Momma Cherri’s Soul Food Shack, Brighton

Sad news – as of the start of 2008, Momma Cherri’s has gone into administration. Reviews of the restaurant from recent months show that people were having much less positive experiences of the restaurant than we did, and it looks like the financial troubles the restaurant was experiencing a couple of years ago have come back with a vengeance. Momma Cherri’s Soul in a Bowlbook is still available for those of you who want to know how to make that excellent chicken.

Brighton wasn’t all rain, bad service and good opera. I’ve been hankering after a visit to Momma Cherri’s (2-3 Little East Street, Brighton, tel. 01273 325305) for a few years, ever since the Times reviewed it back in 2003. Momma’s is an American soul food restaurant, serving up all that good stuff that you find in really traditional cafes and grills in the US – grits, hush puppies, ribs, cornbread, and Southern fried chicken like Colonel Sanders only dreamed about.

You might have seen Momma Cherri’s on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. A couple of years ago, the restaurant was having some financial trouble – fortunately, they’ve been one of the few businesses to pay attention to Old Celeriac Head’s advice (from a good starting position – he remarked on arriving that the food was excellent but that the business itself needed some work), and they’re now going strong, with new, larger premises near the seafront in Brighton.

There’s an air of barely controlled chaos inside, with some truly bizarre interior design choices (bobble-headed James Brown figurines, Asian tribal masks, big wooden African heads and a whole lot of American flags), giggling staff rushing around and a busy mix of patrons. We visited for brunch (from 11am to 2pm on Sundays) – Momma herself was, sadly, breakfasting at home that day, but the friendly staff showed us round the menu and made us very comfortable.

In a world of low carb, low fat, low taste food, Momma Cherri’s is an absolute godsend. My fried chicken was actually better than any I’ve had in America (no mean feat, this) – deep-fried moist, succulent meat encased in a shatteringly crisp cornmeal coating. Cornmeal and spice mixtures are available to buy at the restaurant if you want to try your hand at reproducing any of the food you eat here; Momma has also just released a cookery book called Momma Cherri’s Soul in a Bowl for those of us who can’t make it to Brighton as often as we’d like to. I’ve only one quibble, and that’s with the use of some pretty mediocre frozen chips to accompany some of the dishes – ask for the excellent hash browns instead of chips when you go.

The Soul Brunch plate, which Dr Weasel very sensibly selected, was a thing of wonder. Here was ham, glazed apple slices, cornbread squares, hash brown potatoes with fried onion, shards of crisply fried bacon, a perfectly fried egg, and, to top it all off (literally – it was sliding off the egg), a slice of pecan pie. This pie is the only one of the desserts (among which was one of my very favourites, key lime pie) which isn’t made in restaurant – the chef is allergic to nuts. We drank two large pitchers of Momma Cherri’s gorgeous homemade lemonade – not too sweet, not too sharp, and wonderfully clean-tasting.

If you’re craving gumbo, jambalaya or grits, head over to Brighton. Be sure to book – it’s a far cry from the days when they had to call celebrity chefs in to save this place. It seems like everybody in the south of England has cottoned on now, and they’re all queuing up for a table. Thanks Momma – we’ll be back soon.

De Vere Grand hotel, Brighton

Here in the UK, we’ve just had a bank holiday weekend. True to form, the weather took the opportunity to stop being gloriously balmy, and did a very fine impression of somewhere north of the Arctic circa Noah. (I’m being perfectly serious here: the Met Office put out news yesterday informing us that this weekend, the UK was colder than Alaska.) Of course, this freezing, soaking weekend happened to be the weekend we had tickets for Cosi fan tutte at Glyndebourne, where I’d hoped to picnic in the garden; and a hotel room booked in Brighton, where I’d hoped to make use of the beach. Fat chance.

It’s usually pretty difficult to find a hotel room within reach of Glyndebourne during the opera festival, and many local hotels insist that you take a room for at least two days if you’re there over the weekend. I managed to find a breathtakingly expensive room for a single night at the De Vere Grand in Brighton, ten miles from Glyndebourne, which boasts five stars and an interesting history (it’s the hotel which was bombed by the IRA during the 1984 Conservative conference, and it’s opposite the burned-out remains of the West Pier).

