Strange things can happen when you’re camping in West Wales. Mostly some random cooking (although that’s not always restricted to camping in West Wales as far as I’m concerned!) Not the best, most amazing Cordon Bleu meal. But, good food cooked, where the atmosphere and location are some of the ingredients.

I like cooking away from home with limited resources. At home I can pick up an onion, meat, garlic, spices, potatoes, whatever I like really. And if I run out, I can pop down the road to Asda which is open 24hrs (don’t get me started on that one) When you’re camping, you either have to take everything with you, or buy it there. We took almost nothing with us.

We had with us: Lemons, limes, apples, oil, salt & pepper, a bbq, some applewood smoking chips (as you do) a gas stove and various cooking pots.

Now me being me, I decided we would only buy ingredients that were local and in season (as if resources weren’t restricted enough!) So for dinner we bought: Chicken thighs (2), beetroot (a very fresh bunch with leaves), potatoes (local, new, medium in size), peas (1st of the new English season) a butternut squash (spot the obvious unseasonal ingredient!) and a cauliflower. These ingredients could have gone many ways. For me it said baked beetroot & potatoes, smoked chicken and a pea & cauliflower salad. The vegetables were incredibly fresh. Leaves and stems on the beetroot standing proudly, and the peas the sweetest and freshest I’ve had in ages.

So I sparked up the bbq. Hot coals kept in the middle, potatoes and beetroot around the edge & lid on. If you haven’t ever tried a BBQ with a lid, I can highly recommend it. It’s changed my cooking life! A great outdoor oven, keeping the heat in and giving a lovely smoky flavour, whilst crisping up the food. Pretty easily controllable, and more versatile than you might imagine.

Camping BBQ’d dinner:

  • If you’ve got them, and I do recommend you give them a try, put a couple of handfuls of smoking chips in a container and cover with water.
  • Important to get the bbq hot and put the beetroot and potatoes on first. The beetroot and spuds will take anything from 45mins to 1 1/2 hrs. Planning is everything if you want to eat before the sun goes down when camping!
  • Put a pot of water on to boil and blanch the peas and cauliflower in batches. I like to use as much of the leaves of the cauli as well if I can. When they’re tender drop them into cold water to refresh, stop cooking and keep their colour. Drain.
  • Zest the lemon (I think I used a paring knife and then shredded it best I could!) and add to the peas and cauliflower. Season with olive oil, salt & pepper.
  • The squash can go on the bbq with the other veg now and a fistful of the smoking chips. As you can see, just 1/4 or 1/2 the squash, and obviously drain the chips!
  • Season the chicken thighs with salt, pepper and olive oil. They’ll probably take 1/2 an hr 45mins ish. So put them on about the same time as the squash. They’ll more or less take the same time.
  • Put the lid on the bbq and turn the chicken, preferably only once. You want to keep in all the heat and smoky flavour.
  • Sit back and enjoy a well-earned glass of something cold, downwind!

Smokin! And why you need to be upwind.

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I like it when my wife goes to the shops. She comes home with things I might not have bought myself.

Last night it was asparagus and fresh peas. Both English, both very in season. Pleasingly, as the asparagus season is getting later, its prices are mercifully coming down. The peas are the first we’ve had this year, very lovely and exciting. The psb (purple sprouting broccoli) is coming to the end of its season (sadly). This year I decided I was going to try to make myself sick of it. It’s one of our wonderful seasonal treats, and one I don’t eat enough of. We had some that needed using up, and it felt right to put them all together as a salad enjoyed in the warmth of our early evening garden.

The barbeque was lit and (for me at least) there was much anticipation. But then that’s often the case with me and BBQs generally. Sausages (of course) and a chicken breast (spiced with cumin, coriander & garlic)  that needed using up from the freezer, went on the literally smoking-hot grill.

A fresh, (and simple) early summer salad:

1 Bunch of asparagus

3 big handfuls of fresh peas, shelled

Purple sprouting broccoli, a small handful

Fresh herbs, 1-2 tbsp, chopped. Whatever you have to hand, but soft for preference. I used mint, lemon balm, marjoram & parsley.

