Monday, 28 February 2011

Roasted Roots with Puy Lentils

I've had a lovely relaxing weekend, and actually haven't been cooking the main meals. I did pick up my wedding dress in London - then gave it to my sister for safe-keeping until the wedding. After a long walk in the surprising February sunshine, lunch today was reheated laksah, still delicious after the flavours had mellowed together a touch. I'd like to write about another dinner that works well as lunch to reheat: roasted roots with puy lentils.

You can use any mixture of roots here, but I find potatoes always take longer than other roots and tend to be overwhelmed by their stronger flavours, so are better not included. The lentils are also up for substitution: puy lentils are the most delicious and hold their shape after cooking, but the cheaper brown or green varieties also work well here. You can also adapt the herbs and dressing depending on what you have to hand. I like to leave the garlic unpeeled so it roasts without burning; it turns into a delightful squidy savoury burst of flavour, hiding underneath the papery skin. I love the sharp contrast between the smoky garlic and the sweet ruby beetroot.


  • 1 sweet potato
  • 2 parsnips
  • 3 carrots
  • 4 medium beetroot, including stems and leaves
  • 1 large leek
  • 1/2 large head of garlic
  • Small bunch of thyme
  • 1 tsp coriander seed
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seed
  • olive oil
  • 200g lentils
  • 4 tbsp balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 180 C. Remove the stems and leaves of the beetroot and set aside, discarding the bitter join between the stems and the roots. Scrub or peel the roots, remove any sprouts or odd bits, and chop into largeish bite-sized pieces, about 2-3cm in size. Remove the cloves from the large head of garlic, but do not peel. Put the vegetables and garlic in a roasting tin, or two if needed, making sure the vegetables are in a single layer and not stacked, or those underneath will steam instead of roast. Lightly crush the coriander and cumin in a mortar and pestle, strip the leaves from the thyme, and add to the vegetables. Toss with enough olive oil to give the vegetables a fine coating, about 2tbsp. Roast in the oven for 35-45 minutes or until crisping at the edges and tender on the outside, turning the vegetables about halfway through. Be careful not to break up softer roots like sweet potato.

Meanwhile, cook the lentils according to their packet instructions: I use 4:1 water:lentils, simmering, without salt (adding salt causes the lentil shells to harden before the insides cook through). Halve the leeks lengthwise and wash throughly, then chop into 2cm-wide strips. Remove the leaves from the beetroot stems. Chop the stems into 1cm lengths and sautee with the leeks in a little olive oil or butter over a low heat, until the leeks are soft and just edging golden. Then stir in the beetroot leaves, and switch off the heat; they will cook, like spinach, in mere residual heat.

When the root vegetables and lentils are done, drain the latter, and throw the leek mixture, roots and lentils together in one of the roasting tins. Toss with balsamic vinegar and a splash more olive oil if you like. Season with black pepper and serve! If you're extra-hungry, you can add some chunks of goats cheese, some snippets of grilled streaky bacon, or a few broken-up cooked chestnuts (pictured here). Toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds would also work deliciously well.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Pumpkin Laksah

This is adapted from a Nigel Slater recipe - which will be a common theme here! I've added some more greens, reduced the coconut and changed the spicing a little, and replaced the cherry tomatoes with tinned, as it makes a very good storecupboard meal with that swap. I've also added some greens to make it a tad more nutritious. It's a warming, spicy/sour combination which takes less than an hour to make - as little as 30 minutes if you have a helping hand to peel and chop the pumpkin! We added some sneaky pakoras from the awesome local shop for a little variety.

I could fill a page about how delicious and wonderful the pumpkin we used for this dish is, but I think I will save it for another time. Suffice to say, you should use a firm winter squash with plenty of flavour, or it will be overwhelmed by the strong spice paste. We used a Crown Prince: these can stand lots of cooking without falling apart, and have sweet and delectable flesh. Never eat a carving pumpkin!

