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Saturday, 10 December 2016

Chocolate Orange Cheesecake

It's about this time of year that I start planning the menu for Christmas. We have Christmas Day at home and it's my job to create a tasty Christmas dinner for 6, one being a vegan and another a vegetarian. Then on Boxing Day we have dinner with my parents - my mum cooking the main meal but me providing the dessert.

Last weekend I tried out a recipe for a nut roast as the possible vegetarian/vegan option on the big day. Glad I did as it didn't go down well and it would have been a shame if that had happened on Christmas Day. This week I have started trialing ideas for the Boxing Day dessert. There are definitely less complaints about this type of practicing. My chocolate orange cheesecake went down particularly well and is a possible contender so I thought I would share it.

Chocolate Orange Cheesecake (makes 12 slim portions)

For the base
150g plain digestive biscuits
1 tablespoon good quality cocoa powder
75g butter, melted

For the cake
200g dark chocolate
Zest and juice of 1 orange
30g butter
250g cream cheese
90ml whipping cream
25g icing sugar

For the drizzle
Juice of 1 orange
1 tablespoon icing sugar
1 heaped teaspoon cornflour

Plus 13 Terry's Chocolate Orange Minis pieces

Grease a 20 cm circular tin or dish. Blitz the biscuits in a food processor until reduced to crumbs. Stir in the cocoa and melted butter then press the mixture firmly into the bottom of the tin. Put in the fridge to chill. Next, melt the dark chocolate and butter in a small bowl over a pan of hot water. Stir in the orange zest and juice then set aside to cool a little. In a large bowl, mix together the cream cheese, whipping cream and icing sugar until completely smooth. Add the chocolate mixture and stir thoroughly until well mixed. Dollop this mixture on top of the biscuit base and even out to fill the dish. Place in the fridge to chill. Put the orange juice, icing sugar and cornflour into a small saucepan and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Heat gently, stirring all the time until it begins to bubble. It should now thicken and turn translucent. Remove from the heat. Whilst still warm, drizzle the orange mixture over the top of the cheesecake in whatever pattern you like. Return to the fridge to chill for a few hours to set. When ready to serve, mark out the 12 portions and place a Chocolate Orange Mini on each portion.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Vegetarian alternative to Pulled Pork

In the continuing adventures of feeding my emerging vegetarian vegetable dishes that she wants to eat, I decided to buy some taco shells. This was a half thought out plan, knowing that she enjoyed a taco meal a few months back but not really knowing what vegetarian alternative she might like to fill her taco with these days. Not that vegetarian tacos haven't been invented, of course! The problems are 1) we don't particularly like spicy Mexican food, and 2) she doesn't like any form of beans. So definitely not time for a chilli bean filling.

Realising I had a problem and no obvious solution, I turned to my vegetarian friends on Facebook for suggestions. Roasted vegetables and cheese both sounded like good ideas. Then Aida from The Good Times Cafe sent me a link to a recipe that was both Mexican spicy and contained beans. She did suggest I could leave out the beans so I went and had a look and was inspired. Carrots, sweet potato and potatoes are things my daughter will eat and I could see a dish emerging in my head.  The last time we had tacos we enjoyed them with pulled pork and salad and this recipe looked like it could be made into a vegetarian pulled pork substitute. What's more, my friend Turan from Coldsmoking Cookery School had given me a pack of "Pulled Pork Seasoning" a few weeks ago so I merely had to sprinkle this on for authentic flavours.

There isn't a precise recipe for this as I was making it up as I went along and didn't weigh anything but it went something like this: a small carrot grated, a small potato grated, a chunk of sweet potato grated, one spring onion, chopped into fine lengths. Fry the grated vegetables in a little oil for 15 or so minutes until it is golden, adding the spring onion about 5 minutes before the end so not to overcook it. Season with salt and pepper and a good sprinkling of Pulled Pork Seasoning (or it's component spices). Serve as is or mix in some hoi sin sauce too for a sticky texture.

I have found over the years that fussy eaters eat more when the food is presented buffet style with lots of different dishes on the table they can help themselves too. There is something about choosing to put something onto your plate that makes you much more likely to eat it than having a complete plate of food put in front of you. As such, this meal consisted of bowls of salad vegetables, grilled halloumi cheese, a dish of roasted vegetables, a mushroom/onion combo, pulled pork made from actual pork (leftovers courtesy of my mate Mr Fitz) and veggie pulled pork. I dished the potato wedges straight onto the plate to stop them going soggy and to prevent arguments about who had most.

Eventually my daughter stopped eating, declaring herself full, having eaten 3 tacos loaded with her veggie pulled pork, halloumi and salad as well as some of her wedges. Chalking up another small victory, I was happy enough to eat up the few leftovers for my lunch the next day. It was an odd combination of wedges, pulled pork and the veggie pulled pork, which made a tasty accompaniment in my view and altogether a very tasty lunch, and side by side the two types of "pulled pork" looked fairly convincing.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Halloumi and Couscous

It has now been about 10 years that I have been struggling to joyfully feed my picky daughter. I know she is not as bad as many, for which I am grateful, but I cannot help but wish I could serve up an evening meal where what she had on her plate was the same as everyone else and that she actively enjoyed. There are the occasional wins, like a payout on a fruit machine, that make me happy. Then the next day arrives and I'm back to scratching my head and scheming.

It wasn't that long ago that I felt we were making progress when she asked to make ramen noodle soup. For this I had to boil up bones for a few hours to make a bone broth but it was worth it to see her spooning nutritional food into her mouth with enthusiasm. Now she has declared her desire to be a vegetarian. Certainly a contrast to eating bone broth but also made more challenging by the fact that she doesn't like vegetables. A (I hope) temporary stepping-stone has been the arrival of "Quorn" and "Linda MacCartney" products into my kitchen but my own food beliefs of making food from scratch from recognisable ingredients is somewhat at odds with this.

