A quest for gastro-liberation, an excuse to buy more cookbooks…



Food rules – everyone has them, right? I have a major one and I don’t mean weird picky-eater-type foibles like not allowing all the components of a meal to touch each other or not eating meat off the bone (confirmed carnivore that I am, I take a primal pleasure in tender meat that falls off the bone). My cardinal rule of eating out is to never order anything that I can competently make myself (it ultimately leads to dissatisfaction, disappointment and grouching that it isn’t exactly how I would have made it.) Carbonaras are always too dry or greasy; pasta and vegetables are overcooked and insipid; meat not rare enough. You might say picky, I’d pedantically correct you and say discerning.

Now falafel is one of those things that I always order and approximately 50% of the time, it disappoints me (too greasy or dry or incredibly, both). When it’s good, I’m in mezze bliss. When it’s bad, I feel like I should have just ordered a dirty kebab instead. (Incidentally, best falafel you can get in South London is the split pea and lemongrass falafel in The Sun & Doves, Camberwell. If you’re feeling a bit more carnivorous, the pork belly roast of a Sunday is a marvel, golden, crisp, salty and presented on a platter.) Nevertheless, I have always shied away from making falafel, partly because of the deep frying element of it (I clearly watched too much Casualty and 999 as a child…) So, Leon’s oven-baked sweet potato falafel presented the perfect compromise and it means that there is yet another casualty on my food rules list because it was a roaring success.

Don’t let the inclusion of gram flour put you off – whether it is hard to track down or you don’t want to buy a 1kg bag (though I was lucky enough to inherit half a bag from a dear friend). Gram flour is widely used in Indian cuisine – should you ever wish to make your own onion bhajis, pakoras or poppadoms you’ll be well prepared. Use in it batter or even better, as a swift coating for roast potatoes instead of normal flour. You’ll never look back. Trust me, have I ever let you down before?

As these falafel are oven-baked, not only are they healthier than the traditional chickpea alternative but they tick other boxes too. The inclusion of roasted and mashed sweet potato as the base keeps the mixture moist and imparts a beautiful caramelised note. Lemon and coriander provide a bright counterpoint to the sweetness and prevents them from becoming too cloying. Oh and did I mention, they’re a dream to make? It just requires a little time, as you need to roast the sweet potatoes for an hour first but if you were in a rush, I imagine that boiling would work just as well. You would lose the smoky sweet note that roasting the sweet potatoes in their own skins produces. Make it for Sunday lunch and rejoice that you have leftovers to cheer your return to work on Monday.

You can find the recipe for Leon’s sweet potato falafel on The Guardian website.

So what are you going to serve with these little wonders? You’ve already made falafel, why not commit and try your hand at homemade flatbreads; a garlicky cucumber yoghurt; and a tomato and harissa couscous?

Homemade Flatbread

adapted from River Cottage Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Note: the original recipe calls for just plain flour but I wanted a nuttier taste, so I opted for a mix of plain and wholemeal flour. I have made it with just wholemeal flour before and the flatbreads don’t have the required flop when cooked. As we all know, a bit of flop is essential for wrapping and mopping up leftovers.

150g plain flour

100g wholewheat flour

1 tablespoon olive oil

150ml warm water

a little salt

yields 8 flatbreads

Combine your flours together in a large mixing bowl and add a dash of salt. Meanwhile, add the oil to the warm water, preferably in a jug for ease. Slowly trickle the water into the dry ingredients, continually mixing all the while. Do so until you have added all the water, then roll up your sleeves and knead the dough together on a floured surface until it comes together in a plump, smooth dough (this should take about 5 minutes). Pop this back into your mixing bowl, cover with a clean and dry teatowel and leave until you are almost ready to eat.

When you are ready to cook your flatbreads, heat a shallow frying pan on the stove whilst you roll out your dough. Roll the dough out into a long sausage shape and divide into eight pieces. Roll each piece out on a floured surface into thin circles, large enough to fit in the frying pan. Place into the heated frying pan and dry fry on both sides until slightly charred and puffed up. I find that it’s easy enough to roll each flatbread out and fry them one-by-one. Wrap the cooked flatbreads in a teatowel to keep them warm.

Harissa & tomato couscous

I adore heat and spice, so harissa is close to hand whenever I’m dabbling with cumin, lemon and parsley. You can usually find it in the spice section of most large supermarkets and I’ve been lucky enough to find it in the odd cornershop too. If you can’t track it down, the best way to replicate it (that I can think of) is to combine a chilli sauce with tomato puree and garlic paste. I’m urging you though, track it down, smear it on fish before grilling; stuff it under the skin of a chicken before roasting; swirl it through yoghurt as an accompaniment. You’ll never look back.

serves 2

40g dried couscous

two tomatoes

a handful of parsley

a generous heaped teaspoon of harissa

juice of half a lemon

Boil a kettle and pour your couscous into a bowl. When the water has boiled, pour it over and cover the grains and leave to absorb for 5 minutes. Fork through to separate until light and fluffy. Meanwhile, dice your tomatoes and finely chop your parsley and combine with the couscous. In a small bowl, mix the harissa and lemon juice with some pepper. Dress your couscous with this mixture just before serving.

