Kind-of Tabouleh

Summer is fast slipping away – as I type, it’s drizzling outside. Not that we had a particularly brilliant summer anyway, here in the UK; it’s been warm – hot on occasion – but inconsistently and unreliably so, in the true British fashion.

The onset of autumn fills me with both excitement and sadness. I love the crispness of the autumn air, the leaves turning brown on the trees, and the rich smell of stews bubbling away in the kitchen. Autumn to me means a transition to warm jumpers, jeans and boots, darker evenings, and the approach of Christmas. That being said, I will miss the warmth of summer, and the abundance of its produce: plentiful fresh berries, tomatoes, podded peas, and courgettes. Where summer calls for iced coffees and chilled cider, autumn draws me towards hot chocolates and big mugs of tea.

So I am clinging to the last vestiges of the sunny season with this light and tasty salad, similar to a tabouleh (tabbouleh? tabouli?), but not entirely the same. It’s one of my favourite warm weather lunches, although today it was eaten in the shadow of grey skies outside.

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It’s gloriously simple, and all of the flavour comes from the freshness of the ingredients . Tabouleh uses bulgur wheat, but I opted instead for ‘ptitim’, an Israeli toasted pasta also known as Israeli couscous. It’s a plump and big grain, great in salads, as it’s quite flavourless – so taking nothing away from the main ingredients. To make this, you’ll need:

  • couscous, or bulgur wheat – as much as you have the appetite for!
  • seven or eight cherry tomatoes
  • 10cm of cucumber
  • half a tin of chickpeas
  • two handuls of fresh parsley
  • a handful of rocket, or other peppery salad leaves
  • a basic vinegarette: I’ll explain how I made mine.

Start by cooking your couscous according to the packet instructions. Mine required ten minutes of simmering on a low heat, until the water had evaporated.

In the meantime, quarter the cherry tomatoes and chop the cucumber into 1cm dice. Open and drain the can of chickpeas, and roughly chop the parsley – if you have mint, use it too, for extra flavour.

Make your dressing; mine was simply the juice of half a lemon, a good splash of white wine vingear, and slightly more than a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil, with plenty of salt and pepper. I read recently that eating vegetables with a little fat helps with the absorption of nutrients, so the oil provided an extra nutritional bonus.

In a bowl, add the chickpeas, chopped herbs and vegetables to the couscous. If you want your salad cold, leave time for the cooked couscous or bulgur wheat to cool down before adding the other ingredients. (I couldn’t wait.) Garnish with a little more parsley and the rocket, before drizzling over the dressing. Then, pretend it’s sunny, and enjoy!

My impatience paid off, in that the warm couscous absorbed and retained well the flavour of the lemony dressing. The chickpeas, not a component of tabouleh but still perfectly welcome, gave the otherwise soft salad more bite. I very much enjoyed this little lunch, and will look forward to making it again when the sun makes an appearance next summer.

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Gingernuts

Ginger biscuits, in my opinion, are massively underrated. Overshadowed constantly by the chocolate biscuit, and their more popular cousins the gingerbread men, the gingernut is sadly not the nation’s favourite cookie. I find that shop-bought ginger biscuits tend to be more sweet than gingery, not doing the great gingernut its deserved justice. Until you’ve tried making them yourself, you haven’t really experienced them as they’re supposed to be.

So when I found a quick little recipe for gingernuts in Delia Smith’s ‘Book of Cakes’, I decided to give them a go.

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This recipe is so simple, it almost feels like cheating. You’ll need:

  • 110g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate soda
  • 40g granulated sugar
  • 50g butter or margarine, at room temperature
  • 50g golden syrup

Start by preheating the oven to 190 degrees Celsius, or gas mark 5. Line a baking tray with baking paper.

Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, and ginger together in a bowl. Add the sugar and rub it in until you have a crumbly texture.

Spoon in the golden syrup, and mix it all well with a wooden spoon, creating a stiff paste.

Divide the dough into sixteen small pieces, and place them on the tray, fairly far apart. Bake them for fifteen to twenty minutes until they’ve spread out, and have a cracked and rugged top.

Let them cool, then dig in! These biscuits are only little, so if you’re of the type who can polish off half a tray in one go, you might want to double (or triple) the recipe.

Some of mine were slightly overbaked, as may be obvious from the photo -but I still liked the taste of the ginger, unmarred by an overload of sugar. They’re small and satisfying, and are lovely with a cup of tea in the afternoon.

