Table of Contents
The kitchen table is a plank of bog oak, rescued from the Fens, as dark as chocolate cake. The surface is matt except for a patch that has worn to a shine, marking the spot where I sit and write notes in fountain pen that eventually become my weekly Observer column – the letters I have been writing to you from this kitchen for 30 years. These handwritten notes are guided by the season, what is at its best, by my old collection of kitchen diaries and what I have been cooking over the last few days.
Such notes are made before I have been to the shops or the market, before I have cooked and tested and retested a recipe (then cooked it again to be photographed by Jonathan Lovekin, who has been part of this column here almost as long as I have). There are no recipe developers and food stylists, no photographic props, I just cook as if making dinner, put it on a plate or dish on which it looks comfortable and hopefully tempting then, once photographed, we sit down and eat. Any leftovers are packed up into a care package for Jonathan’s long journey home or are there to feed me for the next day or two. I then wash up.
I was surprised and slightly intimidated when, in 1993, I was offered a column in the Observer’s weekly magazine. Surprised because I hadn’t actually applied for it: the suggestion came from Matthew Fort, who wrote the restaurant column for the Guardian at the time and to whom I am eternally grateful. Intimidated, because I was stepping into the pages of Jane Grigson, a writer I revered more than any other and who had been in place for more than 20 years. There had, in the interim, been a year of long and beautiful essays and recipes by the late Leslie Forbes.
My first column started with the line, “It has been a good week for flavour” and the recipes celebrated the arrival of the first damsons (the accompanying recipe was a compote with a dash of gin) and a haul of red peppers, which I roasted with thyme and garlic, and served with their caramelised juices and a drop of balsamic vinegar. The recipe makes a big deal of using the roasting juices in the dressing, something I seem to have been going on about for three decades. But then, I do feel such details are the heart and soul of a recipe.
My filing system (full disclosure, there is none) would probably follow the slow path of change in the nation’s eating. Despite what happens in restaurants and colour supplements, books and television cookery shows, the actual change in home eating has moved slower than black treacle. The constant hunt for a better way to do something; the embrace of fresh ideas; the inspiration of travel and also the acceptance of the new all take a while to filter through to the home kitchen, yet there is a marked difference in what many of us are eating compared to 30 years ago.
The embrace of more casual eating, the disappearance of the three-course meal and the emergence of vegetarian and vegan eating – something of a rarity even in the early 80s – have now become mainstream and so much a part of this column. The majority of the recipes in this magazine are suited to non-meat eaters. Vegetables, beans, rice and sustainable fish rule. The roast peppers from that first column have probably appeared in a dozen or so versions over the past three decades, my favourite being the one from 2010, where the silky roast peppers were tossed in a basil, mint and garlic dressing. In a more recent one they are stuffed with soft tofu and green olives, the silken tofu melting into the juices as they bake.
Flipping through my dusty pile of press cuttings, I am intrigued that the recipes were much shorter than they are now. There are multiple reasons for this. Recipes do contain more ingredients than they did 30 years ago, partly because of their increased accessibility (can’t find any mention of gochujang, miso, guanciale or even za’atar in the first decade’s recipes) and partly because of the rise in cooking as a hobby and not simply “something that has to be done”. But also, and I think this is crucial, this is the second generation of people who are not necessarily taught to cook at school, leaving without the ability to make themselves something to eat. This is why published recipes need to be more detailed than ever.
The minute details of cooking continue to fascinate me, the quality of the time we spend in the kitchen, the little kitchen tasks that bring us joy. To this day I am never happier than when making something for someone to eat. It is what I do and hope I continue to do, every day of my life.
I should add I haven’t always been alone in this kitchen, cooking for a decade with James Thompson, now founder of The Great Oven, a project that builds community ovens in places of conflict, and latterly with Giles Cooper, who has diligently retested recipe after recipe. I owe a massive thank you to my editors, the eagle-eyed subeditors (who have saved my life a thousand times), to the picture editors and everyone at the Observer who has helped get this column on to page and screen. But most of all to you, for reading my words and following my recipes, for all these years. Thank you.
It would be nigh on impossible to choose my favourite recipes from all those published – even if I could find them. At a back-of-an-envelope calculation that’s about 4,500 of them. I have managed to put together a collection of those that have been most mentioned to me by you and have apparently been many of your favourites.
