chicken tagine with apricots

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I’m a member of the Facebook group, ‘Slow Cooker Saddos’. It’s a gem for the foodie voyeur, if only for the dimly-lit photographs of unidentifiable casseroles. I remember shunning the slow cooker after Nigella branded it a crime against cooking (along with electric carving knives – I can agree with her there). I’ve since discovered that very, very occasionally Nigella gets it wrong – such is the case with her recipe for ‘meatzza’ and her judgement on the SC. As somebody who is guilty of being irritatingly chipper in the mornings, chopping vegetables and chucking them into a slow cooker is not beyond me. Plus, it turns lentils and pork belly into something joyously frugal and delicious, but that’s another story.

This tagine can be made in the slow cooker, or in the oven on low for a couple of hours. You can also add a tin of chickpeas, a chopped preserved lemon, some black olives – you could even use lamb instead of chicken; as long as it sings with spice and coriander, you can’t go far wrong.

On a side note, life is good. The last couple of days have involved Wes Anderson, birthday joviality and eating expensive, pillowy hirita buns stuffed with strips of crispy-skinned pork. Stress will recommence shortly.

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Chicken tagine with apricots

500g chicken thigh fillets (bone-in thighs would also be good – or diced lamb)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 paprika
1 tbsp olive oil
2 onions
2 cloves of garlic
40g sultanas
1 tbsp honey
300ml chicken stock
1 can chopped tomatoes
60g dried apricots
a handful of coriander leaves                                                                                      a liberal sprinkle of flour

 Coat the chicken in half the spices and leave for a few hours. Of course, if you’re short on time/have forgotten this step, just coat the chicken and seal the meat in the hot oil. Remove the browned meat and chuck in slow cooker or casserole dish.

 Gently fry the sliced onions with the chopped garlic and the rest of the spices. Cook on low until the onions have softened. Now add a good sprinkle of flour and mix – this just ensures the sauce thickens nicely.  

Add the tomatoes, stock, apricots, sultanas and honey. Bring to the boil then transfer to the slow cooker with the meat, or the casserole pot. Now either cook at 160 degrees for 2.5 hours in the oven, or on low in the SC for six hours. 

Add a liberal amount of coriander and serve with couscous

Carrot Cake

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We’re veering dangerously close to March and I’m not at all happy about it. I don’t want to write my dissertation (on conceptions of sufferance in the 12th century – What fun!), whilst also juggling a couple of essays and keeping half an eye on my ever looming exams. I don’t really want to shuffle from tube station to the library and back again when London is heavy with damp. And heck, I don’t want to be trapped in a reading room where the temperature never strays from twenty degrees and the biggest irritant is the persistent sniffer sitting opposite. No. I really, really don’t want to do any of this. Yesterday I was dangerously close to taking temporary leave from blogging until the summer, to ‘work on other projects’ (i.e. sulking over how much work third year entails). A sad thought. After all, at least it can distract me from sniffing students and 12th century practices of flagellation.

So I’m still here, but for the next few months I’m taking a purist approach to food blogging. Once a week I’ll cook/bake something new and blog about it. In fear of boring you all with my moaning, I’ll keep it all brief until I’ve weathered the exam storm with the aid of baked goods.*

Talking of which, here is a rather nice carrot cake with honey cream cheese frosting from Peyton and Byrne’s British Baking. P&B have a fantastic cafe in my regular haunt: The British Library, where I will now live out the rest of my university life.

• Contrary to what I’ve just suggested, I’m not actually working that hard nor am I that stressed. However, I do know that in two months I’ll be crying into my tray of freshly baked brownies, so I thought I’d give everyone a heads up.

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Ingredients

Cake
225g unsalted butter (softened)
225g light brown sugar
4 eggs
200g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
225g grated carrot
150g walnuts, chopped
50g sultanas, chopped

Icing
500g icing sugar
100g unsalted butter (softened)
200g cream cheese (softened)
1 tablespoon honey

Method
1. Preheat oven to 170 C
2. Butter two 20cm springform cake tins and line with baking paper.
3. In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
4. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
5. Sift the baking powder, cinnamon and flour and salt into a bowl and add half of it to the cake mixture, mix to just combined then add the 2nd half.
6. In another bowl, combine the grated carrot, sultanas and walnuts and stir this into the cake mixture.
7. Spoon the cake mixture into the tin and smooth the top. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake is springy to the touch and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Alternatively spoon into 24 cupcake cases and bake for 25-30 minutes.
8. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out and leave to cool on a wire rack until completely cold before you ice it.

