Archive | January, 2012

Swedish almond tarta

31 Jan

Almondy Swedish tartaI was shopping in Tesco the other day for a suitable post-Sunday lunch dessert, and to be honest was feeling completely bored with the usual ‘Finest’ range. Lemon tart, American cheesecake – we’ve had them all…a lot.

I tried the freezer section, but it was the same products, just at -18ºC. It looked as though I might have to resort to actually making something, when an interesting package caught my eye. I was an unusual brand, one I didn’t recognise.

Daim Almondy authentic Swedish almond tarta was what I ended up purchasing. Very nice it was too – like a particularly dense almond cheescake.

The story on the back of the packet is that two young Swedish men (this is not going where you might think) had a dream of building a boat and sailing the world together (OK, perhaps it is). But fate conspired against them, in the form of a secret recipe from 1890 for the Almondy tarta which for some unknown reason decided them against having the adventure of the lifetime and instead into a life of producing frozen goods for the UK market. It’s hardly a modern fairy tale, but if there is a scrap of truth in it I have to thank them for their decision, because Daim Almondy tarta is well worth seeking out in your local Tesco.


Quick and easy pancakes

30 Jan

Nigella Lawson's pancake mix

We love a good pancake at Gastronome Towers and as previously reported, we are not afraid of over-eating on a Saturday morning.

I got fed up of having to look up the pancake recipe every single time. For some reason, it just wouldn’t stick in my mind.

To the rescue rides Nigella Lawson and her recipe for pancake pre-mix that gives you just the head start that you need to make the pancake ritual a pleasure, rather than a pain.

The mix contains flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt and caster sugar. It keeps for ages in a sealed container. All you need to do to bring it to life is to add an egg, some milk and some butter.

It makes delicious american-style pancakes which are great with blueberries or maple syrup.

Indulgent (possibly traditional, but probably not) lasagne

29 Jan

Indulgent lasagneA last-minute visit from Great Aunt Gastronome required some quick thinking around lunch. I’m not one for wheeling out a roast dinner on a Sunday so I thought I would make a nice hearty lasagne. One of my favourite versions is vegetable and pancetta, but it doesn’t go down well with the miniGasts so I wanted to concoct a more meaty option for this meal.

I found this recipe on BBC Food which seemed to fit the bill – after all, it described itself as ‘the ultimate homemade lasagne’. The only problem is that it required quite a bit of preparation (I guess that’s what comes of being the ultimate), so I found myself at 730am chopping celery and carrots.

Importantly, this recipe uses a mixture of pork and beef mince. Despite constant scorn from my family I’ve always clung to the idea that this makes the best ragu, ever since I saw Antonio Carluccio doing just that in his first series for the BBC back in the 90s. I still have his Bolognese recipe cut out of the Radio Times in my recipe folder. I had the idea this was traditionally Italian, but a friend who hails from those parts tells me this isn’t the case. In fact, making a ragu with mince is not exactly traditional, so we’ll skip over that.  In this case the recipe featured in the programme ‘Return to Tuscany‘ so for the sake of  romanticism, let’s assume that a Tuscan recipe it is.

So, how did it go?

ragu cooking

Pork and beef ragu cooking gently

I avoided falling into the first trap. Why does the recipe tell you to preheat the oven, if you don’t need it for at least 3 hours after starting the prep. The ragu has to cook for 2 and a half hours on the hob. I can feel this becoming one of my recipe pet hates.

They are not joking about the prep time though. That ragu has to cook down a heck of lot. There is also a bit of a mad last-minute rush as you struggle to assemble the lasagne with a pan on the go to blanche the pasta, the bechamel cooking and the ragu continuing to stew. I didn’t have a pan large enough to blanch all 12 sheets in one go, and had to fish the first batch out. This was an error as it proceeded to stick together like glue. Next time I don’t think I’ll bother.

After all that pre-work you would hope that the final bake was quick and it doesn’t disappoint. 30 minutes at 190°C does the trick.

lasagne out of the oven

Out of the oven, not long now

What emerges is indeed a luxurious take on lasagne. The flavours are subtle and not ‘herby’. The mozzarella melts into the pasta and ragu, binding the layers together into a delicious creamy goo. I ate a portion, convinced myself that the bits of ragu and cheese that were lurking in the dish didn’t count as seconds, had a proper second portion, and then ‘tidied up’ the edges for good measure. All plates were cleaned and even the miniGasts did more than just pick at theirs.

The great news is that the recipe makes such a large dish that there is definitely plenty for lunches this week, so I get to enjoy it again and again.

Saturdays mornings are for eating OR Why the Gastronome family are one step removed from hobbits

28 Jan

second breakfast waffles

Here at Gastronome Towers, when the weekend comes around, one breakfast is not enough.

