Pappardelle with mushrooms

A few years ago, I considered getting a vegetable box. What can I say? I was just married, living in what the estate agent called Hampstead (it was really Swiss Cottage), working with a whole bunch of well-groomed City types and spending my Sunday mornings in my local coffee shop reading the Sunday Times. A vegetable box would have completed the picture. I looked on the websites of Abel and Cole and Riverford Organic, glossing over the problem of having a weekly delivery to our third floor flat when we were both at work every day, and excitedly told Jon all about it.

He wrinkled his nose. “So each week we get a box of random vegetables, which someone else has picked out, some of which we don’t like, and then we pay more for the privilege of knowing that they are grown on some farm not very near us?” It did sound a bit barmy, then, so we went off to Waitrose (of course) and, crazily enough, picked out a selection of vegetables that we both liked and wanted to use.

I mentioned that episode to a friend and he told me that I had missed the point of vegetable boxes. Apparently the whole fun of it is that you get interesting vegetables (for which read beetroot, or turnip) that you wouldn’t otherwise buy, and then the challenge is to make something out of it that you wouldn’t have otherwise made. It all sounds a bit Blue Peter and not really the way I like to shop or eat. Generally in this house we pride ourselves on not having very much wastage. We bake our bread and then when it is stale, turn it into breadcrumbs. We freeze leftover portions or take them to work for lunch. We use up vegetables in soups and fruit in pies and sorbets. But sometimes we’ll buy something because I have a specific recipe in mind, and then I don’t need very much of it and we have loads of it lying around. I confess that I would probably forget about it and let it languish in the bottom drawer of the fridge for a few weeks, but if there is a loose end in the fridge Jon is on it. “Half a bag of spinach? What are we doing with that?” “There are two leeks and half a swede, what’s happening with them?” It’s like having my very own awkward vegetable from the vegetable box, but I generally choose the vegetable and it’s not a horrible turnip. But the challenge is still on.

That is what happened this week with mushrooms. We had a load of different ones – shiitake, portabellini, chestnut – some of which I’d used to make a mushroom ragu to have on polenta squares as a starter for lunch on Saturday (to be blogged another time). I had a hunt around for a nice recipe to use them up and found a Spanish mushroom and lentil recipe which looked nice, but then I had lentils for lunch and didn’t want them. With Yom Kippur tomorrow, if we didn’t eat them tonight we’d have them hanging over our heads until Thursday and I knew we had to get them out of here before then. I had things to cook for Yom Kippur tonight and couldn’t be bothered with anything complex, and really just wanted something delicious and simple and comforting.

Step forward, Jamie Oliver, with your simple, light and quick pappardelle with mushrooms. I’ve laughed at Jamie on this blog before for his nonsense malteser ice cream recipe, but I know that really, like this pasta, he is a good, simple, hearty fellow, and he means well. This is a super quick, easy weeknight dinner. A bit of a carb-fest, and not massively high in protein (eeeek) but using egg pasta helps, and if you use shiitake mushrooms you get a bonus portion of vitamin D, and the parsley gives you some equally elusive vitamin K. It’s surprisingly filling, too.

Serves 2

  • About 400g mixed wild mushrooms
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 dried red chilli, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Small bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped.
  • Fresh egg pappardelle for 2 (about 250g)
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Clean the mushrooms and slice them thinly
  2. Put the olive oil in a very hot frying pan and then add the mushrooms, frying quickly. Add the garlic and chilli and some salt and pepper.
  3. Continue frying for 4 or 5 minutes and then turn the heat off, and add the lemon juice and half the chopped parsley. Check the seasoning.
  4. Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta.
  5. When it is cooked, pour a little of the pasta water into the frying pan with the mushrooms, drain the pasta and add to the frying pan, tossing to coat with the liquid and mixing the mushrooms in.
  6. Serve, garnishing with the rest of the parsley.