£210 will find you a large room in the front of the hotel, with a big picture window looking over the English Channel and the curiously beautiful ruins of the West Pier. £210 is a large sum to be paying for a non-suite room (that’s about $420 for American readers), and I expect something pretty fine for the money, especially in a hotel boasting five stars. I’m still bewildered by the curate’s egg of an experience we had in our 24 hours at the hotel, where the staff were, on the whole, charming, helpful and solicitous; the room seriously sub-standard; and the check in/out experience a total nightmare.

First, the good. On arriving at the hotel, having carried Dr Weasel’s dinner jacket from the car in a torrential downpour, I was greeted by the concierge who took it from me, and told me he’d dry it and have it delivered to the room. He not only dried it (all without asking); he also removed all the cat hairs.

More good: I’d ordered a picnic to be picked up when we arrived, so we could take it to the opera (where it’s traditional to spread out on the lawn outside the auditorium in the long interval over champagne, sandwiches, strawberries and cream). The hotel offers a picnic service at around £20 a head, depending on the contents of the hamper. The gentleman I spoke to was charming, and I asked him to surprise us with the picnic contents. I was more than surprised; I was delighted. He’d packed the basket, which came with proper porcelain and cutlery, napkins and a rug, with beautiful roast beef and horseradish cream sandwiches on white bread, and some smoked salmon and cream cheese on brown, all with the crusts neatly sliced off. There were four excellent cheeses, including a wonderfully nutty Comte, all accompanied by some home-made relishes, including a tangy, sweet onion marmalade, and a relish with allspice and fresh apples. A selection of different grapes and celery, along with some lovely little biscuits, accompanied the cheeses. There was a dish of soft fruits: giant blackberries, sweet raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. And most welcome of all, because it was very, very cold at the covered picnic table where we huddled over our hamper, was a huge thermos of fresh coffee, complete with proper china mugs.

More good: breakfast was in the best tradition of the English hotel breakfast. The buffet spread was vast, and offered Continental and English breakfasts, with lovely little black puddings, delicious rosti, a fresh egg station and extremely moreish muffins, all with a view of the sea. The serving staff were some of the most cheerful people I’ve ever met at eight in the morning. Evening cocktails were also good (they’ll be better when the smoking ban comes into force), with some deliciously strong martinis; and it was great to sit in the conservatory at the front of the building and watch the thunder and lightning over the sea. Our wake-up call was on time, and the correct newspapers were delivered.

Unfortunately, I’m struggling to find anything else good to say about the place. Check-in was late, but not insultingly so. This isn’t something I’d recognise as a five-star hotel, and I do not expect a room I’ve forked out £210 on to have fraying carpets, chipped tiles (they’d made an effort at disguising this with something that appeared to be typewriter correction fluid), someone else’s shortest, curliest hairs adorning the bathroom, upholstery that’s coming apart at the seams, a television that doesn’t work and Britain’s least comfortable bed. This king-sized plank was actually two planks pushed together with a solid ridge standing proud all the way down the centre, like a Berlin wall between husband and wife. My side had some plasticky, sweat-inducing layer under the bottom sheet, and I woke up glued moistly to the bed down the side where my skin met the mattress. Dr Weasel leapt from bed screaming every time a police car howled past the building, sirens on. It seems there are more events requiring sirens and lights at 3am in Brighton than is, perhaps, natural, and the glazing in this place is very noise-transparent. The radiators were a) fierce, b) unadjustable and c) very emphatically on, so the hotel had accompanied them with an air conditioning unit which, also very emphatically on, whined into the night like a conference of wasps.

That excellent breakfast went a long way to soothe my troubled nerves, and we went to check out with a smile. That smile evaporated when we checked the bill and found a number of cocktails on it which appeared to have been ordered and signed to our room the previous afternoon, while we were ten miles away, soaking up some culture. We explained that this was obviously a mistake, given that we weren’t even in the building…and this is where things went badly wrong.

In any other hotel I’ve stayed in, politely notifying reception of erroneous charges is almost always met with an apology and the erasure of those charges from the final bill. This time, though, the receptionist decided to respond with a cynically raised eyebrow, and she told us that there was no mistake: we had definitely ordered these drinks.

