Welsh food and bluebells

bluebell woods 034Yesterday Sarah and I headed for a bluebell wood just outside Crickhowell – a couple of miles from Abergavenny. We found the bluebells and they were truly spectacular even on a damp greyish day. But on the way there and back we also found masses of delicious food. I’m sorry if this piece is a bit like a puff for the Welsh Tourist Board, but we just found so much good stuff in such a short time.

To get to Crickhowell we drove through Hay-on-Wye and remembered just at the right moment that Thursday is market day. The fish stall had some sparkling fresh tuna and I got 5 generous steaks. Last night that became the star of a fresh tuna Salade Nicoise. I boiled some new potatoes and green beans (bought later in the day at Crickhowell) and tossed them with some baby gem and capers in a mustard & honey vinaigrette. I then soft boiled some of our neighbour’s hen’s eggs, quartered them and arranged them around the plates of salad. I seared the tuna steaks so they were still totally pink in the middle and plonked them in the middle of each plate of salad. Really delicious and simple.

Anyway, back to the market at Hay. So, after the fish stall I picked up a couple of marmande tomato plants at an organic veg stall (my son’s seedlings are looking disconcertingly dead so I thought a couple of fallback plants was a good plan) and a bag of mixed leaves including plenty of wild garlic and some mustard leaves.

On to Talgarth for lunch at The Bakers Table. If you don’t know this excellent café and working mill  and you live within reach of the Welsh Borders be sure to search it out.. We shared an excellent tapas plate. Both the Welsh brie (something I’d normally be suspicious of being a confirmed Brie-de-Meaux addict) and the parma ham were really very good as were their own breads (we bought a couple of loaves to take home). Having found that the parma ham came from the local butcher we stopped there next and bought 10 slices cut to order for an unbelievably reasonable £1.68. It turned out that the lady who runs the deli side of the business had been on the staff at our local farm shop in Herefordshire the day Sarah nearly gave birth to our daughter there 11 years previously. It’s a small world in the Herefordshire/Wales borders!

Anyway, from Talgarth we made our way to the bluebell woods at Coed-Cefn which luckily we didn’t have to pronounce. What a place. And then we had an hour at Tretower which combines a medieval manor house with a Norman castle and a beautiful garden.

Another food stop at a butcher’s in Crickhowell where I meant to just buy the veg for the Salade Nicoise, but was seduced by some deliciously dark looking welsh topside. The colour was such that you knew it had been properly hung – the ’28 day beef’ sign was much more than the marketing ploy if feels like sometimes. And finally a couple of Scotch eggs (from the Handmade Scotch Egg company) and pot of fantastically good home-made yoghurt made with milk from their own cows, at the Church Barn Farm Shop at Whitney-on-Wye.

We are so lucky to live where we do with so much delicious and real food. Hip Hip Hooray for Herefordshire and the Welsh borders!

A winter salad

We’ve just had four wonderful weeks away in India – sunshine, spices and a world full of colour. Hopefully there will be something from that trip to feed into the cafe menus before long.

However, the one thing I really missed was our salads. Here’s a simple recipe for a  carrot and cabbage salad with a cumin and orange dressing.  It appears regularly on our menus in Hereford and Cambridge. Just the thing to liven your palate on a drab January day.

1kg carrots
1 large green cabbage – either Primo or Sweetheart
70ml fresh orange juice
140ml white wine vinegar
250ml sunflower oil
2 tbs cumin seeds
pinch of cayenne pepper

1. Grate the carrots finely – it just doesn’t taste the same if you do it coarsely
2. Take the tough outer leaves off the cabbage, quarter it, take out the core and then slice very finely.
3. You can use the cabbage either raw or briefly blanched – I prefer it blanched. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Put the cabbage in for one minute (longer and the salad will be ruined) and then drain.
4. To make the dressing: Put the cumin seeds in a small frying pan and heat until they are browning and smelling delicious but not burning. Tip them out of the pan as soon as they are done so they don’t keep cooking. Then mix them with the orange juice, vinegar and oil. Dean (manager at All Saints) recommends warming the dressing ingredients before mixing with the veg to bring out the full flavour of both the dressing and the veg.
5. In a large bowl, mix the dressing very thoroughly with the carrots and cabbage – insufficient mixing is a common problem with this type of salad.

