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For the last year I have collected glass jars. At first this was because some friends of mine were getting married and they needed many jam jars for decorating the venue, but then the venue changed and I just kept collecting jars. I carefully scrubbed the labels off pots of mustard, sundried tomatoes, honey and cocktail gherkins. It turns out I eat a lot of cocktail gherkins, enough to make me worry that I might be damaging myself with all that vinegar. But anyway, I digress.

Yesterday I realised that there was no more room in my jar cupboard and something would have to be done. I also took a moment to wonder what 18 year-old me would think about 28 year-old me having my own cupboard full of jars.

I selected a jar and pickled some spring onions and fennel adapting a Jamie Oliver recipe from the December issue of the Sainsbury’s magazine. I don’t think of these as a wintery condiment though. They belong to early spring when the days are getting longer and the suggestion to eat outside is an eccentric one rather than just plain mad. They are exactly the right colour.

To make some pickled vegetables measure out enough white wine vinegar to fill a jar, bearing in mind the veg will take up some room. Heat the vinegar in a saucepan along with some fennel seeds, a cinnamon stick, the peel of a clementine and a teaspoon of sugar. For one large jar of pickle I used half a teaspoon of fennel seeds, half a cinnamon stick and the peel of one clementine. Bring the vinegar mixture to the boil. Sterilise the jar you will use (just boil it in a pan or put it in the sink and pour boiling water from the kettle over it). Place the prepared vegetables in the jar and pour over the boiling vinegar mix. In about a week the pickles will be ready to eat. Jamie says they will keep for a few months unopened but, being the kind of person who happily eats around the mould on old cheddar, I would easily double that.

Kindles and Rocky Road

This week I have been thinking a lot about Kindles. Mostly I have been thinking why would a person buy a Kindle? I do understand the allure of thin gadgets. When I first came into contact with an iPhone I immediately started surreptitiously posing with it, making pretend calls and whizzing through the contacts list for no reason. It wasn’t even my phone.

Whilst the iPhone is the natural and sexy successor to bulky Nokias from days of yore, the Kindle is not sexier than books. Hear me out. Is there really anything more amazing looking than a pile of books all higgledy-piggledy? I keep piles of books round my flat as part of my interior design scheme. If I break an ornament I just stick a pile of books in its place.

Books are things of beauty. If someone offered to remove all the art and posters from your home and replace them with a single gadget containing all your pieces in digital form, you would probably say ‘no thank you crazy person’. If the Kindle takes off then what will happen to all the books? Homes will look dry and sterile and you won’t be able to impress guests with your complete set of Muriel Spark novels or a random book on German limewood sculpture that you never even read.

I am not such a superficial person that I only value a book for its cover (and its new book smell, and the ribbon page-marker things, and the joy of cracking the spine for the first time). I also think they are quite practical. Proponents of the Kindle claim that it is less cumbersome, lighter and more ‘user-friendly’ than a book. Well, I’m sorry but we’re not all reading The Count of Monte Cristo in the dark. I tend to take normal-sized books on my commute. That’s why I still haven’t finished Wolf Hall. If you really are the type of person who is going to droop under the weight of a 400 page book then might I suggest a novella? Simonetta Perkins by L P Hartley is both a delightful read and, at 134 grams, is lighter than a Kindle (yes, I weighed it).

A few weeks ago I was randomly looking through some books and when I flicked through Gulliver’s Travels out fell a book review I’d written when I was about 12 (judging from the hand-writing). Wow, I thought, I was a super cool 12-year-old. And also, what will happen when Kindles take over the world? Where will all the embarrassing notes and love letters and chocolate digestive crumbs be stashed?

Clearly this post isn’t about food at all. I just wanted to share my thoughts on Kindles. Here is a picture of a rocky road I made to make up for it. It has stem ginger in it. It’s a bit of a Nigella recipe in that you just melt down chocolate and throw other confectionary in before putting it in the fridge. It’s still delicious.

