Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Sunshine and Sausages...

Suddenly it hit me; as I sat in the garden, drinking elderflower cordial, nearly falling off my chair as I attempted to evade a wasp and still wearing sunglasses as I ate my dinner- This has been a pretty bloody good summer. Like, seriously, I have tan-lines kind of good...

Yup, as I fanned my bronzed (and now slightly peeling) shoulders with the latest, tropical fruit adorned copy of Jamie magazine (suitably sunny as well as being my absolute favourite) it dawned on me like a slap in the face with the tennis ball my sister was throwing around the garden (or maybe that actually was the ball...) that I have spent more days in shorts this year than I can remember in a long, long time. And I am talking of short-wearing in England; the land of endlessly waiting for the Indian Summer that never appears, where grey August afternoons are the norm and summer wardrobes seem to spend much of their lives getting dusty under the bed...

Now, even after that slight moan, I can’t grumble about previous dodgy summers too much. It would be hypocritical for me to whinge about the rain ruining the Queen’s Jubilee last year, or the lack of Rosé that was consumed on the patio during, what I am assured was, the rainy summer of 2012. Yeah, I can’t really complain can I- For me, last year was more mountain biking in Bolivia and sipping Mojitos on Miami Beach than digging out my anorak and debating the socks with sandals look after getting caught in a surprise shower.

But I am still absolutely loving it- Eating strawberries like a possessed five year old hidden in the bushes on the Pick your Own field (juice smeared, stupidly sticky face to match, of course), discovering a very hidden enthusiasm for Frisbee (and, unfortunately, a little bit of an ugly competitive streak...) spending more time in tents than I ever dared to imagine; this summer has indeed been downright delicious.

But, most of all, and speaking of delicious; I absolutely adore the way that the warmth brings out the pop-art colours in the fruit and vegetable aisles, how the sun-drenched garden encourages heady herb fragrances and fresh tomatoes in every meal. Basically, I just can’t get enough of the al-fresco magic that seems to make every single thing created in the kitchen shine as brightly as the swimming-pool blue sky.

It is at this time of year that makes me want to raid the vegetable box, grabbing colours like a crazed circus costume designer, throwing all that goodness in a dish, giving it a shake, bunging it in the oven and just letting all those fresh, amazing flavours do their thing. For me, that is all there is to it when the sun is shining; leaving more time for eating ice cream and getting hit in the face with tennis balls...

And this neon-bright, ridiculously tasty sausage, cannellini bean and butternut traybake is hard to beat. Nestled between the sunny slices of squash, ruby-red cherry tomatoes, slices of red onion and creamy beans; the sausages add just enough richness and spice (and an added bit of summer naughtiness) to this fresh, amazingly tasty dinnertime delight. Speckled with a bounty of fresh herbs from the garden (I grabbed everything in sight, only just managing to leave the grass intact if I’m honest...) doused in olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar to add just the right amount of bite; all that needs to be done is throw it in the oven and bake until the sausages are browned and sticky and their bean and butternut bed has reduced to a chunky sauce.

This is sausage and beans with fancy bells on. Simply serve with crushed new potatoes spiked with a squeeze of lemon and hey presto; now get out in that sunshine and work on your vitamin D intake- You know you want to...

Sausage, Butternut and Canellini Bean Bake, Serves 4

I red onion, sliced
2 large cloves garlic, skins on and slightly squashed
1 red chilli, sliced
½ Butternut squash, peeled and thinly sliced
Handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tin cannellini beans, drained
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Fresh herbs (Any you fancy- Think Bay leaves, rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme...)
12 good-quality sausages
Preheat the oven to 190oc

In a large baking dish, combine the beans, squash, onion, garlic, chilli and herbs. Add a large glug of olive oil, a good splash of vinegar and season well

Prick the sausages and place on top of the bean mixture. Give all of those lovely flavours one last shake up (get your hands in there!) and bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour, or until the sausages are browned and the squash cooked

Serve with crushed new potatoes and some sautéed spinach, YUM

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Something a Little Bit Fishy...

