Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Duck, orange and honey stirfry with lots of greens

I think you may all be glad to know that I am probably moving on from Jo Pratt. I could feel this turning into Jamie project revisited, which wasn't what was intended; I am meant to be reviewing books in the plural, not obsessively revisiting one in particular (I have my Jamie blog for that). Anyway the duck, orange and honey stirfry sounded like a good way to start off the week in a vague pretence at healthy eating that still allowed for something a bit different (I'd never stirfried duck before) and that was fast (Mondays are my busiest days and we get home later than usual).

To make it, marinate strips of duck breast in orange zest, garlic, ginger, soy sauce and honey. Remove duck from marinade after up to 30 mins and stirfry as usual, removing then adding green veggies (Jo suggests pak choi, asparagus, spring onions and broccoli; I skipped the asparagus and broccoli as I didn't have any of the former and didn't feel like the latter), stirfrying, then adding the rest of the marinade with orange juice stirred in and returning the duck to the wok when the sauce has thickened. Serve either alone or ('if you're feeling really hungry') with cooked noodles.


You'd probably guessed before seeing the photo that we were likely to be feeling hungry (!). I was a bit worried about the orange in this dish as I'm not keen on duck a l'orange and was hoping it wouldn't be too orangey; I was relieved that the orange flavour was subtle. The honey worked really well, making the duck sticky and brown. I am always looking out for new stirfries, and duck opens up a whole new avenue of stirfrying to come!

Monday, 26 February 2007

White chocolate and macadamia cookies

We had friends over at the weekend, for dinner. They brought dessert: lovely lemony moist lemon drizzle cake with chocolate honeycomb ice cream which I'd never had before but will have to have again soon (Crunchie icecream? Imagine). The combination was utterly divine. They kindly left the remains of the cake and ice cream so I didn't feel the urge to bake yesterday; I had however baked Jo Pratt's white chocolate and macadamia cookies last week and forgotten to write them up, so I'm taking the opportunity today. I love macadamias; I am less keen on white chocolate, but I was prepared to give it a go since the cookies looked easy and moreish.

To make the cookies, you simply beat together butter and sugar until pale and creamy, beat in vanilla extract and egg yolk, and mix in plain flour, white chocolate chunks and chopped nuts. Mix until you have a smooth dough. Roll into balls the size of golf balls and press flat onto a greased baking sheet; bake until golden and cool on a wire rack.


They were really moreish and the white chocolate did work, although I suspect I'd have preferred milk or plain chocolate in them just because they were pretty sweet. I don't have an achingly sweet tooth and am very partial to dark chocolate. That said, I couldn't stop eating these cookies; they should have had a Do Not Touch sign attached to them. I took one to work for a coffee break and found myself nibbling its edges furtively, like a mouse, far too early for cookies to be on the foodie agenda. I offer hungover students as my excuse; when they've been into your office, bleary-eyed and confused and dishevelled, and smelling of last night's trip to the pub, I don't need an excuse for a cookie.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Roast chicken for two... in one pan

When it comes to winter Sundays, I'm a bit of a traditionalist. In the summer, my Sunday repertoire varies wildly, embracing a range of culinary traditions and experiments, but in the winter I am dreadfully dull and am inevitably drawn towards a roast dinner or something vaguely akin. The trouble is partly that I can get bored of a rotation of roasts and partly - if I am honest, more than partly - sometimes we run around like headless chickens on Sundays and I can't face spending so long in the kitchen in the evening making all the trimmings, with the oven blasting away. Also Sunday is designated Baking Day so sometimes the oven is in double demand and the kitchen begins to bear too much resemblance to an inferno. I am always looking for twists on the traditional roast dinner - different flavours or methods, and particularly alternative gravy recipes - just to ring the changes a bit (and to convince myself that I'm not stuck in a culinary rut).

