month or whatever. In my experience I’ve found many of these events, are paradoxically under promoted. There seems little point having an awareness week when no one is aware that it’s happening.

As Seafood Fortnight concentrates on the importance of fish, I have decided to give it my full support and attention, just in case it befalls a fate due to lackadaisical PR.
I love fish, you see, and can’t understand why us British don’t eat more of it. There we are, a group of islands, surrounded by the bountiful sea and we shun what those waters offer up.

Okay, fish and chips is supposed to be the nation’s favourite, but to some, I fear, unless the fish is coated in batter and deep fried, they’re not interested in anything else. Don’t get me wrong, good old-fashioned fish and chips are great, but there’s so much more to fish than that.

Which brings me back to the Seafood Fortnight’s approach to getting us to eat more fish. They’ve come up with 2 a week scheme which focuses on the healthy aspect of seafood. To my mind, this isn’t the way to get us all to include more fish in our diets.
Ooh it’s so healthy, packed full of protein and vitamins and omega this and that… Yeah, yeah, we all know that fish is good for us, but if you want people to eat more fish, you’ve got to sell it on merits of flavour and versatility.
I don’t think your average person is going to suddenly start eating more fish because of the health benefits.

Many people are put off fish, as they perceive it to be smelly, bony, slimy, and funny tasting and difficult to prepare.
We need to allay these piscine fears, and this is where the fishmonger comes in. It doesn’t take much to ask the person behind the counter to wield his or her knife over a fish, removing the task of scaling, filleting and any other jobs that we may find repulsive or too tricky to tackle. They can even offer cooking advice too.

I wish all the average shoppers were a little less average and more adventurous, then at least there would be more choice at the fish counter.
That said, I’ve found Morrison’s to have more variety on offer than most supermarkets. Yes, I do agree we should support our small local fishmonger – I would if we had one – but unfortunately, I’m enslaved by the supermarkets, just like everyone else.

Just please eat more fish!… and do try something other than cod or haddock.
Photo: everystockphoto.com

For more information follow the links below:










Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Trouble with Food Blogging

When I started this blog back in January, I had no idea just how much it would become part of my life. Food for me has always been a source of inspiration – I’m always thinking up ideas for dinner, reading cookbooks and magazines, not to mention watching culinary television programmes. Although thoughts of food are seldom far from my mind, I hasten to add, I’m not constantly stuffing my face!

There are however certain drawbacks in maintaining a food blog. I had every intention of just doing it for myself as a hobby, but the public nature of it, leaves me feeling compelled to write about everything I create in the kitchen. I concede that I haven’t actually documented everything, and so, occasionally I have pangs of guilt when I fail to write a post. I shouldn’t feel guilty, it’s not as if I have an agent or publisher breathing down my neck because he or she is eager for me to deliver, in order for them to receive their commission. Blogging has given me a sense of duty, especially when I know there are people out there, reading it and leaving nice comments. A big ‘thank you’ to you all, by the way.

 One thing I’ve learnt, it’s actually very difficult to write recipes. I have been cooking for quite a long time now and the act of putting a meal together has become instinctive. I rarely consult cookery books unless I’m about to embark upon something new, or if I’m baking cakes etc, which is more of a science. There are probably many dishes in my repertoire that will never make their way here. It would take much analytical dissection to translate them into a workable recipe, and whilst I’m confident with the results from my kitchen, I worry that my written recipe may not work in someone else’s kitchen.

 Some things that are eaten in the Cheeky Spouse household are regular day-to-day fare. For example, one evening we had beans on toast with eggs – not quite a dish to be given a full report. This probably explains why my blog makes it appear that we eat like kings all the time! This simply is not the case. I confess that I don’t always cook every night and something pre-prepared may slip on to the week’s menu. I must stress that I do not condone the regular consumption of ‘pierce and ping’ dinners, but a certain supermarket does do very fine curries.

