soup scallions and butter

Comfort Eating

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!

Love in the Kitchen



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?



Testing Times


Balancing two recipe books at the moment is fascinating. Recipes from Brixton Village, which I’ve just been doing more edits on, is primarily recipes from professional cooks and chefs that I’ve been testing, editing and writing up while Slow Cooked is all my own recipes, created from scratch.

Both books complement each other beautifully and I’m enjoying the challenge and privilege of writing them. Testing other people’s recipes has improved my skills at testing my own, but that doesn’t stop me having a moment when things just don’t work. I’ve only had two or three total failures in the slow cooker since I started testing but it knocks me when it happens. I feel a momentary wobble in my own confidence and then a sense of guilt at throwing out food.

I mentioned this last week on Twitter and people suggested that I needed the company of a canine who would chomp down on anything to counter that one. Sadly the only furry friends near my house are the local squirrels and I’m not sure how fond they are of risotto…

However someone else made an excellent point about kitchen failures. Your failures make your successes possible. And your anecdotes funnier quite often. This got me thinking. When I first starting blogging, I was following other people’s recipes and generally massacring them as I went. Dan Lepard even had to tweet me to try and troubleshoot me wrecking one of his foolproof cakes. Those mistakes gave me something to write about and they taught me how to cook and eventually how to create my own recipes.

I look back on the slow cooked broccoli or my infamous salt fish and leek stir fry or the celeriac and clove soup that tasted like mouthwash with a celery stalk stirrer with amused fondness. I am immensely grateful to my mum who ate everything I cooked when I was 19 and learning my way round the kitchen, even though most of it was probably awful. I’m even more tolerant of those dim and distant Home Economics lessons with rock cakes you could have used as a door stop and ratatouille that more resembled a chemical weapon than a side dish.

Without all those dishes, I wouldn’t have learned to trust my instincts and skills and understand the formula of a recipe instead of simply following the steps. I may have had to go to bed hungry on several occasions after ruining the only food in the house, but it was well worth it long term. I just have to remind myself that mistakes now are all still part of that process and a way to keep myself focused.

They also make my successes something to feel really pleased about. You’re never too experienced not to feel a frisson when your cake rises perfectly or your roasties are the best ever or something else comes together just the right way. The only better feeling is when people use my recipes and enjoy them. There’s something amazing about sharing those recipes and the way it introduces you to new people, places and influences. It makes up for the moments when you ruin 2 kilos of marmalade for sure!

What about you? Do mistakes in the kitchen give you new impetus or send you back to the ready meals? Can you laugh at your mistakes or do you hide them from everyone else?

Festive Flies’ Graveyards


Screenshot 2013-12-27 21.58.46

Being organised enough to make my own Christmas pudding this year is fantastic because it’s given me the opportunity to make these fabulous festive flies’ graveyards (or fruit squares for the more squeamish) with the leftovers.

These buttery pastry squares packed with dried fruit were a must have at every tea time get together when I was a child. Both my granny and my Aunt Kathleen made them beautifully and I felt I had a lot to live up to trying to get mine right, so I’ve kept it simple here for this Observer Food Monthly piece and used my granny’s recipe to be sure.

These are fantastic with some leftover cranberry sauce dolloped in and make a great alternative to mince pies when you are a month into the season. Enjoy with custard or brandy butter for more of a dessert feel. I’m off to whip up another batch for the family now I’m home.

You can find the full recipe here. What other leftovers are you using up this week?

Christmas Wishes

I honestly can’t believe where this year has gone. It seems like no time since ushering 2013 in, but I don’t think I’ve had a busier year than this. Writing two cookbooks in the space of five or six months has kept me busy on shopping, cooking and washing up, while being  enormous fun. I’ve been cooking lots of things that are new to me and so now that I’m back home in Belfast for the first time in twelve months, it’s wonderful to to take a break and return to the familiar, but with a freshness that keeps it interesting.

Mister North is England bound this Christmas so there’s just me and my mum eating together on Christmas Day and we’re revisiting our Christmas classic of beef, but with the twist of it being Dexter beef. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of this native Irish breed until my mum phoned a few weeks ago asking if I fancied a fillet of it for Christmas dinner, but in that way that once you’ve heard of something, you hear about all the time, I realise Dexter beef is the very thing.

A slow growing and smaller sized beef breed, the Dexter gives well flavoured and firm meat that is the very opposite of the soft, almost flabby steak one buys in supermarkets these days. Short and squat, these bulls are like the hard men of the paddock except that they are as renowned for their lovely temperament as the quality of their meat. Almost always organic meat, the Dexter is the breed to watch if you like good quality beef.

I’ve been so focused on recipe testing that I haven’t given a moment’s thought to what to serve with this beautiful bit of beast and if I’m honest, as long as there are roast potatoes and parsnips and a glass or two of red wine, I’m not too bothered about what else goes on my Christmas dinner plate. For me the day is more about the people I spend it with, the love I show them and of course all the other food traditions around the season.

Christmas isn’t Christmas in our house unless there’s a Coca Cola ham. Or some get your hands dirty seafood that involves piling shells up on the plate as you talk and eat and enjoy on Christmas Eve dinner. We often score a Lidl lobster or two, but this year it’s Dublin Bay prawns from there steamed over beer with some of my mum’s excellent home made sourdough to soak up the juices.

I take time off thinking frugally for a day or two around Christmas and raid the spoils of her fridge and her beautiful greenhouse by sampling homemade pickles to put mine to shame and to mainline cucumber relish and slow cooked green figs on the side of cold cuts. I pinch dried chillies, snaffle the remaining raspberries and toast it all with a hot port or two. This year I’m also thinking of a smidgeon of Irish cheeses on the side, some homemade Christmas pudding and custard and a few Freddo frogs with popping candy as the height of indulgence. I might even get the chance to sample some food and drink in the ever changing restaurants and bars of Belfast with friends.

What about you? What are your Christmas must haves or festive maybes? Do you try to try something new every year or do you have yearly traditions? Is Christmas about food or is about the social joy of sitting at a table and sharing the same dishes? Tell all. I love a Christmas tradition story. Almost as good as finding a spare present in the toe of your stocking…

I hope whatever you are doing this Christmas, you enjoy it. And thank you so much for your support and encouragement here over the years, it’s the blogger’s perk above any freebie!