Famous doesn’t equate to fabulous – a restaurant review

I had a broken childhood.  My legal advisors have encouraged me to quickly point out, as my parents read this, that I don’t mean I suffered any abuse or neglect (assuming you don’t count their cooking in either category anyway).  My upbringing was in two very distinct parts, separated by three hundred miles: until the age of twelve I was raised in a small, sleepy, pictoresque town in Devon; then we uprooted, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, to a small, grimy, insular town on the Cumbrian coast, where I stayed until my A-levels were done and then gravitated towards London, as I suppose many of that age do.

While I kept in contact with a few of my grammar school friends for a while after moving north, and indeed went back to Devon a couple of times in my teens, the continental drift of passing years inevitably removed us from each others’ lives and I eventually lost touch with them all, with social networking coming too late to resurrect the relationships lost.  Cumbria was a slightly different story but with a similar ending: I never grew into my new surroundings, nor did they flex to accommodate me, and thus my teens passed unhappily, with the impulse to escape growing stronger as the years elapsed.  I made few friends there and this time made little effort to retain contact when I left.

This year coincidentally afforded me opportunities to visit both venues, and given my subsequent detachment from them I was able to view them with a relatively objective eye.  First, a family holiday in Northumberland in August brought us close enough to Cumbria to warrant a day-trip.  The town had changed only in small details: improved parking on what passes for a main shopping street; a massive wind farm a couple of miles out in the Solway Firth; the harbour area a little less neglected.  What I hadn’t appreciated when I lived there was the sheer size of the beach; at low tide it must be half a mile from water line to sea wall, and my abiding memory of the place will now be a pleasant one of my two little boys cantering along the sand and trying to find crabs in the rock pools.

A couple of months later, my new job has me travelling to coastal resorts around the country, as one of our main markets is holiday parks.  Heading south to Dorset recently I realised I would be only a few miles from my other childhood home, so I resolved to make a small detour and grab a bite to eat there if I could find somewhere suitable before the four-hour journey home.

After a little while driving round the town wallowing in flashbacks, I recalled that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage endeavour was based locally and quickly discovered the town had a River Cottage Canteen in the town square.  Perfect!  I could eat in a little style before doing battle with the M’s 5 and 42.  I rang, and found they could accommodate me as soon as they opened.

So at 6.30 I strolled in, through the deli and into the – well, canteen is not an entirely inappropriate name, as it (I presume deliberately) dresses down somewhat, but I’m still inclined to call it a restaurant.  There are no printed menus, with the day’s offering written on chalk boards dotted around the large, rectangular room that my server eventually jogged my memory into volunteering was a rough and ready disco the last time I was there.  Being early and midweek one might expect custom to have been slow to build through the hour or so I was there, but given Hugh’s fame and the strength of the brand I had thought I might be out of luck for a table, so when I departed around 7.30 with the room still less than half full I must admit to a little surprise.

Service was prompt and friendly; knowing I had a long journey ahead the staff did not dally, which I appreciated.  The menu was not extensive, and options for vegetarians were limited, despite Hugh’s most recent project: but as I was eating out, regular readers will know that I tend to over-indulge in meat, so this did not concern me.  I went immediately for main course of confit duck with lentils and bacon, accompanying it with some purple-sprouting broccoli, and after consulting my waitress and sampling the carpaccio-style beef fillet I decided to start with the parsley soup with poached egg, deciding the two salty meat dishes would not be the best combination.

I am very glad I did.  The salt and pepper bread (that’s pepper as in the vegetable*, not the spice) was delicious, but on top of two other salty dishes would have had me drinking gallons of water and stopping at every service station on the way home.  The soup was, I thought, a little bland, although the egg was as perfect as you would expect.  The duck managed to be crispy and yet moist, but the salt I found almost overpowering, and I am a fan of salty food.  The lentils and bacon were underseasoned to compensate but it was a little unwieldy trying to make sure I had the right ratio of duck to lentils on my fork to ensure a good balance.  The broccoli was tender and delicious, and I am glad I chose that over the chips I had been recommended earlier in the evening.

Finishing with a mocha intended to both substitute for a sweet and keep me awake on the motorway, I decided I was being misled a little by the fame of the proprietor.  I was judging the Canteen by inflated standards, expecting perfection for no other reason than that Hugh is a household name and so many people have River Cottage cookbooks.  The meal was in fact very pleasant overall; a little salty, yes, but I would certainly have been happy with what was served for the price paid (below £25 including a ginger beer) had I not been familiar with the name of the establishment before walking in, and the litmus test – would I consider going back – comes out positive.

The lesson to learn from this was one of prejudging based on fame.  I would recommend a visit, but don’t walk in with the bar set too high, and you will have a very enjoyable meal.


* Yes, technically, fruit, but don’t put one in the fruit salad

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I hate it when football meets politics.  It’s all wrong: like as a teenager when you brought your friends home and they had to have that awful obligatory few moments of polite interaction with your parents, and your dad inevitably tries to prove he’s capable of holding his own in such youthful company.  It just doesn’t work: the unfortunate truth is that most famous footballers are famous footballers because they didn’t grow up in families with any academic aspiration, and therefore are inclined to think proportional representation is a drawing of a well-endowed young lady; and politicians, well, the jokes about left wing are too obvious, and David Mellor inadvertently showed the world the risk of one being snapped in a football shirt.

Unfortunately though, due to the public profile of both, there are occasions when those in elected office choose to pop on a pair of shinguards and charge headlong into a metaphorical melée, often when it is both ill-advised and unnecessary.  This week’s example was the invasion of a perfectly normal disagreement between the FA and FIFA by the Prime Minister.  For anyone reading this who is somehow unaware of this story, the FA requested permission from FIFA to embroider poppies onto the England kit for the forthcoming friendly game against Spain.  FIFA dismissed the request, referring to the rule stating that kits may not portray political, religious or commercial symbols or slogans.  This got the miles of press coverage that one might expect, and subsequently a question was put to said Prime Minister during Wednesday afternoon’s Questions.  Mr Cameron called the decision absurd, pointing out that the poppy is not a political symbol, but one of pride in our armed forces.

This seems to have been interpreted by many public commentators, and therefore many members of the general public (judging by the very scientific method of overhearing the odd news broadcast or phone-in) as national pride, thereby unwittingly confirming that FIFA’s decision is absolutely correct.  National pride, lest we forget, is exactly the reason most wars begin; or, perhaps more accurately, the exploitation of national pride by political, religious or aristocratic leaders to extend or defend national or imperial boundaries.  Certainly the two wars most closely associated with the poppy were prime examples of this, and although this country was the provocateur in neither case, national pride was used ruthlessly in at least the First World War to recruit oblivious young men to discard their lives on the muzzles of breathtakingly reckless strategies.