Chunky apple cake

“Anyone can make a cake. All that’s needed is a simple set of explanations coupled with recipes that have to be followed to the letter.”

So reads the the blurb of one of my most thumbed-through cookbooks, Delia Smith’s Book of Cakes. Delia is another firm favourite of mine, as is Jamie Oliver: her approach to cooking is straightforward and practical, and with her recipes, you can’t go wrong.

But I did have a little qualm with this blurb. When I cook, I don’t aim to have everything exactly measured out and very specific, even down to the last pinch of salt. In my opinion, when you adjust things a little, you make the bake or the dish more of your own, using your own creativity and ideas. On the other hand, though, with baking, a slight alteration to proportions of ingredients can make a big difference to the overall result.

From this gem of a book, I had a go at making the ‘Chunky Apple Cake’, with a number of deviations from Delia’s recipe, both intentional and accidental. It was definitely not followed ‘to the letter’, but I still produced a cake – and a fairly decent one at that.

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To make this, you’ll need:

  • 75g butter or margarine (at room temperature)
  • 175g soft brown sugar, sieved
  • 110g plain white flour
  • 110g wholemeal flour
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 size 1 eggs, beaten
  • a little milk
  • 2 level tsps baking powder
  • 1 tbsp chopped mixed peel
  • grated rind of 1 orange
  • 3 cooking apples (about 550g)

I suppose there’s a difference between changing a recipe for a reason, and with making genuine errors – the latter is more of my style. To start with, I had a jar of brown sugar I think was demerera; being the careful cook I am, I hadn’t labelled it. It simply wouldn’t go through a sieve, but I can see why Delia wanted that done – brown sugar clumps. Instead, I used my hands to work the lumps out of it as best as I could before I added it to the butter.

Secondly, I used 220g plain flour, in the absence of wholemeal. I have no idea what size eggs I used, but they were small – that counts as size 1, in my book. I didn’t have chopped mixed peel, nor cooking apples, so I used 5 standard red apples instead, which weighed out as 550g.

So, to the method. Preheat the oven to gas mark 4 / 350 Fahrenheit / 180 degrees Celsius.

Start by greasing an 8 1/2-inch (21.5cm) tin with ‘melted fat’, lining it with baking paper, and greasing that too. (I used the only tin I had.) The best way to line the tin is to draw round it on a sheet of baking paper, cut it out, and press the circle inside.

Sift the flours, spices, and baking powder into a bowl. Peel, core, and dice the apples into little cubes, and toss them with a tablespoon of the flour mixture.

In a separate bowl, beat the sugar and butter using an electric hand mixer (although this book was published in 1977, apparently these gadgets were invented. Who knew?) Beat in the eggs a little at a time. (I forgot to beat mine beforehand, so cracked the white in first, then the yolk. Silly me.)

Fold in gradually the flour mixture and the grated orange rind, mixed peel, and apple pieces. Add a dash of milk if the mixture’s looking dry.

Spoon the cake mix into the tin, smooth it evenly with the back of a spoon, and bake in the centre of the oven for one hour. It’s done when ‘springy in the centre when lightly pressed with a fingertip and just shows signs of shrinking away from the edge of the tin’.

Cool for ten minutes. Dust with icing sugar if you wish!

I really, really liked this cake. The apple was soft and sweet, and the orange, mixed spice and cinnamon gave it a lovely, spicy taste. It’s best served warm, with cream or natural yoghurt. Perhaps it would have been better if I’d followed the method precisely – who knows!

This book proves that the best of recipes stand the test of time. A lot of cookbooks people buy today are full of attractive pictures and restaurant-style recipes, but they often end up gathering dust on bookshelves, because they’re just not very practical. On the other hand, Delia’s book is as fresh today as it was when it was published.

Veggie stir-fry

Stir-fries are one of my favourite go-to meals at university: they’re quick, cheap, and tasty. Being a vegetable fanatic, stir-fries favour highly with me, as they’re easy to pack full of different greens.

I have developed my stir-frying technique over the past year, and learned a few little tips along the way. First and foremost, don’t overheat the wok. On one memorable occasion, I sent the occupants of my kitchen into synchronised coughing fits as I fried chilli and garlic to crisps, sending forth a cloud of spicy fumes. I’m now very cautious when heating the oil, and I lift the wok up now and then to make sure that the spices aren’t sticking to it.

