Destination Kefalonia for Pastitsio and Horiatiki Salad

It is the last in my Around the World in Six Suppers, and for the final mystery destination we leap from the virtual to the real world. Yes indeed! We said – hang the staycation! We need a proper holiday!

Overlooking Myrtos Beach, made famous by Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

I know. So much for our good intentions to stay at home this summer and save some money. Our resolve seemed to weaken as the British weather deteriorated. And when our good friend Mikey suggested we come see him and his family on the Greek island of Kefalonia it was too hard to resist, particularly since he is a winemaker and promised us lots of good wine too.

For the last week of the school holidays, we therefore found ourselves on this beautiful Ionian island, most commonly known as the setting for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and home to a wonderful tradition of fine food that’s simple and unfussy.

Mikey first came to Kefalonia around five years ago to make wine for Gentilini, one of the largest vineyards on the island. He now lives here with his lovely wife Yvonne and their two gorgeous daughters.

Although we couldn’t really justify a trip abroad, I have to admit it is just what I needed. There’s something about soaking up properly hot sunshine and swimming in warm seas that allows me to truly relax and switch off. Kefalonia was absolutely perfect for this: never a cloud in sight, crystal-clear turquoise seas and temperatures rarely dipping below the mid-thirties. Every view was a picture postcard and as soon as we stepped off the plane, my family was grinning from ear to ear.

As we were only there a week, we weren’t tempted to try and do too much either. Mikey acted as the perfect guide to the island. Despite being insanely busy with the grape harvest and starting work at 6am each day, he succeeded in helping us find the best places to eat and drink.

From drinking mojitos on the beach at Megali Amos…

Drinking cocktails in the sea – life doesn’t get better than this

… and organising a fantastic Greek barbecue at the winery…

Petros, the barbecue king

No barbecue is complete without a sausage or two

… to a marvellous traditional meze overlooking the harbour at Kiani Atki…

The perfect spot to enjoy meze and watch the sunset with good friends at Kiani Atki in Argostoli

The octopus was simply sensational

… and devouring gyros at Ladokoola, Mikey’s favourite ‘chuck it all on the table’ restaurant.

They really do ‘chuck it on the table’ as Mikey described it

No surprise I came home a few pounds heavier!

But my favourite meal of the holiday was the one Mikey and Yvonne cooked us one evening at their home.

They invited us over for a very traditional meal of pastitsio, often talked of as Greece’s version of lasagne, served with horiatiki, the ubiquitous Greek salad. And of course, lots of good Greek wine, robola and rosé.

Mikey’s pastitsio and horiatiki salad

I’ve never eaten pastitsio before but it’s certainly a recipe I know I’ll be cooking again and again back at home. Our two girls gobbled theirs up without a peep while the grownups reminisced about the old days in Bristol.

The pastitsio recipe in the Kefalonian cookbook Mikey and Yvonne gave me as a gift calls for tagliatelle pasta but Mikey prefers to make his with penne, while Yvonne says she uses little macaroni. So it seems anything goes really; make use of whatever you happen to have in the cupboard. For an authentic pastitsio, you should use the local kefalotiri cheese but any hard sheep’s milk cheese should be fine, such as manchego.

According to Mikey, a proper horiatiki or Greek salad should be served at room temperature – not cold from the fridge – and made well in advance so that the salt has plenty of time to work its magic on the tomato and cucumber, extracting some of the water content and intensifying the flavours. It is served simply with good olive oil but no vinegar. And of course, you need plenty of really good black olives. Yvonne had made her own and they were like nothing I’d tasted before.

Yvonne’s homemade olives

Mikey prepared his horiatiki before taking us all down to the local beach for a wonderful evening swim as the sun began to set. If only we could always swim in the sea before supper…

Tossing up the horiatiki with plenty of salt and good olive oil

Horiatiki Salad

2 large beef tomatoes
½ cucumber
1 red onion
1 green pepper
large pinch of salt
handful of black olives
150g Feta cheese, cubed
large pinch of dried oregano
large glug of quality olive oil

Cut the tomatoes and cucumber into large chunks and throw into a large serving bowl. Slice the red onion and cut the pepper into thin strips, and add to the bowl. Sprinkle with a decent pinch of salt and mix it all really well. Add the olives, Feta and oregano and smother with a good peppery olive oil. Toss gently to make sure the oil covers everything well and leave for half an hour or so before serving.