I feel a prat quibbling over a sum that’s under £20, but this place had already seen a great deal of our money for a sub-par night, and I found this insistence that we were lying about the drinks massively insulting. On seeing the specifics of the bill, I felt even more insulted – the people who’d signed the drinks to our room had been drinking Shirley Temples.

Several minutes of arguing later, the receptionist took the charge off the bill, announcing righteously that she would be going to the bar later to check the signature on the drinks charge against her record of our own signatures, and charging our card if she found they matched.
We stomped out, glowering, and started to drive towards Cambridge, smug in the knowledge that we do not drink Shirley Temples. Ten minutes later, I received a mildly sheepish, mildly apologetic phone call informing me that ‘someone had made a mistake’, and that we wouldn’t be charged for the drinks after all.

So sorry, De Vere Grand – I’m not coming back any time soon. Put some money into refurbishing the rooms, train your receptionists and cleaners as well as you have trained the excellent catering and concierge staff, and perhaps I’ll think about it in a few years’ time, when I’ve stopped being piqued about the drinks thing…but for the meantime, I’ll be going to the Hotel du Vin around the corner.

Minted chicken stir-fry

Summer’s here, and my herb garden’s doing really well. When we moved here a couple of years ago, we found an abandoned butler sink in the garden. While they look lovely in the kitchen, I wouldn’t want one in the house; they’re much less practical than a double sink with a waste disposal unit, and it’s surprisingly easy to drop and break crockery in an something as deep as a butler sink. We used it as a herb trough instead – it’s just the right size, comes with instant drainage (the plug hole), fits nicely into the space by the back door, and you can get a good depth of compost in there.

Mint (back left in the photo) is a herb that I only ever plant in containers, because if it gets going in the garden it spreads and spreads and spreads until you’ve not got a garden any more, just a minty carpet. This recipe uses the fresh leaves in an unusual non-lamb application – it’s fresh, clean-tasting and an excellent hayfever season dish – the curry clears your nose out and the mint gives you something to smell. To serve four, you’ll need:

450g (1 lb) chicken breasts, cut into cubes
1 egg white
1 tablespoon cornflour
2 red peppers, cut into large dice
1 handful mange tout peas
4 cloves crushed garlic
150 ml chicken stock (a stock cube is fine here)
1 tablespoon curry paste
2 teaspoons Chinese black bean sauce
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar
1 glass Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons light soya sauce
1 small handful fresh mint leaves
Flavourless oil for stir-frying

Put the chicken pieces in a bowl with the egg white and cornflour, and leave aside for half an hour. Stir-frying chicken marinaded in this way is called velveting, and makes the meat very succulent, but if you’re in a dreadful hurry or simply out of eggs, you can leave this stage out.

Stir-fry the chicken in a very hot wok until it’s turned white and has cooked through. Remove the chicken to a plate, put some new oil in the wok and heat it up again. Stir-fry the peppers, peas and garlic for two minutes, then add all the other ingredients except the chicken and mint. Cook for another two minutes, then throw in the chicken, coating it with the sauce. Remove from the heat, add the mint, stir thoroughly to mix and serve immediately with rice.

Tuna and borlotti bean salad

This salad is brilliant at barbecues, where it’s a great light, sunshine-filled alternative to any giant hunks of charred meat you might be serving. It’s full of assertive flavours – the lemon, deliciously sweet peppers and raw onion, the celery and, of course, the tuna. It’s also very simple, and only takes a few minutes to throw together.

I’m a lazy cook. I very, very seldom cook beans from scratch – they’re very cheap to buy in cans, and in a salad like this the borlotti beans don’t suffer at all from coming out of a tin. If you prefer to use dried beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight, then boil for ten minutes. Take the pan off the heat and leave the beans to soak in their cooking water for two hours. Borlotti beans are a lovely little legume. They’re related to the kidney bean, and they have a lovely creamy texture and a slightly sweet taste. If you can’t find any, try making this with cannellini beans, which make a good alternative. To make a large bowl, big enough for a large family barbecue, you’ll need:

2 cans tuna in spring water
1 large sweet onion (a Vidalia or other sweet salad onion is excellent in this dish)
1 handful fresh parsley
1 plump clove garlic
1 can borlotti beans
5 stalks from a celery heart
1 orange pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ a lemon
Salt and pepper

Chop the onion into quarters and slice finely. Mince the parsley and cut the celery and pepper into small dice. Crush the garlic and flake the tuna. Put the beans in a sieve and rinse them under cold running water.

