Food styling for Guardian Cook

PancakesCook

If you’re a follower of this blog, my Twitter or Instagram, you may have noticed that the old Cathcart/Birkett dream team was recently reunited for a shoot for the Guardian’s Cook supplement, which comes out each weekend as part of the Saturday Guardian, sharing some wonderful recipe ideas and relevant, original food content. You can read a couple of pieces I’ve written for the supplement here. Being a massive fan of Cook, which has been taken up a notch by hot-shot editor Mina Holland, (author of the wonderful Edible Atlas), and always includes gorgeous photography and styling, I was super excited to work on four of its 10 Best spreads, which included cover shots.

The 10 Best feature takes one ingredient and shares recipes that are brilliant because you’ve probably not made them before. Our ingredients were pepper, plums, sweet potato and ‘sauces’, and the recipes included things like dairy free, gluten free sweet potato donuts and one of my faves, walnut romesco sauce, from amazing cooks including Michel Roux Jr, Anna Jones and Anissa Helou.

During the shoot we were spoiled rotten with the food – I particularly loved Michel Roux Jr’s plum tarts, which while being fairly demanding (I needed to make a proper creme pat and stock syrup to poach the plums in) are worth every effort once you sink your teeth into them. They also look beautiful because the plums sort of melt into the creme pat, their skins scorching and shrinking, their flesh turning to sweet, unctuous pulp. Hurry up and make them while plums are still here! 

Hemsley and Hemsley’s beef Lok Lak was also delicious, and will certainly be gracing my table again, not least because it’s fabulously quick and satisfying.

You can find all these delicious recipes here:

I love working with Helen because her pictures are always beautiful, natural and evocative, and she always makes food I cook look its best. It’s amazing to see these pictures in print on the cover of a supplement I’ve been reading (and writing for) since it started. Here are some of the pics – I hope you like them. With thanks to Linda Berlin for her ace prop styling and Jenny Brown for her brilliant assistance during the shoot, check out her excellent blog Bake here.

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Recipe: Swiss chard, pecorino and preserved lemon tart

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I was recently sent a box of produce from the organic supplier Wholegood, whose Instagram account I’ve been stalking thanks to all the pics of the banging produce that goes up on there – they have romanescos for god’s sake! While I’m normally one for shopping at the green grocer or market, and have never before subscribed to a box scheme, these guys have really impressed me with the quality of their stuff, and it’s not surprising given the fact that they supply lots of restaurants with produce from some of the best organic growers just outside London. Now you can get their boxes (from about 15-20 quid) delivered to your door through Ocado. 

My box was a veggie one, and came complete with huge bunches of beautifully glossy,  golden-stalked Swiss chard, cavolo nero, the sweetest baby courgettes, fennel, carrots and these gorgeous purple potatoes, which I loved roasting with chorizo, garlic and rosemary and smashing with jalapenos.

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With the courgettes and fennel I made a soup for Jamie’s sister who’d just lost a tooth and was finding it hard to chew. It went down very well indeed, and was super healthy, with just courgettes, fennel tops, chicken stock, onion, garlic, bay and tarragon. It kept her going for a good few days. 

But the by far the most stonking thing I made from the box was a tart of Swiss chard, preserved lemon and pecorino (kindly sent to me from the amazing Originario Foods) with a black pepper and parmesan crust. I always find I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to do with Swiss Chard, because I can find that it just tastes quite earthy and bitter. This recipe matches it to the intense, salty hard cheeses pecorino and parmesan, the aromatic, woody herb sage and deeply citric preserved lemon, which really lifts it. It got quite a lot of love on both mine and Wholegood’s Instagram, so here is the recipe for you. Despite most of my courgettes rotting before they were big enough to harvest, I did get some flowers, which I used on top of the tart to pretty things up.
For the parmesan and black pepper pastry:

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180g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
100g cold unsalted butter, cubed
50g parmesan, grated
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper 
2 tsp chilled water (more if needed)
For the filling

tbsp extra virgin olive oil
knob of unsalted butter 
half a red onion, finely sliced
4 slices of preserved lemon, flesh and pith removed, chopped
6 sage leaves, chopped
clove of garlic, minced
Bunch of swiss chard, washed and stems separated from leaves, both chopped
2 eggs
4 tbsp creme fraiche
40g pecorino, sliced
salt and pepper 
courgette flowers (optional)

