The War of Small Improvements – parasols at Michaelhouse

 What’s my job? My children say that I’m a cook but, much as I love cooking, I don’t spend much of my working week cooking. I’m not really a café manager either – Dean does a great job of that in Hereford and Cameron in Cambridge. I think my real job is as the General in the never ending War of Small Improvements.

Life tends to disorder and this is certainly true in the world of cafes and restaurants. Ovens break down; people get ill or grumpy; flooring becomes worn; bacon is overcooked (my most recent cooking contribution at All Saints was to overcook two large trays of once-delicious Tudge bacon); signage becomes tatty. Dean and Cameron work hard to keep everything beautiful and delicious and my job is, with them and their teams, to gradually try to make everything a little bit more delicious and little bit more beautiful and to attempt to roll back the process of entropy.

Why do I call it a war? Because it is takes an extraordinary amount of persistent fighting and effort to achieve rather small improvements.

For example, about a year ago one of the trustees of the Michaelhouse Centre (who are our landlords in Cambridge) suggested that we add some parasols to our outside tables on Trinity St. I thought this was a good idea and thought that something as simple as getting 3 parasols ought to be quite quick to get sorted. I’ve had long experience of getting rubbish parasols which don’t survive the battering that café use gives them so I headed straight for Mike Kirkby-Jones at Shademakers  who make really good robust parasols. A few weeks later I arranged to meet Mike in Cambridge and he came up with a proposal of what would work for us. This included not only the parasols themselves but also a magnetic lifter and a trolley so that the staff wouldn’t break their backs taking the incredibly heavy bases in and out.

The next stage was to talk to Cambridge City Council who had given us the original permission to put our tables and chairs outside and who have to give their permission to any change in our arrangements. It then turned out that there had been a local government re-organisation and the responsibility for the control of our seating area had transferred to the County Council. So the bloke who’d be given the job in the county council had to look up our original application and see what he thought. He then asked us (perfectly reasonably) to consult with our neighbours about the proposals. This we did and we confirmed to him that the neighbours were helpful and supportive.

Next the trustees and the centre manager (perfectly reasonably) wanted to see pictures of the proposed parasols and a sample of the proposed colour. Finally everyone was happy and (many months after the original idea came up) we were ready to place the order. After a lead time of about 6 weeks the parasols arrived and are looking great – just in time to be told that Caius College are doing building works over the summer (obviously the key season for outside tables) and that we wouldn’t be able to have our tables and chairs on the pavement for the whole of the summer.

Luckily Caius may have very helpfully found us an excellent temporary space for our tables and their new parasols just around the corner and have said that we can put banners on their scaffolding. So what was looking like a defeat in my never-ending war may be about to turn into a victory!

Bridget’s sauce with sea trout, new potatoes and samphire

Sarah’s Mum Bridget was a great cook. Her prime cooking years were the dinner party years of the 1960s and 70s. A couple of times a week she and Jim would either entertain or go to friends’ houses to eat. These were the days when a dinner party involved four courses and a choice of puddings so a massive amount of cooking was done – and that was in addition to cooking proper food every night for the family.

This recipe – fish baked in foil with wine – was, I think, one of the most popular ways to cook fish in those years. Bridget cooked it often and it was always delicious. Since Bridget’s (much too young) death Jim has become a great cook and, now that he lives next door to us, we often benefit and he’s made this dish for us a few times. So, a couple of weeks ago I plucked up courage to give it a go myself and I’ve now done it twice: once cooking a whole seat trout and once using the same method for individual seat trout steaks. The bit I have trouble with (because I’m cack-handed and am unable to wrap presents) is wrapping the fish in foil without tearing the foil. However it’s not a disaster if you do tear the foil as long as you’ve got the package sitting in something that will contain the juices. You can either cook the foil package in the oven with the foil package sitting in a baking dish or, in a fish kettle on the hob.

It’s a dish that cries out for new potatoes and either asparagus (in May/June) or samphire (June to September). If you’ve not used samphire before you’ve got a treat in store. Sometimes called ‘sea asparagus’ it’s a delightfully weird-looking vegetable that grows wild in coastal areas particularly Norfolk and Brittany and is now also cultivated in Israel year round. It’s more often sold in fishmongers than greengrocers. Don’t bother with pickled samphire which (to me) looks and tastes horrible. You need to pick through the samphire and pinch off any hard brown bits at the bottom of the stems and then boil it very  briefly – no more than a minute – in a large pan of boiling water and then toss in olive oil and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice.

