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Twice as nice… our daily bread

It’s said man cannot live on bread alone. Considering this statement, I’m surprised organised religion remained so popular for so long on our wee island, when you think what a cracking range of Irish breads there are (veda, potato bread, soda farls and wheaten bread amongst others). I’m all for a bit of decent bread, slathered with butter, rather than some dour sermonising or happy clapping. I’ll probably be smitten down by the hand of a deity for saying that, but at least I’ll go with a smile on my face and a full tum…

Sundays are ripe for laziness*, cooking, and loafing around the house. Today’s mission was to make a decent and homely wheaten bread, to help counter the autumnal blues outside. However we’d been out drinking in Leeds yesterday (sampling some great ales from Leeds and Ossett breweries amongst others), and after a late night and a fuzzy head this morning, something special was required for breakfast first.

I’d planned to make baked eggs, following the recipe from the Parlour Café Cookbook. These have rapidly established themselves as a brekkie standby, not least because they’re so easy to cook. Their simplicity belies their deliciousness. I swapped the Parma ham from their original recipe with some slivers of locally hand-crafted air-dried ham from my friends at Porcus. Their rare-breed pork is heavenly, and I’m privileged enough to get samples of their splendid ham from time to time. These were perfect to line the ramekins, before cracking a hen’s egg in each. But I felt I needed something a tad more substantial to accompany these, so I made some potato bread – a family favourite – for the first time ever.

As Miss South’s previously explained, it’s meant to be made with leftover mashed potato, but that’s rarer than hen’s teeth in my house, so I quickly cubed and boiled up a few spuds, ran them through the potato ricer, then mixed in some plain flour & a knob of butter to create a light dough with a bit of bite. Proportions may vary depending on how waxy/floury your spuds are, but normally you want 4 to 5 times more flour than mash. Miss South’s said it before and we’ll say it again: potato bread is dead easy… it takes a Herculean effort to mess it up. A perfect compliment to any kind of ham and eggs…

Wheaten bread, otherwise known as brown soda bread, is another one of those wonderfully yeast-free breads we love back home. As with soda farls, the secret is the baking soda which helps it rise. You can buy it in many supermarkets, ready-made and branded courtesy of Paul Rankin; and both it and the more well-known white soda breads are gaining popularity on this side of the water. No wonder, it’s both healthy and oh-so-tasty. The ever-reliable Dan Lepard popped up on Women’s Hour’s “Cook the Perfect…” last week with his own take on it, and this spurred me on to do it the North/South way…

We’re a bit more old school in our family, and the core ingredients for wheaten bread are normally just flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and a pinch of sugar. Wheaten bread’s at least as easy to make as potato bread, especially if you have some Northern Irish wheaten bread mix to hand (thanks to my mum for bringing some across this summer). Of course, you can instead use a good mix of plain and wholemeal flour instead… but try and use as coarse and bran-heavy a mix as possible, as this really contributes to the flavour. In a mix, the baking soda’s already in place, so today all I had to do was add buttermilk and sugar.

I’m lucky enough to be able to get buttermilk in my local Morrisons, but I hear it’s hard to source in many parts of the country, so you can use full-fat milk and sour it with some lemon juice, or mix in some live yoghurt instead. Use roughly 3 parts flour to 2 parts buttermilk… in this case I used 500g of flour and about 330ml buttermilk, with a teaspoon of caster sugar just to bring out that nuttiness of the bran even more.

Mix it all up until you get a nice dough, not too sticky or overworked. Then normally I’d roll it out into a roundish shape, about 1″ / 3cm thick, before scoring the top into quarters. I dusted it with a little plain flour, but it’s also good finished with some chopped rolled oats.

As I was mixing the dough I realised I’d not made this for far too long; in fact since I went to Rotterdam to visit friends from all over Europe and enjoy a good shared meal. My Italian mate knocked up some fantastic food, so I thought it’d be right to bring a decent Irish loaf to add to the mix. Most people smuggle addictive substances out of the Netherlands: I may be the only person to have smuggled a loaf of wheaten bread in!

This is a bread with instant gratification in mind, with no leavening or proving required. I baked this straight on the shelf in a pre-heated oven, rather than on a tray, for 35mins (200C/400F/Gasmark 6) straight. Once it came out, sounding hollow when tapped, it had to sit and cool down on a wire rack. This is one of my strongest kitchen memories as a kid. I used to hang around, greedily watching while my mum baked glorious bannocks of wheaten bread, but the hardest part was waiting for them to cool, far too slowly, on a wire rack, with a tea towel covering them. As I found out today, self-control still isn’t one of my strong points when it comes to wheaten bread, even after all these years. We succumbed while the bread was warm enough to melt great slatherings of butter.