The roast chicken for two recipe from Jo Pratt fits the above requirements: traditional(ish), but a different gravy (with sherry, honey and cream) and chicken plus veggies cooked in one roasting tray. The recipe involves parboiling new potatoes, draining them, and scattering them with some peeled shallots around a small chicken in a roasting tray, then roasting for an hour or so. The chicken is rubbed with garlic and lemon and then garlic cloves and rosemary are scattered around it with a couple of lemon quarters; the other lemon quarters are stuffed into the bird. I didn't use a small chicken because we like to have lots of meat leftover for sandwiches for the week, so I started the chicken off before adding the vegetables. When the chicken is cooked, remove the chicken and potatoes and keep warm; meanwhile, throw away the garlic, rosemary and lemon, add sherry and honey to the tray over the hob, deglaze, add chicken stock and frozen peas and simmer until the peas are cooked, then add double cream.


I was worried that the potatoes would absorb too much chicken juices and turn out squelchy rather than crunchy, but that wasn't the case; they were delicious. The gravy was delicious too - you could taste the sherry, in a good way. And best of all, it was quick. I have a bit of a thing for roast chicken; I love the crunchy skin and the tender meat inside. When I was little, my Nana used to come to our house on Tuesday and leave on Wednesday evening and she often roasted a chicken. Roast chicken was the comfort food of my childhood and it still works a bit of magic now. I could probably have roast chicken every Sunday, but I would feel that I was getting stuck in a rut; that said, there are much worse ruts that one could get stuck in!

Friday, 23 February 2007

Chianti baked meatballs

For some weeks now I have been teasing my brother that he is becoming a creature of habit, because he had meatballs every Friday night for a succession of weeks. To be fair to him and his wife, they tried out different recipes each time so they weren't entirely stuck in a rut. (And they've now shifted sideways in mince terms to spaghetti bolognaise). Also I shouldn't ridicule meatballs because they are real, honest good food, the sort of food I tend to forget about while I'm trying out the latest fad. It was probably thanks to Stuart's shortlived meatball mania (as I write that I can imagine his face reading it and I wince) that I jumped on Jo Pratt's meatball recipe. Yes, I'm still on her. I am physically restraining myself from cooking my way through her book; instead I'm picking and choosing. This recipe claims to be for weekend cooking, but I made it midweek; it doesn't take that long and as usual with these recipes it's incredibly easy. To make the meatballs, mix together minced beef, chopped onion, crushed garlic, chopped black olives (stoned), breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan, egg, paprika, chopped red chilli, chopped parsley and seasoning, and then shape into meatballs. Toss them in olive oil in an oven proof dish that is large enough to hold the meatballs in a single layer but not much larger than that. Bake for 10 minutes, then pour over Chianti, turning the meatballs to coat them in the red wine. Return to oven for 10 minutes then stir in tinned chopped tomatoes, sugar and basil. Cook for another 20-25 minutes and serve with pasta or baked rosemary potatoes.


Thne meatballs were nice - proper winter food. I liked the idea of baking them rather than cooking them on the hob, because it liberates you from the kitchen while the meatballs cook. Anything for an easy life! Also this makes it quite good weekday food, for me, as long as you get home in time for the cooking time not to be prohibitive - it's easy and warming and hearty, as Jo points out.

I feel the need to support easy homemade food at the moment. I saw in my local (mammoth) Tesco Extra that Jean-Christophe Novelli is coming on Tuesday; initially I presumed he was coming to sign a new book, but it would seem that he is promoting a ready-meal range from Findus. I'm not impressed. People in my local Tesco honestly don't need encouragement to buy ready meals - their trolleys are full of them already. I think I will be boycotting Tesco on Tuesday.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Fish pie with a sweet potato topping

I'm back on Jo Pratt again. I can't help it. I saw the fish pie with sweet potato topping and it struck me as an ideal weeknight dinner; it was a bonus that I had most of the ingredients in the house, even if the fish and seafood were in the freezer. Any pie made with mashed potato has to be high on the comfort food charts, but sometimes fish pie can take a bit of time to make. This version is quicker, mainly because the topping is grated raw potato, rather than cooked and mashed potato. This is the first dish I've tried from the 'Comfort Food' section of 'In the Mood for Food' - other recipes include a decadent baked breakfast baguette, cauliflower cheese soup and baked orange and lemon curd pudding. All wintery sorts of food - why is it we all need more comforting in the colder months? - and all reassuringly filling, yet also with a bit of a twist, which helps.

