….tales of taste and food wisdom, for modern times

YOGHURT IS GOOD STUFF! Eat up your curds and…whey-hay!! March 27, 2012

Primroses. Sweet smelling crocuses and snowy white snowdrops. Cute  newborn lambs gamboling in the sunshine.  Spring is springing and we’re in the season of renewal.

After a winter of excesses, it’s the time of year when we  feel a need to ‘renew’ –  to heal, nourish and refresh our poor abused bodies. It’s a time to say the words ‘must get healthy‘ and nearly mean them.  But what’s to be done?

Well, we can start by eating up our curds.  Specifically, yoghurt.  Thick, organic, pro-biotic yoghurt is not only really, really, really healthy (don’t panic…keep reading) it’s also absolutely de-lic-ious.

Yoghurt  has gravitas:  To the ancient Assyrians, yoghurt was known as “lebney” or “life”.  Its beneficial medicinal properties are prized in both ancient and contemporary cultures – it’s credited with healing everything from gastrointestinal complaints to eczema.  Research shows that a regular diet of cultured dairy lowers cholesterol; protects against bone loss; and populates the digestive tract with beneficial bacteria and lactic acid to keep pathogens at bay, guard against infectious illnesses and enable us to fully digest our food.

The process of culturing – or lacto-fermenting – dairy breaks down the milk protein casein – one of the most difficult proteins to digest.  It restores many of the enzymes which are destroyed during pasteurisation, but which we need to  absorb calcium and other minerals.  One such enzyme is lactase, which helps us to digest the milk sugar lactose, so many who are lactose intolerant, can tolerate lacto-fermented foods.

Cultured dairy foods have been around  since about 10,000 BC and their pedigree is evident in almost all culinary traditions;  In the ancient cultures of Iran and India (around 500 BC) the combination of yoghurt and honey was called “the food of the gods”;  the Pharohs reputedly feasted on it;  Persian traditions believe that Abraham owed his  longevity to eating yoghurt regularly; present day Hindus offer and consume curds – along with milk, sugar, ghee and honey –  as gifts to the gods in their ancient  ritual of Panchamitra (the Five Elixirs of Life).  Yoghurt is the key ingredient in the longevity-promoting diet of  the growing number of Bulgaria’s centenarians.

Not to be left out, I use it at every opportunity:  ‘straight up’,  sweetened with a little honey or seasoned with salt and pepper.

For breakfast: overnight-soaked porridge, bircher museli, cooked or fresh fruit compote or pancakes will  be topped generously with a creamy dollop and given a drizzle of honey, a scattering of toasted flaked almonds and a good dusting of cinnamon.  Sometimes, I also grate some fresh ginger into the yoghurt and let it sit for a while before serving. (Cinnamon and ginger taste good and are anti-inflammatory).

In an ultra-smoothie: the night before I want an awesome  protein and omega hit,  I soak a heaped tablespoon of finely ground mixed seeds (pumpkin, sunflower and flax) and another of  ground almonds soaked overnight in half a cup of yoghurt.  The next morning, I blitz this mix with fresh soft, or stewed, fruit and enough coconut milk to make up generous glassful.  The addition of a very fresh organic egg yolk to the blitzer sends the protein content into overdrive and will keep you going all morning.

In labne: for a sublime middle-eastern experience, straining the yoghurt in a muslin-lined sieve will produce a delicious soft creamy yoghurt-cheese which you’ll want to devour immediately in as many ways as your imagination can devise: as a spread/dip/pâté – seasoned with salt and pepper;  mixed with finely chopped spring-onions or chives; mashed with smoked mackerel and horseradish; thinned a little and swirled into soups, casseroles, curries, tagines, or to make a creamy salad dressing.

Or, for a sweet treat, sit a quenelle next to slice of Normany Apple Tart (see Recipes), or served in a glass and topped with a fruit compote.  Good quality, organic pro-biotic yoghurt can be expensive, so here’s the good news:  Home-made is far cheaper, far tastier and far, far more beneficial than anything you’ll buy at any price.

And in the next post I’ll explain how….


