This summer our second son is getting married. The excitement is building in the family – it’s the first wedding – and we are all busy in our different ways with preparations. Busiest of all are our daughter-in-law to be and her parents but now that his Part III architecture exams and coursework are out of the way, our son has also got stuck in. He’s been painting signs and designing and printing menus and orders of service. His super-efficient future wife has drawn up lists and rotas so that we all know what we’re doing in the build up to the day. The wedding will be in a church near her family home in Cornwall and the reception in a marquee in the garden. We have rented a cottage nearby so that we can be on hand to help and also have a holiday afterwards. Our son has chosen his brothers as the best men and all being well, they have sorted out a speech and who will deliver it (maybe it will be all three of them, I don’t yet know) and who will be responsible for the ring. Our youngest son is going to read a poem at the service and one of the bride’s sisters will be giving a reading.
My husband has chosen the wines (a tough job but someone’s got to do it, he says) with the help of willing tasters like me: a light and fruity Pinot Noir (Villa Maria Cellar Selection) from Majestic Wine Merchants; a Sauvignon Blanc (Cloudy Bay) from Avery’s, Bristol; and champagne from Waitrose. The caterers are booked, so we’re nearly set.
Every single one of us will be in the marquee on the day before the wedding, laying tables and decorating it with flowers. The logistics of getting everyone to Cornwall have been complicated but we seem to have cracked that now: youngest son will be arriving there on the eve of the wedding from a week’s walking and camping on the Isle of Arran and my sisters-in-law are going to ensure that my somewhat frail 92 year old mother-in-law gets there too.
We haven’t had a “whole family” holiday for three years so I’m looking forward to this one, even though it will not involve much lazing around. It’s a very happy occasion and a great excuse for us all to be together. I’m sure we will eat out (seafood please!) but I will also cook some meals in our rented kitchen. I want to keep these as simple as possible (nothing new there!). I will miss my Aga of course and hope I haven’t forgotten how to cook on a conventional cooker.
I’ve made this delicious chicken dish by Annie Bell a couple of times recently. It is one I can imagine making in Cornwall, provided the kitchen is equipped with big enough roasting tins.
Serves 6 (I made it first for 4 and then for 3, using two pieces of chicken per person and scaling down the other ingredients)
For the chicken
- 2 lemons
- 150ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 2 heaped tsps za’atar
- 2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
- 1.8-2kg free-range chicken thighs and drumsticks
- 50g pine nuts
For the aubergine yoghurt
- 2 aubergines
- 1 small or ½ garlic clove, crushed
- 150g natural Greek yoghurt
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus an extra couple of tbsp to serve
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander, plus extra to serve
- Slice one of the lemons, discarding the ends, and juice the other. Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, onion, za’atar, cinnamon and sliced lemon in a large dish. Add the chicken pieces and coat thoroughly with the marinade. Cover and chill for several hours or overnight.
- For the aubergine yoghurt, preheat a conventional oven to 220ºC. Prick the aubergines all over with a skewer to stop them bursting, and roast for 45-60 minutes (in the Aga roasting oven) until wrinkled, blackened and soft, then leave to cool.
- Cut off the ends, peel off the skin, halve lengthways and coarsely chop
- Place the flesh in a sieve and press out the excess liquid using the back of a large spoon
- Briefly whizz to a coarse purée with the garlic and some salt in a food processor
- Transfer to a bowl and stir in the yoghurt, olive oil, lemon juice and parsley or coriander. Drizzle over the extra oil and scatter over some more herbs. Set aside
- If you’ve turned it off, switch your oven back on to 220ºC
- Season the chicken pieces and arrange, skin side up in a single layer in two roasting tins (the large Aga ones)
- Option: if you have space you could add halved new potatoes to the tins. I did this
- Drizzle the marinade over everything and tuck the lemon slices in between
- Roast (in the Aga roasting oven) for about 45 minutes, swapping the tins round halfway through and sprinkling over the pine nuts after 15 minutes (I forgot to do this the second time I made this dish; it was still delicious but I recommend you try to remember them)
- Serve with the yoghurt sauce and a green salad
The chicken in its marinade
Yoghurt and aubergine sauce
A simple green salad in vinaigrette
The title for this recipe is very long, isn’t it? It’s another Diana Henry one but I’m making no apologies. I wanted to try freekeh (a cereal food made from unripened wheat which has been roasted and crushed into small pieces) because I’d never used it before so I pored over my various cookbooks and this was the recipe which appealed the most on the day. It’s perfect for the summer weather we’re having now. Instead of cooking the chicken in a griddle pan, you could barbecue it outside.
I’m enjoying the weather. We’ve barbecued twice this weekend, which has been lovely. My husband was supposed to be taking it easy after a small operation on Friday, but was up to standing at the grill while I got on with preparing vegetables and salads.
