Monday, 26 September 2011

French onion soup with gratinated toasts

French food is remarkably varied. Like any large country, its geography changes as you travel across it, and correspondingly, the flavours and ingredients change. I can't claim to be any kind of expert on the subject of French food, and will not pretend to be. I can recognise how the dishes of the south are influenced by the ingredients of the Mediterranean and France's neighbours situated around that sea. I can also see how the dishes of the north reflect its cooler climate.

If you overlook the regional variations, there are 2 categories of French food; fine dining dishes which you will find served in the more classy establishments, and 'country' style cooking; the more rustic everyday dishes. It comes as no surprise that the country style dishes lend themselves to home cooking. Most are hearty dishes made with inexpensive ingredients as they were dishes devised to feed farmers and labourers.

One dish that has made something of a cross-over from country dish to fine dining dish is French onion soup. Originally a cheap dish designed to use up stale bread, it is found on the menus of restaurants across France.

Here is my take on French onion soup. This version uses beef stock to get that dark brown colour and deep flavour I experienced on eating this dish during my recent trip to Paris. It will therefore not be suitable for vegetarians or practising Hindus. I have never made the soup with vegetable stock, but would imagine it is still extremely edible, although it will be much paler in colour as a result.

Please be warned: this is an exceptionally simple dish to make, but is a little time consuming. I might suggest this as a weekend dish. As you will see, my amounts make a full supper dish for 3 people, but you could serve up in smaller proportions as a starter for a dinner party, and any soup which is left over makes a wonderful lunch. In my house, the cook's prerogative is taking the leftover soup into work for lunch. OK, I can't do the toasty gratins at work, but the soup itself is a wonderfully comforting lunch as the days get increasingly colder.

Serves 3 greedy people as a supper

1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
3 medium onions
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole (for the gratinated toasts)
½ glass white wine
1 litre beef stock (I use the Knorr liquid 'Touch of taste' product, which isn't too salty)
4 sprigs fresh thyme (you don't have to remove the leaves, by the time it is cooked you just fish the stalks out)
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp white flour

Stale French bread, enough for 3 slices per person
Cheese, such as mature cheddar (or to be more authentic, Gruyère or similar), grated coarsely

½ tsp dried herbes de Provence
½ tsp dried wild garlic
1½-2 tbsp brandy


1. Melt the butter under a low heat. Add the olive oil and mix thoroughly. Bring the heat up to medium and add the onions. Fry for 15 minutes, until golden and softening. Please do not allow them to brown!

2. Add the garlic and herbs, and fry for 5 minutes, again, please do not allow to brown.

Add the sugar, to enhance the sweetness which is beginning to come out of the onions. Mix well. Keep cooking over a medium heat for another 25 minutes. To prevent the onions catching, you will have to keep stirring.

3. Add the flour and mix in. Cook for about 2-3 minutes to 'cook out' the floury taste.

4. Now add the white wine. If serving to children, keep cooking until the alcohol smell of the wine has gone, about 3-5 minutes. Add the stock, and turn up the heat. When boiling, lower the heat to a simmer and allow it to gently bubble for 35-40 minutes.

5. Whilst this is happening, heat up your grill. Cut your French bread into little circular slices and toast them lightly. When done, rub with the whole garlic cloves (this is a great trick for extra tasty Bruschetta, by the way!). Put to one side.

6. When the soup is ready, if you are using it, stir in the brandy. Now fill some ovenproof soup bowls with the soup, leaving space for the gratinated toasts. Put your bowls on a firm base which you can put under the grill (I use the grill pan base without the mesh grill part). You need the bowls to be safe and steady.

7. When ready for the final stage, float your toasts, cover in cheese and grill until the cheese has melted, about 3-5minutes.

8. Your bowls will be insanely hot now, so remove with care (using oven gloves) from the grill and serve.

Delia Smith bakes French bread croutons instead of my little toasties. She drizzles olive oil and sprinkles crushed garlic onto thin slices of French bread and bakes them for 20-25 minutes at 180°C.
Nigel Slater suggests: “Parmesan in place of Gruyère produces a less fatty but just as tasty crust.”

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Real Food Harvest Festival – South Bank, London – 23-25 September 2011

If you are in any way interested in food, every year seems to bring more and more events where you can indulge yourself. 'Taste' now operate festivals in London, Edinburgh and Dublin (sadly the Birmingham event was cancelled) and has a Christmas event 'Taste of Christmas'. The newer 'Foodies Festival' took place this year in London, Edinburgh, Hampton Court, Brighton, Oxford and Manchester. Masterchef has a live show, coming in November. The London Restaurant Festival is soon to start. And you may have noticed that throughout the Summer at London's South Bank, there has been a lively Saturday 'Real Food' market.

