Monthly Archives: September 2012

Recipe: Cassoulet with runner beans


It must be the weather getting colder, but I fancied a bean stew this week. I wanted to try my hand at a veggie version of cassoulet. Now, I know a cassoulet without duck or meat sausage is not a real cassoulet and I believe Raymond Blanc just suffered a sudden unexplained twinge at the mere concept, but there are some nice veggie sausages out there that seemed making it worth a go.

Quorn have recently come up with a new Chef’s selection range of sausages (of which more later) and I used the wild garlic and parsley sausages in this recipe.

I made this in the slow-cooker, but I wouldn’t do so again with these sausages. They disintegrated and went mushy after the long cooking. It was still tasty, but the texture wasn’t there. I have made adjustments in the recipe so it shouldn’t happen again.

Cassoulet with runner beans

110g pinto beans
1/2 onion, chopped
2 veg sausages, cut into pieces
300 ml water
1 tsp veg stock
1 tsp marmite

Soak the pinto beans overnight then drain and rinse.
Soften the onion in a little olive oil in a saucepan until translucent.
Add the beans, sausages and the rest of the ingredients. Add a pinch of thyme and some black pepper, but no salt yet as it makes the beans take longer to cook.
Bring to the boil and then reduce to a slow simmer.
Cover the pan and cook for 2 hours until the beans are tender.
Stir in salt and serve.
Serves 2

Runner beans with tarragon and lemon
I got the idea for this recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Veg Everyday’, but he cooks the beans for 20 minutes, which is way too long for me.

1 clove garlic, chopped
6 runner beans, destringed and chopped on the diagonal
pinch tarragon or 1 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
Squeeze lemon juice

Soften the garlic in some olive oil in a saucepan.
Add the runner beans and the dried tarragon (if using) and stir in the hot oil for a minute.
Pour in a few tablespoons of water and simmer the beans for five minutes until they are tender but still bright green.
If you’re using fresh tarragon now is the time to add it, along with a squeeze of lemon juice and salt and pepper.
Give it a good stir and serve.
Serves 2.

Restaurant Review: Tonkotsu


I think my first bowl of ramen was at Tampopo on Manchester’s Albert Square in the late 90’s. I’ve been quietly addicted to the combination of slippery noodles in hot broth ever since. When I left Manchester Wagamama has been my consistent source of a ramen-fix, but I’ve always known there was better out there.

I have found it at Tonkotsu on Dean Street in Soho.
The place is small and busy at 7pm on a Monday evening. There is a first floor (according to other bloggers) but my friend and I were shown to a shared table next to another couple. The decor is all unvarnished wood and metal grills – a bit industrial, but pleasant enough in dim lighting.

As the dining room is small, so is the menu. There are three mains: Tonkotsu ramen, Tokyo ramen and Miso and Shimeji Mushroom ramen (the veggie one). I suppose there aren’t many restaurants that can claim that 1/3 of their menu is vegetarian! Joking aside there are a good proportion of vegetarian side dishes to go with it.

I ordered the miso ramen and a plate of shiitake and bamboo shoot gyoza to share with my friend.

The gyoza arrived first. The dumplings were stuck together with the crispy side up. The shiitake filling was rich and savoury, but needed some of the chilli oil (on the table as a condiment) to give it a lift.

Tonkotsu, Miso & Shimeji Mushroom ramen - I think I scored a double-yolk on the egg!

There was no need for any condiments to boost the main course. The noodles were soft but springy at the same time, the mushrooms were cooked but still had bite and texture, the seasoned egg was firm with a soft yolk and a rich flavour, but it was the stock that blew me away. I’ve had miso before – savoury, umami but with flavours in the tenor range, maybe a bit of baritone. This miso was definitely in the bass section. It was deep, satisfying, mouthfilling. My friend loved the tonkotsu stock, but I didn’t feel I was being shortchanged by having the vegetarian option, not at all.