Another fairly obvious point is not to overload the wok. If you shove in too much, you won’t fry everything evenly.

My flatmates were also keen stir-friers, and I used to joke that my parents’ old wok was the most popular member of the hall, being frequently called upon for its services. I observed with interest some of their methods, and learned how to stir-fry chicken (ten minutes until cooked through, then take it out before you add your spices.) They were more inclined to use stir-in sauces and ready-cooked noodles; the latter didn’t really appeal to me, resembling as they do sun-deprived worms in their plastic packaging. (I pointed this out once, not very helpfully.)

So, naturally, I was keen to brush the dust of my wok at home. My mum has an aversion to mushrooms and noodles, hence why it has been so cruelly neglected; but on this occasion, she wasn’t in to oppose my wishes. I excitedly bought a variety of veggies and selected a good, strong knife for some fine chopping.

Here’s my recipe. I always opt for fresh ingredients over ready-prepared, but supermarkets do useful bags of chopped assorted vegetables for stir-frying, if you want to make things even easier.

You’ll need (to serve four):

  • olive oil
  • 3cm fresh ginger
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • one red chilli (or less, if you don’t like it hot)
  • four spring onions
  • 500g mushrooms (buttons are easiest, as they only require slicing in half)
  • a pack of babycorn
  • 300g mangetout (one or two packets)
  • medium egg noodles
  • dark soy sauce
  • sesame oil

(These are the ingredients I used: if you prefer peppers, peas, beansprouts, carrots, or anything else, go for it!)

Start by peeling and finely chopping the ginger and garlic, then the chilli. (Leave the seeds in if you’re brave enough.) Chop the tops off the spring onions and thinly slice the bottoms. Put all the choppings into a bowl.

Slice the mushrooms into the thickness of about half a centimeter – you don’t want them too thin, because they’ll shrink substantially as they cook. Cut the babycorn in half.

Have some water simmering in a pan, with your noodles ready to go in. Egg noodles usually only take a few minutes to cook.

Heat the wok over a medium heat for a little under a minute – it’s ready if when you flick water inside, it sizzles. (You can use a large frying pan if you don’t have one.) Pour in some oil, and tilt the wok to ensure that the base and sides are evenly coated; if the oil smokes, the wok is overheated. Heat the oil for another thirty seconds.

Throw in the spices, and immediately start moving them around with a wooden spatula so that they don’t burn. Lift the wok up if you’re worried that everything is getting too hot and sticking to the sides. Watch the garlic – if it’s going brown, it’s too hot! Stir-fry for about a minute, and enjoy the lovely aromatic smell.

Add in the mushrooms (not all at once if you’re using a large amount) and continue to stir-fry. When they have slightly reduced, throw in the babycorn. Put the noodles into the pan of simmering water, using a fork to help them unravel – you don’t want them to clump.

The mushrooms release a fair amount of water as they reduce, but don’t worry – this makes for quite a nice bit of sauce! After a minute, add the mangetout. By this point, your wok is likely to be pretty full: you may have to fry the vegetables in batches, or remove the mushrooms once they’re done.

Give the mangetout another minute, then remove the wok from the heat. Drain the noodles, and if there is space, add them to the pan. Give everything a generous splash of soy sauce, then mix well with two big spoons. (Dark soy sauce tastes far better than light, although the former does contain more salt. So try not to go too wild.)

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I bought sesame oil after looking at some recipes recommending to drizzle it over afterwards, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure that it made a whole lot of difference. Perhaps I didn’t add enough!

Serve it up, and enjoy! I love the taste of the ginger and the spiciness of the chilli; the different textures of the babycorn, mushrooms, and mangetout give it varying degrees of both crunch and softness.

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I’m keen to learn more about stir-frying;  this article from thekitchn helped me out, and it’s definitely worth a read for some more expert instruction! To bulk it out more and up the calorie and protein content, feel free to add chicken; I’d also like to try tofu, from both a perspective of curiosity, and of reducing my meat consumption.

BBQ Baked Beans

At the end of the week, the fridge is usually looking quite bare. Most of the veggies have been used up, any once-perky herbs are looking wilted, and arguments are imminent over whose job it will be to fetch more milk from the shop.

On a day at this point in the week, I was determined to make a dinner requiring no additional expenditure on ingredients, and I was feeling far too lazy to head to Tesco. So I made a quick inventory of the cupboards and fridge shelves, knowing that tinned beans, carrots, onions, and sweet potatoes are omnipresent in our kitchen.