Roast pumpkin with couscous and date syrup
It would be a Herculean task to count how many recipes for roasted vegetables have appeared in this column. The first was in the opening one – red peppers with garlic and olive oil – and over the years there is barely a vegetable that hasn’t had its edges charred in my scorching oven.
There is no doubt that date syrup and za’atar turned up more regularly after my trips to the Middle East and in particular those to Lebanon. The slight tartness of the date syrup, not unlike pomegranate molasses, has much to offer the sweet, fudgy flesh of the roast pumpkin. Serves 4.
pumpkin 1kg (unpeeled weight)
olive oil 60ml
za’atar 1 tbsp
dried chilli flakes 1 tsp
parsley leaves 10g
For the dressing:
date syrup 4 tsp
garlic 1 clove
olive oil 5 tbsp
lemon juice of ½
grain mustard 1 tsp
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Peel the pumpkin, remove the fibres and seeds and discard, then cut the flesh into 2cm thick slices. Place the slices on a baking sheet. Mix together the olive oil, za’atar and dried chilli flakes, then spoon over the pumpkin. Bake for 35-40 minutes until tender and translucent.
Bring a kettle of water to the boil. Put the couscous in a bowl, pour over enough of the hot water to cover the couscous and set aside.
Make the dressing: mix the date syrup with the crushed garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and grain mustard.
Chop the coriander and the parsley. When the couscous has soaked up the water, run a fork through it to separate the grains, then fold in the chopped parsley and coriander and a seasoning of salt and black pepper.
Remove the pumpkin from the oven, place the couscous on a serving plate together with the pumpkin, then trickle over the date dressing.
Baked squash with sauerkraut and gruyère
Something quite wonderful happens to a vegetable cooked in the oven. The flesh soaks up the cream or olive oil; delicious cooking juices assemble in the tin and the cut edges sweeten and caramelise. I doubt there is a vegetable on earth that hasn’t been baked in this column. From tomatoes stuffed with pesto to peppers with feta cheese and olives, and marrow with tomatoes and basil. Much of my love of such recipes comes from an apprenticeship where I made cast-iron dishes of sliced potatoes, garlic and cream and cooked them in a low oven for the entire afternoon. The potatoes emerged, for early evening service, almost collapsing into the garlicky cream. In today’s climate, few of us will put the oven on for a side dish, so anything baked in the oven usually has to be a main course. One of the most popular recipes on this page has been the stuffed squash with sauerkraut and cream. Serves 3.
squashes 3, small, orange-fleshed ones
thyme leaves 1 tsp
onions 2, medium to large
olive oil 3 tbsp (or use any oil)
parsley a small bunch
double cream 100ml
gruyère 125g, grated
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Cut the squashes in half and use a spoon to remove the seeds and fibres. Place the squash hollow side up in a roasting tin, then divide the butter and thyme between them. Season with salt and black pepper and bake the squashes for 40 minutes until the flesh is soft and giving.
While the squashes bake, peel and finely slice the onions. Warm the oil in a deep pan, over a moderate heat, add the onions and cook until pale gold and soft, stirring regularly. Expect this to take a good 20 minutes. Roughly chop the parsley, then stir into the softened onions. Remove from the heat and add the sauerkraut, cream and cheese.
Take the squash from the oven, divide the filling between the halved vegetables, then return them to the oven. Continue baking for about 20 minutes until the filling is turning gold and the cream is bubbling around the edges.
Roast pork with green olives and cabbage
Perhaps because this column is published on a Sunday, I often include a recipe for something that might be appropriate for a big family lunch. Roast lamb, perhaps, its skin seasoned with anchovies, or crisp duck legs with red cabbage and juniper. But the most popular family roasts have always been pork and the favourite of those is the roast loin with green olives and cabbage. I ask my butcher to bone and tie the pork loin – my own attempts are less than perfect – and I keep the meat unwrapped for as long as I can before cooking, so the skin is dry. (It will make for better crackling.) Rather than roasting by the clock, I find a meat thermometer is a sound investment. You can pick them up from cookware shops.
I make the olive and lemon dressing while the pork is resting. The cabbage can be started when the roast pork has about 20 minutes to go. It is a good-natured dish and will keep warm in its pan, covered by a lid or reheated at the last minute. Serves 6.
pork loin 2kg (boned, scored and rolled weight)
olive oil 6 tbsp
garlic 3 cloves
rosemary 3 bushy sprigs
For the dressing:
green olives 120g, stoned
lemon juice 2 tbsp
olive oil 4 tbsp
For the cabbage:
red cabbage 1kg
olive oil 3 tbsp
juniper berries 10
yellow mustard seeds 2 tsp
cider vinegar 3 tbsp
redcurrant or other fruit jelly 3 tbsp
Set the oven at 220C/gas mark 7. Put the pork, rolled and tied, in a roasting tin and rub with a little of the olive oil – just enough to moisten the skin. Roast the pork for 30 minutes until the skin is starting to puff and blister.
