Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!
I hope you are all having a lovely, festive day with family, friends and of course good food! xxx

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Getting ready for Christmas (and baby!)

Well despite my best efforts to be more consistent at writing in my blog, I have once again failed miserably! It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it or cooking, it’s just the days seem to be morphing into one and before I knew it, the majority of my advent calendar has been opened and it is only 2 days until Christmas! The arrival of Christmas is being overshadowed by the arrival of the baby which is so imminent I can’t believe it and after a very over-active week on the baby’s behalf last week, I have to say I am definitely looking forward to that day. My only stipulation is that the baby does not arrive on Christmas day!!!

Because of the fact I am so unbelievably large and ready to have this wee one at any point, I have managed to remain fairly organised for Christmas “just in case”! The tree is still looking as lovely as ever, especially now that it has a nice selection of presents glistening underneath it, my cards have all been written and posted, the Christmas cake is made and I have managed to make a few big batches of soup to keep the fridge and freezer well stocked! For me it wouldn’t be Christmas without my broccoli and nutmeg soup. I started the tradition quite a few years ago and now it is as necessary as turkey or cranberry sauce! As a family we always ate our Christmas dinner in the evening so this soup is perfect for lunch along with a nice selection of canapés (either homemade or bought – whatever works for you!) and of course a glass or 2 of champagne! If Christmas dinner is an earlier affair for you then you should still try this soup as it’s perfect for slurping on boxing day or even Christmas eve – it is delicious.

And of course in the lead up to Christmas you have to have baking in the house!!! Well I do anyway! I’m really not much of a baker since it tends to involve precise measurements and cooking times so I use other people’s recipes instead. Last week I made Nigella Lawson’s Sticky Gingerbread which is a winner in my opinion. I made it last year so it was a must repeat recipe for this year. (I highly recommend her Christmas book as it has lots of delicious baking and other festive recipes in it – as previously mentioned it is Nigella Christmas: Food, Family, Friends, Festivities and can be bought from any good bookstore or Amazon) I also made a batch of Tiffin cake which was something I grew up with. This is one of my recipes as it isn’t a cake but rather a delicious chocolately tray bake that has been completely devoured by Mr. Vanilla and I since I made it last Thursday (meaning I will have to make some more!!)

I tried to convince myself that the baking was to have at the ready in case of any friends or family that popped by but really I’m kidding myself – it is purely for my own indulgence…. Ok, so I might share some of it but more than likely the first batches will be considered ‘trials’ and I will make some more to share with everyone this week!

Tiffin cake

Despite its name this is actually a biscuit tray bake as opposed to a cake. It’s perfect for when you have those chocolate cravings as it is quick and easy to make and if you bake you are likely to have most of the ingredients in your pantry anyway. Be sure to make lots as it won’t last!

4oz/ 115g unsalted butter
3 tbsp golden syrup
8oz/ 225g digestive biscuits
1oz/ 30g cocoa powder
3oz/ 85g glace cherries
6oz/ 170g milk chocolate
1oz/ 30g white chocolate (optional)

Line a square tin with cling film then set aside. In a medium to large sized pan melt the butter over a gentle heat with the syrup. While it is melting place the biscuits in a food processor and blitz until you have crumbs or simply put them into a sandwich bag and bash with a rolling pin. Chop up the cherries into fairly small pieces. Add the crushed biscuits to the melted butter and syrup along with the cocoa and cherries. Stir well so that everything is well mixed then put it into the lined tin. Press down firmly using a spatula or the back of a large spoon then put in the fridge until it is cold and firm. Melt the chocolate either in a microwave in 20 second intervals, or in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Pour the chocolate over the tiffin cake then spread it so it is evenly covered. If using, melt the white chocolate in the same way then drizzle it over the milk chocolate. Pop back into the fridge until the chocolate has completely cooled and hardened. When ready to serve simply cut it into squares and enjoy!

Mars Bar Krispies

As with the tiffin cake, these aren’t particularly Christmassy, however they are so easy to make and I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t love them! They work well for parties as well as Christmas and if you have children they are an easy and delicious treat for them to make.

3oz/ 85g Rice Krispies
3oz/ 85g unsalted butter
4 Mars Bars*
6oz/ 170g milk or dark chocolate

In a large pan gently melt the mars bars and butter. When completely melted stir in the rice krispies until they are all completely covered in the chocolate mix. Pour into a tin then leave to set in the fridge for 30 minutes. Gently melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. As soon as it has melted pour it over the krispie mix, making sure every little bit is covered. Leave to cool for about 20 minutes then put back in the fridge to completely set then cut into small squares and keep in an air tight container or eat!

*The recipe used to be really simple to remember as it was a ratio of 3/3 and 3 however I have noticed that Mars Bars are smaller now than they used to be so to keep the deep full, chewy chocolately flavour I have upped the quantity to 4 Mars Bars. If you like you can use 3 1/2 and keep the other 1/2 for the cook's treat!

Iced Gems (White chocolate discs)

Again perhaps not very Christmassy, but definitely easy and one for the children to do (and a little pick’n mix nostalgia for the grown ups!). I tend to make up a few batches then put them into nice bags cellophane bags to give to the kids.

8oz/ 225g white chocolate
Sprinkles of your choice (I use hundreds and thousands)

Put the white chocolate into a bowl and place over a pan of barely simmering water, making sure that the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Gently melt the chocolate. Line a couple of baking trays with baking parchment then put small spoonfuls of the melted chocolate onto the sheets. Using the bag of the spoon spread out the chocolate so you have lots of white chocolate discs. Try to keep the chocolate the same thickness so that it doesn’t break. Scatter over the sprinkles that you are using then put in the fridge (or another cold place – for me the garage works perfectly for that at this time of year) and chill until set.

(I also tried a sort of ‘after-dinner mint’ version using crushed candy canes to sprinkle over the chocolate. Initially they tasted great and worked well but after a few hours the crushed candy canes started to go a little sticky and wet. If you are planning on making them and serving straight away then definitely give it a go, otherwise miss out the candy canes and experiment with something else instead!)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Deck the Halls!!

Ok so this was meant to be posted two weeks ago but it obviously didn't happen! Anyway I thought I would still include it as the recipes are still great. Enjoy!......

Another lovely weekend has passed and I’m happy to report that with the passing of the weekend came the arrival of our Christmas tree! Yes, things are starting to feel nice and Christmassy around here. I appreciate for some, getting your Christmas tree on December 5th is pretty early, but considering the size of me it made sense. So on Saturday off we went to pick our Christmas tree and then in a very Canadian spirit cut it down ourselves! I was expecting the process to take a bit of time but we stumbled (literally, after tripping over a few cut tree stubs!) upon a beautiful tree very early in the process. Being as decisive as we are we cut it down there and then and Mr. Vanilla carried it back to the truck which was very quickly filled with the wonderful fresh smell of a newly cut Christmas tree. After the usual fight with the tree stand, victory was ours and the tree is (still!) standing beautifully in the corner of the living room next to the fire.

While Mr. Vanilla ventured out to hang the outside Christmas lights on the house (again another Canadian tradition) I decided to baek a batch of my Cranberry and White Chocolate cookies. They were delicious and as we smugly sat on the couch admiring our beautiful tree, we greedily demolished several cookies each with steaming hot mugs of hot chocolate.

After some much needed relaxation I made a quick batch of my Spinach and Artichoke Dip. Although I make this year round (it’s a great standby for parties) it is particularly welcome in December as it is hot and covered in bubbling, melted cheese. We decorated the tree while devouring the dip and sipping on some Hot Mulled “Cider” (actually apple juice but here that is confusingly also called cider). It was the perfect start to get us into the festive spirit. The countdown to Christmas has begun!

Spinach & Artichoke Dip

1 tin of artichoke hearts
1 clove of garlic, crushed
½ -1 red chilli, finely chopped (optional)
2 large handfuls of fresh spinach
3 oz cream cheese (Philadelphia)
5 tbsp sour Cream
2 oz cheddar Cheese or mozzarella, grated
1 oz parmesan Cheese, grated
Salt & Pepper

Preheat the oven to 200C/ 400F/ GM 6.
Drain the artichoke hearts and chop until quite fine (almost like a puree but still retaining some texture). Add to a bowl and mix with the garlic and chilli (if using). Roughly cut the spinach and add to the artichoke mixture, then add the cream cheese and the sour cream. Mix well so that everything is incorporated, then season and add a small handful of the two cheeses (leaving the rest for later). Put into an ovenproof serving dish then top with the remaining cheese. Cook in the oven for approximately 20 minutes until hot and the cheese on top is bubbling. Leave to cool slightly then serve with crackers, toasted pita bread and crudités.