Garlicky cucumber yoghurt

This is a bastardised version of the Greek tzaziki and Indian raita – it takes the pungent garlicky and lemon notes of the former and combines it with the warm spice of the latter. It’s basically just a testament to how addicted I am to cumin. I make some form of this quite frequently, it’s a natural partner for any kind of grilled or barbecued food; mezze-type dishes; salads; or as a side dish for curries. Make a large batch and it’ll keep in the fridge for a few days.

Note: as cucumber has a high water content, most recipes advise salting the prepared cucumber to get rid of excess water. Not only am I too impatient and greedy for that, I find that it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference, particularly if you’re using a creamy and thick yoghurt, such as Greek.

serves 4

plain or greek yoghurt

half a cucumber

a clove of garlic

lemon juice

ground cumin

salt & pepper

fresh chopped coriander, parsley or mint (optional)

Grate your cucumber (or finely chop if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to buying a grater which isn’t a bitty microplane number). Finely grate the clove of garlic. Combine the cucumber and garlic with enough yoghurt to generously cover it all, season with the juice of half a lemon and ground cumin. (If you only have cumin seeds, toast these in a dry frying pan and add them instead. Use both ground cumin and whole cumin seeds if you wish and win my heart.) Season to taste, adding fresh chopped herbs if you have them to hand.


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Guess who’s coming to tea?

Not the tiger…

Or Sidney Poitier…


Readers, raise a cup and saucer to Earl Grey.


The Earl has a special place in my heart, the delicate floral notes overlaid with citrus and bergamot. (On a tea connoisseur tip (a PG tip, perhaps?) the best Earl Grey I’ve ever had is the variety with dried cornflowers included).  As far as I’m concerned, Earl Grey is a basic human right at afternoon teas so what could be a more natural pairing that Earl Grey flavoured cake?

I’d previously dabbled in using Earl Grey in baking by adapting Nigella Lawson’s orange breakfast muffins by infusing the milk with Earl Grey. However, I only used one teabag and I found that the orange overpowered our delicate Earl.

So, when it came time for Carly’s birthday, the Belles of the Library Office started speculating on what delectable treats to make for an office tea party. Knowing that Carly is a lady of impeccable tastes and a fan of Earl Grey, I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to experiment with Earl Grey cupcakes.

On initial research of existing recipes there seem to be two methods of flavouring your batter with Earl Grey: adding in raw tea leaves from the bag or infusing milk with the tea and adding to the batter. I’m not a girl to shy away from flavour so I decided to go the whole hog and go for both options.

I adapted a standard vanilla cupcake recipe and added lemon buttercream to reflect the citrus notes in Earl Grey. If you want to follow through with the more aromatic and floral notes, rosewater flavoured icing or buttercream would certainly not be frowned upon.


The Earl’s Best Birthday Cupcakes

adapted from Prima Online



yields 36 fairy cakes or 12 US size cupcakes



125g softened unsalted butter

225g caster sugar

2 large eggs

150g self-raising flour

125g plain flour

150ml semi-skimmed milk

5 Earl Grey teabags


buttercream icing

80g softened unsalted butter

250g icing sugar

25ml semi-skimmed milk

zest of 1 lemon

yellow food colouring (optional)


Preheat your oven to 180c/gas mark 4. Pour the milk into a pan and add four teabags, heat very gently and leave to infuse. Cream the softened butter and sugar together in a large bowl until fully combined and fluffy. Add the eggs individually, mixing thoroughly each time.

Meanwhile, sift the plain and self-raising flour together into another bowl. Tear open your remaining teabag and add the contents to the dry ingredients mixture.

Remove your teabags from the milk and put to one side. Add a third of the dry ingredients to the butter and sugar mixture and combine. Add a third of the Earl Grey infused milk and continue mixing to create a smooth batter. Repeat until the dry ingredients and milk are all combined.

Line your cupcake tin with paper cases and fill the cases about one-third full with the batter. If you are making fairy-cake sized cupcakes, these will need 8-10 minutes, larger cupcakes will need closer to 15-20 minutes. The tops should be firm to the touch but not golden yet. Bear in mind that they will continue to cook with residual heat once they are taken out of the oven! Leave to cool whilst you prepare the buttercream.

