Monday, 27 April 2009

Grow your own

Growing my own herbs and vegetables is one of the things I look forward to most about the summer, If you've never tried growing your own before then now is the perfect time to get planting! Even if you live in a small flat on the 50th floor with no room to swing a cat you can still grow something, a pot of herbs such as parsley or basil is ideal for growing indoors on a windowsill.
Basil seedlings
Of course if you have more space then you can grow all sorts of delicious things, I would highly recommend growing tomatoes, not only are they easy to grow but they are also one of the most rewarding. There's nothing quite like a tomato picked straight from the vine still warm from the sun.
Young tomato plants
In the past I've also had a lot of success growing potatoes -it's like digging for treasure when it comes time to harvest- , beans, broccoli and leeks.

This year I'm growing basil, tomatoes, rosemary, chillies and rocket, hopefully I'll get a bumper crop!
Rosemary is easy to grow from a cutting, just put a spring in a glass of water and wait until the roots sprout.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

100% Pure

It was a few months ago now since I first saw Willie Harcourt-Cooze on TV espousing the virtues of real chocolate. Willie is an eccentric entrepreneur from Devon whose aim is to produce the worlds finest chocolate, by hand, from bean to bar.

At the age of just 27 Willie went to Venezuela and bought a 1000 acre farm -as you do- and planted it with 50,000 Criollo Cacao trees, widely regarded as being the best and highest quality strain of cocoa.
A bar of Venezuelan black 100% cacao
Back in the UK Willie set up his factory and began to produce his first bars under the name Venezualan Black. This is chocolate but not as you know it, the bars are made from 100% pure Cacao, they are not at all sweet and are not meant for eating raw. This chocolate is meant to be used as an ingredient, just like you would use garlic or salt and pepper. In fact Willie puts his cacao into just about everything from pasta and chilli to cakes and desserts.

I finally got hold of some of his cacao a few days ago, the bar I bought was described as having "tingly notes of nut and spice" which makes it sound almost like a bottle of wine.

I plumped for a pot of chilli as my first dish to get the cacao treatment, chocolate is a common ingredient in chilli -i'm sure you knew that- so it seemed like a good place to start. I just used my normal chilli recipe but just before serving I added a handful of grated cacao. The effect was quite astounding, the chilli became deeper, darker and richer and gave a complex and interesting flavour.
Chocolate chilli tacos with sour cream and cheese
I'm definitely a cacao convert just a small amount can make a massive improvement to a dish like chilli. The downside is that at £6 a bar this stuff is not cheap for now it will have to remain an ingredient for special occasions.

Willies official website can be found here:

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


My knowledge of authentic Greek food is extremely limited, in fact everything I know could probably be wirtten on the back of a postage stamp. I've had Greek salad, olives and moussaka, I really like taramasalata and I love a chunk of crumbly Feta, but beyond that I draw a blank.

At least I did draw a blank, but now I can add one more dish to the list. Souvlaki.

Souvlaki are pieces of meat -traditionally pork- which are marinaded and threaded onto skewers for barbecuing or grilling, the word souvlaki comes from the word souvla which means skewer.
To make souvlaki cubes of pork are marinated in a mixture of red wine or red wine vinegar, olive oil, lemon and oregano, they have a very 'fresh' flavour and are surprisingly light. They would be perfect for the upcoming barbecue party season, it's the kind of food you can pass round on a big platter for everyone to dig in and help themselves.

I served mine with some delicious vegetable rice which was so good it's worthy of a post all of it's own, you could serve this with pita, flat-breads or cous cous equally well.

Although this recipe is all my own I should give credit once again to the fantastic River Cottage Meat Book and to Kalofagas for inspiration.

Recipe: (serves four)
  • About 800g pork cut into one inch cubes. I used the shoulder cut because 1)it's cheaper 2) it's got more flavour. You can use whatever you like though.
For the marinade:
  • A good half a glass of red wine.
  • 4 Tablespoons of olive oil.
  • The finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon.
  • A lot of dried oregano, about 6 tablespoons or more if you like.
  • Salt and pepper.
To make souvlaki simply mix all the marinade ingredients together in a large non-metallic bowl, add the pork and mix well then cover and leave in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Thread the pork onto skewers and cook either on a hot barbecue or on a smoking hot griddle. Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and rice or salad.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Every year at the height of summer Leicester is brought to life by a Caribbean carnival. It all starts with a parade, dancers wearing colourful and elaborate costumes make their way though the city on their way to Victoria Park where a day long party kicks off.

I'm sure it will come as no surprise that the highlight for me is the food, anything and everything Caribbean is there from fiery curry goat (never called goat curry) to corn on the cob fresh from the barbecue glistening with melted butter. It was here that I discovered Jamaican jerk Chicken, the mixture of herbs, spices and chillies is just delicious and has become one of my favourite foods.

There are hundreds of different recipes for jerk chicken - there is no 'authentic' recipe - the ingredients can vary widely. What every recipe has in common is that they all contain Scotch bonnet chillies, thyme and allspice.

