Advent (non-)activity #9

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.


  • Brussels sprouts
  • Olive oil
  • Chili flakes
  • Garlic (or garlic paste)
  • Grated parmesan
  • 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 Carpenters before, 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.

Recipe: borscht with celeriac and stilton soda bread

Celeriac and stilton soda bread

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.

On being pro snow, plus what to do with too many parsnips

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.

The perfect baked potato

A baked potato
A baked potato

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:

  • Fluffy
  • Not too dry
  • Not reheated
  • Liberally annointed with butter and cheese
  • Elegant in its proportions, not the size of a half-brick

Damn, I’m hungry now.

A lazy, high-fat, high-carb, high-protein dinner

Homer Simpson
Me, yesterday

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)

Some milk

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.

Let’s talk turkey

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.

I am still right about jacket potatoes, though.


I’m not very good at barbecue food. I’m not very good at meat in general, and I’m especially not good at meat that comes in big greasy hunks, with bones and fatty parts still attached. And although I like sausages, I prefer them gently and evenly cooked through rather than burned to a crisp (and still pink on the inside), a phenomenon which only the very skilled barbecue chef seems able to avoid.

So whenever I’m invited to a barbecue, I bring kebabs, because the best way to get food evenly cooked is to chop it up small, and because even if you don’t like one of the ingredients, it’s not long until you get to the next one. I quite often do veggie kebabs, but this weekend we had some chicken pieces in the freezer and a chorizo in the fridge, so I made about a dozen spicy chicken and mushroom kebabs, and about a dozen halloumi and chorizo.

The easiest way to get grilled vegetables wrong is to let them dry out, so I started by chopping two red onions, two orange and yellow peppers and a handful of what I think were portobello mushrooms, pouring a couple of tablespoonfuls of olive oil over them, adding a liberal amount of pepper and slightly less salt, and stirring it all together.

(Courgettes are another good addition, but I had used up all our courgettes the night before, making a lovely simple grated courgette and lemon zest sauce for pasta courtesy of a proper food writer, the recipe for which I can’t find now but will link to once I’m able to dig it out.)

The halloumi and chorizo kebabs were easy: I just alternated the cheese and meat with pieces of onion and pepper – the important thing here is to make sure the components have a similar density, so they cook at about the same time. And use slices of onion, not chunks, or the insides will make your eyes water.

I cut the chicken into 3cm pieces and marinated them for a couple of hours in an adapted version of a recipe from Nigel Slater, where you mix groundnut oil (I used pistachio oil, because it was the closest I had), chillis, paprika, spring onions, runny honey (I used maple syrup), lemon juice and crushed garlic, and coat the chicken in it.

I soaked the skewers in cold water for as long as I could before I made up the kebabs, which just about stopped them from catching fire, and I transported the whole thing on a plastic tray which I bought at our local Costcutter, having realised too late that I had nothing big enough to put them in:

Phone photo, hence the slight haze. Must buy a camera.

One tip: halloumi can be quite crumbly when it’s uncooked, and it’s easy to split it when you skewer it. I found it helped if I stabbed it very quickly and firmly, rather than trying to do it gently.

They need cooking for about five minutes on each side, although there’s nothing in the non-chicken ones that will do you any harm if they’re a bit underdone. Colourful, flavoursome and easy to share with newfound friends, they beat a burnt sausage any day.

A summery sausage supper

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but here in WC2 the weather has been beautiful for the last few days, so when I suggested sausages for dinner last night, mashed potatoes and onion gravy didn’t feel like quite the right accompaniment. I googled “side dishes” and trawled through the results for inspiration, and eventually decided on a potato salad with gherkins and coleslaw.

Potato salad and coleslaw are things you can easily buy in the shops, but they’re usually gloopy with too much mayonnaise, so I plumped for a halfway house, making the potato salad from scratch but buying the coleslaw from a local deli, in the best tradition of the lovely Nigella.

Potato salad can have just about anything you like in it – the only essential ingredient is the new potatoes. For this one I added a finely-chopped raw shallot with fresh parsley and a dressing made from equal parts olive oil and white wine vinegar, with a dollop of Dijon mustard and a dollop of runny honey. I’d use a bit less vinegar than oil another time. Pour the ingredients together in a tumbler and whip them up with a fork into a paste, then pour that over the potatoes, shallot and parsley and stir.

Potato salad is nicest when it’s still slightly warm, so I made the salad first and then let it cool for just as long as it took to grill the sausages. We had a mixture of Toulouse and smoked sausages last  night, but just use your favourites. Add a spoonful of coleslaw and a gherkin and you have a meatily flavoursome summer supper for almost no effort at all.

Since (mostly) giving up booze I have been experimenting to discover which soft drinks go best with different kinds of food. My most exciting finding so far is that ginger beer is an excellent substitute for dessert wine. The ideal non-alcoholic companion to this meal is, I think, a nice cloudy apple juice.

On this weekend’s menu: hot cross buns, Easter chocolate and the rest of the wedding cake tasters that we brought back from Dublin at the weekend. It’s a tough gig but someone’s gotta do it.

Friday stuff

I am working up to another mammoth books post, whenever I find time to write it. I’ve been too busy writing other people’s profiles on My Single Friend (and I don’t know why I’m linking to them really, because their system is SHODDY, but the front end is quite good and it’s fun writing about other people).

In the meantime, here are some links to enliven your Friday afternoon:

  • Russel Brand on Jade Goody is the first really personal and thoughtful thing I’ve read about the whole affair
  • In lieu of my increasingly forlorn attempts to look for a new job, ten ways to make your boss love you
  • A really tasty chicken stew with a summery twist which I made yesterday.  I found it by googling “chicken radish”, those being two of the three things I had an abundance of in my fridge. As luck would have it, the third thing I had an abundance of was cucumber, and this recipe calls for that, too.

(An underexplored measure of adulthood is one’s ability to use up salad vegetables before they go old. This is the first time I have ever finished a whole cucumber.  I made cucumber sandwiches on Sunday, a salad on Monday and a stew on Thursday. I’m so grown-up I’m practically dead.)

A recipe

This recipe doesn’t have a name, because I only made it up on Monday. But it was really nice, so I think it deserves to be written down. Call it anything you like.

Ingredients (serves 2)

2 chicken breasts

A handful of bean shoots

A handful of mange tout, chopped into pieces an inch long

Three spring onions, chopped up small

Brown rice

Cashew nuts


Olive oil

For the marinade

2 tbsp sesame oil

Three cloves of garlic, chopped or sliced

A little hunk of ginger, finely chopped

A sprinkling of chili flakes


A splash of lemon juice

Mix the sesame oil, garlic, ginger, chili flakes, salt and lemon juice together in a dish. Cut the chicken into smallish pieces and stir it in, making sure every piece of chicken is coated with marinade. Leave for at least half an hour.

Boil the rice. When it’s got about 15 minutes to go, heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Once it’s hot, add the chicken and fry quickly on both sides until it starts to brown.

Turn the heat down and add the mange tout and the bean shoots. Keep stirring.

When the rice has ten minutes to go, add the cashews to the rice pot. Once the rice is done, drain it, add a slab of butter and close the lid for a minute.

Add the spring onion to the chicken pan, stir and take off the heat. Take the lid off the rice and stir it so that the butter is mixed in. Add the rice to the chicken and stir everything together. Put on plates. Eat.