For the Chicken
- 4 skinless boneless chicken thighs or breasts
- 4 garlic cloves, grated or crushed
- salt and pepper
- juice of 1 lemon
- 6 tbsp olive oil
For the Salad
- 100g dried sour cherries
- 2 preserved lemons
- 200g freekeh
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp honey (or maple syrup)
- 3 tsp white balsamic vinegar
- juice of ½ lemon
- good pinch of ground cinnamon
- laves from 10 sprigs of mint, torn
- 10g chopped flat-leaf parsley
- If you are using breasts and they’re particularly thick, cut them in half horizontally. Marinate the chicken if you have time, even if it’s only for an hour or two. Mix the garlic, seasoning, lemon juice and olive oil in a dish and lay the chicken it it, turning it to coat. Cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before cooking
- Place your griddle pan on the floor of the Aga roasting oven to get it really hot
- Put the cherries in a small saucepan and add enough water to just cover. Bring to the boil on the boiling plate, then remove from the heat and leave to plump up for 30 minutes
- Remove the flesh from the preserved lemons and discard. Cut the rind into slivers
- Put the freekeh into a saucepan and cover with water, adding the regular olive oil and seasoning well. Bring to the boil on the boiling plate, then cover and transfer to the simmering oven for about half an hour, or until just tender. Drain
- In a serving bowl mix the virgin oil, honey or maple syrup, white balsamic, lemon juice, cinnamon and plenty of salt and pepper. Add the drained freekeh and stir
- Drain the cherries and fork them into the grains with the preserved lemon and most of the herbs
- Place the heated griddle pan on the boiling plate and put the chicken on it (leaving the marinade behind)
- Let it sizzle and splatter for two minutes, then turn it over. At this point you can place the griddle pan back on the floor of the roasting oven and leave the chicken to cook there for about 8 minutes until it’s cooked through. You can keep the griddle plan on the boiling plate and then move it to the simmering plate if you prefer but placing it in the oven minimises the amount of fat splattering everywhere
- Taste the freekeh. You might want to add more lemon juice. The mixture should be moist and well-seasoned
- Divide between four plates and serve the chicken on top or alongside, scattering the remaining herbs over. I served ours with some tzatziki
Our weekend in the garden:
Another of my Easter weekend dishes was this simple chicken traybake, which is also a Diana Henry recipe. It appeared in the Telegraph’s Stella magazine a few weeks ago. I tried it then and knew my family would like it. It’s perfectly suited to Aga cooking.
For 4-6 people, depending on hunger levels and the size of the chicken thighs
- 8 chicken thighs
- 700g sweet potatoes, washed and cut into wedges
- 2½ tbsp white miso
- 1 ½ tbsp honey or maple syrup
- 2 tbsp rice wine
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 2.5cm chunk ginger root, peeled and grated or finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 red chilli, halved and finely chopped (use the seeds for extra heat)
- 12-18 spring onions
- 3 tsp black or toasted white sesame seeds (or a mixture of the two)
For the final basting
- 1 tbsp white miso
- 1 tbsp honey or maple syrup
- ½ tbsp dark soy sauce
- ½ tbsp rice wine
Pre-heat conventional oven to 190ºC/gas mark 5
- Place the thighs in a large roasting tin with the sweet potato wedges (they should be able to lie in a single layer)
- Mix together everything else except the spring onions and sesame seeds. Pour this over the chicken and sweet potatoes, turning everything over so the ingredients are well coated, finishing with the chicken skin-side up
- Roast for 45 minutes at the top of the roasting oven, basting every so often, and turning the wedges over
- Mix the final basting ingredients together and about 15 minutes before the end of cooking time, take the tin out of the oven and pour them over, adding the spring onions at the same time. They should become soft and slightly charred
- When cooked, sprinkle with the sesame seeds and serve
- I served ours with pak choi stir-fried in a little groundnut oil with black pepper and soy sauce
My New Year wishes are, I trust, better late than never. So that’s it for another year and we can get back to normal, whatever “normal” is. The tree has been taken down and is currently awaiting collection in our front garden; all the decorations have been stored away in the spare room cupboard; and Sons 1 and 2 have returned to work, in Cambridge and London respectively. It was so lovely to have them at home, sometimes with and sometimes without the girlfriend of one and the fiancée of the other, and although I should be used to it, I always feel a little sad when they’ve gone; not too sad, mind, because, as my mother says, if your children are happy to leave home, then you have probably done a good job as a parent. Son 3 stayed on for an extra couple of days which softened the blow, as much for his younger brother as for their parents. We all love films but Son 3 is the proper film buff of the family and at his suggestion we sat down on Monday evening to watch Singin’ in the Rain. I hadn’t seen it for years and had forgotten just how marvellous it is and what a wonderful actress the late Debbie Reynolds was: RIP. He returned to London with his dad yesterday, leaving youngest son and me, and Granny in her flat downstairs, in a very quiet house until the weekend.