Pastitsio. Note the large squeezy Marmite in the background, which we were under strict orders to bring over from Blighty.

Pastitsio

2tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
600g minced beef
100ml white wine
500ml tomato passata
1 tbsp tomato puree, dissolved in a little hot water
salt and pepper
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
600g penne or other small pasta
handful of kefalotiri or other hard sheep’s milk cheese, grated

For the Béchamel Sauce

1 litre milk
6tbsp plain flour
salt and pepper
nutmeg
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 190°C/gas mark 5.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the onion until soft. Add the minced beef and cook until browned. Pour in the wine and cook off until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the passata and puree and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle in a little cinnamon and nutmeg. Taste and add more if required. Bring the sauce to the boil and gently simmer on a low heat until the sauce has thickened.

To make the béchamel sauce, pour the milk into a pan and heat gently. When the milk is warm, slowly add the flour, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Season with salt and pepper and a little nutmeg. Once the sauce has thickened, stir in the egg and then the butter. Check the seasoning again and remove from the heat.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the penne according to the packet instructions. Drain and rinse with warm water to prevent the pasta from sticking together.

Butter the bottom of a large ovenproof dish. Put half the pasta along the bottom of the dish and press down firmly. Pour the meat sauce over the pasta and smooth over. Cover with the rest of the pasta and again press down well. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top and sprinkle with the grated cheese.

Bake in the oven for around 40 minutes, until the top is golden and the cheese is bubbling. Leave to stand for quarter of an hour to let the béchamel sauce set slightly before serving with the horiatiki salad.

Kali orexi!

Destination Barcelona for Tapas

It’s the penultimate stop in my culinary world tour and this week we’re heading to the beautiful Spanish city Barcelona. The Catalan capital is one of the most amazing cities in the world, with its stunning architecture, fantastic restaurants and nightlife, and superb shopping.

I haven’t been back to Barcelona since I was 18, towards the end of a month’s inter-railing with my best friend Ruth after our A-levels, but it remains vivid in my memory. We had thoroughly exhausted ourselves trying to pack as many European cities into our four weeks’ travels as possible and by the time we reached Barcelona in our last week we needed to slow down. Barcelona was the perfect place to put down roots for a little while. While Ruth was ensconced in her first romance, I enjoyed wandering the streets of Barcelona simply breathing in the city.

One day I must return. But for now, I’ll imagine I’m there with my family. And what else would we be eating but tapas?

My sister Lottie lives in Toledo with her boyfriend Jose Luis. His mother Reme is a cook and has worked in a number of restaurants, so Lottie volunteered to ask her for suggestions on typical Catalan tapas for me to try out on my brood. The dishes she recommended I try were Pollo a la Catalana (Catalan style chicken with prunes and apricots) and Habas a la Catalana (broad beans with Jamon Iberica and Morcilla, a Spanish black pudding), both of which were absolutely delicious.

I also added some of my own personal favourites to the menu: Garbanzos con Espinacas (chickpeas with spinach), Albondigas (meatballs in tomato sauce), Gambas al Ajillo (garlic prawns), rosemary almonds, Manchego with Membrillo (quince paste or jelly), all of which were served with olives and bread – quite insanely I decided to go the whole hog and bake my own.

Preparing all the above made for a long, long, hot day in the kitchen. I cleared my husband and kids off for a few hours and cranked the music up loud while I cooked, and although I don’t intend on cooking quite so many dishes for one meal again in a hurry, I really rather enjoyed myself in a crazy kind of way.

So let’s get this recipe show on the road…

Simple Spanish bread rolls

Bread rolls

Makes 4 rolls

500g strong white bread flour
1½tsp salt
½tsp sugar
7g packet fast acting dry yeast
150ml warm water
1 egg, beaten and mixed with a little water

Mix the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in a large bowl. Gradually add the water, combining the ingredients until you get a soft dough. Add a little more water if you find you still have flour left at the bottom of the bowl. Likewise, if the dough is too sticky add a little more flour.

