Some of us may have already started on today’s job, but in case you haven’t, this is your official dispensation to EAT LOTS OF CANDY, which also means I finally get to share with you the advent calendar that my dad has made for my mum this year, using the set of drawers that for the other eleven months of the year is employed as a storage space for screws, categorised by size and type. (Everyone’s dad has or had one of those, right?)
I am not keen enough on chocolate to need or want a chocolate advent calendar, but I have been enjoying my daily piece of cheese; never more than yesterday, when I had a piece of Mexican cheese studded with jalapeño pieces that made my eyes water in a good way. I should like to update you on today’s species of cheese, but I haven’t opened it yet and Alciona the cleaner is downstairs which means I am banned from going down. Sorry.
Instead you’ll have to make do with Perry Como, who if you listen carefully is singing here about candy canes, which makes him the perfect accompaniment to today’s gastronomic-indulgence-of-your-choice.
The official instruction for today is BREAK, which I think means we are allowed a day off from our seasonal chores, so instead I will give you a recipe which I invented by mistake earlier this week when I’d been planning to do garlic bread, then remembered the oven was kaput. If you are not interested in serendipitous culinary discoveries then skip straight down to today’s tangentially-food-related song, which is a DOOZY.
I have no quantities for you here, because I made it up as I went along, but I can’t imagine it mattering how much of anything you use. And it’s almost all staples that you probably have in the house anyway, which makes it easy as well as delicious. I think I’m going to call it HOT SPROUT SALAD.
Garlic (or garlic paste)
Crushed pistachio kernels
Shred the sprouts – I grated them, but chopping them up finely would also work
Heat the oil in a frying pan with the chili flakes and lots of black pepper for 1-2 minutes
Add the garlic and the sprouts and cook until the sprouts have just started to char
Take the pan off the heat and add the parmesan
Stir and season to taste
Serve topped with the pistachio kernels as a side-dish to almost anything
START READING AGAIN HERE We’ve had the Carpentersbefore, and we’ve had The Christmas Song before, but we’ve never combined the two, which is a shame because this is beautiful, but it’s also good news because it means we can have it for the first time today! I love Karen’s outfit here, even though if I were to wear it I would look like an actual Brussels sprout.
It is nearly as much fun to write, and to say, as it is to eat;
It is super quick and easy to make and you can do it with ingredients you already have in the house;
The name comes from “okonomi”, which means “as you like” and “yaki” meaning “cooked”, which means you can put WHATEVER YOU WANT on it and it’s still correct.
Last night I learned how to make it in a free Zoom cookery class with the Sozai Cooking School and honestly, if I’d known fifteen years ago how easy it is, I’d have been eating okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake, if you’ve never had the pleasure and OH EM GEE you have a treat coming) at least once a week since then, and so I am sharing it with you now so that you don’t lose any more time either.
There are a few ingredients which you can include if you can find them and which will make it more delicious, but if you don’t have them you can manage without (or order them online, but I don’t advise that for your first attempt because you will want to give it a go immediately and not wait for a stupid parcel to arrive).
This recipe makes one pancake, and as with any other type of pancake I would stick with making one at a time and eating it while it’s hot, if you can. This is snack food or (I’m so sorry) street food, you’re not serving it up as part of a fancy dinner party. (Also I think those are illegal now?)
For the pancake:
50g flour (I used plain but self-raising or gluten-free would be fine too)
Half a teaspoonful of dashi powder (or salt, or anything to add some flavour to the batter mix; I used powdered Chinese chicken soup)
A large handful of diced white cabbage
A small handful of finely chopped spring onions
You can stick with this, or you can add toppings, in which case you’ll want a scattering of fish, meat, veg or whatever you feel like eating. Okonomi, see. (The one in the photo just has sliced white onions, because that was all I had.)
For the garnish:
Mayonnaise (there is a Japanese shelf in Tian Tian, the Chinese supermarket close to Heron Quay on the Isle of Dogs so I picked up Japanese mayonnaise which is allegedly sweeter and richer, being made with less acid and only the yolks of the eggs but the usual stuff would be fine, or if you are a person who makes your own mayonnaise you can make it to the Japanese recipe instead)
Okonomiyaki sauce (as above, but it’s ridiculously easy to make your own, either by mixing ketchup with dark soy, runny honey and Worcestershire sauce to taste, or if you can’t even be bothered with that, by making a 50:50 mix of ketchup and brown sauce)
Katsobushi (fish flakes) and aonori (seaweed powder – both optional; I used seaweed flakes instead of either and you can also use dried shitaake mushroom shavings, or nothing at all)
Gently mix the flour, dashi or other seasoning, water and egg together in a bowl. You don’t want to bash it about too much but you do want to try to fold some air into it. Then add the cabbage and the spring onions and keep mixing until both are coated in the batter.
Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil (or any, I used sesame because vegetable oil is something I consistently fail to remember to buy, but traditionally that is what is used) in a large flat low-sided pan over a high heat. To test the temperature of the oil, drop a lick of batter into the pan. If it sizzles, it’s ready.
Turn the heat down, tip all the batter into the pan and gently shape it into something resembling a circle, patting the top and sides down just enough to give it some structure but making sure the air stays inside – you want to end up with a souffle-ish consistency, so don’t smother it to death. Then add your toppings, if you’re using them.
You can pretty much guess when it’s ready to be turned over, but as a guideline if you can pick the whole thing up with a fish slice without it falling apart then you’re ready to flip it. I think mine cooked for about five minutes on each side, but you’ll know when yours is ready because it will take about as long to do the second side as it did the first.
When it’s done, leave it in the pan while you drizzle the okonomiyaki sauce over it, then lift it out onto a warmed plate and add the mayo, katsobushi and aonori, if you have them, or shitaake, or anything else you feel like trying (I haven’t tried it but I think toasted sesame seeds would be good too), or nothing at all. Eat, then immediately make another and eat that too. You’re welcome.
The problem with working next to Oxford Street is that there is no consumable that I can’t get hold of by leaving the office and walking for five minutes. Need new gloves? Accessorize is right there. Knickers? M&S is just over the road. A beautifully-designed but faintly useless toothbrush? Muji is your friend.
Even worse, I can eat anything I like for lunch, and even worse than that, there’s a place at the back of the always-empty and visibly low-rent Plaza shopping centre called “Pizza Hut Express”, where you can get a 6″ pizza, chips and a drink for £4.69 and eat it at your own four-seater table in the food court. For the first week after I disovered it, I ate there almost every day, because why wouldn’t you?
I offset this, in my mind, with the fact that I walk in to work from Charing Cross in the mornings and back again in the evening: an upside of this location (and there are lots) is that more or less all of central London is within walking distance of here. The station is a mile away and it me takes less than twenty minutes to stride through Soho to reach it; Camden is two miles along the edge of Regent’s Park and barely takes longer to reach than it would by tube; Shoreditch is a bit further but still under an hour away on foot, and rather that than pile onto the Central Line at Oxford Circus in rush hour.
(I don’t go to Camden or Shoreditch for fun, incidentally. I am 36. But I have to go for work sometimes.)
The other way to offset it is to eat well in the evenings, which is much easier to do (or, rather, harder to not do) now we have a veg box. In our Abel and Cole 2013 calendar, February’s recipe is this celeriac and stilton soda bread, which is super-easy to make and tastes amazing (although I had to cook it for about 20 minutes longer than the recipe said), and since they sent me beetroots instead of carrots this week I made it last night with borscht, which is one of the best cheap but exciting things to make. Do wear an apron, because even fresh raw beetroot makes everything red, though not as permanently as the pickled stuff does. This recipe is an amalgam of several, and you should play around with adding and removing things, though I think you MUST add carrots to get that carroty silkiness, and you MUST strain it through a sieve, because it’s the contrast of the rich, earthy beetroot flavour with the delicateness of a strained soup that makes it so nice to eat. If you don’t have caraway seeds you can add fennel, or you can have both, or neither.
Ingredients (serves 2)
3-4 fresh beetroots
3-4 carrots, more if they are tiny
A stick of celery
A handful of shallots
A clove of garlic
1.5L of your stock of choice (mine is chicken but beef and vegetable are OK too)
A teaspoonful of caraway seeds
A bay leaf
Method: Peel and roughly chop all the vegetables and put them in a pan with the caraway seeds, the bay leaf and some black pepper, and salt if your stock is not a salty one. Cover with the stock, bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about an hour. Remove the bay leaf, whizz in the blender until smooth-ish, then strain through a sieve. Reheat on the hob and serve by itself or with a splosh of sour cream (Polish sour cream, which you can get in Polish stores, of which there is definitely one near you even if you haven’t ever noticed it, is tastier). Eat wearing a bib, or something you don’t mind getting red on.
Even though I had to stand in it for forty minutes this morning waiting for a series of trains that didn’t come, and even though it took several hours for me to regain feeling in my fingers after standing outside watching Palace play out a thrilling 0-0 draw against Bolton on Saturday, I love the snow. It’s so pretty! Here is a photo my sister took yesterday in my parents’ garden:
The dog is always that handsome, but the garden definitely gains from being laden with snow. The other thing about snow is that – like a sunset, or blossom on a tree – it is all the more beautiful for being tinged with the anticipation of its loss. Beauty in nature is impermanent, which is why nature is more interesting than art – and, incidentally, why the French nature mort is a better name than the English still life, because when you paint or photograph flowers or fruit you are trapping them in an airless stasis which snuffs out their vitality at its very root.