Granny’s 72 Hour Beef and Lentil Broth

Filed under: Recipes — Isabel @ 9:29 pm
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Our grannies really knew their stuff.…those bubbling stock pots were not for nothing!

Modern science has shown us what grandmother already knew.  As Sally Fallon (President of The Weston A Price Foundation) has explained:  Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It also contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons– chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine,  sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.

A good stock congeals as it cools, due the presence of gelatin. The therapeutic use of gelatin goes back to the ancient Chinese and research in France up to the 1950s showed that it was found to be useful in the treatment of a long list of diseases including: peptic ulcers, tuberculosis, diabetes, muscle diseases, infectious diseases, jaundice and cancer.  Babies had fewer digestive problems when gelatin was added to their milk.  Gelatin attracts and holds liquids, aiding digestion by attracting digestive juices to food in the gut.

Broth-based soup did more than please the taste buds:  “Stock is a healthy, light, nourishing food” said Brillant-Savarin, “good for all of humanity; it pleases the stomach, stimulates the appetite and prepares the digestion.”   And, Escoffier said:  “Indeed, stock is everything in cooking. Without it, nothing can be done.”

To read more about the fabulous nutritional value stocks and broths, I highly recommend:

http://www.westonaprice.org/food-features/broth-is-beautiful and http://www.westonaprice.org/beginner-videos/stocks-and-soups-video-by-sarah-pope

Well, here’s my warmly-spiced version of a traditional,  time-honoured soup that will  nourish, heal and make you smile:


300g carrots

450g onions

Garlic: 3 cloves

Butter: 1 tablespoon

Beef dripping: 1 tablespoon (or another of butter)

Ground cumin: 2 heaped teaspoons

Ground coriander: 2 heaped teaspoons

Ground cloves: 1/4 teaspoon

Paprika: 1 heaped teaspoon

72 hour beef stock*: 2 litres

200g red lentils **

Tomato purée: 2 tablespoons

Parsley stalks: handful

Fish sauce (nam pla): 1 teaspoon

Ground black pepper: 1.5 teaspoons

Sea salt: 1.5 teaspoons


1.  Peel and very finely dice the carrots, onions and garlic, or blitz in a food processor for a few seconds until finely chopped.

2.  Melt the butter and beef dripping in a large saucepan and add the chopped veg. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 of pepper,  cover with a cartouche (see Techniques: Sweating Vegetables) and sweat over a low heat for 10 mins  or so, until the veggies have softened.

3.  Stir in the cumin, coriander, cloves and paprika and continue to sweat for a further 5 mins, then add the beef stock, drained lentils, tomato purée,  parsley stalks and fish sauce.  Stir everything well and bring up to the boil.

5. Reduce the heat, cover and gently simmer the soup for 25 mins, or until the lentils are very soft. Check for seasoning, adding the remainder of the salt and pepper to taste. Let the soup sit until it has cooled down a little.

6. For a smoother soup, blitz with a hand blender, or in a food processor, until you get a good thick consistency with some texture.  If  you prefer a textured, take out about half the solids and blitz them until you have a smooth purée, then return them to the rest of the soup and stir well.

7.  To serve, re-heat the soup until piping hot and perhaps add a handful of home-made croutons (fried in a little beef dripping) and/or a swirl of thick, live home-made yoghurt (see post  coming soon: “Was Miss Muffet on a health kick?”).


* Simmering the beef bones and vegetables for the full monty -72 hours – gives a tremendously rich, flavoursome broth (and will make the house smell delicious).  However, an 8 -12 hour stock will also be very tasty!

** Red lentils are very nutritious, but (in common with all legumes and beans) contain indigestible phytates and other anti-nutrients  They need to be rinsed well and soaked in water and two tablespoons of whey/cider vinegar/lemon juice for at least 8 hours (then rinsed again and drained) to neutralise these problematic substances and make the highly beneficial nutrients available.


Sundays are for sharing…..slowly. February 15, 2012

Filed under: Recipes — Isabel @ 12:06 am
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Slowly roasted lamb shoulder. Rich, sweet, moist and so tender it just falls off the bone.  