Hot mulled “cider”

6 cups apple juice or dry cider
3 clementines, cut in half
1 apple, thinly sliced (optional)
2 sticks of cinnamon, broken in half
4 whole cloves
2 star anise
1 thin slice of fresh ginger
1 tbsp honey (if using actual cider – not needed if using apple juice)

In a large pan combine all the ingredients together, squeezing some of the juice from the clementines as you add them to the pan. Warm gently to a near boil then reduce the heat and keep warm. If you can try and let the flavours infuse for at least 30 minutes. Strain the spices and fruit out of the cider then ladle into heatproof glasses, sip and enjoy.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Red wine spaghetti

Ah the joy’s of Friday night! Even though I am no longer working there is something lovely and relaxing about Friday night. Maybe it’s because Mr. Vanilla is finished another week of work and I selfishly get to spend the next 2 days with him, or perhaps it’s just a psychological thing to do with knowing the next two days are for doing what you want to do and you have survived another proverbial ‘work week’. Whatever the reasons, I love Friday nights. Having said that however, after a week of working or doing whatever it is that you do to keep yourself busy, I like to make something quick and easy. My red wine spaghetti recipe is perfect for that. It is quick and very simple to make but also a little different and absolutely delicious. Before I was pregnant I would enjoy it with a large glass (or 2) of wine, but for now I just have to allow Mr. Vanilla that luxury. Use a tasty, good quality wine that you can drink with the spaghetti. Never use cooking wine or anything cheap that you wouldn’t drink as the cooking will only intensify the flavour.

Serve with some crusty French bread and if you want, a simple salad of rocket and parmesan squeezed with a little fresh lemon juice and a good drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil. Relax, it’s the weekend!!

Serves 4

400g spaghetti
1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped
400ml red wine
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsp Parmesan cheese, finely grated, plus extra to serve
Salt and pepper

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Stir in the spaghetti and cook until almost al dente (you will finish cooking it in the sauce). In a large frying pan heat the oil and gently sauté the shallot for a couple of minutes before adding the garlic. Cook for another minute then add the parsley, chives, wine, sugar and a little seasoning and gently simmer until the pasta is ready. Add the pasta to the sauce with 2 tbsp of the cooking water. Stir well and turn the heat up a little. Cook until the spaghetti is ready and the sauce has absorbed into it. Stir in the parmesan and check the seasoning, then garnish with some extra parsley. Eat immediately and reward yourself with a large glass of wine!

My Apologies

I can’t honestly believe that it is already December the 4th……well ok let me correct that – in terms of writing my blog and my lack of writing over recent weeks, I can’t believe it is already December the 4th! In terms of the fact that I am now 36 weeks pregnant I can believe it is December 4th and actually wish it was a little later on than that! Everyone warned me the last month is the hardest and they weren’t lying! Realistically a more disciplined person would put this time to good use writing every day, but due to lack of sleep and general pregnancy aches and pains (and the fact I am obviously not that disciplined!) I have not.

I start every month with great intentions of all the recipes I want to include in that particular month and any specific events, occasions or ingredients I want to talk about, but suddenly before I know it the month is over and I have not even come close to achieving what I set out to do! Maybe if I planned less and just got on with it I would achieve more..... This month however, I am going to be realistic! Once again I have all the intentions, especially with the lead up to Christmas, however with every day closer to my due date (December 29, 2009) it gets harder and harder to stay motivated and inspired!! I have also discovered (perhaps just here and there when I feel energetic) the so-called “nesting” instinct that you hear about. Apparently it isn’t just a pregnancy myth as my freshly cleaned pantry and generally entire house would attest to! Therefore when I should be sitting typing at the computer (with my feet raised due to some very attractive swelling) I am cleaning something or other that I have decided has to be done.

So with my pathetic excuses out of the way, all I can do is apologise that I have not included more recipes for the past couple of months! I will try harder this month...... but perhaps don’t hold me to it!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pomegranate and Orange Pancakes

Every weekend Mr. Vanilla and I always sit down and have a lovely, big breakfast together. It is the perfect time for relaxing, taking your time and making something a little bit more special than the quick weekday bowl of cereal or slice of toast.

What we have depends entirely on how organised I have been during the week, but this past weekend it was pancakes. The great thing with pancakes is that generally you always have the ingredients in your pantry and your fridge and they are easy to make, besides, who doesn’t love pancakes?!!

Since moving to Canada I have realised how popular pancakes are. I’m not talking about the lovely lacy French crepes that I used to make served with a sprinkle of sugar and squeeze of lemon juice, but rather a full-on American sized stack of thick, fluffy pancakes, piled high and adorned with a little bit of butter and lots of maple syrup to cascade down the sides. They never go wrong and I have yet to meet someone who isn’t delighted to tuck into some freshly made pancakes.

I was going to save this recipe for later in December and call them my “Christmas pancakes” but I couldn’t wait, besides I have a feeling I will have a lot of “Christmas something or other” recipes since I am a huge fan of Christmas and the lead up to it! I love pomegranates and for me they are definitely a sign that Christmas is on the way since they are only in season over the winter months. I know a lot of people are put off pomegranates since they think it is too much work to deseed them, however I actually find it very therapeutic picking through the seeds, like I have found a treasure-trove full of bright, glistening rubies. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can always cut the fruit in half, then holding one half over a bowl smack it with a rolling pin or similar device until all the seeds have fallen out! My only word of advice is not to wear white, unless you want to look like something out of a horror movie!

The pancakes turned out better than I expected. The seeds give a lovely freshness to the pancakes, and burst with little explosions of juice as you crunch into them, and the orange zest gives a lovely refreshing lightness and ‘zing’ to them.

I served them with plenty of warm maple syrup and some rashers of crispy, streaky bacon. Sitting at the table devouring our pancakes and drinking delicious, frothy cappuccinos it was the perfect start to a lazy and relaxed weekend. I would definitely recommend trying these out while pomegranates are in season and as for me, I think they might just make an appearance on Christmas morning, making them definite Christmas pancakes!!

Pomegranate and orange “Christmas” pancakes

Makes approx. 16 pancakes

7 ½ oz/ 1 ½ cups/ 210g all-purpose or plain flour
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
400ml Milk
2 eggs
3 tbsp melted butter
Zest of 1 orange
Seeds of one ripe pomegranate

To serve:
Lots of warm or room temperature maple syrup
Streaky bacon, cooked to your liking

In a large bowl mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl or jug combine the milk, eggs, melted butter and orange zest. Whisk well then add to the dry ingredients. Mix everything together then add the seeds of the pomegranate.

Drizzle a little extra butter into a hot griddle or frying pan then ladle some of the mixture onto your cooking surface, leaving room for them to spread. Cook for roughly 2-3 minutes until you have lots of small bubbles on the surface then flip the pancakes and cook for roughly another 30 seconds until they are golden. Keep the cooked pancakes warm until you have made them all, then serve with maple syrup and bacon.

*For normal American style pancakes make the mixture as above simply missing out the orange zest and pomegranate seeds.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Soup Kitchen

Winter is definitely on its way. The mountains have a picturesque blanket of snow draped over them which provides a beautiful backdrop but unfortunately means that down here in the Valley it is rain, rain and more rain. The rain has been so heavy over the last few days that today the river finally gave in and burst its banks causing widespread flooding in town and leading to a state of emergency being declared! As bridges were closed and people living near the lake were evacuated, I remained tucked up indoors with the fireplace on and decided it was the perfect day to spend some time in the kitchen making warming homemade soup.

Soup was something that I grew up with and have therefore always loved and turned to for comfort. On a cold, rainy day nothing can beat a piping hot bowl of fresh soup with warm bread ready to dunk in! I think everyone has their favourite soup and of course when a cold or sniffle comes along I find that most people I know turn to a big bowl of soup. For me it has to be my mum’s vegetable soup sprinkled with curry powder and for my husband it is chicken noodle soup which soothes and revitalises.

Soup is a dish that can be enjoyed piping hot slurped from a bowl or mug or chilled and served in dainty glass bowls on a glorious summer day. It is extremely versatile, can be served for lunch or dinner and if that isn’t enough it is also inexpensive to make. It is universally eaten and enjoyed and the variations are endless. Below are two very easy recipes that I made today based on what I had in my kitchen, ideal for lunch and perfect for anyone just starting to make soup or needing a pick-me-up. With the weather the way it is however and winter fast approaching I can assure you that throughout this blog there will be many, many more soup recipes popping up to warm and comfort as needed!