Knead the dough for five to ten minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a ball and leave in the mixing bowl. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm, draft-free place for about an hour.

Preheat oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

When the dough has roughly doubled in size, knead again briefly. Divide into four pieces, form into balls and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Allow to rise again for a further 15 minutes.

Bake the rolls for 5 minutes, then remove from the oven and brush the tops with the egg mixture. Return to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the rolls to cool on a wire rack.

Rosemary almonds

Rosemary almonds

This is a favourite party snack, taken from Leon’s ‘Naturally Fast Food’.

250g whole almonds, with skins
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
25ml olive oil
sea salt

Preheat oven to 170°C/Gas Mark 3.

Spread the almonds on a baking sheet with two of the rosemary sprigs. Remove the leaves from the other sprig and keep to one side.

Toast the almonds in the oven for 5 to 7 minutes, until just beginning to brown.

Toss in the olive oil and salt while still hot. Remove the rosemary sprigs and add the reserved leaves. Return to the oven for 3 more minutes and then serve.

Chickpeas with spinach

Garbanzos con Espinacas (chickpeas with spinach)

2 tbsp olive oil
½ onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, 1 chopped and 1 left whole
1 tomato, peeled and chopped
1tsp paprika
½tsp ground cumin
¼tsp ground cayenne pepper
¼tsp saffron
4 peppercorns
1 x 410g tin chickpeas, liquid reserved
200g frozen spinach
salt

Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the onion and chopped garlic and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the tomato and cook until slightly reduced. Stir in the paprika, cumin and cayenne.

Using a pestle and mortar, crush the saffron and peppercorns with the remaining clove of garlic. Dissolve the spices in 3 tablespoons of water and add to the pan with the chickpeas and their liquid from the tin, along with the spinach and salt to taste. Cover and simmer over a low heat for 20 minutes, adding more water if it looks a little dry. The mixture should be saucy, but not sloppy. Serve warm.

Spanish meatballs

Albondigas (Spanish meatballs in tomato sauce)

The meatballs I’ve eaten in Spain are normally a little spicier than this recipe but I wanted to keep it mild for my children. Feel free to add some chilli, paprika or cayenne to the recipe.

3-4 cloves garlic
parsley
white wine, just over half a glass
300g pork mince
2 slices stale bread
milk
1 egg (beaten)
salt and pepper
flour
olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
4 tomatoes, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas 5.

Crush 2 of the garlic cloves with the parsley and mix with a dash of white wine. Add this mixture to the minced pork in a large bowl and combine well. Leave to stand for half an hour.

Place the bread in a dish and cover with the milk. Leave to soak for a few minutes and then squeeze out most of the milk.

Add the bread, egg, salt and pepper to the mince and knead until all the ingredients are mixed well together. Roll the mince mixture into small balls and roll each one in flour.

Fry in plenty of hot oil until they turn golden brown, drain and place in a casserole dish.

To make the sauce, heat a little oil in a frying pan. Add the onion and remaining clove of garlic and gently fry until golden.

Add the chopped tomatoes and about half a glass of white wine. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes

Pour the sauce over the meatballs and place in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes. Serve warm.

Catalan style chicken with prunes and apricots

Pollo a la Catalana (Catalan style chicken with prunes and apricots)

handful each of prunes and dried apricots
white wine
olive oil
4 chicken thighs
2 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
cinnamon stick
2tbsp runny honey
handful of pine nuts
1tbsp corn flour
dash of red wine vinegar
knob of butter

Place the prunes and apricots in a bowl and cover with white wine. Leave to soak overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6.

In a frying pan heat the oil and brown the chicken thighs. Remove the chicken to a roasting tin, along with the garlic, bay leaves and cinnamon stick. Roast in the oven for 25 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

While the chicken is roasting, prepare the sauce. Add the honey to the frying pan in which you browned the chicken and heat. Add the fruit, the wine in which they have been soaking and pine nuts.

