Chocolate and Gout

 

IMG_2072

I’m hoping the first part of the title of this post drew you in enough for you not to be put off by the second part.

I’ve always loved chocolate: the taste of it and the texture; and the undoubted cocoa solids and caffeine-induced hit it gives.  In the past, to prove to myself that I have a modicum of willpower and I’m not a complete chocoholic, I’ve given it up for Lent.

Today (Easter Sunday) I ate chocolate for the first time in several weeks, since before the start of Lent in fact.  Tomorrow I will be giving it up again, but for health reasons.  I’ve been getting joint pain for quite a few years now.  My orthopaedic surgeon husband says I have osteoarthritis and that I’ve inherited this from my father and grandmother.  They never spoke of it, but with hindsight it was obvious they suffered from it too.  My father attributed any aches and pains of his to rugby injuries which had never been properly treated, but that was probably only part of the story.

In recent years my husband has been sending an increasing number of his patients, who report to him with knee pain and a history of other joint problems, for blood tests to ascertain their uric acid levels.  If levels with a single test are high it means that the patient has been suffering from episodes of gout.

Gout is inflammation of joints and soft tissues due to crystallisation of uric acid within a joint that has been predisposed to this deposition by previous injury.  His new secretary, who used to work in General Practice, cannot believe how frequently he spots it in his patients.

It’s very useful being married to a doctor but, quite rightly, they do not like to treat family members.  The way it works in our family is: someone describes their ailment and my husband decides whether they need to a) see the GP, b) go to A&E or c) go directly to a colleague.  It means we probably spent a lot less time in GP waiting rooms when the children were small than most parents.  Anyway, having had so many patients come back with a positive test for gout, my husband suggested that I ask my GP to order a blood test for me, because if my uric acid levels were high, or near the upper limit of normal, something could be done about it and it would reduce the episodes of pain I’m experiencing in my hands and feet.

The blood test came back as “normal” but my levels were at the upper end of the range and my husband said it would only take one meal of high purine foods to tip me over the edge.

Purines from foods and tissue turnover are the precursor of uric acid which some people are unable to excrete, especially when exposed to our rich Western diet.

He gave me a very useful chart listing almost every food you can think of with those high in purines at the top.  At the very top of the chart the substance with by far the highest purine levels was theobromine, which is found in cocoa.  I jokingly said to my husband that in that case I’d give up chocolate and solve the problem.  To my surprise he agreed.  So I stopped eating chocolate overnight and after six weeks went back for another blood test and, to my astonishment, my uric acid levels had dropped considerably.  My symptoms haven’t changed but my husband says that will take at least 6-12 months.

I have written this post to raise awareness.  Not very much appears to be known about gout, but 1 in 40 of us have it and many suffer without a confirmed diagnosis.  It seems to affect young men and post menopausal women.  My GP did not think it necessary to test my uric acid levels but was happy to do it when asked.

I will miss chocolate, but will allow myself a small amount from time to time.  It seemed easier to give it up than to have to think about purines every time I cook a meal for the family.

IMG_0737

Simnel Cake

IMG_0296

 

Why not make this delicious fruit cake for Easter?  As you probably know, simnel cake was originally baked for Mothering Sunday in the middle of Lent; girls in service would make one to take home to their mothers. I love it because it’s a fruit cake and lends itself to being baked slowly in the Aga, which makes for a very moist cake. Then there’s the marzipan which I adore almost as much as chocolate, and that’s saying something.

Last year my son’s lovely girlfriend made us a simnel cake, so we had two. No-one was complaining. The only problem for me was that she raised the bar and made her own marzipan, and now my youngest son says he doesn’t like shop-bought marzipan at all and suggested I make mine too. It really isn’t difficult and actually doesn’t take very long if you have a food processor.

Marzipan

This will make more than you need for the cake but I adore marzipan and was happy to have some left over. Disclosure: marzipan quantities given here are approximate. The balls on top can be as big or small as you like. The top circle can be as thick as you like. If you don’t want to make your own, I suggest you buy a 450g packet of marzipan.