To make the pastry, sift your flour into a bowl and add the butter. Rub in until you have a sandy texture, like very fine breadcrumbs. Add in the parmesan and black pepper, and then the cold water, tsp at a time, mixing it in until the dough clumps together. You might not need to use the whole 2 tsps, you might need more – it all depends on the flour, but you DO NOT want a wet pastry, so be cautious. When you have a ball of combined, smooth pastry, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for half and hour.
Preheat your oven to 180.
Remove your pastry from the fridge and roll it out to pound coin thickness. Use your rolling pin to lift it and drape it over a greased tart or quiche dish, and gently line the dish with the pastry, lifting and tucking it into all of the crevices. Prick the bottom all over with a fork, and line with crumpled baking parchment. Fill it with baking beans (or failing that, dry rice, lentils or coins), and blind bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the parchment and beans, then cook for a further 10 minutes, until golden and set. Remove from the oven and leave to cool while you make the filling.

To make the filling, fry your onion gently in the olive oil and butter with a good pinch of salt, until softened and starting to caramelise, about 12 minutes. Add in the chopped preserved lemon and stir with a spoon until it’s melted into the oil. Add in the chard stems, sage leaves and garlic and cook for another five minutes, and then add the leaves and stir until coated and wilted. Remove from the heat.

Crack two eggs into a bowl and lightly whisk with a fork to combine. Whisk in the creme fraiche until combined, and stir through the pecorino. Season with black pepper. Fill your pastry case with the chard mixture and then pour over the custard. Top with courgette flowers and bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until puffed, golden and set. Serve with a simple tomato salad.

Cooking with elderflower: simple cordial and rhubarb and elderflower upside down cake

Elderflower picking, Hackney
Photo by Helen Cathcart

I really love the start of spring, when rhubarb comes into season and the trees are fragrant and floral with little white elderflowers. I’ve never lived anywhere where elderflower season has been so apparent, but I’m near the River Lea and Hackney marshes, and suddenly my morning runs and bike rides have become heady with the gorgeous scent of these pretty, fragrant and short-lived white flowers, which seem to be growing from every tree and hedgerow. I’ve been collecting it by the bag-load, covering myself in pollen and making cordial (some of which is now fermenting into wine) and more besides. Elderflower is such a versatile ingredient, wonderfully pretty for garnishing desserts, great as fritters dipped in a light batter and eaten crispy and hot, or made into cordial and used in cocktails or baking. The season will be over soon, the flowers will start to turn brown – so hurry, get out there and get picking!

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Here’s my very simple cordial recipe – it uses less sugar than normal and I’ve put the citric acid as optional because I’ve made it with and without, both successfully. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to wash the elderflower before you make it as that will wash away all the aromatic pollen which gives it its special scent and flavour.

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20 heads of elderflower
2 lemons, zested and finely sliced
 into rounds
500g caster sugar
1/2 tsp citric acid
 (optional)

Put your sugar into a large saucepan or casserole, cover with about a litre and a half of water and bring up until it’s not quite boiling, but the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and cool slightly, then add the lemon, zest and elderflower, and citric acid if you’re using. Stir, and steep for 24 hours.

Line a colander or sieve with a clean tea towel and place over a large bowl. Carefully pour the elderflower mixture into it in stages if you need to, and allow it to drip through, filtering. Remove to a jug and fill sterilised bottles and jars with your cordial. It should keep for up to 6 weeks in the fridge.

Rhubarb and elderflower upside down cake
Serves 6

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This recipe combines elderfower with fruity, tart rhubarb in a light, gooey-bottomed, self-saucing sponge cake. This is best enjoyed with a large dollop of cool creme fraiche.

40g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
300g trimmed rhubarb, cut into 3cm pieces
2 tablespoons elderflower cordial
80g caster sugar
4 heads of elderflower, tough stems removed, plus another head for garnish
40g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
100g natural yoghurt
2 medium eggs, separated

Preheat your oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Lightly grease a pudding dish or cake tin. Place the rhubarb in a saucepan with the elderflower cordial and a tablespoon of the sugar over a low heat. Simmer gently for 5–10 minutes until it’s softened and part-cooked but still holds its shape. It will release its juice during this time.
Put a sieve over a bowl and strain the rhubarb, reserving its juices. Set aside to cool.

Once cool, arrange half of your rhubarb on the bottom of your cake tin/pudding basin, as neatly as you can, along with some of the elderflowers. This will be the top of the cake and look very pretty once you take it out of the tin.

Beat together the butter and the remaining sugar. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition. Slowly add in the flour and baking powder, mixing well, followed by the yoghurt, the rhubarb juices, and the remaining rhubarb and elderflowers, mixing well after each addition. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and lightly fold into the batter.