For me, it’s absolutely the dish of choice for a winter Sunday Lunch, which in our house generally happens around 6ish.  This means we  can have a lovely day doing Sunday-things-one-likes-to-do and still put a traditional roast on the table, to be shared with family or friends.

An early evening Sunday lunch with people you love is such a relaxing way to end one week and start the next.  Everyone is mellow, the conversation’s chilled and all leave (early!) well-fed and contented, to get themselves for the coming week. And I can go smugly to bed,  satiated by my weekly “taking care of people” fix.

What better way to slow roast  lamb – or any meat – than in terracotta?  I love it…it’s an ideal slow cooking medium – retaining flavour, moisture and all the goodness of whatever you’re cooking.  Plus, it looks really great when you bring it to the table.  And then there’s the theatre of lifting the lid at the table and hearing that Bisto “..aahhh..”  (yes…I’m of a certain age) around the table.

So, to continue the story of my love affair with terracotta, I offer you a tradition a continent away from the Great British “meat and two veg” ……


For the spice marinade:
Fresh ginger: 1 inch, peeled
Garlic: 2 fat or 3 medium cloves
Onion: 50g
Cumin: 1 tablespoon (freshly ground is best)
Coriander: 1 tablespoon (ditto)
Black pepper corns: ½ tablespoon (ditto)
Cloves: ¼ teaspoon (ditto)
Green cardomom pods: 8 (seeds only)

For roasting:
Lamb shoulder: 1.5kg
Onion: 1 medium/large
Olive oil: 2 tablespoons (not extra virgin)
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper
Apricots: 5oz (ready to eat)
Chopped tomatoes: ½ tin
Tomato puree: 2/3 tablespoons
Bay leaves: 3-4
Brown sugar: 2 teaspoons (any dark brown sugar)
Parsley and coriander: good handful

1. Firstly, prepare your mis-en-place for the marinade: Peel and roughly chop the ginger, garlic and onion. Grind the cumin, coriander, black pepper corns, cloves and cardomom seeds. Now put everything into to a food processor and blitz until you have a paste. (You can grate the ginger, garlic and onion before adding the spices and mixing everything together really well). Don’t add salt at this stage, as it will draw moisture from the meat.

2. Next, with a sharp pointed knife (a filleting knife is ideal) make lots of horizontal and vertical incisions all over the lamb shoulder. Spread the spice paste all over the meat, rubbing it well into the incisions – your lamb should end up with a nice spicy overcoat. Leave it to marinade in a covered tagine for 5-6 hours (or overnight) in a very cool place or refrigerator.

3. About 30 mins before cooking the lamb, transfer it (and all the spice paste) to a plate and leave it to come to room temperature. Wipe out the tagine base and soak it in warm water for 10 – 15 mins. Set the oven to 140 degs (fan) / Mark 2 (gas).

4. Now prepare your mis-en-place for roasting the lamb: Peel, halve and slice the onion thickly, roughly chop the apricots and assemble the bay leaves, chopped tomatoes, tomato puree and brown sugar.

5. Dry the tagine base well. Place a heat diffuser over a COLD gas ring or hot plate (see Techniques: Terracotta Cooking*).  Put a tablespoon of olive oil into the tagine base and start heating it slowly on the diffuser over a slow/medium heat. When the oil is quite warm, add the sliced onions, season with salt and pepper and saute gently until the onions become translucent, then increase the heat slightly until the onions just begin to caramelise.  Remove the onions from the tagine and set aside.

6. Return the tagine to the heat diffuser and add a tablespoon of olive oil. Increase the heat to medium and when the oil is hot,  brown the lamb shoulder, “top-side” down, until you have a nice colour. Don’t move it about too much – keep it still or it will sweat rather than brown.  Now turn it over and seal the under-side.

7. Return the onions to the tagine, and add in the chopped apricots, chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, bay leaves, brown sugar and a good sprinkling of salt. Check carefully for seasoning (remember you haven’t salted the lamb spice paste so you may well need to add a little more salt) and bring everything up to a gentle simmer.