Icing
1. Sift the icing sugar twice.
2. In a bowl beat the butter until smooth and creamy.
3. Add the cream cheese and and beat for a minute on high speed.
4. Add a third of the icing sugar and beat on a slow speed, then add the rest of it and beat until smooth and creamy.

This does make a huge amount, so unless you have a thing for eating frosting straight out of the bowl (and why shouldn’t you?), I’d cut it down by a third.

 

 

Venice

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“Caffe con panna”

“Per voi?” The bartender looks bemused.

For me? Obviously, who else would willingly order espresso topped with whipped cream at 9pm on a Sunday? I nod. He still looks bemused.

Now a huddle of elderly Venetians are laughing. My montagna di panna is causing an unexpected stir.

I finish it quickly and step out into the damp, heading towards St Mark’s Square. It’s odd: no tourists and few people, bar a large group of elderly, fur-clad women leaving the Teatro la Fenice.

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San Marco’s is eerie. The chairs are stacked outside Caffe Florian and a bitter wind from the lagoon disturbs the puddles in the square. I miss the orchestras, competing for customers to sit down and drink overpriced coffee and summer’s long, humid evenings.

It begins to rain. I’m told that there should be acqua alta tonight: a regular occurrence in Venice during the winter, hence the raised walkways circling Saint Mark’s.

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I follow the signs towards ferrovia. Venice must be one of the safest cities in the world, yet the echo of my footsteps is oddly unnerving. How can a city possibly be this silent? Back on Strada Nuova, comforted that the fruit-sellers haven’t quite packed up yet.

I can’t help but feel that I shouldn’t really be here. Is it okay to take a week out of university to visit a friend and resume, if only temporarily, my au pair status?

By the end of the week, I decide it probably is.

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For one thing, I discover something incredible – definitely more interesting than reading about the Sack of Constantinople, and probably also more useful. There’s a little spot in Canareggio that serves THE best fried vegetables. As we wait, each batch of garlic, cauliflower, courgette and artichoke is battered and fried, then tumbled into a paper horn. They even fry mozzarella. It’s a delight: the Italian battered mars bar.

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One morning it’s so foggy that the bridges, the duomos, and the gondoliers smoking beside their boats are submerged in grey. Walking through the Jewish ghetto, I stop at a bakery for some pane all’ uvetta (raisin bread – simple but delicious). After a coffee it’s time to turn back, past Canareggio’s crowded fish stall – Thursday appears to be a busy day – and head towards La Zuccha, a highly recommended vegetarian osteria. I get lost (of course), found, hopelessly lost again – ah! Google maps! – finally, I find it. The courgette lasagne turns out to be utter cheesy heaven. Vegetarian and not a tomato in sight, it might well be sacrilege.

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I spend a week eating, playing with Barbies and rejoicing in coffee. It is mostly damp and cold and still. Venice in winter: hauntingly beautiful but desperately lonely.

Mint cream chocolate biscuits

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Bloody hell, it really is Christmas.

I have a repeated nightmare that’s based around Christmas. The big day suddenly comes into being without any prior warning. Everybody has shopped and planned without me and I sit down to lunch, faced with boiled carrots because I wasn’t there to patronise everybody on the fact that roasted carrots are far superior. Oh, and the brussels sprouts - always overcooked, and where are the chestnuts and pancetta – what the hell would Nigella say?! Then I wake up in a cold sweat because there’s nothing more traumatic than losing control over vegetable cooking times.