What does one do with beans and sweet potatoes? I headed to the internet for some inspiration. Perhaps bean burgers – but not with a lack of buns. A sweet potato chilli, maybe – but not without peppers. I was considering reaching for my purse when I stumbled across Jamie Oliver’s BBQ baked beans recipe.

Jamie is probably my favourite celebrity chef, with his charisma, his real passion for food, and his dedication to getting other people to eat well, as with his campaign to improve school meals. I like his recipes, because they’re generally straightforward and don’t require really obscure ingredients. (I lose interest whenever a recipe calls for something I can’t pronounce.)

So I was excited to give this a try. It’s pretty much a very upgraded version of a can of baked beans with barbecue sauce, served with sweet potatoes. You can find the recipe here.

You’ll need:

  • two red onions
  • two cloves of garlic
  • a red chilli
  • two big carrots
  • olive oil
  • 1 heaped teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
  • 1 level teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 level teaspoon dried chilli flakes
  • 6 medium sweet potatoes
  • 1 x 700 ml jar of passata (I used two cans of chopped tomatoes in the absence of this – and it added some tomatoey chunkiness)
  • 2 x 400 g tins of beans (I used red kidney beans and butter beans)
  • 100 ml BBQ sauce (I made my own!)
  • a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, or a generous sprinkling of dried rosemary
  • ½ loaf of ciabatta, or any stale bread that needs using up
  • natural yoghurt or soured cream, to serve

Peel the onions and the garlic, and finely chop with the chilli. Chop the carrots into a relatively small dice.

Heat some olive oil in a large deep-bottomed frying pan, then cook the garlic, chilli and onion with the paprika, cumin, and chilli flakes on a low heat for about twenty minutes.

Then, pour in the passata or tomatoes and add the beans. (Jamie wanted me to include the juice of the beans, too; but as I’d added extra liquid with the two tins of tomatoes instead of passata, I didn’t.) Give it all a good stir to incorporate, then pour the mixture into a roasting tin.

Drizzle with BBQ sauce – we didn’t have any, so I made my own. It was pretty simple, based on this Martha Stewart recipe: just mix 85ml of ketchup with a tbsp brown sugar, a tbsp white wine vinegar, a tbsp Worcestershire sauce, 2 tsp paprika, and 1/2 tsp cayenne. Better than those sachets of BBQ sauce!

Grind over some salt, pepper, and rosemary, dried or fresh. Bake in the oven at 180 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour, until it’s bubbling, browned on top, and smelling delicious. At the same time, bake the sweet potatoes, after giving them a scrub and rubbing them with olive oil. (It’s really important to add oil; they take positively hours longer to cook, otherwise.)

To make the croutons, simply tear up the bread, line up on a baking tray, and toss with olive oil. I used cheese ciabatta, which tasted gorgeous once baked.

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I was really pleased with the outcome; this meal was tasty, and very satisfying. The BBQ sauce added a sweetness which went well with the rosemary and the texture of the beans, although I could perhaps have used more liquid to create more sauce. On the whole, though, a definite make-again!

Battle of the Biscuits

Baking is a great pleasure of mine. I find the whole process of measuring, whisking, and creaming quite therapeutic; my mind drifts away and I feel peaceful. And of course, it’s nice to bring satisfaction to other people and to know that they appreciate what they’re eating.

A friend of mine expressed a particular liking for a batch of sultana oat cookies I made a while ago, and as she was coming over for the evening, I decided to surprise her with a fresh trayful. I used a new recipe, and if the five she ate were anything to go by, I think it’s safe to say that she enjoyed them.

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Here’s the recipe I used (not mine!). You’ll need:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 170g softened butter (if using unsalted, add 3/4 tsp salt)
  • 100g soft brown sugar
  • 100g Demerera sugar (the recipe asked for 200g, but I didn’t think I needed that much!)
  • 180g rolled oats
  • 100g sultanas
  • a large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 2 tbsp bicarbonate soda
  • 1 and a half tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking trays with baking paper.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla essence, and mix well.

Sift in the flour, then add the bicarbonate of soda, the cinnamon and salt. Fold in the oats, then the sultanas. Make sure to scrape around the bowl to incorporate all the oats into the dough.

Take small handfuls of the mixture and line them up on the trays. You should get about thirty altogether. Flatten them, then bake for eighteen to twenty minutes.