Melt dark chocolate with some butter and syrup from a jar of stem ginger. Stir in crushed maltesers, mini marshmallows, chopped stem ginger and anything else you fancy (kit kats, dried fruit etc). Pour the mix into a suitable container and refrigerate until set.

This probably isn’t the right time of year to be sharing my favourite dip recipe with you. It is after all January and dips are not January detox food. Even if this was a low-fat dip recipe (and it isn’t) something is needed to dip into the dip. Something like a breadstick maybe or, oh dear, perhaps some CRISPS and then before you know it you have failed yet again to lose half your body weight and become a beautiful, vivacious woman.

But you can totally serve this dip with crudités and I think it looks quite stylish served next to a platter of chicory leaves, sliced fennel and celery. Well, as stylish as dip can really look but there is something lovely about all that pale green. Always peel the celery to remove the strings otherwise your guests will hate you.

Parsley and Tarragon Ranch Dip

Mix equal quantities of sour cream, mayonnaise and plain yoghurt (200ml each in this case but you can adapt). This is the base to a ranch dip and it is the USA’s delicious gift to us. Stir in 1 ½ teaspoons of wholegrain mustard, 1 ½ tablespoons of white wine vinegar and a crushed garlic clove. Season then add a couple of good handfuls of chopped parsley and a one or two handfuls of chopped tarragon. I like to add a lot of herbs. Leave the dip in the fridge for at least four hours so the flavours can develop. It tastes the best if you prepare it a day in advance.

Ever since my Mum told me that the photos I used in one of my early posts looked like shots from the kitchen of a struggling single mother (she had a point) I have been very aware of my rudimentary photography skills. I have countless blurry photos of food saved up in my camera compared with about five pictures of actual people.

Despite all this practice (including a one day photography course) my photos have not improved. Frequently my own shadow appears on the rim of the plate. I often try to introduce other objects (wine, pot plant, napkin) to distract from how rubbish the picture is. Steam is my nemesis. On telly it wafts appetisingly from plates of steaming soup but I find it just fogs up my camera creating the afore-mentioned blurry sheen.

So, that all said, I wasn’t going to post this risotto at all because even in real life it looked a bit like porridge. Creamy white risotto with white scallops on top served in a white dish offered very little in the way of visual excitement. Short of gathering all my kitchen utensils in the background of the photo I didn’t see how I could make this work artistically.

Trying to distract you with a poinsettia. Festive.

 

The completed dish tasted too good not to post though so I just zoomed in as close as I could. The initial risotto is very plain (the Ramsay recipe which can be found here uses stock only, I threw in some vermouth) but the earthy and rich Jerusalem artichoke puree which is stirred in at the last minute with parmesan is delicious. I was eating it off the spoon whilst I stirred the risotto and I think my greed meant I put a bit too much in, hence the porridge look. All in all this is the best way to have Jerusalem artichokes that I have come across.

Cranberry Blondies

I made blondies once before. They were a gift for a stranger who was kindly giving me two 3kg dumbbells in order to assist me in the delusion that I was about to embark on an exercise regimen to rival that of the Olympic swimming team. I expected to emerge with a quite breath-taking physique.

Using my local online forum I discovered that someone was hoping to give away these weights to a loving home. Not only that, she would deliver them to my door. With the prospect of toned upper arms so tantalisingly close I felt that some sort of gift was needed as a thank you. I decided, rather bizarrely considering the nature of my benefactor’s donation, to make cake.

I made a ginger blondie that had tasted delicious when made by Lara of Sheen Suppers but in my hands the result was a golden-coloured slab of lard. For some reason I decided to persevere in wrapping my calorific gift despite the fact that it was really quite unpleasant to eat. They were also alarmingly heavy once wrapped up in a little package and tied with lilac ribbons (yes, I collect ribbons for just this sort of occasion).

Anyway, I never heard back about the blondies and I think they are probably the reason I didn’t make a friend for life in dumbbell lady. 

