Underwater love


It’s almost St Valentine’s again – a day customarily greeted in the British media by a cynical honk. After all, what kind of sorry lothario (or ress?) needs a special, Clinton-endorsed date to declare their love via the medium of cuddly hearts and rose-flavoured chocolates* etcetera etcetera…

I beg to disagree. Though we shouldn’t need an excuse to spoil our loved ones, no one ever gets tired of a little adoration, so there’s nothing wrong with taking an extra opportunity to do so. I do object, however, to the idea of going out for a special ‘Valentine’s meal’ – on the day itself anyway. In my tragically personal experience, the food is usually a bit rubbish, and so these affairs tend to end in one of two ways: either you both get so drunk with all the special champagne and the special cocktails and the special liqueurs that you pass out on the table, or you have a fight.

And if you don’t do either of these things, someone else in the restaurant definitely will, while the rest of you gaze into other’s eyes adoringly over the special creme brûlée while desperately earwigging on their disappointment. No, I reckon the secret to a truly loving Valentine’s day is staying in (and, if necessary, packing the children off elsewhere).

The food should be, of course, delicious, but also light enough that you don’t both pass out on the table (see above) or fall asleep during that romantic pre-bed Breaking Bad boxset. I’m hoping not to be on cooking duty this year, but if I were, I’d probably go for something much like the push-the-boat-out menu from my last book Perfect Host: steamed sprouting broccoli with parmesan butter (cliche, but finger food is fun), the Mediterranean fish en papillote above (easy to prepare in advance, and the drama of the parcel opening is very satisfying) and a fluffy chocolate pudding with an oozing caramel centre.

Which brings me to the point of this post (cynical honk). As a romantic gesture, those big-hearted Book People have said Perfect Host book on offer for £7.99 here. If you haven’t got it, I’m very pleased with it – it’s got all sorts of recipes for occasions romantic and not-so (a boxset feast, for example, or a hungover brunch), lots of lovely photos, and for this price, it’s an absolute steal. So go on… and, in the spirit of the day, here’s the baked fish recipe for free…

Pollack en papillotte 

Serves 2

The idea here is that you open the little parcels of fish with a flourish at the table, releasing a cloud of lemon-scented, herbal steam (ladies, remember the waterproof mascara), so it’s important that you seal them tightly with staples or a paperclip.

1 lemon
8tbsp olive oil, plus extra to brush
Salt and pepper
2 fillets of pollack, or other firm whIte fish
10 semi-dried tomatoes
A small handful of fresh basil leaves
1tbsp capers or stoned black olives
2tbsp white wine
400g waxy potatoes, scrubbed and cut in half
  1. Mix together the zest of the lemon and half the olive oil in a bowl and season. Add the fish and leave to marinate in the fridge for a couple of hours.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4 and put a large pan of salted water on to boil for the potatoes. Make a parcel by cutting two squares of parchment paper about 30cm across, and brushing with olive oil. Divide the tomatoes between the two,and top with the basil and the capers or olives. Arrange the fish on top, drizzling over the marinade, and sprinkle over the juice of half the lemon and the wine. Bring the edges of the paper together and secure with a paperclip or staples to make an airtight parcel (if you don’t have these to hand, you could wrap them in foil). Place the parcels on a baking tray and put into the oven for about 15 minutes, until cooked through.
  3. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in the boiling water for about 12 minutes, until tender. Drain well, return them to the pan, put back on the heat for 30 seconds to dry, then add the rest of the olive oil, season, and mash roughly with a fork or potato masher so they’re crushed but not smooth. Scoop into a bowl and put on the table.
  4. Put the papillote parcels on plates and take to the table to be opened there – hopefully in a cloud of scented steam.

*(NB, should my valentine be reading this, I’m fine for cuddly hearts – though the dog might well like one – but if you fancy getting me some rose creams, I can assure you I won’t be at all offended.)

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Smoky pulled pork with black bean chilli anyone?



Tomorrow, after almost two years of work, sees the birth of my second book, Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people and having fun, published by Fig Tree, which, as the name suggests, will ensure that you’re never at a loss to what to feed people for brunch (Mexican baked eggs? breakfast cranachan?), lunch (devilled crab? green potato salad? kedgeree scotch eggs) or even dinner, parties, picnics, Christmas, Easter, Halloween… the list goes on.

