Comfort Eating

by Miss South on April 13, 2014

soup scallions and butter

I’ve been having a very quiet couple of weeks. The flu found me just as I finished up the book and I’ve been forced to take to my bed with a pile of pillows and paracetamol. Being a delicate little flower healthwise, I take a long time to bounce back from these things. I had been planning a holiday from as much cooking as I’d been doing, but I’ve gone somewhat from the sublime to the ridiculous and all I want to eat is comfort food.

I know my body should probably be repairing itself with plates of lean meat, leafy green vegetables and a rainbow of fruit for the much needed vitamins. Aside from my first kiwi fruit in nigh on 20 years, I haven’t been craving those things, but wanting to eat biscuits and mountains of mashed potato instead. I’ve been disappointed to discover that pink wafers aren’t as nice as I remember but mashed potato hasn’t let me down.

Every Northern Irish kid grows up on piles of champ, that magical mix of scallions, mash and a crater of melted butter. It was essential to dip each mouthful in the butter but not let the butter pool break down the side of the spuds. Nothing makes me feel better than champ. The memory of a friend making it for me on a truly awful weekend not long after I’d moved to London still warms my soul now and it was the first meal I ever cooked in my new flat after being homeless. It reminds me of childhood and security and being loved. Growing up in the margarine obsessed 80s meant butter equalled true love.

A sickly child, I spent a lot of time recuperating and convalescing. Certain things always helped. My mum made me egg beaten up in a cup, the soft yolked egg mixed with broken up wheaten bread and more butter. It was easy to eat in all the ways that counted. Heinz tomato soup made an appearance. I’m not brand loyal to much but there’s only one type of tinned tomato soup for me. Speaking of butter, put a little blob of it on top of the soup and see it in a whole new light.

My other love was jelly. Something about its soft soothing wobble still comforts me even now. My aunt used to give me cubes of ‘raw’ jelly out of the packet on Sunday afternoon walks in lieu of modern day affectations like Haribo and I was always told it was good for your nails. Some thing about the gelatine strengthening them. I grew up to have beautifully shaped nails of steel that people often mistake for the expensive kind you buy, so maybe the old wives’ tale did have truth in it? I do know jelly was one of the things I missed profoundly when I was a vegetarian teenager.

I’ve been eating pots and pots of it recently and kicking myself I didn’t order ice cream in my Sainsbury’s shop to go with it. I thought the pay off from years of tonsilitis as a kid was the promised jelly and ice cream after the op when I finally had my tonsils removed. Few things have ever disappointed me more than being given a plastic bowl of Rice Krispies next morning instead. Snap, crackle and pain. Raspberry jelly and vanilla ice cream it was not.

You can keep your Phish Foods and Choco-loco-doodahs and fancy schmancy ice creams when I’m ill. Nothing cuts the mustard quite like a proper taste of raspberry ripple whether it comes cut in slices from a block or conjured up yourself with the jelly or frozen berries. My mum even had a Yardley lipstick that tasted of raspberry ripple when I was a kid and I suspect the fact lipstick doesn’t taste like that anymore is why I’ve never owned one, reserving my colour love for nail polish instead.

I’ll know I’m on the mend again when I want colour on my plate. I’ll be sticking with my mashed potato, steaming bowls of porridge and fluffy white rice in the meantime. Simple and easy to make when I lack energy, they taste homemade when there’s no one else to make them for me and of course, they can incorporate butter beautifully… What about you? What food comforts you when you feel ill or wearied by life? Does it matter who makes it or food just fuel when life is full of pressure?

PS: here’s a preview of Recipes from Brixton Village so take a trip to the market with this fabulous video and start counting down the days til May 22nd when you can get your copy!

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Homemade Vanilla Extract

by Miss South on March 30, 2014

IMG_4142

I’ve been meaning to post this recipe for a while as it’s completely changed my cooking and baking habits and after such a busy week, it’s nice to to feature something simple and slow to develop. More like musing than cooking, it’s perfect after a fortnight that’s seen me submit the manuscript on the slow cooker book to Ebury, feature in the Metro and finish the three days of photography on the book, seeing my creations come to life in a way I hadn’t envisioned when I was eating them.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with Mister North this week as he is the photographer for the book. My writing and his photography was enhanced by the wonderful food styling of Olia Hercules who was a real joy to work with. It was also great fun spending time with my lovely editor Laura Higginson. And of course having the excuse to eat all the food from the shoot. Very different to my previous life working in fashion…

I felt a pang when my borrowed slow cookers went back to the publisher this week and I comforted myself by pot roasting a chicken in my own one and baking myself a cake which is where the vanilla extract came in. A splash of vanilla in any cake, custard or dessert tends to lift it from good to glorious, but there’s no way round it, vanilla extract is expensive and I usually find myself rationing it like fine perfume.