Cameron’s reference to pride in our armed forces stops short of this misconstrued definition, and I believe his view is the one held by the majority; but the point is not what the symbol is intended to mean, but what it comes to represent, however distorted that may be from the original intent.  The St George’s cross is an example a little further along a simialr spectrum: this is intended as a symbol of national pride, but became tainted with xenophobia and racism, to this date never fully recovering.  However unfortunate it may be, that a significant body of the British populace considers the poppy a symbol of national pride renders it a political symbol, whether that is the intent or not, and therefore FIFA are not misinterpreting their own rules in declining to permit its temporary addition to the England shirt.

Of course, the fact that national flags are the most obvious and pertinent of political symbols and are under no such restriction is a clear inconsistency.  Consider Libya, where the all-green flag was in fact introduced by Gaddafi, and in his permanently extended absence has been quickly replaced.  Consider Israel, which incorporates a religious symbol into its flag.  FIFA have not applied their own rule incorrectly in the case of the poppy; it is the rule which is fundamentally flawed, and FIFA may find themselves at the centre of a rather larger can of worms than they’ve faced this week if they do not review this policy.  While commercial interests can be controlled (assuming you ignore the kit manufacturer of course), FIFA is not an authoritative arbiter of political or religious matters and should not put itself in the firing line of such sensitive issues.

My personal view on the symbolism of the poppy differs to both of the above positions.  I feel no particular pride in those people who volunteer to undertake military duties.  I do wish them good fortune and hope they return undamaged, and I recognise the risk they put themselves under, but in this country and in these times there is no conscription; service personnel choose the military as a career.  I feel no particular pride even in those people who were conscripted when such measures were a necessity; they had no choice.  I feel no pride for those who volunteered during the very war which engendered the poppy symbol, as they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for, seduced by a campaign of propaganda and misinformation that would simply not be possible today.  In all of these cases, what I feel is compassion, sympathy, pity, and horror at the continuing atrocities that humankind commits against itself in the struggle to prevail at the expense of those who don’t happen to share a particular geographical, ideological, linguistic or physical characteristic.

The poppy is, to me, a warning: a reminder of the potential perils of allowing the ambitions or delusions of a few to dictate the destiny of the many.  It is a way of helping ensure that, as each passing generation increases the detachment of now from then, the horrors of Passchendaele, Ypres and the Somme are never forgotten and never repeated.  It is a gesture, akin to the daffodil and the pink ribbon, of recognition of the suffering endured by those afflicted.

It is, ultimately, a symbol of humanity.  I have worn it this week and will do so every year – religiously, one might say…


No recipe this time; it didn’t seem appropriate somehow.  A restaurant review will follow at a respectful distance.

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If it’s the thought that counts then think about it

Now that the weather has stopped making a liar of me and become properly autumnal, the inevitable torrent of tinsel has begun.  It seems to me that the retailocracy have deigned to delay a little longer than in recent years before drowning us in festive bling; perhaps embarrassed by the soaring temperatures that brought the phenomenon of sunburn to October.  They haven’t quite managed to quell their enthusiasm long enough to see out All Hallows’ Eve, so we are subjected to the odd juxtaposition of fluffy reindeer and Santa hats upon green face paint and foot-wide furry spiders in the “seasonal goods” aisle at the supermarkets; but let us celebrate their relative restraint, which has at least saved us from having to cope with the vocal-cord popping exploits of Slade before the schools have reopened after the summer holidays.

But despite every day now being a shopping day, we are down to double figures of them before the frenetic tearing of shiny paper heralds the end of many a diet, so the more organised among us (i.e my wife, but not me) are getting out there and ticking off the Christmas list before the hordes turn city centres into seething, claustrophobic throngs of humanity.  Regular readers will know I normally enjoy shopping, but December weekends are a vision of Hell itself, to be avoided with only slightly less care than the Bermuda triangle, North Korea, and Middlesborough.  Oddly, Christmas Eve itself is something like the eye of a hurricane; it’s become a bit of a tradition for me to acquire one final present in this last chance saloon, and I’ve always found it to be a good-natured, happy, and best of all relatively sparsely-populated time to be out shopping, probably because most people are supporting local hostelries by mid-afternoon, except for the poor blighters supporting retail conglomerate shareholders, who are nevertheless still in fine spirits considering their incarceration.

Shopping for Christmas presents is a bit of a minefield.  Some people are very easy to buy for: my wife likes “pretty things”, and I have been well indoctrinated into her aesthetic preferences, so can be reasonably sure that the boots, necklace, lingerie or dress that I’ve procured will meet with a satisfactory level of gratitude.  Others are harder; in 31 years I’ve yet to elicit a convincing thanks from my sister, but I guess that’s what siblings are for.

Buying for vegans (like cooking for vegans, or even mere vegetarians) presents something of a challenge at Yuletime.  It is a bittersweet time of year for all of us: cheap chocolates and other confections abound throughout Advent, and we feel obliged* to devour them, despite that diet I was talking about earlier supposedly being in play.  For vegans in particular it is harder yet; much chocolate being of the milk-laden variety, or filled with fluffy clouds of sweetness also based largely on dairy products.  So chocolate is best avoided.  The next port of call for easy presents for vegetarians is alcohol, which until a few months ago I considered safe ground.  Of all unlikely sources, it was Tesco who disabused me of this notion, sending us a wine brochure which had a green V icon against depressingly few entries: apparently many wines, particularly US and Anzac wines, use an animal product in the filtration process.  So I was pleased to present my vegan friend with a hamper of appropriate goodies for her gift last year, although I admit to a level of dissatisfaction with the inevitable lack of variety in it.

Harder yet though than buying presents for vegans is buying for children.  Not because of the reaction of the kids of course, but down to the limits of patience of the parents.  Before I embarked upon the adventure of daddydom, I had no thought for the passive torture imposed upon the wider family by a plethora of polymer products emanating white notes into the atmosphere.  The world is too full of VTECH earscrews, noisy emergency vehicles, incompatible not-Lego and Disney characters issuing imperious directives.  We have the unfortunate problem of having both my boys’ birthdays adjacent to Christmas, so they have not had opporunity to achieve boredom with the most recently-acquired plastic estate before finding it added to.  So a timely plea to anyone thinking of buying Xmas presents for someone under the age of seven: vouchers for books, clothes, or days out at theme parks; all will be far more gratefully received by the people who are actually your friends and likely to remember past New Year what was bought, for who, by whom.