I’m really, really happy with it: when my advance copy arrived a couple of months ago, I flicked through it, and found myself bookmarking recipes to make again – “ooh, those chestnut and chocolate brownies look nice! And the pink grapefruit and campari granita… and the prune and armagnac stuffed rabbit…”which is always heartening with your own work. Absence really does make the heart go fonder. And the pictures, well. Beautiful (I can say that, because I just did the cooking for them. All credit to Joe Woodhouse.)

Anyway, this isn’t just an extended plug (although obviously, I’d be overjoyed if a few people did buy it; I don’t think you’ll regret it) – it’s just to let you know that next Thursday evening I’ll be cooking a special dinner for Peyton & Byrne’s food club at their smart restaurant at the National Gallery, mostly with recipes taken from the book. The theme is Americana, for no particular reason except that I was desperate to show off my smoky pulled pork with black bean chilli (above), and I’ve been watching a lot of Mad Men recently and fancied an Old Fashioned. Here’s the menu:

Old Fashioned cocktails and nibbles…

– martini-marinated olives

– spicy candied pecans

– Southern blue cheese thins


Chips and dips

– Homemade tortilla chips with fresh salsa, spinach and parmesan dip and guacamole


Main course

– Pulled pork with black bean chilli (vegetarian option, a drunken beans with crumbled queso)

– Blackened Catfish

– Cheese and jalapeno cornbread

– Tex mex slaw



– Fudgy chocolate brownies with malted whipped cream

I think it sounds pretty damn tasty anyway. I’ve never cooked in a professional kitchen before, but I’ve watched a lot of Masterchef, so I’m pretty confident I know how to shout “oui chef!” with the best of em, and if it gets too hectic, I can always duck out and come and chat to you lot instead. For tickets, click here

Peyton & Byrne Thursday night social: 9th May at 7pm, National Cafe, Trafalgar Square, £35

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Curry. Almost as nice without all the oil.


By popular request (ok, one person asked for it), here’s the low-calorie, and really rather delicious curry I made for my fasting dinner this evening. The curry itself is based on a Gujarati aubergine and potato number from my favourite Indian cookery book, Cooking with My Indian Mother-in-Law – obviously neither of those were going to work here, because aubergine cries out for oil (actually, thinking about it, I could have steamed it, but I had a bit of a rubbish aubergine dish from Holy Cow on Sunday, and I didn’t really fancy it) and potatoes are a big old calorie bomb, so I nicked the spicing and changed the veg. It’s quite a thick, intensely-flavoured curry, but that’s what you want on a fast day. No namby-pamby food welcome. (If you’d prefer a thinner sauce, just add more water. Duh.)

The cauliflower rice, meanwhile, is unashamedly stolen from Instagram’s @ellypear, who posted a similar thing yesterday evening. I wasn’t sure how she’d cooked hers, but I didn’t have many calories left, and I get grumpy if I don’t have my berries and low-fat yoghurt (oh God) for pudding, so I microwaved mine. To be honest, I was a bit sceptical about the idea, but that just shows how needlessly cynical I am about all ideas low-cal/carb/fun, because it worked really really well. Ok, so I’d have preferred rice. but the little nubbly pieces of cauliflower did a surprisingly good job in its stead, and there was a lot more of it too. Which is psychologically important. Make sure you season it well. 


Gujarati-style butternut squash and kale curry with cauliflower ‘rice’ (Serves 1 (but easily doubled or quadrupled, 210kcal) 

1tsp groundnut oil 

1/4tsp mustard seeds

1/4tsp cumin seeds

Pinch of fenugreek

1/4tsp chilli powder

1/4tsp asfoetida

2tsp dana jiru (1.5tsp coriander seeds and 3/4tsp cumin seeds, toasted then ground)

50g onion, chopped 

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1/4tsp turmeric

200g tinned tomatoes 

100g butternut squash, peeled and chopped  into small chunks

100g kale, shredded 

100g cauliflower, cut into small florets 

Pinch of black onion seeds

Fresh coriander, to serve


  1. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and add the mustard, cumin, fenugreek and chilli powder. Cook for a minute until the mustard seeds begin to pop, then stir in the aefoetida and dana jiru. Cook for another 30 seconds, then add the onion and garlic.
  2. Cook until softened, then add the tomatoes. Turn down the heat, add a splash of water, and simmer until reduced and thick. Season and keep warm. 
  3. Meanwhile, steam the butternut squash over a pan of boiling water for about 5 minutes, then add the kale and steam for another couple of minutes until tender.
  4. Put the cauliflower into a food processor and whizz into rice-sized pieces. Put in a microwaveable container and cook for 1 minute. Season and stir in black onion seeds.
  5. Stir the vegetables into the curry sauce. Serve with the cauliflower rice, with a little coriander on top to serve. Devour.