However just before Christmas 2012 whilst perusing Ebay, I discovered that you can buy vanilla pods for a fantastic prices on there. Scoring 32 of them for £8, I assumed they’d at least have a hint of vanilla and look nice tied to Christmas presents or nestled into sugar. When they arrived however I could smell the rich sweet scent of vanilla through the package before I’d opened it. Unwrapped, each pod was sticky soft and left a sprinkle of vanilla seeds behind on your fingers like fairy dust. And that was just the A Grade pods. They go up to AAAAA in quality.

As with any excess of anything, I thought I’d stick them in some booze and see what happened. Three pods and a smidge of sugar went into some vodka for the perfect festive tipple. I also had a cheap bottle of dark rum left over from a mojito night and wondered what would happen if I put 10 in there and left it in the dark for three months? Vanilla extract that will knock your socks off and make those bottles of Nielsen Massey seem like The Body Shop oil you dabbed behind your ears at the age of twelve.

Rich chestnut brown, spicy sweet and utterly heady, this extract was amazing. The seeds melt into it to make it thick and glossy and the flavour is so intense you need half the amount you normally do. Considering those posh bottles retail at £4.70 per 100ml or around £47 per litre, making your own makes financial sense too. I made around 750ml of extract in December 2012 and gave small bottles of it as gifts, keeping some for myself. I’ve tested two cookbooks since then, baked myself silly and still have 150ml left. My vanilla beans are also currently brewing a second batch too which is just as intensely flavoured meaning I will probably never need buy commercial stuff again.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (makes 700ml)

  • 700ml dark rum
  • 10 vanilla pods

So simple to make. Simply split your pods so that they are opened out and flattened slightly. Pop them into a clean Kilner jar and cover with dark rum. I used Basics for this. Put somewhere dark and cool for at least 3 months. Shake the jar every few days to help infuse it all.

After 3 months, decant around 50ml into a small bottle and use. Leave the rest to keep infusing for up 9 months or decant it to give as gifts. I put half a pod into each small bottle to keep the infusion going and look pretty. I don’t bother to strain the extract as the seeds look beautiful to me.

Friends I gave this to asked for more for Christmas 2013 and I do actually have some waiting to be delivered! If you are a baker, this is a brilliant way to make the most of vanilla in your kitchen. You will never think of vanilla as bland or flavourless again once you’ve tasted this.

 

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okonomiyakiI have no idea what the adjective for Irish-Japanese fusion food is, but we need one. Both Ireland and Japan love a bit of cabbage and seaweed (and whiskey). Their cuisines have more in common than you’d think.

This idea came from Mister North who having seen the design for Recipes from Brixton Village on mentions the recipes he is most excited by as he reads. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake made primarily from cabbage, but the number of spring onions (or more accurately scallions) in it made him think it overlapped with the Northern Irish delicacy of champ.

Since okonomiyaki means ‘as you like it’ I wondered if I could make a champ based version for St Patrick’s Day. I have grown to love okonomiyaki after Motoko Priestman opened Okan in Brixton Village, dishing up a variety of okonomiyaki in the Osaka style. My favourite is the mochi and cheese, but this is a little like choosing your favourite pet or child as they are all fabulous in their own way.

There are few more filling and healthy lunches than an okonomiyaki making it perfect for fortifying one’s self if you’ve had a few swallies the night before. I’ve gone stereotypically Irish here with bacon, cabbage and scallions. Annoyingly I was seaweed-less but some nori or dulse on top would have been perfect. I also varied from the usual topping of mayonnaise to use a creamy buttermilk dressing and omitted the typical okonomiyaki or ‘burnt sauce’ that tastes like ketchup combined with HP sauce.

St Patrick’s Day Okonomiyaki (adapted from Recipes from Brixton Village)

Serves 1

  • 50g pancetta or bacon cubes
  • 150g sweetheart cabbage, shredded finely
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 50g potato, grated
  • 50g plain flour
  • pinch sea salt
  • pinch brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 50-75ml water
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon buttermilk or yoghurt
  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise
  • salt and pepper
  • seaweed flakes to serve

Okonomiyaki usually has toppings like thinly sliced squid, belly pork, prawns or cheese which are cooked as the pancake itself cooks, but because I only had thick cubes of bacon, I’ve cooked them first as they might still have been raw otherwise. Pan fry until crisp round the edges.