With a stubborn teenager in the house, taking the moral high-ground over animal-rights, the only way to realise my dream of us all sitting down to eat the same meal is for the rest of us to eat vegetarian meals too. This is not all that unusual, actually, as I don't have an overwhelming drive to eat meat with every meal and I'm fully aware of the evidence that less meat in our diets would do us a whole world of good. With an allotment full of free ingredients it makes perfect sense too. Only, up until now I've not made too much of a push in this direction as my picky daughter would reject a veggie meal due to the vegetable content.

A few weeks ago I was at the Stony Stratford Apple day with husband and other (non-fussy) daughter. Having inspected the various catering stalls, my daughter decided she fancied trying the food from Urban Grilla. They were serving halloumi with couscous and my daughter said she had always fancied trying halloumi. I had only tried it for the first time back in May when it was served up as a starter at the MK Food & Leisure Awards and I was sure she would like it.

So we bought her a portion of that and I tried their chicken. Indeed, she did like it, along with the couscous and salad. It certainly was something a bit different from the usual burgers or sausages we enjoy and it made a good value, filling meal.

So, this week, with that meal in mind, I decided to have a go at recreating it at home. Of course, Urban Grilla barbecue their food and it is very definitely not barbecue weather at the moment but I figured a griddle pan would work well enough. Sliced and then fried on each side in a dry griddle pan for 2-3 minutes a side, halloumi is certainly easy enough to prepare.  I served it up with wraps, salad (in separarte parts for personal selection) and couscous. There were a few finely chopped stir-fried vegetables in with the couscous and I had soaked it in vegetable stock but left it relatively bland in order not to offend.

My daughter was suitably impressed when she came down for dinner, declaring the food "something I want to eat for a change." And indeed she did, refilling her plate until she was full and remaining cheerful throughout. Ah... maybe just another random fruit machine pay out... or maybe progress.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Apple Cakes for Apple Day

My life has been somewhat apple-themed of late. Since Mr Fitz asked me to make Apple Sauce for his hog roast at the MK Food Fest, I have been surrounded by bags of apples. I have made several batches of Apple Sauce, Apple Ketchup and Brown Sauce for Mr Fitz and I have made various apple jams too - Apple & Ginger Jam, Apple & Ginger Marmalade, Toffee Apple Jam, Orchard Fruit Jam, Apple & Cider Mincemeat and Spiced Apple Curd. This is partially driven by the need to make use of the apples before they spoil and partially because October is Apple Day season and it is nice to have some apple preserves on sale for those. Last weekend I was at the Stony Stratford Apple Day and next weekend I shall be on hand to provide information about foraging at the Great Linford Apple Day.

The Stony Stratford Apple Day was a lovely day out. I have been attending this event since it started about 5 years ago and I think this year's was the best yet. My daughter always enjoys entering the cooking competition. A few years ago she got third prize for her apple crumble, last year she entered her apple charlotte and this year the competition was for apple cake. A week beforehand she selected a recipe for Dorset Apple Cake and tested it out on the family. It didn't cook according to plan and we had to leave it in the oven for much longer than it suggested but it had a lovely crunchy topping and a lovely flavour. Happy with this, she made it again for the Apple Day.

In the meantime, the idea of creating an apple cake had been ticking away at the back of my brain. I wasn't really thinking I would enter the competition too as I had enough to be doing anyway in preparation for the day but then the idea struck me that I could make an apple-shaped cake using the hemisphere tins my mum had bought me for my birthday a few years ago. You may remember that I once used these tins to create an elephant cake for my daughter's birthday. That had been a banana and maple cake inside so I began to wonder if I could make the same basic recipe but substituting mashed bananas with cooked apple. But, then, of course, there had been the pumpkin cake I had made for Halloween last year. This cake had been a Lakeland pumpkin cake recipe. So.... maybe I could make that but swap the grated pumpkin for grated apples...

That seemed the most likely option so on the Saturday before the apple day, whilst my daughter busied herself with her Dorset Apple Cake, I set about making my apple cake, grating 6 Bramley apples into the batter instead of pumpkin. Once cooled, I sandwiched the two hemispheres together using some freshly made Spiced Apple Curd. Next I cut a little divot out of the top, drizzled over some more of the Spiced Apple Curd and stuck in a cinnamon stick to resemble the stalk.

The next day my daughter and I proudly took our cakes over to the judging tent, where a fantastic selection of other cakes were already on display. Then later that afternoon the winners were announced. My daughter got herself a "Highly Commended", although the critic that came with the certificate said it had a soggy bottom. Alas this proved to be true - such is the problem with cooking cakes with chunks of apple in. Sadly, I didn't get a place and my critic said that there wasn't enough apple in it. Ho hum. Taking home the remains, I have to say that I thought it tasted fantastic and my daughter said it was like some sort of amazing birthday cake.

Apple Cake

320g plain flour
180g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 ground cinnamon
1/2 mixed spice
180g light brown sugar
4 eggs
6 bramley apples
240ml vegetable oil
150g sultanas

Preheat oven to 160°C/gas 3 and grease 2 medium hemisphere tins. Sift the flour into a bowl and add caster sugar, raising agents, salt and spices. In a measuring jug, mix together the oil, light brown sugar and eggs. Add this mix to the dry ingredients, add the grated apple and sultanas and stir together until combined. Divide to batter between the two tins and make for 1 hour 20 minutes until golden brown. Test with a skewer. Leave to cool in the tins. Once cool, sandwich together with spiced apple curd, jam or butter icing.

The idea of the banana and maple cake still nagged at the back of my mind too and I was curious to know if it would work. So, later in the week I made a batch of what should have been banana and maple muffins but I substituted the mashed banana for an equivalent quantity of my Apple Sauce. Oh my! These proved to be a winner, making golden muffins with a beautiful light texture. The Apple Day judges wouldn't have liked them as they didn't taste at all appley but that in itself has its advantages when looking to create a beautifully light plain cake in the future. Definitely one to remember.