Spoon the batter on top of the rhubarb in your baking tin and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is firm and golden. Leave to cool for and settle for 5 minutes on a wire rack, then use a palate knife to loosen it from the tin. Serve immediately with loads of creme fraiche.

Kale and coriander pancakes with avocado butter and roasted tomato

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It was Pancake Day yesterday. This post was supposed to go up then. But you, know, life happened (and I may just have forgotten to update WordPress in ages, rendering it unusable). But boy, did I get busy with the pancake pan. I did this smoked haddock pancake with frazzled leeks and lemony creme fraiche recipe for Fish On Friday – an amazing new fish website, and I also made these little beauties for breakfast – mostly because I wanted to feel better about eating pancakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner (dinner was the talented Uyen Luu’s Banh Xeo – thanks Uyen!)

Here’s my recipe – yes, sorry, another kale one, but it’s tasty, I promise! – for an alternative, and wonderfully healthy Pancake Day dish. The pancakes themselves are stuffed full of goodness in the form of very finely chopped kale, with the slow-roasted tomatoes lending a richness and acidity. The creamy, perky avocado butter is made with tahini and is dangerously addictive. Make too much and then smear it on hot toasted sourdough. Or just eat it with your fingers like I do!

Pans

Kale pancakes with avocado butter and roasted tomato 
Makes two big stacks of pancakes

For the avocado butter
Half a very ripe avocado
1 Tbspn tahini
Pinch of red chilli flakes
Tbspn lemon juice or more to taste
Half a shallot, peeled
Pinch of salt and a good grind of freshly milled black pepper

For the kale pancakes
85g plain flour
15g rye flour
Half tsp baking powder
Tsp garlic powder
Tsp cumin powder
Lime zest
Tsp Maldon sea salt and a good grind of freshly milled black pepper

100ml milk
1 beaten egg
1 tbspn olive oil
Two big leaves of kale, destemmed and blitzed in a food processor until VERY finely chopped
Handful of coriander leaves, blitzed until very finely chopped
15ml cold water
Rapeseed oil, for frying

For the slow roasted tomato
1 large tomato, sliced into rounds
Olive oil
Maldon sea salt and pepper
A sprig of thyme

Preheat your oven to 160. On a greased baking tray or enamel plate, place your tomato. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and scatter over the thyme leaves. Roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until it’s softened and slightly shriveled.

Toms

While they’re roasting, you can make your pancake batter. Put your flour, baking powder, the lime zest, spices and salt and pepper into a mixing bowl. Combine the beaten egg, olive oil, chopped kale and coriander in another bowl or jug. Pour the liquid ingredients into the flour mixture and whisk with a fork or balloon whisk, until you have a batter, adding the water to loosen it – you want it about the consistency of double cream. Leave to rest while you make the avocado butter.

Blitz your shallot in a food processor until finely chopped. Scoop the flesh of your avocado into the food processor and add the tahini, lemon juice, chilli flakes and salt and pepper. Blitz until you have a smooth paste – it should be the consistency of whipped butter. Scrape out of the food processor and into a bowl.

Now it’s time to make the pancakes. Dig out your best non-stick pan (I love the ceramic coated ones) and a silicone brush. Pour about a tablespoon of rapeseed oil onto a small plate and brush your pan with the oil. Heat the pan up over a high heat and then spoon about half a ladleful of the pancake mixture into your pan. Swizzle to evenly distribute the mixture – you’re aiming for small, thick pancakes rather than traditional thin, large ones. Cook for two-to-three minutes and then shake the pan. If the pancake comes away from the bottom easily, flip it over and cook on the other side for another two minutes, until golden. Remove to a plate and keep warm in the oven – which should be turned off but still warm from cooking the tomatoes. Repeat the process with the rest of the mixture, divide the pancakes between two plates and serve topped with the tomatoes and avocado butter.

Woodland Pie Recipe

Chocolates and flowers are all very well, but I think if you really adore someone, making them something hearty and full of love is the way to go. And who doesn’t love a pie? Which is what my boyfriend will be getting this Valentine’s Day (well he did go and take me to Venice for my 30th, so I thought I should make a leetle bit of an effort!).

A raised, hot water crust pie takes some time to make, especially if you’re filling it with something other than sausage meat, but it’s worth it in the end for a nice chunk of flavour-packed pie, succulent with jelly. And it’s really not as scary as it sounds, you just need to make sure you put aside an afternoon when you’ll be pottering in the kitchen to give the dough time to cool and rest, and you time to poach the chicken, make the filling, bake the pies and them wait for them to cool before you make and add the jelly. But it’s a satisfying process, and a pie like this should last you a while, especially if you just dip into it – it’s perfect as a snack to have with drinks, or as a little starter before a main meal.