Shred the cabbage in very thin slices and then break it up into individual shreds with your hands into a large bowl. Add the cooked bacon and any fat from the pan. Thinly slice the scallions and add in. Beat the egg into it all. Set aside.

Take a skillet or heavy pan and heat on a high heat for about 3-4 minutes while you make the batter. Don’t add the oil at this point.

Prepare your batter by grating the potato in a bowl and adding the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. Crack the egg into it and beat it in. Add enough of the water to make the whole thing a soft and pourable batter. Stir quickly but without overmixing. Pour 3/4s of the batter into the cabbage and bacon and mix lightly. Set the rest of the batter aside.

Add the oil in the pan and turn it down to a medium-low heat. Put the cabbage batter into the pan, smoothing it out from a heap to a thick pancake. Don’t push it right down to knock the air out. Cook the okonomiyaki for about 3 minutes.

Pour the remaining batter on top of it all. This would usually help seal the toppings into the okonomiyaki. Carefully flip the okonomiyaki over and cook on the other side for about 2-3 minutes. The base of the okonomiyaki will be quite dark from the hot pan but you want the top a bit paler.

Serve on a plate, paler side up and drizzle with the buttermilk dressing. Sprinkle with the seaweed flakes and a few spare scallion slices if you have them. Eat immediately and experience the perfect cross between a pancake, boxty and a potato farl. You may fancy a wee stout on the side. I had good strong tea instead.

Recipes from Brixton Village - front cover

Recipes from Brixton Village will be published on May 22nd 2014 from independent bookshops and the Kitchen Press website. It can be pre-ordered now for delivery as soon as it’s published.

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Manchester Pudding

by Miss South on March 4, 2014

manchester puddingLike everyone else in the world, I was planning on making pancakes this week. But being one of them there fancy food blogger types, I was going to do one version in advance to be published today, making me look smart and then have the standard ones tonight for tea as well.

My forward thinking/gluttony was sabotaged by the fact my non stick pan has given up the ghost. A omelette last week was unspeakable and yesterday’s attempt at boxty taught me something can be burnt and gluey at the same time. I wouldn’t dare try and flip anything in it today while I await my new cast iron pan from Sainsbury’s to arrive (their whole cast iron range is on offer currently.)

Instead I thought of other ways to use up the eggs I’d bought specially and my mind went back to this recipe for Manchester Pudding I’ve bookmarked ages ago. A rich custard is bulked up with breadcrumbs and baked and then topped with jam and meringue, it is the perfect pud when you have some spare eggs.

I made mine in the slow cooker as originally I thought I might use the recipe for the book but as the custards were baking, I counted my recipes and realised I’ve actually got more than 200 recipes and decided to blog it instead. I am totally loving the slow cooker as a giant bain marie. It’s so much easier than trying to lift trays of boiling water out of the oven and the steaming effect seems to make custards even creamier. In fact, it’s turned me from a custard catastrophe to to a custard champion. Perfect.

Manchester Pudding  (adapted from Simon Rimmer’s recipe here)

(serves 4-6)

  • 600ml or 1 pint whole milk
  • 1 lemon, grated
  •  few drops almond essence (optional)
  • 25g butter
  • 25g sugar
  • 100g white breadcrumbs
  • 6 egg yolks, beaten
  • 4 egg whites
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 25g raspberry jam

I used individual ramekins for mine but you could use one large dish to make this. If you are using the slow cooker, check to see which fits best before you get to the stage of pouring boiling water round it.

Pour the milk into a saucepan and warm it gently on a medium heat. Don’t let it boil. Grate the lemon zest into the milk and allow the flavours to infuse. I added some bitter almond essence as well at this stage but this is non traditional and optional. Set the milk aside to cool for 10 minutes.

Add the butter and the sugar to the milk while bringing it back to a simmer. Stir in the breadcrumbs and combine well, allowing them to soak up some of the milk. Take the pan off the direct heat. Beat the egg yolks well in a small bowl and then add a splash of the hot milk and stir it well. This tempers the egg yolks and stop them from splitting or scrambling.

Pour the tempered yolks into the milk and stir it well. This creates the custard. Pour it into the ramekins or dish. Set it into the slow cooker crock. Pour boiling water carefully into the crock so it comes halfway up the sides. Put the lid on it and bake the custards for 30 minutes.

If you don’t have a slow cooker, set the dishes in deep roasting tin. Put the roasting tin in the oven at 180ºC and pour boiling water into it so it comes half way up the side of it. Bake the custards for 30 minutes.

