Carrot Sultana Salad

Lovely carrot sultana salad, based on one from my Lebanese book. Works well with middle eastern dishes and Indian. For me it’s actually got a Chinese sort of flavour, I think because of the toasted sesame seeds, ginger and spring onions.
Quite simply, it works with everything. Great with barbecues where you want a range of salad types and textures, with grilled meat or fish.
The modern plump “ready to eat” sultanas/raisins that are not fully dehydrated work well.
Quantities are approximate as with all salads you will want to vary to taste and preference.
  • 5 medium carrots
  • 100g of nice sultanas, you could use raisins
  • Chopped coriander to taste
  • 2-3 teaspoons of grated ginger
  • 3 spring onions
  • Drizzle of balsamic vinegar to taste
  • Teaspoon of runny honey
  • A Generous tablespoon of sesame seeds, which you have toasted in a dry frying pan.
  1. If you have one, use a mandolin to julienne half of the peeled carrots, then grate the rest coarsely. You could just grate all of them, it depends what sort of texture you want. I like the crunchiness of the little carrot julienne in my salad. Texture is important.
  2. Add all the other ingredients and mix
  3. The finished salad needs to stand for at least 30 minutes for the flavours to get to know one another, don’t rush it.
For your carrot sultana salad to work you really just need to adjust the ingredients to taste. I think it needs a bit of vinegar and a bit of sweetness. If it’s too sweet add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, too sour add a bit more honey.
Some toasted peanut, cashew, or pistachio might be a welcome addition.

Macaroni Cheese

Macaroni Cheese, or Mac Cheese to most, makes a great Saturday evening pasta bowl dinner while catching up with that DVD backlog or the latest “Strictly…”.
This probably serves 3 people or a very hungry couple with some leftovers for supper or the following day’s lunch. (I have to say that microwaved leftover Mac Cheese is definitely a good thing.) Personally, I like Marshall’s small macaroni pasta tubes though some prefer a penne size where more sauce can get into the tube.  Cheese-wise I like the slightly milder Gruyere, though there’s nothing wrong with a cheddar. I like it fairly traditional and simple. If you think pre-seasoning the milk with bay and shallot is a load of old cheffy guff, then don’t. I sometimes put a small amount of thinly sliced tomato on top and then sprinkle the grated cheese, tomato haters won’t. If things like chive are anathema to you then leave ’em out.

  • 60g plain flour
  • 60g butter
  • 1 tsp English mustard powder, or 1-2 tsp of dijon mustard
  • 850ml Milk (I use semi-skimmed but any should do)
  • Bay leaf
  • Nutmeg
  • 250g Macaroni pasta
  • Gruyere cheese 200-300g to taste
  • 1-3 tbsp chopped chives (to taste)
  • Seasoning (salt & pepper)
  • Tomato (optional)
In summary, you make a roux, to make a béchamel sauce. Cook the pasta. Combine with the béchamel (into which you put three-quarters of the grated cheese). Sprinkle with cheese and oven bake for 15-20 minutes. In detail….
  1. Up to an hour before warm the milk with the bay leaf (and some peppercorns, if you like, even a few slices of onion or shallot wouldn’t go amiss) and leave to infuse for 60 minutes. This adds a nice warm bay/savoury flavour to the milk.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180C Fan
  3. Put a big pot of salted water on to boil in preparation for the pasta
  4. Melt the butter in a pan, and then whisk in the flour to make the roux. Let it cook off on a low heat for 4-5 minutes. This prevents the béchamel having a floury taste.
  5. Make the béchamel by slowly adding and whisking in about half to two-thirds of the milk. (Making it too milky at the start means the milk might burn on the bottom of the pan. You can add the last of the milk later.)
  6. Simmer the béchamel very gently for about 5 minutes, again this cooks out a flouriness. Add a pinch of salt and a good twist of black pepper. Also, grate in a decent amount of nutmeg. I find about a third of a whole nutmeg is OK. Find what works for you.
  7. Put the pasta on, 10 minutes is fine. Keep stirring the béchamel as it continues to simmer so it doesn’t burn.
  8. Grate the cheese, a coarse grate is Ok, and it’s quicker.
  9. Add the last of the milk to the béchamel to warm up
  10. One minute before the pasta is ready put in about three-quarters of the cheese to the béchamel, so it begins to soften and melt into the sauce, taking the pot off the heat.
  11. Stir in the chopped chives if you are using
  12. Drain the pasta and put in your oven dish
  13. Add the cheesy béchamel and stir gently to mix through
  14. Add tomatoes on top or any other garnish if using. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and a smirr of Nutmeg
  15. Cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes
  16. If it’s too pale on top turn the heat of the oven up to max for 6-8 minutes to brown the top slightly
Remove it from the oven and let it stand for at least 5-6 minutes to settle and cool slightly. Serve in pasta bowls, which you won’t need to pre-heat as it’s such a hot dish.
  • You could add some browned pancetta to the béchamel sauce
  • Mix some breadcrumbs with parmesan and layer the top with this to form a crunchy texture