Whilst browsing Youtube, I came across Deliciously Ella’s sultana oat cookies on her channel. I quite like Deliciously Ella, and admire her whole holistic approach to food – for example, in the comment box below the video for these cookies, a user asked for nutritional information; she cannily replied that she counts ‘goodness’, not calories.

So I decided to pit these two recipes together. And it is with sadness that I report my disappointment at the result of my attempt at the latter. The biscuits had a strange, stodgy texture, despite the considerable amount of time I spent straining the grated apple to get rid of excess liquid, and my leaving them in the oven for ten extra minutes. Although sweet,the cinnamon didn’t really come through at all.

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(They don’t look particularly appetising, it has to be said)

I had high hopes for these – but alas, success was not to be! Perhaps I didn’t follow the method correctly; or perhaps the recipe just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. You can find it here on Deliciously Ella’s website, but I’ll repost it briefly:

You will need:

  • 4 red apples
  • 4 ripe bananas
  • 150g sultanas
  • 270g oats
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 3 tbsp honey

Grate the apples, and strain them in a sieve to get rid of excess moisture. Mash the bananas, combine with the rest of the ingredients, then put tablespoons of the mixture on to a greased baking tray (they’ll stick otherwise). Bake at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

What have I learned from this little experiment? That traditional recipes might be less likely to disappoint! Also, that grating apples really gives you armache.

Summer jobbing, and Mushroom & Tomato sauce

Student summer jobs are awfully hard to come by, as I have learned. When I arrived back from university for the summer, I began to send out CVs here and there; after receiving no responses, my efforts quickly grew more desperate. Jobs I’d before glossed over as not offering enough hours or being ‘unattractive’ became opportunities I chased eagerly. After submitting countless applications and enquiries to shops, agencies, and restaurants, the truth hit me: the majority of employers don’t want to hire students. We’re ephemeral beings, present for only a short working period before we flit off to where we came from.

As much as I am loath to admit it, I understand why employers adopt this attitude;  it’s no use hiring an impermanent person for a permanent position, unless the position is temporary. Very few places responded to my enquiries, and even McDonald’s rejected me (twice.)

It was only with a strike of luck that I managed to find anything. Racking my brains for any possible opportunity, I recalled that one of my dad’s former clients was the owner of the nearby care home, in which my friend had spent the previous summer working. Only really half-seriously, I asked him to email the owner to see if there were any vacancies. Conditioned to receiving no response, I was surprised and relieved to accept his offer to work as a temporary kitchen assistant.

I have enjoyed my first few days, with new responsibilities and a sense of purpose to occupy the empty bulk of my time. Although it’s hard work and long hours, being up on my feet is such a change to my previously unlimited leisure hours – oh, the boring languor of summer holidays – that I don’t mind it. Knowing that I am earning money to pay for next year’s rent eases the monetary anxieties which had consistently dogged me.

I’m also pleased that I can help out the two cooks, who have been working tirelessly with no breaks and no help. They prepare three meals and three snacks for the care home residents, and my role is to make their lives easier: washing up, preparing vegetables, taking down trollies, and cleaning. It’s repetitive, but the time passes fairly quickly.

On another note, I also wanted to share a quick and easy dinner I made from a few leftover bits lingering in the fridge. It was an evening where meal choices consisted of shop-bought pizza, or fending for myself.


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This was a simple tomato sauce with mushrooms, red onion, garlic, chilli flakes, and red wine vinegar. All the work this required was to finely chop a third of the onion with three cloves of garlic, fry it for a few minutes in a lug of oil, then to pour in half a can of passata. (I had half a carton of this in the fridge, otherwise I wouldn’t have opened an entire new can!) Add a good splash of red wine vinegar, and season with salt, pepper, and chilli flakes. Give it a stir, and leave to simmer for around fifteen minutes.

Get some pasta cooking – I used fusili. Slice up some mushrooms and mix them into the sauce. Courgettes, peppers, aubergine, or peas would work well too: whatever is going spare. Once the pasta is cooked and the mushrooms softened (they’ll need about ten minutes), stir in a good handful or two of chopped parsley. Serve up with an extra few sprigs to garnish, and enjoy!

This was a flavourful, tasty, and healthy dinner. Red wine vinegar gives tomato sauce a really lovely, rich taste, enhanced by the parsley. I love impromptu meals like this, which require such little effort, yet taste so good.