In a clean bowl, cream together the icing sugar and softened butter (if you are using an electric handwhisk, remember to set it on the lowest setting lest you end up doing a George Clooney/silver fox impression). When combined into a powdery and buttery drift, slowly add in your milk and keep whisking until it puffs up into a sugary cloud. At this point, you can add in your lemon zest and food colouring and ice your cooled buns (ooh matron, etc.) I decorated with periwinkle blue and white Pearl Swirls (available in most supermarkets). Enjoy with the Earl (who else?)

Note: If you choose to make the rosewater icing, you can either make a simple glace icing (100g icing sugar to 1 tablespoon of rosewater). If you are like me and adore the dreamy swirls of buttercream atop a cupcake, substitute some of the milk for rosewater and add a drop of pink food colouring. (By no means make the same mistake as I did and add the rosewater as an afterthought – the mixture will curdle and look thoroughly unpleasant!)





And I’m filo good…


I know, terrible pun which doesn’t quite work as it doesn’t scan along with the song but I promise that this recipe is much better than my headline wit.

Swept along on the winds of last week’s Moroccan challenge, we remain within the same gastronomic climes with a Moroccan roasted vegetable filo pie.

This was a recipe which was borne out of necessity (i.e. hunger and greed). In my experience, most experimental meals borne out of convenience tend less towards happy accidents and more towards a mismatched confection of the dregs of the refrigerator. Whenever I read food writers who trill about successful food accidents, I can’t help but think with a degree of cynicism, “Well, who does have leftover wine/roast potatoes/pasta” lying around (none of these things exist in my universe).

Well, consider myself thoroughly corrected because just before Christmas, I was a girl with some leftover filo pastry. (I do believe I have never written a more middle-class sentence than that).

(Oh wait, I do believe I’m about to top it).

If you, like me, are part of a vegetable box scheme you will know the inevitable point at the end of the week when you end up with a glut of courgettes and carrots. (Because the butternut squash or aubergine, the starlet of the box, is always the first one to go…) This is a perfect solution to your dilemma and justifies the minor inconvenience of seeking out a packet of filo pastry.

Essentially, the filling of this pie consists of all the vegetables which are left lingering, sad and wilted, at the bottom of the vegetable drawer. You know the ones I mean. The floppy carrots which are only good for stock making; the courgettes which you fear have turned bitter; the wizened onion sprouting a Fu-Manchu style moustache. Prune and spruce the runts of your vegetable box as best you can and with the help of some olive oil, cumin seeds, chilli flakes and a hot oven, you are well on your way to a rich, smoky and tender filling fit for a pie. The silky heat of the filling provides a bold contrast to the crisp and buttery filo pastry, combine with a crisp salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil for maximum bliss.


Moroccan roasted vegetable filo pie


serves four greedy people


selection of vegetables for roasting (aubergine, courgette, butternut squash, sweet potato are all attractive suitors for this particular task)

large red onion

couple of cloves of garlic (still in skins)

two generous handfuls of lentils (green, red, puy – take your pick, I’m equal op as far as lentils are concerned. If you prefer your bulk to come from chickpeas then I would not be at all averse to this deviation…)

a tin of chopped tomatoes

cumin seeds

dried chilli flakes

bay leaf (optional)

five or six sheets of filo pastry

melted butter


Preheat your oven to 210c/gas mark 5.

Chop the vegetables and the red onion for roasting into large chunks (bearing in mind that roasted vegetables will shrink and dehydrate – the bigger you chop them, the more moist and tender they will stay). Throw these into a large baking tray with the unpeeled garlic cloves with a generous slug of olive oil and dress with the cumin, chilli, salt and pepper. (The garlic cloves will roast inside their own papery skins and become wonderfully sweet, perfect for adding depth to your tomato sauce later.) Roast for 35 minutes or until cooked and tender.

Once cooked, tip all the vegetables into a large saucepan (make sure to pop the garlic cloves out of their jackets first) and cover with the chopped tomatoes. Fill the empty tin up halfway with water and sloosh around to get the remains of the tomato juice and tip into the pan. Add a bay leaf (if you have it to hand) and two handfuls of lentils. The idea is to cook the lentils by allowing them to absorb the tomato juice – you want the resulting filling to consist of lentils and vegetables just bound by the tomato sauce, rather than a slick of tomato with roasted vegetables bobbing around in it. This will prevent the pastry from getting soggy as well.

Line a non-stick baking tray, tart tin or pie dish with the filo pastry, so that the bottom consists of overlapping layers of filo and with enough overhang to scrunch up on top of the pie.

Pour the vegetable and lentil filling into the filo-lined tin and artfully arrange the top in undulating waves of filo. Brush with melted butter and return to the oven. Bake until burnished and golden, eat whilst hot, salty and crisp.


Harira I come…

Brace yourself readers, we’re going to be talking the C-word today.