For the baby-friendly version, as above but without the salt (and maybe without the chilli, depending on how your baby deals with chilli). You will have to cook the pasta separately, because the salt in the water is essential for the adult version.

*Approximate nutritional values*

  • Calories: 520 kcal
  • Carbs: 72g
  • Fat: 19g
  • Protein: 19g
  • Sugar: 2g
  • Sodium: 1766mg

Best Chicken Curry

The worst restaurant I have ever been to was a kosher Chinese restaurant outside Washington DC. It wasn’t just the sticky plastic table cloths, the thin film of grease that coated every surface, the flies buzzing around the Persian buffet, or the fact that there was a Persian buffet in a Chinese restaurant. It was also that everything on the menu was described as being in either white sauce, brown sauce, or, even more alarmingly, “special” sauce. It was so disgusting that we didn’t quite know how to convey our displeasure. I don’t think it was the kind of place where complaining to the manager would have had any effect because we were not just complaining about one dish, we were complaining about the whole ethos, the whole raison d’etre of the restaurant. Jon resorted to saying loudly, as we left, after having ordered and not eaten some questionable meats in some questionable coloured sauces, “Where can we go for DINNER? I’m still STARVING.” My retaliation came in the form of a survey of kosher restaurants and shops of the DC area that I was asked to fill in a few months later. Long after I had left DC I continued to receive the yearly email with the survey, and every year I went to the Royal Dragon’s page and ticked “disgusting” at every available point. Oops, did I just tell you the name of the restaurant? Seriously, NEVER go there.

(I felt a bit bad about posting this about a restaurant that I’d been to 6 years ago – what if they had undergone a major transformation? So I had a quick look on a restaurant review site to see if things have changed. Apparently not: “I have never felt sicker after a meal. The worst, probably toxic, food I’ve ever had. We call it Evil Panda.” and
Over priced Kosher dog food (though I would not feed it to my dog)“)

So for obvious reasons I try never to think about that restaurant, but it came to mind recently when I was surfing through various food blogs and recipe websites, and I noticed that lots of people tout things as “The best X ever” – the best roast chicken, the best roast potatoes, the best chocolate chip cookies. I think that’s OK with certain specific foods – in fact, I might even have written about the “best” chocolate mousse a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and I’ve written about the “best” honey cake too. But it’s a bit crass with something like curry because “curry” just means sauce so what do you mean, you’ve got the best chicken in sauce recipe? The best chicken in white sauce? In brown sauce? In special sauce?

But guess what? I’ve got the best chicken curry recipe! Seriously! I found its inspiration on a website which called it “the only curry recipe you’ll ever need”. Of course there are hundreds of great chicken curry recipes and I have several favourites that I make over and over again, but this is the one that always comes to mind when I just feel like a curry. It’s quick and easy to make (a food processor makes it really fast), low fat, with healthy, delicious tomatoes and spinach, neither of which are over-powering if you generally don’t love those ingredients.

It’s also very popular with Joe – I make his without salt and chillies by following my baby-friendly method below – and it fits into his “anything in tomato sauce” category so I can get spinach down him relatively easily.

Makes 4 portions, or 3 adult portions and 2-3 baby portions

  • 2 large chicken breasts, skinned and boned
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 large knob of ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 3 green chillies
  • 1 400g tin of tomatoes
  • 400g spinach
  • 1tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • Cayenne pepper, to taste
  • Salt
  • Approx 1 tbsp vegetable oil, such as rapeseed
  1. Heat a large deep frying pan or saucepan (with no oil) and add half of the spinach and wilt. Remove the spinach, draining the liquid, and put the wilted spinach into a food processor, blending until you have a paste. Remove from food processor (but no need to wash it up yet) and set aside until later.
  2. Slice the onions into half rings, add about 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and fry the onions until golden.
  3. While the onions are frying, cut the chicken breast into small pieces.
  4. When the onions are golden, put in the food processor with the garlic, ginger, chillies (deseeded, unless you like a really hot curry) and tin of tomatoes, and then half fill the empty tomato tin with water, add it, and blend.
  5. Put the blended tomato sauce back into the saucepan, and add the chicken. Cover and let it cook for 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.
  6. Add the spices, salt, pepper and the blended spinach, stir and cook for another 5 minutes.
  7. Roughly chop the remaining spinach and add to the saucepan.
  8. Adjust the seasoning, add more salt and cayenne if liked, and then continue cooking for at least another 10 minutes, or to intensify the taste further, for even longer.

