Portobello Mushroom Burgers

Something’s telling me I should give up on this whole ‘post a day’ malarkey. Not only have I succumbed to the lurgy, but my website host has deleted my ToTheTable blog (it might have something to do with forgetting to pay them…). But I WILL NOT BE DEFEATED. I’ll post this belated entry here while I work at getting my old site restored:

As I spent most of yesterday blowing my nose I had to employ somebody else to cook for me, but dinner was so delicious I have to share it.

A grilled portobello mushroom – dripping in garlic butter and stuffed into a cream cheese slathered roll – is a revelation. As is using crushed crisps as breadcrumbs. And not only that, but yesterday I also learned that trying to learn salsa – turns and all – with lingering labyrinthitis is a bad idea.

And so it was that I came to eat a portobello burger while curled up on the sofa, contemplating both my terrible immune system and the joy of a grilled mushroom.


Portobello Mushroom Burgers

Simply oil up the mushrooms and grill stalk down for five minutes. Then take out and fill the inside with some butter, chopped garlic and chopped parsley. Once you feel your mushroom has been sufficiently buttered up, return stalk-stalk-side-up to the grill.

Now crush half a packet of your finest packet of ready salted crisps (or just use breadcrumbs) and mix with a good handful of grated cheese. After five minutes, take the mushrooms out and fill with the crumb mixture. Put under the grill until the cheese is bubbly. Toast a crusty roll and slather it with cream cheese. Put mushroom in roll. Add rocket, red onion, wholegrain mustard and whatever else you fancy. Bask in the glory of your buttery mushroom burger.

To The Table – A new blogging venture


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It’s almost five years ago that I started writing this blog. There was no real reason for it, apart from having a place to talk about gap year adventuring. If you make the ill-advised decision to skip to those early few months, you’ll see that, for a seventeen-year-old, I had an unusual appetite for Italy. Looking back, there was something unconvincingly perky about my tone, about my enthusiasm. Yet, take that away and there was – there still is – a genuine passion for food and for Italy. To this day, the smell of an Italian supermarket gets my heart racing like nothing else.


The seventeen-year-old Alice, looking wistful in Venice.

But does Italy really inspire everything I blog about? No. Less than a year after I started writing I moved to a Madrid for three months and all I wanted to talk about was what it felt to be indescribably lonely during a Madrilenian autumn (I actually refrained from writing about that, which was probably a mistake).

Post-university, post-aupairing, and post-Italian obsession, I feel that the name Italian Inspiration is even emptier. So I’ve upped sticks; I’ve moved blogging homes; I’ve bought a new domain name.

From this post forward you can find me at To The Table. Don’t worry, this new blog will no doubt include far too much fawning over Italy and hopefully a lot more recipes.

Speaking of which, why not read about this delicious Risotto alla Milanese on the blog now. Subscribers, PLEASE subscribe there once again (scroll down a bit and you’ll see the box on the lefthand side). It’ll all be the same, but with the added splash of the uncertainty, frugality and hopeless dreaming of a recent graduate.

Now go please go forth, to the table, and thanks for sticking with me.




Pork Belly


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Last Friday evening I spent a pleasant two hours on an empty train with the sea at my back. I’d spent the afternoon between work, school and trains, herding eight children in the direction of Sussex. It was like a school trip – myself and another nanny doling out packed lunches and supervising toilet trips. There are worse jobs than chaperoning to the sea. The children were spending the weekend in Bexhill with their parents (who had driven up early to go to the opera, hence the chaperoning). The house had a magnificent view of the ocean. A fawn shimmer flowed across the sash windows, the glass the only thing separating the house from the vast expanse of sea.


It was a fleeting escape from London – a world currently centred on a new job/internship (yay!), moving into a new house and the new sensations of graduate life – yet it was vaguely liberating. The thought that the ocean is only a shortish train journey away is a comfort.

Anyway, as I sat on the empty train with only my reflection staring back at me from the darkness of the outside world, I took some time to reflect on happiness, the future and ocean metaphors. Luckily for you, any profound thoughts turned towards to the joys of pork belly.

pork belly

It’s a cut of meat that prompts two different responses: “urgh, the fat!”or “oooh, the fat!”. Thank God I’m in the latter camp. It’s that fat, which is allowed to melt in the slow cooker and melt some more when placed under the grill, which makes it so melt-in-the-mouth delicious. The belly has to be seasoned liberally with sea salt before being grilled though, because everybody knows that fat only tastes good with lots and lots of salt.