When the chicken is cooked, remove to a serving plate and keep warm. Place the roasting tin over a medium heat, and stir in the corn flour to absorb the juices. Add a cupful of water and a dash of red wine vinegar to deglaze the tin and stir in the butter. Pour in the fruity sauce, mix together and then pour over the chicken and serve.

Broad beans with Jamon Iberica and black pudding

Habas a la Catalana (broad beans with Jamon Iberica and black pudding)

This is one of the recipes from Reme, my sister Lottie’s boyfriend’s mother. I couldn’t get hold of Morcilla, a Spanish black pudding, so I went with Bury Market black pudding instead!

120g shelled broad beans
3 rashers smoked streaky bacon, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
½ onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
olive oil
bunch fresh mint, chopped
½tsp paprika
glass of white wine
100g Jamon Iberica, chopped
100g Morcilla or black pudding
salt and pepper

Blanch the broad beans in boiling, salted water for a few minutes until tender. Double shell the beans to reveal the beautifully bright green innards. It’s a bit of a palaver I know, but it’s really worth it.

Heat the oil in a pan and fry the bacon, garlic, onion and bay leaf for about 5 minutes. Add the mint and paprika, broad beans, white wine and black pudding. Stir and cook for a few minutes before adding the jamon. Season to taste and serve warm.

Garlic prawns

Gambas al Ajillo (garlic prawns)

I based this dish on a simple recipe I found in ‘Tapas’ by Louise Pickford.

12 raw tiger prawns
2 tbsp olive oil
knob of butter
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp fresh basil, torn
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
aioli (garlic mayonnaise) to serve – again I cheated and bought a jar!

Wash and dry the prawns.

Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan, add the prawns and garlic and fry for 3 to 4 minutes until the prawns are pink.

Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the basil and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm with a dish of aioli for dipping.

Manchego cheese with quince jelly

Manchego and Membrillo

Manchego is a tasty Spanish cheese made from sheep’s milk, which has a natural affinity with quinces. The idea of making my own membrillo really was a step too far, so I cheated and bought a jar of quince jelly instead. If you wanted to make your own, I reckon this recipe looks rather good.

So there you have it. My Barcelona tapas menu. I made way too much food for my family of four, but the leftovers were all gobbled up over the course of the next few days. The Catalan-style chicken in particular was very popular, and I’ll be making this dish again on its own for dinner, served simply with rice and salad.

I’ve almost completed my Around the World in Six Suppers adventure – can you believe the school holidays are nearing their end already? So where will the last dish come from next week? Watch this space to find out!

Destination Rio de Janeiro for Feijoada – Traditional Brazilian Stew

The fourth stop in my virtual Around the World in Six Suppers culinary tour finds us in Rio de Janeiro, the party capital of Brazil.

Back in my early 20s, when I was working in a PR agency in Bristol, I went on the jammiest press trip ever. I took some local business journalists all the way to Brazil for almost a week, just to see a fleet of new British Airways aircraft on the production line in Sao Jose dos Campos. We only needed to spend half a day in the factory, but due to flight schedules we had to stay for five days. A real shame that.

After our stint at the factory, our host Embraer put us up at fantastic hotels, firstly in Sao Paulo and then Rio de Janeiro, to make sure we got a really good impression of Brazil. It was incredible. We were wined and dined like royalty. I got to see football in Sao Paulo, sunbathe on Copacabana and Ipanema, hang glide close to Corcovado, take a cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain (imagining I was in a Bond film), dance to Bossa Nova beats in the clubs and drink way too many caipirinhas. I’ve been on many a press trip since but none has ever come close.

And so, to take me back to those days of luxury in Rio and Sao Paulo, I’ve ironically cooked up what actually started out something of a peasant meal, and is now seen by many as Brazil’s national dish. It’s similar to a French cassoulet and is thought to originate from the slaves in Brazil who would cook up big pots of stew from black beans and the parts of the pig the landowners discarded.

It isn’t the prettiest dish in the world, stews rarely are, but it tastes so good. It’s rich and earthy, smoky and very, very satisfying.