Chicken & Mushroom (or Leek) Pie

A completed Chicken and Mushroom Pie with Golden Pastry
Chicken and Mushroom Pie

I love chicken and mushroom pie. Substitute some leeks if you don’t like mushrooms. I particularly like this as it has a good chicken flavour. Some people might argue it’s not a pie because it only has a pastry lid, but it’s a pie to me.

A well-flavoured stock is the secret of a nice chicken pie. And the poaching of the chicken leaves the meat soft and succulent. I like the chicken cooked in advance.

It’s a great one to do in advance all up to the pastry stage. The chilled filling can be in the fridge (well chilled, this is better for the pastry which must go on a cold filling, anything warm partly poaches the pastry before it rises, and makes it very soggy) in the dish just waiting for its pastry lid. Indeed, to save even more last-minute fuss, the pastry lid can also be added when the filling is cold and kept in the fridge, so the pie just needs glazed and then 30-40 minutes in the oven to warm (remember, the chicken is already cooked.)
  • Chicken big enough for the size of pie you want
  • Onion, carrot, celery, herbs (tarragon/parsley is nice) for stock
  • Milk or cream (I use semi-skimmed milk and it’s just fine. A lot of cream makes it heavier)
  • Portobello mushrooms, enough for the pie depending on how many mushrooms you like. If it’s autumn and you get wild mushrooms then use them.)
  • More herbs for the sauce (tarragon and/or parsley)
  • 30g butter
  • 30g plain flour
  • Nutmeg for grating
  • Shop bought rolled puff pastry (life’s too short to make puff pastry)
  • Beaten egg to glaze
  1. Cook the chicken gently in a casserole of water with herbs and veg. Don’t make the casserole too big in relation to the chicken or you get a weak stock. A tight-fitting casserole is best, you only need about 500ml of stock. Cover the chicken and cook for about 60-75 minutes, depending on the size of the bird. The stock should just blip gently on the stove, it doesn’t need a hard boil.
  2. Drain, sieve and reserve the stock from the cooked chicken, you will use this to make a sauce for the pie
  3. Once cooled pick the chicken meat from the carcass and cover. You may want to keep it in the fridge if you won’t use it soon. Discard the carcass as the flavour has been removed when you made the stock.
  4. Sauté the mushrooms and set aside with chicken
  5. Reduce the stock, if required, with the herbs to about 500ml to concentrate the flavour
  6. Make a roux of the butter and plain flour
  7. Add the stock slowly and in small batches to make a sauce
  8. Add a splash of milk
  9. Season the sauce with salt and plenty of pepper, and a grating of nutmeg
  10. Add the sauce to the chicken and mushrooms, mixed together in a pie dish and chill in the fridge until properly cold
  11. Once cool add the pasty top, glaze with egg and make a hole for steam
  12. Cook for about 30-40 minutes at about 180C fan, until the pastry is golden, and the filling hot. If it’s getting too dark you can turn the temperature down 10-20 degrees to allow the filling to fully warm. A temperature probe is brilliant for checking it’s fully warmed through by sticking it in the steam hole you made.
  • Try some sautéed leeks instead of the mushrooms
  • You could try adding some rehydrated porcini mushrooms but watch you don’t overpower the flavour of the chicken
  • You could add some leftover cooked ham to make chicken and ham pie