This makes enough to feed a dozen people but it will keep happily in the fridge for a few days.

Very many tomatoes, runner beans and courgettes

Sarah’s Dad continues to produce massive amounts of deliciousness from our veg patch – it’s ours in the sense that he does all the work until but we help enthusiastically with the harvesting and eating. During the last few weeks the flow has become a flood of tomatoes, runner beans and courgettes. The courgettes we’ve kept manageable by relentlessly picking them small which is anyway when they’re tastiest. The runner beans have been gourgeous. Again, we pick them when they’re still fairly narrow and very tender. They’re so sweet that Holly will eat them thinly sliced and raw. But the jewel of the veg patch is undoubtedly the tomatoes in the greenhouse: a majority of Gardeners’ Delight cherry tomatoes with a substantial minority of Marmande-style large ‘Legend’ tomatoes.

 So here’s a few thoughts for anyone labouring under a similar embarrassment of riches.

 Courgette and feta filo pie

Serves 6 to 8

 This was the first dish we ever cooked at my first ever café and I still think it’s delicious – and it uses plenty of courgettes. Grating all the courgettes takes a long time if you don’t have a food processor. Also, if you’ve got the time it’s really good served with patatas bravas (roast potatoes in a spicey tomato sauce). Just in case you don’t have a copy of my first cookbook ‘Food From the Place Below’ here’s the recipe for the courgette and feta pie:

 1.5 kg courgettes, grated
50ml sunflower oil
100g parmesan, freshly grated
175g feta cheese, crumbled
120ml white wine
1 small onion, very finely chopped
4 eggs

Salt and pepper

50g butter
1 pckt filo pastry, defrosted and chilled
50g pine nuts (optional, particularly as they now cost nearly as much as caviar)

To make the filling

  1. Heat the oil in a large pan and then add the grated courgette.  Cook on a fairly high heat until the courgette is soft.  There will be a lot of liquid from the courgettes, so drain well or else cook over a sufficiently fierce heat in a sufficiently wide pan that the liquid evaporates.
  2. Mix the rest of the filling ingredients together, being sure to taste and season before adding the lightly beaten eggs

To assemble the pies

To make a filo pie you need to line the base and sides of a baking dish with layers of filo, fill it with mixture, and then give it a layered filo lid.  How you ‘patchwork’ the sheets to do this depends to a certain extent on the size (and thickness) of pastry sheets – and they vary enormously.  But generally:

Brush the baking dish with a little of the melted butter and then use sufficient sheets of filo pastry to line it one sheet deep.  Brush this with melted butter and add another layer of filo.  Repeat, so that the baking dish is lined, three sheets deep, with filo pastry.

Pour in the courgette and cheese mixture. Next, cover the filling with filo pastry, making a lid four layers deep and brushed with melted butter like the base.

Bake at about 200C / 400F and Gas 6 until they are golden brown – this should take approximately 40 minutes for a pie that serves eight.

Warm courgette and tomato salad

A sublime and simple dish that uses two of the seasonal glut vegetables

Serves 2 to 4 depending on what else you’re having.

Slice 3 or 4 big ripe tomatoes and turn very gently in olive oil, salt and pepper and then tear a few fresh basil leaves on top. Slice 2-3 medium sized courgettes (or one that has got away from you and is half way to being a marrow) and fry in a little olive on a high heat until they are browned on both sides but still somewhat firm. Put these on top of the dressed tomatoes. Eat straight away.

Pasta with runner beans, cherry tomatoes, feta and garlic

I’m sure we’re not an unusual family in eating pasta at least a couple of times a week so it’s essential to have delicious ways of using seasonal produce in pasta dishes which our medium-sized children (9 and 13) will also like. We’ve found runner beans to be popular with our kids (despite them being both vegetables and green), particularly when dosed with olive oil, butter, garlic and cheese. But then almost anything (except a Jaffa cake) is good when dosed with that combination of Mediterranean flavour.