Curried Vegetable Soup

This is such an easy soup that anyone could make it using minimal appliances, basic ingredients that are available all year round and that are cheap – perfect for someone on a budget. Mum always made this for us and now whenever I am ill it’s the only thing I want and that can make me feel better. I’ve kept the recipe exactly as mum made it, however feel free to add any additional herbs or spices that you have lying around.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 oz butter
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
2 tsp curry powder, plus extra to sprinkle on top
Salt & pepper

Heat the oil and butter in a large pan. Add the onion and cook gently for a few minutes until softened, then add the leeks, carrots and potatoes and cook gently for 10-15 minutes with a lid on. Once the vegetables have started to soften add the stock and curry powder and season with salt and pepper. Simmer gently for a further 20-25 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly before blending until smooth. Check the seasoning and serve piping hot with a little curry powder sprinkled over the top if you like.

Leek & Bean Soup

This is another incredibly easy and quick recipe that is hearty and delicious. Make sure you drizzle the soup with good quality extra virgin olive oil to finish it off perfectly.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
4 good sized leeks, cleaned well and thinly sliced
1 fat clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 litre/ 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 410g tin of cannellini beans, drained & rinsed
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan or pecorino to garnish
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

In a large pan heat the oil and butter until melted. Add the sliced leeks and cook for roughly 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the garlic and cook for another minute before adding the stock and then the beans. Season with salt and pepper, cover with a lid then simmer for 15 minutes. Leave the soup to cool slightly then blend roughly a third of it. Mix well and check for seasoning. When ready to serve, serve piping hot with a few shavings of parmesan and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese is certainly not a new dish, however I consider it without doubt to be in the top 10 comfort foods, so continuing with our November theme of comfort foods is good old mac and cheese!

I have tried so many different versions of macaroni and cheese in order to try and find what I think is the best, and of course the one I have come back to is my mum’s recipe. The only thing I have done is add a little extra cheese. With other versions I tried infusing the milk with onion, bay leaves, spices and so on, and while they were good, mum’s version was without a doubt the winner.

The great thing about this recipe is that you can vary the types of cheese you use depending on what you have. Cheddar, mozzarella & parmesan taste great, are kid friendly and I generally always have them in my fridge, however experiment and try different varieties. Smoked gouda provides a lovely mild smoky dimension, gruyere adds a delicious nuttiness and blue cheese is perfect for a stronger, slightly more sophisticated taste.

To finish off the macaroni and cheese, I like to simply grill it for a few minutes until the cheese is bubbling and just turning golden. If you prefer to bake yours however, place it in a 200C/ 400F/ GM 6 oven for 20 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and golden.

10oz/ 285g macaroni
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp plain flour
625ml/ 2 ½ cups milk
2 tsp Dijon or English mustard
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3oz/ 85g strong cheddar cheese, grated
3oz/ 85g hard mozzarella, grated
1oz/ 30g parmesan cheese, finely grated
Salt & pepper

Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and cook the macaroni until it is al dente. If you want to finish off the macaroni in the oven by baking it, cook it for roughly 2 minutes less than the packet instructions.

While the pasta is cooking make the cheese sauce. In a medium sized sauce pan, melt the butter and then stir in the flour with a wooden spoon. Cook over a gentle heat for a couple of minutes, allowing the roux, (the butter and flour mix) to cook slightly to prevent a raw flour taste later on.

Gently start whisking the milk a little at a time into the roux, stirring constantly to prevent any lumps. Once all the milk has been added gently bring it to a boil then allow to simmer for a couple of minutes so that it thickens. (A milk sauce thickened with flour or cornflour will never thicken fully until it has reached a simmer.) Mix the three cheeses together then add the mustard and two-thirds of the mixed cheese to the sauce, along with the nutmeg and salt and pepper. Remove from the heat while the cheese melts then taste to check the seasoning and stir until all the cheeses are melted.

Drain the pasta and add to the cheese sauce. Stir well then transfer to an oven-proof serving dish. Top with the remaining cheese then bake in the oven for 20 minutes or put it under a hot grill for roughly 5 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling.

*For variation add some chopped cooked bacon to the cheese sauce or for extreme luxury add some chunks of lobster!

Friday, November 6, 2009


For me, November is a month that is all about comfort food. The nights get darker much earlier, the trees have lost their leaves and the air is cold and damp. Jumpers are in full-force and scarves, gloves and hats are making their first appearance of the winter. It is only natural therefore that on the menu is comfort food. Comfort food is different to everyone but generally it is food that will warm and sooth you and is easy to eat.

With that being said I am dedicating the month of November to comfort food and first on our list is Goulash.

Yesterday it poured with rain all day long (and all night) so this Hungarian casserole was a perfect meal to warm us up, as well as the house as it slowly bubbled away in the oven. Goulash is a beef stew (or you can use pork) intensely flavoured with paprika and peppers and then mellowed out at the end with lashings of sour cream. From the moment I added the smoky paprika to the dish I was instantly revived and felt like I had been transported to a rustic log cabin with a wood-burning fireplace smouldering away in the corner of the room.

I really recommend trying to get some smoked paprika for this dish as it really does make a huge difference, however if you can’t you can just use ordinary paprika, you just won’t get such an intensely smoky taste. La Chinata is the paprika I like to use to achieve the distinct sultry smoky taste and is now available from most supermarkets. The hot paprika is optional as it is quite spicy and will add a definite heat to the goulash, so if you would prefer a milder version miss it out and use 2 tablespoons of the sweet paprika instead.

The most common accompaniment to goulash tends to be rice or tagliatelle – both of which are lovely, however for ultimate comfort I find you can’t beat having it with creamy mashed potatoes.

750g approx. stewing or braising steak
30g/ 1oz plain or all-purpose flour
2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely sliced
100ml red wine (you can also use white if that’s what you have)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 red peppers, sliced
1 tbsp smoked sweet paprika, plus extra for sprinkling
1 tbsp smoked hot paprika
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 x 400g/ 14oz tin of chopped tomatoes
250ml beef stock
1 bay leave
Salt & pepper
150ml sour cream, plus extra to serve
3 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

If you are using an oven-proof casserole dish, pre-heat the oven to 350F/ 180C.

Toss the beef in the flour so that all the pieces are lightly covered, shaking off any excess. Heat the oil in a large casserole dish or pan and cook the meat in batches until it is well browned all over. Remove and set aside.

If need be add a little extra oil then add the sliced onions to the same pan or casserole dish and cook for a couple of minutes then add the wine and de-glaze the bottom of the pan, scraping up all the delicious brown bits that have stuck to the bottom with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook the onions for a few more minutes before adding the garlic and peppers. Cook for another couple of minutes then add the meat back to the pan along with the paprika. Stir well so that everything is coated in the paprika then add the tomato puree, tinned tomatoes, beef stock, bay leaf, salt and pepper.

If cooking the goulash in a casserole dish, cover it and then put it into the oven to cook for 1 1/2 - 2 hours. If you are using a large pan, simply cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and leave to cook gently for just over 1 hour (or longer if you have the time), stirring from time to time.

When ready to serve stir in the sour cream and scatter over the parsley. Stir well then serve with rice, tagliatelle or mashed potatoes (if you want the extra comfort!). As a final touch, I like to put a small bowl with some extra sour cream on the table sprinkled with some of the sweet paprika for everyone to help themselves to.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thai Pumpkin soup

This is a great warming soup to have at Halloween or on Guy Fawkes night when there is still an abundance of pumpkins around. Although smaller pumpkins will give a stronger flavour, feel free to use any you can get your hands on, including any failed attempts at pumpkin carving! If you can't get a pumpkin then feel free to use any type of squash. I've made this several times using Butternut Squash and it's just as delicious.

2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, sliced
1 leek, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed & cut into cubes
1.2kg of pumpkin flesh, peeled & cubed
1 carrot, peeled & roughly chopped
2 red chillies, 1 finely chopped
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled & grated
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp red curry paste
1 litre/ 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
400ml tin of coconut milk
Salt & pepper
Handful of fresh coriander

To serve:
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds (optional)

In a large pan heat the oil then add the sliced onion and leek and gently sauté for roughly 7 minutes until they have started to soften. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes before adding the chopped pumpkin flesh, carrot, 1 finely chopped chilli and the ginger. Sauté for a few more minutes then add the ground coriander and the curry paste. Cook for a minute or so stirring well so that the paste doesn’t burn, then add the stock. Cover and leave to simmer gently for roughly 25 minutes or until all the vegetables are soft.