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The Great Horse Hunt

While I was away on the vin chaud and raclette trail back in January, I had an email from the Food Programme, asking me for my thoughts on the hot potato of horsemeat. Turns out the ever-helpful Tim Hayward had recommended me as a world expert on the subject thanks to a little something I’d written for his most excellent magazine Fire & Knives back in 2010 (yes, sometimes it does get lonely being this far ahead of the pack).

Sadly I was too busy falling over to share my wisdom with the masses (although they did somehow manage to put together a couple of pretty great programmes without me), but I thought it would be interesting to dig out the piece anyway, just in case anyone still cares about horse, what with Katie Price pregnant again. 


Me communing with a nearly-horse.

The Great Horse Hunt, taken from Fire & Knives issue 5 (?)

Doubt set in as soon as the waitress turned away. “Do you think she understood me?” I hissed, picking nervously at the bread. If only I’d done the mime, I thought, looking around for her – but she’d disappeared, presumably to communicate our order to the kitchen. Crammed into a corner table in a tiny trattoria, flustered from a frantic dash through the deserted midday streets, I was beginning to feel the southern Italian heat. High hopes were resting on this meal – what if I’d fallen at the first hurdle?

Occupying the front room of an undistinguished house on a dusty street some way from the city centre, Lecce’s Cucina Casareccia doesn’t bother with anything as bourgeois as menus: with this brand of cucina povera, you get what you’re given. ‘Dishes firmly rooted in Salento tradition,’ the Slow Food guidebook had chirruped temptingly. ‘Seasonal produce from the surrounding fields and vegetable gardens… for a main course, try the horsemeat stew’.

I’d never tried horse before. In fact, I’d only ever had drive-by glimpses of the stuff in joyless northern French towns unlucky enough to lie on the Route Nationale to Calais. Suddenly, I was aware of a gaping hole in my culinary education, right between hors d’oeuvres and horse mackerel – and I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to fill it with stew. We were going to get a table at this place, even if meant breaking into a light sweat to secure it.

Once safely seated, I was startled to hear that we appeared to have a choice of secondi, including what sounded like a mixed grill which – grazie a dio! – included a horse steak in salsa piccante that sounded infinitely more appealing than nag stew. Before our waitress could explain the other options, I’d ordered. Unfortunately my Italian wasn’t up to further stressing the slightly crazed nature of my desire, and as she retreated, my anxiety increased. What if she thought I meant I wanted everything but the horse?

When the grill arrived, more than one thing seemed to have been lost in translation: not only was it a single piece of meat, but that meat looked suspiciously like beef to my untrained eye. It tasted quite a lot like it too. “Ask her,” my boyfriend urged, as the waitress swept past with a dish of fritto misto. I shook my head – better to go on believing it might have been horse than to have my disappointment confirmed once and for all.

It wouldn’t be quite true to say that the next 12 months were devoted to bagging my first gee-gee, but somehow, the following summer, I found myself drawn to Le Pré Salé. A white-tiled temple to seafood in Brussels’ former fishing district, it was rumoured to serve some of the finest moules in this mussel-mad city. More importantly, as a proper Belgian restaurant, the menu also found room for horse and chips. Black Beauty, I announced to my sceptical companions, tasted quite a lot like beef. A bit sweeter, and definitely leaner, but nonetheless, a fair ringer for rump.

I enjoyed my steak de cheval – despite the near-constant whinnying from the rest of the table – but I didn’t feel compelled to seek it out again until this spring when, showing off on a ski lift, I rashly promised a friend a horse grill in return for a helping of her special steamed chicken feet. Back in London, I quickly regretted my bravado: bent yellow claws are 50p a pound in Chinatown, but horsemeat isn’t available for love nor money, wherever you look. The editor of this publication confirmed my suspicions: ‘I too have sought the stuff with no luck,’ he emailed. ‘In the end I bought some zebra from a place in Borough.’

Non-Londoners may be pleased to hear that zebra is also available, along with crocodile, locust and rattlesnake, from numerous sources online. The meat of their homegrown cousins, however, seems to be on a par with beagle burgers and siamese sausages on this side of the Channel. It’s little wonder that no one dares market horse: when Gordon Ramsay suggested Britons gave it a try, animal rights activists dumped a tonne of manure outside Claridges. God knows what they’d do to any poor butcher who managed to actually get hold of some.