Seat trout with Bridget’s sauce
(salmon also works well)
serves 6

1 whole sea trout (approx 2kg), gutted or 6 good sea trout steaks
200 ml white wine
2 bay leaves, torn in half

50g butter
50g plain flour
400ml whole milk

1. Put the fish in a foil with the bay leaves and wine. To do this lay the foil (the wide foil designed for turkeys is easiest to use) on whatever you’re going to cook in i.e. either roasting tin (for the oven) or fish kettle (for the hob). Be sure to leave lots of spare foil to wrap with. Lay the fish carefully in and add the wine, bay leaves and two halves of lemon and then pull the edges together to form a parcel. If you’re using the fish kettle add half a cup of water to the bottom of the kettle underneath the parcel so create some steam.

2. If baking, then bake at about 180C for about 20 minutes (longer for a whole fish) until the fish is just cooked. If cooking on the hob, steam for about 10 minutes (again, longer for a whole fish) until the fish is just cooked. For those like me who are not highly experienced fish cooks there is no substitute for putting a knife gently in to the thickest part of the fish and looking to see if the flesh has gone opaque – which means it’s cooked.

3. When the fish is just cooked, carefully pick up the foil parcel and, forming a spout with one end of it, pour off the cooking juices. Dont’ waste a drop – it’s these juices that will make your sauce unutterably delicious. If you’ve cooked the fish on the hob then make sure you also collect the water from the bottom of the fish kettle.Meanwhile leave the fish keeping warm while you make the sauce.

4. In a smallish saucepan, make a roux with the butter and flour. Warm the milk (in a jug in a microwave is the easiest way). Slowly add the cooking juices to the roux whisking all the while to keep it smooth. Add the milk whilst still whisking. When all the liquids have been added continue to simmer for a couple of minutes to make sure that the flour is properly cooked. Adjust the seasoning and consistency, adding more milk if necessary. Serve at once with the fish and with your new potatoes and samphire.

I’m not generally a great believer in serving at the table (I find it much easier to put food on plates straight from the pans you’ve been cooking on) but a whole fish looks so lovely that it’s worth serving it at the table so that your eaters get a chance to enjoy the sight.

Chicken legs roast with lemon, garlic and Charlotte potatoes


I’ve not quite got a one-track mind but I certainly don’t have very many tracks and I’m currently thinking a lot about roast chicken legs. I first started roasting chicken thighs and drumsticks regularly after trying some garlic and mustard chicken from Frances Leech’s lovely blog . We made this every other day in London in my last few months at the cafe there and we’ve got a version of it on the menu at All Saints tomorrow in a different guise (chilli and cumin roast chicken).

And then last week I stayed with my friend Celie who manages to combine bringing up a vast family with effortlessly serving seriously delicious grub to the many people assembled at her table. After a proper green salad – always a good measure of the care someone takes over their food – and before the blackcurrant leaf sorbet with home-made biscuits,  Celie served up some mouthwatering lemon-roast chicken thighs which she more or less told me were too simple to bother explaining the recipe. In my experience lemon-roast chicken is usually not nearly lemony enough but the juices, the potatoes and the chicken in this dish were all unctuously lemony. The great thing about roasting bits of chicken rather than a whole chicken is that the bits of chicken are sitting in the sauce/marinade as they roast so the flavour penetration is far greater.

Anyway, last night I had a go at reproducing it at home with the last minute addition of some frozen peas, and very good it was too, devoured enthusiastically by all – and with photoes taken by Jonathan.

serves 4

4 no. chicken legs divided into thighs and drumsticks
700g Charlotte potatoes (this gives about 3 each), cut in half lenghthways
1.5 lemons, juiced then cut into quarters
4 garlic cloves not peeled but cut in half
1 tsp salt
4 sprigs of thyme
2 tbs olive oil

200g frozen peas

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C

2. Mix all the ingredients, except the frozen peas, together and arrange in a large, shallow baking dish with the chicken skin-side up. Everything should be in a single layer or the potatoes can take a very long time to cook. Put in the oven for about an hour until the potatoes are tender and the chicken is browned. (A fan oven is not ideal for this dish and if you have to use one you may need to add water part way through the cooking)

3. Add the frozen peas and toss them with the juices and potatoes and return to the oven to warm through.

4. Serve and eat making sure that everyone gets their fair share of the delicious juices.


Strategy for leftovers – part 1

My favourite sort of cooking is cooking with leftovers. It’s like the classic cook’s strategy of going to the market and being inspired by what you find rather than by a pre-decided recipe. But instead of going to the market you just go as far as your fridge and see what’s there and then start thinking laterally.