Simple and effective with good butter, though I had a last-minute hankering for a bit of blue cheese, which works so well with the nutty sweetness of the bread. Cashel Blue would be the natural Irish choice, but I was able to pick up some very decent Jervaulx Blue instead, which I enjoyed along with a pot of Yorkshire Tea. Living just inside West Yorkshire, it seemed a perfect choice. It also makes superb toast. If you’re looking for something a little more special, slices of buttered wheaten bread alongside some good Irish smoked salmon, finished with a sprig of chervil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some cracked black pepper is to die for.

*”Oh wheaten it be nice…” with apologies to the Small Faces…

 

Parlour Café Cookbook spread

From parlour to table: what makes a great cookbook?

Parlour Café Cookbook spread

What is it which turns a cookbook from being something which we merely reference and use, to something which instead we cherish and revere?

Is it the look and feel of the book itself: how it feels in the hand or lies on the kitchen table? Is it the cadence and character of the author’s writing; the photographer’s eye for detail, or illustrations which bring the writing to life? Or is it perhaps the core attraction of the book: the recipes themselves. How good are they; how easy are they to follow; how confident do they make you in being able to achieve something new and exciting?

I love how we can build up close, loyal and loving relationships with some cookbooks: they draw us in, distracting and tantalising; beckoning and beguiling. They may act as good companions on lazy Sunday afternoons, keep us up reading at bedtime, shape our shopping habits, push us to try new techniques, and open new doors with attitudes and concepts. The relationship one builds up with a good cookbook is so personal, and almost intangible… we can all think of certain books which we really love.

Both Miss South and myself have an ever-growing selection of cookbooks which we consult, covet and collect. We grew up surrounded by cookbooks from luminaries and little-known authors alike, lucky enough to have bookish parents with a penchant for collecting recipes and expanding their repertoires. Both of us have carried that interest through to our adult lives, hence groaning kitchen shelves and well-thumbed tomes which’ve found a place in our hearts. Of course, we also have our own notebooks too; full of cuttings, tearings and recipes passed down from family and friends; but the cookbooks on the shelves are what we both go to first.

Recently I’ve been thinking more than ever about what makes a good cookbook truly great, looking from both a consumer and a producer’s perspective. Keen-eyed readers may recall that, during the summer, I highlighted a couple of great recipes from a cookbook which I’ve been involved with. That book, the Parlour Café Cookbook by Gillian Veal, was launched recently at the Dundee Literary Festival, and it’s been selling like hot cakes (or hot pithiviers) ever since.

Parlour Café Cookbook cover

My involvement started when I was contacted by a prospective client earlier this year, and asked whether I’d be interested in designing and typesetting the inaugural publication from a new publisher, Kitchen Press. The brief was quite loose, but it would involve working with the author and illustrator to convey the atmosphere and ethos of a small café in Dundee. I’d never visited the café or met the protagonists, so everything hung on my initial impressions of the writing itself.

However, after being sent an early draft of the manuscript, alongside some illustrations, I was hooked. I loved the Mediterranean-influenced recipes, the emphasis on homely and local ingredients; the calm, instructive tones; and a quiet confidence in demystifying the art of the kitchen wherever possible. It was fun, personal, down-to-earth… and perhaps most importantly, the recipes sounded truly delicious!

Like any creative, a good cookbook author should excite, educate and entertain their audience. Gillian’s writing is confident and straightforward; informed by her passion and experience, but capturing some of the quirky, personal features of this tiny little café on a steep Dundee hill. Striking a good balance between the wholesome (some super salads and healthy, hearty soups) and the utterly decadent (cake recipes which have been getting even me, the non-baker all hot under the collar).

Just as importantly, the book is visually brought to life by Jen Collins‘ enchanting illustrations. Her quirky line drawings are a delight, and I challenge you to suppress a smile when you see them accompanying the recipes in the book. Despite being a photographer, I was really pleased to work on a book where the decision had been made to focus on ingredients and stories using only illustrations.