In my last post, I mentioned a distraction that had been keeping my fingers away from the keyboard and the blog uncharacteristically quiet. Now the time has come to admit to the cause of my recent period of silence- Yes, brace yourself, the rumours are true; I have indeed, through absolutely no fault of my own, accidentally become a Fish Monger.

Not entirely what you imagined, hey? Well me neither. I think it is pretty fair to say that if you had asked a snotty-nosed, metal-mouthed, bespectacled young me (yup, I was an attractive child) what I wanted to be when I was a grown up; Fishmonger would not have exactly been top of my list.

But, as destiny would have it, I have somehow, sort-of become exactly that. Yes, the young me would have stuck her tongue out at 5am starts (who am I kidding, I still have to restrain myself), rolled her eyes at the white overalls and green, floor length, oilcloth apron. She would have probably stamped her feet at the constantly freezing temperatures, ice and sharp fish bones, and, I don’t blame her, almost definitely have had a major temper tantrum in the bread aisle of Tesco’s over the uncanny way that fish makes the sleeves of all jumpers smell, bizarrely, of wet dog.

But, it has happened. So, in the words that I never imagined I would utter (particularly not to my hairdresser, as I was forced to last week), but that have become a sort of mantra to my present existence- “If you smell fish, it is probably me...”

Now, let me explain- I haven’t been involved in a swashbuckling kidnap to become the bride of a fish-loving pirate, nor have I tripped and become trapped in a net at Billingsgate Market; the corner of which my professional path has turned of late, is purely coincidental. Having been obsessed with food (you would never have guessed right?) since I was the afore-mentioned, incredibly good-looking child; I have been in search of a career in the industry that I love for more time that I could care to mention. I have done all sorts; baked cakes in cafes, decorated 200 tarts with basil leaves, butchered a whole pig, written blog, upon blog, upon blog...But I honestly think that my recent days playing Fish-wife have been the strangest (and definitely the smelliest) to date.

It all stemmed from a very innocent sounding internship at a luxury food wholesale company. I was imagining, you know, maybe some sales experience, possibly some buying, maybe even some product development- Strange as it may seem, gutting sardines at 6 o’clock in the morning never really crossed my mind. But, as luck would have it (glass half-full and all that); the well-timed camping trip of the official Fishmonger (keeping positive), and lack of anyone to hold down the ship (as it were...) led to an aprehensive and totally inexperienced me being overalled, aproned and reeled straight in. Maybe for a couple of days, the old, un-fishy me thought? Nope, no such luck there, and after the fourth week of squeezing on my pair of very own personal wellies, setting my alarm for 4am, and considering bottles of Detol body wash in Boots, I realised that things had got pretty serious...

However, and this is a surprise to me too; it’s not all so bad. Regardless of the way that the aroma of wet fish seems to linger everywhere exactly like the bad smell it is (on the car, my clothes, even my carefully scrubbed forearms as my boyfriend not-so gleefully informed me last week..) the experience has not been entirely negative. It may not be entirely what I imagined would be making me proud 3 years after leaving university, but a perfectly filleted Bream, or a damn fabulous Monkfish loin makes me feel unnervingly happy.
And imagine my joy when I stumbled across a rainbow bounty of glistening, super fresh fishes crowning a market stall on my recent holiday in Brittany. I could not contain myself- a good ten minutes was spent confusing the stall owner and embarrassing my boyfriend by naming everything in sight, describing the filleting process and declaring quite emotionally that Hake is my absolute favourite; before the possibilities for a pretty fancy fish barbeque started to make me very very happy of my shiny new set of skills.

After getting over the excitement of a new way to gut sardines (I won’t go in to that here, there is simply not time for those kind of revelations...) I chose my victims (sardines and trout), grabbed some tin foil, the essential bottle of Rosé and started planning. Scrabbling together my limited camping ingredients, which were somewhat boosted by my boyfriend’s ingenious Tic-Tac box spice dispensers, I marinated, stuffed and seasoned to my heart’s content.