Peel and roughly chop the garlic. Finely chop the rosemary leaves, discarding the stems. Mix the rosemary and garlic with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Remove the pork briefly from the oven and spoon the rosemary and garlic oil over the meat, then return to the oven and lower the heat to 180C/gas mark 4. Continue roasting for 45 minutes until the juices run clear, or until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 60C on a meat thermometer. Remove the meat from the oven, cover lightly with foil and leave in a warm place to rest.
Make the dressing: put the roasting tin on the hob over a moderate heat. Roughly chop the green olives, finely chop the parsley and mix with the lemon juice and olive oil.
For the cabbage: cut the red cabbage into pencil-thick shreds. Warm the olive oil in a large, deep, heavy-based saucepan over a moderate heat. Add the cabbage, juniper berries and mustard seeds and a little salt, then cover tightly with a lid. Cook for 3-4 minutes until slightly wilted, then turn the cabbage with kitchen tongs. Replace the lid and continue cooking for another 7-10 minutes until the cabbage is tender. Add the vinegar, cook for a minute or two, add the fruit jelly and stir through the cabbage, then add the sauerkraut and toss together.
Slice the pork and serve with the olive dressing and the cabbage.
Smoked mackerel pie
There can be few more comforting sights on a rainy winter’s night than a pie coming from the oven, its pastry bronzed and crisp, its contents oozing from its shell. Making a pie, though, is not for the faint-hearted: the filling, the pastry, the assembly, all take time. It is hardly a quick fix for those who arrive home in need of sustenance.
With this in mind, I came up with a simple pie, a parcel of crumbly pastry enclosing a filling that is both smoky and creamy. It ticks all the boxes and is rather good eaten cold, too. A little pie, easily made, its crumbly pastry filled with creamed smoked mackerel.
Peel the skin from 500g of smoked mackerel and remove the bones. This should leave you with 400g of flesh. Put the mackerel in a bowl, then add 200ml of crème fraîche, 2 tsp of grain mustard, a little salt and some black pepper. Chop a handful of parsley leaves and 1 tbsp of tarragon and add them to the mackerel.
Gently toss the mixture together and set aside. Cut 325g of puff pastry in half, then roll each into a rectangle about 24 x 17cm. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, then pile the mackerel on top, shaping it into a shallow block and leaving a couple of centimetres of bare pastry around the edge.
Brush the pastry edge with beaten egg, then lay the second piece of pastry on top. Press the sides to seal, pushing down firmly to prevent any leaks. Brush the top with beaten egg and score 3 or 4 lines across the surface.
Bake at 200C/gas mark 6 for 40 minutes until crisp and golden. Serves 2, generously.
Grilled chicken with miso and honey
My first book, published the year I joined this paper, was for those who had little time to spend in the kitchen, but didn’t want to live on takeaways and ready-made convenience foods. Real fast food is the sort of cooking I continue to celebrate in the weekly Midweek Dinner recipe. Many are vegetarian or vegan, which is how a good number of us like to eat during the week, but one of my favourites is the quickest of chicken recipes, especially so if you ask the butcher to bone the legs for you.
The notes are both sweet and salty and I usually eat it with a watercress and radish salad, for its crisp peppery notes.
Take a couple of whole chicken legs and remove the bones (or ask your butcher to do it for you). Mix together 4 tbsp of white miso paste, 2 tbsp of maple syrup or honey, 2 tsp of sesame oil and 3 tbsp of groundnut oil. Push the meat down into the marinade, cover and set aside in a cool place for a good 20 minutes, longer if you can.
Heat an overhead grill. Line a grill pan with foil, place the chicken pieces on top and cook under the preheated grill for about 8 minutes, then turn and grill the other side until golden. While the chicken is cooking, clean 350g of assorted radishes, slice them thinly and toss them with a little groundnut oil, rice vinegar and a handful of frisée or watercress.
Remove the chicken from the grill and serve with the radishes and leaves. Serves 2.