 I’m a firm believer in the art of visual communication – it is in fact my profession – and so, a recipe without pictures is next to useless. Chefs will always tell us how we eat with our eyes first, so a decent photograph is essential. Now, I’m not a food stylist, but I do like to take photos. Food photography is not easy when you are merely trying to grab a snapshot before the plate is transferred to the dining table.
In an ideal world, I’d like to have plenty of natural light to produce a stunning photograph, something we’re all familiar with from those beautiful cookbooks. This however is never going to happen. I don’t and I’m not about to start making dishes purely to be photographed. We eat our main meals in the evening, by which time all that wonderful light has passed. Trying to hastily photograph something under an energy-saving bulb is not going to produce the best results. I can’t be fussing around with different exposure settings either – we’re hungry and want to eat it while it’s still hot.
All this may explain why my cakes and bread etc always look better on the page – at least I can be a little choosier about when and where I shoot them. I suppose that’s where the wonders of Photoshop come in, but it all takes a lot of tweaking and time.

 I’m not sure why I did it, but this blog is listed on various social blogging websites. I should have kept it simple and stayed away, because now, there’s a certain amount of maintenance that has to be carried out. Maybe it’s not all that important, but although I wanted this to be a personal adventure, there’s still that neediness in me that wants to advertise my work. It’s my own fault. I feel that there is a certain lack of the travel element here too. That was my initial intention – to include travelogues with a food related element. The simple fact is I haven’t done much travelling lately. That said, as I write this, I will be going away for the weekend. I shall not divulge as to where just yet, that’s something you’ll have to come back for later. Let’s hope I find the time to relate my experiences!

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Brambles and Berries

As I was updating my ‘In Season’ list, it occurred to me that we are indeed entering another season.
It is a sad but very true fact that the disappointing summer is on its way out and autumn is hot on its heels. Autumn though, is not a season to be sniffed at, bringing with it luscious hedgerow fruits, wild mushrooms and fiery colours.
As I write though, the weather has taken a turn for the better, albeit for a short time before the forecasted thunderstorms and rain arrive.

Earlier in the year I plundered our overgrown garden for elderflowers to make some fritters (click to see post).

The remaining blossoms have now developed into fruits and I’m eager to pick them to make elderberry jelly or jam. Dashing into the garden with my camera to take some photos for blog documentation, I’m suddenly disappointed. The birds have got there before me! There’s hardly a berry left and all that remains are the spikey magenta stalks.


My despondency soon fades as I realise that the thorny entanglement I’ve had to fight through is a mass of brambles now covered in fruit, ripe and ready for picking.
Back into the house to fetch a bowl from the kitchen.

This is going to be a prickly challenge, but being scratched isn’t going to prevent me from gathering nature’s prize.
The blackberries are bloated and juicy and I pick them one by one, staining my fingers a dark purple.
The task takes me quite some time. There are a lot of berries on offer and it frustrates me that so many are out of reach. Not wanting to risk falling into the spiny nest of barbed stems, I decide to leave those ones for the birds.

Satisfied that I’ve gathered enough, I weigh them. A pound and a half! That’s pretty good; and I didn’t have to go very far to get them.

Wild blackberries invariably act as homes for some invertebrate wildlife, so I drop the blackberries into some salted cold water and leave them to soak overnight. This has the desired effect of evicting the unwanted beasties which can be rinsed off later.

I’m not sure what I’d like to do with the berries yet, but they freeze well, so until I decide whether to make an apple and blackberry pie or jam, they’ll keep in the meantime.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Carrots!

At last the carrots are ready to pull up.
They've been happily growing in their pot for a good few months now and we've been itching to taste them.
They're very easy to lift from the soil and it's so satisfying to see how large they are as they come up inch by inch.
We've grown two varieties - Nantes and Chanteney.
I can't quite believe the smell of them - they're nothing like anything you'd buy in a shop. The aroma is intense, almost resinous.
No sooner as we've gathered them, I wash them and drop them into a saucepan with some water and simmer gently. When they are tender, I drain off the water and add a knob of butter to glaze them.


These are the best carrots we've ever eaten – so sweet and delicious, and they actually taste of carrot! Supermarket carrots have nothing on these - you simply can't beat homegrown for freshness.

Whilst searching for information on carrots, 
I found this rather interesting website of the 
virtual World Carrot Museum. Click here to view.

Grow Your Own

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Fiskibollur: Fish Balls

Yet another recipe from my kitchen library. I bought the book, Cool Cuisine: Traditional Icelandic Cuisine by Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, after one of my visits to Reykjavík.
I have tried various recipes for fish balls and this particular one works best.
For such a simple recipe – there are no elaborate flavourings here – it tastes very good, but I couldn't resist adding some chopped fresh chopped dill and parsley.
It's a great way to use cheaper cuts of white fish, and so long as the fish is fresh, you really can't go wrong.
You do, however, really need to use a food processor, as this gives the fine texture to the minced fish.
In addition to the original instructions from the book, I prefer to chill the fish balls prior to cooking them. This helps to firm them up and prevents them from falling apart during frying.


