Taste and Flavour tips for fabulous festive cooking.

Creating delicious Christmas dishes can be fun and exciting – the opportunity to be creative and extravagant perhaps, and to cook with some well-earned indulgence.

Dinebox_Gourmet_Xmas_Seasoning_mulled_wine3For some it can also be a little daunting and confusing when you have to bear the weight of tradition, advertising, family history, expectation and not least a never-ending, well marketed supply of cook books and magazines that promise the ‘best Christmas Dinner / cake / buffet… Ever’.

So here’s my tips to help you navigate your own path to a successful, creative and relaxed Christmas Culinary Experience making delicious dishes from scratch.

  1. Embrace traditional, festive flavours.

Spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, caraway and cloves are the essence of traditional Christmas seasoning.

These lovely, warm spices have been Christmas favourites for a long time, and for good reason. They add warmth, sweetness, aroma and ‘zing’ to winter fruit and vegetables. They complement sweet and sour dried fruits like raisins and currants, as well as fresh seasonal fruits like pears and apples.

Use nutmeg and cloves in small quantities – they’re very pungent so you only need a little. Cinnamon and ginger are milder so you can use more of these, and add ground coriander to your mixed spice mix – it’s a lovely, mild, warm and sweet spice that blends beautifully with the others.

2. Refresh your spice cupboard

If your spice cupboard is a little out of date, then this the perfect time to refresh it.

Christmas cooking is all about big flavour, and you won’t get that from a jar of old nutmeg that’s been in your cupboard since 1985…

Buy fresh supplies in small amounts from a good source and you’ll be delighted with the flavours and aromas from your festive cooking.

Good cooking starts with good ingredients – whether that means vegetables, meat, herbs or spices.

3. Balance sweet with salty.

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There is always an unlimited supply of cakes, mince pies, chocolate and biscuits at Christmas, but the very best baking considers our salty palate as well as our need for sweet.

Biscuits, pastry and cakes benefit from a salty note to provide a bit of depth and balance to the sweetness. So if you’re making mince pies, make sure you’ve added a pinch of salt to the pastry; if you’re making Christmas shortbread, add some rosemary and salt and pepper to the dough. The same applies for cookies, brownies and fruit pies.

Use a ‘finishing’ salt like Fleur de Sel or Maldon Sea Salt if you’re sprinkling salt on the top of dishes – its looks lovely and provides a wonderful salty crunch.

4. Add a sweet note to a savoury plate.

As the previous tip illustrates, providing great dishes is all about balancing tastes and flavours and accepting that your guests all have different palates.

This goes for a savoury course or meal too.

Here’s a couple of examples:

A cheese board is very salty, with some sour notes if blue cheese is included, and so it’s no wonder that a sweet chutney or fruit such as grapes goes so well as it complements the plate.

A traditional roast turkey dinner is dominated by very savoury / umami elements in the meat and the gravy, with salty potatoes, sweet vegetables like carrots and parsnips and bitter vegetables like brussels sprouts and cabbage. Add a cranberry jelly, and you have a meal that will satisfy the whole palate.

Whether it’s a chutney, plum sauce or cranberry jelly, including a sweet element to your savoury dishes means that your cooking will satisfy everyone’s tastes.

5. Build on your basic cooking knowledge and enhance it, don’t think you need to start from scratch.

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Not everyone has the confidence or experience to try out totally new dishes for a dinner party. So unless you like the adrenaline rush of preparing lobster for the first time for your discerning guests, or you’ve been practising a fiddly dish for the previous month, cook dishes that you know work well, and make them special with herb garnishes, sprinkling of spices, pretty presentation and well-balanced combinations of dishes.

And I’m speaking from experience of sobbing over a should-have-been salmon en croute – it looked so lovely in the cookbook…..

  1. Get the most out of fresh herbs.

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Have a good variety of fresh herbs (keep fresh in a plastic tub in the fridge if you’re not picking them from the garden).

If you’re using woody herbs like rosemary, sage, bay and thyme, you can add these at the beginning of cooking for maximum flavour. They’re robust and their flavour will develop during cooking.

With delicate herbs like parsley, coriander, basil and mint, add towards the end of cooking to ensure they pack a flavourful punch. If you add them at the beginning, their delicate flavour and textures will diminish into the background.

Fresh herbs are fabulous for adding extra flavour. If you’re using a ready – mixed packet of sage and onion stuffing, for example, add some chopped fresh sage too. Make sausage rolls extra special by adding sage / thyme/ oregano and pepper to the sausage mixture (and sprinkle caraway seeds on the pastry before you bake them).

sausage rolls

Herbs can also be used to create gourmet sweet dishes too. Add some chopped rosemary into shortbread mixture; a bay leaf into your mulled wine or some basil or lemon balm in a fruit salad.

  1. And finally…

If you find yourself with surplus bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon sticks and star anise – scatter them around the dining table and use them as very pretty, natural and aromatic decoration!

