Celebrate the Taste for Sour.

What’s your favourite sour ingredient? a sharp cooking apple perhaps; or maybe some strong blue cheese or a big dollop of natural yoghurt; a hunk of homemade sourdough bread or some sauerkraut perhaps?

This post celebrates our passion for all things sour.


As one of our five essential tastes, sour ingredients add real depth and brightness to your cooking and we eat and enjoy these sour notes all the time.  Where would we be without sweet and sour chicken; a Bramley apple pie or a good plate of strong, mature cheese and biscuits?

Essentially, there are two types of sour ingredients used in cooking:


tomatillos ripening at my allotment

Firstly, fruits that are naturally sour,  such as cooking apples, lemon, tomatillos and tamarind. They provide essential sharpness to dishes around the world, balancing the sweetness or saltiness of a dish. For example, tamarind is a favourite ingredient in Asian cooking; tomatillos add depth to Mexican cuisine and lemon adds an essential tang to dishes everywhere.

sourdough bacon sandwiches

homemade sourdough bacon sandwiches

And secondly there’s cultured sourness such as blue cheese, sauerkraut and yoghurt. Some of the most revered foods are sour ones –
roquefort cheese;Korean Kimchi; mature cheddar, artisan sourdough bread…

These foods are created by careful fermentation, using natural, good bacteria to create delicious tastes, using salt, natural yeasts and patience.

Here’s a few of my sourdough favourites:

Sourdough Bread

Making bread with a natural, sourdough ‘leaven’ is great for three reasons in my view. Firstly, you get a really good depth of flavour to the loaf – more interesting than a traditional, yeasted loaf. Secondly, it’s a very healthy way to eat bread, because the longer process of creating the starter and leaving the dough to prove means the grain breaks down more so is more digestible, and thirdly, there’s just something amazing about creating a loaf from just flour and water.

There’s a whole bunch of cookbooks to get you into making sourdough – we use ones by Andrew Whitely and Chad Robertson.

Red cabbage sauerkraut


homemade red cabbage sauerkraut

Having begun as a way of making the most of the harvest before the advent of technology and global food production, fermented foods are once again in vogue. There’s been a huge rise in the availability of sourdough bread, and dishes like kimchi (Korea’s national dish of fermented radish or other vegetables) have also seen a big increase in popularity.

I’m a big fan of the German favourite – sauerkraut, especially homemade sauerkraut made with just red cabbage and salt.

To make a jar of sauerkraut, finely slice and chop some red or white cabbage and add 2 teaspoons salt per 500g of cabbage. Squeeze and lightly pound the cabbage in a big bowl, until you can squeeze juice out of a handful of cabbage.

Pack into jars, press down and then weigh down to ensure the cabbage is covered in juice. Seal and leave for a couple of weeks to ferment.  Once you start using it, keep it in the fridge.  It’s great with eggs, cheese and bacon.

Fermented foods are great because they provide the kick of sour flavour, and the added benefit of high nutritional value (as long as you stick to home made or ‘real’ foods and not the ‘pretend’ foods you find in supermarkets – see my footnote).

Salsa Verde

I’ve started growing my own tomatillos as they’re not yet a common fruit to buy. They’re really easy to grow though and the plants are very prolific. Just a few tomatillo plants will give you at least a couple of kilos of fruit.

The fruits are a mix of sweet and sour. You can use them raw in a salad to add a bit of sour crunch, but usually they’re cooked (roasted or simmered), and made into the classic Salsa Verde. Here’s a recipe from one of my favourite cookery books “Mexican Cooking made easy” – a great book we bought on a trip to Arizona. All the recipes are written in both English and Spanish so it has a real authenticity to it!

Mexican cook book

My favourite Mexican cook book

Salsa Verde:

450g fresh tomatillos, 2 green chilies, 1/2 cup chopped onion, 2 TBsp chopped coriander, 1 Tbsp oil, 1/4 tsp salt.

  1. Remove the papery husks from the tomatillos and rinse.
  2. Place them in a pan with 1/2 cup of water. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10 minutes, (they’ll cook down very quickly). Remove the tomatillos, but retain the liquid.
  3. Remove the stems, then put all the ingredients, including the retained liquid, into a blender and blend until smooth.
  4. Use the sauce over chicken enchiladas, or as an alternative to a tomato salsa.


So celebrate your taste for sour and let me know if you have favourite sour ingredients.