I've been experimenting with different recipes over the years, trying to find one that was just right, most of the recipes I have tried were bland, boring and a bit disappointing. Now at long last I think I have it, a recipe with just the right amount of heat that's flavourful and delicious.
Chicken marinating
I like to cook this on the barbecue when the weathers good, cooking over charcoal not only adds a delicious flavour to the meat it also gives it it's characteristic charred blackened look. In Jamaica they would always use legs or thighs for this, they have much more flavour than breast meat and don't tend to dry out.Recipe:
You will need a pestle and mortar or a blender.

Ingredients for the marinade:
  • 1 Tbsp each of salt, black peppercorns and allspice berries (sometimes called pimento berries)
  • 1 Tsp ground cinnamon or half a cinnamon stick
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 Small white onion finely chopped
  • 4 Scallions/spring onions chopped
  • Chillies, what type you use is up to you it depends how hot you want it to be. I used two whole red chillies for a medium heat, in Jamaica Scotch bonnets would be used but be warned, they are very hot!
  • The juice of 1 lemon or 2 limes
  • 2 Tbsp of plain vegetable oil such as sunflower or rapeseed
  • A large handful of fresh thyme woody stalks removed and chopped
  • 5 Tbsp brown sugar
  • You will also need 2lbs/1kg chicken legs or thighs
To make the marinade:
  • Either in a pestle and mortar or in a blender grind the salt, peppercorns and allspice berries. They don't need to be ground to dust but try to get it quite fine.
  • Now add the cinnamon and the bay leaves to the mix and grind these up too.
  • Add the onion, the scallions and the chillies and really mash it up to a paste.
  • Finally mix in the lemon or lime juice, oil, thyme and sugar. Stir everything together and that's the marinade done.
To prepare the chicken:
You can skin the chicken or leave the skin on for this recipe, it's up to you. I would suggest skinning it if you don't have much time to leave the chicken to marinate.

Put all the chicken in a large plastic box or a zip-lock plastic bag. Pour the marinade over the chicken then really work it with your hands, you need to get the chicken really well coated and the marinade reall well rubbed in. Now leave it in the fridge for at least 4 hours but anything up to two days is good.

Ideaaly cook the chicken over a charcoal barbecue on a medium heat, other you can cook it in the oven at 180c/350f/gas 4 for about 1 hour, to get the charred skin flash it under a hot grill.

Traditionally served with rice and peas but potato wedges or salad are both good with this.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Bringing home the bacon - How to make your own

Anyone who was up on the main road near my house last week may well have seen a cyclist riding somewhat unsteadily into town. That would have been me as I wobbled home with a whole pigs belly on my back, it makes for an interesting riding experience I can tell you.
A whole pork belly
I found a recipe for home-made bacon in The River Cottage Meat Book which required no fancy equipment or expertise, a large plastic container and a few select ingredients were all that was required. It seemed wrong not to make it.

I used a whole pork belly for my bacon which I had to order in advance, I got mine from a fantastic farm shop -actually the farmers kitchen- which is just a few miles from where I live. Belly pork is the cut used to make streaky bacon, it is quite a fatty cut which makes it ideal for adding flavour and richness to soups, stews, pasta etc...
My bike outside the farm shop
There are two methods for making bacon, brine curing where the pork in soaked in a brine solution and dry curing where a salt cure is rubbed directly into the pork. My bacon was dry cured which results in a firm, dense texture similar to Italian pancetta, Ideal for adding to stews, casseroles and pasta dishes or just sliced thin for a bacon sandwich.
Rubbing in the salt cure
The cure I used is a simple mixture of:
  • 1kg Salt
  • 250g Brown sugar (this helps counter some of the saltiness and adds good flavour of it's own)
  • 20 crushed Juniper berries
  • 4 crushed Bay leaves
  • 2 tsp Saltpetre (optional)
This makes more than enough for 1 whole pork belly.

The saltpetre is the only ingredient that is hard to find, it is a key ingredient in the making of gunpowder and few shops are willing to sell it to the public (If you know a friendly butcher who makes his own bacon or sausages you might be able to buy some, failing that try Ebay). It's purpose in the cure mix is to help the pork retain it's pink colour, it is by no means an essential ingredient and can be left out, your bacon will still taste great.
The finished product
Getting all the ingredients together is the bit that takes the most time, once you come to actually make your bacon it's a breeze.

First you'll need a large clean plastic container to store the pork in while it cures, I used a rectangular bucket but anything will do. Cut your pork belly into two or three pieces, small enough to fit inside the container.

Rub handfuls of the cure mix into the pork. Make sure the pork is well covered all over with the cure mix then stack the pork in the container. Cover and store somewhere cool such as a cellar or pantry.

After about 12 hours you will find that a lot liquid has leached out of the pork, drain this off and rub with more of the cure mix, re-stack the pork alternating the layers so the piece that was on the bottom is now on the top.

That's it! Continue for about 5 days for good sandwich bacon, curing for up to 10 days will give your bacon a much longer shelf life but it will be very salty so you'll need to soak it before you use it.

So far with my bacon I've made countless bacon sandwiches and one batch of pasta carbonara, it tastes amazing, much better than anything I've ever bought. Unlike bacon from the supermarket this won't shrink when you fry it and no strange white liquid will come out!