Green curry

Thai green curry is fierce stuff. A green chicken curry is also pretty easy to make at home; with half an hour to spare you can produce a wok full of searingly hot, aromatic deliciousness.

Although you can make your own curry paste from spices and fermented fish paste at home, I’ve found that Mae Ploy’s green curry paste is so good and so convenient I don’t bother any more. Some UK supermarkets stock it (I’ve seen it in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s), you’ll find it in oriental supermarkets as a matter of course, and it’s available online in the UK and through Amazon in the US, where you can buy things to eat while you read your books. Please do not believe what it says on the pot. If you use three tablespoons of this extremely hot paste in a curry of this size, you’ll lose sensation in most of your digestive tract for the rest of the evening (which may be a blessing). I love hot curries, but there’s a point past which even my tastebuds refuse to go.

To serve two you’ll need:

1 can coconut milk
2 tablespoons Mae Ploy green curry paste
2 large chicken breasts, boned and skinned
8 small aubergines, halved, or one large one cut into pieces
1 small can bamboo shoots
1 tablespoon palm sugar (substitute soft brown sugar if you can’t find any)
5 kaffir lime leaves, torn
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 handful basil leaves

I couldn’t find any kaffir lime leaves – they’d sold out at the Malaysian supermarket I went to in London at the weekend, so I used the pared zest of a lime instead. If your supermarket stocks Bart’s Spices, you should be able to find freeze-dried kaffir lime leaves, which work very well.

I like to use Chaokoh coconut milk (Americans can find it here, and Brits here; it’s very inexpensive and extremely useful in the kitchen, so stock up on plenty). It’s something Rosemary Brissenden’s excellent South East Asian Food put me onto; when cooking a Thai curry, you need to look out for a coconut milk like Chaokoh, without emulsifiers, thickeners and God knows what else. This is because you’ll be cooking with the thick part of the milk, which will float to the top of the can, until it separates and releases its oil – in a coconut milk with added gubbins, the oil will never separate out, no matter how much you cook it. You need this oil for flavour, and because it’s the fat you’ll be ‘frying’ the curry’s ingredients in.

Chop all your ingredients before you start. Put the thick, solid part of the coconut milk in the wok (about half a can of a watery-looking liquid will remain in the can), and cook it, stirring, over a high flame until it is bubbling and the oil has separated from it. Add two tablespoons of curry paste to the wok and carry on stirring until the paste no longer smells harsh and raw – you’ll notice a mellow, aromatic fragrance starts to develop.

Add the chicken to the wok and continue to ‘fry’ until the meat has all changed colour. As you stir, add the remaining liquid from the coconut can, a tablespoon at a time. Add the sugar, fish sauce, lime leaves or zest and vegetables to the wok and turn the heat down. Simmer for about eight minutes, until the meat and vegetables are cooked through and the sauce has thickened a little. Taste a little of the sauce to check the seasoning and adjust if you want to.

Take the wok off the heat and stir in a large handful of basil, torn roughly. Thai basil is much more fragrant, with a delicious edge of anise, but if you can’t find any, the European sort will be fine. Serve on top of a bowl of rice, and make sure you allow plenty of the delicious sauce to soak into the rice.

English breakfast

I can guarantee you that no two Brits you speak to will define a proper English breakfast in the same way. The variations are endless; there are a million different ways to cure and cut bacon, different thicknesses and varieties of sausage, different sauces, different ways to prepare your egg (and different methods even when you’ve settled on a way to prepare it), the shouting match about whether the bread should be white, brown, fried, toasted or just sliced straight from the loaf and buttered…and then there’s the vexed question of tomatoes.

My kitchen cupboards are stocked with non-perishables for emergency overnight guests of all breakfast persuasions. There’s brown sauce for my brother and my Dad (I suspect I may not really be related to them) and variety packs of cereal for my god-daughter, none of which Mr Weasel or I ever touch. We very seldom eat a real cooked breakfast, but when we do, there is no better way to spend a Sunday morning. Spread out the newspaper, make sure there are plenty of napkins for the grease, and tuck in.

The greasy fry-up we recognise as a traditional breakfast here isn’t all that old; it’s a 19th century invention, meant to fuel up agricultural and factory workers who expected to be spending the day hard at work. It’s a nutritionist’s nightmare now we’re not working behind a plough, at a loom or down a pit, so is best reserved for special occasions.