Runner bean preparation

I used to sneer when fancy Japanese chefs said that vegetables tasted different depending on how they were cut but I’m now convinced they’re right and for perfectly straightforward reasons. Runner beans are a good example. With modern varieties, so long as they are picked young enough they don’t need stringing. In my view it’s essential to cut them very thinly (about 2 to 3mm to be precise!) on the bias. With a large, sharp, cook’s knife this can be done quite quickly. (I had a competition with my cousin-in-law Matthew the other day and I won: so a large sharp knife wins over one of those fancy runner bean slicing gizmos!) If they are cut any thicker then the inside of the bean won’t be warm by the time the outside is already overcooked. If cut properly thinly and then put in to a large pan of boiling water (even if the water is shared with pasta as in this recipe) they need no more than 2 minutes cooking. By the time the water has come back to the boil they’ll be ready to drain. If serving as a vegetable on their own (which we’re having at least every other day at the moment) just toss them in a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Perfect. And in my view they’re just as good lukewarm as they are piping hot. And lovely at room temperature too.

As in the salad recipe above the tomatoes in this recipe are not cooked, but just warmed by the freshly cooked pasta and runner beans.

Quantities in a dish such as this are entirely approximate and can be adjusted to suit your supplies.

Feeds 4

400g pasta e.g. penne
300g runner beans, thinly sliced on the bias (see above)
200g big ripe tomatoes, roughly diced
½ clove of garlic, crushed
100g decent quality feta, crumbled
About 12 basil leaves, roughly torn
Salt and pepper

50g grated parmesan
25g butter, roughly diced

1.Put a very large pan of salted water on to boil. When it’s boiling add the pasta. When it’s 2 minutes away from being ready (look on the packet for instructions which are generally quite accurate) then add the thinly sliced runner beans. As soon as the pasta is ready drain the whole lot. You don’t however need to drain it very thoroughly. Just a little cooking water left in will mix happily with the rest of the ingredients.

2. Meanwhile in a large wok or similar pan which is good for mixing put all the rest of the ingredients except the parmesan and butter. Stir everything together – off the heat.

3. Add the drained pasta and beans to the tomato mix. Put the wok back on the heat and continue stirring, once it’s nearly hot add the butter and parmesan and stir a bit more. Check the seasoning and then it’s ready to serve.

Offer more parmesan at the table.

Roast chicken with puy lentils and roast tomatoes

Since this blog post has now gone far too long I’m just going to describe very briefly what we had the other night. I boiled about 100g of puy lentils and drained them. I then halved about 100g of our delicious Gardeners’ Delight cherry tomatoes. I tossed the cooked lentils with the halved tomatoes and about 6 fat cloves of garlic which I halved (but left the skin on) and half a dozen sprigs of thyme.

On top of this lot I put a large free range chicken and sprinkled some salt on it’s skin. I then roast the chicken for about an hour and a quarter (half an hour in a hot oven and then a bit slower for the rest).

So we ended up with a roast chicken sitting on a delicious bed of chicken-flavoured tomatoey puy lentils. Since we were hungry we also had some roast potatoes and (of course) some runner beans tossed in a little olive oil as described above. It was all delicious and a perfect half way house between summer and winter eating.

Our two most requested recipes, part 2: sesame and ginger dressing

This is a truly delicious dressing and it’s no surprise to me that people are always asking for the recipe. If I were more commercially minded I might make my fortune creating a supermarket version of it. The two magic ingredients are stem ginger in syrup and soy sauce, Be sure to buy good quality soy sauce; I prefer the stuff labelled shoyu or tamari (the latter for wheat intolerance) that you can get from health food shops.

There are two slightly different ways to make it. You either whizz everything together except the sesame seeds and then add them at the end. This looks a bit prettier and is the way we make it at the cafes but you have be sure to stir it each time you take some or else you’ll end up with a ladelful of oil and nothing else. Alternatively you can add the sesame seeds to the mixture along with all the other ingredients when you blend it. The whole thing then ends up a murky brown colour, but it emulsifiies and gets a uniform creamy texture which makes it simpler to use.

Like many good things that we do at our cafes the idea for this recipe came originally from Frances Tomlinson (now Frances Short) who cooked at The Place Below in the 1990s.

Makes about half a litre of dressing

  • 3 blobs stem ginger in syrup with a bit of the syrup
  • 50 ml white wine vinegar
  • 75ml soy sauce
  • 300 ml sunflower oil
  • 50 ml sesame oil (ideally cold pressed but toasted is o.k. if that’s all you can get)
  • 4 tbs sesame seeds

Whizz everything together in a blender except the sesame seeds and then stir in the sesame seeds. (See above for alternative method) This will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Our two most requested recipes, part 1: healthbowl


Our two most requested recipes - part 1- healthbowlIt all started with Dharmapala. Actually his name was Paul but when you were a macrobiotic chef in the early 1980s then ‘Paul’ simply didn’t cut the mustard so he re-christened himself – or whatever the Buddhist re-naming equivalent is.