Toss all the prepared ingredients together in a large bowl with the olive oil, lemon and seasoning, and cover with cling film. Leave in the fridge for an hour before serving for the flavours to mingle.

Frozen foods

I was struck full of doubt and uncertainty when sent some vouchers by McCain, the frozen foods people. They wanted me to try their new McCain Gourmet range (I should point out that no money changed hands here, just a small envelope of vouchers), and I will admit that on receiving the first in what became a series of emails, I sat back at my desk and spent a couple of minutes scoffing loudly. After all – what comes to your mind when you think about McCain? Oven chips…OK, I buy oven chips now and then when I’m feeling lazy, and they’re pleasant, but not as good as the chips I make myself. Those grotesque smiley face reformed potato things that, alongside Turkey Twizzlers, formed the core of Jamie Oliver’s recent school dinners crusade are a McCain product. McCain also make those microwave pizzas, the potato croquettes I used to hide in my pockets rather than eat at school, and deep-fried mashed potato numerals for those who are using their supper to teach their children how to add. I marched to the supermarket, vouchers in hand, prepared to heartily dislike everything in the new range and ready to write something blistering after eating it.

But something curious has been happening to frozen foods in the UK recently. There’s much more emphasis in the ads we see on TV about the lack of preservatives and artificial ingredients in frozen products, especially since the fat-tongued one took on school dinners. Giles Coren, a food critic I like and respect, who takes food sourcing and sustainability very seriously, has been popping up advertising Birds Eye. This feels a bit like Sister Wendy advertising Ann Summers. His advertisements are all about freshness, quality and purity of ingredients, and responsible fishing and farming. McCain themselves have recently rolled out a new ad campaign (‘It’s all good‘), emphasising that they use small amounts of healthy fats, remove artificial additives wherever possible and use traffic light symbols to show how much fat, salt and other artery-clogging deliciousness is in each product. They’re also keen to point out that all the potatoes in their British products are British potatoes, so food miles are kept down.

The new McCain Gourmet range exemplifies the new approach. I was amazed on picking up a pack of Cheddar and Mustard Gratin from the freezer cabinet to read the ingredients list. The little metal dish contains potatoes; a mornay sauce made like I’d make it at home from whipping cream, butter, cheddar and wholegrain mustard; a sprinkling of cheese…and nothing else. What’s more, it tasted delicious and did not involve any interaction with my mandoline (a much loved but also much feared kitchen implement).

There followed a frenzied trawl through the whole range. My vouchers ran out after I’d tried the Potato Crumble with Four Cheeses (gorgeous Mascarpone, Danish blue, Cheddar and Grana Padano, topped with crisp breadcrumbs) and the Diced Potato with Leek and Parmesan, but by this point I’d been so thoroughly impressed that I bought the rest of the range as well. The Baby Potatoes with Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic are wonderfully, smokily garlicky; the Diced Potatoes with Tomatoes and Mixed Peppers were probably my least favourite of the lot, but I suspect this is because by this point I’d become addicted to creamy, cheesy sauces. You can buy your own to try at most UK supermarkets. The packs all weigh in at 400g and cost £1.89.

McCain, I’m sorry I imagined you were solely a purveyor of unspeakable fats and starches to schoolchildren. I eat humble (potato) pie. Keep producing stuff like this, and I’ll keep buying it. I’m lucky enough to enjoy cooking, so I don’t really mind spending an hour making a gratin from scratch, but when I can buy something this easy, this quick and this full of good, healthy, delicious things, I will occasionally consider spending that hour lying on my back in the garden with a glass of wine and feeling good about the world.

Corned beef hash

This breakfast recipe is subject to another of those language difficulties that occasionally pop up when writing about American food in Britain. Here in the UK, when we say corned beef, we always mean the fatty stuff in trapezoidal tins that your Mum used to put in sandwiches with Branston pickle for your packed lunch. In America, corned beef can refer to the stuff in the cans, but usually means something more like what we in the UK call salt beef – a slab of beef brisket which is salted and preserved. (‘Corned’ means treated with corns, an archaic word for coarse grains of salt.) You can make this recipe with either kind of corned beef, but if you have the ‘fresh’ sort (from a deli, and not out of a tin), you’ll need to chop it finely before you begin.