It is odd, how we all clamour for the perfect Christmas, or more precisely, our arrival at that highly anticipated state of festive nirvana: when one feels, officially, “Christmassy”. The road to this sacred place is traditionally marked by dried fruit, mulled liquids and low-level lighting. But like many forced attempts at emotion, sometimes it just doesn’t go to plan. Much like Christmas 2011′s failed roast potatoes – despite meticulous research on the preferable fat (thanks a bunch, Jamie) – at times we have to accept that it’s possibly all going to go to shit.

On that note, I would like to introduce you to a recipe that really was a success: Dan Lepard’s mint cream chocolate biscuits. Now these did push me a little further along that well trodden festive road, if only because they taste a bit like an After Eight. 

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Mint cream biscuits, from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet

75g unsalted butter, softened

75g caster sugar

75g good dark chocolate

125g plain flour

1 level tbsp cocoa

¼ tsp baking powder

150g icing sugar

50ml double cream

8-10 drops peppermint oil

Beat the butter and caster sugar until fluffy, then melt the chocolate and beat this through, too. Sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder, and beat in.

Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan-assisted)/350F/gas mark 4. While the mixture is still fresh and relatively soft from the mixing, make teaspoon-sized balls (10g-15g each) and carefully press on to a baking sheet lined with nonstick baking parchment. The pressed dough balls should sit about 0.75cm high, and though the dough will crack around the edges as you press, it bakes firmly.

Bake for 25 minutes, then remove and leave to cool on the tray. For the filling, beat the icing sugar with the cream and mint oil, then sandwich the biscuits together.

 

Coming home

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There is the Christmas tree shining into the grey lane. Home is warm and carpeted, with bedside lamps turned on, as always. When I was a child the gentle slump of the car in the drive would always be a bit of a bother.

“We’re home.”

I’d be half asleep in the backseat, sighing in tune with the silencing of the radio. Soon I’d have to wriggle out of the car onto the cold pavement: a bitter interlude between warm car and warm home. I was a sleepy child, always lulled to sleep by short journeys and cassette tapes. My sister used to taunt me for it – she still does. Even now, home provokes a drowsy knowingness that London tries its best to shake out of me. Here, there is a new puppy, and ironed bed linen and fields and fields of Suffolk somewhere beyond my window.

The town of Bungay clings to our house. I type to the thrashings of rain and perhaps it’s because our lane is silent and my room is warm, but it runs streams into the darkness and I imagine the glow of the pub on Bridge Street. During the day, there is the stillness of a florists with wreathes decorating the pavement; the stillness of the Catholic church – the churchyard always misty and moss grown; the stillness of the butchers, the bakers, and a steady supply of antique shops. I suppose Bungay unboastfully, unknowingly, has everything tucked away somewhere. The only problem is it’s so easy to forget to look.

When I was fifteen I worked every Saturday morning in the local greengrocers. It was cold and I was constantly wrapped up in knitwear and books about vegetables. One day an elderly woman listened to my plans of escaping to London, to which she responded with a surprisingly motivating string of cliches, “Go! Explore! Remember that Bungay will still be here when you come back.”

I guess that’s the drowsy comfort in coming home, and the reminder to keep moving. After all, I couldn’t allow myself to quietly stagnate here, not in the Bungay of my youth.

river

thinking about bus stops (and omelettes)

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UCL's Wilkins Portico:  unrelated to Suffolk bus stops, but who could resist?

UCL’s Wilkins Portico: unrelated to Suffolk bus stops, but who could resist?

I’m not convinced that a recipe for an omelette should be preluded by a musing on bus stops and illustrated with photos of an autumnal UCL campus, but I’m doing it anyway.

It’s odd to think about all of the bus stops I’ve stood at during my life. The first one of my adolescence wasn’t so much a designated shelter as a strip of grass outside Bungay cemetery’s back gates. The first day of walking through the graveyard to that grassy bank corresponded with the first day of Year Seven. My sister and I were all top buttons, freshly packed rucksacks and punctuality. On Friday of that week we were staring at the rear end of the yellow double decker as it rolled away, into the Suffolk countryside. The first in a continuing trail of missed buses.

