Onion squash is definitely my new favourite vegetable. I used it for the first time last week, when I braised it with a pork chop.

This time, I’ve cooked it with more or less the same combination of ingredients – squash, some onion and garlic, peas, sage – except I’ve made it into a quinoa risotto instead of having it as a side to meat.

(Can you call a dish a risotto if it doesn’t have rice in it? I doubt it, but you get the general idea…)

The method was pretty much the same as that for a risotto. Fry some onion and garlic, add the quinoa and some stock, then throw in the vegetables and herbs at the end to cook through. And, although I didn’t have any in my fridge tonight, I reckon a good spoonful or two of Parmesan would taste great with this.

Tune in again next week for part 3 of 101 Uses For An Onion Squash!

Last night, I took dinner round to my friend Nicky. After a week in hospital, she was in desperate need of feeding up, and I reckoned I was the person to do it!

I brought her a meal that I’d prepared the night before at home, so while she got her two extremely boisterous little children into bed, all I needed to do was put the dishes in the oven and sit down with a glass of wine. (Okay, so I’m a good friend when it comes to food, but not when it comes to helping out with the kids!)

First on the menu was leek, butter bean and potato gratin. I’d got these dinky little pie dishes when I recently made beef and oyster pies, and they were perfect for two individually sized gratins.

Into a mixing bowl I put a tin of drained butter beans and a sliced and washed leek, then seasoned it all with salt, pepper, and a teaspoon or so of chopped fresh rosemary. I divided the mixture between the two pie dishes and added about 100ml of milk to each one.

I’d bought some pink fir apple potatoes at the market last Saturday, and used them to top the gratins. Often, recipes that have sliced potato toppings say to add them raw, but I find it takes an absolute age to cook like this. So, I sliced the potatoes and par-boiled them in some salted water before layering them on top of the butter beans and leeks.

A little grated cheese and some more black pepper was scattered over the potatoes, and then they were baked in an oven heated to gas mark 4, for about 50 minutes.

I did mean to add some chopped garlic, but forgot. And I think it would have made a difference, so in the recipe that I’ll post later, I’ll put the garlic in. I also decided that the dish would have been improved by a half-and-half mix of stock and milk, so again, I’ll change that in the recipe. But all in all it was a warming winter meal.

For pudding, I made a pear and cinnamon tart. When I cooked the beef and oyster pies last December, I had some of the rough puff pastry left, so stuck it in the freezer – where I discovered it after a good rootle round at the weekend. I also had a bag of pears that I’d bought for a mere 40p at a supermarket, which had, in fact, turned out to be utterly tasteless.

The thin slices of pear were simmered in a little water, with some soft brown sugar and cinnamon, until soft. Then I simply placed them in a nice pattern on the rolled out pastry in a tart tin, and baked in an oven heated to gas mark 4 for about 40 minutes.

Although the tart certainly did wonders for the flavour of the pears, the pastry, unfortunately, was a little soggy in the middle. I’m not sure if it needed to be cooked for longer or had just not lasted well in the freezer, but I’ll experiment with it a bit more and post the recipe if I am more successful next time.

I was back at my new favourite fish stall, Devon Fish, at Borough Market on Saturday. What I like about the produce there is that it’s complete pot luck as to what you’re going to find. Which, when you think about it, is as it should be, if you want locally caught fish. I’m a bit suspicious when I go to a fish shop and see almost every fish that exists on the planet out on display. I begin to wonder just how far it came and how long ago it was caught.

Anyway, this week’s goodies at Devon Fish included some lovely shiny big whiting. Cheap, fresh and local – what more could you want? When I got it home and looked it up in Sophie Grigson and William Black’s cookery book, Fish, I was amused to see it described as, “old bespectacled fish that sit under woolly shawls… being the archetypal invalid food, together with warm tea and Rich Tea biscuits.”

Yes, whiting may be a very mild, soft, white-fleshed fish, but to me that just makes it eminently suitable for eating with nice strong flavours. In the same book, I found a recipe for a fish stew, the elements of which I already had in my cupboards. And that was as far as I followed the recipe, instead making a very quick, simple sauce in which to poach the fish.