8. Sit your browned lamb shoulder on the ingredients in the tagine bowl, spoon over the sauce generously, and cover with the lid.

9. Increase the oven temperature to 180 degs (fan) / Mark 5 (gas) and place the tagine in the oven for 30 mins, then reduce the temperature back to 140 degs (fan) / Mark 2 (gas) for about 2 hours, checking the sauce and adding a little water if the sauce looks too dry.

10. The lamb is cooked when the meat feels very tender and is coming away from the bone.  Let the lamb sit in the covered tagine for about 15 minutes before serving.

11. Bring the tagine to the table with plenty of chopped parsley and coriander.

12. Remove the lid with a flourish and allow your guests to savour the wonderful aroma, admire your talent and drink your health.

13.  Tuck in and enjoy!

I’d love to know if you like this recipe or, if you’ve given it a try, I’d love to hear how you got on!   How about sharing your favourite tagine dish?


Bring on a little sunshine with Orange & Ginger Spiced Rice Pudding February 12, 2012

It’s  freezing cold.  It’s February.  It’s bleak, we’re glum.  And craving sunshine.

We need something golden, warm, sweet and comforting to make ourselves feel loved.  What better winter food fantasy can there be than the thought of sliding a spoonful of  rich, creamy velvet  slowly into an expectant mouth, watering with anticipation?

Tell me what could be more comforting and restorative on a cold, glum February evening than the deliciously sweet, rich aroma of a Proper Rice Pudding, wafting in from the kitchen,  to cuddle us as we sit cosily in front of the fire?  Nothing, I’d say!

Except, maybe, an Orange and Ginger Spiced Rice Pudding?  Oranges – the sunniest of fruits – are at their juicy best during these beak winter months, just waiting to spill out their fresh, sweet nectar for our delight.

Orange, accompanied by warming cinamon, ginger and  nutmeg and ginger, is a marriage made in heaven.  Food heaven.  Try it.


Mmmm…..seconds already?


Unsalted butter: 37.5g, plus 1 tablespoon
Ginger: 2 teaspoons, finely grated
Cinnamon: 1.5 teaspoons, ground
Nutmeg: 1.5 teaspoons, finely grated
Short grain (pudding rice): 80g
Milk: 375ml**
Double Cream: 375mls**
Unrefined sugar: 37.5g, plus 1 tablespoon**
2 medium – large oranges

You’ll also need a 20 cm round terracotta or other flame-proof dish.  (If your dish isn’t flame-proof, use a heavy-based saucepan for Steps 4 – 6).


1. Firstly, soak the rice in cold water for at least an hour (this will soften the grain, make it easier to digest and will substantially reduce the cooking time). Drain the rice well.

2. Soak your terracotta dish in warm water for about 5 mins and dry thoroughly.

3. Meanwhile, prepare your mis-en-place for the rice pudding: Peel and grate the ginger finely, grate the nutmeg finely, measure out the sugar and measure the milk and cream and stir together well.  Zest the rind of one orange, then with a sharp knife, peel both oranges vertically and then cut them horizontally into thick rounds. Cover, and set aside.

4. If you’re using a terracotta or clay dish, place a heat diffuser over a COLD gas ring or hot plate (see Techniques: Terracotta Cooking).  Put the butter into the dish and melt it slowly on a slow/medium heat.

3. When the butter has melted add the rice.  Stir well to coat all the grains – the rice should not sizzle at all.  Add the ginger, cinnamon, one teaspoon of the nutmeg, and the orange zest and pour in about half of the milk & cream mixture, stirring well.

4. Increase the heat to medium and bring the liquid up to very slow simmer, then add the sugar, stirring slowly until dissolved.

5. Set the oven to 180 degs (fan) or Mark 5 (gas).

6. Continue to cook the rice on a very slow simmer, until it has softened, but is still quite al dente (about 6- 10 mins). You’ll need to stir (note: lots and lots of stirring in this recipe!) regularly and top up the liquid to maintain a soft, creamy consistency.

