Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A taste of figs



A box of figs, £3.49.

When we went to the Turkish Food Centre on Sunday I bought a whole case of figs for £3.49. They were sticky and ripe, the kind you can eat greedily with the skin on, spitting out only the stalk. I think there’s something a little revolting, life-denying, about peeling figs. They look so raw and unappealing, like dead baby mice.

Of course, when you’re buying them as ripe as this you need to use them within a day or so. I like them with yoghurt for breakfast or cooked on the griddle with some slices of halloumi and a trickle of honey, maybe a few slivers of toasted almonds. But there are a lot of them in a box.


Figgy lunch, with halloumi , almonds, thyme, olive oil and honey.

I’ve wanted to try making a fig liqueur since Séan and I were offered sticky little glasses of the stuff to round off dinner at one of our favourite local restaurants, the almost painfully charming and invariably delicious Oui Madame! on Stoke Newington High Street.

I’m not sure if what we tried was Figoun, the Provençal fig liqueur made from red wine, figs, vanilla, angelica, oranges and tangerine among other, secret ingredients, but I thought I’d try combining figs, vanilla sugar, orange zest, red wine and a slug of cognac and see how I get on.

I think it should be quite good by Christmas, even better by next Christmas. If you’d like to try it, I’m giving you the recipe I’ve used here but of course it’s something of a leap of faith. I’ve never made this before. I’ve no idea if it will work, but if it does won’t we all be enormously pleased with ourselves on Christmas Day?

Fig Liqueur


This lovely illustration is by my Twitter friend, artist Anna Koska (@gremkoska). Do take a look at her website here.

[Copyright: Anna Koska]

When you’re buying figs, especially if you’re buying them by the box, lift them out of their pretty paper cases and inspect them for mould – the mortal enemy of figs everywhere. One mouldy fig will turn the rest very quickly indeed.

Should make about 1.5 litres. We’ll see.

600g figs
225g caster sugar or vanilla sugar, I used vanilla sugar
1 strip of orange peel, pared with a very sharp vegetable peeler, any white pith removed
1 bottle fruity red wine, plus a bit, enough to almost fill the jar
100ml cognac
You’ll need 1x2l cold, sterilised jar and some cold, sterilised bottles to decant the liqueur into


Cut figs…


Macerating in sugar…


Add the wine and cognac.

Wash the figs, trim off the hard stem and cut into eighths. Place some in the bottom of the jar and scatter some of the sugar on top. Continue layering fruit and sugar until you’ve used them all up. Seal the jar and put in a cool place for 2-3 days, turning it every day until the sugar has dissolved.

Add the orange zest. Pour in the wine and cognac. Seal and store the liqueur in a cool, dark place for a couple of months, shaking the jar every week or so. Strain through a sieve and then strain again through a sieve lined in muslin. Pour into cold, sterilised bottles and seal. Ideally, leave it for a month or so before drinking.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Quick slow lamb


In anticipation of the chives going underground for winter, I’m throwing handfuls of them into almost everything.

On our way home from Columbia Road Flower Market yesterday we stopped off at the Turkish Food Centre at the end of Ridley Road market. We bought halloumi, feta, a box of figs, oranges and lamb and loaded them into the back of the car with the bunches of Chinese lanterns and hydrangeas.
I went into the garden to pick out seasonings for the lamb. At this time of year, I use even more soft herbs than usual – fistfuls rather than handfuls – anticipating their vanishing underground until next spring. I cut some lovage, thyme, bay leaves, chives and a couple of mild chillies.

In the cool, grey light of the kitchen, I set about cooking the lamb, mostly from instinct and driven by the news that a storm was coming. The height of my ambition for Sunday afternoon was to sit on the sofa, fire lit, telly on, dog at my feet, eating something cosy from a tray. In the end, we ate it at the kitchen counter. My husband is a civilising influence.

End-of–the-garden lamb shank casserole

This past year, largely because of my friend Catherine Phipps’ The Pressure Cooker Cookbook, I have learned to love the pressure cooker. For an impatient person like me, its greatest draw is that it cuts the cooking time of recipes like these lamb shanks from a few hours to 30 minutes. I’ve given timings for making this in a normal casserole too, but I urge you to give pressure cooking a go.


2-3 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
3 carrots, 1 diced and the other two cut into thick chunks
1 stalk of lovage, diced (reserve the leaves for later), or 1 small stick of celery, diced
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 mild chillies, membrane and seeds removed, diced, or a good pinch of chilli flakes to taste
1 tbsp flour
4 lamb shanks, 4 pieces of lamb neck cut from the middle
About 250ml red wine
1 tbsp concentrated tomato purée
600ml chicken, beef or vegetable stock
1x400ml tin chopped plum tomatoes
100g pearl barley, rinsed, or you could add a drained, rinsed tin of chickpeas if you like
Bunch of chives, finely chopped
Bunch of parsley, tough stalks removed and finely chopped
Some dill’s nice too, if you have it
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper


Seasoned lamb shanks and neck.