My search for current retailers may have been fruitless, but I did happen upon a nostalgic online discussion of the former horsemeat butchers of Sheffield: ‘Used to be [one] at Darnall Terminus, often sent there for meat … perhaps that’s why I galloped everywhere’ noted one contributor waggishly. These reminiscences suggest there were once quite a few such businesses in the city, giving lie to the idea that the British had never eaten horsemeat – that ‘it’s not part of our food culture,’ as Marcus Wareing priggishly observed to the Mail after Gordon’s proposal.

A morning probing the darkest recesses of the British Library’s catalogue suggests, however, that horsemeat is not a subject of particular interest to many people. I eventually strike lucky with a little pamphlet entitled The Horse Traffic in England by one Patrick Keatley, Special Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Published in 1952, it’s mainly concerned with the abuse rife in the meat trade – ‘Even as you read this,’ Keatley writes, ‘you can reckon that somewhere in England there may be a fresh consignment of Irish horses loaded into lorries, or puzzled ponies swaying against the sides of a truck as they bump along a narrow Welsh road’ – but it also provides a fascinating glimpse of the post-war appetite for the stuff.

‘On the rough figures available, English people ate the meat of over 53,000 horses last year …’ he says. London, according to Keatley, is the epicentre of consumption, accounting for three-quarters of the entire trade (a study of taboo foods published in the 1980s claims that ‘The one area where it is at all commonly eaten today is Yorkshire, where it is known as ‘kicker’, and ‘kicker-eater’ is a derogatory term for a Yorkshireman outside that county.’ I can find no one who has ever heard of either term, which makes me suspect someone was pulling the – Californian – author’s fetlock on this particular point. The Sheffield messageboard suggests the last vendor there closed in the 1960s.)

In the course of his investigations, Keatley talks to sanitary inspectors who tell him that ‘horses have been slaughtered in recent years on Sundays, Good Friday, August Bank Holiday, Boxing Day and even Christmas morning. Such is the demand for horsemeat in England to-day and such is the eagerness of the trade to satisfy it’. A dealer claims to him, in an expansive moment, to have ‘cleaned out half of Ireland’.

‘It may well be asked,’ Keatley admits, ‘leaving aside common sentiment for the moment, what is wrong … with the humane slaughter of horses in a country that is still critically short of meat? I have talked with medical officers of health in the half-dozen boroughs where most of England’s horse-meat is eaten, and they all speak highly of it as a good. It is nutritious, it is usually delivered very fresh to the shops, and it comes from an animal that is far less subject than cattle to tuberculosis and other diseases.’ Yet despite all this, within ten years, the trade was dead.

The fact that horsemeat had to be sold in special (‘Continental’) butchers shops, and marked clearly as such on restaurant menus must have contributed to the sense that it was a second-rate meat – indeed, it seems telling that Keatley ‘in several weeks of travelling [could not] find such a restaurant, and sanitary inspectors in London boroughs where notoriously horseflesh is consumed were unable to direct me to one.’ Clearly, horse was not the kind of thing people wanted to be seen eating in public, which might explain why, once food supplies were restored after the war, it disappeared from our increasingly aspirational national diet.

In fact, the further I looked into the subject, the more it seemed that horsemeat has always been a foodstuff of necessity, rather than choice – in modern times, at least. In the ancient world, wherever people lived cheek by jowl with their horses, they were also eaten (further south, where grazing was scarcer, a horse would have been more valuable, which may explain why the ancient Greeks and Romans found the idea so distasteful).

For some such peoples, including the Angle tribe of East Anglian fame, the horse was also sacred – yet feasting habitually followed their ritual sacrifice. In fact, this practice was so common amongst northern peoples that horse-eating, or hippophagy, came to be regarded as a cornerstone of heathen culture by the Church. In the eighth century, the Devon-born St Boniface, who had been instructed by the Pope himself to ‘suppress … [this] filthy and abominable custom’ amongst the faithful of Germany, wrote back to say that the ban was proving a serious barrier to conversion.

Yet despite ecclesiastical efforts, the habit lingered on throughout Europe. Icelanders were so attached to their horsemeat that the Church was eventually forced to grant them a special exemption from the rule, while a 16th-century traveller claimed the meat was commonly sold in southern Spain under the name ‘red deer’. The severity of the sentence given to a Frenchman executed in 1629 for eating horse during Lent suggests that he was being punished for more than just breaking the fast.

As the power of the Church declined, and European populations became increasingly urban, food shortages pushed horsemeat back on to the menu. Despite numerous laws prohibiting its sale, horse was freely available in Paris during the lean times of the Revolution, and when one of Napoleon’s generals fed his hungry troops on horse bouillon, he was widely applauded for his ingenuity.