While the custards cook, make your meringue. Put the egg whites in a clean grease free bowl and beat with an electric whisk for 1-2 minutes until they are frothy. Start adding the sugar gradually, beating all the while. This will create a lovely glossy meringue. Beat for about 5 minutes until the egg whites are in soft peaks and you can do the whole turn the bowl upside down thing. Stir the vinegar in. Spoon the meringue into a piping bag.

Check on your custards. They should be set but still wobbling. Add a dollop of jam and then pipe meringue on top the custard. This is much easier to do in the slow cooker where all you have to do is lift the lid off and lean over the crock. You’ll need to take the roasting tin out of the oven completely to do this.

Replace the lid of the slow cooker and allow the meringue to cook for 12 minutes or turn the oven up to 240ºC and bake the meringue for 8-10 minutes. The slow cooker meringue will be set but soft and sticky like the chewy bit in a pavlova or some marshmallow fluff. The baked ones will be crunchy and sticky inside. Finish the slow cooker puddings off under a hot grill for about 1-2 minutes just to give them a little colour.

Serve the puddings immediately or allow to cool. The slow cooker one will keep for up to 2 days in advance in the fridge. I love the soft gooey meringue combined with the thick creamy custard and don’t feel I’m missing out on pancakes at all with one of these left for dinner tonight!

 

 

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Love in the Kitchen

by Miss South on February 16, 2014

 

spatula

The morning after Valentine’s Day got me thinking about love and attachment. Nothing to do with the sainted day but because a friend on Twitter got in touch to let me know that the lid of her beloved slow cooker had met a sticky end in an altercation with a jar. You’re probably thinking, just buy another one then, but for me that ignores one of the most fundamental relationships with food and that’s the objects and items which we make it and serve it with.

This isn’t the historical side of this relationship because for that you must run to buy a copy of Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson for a whole new view on what we cook can be aided by what else we create. No, this is a love letter to the friends and helpers in your kitchen and your cabinets.

Once you start to cook, there are certain things you need. It’s hard to peel a butternut squash without a peeler. It’s hard to chop things without a knife, but I think you only start to love cooking when you establish a relationship with your tools and forge links with them. Everyone has kitchen essentials that just make their cooking work.

I am an unusal cook. I don’t own a wooden spoon. I have not used a wooden spoon in the last decade in my kitchen. The feel of them sits uncomfortably with me. I use silicone spatulas instead and I’m incredibly choosy about my preferred type there. The spatula that unleashed my love came from Hob in Russell Square and has a super flexible head and a sleek metal handle. I learned to bake and blog with that spatula. It just worked for me. The weight was right and it fitted my hand perfectly. It just made it all easier and shared the work and when I ripped it in two by accidentally shoving it in the blade of a blender, I let out a howl and felt an actual loss.

My hand felt empty after it went. My cooking rhythm was gone. I bought about six others and nothing was quite right. Mister North saved the day, going to the one branch of Hob that still remained in Leeds and buying me another. It took me about ten minutes to adjust that my pink spatula was now yellow and then I was back in action.

It’s not the first time my big brother has helped out with my ability to become attached to stuff. Over my lifetime I have been hopelessly wedded to certain stuffed animals, particular jumpers and styles of make up brushes, many of which had to have proxies bought to calm the inevitable terror when the right monkey or eyeliner brush can’t be found.

Some of those things like brushes simply made my job easier in the way that setting your chair at the right height does in an office. Others have sentimental attachment. We all have an item or two that reminds us of a good time or a person we love or another significant event. This is why breaking a wedding present matters more than damaging something you bought in the pound shop.

I have my late grandmother’s mixing bowl and use it regularly. I like the link with her and all the dishes she cooked for her family from it. It’s quite crazed and discoloured and nothing special except for that connection. I’ve also got the potato masher from her house with the once painted handle and the ability to make mashed potato that tastes and feels like childhood.

Not everything in my kitchen is imbued with great emotional significance to be useful. I use endless cheap Ikea rice paddles for example and I like my knives but feel no great draw to them. I am more likely to have a love for the aesthetic look of my dishes, bowls or mugs because often they were gifts or items I saved up for that make me feel like a proper grown up to own. I have no idea what possessed me to put in a slate floor when I love my crockery like I do.

This fondness for a certain spoon or plate keeps me connected to my kitchen and my cooking. It stops me being too impulsive and allows me to cook at my pace as I still feel like I’m learning and establishing roots in the kitchen. It also allows any disasters to look very stylish when I serve them to my poor unsuspecting friends. What more can you ask for in life?

What about you? Do you care what you cook with or eat from? Do you still feel the loss of a loved item? Can such things be replaced?

 

 

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