This, incidentally, is not a book review. Yes, I wholeheartedly admit that I’m biased, having spent time and energy working on this book, so it’s not right for me to attempt to sound neutral and dispassionate. We’re always upfront here on North/South Food about any biases or influences, and my professional involvement in this project is happily admitted. I loved working on this debut book from a passionate, independent new publisher, trying to help make it the kind of cookbook you won’t just like, but will love and cherish.

The best measure of that is how often I’ve dipped into it since getting that initial manuscript… it’s not left the kitchen table in months. My favourite recipes? Well, I’ve not worked my way through the whole book yet, but honourable mentions must go to Parlour Panzanella; Chorizo & Chickpea Stew; Squash, Apple and Ginger Soup; Parma Baked Eggs (above, topped with a tiny homegrown tomato and finished with heavenly ham salt); those aforementioned Rosemary & Anchovy flatbreads and the amazing Puy Lentils and Goats Cheese Salad. I’ve not yet started on the Desserts section, but I’m making the Banana Bread with Coconut and Toasted Nuts soon; and the Parlour Baked Cheesecake is a definite. Along with most of the other recipes in the book…

You can check out a selection of the recipes on their Facebook page, or use Amazon’s Look Inside feature to peek inside the book. As a taster, you can also download a PDF with four of the Café’s most popular recipes on them. Just click on the image below.

Parlour Café postcards

So I hope this post has made you think a little more deeply about what cookbooks you love; and in the meantime, make a suggestion to add another to that favoured list. It might not be possible to go to Dundee for a wickedly good lunch, but now you can enjoy it in the comfort of your own home. Or you could just enjoy curling up in front of a fire on a cold night, feasting on the recipes and supporting more regional food talent…

A warm salad for warm summer nights

So, I’ve recently returned from a week’s holiday in the warmth and civilisation of Languedoc. It’s not a part of the world I was familiar with, and as well as good weather, my companions and I enjoyed a week of superb local food and wine. As they’d been to the area before I enjoyed some local delicacies under their guidance, and we made plenty of new discoveries too. We ate simply, and tried as much as the short timescale could allow (finally ticked bouillabaisse off my list of ‘to dos’, cooked superfresh whitebait, and gingerly tried freshwater clams which we’d sourced ourselves from Lac du Salagou). Plus freshly picked figs & plums everyday, moules et frites at the local village knees-up, and a host of other delights.

I’ve only warmed in recent years to classic French cooking – my reference point was always further south in Italy – and I associated French with more courtly and less rustic cooking. However there’s a healthy overlap between the high-end and the more accessible, so I’ve been expanding my repertoire and gaining more confidence talking mirepoix rather than soffritto. In part this helps when you’re in an area where the aroma of herbs hangs heavy in the air – wild thyme and mint nestling next to tall fennel plants in the verges – and bushes and trees are laden with fruits and nuts. Foraging and gathering becomes a daily constant, not an occasional novel experience.

I’d mentioned previously I was working on the forthcoming Parlour Café Cookbook: before going on hoilday I’d worked up several of these recipes into postcards, and one in particular stuck in my mind: a warm salad of Puy lentils and goats cheese. It’s one of the star recipes in the book and supposed to be a favourite with the regulars,  so I decided to give it a whirl.

We picked up most of the ingredients in the local supermarket before a trip up country to visit Roquefort and Millau – great cheese, rather dull tour of the caves, although I did pick up some sheep’s butter there – and on the way home had to make our respective ways through an enormous, spectacular and somewhat frightening electric storm. Everyone was a bit frazzled by the end of the trip, so it was rather relaxing to potter around in the kitchen, unwinding with a glass in one hand and a stirrer in the other, unwinding while knocking this oh-so-simple recipe up. Mind you, it’s always fun find your way round somebody else’s kitchen for the first time, making the most of what you find lurking in the cupboards.

It still makes me smile that this most Mediterranean of dishes actually comes via Dundee, but using local ingredients (and some great local wine) meant it was perfectly transposed to a more Gallic setting. Rather than rewritng this I’ll use Gillian’s words from the cookbook, annotated slightly.

Puy Lentil and Goats Cheese Salad

Serves 4

●200g Puy lentils [oddly they weren’t labelled as Puy but verte]
●1 onion, chopped
●1 carrot, chopped
●2 stalks of celery, chopped [wonderful dark green celery, still with all the leaves]
●A handful of fresh thyme [straight from the local hills]
●1 bay leaf
●150ml extra virgin olive oil
●3 – 6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped [I used the full six cloves, and it was extremely feisty… I guess due to the freshness of the garlic. No worries about being bitten that evening!]
●50ml red wine vinegar [I couldn’t find any in the store cupboard so I used a mix of balsamic & some red vin du table instead]
●100g goats cheese [we used a local, strongly flavoured little number]
●a large handful of parsley, roughly chopped
●sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the lentils in boiling water for 20 minutes, until they are absolutely tender.