Mussels, coconut and noodles
I could happily live on soup and none more so than one that holds tangles of noodles in its depths. So many good things come to the party in this recipe. The sting of chillies and the spritz of lime, the deep umami of fish sauce and warmth of ginger and turmeric, all of which is brought together with a calming ladle of coconut milk. Once the ingredients are assembled, the recipe comes together at quite a pace. Serves 4.
green bird’s eye chillies 2
spring onions 3
coriander 50g, leaves and stalks
mint 15 large leaves
garlic 3 cloves
groundnut oil 5 tbsp
ground turmeric 1 ½ tsp
green peppercorns 16, fresh or brined
coconut milk 2 x 400ml tins
fish sauce 2 tsp
lemongrass 2 large stalks
rice noodles 60g
palm or caster sugar ½ tsp
lime, mint and coriander to serve
Peel the ginger, cut into short lengths, then drop into the bowl of a food processor. Remove the stalks from the chillies, then add them complete with their seeds to the bowl, together with the spring onions, coriander and mint leaves. Peel the garlic, then add it to the ginger and herbs. Pour in the oil, then process for 30 seconds or until you have a smooth, wet paste. Scrape into a small bowl, cover with film and refrigerate until you are ready to use it. The paste will keep in good condition for a day or two.
Place a deep, medium-sized pan over a moderate heat and add the herb and spice paste, stirring it for a minute while it warms. Stir in the turmeric, peppercorns, coconut milk and fish sauce and bring to the boil. Using a rolling pin or the back of a heavy kitchen knife, smash the lemongrass so it splinters but remains together, then tuck it under the surface of the liquid. Lower the heat and leave to simmer, bubbling gently, while you cook the mussels.
Wash the mussels under running water, discard any whose shells are chipped or that refuse to close when tapped firmly on the edge of the sink. Place a saucepan over a high flame, add the mussels in their shells, then cover tightly with a lid. Leave for a minute or two, occasionally shaking the pan back and forth, then remove from the heat. Pull the mussels from their shells, but keep the small amount of liquid that has accumulated in the pan.
Put a kettle on to boil. Place the noodles in a heatproof bowl and pour over enough of the boiling water to cover them. Add the mussels to the soup, straining their cooking liquid through a small sieve into the soup. (There will only be a very little, but it is too flavoursome to waste.) Check the seasoning of the soup, adding extra fish sauce or salt and some of the palm sugar as necessary.
Drain the noodles, then divide them between 4 deep soup bowls. Ladle over the soup and mussels, adding a generous squeeze of lime juice and, if you wish, a few extra coriander and mint leaves.
Leeks and butter beans on toast
There isn’t much I wouldn’t put on toast and there isn’t much I haven’t. From mushrooms in garlic butter to baked plums. The essential point being that the juices soak into the toasted bread. If there is one basic food that has changed above all others in the last three decades it is bread. In 30 years we have seen small bakers shops open, close and open again. The difference is the quality of the bread. The old traditional bakers with their white bloomers and cottage loaves, so popular when I first started writing, are now as rare as hen’s teeth, replaced at first by supermarkets and now by local artisan bakers making potato or raisin sourdoughs, Swedish rye loaves and linseed baguettes. All make good toast, as does the thick cut, featherlight Japanese shokupan. Of all the something-on-toast recipes I have run over the years, this is my favourite.
Trim 500g of leeks, discarding the roots and the tips of the leaves, then slice each leek into thick coins. Wash them thoroughly in a colander under cold running water. Melt 50g of butter in a deep-sided pan and add the leeks. Cover with a piece of greaseproof paper and a lid and let them steam for about 20 minutes on a low heat, until soft.
Slice 6 pieces of thick bread and toast them lightly. Place them on a baking sheet or grill pan.
Warm the overhead grill. Sprinkle 1 heaped tbsp of plain flour over the leeks, stir and continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Stir in 250ml of double cream, 2 tbsp of mild grain mustard and 150g of coarsely grated Caerphilly, a little salt and plenty of black pepper. I like to stir in a handful of chopped parsley, too, if there’s some around.
Once the cream is hot and the mixture has started to bubble, stir in a drained 400g can of butter beans and continue cooking for a couple of minutes.
Spoon the mixture on to the pieces of toast and place under the heated grill. Watch carefully and cook until golden. Serves 2.