Warm a tablespoon of the oil in a heavy-bottomed casserole or a pressure cooker over a medium-low heat. Add the onions, bay leaf, thyme and a pinch of salt. Sauté gently until the onions are soft and translucent, stirring from time to time, about 15 minutes. Add the diced carrot, lovage or celery, garlic and chillies. Stir for another couple of minutes. Tip everything into a bowl and reserve.

Season the lamb with salt and pepper and dust lightly with the flour. Warm the rest of the oil over a medium-high heat and brown the lamb on all sides. Do this in batches so you don’t crowd the pan, removing the browned pieces to a plate as you go. When all of the lamb is browned, drain all but a tablespoon or two of the fat from the pan then deglaze it with the red wine, scraping up any bits which have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Simmer until the wine is reduced by half then stir in the tomato puree, tinned tomatoes and stock. Add the reserved vegetables and barley or chickpeas and simmer everything together for 5 minutes. Add the lamb with any juices from the plate, season with salt and pepper and stir.

If you are using a pressure cooker, put the lid on the pan, seal and bring up to full pressure. Reduce the heat slightly and cook for 30 minutes. Vent immediately. Add the carrots, seal and bring up to full pressure; cook for 2 minutes and vent immediately.

If you’re cooking the lamb in the oven, cover the casserole tightly with foil, put the lid on and cook in a 160°C/325°F/Gas 3 oven for 2 hours. Remove from the oven and add the carrots. Return to the oven for a further 30-40 minutes, until everything is very tender.
Stir in the chopped herbs (add some chopped lovage leaves or celery leaves if you have them), adjust seasoning if necessary and serve with plain boiled rice or potatoes, sprinkled with a few more herbs.


Friday, 13 September 2013

A Sweet Consolation Prize


Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

Albert Camus


A bowl of Bramleys from our tree.

Summer left like a well-mannered guest, slipping away quietly, without fuss. There are fewer dinners in the garden, sitting around into the night over the end of the cheese, picking at soft fruit and polishing off the last of the rosé. Washing takes longer to dry on the line. We reacquaint ourselves with the sock drawer after weeks of neglect. And then suddenly the greengrocers’ shelves are filled with figs, damsons, cobnuts and ruby-skinned pears.

Hello, autumn. We’ve been expecting you.

If I plunged my hand into a bag of favourite autumnal words, pulled out five, arranged them into an order and then created a recipe from that, this is what would happen.

Browned butter caramel apple cake


A slice of cake for breakfast.

I made this cake with the apples from our small, espaliered Bramley, which this year is doing everything in its power to make me love its twiggy self. It is so heavy with fruit it will keep us in pies, cakes, jellies and chutneys all winter.

Don’t be put off by the longish list of ingredients. You probably have most of them hanging about anyway.


Browned butter caramel apple cake. I think I love you.

For the cake:
250g unsalted butter, cubed, plus a little more for greasing the tin
200g plain flour
50g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
100g light muscovado sugar
100g caster sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cognac, cider brandy or calvados (optional but good, obviously)
About 3 cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks, about 300g prepared weight

For the caramel sauce:
120g unsalted butter
120g light muscovado sugar
60ml whole milk
Good pinch of flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3. Lightly butter a 22cm springform cake tin, line the bottom and sides with baking parchment and lightly butter the parchment.

Warm the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over a medium heat (a stainless steel pan is better than a dark-bottomed one as it’s easier to see how brown the butter is getting). The butter is ready when it’s a rich shade of hazelnut brown and it smells nutty and delicious. Pour it into a bowl to cool.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, almonds, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

When the butter is cool, tip it into the bowl of a stand mixer with the sugars and beat until creamy and light, about 5 minutes. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the eggs, pausing from time to time to make sure everything’s well incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and booze, if you’re adding it. On a low speed, beat in the flour mixture being careful not to overmix.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and scatted the apple pieces evenly over the top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Place the tin on a wire rack while you make the caramel sauce.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Whisk in the sugar, milk and salt. Keep stirring vigorously until everything blends into a smooth, silky sauce and simmer until thickened slightly. Pour half of the sauce over the cake, making sure it’s evenly distributed, and leave it for 10 minutes until it’s fully absorbed into the cake.

Remove the cake from the tin, peel off the parchment and put the cake on a plate. Pour over the remaining sauce and let it trickle down the sides. Leave the cake to cool completely then serve in fat slices with generous spoonfuls of crème fraiche, greek yoghurt, clotted cream or vanilla ice cream.

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