  • 450g icing sugar
  • 450g ground almonds
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tsps brandy
  • Juice of a lemon
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • Simply  blitz all the ingredients in a food processor until it’s come together nicely
  • Tip this out onto a dusting of icing sugar on your worktop and knead it for a bit
  • Flatten it slightly, wrap it in clingfilm and put it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it

 

Simnel Cake

I used a Mary Berry recipe except that instead of placing a circle of marzipan in the middle of the cake, I folded small pieces of it into the mixture, à la Delia’s recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 100g natural glacé cherries
  • 225g softened butter
  • 225g light muscovado sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 225g sultanas
  • 100g currants
  • 50g chopped candied peel
  • Zest of a lemon (MB says 2 lemons, but I didn’t want it too lemony)
  • 2 level tsps mixed spice
  • 200g marzipan, cut into small squares or rolled into balls and tossed in a little flour

Topping:

  • 225g marzipan
  • 2 tablespoons of apricot jam
  • 1 large egg, beaten, to glaze

Method:

  • Pre-heat a conventional oven to150ºC/Fan 130ºC/Gas 2
  • Grease a 20cm deep round cake tin, then line the base and sides with baking parchment or bake-o-glide
  • Put the cherries in a sieve, rinse under running water, drain and dry on kitchen paper. Cut into quarters
  • Measure all the cake ingredients into a large mixing bowl, except for the fruit and marzipan, and beat well until thoroughly blended. (I used my KitchenAid.) Fold the fruit into this mixture and then finally the pieces of marzipan.
  • Spoon the mixture into your prepared tin and level the surface.
  • Bake in a conventional oven for about 2.5 hours or the Aga simmering oven for 4-5 hours. This really depends on your Aga. The important thing is the cake is coming away from the sides a little, is well risen, evenly brown and firm to the touch.
  • Leave to cool in the tin for 15-30 minutes. When the cake is completely cool, brush the top with a little warmed apricot jam and roll out marzipan to make a circle to fit the top. Press firmly on the top and crimp the edges to decorate. (You will see from my photos I made a bad job of this. You will do better.) Mark a criss-cross pattern on the marzipan with a sharp knife. Form the remaining marzipan into 11 balls (representing the apostles minus Judas).
  • Brush the almond paste with beaten egg and arrange the balls around the edge of the cake. Brush the tops of the balls with beaten egg and then place the cake in the roasting oven (or under the grill) for 3 or 4 minutes, near the top, to turn the marzipan golden.

 

 

 

 

 

Casseroles

IMG_2078

 

Spring was definitely in the air last weekend.  It was still chilly, especially in the early morning and evening, but when the sun was shining one could actually feel the heat from it.  Early Spring blossom has started to appear on the trees in Bristol and the daffodils are very much in flower.  So it might seem odd that I chose to cook rather wintry, comfort food dishes, but I thought I’d better get them in before temperatures really do rise.

 

Lancashire Hotpot

My husband says I can’t possibly write a post about this meal because we didn’t take a photo of it, but, with apologies for the lack of illustration, I’ve decided to do it anyway.  It was a success and the ideal thing to cook last Saturday when I had plenty of time in the morning but wanted to watch England play Wales in a crucial Six Nations rugby match in the afternoon.  Honestly, as you will see, this hotpot is more or less just an assembly job.  While I was preparing it I managed to keep an eye on the Italy v Ireland match.

For the ingredients, I more or less followed Felicity Cloake again and make no apologies for that.  Here is what I did.

Ingredients

(Serves 4)

  • 6 lamb cutlets
  • 400g diced lamb shoulder
  • Flour, salt and pepper
  • 3-4 large, floury potatoes
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 300ml stock (Felicity says lamb stock, but I used a homemade chicken one because that’s what I had in the fridge, and it was fine.)
  • 20g melted butter, plus extra to grease.

Method

  • Dust the meat with the flour and seasoning.  Peel and slice the potatoes thinly.
  • Butter a casserole which has a lid.
  • Put a layer of overlapping potato slices in the bottom of the casserole, season them and sprinkle with a little thyme.
  • Put the meat and bay leaf on top, followed by the onions and some more seasoning.
  • Top with the remaining potatoes, overlapping them again.  Season these and pour on the stock, which should not come above the topping.
  • Brush the potatoes with the melted butter.
  • Put the lid on and place the casserole in the simmering oven.  Cook for 4-6 hours.
  • Thirty minutes before serving, remove the lid and transfer to the roasting oven to brown the potatoes.