My very good friend the fat foodie, who appears to have unfortunately run out of steam, has a strong track record in buying Christmas presents for my family, mostly buying books for the kids and making tasty hampers for us.  One of his many triumphs is pistachio brittle, which is one of those simple recipes I am terrified of trying; I am poor/inexperienced at baking recipes such as this.  I hope you are more adventurous than me; let me know how you get on…

Pistachio brittle

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup natural unsalted pistachios

Spray baking sheet with nonstick spray.  Stir sugar and water in heavy small saucepan over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves.  Increase heat; boil until deep amber color, occasionally brushing down sides of  pan with wet pastry brush and swirling pan, about 12 minutes.

Stir nuts into caramel and immediately pour onto prepared sheet.  Working quickly and carefully (caramel is very hot and hardens fast), press tip of small knife into edges of caramel and gently stretch in all directions to form very thin sheet, approximately 12 by 10 inches.  Cool brittle completely and then smash.  Smashing it is fun.  Eating it is even more fun.

*”Feel obliged”, as in “no no please release my arm from where you’ve twisted it up behind my back, I will have your accursed chocolate”.

Posted in children, Christmas, presents, veganism | 2 Comments

Less haste for more speed

Put your hand up when I mention your favourite car.  DB9?  M5?  SLK?  R8?  911?  Murcielago?  Prius?

No, it’s not a Prius, because you don’t use a manufactured first name, live in California and have a dozen other cars that are rather less image-friendly.  There have been many cars through history with phallic names, the Ford Probe being probably the most smirk-worthy, but Toyota’s world-famous Priapus, sorry, I mean Prius, has to be up there.  As it were.  Anyway, this is surely no indication of the sort of person who drives one.  None at all.  Really.

No, it is probably one of the others, all of which have a very obvious common thread: by heck, they’re quick.  The DB9 is quick and suave, the M5 is quick and efficient, the 911 is quick and ageless, the Murcielago is quick and sounds like a fighter jet taking off.  How quick they are is almost irrelevant, as the only stat that really matters is 0-70; at least, legally.  Yes, you could take your quick and expensive showpiece round a race track, but the reality is you will mostly just drive it past less fortunate people so they can admire it, as you don’t quite trust your own driving enough to send it round the Nürburgring with some 200 other vehicles without the safety net of insurance.  The best you will probably do is take advantage of the legendary Autobahns on the way there, and even then you will not fully test the abilities of your carefully crafted, expensive, underused car.

No, most supercars, and even the next two or three layers down from that deified status, are accessories, jewellery, status symbols, trinkets.  Owning one must be very frustrating; knowing that you have all that power available, and utterly unable to harness it.  A few years ago I drove a DB9 round a race track for 10 minutes or so; my overriding feeling, sat in my A3 later that day on the way home, was that my own car was far better value.  No way was the DB9 worth five, six, seven times as much as mine, thrilling a drive as it was.

And of course now, it’s becoming increasingly prohibitive to feed such a beast.  Those with the sort of money to afford a car worth the same as a flat doubtless think rarely about the cost of running it, but with the price of petrol having doubled in ten years (I distinctly remember seeing fuel at below 70p per litre in 2001) it is something that even the well-off can no longer ignore.  The cost of running a car is not far behind the traditional British topic of the rubbish weather as the most common subject of idle conversation now, and it is noticeable that recent car adverts are featuring the average consumption rather more prominently than the acceleration and top speed.

I actually believe that the government could, if it so chose, do a lot more to help the motorist, but they choose not to, in a foresightful way most would not credit them with.  What better way to encourage the development of more efficient vehicles and cleaner fuel sources than to allow petrol and diesel to escalate in cost, driving the customer to seek respite from the continual incline, causing the market behaviour to tend towards economy over performance?  Thus green electricity for example is becoming more and more competitive, in part because of improvements in green technologies, but mostly because the cost of the alternative has risen to match.

So with this in mind, it came as something of a surprise last week when I heard the government floating the idea of a 10mph increase on the motorway limit.  It has been mooted a few times in recent years, but could not now be said to be timely.  Ministers suggested that more casualties were to be expected, although recognising that most accidents happen in urban areas rather than on motorways; this is not going to register with most regular drivers, because of the simple fact that most people think they’re good drivers, although few actually are.  In fact, such a proposal is unlikely to lead to a significant increase in average motorway speed at all, as a sizeable percentage of motorway drivers already cruise at up to 80mph, figuring that even traffic cops are unlikely to bother with them at that speed.  But despite this, I am surprised that more has not been made of the green impact: higher speeds mean quicker consumption of the one thing most of us could now do to be eking out.

Because I have children and a recently qualified teacher as a wife, and therefore little free money for pretty much anything beyond the necessities at the moment, and most certainly luxuries such as holidays in sunny climes, I am very conscious of money most of the time.  I have long been a bit of a boy racer in my A3, and fatherhood didn’t change that as much as one might expect, but in recent months have come to be looking more at the MPG than the MPH.  This has even caused me to consider buying a BMW as my next car, as it does seem that far more has been overtly done at that company with respect to fuel efficiency than any other manufacturer in a similar class.  To underline the importance of this point, I have repeatedly stated in the past that I would never do such a thing as I prefer people to get to know me before deciding I am a (insert colourful expletive to taste).  But they are clearly doing something right that their rivals have yet to cotton on to, and the gap while their competitors catch up may fall right into BMW’s hands.

I initially broadly supported the mooted proposal a few years ago for a higher speed limit, mostly on the selfish grounds that I was very busy and needed to get around quicker.  But on reflection, and given the increasing difficulty in supplying energy for the nearly 7 billion people this planet now has to cater for, I think the better part of valour is to pull back, ease the foot off the accelerator, leave a little earlier for work, and save both a bit of money on fuel and a bit of the planet at the same time.  So I would argue against the increasing motorway speed limit, despite my instinctive acceptance of the idea, on the grounds that it’s the wrong message at the wrong time.

Speed is however of the essence sometimes when preparing food, and the below is an extremely quick to prepare easy pasta dish that we are relying on heavily at the moment.

Tomato and pepper pasta

Chop three peppers of differing colour, a red chilli and some chopped garlic.  Place in a roasting tin, season and pop into an oven preheated to 200C for 25 minutes.  After 10 minutes add a packet of cherry tomatoes and put a pan of pasta on to boil.  Put the veggies into a jug and pulse briefly with a hand blender, looking for a coarse sauce.  Stir into the drained pasta and serve.