I have since made successful blondies with cranberries and macadamia nuts. They are more cakey than brownie in texture which I prefer; I’ve never really liked dense slabs of chocolate. I used a Sainsbury’s Magazine recipe and whilst we’re on the subject how great is the Sainsbury’s Magazine? If Sainsbury’s would like to send me some free copies I would be totally ok with that. The recipe for the blondies can be found here.

Lavender Ice-Cream

The MasterChef final provided the usual mix of thumping beats, slow mo, tough cooking, Florence & the Machine’s ubiquitous warbling and contestants crying. Good on old Dick for refusing to shed a single tear even when goaded by the judges. Stoicism seems to be viewed as equivalent to emotional retardation on these reality shows and it was a delight to see someone like Dick Strawbridge, a man who never once mentioned a dead relative, go so far. I can’t not mention his moustache because it is utterly fabulous; a joy to behold. I’m not sure that a man with a ponytail hanging from his upper lip should really be cooking professionally though.

Like a lot of people I was rooting for Christine Hamilton to win and I’m sure like a lot of people I never thought I would root for Christine Hamilton to win anything. Lisa Faulkner did it in the end though and good on her. At times I was seriously concerned she might pass out from dehydration the sheer amount of bloody crying she was doing. It was quite pretty crying though, a sparkling tear elegantly sliding down her cheek rather than snot flying all over the shop. It’s so important to do the right sort of crying on these shows.

My highlight of the programme was when John Torode compared Lisa Faulkner’s panna cotta to a bosom with what can only be described as a filthy look on his face. John being more excited by a pudding than Greg the Green Grocer is unprecedented. Future competitors should take note and start designing puddings that look a bit like boobs; it’s a one-way ticket to the final.

Whilst watching Friday’s show I was also making some lavender ice-cream. This is a flavour that wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it. It is very floral and delicate but also densely creamy from the custard base. Now if I can just find a way to shape it into a bosom…

I used the recipe here. It mentions including glycerine and then doesn’t say when to put use it so I just stirred it in before freezing the mix. My father followed the same recipe without using the glycerine and it didn’t make any difference so it really is optional. I don’t own an ice-cream maker and I really don’t think you need one when making an ice-cream with a custard base.

 

It seems to me that the best recipes have a strong foundation of classic techniques and combinations that are then elevated by the inclusion of some special ingredient. Hazelnuts in a fennel salad, sea salt in caramel or pickled walnuts in a beef stew all make a fairly conventional dish into something much more delicious.

In the case of this Ottolenghi recipe the foundation is an instantly recognisable combination of pastry base, filled with roasted butternut squash, goat’s cheese, cream and eggs. So far, so quichey and I have never been the biggest fan of quiche.

In this quiche though, before the cream and eggs make an appearance, blanched garlic cloves coated in a thick balsamic, rosemary and thyme infused syrup take to the stage. I think I could easily eat these sweet, unctuous cloves straight from the pan, although I would feel very guilty afterwards and possibly a bit sick.

 

This is the best way I have ever had garlic, better even than when you roast a whole head of garlic with sausages and onions then squeeze out the resultant puree onto your plate. They look lovely in the tart too, bobbing up through the cream like ancient life buoys.

I served this tart with a beetroot salad that would be worth making for the way it looks alone. I used a recipe from the Sam & Sam Clark Moro East book, although from memory so I ended up forgetting to add mint and I blitzed everything in the food processor which gave me a much more vivid green pistachio and parsley sauce.

 

The inky slices of beetroot contrast beautifully with the pistachio and parsley. Essentially all you need to do is blitz pistachios, parsley, lemon juice and zest, olive oil and orange blossom water. I can’t remember the exact amounts as I was in the process of cooking a meal for 20 people and just trying not to freak out. I was very excited to make something that looked so pretty with so little effort.

The full and proper beetroot salad recipe is here, the second recipe from the bottom. Clearly the Guardian love this sort of food.

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