Those trapezoidal tins have a long history – they were originally produced as military supplies, and British soldiers were eating corned beef in the Boer war. I wonder how handy bayonets are for opening tins. These days, tins of corned beef are really easy to find in the supermarket, and are very inexpensive. This is a really, really cheap dish to make, coming in at under £1 a head, and you may already have all the ingredients in your storecupboard. It’s also absolutely delicious, and a great breakfast to set you up for an active day ahead.

Finally, a word on the eggs. I used very fresh hen’s eggs, but this is an occasion where it’s really worth trying to get your hands on duck eggs, which are big, delicious and somehow very well suited indeed to this recipe. Some butchers carry duck and goose eggs – ask next time you visit.

To serve two, you’ll need:

2 baking potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
2 large onions
1 can corned beef
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon chilli sauce (I used Sriracha – see below)
1 tablespoon Angostura bitters (use a tablespoon of vermouth if you don’t have any)
½ teaspoon onion salt
¼ teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
8 twists of the pepper mill
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped finely
4 eggs
Olive oil

Chop the corned beef into 2cm cubes and mix thoroughly with the herbs, spices, Angostura bitters, Worcestershire and chilli sauces. Choose a reasonably sweet chilli sauce with a good amount of garlic in it – Sriracha is great here, but experiment with other sauces if you have a particular favourite, and use more or less if you prefer extra heat or a milder dish. Set aside while you prepare the onions and potato.

Chop the onions in half and slice each half finely. Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over a high flame in a non-stick pan, and tip the onions in. Chop the potatoes, with their skin, into 2cm cubes. Continue to fry the onions until they begin to take on colour, then add the potatoes to the pan with a little more oil. Keep stirring every minute or so.

When the potatoes are cooked through and are turning brown at the edges, and the onions are brown and caramelising (about 15 minutes), add the beef mixture to the pan. Stir thoroughly and turn the heat down to low. In another pan, fry the eggs. (I like mine with set whites and lovely runny yolks to mix into the hash.) Turn out the hash onto hot plates, and place two eggs on the top of each portion. Eat with toast and a big mug of hot coffee.

Self-indulgent non-food post

The Great She Elephant has tagged me with another meme, and it’s nothing to do with food. (This is an excellent thing; usually I have three or four recipes cooked, photographed and scribbled down in rough ready to blog, but being ill a couple of weeks ago and very busy last week has reduced the size of my…foodstack to only one recipe at the moment.) Given that this post is about me and not about dinner, here’s a rare photograph of me without any food. (There is potential that I am plotting to eat the orchids in the photograph later.)

GSE, who knows me very well, has asked me five probing questions. If you’d like me to ask you some similarly probing questions for you to answer on your own blog, please leave a comment. (Lorna over at Biographia Literaria actually emailed me to ask to take part while I was busy answering these – Lorna, I’ll let you know when your questions are ready!)

1) Who is your favourite/least favourite celebrity chef and why?
Favourite is easy – I don’t know whether Jeffrey Steingarten counts as a chef, but he’s far and away my favourite food writer. Foodwise, I love Michael Mina (American celeb chef). I mourn the demise of Two Fat Ladies. One fat lady is nothing like as good.

Least favourite is also pretty easy. When I was eighteen, I won a food writing competition with Carlton TV, and got invited to the London Restaurant Awards as part of the prize. You can get a flavour of what a very long time ago this was from what I wrote about; those days, sushi on a conveyor belt was considered glamorous and exotic, and worth writing a long screed on. Bruce Willis was the guest of honour, having just opened Planet Hollywood.

The awards ceremony was seething with celebrity chefs. Raymond Blanc kissed me on the lips. I discovered that although he was very short and smelled of garlic, I didn’t mind at all. Anthony Worral Thompson was surrounded by big blondes. Some woman from Eastenders didn’t eat anything, but sat in the toilets dabbing foundation on her face and sniffing all evening. Stephen Saunders (pictured on the right – now proprietor of a restaurant in Newmarket where I had a downright bad meal last year) was spectacularly and upsettingly sleazy, and won my personal Most Badly Behaved Chef award. Last year, I learned that as well as being responsible for serving me a godawful meal, Stephen Saunders is also responsible for these (not safe for work!) photographs, under his pseudonym Steve McQueen. Those at work and therefore not able to click are missing nude women balancing pumpkins on their arses, doing suggestive things to marrows, wearing parma ham hotpants and using their pudenda as fruitbowls. Stephen Saunders – you’re my least favourite celebrity chef.

