Thursday, 30 July 2009

Cheddar and rosemary flapjacks

A savoury flapjack? Surely that's evil? Well, these were a lunchbox favourite when I was growing up - my Mum used to make them in huge batches, using the 'Cheesejacks' recipe from the trusty Cranks 1980s veggie cookbook. I decided they needed a bit of revival, so I took the original recipe and gave it a twist. I sold a few batches at my occasional food stall at the local pub - they got the 'Marmite' reaction: people aren't expecting a savoury flapjack, so you either love or hate them! They are intensely cheesy, herby and very moreish - a bit of the 'umami' flavouring going on. Plus I added a tiny whack of chilli heat to perk up your tastebuds. Great for lunches on the hoof, and for those who don't have a sweet tooth - and a million times better than boring oatcakes! I passed the recipe on to the lady who had the cake stall next to mine, and she says all her friends are now making I dare you to try them. They're great with a glass of wine, a pint of dry cider or a mug of tea.


375g jumbo oats (don't use porridge oats, this will make the flapjacks sludgy)
30g Parmesan cheese
400g extra mature Cheddar cheese*
3 medium organic free range eggs
125g organic salted butter
30g fresh rosemary
5g chilli powder
5g freshly ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 180ÂșC. Line a large roasting tray with greaseproof baking parchment.

Grate the cheeses in a food processor to save time. Chop the rosemary roughly, beat the eggs and melt the butter. Combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and give them a good stir so that everything is incorporated. Don't worry if the mixture seems a bit dry - the cheese will melt and bind everything together.

Tip the mixture into the roasting tray and press down with the back of a spatula so that the oats flatten and stick together. Bake until golden, about 35 minutes. The cheese will bubble up, so let everything cool down before you cut it into squares. These flapjacks improve with age and last about 6 days in an airtight Tupperware container. They also freeze really well.

* I use Colliers extra mature Welsh cheddar which is so strong it makes the roof of your mouth tingle and has lovely crunchy bits of naturally-occurring salt in it. Yum.

Decaff coffee - too good to be true?

Sometimes just the tiniest amount of coffee can make me feel really jittery and quite moody. So, in recent months I've been experimenting with decaff. It's not easy, since I love the smell and taste of coffee so much, and a lot of the decaff versions taste about as appetising as wet cement. I've even had a few brands that leave a nasty aftertaste of burnt rubber.

I thought I might have to stop drinking coffee completely, since no decaff seemed to be remotely drinkable. Until recently, that is. My office is quite near to a branch of The Monmouth Coffee Company and their coffee is amazingly good. Just walking past their shop without buying anything takes nerves of steel, as the intoxicating smell follows you down the street. I thought to myself: if anyone can make a decent decaff, they can. I bought a bag of beans and I've been drinking my way steadily through it for the last few months (it takes me a while). I went back today to get some more and asked the serving bloke if their decaff was really free of caffeine - surely there was a catch with something that tasted so good? But no catch, apparently: he reassured me that they remove the caffeine without chemicals using the Swiss Water Process (sounds impressive and I have no idea what this means)...meaning that the coffee only contains about 0.1% caffeine. So I can keep on enjoying my cup of joe without feeling like I'm going to have a heart attack or bite anyone's head off. Result!

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Retro Food Lovin'

This is a feature I wrote for Channel 4 Food which never saw the light of day...*sigh*. So you can read it here instead:

Retro food: so very right when you were young, so very wrong today...

Think back to when you were about nine and you'd come home from games practice, all scuffed knees and totally starving, and your parents would make you a nice plate of instant noodles with ketchup and melted cheese on top. With some tinned rice pudding and hot jam for pudding. It seemed like the best comfort food ever back then, but not necessarily something you'd want to eat now, because most of us are pretty spoilt when it comes to food these days. The British food revolution has kicked us all into touch with farmers' markets, fresh rocket and 30-day aged beef. We've got all snooty about ingredients and the retro dishes that Mum and Dad cooked for us, some as strange as they are eclectic, have been totally left by the wayside. But would you eat them now? We asked a bunch of you to think back to the meals of your youth...

Lunchboxes of love
Back in the 70s and 80s, nobody turned up to school with carrot sticks, houmous and sprouted grains in their lunchbox unless they lived in a commune. Most of us got sandwiches made with crap bread filled with things like peanut butter, Marmite and plastic cheese slices. Suzy remembers her favourite lunchbox sandwich as a simple concoction of “white bread, marge and sugar. Brilliant!”, while Molly says that all her sandwiches contained one crucial ingredient: crisps. David almost wipes away a tear of emotion when describing 'Jamborees', a 'dessert sandwich' that his mum used to make: “She'd sandwich together two slices of really cheap white bread and spread marge and jam on each one, stick them together and cut diagonally, they'd then be dipped in white sugar and batter and deep-fried. You can imagine what Jamie Oliver would say about that today.”

Meanwhile, Stuart says that his mother used to make him cheese and strawberry sandwiches, and when he wanted a quick snack, she'd serve him a delicious bowl of grated Cheddar mixed! Bleurgh! “Yeah, I'm not sure I'd eat that now, but I used to love it,” he says. Xavier's mum had a rather inventive take on the toasted sandwich: “She used to make jam puffs in the toasted sandwich maker, by cutting up squares of puff pastry and spreading them with jam and cooking them in the Breville. When you opened it up, the pastry had blown up like a balloon, it was so exciting! And of course yummy.”

