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If your spice cupboard is a little out of date, then this the perfect time to refresh it.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

Dinebox_Gourmet_Xmas_Seasoning_Roast

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.

hyssop

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!

Processed Food V Home cooked food – the stark truth.

If you needed another reason to cook your own food, this post illustrates the shocking difference between a day’s ‘convenience food’ and simple, freshly cooked meals.

I’ve detailed the contents of what’s in a fairly ordinary day’s food, first if you buy the dishes ready made, and second if you make them yourself. The results, I think, speak for themselves.

Here’s a menu for a day that sounds pretty good – It includes lots of fruit, veg, protein and fibre and there’s no cake, chips, sweets, burgers or pizza.What good possibly be wrong with that?

Well it is quite wholesome, unless you decide to let a food manufacturer make it for you…

Here’s my sample menu:

Breakfast Fruit and nut cereal and a banana and yoghurt drink.

Lunch Tuna and cucumber sandwich, fruit yoghurt and a soft drink.

Afternoon Snack Cereal bar.

Evening Meal Quiche and Salad.

So let’s have a look at the ingredients of this day’s menu if you decide to buy them ready made.

These ingredients, by the way,  are of products from the highest ‘quality’ supermarkets and coffee chains, not the lowest! The packaging labels of the foods I’ve chosen include things like ‘healthy and natural’; ‘be good to yourself’; ‘fat free’……

This is the full list of ingredients you’d be eating:

Breakfast Rice, Wholewheat, Sugar, wheatflour, rice flour, vegetable oil, malted barley (a form of sugar), sugar, calcium carbonate, hazelnuts, sugar, rolled oats glucose syrup ( a form of sugar), vegetable oil, flavouring, tapioca starch, antioxidant (mixed tocopherois), barley, malted barley flour, almonds, barley malt flavouring, salt, vitamin c, niacin, iron, vitamin B2, vitamin B1, vitamin b6, folic acid, vitamin b12.

Lunch Oatmeal bread:, wheat flour, water, oatmeal, what bran, yeast, salt, wheat protein, spirit vinegar; emulsifiers (mono and di-acetyltartaric esters of mono and di-glycerides of fatty acids, mono and di-glycerides of fatty acids, vegetable fat, malted barley flour, flour treatment agent (ascorbic acid), canned tuna: tuna , salt, mayonnaise dressing: vegetable oil, water, spirit vinegar, sugar, pasteurised egg yolk, cornflour, salt, dijon mustard (water, mustard seed, spirit vinegar, salt), white pepper, mustard flour, concentrated lemon juice cucumber. Fat Free Yogurt (Skimmed Milk, Skimmed Milk Concentrate/Powder, Yogurt Cultures, Bifidus ActiRegularis® (Bifidobacterium Lactis DN-173 010)), Cherry (11.2%), Fibre (Oligofructose), Fructose (1.4%), Stabilisers (Modified Maize Starch, Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum), Concentrated Elderberry Juice, Acidity Regulators (Sodium Citrate, Lactic Acid), Flavouring, Sweeteners (Acesulfame K, Sucralose) Carbonated Water, Glucose Fructose Syrup (20%) (Lemon, Cranberry, Raspberry), Flavourings, Preservative (Potassium Sorbate), Caffeine, Extracts of Black Carrot, Stabilisers (Locust Bean Gum, Acacia, Glycerol Esters of Wood Rosins).

Afternoon snack Yoghurt flavour coating 30% (palm kernel oil, sugar, MILK whey, dried yoghurt (MILK), emulsifier: sunflower lecithin), dried apricots 17%, ALMONDS 12%, shredded coconut 12%, glucose syrup, crisped rice (rice, sugar), honey, For allergens, see capitalised ingredients, May also contain: Peanuts, Soya and Sesame Seeds.