Before work this morning, I settled the pork belly on some green lentils, a chopped onion and several cloves of unpeeled garlic. I turned it on low for nine hours and came home to both meat and carb with no extra effort. All you really have to/should do is cook some creamed leeks to serve it with.

As my life* motto explains: you can never have too much animal fat.

 *’life motto’, until the time of my premature heart attack

pork belly


Pork Belly with Lentils 


– A piece of pork belly

– However many green lentils you need to feed yourselves

– One roughly chopped onion

– A handful of unpeeled garlic cloves

– A vegetable stock code/bouillon powder

– Parsley 

1. Throw lentils into slow cooker. Use however many you need.

2. Add stock powder/cube, onion, garlic cloves (don’t bother to peel – the skin becomes so soft after cooking that you won’t notice it, I promise) and a generous splash of water.

3. Place pork belly on top.

4. Cook on low for 8-9 hours

5. Lift pork out, remove skin, score fat, season liberally with sea salt and place under grill until the fat’s acquired a slight crispy top (about 5 mins).

6. Serve with the lentils and creamed leeks.


An Uncertain Freedom


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It was an uninspiring paper on The Crusades that saw the eclipse of my student status. I stepped out of the exam hall, onto Tottenham Court Road – the sun shining, everybody a little sticky and tired – and it was all over. We were suddenly free from revision and dissertation and weeks of being unnaturally conscious of the time. There was Pimms and cheap wine in Gordon Square – it was just the happiest of evenings.

But with the dismal turn of the weather, that elation collapsed into listlessness. Bloody typical. I appear to have discovered a puritanical side of myself that I didn’t realise existed: I’m unable to properly enjoy myself until I know that everybody I care about has finished exams too. Urgh, empathy, such a kill-joy. So the past week or so has been very odd: A touch of guilt at being free, accompanied by the usual post-exam cocktail of waking up in a cold sweat on a regular basis; wondering aimlessly around supermarkets; reading the trashiest novel possible (currently, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep); and generally being unsure what to do with myself.


I did have a fantastic few days in Norfolk/Suffolk though. On a typically grim day my fellow East Anglian uni friend took us on a magical mystery tour of North Norfolk. Having a natural preference for the gentrified civility of the Suffolk coastline, it was nice to have my predilection challenged. In Burnham Market (sometime home of Johnny Depp and Amanda Holden) we ate brownies in a hailstorm. There are worse places to be than bundled together in a parked car whilst the weather does its best to entertain. Holkham Bay is a swathe of duck egg blue water and pale sand, topped with sky. So much sky.

DSC_0578 Lunch was a superb salt beef ciabatta with celeriac relish from Wiveton Hall Cafe. It’s very much a farm-to-plate sort of place, surrounded by fields and serving organic elderflower presse. All very lovely, all very grownup.


I’ve also drawn up some graduate-life resolutions. They include the usual things of exercising more, eating less chocolate, becoming an informed and interesting individual who can offer her own intellectually sound opinion on the Euro debate (because apparently education failed me on that level), and blogging more.

I’ve at least made a start on the latter and have taken part in Dom’s Random Recipe Challenge. He gave us the task of sifting through all of our useless/boring/disgustingly health-conscious cookery books. Seeing as my selection of books in London is relatively limited, this proved to be tricky. Eventually I plumped for the one and only book that I thought might deserve the chop: The Food of Spain & Portugal by Elisabeth Luard. Thankfully, the random recipe I fell upon has saved it from the charity shop bin bag. The dish was Fava e funcho (Fennel and broad beans). The beans have to be braised with cubes of streaky bacon, spring onion and slices of fennel until they burst in the sweet, salty fat. I ate them with grilled mackerel and they instantly took me back to Italy, where peas could be cooked slowly for 40 minutes without being deemed overcooked.They just become joyously sweet.



Fava e Funcho (Fennel and broad beans), from The Food of Spain and Portugal by Elisabeth Luard

– 450g broad beans

– 2 fennel bulbs, including the young fronds

– 4 tablespoons of olive oil

– 1 thick slive of streaky bacon, diced

– 1 large bunch of spring onions, trimmed and chopped

  1. Shell the beans (or, if they’re out of season or you can’t find them, buy them frozen)
  2. Heat the olive oil in a shallow casserole, add the bacon and spring onions, stir over the heat for a few minutes, then add the vegetables, except for the fennel frons.
  3. Season, bring to the boil, then turn down the heat. Cover loosely and simmergently for 20-40 minutes, adding a few drops of water as needed. Finally, stir in the chopped fennel fronds.


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.


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.



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

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

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.

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.





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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


  • 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.

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