Before he left I borrowed one of his Christmas presents to make supper: the book Fresh India by Meera Sodha, which is on the bestseller lists. Having eaten so much meat over Christmas we were all craving meat-free dishes and the aubergine and pea curry fitted the bill. The last thing I need is another cookbook but if this recipe is anything to go by, I might be adding this book to my birthday wish list.
Aubergine and Pea Curry
- 5 tbps rapeseed oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 large onions finely chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 4 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
- 1 1/2 tbsps tomato purée
- 1 1/2 level tsps salt
- 1 1/4 tsps chilli powder (unless like mine, yours is very hot, in which case use less)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 4 medium aubergines 1.2kg, chopped into 3cms cubes
- 100g (I used 200g) peas (fresh or defrosted)
- Put the oil in a wide-bottomed lidded pan on the simmering plate (conventional hob: medium heat). Once hot, add the cumin seeds and stir for 30 seconds. Add the onions and stir to coat in the oil. Cook (in the simmering oven) for 15-30 minutes until translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and stir-fry for a couple of minutes
- Add the tomatoes and purée and cover with a lid. Leave to cook for 5 minutes (or longer in the simmering oven), then add the salt, chilli powder, turmeric and sugar and cook for a further couple of minutes
- Now add the aubergines, coating the pieces with the masala, pop the lid back on the pan and cook for around 10 minutes (or longer in the simmering oven). You want the aubergines to be tender and soft with little or no water running from them. If they’re watery or not yet tender, they may need another few minutes’ cooking
- When they’re cooked, add the peas and cook for a couple of minutes.
- Serve with hot chapattis or plain boiled Basmati rice
- I used one of those large round aubergines from Natoora. It weighed 620g and I was worried it would not be enough but it was plenty. Am therefore a little baffled by the aubergine quantity recommended in the book. Would it not have led to a very dry curry?
- Also: I only used 5 cloves of garlic and 1 large onion.
Apologies that I don’t have a photo of this dish (but then nor does the book!). Instead here are a few photos of our Christmas.
Our Norwegian Christmas Eve
Delia’s cranberry and orange relish
This post is not about telling you how to make mince pies. To be perfectly honest, as I may have mentioned before, I don’t rate my pastry-making skills and would not presume to pass on any tips, because you are probably all much better at it than me.
That is not to say that I don’t enjoy having a go. What is more, there’s nothing like making mince pies for getting into the festive spirit and family and friends do appreciate homemade ones. One of the reasons I’ve made a few in the last week is that I found a big jar of Waitrose mincemeat in my cupboard with a “best before” date of December 2016. You see? I don’t even make my own mincemeat!
For the pastry I use this excellent Xanthe Clay recipe. Sometimes I make “closed” pies (see above) and sometimes I cut out pastry stars to place on top (see below). I always brush with egg and sprinkle with caster sugar. I fancy making some with an almond crumble topping one day. I bought some like that at Bristol’s wonderful Hart’s Bakery yesterday and would love to try to emulate them. But that’s for another day.
In the Aga
Mince pies bake very quickly in the Aga roasting oven. Place your tray of pies on the grid shelf on the fourth rung of the oven. They will be done in 15 minutes at the most. The oven is hotter at the back and on the side nearest the centre, so I turn the tray round halfway through the cooking time.
Cut out stars to place on top
Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with caster sugar
Bake until golden brown
This traditional Norwegian celebration cake (translation: soft cake) is part of my childhood in a way that no other food is. My grandmother, aunts, and mother all baked it regularly when I was growing up and then my mother passed the recipe on to me. Nowadays when we go on holiday to Norway, it’s my cousins who make the bløtkake and no doubt they have passed the recipe down to their children as I will to mine.
My mother is a great cook and loved introducing her British friends to Norwegian specialities, but when she was first married to my (English) father she also learnt to do an excellent Sunday roast and many other British recipes. She would make a bløtkake for our birthdays and if friends were coming round. For a few years she ran a small catering firm specialising in parties and weddings, and this cake was probably what her customers requested the most. I can remember helping her with deliveries sometimes which involved me sitting in the passenger seat of her car with the cake in a container on my lap, hoping we didn’t have to brake suddenly.
The cake is not complicated or difficult to make. It uses a fatless sponge so you needn’t feel guilty about the amount of cream required to make this cake delicious and special. I made it recently for my youngest son’s 18th birthday.