Meaty treats
While we might obsess about eating free-range and organic meat nowadays, many of us used to eat extraordinary amounts of Very Scary Meat, usually tinned. Memories – or should we say 'hauntings' – of Spam fritters, tinned Frankfurter sausages and corn beef hash will always be with us, yet they have made us into the people we are today. Suzy remembers one of her mother's tastier dishes, the corned beef pie. “She'd open a tin of corned beef, fork it out, mix it up with ketchup, put in a dish and plonk some ready-rolled puff pastry on top. She'd then bake it and serve with lots more ketchup. It's amazing we made it into adulthood, really.” She also ate a lot of Spam fritters, which were deep-fried and “dipped in ketchup to make vaguely edible, and when you bit into them, the fat dribbled down your chin.” Mmm.

Anna has mixed memories about cheesy chicken bake: “Mum would cover chicken breasts with grated cheddar and crushed McCoy's ready salted crisps and bake it in the oven. I loved it at the time, but now? I'm not so sure!” Stu's mother would make 'Coca Cola chicken', where she'd brown some drumsticks in a frying pan, dump them in a roasting tray and add a packet of chicken soup powder and a can of Coke. The mixture was baked until tender and sticky. “Honestly, it was nice,” he says.

But not all memories are positive. Jon cringes at the thought of his mum's curry, made from cold, cooked sausages. “She'd mix up the sausages with Del Monte pineapple chunks, raisins and sultanas and the classic curry powder that had been around for about 100 years out of a yellow tin, and mix in a tin of tomatoes.” Dear God!

Fishy business
Fish was generally regarded with faint suspicion and bemusement by our parents. It was usually best if it came from a tin or was frozen in a nice little block. No bones, no hassle. The following dishes are not for the faint of stomach. Jo remembers her mother's 'Fish Surprise': “It was basically those nasty grey squares of frozen Coley put in a dish on top of a layer of frozen spinach blocks, and a can of Campbell's concentrated mushroom soup would be poured over the top, and sprinkled with grated cheese and baked. It was incredibly salty and strangely tasty, but I would never eat it now!” Chris balks at the memory of his friend's mother's 'Pilchard Surprise', where a tin of pilchards in tomato sauce would be added to some bechamel white sauce, ketchup added to taste and served on buttered white toast. “It was like pilchardy sick,” he laughs.

Feeling ill yet? It gets worse. Ben will never forget 'Pacific Pie'. He says: “My friend Harry's mother would mix together one can of chicken soup with a can of tuna and some frozen peas and bake it with with crisps sprinkled on top covered in melted cheese. It was like Surf and Turf in one pot, it had the consistency of vomit, and we've taken the piss mercilessly out of Harry for years, because he carried on eating this until well into his university years!” But Harry is still fond of this dish: “I feel I must defend Pacific Pie against any detractors” he retorts. “I ate it every week from the age of three to eight.” He's now six foot 3. Go figure.

Deadly desserts
Puddings for kids were so much fun in the 70s and 80s – no stressing about sugar and E numbers, hell no. You just heaped on the Angel Delight and sugar jelly diamonds and rode the sugar rush! Alice was particularly partial to her mother's 'Swiss Toffee Apple': a tooth-rotting confection of tinned stewed apples covered in squirty cream and cornflakes dipped in Golden Syrup. “It was amazing!” she says. “It was intensely sweet and gloopy but also crunchy, and great for food fights as it was perfect for flicking at people from your spoon.” Debbie is less sure about her mum's 'Peach Flan'. “She'd cover a brioche-type sponge with tinned peach slices and pour 'Quick Gel' on top.” For those not familiar with Quick Gel, it's a versatile and pourable form of liquid gelatine. Mmm!

Claudia's dad used to make her special 'coffee' ice cream: vanilla ice cream with instant coffee granules sprinkled on the top. “If we were lucky, he'd spoon in a lump of smooth peanut butter,” she says. And Anna's mum would serve her version of 'cheesecake', which constituted butterscotch Angel Delight poured into a glass on top of crushed ginger biscuits. “It made me and my brother get into terrible tantrums afterwards, possibly because we were going hypoglycaemic!” However, the prize of Most Ridiculous Retro Pudding goes to Ruth, whose parents used to make a dish called 'Dambydoopoo'. “It was a layer of Swiss Roll slices in a big glass bowl, topped with chocolate Angel Delight and lots of hundreds and thousands. So wrong, yet so right. It used to make us totally hyperactive – and that was before we'd even taken a bite. It was just the delighted anticipation of it!” Ah, those were the days, eh?

Music festival feasting

Outdoor music festivals are great. Especially for eating at. It's not like the days of yore where you had to be content with a greasy salmonella burger and slimy 'festi' noodles, then sit for days on end on the loo while your body tried to figure out what you'd done to it. You can now eat organic wood-fired pizza, grilled halloumi and paella, darling. Usually without catching some revolting disease. What I love, though, is the total absence of order when it comes to shovelling in the food - there is no set pattern to the grazing. Three meals a day? More like 15!

For example, last weekend I went with N my hubby to The Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire. The mere fact of being outdoors made me totally ravenous. The music was a bit lacklustre, so I concentrated on the food. We were surrounded by temptation on all sides - in the space of one day I shovelled down a fried egg (organic) sandwich from Cafe Ooh La La, a mint choc chip sheep's milk ice cream from Shepherd's, a wonderfully aromatic thali from Gujurati Rasoi and...creme de la creme...a half rotisserie chicken and potatoes from Roaming Rotisserie. Bliss! It had that exact same crispy tangy herby skin that I remember from rotisserie chickens purchased on holidays to France, where the rich dark gravy spills out of the foil bag...mmm. There's something a bit dirty about those rotisserie chickens. Don't you think?

Anyway. As as I wandered around the fields in a state of disarray at 3am, I was even contemplating a cheese and spinach crepe...but drunkenness prevented me from actually sorting it out. But no matter: the following day had just as many food delights in store...including a sausage baguette that was the size of a baby's arm - a bit horrorshow! But totally delicious.