Sherry vinegar (or balsamic if you don’t have it) a splash

Extra virgin olive oil, a big lug

  • Put a large pan of lightly salted water on to boil.
  • Snap the asparagus where it wants to, of its woody ends.
  • One by one, blanch each of the vegetables for 3 minutes in the boiling water. Let the water come back to the boil before you put the next in. Refresh them as you take them out, in cold water.
  • Drain and dress with the oil, salt & pepper.
  • If you happen to have a BBQ lit now’s the time to grill the asparagus. It gives a lovely colour and smoky flavour, that lends itself very well to the pointy green spears.
  • Cut the asparagus into 1-2 inch lengths, on the angle looks good.
  • Mix everything together with remaining ingredients & serve.

To be honest I would have liked more mint & parsley in the salad,as they work so well with the peas. And I meant to put some chive flowers in there too, but I forgot.

Other good things to BBQ;

  • Potatoes, cut very thick, boiled until just tender in their skins, drained & dressed with oil, salt & pepper.
  • Onions, red or white, treated the same way as the spuds.

Yum

As if the world wasn’t mad enough. I spotted this water in a Madrid supermarket. (see below, and check out the price, in Euros)

It bothers me for 2 reasons;

It’s imported water.

It costs a small fortune, for something which is a basic human need, and our society has turned it into a luxury item.

In this country (UK) we’re lucky to have enough water, so why on earth do we have to keep importing (& stealing) water from other countries? Essentially, and in the long run, creating drought in other countries. To be fair to the water company, it’s American “spring water”, purified by various means, and not imported. Although for me that makes it all the more ridiculous. This water is a fashion accessory,created by a Hollywood producer, nothing more, nothing less.  It attempts to do some ecological point scoring by making the bottle glass, recyclable & refillable. (If anyone knows how to recycle Swarowski crystals, could they let me know). All of this does help me make some interesting points about water in general.

I think a lot of us import water unwittingly sometimes. There’s a lot of “hidden” water in imported foods, rice, vegetables, meat especially. It’s not so much the obvious amount of water that’s contained in food (cucumbers & tomatoes being obviously very wet), it’s the amount it takes to produce it. Which for countries that have very little, it just seems wrong to take it from them.

You know it makes sense!

To create the following amounts of food items, here’s a few facts for you:

Water-

1 gram of lettuce = 130ml

1 gram of rice = 3.4 litres

1 gram of lamb = 15 litres!

Maybe veggies have got a point!

Oil-

100 grams of pork = 70 ml

100 grams of cheese = 130ml

1 tomato (from a greenhouse) = 320ml

(source: Future of food- George Alagiyah, broadcast 17th August 2009 BBC1)

Maybe the veggies haven’t got a point! Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Scary figures though aren’t they?

Having got right on my soapbox and said all that, I love this water for another reason. It made me laugh! Undoubtedly the most expensive water I have ever seen. It never ceases to amaze me, that humanity is so utterly ridiculous and well, sometimes frankly brilliant. I love that the people who worship “bling” are being sold something we ridicule. Adorned with Swarowski crystals if you please! It’s genius, I’m in the wrong job! Although I don’t think I could live with myself if that was my job.

On the eve of one of the most important elections in my lifetime this seems all the more fitting.

I have an enormous list of books I want to read. I’m currently reading Matthew Fort’s excellent “Eating up Italy”, in which he rides from the south end of Italy, to the north on a Vespa scooter. Quite mad and brilliant, and yes you guessed it, he spent his time eating. (The clue’s in the name folks)

Very well written, with some excellent recipes. His clearly decent command of the Italian language allowed him to get under the surface of Italy and talk to chefs, restaurateurs and food producers. Giving a fascinating, often unreported, and therefore unrivalled view of, what I believe to be, one of the food capitals of the world. We’re fed a steady diet of information and recipes about Italy through various media means. It’s always romantic, wonderful and foodie, but rarely the truth of multinationals, farming & the state of the economy. So I found it eye-opening and refreshing to read.