Into a deep frying pan with a lid went half a tin of tomatoes, a pinch of saffron that had been steeped for a few minutes in hot water, about a teaspoon of crushed cumin seeds, a sprig of thyme, a chopped clove of garlic, and some salt and pepper. I simmered this for a few minutes, until the garlic was soft, then added the fish.

A fish like whiting would cook very well whole in a sauce like this, but I sliced it into what I guess are technically called steaks. Whiting has a nice thick spine, with relatively few bones, so it is very easy to pull off the meat once cooked. And thanks to the smallish chunks, it only took about 5 minutes of simmering in the tomato sauce to cook it through.

On the side I had some Savoy cabbage, which I’d actually bought the week before but hadn’t had a chance to use yet. I braised it in some olive oil, adding a few crushed fennel seeds and a little salt and pepper.

The result was a flavourful, substantial fish supper, made in a matter of minutes.

A spicy Sunday brunch

February 7, 2010

With a lazy Sunday ahead of me, guess what I decide to do with my time? Yep, cook. Starting with brunch, of course. (Actually, I’m only calling it brunch because it involves some serious spice, and I don’t want to put too many of you off by suggesting you eat chillies for breakfast!)

This is a dish I’m sure I got from a recipe somewhere, but it’s gone through so many incarnations, that I can’t actually remember what the original was. Anyway, today’s version incorporates the pul biber/tomato paste mix I got in Istanbul, instead of the fresh chillies I’ve used in the past.

I fried half a thinly sliced onion until soft, then added half a tin of tomatoes and a teaspoon of the spicy tomato paste (but you can just use some dried or fresh chilli – however much or little according to what you can stand on a Sunday morning). I added enough water to make it fairly saucy and let it simmer for a few minutes to incorporate the flavours.

To add some substance, I threw in a large handful of chopped parsley, a couple of chopped basil leaves, then seasoned with a little salt. I made a well in the middle of the sauce and broke in an egg. With a lid on the pan, I left the egg to poach in the tomatoey liquid for about 4 minutes.

Some bread in one form or another is essential for this dish, to make the most of the lovely runny yolk and spicy sauce.

Who’d have thought that a hospital meal could inspire my dinner last night.

My friend Nicky was not very well recently, and spent a week in a rather depressing south London hospital. Inevitably, the food was dire, which didn’t help one iota in getting her appetite back – until her doctor told her, “You need to be an Asian vegetarian!”

So, for one week only, that’s what she was. I was with her on a couple of occasions when her meal was delivered, and, you know what? For hospital food, it wasn’t half bad!

If anything can make you crave a certain kind of food, I reckon it’s the mouthwatering fragrance of curry. So, when I noticed a large head of cauliflower in my fridge that needed eating, alongside a sweet potato, I knew exactly what my Friday-night dinner was going to be.

Usually, I like my curries hot, hot, hot, but chillies didn’t feel like the right spice to add to cauliflower and sweet potato. So I popped some black mustard seeds and whole cumin seeds in hot vegetable oil, then cooked the cubed sweet potato, followed by the cauli florets. A teaspoon of turmeric added some appropriately curry-coloured yellows, and a sprinkling of fresh coriander finished it off at the end.

Thankfully, Nicky is back at home and well on the road to recovery. But I think it might be a while before she fancies a curry again!

Measure for measure

February 5, 2010

I think it says something about my family and their attitude to food and cooking that I consider my old Tala measuring cone to be something of an heirloom.

It was pretty ancient even when my mum owned it, and I remember clearly her forbidding us to wash it or – god forbid – put it in the dishwasher if it was only being used for dry goods, just in case the measuring marks started to wear off.

For a long time, it was the only measuring device I owned – no glass jug with millilitres marked up the side, or even a pair of scales to weight out grams and ounces. Just my trusty Tala.

And, even now, when I have everything from the tiny shot-glass sized measurer pictured here (another weeny gift from my sister. Hmm, I’m beginning to see a pattern here…) to a trusty 2-litre Oxo Grips jug, my Tala is often the first thing I reach for.