This recipe was a dream to make: cook some spring onions in melted butter until soft; add flour, stir, then add milk; simmer briefly; add pieces of white fish, smoked salmon and cooked tiger prawns with dill or parsley (chopped), lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon; season. When the fish is flaking, remove from the heat and spoon into a pie dish.
For the topping, coarsely grate either sweet potato or white potato (or, as I did, a mixture), and squeeze out the excess water. Melt butter in a pan, add the potato and toss it around in the butter for a couple of minutes. Scatter it over the pie and then top with grated mature Cheddar. Bake.


This was really good - I know it's a quick version of a fish pie but you would never know. I loved the topping - really different and very tasty. The absence of spinach, eggs, etc, inside the pie didn't seem to matter. It slid down really easily and reassuringly. I'll definitely make this again.

Five Things You Didn't Know About Me

My brother says this is geeky. He might be right. I didn't even know what a meme was until recently; I thought being tagged meant you were on parole and having your movements monitored. The blogging world seems to have its own phrases and habits, and I will probably always be somewhat alien to it.

Anyway Ros at Living to Eat tagged me for this meme, where I'm meant to tell you five things you might not have known about me. Since most of the blogging world know quite little about me, apart from what I eat everyday (which I suppose could count as quite a lot, in fact) this could be very easy; the fact that my husband and brother read me might make it tricky. I've decided to try, anyway.

1. When I was little, I kept asking to change my name to Violet, in honour of the Malory Towers character. This is odd not just because the name Violet was such an inappropriate, ghastly name at the time, but also because the character in Malory Towers was an almost imperceptible ghost in the corner of the classroom, ethereal, slightly feeble, and easily forgotten; it is particularly peculiar that I should have hit on Violet as my chosen name.

2. I have a photographic memory. Well, almost. I have a very good memory, anyway; I can still recall huge chunks of rote-learnt rhetoric for school and university exams. Luckily for me, the academic world has a tendency to confuse a good memory with intelligence.

3. I have no artistic ability whatsoever. I'm the world's worst Pictionary player. Never ask me to play because I ruin it for whoever is stuck with me, I get bored and I end up reading a book instead.

4. I have a tendency to fall into water. In my childhood I fell into rivers implausibly often. Now I avoid rivers, lakes and other natural phenomena other than the sea. I've never fallen into the sea, except off a lilo.

5. I read very, very fast. This skill was developed when I was a kid and perfected at university when we had to cover masses of novels every week. It is now less a skill than a terrible character flaw, because it means I finish novels far too fast and then sulk until I can get hold of my next fix.

Reading those random facts back, I realize I don't sound very exciting. Good thing I'm not using my blog as a form of self-promotion...

Friday, 16 February 2007

Pasta pronto!

My toothache has come back with a vengeance and has been vampirically draining me all week, jabbing at me insistently despite all attempts to ward it off with painkillers. I hope I'm not starting to rattle. Yesterday was definitely a day for easy comfort food, beginning with a piece of lemon drizzle cake that a friend brought me and that was delicious. There is something incredibly comforting and yet enlivening about lemon drizzle cake, the dessert equivalent of a Thai green curry with its spicy chillies and gently lapping coconut milk, and it did me good yesterday as I waded through avalanches of admin. At the end of the day, Simon and I were both tired, both ready to flop, and both craving pasta, because pasta has to be the ultimate tired person food. Well, it is for me, anyway. I am still unable to leave Jo Pratt's book alone; it is having the same effect that Jamie's had, although I am not going to cook every recipe in it - I can't keep neglecting my other cookbooks. It is just so incredibly practical, particularly for midweek cooking, that I find myself irresistibly drawn to it. I promise I will, eventually, move on... Anyway for now I'm still smitten, not least by the easy 'pasta pronto' section, that offers speedy satisfaction and many store-cupboard ingredients; I've tried two already that I can report on now.

I'm not going to post the recipes, because I've already posted a couple from this book and I don't want to break copyright laws. In a sense, though, these pasta recipes are hardly recipes - they are very easy.
The first I tried was chorizo, tomato, rocket and black olive pasta, which was basically sliced chorizo fried until crisp in a little olive oil and tossed in the pan with balsamic vinegar and halved baby plum tomatoes (I prefer them to cherry tomatoes, in general) until the tomatoes began to break up, then tossed with penne, tapenade and rocket.