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Another barbecue summer then

I’m an optimist.  My glass is generally half full, although it was recently pointed out to me that this really should depend on whether the glass in question is being filled or emptied at the time.  I go into almost every football game thinking my team can take the points.  Whenever I play golf (which is infrequent) I line up every shot believing it can go exactly where I want it to, although experience should tell me otherwise.  Despite my mathematical aptitude, I occasionally play the lottery.  And, for some reason, every Spring I survey the Summer to come and believe this year will be the hot one we’ve now lacked for too long.

The last very hot summer is etched in my memory as it was the year my eldest was born, which meant lots of effort expended trying to keep him cool.  2006 was blisteringly hot, by moderate English standards: every day for what seemed like two months peaked at over 30°C, which is way outside of my comfort zone.  Since then it’s been a string of disappointments, with the Met Office’s famous embarrassing declaration that 2009 would be a “barbecue summer” just emphasising the distinct lack of appropriate weather in which to get the tongs out.

This year has been no different.  Looking forward to our first holiday as a family in the middle of August, Mr Optimism here was expecting a week of t-shirt and shorts while we went picnicking and tramping across the Northumberland hills.  The reality, inevitably, was a steady stream of that British peculiarity, the sort of rain that only just qualifies as rain but is more like a clumpy mist.  Six days into our holiday we damply called time on the excursion, realising that, however fun it was to spend a week ten-pin bowling, eating out, swimming and watching endless DVDs, none of this would have been any different had we remained at home, and we would not have had to contend with the minor tribulations that accompany living temporarily in a house that isn’t your own.

To add to this year’s frustration, early on the omens were encouraging.  We had a scorching couple of weeks in mid-Spring, hot enough to give me a mild sunburn.  This year, I thought; this year, surely, we are finally going to get a warm one.  Little did I know that “warm one” would turn out to be just that: one solitary hot day of note, which inevitably was during the week and on a day I was on the road to HQ, thus able to enjoy precisely none of it.

Of course, hot days are far from a prerequisite for getting the barbie out.  Used to such continual disappointments, we in the UK are very good at squeezing an opportunity to cook outside from the smallest patch of mildly not-unpleasant weather.  In fact we don’t even need that: as my son’s school proved in June, as long as you have some sort of outdoor cover to protect you from the rain, the cooking can commence.  True, it doesn’t quite feel the same devouring a slightly burned sausage in a slightly stale bun sat on tiny chairs in Year Two’s classroom, but you can’t fault the British for effort.

For a vegetarian, barbecues are not generally quite as enjoyable as for carnivores, as traditionally barbies are an orgy of various processed meats: sausages, burgers, spicy chicken wings, with veggie dishes being limited to salads – “normal” leafy salads, but also those like potato, couscous, rice or pasta salads.  Regular readers will know my feelings on vegetarian burgers, and sausages are little better: I am not a fan of pretend meat of any sort, and prefer to use ingredients not masquerading as something they are not.  Not through any sort of vegetarian snobbery, but because pretend meats do not have anything like the flavour of the products they are impersonating.  So vegetarians at barbecues are often a bit like the designated driver in a pub – slightly missing the point.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Loading a variety of veggie ingredients onto a skewer makes an instant tasty alternative to a sausage, particularly if you balance the flavours right – one of our favourites being peppers, onion and halloumi.  Many other cheeses in fact toast rather than melting, such as the Indian paneer; try dusting paneer in either Indian spices or similar sorts of coating to your spicy chicken wings.  The cheese itself, like chicken, doesn’t have a huge amount of flavour, but carries other flavours very well.  Similarly tuber vegetables can work well on a barbecue, although you are wise to parboil* or microwave them first: continuing the Indian theme, try spice-coated wedges of cassava, or of course jacket potatoes, with a suitable topping, are always popular.

The salads I mentioned are often unfortunately the sort you get in little pots from the deli counter or the ready-made meal aisle at the supermarket.  This is a great pity as salads are surely some of the least-effort meals around, and can be extremely effective if done well.  A simple but delightful potato salad can be made by boiling halved baby new potatoes in their skins, and allowing to cool slightly once drained before adding to lashings of light mayonnaise, a handful of chopped chives and a good amount of seasoning.  Leafy salads can of course be used to bring some life to a burger, but also with a good dressing can be great as the star rather than supporting actor, if not just dumped out of a cellophane bag pre-mixed: try pea shoots, rocket, toasted pine nuts and avocado with a simple dressing made from balsamic vinegar, honey, sesame oil and Tabasco sauce.

If none of that inspires you, you can always use a barbecue with the sort of foil containers you get from takeaways to cook food that you couldn’t just throw directly on the griddle, which opens the arena up to easily-veggiefied dishes like chillis.  My fat foodie friend made a veggie chilli for a party we attended recently, and it is tasty indeed; I trust he will forgive me for reproducing the recipe here, having referenced his own excellent, but recently abandoned, blog by way of thanks.


Veg chilli (serves 2, or 3 with rice or jacket spud)

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1 green chilli, sliced
  • 1 small courgette
  • 1 tsp chilli powder (or powdered chilli if you can find it, but I couldn’t)
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp marjoram
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon (or more to your preference)
  • 1 tin/box chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 large pinch brown sugar
  • 1 tin mixed pulses (you can vary the beans to your preference but I like the mixture)

Fry onion and garlic until golden.  Add sugar and let it melt before adding the vinegar, stirring in until it evaporates.  Add the pepper and courgette and fry until these are softened, then add spices, herbs and the remaining ingredients.  Cover and cook until cooked – I would suggest minimum 45 minutes on a low heat to allow the beans to soften.


*Parboiling feels like cheating at a barbecue but it’s a sensible person who parboils his sausages, using the barbie just to crisp round the outsides, to avoid the unfortunate consequence of undercooking them.

Posted in barbecue, burgers, chilli, Recipe, salad, skewers, weather | 2 Comments

I’m sorry but I can’t help but like him

My job entails quite a bit of motorway time, trogging up and down between my home in Nottingham and my firm’s HQ in Milton Keynes (or Milk & Beans, as my five-year-old gleefully refers to it).  Combined with the debit position on my sleep account, this is increasingly causing me problems.  I avoid caffeine since I had horrible withdrawal symptoms a few years ago when ill and avoiding dairy, therefore milk, therefore tea; so I tend not to have an artificial stimulant to keep my eyes from creaking closed on a journey that has no interesting features left after a thousand repetitions, and music tends to have a lulling effect regardless of whether it’s Norah Jones, the Prodigy or Tinie Tempah.