Cyclamen For Spring and Autumn

You need cyclamen in your garden, especially if you have semi-shaded spots that need brightening up in spring or autumn. My favourites are probably the autumn ones as they are often in flower at the beginning of November when everything else has given up. They become a surprising and welcome beacon of colour.

Cyclamen hederifolium at the foot of a rock in the woodland garden.
Cyclamen hederifolium at the foot of a rock in the woodland garden.

There are two common species that are easy plants and suitable for growing outside in the UK. One flowers in spring (Cyclamen coum), and the other in autumn (Cyclamen hederifolium.) There are others but let’s keep it to a couple for now.

Both have a spectrum of flower colour from pure white through pinks to a dark magenta colour.

They grow from tubers, which are generally fairly shallow beneath the soil. Their leaves are just as varied as their flowers and are attractive in their own right.

They like a well drained humous rich soil and will survive under shrubs with enough light.

Their other merit is an ability to self-seed in the right environments. If you have good healthy plants the chances are you will have seedlings before long.

You can often buy them in bulk quantities advertised like “10 mixed Cyclamen” in 9cm pots. I’ve tried buying and planting the tubers before (they are like a sphere squashed a good bit to be disk-like), but to be completely honest I found it tricky to tell what was the top, and what was the bottom, and if they are over-dry then they sometimes fail too. So losses were higher than planned. I’ve had full success with the small potted ones (though the bloody rabbits sometimes dig them up, you can re-plant.)

They don’t thrive in sites that get hot afternoon sun. A light shade is favoured. Plant them with the tubers about 2-3cm deep, or just as they come if you get growing ones in pots.

If you dot them around, in humous litter between the buttress roots of a big tree, or at the foot of a woodland boulder, or just at the edge of a path, then they surprise you with their appearance each spring or autumn. Little garden gems.

Oh, and hederifolium means “ivy-leafed”, guess why.


Rice Pudding – A School Dinner Classic

Rice pudding is one of the great classics of our childhood and school dinners. You might even remember the Ambrosia tinned rice pudding. Loved and loathed in equal measure. If like me, you loved it, or you fancy giving it another try this is the recipe for you. Based on a recipe by the wonderful Simon Hopkinson, his is by far the best I’ve come across, from his book “The Good Cook.”
Simple and easy, the ultimate comfort food. It’s relatively quick to assemble followed by a slow cook. It’s also best served lukewarm or about room temperature. So it’s good for doing in advance for that retro school dinner themed dinner party.
Raisins, a welcome fruity addition or an abomination of the devil? It’s up to you. Load ‘em up or leave ‘em out.
  • 40g butter
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 100g pudding rice or Spanish paella rice (a short grain rice, not something like basmati.) It sounds too little and looks too little when you cook, but trust the recipe, it’s right.
  • ½ a vanilla pod, split lengthways
  • 1 litre full cream milk (I usually have semi-skimmed in the fridge so I reduce this by 100ml and add an extra 100ml or double cream.)
  • 150ml double cream (add more if using semi-skimmed milk)
  • pinch of salt
  • generous freshly grated nutmeg, as much or as little as you like
  • Raisins (as many or as few as you prefer, even none, the pudding is great on its own.) Add them at the same time as the milk.
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 140C fan
  2. Melt the butter on the stove top in either a casserole you will cook the pudding in or a suitable pot
  3. Add the sugar and stir, heating gently, till the butter and sugar are soft and amalgamated
  4. Add the rice and the vanilla pod
  5. Stir the rice into the sugary mix. It will coat the rice and the rice will heat up.
  6. After a minute or two add the milk. The cold milk cools the rice mixture and some lumps may form, but don’t panic. Keep stirring and the lumps will dissolve as the milk warms.
  7. Add the cream and salt, and half the nutmeg, and bring it all to the simmering point
  8. Now it’s oven time. Grate over a good amount of nutmeg on the settled milk, don’t stir it in as this will become part of the lovely caramelised topping.
  9. Put it in the oven for 60-90 minutes.
  10. The pudding is ready when a light skin has formed and it is mostly set with a wobbly middle.
  11. Take it out to cool. Best served either lukewarm or at room temperature.