* Footnote: A supermarket sourdough nearly always contains added yeast (as well as other ingredients). The whole point about sourdough is that it’s made with just flour and water, using time for the flour and water to develop into a natural ‘leaven’. Adding a bit of dried sourdough powder to an ordinary loaf does not make it a sourdough loaf – see http://www.sustainweb.org/realbread/ for lots more information. And another one to watch is supermarket ‘mature’ cheddar. It’s often made with additives that give the flavour of a mature cheddar without the requirement for the cheese to actually mature at all, so choose carefully. A bit of research into genuine, high quality cheddar is all you need to do to avoid the processed and poor quality supermarket imposters.

A Little Bit Chili

This post is about preparing chipotle chilies – it gets to the point eventually

My post today was intended to be about how to prepare dried Mexican chipotle chilies, but chilies are such a fascinating subject, the post has become a bit more than a set of instructions. So it’ll be just the first of a series of chili posts.

Chilies, of any kind, are definitely on my desert island seasoning list. DSCN1124_2DSCN1127_2

I love the way a carefully added bit of chili can lift and excite a dish, and I find the world of chili growing and cooking an endlessly fascinating one. There are so many varieties, heat levels and ways of preparing chili, it’s not surprising that the world of chili has become something of an art form.

If you want to learn about the art of cooking with chilies – Mexican cooking is the perfect place to begin.

Here’s just a few examples of the variety of Mexican dried chilies –  clockwise from top left – Mulato; chipotle (morito); chipotle (meco); de arbol


Mexican is one of my all-time favourite styles of cooking. It’s earthy, flavourful and uses lots of my favourite ingredients – beans, peppers, tomatoes, cheese – and chilies of course.

And my passion for Mexican cooking has a long history. chili-0344-wr It began in the 1970s, with a visit to a little bistro in my home town in the south of England. The wooden tables were lit by tall red candles in raffia-decorated chianti bottles, layered with wax from previous evenings. From the menu I chose the very exotic sounding Chili-Con-Carne to go with our fresh bottle of Chianti.  A big bowl of spicy mince and dark red kidney beans was placed before me, accompanied by a crispy-skinned baked potato. At a time, and place, when seasoning meant gravy, and green peppers (let alone kidney beans) were unheard of, this was a culinary new experience.   The Chili-Con-Carne was truly delicious –  a wonderful mix of rich, savoury beef and earthy beans in a dark, spicy, chili sauce that had my nose running.

Fast forward a few (!) years and cooking with chilies has taken on a whole new life. You can now buy a huge variety of different types of chili in the UK,  and as well as chilies of different heat values, you can also enjoy chilies with great depth of flavour – cue the Mexican chilies.

And one of the most popular Mexican chilies is the chipotle.DSCN1144_2 The chipotle is a smoked -dried Jalapeno chili. It’s a medium-heat chili, with a unique smoked, tobacco flavour. Jalapenos are dried in a wood-smoke chamber over a few days to create the unique chipotle. These flavour-rich chilies are used in Mexican stews, sauces and salsas. If you’re looking for rich, smokey flavour to add to a bit of heat, then the chipotle is worth seeking out.

Which brings me back to the original idea for my post – how to prepare a dried chipotle chili:

A dried chipotle chili looks a bit – well – dry. It’s hard to imagine its flavour from its somewhat wrinkled, papery exterior. It looks and smells more like an expensive empty cigar.  But just soak the dried chipotle in hot (just boiled) water for 25 minutes and it rehydrates to enable you to chop it and add it to your dish.

Once it’s softened with the water, chop it finely, then add to your chosen dish – use in slow-cooked dishes like beef and pork chilies, which allow the smokey flavours to develop and the chipotle to soften.

DSCN1135_2DSCN1149_2DSCN1150_2 DSCN1159_2

Chipotle chilies are a natural choice for bbq cooking too – add a little chopped chipotle to your marinating chicken for extra smokey flavour and heat.

I’ll be revisiting the world of chili over the next few months – we’ve got chili plants just beginning to grow on the windowsill, and lots of ideas for chili sauces and dishes to experiment with.

If you love chilies, whether it’s growing, cooking or eating them – please share your thoughts!

It’s About Thyme

fresh thymethymeEasy to grow, great for a small garden and wonderfully versatile for cooking, thyme is a fantastic herb to grow and eat. It’s a hardy plant, so another brilliant herb for perking up your winter cooking.

As well as an essential ingredient in a classic French bouquet garni, thyme is also one of the key ingredients in the delicious spice blend za’atar.

Like many herbs, it also has historical and renowned health properties, used to help alleviate colds and coughs, and as an antibacterial – so use it generously.