Feijoada – Traditional Brazilian Stew

Serves 6

500g dried black beans
2tbsp olive oil
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
130g smoked sausage – I used kabanos
600g pork ribs, cut into chunks
200g smoked gammon, cut into chunks
5 bay leaves
salt and pepper

Cover the black beans completely in cold water and soak overnight.

Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas 2.

In a large casserole, heat the olive oil and sweat the onions and red pepper until soft. Add the garlic and fry for a minute or so before adding the drained black beans, smoked sausage, pork ribs, gammon, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Stir briefly before covering with cold water and bringing to a gentle simmer.

Cover the casserole with a lid and place in the oven to cook slowly for around two hours, until the meat falls off the bone.

Serve with boiled white rice and sliced spring greens fried with a little chopped onion and garlic. It’s also traditional to serve with slices of orange, but I completely forgot this bit – I can’t say I missed them.

Destination Penang for Hainanese Chicken Rice

We’re at the end of the third week of the school summer holidays. Can you believe we’re already halfway through? And this week we have travelled, by virtue of our imaginations, to the idyllic island of Penang in Malaysia for the next of our Around the World in Six Suppers.

Hainanese Chicken Rice is a dish I’ve been meaning to make for years. It’s a very simple poached chicken served with rice and chicken broth, which I remember devouring as a child during our holidays in Penang.  Mum would take us down to the hawker stalls, away from the more touristy restaurants, and we would eat proper Chinese-Malaysian food with the locals. My Mum was born and grew up in Penang and would always refer to it as ‘home’. Whenever she talked about Penang, the stories would invariably touch on the food at some point!

I haven’t been back to Penang since my early twenties, and hopefully I’ll be taking my own family back there next year. But in the meantime, we’ll have to make do with my favourite Penang meal.

To make sure I got an authentic recipe, I turned to members of my Chinese-Malaysian family and my Auntie Lorene and Cousin Sisi came up trumps. Lorene now lives in America, while Sisi is in Australia – so you can see, we are a truly global family! So a big thank you to them for their help with the recipe and all the tips and advice.

It’s a wonderful dish and it transported me straight back to the days of eating it as young girl in Penang, along with the smell of frangipani flowers and calomine lotion, being taught to use chopsticks, picking fresh rambutans and mangoes from the tree, being morbidly fascinated by dead snakes in jam jars, falling off to sleep at night to the comforting whirring of the ceiling fan, and running away from my Mum, her sisters and cousins as they gourged themselves silly on stinky durian fruit sold by the hot, sticky roadside.

Hainanese Chicken Rice

A whole chicken, around 1.5kg
Kosher or sea salt
2 pieces ginger, around 3cm each
2 spring onions
3 cloves garlic, peeled and bashed
3 tbsp sesame oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 piece ginger, around 3cm, peeled and chopped
1 litre chicken stock (from poaching the chicken)
600g rice
salt and pepper

To serve:

bunch of fresh coriander, chopped
two or three spring onions, chopped
cucumber slices
tomato slices
soy sauce
chilli sauce or oil

Start by giving your chicken a really thorough scrub with coarse sea salt or kosher salt. Rub hard to get rid of all the yucky stuff on the skin of the chicken to give you a good clear broth later on. Don’t rush this job. A little effort now makes all the difference later on. Once you’ve finished scrubbing, give the chicken a good rinse with cold water.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Rub the chicken inside and out with salt. Insert into the cavity the spring onions, bashed garlic and ginger, and carefully place the chicken breast-side down into the water. Bring the water back to the boil, skim off any foam while cooking, and turn off the heat.

Let the chicken sit in the pot, covered, for around 40 minutes. To check if it’s cooked, poke the thigh with a skewer or fork. If the juices run clear, it is done. If not, leave for another five to ten minutes.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pan and place in iced water to tighten the skin. Reserve the stock for cooking the rice and for the soup to accompany the meal. Rub a couple of tablespoons of sesame oil into the skin, before chopping through the bone into serving pieces.

In a large pan, heat the vegetable oil and a tablespoon of sesame oil over a medium heat. Fry the shallots, garlic and ginger until fragrant. Add the rice and stir until lightly toasted and the oil has been absorbed. Pour in a litre of chicken stock and season with salt to taste. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the rice is tender – about 20 minutes.