Serves 4

Ingredients
600g white fish fillets, skinned and boned
1 onion, chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten
100ml milk, or as needed
1½ teaspoons salt
third teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons plain flour
3 tablespoons potato flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil and a knob of butter for frying

Method
Place the fish and onion in a food processor and mince finely.
Stir in the eggs, some of the milk and the seasoning.
Stir in the plain flour and potato flour, and add more milk if needed. The mixture should be fairly thick and able to hold it's shape well.
Shape oblong fish balls with a tablespoon and place them on a plate and put into the fridge to firm up for about an hour.
Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan and fry the fish balls over a medium heat until brown on all sides.
Lower the heat, add a little water to the pan, cover with a lid and cook for a few minutes more.
Serve with melted butter, boiled new potatoes and a salad.

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Photo: ©childsdesign 2010

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Chocolate Muffins……for Grown-Ups

Occasionally I like to indulge in a chocolate muffin, to go with a good cup of freshly brewed coffee, but I've never found anything in the shops that caters for more grown-up tastes. Shop bought muffins are mostly very sweet and I want something a little more sophisticated.
To achieve the desired flavour, I use a good quality dark chocolate. Nothing less than 70% cocoa solids will do. You need the intense, almost savoury flavour to elevate these muffins into the realms of refinement. That's why the sea salt is there too – it gives a little extra boost.

Makes 12
Ingredients
200g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
115g light muscovado sugar
good pinch of sea salt
185g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
2 eggs
100 ml sunflower oil
4 tablespoons plain yogurt
165ml milk

Method
Preheat the oven to Gas 6, 200C, 400F.
Line a 12 hole muffin tin with paper cases.
Sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder cinnamon, sugar and salt into a large bowl. If you find that some of the sugar won't go through the sieve, just use a spoon to rub it through.
Now stir in the broken chocolate pieces.
Whisk together the eggs and oil in a separate bowl until they become foamy. Now add the yogurt and then carefully whisk in the milk. Stir this mixture into the dry ingredients until blended.
Spoon into cake cases, filling each to three-quarters full. Bake in the centre of the oven for 20 minutes.
The muffins are ready when they are well risen and firm to the touch. A skewer inserted into the middle should come out clean – unless you've gone through some melted chocolate, of course!

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Cloudberry Vinegar


I'm always on the look out for some new ingredient to try, no matter how small a part it plays in a recipe. My latest find was some cloudberry vinegar which I discovered in IKEA's food section. When in flatpack furniture land, I make it my ritual to peruse the shelves for Scandinavian food, just before I leave the store.


The vinegar is genuine Swedish stuff and is made from cloudberry wine. Perhaps I should try to describe what cloudberries are as I'm not sure whether many people are familiar with them.
A relative of the blackberry bramble and the raspberry. It is a small herbaceous plant, with hairs rather than prickles on its stems and produces large white flowers that later develop into orange-coloured fruit when ripe. It's botanical name is Rubus chamaemorus and it grows primarily in the northern hemisphere.
I could go into lots of detail, but I think if you'd like to know more, then you should have a look on wikipedia.

Anyway, back to the vinegar. Unlike raspberry vinegar which is usually infused with the fruit after the vinegar has been made, this starts out as a wine made from cloudberries.
I tried a little spoonful to check on it's taste and acidity before using in a salad dressing. The vinegar has a definite wine flavour, is not too acidic and the scent of the cloudberries is evident.
The flavour isn't so overpowering as a raspberry vinegar so I can see that it would lend itself to a wider variety of uses.
I  don't think £3.75 for 200ml is too high a price to pay for something that is of high quality and so refined in flavour. A little goes a long way too.
One thing I've learnt, is to never buy cheap wine vinegar again.

To find out more about the vinegar's producers visit: grythyttanvin.se
Cloudberry image from wikipedia

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Victoria Sponge Made Simple

It's not often that I bake cakes, but sometimes on a Sunday, we feel we deserve a treat, so this weekend I decided to make a Victoria sandwich cake, but with a twist. Instead of the usual strawberry jam I used lemon curd and for added zing I pepped up the sponge with some grated lemon zest.