The trout, stuffed with flaked almonds, zingy lemon zest, olives and fresh basil was wrapped in tin foil, doused with white wine and crowned with lemon slices. Nestled in with the super-hot coals, it emerged fragrant and almost steamed, the delicious stuffing ramping up the flavour and adding a little bit of crunch to the soft, blush pink flesh.

The gutted sardines were marinated in lemon, garlic, dried chilli flakes (slightly Tic-Tac scented), rosemary and olive oil and barbequed for a few just a few magical, flavour boosting minutes. The punch these little beauties packed after so little effort was quite ridiculous; fragrant with rosemary, sharp with lemon and hot with chilli, they were the perfect end to a day of getting insanely sunburnt on the beach. Or maybe that was the wine?

So, you see, there was a silver lining to all that slicing, scaling and shivering- and not just as the perfect opportunity for my friends to make fish-based puns (if in doubt, Plaice is always a good fall-back option here...) And I did get to do all the good, non-fishy stuff I expected during my internship before I was handed the dreaded green apron.

However, there is only so long I can get away with telling people that I am an ‘Aquatic Surgeon’, let alone using as much washing powder as I seem to have been lately. So almost as abruptly as they began, my days spent elbow deep in fish pie mix are almost at an end. If my mind was not made up from the way that sitting in my car has become nauseating even when I am not wearing fish soaked jumpers, I very nearly completed a full back flip this morning after skidding on some Monkfish membrane. Yup, I think it is about time to move on...

Sunday, 18 August 2013

An Apology and a Confession...

I am going to start this post with an apology. A big fat sorry for neglecting the blog and leaving you all in the dark on the particularly important musings on what I have been scoffing with my afternoon tea or hiding in my under-the-bed box of random crockery for more time than is really acceptable. I could blame the sunshine (more feasible this year than last, I suppose), or perhaps my recent purchase of a new pair of trainers and gym membership that has led me to break a sweat for the first time since year 6 sports day. Or, I could just face the brutally honest music that has not been blaring from my laptop as I have been avoiding putting any words to virtual paper and tell the truth; I mean, the trainers have not been that busy- I have simply been a little teeny bit lazy of late...

But, let’s not dwell on the past; I am back, and as means of apology for my lack of commitment, I am going to kick off this post with some deep and meaningful  questions to really get you all thinking. Only joking, you don’t need that on a Sunday; but I would like to air a few concerns about whether my car-boot-sale-loving, quilt stitching (yes, really) 24-year-(supposedly)-young life is entirely normal. I have based my concerns on a few tendancies that seem to have emerged in the past 6 months, tendancies that seem to rear their blue-rinsed, permed heads on Sundays more than any other day of the week. Of course, a preference I share with all my Grandparents (there are a few, it seems) the day that signals guilt-free lie-ins, papers in plastic wrappings, roast potatoes and early mornings spent riffling through people’s old junk in fields across the land is without a doubt the day for me.

And herein lies my concerns. Take this morning. I started the day, as you do, furiously scrubbing the labels of two rosé bottles that I was adamant were to be brought all the way back from my recent holiday in Brittany to be transformed in to olive oil decanters. The fact that I do not yet own a house, let alone any olive oil is, obviously, beside the point; as is that fact that I also insisted on fragrancing my boyfriends overstuffed car with a Camembert box, minus any actual cheese but with a very distinctive lingering aroma, just because I took a fancy to the label. Normal? I’m not so sure.

But that’s not all, after the scrubbing had ceased, and a nice cup of tea had soothed my nerves; I trekked, old carrier bag and purse of 10p coins in hand to the car boot sale down the road. Pennies worth of floral plates later I was happy, but still left wondering if I have somehow flicked the switch on my biological clock to dog years and am in fact 109 years old.