This pasta has amazing flavour and colour; it was much more satisfying than the sum of its parts would suggest. Definitely one to repeat - a perfect weeknight supper. It also has man-appeal, which is surprising in such a girlie book. It probably isn't a dinner for the fussy eating brigade on account of the olive-based tapenade, but they wouldn't deserve it anyway.

The second pasta dish I tested was a kind of variation on the pasta with bacon, cream and peas that has figured in Nigella's Feast and Jamie's Dinners - the ultimate in comfort food. This version is similar - pancetta, peas, double cream, pasta - but also has basil on top and, more importantly, Brie in it, which elevated it a bit for me (for those who aren't keen on Brie, try the dish anyway, as it tastes quite different once melted).
I'm not sure of the nutritional value of this dish so I will try not to return to it too soon, but yesterday it definitely hit the spot and it wasn't at all sickly, which some creamy pasta dishes sometimes are.

I have been wondering why I find this book so compelling. It isn't the writing style, the way it is with Nigel Slater and Nigella (Nigel particularly). The photographs are beautiful but it isn't just the images. I feel as though Jo has spookily tapped into my life and her recipes fit easily into how we live; this is the first time a cookbook has caught me so close. With Jamie, I often feel that I am stretching myself, trying new things, which is exciting; the downside of this is that sometimes I simply can't get what I need (live lobster, anyone?), which simply isn't the case with this book. I'm maybe not quite ready to move on from it yet, other than (obviously!) to continue with Jamie.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Valentines Day!

I've noticed that people seem to take Valentines Day seriously. On the one hand, you have the people buying excessively ostentatious cards and over-sized bouquets of flowers and going out for over-priced meals in restaurants filled with identikit couples; on the other, the people who see celebrating Valentines Day as proof of superficiality or stupidity, or of a failing relationship that can only express itself through artificial occasions. I like to occupy a middle ground. I like Valentines Day because it offers an excuse to spoil yourself and drink champagne; it obviously doesn't mean that you ignore each other the rest of the year, but nor does it mean embracing the Cult of Romance and making Hallmark and Marks and Spencers even richer than they are already. Yesterday I went to M and S after work to pick up some single cream and it was even busier than usual, jam-packed with men and women clutching bouquets and bottles of pink cava and ready meals. We already had the wherewithall for dinner apart from the cream, but I waited a long time for that cream.

Anyway, for dinner I made a recipe from the book that came out recently full of recipes from Delicious magazine, for stuffed chicken breasts with pesto and mascarpone. I stuffed the chicken breasts with a mixture of pancetta, onion, breadcrumbs, egg and Parmesan, baked, and served with a sauce made from white wine, mascarpone and pesto. It was good - simple, so I wasn't in the kitchen all night, but tasty.


For dessert I made Jo Pratt's Exotic Chocolate Cups. I should reiterate at this point how much I love this book; Jo's food is easy and stylish and fun. These chocolate cups are made with chocolate, cream, orange zest, all-spice, rum, butter and yolk. I fell in love with the espresso cups that figure in Jo's image of the chocolate cups and managed to find some the same (albeit with an extra red spoon!) in Fenwicks last week, so I bought them. I stand guilty as accused of schmultzy kitsch.


The chocolate pots taste a bit exotic, with the allspice, rum and orange; they are really good and exceptionally easy. A lovely Valentine dessert. Oh, and Simon bought me some lovely pinky purpley earrings, The Fishmongers Book by Mitchell Tonks which looks really good - watch this space for more fishy dishes - and some heart-shaped cerise Le Creuset ramekins that I had been hinting towards. Earrings, pretty kitchen equipment and a cookbook - he knows me well. Shame we can't have Valentine's Day and an excuse for champagne and gifts every Wednesday night!

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Triple chocolate hit

I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, but I love chocolate - the darker and moodier the better. This recipe comes from In the Mood for Food, from the chapter entitled 'Naughty but nice'. You probably couldn't get much naughtier if you tried - Jo calls it 'the Ferrari of chocolate puddings' and she isn't far wrong. I made this a couple of days after buying this book; I simply couldn't resist. I should say here that I am a fan of pastry in moderation - I am not keen on double-crust pies and the like and prefer the pastry/filling ratio that you find in open tarts like this one. It helps that this one has cocoa in the pastry, which is enough to give me cravings.