I decided to fill mine with chicken, pork belly and mushrooms, because I wanted something a bit lighter than solid pork, and had some fab dried porcini I brought back from Venice. You could easily substitute chicken for game like guinea fowl or pheasant when during game season. I used the stock from poaching the chicken and the rehydration stock from the dried mushrooms to make the jelly – giving it a sort of woodland character. I also put some dried tarragon through the pastry to give it a little lift, and because obviously tarragon is great with chicken and mushrooms. I also used pork belly rather than sausage meat as I couldn’t get hold of any decent fresh pork mince. I’ve made this pastry twice now, and I found using my Kitchen Aid stand mixer a massive help the second time because it incorporates the hot fat and water more smoothly than my rather lame mixing action, but it can obviously also be done by hand in a big bowl. Let me know how you get on with this recipe if you try it out.

Woodland (chicken, pork and mushroom) pies

Makes two medium pies or one big one

It goes without saying that you should use the best quality meat you can find and afford. Corn-fed chickens have more flavour and make for a better stock. I prefer to use pork belly and mince it myself than using pork mince. Marscapone adds a bit more fat to the mix and lemon zest keeps it fresh.

For the filling
1 medium chicken (you will only use 300g of this, but keep the rest for salad, sandwiches etc)
300g pork belly, skin and bone removed
1 tbspn olive oil
5 g butter
2 star anise
1 bay leaf
5 black peppercorns
1 leek, halved and washed
2 cloves
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
Large pinch of dried red chilli flakes
zest of one lemon
30g dried mushrooms, keeping their rehydration stock for the jelly
2 rashers of smoked bacon, chopped into lardons
Small bunch of sage leaves, torn up finely
1 tbspn marscapone
Very good grating of nutmeg
1 tsp fish sauce
pinch sea salt
good grinding of black pepper

For the pastry
100g lard
75g unsalted butter
2 tsp dried tarragon
1.5 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 egg, beaten
475g flour
160ml boiling water
1 egg, beaten (for the egg wash)

For the jelly
200ml chicken stock
100ml mushroom stock
50ml dry white wine
3 leaves of gelatin.

Fill a pot big enough to poach an entire chicken full of water, add the anise, black peppercorns, cloves, leek and bay leaf and bring to the boil. When it’s boiling, add the chicken and gently poach for 1 hour, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface as you go. When an hour has passed, pierce with a skewer to check the juices run clear, and leave to cool. Pass the stock through a sieve and reserve – you will need this for the jelly. When it’s cool enough to handle, shred 300g of breast and thigh meat into a bowl and reserve.

Then make the pastry. Place your flour and tarragon in a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the beaten egg and stir in until it’s incorporated. You could do this in a stand mixer for ease.

Now melt the lard and butter in a saucepan with the salt and sugar. When it’s almost all melted, add the boiling water and bring to the boil, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once it’s boiled, remove quickly from the heat and leave it for about half a minute.
Now stir it into the flour and egg mix, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon to form a smooth, sticky dough. If you’re using a stand mixer, put it on the lowest mix setting with the paddle beater and let it mix until a soft, smooth dough forms – being careful to not over work. Cover with a tea towel and rest for one hour.

After the pastry has cooled and rested for an hour, tip it out onto a floured surface and flatten it out with your hands, shaping it into a rough rectangle. Fold the dough into thirds by bringing one end into the middle and pushing down with your fingers. Repeat with the opposite end, folding it on top of the other. Press down again with your fingertips. Flatten it out again into a rough rectangle and place on a floured plate or tray, covering with foil or grease-proof paper and refrigerating for a minimum of 30 minutes. 

While the pastry is resting you can get on with the filling. First rehydrate the dried mushrooms in 100ml of boiling water. Put 5g of butter and olive oil in a frying pan and gently sauté the onions with 6 shredded sage leaves. After three minutes, add the chopped bacon and cook until the bacon is lightly cooked – about five minutes.

Drain the mushrooms, reserving the stock, squeeze out the moisture from them and chop them up. You want them to be about the same bulkiness as the shredded chicken. Add the mushroom stock to 200ml of chicken stock and put in a separate pan.

Put the pork belly chunks in a food processor and whizz until you have a chunky mince, adding in the onion and bacon mixture for a blitz. Put this in bowl with chicken, lemon zest, garlic, sage, marscapone, fish sauce, nutmeg, chopped mushrooms and mix together well with your hands, rubbing it all together to get the flavours incorporated. Put this in the fridge to infuse while the pastry rests.

