Monthly Archives: December 2010

Effortless eating this Christmas

Wintry table

Every year, I approach Christmas with conflicting thoughts.

I love cooking and I want to cook, but … I don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all the time.

Because it’s the one time of the year when the business closes for 2 weeks, I have time on my hands which means an opportunity to experiment with new recipes and flavours.

So a chance to cook what I fancy, however … I also want our guests to enjoy their food including those with more conservative (or should that be traditional?) tastes.

I feel equally ambivalent about all the richness of seasonal Christmas foods: Christmas cake, mince pies, nuts, lots of meat and want to counter that with some lighter, fragrant meals.

If you’re entertaining this Christmas, I believe that it’s not so much a case of just making a shopping list …

this is the time for some serious plotting, planning and scheming to produce delicious food – effortlessly!

Remember that old training chestnut (no pun intended!):

“fail to prepare, prepare to fail”x

Boring, but very true.

Also, remember that its your choice whom you bestow your money on; I do like to buy well all the time, but especially at Christmas do look forward to luxury treat and indulgences.

Shopping right is part of good citizenship as far as I am concerned.

Golden crusted Brussels sprouts

Here’s how:

  1. Start by writing down all the eating occasions, from breakfast, brunch to the big Christmas lunch, afternoon tea and everything in between and how many people (approximately) you’ll be feeding.
  2. The work out what you want to serve: I try to strike a balance between tradition and adventure by mixing old favourites with new dishes and adding a lighter, more contemporary twist.
  3. Try and shop local and support British farmers and producers. There’s a bound to be a (farmers) market taking place in your neighbourhood this week. The Real Food Festival’s Christmas Market took place on the South Bank: I realise this is not much help to you now, but make a mental note to visit next year. It was a great place for festive cheer and to buy some wonderful goodies for your Christmas table.
  4. Visit local retailers if you don’t already: unless you shop at the local butcher, fish monger, bakery, veg man etc. they could soon be boarded up.
  5. Soups, pates + terrines make great party food that’s easy to prepare and  scale up if necessary; includes at least one vegetarian option to offer a break from meat/fish to those who want it.
  6. Stock up on fresh herbs: I like to have coriander, mint, chives and flatleaf parsley to hand to add freshness and zing to soups, vegetables and salads.  If you buy “cut” rather than “potted” herbs, wrap them in moistened paper kitchen towel and store  in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of your fridge. Rosemary, thyme and sage are great standbys for adding flavour to stews, casseroles and roast. But I find that their dried equivalents work almost as well.
  7. Stock up on a few varieties of decent bread: sourdough, multiseed, rye or try spelt for a change. Real bread stays fresh for longer and is useful in some many ways: at breakfast, “things” on toast, sandwiches and leftovers can be made into breadcrumbs or bread & butter pudding.
  8. Eggs are a versatile super food: try free-range duck‘s eggs for a change. Wonderfully rich in an omelette or in scrambled eggs. Quail‘s eggs are ever so pretty, fried/poached for a minute and used as a salad or canape topping, or boiled, half peeled and dipped in dukkah or celery salt as a snack with drinks.
  9. Make a double quantity of crumble topping (I like to add chopped toasted nuts to mine for extra texture + flavour) and keep in the fridge or freezer: very handy if you want to make a hot pudding with whatever fruit you’ve got to hand.
  10. Baked apples, stuffed with mincemeat and a small piece of marzipan leftover from decorating the Christmas cake, make a very simple but crowd-pleasing pudding. Serve with single cream or custard.
  11. I will also make a cinnamon flavoured fruit compote, probably with quinces, but you coul use a mixture of apples + quinces or dried fruit steeped in strong tea. Go easy on the sugar or honey, taste it first. Delicious topped with natural yoghurt + granola or mixed seeds for breakfast or a substantial cold pudding.
  12. Another great, easy to make, standby are jellies: jelly has had a bit of a renaissance this year, partly thanks to the efforts of Sam Bompass & Harry Parr from The Jellymongers. . My favourite is a grown-up red wine jelly with pears poached in red wine. Very Christmassy, especially with a thin layer of cream poured over the top.
  13. impromptu lunch or supper? Try a whole baked  Vacherin Mont  d’Or with boiled baby potatoes + good bread to dunk and a fresh, green salad on the side. Remove all plastic packaging from the cheese, carefully slice the top off, add a glug of white wine (and a few truffle shavings to make is taste even more amazing!) and black pepper, then replace the top, wrap the cheese in aluminium foil and replace in its wooden box. Bake for about 25 minutes at 180C until warm and runny. Smelly, you’ve been warned, but utterly delicious!
  14. I’m not one for “canapes” preferring to serve a few good quality olives or some nuts with drinks instead of anything too fiddly. I make an exception for smoked fish (trout, salmon or mackerel)  torn into bitesize pieces and served, with a slick of horseradish cream, on pumpernickel or bitesize oat cakes or blinis.