My rant today though, is the point he makes about Italian shops. They open to suit their customers, not the other way around. Opening early (you mean BEFORE we go to work?) They close in the afternoon from 1 to about 4 or 5 (while we’re STILL at work), and then they close fairly late at 7 or 8pm (on our way home from work). How very sensible. And he makes the point that, it’s no wonder the supermarkets have such an easy time of it in this country. Now admittedly one of the reasons for these hours is due to the climate and the heat in the middle of the day. Nevertheless it does make perfect sense.

It’s not rocket science is it? But then we’re not a nation known for our love of food and things are changing to be fair. But, why go home & cook ,when we can sit in front of the television, and laugh at our fellow man making fools of themselves, in the ridiculous numbers of “reality” shows we seem to have rammed down our throats? Eating some poor excuse for food out of the microwave, made with no love or respect for producers, food or the staff making it, or the staff selling it. Heaven forbid we should sit around a table and interact with each other.

I don’t live in an idealistic bubble (or at least I don’t think I do). And I’m guilty of watching some rubbish on telly too. As the election approaches, is it any wonder that we live in “broken Britain”?

Aah, the humble savoy cabbage.

Is it that humble, really? Simply steamed until just tender & dressed with salt, pepper & butter, maybe some caraway seeds it’s surely one of the best of the green leaves. It’s dark earthy flavour works with many different dishes. And the cup shape of the leaves is natural for stuffing.

But finely shredded I think it’s also a much under-used salad leaf. It can be a little bitter, but that’s part of the pleasure, and the middle, paler leaves tend to be much milder and slightly nutty. The other day, it was the best-looking thing in the fruit and veg shop. Absolutely spanking fresh, firm, very green, waiting to be eaten.

One of my favourite savoy salads is made with coarsley grated parmesan, anchovies, lemon juice & capers. A bold and gutsy dish. And easily made vegetarian by leaving out the anchovies.

The original inspiration comes from the River Cafe, who have a fantastic knack for making  ingredients quite exciting, and putting them together in truly creative ways. Food with the greatest simplicity where attention to quality is paramount. Rose Gray, one of the founders of this seminal restaurant sadly passed away early this year after a long battle with cancer. Their food and their influential style has done much,  if not more for the way we cook and eat than Elizabeth David in the 60s. Unique, distinctive books with writing and a restaurant that has influenced & started the careers of many fine cooks.

For 2:

1/2 a Medium Savoy Cabbage

50-100g Parmesan in the piece

2 Tbsp Capers, salted, in vinegar or brine

5-7 Anchovies

Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Good Balsamic vinegar

Decent Olive oil

Freshly-ground black pepper

Remove any leaves you don’t like the look of and the tough outer ribs of the cabbage. Shred as finely as you can and wash. A really sharp knife’s pretty necessary here. Leave to dry in a colander or sieve.

Depending on which capers you have, rinse or soak them. If in vinegar/brine a quick wash is usually sufficient. If salted they may need to soak for a few hours. I like the big salted ones. Roughly chop them if they’re big, a bit of texture’s good. The tiny one’s pop pleasingly, so leave them whole.

Roughly chop the anchovies.

Transfer the cabbage to a serving bowl, chuck in the capers, anchovies, lemon juice and a good lug of Olive oil. Give it a good stir.

The original dish was made with Bresaola, delicious cured beef. I haven’t included it because I don’t have any usually! It also had shaved parmesan. But you can coarsely grate it too. The choice is yours, I like it both ways. The shavings adding a layer of savouriness that you can take or leave, and coarsely grated is a bit punchier.

Taste and adjust. More capers, anchovies, oil or lemon as you please. Because of the saltiness of the capers, parmesan and the anchovies it probably won’t need any salt, it will want much black pepper though. Dribble over a little balsamic and serve. If your balsamic vinegar is aged and a little sweet it’ll balance itself quite nicely in the dish.