The recipe that follows is for the basic version, but for the adventurous it can be adapted to create many different variations on flavour.

TIP: This is such an easy way to work out how much of each ingredient you need. You should never need to refer to a recipe again.
First weigh your eggs in ounces as this makes for nice round figures. Then use the same weight for each of your unsalted butter, caster sugar and self raising flour.

Today, my three large eggs gave me 7 oz, so the recipe was as follows:

Ingredients
3 large eggs
7 oz unsalted butter, softened
7 oz caster sugar
7 oz self raising flour
half teaspoon baking powder
1-2 tablespoons milk

Method
Preheat the oven to Gas 4.
Grease two 8 inch sandwich tins and place a circle of greaseproof paper or baking parchment in the bottom of each one.

Beat together the softened butter and sugar until it becomes pale and creamy. I always like to use my KitchenAid mixer for this, as it makes the cake so light in texture.

Whisk the eggs in a jug until slightly frothy.

With the mixer still running, add the eggs by pouring very slowly in a thin stream into the butter and sugar mix. When the mixture is pale, and increased in volume, stop the mixer and remove the bowl from it.

Sieve in a tablespoon of the flour and fold in carefully to avoid knocking out any air.
Repeat, adding a spoonful at a time until all the flour and baking powder is incorporated.
The mixture should be of a soft dropping consistency. If it seems too stiff, then fold in some milk.

Divide the mixture between the two cake tins and spread out evenly, smoothing off the tops.

Place in the centre of the oven for 25-30 minutes.

The cakes are ready when they're risen, golden brown and their edges are pulling away slightly from the sides of the tin.

Turn them out on to a cooling rack and carefully remove the baking paper.
Leave until completely cool before filling with jam.
To finish, sprinkle the top of the cake with caster sugar.

Essential Item

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Fruits of Our Labour

My blog has been a little neglected lately as a lot of my time has been taken up with the needs of the kitchen garden.
It's amazing how things have grown so quickly over the past few weeks. The tomatoes have come on in leaps and bounds, helped along by the long, warm sunny days. It doesn't seem that long ago that they were little plants full of potential. Their growth rate has been incredible – I found myself imagining that I could hear them creaking as they climbed up past the window and the little fruits literally popping into existence overnight! As you can see from the picture above, I have one tomato already beginning to ripen.

The hoverflies have been busy aiding pollination. I don't think I've ever seen so many of these little insects all at once. I find it quite relaxing watching them flit about between the flowers as they feed on nectar.
There are so many tomatoes now, that I'm already making plans to make ketchup and chutney, as well as eating them in salads of course.
The carrots and beetroots are developing well too. The tops of the swelling roots are now visible at the compost's surface. I'll definitely be growing them in containers next year, as this has successfully deterred the carrot flies which can destroy your crop.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Good Growing


It’s time for a follow up again, on what’s been growing in the garden, and I have to say that I’m very proud of the potatoes.
What started out as an experiment started back in March has proved to be most fruitful. From a few wrinkly sprouting potatoes lying in the bottom of the vegetable trolley, a surprising amount of fresh baby spuds have been born – 2 kilograms in fact.
These are quite special potatoes as well; the variety is Vivaldi – one of my favourites for its exceptional flavour and texture. It’s so creamy, almost buttery, so you don’t even have to add butter, but it is nice, all the same!
We have an assortment of sizes – nothing huge – but they are perfect cooked in their thin skins, as ‘new potatoes’, tossed with chopped dill (yes, I’ve grown that too).

The gooseberries have now been picked too. They’re not particularly large, but it’s not all about size is it? Flavour is what counts.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Wakes Cakes

Following my visit to Bakewell in Derbyshire, I decided to put a recipe to test from my Favourite Peak District Recipes book. I chose Wakes Cakes, as they sounded intriguing with their combination of ingredients. They happened to turn out very well – nice and crisp with chewy currants and interesting little flavour hits from the caraway seeds.

This traditional recipe may originate from the time of the English cotton mill industry during the 18th and 19th centuries. During the industrial revolution, many cotton mills were built in the midlands and the north, using the rivers to turn the great water wheels, which in turn powered the machinery to weave the cloth. This part of England was chosen, as it’s known for it’s damp and rainy weather, which are perfect conditions to produce high quality textiles. A dry atmosphere made the thread prone to breakage.