When I left Cambridge in 1982 I went to work at Wilkins Natural Foods in London’s Marsham St. It was set up and run by Pam Wilkins who had been a manager at Cranks and she took with her many of the best things about Cranks, in particular their insistence on making absolutely everything themselves from raw ingredients: from their bread to their juices. As well as being a superb place to learn the basics of cooking and running a cafe Wilkins was a mecca for faddish cooks and eaters and Paul/Dharmapala was one such. When he wasn’t making salads at Wilkins he was meditating and making food for the astonishingly bland menu at the East West centre on Old Street. The saving grace of a meal at the East West centre was that they always had good quality soy sauce, wasabi and pickled plums on the tables with which to enliven the plates of over-cooked vegetables and brown rice.

However, at Wilkins Paul/Dharmapala used to make a delicious rice and lentil salad which he called a healthbowl and I remembered this dish fondly. In the early days of The Place Below we started experimenting with this idea and gradually came developed our version of this salad which is delicious and has that key quality of being something you can eat every day without getting bored of it. We now serve masses of it every day both at All Saints and Michaelhouse, either on its own or as part of a salad plate. The reason it’s called a ‘healthbowl’, apart from being a shameless marketing ploy to get health-conscious eaters buying it, is that it ticks a number of nutritional boxes. It’s relatively low in fat; it has well-balanced plant based protein (complementing amino acids from the rice and the lentils) and lots of fresh vegetables. But don’t let that put you off. It’s also very tasty.

The recipe given below is a basic version but many different variations are possible. Grated or cooked beetroot, other fresh herbs, blanched broccoli or halved cherry tomatoes can all be added – or almost any other vegetables you have to hand. The advantage of the vegetable selection given here is that the roast sweet potato, mushrooms and celery will all put up with being stored in the fridge overnight. If you start adding, for instance, blanched broccoli or halved cherry tomatoes you want to be sure to finish the salad on the day you make it. For more exotic presentation in tune with the origins of the recipe try serving each portion on a sheet of toasted nori (the kind of seaweed used to make sushi rolls) brushed with soy sauce – and if you’re a real seaweed fan garnish the top with a little arame. If you like things a bit spicey add a few drops of tabasco to the dressing.

Makes a big bowl – serves 6 generously

150g puy lentils
60ml shoyu or other good quality soy sauce
60ml balsamic vinegar
20ml sesame oil – cold pressed is best but not as easy to get hold of as the toasted sesame oil
40ml sunflower oil
1 blob stem ginger in syrup plus a bit of the syrup from the jar
10g sesame seeds
250g brown rice – either long or short grain; my preference is for long grain

300g sweet potato, peeled and diced
1/2 head of celery, diced quite small
200g closed cap mushrooms, finely sliced
1 bunch fresh coriander or parsley, finely chopped (We use coriander in the cafes but parsley is also good)

1. Cook the lentils in plenty of unsalted water. Drain well. Put to one side.

2. To make the dressing: In a blender, whizz together the stem ginger, shoyu, balsamic vinegar, sesame oil & sunflower oil, and then add the sesame seeds and stir into the puy lentils while they are still warm.

3. Cook the rice. Put the water into a large pan with a little salt and bring to the boil. (You need just over 1.5 times the volume of water as rice). As soon as it is boiling rapidly, tip in the rice and bring the water back to the boil. Immediately the water comes back to the boil for the second time, turn the heat right down and simmer, covered, until all the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked (about 30 minutes).

4. Allow the rice to cool.

5. Whilst the rice is cooking roast the sweet potato: Toss the diced sweet potato in enough olive oil to coat it and with a little salt. Spread out on to a baking sheet and roast in a hot oven for about 25 minutes until the sweet potato is quite tender and beginning to brown.

6. Mix everything together thoroughly but gently and serve. Like most salads it’s much nicer at room temperature than straight from the fridge.


Our two most requested recipes - part 1: healthbowl