If they’re getting the ramen right, they’re also getting the service right. It was prompt, friendly and attentive. Table-turnover was pretty quick, and there’s an eat-up-and-go culture to noodle places, but when my friend and I made it clear we wanted to linger a bit we never felt pressured to leave.

I’ve never eaten ramen in Japan, so I’ll let other, more knowledgable, people speak to the authenticity of the ramen. I don’t care. I’ll be too busy thinking up excuses to go back.

Dinner for two, including beer and service came to £38.60.

63 Dean Street
0207 437 0071

Recipe: Balsamic Mushrooms


This recipe is courtesy of Abel and Cole, who supplied it in a veg box one week.

You can use any type of mushroom for this, but I wouldn’t use expensive wild or oriental ones as their flavour will be lost in the balsamic sauce.

Balsamic mushrooms

1/2 pack mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp mushroom ketchup (optional)
2-3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
handful of flat leaved parsley, chopped


Fry the garlic and mushrooms in a small pan until the mushrooms have half-cooked and shrunk considerably. Adding the mushroom ketchup speeds this process up.

Add the balsamic vinegar and continue simmering until the juices are reduced and bubbling.

Season and stir in the parsley.

Serve hot, cold or in between. The mushrooms go well with pasta, on toast or polenta, or on their own.

Serves 1

Arvon Food Writing Course


There’s something about having three weeks’ off that makes you want to organise something to do. When I finally went through the hoops that got me my sabbatical from work, I looked around for something to do in September. I’d booked on an Arvon Foundation writing course before, but had to cancel, so I had a look at what courses they were running in September. The one that caught my eye was a Food Writing course. Now, Sharon and I started this blog in April, so I thought here was a chance to learn how to improve the quality of the blog – particularly the recipes and restaurant reviews. Other than that, I had no real idea about what the course was going to be like.

The atmosphere was very much like a sci-fi convention for foodies. Here was a place where you were surrounded by people who loved food, thought about food, wrote about food and nobody thought you were weird or looked bored when you talked about it.

The writing side of it was much, much more professional than I had imagined. Our tutors were Lulu Grimes (Deputy Editor of olive magazine) and Lindsey Bareham, who has years of experience in writing recipe books and food journalism. They were obviously very serious and dedicated about food writing and expected us to be as well. I certainly felt I was being told kindly, but firmly, to ‘buck my ideas up’! I hope that doesn’t make them sound stern, because they were great fun and frequently had us howling with laughter.

We had lessons on writing recipes, articles and features for magazines and newspapers; writing a synopsis and a pitch for a recipe book; how to make your writing (and recipes) stand out; and the importance of being accurate (this is a form of journalism).

The location for this course was Totleigh Barton, near Sheepwash in Devon. It’s a beautiful, thatched house, with roots going back to before the Domesday Book. It’s set in lovely grounds, surrounded by fields. Idyllic, I think, comes to mind.



It was almost a cliche of this kind of building. Higgledy-piggedly room layout, stone-flag floors and lots of beams. We ate at a refectory table that’s probably older than a lot of countries in the UN and cooked in an amazing kitchen.



The staff, Oliver, Claire and Eliza, were extremely friendly and helpful and cooked amazing lunches as well as helping out cooking the evening meal. Speaking of that – it’s up to the residents to cook the evening meal for themselves. We were put into teams and you cooked one night and washed up on another. I wouldn’t say things got competitive, but this was foodies cooking for other foodies, so we were on our mettle shall we say. I have not eaten so well for a long time.

I don’t know if I struck it lucky, but all the residents got on. We ranged in age from 20’s to 60’s, we came from as far apart as Canada and Singapore with wider ranges of life and experience and I can’t think of the slightest hint of an argument. Maybe it was because we all were there because of food. I do want to give a special mention to Wil, who was not only the youngest, but the only man on the course. He survived, I think.

I went on the course to do better at writing the blog. I came away with the ambition to write about food professionally (if not full-time) and with the idea for a cookbook. Eeep!

Recipe: Deconstructed pesto


I’m in the market for quick and nutritious meals at the moment, thanks to the work situation and persevering with Slimming World. The latter would probably clobber pesto with a bazillion syns, but it has to count for perhaps one of the quickest meals on the planet.