Now, don’t be alarmed. It’s not a dirty word nor is it the root of all evil. As the Greediest Girl in the World, you can imagine that I’m quite the carb cheerleader, so imagine my despair when I had the Thrilling Three (sadly not Chris Evans and Ioan Gryffud but rather my best friends) round for dinner last night and one declared that she was going carb-free!


I was mortified. I’d only gone and whipped up a three-carb dinner.

Moroccan harira was one of the first recipes that had caught my eye in the Leon cookbook. It wasn’t just the holy trinity of lentils, chickpeas and rice that had seduced me but the fragrant warmth of cumin, coriander and saffron cut through with a sharp lift of lemon and parsley.

Whilst it’s included in the Leon book in the soup chapter, don’t be fooled – this is a full-bodied stew, redolent of the smoke, dust and heat of Morocco (or so I imagine…) Harira is traditionally prepared to mark the end of fasting for Ramadan, which goes some way to explaining the triumvirate of carbs in this dish. But it isn’t only that which makes this such a satisfying dish, the strong and vibrant flavours really sing out and is the perfect balm to soothe ruffled feathers on a wet, dark weekday evening. It’s incredibly quick to prepare, requiring the minimum of fuss, after-work cornershop trips and best of all, thought. Store cupboard bliss.


Moroccan Harira

adapted from Leon by Allegra McEvedy


serves 6


130g green lentils

1 x 400g tin of chickpeas

2 generous tablespoons curry powder or spice mix (anything which involves cumin, coriander, tumeric etc)

2 tablespoons harissa (substitute chilli sauce if you can’t get hold of harissa)

a large pinch of saffron

1 large red onion, diced

1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

juice of a lemon

75g white basmati rice

2 tablespoons plain flour

a generous handful of parsley, chopped

salt & pepper


Drain the chickpeas, add into a large saucepan (the biggest you have) along with the onion and cover with 1.5 litres of water. Bring the mixture to the boil.

In a small bowl, soak the saffron strands in the lemon juice.

Add the lentils, spices and harissa to the saucepan and continue cooking for 10-15 minutes until the lentils are cooked.

Add the basmati rice to the pan and continue cooking on a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, in another small bowl mix the flour with a little cold water to form a smooth paste. Add a few tablespoons of the stock from the pan into the flour mixture and combine. Add this, along with the lemon and saffron mix to the pan and stir thoroughly. Leave to cook for 5 minutes and return armed with seasoning and parsley. Serve immediately to sighs of contentment.



All the bons

Don’t you find that everything good and decent in life includes a bon?

  • Bonjour
  • Bon appetit
  • Bon mots
  • Bonbons
  • Duran Duran*

So, I’m starting this blog with a massive BON:

This blog is the result of a New Year’s resolution. And I’m a girl who doesn’t make any New Year’s resolutions (they only lead to disappointment when you don’t become a champion skiier or you discover that you lack the natural talents to become a pool hustler). However, I have been inspired by a friend of mine: NiJenna, Domestic Angel of the North. She is undertaking food resolutions. Gastronomic challenges through which she might find liberation from the tyranny of her everyday fallback recipes. And who amongst us gastronauts isn’t guilty of finding ourselves in an airlock? Churning out chilli con carnes; roasted vegetable pasta bakes; aloo gobis; stir-fries; lentil soups; and sausage casseroles month upon month.

All the while, the professional (no sniggering at the back there please, ahem) librarian in me keeps amassing weighty tomes of beautifully styled recipes; all of which are fastidiously and carefully flagged along the edges with index Post-Its. My collection is woefully neglected and thus I have decided to embark on a variation of the food resolution. I am going to devote each month of 2011 to a cookbook and reproduce four recipes from each. Not only will this assuage my guilt about buying so many cookbooks (and provide much needed justification for buying more) but it will also, hopefully break me out of ingrained food habits and fallback pasta dinners.


January being traditionally the month of health kicks and resolutions for wellbeing, I have decided to forego the temptation to start with one of my many baking books and instead opt for the more virtuous and wholesome Leon cookbook.

Now there are many reasons as to why I hold the Leon cookbook dear to my heart (slavering devotion to the Leon chain; the meatball recipe; the gorgeous design and styling) BUT this edges into the pantheon of greatness for me:

A pull-out-and-keep cheese map! Or chatlas, if you will. Oh Leon, you had me at cambazola.

Anyway. Leon is the go-to book for wholesome and flavoursome home cooking. None of the Michelin refinement, wiping down plates with vinegar nonesense. Just big robust flavours and cumin. Lots of cumin. Be still my beating heart.

So January’s shortlist looks like this:

  • sweet potato falafel
  • Moroccan harira
  • braised pork with rigatoni
  • Mama’s risi e bisi

And seeing as we’re already in the second week of Janvier, I should really get a wriggle on. Shopping lists to write, meat to source etc.

*ask your mother. Or at least your cool aunt who was alive in the 1980s.