Meanwhile, fry the onions, carrots, celery, thyme and the bay leaf in a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil until soft and lightly coloured. In a food processor or with a hand blender, blend the garlic with the rest of the olive oil. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the vinegar and blend until it’s emulsified.

Drain the lentils and pour out onto a flattish dish. Smother in the garlicky dressing and turn gently so everything is glistening. Once the vegetables are cooked, gently mix them into the lentils and leave the salad to cool.

Then toss gently with the goats cheese, torn into chunks, and the parsley. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper if you think it needs it.

The only major change I made was that a couple of our party didn’t like goats cheese, so we served their portions first – they had comté instead – then crumbled the cheese in afterwards. We’d also picked up some smoked sausage to add some savoury notes to the dish. Otherwise we kept it simple – a hunk of fresh bread, a fresh green salad on the side, and some local wine to help everything go down.

This is such a good recipe: it doesn’t take long to make, tastes stunning, and it’s most evocative of warm summer nights and lazy times. I can see why it’s a favourite at the café, and I think it will be with you too. Delicious!

Rosemary and anchovy flatbread

Going flat-out for flatbread …

Rosemary and anchovy flatbread

We’re both fans of fast, healthy and delicious Mediterranean-influenced food here at North/South Food. Miss South is definitely more confident and experienced when it comes to baking than I am, but a recent recipe I came across persuaded me to pander to my basest kneads and enjoy my daily bread.

I’m currently designing a cookbook for the wonderful Parlour Café on West Port in Dundee, run by Gillian Veal. Over the last few years her delicious and unfussy cooking styles have added some sunshine to the local food scene, and her recipes have become firm favourites with many Dundonians. So it’s perhaps only natural that Gillian’s sharing some of her favourites recipes with the wider world.*

One of the pleasures (or should that be perils) of receiving the manuscript for a cookbook is trying to resist the urge to try out all the recipes: in this case as soon as I saw the recipe for rosemary and anchovy flatbread I was powerless to resist the temptation to snip sprigs of rosemary and crack open a tin of anchovies. Rosemary oil and salty fish on warm bread? Instant win!

Having made these a couple of times now I’m a major fan. Incidentally they’re so moreable I challenge you to make them last more than one sitting. Perfect with some home-made smoky hummus or an edamame bean dip.

So without further ado let me share this recipe, in Gillian’s own words, alongside my photos. Enjoy!

Gillian’s Rosemary and Anchovy Flat-Bread
Makes 8 – 10 flat-breads

● 250 grams wholemeal flour
● 250 grams of plain white flour
● 250 ml warm water
● 1⁄2 a teaspoon of dried yeast
● 80mls olive oil
● 12 anchovy fillets
● 1 sprig of rosemary ● sea salt and pepper to season

“Mix both flours in a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and gradually pour into the flour while mixing with the other hand. Pour in 60ml of the olive oil as well, and keep mixing until the ball of dough comes together. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it becomes smooth and elastic – you will feel the dough changing and it will bounce back when you stick a finger into it (5 minutes should do it). Cover the bowl with cling-film and set aside somewhere warm for about one and a half hours.

Meanwhile prepare the topping. Tear the leaves off the sprig of rosemary, chop them roughly and bash them up in a mortar and pestle with the anchovies and a glug or two of olive oil until you have a rough paste.

When the dough has about doubled in size, punch it down, gather into a ball and divide into 8 – 10 pieces depending on how many people you’re feeding and how big you want your breads to be. Heat up the oven to 220C, and put in two lightly floured baking trays. Roll the dough pieces out into rough circles, about half a centimetre thick, and evenly spread with the anchovy and rosemary paste. Push it into the dough with your fingers and make sure they’re well covered.

Get the hot baking trays out of the oven, and place the waiting flat breads on them. Sprinkle with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil and put back in the oven for around 6 minutes until they are golden and starting to puff up”

 

*If, as I suspect, this recipe whets your appetite then I urge you to buy the book when it’s published later this autumn by Kitchen Press. Wonderful recipes and delightful illustrations make this a perfect kitchen companion. We’ll have full details on here closer to the time…