Heat the remainder of the stock for your soup, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste and sprinkling with chopped spring onions.

To serve, arrange the chicken on a serving platter, and garnish with fresh coriander, spring onions, cucumber and tomato – although Sisi says her son and husband hate coriander, so she leaves it out! Serve with the rice and soup, and small bowls of soy and chilli sauce.

So simple and so delicious.

As this is another wonderful family recipe, I’m entering it into TACT’s Care to Cook family recipe challenge – which aims to raise awareness of this amazing fostering and adoption charity working with some of the UK’s most vulnerable children and young people.

Destination Northumberland for Stottie Cakes with Ham & Peasepudding

The next leg of our Around the World in Six Suppers summer tour takes us from New York to Newcastle upon Tyne, gateway to the ruggedly beautiful county of Northumberland.

Yes, it’s the second week of the school holidays and for my second dish, inspired by a ‘virtual’ holiday destination, I’ve chosen the simple but oh so tasty stottie cake filled with succulent home-baked ham and good old-fashioned peasepudding.

I lived in the North East of England from the age of five until I was twelve, so many of my early memories are firmly lodged in this part of the world.

Trips to the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall, bike rides along the disused railway to Wylam, days spent on the long sandy beaches at Cullercoats and Whitley Bay, boat trips from Seahouses to see the puffins and seals of the Farne Islands, exploring the castles at Alnwick and Bamburgh, listening to the pipers at the Ovington Goose Fair…

It all sounds like a rather idyllic, Enid Blyton style childhood. Admittedly, these were also rather difficult years for my family for a number of reasons, but all in all, my memories of Newcastle and Northumberland are very, very fond ones. And I can’t wait to some day soon take my own family there for a proper holiday so I can properly show it off to them.

While Northumberland might not have an international reputation for its cuisine, one of my most vivid memories as a child is sharing a lovely soft stottie cake with my Mum, generously filled with ham and salty, stodgy peasepudding. And so this is the dish I have made this week to transport us to our second holiday destination.

Stottie Cakes

For those unfamiliar with the stottie I should explain it is not actually a cake. Rather it is a large, round, flattish bread roll, not normally seen outside of the North East. It is quite a heavy, doughy bread but I really like its heavy, chewiness. It is a very satisfying bread and when filled with the traditional ham and peasepudding it makes for a rather substantial meal.

Stottie cakes are easy to bake. I followed this recipe from the Ocado website and have used it again subsequently to bake bread buns for barbecued burgers, achieving perfect buns on both occasions.

My Mum used to buy stottie cakes for us from the butcher in the Grainger Market in the centre of Newcastle. I have no idea if you could get other fillings; ours always came stuffed with ham and peasepudding. Bizarrely I would normally refuse to eat peasepudding. I couldn’t stand the stuff. But in a stottie it was, somehow, transformed.

Home baked ham

There is nothing more delicious than a joint of home cooked ham. What’s more it is so easy to do. I simply took a 1.5kg gammon and soaked in cold water overnight. In the morning I gently brought the joint to a simmer in a large pan of fresh water, covered with a lid and put in the oven (preheated to 160°C/Gas Mark 2) for an hour and a half. You can tell if it’s cooked by sticking in a skewer; if it goes into the meat easily and the juices run clear, then it’s done.

Leave to cool a little and remove any string and skin. You can press the fatty surface of the joint with sugar and mustard powder if you like before baking, but I prefer to smother with a thin layer of sweet chilli sauce. I’m not sure what Geordie purists would make of that but I think it works well. Cover the lean meat with tin foil and place in a roasting tin. Bake in the oven (200°C/Gas Mark 6) for 10 to 20 minutes, until you get a good colour on top.

Peasepudding

For the peasepudding, I turned to this easy recipe from The British Food Trust. You’ll end up with leftovers, which apparently you can fry up, but I still can’t bring myself to eat it any other way except for in a stottie! I can’t wax lyrical about how wonderfully delicious peasepudding is, because I’m afraid it’s not. But it is the perfect slightly salty, slighty herby, stodgy accompaniment for ham, giving you the most amazing sandwich ever.