The 'triple chocolate hit' comes from cocoa-laden pastry, a rich chocolate filling and malted milk chocolate icecream to go with it. I did say it was naughty! I'm not going to give the ice cream recipe here, although I did like it; I also had the tart without it and I think I preferred it that way - the chocolatey ice cream felt a bit much for me (I can't be that much of a chocaholic). I think the tart would go better with a bitter orange ice cream (there is orange zest in the crust) and that the icecream would work on its own with chocolate biscuits to dip.I'm just going to give the tart recipe here.

Pastry:

125g plain flour
20g cocoa powder
65g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
2 1.2 tablespoons of caster sugar
grated zest of 1 orange
t tablespoons milk

Filling:

3 large egg yolks
1 large egg
50g caster sugar
150g unsalted butter
200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), chopped
1 tablespoon grated chocolate or cocoa powder

To make the pastry, sift the flour and cocoa powder into a food processor and blitz with the butter to form fine crumbs. Add the sugar and orange zest and then gradually add the milk, processing briefly to form a soft dough. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes or longer.

Heat the oven to 180C/fan 160/gas 4.

Thinly roll out the chilled pastry on a well-floured surface and line an approximately 22cm loose-bottomed shallow tart tin. Don't worry if you have any gaps or cracks in the pastry because they can be gilled with the pastry trimmings. Cover with a piece of greaseproof paper and fill with a layer of baking beans or rice. Cook for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and cook for a further 5 minutes until the pastry is just becoming golden.

For the filling, whisk the egg yolks and egg with the sugar until very pale, thick and creamy. Melt the butter and dark chocolate. Add to the egg mixture and fold together until completely combined. Pour into the pastry case and bake for 10 minutes (the filling will still be slightly wobbly, but will set when it cools). Remove from the oven and cool completely. To maintain the gooey filling texture, the tart needs to be kept at room temperature. Sprinkle over grated chocolate or dust the tart with cocoa powder and serve with the malted milk chocolate ice cream.
The light in the above photo isn't very good but you get the general idea. We did eat the tart, the first slice anyway, with the malted milk chocolate ice cream, which I made concurrently with the tart; it would make sense to make it beforehand, but I hadn't put the ice cream freezing unit in the freezer early enough to do that. The result was that I dished up the ice cream before it had a chance to fully set in the freezer, then I got distracted, and the next thing I knew the ice cream was melting into a puddle next to the tart.

The tart was absolutely divine. I loved the chocolate orange pastry in particular, and the dense chocolatey filling. The ice cream was good, but I would have preferred a more bitter taste next to the chocolate tart. I wonder if I am less of a chocoholic than I sometimes think. I think I'll make this again and serve it with bitter orange ice cream, and see how that works. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Cranberry and Orange Breakfast Muffins

Cranberry and orange breakfast muffins are in the 'healthy' section of Jo Pratt's In the Mood for Love (reviewed below). I liked the idea of muffins for breakfast and particularly the possibility of healthy muffins for breakfast - I am not one to turn down a chocolate dessert, but I draw the line at naughty breakfasts because a) I like the idea of starting the day off well and b) I never enjoy breakfast that much anyway so it would be a waste of calories. I usually eat homemade granola with bio-active yoghurt, which I make every few weeks and store in an air-tight container; the granola is full of seeds and grains that I imagine can only do me good. We ran out of granola yesterday and instead of making more, I decided to try out these muffins, billed 'healthy' because they contain wholemeal flour (fibre), linseeds (Omega-3: good for high blood pressure and cholesterol), sunflower and pumpkin seeds (minerals and protein), cranberries and orange (vitamin C).

Recipe:


175g wholemeal self-raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
5 tablespoons wheatbran
2 tablespoons linseed
3 tablespoons sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds

75g soft brown sugar
finely grated zest of a large orange
75g dried cranberries
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 large eggs
250ml natural yoghurt
1 tablespoon rolled oats

Place nine large muffin cases in a muffin tin and preheat the oven to 190C/fan 170C/gas 5.
Stir together the flour, baking powder, wheatbran, linseed, sunflower/pumpkin seeds (I used both), sugar, orange zest and cranberries. Add the oil, eggs and yoghurt and mix until just combined. Spoon into the muffin cases and scatter a few oats over each one.
Bake for 25 minutes or until risen and cracking slightly; cool a little
, but eat warm.
To eat later, leave the muffins until cold and store in an airtight container for up to a couple of days. You can also freeze the muffins and then defrost overnight and heat through in a low oven before eating.