Preheat the oven to 180. Grease and flour (tapping out the excess flour) two enamel pudding bowls or high-sided pie moulds.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and transfer it to a floured surface. Cut it in half and roll out each half as follows. Sweep it in a circular motion across the surface to coat it in flour. It should feel much stiffer and firmer to the touch now it’s cooled. Roll it out lightly, and then fold it into thirds, as before. Rotate it by a quarter turn and roll it out to about 4mm thickness, being sure to rotate it by a quarter turn every two or so rolls so it doesn’t stick.

Once it’s your desired diameter and thickness, drape it over a smaller cup or bowl that will fit inside your pie mould, reserving the rest of the dough for the lid (you may need to cut off the excess, press together the scraps and re-roll for this). Put the pie mould over it, and then flip the right side up. Remove the inner bowl and press the pastry into the bottom of the mould and against the sides. Chop of the excess off that’s draping over the rim and use this for your lid. 

Divide the filling between the pastry bowls. Put the lid on and squeeze the edges together with the side crusts, being sure it’s well sealed. Crimp the edges with your fingers and put a hole in the middle with a skewer – it needs to be big enough to fit a piping bag nozzle for the jelly.

Egg wash the pies and bake them for 40 minutes, checking that the tops aren’t burning as you go. If they start to blacken or burn, cover them with tin foil and return them to the oven. 

When they’re baked, check using a meat thermometer inserted through the skewer hole that the meat is 80c or more. If you don’t have a thermometer, insert a skewer – it should come out piping hot. 

Leave the pies to cool for two hours.

When they’re cool, make the jelly. Put the gelatin in some cold water for a few minutes until it’s squidgy, then squeeze out the water. Heat the stocks and wine up to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in the gelatin until it’s dissolved.

When it’s cool enough to handle, but not so cool that it’s setting, put the jelly into a piping bag and carefully pipe into the hole in your pie. Fill it with jelly until it’s coming out the hole. Wipe any that leaks onto the surface of the pie with kitchen roll.

Cool in the fridge for about 8 hours. Cut up and serve with a nicely dressed green salad.

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Kale me now: kale and almond pesto recipe

While Jackie Stallone has said that the secret to her – err – longevity is eating a bag of spinach a day, I’ve got to admit I’m more of a kale girl.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bang on about all the reasons I love kale – you can read that here in this food trends piece I did recently for the Independent.

But I will say this – as you might have guessed from my Instagram and Twitter feeds, I eat a lot of our green (and sometimes red) curly leaved friend. Me and Elly Pear (who started the – initially tongue-in-cheek – #100wayswithkale tag on instagram) are forever swapping ideas, and I just never seem get bored of it.

I always had it growing up, as a nice robust green often as a side to a slow braise or beef stew, but it was my time in Vancouver that really converted me to this hearty, wholesome green. It was EVERYWHERE, and in a city where ingredients were very expensive, it was one of the most affordable and available ingredients. I really like it with my poached egg in the morning, or, in summer, blitzed up into a smoothie with banana, ginger and coconut water. It’s so fricking good for you!

Photo: Kale smoothie time. So West Coast right now.

A bag of kale goes a long way too, and doesn’t wither in the fridge like spinach or broccoli. I know I sound a bit like shrimp-obsessed Bubba in Forrest Gump, but you can steam it, roast it into wonderfully crisp chips, saute it in a little bit of olive oil, use it to bulk-out and health-up various soups, stews and salads, and even make it into a tasty pesto to slather on spaghetti.

It’s fair to say there’s going to be the odd kale recipe in my forthcoming cookbook ‘Fresh: 80 new recipes from market to table’, which, very excitingly, is being published by the amazing Hardie Grant next spring, but for now, here’s my recipe for kale and almond pesto for you to be getting on with. It’s delicious, super-simple to whizz up, economical, and will completely negate any guilt you might feel (you shouldn’t) about eating a big old bowl of pasta…

Kale and almond pesto
Makes a small jar of pesto for smothering on toasted sourdough, gallettes, fish, steak or for stirring into spaghetti

60g/three big handfuls of washed curly kale, stems removed and discarded
Large handful basil
Large handful parsley
three spring onions, roughly chopped
four cloves of garlic
40g sliced/flaked almonds
25g of grated parmesan – the best you can find
Large pinch of red chilli flakes
4 tbspn extra virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling
Good grind of black pepper
Large pinch of sea salt
1 tbspn lemon juice
75g spaghetti

Put a pan of salted water on to boil. Add the spring onions and garlic once it boils and cook for three minutes, until they’re soft. Add the kale and cook for about 40 seconds, until it’s bright green and floppy – could be less. Don’t overcook it as it will lose that lovely bright green colour.