Any fictional detective worthy of the title will tell you that snow is very helpful when it comes to finding out what people have been up to, and although I have no reason to believe anyone was murdered on my street over the weekend, I did spend some time this morning piecing together my neighbours’ overnight activity based on the prints they left behind. Someone in pointy shoes left the building before I did this morning, then turned around and came back again (the prints coming up the stairs overlaid those going down in places, you see). More unusually, a fandango of men’s footprints in some yellowish snow at the other end of the street made me wonder if we hadn’t been witness to some sort of Bullingdon-style initiation ritual in the small hours, but on reflection I think it was just a drunk man having a piss and staggering a bit.
I don’t want to leave you with a piss, so instead here is my latest culinary discovery – born, as is often the case, out of necessity rather than invention: parsnip chips. They sound boring, but they taste amazing, and I am not particularly a parsnip fan. But we had loads, so I had a look on the internet and found a recipe, of which this is an adapted version:
Take 1-2 parsnips per person (we had one each, but they were big ones) and chop them into skinny fries about two inches long and a quarter of an inch around. In a bowl, mix them with a big glug of olive oil and some crunchy salt. Heat the oven to 220 degrees, spread the chips out on a baking tray so none of them are overlapping and bake for around 12 minutes, or until the fattest chips are golden brown (it is fine if some of them go dark burnt brown; they still taste good). If your oven heats better at the back than at the front like mine, turn the baking tray around halfway through.
We had them with poached salmon (lightly boiling water with a splash of lemon juice for 5-8 minutes depending on the size of the fish) and green beans (steam in a sieve over the salmon), but they would go with almost anything. Despite my best efforts we still have loads of parsnips, so I might try a spicy version later this week. I will report back.
Getting married was life-changing in many ways, but principal among them was that we bought a blender. I didn’t realise quite how amazing having a blender is until autumn came and we started getting a fruit and veg box delivered each week (because the local greengrocer, good though it is, gets a bit spare and bare from October to April, and I need my beauty greens). The combination of a veg box and a blender means we will never have to order a pizza again* because now, there is soup. It turns out that soup is as good as quiche for getting rid of whatever’s in the fridge that you haven’t got around to eating, AND it’s better for you, and less effort to make. Here is my foolproof veg box and blender soup recipe:
Melt some butter in a pan
Add crunchy veg (onions, peppers, leeks, celery, whatever you have) and cook gently for a few minutes
Add soft veg (potatoes, parsnips, ditto) and half a litre of stock
Bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until all the veg is soft
Whizz it in the blender until it’s smooth
Return to the pan, add pepper and salt if you need it and heat up again
When it’s hot, turn the heat off and add a splosh of cream (any kind – again, whatever is in the fridge) and stir
Serve with whatever bread is left in the house
*Obviously, we still order pizza. But not as often, and rarely because there is nothing else to eat.
Over the years I have got better at cooking not gradually, but in a series of leaps that look like this:
1976-1994: No cooking at all.
1994-99: University years. Specialities: pitta-bread pizzas, cheese toasties, tuna pasta bake.
1999-2005: Spent living with a chef. Learned a few bits of proper cooking, but mostly left it to him. Specialities: stuffed peppers, chilli con carne.
2005-2008: What I like to think of as The Wilderness Years. Very little cooking. Specialities: pasta with grated cheese, buttered crumpets, crisps.
2008-date: Sudden keen interest in cooking, wedding vouchers spent on kitchen equipment. Specialities: roast chicken, roast beef with yorkshire pudding, chicken pie, lasagne, apple crumble, sausage rolls, bread, cheese scones.
From which we can conclude that if you want to come over for dinner, you should do it now and not five years ago. Unless, that is, you want baked potatoes. I love baked potatoes. They are one of the simplest, cheapest, most honest and unfucked-about-with things you can eat, and a big one is a meal all by itself. But here’s the thing: I can’t bastard cook them. I have tried every method, and whatever I do they end up unevenly crunchy where they should be soft and soft where they should be crunchy or else so dried out as to be more or less inedible. There is no in-between. Occasionally, like one time in twelve, they have turned out OK, which makes it even worse because it’s just encouraging enough for me to keep trying, with almost-inevitable disappointment each time.