I only used half a tablespoon of oil because that was all I had left; I used both pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

The verdict? These were really good, although I had feared for them given the wholemeal self-raising flour (which sounded a bit too virtuous to me). It would be good to make a double batch of these and store them in the freezer for breakfast emergencies!

Jo Pratt, In the Mood for Food

The title gives it away: In the Mood for Food offers a blueprint for cooking and eating according to the way you feel, be it lazy, in need of comfort, in a hurry, trying to be healthy, eager to impress, or romantic. The premise behind the book – that ‘a little bit of what you fancy does you good’ – is not particularly innovative in itself; other books have been organized in similar ways even if they have not specifically referred to mood. This book is, however, more enticingly seductive than most. The cover is unashamedly pink and girlie, and the author looks lovely, relaxed, unthreatening, the sort of person you would want to be friends with, pretty. The cover matches the contents: this book is the sort of book you feel comfortable with immediately: it has gorgeous-looking recipes but nothing particularly intimidating or esoteric, more the kind of food you would want to make every day, but with twists. I don't think it's the sort of book that would appeal to the very serious, studious foodie - there is no attempt to give a history of recipes or culinary traditions; there are no references to celebrated food writers of the past - this is a book that doesn't take itself seriously.

In the Mood for Food has a range of recipes, from extraordinarily simple (like the hot jam sandwich, which looks surprisingly tempting) to the impressive (black forest souffl├ęs with cherry brandy); no recipe is prohibitively difficult. The book is beautifully presented and the photography is stunning.The ingredients are all easily sourced and no non-standard equipment is required - even someone with no experience or interest in cooking could easily cope. The introductions to each recipe are short and conversationally informal, more about mood and taste than about the food itself, with friendly asides that make you feel as though Jo is speaking directly to you.

The recipes don't belong to any particular culinary tradition; there are Asian-inspired dishes, Moroccan-style tagines and English afternoon tea cakes. These are twenty-first century recipes, borrowing from a range of cultures and traditions, and reflecting what thirty-somethings in the twenty-first century might want to eat, during the week and at weekends. There are healthy breakfasts (like cranberry and orange muffins and supervitality juice) and lunchbox ideas (including tuna, cannellini and lemon salad and Vietnamese chicken noodle salad), plus recipes for when you hit the kitchen running (sweetcorn and chilli pancakes, prawn and coconut satay broth); there are ideas for pushing the boat out and impressing your friends with a stylish dinner party (rack of lamb, fig, port and blue cheese salad, seafood paella) without breaking into a sweat. There are lots of quick pasta dishes, which is always a bonus for me because when I'm too tired to cook I always want pasta; there is comfort food (leek, dolcelatte and pancetta risotto, roasted balsamic onion and cherry tomato lasagnes) and romantic food (oysters, smoked duck, asparagus and fig salad, exotic chocolate cups). Finally there are plenty of sweet treats: white chocolate and Bailey's cheesecake, passionfruit and lime meringue pie, and so on.