To celebrate the end of Summer and harvest time, the organisers of the Real Food market have put together a weekend where you can shop, eat, drink and watch demonstrations by a varied and reputable number of chefs and TV cooks.

Yesterday was something of a small preview, as a large number of exhibitors and traders had not yet arrived and set up shop. However, as the weekend has now started it would appear that there will be over 100 exhibitors running stands. 

Market Stalls in the shadow of the Queen Elizabeth Hall
During my 'reccy' of the festival yesterday, I found a variety of stalls, some selling take home products and ingredients and others ready to consume food and drink. 

Cute little Dutch pancakes being cooked before your eyes!
Wandering around, enjoying the last of the Summer sunshine among the stalls
Being the kitchen geek that I am, it was obvious that the cooking classes and demonstrations in the 'Chef's Demo Kitchen' were going to attract my attention. I had the chance to watch two great demonstrations. 

The first was by Naved Nasir of Dishoom Restaurant. Dishoom (at 12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane) specialises in the food of Bombay, a melting pot of influences from all over India and beyond. Seeking to recreate the heritage of 'Bombay Cafes' (a dying breed in a city becoming increasingly modern), the food is heavily influenced by the flavours of street food. These wonderful dishes are rarely served in UK Indian restaurants, and even more unfortunately, are not documented in any cook books. Naved demonstrated the making of 'Vhera Pao' (AKA Aloo Bonda), a battered potato dumpling served in bread as a street side snack in Bombay. 

Naved Nasir whisking the batter for his potato dumplings
Naved went to great lengths to get the recipe from one of the street vendors who make this dish. Naturally, the vendor was suspicious to give up his trade secret, so Naved had to visit him nightly during his breaks from working in a restaurant kitchen, to beg the secret recipe. After tasting the results, I can see why he was so protective! Naved also shared recipes for the accompaniments to the dish, being two chutneys and a masala.
Valentina Harris shows the correct texture for fresh pasta after being given a little rest
I also had the chance to watch Italian food expert and cookery writer Valentina Harris' masterclass on pasta. Valentina exploded the myth that Italians constantly make their own fresh pasta at home, a process I have found extremely time consuming and occasionally fraught with difficulty. No, they are usually quite happy with good quality dried pasta, and if fresh is needed, it can (and is) bought from artisan pasta makers. Making the stuff at home happens on truly special occasions. Ones which are more special than mere birthdays. Valentina gave some invaluable advice to pasta novices like me, and demonstrated a butternut squash and walnut filling for home-made ravioli.

There are some amazing demonstrations happening over the weekend, including Jason Atherton (of Pollen Street Social), Giorgio Locatelli and Cyrus Todiwala.

So if you are thinking of having a day out this weekend, you may want to visit the Harvest Festival. Fuller details of the exhibitors can be found on the Festival Website.

If you want to know more about the planned cooking classes and demonstrations, click here for the  Timetable for the demonstrations


Thursday, 22 September 2011

Art and Food; Kate Jenkin's Crocheted Market

If music has been accepted for centuries to be the food of love, can food nourish art? Obviously artists, like all of us, need food to drive the engine of the human body. But can food also provide the inspiration for art itself?

In the earlier days of art, when it was paid for by rich patrons and served as a way to show their piety (in the hope it would buy their ticket to heaven), art covered religious themes and so the only appearance of food would have been in that context. The forbidden fruit, the loaves and fishes and the Last Supper would have been the possible food-related subject matters. In other words, the food played second fiddle to the moral message of the painting.

Later, secular themes became more common, as those who could pay to commission or buy art were willing to pay for other works. This meant that anything which inspired an artist could become the subject of a work, including food. Still life paintings depicting bowls of fruit and other foods were a particular part of the golden age of Dutch painting, some of the works being so realistic you almost want to grab an apple, wipe off the lovingly rendered drops of condensation on it and tuck in! As you move through art history to the bizarre allegorical paintings of Arcimboldo, the rural agricultural paintings of the great landscape painters, we get to the art which seems to capture my imagination; the Impressionists and ‘Modern’ art movements.

Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters is a dark vision of simple peasants living a simple life and eating potatoes; the simplest of foods. Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe uses food as an excuse for his audacious vision of a picnic; two fully clothed men out in a park with two women, one in paddling in her underwear and another completely nude. Dali’s Autumnal Cannabalism is a meditation on love, food and appetite, begging the question of whether these appetites can be sated without self-destruction or destroying each other. Then of course we get to Warhol reclaiming food commodities in his Factory, with the famous line of Campbell’s soup can paintings (the relevance of which will become clear later!).

All of this brings me to a fascinating and playful exhibition at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery at 28 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London (W1T 2NA). Artist and former fashion designer Kate Jenkins (she has designed for Marc Jacobs, Missoni, Sonia Rykiel and Donna Karan) is currently displaying her latest crocheted food works in an exhibition entitled Kate’s Crocheted Market. Extended until 1st October 2011, this is a fun set of works whose skill should not be underestimated. If you’ve ever tried crochet, you will know what I mean!