*Baby-friendly version*

As above, but at step 4, do not add chillies to the mix unless your baby likes them. Mine does, but his bottom doesn’t, so I do not use them, or only in small quantities. In this case, blend the chillies separately and keep aside.

At step 6, do not add salt.

After step 7, remove your baby’s portion. Add salt and chillies to the remainder.

This recipe, like most tomato sauce-based recipes, freezes really well, so this is a good recipe to batch cook, for both adults and babies.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 224 kcal
  • Carbs: 11g
  • Fat: 7g
  • Protein: 28g
  • Sugar: 9g
  • Sodium: 988mg

Spinach dal

Since Jon and I got together, our tastes have merged somewhat. There are still things we will never agree on, for example, I have always been a believer in that bit from the Simpsons, that one where Homer is dead and Dr. Hibbert pulls broccoli from his corpse. “Yet another broccoli related death,” says Dr. Hibbert. “But I thought broccoli was healthy,” says Marge. “Oh no,” says Dr. Hibbert, “one of the deadliest plants on earth. Why, it tries to warn you with its terrible taste.” Yet despite the obvious truth of everything in the Simpsons, Jon calls broccoli “the king of vegetables”.

Other than this and a few others, we generally agree on most things, food-wise. I’ve mentioned before about my incredibly fussy eating, particularly as a child but to some extent continued today. Jon was never as fussy as me, but he did have some peculiar dislikes (we’ll save the discussion of his cherry phobia for another day) which, in my opinion, were not so much dislikes of the actual food but of the way he had encountered them. He now devours peas like they are going to be rationed, and as he eats, happily says, “I love peas! Didn’t used to!” Similarly, with the various different apple pies and tarts that I make, he wolfs them all down but he still maintains that he doesn’t like apple pie BUT he makes an exception for mine. This is because the apple pie he has in mind, the benchmark apple pie, is one from a bakery in north London called Sharon’s. It’s horrible – an overly sweet crust, with the apples inside in a claggy goo. It sullies the good name of apple pie.

Actually, we once had a whole ridiculous conversation about Sharon’s apple pie. Jon was maintaining that he doesn’t like apple pie, as a general rule. My point, which got slightly obscured in the heat of the argument, was that he does like apple pie, he just doesn’t like Sharon’s apple pie, and any other rubbish apple pies. I was trying to say that, if he’s going to have a general rule about apple pie, it should be, “I like apple pie” and then he could have exceptions to the rule, which would be the various bad apple pies that he doesn’t like. The discussion got more and more heated until I said, “but what if you were sitting here, eating my apple pie, and Sharon came in and said, “but you said you didn’t like apple pie!” THEN what would you say? Huh? Huh? What’s your answer to THAT?”

Yes, I accept that Sharon is unlikely to come over and say anything about apple pie, even if Sharon is an actual person and not just a brand name. Sharon sells hundreds of these inferior pies every day and she won’t care at all if Jon doesn’t want to eat one. But my real point here is that often people think they don’t like things, but they do. It could be that they refuse to eat all apple pies because they’ve had one horrible one, or it could be that they think they don’t like courgettes but when you call a yellow courgette a squash then actually courgettes are pretty nice.

Or it could be lentils. Lots of people (men, mostly, I think) say that they won’t eat a meal of lentils. Jon is now a big fan of the recipe I’m about to share with you, but he admits that a few years ago if you’d suggested that he would eat a plate of lentils and call it dinner, he’d ask what the main course was. My dad is the same, although I’m not convinced that even now he accepts that lentils can make up a nutritious, satisfying meal.