Thus I have a tendency to channel hop across the radio waves, desperately seeking something to grab my attention: a tune I can yell along to at the top of my nearly-tuneful voice, a sporting event to transport me into instant-expert mode, or an interview with someone interesting, funny or provocative.  Recently I was listening to 5 Live of a morning, the natural habitat of one Nicky Campbell, a presenter who can tick all three of those boxes within a couple of sentences, and found myself engrossed in an interview with the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove.  Now the aforementioned Mr Campbell has an effective tendency to take a diametrically opposing stance when talking to anyone from the political classes; this ought to be worthy of praise, as it shows the sort of balance which ironically tends to get the BBC into trouble with both sides of an argument, each claiming bias towards the other, but actually it just winds me up and I end up impotently grizzling at the indifferent set of black plastic buttons on my dashboard.

Mr Gove however is ruthlessly unruffled by Campbell’s digging.  He doesn’t get riled, he does not come across aggressive, he just maintains a consistently reasonable but assertive tone, and I find myself nodding and smiling slightly as I listen to him talk.  It is easy to claim that this is just the mark of a good politician, but when I look around both Cabinet and anti-Cabinet I struggle to point to many who have this ability.  Of course, it helps that I appear to largely share Mr Gove’s views.

I should underline just how dangerous this.  My wife, regular readers will know, has recently joined the rank and file of intelligent communists known to most of us as teachers.  Having passed her courses with the outstanding grades that everyone but she expected, she will be mixing with teacher sorts for a great many years to come.  Inevitably I will come into contact and perhaps even socialise with some of them.  One of the defining characteristics of being a teacher is (in the majority of cases, I should caveat) innate disagreement with any authority who might dare to presume to tell you how to teach, and that absolutely includes the current Education Secretary, especially if the party in power happens to be the Tories (it causes delicious dichotomy when Labour are in the hot seat, a dilemma solved between 1997 and 2010 by the comforting assertion that it wasn’t “real” Labour in charge).  So Michael Gove is public enemy #1 of the day in the eyes of most teachers; publicly declaring an affinity for him when one is going to spend any significant period in the company of teachers is therefore akin to walking around Jerusalem with a swastika on one arm and a Danish cartoon emblazoned on the other.

This got me thinking though, and I realised quickly it’s not just Gove for whom I have an admiration shared by a tiny minority.  Politicians as a whole are unpopular of course so admitting a liking for any except the slightly ridiculous Boris Johnson is likely to raise eyebrows, and certain individuals within that profession seem to be almost universally reviled: Alastair Campbell, not even a true politician in most people’s eyes but very much a historically important figure in British politics, is one such.  And yet I was pleased to hear his dulcet tones inevitably commenting on the News of the World’s spontaneous combustion recently, and took my finger off the tuning button to harken unto his words.  Yes, he is a political beast and therefore you have to take what he says with a skipload of salt; but I cannot help but like the way he says it, and I often agree with what he says.  He would be on the shortlist at least for my fantasy dinner party, although I probably wouldn’t sit him next to Gove.

My unnerving penchant for controversial figures doesn’t stop at politics.  Sport has its own plethora of unlikeable personalities, or lack-of-personalities in many cases.  I don’t understand the hysteria around how likeable our sports stars are.  Bear in mind that these tend to be people who have unhealthy, all-encompassing obsessions with repeatedly throwing a pointy thing at a piece of soft wood, putting one foot in front of the other for 26 miles as fast as possible, or hitting something small and round with something long and hard a long way.  It often doesn’t require a great deal of intelligence, just determination and above average rating in some physical characteristic.  Why then do we expect only funny, likeable people to win stuff?  Likeable people make up only a certain percentage of the population and funny people a far smaller one, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Sports Personality of the Year is often a misnomer.   Andy Murray will I am sure someday be a contender for this title, but most people’s opinion seems to be that he is a very good tennis player but switch off before the interview.  I’ve long been a fan though, in fact since he won the US Open boys’ title as an 18-year-old.  He was criticised as his career developed for being moody, sullen when he didn’t win, and overall not very engaging with the public.  Perhaps I see myself in him; I too don’t like losing, although I have rather more experience there than he does, and am often not at my most personable self afterwards.  I too as a teenager was prone to oscillating mental state, but I didn’t have to play mine out on television in front of millions of intolerant armchair experts.  I suspect in person, away from the media, he’s a pretty decent bloke and worth sharing a few beers with, and I will continue to robustly defend him against ill-targetted criticism.

The recently-deposed heavyweight boxing champion, David Haye, was subjected to howls of derision after losing his much-anticipated bout against the popular Auslander Wladimir Klitschko and blaming it on a broken toe.  In the ensuing days he gamely appeared on 5 Live Breakfast when many would have ducked public interrogation, and I found myself avidly listening.  For a man who had displayed much bravado – somewhat untasteful at times – prior to the fight, he was, I thought, dignified and humble enough without undermining his towering confidence; stopping short of self-depracating but admitting freely that he was not good enough on the night.  Very different to the man who was interviewed on the same show in the weeks leading up to the fight, but even there the open aggression was, to my mind, clearly for show; I wouldn’t call his bluff, but then, as afterwards, I felt that there was a man who was as driven as any boxer but, unlike most, his natural arrogance was not offputting, and he gave away an intelligence bubbling below the surface that I hope he does not compromise by entering too many more rings before he withdraws from the limelight.

Unlike in sport, in the world of entertainment, your persona is pivotal to your chances of success.  Even before there were 200 channels to flick aimlessly between, viewers would not put up with watching someone they didn’t like, unless it was in a pantomime villain sense.  So there must be a significant number of people who like Jeremy Clarkson enough to continue tuning into Top Gear; the show is as much about the presenters as the cars, and the cars alone would not be enough to get you hooked if you really couldn’t stand the man.  Yet I have never been able to find someone who will admit to liking him.  Unlike some of those mentioned above, I don’t share a lot of views with Clarkson, so there cannot be a natural bias in that way.  What I do like is how he says what he says, both on television and in print.  I like his unsubtle metaphors.  Perversely, I like his hammed-up intolerance.  I like his blokiness, and that perhaps is the characteristic that means I struggle to find other supporters; I don’t really mix with blokey blokes on the whole, few of my friends being comfortable chatting up the barmaid in the pub while playing pool and watching a football match they’ve had a sneaky tenner on.