You will need an 8″ or 9″ springform cake tin, greased and base-lined.
- 5 large eggs
- 125g caster sugar
- 125g self-raising flour
- 300ml (or more) double or whipping cream
- Fruit: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or banana or combinations of these. I’m sure you will come up with other wonderful fruit ideas, depending on the season. The one above was a mixture of raspberries and blueberries. I also can’t give you quantities but I’m sure you’ll manage
- Juice or milk for moistening the sponge
- Pre-heat a conventional oven to 150ºC
- Whisk the eggs and sugar (ideally in a mixer or using an electric hand whisk) for 8-10 minutes (depending on the power of your whisk) until thick and very pale in colour. When you lift the whisk the mixture will leave a trail like a ribbon
- Then fold in the flour; do this gently to keep in as much air as possible
- Pour the mixture into your prepared tin and bake in the baking oven (see above for conventional oven temp) for about 25-30 minutes. Check it at 20 minutes and maybe turn it round so the “other” side is nearer to the back. If using a conventional oven, don’t even think about opening the door until it’s been in for 20 minutes. It is done if it springs back when pressed down gently with your finger
- Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before turning it out of the tin. Leave it to cool upside down
- When the cake is cold slice through the middle horizontally so you have two pieces. Even better, slice it into three layers. In fact, I wish I’d done this for my son’s cake and will definitely do it next time. It makes a more impressive, moist and luscious cake. You may need more cream but given it’s a cake based on having lashings of cream, who’s going to quibble about that?
- You need to moisten the sponge layers before filling the cake. You can use juice from the fruit (I had frozen raspberries which released a lot of juice after defrosting); or a little diluted elderflower cordial; or milk. We’re only talking about a couple of dessert spoonfuls
- Whip the cream
- Sandwich the cake together with the cream and fruit. Be generous with both
- Finally, spread the rest of the whipped cream thickly over the whole cake and decorate with a little more fruit
- It is customary to cut a circle in the middle of the cake and slice it from there. If it’s a birthday cake, the round piece can be saved for the birthday boy or girl
One more thing: if you don’t eat the whole cake at first sitting, and it is definitely best when fresh, make sure you store it in the fridge.
My mother has read this post and passed on a tip which finishes the cake off nicely: keep back a little cream for piping round the bottom. As you can see from the photos, mine has a bit of a gap and would have been improved hugely if I had done this. What can I say, except I clearly haven’t inherited my mother’s knack for presentation.
Look away now if you don’t approve of buying those packs of fine green beans imported from Kenya and Zambia because of the air miles involved in getting them here. We like them in this house so I do buy them. In the last few weeks Waitrose has been stocking homegrown ones which seem a little fatter but are full of flavour.
One of my favourite ways of serving them in the summer is as a salad in a classic vinaigrette. I cook the beans, drain them, plunge them in cold water so they retain their colour and drain them again. And then I toss them in the vinaigrette which I make as follows:
- Put a teaspoon of Dijon mustard in your salad bowl
- Add a little salt, freshly ground black pepper and 1/2 tsp of sugar
- Add 1 tbsp of white wine vinegar
- Using a small whisk mix this a little and then slowly pour on extra virgin olive oil, continuing to whisk all the time. I cannot tell you how much oil I use. It emulsifies gradually and somehow I just know when it’s enough. I taste it too of course: if it’s still very tart I might add a little more oil
You may prefer to make your dressing in a jug or small bowl, or in a jam jar by placing all the ingredients in it, putting on the lid and giving it a shake. I find it easier to make it in the salad bowl and have got used to knowing how much dressing I need for the amount of salad I’m making. Sometimes I vary it; for example, I might omit the mustard and add red wine vinegar instead of white, a little crushed garlic and some chopped flat leaf parsley; or, to avoid a too strong taste of raw garlic, I’ll peel and flatten a clove slightly and leave this in the dressing but remove it when it’s time to serve the salad. This provides a mere hint of garlic flavour.
Making the dressing in the salad bowl takes me back to one of my first stays in France as a teenager. I was 15 and went to stay with the family of Sophie, whom we had hosted the previous year. Sophie lived in the heart of Burgundy country in a stunningly beautiful house which seemed to me like half a chateau. She must have found our house in England very small. It was a very hot summer and all meals were taken outside with rarely fewer than about ten people at each sitting. Sophie’s father ran his own business and always came home for lunch, sometimes bringing a couple of colleagues with him. We girls occasionally helped their maid, Lily, in the kitchen and that is where I learnt to make vinaigrette. Another memory is Sophie’s father taking his lunchtime red wine (Burgundy, obviously) with ice cubes. My father was astonished when I told him this. I returned from that holiday with much improved French, new friends and feeling very worldly wise.