Easy sweet treat: semi-dried figs stuffed with an almond + dunked in dark chocolate with a drop of rose water


Some of the suppliers whose food I trust & love 

Impeccable credentials, amazing buffalo mozzarella and buffalo cuts & joints; their box offers are particularly good value. Try Laverstoke’s buffalo milk ice cream: a creamy revelation!

Born & Bread Bakery

020 8693 1222

Hand shaped breads, craft baked in a wood-fired oven: sourdough, spelt, rye and much much more.  They only use imported, unbleached French flour. It is stone milled which enables the grain to maintain the beneficial vitamins and minerals that would otherwise be lost in commercial factory milling processes.

A Kentish Starter (originally made with apples from Kent, hence the name) is used as the raising agent for all of their breads.

 The wonderful breads are sold via independent retailers, delis and bakeries. Call to find out your nearest stockist. 

Venison, small game from the Scottish Highlands. Their venison sausages make a wonderfully easy meal, braised with Puy lentils or simply served with a root veg-potato mash: meaty and lean with a great gamey flavour.

Deep filled, hand raised pies, including chicken & salmon, with delicious pastry. A really useful standby: makes a tasty, easy supper or light lunch with a fresh salad + condiments.

This Christmas, Sainsbury’s is exclusively selling the first British, free range turkey, reared in woodland, in the Taste the Difference range. 

The Norfolk Black is a slow-growing turkey, bred especially for its succulence and flavour. 

The Woodland Trust receives 10p from every Norfolk Black sale at Sainsbury’s, and the turkeys are also reared to RSPCA Freedom Food approved standards. 

Norfolk Black turkeys

The birds will arrive in store between 21st and 23rd December.

My mother-in-law is bringing pheasants shot in the Yorkshire Howardian Hills around Castle Howard. So the “yes/no turkey debate” has been settled – for 2010 at least!

I’ll be making a stuffing from minced veal, fresh sage, cooked chestnuts + lemon zest. Leftovers (or make extra on purpose!) are delicious stirred into pappardelle, with strips of cavolo nero, coarsely shopped flatleaf parsley and grated Parmesan. their Elvas Plums  are not cheap but they are a very special, seasonal treat! 

St-Germain artisanal elderflower liqueur: “discovered” at the Real Food Festival earlier this year. A beautiful product and delicious as an aperitif added to champagne or white wine in a “St-Germain kir blanc”.

I love  all their three flavours of gravadlax, or cured salmon – a classic cure with dill and a touch of star anise, and dill, but particularly the colourful beetroot cure.

Snow-topped spice cake

So what’s cooking chez nous?

