Czech Christmas, More or Less Traditional

Christmas has thankfully been put to rest for another year, and it’s time to reflect on what we’ve achieved in the kitchen over the festive period. It was my intention to provide an in-depth visually driven report on Czech Christmas and compare its culinary traditions to those of the Anglo-Saxon world. Well, I got off to a good start when I left my camera battery charger in Liverpool and subsequently during my aimless ramble on Burbage Moor my DSLR fell victim to my obsession with my ever expanding collection of photos of rocks and heather. It then transpired that to my dismay I can no longer use a compact camera to take sharp snaps. Shaky hands? Early onset Parkinsons?

Then I thought why on Earth should I do that? Why should I let strangers all over the world be part of our family Christmas dinner and practically gaze into our plates only to titter at the selection of oddities we put in our mouths over the festive period – and, worst case scenario, look away in disgust. But I trust my readers to be enlightened individuals, rising above the urge to judge different cultures. On the other hand, at least in our house Christmas isn’t a 5 day booze fest, a fact I feel ever so smug about. So here goes.

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Edible Gifts: Raspberry Vodka

Well, the sense of the word edible here is debatable of course. Still, at the end of the day, you may eat the raspberries so I guess it does make sense – and the pleasure is doubled. Continue reading

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Edible Gifts: Beetroot Relish

To the majority of us Christmas presents a stressful conundrum. Come September I find myself forced to think that I must go forth and spend money in order to validate myself as a human being. Some of these influences I am less susceptible to (Christmas time coercion in supermarkets), others, I find, have more sway over me. On the other hand, I am acutely aware that there is hardly anything that my nearest and dearest don’t have, so I am always at a loss. Jewellery is always a safe bet, but can also backfire as proven by the infamous 2011 Christmas crafts market fiasco where I did purchase a meagre amount of gifts only to spent £100 on jewellery for me. And so, knowing how much I love cooking and knowing how much my dear friends appreciate food, it really is clear after all. Continue reading

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From Russia with Love and Beetroots

The sky is an odious yellowy grey hue, spitting our fluffy snowflakes the size of walnuts which fall to the ground in slow motion, covering our garden in a thin, goose down like layer of new snow that I know won’t last a few hours. Yet at the moment it seems quite biblical, that bit where Israelites discover manna, not the flood bit – although I’m sure that as temperatures rise this snow storm will turn into something significantly less pleasant. I’m sat at the dining table in my bay window, enjoying the elements from a safe distance, icy cold feet wedged inside my little space heater and hands cupping a steaming hot bowl of borscht accompanied by a slice of home made sourdough bread and a slab of butter. This could well be happiness, were it not for the bitter cold that winter brings.

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Valparaiso, Liverpool

I’m sure I can’t be the only one who feels it’s such a breath of fresh air to eat at a restaurant that serves amazing foreign cuisine and isn’t a chain such as the likes of Las Iguanas. It needs to be said that some chain restaurants are better than others and I love eating Southern American food at Las Iguanas even if I am completely unable to comment on the authenticity of their food- to me it’s tasty, cheap and cheerful so there is no need to analyse it further. However I have always felt that Las Iguanas lacks that hominess and personal touch in its uniformity, or the experience of someone who grew up in that particular corner of the world. Furthermore,  even though the business brains behind Las Iguanas (or any chain) would argue that it is familiarity that punters crave and the uniformity and consistency is the restaurant’s main appeal, I find it mildly disconcerting that a restaurant looks the same whether you step in in Sheffield, Reading or Liverpool. So my pleasure at discovering authentic, independent places such as Valparaiso is even more intense. That’s not Valparaiso in Chile – but that is where the owner/chef at Valparaiso hails from. Which is precisely what I was after. Continue reading

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Spelt and Ginger Banana Bread

I must admit to being a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to baking. Baking, as we now know, is not my forte and it is only with practice that I have even come to like it, let alone produce edible things. I rarely ever stray from the tried and the tested – even though lately I have started to find myself in the grip of inspiration gawking at pictures of delicate macaroons, eclairs or non-bake desserts such as panna cotta. Nevertheless, when it comes to desserts it is hard from me to depart from strict guidelines of recipes and let my imagination run wild for fear of spoiling the result completely. I am now quite good at tweaking my favourite easy recipes and still I would not dare to create something completely from scratch. Let’s face it, I’m no Nigella. Continue reading