We’ve just had a fantastic half term week with our house full to bursting (in fact overflowing to Sarah’s Dad’s house next door) with guests and we were all sharing the cooking. A different person cooked dinner each night and, because cooks are naturally generous creatures, there were always plenty of delicious leftovers for lunch the following day. So here are three examples of delicious leftover strategies from this week:

Cheddar/tomato/potato bake

We had a massive amount of mash left over from the night before. So, I put half of it in the bottom of baking dish, sliced tomatoes over and grated some cheddar over that. I then put the other half of the mash on top, added more sliced tomatoes and more cheddar. I then baked it for about 45 minutes at 150C and then a further 10 minutes at about 200C just to brown the top. We ate it with a bit jus left over from some slow-cooked lamb from a couple of nights previously. A crowd pleaser for both children and adults.

Pork and lentil soup

Cold pork chops and some pork and cider gravy were the starting point here.

I boiled about 200g each of red lentil and puy lentils in the leftover gravy to which I added some water, a tub of passata (pureed, sieved tomatoes) a bit of leftover wine and half a bottle of cider. In a separate pan I sweated finely diced onion, carrot and celery and plenty of crushed garliic and a desertspoon of finely chopped rosemary. Once the lentil mix was cooked I added it together with all the cooking liquor to the softened vegetables. I then added the very finely diced meat of the pork chops to the soup and checked the seasoning. It was delicious and made enough for about 15 decent helpings.

Spaghetti bake

For ouf final evening all together Beth had made us a delicious Spaghetti Putanesca. There was a tiny bit of sauce left over but absolutely masses of cooked spaghetti. The spaghetti had somewhat clagged together in the fridge overnight but having practised a bit on my daughter Holly’s long hair, I am developing some fine de-clagging skills. 

So for lunch the following day I made spaghetti bake. I frieda chopped bulb of fennel with a couple of sliced red peppers. I then added the half cup that remained of the putanesca sauce and some chopped fresh tomatoes that had seen better days. I then grated a generous pile of parmesan and cheddar, and put together the bake in a great big lasagne dish: a bit of sauce on the bottom, then spaghetti then more sauce, then mixed cheeses and then a repeat of these layers. Because it was a large deep dish the baking times were similar to those for the potato bake above i.e. about an hour in total with the last 15 minutes in a hot oven. I think it must have been quite good because there was none left for me to eat when I came back late for lunch….

Rhubarb streusel cake

For about half the year rhubarb is the only native ‘fruit’ being harvested in the UK. We start with the delicate pink-stemmed early forced rhubarb from Yorkshire just before Christmas and then by May anyone with a rhubarb plant will be wondering what triffid-like size it will have grown to by tomorrow. As we can tell by its form, rhubarb is not really a fruit but a vegetable. But it’s lengthy availability means that one of the many food quests of my life is to find the ultimate rhubarb cake recipe which we can then use in my cafes for a large part of the year. I think this may be it. It’s moist, rich and rhubarby. The clever bit about its construction is that the base is partially cooked before the rhubarb is added which stops it becoming claggy. At its best served when still warm, but also very fine at room temperature – I’ve just had a slice for breakfast.

It’s very slightly adapted from ‘Seasonal Secrets’, the outpouring of several decades cooking experience from Victoria O’Neil, Australian/Herefordian extraordinaire whose ‘Cooking with Class’ cookery school has delighted and engaged Herefordian cooks for many years.

18cm loose-bottomed cake tin, greased

for the middle
500g rhubarb – chopped into 1cm pieces
75g light muscovado sugar

for the base
75g ground almonds
75g self-raising flour
40g light muscovado sugar
125g butter – diced
1 egg, lightly beaten

for the streusel topping
100g light muscovado sugar (or a mix of whateve brown sugars you have to hand)
75g plain flour
75g cold butter, diced
40g flaked almonds

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C

2. Mix the chopped rhubarb with the sugar and spread on to a baking tray and put in the pre-heated oven for about 30 minutes until if feels tender but not disintegrated. Leave the rhubarb in the tray until you need it.

3. Prepare the base. Mix the all the base ingredients except the egg either in a food mixer of food processor until they look like breadcrumbs. Add the egg and mix again to make a dough. Spread the dough into the base of the greased cake tin and bake in the same oven that you’ve got the rhubarb in for 15 minutes. It will have begun to firm up but won’t look quite cooked.

4. Make the topping. Whizz the topping ingredients together – again either a food mixer or a food processor will do the job. If you want the flaked almonds to stay in large pieces then add them right at the end.

5. Assemble and bake the cake. Take the rhubarb out of the baking tray with a slotted spoon, leaving any liquid behind (which you can keep and use as a sauce) and spoon the rhubarb on to the partially cooked base. Spoon the topping evenly on top of the rhubarb. Cook the whole thing at 180C for 30 to 40 minutes until the topping is beginning to brown.

Try to leave it to cool a little before devouring.