Apple & Maple Muffins

110g softened butter
110g caster sugar
225g plain flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 eggs
110g apple sauce

Preheat oven to 190°C, gas 5 and put paper cases in a 12 hole muffin tin. Cream together the butter and sugar then add the eggs (one at a time). Stir in the syrup and then add the apple sauce. Add the flour and baking powder and stir until just combined. Spoon the batter into the muffin cases and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Test with a skewer. Cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Tender Roast Beef

Every Sunday I insist that we sit down to a roast dinner. I know this is a dying tradition but it is one I am keen to hold on to and I do particularly enjoy crispy roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables, slices of roast meat and lashings of gravy. My personal favourite roast meat is lamb, my husband loves pork - particularly if the crackling has crackled properly, and my daughters love chicken.

On 18th September we went out for dinner to celebrate my parents' 45th wedding anniversary - no mean feat! They suggested the Harvester closest to their home and we went early enough to catch the last servings from the carvery. I was glad of this as Sunday without roast dinner just isn't right! Their meats of choice that night were turkey and beef. I wouldn't normally bother with turkey at home as both chicken and duck have more flavour in my opinion and we have a goose at Christmas (another tradition I'm keen to keep alive). I love the flavour of roast beef but when doing it at home it can be as tough as an old boot. Trying to cook a small bit of beef without making it tough is tricky and often results in disappointment. So on this occasion I enjoyed the novelty of turkey and beef and stacked my plate high with roast potatoes, vegetables and impressive Yorkshire puddings.

Last week whilst out shopping I found myself drawn to the beef roasting joints now that my appetite had been refreshed with the taste. I found a bit on offer but it was only about a kilogram - enough to feed the family but difficult to cook. So I asked my friend Turan from Coldsmoking Cookery School how he would cook it for best results. He suggested brining it first then slow cooking it covered for a few hours. This, he told me, would make it fall apart with the touch of a fork. This wasn't entirely what I was after as I was more looking for nice slices than "pulled brisket". So he amended his instructions to brining then cooking covered at 180°C for about an hour, then taking off the foil for the last bit and ramping the temperature up to brown.

Turan's instructions for brining couldn't have been simpler. I found a suitably small plastic container and put it on my scales and zeroed them. Then I added the meat and filled the container so that the meat was covered. Together the meat and water weighed 1500g, so I needed to add 15g of salt to create a 10% solution. I put the lid on the box and put it in the fridge for 24 hours. To cook, I placed it on a rack in a roasting tin and covered with foil then cooked at 180°C for 1 hour. Then I removed the foil and turned up the oven temperature to 200°C. I had been making some Garlic & Ale Mustard for my mate Mr Fitz earlier in the day and I had a little bit of that left over so I coated the meat with it and put it back in the oven for another twenty minutes before finally bringing it out to rest.

I'm pleased to say that the combination of brining and cooking left me with a piece of meat the sliced beautifully and was both tasty and tender to eat. I do believe that roast beef may be back on my Sunday menu from now on.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Banana and Marrow Cake

My allotment neighbour James has an amazing talent for growing marrows. This is not something he particularly works at. Indeed, he is merely trying to grow a few courgettes. I did suggest he should find himself a champion marrow contest to enter but he didn't seem impressed. He was on the verge of throwing away what he considered to be inedible courgettes (but what I could see were beautiful marrows) when I said I could make use of them if he didn't want them. This started a weekly delivery of a crate of marrows. Although overwhelming for some, I know I can make use of the marrows in chutneys as well as in every day cooking and baking. They are lovely in small amounts, chopped up and added to casseroles, stirfries and any number of savoury dishes. They also work well grated into cakes. Indeed, on one marrow delivery, I asked James if he fancied trying my chocolate courgette muffin recipe, which he was enthusiastic about. In fact, since then I've not had another marrow from him!

Anyway, I'm now in the process of working my way through a lovely pile of marrows. I guess we get through 1 or 2 marrows in everyday cooking during an average week. They are particularly good at bulking out mushroom recipes, with onions and garlic added too.

There I was thinking that I would make some chocolate courgette muffins myself when I spotted two bananas in the fruit bowl looking too far gone to survive a trip to school in a lunchbox. Two bananas are a little tricky as most banana bread recipes call for 3 but I thought, like the mushrooms, they could perhaps be bulked out with a bit of marrow. And so Banana & Marrow Cake was born.

Banana & Marrow Cake

350g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
180g light muscovado sugar
75g sultanas
150 grated marrow/courgette
2 over ripe bananas, mashed
3 large eggs
225ml sunflower oil

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and grease a 23cm deep square cake tin and line the bottom with baking parchment. Put the flour and baking powder into a large bowl and combine. Stir in the sugar. Add the sultanas. Grate in the marrow and add the mashed banana but don't stir. Beat the eggs into the oil then add this to the bowl. Stir together until combined. Pour into the prepared cake tin and bake for 1 hour, testing with a skewer. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes or so then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Individual Pork Pies

Having dabbled with making home made pork pies a few times now, I have finally decided I am happy with this recipe. Making individual pork pies is easier than one large raised pie - they take less time to cook and are more likely to be cooked all the way to the middle, and it is possible to cut one open and taste it to check it is OK before putting it out there for the audience to enjoy. To my taste, a pork pie just isn't the same without white pepper and mace but it is worth frying a little filling off to check the seasoning before assembling the pies. Remember that the jelly will add a little more salt to the overall flavour. I use bone broth to add the essential jelly component and this works really well as it is naturally set when cold. Alternatively use half a stock cube in 300 ml of boiling water and 2 small sheets of gelatine. Making the pies in a muffin tin is easy, although I am informed that hand raising the pies is straight forward too, pulling the larger circle of pastry up over a ball of meat before putting the lid on it to hold it in place. I may try that next time. Removing the pies from the tin can be a little difficult if not well greased so not having this element would be handy. Once chilled, serve as part of a buffet or lunch or as a snack with a good dollop of chutney.