We ate it with braised lentils and bacon. A warm and soft complement to the crunchy, punchy salad.

Not so eagle-eyed readers will spot a small peppery addition I quite liked.

And indeed, blimey. Has it been that long since I put a post up?

Well I have been off getting married, so I think I’ve got a pretty good excuse!

Our honeymoon was in Kerala, South West India, which is very very hot at this time of year. 34°c at 9pm and 100% humidity, just silly. Night time, sitting outside, and you just sweat, you don’t have to move, you just sweat!

For some reason, whilst we were in India, I was expecting to come back to the UK & find the food really bland and boring. Indian food is spicy (obviously) but spicy with everything! (curry for breakfast anyone?)  But really, a carefully cooked shoulder of British lamb is up there with any country’s cuisine. The one and only bacon sandwich? Well, one of the things this country does to a world class standard is breakfast. People somtimes talk about how the food in this country is boring, but when it’s done well I think it can stand proudly alongside a Thai curry, a Tart Tatin or a Risotto. The difference is how you look at it.  Yes you can compare a Thai curry to bangers and mash, but if all you’ve ever eaten is spice or Thai, or Indian food, our food can seem boring.

One of the things about Indian food and culture, I found, was that it really wasn’t that unfamiliar. Mad, frustrating, exciting, at times emotional and a little bonkers. But at the same time strangely familiar. Not that surprising when you think about it though. As a nation we’ve been there a long time and developed close links, and the food is one of the most popular in the UK. Just looking at Trip Advisor the other day, in the top 20 restaurants in Bristol 5 of them are Indian. Does that say something about Trip Advisor, or something about Bristol?

Of course we had to go straight to the One Stop Thali Cafe in Easton when we got back. Really, really good food, but not quite the same as a Thali in Kerala. And to be fair to them they’re doing a brilliant  job of using local, seasonal British produce and serving it South Indian style, which in my view can only be commended. They’re very busy and deservedly so.

Oddly (or not) the only spices I bought in India were whole mace and black tamarind. As so many of our spices are available very cheaply, and pretty fresh there didn’t seem any point. Whole mace I’ve found difficult to come by in the UK, and black tamarind I’d never seen or heard of.

Black Tamarind’s a peculiar thing. It’s actually a different species (Garnicia Indica) to the brown Sweet Tamarind (Tamarindus Indica) that you may be familiar with from Thai or SE Asian cookery.

It’s dried out over smoke,and this obviously is gives it a very characteristic smoky (which isn’t for everyone) and slightly sour flavour. It’s used in the Keralan fish curry, a very delicious and distinct regional speciality, and almost a national dish. But similar to Sweet Tamarind  it’s slightly sour flavour adds an edge to dishes. I think it’s delicious and I can’t wait to try it at home.

And like India itself, it’s a little bit bonkers and not for everyone.

The first dishes I cooked of course were Indian when we got back. And the smells coming out of the kitchen are just extraordinary. There’s something about the spice combinations, and the stages you add them and cook the various elements. From our first Indian dish on the plane to when we got back home, I don’t think the smell of curry left my fingers completely! It’s heady, exotic stuff, but one I think we take for granted in this country because some of it can be second rate, and not that exciting. Now I know I’m also a bit obsessive about food, so I’ve got all the spices I need,  but it really is worth buying a few to try some dishes out at home. The dishes you cook are so much more satisfying, cheaper and probably better tasting than a lot of takeaway food. And they have the added bonus of making your neighbours jealous when the cooking smells drift over their way!

Bizarrely I haven’t put up my recipe for lemon dressing yet. Bizarre because I could have sworn I did, and it’s a really, really versatile thing, quite delicious and dead easy to prepare. All good things I think you’ll agree. Not especially seasonal, but it’s good all year round, quite useful. We’ve much going on at home at the moment so posts are a little brief I’m afraid, I’ll be back to full speed in April (I hope!)

Once you try it I think you’ll find it sneaks it’s way into all sorts of dishes you didn’t think it would! Dressing salads, warm potatoes, dipping cooked things, bread, green beans, really whatever.