We’ll kick off with afternoon tea:

my “black” Christmas cake, frangipane quincemeat pies, cheese & pumpkin seeds scones, smoked salmon on pumpernickel


Mexican spicy sweet pepper soup with diced avocado + tortilla chips, warmed flat breads, fruit

Whole baked Vacherin Mont d’Or, boiled baby potatoes & bread to dunk, a green salad, red wine & pear jellies

Chestnut & champagne soup, chicken terrine, green salad, bread, baked apples

Baked chermoula salmon, roast sweet pepper & mint couscous, green beans, toasted hazelnut fruit  crumble


full English or smoked salmon with eggs any style, spiced tomato juice or orange juice, fruit compote, yoghurt, jams, toast, Christmas muffins

Christmas dinner:

dressed crab, roast pheasant with veal, chestnut & lemon stuffing, Port sauce, golden crusted Brussels, braised red cabbage, celeriac puree, Christmas pudding or persimmon, orange, pomegranate & mint salad

Frangipane quince pies

Recipes for some of the dishes mentioned above have featured this year as a blog post, but do get in touch if you want guidance/suggestions on any of the dishes.

And naturally, I look forward to receiving your comments!

All that remains is to wish you & yours a very happy Christmas and a healthy, rewarding and above all delicious 2011.

I’ll be reading Ian Marber’s soon to be published book “How not to get Fat” over the festive break … and will review it here for its publishers, Quadrille.

With my very best wishes,

Monique x

Sunshine vitamin D deficiency

A good friend has been diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency.

This is in fact quite a common problem.

Vitamin D, also called the “sunshine vitamin” because we get most of our vitamin D through the action of the sun shining on our skin, is a fat soluble vitamin.

The fact that it dissolves in fat is important because it means the body can store it for future use. 

The thinking goes that, if you get 20 minutes of sun exposure (on your arms or face) between 10am-3pm between the months of April-September, when sun’s rays are strong enough to trigger the conversion of vitamin D in our skin), your body can make enough vitamin D to see you through the winter months. 

Foods rich in vitamin D include oily fish (such as herring, mackerel and salmon), liver, egg yolk, butter and some fortified foods such as margarine and breakfast cereals.

Reading through the list above, you can see that a vegetarian and vegan diets can easily be low in vitamin D.

Some of the causes of vitamin D deficiency are:

  • you don’t eat enough foods right in vitamin D. If that’s the case, change your diet and start including more foods that are rich in vitamin D.
  • you are overweight. Vitamin D is absorbed by fat cells which can lead to low vitamin D levels in the body. Lose weight, because if you don’t your bones can become very fragile.
  • you have dark skin or always wear sun protection creams with a high factor. Be aware of your skin’s reduced ability to produce vitamin D and expose your skin more to the sun or  take a supplement.
  • Limited exposure to sunlight. This is easiest to treat: just spend more time outside!
  • Absorption from the gut is poor. This can affect people with Crohn’s and Coeliac disease.

Deficiency symptoms in adults can be vague and unspecific and include depression, chronic fatigue and osteoporosis.

However, there is increasing evidence that vitamin D is important for more than strong bones and teeth and has many other roles within the immune system.

Low vitamin D levels in adults are linked to SAD (seasonal affective disorder) or “winter blues”, cancers, bowel disease and arthritis.

A good quality multivitamin  mineral + a cod liver oil supplement every day can provide a sensible (10 micrograms) dose of vitamin D.

For more general information check out

For more specific advice I recommend you contact a Dietician.

I can personally recommend Dr Sarah Schenker and Jane Griffin .

Both ladies are registered with The British Dietetic Association, know their onions, and have between them provided the nutritional analysis  and narrative of  every Savvy Cook’s meal.


Very moist & delicious vegan chestnut loaf cake

This recipe was a bit of an experiment, but one that has worked wonderfully well which is why I’m sharing it with you.

I’d wanted to bake a vegan cake for a while, but struggled with the idea of substituting the ubiquitous eggs and butter and did not want to end up with something dry, heavy and “worthy”.

In this cake, I’ve used

The secret (which is out now!) I think to this moist, moreish cake are the chestnut puree and the coconut milk.

This cake is no looker”: it’s a dark brown brick of a cake, much like Parkin, studded with small pieces of cooked chestnuts, but its plainness is part of its appeal I think.