Chicken Vindail – Tomato Based Indian Curry

Last night I made Chicken Vindail for dinner. It is really tasty, a bit different, and quick to make. This Chicken Vindail is based on a Rick Stein recipe,  I can highly recommend his book on Indian food.

Pasta bowl with Chicken Vindail and plain basmati rice
Chicken Vindail with Plain Basmati Rice

Make this with chicken breasts, or a jointed chicken, or some skin on thighs and drummers according to your preference. I quite often have some chicken breast in the freezer in single portions to be used to make dishes as required. The cooking time for the chicken needs to be reduced or extended depending on the type and size of chicken pieces you use (cut up breasts will cook much quicker, but have a bit of a flavour disadvantage.)

Even if making this for myself where I reduce the quantities a bit I find I can put in a similar amount of spice and the full amount of vinegar and sugar, even if I’m using only 300g tomatoes and 1 chicken breast. Kashmiri Mirch is pretty ferocious so I’ve reduced the quantity to 1 tsp. If you like it hot, or your chilli powder is not as strong, then you may want some more.
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2cm cinnamon stick
  • 1 clove
  • 1 star anise
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 10 cloves of garlic, crushed. Use common sense here. If they are huge fat cloves then reduce by a few.
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri mirch, chilli powder
  • ½ tsp ground fenugreek
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 500g chopped tomatoes (no need to peel)
  • 1kg chicken thighs and drummers (or 2-3 chicken breasts chopped into big chunks. Don’t cut them too small or they just dry out. Reduce the time they are in the cooking sauce. I find 15 minutes simmering long enough.)
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp sugar (you could get a bit fancy and use jaggery but it really won’t make any difference)
  1. Temper the cinnamon, clove and star anise by frying in the hot oil for 60 seconds
  2. Add the chopped onions and cook on a medium heat till they soften and go a bit golden, should take about 15 minutes
  3. Add the crushed garlic, cumin, chilli, fenugreek, turmeric, and salt. Cook these off for about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes, cooking them for 5 minutes till they begin to soften down.
  5. Add the chicken pieces, stirring them in to coat with the sauce, if using breast meat then hold them back for a later addition.
  6. Cover the pot and simmer for 30-40 minutes. (Simmer the sauce until the chicken is cooked and the sauce has a nice consistency.) Watch for it drying and catching, add a little water from the kettle if needed. If using breast you will get away with leaving it out until last 15 minutes. If using larger chicken pieces take care to cook long enough to fully cook through. A temperature probe can be useful for checking if larger pieces of meat are cooked.
  7. Stir in the vinegar and sugar to finish, simmering gently for 5 minutes uncovered.
Lovely with plain basmati rice or some Indian breads.

