The long pepper and shortbread of it

The other week we found ourselves in a garden so rambling and beautiful that even the next-door neighbour’s roses wanted in. With heavy heads they craned over the dividing wall, chaotic with their strong, sweet scents, dropping petals in their eagerness to spot the wild strawberries running rampage over the flagstones. Looking over the other way, I was mystified as to their covetousness, for not one in this little ladder of blossoming walled gardens would have looked out of place at the Chelsea Flower Show. Our friend Libby, the proud co-owner of this enchanted glade, told us that the neighbour’s rabbit would often be sighted munching its merry way through any of them (I don’t blame him, what a feast – but beware the foxes!) The warm, crepuscular air was loaded with heavy fragrance and the promise of thunder, so we settled on drinks al fresco and supper surveying the foliage from the safety of the kitchen, suspended over the garden in our glassy Juliet balcony. I’m pretty sure we were in a food stylist’s dream.

Libby's Ottolenghi feast

This hunch was reinforced when we were confronted with an Ottolenghi-inspired spread, of chargrilled ribbons of courgette; scorched blackened peppers; couscous jewelled with cranberries and herbs; a fresh, cooling yoghurt dip and barbequed butterflied leg of lamb, smothered in chermoula. From this blousy garden in N1 my palate chartered a magic carpet to the souks of Northern Africa. And it didn’t stop there.

Libby bestowed upon us the secret of the Spicery, a genius enterprise that sends monthly parcels of spice blends and associated recipes for a subscription. An ace present for any foodie I reckon. This was the inspiration behind the long pepper and bourbon vanilla shortbread that accompanied our berries and whipped elderflower cream. The biscuits were light and buttery giving way to prickles of sweet long pepper heat; afterwards not a crumb remained.

Inspired by Libby’s exciting addition to this teatime favourite, I have decided to experiment over the next few weeks, boring whoever’s coming round with shortbread chapter and verse. Rosewater, spices, lavender, tea – I’ll try them all in the mix. But I might cheat on the blending part with our new food processor. Three days and counting….

*like pepper but hotter, native to Indonesia

 

Shortbread (makes 20-24 fingers)

125g/4oz butter

55g/2oz caster sugar

180g/6oz plain flour

Heat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5.

Beat the butter and the sugar together until pale and creamy.

Stir in the flour to get a smooth mixture. Add spices, scents, zests – whatever takes your fancy. Turn on to a work surface and gently roll out to 1cm thick.

Cut into rounds or fingers, place onto a baking tray and chill in the fridge for 20 minutes. Avoid using your hands too much at this stage as they will melt the butter and make the mixture greasier.

Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until pale golden-brown. Set aside to cool on a wire rack.

Sprinkle with caster sugar and serve. Would go very well with homemade elderflower ice-cream.

Elderflowers

A long, hot bath

Earlier this year, the tellyfood void left after Masterchef (annoying voiceover; brilliant amateur cooks) was seamlessly filled with Great British Menu and thus disaster was averted: we could spend our weeknights drooling at the tv once more. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the water bath is taking over where the oven – a perfectly acceptable tool, in my book – once sufficed. The chefs on GBM were vac-packing to their hearts’ content, anything from delicate pink trout to steak, and plopping it into the water. Steak? Call me backward but I’m rather partial to a caramelised hunk of meat, unevenly blackened and sitting in its pan juices. Nowadays, all it seems to need is a hot swim in a plastic suit after a quick burst in a pan to give said colour.

Is this faking it? Weren’t these cumbersome things once blue, bubbling and sold in Boots around Mother’s Day?

I am sure that the argument for these pieces of equipment in busy kitchens is that they maintain a constant reliable temperature and ensure uniformity of cooking at any speed. But I also thought that the reason we go and pay top price for their food is because this particular handful of people had learnt how to master a stove-top better than the rest of us. The Romantic cook in me also feels that this failsafe piece of – well, let’s face it – lab apparatus (pass the Bunsen burner someone) lacks the element of risk and uncertainty that accompanies most cooking techniques, unless you’re silly enough to stick your hand in it I suppose. Even I can run a bath – where’s the skill?

Will the fiery oven mouth go unfed in top kitchens of the future I wonder, putting an end to those meaty aromas that light the tastebud touchpaper? I sincerely hope not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the well-assigned bain-marie for a wobbly crème brulee and suchlike, but if I wanted my steak poached, I would most certainly ask for it. And finally, if the water bath is to become the norm, why on earth don’t they sell them in John Lewis yet and where, pray tell, am I going to put my vacuum packer?

Rant over. I’m off for a soak.