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Fabada Asturiana

I am fully in love with the Phaidon cookbooks – I gawk at them every time I’m in a Waterstone’s, Lily’ owns a Silver Spoon and I have recently purchased 1080 Recipes, the ultimate Spanish cuisine bible. I am not completely taken by this one, a number of the recipes are quite basic and a lot of them aren’t even Spanish, however I forgive the Ortegas because I know that the book is aimed at the novice cook. Unsurprisingly this little gem of a traditional Spanish dish is included. You may notice a theme in my posts over the these couple of weeks, and that theme is beans. I am a great lover of hippy cooking, and dried beans and grains epitomise the essence of hippy food. Well, this is a special one – so packed with meat that beans only play a supporting role. Continue reading

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Kale, Sausage and Flageolets

Or posh bean stew, if you will. This is another one of those classing Leon recipes that I love so much I end up cooking it at least twice when kale is in season. Kale is something I grew up eating large amounts of – one of those humble vegetables that features a lot in the winter months in Europe. Here in England it doesn’t seem to be fashionable enough, and with the shift away from seasonality brought on by supermarkets I can understand why – why would you eat these nondescript shredded greens when you can have tomatoes in November! Unfortunately few people think twice about how those pale orange November tomatoes will taste, compared to less easy eating veg that is however in its prime at this time of the year. Continue reading

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Gluten Free Tea Time Treats

As it happens I have benefited from my sudden and unexpected return to singledom in very few ways. Aside from trying to talk myself into hating a person I previously liked and losing my restaurant partner, I also find myself with a lot of time on my hands. A lot. Weekends have turned into an endless quest of finding ways of keeping myself busy so the mind doesn’t wander.

Cooking, I find, is the perfect antidote to mind-wandering. I spend my evenings trawling the blogosphere for culinary inspiration, while weekends are reserved for realisation phase. (Have you guessed my day job is IT?) On a standard Saturday I cook or bake at least three different things, excluding a cooked breakfast. As the novelty of the situation wears off I go back to my usual ways of healthy eating. Nonetheless I did get in a fair amount of comfort food: daal, fish pie, braised ham and roast dinners, which in turn had to be be offset by a hard climbing sessions. In a truly extravagant manner I have begun to bake my own sourdough bread and with impending Christmas I have made so many edible Christmas gifts my friends will probably think I have gone seriously mad. I can’t see them saying no to raspberry vod though… I have now just about managed to convince myself that this break up was for the best, enabling me to spend my time doing what I love the most.

And so I find myself baking unreasonable amounts of cake – unreasonable for someone who does not possess a sweet tooth. My excuse is that I don’t technically have to eat them, the boys will, nevertheless I always end up eating most of the cakes I bake. At the same time I feel a niggling guilt at the thought of Gemma, who is wheat intolerant and dessert for her usually means pouring yogurt over a sliced banana while the rest of us munch on cakes. Not fair, I thought to myself. So to make things right I came up with this lovely little creation, inspired by Nigella Lawson. I have baked with ground almonds, polenta and a mixture of both before with great results. I would even go as far as saying that the fluffy and subtly sweet almond sponges are far superior to traditional floury cakes. I urge you to have a go at making this cake, its sweetness combined with the sharp, zingy lemon glaze is the perfect alternative to plain old lemon drizzle. You might think the amount of lemon glaze is excessive, after all the cake does go quite sticky and soggy, but therein lies the pleasure. And what’s more, you positively can’t feel gloomy whilst eating this cheerfully yellow cake.

Almond and Polenta Lemon Drizzle Cake (makes 16 squares)
200g unsalted butter at room temperature (I have used Stork before and it’s fine)
200g caster sugar
200g ground almonds
100g coarse polenta
1.5 tsp baking powder (GF)
3 eggs
2 lemons, zest and juice
125g granulated sugar

I have used a square brownie tin, however you may just as well use a 23cm round spring tin. Grease or line the cake tin with baking paper, and preheat your oven to 180C. Cream the butter and sugar vigorously until pale and fluffy. In a separate bowl, mix together the polenta, almonds and baking powder. Break the eggs into the butter and sugar mixture and add the dry ingredients gradually, beating to eliminate lumps.