Pesto – Classic Italian Pasta Sauce

The subject of a Pesto recipe is a minefield and subject to so much variation. There is no right list of ingredients or method. Many people omit the garlic. Here’s what I prefer. It sounds more work than it is to make. Once you’ve done it a few times it’s pretty quick. You can vary the quantities as you prefer, less cheese, more pine nuts, less garlic. In some recipes, the cheese is pecorino (it’s creamier, sharper, less salty.)
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts
  • 1 clove of garlic (try half or quarter clove if it’s too much)
  • All the leaves (yes, all, but not the stalks) from one of those growing basil plants you can buy in the supermarket
  • About 50g finely grated parmesan (Gran Padano works pretty well and will be cheaper)
  • 100-200ml of nice extra virgin olive oil depending on how “oily” you prefer
Method (Mortar and Pestle)
  1. Toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan until nicely coloured. Remove them immediately when done (I like a decent bit of dark toasting on the pine nuts) to cool on a plate
  2. Crush and grind the garlic clove to as creamy as paste as you can manage, a few pieces of coarse salt can help this but you don’t want too much as the parmesan is salty.
  3. Now pound the basil leaves and work them till they are a green mush
  4. Add the cooled pine nuts and crush them with the leaves
  5. Begin adding the oil and making a loose paste
  6. Add the parmesan and amalgamate to the paste
  7. Continue to add the oil and stirring it to create a nice a texture you like
If using a blender then just toast and cool the pine nuts, then pretty much everything can go in the blender and get whizzed.
I usually just spoon the Pesto on top of hot spaghetti pulled straight from the cooking pot. Spoon over as much or as little Pesto as you like and mix through with your fork. If you like you can pre-dry some halved cherry tomatoes for about 1 hour in a 100C oven. Sprinkle them over your pasta for extra deliciousness. I also like to keep some of the toasted pine nuts back to sprinkle on top.
It will keep in an airtight Kilner jar in the fridge for a few days as long as there is enough oil in it.

How To Grow Your Own Garlic

Growing your own garlic is incredibly easy and only a few minutes work. Buying two bulbs from a supplier (I mail order but many decent garden centres will carry them) for about £5 now will give you 25-30 bulbs next summer. Depending on how much garlic you use, that should see you through till the following spring. I would suggest these are great for kids learning about planting food, but many kids don’t like garlic, so possibly not.

The best time to plant, for me in Glenlyon, is October/November. You need to plant in some well drained ordinary soil. These bulbs will hate sitting in waterlogged soil. I have raised beds and use these.

You get two sorts of garlic: Hardneck, which has a stiff green leaves, and I tend to grow; softneck, where the green leaves are softer and floppy at the top of the bulb. It may take a couple of seasons to find a variety you prefer, for flavour, and suits your growing situation best.

Freshly harvested garlic
Freshly harvested garlic, mid-July 2017

Buy 2 bulbs (or more if you want) from a supplier. They need to be suitable for autumn planting, as some don’t do well over winter. You’re best not to buy from a supermarket for a few reasons: the variety might not be growable the UK climate; you can’t tell which variety you are getting; not all varieties can be planted in autumn to overwinter; they may have diseases.

Plant in October if you can, but it can be fine up till December if the soil is warm enough. The roots start to form and the green tips will poke up to just above the surface of the soil before winter arrives properly. Don’t worry, they’ll be fine under the snow.

Separate the bulbs into the individual corms. Tiny sliver corms probably won’t grow big bulbs, the bigger the corm the better the resulting bulb.

Prepare a small plot or section of a raised bed by forking over the soil and raking lightly. You could even grow these in an appropriately sized pot.

Gently push the corms into the soil till they are about their own length under the soil. I often poke a small hole with my finger then put the corm in. Close up by using your hand to cover the bulb.

Plant the corms in rows, about 6 inches between the rows and the corms. Don’t forget to stick a label in as they are below the soil and if you are anything like me you will forget where you put them and disturb them with other planting.

Water the bulbs in spring and summer if it gets really dry. You can produce good sized bulbs from good sized corms that are well fed. I use liquid seaweed like the one in the link below, there are lots of options.

You will get two harvests from hardneck garlic. The first is very seasonal and you have to spot the garlic coming in to flower. As it begins to throw up a flower spike, and while the flower is just a swelling on a rising green spike, cut the spike off. The flower spike is a garlic scape. It’s delicious cut into 2-3cm lengths, sautéed in oil and tossed through some fresh pasta with perhaps some flat leaf parsley. The scapes need to be cooked, blanched or fried, to have a gentle garlic flavour, otherwise they might be too harsh. The flowers could happen any time from April to June depending on weather. You need to cut them off anyway to stop the bulb wasting energy producing a flower.