Omelette overcome

The other day, the flat deserted, I deliriously reached the summit of my culinary Everest and there planted a flag, having wrangled heroically up its treacherous north face. I made an omelette.

A quick lunch or supper dish which Mum used to make (for four ravenous children) with great dexterity, often throwing in tomatoes, cheese and ham on demand, the omelette is something I’ve shied away from, passing over it in cookbooks ever since my early throwing-food-around-the-kitchen days when I tried a bit too hard and it never came off. This time, the key to my success was complete relaxation, a boxful of eggs and knowing that I could just chuck it in the bin if it all went wrong, never to recount it to anyone.

Not only did it resemble an omelette, it actually tasted rather good – I had even managed to sling in some grated Beaufort cheese at the right moment. Okay, so it was never going to win the Saturday Kitchen Omelette Challenge, but in front of an audience of one sliced beef tomato and a little gem I whooped with joy. The BSG was out so of course I had to take a picture as evidence – life’s milestones can’t go unrecorded, can they?

For this easily-placated cook, cutting through it with a fork to find it perfectly rolled and baveuse (a showy French word for slobber-y) within deserved another yelp. So starts my omelette career in earnest – I shall no longer fear this delicate enigma.

my omelette As I am a complete newcomer to the omelette field and a firm believer that everyone should do this their own way, I’m not going to attempt to give you some sort of failsafe recipe – Delia can do that – but just in case you’re interested, this is what I did…

You need:

Time and space

No Back Seat Gourmand

2 or more eggs, beaten (plus a drop of water for luck?)

Lots of back-up eggs

A good knob of butter

The perfect omelette frying pan – not too big nor too small
Anything your heart desires to fill the omelette: ham, cheese, mushrooms, fish, tomatoes…

Beat eggs in a bowl with salt and pepper (some people add a drop of water but I can’t tell you why). Heat butter in the frying pan, swilling around until it’s melted and starting to fizz.  Pour the beaten egg mixture into the hot, buttery pan, swirling it out as if making a pancake, drawing some edges in once they cook and frill, and swirl again to cover the gaps with more egg. Do this a couple of times – you will see when it’s ready, there’ll only be a bit of runny egg mixture left on the surface.
Throw in your extras.
Tip your pan and fold one side of the omelette into the middle, then repeat. Get a plate and slide the omelette out of the pan so it folds again. Do all the above whilst praying silently to the Egg Gods.
Take a picture of it..
Eat.

Pork tenderloin with sage and pancetta

Our first weekend back on home soil (hovering over it actually) as Mr and Mrs BSG was spent mostly apart. Man do stag – wife play house.

Well…not exactly. This particular one spent a blissful Saturday evening folded with friends in a squishy chesterfield, sipping expertly-crafted cocktails in Mark’s Bar at HIX, the next day dawning on a happy Campari headache.

To welcome back the BSG from rather a damp couple of days under a beer-bong I decided to bestow upon him a big, loving plate of food (I don’t mean to mis-ape Gregg the Egg here), inspired by our very local and most favoured old-school gastropub: The Eagle. Whatever you eat there, the flavours are bold and gutsy, and you leave as if you have had a ginormous hug from your most bearlike friend. Armed with half-memories and taste snippets from past dining experiences there, I decided upon roast pork tenderloin with sweet red peppers roasted with capers and sherry vinegar, on wet polenta drizzled with greenest olive oil and the rich piggy juices. Just right with a glass of Fino (water for him).

Pork tenderloin is such a precious yet good value cut of meat, but I must confess to being rather new to it. I had gone a whole childhood without seeing it in its comic entirety – it does look rather rude if you are juvenile, which I am. As its name suggests it is also wonderfully yielding, not to mention versatile, lending itself to so many flavours. (It is also lean, if you’re into that.)Try tenderloin slathered in all manner of rubs for the barbeque.

As is always the case this time of year, I am desperately seeking gooseberries, not only because I love them, but because I’m sure their twang would go brilliantly with something like this.

Here is but one of many delectable guises:

Pork tenderloin wrapped in sage and pancetta

(Serves 4)

One pork tenderloin

Pancetta slices

Sage leaves

Lemon

Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Lay the pancetta slices out so that they overlap at the edges and place fresh sage leaves at random intervals. Season the pork with pepper, place it onto the edge of the pancetta rectangle and carefully roll. The pancetta should stick to itself but you can always secure with string or cocktail sticks to make sure. Trivet the meat on a few lemon slices on a baking tray and roast for 25 minutes or so, letting it rest for five minutes. Serve sliced and bathed in its rich, lemon-scented juices.

Pancetta sage