Incredible Edible Wilmslow Herby Cooking Workshop

A couple of weeks ago I led a children’s cooking workshop for the brilliant community project –  Incredible Edible Wilmslow –  at Intoto Kitchen Showroom, Wilmslow.

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Grilled fruit kebabs with mixed spice, chocolate drizzle and lavender flowers

I wanted to use ingredients from the Incredible Edible beds dotted around Wilmslow town centre.

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One of the aromatic herb beds in Wilmslow town centre

It’s October, and although many of the vegetables were over, there were plenty of herbs so I decided on herby vegetable pizzas and fruit and flower kebabs –  both easy, fun recipes for children and, most importantly, delicious fresh food! P1010355ie picie pic 9ie pic 7 ie pic 6ie pic 8 We had a lot of fun – with children as young as 6 and a few grown ups joining in as well! Jay, director of Intoto Kitchens Wilmslow (http://www.intoto.co.uk/showrooms/view/in-toto-wilmslow) was incredibly relaxed whilst we created a lovely mess in one of his state – of – the – art kitchens. (I’ve never used such high quality appliances and they really were so easy and brilliant to cook with). All my workshop participants were very adventurous and creative – we ended up with calzones; nasturtium decorated pizzas and very heavily chocolate dipped kebabs…. So thanks to everyone who came along; helped with the washing up; took pictures or just joined in the fun! Incredible Edible is a brilliant community project that provides the town with herb and vegetable beds for anyone and everyone to enjoy and connecting us to our food from ‘plot to plate’. I’m now thinking of ideas for the next workshop….   ie pic 10

So how does seasoning work?

 “Wow that tastes amazing!”

It’s great when a dish really hits our individual palette.

We all have our favourite tastes – I particularly love really savoury, salty, herby flavours such as sage and rosemary and hot, peppery flavours of watercress, chili and crushed black peppercorns.

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Think about your ‘comfort dish’ and it may give you an inkling of your own palette.

For me, a really peppery cheese and potato pie always hits the spot!

What about you? Maybe you love the comfort of sweet chocolate or apple pie; the saltiness of fish and chips; the umami of a steak.

Seasoning, herbs and spices play a crucial role in creating lovely food that appeals to our tastes.

Everyone’s different – I’ve had people tell me how they really can’t stand the smell of cinnamon and others who add cinnamon to everything. I’m not too fond of really sweet spices like vanilla, and that probably sounds crazy to some.

Why we like some flavours and not others is a combination of our brain’s hard-wiring and our own experience.  Take coriander leaf for example. Some love its aroma and taste, whilst others think it tastes like soap. The reason for this is that some people don’t taste the pleasant aromatic elements but are super-sensitive to the unpleasant ones.

Other preferences develop through experience – positive and negative. We all have memories of foods we hated as children, and those memories can be incredibly strong so we immediately associate a particular flavour with an experience, before we allow ourselves to taste it afresh.

There are some flavour combinations that have a natural affinity, for example lemon and ginger or garlic and chili and others that may have just minority appeal – basil with cinnamon for example, would be fighting it out I think!

My Seasoning Works blog draws on all of these things and more. It’s great fun to try out new tastes, and learn what works well together. You can transform the blandest of ingredients with a sprinkling of herbs from your windowsill,  and enhance rather than overpower the most delicate of dishes with a bit of knowledge and experimentation.

So please join me on my journey to learn how Seasoning Works.

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Incredible Edible is, well, incredible

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Urban planting transformed into edible produce. Simple as that, although of course the ripples of this simple and brilliant idea go far beyond.

Wilmslow in North Cheshire is host to one of the Incredible Edible projects.

http://www.incredible-edible-wilmslow.co.uk

Public growing spaces around the town are bursting with edible produce.

I took a few pictures the other day of some of the spaces.

ImageImageStrawberries, onions, beans, gooseberries, oregano and garlic are all flourishing.

Everything grown is available for anyone to enjoy – when I was there, two or three people picked some strawberries and herbs as they were passing.

The Incredible Edible project began in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, by a small, inspired group and is now spreading across the country.

I think it’s a genius initiative, especially when as a culture we are becoming more and more remote from the sources of our food.

Anyone can help out (it’s all managed by volunteers), and everyone benefits. A community initiative that is genuinely and wonderfully accessible.

If you’d like to find out more about Incredible Edible http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk

Sensational Salsa by the Bethnal Green Brownies

ImageOn Monday I had the privilege of running a Seasoning Works spice workshop for a group of Brownies in Bethnal Green, London.

Fifteen lively 7 – 10 year old girls formed the group, and the task I set them was to create a herby, fresh tomato salsa.

It was a delight to see how positive and capable the girls were at making their salsa entirely from scratch, requiring just the lightest guidance from me and the adult leaders.