And my worries about my old-age pensioner inclinations do not stop there. What other 24 year old gets excited when LOOK magazine declares that the ‘Granny Sandal’ is the new Fashionista footwear of choice (I already have several pairs of said sandals, one of which are so convincingly on-trend that my Mum started making my ‘Grandma’ a cup of tea as soon as she saw them next to the door.) Then there is the fact I have had to turn off the Radio 1 breakfast show on the way to work, my all consuming love of tea and cake, my insistence on wearing midi-skirts even though I know my boyfriend hates them with as much passion as he hates the granny-shoes and any kind of second-hand floral crockery. Is any of this actually, you know, alright??

But what I really want to talk about (so excuse all the wittering on, it must be my age...) is my obsession with breakfast. Is it ok that even before the last spoonful of muesli has left the bowl I am planning my next morning meal? Is it really allowed that my favourite thing is sitting down with the crossword, a mug of tea as big as my face and a bacon sandwich ready and waiting to soak up any whisper of overnight hunger, at 24 years old?

Well, whatever, I don’t care...Just as Sunday is my favourite day of the week; breakfast is without a doubt my favourite meal of the day. I’m sure I am not alone in revelling in those magical mornings when there is time to stew over some French toast, or dreamily dunk those soldiers in to a perfectly boiled egg yolk, slowly and deliciously apologising to your body for all those bad glasses of wine you seemed to consume the night before (See, not so OAP). Honestly, I would eat toast and peanut butter at every meal if it was allowed. I have no doubt that if the Breakfast Club actually did what it says on the tin I would be first on the list to sign up- After all, there is very little else that makes turning off the electric blanket and getting out of bed worth all the effort.

Thankfully, one of my absolute favourite breakfast recipes is about as far from meals-on-wheels as you can get. A pretty wicked hangover cure for those days when a fry-up is just no cutting it and your sweet tooth is winning the battle of the breakfast table, this honey scented Brioche French toast, crowned with glistening roasted apricots and speckled with flaked almonds is almost enough to transport you, spoon in hand, to the whitewashed rooftop of a Greek island villa. But if you are not quite that lucky, and the never ending sky that accompanies your breakfast is more an English shade of grey that a sun-soaked azure blue, one whiff of vanilla spiced apricots, drenched in honey and sitting atop the fluffiest French toast will make everything seem that little bit brighter.

Make the roasted apricots the night before, and your path to a sunnier morn and a clearer head will be on the table in no time. All you will need to do is fry the egg soaked brioche, pile the sticky apricots, big pillows of creamy, gorgeously rich Greek yoghurt, honey and toasted almonds in to bowls, gather around some friends and get stuck in. Just what a Sunday morning calls for...

PS. Don’t worry too much about me; I am moving to London in 2 weeks so will endeavour to curb my car-booty habit and turn off Countryfile asap. Perhaps I will find all those elusive, sandal wearing Fashionistas and finally not be the only person in the same shoes as Vera from next door and the rest of the local bowls club...

Brioche French Toast with Honey, Apricots and Almonds

2 tins halved apricots in juice, drained
2 tbsp honey
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla pod
4 thick slices of Brioche
3 eggs
600ml milk
1tbsp caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Greek yoghurt and a handful of toasted almonds, to serve
Preheat the oven  to 180oc

To make the spiced apricots; arrange the halved fruit in a dish, drizzle with the honey and add the cinnamon stick and split vanilla pod. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, until the fragrant spices have infused and the fruit is soft.

Meanwhile, make the French toast. In a bowl, beat the eggs and milk until evenly mixed, before stirring in the sugar and lemon zest.

Dip each piece of bread into the eggy mixture, before frying in a hot saucepan and a little butter. Turn when golden, after about 5 minutes, and cook until evenly coloured.

To serve; top the toast with the baked apricots, a spoonful of yoghurt, some chopped almonds and a little honey.