2) Could you help me track down a recipe for Slovenian cheese roll pancake dumpling thingies?
Amazingly, yes. Many thanks to You can find the recipe for sirovi štruklji here.

3) How many full bottles of fragrance do you have and which are your five favourites at present?
GSE and I both collect perfumes, although she is probably a little more rabid about her habit than I am, having dedicated space in her fridge for certain very special perfumes. There is dedicated space in my fridge for cheese and emergency chorizo.

I currently have 87 bottles not counting decants (although some of these are duplicate bottles of particular favourites which have been discontinued – I have five bottles of Guerlain’s Meteorites and two of Guerlinade, from before they’d announced the decision to keep selling it in the Paris boutique). My current five favourites (this took a lot of soul-searching) are: Guerlain’s Apres l’Ondee, The Different Company’s Bois d’Iris, Guerlain’s Mitsouko, L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Dzing!, and Diptique’s Philosykos.

4) Do you say No2ID and why?
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. (There are so *many* things Benjamin Franklin says better than I do.)

ID cards are a dreadful idea. They won’t work for any of the purposes the government has rolled out (which include preventing illegal immigration and terrorism); identification doesn’t prove intent. They won’t prevent identity fraud – what better tool for the identity fraudster than a single database of all the people in the country? They won’t present a greater obstacle to people-smugglers than passports and visas already do. They turn the citizen/state relationship on its head (I should be able to ask a policeman for his papers – he should emphatically not be able to ask for mine). The cards themselves are the least of the problem – the giant database they’ll necessitate is a horrific idea.

Some people have very good reason for wanting to obfuscate their identity or location. These people include those on witness protection programmes, people escaping domestic abuse, asylum seekers being pursued by aggressive foreign governments, investigative journalists…the list is enormous. When a database is accessible by staff in banks, doctors’ surgeries, the police station, lawyers’ offices, Government agencies like the CSA, pharmacies and so forth, the sheer number of people using the thing increases the probability that one person whose intentions aren’t good and lawful will be able to access it.

Don’t get me started on the Government’s awful track record with IT projects, the fact that biometrics aren’t a proven technology, the costs or the compulsion aspect. The whole thing’s a fascist mess, and anyone with any imagination would be barking mad to vote Labour in the
next election. Please consider having a look at NO2ID’s website and signing up to their email newsletter.

5) What is Dr Weasel’s best quality?
I’m a very lucky lady – I’ve got a fantastic husband who has a bundle of best qualities. Dr Weasel is intimidatingly smart, thoughtful, kind, honest, handsome and generous. He buys me flowers every week, does the washing up and the vacuuming and buys chocolate éclairs when I’m feeling sad. He’s incredibly hardworking, and takes his responsibilities at work, at the university (where he’s Director of Studies in Computer Science at a couple of colleges – told you he was intimidatingly smart) and at home very seriously. He’s as messy as I am, doesn’t object to my perfume habit, and tells me he loves me every day. I love him too.

Chicken parmigiana

This is, for me, one of the very nicest things you can do with a chicken breast. The chicken is beaten flat with a heavy rolling pin, coated in crumbs and parmesan cheese, and sautéed gently in butter and olive oil until golden and crisp. It’s served on a bed of rich tomato sauce. I love this dish served with some buttered white rice – you can also serve it with pasta.

Parmigiana simply means ‘cooked with parmesan cheese’. If, like me, you find yourself cooking with a lot of parmesan, you should consider investing in a Microplane grater. I love these things (mine was a wedding present and gets used several times a week) – they grate your parmesan very finely, and with no risk to your knuckles. The fine grade is absolutely perfect for parmesan, and it’s also great for reducing garlic to a pulp, for zesting fruit and for grating nutmeg.