If you have a miracle method to share with me, please do. I will probably make a cock of it, but I’ll give it a go. The perfect baked potato is:
Not too dry
Liberally annointed with butter and cheese
Elegant in its proportions, not the size of a half-brick
I have no particular reason to be eating high-fat, high-carb, high-protein dinners. I am not in training for a marathon (and even if I were, I don’t think anyone recommends high-fat meals, unless it’s to cheer you up after running 15 miles in the rain). But last night we found ourselves with almost no food in the house and having eaten takeaway twice over the weekend, we didn’t quite feel able to do it again, so we were forced to improvise. This supper, whilst not the healthiest ever, has the advantage of being quick, yummy and so easy to make that you’ll barely notice you’ve done it.
Ingredients (serves 2)
One small packet of smoked salmon (or half a big packet left over from the weekend)
Half a packet of soft herby cheese, the kind that comes in a roulade (like Boursin, although we used the Co-op’s own-brand version)
Enough pasta for two people – fusilli or farfalle work best, but whatever you have
3-4 spring onions (or a handful of chives)
A little bit of lemon zest
Boil pasta as per the instructions. Meanwhile melt the cheese in a non-stick pan over a very low heat, adding a splash of milk to thin it whenever it gets too gloopy. Cut or tear the smoked salmon into smallish pieces and add it to the melted cheese when the pasta is ready. Drain the pasta and coat it with the cheese and salmon sauce. Chop the spring onion into small pieces and sprinkle it over the top with the lemon zest to serve.
The whole thing takes about ten minutes, or however long it takes you to boil pasta.
I haven’t been doing much cooking recently, but this weekend we finally got around to spending our wedding vouchers on, among other things, a blender and a griddle pan, both of which should arrive this week. So I plan to spend the summer experimenting with cakes, soup and grilled steaks. I will report back.
Today is pancake day, the day when we all stock up on eggs, flour, butter and milk in order to use them up before the start of Lent. I like to use Delia’s recipe because, well, why wouldn’t you? Also, she tells you to do “a test pancake” at the beginning, which is a beautifully elegant way of acknowledging that the first pancake of the batch is always inedible. Here are my other tips.
Delia suggests stacking the pancakes between greaseproof paper over a bowl of simmering water, so that they don’t get cold. I expect if you are making pancakes as part of a formal dinner this is worth doing, but I have never attended a pancake party where we didn’t just eat the pancakes as we went along. Pancakes are by their very nature an on-the-hop sort of food.
That said, take your time. You don’t have to do everything at breakneck speed, and if your pancakes cool down, or you run out of batter before everyone is fed, DON’T PANIC. You can always make extra, or have some ice cream instead.
Top pancake fillings:
Emmental with tomato passata (use more cheese than tomato, and season with black pepper)
Spinach, garlic and mushrooms
Lemon and sugar (Delia says caster sugar, but I prefer the crunchiness of granulated)
Ice cream and chocolate sauce (but you really do need a hot pancake for this one)
If all else fails, order a takeaway and console yourself with the knowledge that there are people who do this for a living, and it is within your power to take advantage of their expertise. My favourite pancake place is the stall at the western end of Exmouth Market on Thursday and Friday lunchtimes. Tell Dominique I sent you.
I don’t much like turkey. And apart from the beloved, who doesn’t like jacket potatoes so his taste in food is questionable anyway, I don’t really know anyone who does. We all eat it at Christmas because we’re supposed to, but chicken is just as nice and usually nicer, and certainly easier to cook. So what’s the point of turkey?
All of which went through my mind yesterday when I realised with dismay, halfway through marinating it for a stir fry, that I had accidentally bought turkey breast rather than chicken. Oh well, I thought, the beloved will enjoy it even if I don’t. And, feeling rather saintly, I continued marinating it in walnut oil, garlic, ginger, chillies and chives.
(The walnut oil and chives are a little unorthodox, I know: it’s just that unless there’s a compelling reason not to, I put walnut oil and chives in everything, because they are two of my favourite things.)
Later on, with the addition of cashew nuts, mange tout, egg noodles and a splash of soy sauce, I fried it all up and served it with a wrinkled nose and a feeling of resignation. And you know what? It was amazing. The turkey had a richness and a smokiness that I’ve never got from chicken, but was still light enough to carry all the flavours of the marinade without overwhelming them. It tasted almost more like pork than like chicken, and contrasted beautifully with the lightness of the mange tout and the noodles. It was also, contrary to expectations, not in the least dry, but juicy and succulent, even where I’d burned some of it at the edges when I left the kitchen briefly and then forgot to go back until I smelled the smoke.
So there you go: turkey isn’t as horrible as I thought, and it’s worth experimenting with methods other than the full Christmas roast version, because now I have a whole new ingredient to start playing with.