7. Give the rice a final stir(!) and top up the liquid if necessary (you may not need to use it all). Sprinkle over the remaining nutmeg and place in the oven – for about 15 mins – until the rice is quite sticky and the top has set and is beginning to brown.  Let the pudding sit for 5 mins or so before serving.

8. While the pudding is resting, melt one tablespoon of butter in a hot frypan and sprinkle in one tablespoon of sugar. Add in the orange rounds and let them caramelise lightly on one side.

9. Arrange the orange slices on the top of the rice pudding. Serve the pudding on its own, or with a little cream, Greek yoghurt, or ice cream.

Heavenly.  Winter sunshine on a plate!

Tell me what makes the winter sun come out for you?

** If you want it “free from”

…To make it dairy free, you can use full fat coconut milk (about 1.5 cans);  if the pudding gets at little stiff as it’s cooking, just add a water as necessary to loosen it.

…The cinnamon will lend quite a bit of sweetness as it’s a very sweet spice, but if you want it sugar free, you can use about five (or more, if you have a very sweet tooth!) stoned and finely chopped dates at Step 4.

…Or, right at the end of cooking, when the rice has cooled a little, you can also drizzle in honey to taste.  (I subscribe to the wisdom that heating honey above 40 degs destroys all its benefits and makes it very difficult to digest).



I’ve  been “off-line” for quite a while …..having a bit of an adventure.  Well, a bit of a cooking frenzy, really.  I’ve discovered the joys of terracotta cooking!

And these words spring to mind: LOW, SLOW, VERSATILE, and VERY PRETTY.

Terracotta cookware holds a slow, steady heat, allowing foods to cook gently and evenly and food continues to cook even after you remove the pot from its heat source.

Good quality, properly seasoned terracotta cookware can be used in place of a skillet or frypan, a sauté pan, and a casserole dish.  How versatile is that?

(Image courtesy of ABS Terracotta Limited)

And, when the cooking’s all done,  it really looks the part on the table.  Bring your lovely pot to the table and wait for the compliments. Not only does the food look and taste great, the clay will retain its heat and keep the seconds warm. Impressive?

Well, I’m seriously impressed.  Terracotta cookware can be found in every Spanish kitchen and Spanish cuisine is increasing popular, so let’s embrace some of their traditional cooking methods and techniques!

I’ve been doing a bit of research, so look out for a post on Terracotta Cooking  in the Techniques category.  And look out for lots more recipes from the Spanish kitchen!


~ Spanish Chicken ~


(Serves 2 – double up the quantities for 4)

Chicken: 500g leg & thigh, or thigh pieces (not breast meat)
Olive oil: ½ tablespoon (not extra virgin)
Onion: 1 small – medium (at least 120g, prepared)
Celery: 1 stick (at least 50g, prepared)
Garlic: 1 fat clove
Red pepper: 1 medium or ½ large
Butternut squash: ½ large (approx 350g, prepared)
Chopped tomatoes: 1.2 400g tin
Paprika: 1 heaped teaspoon
Smoked paprika: 1 teaspoon
Ground cinnamon: ½ teaspoon
Red chilli flakes: good pinch, or to taste
Black Olives: 4 -6
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
Flat-leaf parsley: Good handful

A lidded terracotta pot, large enough for 2-4 persons & a heat diffuser.

1. Firstly, prepare your mis-en-place: Peel and finely slice the onion, celery and garlic. De-seed and slice the red pepper into 1cm thick slices. Peel and cut the butternut into 2cm dice. Measure out the two paprikas, cinnamon, and chilli separately onto a small plate. De-stone and roughly chop the olives. Set aside.

2. Pre-heat the oven to 140 degs (fan oven) or Mark 2 (gas) and soak your chosen terracotta pot and lid in warm water for 5 mins.

3. Place a heat diffuser over a COLD gas ring or hot plate (see  Techniques: Terracotta Cooking).  Heat ½ tablespoon of olive oil slowly in the terracotta pot on a slow/medium heat.  When the pot and oil are hot, increase the heat to medium and saute the chicken pieces, right-side down  until well browned (put the lid on to prevent the fat splashing everywhere – this may take several minutes, so don’t move them about too much or they’ll start cooking rather than browning).