Lastly there’s the TV chef that it seems to be fashionable to cock a snook at: Jamie Oliver.  Here is a guy who is successful, personable, passionate about a cause; and yet it seems to be impossible to mention the guy without sneering at his “Mockney” accent and his endeavours to improve school food.  It’s funny how hypocritical we all are about school food.  Eat, eat, we tell our kids; it’s good for you.  Yet when we talk about our own experiences of school dinners, there is rarely a happy tale, and plenty of stories of lumpy ice-cream scoops of mash, watery vegetables, and that grainy custardy thing that doesn’t seem to exist outside of academic institutions known as “semolina”.  Along comes someone who wants to make sure children are getting the most healthy and yet still enticing food possible for the meagre budget at hand, and we denigrate him?  Where on earth is the logic in that?  I know the cynical view is it’s all for personal publicity, but I’m sure there are easier methods of self-promotion, and frankly I believe he is doing what he thinks is right.  He very clearly cares about giving talented kids opportunities to get into the catering industry, and all kids the opportunity to experience enjoyable food, and I only wish I were in a position to have a crack at having a positive impact on people’s lives.

Many of the recipes I’ve shared through this medium have come from the pages of Jamie Oliver books.  Much of his food is high-end and too finicky and/or expensive for our current circumstances, but his books do also have hidden gems that have made it onto our portfolio, such as the basic risotto recipe and a couple of his variations on it, and the Trapanese pasta that I tweaked to be simple pesto and tomatoes.  This one is another of his pasta recipes, really quick and simple; if like me you don’t like olives, just don’t eat them, but still do put them in as they add to the other flavours.

Stracci and spicy aubergines, serves 2

  • Half an aubergine, diced small
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seeds, ground
  • Tsp chilli flakes
  • Tin of chopped tomatoes
  • Small tin of black olives, stoned and chopped
  • Splash of red wine vinegar
  • A few sheets of lasagne pasta
  • Handful of basil leaves, ripped
  • Handful of grated Parmesan
  • Seasoning to taste

Fry aubergine, coriander and chillies in splash of oil until golden.  Add tomatoes, cook for five minutes, add olives.  Cook for 10 minutes or so and season, add red wine vinegar if desired.  Cut the pasta into random shapes and cook, then stir through the sauce and the basil leaves.  Serve with the Parmesan.

Posted in Pasta, Recipe | 2 Comments

Wedding bills

There are three big relationship commitments these days in Britain, which are, in descending order of both cost and ease of extrication: having kids, buying a house and getting hitched.  Fifty years ago, invariably marriage was the first as well as the cheapest of these, what with the bride’s father being obliged to pick up the tab for everything and there being a social obligation to be married before practising the reproduction; a house next while you could still afford it; and then kids inevitably followed unless nature had other plans.

Nowadays the order of these events is rather more random, with sharing a surname often relegated to an afterthought.  With sex being an expectation of any meaningful relationship rather than a dividend of the marriage contract, the compulsion for men in particular to make a public show of commitment is rather blunted; despite the ironic truth that tearing up said contract is far easier, in practical terms at least, than the unpredictable duration of liquidating property equity (particularly in the current clime) and the inevitable anguish of nuclear family fission.

But let’s examine the impulses a little more.  Owning a home is a very practical driver.  Most people pay little less renting their home than they would servicing a mortgage on it, and in fact often more as property owners understandably look to cover their credit costs in full.  A mortgage puts a finite end to the cost of one’s bricks and mortar, although more often it helps build sufficient equity to haul oneself up the property pyramid.  There is of course risk; if you buy, as we did, a house which was never going to be a long-term investment, you run the risk of nobody else wanting it when you decide it’s time to trade up, or even worse falling into negative equity*.

Having children is a product of arguably the strongest force in the universe: evolution.  Now before anyone sets the case for gravity, note that this is widely held up as being the weakest force in the universe, although it is without doubt the farthest reaching.  There are plenty of philosophical arguments for intelligence being the strongest force, but I would point out that evolution’s most powerful weapon – lust – has triumphed over intelligence enough documented times to make this a walkover.

It is possible to make a practical case for having children, but only in terms of having someone to look after you in your dotage, and this can’t possibly outweigh the financial cost (estimated at over £200k per child to age 21 – and that’s ignoring the effect of kippers).  It is unarguably evolution that causes men to spread the seed; you don’t have to go too far back in epochwise terms to get to the alpha male and his harem (in fact disappointingly this is still a feature of many contemporary societies).  Evolution further dictates that the majority of women have a burning desire to produce young, one which increases in intensity as time goes on, and then (much to the alpha male’s frustration) generally fades once further children are off the agenda.  Evolution can thus also be directly held accountable for the majority of extra-marital affairs.

Getting married though is extremely difficult to logically justify.  Once upon a time it was a public signal that this girl now belonged to that man (remember “love, honour and obey”?), a very overt “get your own” message to every other male in the vicinity.  Socially, it was a prerequisite for having children; in fact most men would have expected their wives to be virgins, having no problem reconciling that with their own licentious dallying.  Being single past a certain age was something of a stigma.  Modern society has removed these encumbrances; a public acknowledgement of commitment seems then somehow to be driven only by tradition and the desire for mother and child to have the same surname.  Getting married shouldn’t change your relationship, and those who do it for that reason are invariably disappointed by the outcome.  It is expensive (average in excess of £18k, think of the 10% deposit on that first house this represents); it provokes innumerable family rows and minor slights among friends who expected an invitation; it causes reams of paperwork for at least the female in changing details at work, banks, driving licence, passport, etc.; it keeps makers of those nasty brick-like slabs of dried fruit and brandy in business when they should really have gone bust years ago (surely nobody really likes wedding cake?  I swear you’re all putting it on for show). 

But we all keep doing it.  My wife and I celebrated our tenth anniversary last weekend by going to our friend’s daughter’s very enjoyable wedding.  Some other friends recently went abroad to get hitched after a dozen years together.  Very few of our social circle are unmarried, and almost all of those that are haven’t always been.  The fact is that actually people quite enjoy weddings; basically, it’s an excuse for a party.  For the happy couple, it is a celebration of their togetherness and the only time in their lives they will be able to get all the people they love and like (plus a few family members falling into neither category) in one place.  For the guests, it is justification to spend money looking good, staying in a hotel** and drinking to various degrees of excess, and for those who are married already to relive their own wedding day (and quietly benchmark the various aspects against their own endeavours). 

And for the groom, is it the one day he can absolutely guarantee a free practice session.

Now you may have picked up that I’m not a fan of rich fruit cake (I mean as in wedding cake, not as in Elton John).  So my recipe this week is for a sponge cake.  They are the way forward.