For the pastry:
256g plain flour
55g strong white flour
55g unsalted butter
65g lard
1 tsp salt
135ml boiling water
1 egg

For the filling:
500g pork - mixture of pork belly and pork shoulder
2 rashers of bacon
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
Ground black pepper
A good pinch of ground mace
Bone broth (or stock and gelatine)

Using scissors, cut the pork up into small pieces and place in a bowl. Snip up the bacon and add to the pork. Add the seasoning. To check the seasoning, fry a small amount of the filling until cooked and taste. Preheat oven to 190°C and grease a 12 hole muffin tin. Next, put the flour in a bowl and add the butter. Rub the butter into the flour to form a breadcrumb texture. Put the lard in a measuring jug and microwave until melted. Add the salt to the lard and then measure in the boiling water. Pour this mixture onto the flour and stir with a spoon and then your hands to form a dough. Leave to cool until just cool enough to handle then cut into two pieces - one about two thirds of the pastry, and one about a third. Roll out the bigger piece of dough to about 3mm thick. Cut out 12 x 10cm circles of dough and line each muffin hole with the circles of pastry. Spoon the meat mixture into the muffin tin until each pastry case is well filled. Roll out the remaining piece of pastry and cut out 12 x 6cm circles. Place a circle of pastry onto each pie to form a lid and press gently to seal the pie shut. Use a skewer to make a hole in each lid about 5mm in diameter. Brush each pie with beaten egg then bake the pies for 50 minutes until golden brown. Once the pies are cooked, heat the bone broth to turn it into liquid. Use a small funnel to help you pour broth into each pie until it just overflows. Once the pies are cool, place in the fridge to chill over night or for a couple of hours. Once chilled, remove the pies from the muffin tin and chill until ready to eat.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Tasty Mediterranean stuffing

Having got back from the plot later than anticipated on Sunday evening but loaded up with seasonal vegetables, I was faced with the issue of  having to quickly decide what vegan version of a roast dinner I could cook. My vegan step-daughter has been living with us since mid-June now and I have been cooking her dinner every night so vegan cooking is not an issue in itself - just an added task. When making dinner starts with going out to gather the ingredients, it is very much slow food anyway.

I glanced around at the ingredients I had to hand, both freshly picked and supermarket bought, and quickly decided that my best bet would be a stuffed roasted butternut squash. Having cut the rounded bottom end off it and hollowed out the seed cavity, I rummaged around for something suitable to stuff it with. Being August the seasonal vegetables have a Mediterranean slant to them so I decided these were the flavours to aim for. Courgette, mushrooms, red onion, red pepper, garlic and herbs de provenance came together within a few minutes to create a delicious smelling stuffing. This I spooned into the hollow butternut, leaving a few spoonfuls that wouldn't quite fit. Smelling so tasty, it seemed a shame to waste it but it was just too much to fit in yet there wasn't enough to make another meal out of it.

With the squash in the oven, it was time to turn my attention to the meat for the rest of the family. A small rolled lamb shoulder sat in the roasting tin, neatly held together by four elastic bands. Then it occurred to me that it was just crying out to be stuffed, so I took the elastic off it, unrolled it, spooned in the last of the stuffing and reassembled it.

An hour later dinner was ready - an impressive stuffed roast butternut squash for the vegan, and roast lamb with a Mediterranean stuffing for the rest of us. A roast with the taste of summer for everyone.

Mediterranean Stuffing

1 slice wholemeal bread
About 1/3 of a courgette
1 small red onion
About 2 tablespoons Quorn mince (optional)
4-6 mushrooms
1-2 cloves of garlic
A dash of sweet chilli sauce
1 tablespoon tomato puree
Freshly ground black pepper
Garlic salt
Dried herb de provenance
1/4 red pepper
3 basil leaves

Cut the crusts off the slice of bread and put it into a small food processor and blitz to create crumbs. Put into a bowl. Peel the courgette and blitz into fine pieces. Set aside and repeat for the onion, mushroom and garlic. Heat some oil in a frying pan and put in the courgette and onion pieces and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the Quorn if using and fry for another minute to thaw out. Next add the mushrooms and after another couple of minutes add the garlic and fry for one more minute. Add the sweet chilli sauce, tomato puree, garlic salt, pepper and dried herbs and stir well to combine. Spoon the mixture into the bowl with breadcrumbs. Blitz the red pepper with the basil then add this to the bowl. Give everything a good stir then use to stuff vegetables or meat.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Mr Fitz - he knows what he is doing!

I first came across Mr Fitz as a food blogger, writing under the name of Cooking With Mr Fitz. He has, however, got his finger in many pies - quite literally! Indeed, it is hard to keep track of everything he does or to realise that he is necessarily behind a particular business name. It is obvious that he is behind The Fabulous Mr and Mrs Fitz - a hot food caterer specialising in all natural hog roasts and barbecues. He is also involved in Simply Samosas and Pie Club GB and Hog Roast GB. But that is probably the mere tip of the ice-berg as he seems to spend most of his time gallivanting around the world in exotic locations catering for VIPs and, it seems, lounging poolside in his mirrored sunglasses!

To use the word "confident" about Mr Fitz is to understate him. He is very much assured that he has food on offer that everyone would want to eat. I have read about and heard about his foodie delights for a while now but it was not until the weekend that I got my first chance to taste some. Often when I have a stall at a food event I take a packed lunch with me - partly because I don't know if I will get a moment to leave my stall to find lunch and partly to stop myself spending the profits before they are earned. But on this occasion I really wanted to see if there was bite behind his bark and if his food was really as fabulous as he would have you believe.