....nicely browned...

4. When nicely browned, remove the chicken from the pot and drain off all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat. Lower the heat and add the onion, celery and garlic. Season with salt and pepper, cover with a cartouche and sweat the veg (see: Techniques) over a low heat until translucent but still firm. Remove the cartouche, add in the red peppers and butternut, turn up the heat and saute until the veg is just beginning to brown at the edges. Check the seasoning.

5. Add in your measured spices, chopped tomatoes and mix everything well. Place the chicken pieces and olives on top of the veg and tuck in a couple of sprigs of parsley. Season again, and tuck a disc of foil over the dish before placing on the lid. This step is optional but it will ensure your cooked dish is really succulent.

...and all ready for the oven...

6. Place in the oven and increase the heat to 180 degs (fan) or Mark 5 (gas) and for 30 mins. Reduce the heat back to 140 degs (fan oven) or Mark 2 (gas) and cook until the meat is falling off the bone (maybe another 1.5 hours, but check a couple of times).

7.  Serve with a side of Chickpea, Carrot & Parsley Mash, and a cold beer!




Although you’ll find it throughout North Africa, the Middle East, India and in parts of Italy and Greece, there are few places where the “garbanzo” bean, or chickpea, is more popular – and revered – than in the Spanish kitchen.

The Spanish are particular about how their garbanzos should be treated.  Cooks will debate the relative merits of garbanzos coming from specific areas – are they better from Segovia or Zamora, from Badajoz or Cádiz?   It’s often a case of  “my mother-in-law’s garbanzos” are superior to “your sister’s garbanzos.”

Chickpeas are eaten almost daily in Spain, appearing in the cocidos (one-pot meals) and potajes (thick soups) of every region and soaking up the strong flavours and spices in Spanish cooking — salt pork, sausages, tomatoes, cabbage, garlic and onions, pimentón and cumin.

So, in honour of the noble chickpea, I offer a spiced mash in which the little golden nuggets can really strut their tasty stuff….

Chickpea, Carrot & Parsley Mash


(Serves 2 – double up for 4)

Carrots: 2-3 (approx 200g)
Onion: ½ medium (red or white)

Red Pepper: 1/2 medium

Garlic: 1 fat or 2 small

Cumin seeds: ½ teaspoon
Olive oil: 2 – 3 tablespoons (not extra virgin)
Sea salt & ground black pepper
Lemon: ½ lemon, zest and juice
Boiling water
Garbanzo beans (Chickpeas): 400g can, rinsed & drained
Flat-leaf parsley: Large handful, chopped
Tahini paste: 1 tablespoon

A terracotta “sides”  pot large enough to serve 2  (or 4) and a heat diffuser.


1. Firstly, prepare your mis-en-place: Peel and dice the carrots, onion and red pepper into chickpea-sized dice. Peel and grate, or chop the garlic finely. Zest half a whole lemon (it’s easier!), then halve it and juice the zested half. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Chop the parsley (but not too finely). Set aside.

2. Next, place a heat diffuser over a COLD gas ring or hot plate (see Cooking Techniques: Terracotta Cooking).  Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil  in the terracotta pot on a slow heat and add the cumin seeds.  Heat gently, until the seeds are fragrant (don’t over-heat or they’ll burn and taste very bitter, in which case start again!).

3. Then, add the chopped veg to the frypan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the lemon zest and juice and enough boiling water to just cover everything. Season well, cover with a cartouche (see Cooking Techniques) and cook on over a medium heat, stirring from time to time and adding a little more water until the carrots are tender but still have a good bite. The pot should now be almost dry, so if you have a lot of liquid going on  increase the heat slightly and remove the cartouche.

4. Add the drained and rinsed chickpeas, season again and heat through on a medium heat, stirring everything well.  Add a splash or two of boiling water to create steam – this will help to get the chickpeas hot without making everything soggy.

5. Now put the whole lot in a food processor, with a good tablespoon of Tahini paste (I use “light” for preference) or mash well with a strong fork. Check the seasoning to taste.