At its best, pesto looks vibrant and tastes fresh and zingy. At its worst, it comes across as a sludgy oily gloop. I think I’ve tasted every supermarket brand, plus most of the ones that come in jars (organic labels are no guarantee of quality), and with one exception I wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole. They tend to taste of nothing in particular.

And I’m not overly enthusiastic about variations on the theme either – I’m a purist and like my pesto to have basil, pine nuts and parmesan in. Permutations of spinach, coriander, mint, parsley and pecorino don’t do it for me.

The parmesan is obviously an issue for those of us who are strict vegetarians. And I’m not brave enough to try vegan substitutes – life is too short and all of that … I have to admit that decent parmesan is the one thing I miss, although the Bookhams vegetarian cheese for pasta is probably as good as we’re going to get.  It does, though, lack that distinctive salty tang that makes real parmesan so irresistible.

That one shop-bought exception, by the way, is the Waitrose green pesto, and it’s pretty damn good, although it’s a bit heavy on the oil. You can see the pine nuts in it. And you can taste the basil and the cheese. Forget their red chilli pesto (which, sadly, comes packaged in a trio with two single portions of the green pesto and which is brilliant to chuck in the freezer for emergencies) as all you get is a lingering after-burn and a vague taste of greasy tomato.

Yes, I could make my own pesto, but my blender has just rolled over and died – and cleaning gunged-up kitchen equipment isn’t high on my list of pleasures, especially when I’m packaging this blog entry as fast food. And anyway, I can recommend a cunning make-your-own version which simply requires one pan to be wiped clean.

This little gem is a deconstructed pesto where you can taste every single element of what goes into it. And you can make it in the last few minutes while the pasta cooks. It’s obviously a lot dryer than conventional pesto, but there’s no over-powering taste of oil to it. And you can vary the amounts depending on what you prefer – I tend to up the amount of lemon zest. Slimming World won’t like the pine nuts or dessertspoon of olive oil to warm the garlic in, but I’d rather take the hit on syns than leave out the former (and I am always woefully low on protein) or substitute the latter. This is a dish where you want good ingredients.

Pasta (farfalle is good, as it won’t overpower the different elements)


Pine nuts

Lemon zest and lemon juice


Veggie parmesan

While the pasta is cooking, toast a small handful of pine nuts in a dry pan. Then add a dribble of olive oil to the hot pan and warm the crushed garlic through. Don’t let it colour. I use a clove per person. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and mix in the pinenuts, garlic, the zest and juice of half a lemon and a large handful of basil. I don’t add salt, but I do grind some black pepper over it. Then grate the veggie parmesan over the top.

I can’t remember where the recipe came from – I’ve a feeling it was from one of the female chefs in the BBC Good Food magazine. But it’s a keeper and I make it constantly …

Recipe: Chinese Mushroom Pancakes


AKA Peking Crispy Duck with Pancakes Substitute

The last time I went to a Chinese restaurant, I was a bit underwhelmed with the meal. It wasn’t bad. It was just that the sparse veggie options were definitely the also-rans of the menu. My satisfaction levels weren’t helped by my eating companions having a full Chinese banquet beside me. I tried not to look envious at their plentiful dishes, well cooked and beautifully presented, but I think I got a bit yearning when they got to the crispy duck with pancakes. I loved that when I ate meat. I averted my eyes and went back to my not completely crispy noodles with vegetables.

Maybe because I yearned a bit more than usual over a meat dish, it got me thinking. As with most meat dishes, it’s actually the vegetables and the sauces that add most of the flavour. What you would need is a vehicle to carry that flavour and add a bit of mouthfeel with it. Once you ask the right question, the answer is obvious – mushrooms!

I’ve used ordinary button mushrooms here, but if you can get shiitakes they would be the ultimate replacement. You also don’t get the crispy skin texture from the mushrooms, so I’ve upped the crunch quotient in the vegetable garnishes, adding a crispy little gem lettuce. Finely sliced mangetout or sugarsnap peas (if you don’t mind the carbon footprint) would work brilliantly too.