Lift out the kale with a slotted spoon and put it onto a plate. Lift our the garlic and spring onion and blitz them in a food processor with the almonds. Add the parsley, basil and chilli flakes and blitz again. Squeeze the excess water out of the kale and add that to the food processor too, blitzing, followed by the lemon juice and zest, Parmesan and 4 tbspn of the olive oil. Season with black pepper and salt to taste, and stir. Store your pesto in a clean jar and drizzle with olive oil to seal in the freshness.

You can cook your pasta in the same water. When the spaghetti is al dente – do not overcook- it will take five or six minutes, drain, reserving a splash of the pasta water. Stir in generous tablespoons of the pesto and cooking water and top with freshly ground black pepper.

My little Vancouver kitchen and salted chocolate popcorn recipe

Crysanthemums from Mr Choi's garden

So the time has come for me to say goodbye to my little Vancouver kitchen, as we head off for our long journey home, via Nashville, Mexico (yay!!), Montreal and New York. It’s been good to me, this little basement room where I’ve cooked some of my best recipes yet. Sure, me and the oven have had our ups and downs – the temperature settings can be more than slightly temperamental, but in general this is a space where I’ve had the time to be creative, and inspired by all the frankly amazing produce they have here in British Columbia. Because it’s the fresh, seasonal produce that has to be my favourite thing about Vancouver, apart from gorgeous new friends. That’s what I’ll miss, Mr Choi’s garden bounty, and walking for 10 minutes to be on Commercial Drive, surrounded by little independent shops selling fresh apples, peaches and pears from the Okanagan Valley, Normans (my favourite shop) with its big crates of orange-frilled chantarelles, local beets and kale, and the Hungarian-run smoked sausage shop where a delicious hot, paprika-packed preserved sausage is only $1.85.

We’ve had some good times here, some fabulous dinners with our friends Renee, pictured, (who never failed to bring a lovely bottle of Zinfandel or two) and Cyril, who was always on-hand with chocolate, and shares my addiction for roasted hazelnuts.

In fact, the chocolate popcorn recipe below that I created for Suitcase magazine’s chocolate week content is partly inspired by Cyril. So I’ll leave you with that, and keep you posted from our travels. Mexico here we come!

Salted popcorn with dark chocolate and toasted hazelnuts

Ingredients: 

  • 100g dark chocolate, broken up (I like Green and Black’s)
  • 
Large handful of popcorn kernels
  • 30g roasted hazelnuts, skins rubbed off, and blitzed in a food processor or roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 
1 tbspn ground nut, rapeseed or vegetable oil

Method:

  • 
First, pop your popcorn. Put a large pot with a lid on a medium high heat and heat up the oil and half the salt.
  • Add the kernels in an even layer and put the lid on.
  • When the corn starts popping, shake the pan around gently to make sure the unpopped kernels get to the heat.
  • Put the slid slightly ajar so as to release some of the steam and make crisper corn.
  • Once the popcorn has stopped popping every few seconds, take it off the heat and rest it until all the popping has stopped. You don’t want to burn it!

  • Now heat up half a pan of boiling water.
  • Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and melt it gently with the rest of the salt until it’s liquid. Add in half the hazelnuts.
  • Line a large plate or baking tray with baking paper and scatter the popcorn over it in a layer.
  • Pour over the melted chocolate and hazelnut mixture and toss it around the corn until it’s coated, and leave to set at room temperature for an hour.
  • Serve in a bowl with the extra hazelnuts and an extra pinch of salt. You could add some chilli flakes if you were feeling adventurous…

Special fried rice recipe and Chinatown with Mr Choi

When our lovely landlord Mr Choi offered to take me and Jamie down to Chinatown for a little show-round, of course we jumped at the chance. We’ve had many a conversation with him about the sorry fact that Vancouver’s previously buzzing Chinese district is now just a shadow of its former self when it comes to Chinese-run businesses, in particular restaurants, with most of the restaurateurs swapping the rising rents of the area for those of Richmond – a nearby suburb. If you want really good Chinese food, that’s the place to get it. If you want really amazing Chinese-influenced food, Bao Bei, a  is the spot in Chinatown proper – and for sure one of my favourite places to eat in this city.