Evening Meal Single cream (milk), pasteurised free range egg, feta cheese (milk) (11%), extra mature cheddar cheese (milk), wheatflour contains gluten (with wheatflour, calcium carbonate, iron, niacin, thiamin), slow roasted tomatoes (7%), unsalted butter (milk) (4.5%), onions, pasteurised free range egg yolk, spinach (2.5%), whole milk , cornflour , cracked black pepper , rapeseed oil , barley flour (contains gluten), salt, sugar, maltodextrin, tapioca starch, dried oregano, dried basil, ground black pepper, dried garlic, capsicum flavouring, chilli powder, ground cumin Romaine Lettuce (66%); Caesar Dressing (23%); Sea Salt & Black Pepper Croutons (7%); Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese (made from unpasteurised Cows’ Milk) (4%).Caesar Dressing contains: Water, Rapeseed Oil, Pasteurised Free Range Egg, Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese (made from unpasteurised Cows’ Milk), White Wine Vinegar, Cornflour, Sugar, Salt, Worcester Sauce (Malt Vinegar, Water, Black Treacle, Tamarind, Salt, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, White Pepper, Pimento, Ginger, Mustard Flour, Paprika, Clove), Garlic Purée, Black Pepper.Sea Salt & Black Pepper Croutons contain: Wheat Flour, Rapeseed Oil, Yeast, Sugar, Sea Salt, Black Pepper.

Yes, that is the astonishing list of  around 175 ‘ingredients’ that you would eat if you bought rather than made each of these dishes.

(Incidentally, that doesn’t include the banana and yoghurt drink in the morning – the manufacturer only provides minimal information such as calories / fat / sugar content and not full ingredients, so it’s anyone’s guess what’s in it…)

If you look more closely at the ingredients, you’ll see that sugar and sweeteners are mentioned no less than 22 times.

I also noted the ‘nutritional guidelines’ given on the packaging for each of these foods, and that information is also pretty astonishing, especially about the sugar intake.

The following data is per portion.

The ‘heatlhy’ breakfast cereal comes in at 12g sugar.

The banana and yoghurt frappucino comes in 55.2g sugar – yes 55.2g!

The sandwich contains 5g sugar.

The low fat yoghurt contains 11.7g sugar.

The soft drink weighs in at  34.1g sugar.

The ‘natural’ health food bar contains 8.8g sugar The quiche and salad contain 5g sugar.

So that’s a whopping 131.8g sugar you’ll have consumed in just one day

In fact, if you made a large chocolate cake from scratch and ate the lot, you’d have eaten less sugar….

So now let’s look at the nutritional content of the meals if you make them yourself:

This is the list of the ingredients you’d need:

Rolled oats, honey, vegetable oil, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, flaked almonds, dried berries, coconut flakes.

Ground coffee, milk, banana, yoghurt.

Flour, yeast, salt, sugar, water, tuna, cucumber, eggs, vegetable oil, salt, pepper, mustard seed, vinegar.

Yoghurt, cherries.

Oats, butter, raisins, cinnamon, ginger, salt, sugar, syrup.

Flour, butter, water, eggs, feta cheese, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, spinach, onions, salt, oregano, basil, pepper, cumin. Lettuce, parmesan cheese, white wine vinegar, salt, pepper, eggs, mustard powder, olive oil, anchovy fillets, garlic.

60 ingredients – all of them natural, many of them herbs and spices and certainly a list that you can probably recognise as food.

As far as sugar and syrup goes, sugar is used just twice in the home made menu- once in a tiny amount for the bread dough, and then in the cereal bar, and syrup is used once, in the cereal bar.

Overall, the sugar intake is about 15g.

My conclusion from this exercise is that it really reinforces the fact that marketing, advertising and food labelling all conspire to get us to eat horribly processed, unhealthy packs of ingredients that are a poor apology for food.

Taking raw ingredients and making a meal out of them is the fundamental recipe for a healthy diet – it doesn’t really matter what you make, but it’s always going to be infinitely better than buying your dinner in a packet.

The manufacturers have mastered the art of selling us a menu of chemicals by undermining our own cooking confidence.

They put misleading labelling and information on packaging that feeds that lack of confidence and then step back and say ‘hey, everyone has a choice, so we’re not to blame if people eat a lot of the wrong thing’…..

But of course they are not at all innocent. Billions of pounds are spent working out how to get people to buy processed food and it’s very difficult to resist the constancy and weight of that machine.

So we really must fight that seductive advertising, buy fresh veg and make our own food and do all we can to encourage others to do so too.

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.

fruit kebab

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

Exploring salt making in the French Marais

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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.

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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!

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.

CHILLIES_EJ

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