Those concerned with the problem of nourishing the poor began to gather behind horse as a cheap and nutritionally sound solution to Europe’s growing appetite, but they had a hard job convincing their intended beneficiaries that the meat was safe to eat. In Paris, the Horsemeat Committee resorted to handing it out free to deserving families, and encouraging priests to take it too, in the hope of convincing the lower classes that the meat was not only healthy, but downright holy.

In fact, despite its later popularity there, France was one of the last countries in western Europe to legalise the sale of horsemeat – by the time it did so in 1866, it was some years behind Austria, Belgian, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and many of the German states. Even Britain followed suit – rising beef prices led to the formation of the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food in 1868, and the law was amended a few years later. To encourage take-up, enthusiasts gave public lectures in praise of equine flesh, and numerous hippophagic banquets were held around the country, including one memorable feast at Langham’s in London. The menu from that night shows an admirable commitment to nose to tail eating, from jellied hooves to boiled withers; even the innocuous-sounding sole fillets were dressed with lashings of ‘horse oil’.  Photographs of the three beasts who had been sacrificed to this magnificent spread, two cart horses aged four and 29, and a carriage horse who ‘in his prime had been worth 700 guineas’, were circulated around the diners, one of whom reported:

‘I devoutly wished I had the talent of a Hogarth to be able to record the various expressions … there seemed to be a dubious and inquisitive cast spread over the features of most who were present … A very pleasant party at our end of the table, but the meat simply horrible.’

The Great British public were none too keen either: ‘chevaline’ butchers opened in London (note the reluctance to call a spade a spade on this side of the Channel), but a contemporary commentator reports that not only had these swiftly gone out of business, but the entire campaign to popularise horse had been a failure here. Perhaps if we’d been under attack, things would have been different – the French horsemeat trade was undoubtedly given a boost by the Paris siege, which forced it on to the tables of even the highest echelons of society. Despite these trying circumstances, the population showed a commendable commitment to gastro-snobbery: ‘Gourmets maintained,’ according to Baldick, ‘that a slice from a cab horse was preferable to the finest cut from a pampered racehorse’ as the latter’s flesh was invariably tough, whereas the cab-horse was ‘deliciously tender – as was only to be expected, seeing that it had been beaten for years.’

Although the bourgeoisie may have gone gratefully back to beef once the siege was lifted, a taboo had been broken, and by 1910, France was the horseflesh capital of the western world. Indeed, thanks to a highly successful marketing campaign based around its supposed health benefits, the meat continued to be served in schools and hospitals until a small, but highly publicised outbreak of salmonella in the late 1960s put people off.

Although the Gallic embrace of chevaline could be attributed to a less sentimental attitude towards animals in general, it should be noted that the taste is by no means universal. Instead, it’s always been a food for the poor, with consumption largely concentrated in the north of the country, and in isolated pockets further south in cities such as Toulouse and Marseilles. Daniel W. Gade, the author of a comprehensive 1976 study of the subject in the – hitherto unknown to me – journal, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, claims that in 1965, the average annual consumption was 1.46kg a head, but notes that ‘as only a third of the population actually consume it … the real figure is much higher’. Nearly half a century later, thanks to a barrage of negative publicity from the likes of the Fondation Brigitte Bardot, as well as the falling price of other meats, horse accounts for less than one per cent of the market, with consumption falling 12 per cent in the past two years alone. Both the Italians and the Argentinians eat twice as much as the French, while in China, the figure is ten times higher.

As horsemeat is generally reckoned to improve with age (gastronomes prefer animals over the age of three), farming is not really economically viable – instead, former work animals form the bulk of the trade, which these days is divided between the Americas and Eastern Europe. One has to trust that the transport and slaughter is as strictly controlled as for any other animal destined for human consumption; yet there is still no way of getting hold of any in the UK. Horsemeat is never going to be a mainstream choice in this country, but at the moment, it’s not even an option. [Unless you fancy a Findus lasagne of course.]

Calvin W Schwabe, a distinguished veterinarian and author of the fascinating study of taboo foods, Unmentionable Cuisine, which contains numerous recipes for horse, likens the western prejudice against horsemeat to that of Hindus against beef, or Muslims and Jews against pork. I’d argue that these at least have some basis in religious teachings. Our squeamishness, however, has none.