But this was less of a food tour, more of a guided tour from a man who’s been hanging out there since the 50s. He told us how, when he was a teenager attending high school here, the racism he experienced led him to wag lessons and retreat to Chinatown, where, when the ‘white kids came down looking for trouble, we showed them what was what – and they didn’t come back.’ It’s so hard to imagine our gentle, sparkly-eyed, sweet-toothed Mr Choi brawling in the streets of Vancouver, but things were pretty back different then. There was far less of a drug problem, for one thing – something that you can’t miss these days when you head to Chinatown. Tony (as he revealed his first name is) went on to be something of a mover and shaker down there, owning various properties and businesses, including, for the most of his working life, a car wash.

He showed us around what’s left of his old stomping ground, including highlights like the world’s narrowest building (who knew?) and the Dr Sun Yat Sen Chinese garden, which was very pretty and quite an oasis of calm amidst the clamour of the city. Of course I loved the little shops selling trinkets, and picked up a cute Chinese lantern and lovely vintage poster. We ate char sui pork buns from a little dim sum shop he showed us, and later some bok choi, ginger tofu and fried rice from Kent’s – a cheap and cheerful institution where a huge amount of food (one portion was enough for me and Jamie, and THEN SOME) will set you back six bucks. It was great to see that there are still plenty of amazing food shops and Chinese grocers selling dried fish, prawns and even lizards (for medicinal purposes) among other exotic things, as well as butchers filled with Chinese sausages and glistening, fatty pork cuts. We even spotted  some durian, but I was way too much of a wuss to buy one and try it. I did get some amazingly ripe mangoes though – two for $1.

This is a little recipe I made for fried rice, inspired by our little visit. I basically muddled it together from what we had in our fridge and cupboard. Putting lettuce in it was something I picked up from Bao Bei – which has a ‘kick ass’ fried rice with pancetta and iceberg running through it. This is best served with some chilli oil drizzled over it.

for the rice
1 cup basmati
2 cups water
pinch of salt
2 eggs
tsp soy
3 drops sesame
half a head of iceberg lettuce, cut into squares
two sticks of celery, finely chopped
chinese sausage, chorizo or 6 slices of prosciutto, finely sliced
half a white onion, chopped
handful of mint leaves
2 tbsps nuoc cham/fish sauce

quick pickled carrots and radishes
2 carrots, brunoised
radishes, chunked
2 tbspns sugar, dissolved in 2 tbspns cider vinegar, topped up with 3 tbspns water

Start by quick pickling the carrots and radishes in the vinegar and sugar solution.

Put the rice on to cook: place in a pan with double the amount in cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer – do not boil or stir, but cook until air holes puff through the surface of the rice and all the water has evaporated, checking occasionally that it’s not sticking to the bottom – about 12-15 mins.

While the rice is cooking put 1 tbsp of oil in a wok and stir fry the onion until browned – about 8 minutes. Reserve. Fry the ham/sausage for three minutes and reserve. Then add a bit more oil, scramble the eggs with the soy and sesame and add to the wok. Swirl around to make an omelette, when it starts to puff, flip it and cook for one more minute. Reserve and finely chop.

When the rice is cooked, remove from the pan onto a plate and fluff/separate grains with a fork. Then add remaining oil to pan, add onions, ham, rice, then egg, lettuce, celery and pickled carrots and radishes which you’ve drained and reserved pickling juice. Add a splash of soy, the nuoc cham, and two tbs of sweet pickling juice and toss it all together with the lettuce, celery and carrot. If your diners don’t mind spice, also finish with some chilli oil. Otherwise, stir through a bit of olive oil for gloss.

Mr Choi’s Swiss chard, onion and three cheese tarts

I’ve spoken to you before about the amazing Mr Choi. He’s our landlord in Vancouver, his favourite catchphrase is ‘holy mackerel!’ and he keeps a mean kitchen garden. But he’s anything but mean. In fact, he couldn’t be more generous with the bountiful fresh produce he grows, and is always knocking on our door with armfuls of amazing things. So far we’ve had the sweetest, most delicious tomatoes, fragrant basil and these prickly Mexican pears which I’m yet to successfully cook.

This time he brought us Swiss chard – a huge glossy bunch of it. I had some cheese in the fridge which was going a little dry around the edges, some left over sour cream, half an onion and enough butter and eggs to make pastry, so I decided on making a tart out of the earthy greens. Then I realised I didn’t have a big tart dish, so it would have to be little tartlets. A bit more fiddly, but in fact the result was rather a hit – the earthy chard perfectly tempered by the sweet onion and nutty cheese.

Mr Choi is so happy and kind, and full of stories of when he was a chef in the 60s in a now-defunct hotel in Vancouver. He’s been such an inspiration to my cooking, and we wish we could bring him back to London with us. I hope you enjoy this recipe, which I thank Mr Choi for!