6. Add the chopped parsley and enough olive oil to give the consistency you want: You may want a stiffer mash to accompany a well sauced dish like Spanish Chicken (see Recipes), casseroles or stews, or a softer mash if you are serving it with a drier dish, say, lamb chops or pan-roasted fish.

7. The mash will “hold“ really well in a warm oven, covered with foil. Or, it will refrigerate a couple of days. Re-heat it in a frypan until piping hot, adding splashes of boiling water to create steam.


Food Heros: More on Fish Sauce! November 23, 2011

Filed under: My Food Heros — Isabel @ 11:49 pm
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In Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines, fish sauce is an ingredient which always close to a cook’s hand.   We may know it as nam pla or nuoc mam. 

But fish sauce has a long pedigree in western cuisine – the Romans were particularly fond of a fermented fish sauce derived from anchovies and it represented an important trade product.

If you are struggling to get something to taste ” just right” – soups, sauces, casseroles, stews, dressings, marinades – then fish sauce will often be the ingredient you need.  It’s like a liquid anchovy – a deeply pungent and salty reddish-brown liquid which adds a savoury depth of flavour and magically brings a dish together like nothing else (honestly…. I’ve done blind taste tests with cynical and deeply suspicious family members).

On the tongue, as it were, fish sauce is not pleasant and almost unbearably salty so never use it “straight”. It needs tempering with water or other liquids, lime juice, sugar so use it as you might an intelligent seasoning and go easy on additional salt.

Remember, though, that there are fish sauces and fish sauces.  The little bottles that appear on supermarket shelves tend to be a bit wishy-washy and expensive. Source yours from an Asian grocery store and you’ll gain flavour and save money.

Didier Corlou, the French chef at the Sofitel Metropole hotel in Hanoi and author of a charming booklet about nuoc mam, writes that for him it is almost a drug, a seductive seasoning that he relies on every day. (Janet Fletcher, Chronicle Staff Writer 2005).  Well….I haven’t (yet) started hiding bottles of around the house, but I do worry when I’m down to that last inch!

Say what you will, but I say this:Reach for your reach for your fish sauce boys!”


Sweating Vegetables

Filed under: Techniques — Isabel @ 5:19 pm
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What’s in a name?

The French call it “mirepoix“, the Spanish call it “sofrito“.  Italians refer to “soffritto“, as indeed they would, since the term comes from their verb “soffriggere” meaning “to fry lightly“.

Somewhat unromantically, the English call it “sweating“.  No surprises there.

Whatever the term, sweating your veg matters.  This really simple, but important process, which softens the vegetables to prepare them for use in a variety of recipes, is the basis to getting flavour into your cooking by applying gentle heat and seasoning to release the natural moisture and sugars in the vegetable so that it softens but doesn’t brown.

The Holy Trinity

You can sweat any veg, but the classic combination, known as the “holy trinity”, is a mixture of 2 parts carrot, 1 part onion and 1 part celery and is a basis for a variety of sauces, soups, stews and stocks.  Garlic is frequently involved.

Depending on what the recipe calls for, typically you will finely dice the veg, cut it into larger dice, or chop it into small chunks, before sauteing it in wide-ish lidded saute/frypan with a little olive oil and butter and seasoning it with salt (to draw out moisture and so prevent browning) and pepper.  It’s crucial to season the veg from the outset, so that it really gets into the “body” of the veg, rather than sitting on the surface.

You then cover everything with a “cartouche” and the pan lid and cook it over a gentle heat until softened and translucent.  There’s nothing clever about a “cartouche” – it’s a French term which refers to a circle of greaseproof paper cut to fit directly over your vegetables, before you put the lid on the pan.

What’s the point?

The whole purpose is retain maximum flavour by preventing natural moisture loss  – add additional liquids and ingredients only after the veg is properly softened.

Et voila!    Y listo!    E voila!   There you go!  Get sweating!


Food Hero: Fish Sauce!