  • 500g good pumpkin, or butternut squash
  • A handful of coriander stems
  • 1 whole red chilli or a couple of birds' eye
  • A thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
  • 4 large cloves garlic
  • 2 juicy whole lemongrass stems
  • 4 tbsp of fish sauce
  • 2x 400g tins plum (not chopped) tomatoes
  • 400ml of chicken or vegetable stock (if using boullion, halve the powder)
  • 1 400ml tin of coconut milk
  • 200g crinkly green cabbage (e.g. Savoy), roughly shredded
  • 100g dried egg noodles
  • fresh coriander leaves
  • fresh mint leaves
  • two limes

Chop the pumpkin into large pieces and set it steaming: it will take about 20 minutes to cook through. Whiz together the coriander stems, chilli, ginger, garlic and lemongrass in a blender until you have a paste. Fry this gently in a deep pan (like the one pictured) in vegetable oil over a low heat, stirring so it doesn't burn, until the garlic is just cooked and starting to colour. Pour in the stock and coconut milk, stir and bring to a boil. Slice the tomatoes in the tins into halves or large-ish chunks using a table knife and lift the pieces into the pan with a fork. Add the fish sauce, mix very gently, and simmer for five minutes.

In the meantime, remove the steamer full of cooked pumpkin, and use the steaming water to blanche the shredded cabbage - a matter of a 90 seconds. Drain the cabbage, and cook the dried noodles, according to their packet instructions. Tip the pumpkin and cabbage into the curry pot, and add a swirl of cooked noodles into each bowl. Spoon the laksah into each bowl, top with generous handfuls of coriander and mint leaves, and squeeze over half a lime onto each bowl. Serves four; or more with pakoras or more noodles!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Duck with Shitake Mushrooms

Today I felt like something warming and delicious, but not too heavy. It's also getting toward the end of the week so I have a few ingredients which are beginning to look a bit tattered. So here's a fresh take on duck for spring, with a sweet and crip salad and smoky shitake mushrooms. This morning I put the marinade on the duck, a matter of a few minutes work, and this evening the meal took about half an hour to prepare. We settled down and watched 'In Bruges', which was rather excellent!


For the marinaded duck:
  • a few splashes of soy sauce
  • a few splashes of fish sauce
  • a thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely grated
  • a clove of garlic, crushed
  • 2 tsp of Szechuan peppercorns (or substitute 1tsp black peppercorns if unavailable), pounded
  • juice of one lemon
  • Two duck breasts
For the salad:
  • Three small or two large pears
  • Half a bulb of fennel
  • a small bag or bunch of watercress
  • juice of one lime
For the rest:
  • A handful of fresh shitake mushrooms (or soaked, dried)
  • 1/2 tsp of sugar
  • soy sauce
  • short grain Asian or 'fragrant' rice

Between 6 and 36 hours before you want to cook, marinade the duck breasts in the marinade ingredients, covered in the fridge.

Set the rice cooking according to the instructions (I use 2:1 water:rice, barely simmering, covered for 10 minutes). Heat a medium-sized heavy-based non-stick frying pan to moderate heat, and place the duck breasts fat-side down. While the duck fries and the rice cooks, thickly slice the mushrooms and add them to the fat rendering from the duck, tossing occasionally. You'll need to turn the duck after about five minutes; don't be worried if the fat is blackened a little on the outside by this time. Remove the mushrooms when they have turned dark gold and shrunk slightly.

While the duck and mushrooms cook, using a sharp knife, slice the fennel as thinly as possible, reserving the fluffy heads if they have them. Peel and cut the pear into long, thin slices. Wash and roughly shred the watercress. Combine the salad ingredients, tossing in the lime juice and a little olive oil if you like.

When the duck is finished cooking - a matter of five minutes per side - remove and leave to rest. Wipe out the pan, return the mushrooms to it, with a teaspoon of sugar, a splash of soy sauce, and enough water to thinly cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and leave on a low heat for about 5-10 minutes, allowing some of the liquid to evaporate and soak back into the mushrooms. If you like, strip the fat from the duck, before slicing into thick bite-sized pieces. You're aiming for a nice juicy pink colour, with clear or slightly pinkish juices. Arrange over the salad, and serve with the rice and mushrooms, sprinkled with fresh coriander or mint leaves.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Brief History of ...