When we all sit down, at different times usually, to enjoy a bowl of what is euphemistically called ‘weekend cereal’ but should actually be called ‘calorie packed chocolate covered in milk in the disguise of a fibre-filled healthy dish’ we know that this is just the beginning.

After we are fuelled, showered and have prized the children away from the TV we reveal our hobbit-like tendencies and prepare second breakfast.

Second breakfast is, as a matter of course, a carb-fest. Pancakes, crumpets, scones, croissants, hot cross buns – we eat them all. Not in one sitting.

Today it was waffle day. I would love to say that I crafted the waffles myself (I remember that Jamie Oliver had a great looking recipe this Christmas) but my only experience doing this using a sandwich toaster with what it laughably called a waffle attachment, was a complete disaster. Leaking waffle mix filled the kitchen. The smell of burning flour was everywhere.

So this weekend the waffles came from a packet.

How to spice them up a little?

The obvious choice was blueberries. There were some lurking in the fridge. Maple syrup was the sauce of choice. I wanted creme fraiche.

Mrs G revealed there was none left, putting an immediate downer on the whole affair, bur helpfully suggested we use yoghurt instead. Now, if you follow this blog for long enough you will inevitably read about the eternal struggle between the Gastronomes about what makes a suitable replacement for cream. Let’s face it, yoghurt is bottom of the pile, and my face said it clearly. I think I wrinkled my nose and may even have scowled.

Waffles with blueberries, yoghurt and maple syrupBut there was no point protesting. Short of hopping in the car and heading to the supermarket I had no choice but to experiment with yoghurt.

And I’m glad I did. When you have the luxury of blueberries and maple syrup to go along with it, there really isn’t much that the yogurt needs to do. It doesn’t have the ability of creme fraiche to hold its shape, but that hardly matters when you are cutting it up and stuffing it into your mouth greedily a few seconds later.

I don’t think I need write out a recipe for you here. The picture says it all.

Second breakfast – it may be a slippery slope on the way to third breakfast and hence obesity, but we have no intention of giving it up.

Now to go for a run.

Mergeuz and halloumi burgers

27 Jan

mergeuz and halloumi burgerMrs Gastronome found something that excited her in the aisles of Asda this week – mergeuz. These spicy, bright red sausages remind us both of holidays on the continent – frying them up over a camping stove, or in the tiny kitchen of a villa.

We’ve had sausages and salad this week already though, so I was determined to make them slightly more exciting, as if mergeuz on their own weren’t exciting enough.

What I created can only be described as a mergeuz burger.

I pan fried the sausages gently while I toasted a couple of bagels and grilled two large slices of halloumi. I assembled it into a stack with some sliced tomatoes and salad leaves.

It looked great, but did it taste as good as it looked?

Well, almost, but it was a little salty (let’s face it, halloumi is pretty salty in its own right) and by the end I was not quite as into it as I was at the start.

Next time we have mergeuz in the fridge I will probably augment them with something that compliments the salty sausages rather than adding to them. Or save them for the next camping trip.

What makes a signature dish?

27 Jan

Everyone has a signature dish don’t they? This is the one you turn to when there are guests coming round and inspiration is lacking. You need something to fall back on – a recipe that is so tried, so trusted that it can’t possibly fail. You know it so well that you barely need to refer to the cookbook.

This is not to be confused with the signature dish you might encounter at a high end restaurant – the one that made the chef his name, the one which you can’t find better anywhere else, the one they attempt to recreate on Masterchef in the final stages of the competition once they have actually learnt to cook a bit. It should allow the chef to be identifed in a blind tasting.

No, the domestic signature dish is a different breed. It may not be posh, although it can be, but it is, in your eyes the bees knees. Pity the guest who doesn’t love it, because you could never eat enough of it. You have taste and you adore it, so why wouldn’t they.

It might be simple, it might be complex, but it remains comforting and calming and reliable. Unlike a restaurant signature dish it doesn’t need to be your own invention…although that helps.

I’m not sure that I have a signature dish. I think I have several, but unfortunately none of them are of my own design. They are dishes that I cooked once, repeated soon after, inflicted upon a few guests in quick succession and then moved into the mental file of ‘things that I like that I can cook easily’.

My favourite, and possibly the most unusual, is Maple and Pancetta Chicken with Courgettes and Potatoes. This started out live as a short lived range of ‘prepare and cook yourself’ meals that Waitrose were selling. At least I think it was Waitrose – it doesn’t seem like a Lidl kind of a thing.

All the ingredients came in a box, along with the instructions for prepping – chop courgettes etc. – and then cooking. It turned out pretty well, and having clocked that it was far cheaper to buy the ingredients separately than buy the whole meal pack, I repeated the dish a few times soon after. This was a fortunate decision as the concept vanished from the shelves almost immediately (let’s face it, it was a pretty flawed idea) but I kept the recipe card in a folder and wheeled it out as often as possible.