Simple sponge cake

Mix 200g of butter and 200g of caster sugar until fluffy and creamy.  Beat 4 large eggs then slowly add to the butter/sugar mix.  Fold in 200g of self-raising flour and mix for up to 1 minute, then pour the whole mixture into a greased, and lined, baking tin.  Bake in a pre-heated oven (at 160°C) for 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.  Remove from oven, take out of the tin then leave to cool on a wire rack, before filling and decorating with sugar flowers and little figurines of yourselves.  Ah.


*We were incredibly lucky and, after four years on and off the market, happened upon a white knight who was trading down due to divorce; another six to twelve months and we would have fallen through the equity trapdoor, the consequences of which may have been as severe as not having had our second child.

**Some fools at the weekend stayed in tents at the venue rather than nice comfortable hotels a taxi jaunt away.  Needless to say, they all ended up slightly soggy.

Posted in cake, Recipe, wedding | Leave a comment

I would walk 4550 miles – a restaurant review

We are very much creatures of habit, my wife and I.  I sometimes think how nice it would be to be exciting; to be able to just think, on the spur of the moment, let’s go and see this friend or visit that theme park/zoo or take a last-minute trip to Copenhagen for the weekend (let’s assume for a moment that money isn’t a forgotten luxury).  Part of our attachment to routine is down to the parent thing of course, but that’s not the whole story.  To illustrate my point, my wife, without a flicker of irony, once made a New Year’s resolution to be more spontaneous.  She failed.

So when we are in the happy position of having some time to ourselves and choose to spend it in a restaurant, we invariably return to one of a small handful of places that we know we can trust.  We have lived in Nottingham for closing on ten years and in all that time we’ve probably only been to twenty local restaurants, and would heartily recommend only half of those.  We view it as a positive thing when the owners and staff start to recognise us in an eatery; expansion of our horizons occurs most frequently when one of our favourites happens to open another venue.  Conversely, when we discover one of our hit list has closed, we take it very hard, and that happened a couple of months ago when I was compiling my eating out guide.

Nottingham, like most UK cities, has a good collection of Indian restaurants, and there are half a dozen or so in very close proximity on Maid Marian Way (yes, really) to the west of the city centre.  I’ve always liked open kitchens (less opportunity for staff to take disgusting revenge for perceived slights) so was attracted at first sight to the inaccurately-named 4550 Miles From Delhi, not least because of the autorickshaw embedded in the wall; having visited Calcutta a few years ago and travelled in one of these “vehicles”, I can confirm this is a reasonable representation, as I certainly spent most of my journey expecting to end up embedded in something.

Our first visit coincided with my wife taking on two new staff members just before Christmas and deciding, in an uncharacteristically impromptu manner, to have the office (all three of them) Christmas party at 4550.  The evening that followed wasn’t quite out of the little book of good management’s chapter on inducting new staff, but was an utterly hilarious evening punctuated by tequila slammers and very forgiving waiters.  Somewhere through the haze of the following morning we recalled very tasty food and excellent service, and vowed to return. 

Since then under its roof we have collected many happy memories.  My brother-in-law, celebrating his birthday just before Christmas, and I regretted having played who-can-eat-the-most when the waiter, accompanied by the discordant harmonies of a hundred Yuletide revellers, brought over a large and unexpected birthday cake, which we felt obliged to eat.  On another occasion, I added to my portfolio of quotable quotes with my work colleague’s horrified and now oft-repeated assertion that “you should never have to pay more than a fiver for a curry”.  And we made my best friend cry minutes after he claimed to lack sentimentality (“we’re going to name our son after you”).

So after hearing that this establishment was “closed for refurbishment” recently, and knowing what that often means in the context of the currently fragile economy, we genuinely felt like we had lost a friend.  But on the way to eat nearby before a visit to the theatre last weekend we walked past 4550 and lo – it was open for business.  We hastily amended our destination, advised the manager we were going to a show in a little over an hour’s time, and within fifteen minutes our order was on the table, accompanied by a complimentary side dish.  The food and service have suffered not a jot from the temporary closure, with my wife enjoying a fresh and spicy dish with the slightly amusing name of Tak-a-Tak, and my choice being a jalfrezi with beautifully succulent chicken.

I’ve been to half a dozen other Indian restaurants in Nottingham and none match 4550 for the combination of quality food, immaculate service, pleasing environment and bubbling ambience.  Memsaab comes a creditable second place but I fear we may now be barred: it was to there we were originally heading at the weekend…

Posted in Curry, restaurant review | 2 Comments

Hidden perils

My wife and I had a rare day to ourselves on our ninth wedding anniversary last year.  We both took the day off work, ditched the boys with their childminder, and, after a bottle of pink fizz, jumped on the bus into town for our luncheon appointment at an upmarket riverside restaurant.  This was in the midst of England’s most recent complete failure to set the football World Cup alight, and our day out coincided with the second game I’d managed to miss as a result of a dinner appointment, having successfully avoided all but the first ten minutes (i.e. the good bit) of the embarrassment against the USA the previous weekend by instead booking a table at the Indian tapas restaurant Imli in London’s Soho – their Bombay Aloo is the best Indian potato dish I’ve ever had.  (Regrettably I was unable to find any similarly pleasant culinary diversion from the subsequent débacle against Germany.)

After very tasty starters and main courses, we both ordered desserts.  Now, I do have a sweet tooth, much though I often deny it; while I would choose appetizer over sweet if only having two courses, I seldom submit to the tyranny of the “or”, preferring to embrace the genius of the “and”.  It was our first visit to this establishment; I was surprised to find that there was little on the dessert menu that tempted me, and subsequent visits have not changed that initial impression, reducing me to the cheese board (well okay, “reducing” is hardly apt; I would return for the cheese board alone).  My wife, often a disdainer of the third course, had her head turned by a panna cotta dish.

Now the more observant of my regular readers have probably already spotted where this is leading.  For those unfamiliar with it, panna cotta is a custard-like concoction which has been set.  And the setting agent?  Why, gelatin of course; to quote my link, “produced by boiling the connective tissues, bones and skins of animals, usually cows and pigs”.

Just the thing for a vegetarian.

Now my wife is a clever and educated lady and she is fairly knowledgeable about food.  So she knows very well that panna cotta contains boiled pig bones, and this vital piece of information eventually struggled its way to her conscious mind; unfortunately however only half of the dessert remained at this point, and a swift journey to the facilities quickly followed.  Although it was her own assertion that the sudden symptoms were entirely psychosomatic, those symptoms were still fairly unpleasant, and the meal was inevitably a tainted experience as a result.