This recipe, though, is really one to try, even if you are unsure about lentils. From a nutritional perspective it is a bit of a super-meal, it is really tasty and, very importantly, really quick and easy and perfect for a mid-week supper.

I adapted this recipe from Tarla Dalal, who is apparently the Delia Smith of India.

Makes 4 or 5 adult portions

  • 3/4 cup of red lentils (I use an ordinary kitchen mug for this recipe, and it works just fine)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 green chillies
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 large knob of ginger (equivalent in size to about 3 garlic cloves)
  • 250g spinach
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp amchur powder (this (dried unripe mango powder) is available from Indian stores. If you can’t find it, you could use the juice of half a lemon to achieve the sour element, or a teaspoon or two of tamarind paste)
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed or other flavourless oil
  1. Put the lentils and water into a saucepan, cover and bring to a simmer. When I make this it nearly always bubbles over, so watch it carefully, and use a bigger saucepan than you really need.
  2. If you have a food processor, de-seed the chillies, and put them in the food processor with the ginger and garlic. If you don’t have a food processor, then finely dice the chillies, grate the ginger and crush the garlic. Set them aside.
  3. Finely dice the onion.
  4. Heat the oil in a second, large saucepan. When it is hot, throw in the cumin seeds and a few seconds later add the onion. Fry on a medium heat until the onion is translucent. Then add the chilli, ginger and garlic, and stir and fry for a few more minutes.
  5. The lentils should be soft and cooked now. If they are not, turn down the heat in the onion saucepan and wait, then tip the lentils and their remaining liquid into the saucepan with the onion.
  6. Stir and add the tomato puree, amchur powder, turmeric and salt.
  7. Roughly chop the spinach and add to the saucepan. Stir and cook until it is all wilted and mixed in. Taste, and add more salt, amchur or tomato puree as needed.
  8. Depending on the consistency of the dal and what you prefer, you could keep cooking to reduce it a little more, or you can serve straight away. It’s good with rice or chapattis.

Baby-friendly version

At 2, do not add the chillies, but chop or process and keep aside.
At 6, do not add the salt.
After 7, remove your baby’s portion. Add the chillies and salt to the remainder, and cook for another 10 minutes to make sure that the flavours blend together.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 169 kcal
  • Carbs: 24g
  • Fat: 4g
  • Protein: 11g
  • Sugar: 4g
  • Sodium: 736mg

Honey cake

On an uninteresting road between Kilburn and West Hampstead, there is an intriguing looking place called “Done Our Bit Club”. I haven’t been inside but I imagine that it’s full of old men drinking ale, telling each other stories of the old days, perhaps in the army, and contentedly agreeing that they have all done their bit and can now relax and enjoy the rest of their lives. Whenever I pass it I wonder what you have to prove to become a member, and, more importantly, whether they would consider that I have done enough of my bit to join. If the club really is what I imagine it to be, then I’m guessing that I have not done my bit, but this post is in the interests of progressing matters on that front.

If you’re Jewish, it’s obligatory to eat certain things. These include:

Even if you don’t like some of those foods, as I don’t, it’s obligatory to have a recipe up your sleeve for most of them (you can exclude the ones that you are morally opposed to, like gefilte fish and cholent) and to have views on all of them, because for Jews, food isn’t just food, it’s culture.

But then, because everyone is making the same things but using different recipes, often passed down through the generations, there is a certain element of competitiveness. So even if you don’t like the food yourself, yours is the best one. When I was younger, when people were talking about chicken soup (this is what young Jewish people talk about), I would feel compelled to say “my mum’s and grandma’s chicken soup is the best, you should try it if you think you’ve had good chicken soup because theirs is BETTER” when I myself wouldn’t eat it (I love it now that I have grown up and realised that it’s delicious. And it is the best chicken soup ever).