Remove from the heat then add the coconut milk and seasoning. Allow to cool completely before blending to a completely smooth consistency. When ready to serve, gently reheat and add the coriander, reserving a little for a garnish along with the remaining chilli, thinly sliced or if you prefer garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Leftovers ~ Stovies

With Autumn in full force it is the perfect time of year for comfort food. The weather here is still very mixed with some beautiful crisp sunny days dotted amongst some very bleak, rainy and cold days. For the past couple of weeks we have been feasting on roasts and then using up the leftovers in whatever way I can think of (or as requested by Mr. Vanilla). Following Thanksgiving it was turkey soup, turkey and pesto pasta, turkey rolls and especially for Mr. Vanilla, turkey and leek pot pie! We then had a beautiful roast beef that we cooked very simply with just a little salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil to a perfect medium rare, served with lots of roast vegetables and of course, Yorkshire puddings. The following days we were greedily satisfied with roast beef and red onion marmalade baguettes and of course, the Scottish classic Stovies.

Now I know in some parts of Scotland Stovies are made with only potatoes, onions and then the dripping or gravy from the roast beef, but we always grew up with it as a way to use up leftover roast beef. It was Mr. Vanilla's first time trying it and all I can say is our plates were licked clean! A simple, classic Scottish dish using leftovers that was a quick and easy midweek meal but left us planning when we were next going to have another roast beef dinner!


Serves 2 generously for dinner with leftovers for lunch, or 4 small portions

Traditionally you would use 2oz of dripping from the roast beef instead of butter and oil but if you don’t have any (as I didn’t) you can use butter and oil instead which tastes great.

1oz/ 30g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 ½ lbs potatoes, peeled & sliced (approx. 4 potatoes)
3-4 tbsp beef gravy
Left over roast beef (as much as you have, or want to use!), cut into bite sized pieces
Salt & pepper

In a medium to large sized pan heat the butter and oil (or drippings if you have it) then add the sliced onion. Cook for 5 minutes or until it has started to soften but not coloured. Add the sliced potatoes and mix gently with the onions and butter so they are all coated, then add the roast beef and the gravy. Season with a good pinch of salt and pepper, then cover with a lid and cook for 30-40 minutes over a very low heat, stirring from time to time. Once the potatoes are cooked through and have broken up a bit and all the gravy has been absorbed into everything, serve at once with some good Scottish oatcakes and a cold glass of milk!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Crispy Chicken Strips & Plum Sauce

An easy, delicious and quick mid-week meal, chicken strips and plum sauce are guaranteed to go down a treat. Make plenty of plum sauce when plums are in season.

Crispy Chicken strips

Crispy on the outside and deliciously tender and moist on the inside, nothing beats these chicken strips, which I absolutely love served with homemade plum sauce. If you can, try and use Panko breadcrumbs which are very light and crunchy Japanese breadcrumbs. Although normal bought breadcrumbs do work well, Panko breadcrumbs give a much crispier end result. I like to serve these crispy chicken strips with lots of plum sauce, potato wedges and a classic green salad.

4 chicken breasts cut into long strips
2 eggs
5 tbsp flour
90g/ 3oz/ 1 ½ cups Panko breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil for frying

First you need to set up your egg, flour and breadcrumbs for dipping. On one plate put the flour and season it with a good pinch of salt and pepper. On a second plate crack the eggs and lightly beat with a fork. Finally put the breadcrumbs on a third plate. You can now start coating your chicken strips. Start with a light dusting of flour shaking off any excess, then dip into the beaten eggs and finely into the breadcrumbs. Press down slightly so that they stick and that the chicken is evenly covered. Put the chicken on a large plate and continue with the other strips until you are finished.

When ready to cook, heat the oil in a large pan (you need roughly 1 inch of oil to shallow fry them). Preheat the oven to 300F/ 150C/ GM 2. To test whether the oil is hot enough I add a cube of bread (normally just a little piece torn from the heel of the loaf). If it starts to sizzle round the edges immediately then the oil is ready. If it doesn’t, let the oil heat up for longer then try again. If it sizzles too much or the bread instantly turns colour, reduce the heat and let it cool slightly before adding your chicken strips. Add the strips in batches being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook for roughly 3-4 minutes until they are golden brown all over and the chicken is cooked inside. Drain the first batch on kitchen paper then pop on a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven while you cook the rest.

When all the chicken strips are cooked, serve with plum sauce, potato wedges and a crisp green salad.

Plum Sauce

The first time I tried plum sauce was with chicken strips here in Canada at the age of 18. Now I can’t imagine not always having a supply tucked away in my fridge as it is so good and goes with a lot more than just chicken strips!

Although you only need 3 plums for this sauce you can easily double or triple this recipe to use up more if you are lucky enough to grow your own. The sauce freezes well so make lots and always have home made plum sauce at the ready!

Makes approximately 400ml

3 large plums, stones removed & roughly chopped
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
1 tsp finely grated ginger
60ml/ ¼ cup apple juice
1 tbsp tomato puree
½ tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp maple syrup
3 tbsp honey
60ml/ ¼ cup water or stock
Freshly ground black pepper

Simply place all the ingredients in a medium sized saucepan and slowly bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat slightly and gently continue to simmer for 30-40 minutes until you have a thick, delicious bright pink sauce. Check for seasoning and then allow to cool slightly before blending using a handheld blender or a liquidizer until you have a completely smooth sauce. Leave to cool completely before serving and keep the rest in a sterilized jar.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A bucket full of figs

On our second day in Pacentro, Italy, we were all sitting up on the rooftop terrace admiring the views and enjoying a lazy lunch of local bread, cheese and hams, when there was a knock at the door. After peering over the balcony Dad noticed no one there but instead what looked like a bag of food. He headed down the 3 storeys to the front door where he was greeted with a large carrier bag containing a bucket full of figs! The lady next door, a stereotypically Italian mama who dressed entirely in black and worked on her doorstep every day, had been watching the busy arrival of us all in preparation for the big wedding. Once she decided we must have all arrived she gave us a huge bucket of freshly picked figs, telling us to use what we could.

Since there were so many, we gave half of them away to other family staying close by. If I had lived there and had the proper jars or utensils I would have set to work making a chutney or jam, however I didn’t and time wasn’t on my side so instead that night I made a simple but delicious salad of figs with gorgonzola (and a mozzarella version for myself – distraught not to be able to eat blue cheese when pregnant – and Mr. Vanilla who can add blue cheese to his list of foods that I love and he hates!). The figs were absolutely delicious – sweet, bursting with sun-ripened flavour and best of all, picked freshly from a tree in the area!

Figs are going out of season now, however if you are able to get a hold of some I recommend trying the following recipes for easy starters or lunches. If you can’t get them then definitely keep these recipes in mind for next September when they are at their peak. As for me, from now on whenever I eat figs I will be sitting in Pacentro with all my family, enjoying the generosity of an Italian mama!

Figs with Gorgonzola

(Serves 6)

A couple of bags of mixed salad leaves, including rocket (arugula)
12-18 fresh figs (depending on how big they are)
A good wedge of gorgonzola
150ml Balsamic vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper

Preheat your oven to 400F. In a small pan reduce the balsamic vinegar until it has become syrupy and you have a few tablespoons left. Set aside to cool completely. Scatter the salad leaves on a large platter or on 6 individual serving plates. Cut a cross, ¾ of the way through each fig so that the fig stays intact but you can open it up, then place a good cube of cheese in the centre of each fig. Sprinkle over some freshly cracked black pepper and a small amount of salt then place on a baking tray and bake for roughly 5 minutes or just until the cheese has melted. Serve the figs on top of the salad leaves then drizzle over the reduced balsamic vinegar and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve at once with lots of chewy, crusty bread. Delicious and easy!

Fresh Figs with Buffalo Mozzarella, Rocket & Chilli

(Serves 4)

I have been making this for years with great success. It is similar to the above recipe although you don’t bake the figs so I thought I should include it. This is as simple as it gets but with maximum results that are sure to please everyone. I like to serve it ‘family style’ on one large plate that everyone can help themselves to, however if you prefer to serve it on individual plates by all means please do so! I’ve stated 2 large handfuls of rocket which I know can seem vague and unspecific but the point is that all you need is enough to scatter and cover the bottom of your serving plate, so use as much as you see fit.