“Does anyone know the names of these herbs?”  I asked the girls, as I held up bunches of coriander, oregano and parsley.

Their replies and guesses proved that many had more than a little knowledge of these aromatic ingredients and their willingness to chop vegetables, taste and mix spices, whether familiar or unfamiliar to them, was fantastic to see.

Some followed the recipe exactly. Some free-formed it and added rather generous amounts of lime juice and pepper! After all, it’s great fun to bash spices in a mortar and pestle and squeeze a lime till all the juice runs into the bowl, so why stop at a teaspoon…

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Everyone loved their own finished salsa, however citrusy and they learned how to add more tomato to balance their finished dish.

If children are going to grow up being able to cook well and healthily, knowing how to turn some humble vegetables and herbs into a delicious, fresh dish is essential.

This group prove it’s never too soon to let children loose in the kitchen!

Thank you very much girls – you were brilliant.

10 common herbs and spices that are great for your health.

As well as providing wonderful flavours and tastes in cooking, herbs and spices have been used in medicine for a very long time. Indeed, medicine began with us realising the healing properties of plants after all!
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So here’s my ‘Top 10’ commonly used herbs and spices that are renowned for their health benefits.

Some are easy to grow, others easy to buy and all are easy to throw in to your cooking.

Turmeric – aids digestion, relieves joint pain and skin conditions
Cinnamon – lowers blood sugar, antibacterial, antioxident
Ginger – helps indigestion, nausea, coughs and colds
Cayenne – for pain relief, joint pain, circulation problems
Rosemary – antiseptic, aids memory, antioxident
Sage – sore throat, mental function, indigestion
Thyme – antibacterial, relieves coughs, antiviral
Fennel – relaxes muscle cramps, anti-inflammatory, digestive aid
Juniper – antiseptic, diuretic, bronchitis
Parsley – reduces urinary inflammation, circulation problems, kidney problems

If you’re interested in finding out more about the health benefits of herbs and spices, I recommend the following book, although of course there’s lots of information out there:

Guide to Medicinal Herbs (National Geographic) Johnson et al.

A Bundle of Herbs is a Lovely Thing

Tie up a mixture of herbs from your garden and throw them in something that you’re cooking. Call it a bouquet garni and you not only have a delicious, aromatic dish, but a classic one too.

 

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The wonderful thing about a bouquet garni is that you can make the most of the herbs you’re using, including the woody, flavourful goodness from the stalks. So you end up with a depth of herby flavour, not just the top ‘notes’ from the leaves.

There are 2 main ways of making your herb bundle:
1. Gather a mix of herbs and tie them securely with some natural string. Add them to your dish then remove the bundle before eating

bouquet garni wilmslowOr 2. Roughly bend or cut your herb mixture and place in a little muslin bag. Tie up and then add to your dish as it cooks. Again, remove before eating. This method is particularly good if you want to add otheringredients such as juniper berries, star anise or cloves, which can’t be just tied with other herbs.

And there are 2 main ways of using your herb bundle:

If your bundle contains mostly woody herbs with hardy stems and leaves (such as rosemary, sage and thyme), then add at the beginning of cooking to allow all the flavours to develop.
If your bundle contains delicate, thin stemmed herbs (such as coriander, basil and dill), add towards the end of cooking, as the flavours can be lost if you add the herbs too early.

Experiment with different combinations of herbs (and spices), to complement your dish – I’ve put together some combinations that work particularly well – see below – but this is of course by no means definitive!

These make small bouquets – just double up on the quantities if you’re making a bigger dish or want a bolder flavour.

For Beef: 1 bay leaf, 3 sprigs parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, 1 sprig hyssop

For Pork: 1 sprig sage, 2 sprigs parsley, 1 bay leaf, 2 sprigs thyme

For Lamb: 1 sprig rosemary, 2 sprigs oregano, 1 bay leaf, 1 sprig thyme

For Chicken or Turkey: 3 sprigs parsley, 1 bay leaf, 1 sprig tarragon, 1 sprig oregano

For Game: 1 sprig parsley, 4 juniper berries, 1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf

For Fish: 2 sprigs parsley, 2 sprigs dill / fennel, 1 sprig lemon balm, 2 stalks chives

For Vegetables: 2 sprigs oregano, 1 sprig thyme, 2 sprigs parsley, 1 sprig sage

For Fruit: 2 sprigs sweet cicely, 1 sprig mint, 1 sprig lemon balm

As a guideline, robust herbs like rosemary, sage and hyssop are great with strong meats like beef, lamb, game and pork.

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Delicate dishes benefit from fragrant and subtle herbs like dill, citrusy lemon balm and delicate onion-flavoured chives.

If you’re cooking vegetables such as peppers, aubergine, tomato and courgettes, then make a bouquet garni of Mediterranean herbs like oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary for a delicious Southern European flavour.

And please let me know if you have any favourite combinations to try…