Postscript: In the course of writing this piece, the news broke that a French restaurant in Edinburgh had put horsemeat on the menu (‘We am totally outraged and disgusted that this restaurant has been allowed to open! Horses are mans best friend and this is the same as eating your pet dog!’ frothed one commenter online)  – but when I contact their supplier, who sources the meat direct from Paris, to find out whether they would be willing to deliver to individuals, they never get back to me. I can’t say I blame them; nor would I be surprised to hear that they’d been intimidated into terminating their arrangement.

(If you enjoyed this, think about subscribing to Fire & Knives – a good, meaty read without a week-night supper in sight.)


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Poke-a-Mormon cake

I went to an election-night party on November 6th. This was an occasion always bound to end in disaster – for me at least. I’m constitutionally unable to stay up past about midnight. Luckily Mr Obama didn’t need my support, at it turned out.

Anyway, our host made excellent chilli, I think from the classic Silver Palate book, with fluffy cornbread and guacamole, and I volunteered to bring pudding. I wanted to do something American, and then I wanted to do something, when I thought about it more, that was Mormon. Or, at least, Momon-esque – the more I read about modern Mormon cooking, the more I learnt about Jell-O.


According to the New York Times:

‘Food was rarely plentiful in the early years, families were large, and all households tithed at least 10 percent to the church, so women were strongly encouraged to develop cooking and budget-management skills. Being industrious and hardworking is highly prized in Mormon culture (the beehive is a symbol of the church), and for women, cooking provides a real sense of identity and daily purpose.

In the 1960s, Mormon women (like most Americans) enthusiastically embraced inexpensive convenience foods like canned fruit, instant potatoes and, of course, Jell-O.

“For some reason, the Utah Mormons took longer to come out of that phase,” said Christy Spackman, 34, a doctoral student in food studies at N.Y.U..’

Hence the Betty Crocker because, having rejected frog-eye salad on the grounds that pasta and jelly should never be seen on the same plate, I decided on a poke cake. A poke cake, apparently, is a cake you poke holes in. See?


And what could be more American than an Oreo-flavoured poke cake?

Betty’s sponge was surprisingly alluring, in a salty, vanilla-y kind of a way. And extremely satisfying to poke. The original recipe called for it to be be filled with Oreo Pudding Jell-O, an ingredient sadly all but unobtainable at such short notice in this country. I thus had to approximate my own, by making an old-school cornstarch blancmange and adding a few crumbled biscuits. It looked, I think it’s fair to say, authentically unappetising:


I poured this over the cake, and left to set in the fridge, by which point it looked even worse. Fortunately, there’s nothing that a mountain of Kool-Whip can’t hide. Or, in this case, cream whipped with sugar and festooned with Oreos.


Unfortunately I was so eager to sample my handiwork that I could only bear to take the most awful of photos. Suffice to say, the cake went down pretty well, with Richard claiming it was, in fact, one of the best I’d ever made. Thanks a lot Betty.


Anyway, here’s the recipe in all its awful majesty. I imagine it would be even nicer, depending on your tastes, if you made your own chocolate sponge, but that wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the evening. Mitten, this is your just dessert.

Poke a Mormon Cake

Serves a vast number of excitable politics fans

1 box of Betty Crocker Devil’s Food Cake mix (no doubt you could make your own standard chocolate sponge, but that wouldn’t be very Mormon)

3 eggs

6tbsp oil, plus extra to grease

600ml whole milk

4tbsp corn flour

3tbsp caster sugar

2 packets of Oreo biscuits (or cookies, I suppose)

500ml whipping cream

1tbsp icing sugar

  1. Make the cake according to packet directions, and put in the oven for 20 minutes (note, this is less than suggested. You want it to be a bit undercooked.)
  2. Pour 500ml milk into a saucepan and add the sugar. Bring to the boil over a medium heat. Meanwhile, whisk together the cornflour and 100ml milk until well combined.
  3. When the milk is boiling, stir in the cornflour mixture, turn down the heat so the mixture simmers, then stir continuously until it thickens. Take off the heat and stir in 5 finely ground Oreos (it’s easiest to use a food processor for this).
  4. When the cake comes out of the oven, use the end of a wooden spoon to poke holes all over the surface. Pour the blancmange mixture over the top, then refrigerate until set.
  5.   When set, combine the cream and icing sugar in a large mixing bowl and whip until firm. Spread over the top of the cake, and then top with roughly crushed Oreos.

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Bitchin’ Kitchin (sorry)

My feet, up.

Howdie! I’m back! I keep telling people that book number two is done, which isn’t entirely true – there’s still the small matter of the editing, the photography, the index… and a few other minor details to tie up, but I’ve run out of excuses not to go to the gym, and I even glimpsed the back of the fridge yesterday, much to my housemates’ relief.