Filed under: My Food Heros — Isabel @ 5:18 pm



Stock Tomato Sauce for Wintry Days (and Balmy Nights)

Think about it, making a good, basic tomato sauce from scratch is simple,  healthy and so cheap.  It’s a no-brainer!  You can incorporate it into virtually all cuisines, either on it’s own or with any variety of  added ingredients: classically, in delicious pasta sauces or with meatballs; as the basis of meat, fish or vegetable ragus, casseroles, stews or curries; as the basis of soups, seasoned with fresh herbs, served over rice, or spiced up with red peppers or warming lentils), for topping fresh pizzas or “tarting-up” ready made ones; and serve it cold in pasta salads or, well spiced and reduced, as a ketchup.  Phew!

So, tempting as it is to reach for the apparently wonderful range of commercially processed options, don’t do it!  If they’re any good, they’ll be expensive.  And, no matter how good they are, at the end of the day they are all processed; despite what it might say on the label, this is Not a Good Thing. Although everyone is busy, busy, busy, believe it – once you’ve got the hang of making-your-own (and maybe have developed a couple of “favourite” basic versions) you, your creativity, your gratefully salivating recipients, and your housekeeping budget won’t look back!

So come on, show willing and  get into the habit of making up a batch and freezing it in useful portions. Various sizes of re-cycled yoghurt/cream/ creme fraiche cartons are great – just dunk them in hot water for 10 minutes or so to start defrosting, before transferring to a saucepan over a medium-ish heat and attacking the contents with a fork whilst uttering a few kind words of encouragement.

You don’t need to use fresh tomatoes to make tomato sauce all year round.  Indeed, fresh tomatoes might well disappoint – have a look at these links:

So, unless you have a glut of properly ripe fresh tomatoes, you’ll get a better and more consistent result by choosing a good quality Italian tinned variety, which will yield a more intense superior flavour.

Wintry Days and Balmy Nights

This particular recipe  is for a “wintry” version of a stock tomato sauce – that is to say I’ve incorporated dark brown sugar,  paprika, cinnamon, chili and red wine for a rich sauce to kick off a variety of warming, wintry dishes.  Omit these ingredients and add in unrefined caster sugar, majoram, lemon thyme, rosemary and lemon juice for a lighter  herby, aromatic “summer” stock sauce.  Above all, experiment.  And when you get the flavours you really love  – make sure you write down the recipe!


(Makes approx 300mls thick sauce)

What You’ll Need:

Quantity of mirepoix*

  • 1 red/white medium onion (finely diced)
  • 1 medium carrot (finely diced)
  • 1 medium stick celery (finely
1 tbsp virgin olive oil
15g unsalted butter
Quantity of mirepoix*
15g sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2tsp dark brown sugar (or 3tsp unrefined castor sugar)
1 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (or 1 tbsp chopped marjoram)
1/4 tsp dried red chili flakes (or 1 tsp each of chopped lemon thyme & rosemary)
2 bay leaves
150ml red wine (or juice  1/2 lemon)
250g good quality Italian tinned tomatoes
1 – 1/2 tsp good quality fish sauce**
1tsp tomato ketchup
What You’ll Do:
1.  Gently heat the olive oil and butter in a lidded saute or fry pan.  Add the mirepoix (*see Techniques: Sweating Vegetables) and season with half the sea salt and ground black pepper.

2.  Place a cartouche (*see Techniques: Sweating Vegetables) over the mirepoix and cover the pan with the lid and sweat on a low heat, stirring occasionally until the onion is opaque and the vegetables have softened.
3. Remove the cartouche and add the sugar, paprika, cinnamon (or marjoram), chili flakes (or lemon thyme & rosemary) and bay leaves, stirring well to combine everything.
4.  Stir in the wine (or lemon juice), tinned tomatoes (rinsing out the can with a little water), fish sauce  and tomato ketchup and the rest of the salt and pepper.
5. Cover the pan with the lid and cook the sauce on the lowest heat for at least 60 mins, stirring from time to time to prevent it from sticking as it thickens, adding a little more water if necessary.

6.  When the sauce has thickened and darkened in colour, taste to check the seasoning adding a little more fish sauce to enhance the depth of flavour.
**Fish Sauce
Fish sauce is wonderful and natural flavour enhancer and can be used in a variety of recipes.  See My Food Heros