Now it’s unusual enough a dish that I can whisk it out from time to time and gain gasps of admiration for my bravery in mixing maple syrup and pancetta with chicken and sour cream. Perhaps, as I now rarely refer to the recipe, I have slowly but surely added my own twist. Was it bacon in the original recipe? Perhaps it was creme fraiche? Whatever, it is my signature of signature dishes and the next time I prepare it I will share my secret.

Extreme eating – reality, history and glory

26 Jan
Adam Richman

A light snack for Adam Richman

Have you seen Man Versus Food on the Good Food Channel?

Whether you should or not probably depends on a) your love or otherwise of enormous portions of American food b) any moral objections to gratuitous over-eating.

If you haven’t seen the programme (and personally I love it) it involves self-confused food obsessive Adam Richman touring the USA attempting to take on a variety of extreme eating challenges. You know the thing. Eat the Gut-Buster Mega Hotdog and Whole Chicken Combo and get the meal for free…and your photo on the wall of the restaurant.

I defy you to watch and not salivate. Unless you are vegetarian.

Actually, the first 15 minutes of each episode are cause for salivation. Once Adam starts the eating challenge it becomes more of an endurance test for the viewer. God knows what it’s doing for Adam.

Perhaps I love this programme because I have…well….I don’t want to boast….I have a bit of form in this area.

Bristol circa 1991. Happy times. University life, a fresh grant in my back pocket, keen to save as much money for beer as possible. Bring on the Pizza Hut Challenge. 10 hungry students, descending upon the eponymous restaurant every Tuesday evening for the all-you-can eat buffet. This was a red rag to a bull.

The rules were simple. Eat as many slices of pizza as you could. The more hardcore would follow up by matching this number with pints, but this resulted in some severe cases of alcohol poisoning and was quickly ruled out by the BPEAB (British Pizza Eating Association of Britain).

To add some subtlety a ‘slice was a slice’. This was not as easy to manipulate to your advantage as it might sound. The staff of Pizza Hut were, strangely, not impressed with such wanton abuse of a simple marketing ploy and resorted to serving the all-you-can-eat pizza rather than having a buffet. It made no odds, we just took longer to eat.

My record? 14 slices. I was so proud. The all time record – 22 slices. An outrageous display of gluttony that will live long in the memory of all concerned. Believe it or not it was even acheived under ‘pints as well’ rules. The carpet of the Bristol Student Union never knew what hit it.

These days, my extreme eating days are over (although I’m not a small portions man in the main) but I still love a good eating contest. Fortunately we are blessed with the World Watercress Eating Championship on our doorstep.

World Watercress Eating Championship

World Watercress Eating Championship - 2011

It takes place annually at the Alresford Watercress Festival. If you have ever wondered how many bags of watercress it takes to make a man throw up, the answer is ‘less than one’.

Technially speaking, as I write this post, I’m on a diet. I am living out my eating needs through the medium of prose instead. I’d better not go near a McDonalds in the next few days. I can feel a supersize coming on…

Swiss wine – there’s more to the place than chocolate

25 Jan

White wine bottleSwitzerland is not a country the British associate with wine-making. Just about every other country has penetrated the UK market – some more than others – but Swiss wine is almost impossible to find, even direct from importers. Whilst their alpine neighbours Austria are an acknowledged producer (80’s anti-freeze scandals aside), the Swiss seem determined to keep their wine to themselves.

This is a crying shame as they know how to make a fantastic bottle.

With family in Switzerland I’ve had the happy opportunity to sample the local stuff on several occasions, and it’s left me with a long-standing love of the crisp, slightly metallic and enormously refreshing taste.

The vineyards are generally small and the wine doesn’t travel far, even within Switzerland. We have often stayed near Geneva, and the wine in the supermarkets is all sourced from within a few tens of miles (including the obligatory French stuff – France is only a few miles away as the crow flies of course). My favourite is from the Celigny region – it’s light and all too easy to over-consume. The commonly heard phrase at Gastronome Towers is “Go on, just a splash.” This is repeated several times until drunk and was first coined in Geneva after too much of the aforementionned vintage.

The closest thing that is easily available in the UK is wine made from the Gruner Veltliner grape. You can find both Austrian and Hungarian bottles from online wine stores (as well as increasingly often in restaurant wine lists).

However, none of this comes cheap (at least £6 per bottle) and you have to ask yourself if it’s good value compared to other gluggable wines available in the UK.

I suppose that in the end I have an emotional attachment to Swiss wine and that makes it occasionally worth the extra investment. I urge you to give it a try though. It’s worth tracking down.