Serve it, like I did, with pears poached in red wine + coconut cream as a dessert or sliced thickly for elevenses or afternoon tea.

If you want to tinker with the recipe, you could substitute the chestnut puree for (canned) pumpkin puree, replace the chestnuts with (toasted) walnut pieces and use 2 tsp of mixed spice + 1 tsp of ground ginger to flavour the cakes.

It could probably also be turned into something chocolatey by replacing 100g of the flour with cocoa powder (the real thing, not drinking chocolate powder) and the chestnuts with small pieces of dark chocolate.

Let me know if these suggestions work: I’m interested in broadening my vegan cake repertoire!

Makes 2 1kg cakes

This is what you need:

440g plain flour

440g dark brown soft sugar

500g unsweetened chestnut puree (1 can + a bit)

250ml Carotino oil

150ml reduced fat coconut milk

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp salt

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp dark rum

150g cooked chestnuts, chopped into small pieces

This is what you do:

  1. pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas 4
  2. put the chestnut pieces in a small bowl, add the rum, vanilla extract and 1 tbsp of the sugar
  3. grease + line the bottoms of 2 1kg loaf tins with baking paper
  4. in a large bowl mix the remaining sugar with the oil using a handheld mixer
  5. add the chestnut puree and coconut milk, whizz until smooth
  6. add the flour, bi-carbonate of soda and salt in three batches, making sure that the flour has been absorbed before you add the next batch
  7. fold in the chestnut pieces + all the soaking liquid
  8. divide the mixture over the two baking tins and smooth the tops with the back of a metal spoon
  9. bake at 180C for 1 hr and 15 minutes or until a skewer poked into the centre of the cake comes out clean
  10. remove the cakes from the oven and cover tightly with aluminium foil for 10 minutes, leaving the cakes to steam
  11. remove the foil and turn the cakes out onto a wire rack to cool completely

Good luck (if you’re planning to tinker with the recipe) + enjoy!

Monique x

Chunky, spicy butternut squash & chickpea soup

This is an incredibly easy, delicious soup that you can whip up for a quick wintry supper in no time!

There’s not much to shop for either, as the recipe using mainly store cupboard ingredients that you probably have to hand anyway.

Re-heats really well, so don’t hesitate to make it a few days before you need it if that’s more convenient.

Serves 4 generously

This is what you need:

1 large onion, chopped roughly

1 tbsp olive oil

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into bitesize chunks (not too small!)

2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely

1 bay leaf

leaves of 5 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme

1 heaped tsp cumin seeds, toasted until they pop in a dry frying pan

1 tsp (or slightly less if you don’t like your soup too spicy) dried chilli flakes

1 cinnamon stick

1 can (400g) chickpeas, drained and rinsed

500ml water

half a small bunch of fresh coriander

This is what you do:

  1. over medium heat, heat the olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan
  2. add the onion and fry over medium heat for 10 minutes until glazed and floppy
  3. add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, chilli and cumin and fry for 5 minutes
  4. add the squash and cinnamon stick and stir for a couple of minutes
  5. tip everything into a pan large enough to hold the veg + 500ml water
  6. add the water, bring to the boil over high heat then reduce the heat to a simmer
  7. cook for about 15 minutes until the squash is tender but not falling apart
  8. add the chickpeas and season
  9. blitz half the soup in a food processor, pulsing a couple of time till you have a fairly smooth mixture; or push half the mixture through passe-vite
  10. combine with the rest of the soup and if necessary re-heat gently before serving
  11. fish out the cinnamon stick and bay leaf!
  12. sprinkle with roughly chopped coriander
  13. delicious & satisfying as it, or add some crumbled Feta or grated Lancashire cheese
  14. vegans could add cubes of tofu
  15. a sprinkling of toasted pumpkin seeds, if you have any to hand, adds another  interesting layer of texture and a useful amount of immune supporting zinc

Bon appetit!