Store in the fridge and use within a week or so. The E.V may solidify  but it goes liquid pretty quick out of the fridge, give it a good shake!

Zest of 1 lemon, preferably unwaxed, very finely grated (or zested & chopped)

Juice of same

250ml good Extra Virgin olive oil

Warm the ingredients together in a small pan until it just boils. (80-90°c for those of you with a thermometer) If it does really boil it can get a bit messy, dressing all over the kitchen, bad thing.

Leave to cool and confuse (that’s infuse, but confuse sounds much better)

Transfer to suitable container with a lid (jam jar’s are good)

If you want an extra special dressing, roast a few cloves of garlic (in foil, 170°c 40-60 mins), puree (squeeze out of skin & push through a seive) & add to the dressing. Whisk very thoroughly into the dressing, roast garlic can be a bit lumpy to start with.

Really very good with grilled jerusalem artichokes, rocket, fennel and oven-dried tomatoes.

A dinner with my cousins in London, not quite sure how I ended up cooking! (probably because I offered, I can’t help myself) A little impromptu, but then some of life’s most pleasant experiences happen that way.

Not a true Coq Au Vin, for my money the chicken needs an overnight marinade in fresh herbs, wine & garlic & then to be finished with croutons. The overnight marinade makes the meat insanely richly flavoured & a pleasing dark red. And Elizabeth David & Keith Floyd (I know, neither of them French) will tell you to thicken the sauce with Beurre Manié or reduce it to achieve the correct consistency. If you’ve got time, you can strain & reduce the sauce, I didn’t. You can just add as much stock as you need to get the result you want, but reducing it obviously intensifies the flavour.

Serves 9, or at least that was the plan! Actually served a hungry 7 easily

Pancetta, 2 of those little square packets, (these were a bit bigger and I was reliably informed you can’t have too much)

2 Free-range Chickens, jointed, breasts & legs cut into 2

15-20 round Shallots, or as many as you can get someone else to peel!

6-8 Carrots, peeled & thickly sliced

Garlic, a whole head, peeled & chopped

1 Bottle of red wine

Mushrooms, 100g punnet, sliced

Dried Thyme, 1 tsp

Joint the chickens, ideally taking the breast meat off the bone and drop the carcass remains into a saucepan.

Cover the bones with water, add a couple of squashed garlic cloves, a bay leaf or 2, a carrot halved and a peeled & halved onion. Set over a medium heat & bring to a simmer, not a boil.

Once the stock is cooking, brown the pancetta in a large pan (big enough to hold everything, with a lid. Or 2 pans as I did) over a medium heat. It may need a touch of oil to get it started. Stir often & when it’s nicely brown, remove to a plate or bowl. The stock can just be left to it’s own devices until you need it, or even overnight in a very low oven.

Season the chicken pieces with salt & pepper & brown them in batches in the baconny fat. Too many chicken pieces in the pan and they won’t brown, the same goes for not enough heat, but I’m sure you know that already right? You may need to add more oil to the pan, but try not to, there’s probably plenty in the chicken & bacon.

Once all the chicken is nicely browned, remove them to a plate or bowl. Add a big splash of red wine to the pan & scrape off the sticky bits (deglaze). Pour out the wine and all the chicken/bacon flavours into the bacon or chicken bowl, wipe the pan with paper towel, put in a little fresh oil and a knob of butter & continue.

Turn down the heat a little & add the peeled onions. What you’re looking to do is lightly brown them and soften a little.

Now add all the remaining ingredients & the chicken & bacon to the pan. Cover & bring to a gently bubbling simmer. If it looks at though you haven’t enough liquid add some of the chicken stock, the chicken wants to be almost covered.

Cook for 20-30 minutes in a medium oven, check the chicken for doneness by cutting into one of the legs, to the bone.  Taste the sauce for seasoning & reduce or not as you wish. Serve with some sort of potato & green combo, we had jacket spuds & broccoli. So long as you’ve got something to mop up the sauce!