Here’s some of my favourite ways of using thyme.

Carrot, thyme and ginger soup

Thyme for freshness, ginger for zing and carrots for earthy sweetness – perfect soup combination!

carrot & thyme soup


Za’atar is a delicious, Middle Eastern spice blend – and one that’s very easy to make.


Great to sprinkle on flatbreads, as a salad dressing seasoning and really good with chicken.

Just mix together:

1 TBsp crushed thyme (dried is usually used, but you could also use fresh)

1 tsp sumac (a fruity, citrussy berry)

1/2 tsp toasted sesame seeds

1/4 tsp sea salt

Thyme and lemon roast chicken.

Stuff a whole, free-range, medium-sized (1.5kg) chicken with a quartered lemon and half a dozen sprigs of fresh thyme.

Place in a roasting dish, sprinkle some crushed sea salt over the top and pour cold water around the chicken to a depth of an inch. ( I heartily recommend this method of roasting chicken that my partner introduced me to. It gives you a wonderfully, succulent, tender chicken, but with a great crispy skin. Much better than roasting in oil or fat).

Roast at 180C for about 1hour 40mins, or until the chicken is fully cooked.

The juices around the chicken make a great basis for a lemony gravy.

Bouquet Garni

A classic bouquet garni is very simple to make – a couple of sprigs of thyme, a bay leaf, a few chives and a stalk or two of parsley, tied together or placed in a muslin bag.

bouquet garni

Great for seasoning stews and soups, and you can experiment with lots of other ingredients too – try adding a stalk of lemongrass, or a sprig of rosemary for a bold flavour.

And finally, thinking ahead to summer, pick thyme whilst its flowering,  and use the (edible) flowers to flavour and decorate cakes and puddings – glamorous and flavourful.

Celebrate Winter with Rosemary

Today the temperature has been close to freezing. There are almost gale force winds and the sky is a determined dark grey, giving the impression of permanent dusk. Despite this meteorological challenge, the rosemary in our allotment is thriving.

rosemary allot

When most of the herb garden has succumbed to the winter temperatures, rosemary remains wonderfully unfazed by even the harshest weather.

Just brush off the snow, and snip off a few sprigs. Rosemary’s savoury flavour and piney aroma adds a welcome freshness to your winter cooking.

As well as providing the perfect seasoning for traditional, hearty dishes like roast lamb and herby dumplings, rosemary also works brilliantly with Mediterranean dishes like homemade pizza with olives, tomatoes and cheese. Rosemary originates from Southern Europe, so it has a natural affinity as well as a long history of being used in Mediterranean cooking.

But don’t limit rosemary to savoury dishes. Its aromatic mintiness adds depth and balance to sweet dishes too. A little chopped, fresh rosemary and a pinch of sea salt added to shortbread dough makes for a lovely marriage of sweet, salty and savoury.

And if you’re looking for a special dish to complete a dinner party – rosemary infused, dark chocolate truffles are simple to make – see my recipe below.

Alternatively, if you’re into your January detox, poach some fruit with a sprig of rosemary and a generous teaspoon of cinnamon – the flavour combination works really well – especially if you include a mix of sweet and sour fruits like apples, grapes and redcurrants.

rosemary fruit saladAnd for a general pick-me-up, make a simple, rosemary tea (recipe below) – its renowned health properties include being used as an antioxident, memory stimulant and antiseptic. rosemary tea  Dark chocolate Rosemary Truffles To make 20 truffles 160ml double cream 10 sprigs fresh rosemary 200g good quality, dark chocolate 20g butter 45ml icing sugar cocoa powder for coating.

  1. Place the rosemary in a pan with the cream, and heat until boiling. Turn off and leave to infuse for 45 mins. Boil the cream again then strain off the rosemary and leave the cream to cool a little.
  2. Gently melt the chocolate (in a bowl over hot water). Add the butter, then once it’s melted into the chocolate, stir in the sugar and the cream. Mix well then remove from the heat.
  3. Cool the mixture then place in the fridge until firm enough to handle.
  4. Form into small truffle shapes (it doesn’t matter how irregular!), and then roll in cocoa.
  5. Keep in the fridge until you’re ready to serve them and they’ll keep for about 48 hours.

 Rosemary Tea Add 1 sprig of rosemary per cup of boiling water. Leave to brew for 3 – 5 mins. Strain before drinking.

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.


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.


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.


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!

Exploring salt making in the French Marais


The salt pans near Bouin. 

Fleur de Sel is widely regarded as amongst the best salt in the world.