To serve four greedy people you’ll need:

1.5 kg fresh ripe tomatoes
3 large onions
4 cloves of garlic
1 handful fresh basil
1 handful fresh oregano
1 mild red chilli
1 ½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 large knob butter, plus extra to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper

4 large chicken breasts
4 oz fresh breadcrumbs (about a cup for Americans)
4 oz freshly grated parmesan cheese (ditto)
½ teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1 large knob butter
1 tablespoon olive oil

Begin by peeling and seeding the tomatoes. (This is very easy – use a knife to make a little cross in the skin at the bottom of the tomato, then pour over boiling water and leave for ten seconds. Fish the tomato out with a slotted spoon. You’ll find the skin will come away easily. Slice open to remove the seeds.) Chop the tomato flesh and set aside in a bowl.

Dice the onions and chop the garlic finely, and fry in a large knob of butter until translucent and fragrant. Add the tomatoes and finely chopped chilli to the saucepan and stir to combine everything. Bring to a very low simmer, and reduce (this will take more than an hour) to half its original volume or a little less. Bring the vinegar and sugar to the boil in a small pan and stir it into the sauce. Add the oregano and season with salt and pepper. Taste to check whether you need more salt or sugar. Add another knob of butter for a more mellow flavour if you like. Set the finished sauce aside.

Place the chicken between two sheets of cling film and beat it with the end of a rolling pin to flatten it out. Mix the paprika, salt, pepper, cheese and breadcrumbs well in a shallow dish. Dip the flattened chicken breast into the beaten egg, then dip the eggy chicken into the dish of cheesy crumbs until it is well coated. Set the sauce to reheat.

Heat the oil and butter in a non-stick frying pan until it sizzles, and drop in the breaded chicken pieces. Saute on each side for about 5 minutes, until golden and crisp. Spoon some of the sauce into the middle of a ring of rice on each plate and place a chicken breast on top of it. Dress with a bit of basil, if you’re feeling artistic. Serve immediately with a green salad dressed sharply.

Green chilli cornbread

You don’t see cornbread recipes often in the UK. This is a traditional American accompaniment, made from ground maize or cornmeal (if you are making this in England look for fine polenta in the supermarket), and uses baking powder rather than yeast for leavening. It has a fine scent and flavour, a deliciously crisp shell and a soft, fragrant crumb.

Cornbread is often made in a cast-iron skillet in America. I like to use muffin pans to make individual servings. It’s extremely good with barbecued food – try it with pulled pork or sticky chicken.

At a Gospel Sunday service and brunch at the House of Blues (churchgoing comes with fried chicken as standard in Las Vegas) earlier this year, I found some fantastic little cornbread muffins, far tastier than other cornbread I’d tried. I asked the staff how they were made, and was told that the secret to the texture was the addition of canned, creamed sweetcorn to the batter. The cornbread was also studded with fresh jalapeño peppers. I’ve recreated them here, and I’m proud to report that they’re pretty much exactly right.

To make twelve individual cornbread muffins, you’ll need:

3 tablespoons butter
2 cups white cornmeal (polenta)
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
1 cup milk
½ cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1 can creamed corn
4 green chillies (jalapeños if available), chopped finely

Turn the oven up to 220° C (425° F) and preheat the muffin pans with the butter dotted in the base of each. While the pans are heating, mix the cornmeal, sugar, milk, buttermilk, egg, baking powder and bicarb thoroughly in a large bowl.

Stir the creamed corn and chillis through the mixture. Pour an equal amount into each muffin tin, and bake in the hot oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown. A skewer inserted into the middle of one of the muffins should come out clean.

The muffins are delicious split and spread with some butter and a little honey (even better if you whisk the butter and honey together before spreading, for some reason). You can also use them to accompany savoury dishes. The muffins will keep well, maintaining their crisp surface, in an airtight box for a few days.

Stomach bug

I’m laid up with a really nasty tummy bug at the moment, and I’m afraid I really can’t face writing about, still less eating, food without feeling very poorly. I should be posting as usual next week (this on the understanding that I don’t wither away and die from lack of sustenance in the meantime).

A reminder for Cambridgeshire and south Suffolk readers – the Reach Fair starts at noon on Monday May 7. Looking out of the window, I can see chair-o-planes, a coconut shy, a big whirring thing with a picture of Britney Spears on it and some swing boats. There’s a beer tent and a hog roast, and lots of opportunities to buy local produce like organic herbs from Snakehall Farm and local honey – please come and say hello if you’re visiting.