I write this on a very cold December’s eve. (hey, I’m trying to keep my blog up to date, it doesn’t always work, and I’m trying to keep it seasonal too!!) But at last, a cold December’s eve, it’s been too warm of late these last few years.

My thoughts turn to dark bitters and log fires, it’s that time of year isn’t it? However, the pub I’m in is serving Summer Lightning, and it’s a very fine and delicious beer, so that’s what I’ll drink. It somehow doesn’t feel quite right though when it’s cold & foggy outside, nevermind, I’ll force it down.

Now if the makers of the car-crash Tv programme I was watching earlier, have anything to do with it, we should all be eating Indian Spices. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with it on Partridge either, it makes a change from the “winter stodge” they were moaning about earlier. But I like “winter stodge”, I love the change of the seasons, the nights drawing in, cold weather, frosty ground & snow. Apparently some vegetables are only at their best once the first frost has hit them. Game, nuts, cabbages & sprouts, turkey, all that stuff, fantastic. It’s part of the wonderful tapestry that makes up this country. In fact I forget about the changing of each season & how much I like it each time it comes around. I even like getting annoyed with the cheesy music & massive queues in shops at Christmas. It gives us something to moan about, something to unite us as a nation. A collective, seasonal grump if you will.

I feel we’re becoming separated, disjointed & I’m a great believer in communities. Buying, growing, shopping & living locally. The world’s too jam-packed with ready meals, junk food and food produced without a thought. Not a thought to it’s nutritional or local economic value, or it’s impact on the people that eat it, let alone those that make it, grow it & produce it. All they’re interested in is the bottom line & they don’t care who or what they step on to get there. Food just doesn’t need to be like that. Yes I know I’m an idealist, and the world is far from perfect. I’m far from perfect myself, dinner tonight was white bread, sandwich spread & a tin of sweetcorn! What’s local & seasonal about that? I’m also a realist. I understand in the real world not everybody has the time, the skill or the patience to cook, grow & shop locally.

None of this is really news of course, and nothing that I’m writing here is particularly ground-breaking or original. All of it though, to me at least,  is important.

The Hopback brewery (website here) also make a Winter Lightning, a strong & darker winter brew, very delicious it is too. A far more fitting fuel to my seasonal rant. It wasn’t on sale when I wrote this, which is a shame. I struggled on with the unseasonal bitter, as most of us do.

A really simple light supper. The dressing is so versatile you could serve it with almost any salad, but it really works with peppery rocket.

As with any cheese on toast I like thick bread, toasted on only one side. That way it’s not too dry, it doesn’t burn so easily, but you still get the crunch.

Serves 2 as a starter:

1 Red Pepper

1-2 tbsp Balsamic Vinegar

2-4 tbsp good Olive oil

Salt & pepper

Bread, ideally sourdough, 2 slices

Goats’s cheese, 2-4 thick slices

A handful of rocket leaves

Preheat the grill to really hot.

Brush or smear your pepper with oil & put it under the grill. What you’re looking for is a pepper black in places, really well roasted & soft. So keep an eye on it & turn from time to time.

When the pepper’s soft, transfer it to a bowl & cover for 20 mins or so (use a plate or clingfilm). This generates a bit of steam, allows the pepper to cool & loosens the skin.

When the pepper’s cool enough to handle, peel it, throw away the skin & seeds & drop the flesh into the bowl of a food processor. A few bits of black skin won’t hurt, but don’t be tempted to run it under the tap, cos you’ll wash off all the lovely flavour.

Blitz with the balsamic vinegar & olive oil. Taste. Season with salt & pepper & taste again. Adjust the vinegar & oil as you wish, but remember it’s being served with cheese so you don’t want it too oily, but a good kick of vinegar works a treat.

Toast the bread on one side, flip over & lay the cheese on the bread. Grill, ideally until the cheese is golden, but before the toast is too burnt! I quite like the little burnt corners of toast with my cheese though.

Serve on the rocket leaves, dribbled with the dressing.

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