2 large handfuls of rocket (arugula) or mixed greens
6 ripe figs – either brown or green
2 x 150g balls of mozzarella
1 long red chilli
3 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
A good sprinkling of Maldon sea salt

Scatter the rocket over the bottom of your serving plate, reserving a few leaves to garnish on top. Cut the figs into quarters and casually place on and around the rocket, then do the same with the mozzarella. You don’t need to be fussy with the presentation as it is meant to be quick and casual. Finely chop the chilli – it’s up to you whether you want to keep the seeds in or not – then scatter it over the figs and the mozzarella. Finish by drizzling over the balsamic vinegar and olive oil and sprinkling a good amount of crushed Maldon sea salt over everything. Strew the reserved rockets leaves over the top and serve with some crusty French bread.

Fig and Goats Cheese Bruschetta

(Serves 4)

These are perfect as either a starter or for lunch. If you want to make it a bit more substantial serve with a larger salad with some crispy proscuitto or bacon, cut into small pieces.

4 slices of ciabatta, cut at an angle
1 clove of garlic, sliced in half
4 figs, each sliced into 3 or 4
3.5oz/ 100g soft Goats cheese
Drizzle of balsamic vinegar
Drizzle of Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Mixed salad leaves or rocket to serve (optional)

Brush the slices of ciabatta with a little olive oil and grill until golden on both sides. Rub one side with a little garlic then spread with the goats cheese. Top with the sliced figs then season with salt and pepper and drizzle over a little balsamic vinegar and oil. Return to the grill and cook for a further minute to warm up the figs, being careful not to burn the toast. Serve with a small handful of mixed salad leaves or rocket drizzled with some balsamic vinegar & olive oil.


Monday, October 5, 2009

The Arrival of Autumn

There is something very comforting about the arrival of autumn. Unfortunately it does mean that summer is behind us for another year, but in its own way, autumn signals a time of comfort and warmth with all the vibrant oranges, reds and yellows nature has to offer. It is a beautiful time of year easing us gently from balmy summer nights towards the darker days of winter.

When it comes to the autumn harvest, markets and shops are over flowing with the deep tones of the last of the September berries, figs, crisp freshly picked apples and plums, mixed with the new bright bursts of squash and pumpkins sitting prominently like lanterns guiding us towards their natural glow.

Despite the crisp layer of frost this morning, today has turned into another beautiful day. There is a slight chill in the air but the sun is shining brightly and so after a lovely walk the perfect lunch for me is my carrot and ginger soup. This soup is perfect for warming you up on an autumn day and banishing any signs of that first cold. It will go fast so I recommend doubling the recipe and putting half of it in the freezer, ready for another day.

Carrot & Ginger Soup

1 tbsp Olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 onion, finely sliced
1 leek, washed thoroughly and sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
4-5 large carrots, (roughly 1 lb) peeled and sliced
1 tbsp ginger, peeled and sliced
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (optional)
1 litre of vegetable stock
½ tsp ground coriander
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Salt and Pepper
Creme fraiche or sour cream to serve (optional)

In a large pan melt the butter with the oil. Add the onion and leek and cook for roughly 5 minutes until softened but not coloured, then add the garlic, carrots, ginger and chilli. Cover and sweat the vegetables for 10 minutes before adding the stock, ground coriander and a little seasoning. Cover and leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes until the carrots are soft. Cool slightly before blending in a liquidizer or processor. Taste the soup to check the seasoning and adjust if necessary, then add the fresh parsley and serve piping hot with lots of crusty bread.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Back to reality (with a full-blown cold!!)

It’s hard to believe that two days ago we were strolling through the streets of Rome, taking in the sights of the Trevi Fountain, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pantheon, basking in 29 degree sunshine and eating as much gelato as we could fit in after the huge lunch we had devoured. Now back to reality we are home in Canada where although the sun is shining (a little) it is a much cooler 12 degrees, and the first skiff of snow has dusted the mountains. Sniffling and coughing with the obligatory cold that I always get from flying, it is time to pull the jumpers off the top shelf, put the summer clothes away and accept that here at least, summer is officially over.

I always think of October as a mystical month with crisp frosty mornings, clear starry nights and the smell of wood burning fireplaces being lit for the first time after summer. Of course the mystical part is mainly due to the excitement of Halloween where witches cackle, cauldrons boil and children’s screams of delight pierce through the night as they guise for treats.

In the meantime however, it’s back to reality and I am in need of some good old comfort food. Tonight will be dinner curled up on the sofa, blanket within reaching distance and the fire on. A perfect night for sausages with red wine, onion and thyme sauce and buttery mashed potatoes – definitely one of my top comfort meals guaranteed to warm me up and give me a huge big culinary hug.

Sausage and mash with red wine, onion & thyme sauce

Serves 2

4 good quality sausages of your choice
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely sliced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
250ml/ 1 cup red wine
1 bay leave
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp tomato puree or ketchup
1 tsp sugar (or to taste)
Salt & pepper
125ml/ ½ cup beef stock
1 tbsp butter

For the mash:
Approx. 600g potatoes, peeled
1oz/ 30g butter
3-4 tbsp milk, warmed (I usually give it a quick blast in the microwave)
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F.

Put the sausages on a baking sheet and cook for 40 minutes, turning half way through cooking.

Cut the potatoes into equal sized pieces and put in a large pan with a little salt. Cover and slowly bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender (roughly 20-25 minutes).

While the sausages and potatoes are cooking make the sauce. Heat the oil in a small pan then add the onion. Sauté for 5 minutes until softened but not coloured. Add the garlic and cook for another minute before adding the wine. Bring to a simmer then add the bay leave, 2 of the thyme sprigs, tomato puree (or ketchup), sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer gently for about 5 minutes until it has reduced slightly then add the beef stock. Continue to simmer gently and if it starts to reduce too much, cover with a tight fitting lid (and you can always add an extra splash of wine or even water).

When the potatoes are tender drain well then return to the pan. Add the butter and a splash of the milk. Mash well and as needed add the remaining milk so that you have perfectly smooth and soft buttery mashed potatoes. Season with salt and pepper.

When ready to serve, top the mashed potatoes with the sausages then spoon over lots of the delicious, rich sauce. Sprinkle over the leaves from the remaining sprig of thyme then sit back, relax and enjoy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cook Club

About a year ago, 6 of us (3 couples) started what was to be known as ‘the cook club’. The point of this ‘cook club’ is to take it in turns to host a monthly dinner party, with the hosts choosing the theme of the night and the other 2 couples simply turning up with a bottle of wine as requested by the hosts! It works really well and is a fantastic opportunity to eat different cuisines as well as a great excuse to get together. So far we have indulged in French, Indian, Italian, Spanish and Moroccan meals (the latter being the most memorable since Hayley went into labour the following morning, a month early!!).

Since we have all been so busy over the summer, we had to take a break for a few months but thankfully we were able to start it up again last weekend. It was our turn to host and since it happened to be Labour day weekend (or the ‘official’ end of summer), I decided that it would be appropriate for the theme to be ‘summer’ or more accurately a menu using the last of the summer ingredients. After much consideration I came up with the following menu:

Lettuce Soup with Pea Crostini

Goats Cheese Stuffed Pork Tenderloin with Fresh Cherry Sauce on a bed of Mixed Salad Leaves with Crispy Lemon Thyme and Garlic Potatoes

Strawberry Cheesecake

The meal was a great success despite the suns lack of cooperation, and rather than sitting out to eat sipping lemon drops, we were relegated inside with a lovely vase of sunflowers providing the rays of light! All in all, the menu worked well, it was great to catch up with everyone and it was good to get the cook club started again – roll on October!

Lettuce Soup with Pea Crostini

Serves 6 - 8

For the soup:
1oz/ 30g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
1 leek, cleaned & finely sliced
2 clove of garlic, crushed
2 potatoes, peeled & cut into cubes
1500ml/ 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 heads of lettuce, washed & torn
4oz/ 115g/ 1 cup frozen peas
Salt & pepper
125ml/ ½ cup whipping or double cream, plus extra for garnish

For the crostini: (makes enough for 6-8 servings plus extra)
7 ¼ oz/ 200g frozen peas
1 clove of garlic, roughly chopped
6 basil leaves
Juice & zest of ½ lemon
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Handful of freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 spring (green) onion, finely sliced
Salt & pepper
French baguette or ciabatta, thinly sliced

Start by making the soup. Melt the butter with the oil in a large pan. Add the onion and leek and sauté for roughly 5 minutes until it has softened. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute before adding the potatoes. Cover with a tight-fitting lid then leave to cook over a medium-low heat for 10 minutes so that they start to soften, stirring from time to time to make sure the potatoes aren’t sticking or burning. Add the stock and season with salt and pepper, turn up the heat to medium then continue to cook for another 10 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through. Once they are ready add the lettuce and peas and allow it to just wilt before removing from the heat. Leave to cool slightly then puree with a handheld blended or liquidizer. Transfer into a clean pan and add the cream.