Kate Jenkins has been working on these artworks for the last year, which means she must be very hard-working indeed; there are 70 exhibited works on display. She has been crocheting art work for years, having learnt the skill as a child. Her first food related exhibition, Comfort Food, was exhibited in 2007. The food she has captured varies from commercial food products to iconic dishes. I was struck by the humour of them which is energetic, nostalgic and joyful. Childhood sweets are rendered in careful detail, the viewer wanting to unwrap and eat them immediately. Fishes are covered in glittering sequin scales. Piggy faced sausages smile, begging to be made up into a delicious sausage butty. Cheeky moustachioed French Fries and Mexican Chilis put a smile on your face.

Catch this exhibition whilst you still can, here are a few of the highlights....

Pork Pie, 2010

Large Sardine Tin, 2011

Wool’s Sewsages, 2011

Woolpride Wool Self Knitting, 2011

French Fries, 2011

Pot Needle, 2011

Campbells Soup, 2011

Thursday, 8 September 2011

More ways with Char Siu Pork - #3: Stir fry noodles with Char Siu Pork

Some time ago I wrote a couple of recipes using some Char Siu pork (a Chinese preparation of pork which is covered in a spicy, sweet glaze and then roasted). The first can be found here: The second, here: . Well, I've been back to the Chinese supermarket, and dreamt up some new creations using this wonderfully tasty ingredient, which is really beginning to surprise me with its versatility.

Many of us commonly cook stir fries as a weekday supper. Easy to prepare, quick to cook and easy on the pocket, they fit the post-work meal bill perfectly. I used to be guilty of buying those sachets and jars of Sharwood's or Blue Dragon sauces from Tescos and the like, and was often disappointed by how bland and oversweet they often were. It was not until seeing street chefs in Cambodia and Thailand use a combination of Chinese style condiments that I realised that there is life beyond a jar of sweet and sour sauce. I've not been brave enough to ask any of them for their recipes, but definitely noted that the use of a fresh base of aromatics (ginger, garlic and chili) made the shop bought ingredients sing with vitality.

I used a combination of sugar snap peas, beans, pepper and mushroom here. Partly because they were the veggies I had left in my fridge at home. You will have noted from a previous 'Waste Not, Want Not' post that I don't approve of food wastage. However, you could substitute for mange tout, asparagus, tender stem broccoli, ung choi, or choi sum. More exotic mushrooms than the organic chestnut ones I used would work well. Spring onions would have gone in to the dish if I had them in the house, but they never last very long, being a favourite ingredient for salads. All that you need to do is make sure that whatever veg you put in is no bigger than 2-2½” so that they cook quickly and can be eaten with chopsticks easily.

Serves 2


1 Thai red chili, very finely chopped (1-2mm squares)
3 cloves garlic, grated or very finely chopped
1” piece of ginger, peeled then grated or very finely chopped
7-9 sugar snap peas, cut in half
7-9 french fine beans, cut in half
½ red pepper, cut into small batons
3 mushrooms, cut into thin slices
1 head pak choi, cut into small chunks
200g char sui pork, cut into thin slices
2 nests medium egg noodles
2 tbsp groundnut oil

Ingredients all prepared and good to go!

2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp hoi sin sauce
1-2 tbsp water (enough to loosen up the sauce so it coats the noodles)


  1. Cook the noodles according to the pack instructions. Mine required being boiled for 4 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water to wash away the excess starch. Leave to one side. If it is going to be a while before you cook the stir fry, lightly dress in some extra groundnut oil to prevent them sticking.
  2. Meanwhile, blend the sauce ingredients together in a jug until of uniform consistency.
  3. Heat the groundnut oil in a wok until hot, but not smoking. If you heat up the oil too highly, your aromatics will burn and stick to the bottom of the wok. Add the aromatics and stir around for 30 seconds. Now add the pak choi and stir for another 1 min - 30 seconds.

  4. Add the fine beans and stir fry for two minutes. 

  5. Now add the mushrooms and peppers. You may need to turn up the heat to keep the wok hot, now that you have quite a few ingredients on the go. You don't want the wok to cool or the veg will start steaming in its own juice rather than stir fry. Stir fry for two minutes.

  6. Add the sugar snaps. Stir fry for one minute.

  7. Add the sliced char siu pork. This will need 1-2 minutes depending on how thinly you have sliced it up. It needs to be thoroughly heated through.

  8. Add the noodles. You will now need to stir through very thoroughly to ensure all of the noodles don't clump together and they absorb the heat. Cook for 1 minute.

  9. Add the sauce and mix up so that it coats all of the meat, veggies and noodles. Cook for 1 minute. Check the meat and noodles are piping hot. 