I placed it in the oven at about 2pm and then all I had to do when we were ready to eat was steam some carrots (in the simmering oven of course) and cook some cabbage.

 

IMG_2565

 

By the way, for afternoon tea on the sofa, in front of the England v Wales match, we had buttered slices of this delicious “hot cross” fruit loaf which I’d bought in the morning from the Bordeaux Quay stall at Whiteladies Road Market.

 

 

 

Simple Stroganoff

This beef stroganoff, based on Delia Smith’s recipe, has the flavours of “proper” stroganoff but the advantage that it can be made ahead instead of at the last minute; it’s ideally suited to Aga cooking.

Ingredients

(Serves 4 people)

  • 700g fairly lean braising beef
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 50g butter
  • 275 ml dry white wine
  • 250g mushrooms, sliced if large
  • 250ml sour cream
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • Salt and freshly milled black pepper

Method

  • Cut the meat into thin strips, about 5mm wide and no more than 6cm long.
  • Melt the butter in a casserole and soften the onion in it in the simmering oven for about 15 minutes.  Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon.
  • Place the casserole on the boiling plate and brown the beef in batches.
  • Once the meat is browned, move the casserole to the simmering plate and return the beef and onion to it.  Season and pour in the wine.
  • Bring to simmering point, put on the lid and let it cook in the simmering oven for 3-4 hours.
  • An hour before you want to eat, stir in the mushrooms, cover and return it to the oven.
  • Taste to check seasoning, stir in the sour cream with a good grating of nutmeg.  Don’t let the cream boil.
  • Serve with plain boiled rice and perhaps some broccoli or a green salad.

Depending on the weather, perhaps my next posts will move on to lighter, fresher dishes.

Food Waste

 

The discussion about food waste on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme resonated particularly strongly with me this morning.  None of us likes to think we waste food but when I went to bed last night I was wishing that I’d thrown the bacon in the bin instead of making spaghetti carbonara with it.  As it turned out, no-one was ill, which was a huge relief, but I did not have a particularly peaceful night.

I was acutely aware that I should probably hurry up and use the bacon lurking in my fridge.  It was about three weeks past its “use by” date (yes, really) but to me it looked and smelt absolutely fine.  After his first mouthful my husband announced that it tasted odd and he was convinced it was off.  Youngest son and I, however, detected nothing and, either bravely or foolishly, carried on eating.  Fortunately, my husband did not need to go hungry because there was a portion of Lancashire hotpot left over from the weekend which we reheated (very thoroughly!).

He was incredulous that we could not smell and taste what he was smelling and tasting and I admit that this worried me, which is why I had a restless night.  I’ve always tended to use appearance and smell rather than the dates printed on the packets to help me decide whether food is usable, but this has dented my confidence.  “But the bacon was fine,” you might well say to me and you’d be right, but I trust my husband on these things and I think there’s no doubt that it was on the cusp and I feel lucky to have got away with it.  I have no intention of changing behaviour to such an extent that I neurotically throw away food the minute it hits the “use by” date, but I will be more careful in future.  The lesson I will take from this is of course that I should have made sure to use up that bacon three weeks ago.

(In the absence of photos of either food waste or bacon, I hope you like these roses, taken by my husband.)

Paella

Paella might be my favourite dish.  For me it’s one of the most delicious things you can eat.

It’s made all year round but changes with the seasons.  I wonder if it’s one of those dishes like ragù in Italy where there are as many recipes for it as there are cooks.  Felicity Cloake quotes Valencian chef (Valencia being where paella originated) Llorenç Millo as saying that there are as many recipes as there are villages.

We  haven’t had a holiday in Spain for many years but we used to go to Nerja to stay in a friend’s appartment.  It was within easy walking distance of the beach along which there were several great restaurants.  Our favourite was the one where a man made paella over an open fire in the biggest paella dish you’ve ever seen.  The first time I saw this I watched him, enthralled, as he gradually added all the elements.  By the time he’d finished quite a crowd had gathered round to watch and then, finally, to eat.