Lemon buttermilk ice-cream
Rummaging through my cuttings and cooking diaries, there were few ice-cream recipes I wouldn’t be happy to find soft and glistening from the ice-cream churn. A ball or two of ice-cream or frozen yoghurt, granita or sorbet was always going to be on a list of my favourite recipes. But which to choose? After much pondering, the shortlist melted down to a melon sorbet, lemon ice-cream sandwiches and a scoop of blackcurrant ripple. The sandwiches were streets ahead, but an entire afternoon’s work.
But then I went to the freezer and found a new one, published only months, rather than years ago. Milky rather than creamy, as refreshing as melted snow and with a citrus hit of lemon zest. The winner was the upstart buttermilk and lemon.
Buttermilk, the liquid that is drained off when cream is churned into butter, has a slight sharpness to it that brings a freshness to ice-cream. It is lighter and less sweet than a custard-based ice. In the past week or two, I have eaten it with poached apricots and with raspberries. Serves 10.
crème fraîche 500ml
caster sugar 125g
vanilla extract 2 tsp
Put the crème fraîche in a medium-sized, non-stick saucepan with the sugar over a moderate heat. Finely grate the lemon zest and add to the crème fraîche, then warm until the sugar is dissolved, stirring regularly. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla extract and set aside to cool. When completely cold, stir in the buttermilk, pour into an ice-cream maker and churn until almost frozen.
Have a plastic freezer box in the deep freeze. When the ice-cream is almost frozen remove the churn from the machine and scrape the mixture into the freezer box. Cover and freeze until firm to the touch. Take the ice-cream out of the freezer about 15 minutes before you intend to serve it. Place scoops of it into bowls.
Blackberry and hazelnut friands
One of the very first things I cooked was a tray of fairy cakes, their tops sliced off and tucked into a swirl of buttercream to resemble butterfly’s wings. I think of the friand as a fairy cake for grownups, its almond-rich crumbs speckled with tart berries.
Where a cream cake feels cloying – you almost always wish you hadn’t – a moist-crumbed friand is just enough and a doddle to make. So popular have they been in this column that I have made not only almond versions, but hazelnut, too, dotted with blackcurrants or blackberries, raspberries or a mix of them all, to give a tiny cake that is good for dessert, too. Makes 8-12.
plain flour 50g
icing sugar 180g
ground hazelnuts 100g
lemon zest 1 tsp
egg whites 5
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Lightly butter 12 shallow bun tins.
Put the butter in a small pan and melt over a moderate heat, then watch it carefully until it becomes a dark, nutty gold. Take great care not to let it burn. Leave it to cool a little.
Sieve the flour and sugar into a large mixing bowl, then add most of the ground nuts. Grate in the lemon zest. Beat the egg whites to a soft, rather moist, sloppy foam – they shouldn’t be able to stand up.
Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, then pour in the egg whites and the melted butter. Mix lightly but thoroughly, then pour into the buttered tins. Roughly chop the blackberries and drop into the tins. Scatter the remaining hazelnuts over the top.
Bake for 10-15 minutes, remove from the oven, then leave to settle before carefully removing from the tins with a palette knife.
To this day my first haul of damsons will be under a crust of soft, buttery crumble within the hour, a reminder of the best food of my childhood. I honestly don’t mind the stones, as long as there is a little dish on the table to throw them into. (You really cannot stone a raw damson.)
This recipe works for plums and apples too. At Christmas, it has appeared with apples and mincemeat in place of the damsons, and occasionally I will add oats or flaked almonds, but I do think the rule of less is especially appropriate here. Serves 6.
plums or damsons 650-700g
caster sugar 4 tbsp, or more to taste
butter a thin slice
For the crumble:
plain flour 150g
ground almonds 50g
caster or light brown sugar 75g
Put the damsons in a shallow pan with the sugar and the butter and a tablespoon or two of water. Cook over a moderate heat until the juices start to flow from the damsons, probably about 5 minutes, depending on the ripeness of your fruit. Tip the fruit and juice into a deep pie dish.
Rub the butter, which should ideally be cold from the fridge, into the flour with your fingertips. When the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs, stir in the almonds and sugar. Sprinkle 1 tbsp of water over the mixture and stir lightly with a fork. Some of the crumbs should stick together in small lumps – this gives a more interesting crumble.
Scatter the crumble over the fruit, then bake in a preheated oven at 200C/gas mark 6 for about 35 minutes. The crumble is done when the crumbs are pale gold and some juice has, hopefully, soaked through the crust. Serve with thick golden cream.