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Every time we moved to various locations in Bungay and its environs, we had to adapt to a new bus stop. This makes memories of waiting at different shelters, pavements, or posts stuck into grassy verges, a useful way of tracking my teenage years (we moved house with considerable frequency). The sixth form years, characterised by such examples of teenage rebellion as wearing a slightly too short skirt and ballet pumps in winter, are inexplicably linked with complaining about the early morning cold. That was an uninspiring bus stop – a signless, shelterless, corner of pavement in the snoozing hub of a nondescript Suffolk village.  We had to climb a hill to get to it, which invariably meant trying to run in said short skirt and missing the hourly bus on a weekly basis.

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Then I came to London and bus stops took over. Waiting for the H91 lacks the romance of those daily rituals of expectation; usually spent stroking the resident bus stop cat, or conjuring chants to bring the rounded top of the double decker into sight on particularly bitter days. Here it’s such a lonely pursuit: people pooling towards the edge of the pavement, desperate to be crammed into a stopping and starting, tutting and groaning, Central London bus. But still, a bus stop is a bus stop and nothing if not a promise of reaching some final destination: a comfort in itself.

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This all has nothing to do with omelettes, but unfortunately, little does in life. If it makes a difference, I did cook this after a bus journey home from work experience at a food mag last week (more on that later). Ricotta is my new favourite thing. A generous spoonful added to whisked eggs, then cooked in an omelette with mushrooms and thyme is absurdly good. It might not look pretty, but it’s delicious, comforting and vaguely autumnal: generally always a good thing.

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mushroom, spinach and ricotta omelette 

Ingredients (serves one)

  • 3 eggs
  • knob of butter
  • olive oil
  •  a handful of mushrooms, sliced
  • a couple of handfuls of spinach
  • 1 tablespoon ricotta
  •  spinach
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • parmesan (optional)
  • salt and pepper

Method

  • Whisk the eggs with the ricotta and thyme leaves; season well with salt and pepper.
  • Heat the butter with a generous glug of olive oil and fry the mushrooms for three minutes
  • Stir in the spinach leaves and some more butter for luck.
  • Pour in the egg and ricotta mixture and reduce heat to medium
  • Stir with a spatula until the eggs begin to thicken, then move the mixture towards the sides of the frying pan (actually, just watch this. Thanks, Julia.)
  • Grate parmesan over the omelette and turn out onto a plate.

Minestrone

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The first summer I spent au pairing was, in many ways, torturous. For two months I was trapped behind a façade of my own design: I was in love with Italy, I was the perfect nanny, I was happy. Except I wasn’t.

I don’t know whether my regret at the whole thing is visible through the irritatingly chipper blog posts from Summer 2010, but I like to think it is. Just take a look at gems such as this:

“On seeing a photo of David Cameron I experienced a completely unjustifiable surge of emotion – the kind of teary eyed patriotism you feel when listening to Jerusalem at The Last Night of the Proms.”

Right. Needless to say, I’m not encouraging anybody to delve into the backwaters of this blog (maybe like a revisionist historian of my own misinterpreted life I’ll one day pick through every falsehood I’ve written thus far, but until then, you’ve been warned). The point is that my first real encounter with Italy was tough and tedious and at times, really bloody disorientating. It was within the daily regime of breakfast, beach, lunch, sleep, puzzles, and bed, that I turned both insane and very, very hungry.

The children’s mother was cold and distant in equal measure, but she was an incredible cook. I knew it would be a good lunch when she sent me to the roadside fruttivendoli to buy cherry tomatoes for her spaghetti alle vongole. I spent the morning chasing very small children across a beach and wondering whether she might call out from her deck chair and send me away with a shopping list. I approached dinner with equal levels of joy. It was my job to lay out the mozzarella di bufala, bread, mortadella and if we were lucky, prosciutto crudo. Arranging a plate of fruit for dessert meant that I wasn’t reading The Lion King to a child for the fiftieth time, and for that, I was grateful. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy looking after the children, but there does come a time when 24 hour childcare duties can feel like punishment for something far graver than choosing to take a gap year.

To break up the monotony, sometimes I was even allowed to cook. The mother always dictated her instructions, but it still made me deliriously happy. I was usually entrusted with the cooking of a minestra soup – like a minestrone, but far simpler. “It’s for babies and old people”, she used to tell me. Of course I loved it. The only ingredients were risoni (orzo), broth, parmesan and olive oil – lots and lots of oil, poured over the finished soup.