Also, there are a lot of really horrible versions of some of these dishes out there. So if an independent survey of people (or just guests who are invited for dinner) decides that my (or my mum’s or grandma’s) recipe for something is the best then I feel that I have to tell people about it, even if I myself wouldn’t eat it.

On Rosh Hashanah, it’s obligatory to eat honey cake. Jewish festivals are full of symbolism like this – honey is eaten in order to symbolise a sweet new year. Fruit like apples and figs are dipped in honey and eaten on each night of the festival, but honey cake is the traditional way that most Jews ensure that they can extract as many calories as possible out of the tradition of eating honey.

The recipe I’m sharing here makes a really great honey cake. It’s kind of a family secret and I thought twice about sharing it on here, but I think perhaps my “bit” is improving the general standard of honey cake on the world. It’s everything that a honey cake should be – dark, sticky, moist, and a little bit spicy so that it isn’t cloyingly sweet. It’s easy to make and can and should be made several days or weeks in advance, as it improves with age, like a fruit cake. Jews eat it throughout the holiday season, and it’s the way everyone in my family breaks thei Yom Kippur fast.

Except me. Whilst acknowledging that this is the best honey cake that you’ll ever eat, I’ll be breaking my fast with lemon cake. I’ll post that another time, but this is me, doing my bit:

  • 6oz butter/margarine
  • 6oz dark muscovado sugar
  • 1lb clear honey (this is one whole jar)
  • 1 heaped teasp mixed spice
  • 1 heaped teasp cinammon
  • 1 teasp ginger
  • 2 heaped teasp coffee dissolved in 8 floz hot water
  • 1.5 level teasp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 large eggs
  • 12 oz plain flour

The recipe makes one large square cake (tin of about 25×25 cm) or 2 loaf tins. The mixture is liquidy so don’t use loose-bottomed tins (or if you do, you need to cover the outside with foil. It is easiest to get the cake out if you line the tin with baking paper.

  1. Make the coffee in a jug/bowl, and add the bicarbonate of soda.
  2. Put the butter, sugar, honey and all spices in a large saucepan. Tip for getting all the honey out: loosen the lid (but keep on) and put the jar in a bowl of boiling water for a minute or two. The honey will then pour out easily.
  3. Heat the mixture until everything is melted and dissolved together.
  4. Add the coffee/bicarb mix to the saucepan.
  5. When the mixture in the saucepan is cool, beat the eggs and add them into it.
  6. Add the flour and beat with an electric mixer or a hand whisk.
  7. Pour into the tin and bake at whatever your oven baking temperature is (mine in an electric fan oven is 160) for about 40 mins or until a fork comes out clean.

There’s no baby-friendly version because this just isn’t suitable for babies. Under 1 year babies can’t have any honey, even cooked, and I’ve even seen guidance in some countries to wait even longer. So this is just not for them – let them eat bread.

*Approximate nutritional values (1 slice)*

  • Calories: 181kcal
  • Carbs: 29g
  • Fat: 6.9g
  • Protein: 1.8g
  • Sugar: 21g
  • Sodium: 5.3mg

Multiseed Bread

A few years ago, Jon and I watched a Heston Blumenthal programme about MSG. The gist of it was that MSG isn’t some terrible chemical added to bad Chinese food, it is a naturally occuring salt found in many foods that we enjoy for their “umami” properties, such as cooked tomatoes, parmesan (well, I don’t enjoy parmesan, but I hear that it’s quite popular), kombu and dashi. In the programme, Heston experimented with adding extracts of foods high in umami, like kombu (seaweed) to different foods to see what effect it had, and he concluded that it just made food taste more tasty. Tomatoes tasted more tomatoey, apples tasted more appley, and so on.

A couple of weeks later, we sat down to supper at home – I think it was grilled fish and we had oven-baked potato wedges with it. When we had finished, Jon leant forward expectantly. “What did you think of those potatoes?” he asked. “Yeah, pretty good,” I said.