He used to make what I consider to be be a traditional paella comprising chicken and seafood, but apparently paella didn’t start out as a fish or seafood dish at all.  Over the years I’ve made various permutations, the latest being this haddock one, based on a recipe by Tamasin Day-Lewis.  Hers used monkfish but there was none available when I was shopping and the haddock loin was a good alternative, in my view; I’m sure any firm white fish would work.  I’ve read that paella always contains some sort of pig meat (bacon, chorizo or pork) but I don’t think it’s essential.  My haddock one doesn’t and in fact I don’t remember the beach one containing any either.   Perhaps in future posts I’ll give you the recipe for my chicken and chorizo paella or Ottolenghi’s vegetable one, which is quite superb.  And I really ought to try Felicity Cloake’s “perfect” paella too.

You don’t have to have a paella pan.  I’m thrilled with the one pictured, a recent purchase, but before I had it, I used either a large, deepish frying pan or a wide but shallow casserole.

Paella with haddock, saffron and peppers

Serves 4

  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • 500g haddock loin, skinned and cut into 2-3cm cubes
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 green peppers, halved, seeded and finely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 500ml (approx) of good quality fish stock (I bought mine)
  • a good pinch of saffron
  • 225g bomba (sometimes called Calasparra) rice
  • A glass of white wine or fino sherry
  • 1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
  • salt and pepper
  • About 200g mussels, prawns or squid or if you prefer, any combination of these. I used a packet of frozen, cooked mixed seafood, defrosted first.
  • 225g piquillo peppers, torn in strips

IMG_2563

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in your pan on the simmering plate.  Add the haddock and stir-fry for a couple of minutes until slightly underdone.
  • Tip the fish into a dish with its juices, wipe the pan clean with kitchen paper and return to the simmering plate.  Add the remaining oil and then the onion and green pepper.  Give them a stir, coating everything in the oil and move to the simmering oven to cook for about 20 minutes until soft, adding the garlic and fennel for the last 5 minutes or so.
  • Meanwhile bring the stock to the boil in a saucepan on the boiling plate and infuse the saffron in it off the heat.
  • Add the rice to the paella pan on the simmering plate and stir to ensure every grain is coated in the oil.
  • Add the wine or sherry, followed by most but not all of the saffron-infused stock, half the parsley and the paprika and season with salt and pepper.  Do not stir from this point.
  • Once this is simmering, place it either near the bottom of the baking oven or in the simmering oven, uncovered, until there is very little liquid left.  Difficult to give precise timings because I find it varies (and as you know, timings are not usually crucial in an Aga) but maybe 30 minutes in the baking oven and 15 in the simmering oven.  If it looks dry and the rice is still not tender, add the rest of the stock.
  • When there’s still a little liquid left above the rice add the fish and seafood, pushing it down into the stock and return to the simmering oven until heated through.  It wouldn’t do any harm to leave it for half an hour like this, if you’re not quite ready to eat, but try not to leave it too long if you’ve added prawns, because they go tough and rubbery when overcooked.  Place the strips of piquillo peppers on top.
  • Let the rice sit for a few minutes on the warming plate before serving.  Finally, decorate with lemon wedges and the remaining chopped parsley.

 

IMG_4532

Paella with haddock and saffron

Gadgets

I’m ridiculously pleased with the two items of kitchen kit I’ve just purchased to replace broken ones.

First, there’s the little timer.  As you will know, unlike most modern cookers, Agas don’t have a built-in timer.  Furthermore, the smell of what’s cooking in your ovens is barely noticeable in your kitchen, so a timer is an essential gadget (provided you remember to set it!).  The one pictured replaces one I’d had since owning an Aga, but this one matches my decor better (a minor point, you say?).  Its functions are more or less the same; for example, it’s possible to be timing four separate things simultaneously and it makes four distinct and very insistent beeping sounds.

While on the Aga Cookshop website I spotted the Microplane graters.  I bought one of these years ago when they first came onto the market and suddenly I could zest speedily and without shaving off layers of skin.  I mainly use the fine one, but there are plenty of uses for the medium and coarse versions which I also own.  My original fine one had a perspex frame which eventually developed cracks, rendering the grater rather flimsy, although it continued to work reasonably effectively.  But after several years of making do, it didn’t feel too extravagant to splash out £25.00 on a new one.

IMG_2554