I started my taste experience mid-morning on a reccy-mission to see what I might fancy for lunch. Mr Fitz was enthusing at this point about the new and exclusive Hawaiian buns that he had created in collaboration with Geoff from Geoff's Real Artisan Bread. Geoff is a patient man and passionate about his bread and I know he has worked with other local hot food business, such as Good Times Cafe, to not just offer them locally sourced artisan bread for their businesses but to ensure it is the best bread for their needs. What Mr Fitz needed was a pineapple bread bun to suit his Cajun spiced pork. That morning the buns were ready for their first taste test complete with the pork and all the trimmings and it was Geoff who was to have the first taste. I, on the other hand, tentatively tried a piece of the pork on its own as I am a bit of a spice-wimp and didn't want to ruin my lunch with something overly spiced. It, of course, wasn't overly spiced but it also wasn't lunchtime so I returned to my stall to serve my customers.

When lunchtime did arrive, I found myself fancying the hog roast sausage that Mr Fitz had on offer. I felt I should have been more adventurous and maybe tried the spicy Spanish but it's the spice thing again. Regular readers of my blog will know that I love a good sausage and this was a good sausage - meaty but not overly chunky, seasoned but not overly peppered or overwhelmed with herbs. This, I think, is a sausage I want to buy to cook at home for the family.

Later, whilst wandering past the stall again I overheard Lesley from Kandola's Kitchen making the discovery that amidst this apparent meat-feast Mr Fitz was also able to offer her a vegan option. This brought Debbie from Minkiemoo Bakery out too and later I heard Lesley trying to extract the vegan burger recipe from Mr Fitz she had enjoyed it so much. Like his first name, there are just some things Mr Fitz is not willing to share.

It was 3 o'clock when the afternoon munchies set in again so I returned to Mr Fitz to sample his pulled barbecue pork. This he assembled into one of the now famous Hawaiian buns and as we exchanged banter he piled in some coleslaw made from various vegetables from his friend's allotment and then dolloped in some sort of creamy dressing followed by something green. He didn't ask, he just did. But he was right. Whatever it was, the combinations worked perfectly and it was delicious. Having consumed the bun, I went back to tell him.

"Mr Fitz," I said, "it seems you know what you are doing."

He reeled off a whole load of places and people he has catered for, being the well traveled caterer he is, but said that he was pleased to get my seal of approval too. I felt I should have given him a badge to formalise my approval but sadly I hadn't prepared one!

After a lovely day at the summer food market, enjoying the general good humored love of local food, it was time to head home. As I slowly edged my way past the collapsing stalls, Mr Fitz leaned down to my open car window and handed me a warm silver foil bundle.

"Have you got a family who would enjoy eating this?" he asked as he passed me the barbecued pulled pork. Silly question.

So, this afternoon, in the absence of Geoff and his Hawaiian buns, I made some steamed boa buns and reheated the pulled pork. This I served alongside strips of homegrown carrot and cucumber, chunks of beetroot and lettuce, cooked French beans and some sauted potatoes. Needless to say, the meal was fabulous!

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Cooking Hogget

I first met Tim from Bourton Farm Food in February at the first MK Feast but I didn't exchange more than a passing nod with him then. This was one of his first events, selling pork and lamb that they had grown on the family farm.

When I was at the Food Fair at Galleon Wharf on 12th June, my table was next to his so I had chance to have a proper look at his wares. On this occasion he was again selling pork and lamb from the farm near Buckingham, some of it in the form of sausages.

I am a bit partial to a sausage so I was interested in his products: a spicy lamb sausage that he said was similar in flavour to kebab meat, a 100% pork, which had nothing other than salt and pepper added to it, and a more finely ground 80% pork with the other 20% being rusk. It is no easy task selecting a sausage that my whole family will enjoy as Steve and I prefer a properly meaty sausage and the girls prefer theirs to be more pasty and, actually, cheaper in quality. Fortunately, Tim had a little pack of four 100% pork sausages that was just the perfect size for me to take home to try.

I was also intrigued by his diced hogget as this isn't a term I come across very often. Tim explained that hogget comes from 1 year old lambs and is part way between lamb and mutton. It would require, he said, slow gentle cooking, but the flavour was amazing. Given that I love the flavour of lamb, particularly casseroled, I was keen to give this go so ! swapped a bottle of brown sauce and jar of chutney for a pack for his hogget.

Thinking about it, I realised that I had first come across the term "hogget" recently when Gordon from Urban Grilla had mentioned that he was now using Bourton Farm Food's hogget in his street food, so I decided to ask him how he cooked it.

"I start by browning the shoulder on a barbecue," he said. "This gives it a lot more flavour than browning it in the pan. After it's got a nice, brown crust, I pot roast it with rosemary and garlic, carrots, onions and celery. I season it well and add a few ingredients of my own and add a bottle of Hornes Brewery Triple Goat porter, whilst trying my hardest not to drink any of it. I then put it in the oven between 120 and 140°C, and leave it to cook slowly for between 5 to 8 hours. I know its ready when the meat literally falls off the bone. Bourton Farm hogget is some of the tastiest lamb I've ever eaten which is why they are our main suppliers."

Now doesn't that sound amazing? Something to put on my "must try" list for sure. Maybe I'll catch up with Gordon and some slow cooked hogget at the Wolverton Food & Fun day on 2nd July.

In the meantime, not having a whole shoulder of hogget to play with, I decided to stick to my original plan of casseroling it. I browned it first, in a conventional frying pan I'm afraid, and added it to some lamb stock I'd made previously from the bones of a roast leg of lamb. To this I added par boiled carrots, celery, leek and butternut squash. Then I briefly fried an onion, some mushrooms and garlic, added a splash of mushroom ketchup, soy sauce and sweet chilli sauce and added these to the dish too. This I topped with slices of par boiled potato before giving it a splash of Worcestershire sauce to finish it off. After an hour in the oven at 180°C, the potatoes were crisp and the meat tender.