Now my kids can’t wait to visit Northumberland so they can try an authentic stottie cake. But I think I also sold it to them when I mentioned that the first few Harry Potter films were filmed in Alnwick Castle…

Destination New York for Burgers and Pickles

The six-week school holidays have started, and so has my family’s Around the World In Six Suppers adventure. Because this summer it looks like we’re not going to get away for a proper holiday, I’ve decided that the world will instead come to us in the form of six dishes from some of my favourite holiday destinations from bygone years. You’ll find the full itinerary for our culinary world tour here.

So our first stop is the Big Apple – New York!

I have only been to New York once and that was back when I was just 12-years-old. I’ve just realised that’s a quarter of a century ago. I really don’t feel old enough to be able to say that! The city made a big impression on me – I guess it probably does to everyone that visits – and I long to return one day. As a youngster discovering the thrills of the cinema, arriving in New York felt to me like walking onto a colossal movie set. I loved the size, the pace, the colour, the noise, the energy. I walked through the streets, trailing behind my mum, with eyes to the sky and jaw to the sidewalk.

As well as the sights, the shops, the people, the music, the galleries, the parks, the subway, the taxis - the other thing that left a big impression was the food. I can’t say it was the finest culinary experience of my life but as a child-almost-teen I was like a pig in muck. Fast food and soda and candies everywhere; everything bright and garish and so, so tempting. And yes, it’s probably a bit of a cliché, but the food I’ve picked to transport me back to New York is the ubiquitous and oh so American hamburger and fries.

Throughout my subsequent teens I enjoyed a love affair with all things Americana. I adored hanging out in Ed’s Diner in Leicester Square with my friends, where we’d sit for hours at the counter savouring our malted milkshakes and using up all our pocket-money in the mini jukeboxes. I listened to the soundtrack to American Graffiti endlessly. My favourite movies were Grease, Cry Baby, The Outsiders, Dirty Dancing and Back to the Future. And so, consequently, I’ve eaten a lot of burgers in my time.

I can’t lay any claim to these particular burgers being an authentic American recipe. In fact it’s hardly a recipe at all. It’s essentially meat shaped into a patty and fried. I like my burgers simple – good meat, cooked rare. I’m more than happy to dress them up with pickles and cheese, sauces and salad. But I don’t like to do too much to the burger itself.

Before we get to the burger though, here’s a very simple recipe for quick pickled cucumbers. In my eyes, a burger has to be served with pickles and these are perfect – not slimy like the ones you might get slopped onto your burger in a high street joint. Even my husband, who doesn’t normally eat pickles, admitted to liking these.

Quick pickled cucumbers

150ml cider vinegar
75ml water
1½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp white mustard seed
½ tsp black mustard seed
½ tsp dill seed
1 tsp peppercorns
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
½ cucumber, sliced

In a saucepan, mix the cider vinegar with the water, salt, mustard seed, dill seed, peppercorns and garlic and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat.

Put the cucumber slices into a sterilised glass jar and pour over the boiling vinegar mixture, making sure the cucumber is completely covered. If not, add some more water. Screw on the lid and place in the fridge for at least an hour. Job done. The pickles will keep for a couple of weeks.

And moving on to the main event…

Simple hamburgers

Makes four burgers

450g minced beef – not too lean and the best quality you can afford
salt and pepper
large knob of butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 slices of mature Cheddar cheese
4 ciabatta rolls
2 tomatoes, sliced
quick pickled cucumbers
tomato sauce
mustard
skinny oven chips – cooked according to packet instructions

In a large bowl, grind salt and pepper into the minced beef and mix well. Using your hands shape the meat into four large patties.

Heat the butter and oil in a large frying pan until the butter starts to foam a little. Add the burgers and fry until browned on the outside but still a little pink on the inside. For me this took around four minutes on each side, but it all depends on how fat you make your burgers. If in doubt, cut one open to check whether it’s cooked to your liking. When you’ve flipped your burgers the first time, lay a slice of cheese on each one so that it melts while the other side is cooking.