  10. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

How to make a Mixed Bean Salad

I need to be kept away from nice food shops; delis, specialist grocers, heck, even Waitrose! Why? Because even though I have a list of items which I am meant to get, I end up wandering around, picking up all sorts of things because either 'That looks nice!' or 'Oooh! That will come in useful!'. I ought to be more disciplined. I try to make sure whenever I go shopping I always have a list, and that I am not hungry when I go (being hungry when you go food shopping is guaranteed way of buying a whole load of stuff you neither need nor can use within their best before dates), but I usually buckle under the pressure of temptation.

So, on one such trip to Waitrose, I picked up a packet of dried mixed beans. I was attracted by the lovely colours and the sheer variety of sizes and shapes of bean in the packet. It was like a party of colourful happy little beans going on, how could I resist?! Thankfully not a product to break the bank (currently available for £1.09 for 500g), it went straight in my basket with not much in the way of thought as to what I'd do with them.

Poor packet of beans! They languished in my larder drawer in the kitchen for a long time, unused and unloved. I'd been inspired by their looks to bring them home, but had no idea of how to show them real love by making something tasty with them.

I had to put my thinking cap on, before thinking that they could be made into a salad in much the same way as you might make a French style rice salad; boiled up, drained and soaked in vinaigrette whilst still warm to soak up all the flavours.

One word of warning: you do need to remember to soak the beans the night before you intend to make this dish. If you forget, don't try to boil the beans for longer in the hope they will cook through eventually. Chances are you will end up with some of the beans being cooked and others rock hard. (Unless you are prepared to cook them in a pressure cooker, which I do not possess).

Here is my French-inspired Mixed Bean Salad, then. One for the vegetarians, since I've neglected them for quite a while, who may want to serve it with some grilled halloumi cheese on top, or perhaps with some rocket salad by the side. Him Indoors and I being fully signed up meat eaters had this with pork chops!

If you don't want to use the Waitrose bean mix, then you could make your own bean mix. I'd say you didn't need as many varieties as 10. Equal amounts of borlotti, cannellini, flageolet, and red kidney beans would be just right for this salad. Same rules about soaking overnight apply.

You may notice from my pictures that I foolishly added some rosemary to the beans when boiling them. I have not included them in my recipe as they do not make enough of a difference to the flavour and they go all soft and lose their colour and texture through being boiled for so long. And you can't easily pick them out once the beans are cooked. I experimented so that you don't have to!

Serves 2-3


150g Waitrose 10 bean mix
2 bay leaves
1 handful fresh flat leaved parsley, finely chopped
3 spring onions, finely sliced with some green included
80-90g sugar snap peas, halved
60g asparagus spears, cut into 1” sections, tips held to one side
80g fine (French) beans, cut into 1”-1½” sections
8 halves of sun-dried tomatoes in oil, finely chopped
45ml olive oil (although you could use some of the oil which came with the sun-dried tomatoes)
20ml red wine vinegar
Ingredients being prepared #1

Ingredients being prepared #2


  1. Soak the dried beans for overnight in plenty cold water in a non-metallic bowl. Drain and rinse thoroughly.
  2. Place into a saucepan with the bay leaves, cover generously in cold water, put on the hob and bring to the boil. When boiling, lower the heat to a simmer. The beans will take 45mins to 1 hour to cook. You may need to scrape off some frothy scum from the top.
    Boiling the beans: note the scummy foam - ICK!

  3.  Whilst the beans are cooking, prepare the rest of the salad.
  4. In a separate pan, bring some water to the boil. Add the fine beans and boil for 2 mins. Add the asparagus and boil for another 2 minutes, then add the reserved asparagus tips and sugar snaps. Boil for a final 2 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water to arrest the cooking process.
    Veggies boiled to retain crunchiness and firmness

  5. Put the olive oil and red wine vinegar in an old jam jar and give a good shake. This is the easiest way of getting them to combine into a vinaigrette.

    Boiled beans: leave out the rosemary!

  6.  Drain the beans in a colander, remove the bay leaves and give a light rinse (but don't let the beans get cold). Put the boiled beans into a non-metallic bowl and dress with the vinaigrette, mixing thoroughly. Add the sun-dried tomatoes. Leave to cool.
  7. Now mix in all the remaining ingredients thoroughly and leave for 5 minutes for the flavours to mix.

    Mix and allow the flavours to combine

  8. Serve with grilled halloumi.

Meat eaters' variation:
  1. Marinade 4 pork chops in 4 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp lemon juice for at least 20 minutes.
    Marinating the pork

  2. Whilst the meat is marinating, heat a griddle pan.
  3. When ready for cooking, make sure the griddle is HOT. Then cook the pork chops for 4-5mins each side. Allow to rest for 3 mins. Serve with or on top of the bean salad.

    The finished dish