As part of my rehabilitation into normal life (disclaimer, the normal life of a freelancer is not, I suspect, typical for many other people), I even went out to lunch today. And, it was so very good that I decided to break my lazy silence, and tell the world about it.

(I feel even luckier to have eaten this lunch because I wasn’t actually invited – my lovely, generous, hard-working Guardian editor was. But this morning, she realised she had far too much proper editor-type stuff to do to waste time on something as frivolous as lunch; and her soggy canteen sandwich was my gain. She did get her revenge, by telling me the wrong time, but I still had the last laugh.)

Lunch was at The Cube, which bills itself a “unique opportunity to watch some of Britain’s top chefs cook for just 18 guests high above the hustle and bustle, against a backdrop of the River Thames, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament”. Basically, Electrolux, the kitchen people, have plonked a great big white box on top of the Royal Festival Hall, and invited some of Britain’s best chefs to cater it for four months. It’s done at a long table, so you get to mingle with your fellow guests, and the chef concerned (who cooks at an open kitchen) which makes it all rather special.

Because I was an hour late, I didn’t get much of a chance to admire the cube itself – I was too busy worrying that I’d missed some food to take photos – but I can assure you the views are absolutely stunning. Who knew there were flowerbeds on top of the Hayward Gallery? (Probably anyone who’s left the kitchen in the last six months, thinking about it.)

They’ve got Claude Bosi of Hibiscus, Nottingham’s Sat Bains, Daniel Clifford of Cambridge’s Midsummer House and Bristol’s Jonray and Peter Sanchez, but I was blessed with Tom Kitchin. Which is exciting because, although my sister lives in Edinburgh, I’ve never made it to The Kitchin – going up to visit and then buggering off eat elsewhere would leave a bad taste in my mouth. (Actually, after today’s experience, I’m pretty sure it would leave a delicious taste in my mouth, but I couldn’t tell my sister that.)


Anyway, on to the food. First up, an amuse bouche of chilled fennel soup, which I neglected to snap out of deference to my fellow diners, who were already finishing their starter. It was, however, delightfully cool and soothing after my mad cycle across London. Then came the Shellfish Rockpool (above), a selection of West Coast seafood served with samphire and seaweed, with a shellfish consommé. The plump oyster, lurking beneath the mussel here, was particularly heavenly, but I ate this in such a hurry, I can’t say much more. Except it was definitely delicious.


Next up were spoots – better known as razor clams to us English. Tom explained the fine art of catching the slippery little so-and-sos, and made it sound much easier than, from my experience, it actually is. One of the other diners got to assemble them under Tom’s direction, but I was staying well out of the kitchen – the clam was chopped and mixed with a rich, winey carrot-studded sauce as far as I could tell, and it was stupendous. Sweet, tender, and not in the least rubbery.

ImageThis was probably my favourite dish: ridiculously unctuous and savoury rolled pig cheeks, served with a langoustine tail, a tangy sort of gribiche-ish lettuce boat, and crispy pigs ears. Frankly, I could have eaten a lot of those cheeks. They were very, very rich, and very, very good. The sensible person in me says they were offset beautifully by the freshness of the lettuce and the sweetness of the shellfish, but still, I wouldn’t have minded eating them on their own.


Back to seafood, slightly surprisingly, with the next course, a clever baked scallop in a white wine sauce. The presentation was the star of this dish: the scallop (hand-dived in Orkney by a chap called Robert, apparently) was enormous, and nuttily sweet, and the herby cooking liquor classically elegant, but the thrill of levering open the shell was the best bit.


The meat course, which Tom brought round in a casserole before plating up. It’s a rack of lamb browned then smoked in hay (“the kind you’d buy for your guinea pig”), and served on a bed of the first Scottish girolles. (Not mentioned, but not to be overlooked is the crisp, fatty nugget of neck drenched in jus at the front of the plate.) The smoky flavour was cunningly subtle complement to the earthiness of the mushrooms although, if I was going to quibble, I would have liked the skin to have been a little crisper (enviously looking across the table, I noticed others were, so perhaps I just got a duff bit for being late).

ImagePudding. Gooey, yet not cloying lemon tart, with a lemon macaron, a sharp creme fraiche sorbet, and glorious Scottish raspberries. Not being an enormous lemon pudding fan, I would have been very happy to eat a big bowl of the sorbet and fruit, topped with the malty crunchy stuff you can see to the left of the plate, but even so, I polished the lot off. Which says much about Tom’s skills in the kitchen. Nominative determinism indeed.