The life of a mill worker was not an easy one, very long hours for low pay and poor conditions and precious little time allowed to take holidays.
Wakes were originally religious festivals that commemorated church dedications, a time when people normally would want to take time off work and be with their families. Mill owners, not being overly generous with rights for their employees, found that their workers would often be absent at this time, so eventually seeing sense, they agreed that all the mills should close for a week anyway to allow for this.
Eventually, the wakes were adapted into a regular summer break when the week would be the focus for fairs where these cakes were sold and eagerly eaten.

Ingredients
12 oz flour
8 oz butter
6 oz white sugar
1 egg, beaten
3 oz currants
½ oz caraway seeds
Grated rind of 1 lemon
Sugar to sprinkle

Method
Set the oven to 375F or Mark 5.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl, add the beaten egg and mix in all the other ingredients to make a firm dough.
Roll out thinly on a floured surface, cut into rounds with a 2½ inch cutter, sprinkle with sugar and place on a greased baking tray.
Bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly browed.
They should be crisp and sweet like biscuits.

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Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Salad Days


I wouldn’t normally rave on about a pile of salad leaves, but these ones are special.
From tiny seeds some amazing leaves have sprouted in a variety of colours, shapes and flavours – and what’s more I have grown them myself. That’s what makes them special.

I don’t have to go to the shops to find them, queue to pay for them and when I get home I don’t have to rip open a plastic bag. I just walk through the kitchen, open the back door and wander out into the garden armed with a pair of scissors and bowl. A few snips here and there and I can select just the right amount I need, leaving the rest to carry on growing and remaining fresh in the outdoors.

Things always taste better that way.

Grow Your Own

Friday, 20 June 2008

Better Bread


I’m not convinced that my bread machine makes a very good job of making a decent loaf. I agree that by automating the process it might make the job a little bit easier. All you have to do is fill the machine with ingredients, close the lid, press a button and “bleep, bleep” it’s finished in an hour or so. The only problem is that you end up with small square loaves with a hole in the bottom left buy the mixing paddle. I also find that the texture is not as open as I’d like it to be. The mixing paddles are by no means equipped to really pull and stretch the dough enough to allow decent size air pockets. The result can often be quite spongy for white bread and too dense for brown.

It is possible to just use the machine for the kneading process and then remove the dough to be shaped by hand for more rustic style loaves, but there’s still that problem with the texture.

The machine is largely redundant now, as I’ve rediscovered the joys of making bread completely by hand. Don’t ever look at it as a chore as the whole process is very therapeutic and doesn’t take up all of your time. For the most part, the dough happily sits unattended, for long periods while it is rising, leaving you to other things.

Make kneading the dough a pleasure, all that pummelling can certainly help you take out any frustrations and gives your arms a good work out, plus it’s also good fun getting messy and covered in flour!

I made a nice big batch of dough using a combination of wholesome spelt and brown flours, mixed together with some white for lightness. My loaves weren’t strictly traditional or rustic as I used fast acting dried yeast rather than fresh, but the end result certainly looked and tasted the part.

I’ll try to work out the recipe properly at a later date, as I had to improvise from one I found that used fresh yeast. Also, as I used a mixture of different flours, that affected the quantity of liquid that I needed.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

From Foraging to Fritters

I knew there was a good reason to let part of the front garden to be given over to nature.
We haven't intentionally neglected to maintain its upkeep, but there never seems to be enough time to tackle the enormous task of clearing the undergrowth and clipping the hedges, As a result a rather large elder bush has grown up through the hornbeam hedge


It is now in full flower, and not wanting to miss the opportunity to eat some it's blossom, I battled my way past the prickly brambles to pick its headily scented blooms.
They are best gathered in the morning after some sun has shone on them - this is when the flowers pack out the most scent and flavour.

Avoid washing the blooms as this will just make them soggy and lose their gorgeous Muscat flavour. It's best to simply shake them to dislodge any creepy-crawlies, unless of course you fancy some added protein!

I make a light tempura style batter, dipping in the elderflower heads and deep fry for a couple of minutes until they are golden and crispy. A sprinkling of caster sugar to finish and then eat.
I have decided to leave the elder bush to go on to produce berries later in the year, these being very useful for jams and jellies.

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