That would have been the end of that, because he does make very good potatoes and I’m not naturally that suspicious. But “did you notice anything different about the potatoes?” he insisted. “Dunno… they were nice, as always…” I said, non-committally. With a glint in his eye, he said, “But did you think they tasted particularly potatoey?” I drew back, starting to regret the speed with which I’d inhaled the potatoes. “What did you put on them?” I asked, nervously. “Just a little secret ingredient!” He went to the cupboard and took out a little sachet with Chinese characters on it and gleefully shook it: “MSG!!!”

For the next few weeks, every time he made anything and I said I liked it, he would get an evil glint in his eye and say, “But did you think it tasted particularly lemony/gingery/peachy?” and he would wave his packet of MSG triumphantly about. Even though I’d watched the Heston programme and realise that there’s nothing particularly wrong with MSG, the weird powder freaked me out a bit. Luckily, the packet split and spilled everwhere, leaving a dust of MSG over all our spices, and that put him off enough not to buy any more, so that was the end of our MSG habit.

What didn’t stop, however, was his love of secretly adding ingredients to things and then saying, with a naughty-toddler style smile, as I try it, “do you taste anything different about this?” And then the big reveal – “mustard seeds!” (in the challah), “fenugreek!” (in the rice), “lemongrass oil!” (in the burgers). I’m not complaining – it’s nice that he likes to try new things, and none of them taste bad. Many of them can’t be tasted at all due to all the other flavours going on, but it’s good to experiment with cooking and through his experimentation and recipe refinement we have together arrived at some really great recipes.

Mustard seeds in challah is one of the few secret additions that has lasted (and if I make the challah and forget the mustard seeds, he’s horrified “It won’t be the same without them!”) I’ll post the challah recipe another time – any time, really, because we make challah and other bread every week. When people say they make bread it always sounds incredibly impressive, I think, until you hear that they’ve got a breadmaker. Well, we have a breadmaker, and as recently as this evening Jon declared it a “must have” kitchen appliance. We make non-Challah bread much more frequently than we used to because Joe has bread most days – peanut butter sandwiches and French toast (no sugar) are two favourites for his supper. He obviously can’t get through a loaf himself, so then we both take sandwiches to work sometimes, and then when the bread is too hard even for toasting, we slice it, put it in the oven to crisp, and then blend it with garlic and herbs and make breadcrumbs. We have a bag of these in the freezer at all times, and it is incredibly useful – I’ll blog about favourite things you can do with breadcrumbs another time.

Jon is generally in charge of breadmaking, and he has honed the basic recipe I gave him down to a perfect multiseed loaf. He has experimented with various random ingredients but the final version doesn’t contain any surprises. It can be jigged around as you like, but don’t use less than 250g of strong white flour because that keeps it from being too dense.

As we have a breadmaker, this is a breadmaker bread recipe. I’m not sure exactly how to change this for handmade bread; if you’re interested in how to convert this let me know and I will find out.

The only real rule with breadmakers is to find out whether yours is one in which you put the wet ingredients first or the dry ingredients. Whichever it is, don’t deviate! Ours takes the wet ingredients first, so you put all of those in first and the yeast last of all.

  • 340 ml water
  • 2 tablespoons olive (or other) oil
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • 550g flour, made up of around 250g and 300g strong white flour, around 150g rye flour and 100g wholewheat flour
  • 2 tablespoons mixed seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, linseed)
  • 1 packet of dried yeast
  1. Add all the ingredients to the machine in the order listed above.
  2. Turn the machine on (we put this on the wholemeal cycle in our machine)

*Approximate nutritional values (1 slice)*

  • Calories: 135 kcal
  • Carbs: 21.9g
  • Fat: 3.4g
  • Protein: 3.4g
  • Sugar: 0.4g
  • Sodium: 160mg