Shall I begin with 'Abstract'?

This may be the first thing I've written in years not directly related to my work, which is scientific research, specifically in the field of cosmology via radio astronomy. I'm currently finishing a postdoctoral contract at the University of Cambridge, having completed an MSci at the University of Bristol in Physics with Astrophysics, and worked at Jodrell Bank in Manchester, searching for pulsars. I might mention a little radio astronomy from time to time, but as the title of the blog suggests, I intend a rather different emphasis.

This is something that I've been thinking of creating for months. As I found my time here in the UK drawing to a close, I realised that some things in my life were going to disappear, kept alive only by memories and photographs. While my fairly extensive photographic archive of the last decade provides a lovely record of good times with friends and family, one ephemeral phenomenon that forms such an important part of my life can barely be recorded by the digital CCD: food.

So, as I might say in a paper, to the 'Introduction'.

I began my culinary career when I first moved out of university halls, in the second year of my undergraduate degree. Prior to this I had subsisted on packet salads (containing a nested packet of astringent artificial dressing), and considered pasta with pesto to be the highest feat of savory cooking. My kitchen experiments were mainly confined to improving the art of the pancake, and my storecupboard was no more extensive than a pint of milk hung out of my bedroom window in a plastic bag, so that thirsty students wouldn't nick it from the communal fridge.

After a year of halls food and pancake nights, I moved out into a tiny, damp, garden flat, just opposite Sainsbury's, with a group of friends who would politely refrain from killing each other for an entire stressful communal year. As always, we started with the best of intentions, sharing cheese, milk and bread. This strategy slowly deflated into a dull equilibrium, for as any game theorist could tell you, those looking to save a bit of cash could entirely subsist on cheese, milk and bread, and it would be magically replaced by the communal pot.

I tired of this. I started buying slightly less-prepared food than I was used to. I tried each of the ready-chopped stir fry packets, read the ingredients, researched online to find out which were more 'authentic', and eventually realised the supermarkets can put any old mixture of vegetables in a packet and call it 'stir fry'. So - I could too!

I expanded my range of filled pastas. Bought unfilled pastas. Went through each pot of prepared pasta-sauces and read the ingredients, then made my own. Stopped buying salad-in-a-packet and thought more about what I wanted in a salad. Though I might barely shop there now, the supermarket provided me with a way to experience and experiment with different cuisines, all safely marked with labels, use-by dates and ingredients, just begging to be modified on the next iteration.

Of course, it is no surprise that this coincided with my first year dating my now-fiancee. Previously I had no real motive to improve my cooking, beyond perhaps a desire to keep the calories down and the nutrients up. Now food could be an experience to enjoy together. And with our tiny student budgets, spending time preparing food could be a surprisingly rewarding yet cheap way of having fun.

The biggest breakthrough came when I moved house in my third year, and the significant other spent less time with me, and more time with his thesis, now entering its fourth year of gestation. I was further out of town, further from the supermarket. The kitchen was larger, and my housemates more interested in food. I started buying good bread, good ingredients, and for the first time, building up a storecupboard. When I altered my route home to take in the local greengrocer's, and realised the vast number of vegetables I had no idea how to cook, I saw this as a challenge to be overcome. Every week, for around a year, I'd buy a new kind of vegetable, and work out how to cook it.

Kale, parsnips, cauliflower, leeks, cabbage, potatoes, turnips, swede, carrots, artichokes (Jerusalem and otherwise), mooli, peas, green beans, runner beans, white, red, pink, pickling, shallot, and spring onions. Fruit! Blueberries, strawberries, pears, oranges, physalis, clementines, satsumas, pineapples, melons, grapefruits, rhubarb! Not to mention learning that the UK grows hundreds of varieties of apple, coming and out of season, and yet the average consumer buys their New Zealand Pink Ladies and French Galas year-round, while orchards here close every year. Apples were my first taste of seasonality, surprising me with such intensity of flavour compared to the supermarket blandness I'd come to expect.