It’s a sea salt harvested in the ‘Marais’ – an area by the coast of the Vendee, in the Loire region of France.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Marais, to discover more about this valuable ingredient, and what makes it so special.

salt pan me

Some of the salt pans, like this one that I’m stood in front of, have intricate patterns that reflect the names of the salt producers.


As you first drive the long, straight roads through this flat landscape punctuated with the occasional house, tree, gate or wooden post sticking out from the ground, you can be forgiven for thinking that ‘there’s not much here’.

But if you drive slowly, or better still stop, and look out across the landscape, you start to see it is a friendly wilderness – teaming with birds and water-loving animals who have the perfect, undisturbed playground of marshland to enjoy and thrive.

With the privilege of a guided tour by friends living in this extraordinary place, I’ve begun to discover the richness and diversity of life going on here.

The area is home to a small number of oyster and mussel fishermen, who continue a long tradition of families farming this abundant coastline.

It also has a handful of salt producers (Palaudiers) who continue the tradition of harvesting sea salt by hand, with a little help from the wind, sun and sea.

salt pan pattern

A large salt pan near Bouin

Natural sea salt harvesting takes effort, skill, knowledge and patience.

Precisely shaped pools are hand-cut from the flat marshland, creating a pattern of shallow ‘pans’ , separated by narrow earth walkways (vettes), that are then filled and drained in sequence, allowing the salt to collect above the water.

The salt is then raked by hand onto the vette, where wider circles known as ‘ladures’ have been made to allow the salt to dry out. The salt is then just bagged up.

salt pan4

The ‘ladure’ circles where the salt is collected. All these pans are cut by hand. The incredible orange colour is caused by the build up of algae before the salinity of water becomes too great.

And that’s about it – no heavy machinery, no technology, no factory, no big business, no marketing strategy, no secrecy. Just a generation of specialist knowledge and a commitment to continuing a local industry that makes great use of its environment without harming it.

Using Fleur de Sel in cooking.

salt 2

fleur de sel

Because such minimal processing is involved in the harvesting of Fleur de Sel, the salt retains all the micro-nutrients from the sea and nothing is added to it, which is what makes it such a valuable seasoning ingredient.

The salt has a naturally coarse texture, so it works particularly well as a ‘finishing’ salt – sprinkled over home made breads or a roasting chicken for that lovely salty crunch.

But don’t limit your use to the occasional sprinkle. Salt is one of our fundamental seasoning ingredients, so if you use a wonderful, natural salt like Fleur de Sel, your cooking already has a nutritional and natural head start.

I’ll be posting up a future article with some different ideas for cooking with salt using Fleur de Sel.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your salty ideas..

Tamarind – the sour star

tamarind pods2Great seasoning is all about satisfying our taste senses.

One of our 5 main tastes is sour, and usually we offset this ‘pure’ taste with sweet to create great tasting dishes.

As well as classic British dishes like apple pie (made with tart Granny Smiths), Chinese sweet and sour sauce and Indian chutneys are famed for their sophisticated blend of sweet and sour.

Fruits like lemon and lime are classic examples of a pure sour flavour, but tamarind blends sour with a hint of sweet. It’s a brilliant natural seasoning ingredient.

The tamarind tree (native to Africa and India) produces dark bean-shaped pods that yield a sticky, sour/sweet fruit. It looks a little like a date but is much more sour.

You can buy tamarind in a few different forms – as a ready-made paste in a jar (sold in most supermarkets); as a compressed block (from good wholefood shops), or whole pods (from Asian supermarkets).

If you’re using a compressed block, tear off a segment, pour a little hot water over it and leave to soak for about 20 minutes, mixing the pulp to ensure that the water has absorbed the citrussy flavours.

tamarind pasteYou can then either just use the liquid, in the same way you would lemon juice, or use the pulp, removing any hard threads or seeds. A little goes a long way.

As well as curries, Tom Yum soup and chutney, tamarind works really well with ginger – try these flavourful biscuits that mix tamarind, ginger and garam masala!

Ginger and Tamarind biscuits

tamarind biscuites


125g butter

1 large egg

225g sugar

35g tamarind concentrate (or tamarind block soaked in a little water and mashed)

2 tsp garam masala

3 tsp ground ginger

200g chopped glace ginger

250g plain flour

¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Mix together the butter, sugar, tamarind and egg till creamy.

Add all the rest of the ingredients.

Make into balls, place a few cm apart on a greased baking tray, then cook at 170oC for 15 mins.


And if you’ve any favourite tamarind recipes please let me know!