I did kind of expect the first mouthful of meat to blow me away - you know, like the flavour of the first hungry bite of steak, onions and mustard - but it didn't. It was tasty and tender but not in your face. Then, gradually, over the course of the meal, the flavour seemed to somehow build, developing a depth and savouriness that younger lamb doesn't have. It was a bit like the opposite to a Chinese takeaway where the first mouthful is amazing and then half way through the meal you get fed up with it. With this casserole I enjoyed the flavours more as it went on and right to the last mouthful. I ended it feeling suitably satisfied.

It was a few days later that I cooked up the sausages to try. They were undeniably meaty and it was nice not to have them over-complicated with herbs and spices. Personally I think they could have tolerated a slightly higher fat content but others might prefer their lean qualities. But it is hard not to feel happy about eating a 100% pork sausage from a local farm for the principle alone so its delicious meaty flavour just seals the deal. Sadly, my daughter refused to even try these, preferring her lesser quality ones, but no matter as they made a delicious cold sausage and ketchup sandwich for lunch the next day.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The ARTearoom - it's all about the setting

Last year when we were in the middle of extensive house renovations, there were days when our builders politely asked if we could just go out for a bit and get out of their way. On such occasions we would try to find somewhere nice for lunch and on more than one occasion we ended up at The ARTearoom at Wakefield Country Courtyard off the A5 at Potterspury. So this year, for our wedding anniversary, we decided to pay a return visit to the tearoom and enjoy a quiet lunch for two.

The setting of the tearoom is lovely; first up a well maintained driveway, then into the good sized car park next to the field and close to the attractive stone buildings. On this occasion, not long after getting out of the car, we were treated to the drama of the hairdresser's dog escaping and excitedly chasing the resident chickens around the car park. Probably not fun for the chickens, or the people attempting to recover the dog, but somehow a typically British moment in time!

Inside the tearoom, it is as always, like stepping back in time to a tearoom from the 1930s or 40s. You half expect to find Miss Marple sat, sipping tea from a china tea cup, at one of the tables. The room is decorated with china teaware and quaint nick-nacks, with artwork for sale on the walls and windowsill and fitting period music playing in the background. This, you feel, is a place you would be happy to bring your nan for afternoon tea.

The use of the word "tea" in the name of this place is definitely significant as tea is a key element. There is a whole section of the menu dedicated to different types of tea and in the past Steve has had a fairly lengthy conversation with the guy who runs the place about tea. It comes in china teapots, with a knitted tea-cosy and a proper cup and saucer, a tiny jug of milk and a mini Jammy Dodger. A big tick for the tea then. I, however, don't drink tea or coffee so I ordered an apple juice and was sadly disappointed with the very much standard clear apple juice that arrived. Given that this tearoom is literally across the courtyard to Upton Smokery Farm Shop, which stocks, amongst other delights, Virtual Orchard apple juice, why was this not what was served?

Every time I come here I order the same thing - a toastie. I have varied it a little between the plain cheese one, the cheese and homemade chutney one and the ham and chutney one. Steve, on the other hand, always goes from the bacon, brie and cranberry one. It is impossible to quibble about the consistency of the lunch because it always comes exactly the same - two triangles of toasties accompanied by salad, a purple coleslaw and vegetable crisps. To demonstrate what I mean, I have included two photos - one from this year and one from last. So if you have it once and you like it, you are sure to not be disappointed the next time. Personally, I do like it, although Steve always says the coleslaw is too vinegary and leaves most of it. As it happens I make a lovely purple coleslaw using red cabbage, red onion, grated raw beetroot, salt & pepper and mayonnaise so in contrast, this version is rather wet and acidic.

On this occasion I ordered the cheese and homemade chutney toastie and I did really enjoy it. Having said that, I do secretly like toasties made from plain ordinary ingredients. This was standard sliced white bread, a mature Cheddar and something that reminded me so much of childhood packed lunch sandwiches that I would swear it was Ploughman's Pickle. But maybe I'm wrong and it really was a homemade chutney... if it was, I'd like the recipe. So I think for a lot of people this would tick the box for a straight forward, not scary, lunch. However, having tasted, as I have, The Good Times Cafe cheese toastie made on Geoff's Real Artisan Bread sourdough I am perhaps forever spoilt!

So, another lovely lunch in a lovely setting and I have to wonder if I should just be happy with that. A lot of people would be and they are customers too. However, I cannot help but wonder if the location of this tearoom means I should expect more. If I am the type of person to drive out here and visit the tearoom and then Upton Smokery Farm Shop, am I not the type of person looking for that little bit extra when it comes to food. Customers of Upton Smokery don't go in there and say, "Well, we could buy cheese cheaper in Lidl and pop it in a sandwich with some Tesco Value Bread." No, these people are looking for something special - maybe local, maybe unusual, maybe just better quality, handmade or with a good provenance. When they drop into the tearoom they are undoubtedly going to adore the decor, the music and selection of tea. Serve up some local cloudy apple juice and lunch made with local artisan sourdough and actual homemade pickle and they are just going to lap it up.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Swan Woburn Sands Refurbished

It is hard to miss The Swan in Woburn Sands, sitting as it does on the roundabout that is so central to Woburn Sands. People who follow The Swan on social media will be aware that it shut in mid-May for a refurbishment. This was a serious re-vamp of everything from the decor to the menu. With it now all bright and shiny and new, I went along, with my friend Steven, for an evening meal to see what it is like now.

It's been a while since I've been to The Swan so I was surprised as I turned into the car park to find that it is now pay and display. I suppose since the Tesco Express opened across the road, they have suffered from people using their car park whilst shopping. It did say that pub customers could get their parking fee back but I didn't get chance to find out how this works because the car park was completely full. This was something of a surprise, it being a Thursday evening, and it was slightly embarrassing to have to perform a very tight three-point-turn in front of all the dinners on the patio! After that I managed to find some roadside parking on the road to Woburn.