When I'd figured out how to cook vegetables, I moved on to meat, and eventually fish. I figured out how to create a decent vegetarian meal, saving money and perhaps a little tranche of the environment. Lentils, beans, mushrooms and tofu stopped being alien species and became substances to be savoured. I learned about the balance of flavours: bitter, sour, spicy, sweet, salty and umame. My palate matured; I stopped taking my tea with sugar and my coffee with chocolate. The world of herbs opened to me as I bought my first bay tree, then a foot high and now a tree almost as tall as I am. I spent hours in the local scoop-shop, loading up plastic tubs with cheap flour and muesli, then spending the same money again on a delectable scoop of chocolate-covered crystalline ginger or a pack of herbal tea.

I met my first butcher, first baker, first fishmonger. I spent too much on olives in a local deli and thereafter memorised the per-kilo prices of every olive vendor in Clifton. I borrowed a shaving of parmesan from a housemate - I did ask! - and was told I would have to replace the amount that I had used. Asking the deli counter to cut that 25 gram slice left me blushing then, but laughing now. I cooked for friends, family, my lovely boyfriend, and began to assemble my first set of cooking equipment; suddenly these things were perfect gifts, and I've always been difficult to buy for.

As I entered the fourth year of my degree, stress levels within my house rose, as almost all of us were in the top bracket of the same year, studying the same subject. The SO moved back to Wales to finish his thesis, then to Cambridge to start a new job. I commuted twice a week between Bristol, Manchester and Cambridge, juggling my thesis on pulsar astronomy at Jodrell with astrophysics lectures in Bristol and weekends in Cambridge. I took to running at 5am when the stress got too much - then overused my knee and had to stop. Cooking became my favourite form of stress-relief, though that became more and more difficult with ratty housemates all wishing to cook individual meals in the narrow, grimy kitchen.

Visiting Cambridge was always a relief; I'd catch welcome sleep on the long train journey, then arrive looking forward to food cooked for me, for a change. Once I arrived in the late evening, and the SO had not even started cooking. Exhausted from the long travel, I'm sure I was not very forgiving. Then and now, I have always eaten to a timetable: breakfast before 10, lunch at 1, and dinner between 6 and 8. Upsetting this timetable is a sure way to upset me, habitual creature that I am!

After I finished my degree, I moved to Cambridge and began my PhD in radio astronomy; I completed this almost a year and half ago, which still seems surreal to me. Finally moving in with the SO, I have been free to experiment with food, iterate on recipes and even create entirely new dishes. I've learned to appreciate the seasons, and besides the internet, have a very few but very precious print sources that I turn to regularly: Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, The Joy of Cooking, and an enormous collection of rigorously-collected issues of Observer Food Monthly.

Recently, I accepted a postdoctoral position in Perth, Australia. And all of a sudden, my decade of living and working in UK universities is almost over. While I'm tremendously excited to be moving to a new city and spending more time on outdoor activities, not to mention a new radio astronomy project, I realise now I will be changing my cooking and eating habits. And if I don't record some of the things I have learned now, I will slowly forget some quintessentially English recipes: like how to make elderberry cordial, roast a quince, pot-roast a pheasant and bottle my own chutney. I've also been surprised how many people are interested to hear what I have been cooking, and share recipes. This little blog gives me another way to do that, which in days to come, won't be upset by the separation of time zones.

Typically at the end of the Introduction, I would make some comment on the Cosmology in which I shall be operating. But these recipes will likely be influenced by the anthropic principle: if you are here to read this, then you have the means and ability to replicate these results. While the chemistry is not cosmology-independent, I hope the message is: the recipes are here to share, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I have in creating them.

Henceforth... I will be combining 'Methods' and 'Results'. Enjoy :)