I've tried a few recipes already and will be posting about these in the next few days. The proof of a cookbook's worth lies in the cooking it generates - or does it? Apparently on average people don't cook more than three recipes from any one cookbook; we are a nation of food porn viewers, lusting over cookbooks and television programmes about food, while speed-dialling the local takeaway or buying up the ready meal section of M and S. It follows that people buy cookbooks not to actually try out the recipes but to salivate over the images and to imagine themselves in domestic goddess-mode. Celebrity cookbooks sell mainly not for the recipes they offer but because they offer tantalising clues as to how to become - in the case of Nigella, for instance - a beautiful, intelligent domestic goddess or, in the case of Jamie, say, how to become incredibly successful while apparently tossing food together with intuition and personality. In this context, Jo Pratt, although less well-known than others, offers a very appealing package: dressed in feminine pinks and whites, she is presented in the book as an extremely pretty but friendly and unthreatening girl next door. Like Nigella's, her book seems to offer the tantalizing possibility of becoming like her or becoming her friend; like Nigella, she comes across as reassuringly human (admitting to lazy days, hangovers, and the like). We have to beware of buying into the characters that food writers adopt in their books: everyone believed that Nigel Slater, for instance, lived on creamy mashed potato and pies until we read The Kitchen Diaries, which show him to be the opposite of self-indulgent (I read that book and started to wonder if Nigel was eating enough!). I assume that Jamie isn't (always) the cheeky chappie that he appears in his books, and that Gordon isn't always mocking or angry. Jo may very well be far from the image that her book projects, but it has convinced me, anyway, that her life isn't so far from mine. She seems younger than Nigella, less life-beaten; Gordon Ramsay is quoted on the cover saying that her food is fun and lively. That is true - this is an upbeat book, that makes you want not to be a domestic goddess, but to enjoy yourself making modern and vibrant food, to indulge yourself sometimes, to show off other times, to be romantic, or lazy, or elegant, but taking pleasure in all of these different moods. The book looks very feminine; I keep thinking it is a sort of feminine version of Jamie's books. Some people would hate the pink cover, the recurring flower motif, the occasional cutesy image, but I am prepared to indulge my oft-hidden feminine side and enjoy it.


Wednesday, 7 February 2007

From Page to Plate

Setting up a new blog may be a very bad idea. I started blogging in October when I began 'the Jamie project': cooking my way through Cook with Jamie, the latest book from the Naked Chef. I had no idea where this ill-conceived plan might lead (and I haven't finished yet...) but I find myself itching to try out my teetering towers of other cookbooks and, inexplicably, to blog about them. For a long time, I nurtured an unjustified suspicion of bloggers as self-obsessed performers, seeking a platform from which to display themselves to the world; as watered down versions of the people who queue up to try to get onto Big Brother or to warble tunelessly in order to make it onto television for the X factor. When my friend began blogging, I was initially shocked and then addicted, tuning into her literary wisdom on a daily basis; I was reassured that she wasn't using the blog as a public diary, and even more relieved that she wasn't using it to analyse her friends. Eventually, when I felt drawn to cook through Jamie's new book (and blog it), I was slightly ashamed of myself and unwilling to tell people I know. I still don't tell people, but my mother appears to make up for my reticence. Anyway, my hang-ups aside, I have got used to blogging and I don't feel ready, quite, to give it up.

I will continue to cook through Jamie's book on my original blog. Here, though, a new project begins, this one much less disciplined than the last. The clue lies in its title (Simon's idea, not mine) and in my self-confessed cookery book addiction. 'From page to plate' will review and test recipes from my extensive range of cookery books, both new acquisitions and old friends and the books I've bought and shamefully failed to cook from (there are very few of those, but there are some). I'm no professional and I'm not even the kind of blogger who makes recipes up; I am mainly book-bound, both in cooking and in life more generally. I may not restrict myself to food-related subjects; I read as much as, more than, I cook and whilst my work involves reading the most obscure of French novels, outside it I read almost everything. Anyone who knows me will probably realize that I have contrived to invent myself a project that will justify future expenditure on yet more (cook)books; my excuse is simply that it makes me happy. I would much rather live in a space threatened by tumbling piles of well-thumbed books than somewhere where books represented clutter to be kept out of sight.

Here, then, my new blog begins. The original will continue, until I've finished Cook with Jamie (somehow I can't yet begin to imagine how that will feel), but this blog will live alongside it for the nights (that will become increasingly numerous as I edge towards the end of my Jamie project) that I simply can't manage to cook from the remaining recipes in the book and need something new. I will probably keep this blog pretty quiet too, particularly at work, because you never know when you will feel the need to vent spleen about a colleague and I wouldn't want to feel unnecessarily censored or constrained. I don't want to turn my blog into a grumblefest, though - to me, reading and eating are equally vital (although I read more greedily than I eat, mostly) and I am very happy to indulge myself in both - and to write about them afterwards. Therein lie the main aims for this blog: to read, to trial, to review, and to create. Oh, and to buy more books, obviously.