There was also some sort of petit four waiting in the wings, but I had to rush off to a meeting, powered by Sauternes and a strong desire to return in less of a rush. Ok, so the Cube isn’t cheap, (£175 for six courses, including matched wines and a champagne reception), but then finding yourself at Tom Kitchin’s dinner party, with views like that, is a pretty rare treat. And there are those pig cheeks…


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Perfect fry up

While working diligently today, following an unsolicited cold shower from the heavens during my healthful and invigorating run, and an even less welcome one thanks to a conked-out boiler back home, I found myself straying from the matter in hand (looking over my crumble recipe for the pudding I’m cooking for the hapless winner of the Guardian’s Sunday lunch competition) and drawn into Tony Naylor’s excellent article on the subject of the perfect English breakfast.

This is the kind of thing I love to consider. I can argue for hours in defence of the tattie scone versus the fried slice (ugh), segueing into an impassioned tirade against the land-hungry properties of the baked bean, finishing up with a short encomium on the merits of Irish black pudding. Sadly very few of my friends will engage with me on this subject these days, largely because they’ve heard it all before. So here, recorded for all time, or until I change my mind, are my thoughts on the English breakfast.

  1. Fried egg. The lynchpin of the fry up; I can occasionally be tempted into poached or scrambled territory, but in my experience, these are less reliably well executed than the fried egg, so you’ve got to be sure of your venue before straying away from the normal. The white should be cooked through, but the yolk runny enough to provide lubrication for the rest of the breakfast. Breaking into the yolk should not be undertaken lightly, but with due gravitas and ceremony.
  2. Bacon. In an ideal world, this should be streaky, thick cut, and heavily smoked, cooked so the fat is golden and crisp, but not, as Tony observes, so desiccated as to double as a bookmark for the Weekend magazine.
  3. Sausage. Plump, well browned (see picture above for exemplary colouring, from the Market Cafe on Broadway Market), with the predominant flavour being that of pig, rather than herbs, or (God forbid), garlic. Sometimes, however, the sausage could be considered superfluous to requirements, if the breakfast also has an ample helping of decent:
  4. Black pudding. God, I love black pudding. Earthy, slightly sweet, and deliciously rich, my favourite, traitorously (or, looking at it another way, out of loyalty to my Irish quarter) comes from Clonakilty in Co Cork. Unlike the smoother English sort, it’s studded with – I think – barley, which crisps up beautifully when fried. White pudding is also welcome, but in that case, definitely scrap the sausage.
  5. Grilled tomato. The one above is excellent, cooked to jammy sweetness. This, unlike the baked bean, adds a token element of freshness to the plate, and has the inestimable benefit of NOT ENCROACHING ON THE EGG. Beany orange egg white makes me all shuddery.
  6. Tattie scone (aka potato farl). Fried bread is one of the few unhealthy things I haven’t managed to cultivate a taste for in recent years. I think this may be because it eternally reminds me of the first (and only) portion of French toast I consumed in Vermont at the age of 11, which stayed with me an hour or so before my dad was forced to pull over and let me out of the car to part company with it. Doughy, potatoey scones go much better with slabs of salty yellow butter in any case.
  7. English mustard. HP Sauce tastes like Branston Pickle without the bits, and ketchup is strictly reserved for burgers. The morning is a time of day that demands strong flavours – and dolloping enough violently coloured mustard on to every mouthful is enough to wake anyone up.
  8. Cup of tea. Actually, two. One to drink while you’re waiting (when, if feeling particularly poorly, one may also order an orange juice, or unlikely North London smoothie of spinach and manuka honey or similar – as long as this is disposed of before the star arrives. To combine the two is a betrayal of all the English breakfast stands for) and one to wash down all that fat. It should be stewed and harshly tannic, but otherwise bland enough not to nobble your palate for the treats enumerated above.
  9. Newspaper. Breakfast is not for talking, unless it’s annoying your companions by reading snippets out while they’re enjoying a rare moment of silence.

Good breakfasts I have enjoyed recently:

  1. The Market Cafe, Broadway Market (above)
  2. Pistachio & Pickle, Liverpool Road N1
  3. Hmmm. That might be it, actually. I haven’t been out for breakfast for ages. Best ever was probably Ballymaloe House, although frankly I was so stuffed from dinner that I had to leave most of it, and wept much of the way to Cork in consequence. Highly commended are Le Manoir, and Monachyle Mhor, although both of those also owe much to the setting.


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