It wasn’t until today, wondering whether a minestrone would be better with risotto rice or ditalini pasta (as one does on a Sunday when faced with piles of reading), that I remembered the glory of that risoni minestra. So here’s a recipe for the ultimate minestrone. I used homemade chicken stock because I’m far too good at procrastinating, but feel free to use vegetable. I remember being directed to chuck in a generous spoonful of bouillon powder whenever I made her soup, so let’s not feel too guilty.

This really is incredible. Despite my history of false optimism and glee, trust me on this one.

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Ingredients

- 1.5 litres of chicken or vegetable stock

- 200g orzo/risoni

- A tin of borlotti beans

- 1 onion

- 1 clove of garlic

- 2 carrots

- 2 sticks of celery

- 1 courgette (this is all I used but feel free to go crazy: cavolo nero, peas, fennel etc. would be delicious)

- A good handful of parsley or basil

- extra virgin olive oil and grated parmesan to serve (if you have it, chuck in your parmesan rind when adding the stock. You absolutely won’t regret it)

  1. Chop all of your veg finely. Heat roughly three tbsp. of oil in a large, heavy based saucepan. Add onion, celery and carrot. Cook for five minutes.
  2. Add garlic, followed by courgette and whatever other vegetables you have.
  3. Add the stock and drained borlotti beans. Bring to a boil and cook for five minutes.
  4. Add the orzo and reduce to a simmer – the orzo should take about ten minutes to cook.
  5. Stir in the chopped parsley or basil and serve with a drizzle of olive oil and heaps of parmesan.

Day Twenty One: Seattle.

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The rain has re-joined us. There’s nothing like a grey motel on a grey motorway to lift the spirits. By the time we reach Downtown Seattle my shoes are flooded and no amount of lingering in the Klondlike Gold Rush museum is going to help our cause. The trek to Pike Place Market proves that miracles can happen. Suddenly the sky is a seamless blue. There are stalls of flowers, pickles and greek yoghurt, oysters, clam chowder: plenty of lunch potential. We choose fish and chips.

Sudden realisation that I might not be able to cope with anybody else asking whether Hattie and I are twins. They always look so bemused: I’m just sad that we can’t do any tricks to complete the Freak Show Effect. The limp is still there as well; the rain returns with a vengeance and I’m feeling guilty for being grumpy in Seattle. But then we’re on the top of the Space Needle at sunset and I forget everything.

Day Twenty: The Final City.

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This time around Portland greets us with furious rain. Its probably a good thing we’re not staying long. Taunesha bids us farewell and I promise that our next reunion will be on halfway between London and Portland, probably in New York. A sobering thought.

Blue skies by the time we reach Seattle. The bus drops us off in Chinatown, so we roll our bags under a table in the closest restaurant and do our best to look slightly less bedraggled. Cue much suspicious poking about of noodle soup, “I’m betting that’s a kidney. Yep, definitely kidney”. It takes an hour to reach our out of town motel (note to self: do not leave hostel booking until the night before). Despite the macabre reviews on Trip Adviser, we find no signs of bedbugs.

Day Nineteen: Timberline Lodge

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The day starts with a kitchen full of people and dogs slumped beside the stove. We douse our French toast and bacon with syrup and plan a day of Oregon exploration. A drawn out farewell to the resident dogs, cats and horses. Just like my eight year-old self in the hamster department of Pets At Home, I decide that I simply want to take every single one home.

En route to Mt. Hood, we stop at the Marchesi Winery for a tasting session in the midday sun. Heading toward the mountain, heavy clouds begin to draw in around its peak. By the time we reach Timberline Lodge, our view from almost 6000 feet is limited to layer upon layer of grey. The Lodge – built during the Great Depression as one of many WPA projects – is utterly charming. The fact that it plays the part of the grisly Overlook Hotel in The Shining is soon forgotten. Until we drive away that is, and we watch as the rain thrashes against Timberline Lodge.

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