Zest the lemons first, then squeeze their juice into a small pan and add the granulated sugar. Add the zest to the cake mixture and give everything a good stir. Transfer the cake mixture into your cake tin and pop into the oven. Keep an eye on the cake while it bakes – baking time will need to be adjusted depending on how deep your cake is. I have used a 23cm round tin before and baked the cake for about 35-40 minutes. This time I used a largish brownie tin and only baked for about 15-20 minutes. It’s not an exact science.

When the cake is baked leave it to cool in its tin on a wire rack. Now begin to heat the lemon juice and sugar mixture, stirring all the while. When the sugar is dissolved you are good to go. Like I said, it will seem like a lot of glaze, but it does make the cake deliciously lemony. Pour the glaze all over and eat when the kettle’s boiled.

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Frugal Luxury Fish Pie

I hate waste in all forms . Wasted time, wasted opportunities, money or effort – all fill me with dismay at the thought of limited resources. I hate wasting food, it is criminal, especially when it comes to meat. My frugal persuasion probably stems from my growing up surrounded by women who did not allow the smallest piece of meat or veg go to waste. One of my earliest memories is that of a pig being slaughtered in our garden, which is a done thing in winter time where I’m from. In a culture where everything and everybody has a purpose to fulfill it is only respectful to not allow anything to go to waste. Every last edible bit of the pig would be turned into tasty things and eaten, and this includes parts that would probably make delicate English stomachs turn. Tripe soup is a particular favourite of mine.

And so nothing warms my heart quite as much as giving a purpose and a new breath of life to a few pieces of veg well past their prime into beautiful, showstopping, anything but dull dishes. And when the humble swede gets to play the lead the pleasure is doubled. Swede is a winter time staple in my Riverford seasons veg box and frankly I am usually at a loss as to what on Earth to do with it. Last winter three sad looking swedes fell victim to neglect in my pantry, their existence forgotten because of its more appealing veg box companions every week. That was last year. That was before I discovered the amazing garlic and Parmesan mash. Which brings me to my main point – jazzing up the plain and boring.

My mum, my brother and I once ate at an Italian restaurant near my parents’ house. My brother ordered a steak, which came with a Parmesan mash. This, he swore, was even better than the meat. I remembered the Parmesan mash trick when I was yet again racking my brains trying to figure out what to do with my swede. Garlic, I thought, would make a great addition which swede should be able to pull off well, given it is more of a vegetable than the starchy potato – a fact that is well reflected in its light, aromatic, earthy flavour. And so garlic and Parmesan swede mash was born, and it is good!

So upon inspecting the contents of my ‘pantry’ I found one sad looking leek, half a swede, quarter of an onion and some wilted spinach that was left over from cooking daal. I felt disinclined to simply chuck all in a pan to make a nondescript vegetable soup, I thought there must be a better way of giving new life to this sad little bundle. I remembered the smoked river cobbler I bought in Tesco reduced section the day before, and it had to be fish pie. And a luxurious one as well, never mind the wilted vegetables – with a lush nutmeg and allspice white sauce and topped with none other than garlic and Parmesan mash.

Fish pie (serves 3-4)
2 large fish fillets – I used smoked river cobbler
100g butter
300ml milk
2 bay leaves
1 leek
a bunch of spinach
2 hard boiled eggs
1 onion
1 tbsp flour or more
1/2 large or 1 small swede
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
salt & pepper

Begin by preparing the fish. In a large pan melt half of the butter, then add the fish, milk, bay leaves and a few pieces of allspice. Bring the milk to a gentle simmer and poach the fish for about 10 minutes. Pick the fish out and strain the milk.

In the meantime, cook the swede until completely soft. Strain, and put back into the pan along with the crushed garlic, then mash it. Finally, add the Parmesan and check the seasoning.

And now the sauce: you may use the same pan for this. Melt the rest of the butter and add the flour, making sure the two are mixed completely and there are no lumps. Gradually start stirring in the milk, little by little, whisking vigorously to eliminate lumps. The result should be smooth and viscous.

Begin the assembly. Flake the poached fish in a pie dish, followed by the chopped up eggs. Slice the leeks, onion and spinach and add to the dish. Finally, season well, pour the white sauce over the ingredients and give everything a good stir before covering it in a fluffy blanket of the swede mash. Bake in an oven preheated to 180C for about 30-40 minutes or until you just can’t wait any longer.

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