To make the pea crostini, cook the peas in a pan of boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain then put the peas in a bowl with ice cold water to stop them from cooking further. Add the peas, garlic, basil, lemon zest and juice, olive oil and a good pinch of salt and pepper to a food processor and blend until smooth. Put the pureed peas into a small bowl then add the parmesan cheese and the sliced green onion. Taste to check the seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Drizzle the slices of bread with some olive oil then toast on a griddler or under a grill under golden brown then top with a good spoonful of the pureed peas.

When ready to serve reheat the soup then add a swirl of cream. Place a pea crostini in the middle of each bowl and finish with a little drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Goats Cheese Stuffed Pork Tenderloin with Fresh Cherry Sauce

Serves 6

2 Pork tenderloins
200g soft Goats cheese
Zest of ½ lemon & a squeeze of juice
2 tbsp fresh basil, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tsp Extra Virgin Olive oil
Salt & Pepper
Butchers twine to tie the pork

For the cherry sauce:
Drizzle of olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
14oz/ 400g/ 2 cups fresh cherries
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
200ml/ 1 1/3 cup red wine
125ml/ ½ cup water
Salt & Pepper

To serve:
Mixed salad leaves (enough for 6-8 people)
½ red onion, thinly sliced
Handful of fresh cherries

Start by making the cherry sauce. Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a small pan then gently sauté the shallot until softened – about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute before adding the cherries. Stir well then add the balsamic vinegar and cook until it has almost completely reduced. Add the wine, water and seasoning and leave to gently simmer, covered for roughly 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue simmering for another 15 minutes or so before removing from the heat. Allow the sauce to cool then puree ¾ of it in a blender or using a handheld blender. Add the blended sauce back to the pan with the remaining sauce. Stir well and taste to check the seasoning then keep warm until ready to serve.

To make the filling mix the goats cheese, lemon zest, juice, basil, parsley, olive oil and a good pinch of black pepper together in a small bowl (it’s easiest to use a fork to soften up the goats cheese.) Taste to check the seasoning and if needed add a little pinch of salt.

Butterfly the pork tenderloins so that they open like a book. Season with salt and pepper then spread half of the goats cheese mixture on to each tenderloin. Roll the tenderloins back together then tie with some butchers twine to secure and keep the filling inside. Season the outside of the pork with some more salt and pepper and drizzle over a little olive oil.

Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C. When ready to cook the pork, heat a large, non-stick saucepan and add an extra drizzle of olive oil. Sear the meat for a couple of minutes on each side until golden brown then remove from the pan and put onto a baking sheet. Cook in the oven for 18 minutes then remove, cover loosely with foil and leave to rest for a good 5 minutes or so.

When ready to serve the pork arrange the mixed salad leaves on a large platter and scatter over the thinly sliced onion. Slice the pork into roughly 1 inch pieces and arrange on top of the salad leaves. Drizzle over the cherry sauce and garnish with the whole cherries. Serve at once with crispy thyme and garlic potatoes and any extra sauce.

Crispy Lemon Thyme & Garlic Potatoes

6 medium potatoes, cleaned
3 tbsp olive oil (or garlic olive oil if you have it)
1 tbsp lemon thyme leaves (or ordinary thyme)
Zest of ½ lemon
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Salt and Pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Cut the potatoes into small (bite sized) pieces that are all roughly the same size. Place the potatoes on a large baking sheet and drizzle with the olive oil then sprinkle over the thyme leaves and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper then toss the potatoes well so that they are all evenly coated. Cook for approx. 40minutes, turning half way through cooking. Remove from the oven then sprinkle over the garlic. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the potatoes are nicely roasted and golden on the outside. Serve immediately.

*Cheesecake recipe to follow!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Tomatoes - It's a love/hate relationship

Since the tomato season is in full force I have been eating even more tomatoes than I normally do – poor Mr. Vanilla. What I should probably mention and have failed to do so so far, is that Mr. Vanilla and I have a love/hate relationship with tomatoes.

As you have probably guessed I am the one that loves tomatoes. And when I say love, I mean love! They definitely top my list of ingredients I can’t live without (give me a delicious fresh tomato, mozzarella and basil salad and I will be your best friend) and I eat them on an almost daily basis. Mr. Vanilla on the other hand…….not so much. I blame his sister entirely since she decided when they were both young that she didn’t like them and persuaded her younger, impressionable brother that they were disgusting and not to be eaten!! In her defence now, she actually seems to have more of an allergic reaction to them so her not eating them is fair enough. Mr. Vanilla just never got over his hatred for them.

Now when I say he hates them, I should be more specific – he hates the texture of them, not the flavour. He will eat a homemade tomato sauce but it has to be pureed so that it is smooth and has “no chunks”! On this basis the majority of the time I now use passata or crushed tomatoes because as a tomato lover it takes a lot of love for your other half to puree a beautiful fresh tomato sauce to a pulp every time, however I guess it is good training for me for when the baby comes along!

I have tried in vain to get him to get over his dislike but he point blank refuses, so for the time being it is pureed tomato sauces when I cook for both of us, and as soon as he is away lots and lots of fresh, “chunky” tomatoes for me! This week I gave in to the beautiful bowl of fresh cherry tomatoes on my counter and made spaghetti with cherry tomato sauce for me and spaghetti carbonara for Mr. Vanilla – perfect mid-week meals as they are fast and delicious and kept both of us very, very happy!

Spaghetti with Cherry Tomato Sauce

Serves 2 generously

7oz/ 200g spaghetti
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (not your best olive oil), plus a little extra to drizzle
1 clove of garlic, finely sliced
½ - 1 red chilli, finely sliced
10oz/ fresh cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered (try and use a variety of colours if you can)
½ tsp sugar (optional)
1 tsp red wine vinegar
Salt & pepper
6 basil leaves, shredded
Freshly grated parmesan cheese

Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of boiling, salted water according to the timing on the packet. While the spaghetti is cooking, heat the 2 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan then add the garlic and chilli and sizzle gently for roughly one minute, being careful not to brown the garlic. Add the tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper and cook over a medium heat until the spaghetti is ready and the tomatoes have softened slightly and are just starting to ‘pop’. Drain the spaghetti, reserving a tablespoon of the cooking water then add to the tomatoes and toss well so that every strand of spaghetti is covered with the delicious sauce. Sprinkle over the shredded basil and serve at once with an extra drizzle of olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cookbook Review ~ The Hummingbird Bakery

As hard as it was to pick the first book to review, I couldn’t resist one of my newer additions to the collection – The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook (UK Edition).

Friday had a hint of autumn in the air so it seemed like a perfect day to do some baking. As it turned out I only made one recipe on Friday so continued baking yesterday which wasn’t as much fun – baking (literally both the cake and myself) in 30 degree weather isn’t such a good decision. Thankfully the results of both days more than made up for it!

The hummingbird bakery was opened in Portobello Road, London, in 2004 by Tarek Malouf and is home to the most delicious cupcakes, cakes, pies, brownies, bars, muffins and cookies. This book is a beautiful insight into the bakery and includes the recipes of all of the delicious baking they have to offer.

The cookbook is one of those rare books I have where I want to make every single recipe in it! I’ll admit I’m not much of a baker although I am trying to do more baking and have realised the only way to become good at it is to keep practising!! What a disaster – lots of fresh baking in the house!

I started on Friday with the hazelnut and chocolate cupcakes. Since I have such a sweet-tooth just now I couldn’t resist a recipe that included Nutella in it. I followed the recipe for the cakes exactly (a rarity for me!) and baked them for the suggested 20 minutes, which turned out to be perfect - the sponges were light and airy and as described in the recipe, bounced back slightly when touched. I thought it might be a bit of a pain hollowing out the centre of the cakes to fill with the Nutella but it was easy using a teaspoon and took no time at all. Perhaps my only comment would be that some of the cakes crumbled and fell apart a little when I did it - and I was being gentle! After filling the cakes with a spoonful of Nutella (I didn’t bother to measure the Nutella out at this point, I just put as much as I could fit in each little centre) I topped them with the hazelnut and chocolate frosting. Despite icing them what I considered to be generously, I still had a lot of icing left over – probably almost half, and that was after adding a little extra to each cake. The end result was delicious – a light and moist chocolate sponge with a gooey Nutella centre and a not too sweet frosting, finished with a welcome crunch of hazelnuts. I have to say with the Nutella in the centre, I definitely didn’t need the additional frosting and in future would probably make only half of the suggested quantity.