While the burgers are frying, slice open your ciabatta rolls and toast. Serve your burgers in the toasted rolls with slices of tomato, pickled cucumber and a squeeze of tomato sauce and that bright yellow mustard they love in the States, with a pile of skinny fries on the side.

Enjoy. Preferably with Green Onions playing in the background.

My family loved their hamburgers and we topped off our New York diner experience with a big fat slice of American-style baked cheesecake. Gorgeous.

Around the world in six suppers

… my big plan is to cook six meals inspired by some of my favourite holiday destinations from years gone by, and share those recipes with you here on the blog. I have some ideas already for dishes I’d like to cook, but if  you have any suggestions for recipes I should try I would love to hear them…

If I’m honest, the idea of a ‘staycation’ has never appealed much to me. For a holiday to be a proper holiday you really need to get away from it all, don’t you?

I adore exploring new destinations as well as returning to much loved haunts; sampling the local cuisine, relaxing by a pool with a good book or acting like a Japanese tourist and fitting in as many sights as I can in a single day.

On holiday in France with Jess and Mia

Admittedly, holidays have changed quite a bit since having children. We’ve been forced to slow down and plan ahead much more carefully.

I remember our first holiday abroad with Jessie when she was just learning to walk. With another couple and their young daughter we rented a beautiful villa in Tuscany. It would have been amazing, if it hadn’t been for the unfenced pool and marble staircases and sheer drop down what seemed like a mini cliff face at the bottom of the garden, oh and all the prickly rose bushes scattered around the stunning garden. Nansi and I were having near heart attacks every five minutes as our plucky girls explored and stumbled their way around the place. Not a relaxing holiday. But a massive lesson learned on the need to check out how family-friendly your holiday accommodation will be.

Sadly it looks increasingly likely we won’t be having a family holiday this year. My husband has quit his job and is retraining in IT, and I’m freelancing part-time on a couple of projects but the income is very up-and-down. And we’ve just been stung by some rather steep vets’ bills. So a staycation it might just have to be.

But I’m not going to let that get me down. Oh no, not me. So while I might read about other’s plans to fly off to far-flung foreign destinations, I won’t get jealous. We live in lovely Somerset after all. There’s so much to do right here on our doorstep, isn’t there? How many tourists flock to this part of the world every year to get away from it all, and here we are already!

And if I can’t go off to see the world this year, well I’ll just have to bring the world to our corner of Somerset.

Over the six weeks of the school holidays, my big plan is to cook six meals inspired by some of my favourite holiday destinations from years gone by, and share those recipes with you here on the blog. I have some ideas already for dishes I’d like to cook, but if  you have any suggestions for recipes I should try I would love to hear them. Even better if they appear on your blog as then I can easily link up with them too.

In no particular order, the places I’ll be visiting on my culinary world tour are:

Barcelona: when I went inter-railing with my best friend Ruth after our A-levels, this had to be my favourite city. The food, the beer, the Gaudi, the boys…

New York: I have very fond memories of visiting New York with my Mum and sister Elly when I was about 12 years old. I remember Mum bartering with a bloke on a street corner selling bangles and an Italian waiter chasing us down the street as we hadn’t left a tip!

Northumberland: I spent some of my childhood just outside Newcastle and enjoyed many an idyllic day out playing on the beautiful beaches, visiting the spooky castles and wandering along Hadrian’s Wall. I can’t wait to take my husband and children there sometime soon.

Penang: My Mum was born on the Malaysian island of Penang and I think it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. And the food isn’t bad either!

Rio de Janeiro: one of my jammiest PR jollies ever was to take a group of journalists to Brazil for a tour of an aircraft factory. The tour lasted half a day but we had to stay a week because of flight availability. What a shame! We had a fantastic time in Rio and Sao Paulo and I’m desperate to get back there again one day.

Mystery destination: I haven’t quite decided on my final destination. I’ve been considering Turkey and Italy, or perhaps Bordeaux or Greece. Or how about Norway or Sweden? I’ve had wonderful times in each of these countries but whose food should I try to recreate in the final week of my staycation? Please let me know where you think I should head to!