The experience highlighted something of an inconsistency though, and not only in this menu.  With somewhere between 5 and 10% of the UK population being vegetarian, and many more regularly choosing non-meat options, starters and main courses appropriate for vegetarians are diligently marked with a “v” in the vast majority of eateries in the UK.  But not so desserts!  The less educated vegetarian can easily fall foul of this common oversight, as it’s not especially intuitive that sweet courses might contain an animal product (certainly not in Western cuisines, anyway).

I’ve since learned to check for gelatin in a variety of other sweets.  Most people know that jelly sweets such as Haribo contain gelatin, but it also appears in some mousses, marshmallows, yoghurts, mints, ice creams, even drugs.  Most foods in the UK are marked as vegetarian, as long as you know to look.

Some time after this unfortunate memory lapse, I was surprised to learn of my vegan friend being unable to eat some sweet chilli flavoured gourmet crisps.  On querying this I was informed that they contained a whey powder as one of the flavouring ingredients – a milk product.  Now vegans have to be incredibly vigilant about what they eat and thus are very well educated about what to look for, but it would just never have occurred to me to even check whether they would be vegan-friendly.

What has been most difficult to reconcile is our recent discovery that many wines are made using animal products in the refining (technically “fining”) process.  There seems to be a tendency for wines from certain countries to use these; European wines are mostly vegetarian-friendly, where US and Anzac wines are generally not.  (This has had, for me, a fringe benefit; although we are now habitually checking the provenance of wine we buy, anything brought by kind guests still needs drinking, and I’m delighted to oblige!)

Instead of providing a recipe, I’ve opted instead to link to another blogger’s recipe for a vegetarian panna cotta, using agar-agar as a setting agent instead of gelatin.  There are other substitutes, such as pectin, but gelatin is still far and away the most common setting agent, and I’m sure will remain so.

Posted in gelatin, panna cotta, veganism, Vegetarianism, World Cup | 2 Comments

We’ll go where there’s cheese

I work for a company now owned by an American private equity firm.  For those who aren’t familiar with companies like this, they are essentially a giant pot of money, buying and selling businesses in order to increase the size of the pot.  They will often buy a business which is labouring, perhaps because the management have been unable to direct the business quickly enough in a changing market, and often because that market is less forgiving of large labour forces.  They will then aggressively correct the proportions of the company, seek to swing its direction from decline back to growth, and sell it at a healthy profit.  Economically sound, but not particularly pleasant, as inevitably significant numbers of people find themselves actively seeking employment as a result.

My company was bought by its current owners from one of the world’s largest companies, who decided that our marketplace was no longer one they wanted to play in.  Being part of a huge company like that is a bit like being in a large family; there is comfort in knowing that if you make a mistake, mum, dad and perhaps some older, more successful siblings are there to bail you out.  So when you leave home and get a job and maybe a house of your own, life suddenly becomes much less comfortable.  Yes, you have more freedom and flexibility; but equally there is much less slack in the system, and you have to make do with fewer mod cons than you were probably used to.  The analogy normally breaks down at this point as few parents will ever truly cut their offspring out of their lives completely; but in this case, the major conglomerate we left still own a big part of the business, and are, like parents, still there if we need them (this theory is yet to be tested by the way!).

Although we did lose many of those mod cons, the most important ones are retained simply because they are really necessary rather than just nice to have.  One of the benefits we’ve managed to keep so far has been the ability to have regular health checks with our occupational health nurse; a 45 minute break from work to have a pleasant chat punctuated by various measurements and admonitions about your eating habits.  I had one such yesterday; I am happy to report that I am far healthier than I actually feel, with my only tutting moments coming when my sleep patterns were assessed (apparently the fast lane of the motorway is not an appropriate place to catch up on a few winks).  I have lost nearly a stone since my last checkup 18 months ago; my cholesterol was too low to measure accurately; my blood pressure and BMI are normal, my drinking habits not of concern (but then I am not an alcoholic) and my vision perfect.  I virtually skipped out of the sick bay.

One thing which did prompt some discussion was the section on my preparatory questionnaire where I owned up to how often I was eating different sorts of food.  For obvious reasons my meat intake is pretty low, but in compensating for this I am eating rather too much cheese.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that the breadth of my cheese taste has expanded markedly in the last couple of years, since my wife returned to vegetarianism.  I didn’t have a great start in life with cheese; for most of my first 18 years, the most exciting I had was mild cheddar and occasional red Leicester.  So strong cheeses like Stilton and most goats cheeses I have had to spend many years working up to.  But even now it’s not regular that I’ll actually have a chunk of cheese, on crackers or even in a sandwich; most of my cheese usage is in my cooking, adding richness, salt content and fat in a role normally played by meat.  Every risotto I make is packed with at least Parmesan (and often additional cheeses such as Blacksticks Blue or ricotta); pesto (and therefore Parmesan again) is a weekly feature or our menu; our pasta dishes often contain cheese sauces; we have tortillas with roasted peppers, rocket and grilled halloumi; even one of our curries contains the squeaky Indian cheese, paneer.

Although I don’t regularly eat cheese just as it is, I am becoming more and more prone to opting for a cheese board instead of dessert when eating out, and I do like to have occasional cheese binges at home.  I like to have a selection of differing cheeses if I do this; a nice ripe Brie, a nutty hard Comte, a smelly soft Port Salut, a good mature Cheddar, something spicy like Y Fenni, and a strong creamy blue cheese like a Stitchelton (essentially Stilton but it can’t be so called apparently because it’s unpasteurised).

So on average I’m eating cheese almost every day.  Surely not healthy, you might feel justified in venturing; but I’m a perfect physical specimen, according to a bona fide health professional, so I’m sticking with it.

Spinach & ricotta Cannelloni (serves 2)

Two different cheeses in this.  Bit of a faff to be honest and we don’t make it very often, but if you can get the seasoning right it’s delicious.

  • 6 mini lasagne sheets (or two large), soak if using dried pasta
  • 250g ricotta
  • 500g young leaf spinach
  • 50g pine nuts, toasted
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • 100g Parmesan, grated
  • 2 tablespoons of plain flour
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • a cup of milk

Make a white sauce with the flour, butter and milk.

Blanch the spinach in boiling water for 2 minutes (probably need to do in two batches).  Squeeze out as much liquid as humanly possible and place in a bowl with the ricotta, pine nuts and seasoning to taste.  Mix thoroughly.  Lay out the pasta and deposit a suitably-sized dollop of the ricotta mix on each, wrapping the pasta around the dollop to form a tube.

Place pasta tubes onto a lightly greased baking tin and pour over the white sauce.  Top with the parmesan and put in the oven at 200C for about 20 minutes, until there’s a nice browning of the cheese.

Posted in cannelloni, cheese, Pasta, Recipe | 2 Comments