Given that every family does a cooked breakfast completely differently, the following directions on making the perfect cooked breakfast will be very subjective. Please feel free to fight about the way you’d do it in the comments section.

In this house, the bacon must be a) streaky, b) smoked, c) cooked until shatteringly crisp and d) dry-cured. No bacon shall widdle nasty white clods into the pan when I cook it, thank you very much. Years of experimentation have revealed that the best way to achieve the perfect bacon (golden, crisp fat and a glassy-cracking texture) is to lay it all out in a single layer in a non-stick baking tray and set to cook in the oven at 180° for 20 minutes. Check for done-ness and give it five minutes longer if it needs it.

There must be a black pudding. Black pudding is a gorgeously rich and unctious sausage made from the blood and fat of a pig, bread, barley and oatmeal. You can find it pre-sliced or made up as a whole sausage. Remove the plastic skin when you’ve fried slices of the pudding until the outside is crisp and the inside gives delicately to your teeth.

Sausages were a point of dreadful conflict in our relationship for years, until we discovered Waitrose’s Free range pork, apple and honey chipolatas. Since then, we’ve been in a state of blissful accord on the subject of sausages. You’ll find these at the butcher’s counter, not on the shelves. Wimpole Hall and Home Farm, just outside Cambridge, also carries an excellent sausage. They’re sold in the gift shop in the stables, by the car park, but their supply is limited to what they can make out of their own pigs, and they won’t always have them when you visit.

The bread must be fried, and made from a grotty supermarket pre-sliced white loaf. Fry the bread in the fat which has come out of the bacon, adding a little extra dripping if you have any in the fridge, or some vegetable oil if you don’t. The fat must be blisteringly hot before you drop the slices of bread in; so hot that a few seconds is all that’s needed to turn each side golden.

The egg should be poached or fried. I usually fry it to avoid using another pan, but if we’re in a hotel somewhere, I am likely to ask for my egg to be poached. If fried, the egg should be sunny-side up, as in the picture and cooked in olive oil…and if the yolk breaks in the pan, the egg is spoiled and I shall cook another one.

I suspect the sauces are where people are going to have the biggest arguments about the way we do breakfast here. Worcestershire sauce is to be drizzled on the fried bread and the egg, but shall not touch anything else on the plate. A judicious dollop of ketchup goes next to the sausages, for careful dipping, and no sauce at all will sully the bacon.

No tomatoes. If I want vitamins on a Sunday, I shall take a pill.

Chinese spring onion pancakes

(That’s Chinese scallion pancakes for those of you cooking under the weight of a transatlantic language barrier.)

When I was a kid, my parents acted as guardians to another girl at my school, whose own parents lived in Hong Kong. Wai boarded at school in the week, but used to come and stay with us at the weekends, and those weekends became positive orgies of Chinese cooking. Wai, my Dad and I sprayed the kitchen with a fine glaze of soya sauce and palm sugar every Saturday in an attempt to pretend we weren’t in Bedfordshire, but somewhere far more exotic with zinc-topped tables.

These flaky, crisp, aromatic little hotcakes are messy fun to make, and they were one of our favourites. Like puff pastry, they’re folded on themselves and rolled out several times, like a samurai sword (albeit one punctuated with onions), resulting in a glassy crisp surface and a softly flaking interior. My poor mother used to look on in horror at the mess; if you’re making these at home, I’d recommend using a glass or marble board (if you own one) to roll the dough rather than using the kitchen surface. They don’t take long, and they’re a delicious starter.

To make six (serves three people as a starter) you’ll need:

1 cup plain flour
⅓ cup boiling water
2 tablespoons lard (duck or beef dripping will also work well, but make sure you use an animal fat for the flavour)
6 spring onions (scallions)
1 drop sesame oil per pancake
Salt and pepper

Combine the flour and water in a mixing bowl, and knead the mixture hard until you’ve got a smooth, soft dough. You’ll have to work the dough to make it smooth; keep kneading for a few
minutes. Leave the dough to rest for 15 minutes to allow the gluten to develop, helping the dough to become more stretchy.

When you set the dough aside to rest, you can use your spare 15 minutes to chop the spring onions finely and take the lard out of the fridge so it’s soft when you come to use it.

Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll a piece flat, into as thin a circle as you can manage, and spread one side generously with the softened fat.Add a drop of sesame oil, and sprinkle one chopped spring onion over the top.

Roll the circle of dough up tightly like a scroll, with the onions inside. Use your hand to flatten the roll, fold it in half and use a rolling pin to make it into a flat circle again. You don’t need to flour your board; the fat from the dough will stop anything from sticking. Roll into a scroll again, then repeat the folding and flattening. You will have a pancake with many layers, each with a little fat between them. The edges won’t be very tidy; don’t worry.

Repeat for each piece of dough. Season each pancake on both sides with salt and pepper.

Melt a teaspoon of the remaining fat in a large, non-stick frying pan, and bring up to a high temperature. Slide the pancakes into the pan, and fry on one side for about 5 minutes until golden. Add another teaspoon of fat to the pan and flip the pancakes over using a spatula. Cook for 5 minutes more, until crisp and golden, and transfer to a serving dish.

If you’ve got guests, you might want to use scissors to cut the pancakes into triangles. I didn’t; we just put them on our plates and gobbled.

Handmade British cheeses

Here in Cambridgeshire, we’re recovering (via thunderstorms) from a heatwave. I don’t know about you, but there are certain kinds of weather which make me feel like I really can’t handle hot food. Cold things on bread are what’s in order. Happily, I’ve been fortunate cheesewise recently; Lorna, a Cambridge reader had been to Lancashire and brought a slab of something called Lancashire Tasty back with her, and I had found a large hunk of Gruth Du (Black Crowdie) in a Bury St Edmunds delicatessen.

The Lancashire Tasty is on the right. Three Lancashire cheeses were on offer, said Lorna; Crumbly, Creamy and Tasty. She asked which was which and was informed (I can’t replicate the accent she used here in print, but believe me, it was good): ‘Ah, lass. Crumbly’s crumbly, Creamy’s creamy, and Tasty’s tasty.’

Finding ‘Tasty’ the most apt of the three adjectives offered, Lorna toted a chunk all the way back to Cambridge for me – thank you very much.

They weren’t kidding. It was very, very tasty. This is a very sharp, lactic cheese; the sort that makes your salivary ducts ache with work. It was exceptionally good with a soft, brown, seeded bread. I like the Duchy Originals Mixed Seed or Sunflower Seed and Honey breads, both of which are organic. You can find them in most good UK supermarkets. I’d like to try cooking with this cheese (impossible, sadly, since it was so good we ate it all in one go so there wasn’t any to experiment with). I suspect a very, very good souffle could be made with it; it’s got enough bite for the flavour to continue to sing through when cooked. My parents-in-law are separated from Lancashire by the Pennines. I shall have to take up mountaineering next time we visit.

I bought the Gruth Du (on the left) because I thought it might be the same as a mystery cheese I ate about 16 years ago and haven’t been able t0 find since. Scottish readers might be able to help me out here; it was 1989, and I was playing in a youth orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival. The kids in the orchestra were put up at Napier Polytechnic (now Napier University), where the food was infinitely better than could have been expected. There was breakfast haggis and white pudding, and a cheese course with the excellent supper. The curiously wonderful cheese was, like Gruth Du, soft and rolled in oats, but its texture and taste were closer to butter than to cream cheese. The mystery cheese’s oats were, I think, toasted.

This Gruth Du was not anything like the mystery cheese, but it was excellent; rolled in oats and cracked black pepper, it’s a sharp, sour, almost lemony cream cheese, and we enjoyed it with oatcakes. I found it at Barwell & Co in Bury St Edmunds (39 Abbeygate Street, 01284 754084). If you’re in the area, do check them out; they sell some excellent pies, good local meats and a selection of really interesting delicatessen products.

A page from the BBC on Scottish cheeses makes me think that the buttery wonder might have been Caboc. If any readers of a Scottish bent have any more information about it, I’d love to hear from you.


Lorna, my personal cheese-angel, writes:

The Tasty was from Leagram Organic, by the way. (It seems to be called ‘mature’ on the website). Far better, I think, than Mrs Kirkham’s.

There’s a Lancashire cheese website here, which tells you all about producers (of whom there are apparently only 10).

Thanks Lorna!