Harvest the bulbs in about July time, when they will probably begin to have brown or fading foliage.  Gently fork them up and shake off the soil from the roots. Try and pick a dry spell to harvest, but don’t worry if it rains. I lay the bulbs with their attached foliage. on their sides for a few days to allow the outer part of the bulb to dry slightly. After they have dried I use secateurs to trim the roots, taking care not to damage the bulb, and I cut off the foliage about 8cm above the bulb. I then sit them upright in a dry wooden box in the light and dry in my shed. It gives a wonderful garlic aroma to the shed for weeks.

Another real treat treat use one of the fresh “wet” garlic bulbs to make yourself some pesto and have with fresh spaghetti, perhaps with some wilted rocket stirred through it. A delicious taste of summer.

Bring a bulb of garlic into the house when you need one, and you can do this through the rest of the year and perhaps till next spring depending on how much you use.


Pasta al Forno, with Tomato, Mozzarella and Parmesan

A very simple dish that we’ve made for about 30 years It’s been a great standby and always seems to hit the spot. Not really authentic Italian but it is Italianesque. Cooked in the oven, al forno.
This quantity is generous for two people.
  • 1-2 tbsp ordinary olive oil
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 1-2 garlic cloves crushed, quantity according to taste
  • 1 tsp crushed chillies (optional)
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 ball of Mozzarella chopped to 1-2cm cubes (we use the stuff in brine and poly bags from the supermarket. It’s going in the oven so we don’t bother with fancy, expensive, buffalo mozzarella. Equally, the hard stuff you can grate is not right for this dish.)
  • a generous handful of freshly grated parmesan (or Gran Padano is just as good). (The dry ready grated stuff you used to get that smelled like vomit cannot be used. It is actually a hanging offence in some parts of Italy.)
  • 20-30 basil leaves
  • 250g dried pasta tubes. Your preference. We use Rigatoni but Penne works fine.
  1. Put on a big pot of water to boil for the pasta, and preheat the oven to 180C fan.
  2. Soften the onion gently for about 20 minutes until it’s soft and translucent
  3. Add the chillies (if you like it hot, angry – “arrabbiata”)
  4. Add the garlic and cook it off for 2 minutes
  5. Add the tomatoes and salt/pepper and simmer very gently for 10-15 minutes (this simmering always seems essential, as something happens with the oil and the tomatoes to take away the metallic “just out of the tin” flavour.)
  6. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. It only needs the minimum time stated as you are going to cook again with the sauce in the oven.
  7. Drain the pasta into a suitable dish or tray with at least 4cm sides
  8. Add the tomato sauce and mix through
  9. Now stir in all the mozzarella, half the parmesan, and the basil leaves torn in half
  10. Finish by sprinkling over the remaining parmesan
  11. Put it in the oven for about 15 minutes. It needs to be long enough to heat through and melt the cheese. The top will crisp slightly, I find this is a love/hate thing depending on the individual.
  • Add some chopped courgette or other vegetables, you just need to make sure they are cooked enough or pre-cooked.
  • Omit the chillies
  • Add more chillies

Lukewarm – If You Can’t Stand The Heat

It’s great that you can go through life using a phrase for 50 years and not realise that it’s actually one word. I’ve no idea why I never realised (or have forgotten?) that “lukewarm” is one word. It is not “luke warm” as I thought. But, apparently, it’s just an old word and not two words. I wanted to write “luke warm” in a recipe but it didn’t feel right and I looked it up. Much to my astonishment, it seems it’s just a single word – lukewarm.

I’ve also no idea what temperature constitutes lukewarm. In my mind, it is definitely warmer than room temperature but colder than anything that could be considered warm. Perhaps it is a state of mind.