Mr Choi
Mr Choi's beautiful chard

Makes 6 little tarts
(use springform tins) or one 23 x 2.5cm large tart

for the pastry
175g plain flour
1/2 tsp dry thyme leaves
1 tbspn parmesan/ grana padano
1 egg yolk
100g cold butter, diced
4 tbspn iced water

For the filling
bunch of swiss chard, thoroughly washed – stems and leaves separated
half an onion, finely chopped
1 tbspn olive oil
bay leaf
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper
1 tsp butter
3 eggs
1 egg white
1/2 cup sour cream
25ml whole milk
50g gruyere, finely grated
30g sharp white cheddar, finely grated
1tsp cider vinegar

To make the pastry
Put the flour, parmesan, thyme leaves, egg yolk, butter and iced water in a food processor and whizz until it’s a sandy texture, and melds together. Pour it out onto a floured surface and squish it into a ball. Wrap in cling film and blast chill it in the freezer for 5 minutes.

To make the tarts

Preheat your oven to 180. Brush your tart tins with a thin coating of oil.

Take the pastry out of the freezer, divide in half and then each half into three equal thirds. Squidge each third into a ball-like shape, and, on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll out thinly into discs.

Line the tart tins with the pastry discs, being careful to tuck the pastry right into the base and press into the fluted edges. To remove the excess pastry, press your finger against the edge of the top of the tin to chop it off. Pierce the base of each pastry case lightly with the prongs of a fork. Refrigerate again in the freezer for five minutes and place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up.

Place the cases on the baking sheet and line them with baking parchment. A good tip here is to scrunch up the parchment so you can mould it into the base of the tarts. Fill with lentils, baking beans or coins and blind bake for 15 minutes.

While that’s baking, you can make the filling. Heat the olive oil and butter on a medium heat in a frying pan and gently sauté the onion, thyme, bay and garlic for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and sweet. Be careful not to burn the garlic at this point.

Slice the chard stalks and add them to the frying pan, sautéeing for about another five minutes. In the meantime chinois the green leaves, then add them into the pan and wilt along with the onion and stalk mixture. Once the greens have wilted, transfer to a bowl and add a tsp of cider vinegar, mixing it in.

Once the timer goes off for the cases, remove the parchment and baking beans and bake for a further five minutes, until golden.

In another bowl, break the eggs and lightly whisk together with the egg white. Add in the sour cream, cheese, salt and pepper and milk and mix.

When the cases are ready, divide the chard mixture between them and carefully spoon in the egg and cheese mixture being careful not to overfill the cases.

Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool on a wire rack for five minutes before removing from their cases. Serve warm, with a dressed green salad.

Hot corn with Mexican butter

I ruddy love corn. Popcorn, sweetcorn out of a tin, corn on the cob – you name a corny foodstuff and the chances are I’ll be into it. Even if it does leave me picking at my teeth for the rest of the day, it’s worth it for that crunchy, buttery, addictive goodness. Gimme!

Anyway, I picked up some corn on special offer the other day and, inspired by a little dish I had at my favourite Mexican restaurant here, Tacofino Commissary, I decided to get all Mexican on its kernals. This is a really simple recipe and it seems to work pretty well. I love the way the acidic lime and salty parmesan (used in lieu of queso fresco) work with the sweetness of the corn. The herbs offer a nice fragrant lift to the whole thing. You can use coriander in the place of parsley, but I just used what I had to hand, which was a nice bunch of flat leaf.

Serves four as a starter
Two ears of corn, stripped of their husks, cut in half
120g butter, at room temperature
2 tbspns of grated grana padano or Parmesan
the juice of half a lime
tsp red chilli flakes
2 tbpsn of chopped mint and parsley
Grind of black pepper and salt

First mix the butter with the cheese, lime and salt and pepper, then add in the herbs and chilli flakes. Now heat up a skillet really hot, rub your corn with a little vegetable oil and place them in the skillet. You could use a barbecue, if you had one to hand, but a really hot skillet works just as well. You could par-boil them before grilling, but I found that a few minutes on each side worked well. Turn the corn at intervals – some of the kernals will char and blacken but this just adds to the flavour. When the corn is tender and a good, deep yellow – after about six-eight minutes, remove from the skillet and smother in the butter. Eat immediately, with the butter dripping down your wrists. This is an optional extra, but it’s a little ritual for me when I eat corn: when you’ve chomped all the corn of the cobs, smear the ears with more of the butter, let it soak in, and then suck it out. SO good!