There’s enough sauce left around the mushrooms after cooking that I nearly left the separate hoisin sauce out. I kept it in, however, and I’m glad – it adds another level of flavour that the dish wouldn’t be the same without.

I can definitely recommend this one. And next time I go to a Chinese restaurant I won’t feel quite so forlorn.

Chinese Mushroom Pancakes

For the mushrooms:
100g mushrooms – thinly sliced
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp five spice powder
1 tbsp shaoxing rice wine
1/2 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 tbsp sugar

6 chinese pancakes

spring onions – finely sliced
2 inches of cucumber – sliced into matchsticks
1/2 little gem lettuce – shredded
4 tbsp hoisin sauce

Heat up a small frying pan or omelette pan. Add the mushrooms, the soy, five spice powder, rice wine, sesame oil and sugar. Stir round until the mushroom are cooked and sauce is thick, bubbling and clinging to the mushrooms.

Warm the pancakes through either by steaming them or in the microwave.

Plate the mushrooms, spring onions, lettuce and cucumber so that everyone can take bits of each. Have the hoisin sauce in a dish, and the pancakes on a plate.

To eat: take a pancake, spread with a little hoisin sauce. Add a little of the mushrooms, onions, lettuce and cucumber. Fold the pancake and eat, trying not to dribble out of the other end.

Serves 2 as a starter.


Recipe: Easy Cheaty Vegan Pizza


It was a bit of a revelation to me when I realised that you don’t need to have cheese on a pizza. You can have the taste of the bread base, the sweet tang of the tomato sauce, the fragrant hit of oregano and the flavours of the other toppings without the greasy sweetness of the cheese. (Not that I’m against greasy sweetness as a food group, you understand!)

Recently, my only taste of pizza has come from a take-away or an Italian restaurant, but I wanted to try and make my own. The thing stopping me is the amount of time it takes to mix, knead and rest the dough. OK – it’s the kneading that puts me off. Pizza is fast food and it shouldn’t require you stand by a kitchen surface working up a sweat for twenty minutes.

So I was really pleased to come across this recipe for a quick and easy pizza dough. No kneading. No resting. Just mix and go. (And there’s an advertising jingle if ever I remember one!)

I take issue with the recipe claiming that is serves 15. Not in my house it doesn’t. It served 1.5. That’s four, good sized wedges and two left over.

Vegan pizza

Recipe for the base
375g plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
7g dried active baking yeast
2 tbsp olive oil
225ml hand-hot water

Add the dry ingredients to a bowl.
Mix in the water and oil.
Bring together to form a ball of dough.
Place on a greased baking tray and press out until it covers the tray.

1 tbsp garlic olive oil
6 sundried tomatoes (in oil)
6 char-grilled artichoke hearts (I got mine from Waitrose), the plain, tinned variety will do just as well
6 kalamata olives, stoned and sliced
2 tsp capers
1/4 red onion, finely sliced
1-2 tsp dried oregano

The reason I’m calling this a cheaty pizza is that I’m not bothering with a tomato sauce (although a nice, bottled pasta sauce would also be a good cheat!) Even though I wasn’t using any soggy-making ingredients I would still recommend you try the following step.

The oven should be pre-heated to 190C. Rub the pizza base with the garlic olive oil and place it into the oven without any other toppings for 5-10 minutes. This gives it a chance to form a crispy crust on the top which will resist the wetter ingredients when you put them on.

Bring the partially cooked base out of the oven. Sprinkle the toppings over the base and put back into the oven for 15-20 minutes to a total cooking time of 25 minutes.

This had all the good, bready taste of a ‘proper’ pizza and the slices held up to being eaten in the hand. It’s a little stodgier than the kneaded and rested pizza recipes, but it knocks any pre-bought pizza base well out of the park. It also passed the ‘breakfast test’ by the leftovers being just as good the following morning!