Hopefully, one day, it’ll be passed on to another generation of foodies.

Chop chop…

February 3, 2010

Last night’s supper was so quick and so tasty, I surprised even myself. I was just in the mood for the pork chop I’d bought at The Ginger Pig, and the dinky little onion squash I picked up at one of the vegetable stalls struck me as the perfect accompaniment.

Squash, it seems to me, has become quite a trendy vegetable. There’s certainly a much wider variety available now – and, to be honest, they were something I only ever used to associate with naff Harvest Festival displays in remote village halls.

But they are so cheap, and, I have pleasantly discovered, so sweetly delicious, that I have decided to give them a second chance.

Never having cooked onion squash before, I did some reading up on it, and got the impression it would be soft enough to cook and eat with the skin on.

So, I quickly browned the pork chop in a frying pan, removed it to a plate, then sliced the squash and added it to the pan. After about 5 minutes, I put the chop back in, seasoned with salt and pepper, added a few chopped sage leaves and a little water to stop it all sticking, and left it to simmer.

As predicted, the squash was nice and tender after another 5 minutes or so, which was how long it took for the pork to cook, too. Being a bit of a pea fiend, I added a handful of frozen ones to pad out the meal, and as soon as they were cooked through, I served up.

All in all, it took about 20 minutes to put this dish together. And about 2 minutes to eat it!

Hello ducky!

February 2, 2010

As someone who really loves food (what, didn’t you realise?), most of the time I refuse to compromise what I eat just because I’m cooking for one. So, it was with a certain amount of glee that I read an article in last Sunday’s Observer Food Monthly magazine about what famous foodies eat when they’re alone. It was reassuring to see that I’m not the only one to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing, cooking and eating good food on my own.

A perfect example of the pleasure I take in cooking and eating on my own is the neat little wild duck I bought at Shellseekers in Borough Market, last Saturday. Being wild, it was quite small compared to the farmed ducks you generally find, and I had every intention of scoffing the lot myself.

However, it wasn’t to be. My friend Lene unexpectedly invited herself over for dinner on Monday night, so I decided to be a good friend and share my duck with her!

As I was at home on Sunday, I thought I’d get ahead of the game and cook the duck then, so all I would have to do on Monday evening, when I got home from work, was reheat the dish. So, once again, I turned to my bulging folder of cut-out recipes, and found this Nigel Slater one for slow-cooked duck with ginger and star anise.

Inevitably, there were a couple of ingredients I didn’t have – the rice wine and the palm sugar. So I replaced them with rice wine vinegar and honey. Plus, instead of cutting the duck into pieces before going into the pot, because it was so small, I just cooked it whole and carved it up once cooked.

This is the first time I’ve knowingly eaten wild duck, and it really did taste wonderful – full-flavoured, succulent and, crucially, not too fatty. Just watch out for the lead shot!

Salted butter caramels

February 1, 2010

Vanilla pods are the kind of thing that can easily sit in your cupboard, and never get used. I was determined not to let that happen to the ones I bought in Istanbul at Christmas. So, when I saw this recipe for salted butter caramels on David Lebovitz’s blog, I knew this was something I had to try.

I’ve never made sweets before, and I have a cooking thermometer that has sat in a kitchen drawer for many months, so it was the perfect opportunity to put it (and me!) to the test.

I know any recipe that involves cooking sugar to high temperatures needs careful attention and precision, so I gathered everything together and read through the instructions a couple of times before I started. It all seemed to go to plan, and the thermometer did its job well.

The problems started when I tried to peel the set caramel away from the tin foil. It wouldn’t. Basically.

It took several visits to the freezer (which made the tin foil brittle) and some very patient peeling to get it all off – although I’m not convinced there aren’t still some tiny shreds in there somewhere. I’ll just have to be careful not give any to anyone with metal fillings.

When I told my friend Lea about my caramel trials, she said that as a child in Scotland, whenever there was heavy snow, they would make toffee and take the boiling liquid outside and pour it into the snow, making kind of home-made Curly Wurlys. That certainly sounded like much more fun than my attempts! They may taste good but I’m not sure I’m going to be motivated to make them again.

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