Inside, the first impression was very good, as you might expect from somewhere that has just been redecorated. The table was nicely set too and the waiter was attentive. I asked for a soft drink, something along the lines of a J2O, but was offered a slightly weird selection of juices. I plumped for the Apple, Raspberry and Sloe juice and that turned out to be a good decision as it was really tasty - a mental note to try making that combo next sloe season.

For starters I selected the chicken liver, sherry & balsamic parfait with crostini and when it arrived it was just as I expected - pate and toast. This is always one of my default starters where available and I enjoyed this one. The pate flavour was good, the crostini were suitably crunchy and the portion size was appropriate for a starter. Steven enjoyed a plate of scallops.

Next came the main. I had left the house in the mood for a burger and so I selected the wagyu burger. To be honest I didn't know what a wagyu burger was but Steven explained that wagyu burgers are special, with the animals reared in just a handful of places across the world and the animals are of a particular rear breed and they are fed beer and massaged to produce the best quality meat. It turns out the wagyu cattle produce a meat with a high content of marbling and this is supposed to provide a superior flavour. We asked the waiter if he knew what the country of origin was for the wagyu burger and he went off to ask the chef. When he delivered my burger, he said that the chef has told him at length about the burger and its origins but the answer was Australia. Not the most desirable Japanese wagyu then but that is hardly surprising at the price. 

I was asked if I wanted any extras on my burger but as it already came with smoked cheddar, crispy onions, relish, sweet potato fries and aioli, I decided that was quite enough. I was disappointed to see that it came in a brioche bun. This is a food trend that I never took to and is so over-used that it is now positively boring. Why pair a savoury burger with a soft, sweet bread? I don't get it. When I make a burger at home I make fresh crusty bread rolls or toast a bun to crisp it up. Bun aside, there was plenty inside - although the burger itself was somewhat lost amongst the heaps of salad - masses of lettuce, a big slice of tomato and a couple of slabs of gherkin. So, having suitably adjusted the contents of my burger bun to make it possible to taste the meat, I tucked in. The burger itself had a great flavour and I enjoyed the sweet potato fries, onion rings and garlic mayo (or should that be aioli?) too. In the meantime, Steven tucked into his seafood linguine. The menu has plenty of fish dishes on it so I think I shall have to go back at some point with my husband as he loves fish dishes and is often disappointed by lack of seafood variety on menus.

Finally onto dessert and, being the fan of cheesecake that I am, I went for the Baked New York Cheesecake with strawberry coulis. The waiter was pleased with my selection as he said this was his favourite. This was a decent slice, served with whipped cream, a sliced strawberry and a sprig of mint. I was surprised by the lack of sweetness of the dish. The strawberry coulis had a lovely fresh strawberry flavour but wasn't very sweet and the cheesecake was verging on savoury; so much so that I would have been happy to spread it on some crackers. Given that I don't have much of a sweet-tooth, it was surprising that I would have preferred this to have been sweeter - maybe not the cheesecake itself but the strawberry sauce. Steven didn't have such issues with his sticky toffee pudding.

That was the meal over and I had had a very enjoyable evening. The setting was pleasant and the staff had been excellent. The menu and food is a notch up on what you might expect for a pub meal although not faffy or overly cheffy. If you fancy an evening out and a decent meal then you could do a lot worse than the newly refurbished and revamped Swan in Woburn Sands. I'm pretty sure I'll be going back soon.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Life is Like A Box of Chocolates - The Chocolate Mill MK review

At the end of last year I came across The Chocolate Mill MK - a company hand making beautiful chocolate truffles right here in Crownhill in Milton Keynes. It all looked very impressive, professional and tempting. So, when I was asked to put together a local food and drink hamper for LoveMK Day in April, I contacted Steve Mills, the man behind The Chocolate Mill, and asked if he would be happy to donate some chocolates for the hamper. He said yes and a few days later I had a couple of beautiful boxes of chocolates in my hand.

What many people don't know is that in my other life I run a personalised and customised sticker business. This came about from figuring out how to print on labels for my jams. This was way back in the days when my girls were babies and I found myself using my new found skills to create reward stickers for them. And from there a whole other business blossomed, with stickers for every possible special occasion, rewards, teachers, businesses and charities.

Anyway, having looked at Steve's little boxes of chocs I couldn't help wondering if I could help him tweak his labels a little to give them a more professional look that also ticked all the trading standard boxes. Steve was happy to hear my suggestions and a few weeks later I found myself printing labels for his chocolates.

I feel Steve is a man after my own heart who likes to experiment in the kitchen and is forever trying out new flavours. Indeed, he recently ran a competition to ask people to come up with some new flavours. From this Jolly Roger's Key Lime Truffles were born. His partner Cameron has also made a suggestion that led to the creation of Cameron's Cookie Dough Truffles, and even Steve's mum has inspired the new Linda's Peppermint Truffles. Indeed, having spent a couple of hours creating labels for the business, I can say that currently Steve offers 16 different truffle flavours ranging from the original Milk Chocolate Truffle, through some inspired by cocktails to others utilising the zing of citrus fruit. I suspect more will be added to his range in the future.

It is very hard to input tasty sounding chocolate flavour combinations into a computer and not find yourself craving chocolate so I was pleased when Steve said he would bring me over a selection of his chocolates when he came to collect his labels to thank me for my efforts. So once again I found myself in possession of two beautiful little boxes of chocolates. This time I didn't have to virtuously abstain but instead I could fully indulge. Ironically these selection boxes were unlabeled so I didn't know for sure which chocolates I had. A bit of a Forrest Gump moment... except, of course, I was by this point fully familiar with the descriptions and ingredients for each one so I could work out which was which.

It's funny how popular you become when holding a box of chocolates and I suddenly found the rest of the family wanting to share the sofa with me. To be honest I didn't really want to share but it is the way of the world that a mother will always share so I got a chopping board and a sharp knife and ate chocolates in a way I have eaten them before; slicing each one into pieces and then paying proper attention to each mouthful. With my willing assistants on hand, I felt like we were judges on GBBO Creme de la Creme or something!