Monique x

Dinner menu w/c 13th of December


Spinach, tomato & chickpea curry, poached duck egg, basmati rice with toasted almonds


Griddled lamb leg steaks with roast red onion and tomato cannellini beans, minted yoghurt


Baked chermoula turkey meatballs, roast sweet pepper, lemon & mint couscous and green beans


Rose harissa chicken fillets baked with butternut squash, Savoy cabbage


Greek style chicken fillets with a zesty Feta topping, rice and courgettes


Baked salmon fillets with an oat & mustard crust, Roseval potatoes with chive creme fraiche, beetroot salad


Griddled venison sausages and winter rainbow gratin

Gnocchi alla Romana: cold weather comfort food

Gnocchi alla Romana

This is a dish which defines for me cold weather comfort eating!

Large discs of polenta are layered and baked in the oven until the Parmesan and butter form a brown, crunchy crust.

Served with a generous ladle of chunky tomato sauce.


Here, I’ve added semi-dried tomatoes (the ones sometimes called “mi-cuit” or “slow roast” not the ones preserved in oil) snipped into small pieces, but you could also use fried, chopped mushrooms or some finely chopped wilted (and very well-drained!)  leaf spinach.

I made fresh tomato sauce made from a glut of very ripe, cheap tomatoes earlier this year which I froze in handy portions. ready to dip into in the winter when fresh (green house) tomatoes have no taste.

Instead, use a 400g can of good quality chopped tomatoes simmered for 20 minutes until thick with a clove of finely chopped garlic, pinch of sugar, 1 tsp of dried thyme, tsp of tomato puree and a glug of olive oil, pepper & salt.

Serves 2 with a green salad

This is what you need:

120g quick cook Polenta

480ml milk

50g semi-dried tomatoes, snipped into small pieces with a pair of kitchen scissors (  these slow roast tomatoes from Merchant Gourmet are good)

20g Parmesan

20g butter, melted

2 egg yolks

leaves from 5 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1 1/2 tsp of dried thyme

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

This is what you do:

  1. preheat the oven to 220C
  2. use half the butter to grease an oven proof baking dish
  3. pour the milk into a saucepan, add the semi-dried tomatoes and bay leaf
  4. bring to the boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes
  5. remove the bay leaf with a fork, then add the polenta mixing until the mixture begins to thicken and pull away from the sides of the pan
  6. this usually takes about 5 minutes or so, but check the instructions for making “firm” polenta on the bag/packet
  7. remove the pan from the heat and add half the Parmesan, egg yolks and pepper & salt
  8. work quickly because the eggs yolks will start to cook as soon as they hit the hot polenta
  9. let the mixture cool for 10 minutes
  10. clear and clean a worktop space
  11. turn the polenta mixture out onto the worktop and with wet hands shape into a 2cm thick slab
  12. cut the polenta into 5cm circles with a cookie cutter
  13. gather up the scraps, press them out again and keep stamping out circles until all the polenta has been used
  14. you may be able to loosen the polenta circles from the cookie cutter over the baking dish with one hand, catch it with the other and lay it in the baking dish
  15. slightly overlapping each circle on the previous one
  16. alternatively, use a spatula to lift the circles off the worktop
  17. drizzle over the rest of the butter and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan
  18. bake for 25 minutes or until the top is brown
  19. serve piping hot, with extra Parmesan and a tomato sauce on the side
  20. fire-place + sheepskin slippers optional!

Bon appetit!

Monique x

.... aahhhh: toasty!

Dinner menu w/c 6th of December


Big curry noodle pot with tofu and toasted sesame seeds


Moroccan spiced fish fillets, roast vegetable bulghur wheat and minted yoghurt


Honey roast chicken and  rosemary & lemon potatoes, curly kale with horseradish


Greens-packed lamb and soba noodle stir-fry


Salt cod and sweet potato fish cakes, red pepper sauce and watercress salad


Sushi bowl with tea-marinated salmon, avocado, toasted nori and brown rice


Sticky lemon & ginger turkey with tenderstem broccoli and basmati rice