Saturday was on to the blueberry cake – perfect for this time of year when there is a glut of fresh, local blueberries available. Again I followed the recipe exactly for making the sponge however I had to bake the cake for 20 minutes longer than the suggested 40. It was worth the extra wait however, as I ended up with a beautifully moist and light sponge cake studded with popped blueberries. As with the hazelnut and chocolate cupcakes I did have some extra icing left over, however you definitely do need to double the recipe for this one and after cutting the cake, I perhaps could have been a little less stingy with the icing! Served with a cup of tea this cake was absolutely delicious and would be perfect for feeding to a crowd.

Having already made the vanilla cupcakes in the past (with great success) and now the hazelnut and chocolate cupcakes and the large blueberry cake, I would without any hesitation make all three recipes again (and indeed plan to!), they will just have to wait as there are too many other recipes I want to try first. My sights are set on making the lavender cupcakes; Brooklyn blackout cake; lemon bars; banana loaf; pecan pie; rocky road bars……..the list goes on!

With easy-to-follow recipes and beautiful photography this book is a must buy for any budding baker, the only problem will be deciding what to make first!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Barbecued Pizza

Well here it is (as requested!), my barbecued pizza recipe. For those of you that haven’t tried it I know it might sound a little strange to cook a pizza on the barbecue, but considering the best pizzas are cooked in a wood-fired oven, it’s not that crazy! Once you try it, you will rarely go back to cooking a pizza in the oven!

My only words of advice for cooking this on the barbecue, is that you have to keep the base thin and the toppings very simple as they won’t cook in time. The recipe makes enough for 2 large pizzas or 4 individual ones, so I tend to make the full recipe then freeze half of the dough for the next time I have a pizza craving. If you aren’t an avid griller then you can definitely make a very good pizza using this recipe and baking it in the oven instead. Simply preheat the oven to 425F/ 220C, put the rolled pizza dough onto a baking sheet (or pizza stone if you have one) top with the sauce and toppings of your choice. Cook for 12-15 minutes until golden and bubbling.

Last night I made 2 individual pizzas for Mr. Vanilla & I (the remaining half as mentioned went into the freezer). I pureed a tin of chopped tomatoes (since I had no passata or crushed tomatoes) for the sauce and added half of a fresh red chilli (the ‘ring of fire’ chillies from the farmers market) which added a lovely bite to the pizza. Mr. Vanilla's was topped with plenty of mozzarella and some shredded ham and I crowned mine with mozzarella and a handful of fresh tomatoes. Both were finished with a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, Maldon sea salt and some fresh basil from the garden. Delicious.

Pizza base:
2 tsp active dry yeast
½ tsp caster sugar
1 ½ cups/ 12flo oz warm water
4 cups/ approx. 1lb 4oz plain or all-purpose flour
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt

Tomato sauce:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
400g/ 14oz tin of crushed tomatoes or passata
2 tsp dried oregano
Pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
1 tsp of sugar
Salt and pepper

2 balls of buffalo mozzarella, sliced (if using all the dough)
Fresh basil leaves
Maldon sea salt
Olive oil (if you want you can use garlic or chilli oil)
Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

Place the yeast and sugar in a small bowl or jug and add the water. Set aside for 5 minutes to allow the yeast to activate.

Meanwhile put the flour & salt in a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the olive oil and then the yeast mixture.

If you are using a stand mixer attach the dough hook and mix on slow until the dough forms a ball. At that point allow the dough to be kneaded for a further 2-3 minutes. If you are kneading the dough by hand, slowly incorporate the yeast and oil mixture with the flour and then knead until it begins to form a smooth dough.

Transfer the dough onto a floured board or work surface and continue to knead until it is smooth and elastic – you shouldn’t need to do this if you used a stand mixer. (It should be soft to the touch and should spring back if you press it gently.)

Sprinkle a little flour into a large bowl and then put the dough into it. Cover with a clean dish towel and set aside in a warm place for at least 1 hour or until the dough has risen and doubled in size.
While the dough is rising, make the tomato sauce. Heat the oil in a pan and add the crushed garlic. Gently sauté for a minute, being careful not to brown it. Add the tomatoes to the garlic along with the oregano, chilli (if using), sugar, salt and pepper. Stir well then leave to simmer and reduce slightly for 30 minutes. When it looks ready, taste to check the seasoning and then set aside to cool.

To barbecue the pizza, divide the dough into 2 pieces for 2 large pizzas or 4 for smaller ones. Roll out each piece of dough on a floured surface until you get the thickness that you like (thin works really well). Brush the top of one large pizza (or two small ones) with some olive oil then place the oiled side on a preheated barbecue over a very low heat. While the under side is cooking brush the top with some more olive oil. Once the bottom is golden brown, flip the pizza over then spoon the tomato sauce onto the cooked side (as much as you like). Top with some sliced buffalo mozzarella then put the lid down on the barbecue and leave for a few minutes, allowing the bottom to cook and the cheese to melt on top. When the pizza is ready, scatter over some fresh basil leaves, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a good sprinkling of Maldon sea salt. Delicious!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Boxes of books

I’m waiting very patiently for an important phone call so today is a stay at home day….that’s if they phone today. The lovely people told me yesterday that they will call back within 2 days…please be today!! Not that it is a hardship having to stay at home, I have plenty to do to keep me occupied…cleaning, washing, cooking, blogging…but primarily I have another 7 boxes of cookbooks to go through that are sitting in the garage, yes you read right, 7! Now that might not seem like that much but I have already worked my way through 18, and with an average of 35 books per box, well you can do the maths! I have A LOT of cookbooks. The other problem is that my shelves are full…completely 100% crammed packed, sagging due to the weight full, which means that I have the agony of looking at all these lovely books then labelling the boxes and for the time being, relegating them down to the crawl space. Every box has a few books that I HAVE to have out and it pains me to send the rest away, but until I get a bigger house (or at least persuade Mr. Vanilla to let me fill every room with shelves), it is under the house they go. Torture.

The books that have made it to the newly bought shelves have formed the start of my personal cookbook library, which is definitely my favourite room of the house (well perhaps with the exception of my kitchen!). I have tried counting (several times) and have given up (several times), but I would guess there are roughly 500 books (give or take) sitting very proudly in my cookbook room (yes I have a cookbook room! If truth be told, when needed it is a spare bedroom, but mainly it is my cookbook room!!) To most people 500 books seems like an insane amount of cookbooks to own, and I will admit it is a lot, however that is only about half of what I own….the other 500 are downstairs waiting for the bigger house. So what I am really saying is that I am the proud owner of roughly 1000 cookbooks! Now I haven’t bought all of these books myself, in fact probably only about 100 or so have been bought by me, the rest I have inherited from the most wonderful and generous lady who has the same obsession with cookbooks as I do. I have every kind of cookbook imaginable from the 1940’s (and perhaps earlier – I really should check and see what is my oldest book) to the most recent publication, fresh off the printer!

And so on the basis that I have so many books (a lot of which I have still to read as I just received them in Canada not that long ago) I’ve decided that it makes sense to do a book review in my blog. I have a very bad habit of reading cookbooks like novels, marking recipes I like the sound of with post-its then putting them on the shelves, only to be forgotten about! I use them as inspiration rather than actually following the recipe, no matter how much I love the sound of it and so it is time to put a stop to that! From now on I will try and write a book review as often as I can. I was going to suggest every Friday, however I don’t want to make any promises that I can’t keep so I will err on the side of caution, although keep an eye out for the first one this Friday! Now I just have to decide what book to start with!! And on that note I should at least go and finish unpacking the rest….wish me luck!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Suddenly Sunday

And just like that, it’s Sunday! Thankfully it is early on Sunday so I still have a full day of enjoying the sun and relaxation today has to offer. Having said that, this whole weekend has been one of complete relaxation. Friday night kicked the weekend off perfectly with a long and leisurely supper in the garden. On the menu:

Lemon drops for Mr. Vanilla & Homemade Lemonade for me

Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken stuffed with Pesto & Mozzarella served with a Fresh Tomato Sauce; Green Salad & Crusty French Bread

The chicken was perfect – moist and full of flavour and the ideal way to use up the last of the pesto from Thursday. I made a quick tomato sauce with some lovely, sweet tomatoes I picked up in town and topped everything with a drizzle of olive oil and some finely shredded basil from the garden. A simple salad of mixed, organic green leaves was the perfect accompaniment, tossed with a little balsamic vinegar and fruity extra virgin olive oil, and the crusty French bread mopped everything up so ensure a perfectly clean plate. Delicious.