The first bite of any food is with the eyes and I do find Steve's chocolate really beautiful and tempting to look at. Where often a box of chocolates is an assortment of brown tones, these have bright shades of yellow, green and red and accents of edible glitter. The outside is a shell of properly tempered chocolate the gives way to the knife or teeth with a satisfying snap and inside the filling is soft and smooth. As for the flavours, these were a surprising mixed bag. There were a couple I wasn't keen on but then again I don't think I have ever eaten from a selection box of chocolates and liked every flavour. Then there were others that I could easily have eaten more of and others I loved. From the selection I tried I was surprised to find that I particularly liked the White Chocolate and Lemon Truffles, Linda's Peppermint Truffles and the Lime Cream Truffles. My daughters' favourites were the White Chocolate and Raspberry Truffles and Cameron's Cookie Dough Truffles. There are a few other flavours on his list that weren't in the boxes so I will be keen to try some of those the next time I see him. He's booked in for a table at the Artisan Food Fair at Galleon Wharf on 12th June and as I have a table there too this seems like a good opportunity to taste some more. If you get a chance, I suggest you come along and see which flavours take your fancy too... you never know what you're going to get!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

A meal at the Bell and Bear

Being interested, as I am, in local food and drink, it is hard to ignore the Bell and Bear in Emberton. This pub, run by Jon and Sophie, has been championing local food and drink for years now and for the last two years has won the "Best Use of Local Produce" category in the Milton Keynes Food and Leisure Awards. It would be hard to imagine anywhere else winning this award if up against The Bell and Bear because they really do work very hard to utilise the very best of local food and drink.

I can't remember if it was Laurence from Virtual Orchard or Dan from Concrete Cow Brewery that first pointed me in the direction of Jon's pub. The Bell and Bear stock both Laurence's cider and Dan's beer, amongst their collection of local alcoholic beverages. Indeed, only this week they celebrated their 1000th different real ale. When I met Jon a few years ago he explained about his passion for all things local, how he sourced the ingredients for his restaurant as locally as possible and how some of it was even supplied by enthusiastic locals from the village. Even the bread is baked daily by Gareth from Amazing Grains just a few miles away in Olney. That's not just local, that's "micro-local". Take a look at their website to see their acknowledgements to their trusted local suppliers.

This week I ended up in a twitter conversation with a bunch of other local foodies who were suggesting a meet up for a meal at The Bell & Bear on Thursday. Eating out midweek hadn't been in my plans for the week but this was a tempting proposal - the combination of conversation with other local food enthusiasts and a chance to sample the menu at The Bell & Bear. So with a bit of juggling and family negotiations, off I went.

It is an easy drive out of Milton Keynes to Emberton and the pub is just a few metres inside the village. The entrance to the car park is a little tricky to spot when you are driving and it is a tight fit between the old buildings to the back of the pub but there was plenty of parking space available. I entered the pub via the front door that took me straight into the small restaurant area. This is a small space with just a few tables so it is recommended that you book a table if you want to eat. I could see our table set for 8 but no one else around yet so I went through into the bar area to wait there. At the bar I spotted Gareth, clearly a comfortable regular as well as supplier of bread.

I met with Bob from The Good Times Cafe and we were soon joined by Matt from OMG Hot dog, Gordon from Urban Grilla, Franzi from MK Biergarten, and Mr Fitz. Now assembled, we went through to the restaurant and made ourselves comfortable. Jon came out to greet us and put some faces to names for those he had not previously met.

Our meal started unexpectedly with a shot glass of tomato soup compliments of the house. I have spent a great deal of time processing tomatoes one way or another but I have never tasted another tomato soup with such as depth of flavour. I'm guessing there was quite an array of other ingredients behind it but the overall experience was tasty tomato.

Next came our starter. I had opted for the beef and I thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The beef was amazingly tender and complemented beautifully by the watercress and homegrown nasturtium leaves and the other blobs of flavour on the plate. My favourite bit, however, were the delicious shallot rings. I have recently finished watching the latest series of Master Chef and this plate of food looked like something John and Gregg would enjoy tucking into.

I had lamb for my main course and once again I was served a beautifully presented plate of food. The serving staff, by the way, were excellent: polite and helpful but not overly fussy. By this point we had been joined by Niraj, not a food producer but an enthusiastic local food customer. During the main I was engaged in some intense foodie conversations with Niraj and Mr Fitz and I confess I did not give the food my full attention but nonetheless, I particularly remember enjoying the tender lamb, stacked on a bed of mash, some roasted leeks, wild mushrooms and a tasty gravy. I'm a huge gravy fan and this one (probably not called gravy but a "jus" or a "reduction" or something) was tasty but I would have liked more of it.

At the end of the main course a couple of the guests needed to leave and I thought for just a moment as to whether I was done or if I wanted to stay for dessert but it wasn't a difficult decision to stay. The chocolate option sounded divine but my attention was drawn to the poached peach. This was duly served, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, some raspberries, toasted almonds and honey. The ice-cream was so tasty I would have been happy with just that but the warm peach was a dream too. Opposite, Bob enjoyed the chocolate option and next to me Gordon tucked into a selection of cheeses, washed down with a half of Woughton Orchard cider.

Everyone who knows me knows that I like to cook and I can produce some fine tasting food. Sometimes when I go out to eat I find myself thinking I could have cooked it better myself or at least done it at a fraction of the price. However, after a meal at The Bell and Bear that was not what I was thinking at all. It's a bit like being able to paint your own fingernails but knowing the difference between that and a professional manicure.  I came away feeling properly pampered.

All in all a very enjoyable evening. The company was good and it was nice to be able to drone on about local food without the audience tiring of the subject, and the location and food was just perfect too. So if you fancy indulging in some top quality food, where every ingredient has been carefully sourced and considered then I can't recommend the Bell and Bear more highly. There is no where else quite like it.