Pan-fried brocoli and feta with lemon and parsley

24 Jan

Pan-fried brocoli and fetaThere is an excess of feta at Gastronome Towers this week which is prompting me to find new and interesting ways of using up that most salty of cheeses.

This recipe is one that has been a returning favourite for a while, but only in the sense that it never comes out the same twice, so it’s the concept that is popular, not necessarily the outcome.

The result is a juicy, occasionally creamy combination of brocoli, sun-dried tomatoes and feta. If you have the time to marinade the feta with lemon and parsley, all the better.

I seem to remember that the original recipe was intended as a one pot dish, but I find that is just a little too much brocoli to eat in one sitting, so I like to make a smaller portion and serve with a pan-fried chicken breast.


1 or 2 heads of brocoli
1 block of feta
1 garlic clove
6 or 7 chopped sun-dried tomatoes
Some chopped parsley
A glug of olive oil
A goodly squeeze of lemon juice
Chicken breasts if wanted


  1. Chop the feta into small chunks (rather than crumble, although this seems to happen anyway)
  2. Marinade the feta in a small bowl with the lemon juice, oil and chopped parsley for up to an hour. If time is short though just bung it all together and give it a good stir.
  3. Get a frying pan medium hot and heat up a splash of oil.
  4. Fry the garlic gently for a minute then add the brocoli and keep stirring until starting to brown, You may need to add a little more oil.
  5. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and continue to stir for a minute.
  6. Separate the feta from the marinade – careful spooning will do this as you want to retain the marinade – and add the feta to the pan. It will start to melt really quickly so at this point restrain yourself from stirring.
  7. As soon as the feta starts to lose shape whip the whole lot out of the pan and serve. Pour the reserved marinade over the brocoli and feta mix.

and if you want to add chicken…add the chicken to the pan with the garlic and turn frequently while frying the other ingredients. You may not like to juggle like this, in which case cook the chicken separately, but then the chicken won’t absorb the lemony, cheesy juices as it cooks.

The magic of the leftover taste fairies

23 Jan

Chow meinI’d like to tell you a fairy tale, a story of magic and wonder. Are you sitting comfortably readers? Yes? Good, then I’ll begin….

Once upon a time there was a man – let’s call him Mr L.Z. Gastronome – who made a chicken chow mein. It wasn’t a particularly special chow mein. It had chicken (obviously), peppers, carrots and was made all ‘chow meiny’ with a jar of Ken Hom’s Chow Mein stir in sauce.

The man had made it for the family as a Sunday meal and the fact it was Chinese New Year was alas, a mere coincidence.

“Did you like it?” asked Mr Gastronome to his wife as they poked the food around the plate together, not particularly convinced himself that it would set the culinary world alight. Mrs Gastronome looked slightly non-committal and said that she did.

“Would you like to take the leftovers to work for your lunch tomorrow?” asked Mr Gastronome, possibly pushing his luck based on the dubious enthusiasm of the reply to his previous question.

“Not really no,” said his better half, expressing an admirable, yet brutal, honesty. “You have it.”

The man pursed his lips, reached for the tupperware and retrieved a goodly amount of chow mein from the frying pan. He sealed it, placed it in the fridge and promptly forgot about the whole business. Safe to say, he did not go to bed dreaming of the delicious chow mein feast he was to enjoy the next day.

In the morning the man, despite his best efforts to forget the chinese lunch lurking in the fridge, claimed his vitals and headed into work. The clocks chimed noon and he unenthusiastically engaged the services of the office microwave to superheat the chow mein and hopefully kill off the imminent threat of food poisoning.

But something magical had happened. Something truly wonderous and without explanation.

The chow mein was delicious. The noodles were perfect, the peppers juicy, the chicken was tasty and flavoured-packed. It tasted rather like it had just been delivered from the local chinese takeaway, which quite frankly based on where it had started the night before, was nothing short of miraculous.

The taste fairies had visited and not for the first time, through the medium of tupperware, an overnight stay in the fridge, and 2 minutes at 900 Watts, had turned a meal that previously was uninspired and slightly tasteless, into something to be savoured, enjoyed and missed when it was all gone.

The man pondered on this miracle, but as it was now 1230 and there was an imminent meeting promptly forgot all about it. The second miracle of the leftover taste fairies had occurred. You never remember they visited.

The End.

[Engaging reality]

I would love to know the science behind the leftover taste fairies. Why is it that so many meals benefit from 24 hours in the fridge encased in plastic? Indian, Chinese, chilli, even lasagne. What could we do during the cooking process to make them as good the first time around? Is it actually just the thrill of having something other than a sandwich from the office canteen and in reality it tastes worse than before?

Perhaps there is no science. Perhaps when you yank the fridge door open quickly, hoping to catch the light switching on, the leftover taste fairies scatter behind the apple juice. You know how they say you can tell if there’s an elephant in your fridge?

Footprints in the butter.