Saturday started with a trip to the farmers market. I meant to take the camera so I could take some pictures of the wonderful stalls overflowing with all the vibrant fruit and vegetables August has to offer, but of course in my excitement of getting there, I forgot it! As usual it was bustling with hungry shoppers, eager to see what was on offer this week. Our first stop was straight to buy a large, sticky cinnamon bun – so big we decided 1 would be enough for the 2 of us (even with my enormous pregnancy induced sweet tooth!). As we greedily pulled apart the sticky, sweet melt-in-your-mouth bun studded with raisins, we casually strolled around having a look at everything there was on offer. Bun devoured, fingers licked clean and our second lap was time to shop! By the time we had run out of money our bag was over-flowing with organic white and yellow carrots, too beautiful to resist; a punnet of yellow tomatoes as bright as sunflowers; some purple heirloom tomatoes (again far too good to resist – I am after all addicted to tomatoes); some wonderful looking plump and succulent Italian style local sausages which would be perfect for tonight’s barbecue; a handful of bright red chillies that were rated 9/10 on the heat scale and were therefore aptly named “ring of fire”; some cooler banana peppers; a block of creamy naturally smoked Boerenkaas cheese from the local cheese company (which would have been impossible to resist after sampling it) and as a snack for Mr. Vanilla, a couple of Bison pepperonis (I got my tomatoes, he got his pepperoni!). Feeling very content with our purchases we left the market for another week, with ideas swirling in my head as to what I could make with everything. The rest of the afternoon was spent leisurely drinking tea and visiting with Mr. Vanilla's family in town, before heading home briefly for a late lunch (the remaining French bread from Friday night slathered with delicious mayonnaise and then greedily crammed with the smoked cheese and tomatoes from the market, and some wild rocket), before heading to friends for a barbecue where the sausages would be devoured. A wonderful Saturday relaxing with friends and family and eating lots of delicious local food – what more could a girl want?!

And just like that it is now Sunday. Today has proved to be the laziest so far, however with my cappuccino now finished (as well as the Da Vinci Code which has been playing in the background), it’s time for me to go and hang out the washing and enjoy some sun. Tonight we are feasting on roast pork at Mr. Vanilla's parents followed by my vanilla clouds that we’ll take over. A light and elegant end to the meal which I’ll top with rose water whipped cream and a scattering of fresh raspberries. I love weekends.

Homemade Lemonade

Perfect for the pregnant, and of course children and anyone else that prefers a non-alcoholic drink.

Freshly squeezed juice of 6 juicy lemons (roughly 250ml)
150ml sugar syrup*
1 litre sparkling or still water
4 or 5 slices of lemon
Ice to serve

*Sugar syrup:
125ml/ ½ cup sugar
125ml/ ½ cup water

To make the sugar syrup mix the sugar and water in a small pan and bring to a gentle simmer until the sugar has completely dissolved. Set aside to cool.

When ready to serve mix the freshly squeezed lemon juice and sugar syrup in a large jug. Add plenty of ice and the slices of lemon then top with the water and serve in a tall glass.

Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken stuffed with Pesto & Mozzarella with Fresh Tomato Sauce

Serves 4 (I halved the recipe for Mr. Vanilla & I and used 2 balls of bocconcini (baby mozzarella) instead of the large ball of mozzarella – use whatever you happen to have in your fridge.)

4 chicken breasts
8 slices of proscuitto
1 ball of mozzarella
8 heaped tsp of pesto (I used the leftovers from Thursday but you could easily use good quality bought pesto if you prefer)
Salt & pepper

For the tomato sauce:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 red chilli, finely chopped (optional)
10 fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp sugar (optional)
150ml white wine
Salt & pepper
Small handful of fresh basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil

Start by making the tomato sauce so that it can gently simmer away and reduce while the chicken is cooking.

Heat the oil in a medium sized pan and gently sauté the onion for 5 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and chilli and cook for a further minute before adding the tomatoes, sugar (if needed), wine, salt and pepper. Simmer gently, stirring from time to time. (If it starts to get too thick towards the end of cooking, pop a lid on top to stop if from reducing any further and if need be add a splash more wine!)

Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ GM 6.

Slice the mozzarella into thin slices and season with salt and pepper. Cut a deep slit down the side of each chicken breast and open it up like a book. Spread two heaped teaspoons of pesto on one side of each chicken breast and top with a couple of slices of mozzarella. Cut 4 squares of tin foil, large enough to wrap a chicken breast in. Lay 2 pieces of proscuitto on a piece of tin foil, overlapping slightly. Place a piece of chicken on top of the proscuitto and season with salt and pepper. Wrap the proscuitto around the chicken, then using the foil roll everything up like a sausage. Twist the ends tightly to secure in place. Repeat for the rest of the chicken then place on a baking sheet and cook in the oven for 25 minutes.

When the chicken is ready, remove from the oven and leave to rest for 5 minutes. Taste the tomato sauce to check the seasoning then add the fresh basil leaves, reserving a few for a garnish. Carefully unwrap each chicken breast as there will be delicious pesto-infused chicken juices in the bottom of the foil, which you can add to the tomato sauce or simply pour over the chicken once you have plated it. Put a couple of large spoonfuls of the tomato sauce on the centre of each plate. Slice each chicken breast into 5 or 6 pieces and lay on top of the tomato sauce. Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and the remaining basil leaves and enjoy at once with a green salad and lots of crusty French bread.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Vanilla Clouds & Lemon Drops

Since my blog is named Vanilla Clouds and Lemon Drops it seems only too appropriate to include recipes for both. It would have perhaps made more sense to have this as my first post but c’est la vie! That being said however, as it turns out today seems a much more suitable day to include them….it is once again another beautiful day although thankfully the temperature has taken a dip to a balmy 22 degrees and for good measure we have had a refreshing summer shower of rain drops - the perfect summer day for vanilla clouds and lemon drops!

My meringues are just out of the oven, perfectly crisp on the outside and chewy, marshmallow in the centre, cooling slowly and waiting to be adorned with lots of billowing light-as-air whipped cream and toppings of choice. I am happy.
Vanilla Clouds

4 egg whites
225g/ 8oz caster sugar
2 tsp cornflour
1 tsp white vinegar
few drops of good quality vanilla extract

Whipped cream and fruit of your choice to serve

Preheat the oven to 225F/ 110C. Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper and set aside.

In a very clean mixing bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff (you should be able to hold them over your head and they won’t fall out!). Slowly add in the sugar and continue to whisk until they are very stiff and glossy. Sift in the cornflour then add the vinegar and vanilla and careful fold in.

Using a large metal spoon, put spoonfuls of the meringue onto the baking sheets making sure to leave room in between each one. Using the back of the spoon, swirl the meringues slightly so they resemble beautiful, bright white clouds.Bake in the oven for about 1 hour 15 minutes until they are crisp on the outside and lift easily from the parchment paper. Turn the oven off and leave the meringues to cool completely before removing. When ready to serve top with lots of whipped cream and fruit of your choice.

Lemon drop

This is my version of the classic lemon drop – absolutely delicious and very refreshing on a hot summers day.....a grown-up version of lemonade!

Makes 2 cocktails (very easily doubled)

3oz vodka
2oz limoncello
1oz cointreau
1oz lemon juice
1 tsp sugar
Soda water to top up

Put a handful of ice in a cocktail shaker then add the vodka, limoncello, cointreau, lemon juice and sugar. Shake until well mixed and the sugar has dissolved, then pour into 2 glasses (I like to use champagne flutes but feel free to use whatever you like). Top up with some soda water, sit back in the sun and enjoy!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fresh from the garden

After a day freezing in an air-conditioned office looking out at the blue sky and watching school kids on holiday saunter by without a care in the world (so it would seem anyway!) wearing next-to-nothing, I was delighted to get home and out into the garden. Now I would love to paint an image of me sitting in an idyllic English country garden with lush green grass, rambling roses and forget-me-nots, however that would be a lie, after all I am now in Canada where we have had scorching sun for the past two months and are now on Stage 3 water restrictions (which really just means absolutely no excess use of water at all – even the paddling pool has been relegated back to the garage to collect dust, as it is not allowed to be filled). Instead what we have is some very seriously dead grass, our cedar hedge - which is starting to fill in nicely - and a few plants that we are allowed to water, which thankfully include a blueberry plant, 3 tomato plants, 10 chilli plants and 2 beds of herbs.

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