Gai Yang – Lao Barbecue Chicken

I hope you read through the spatchcocking instructions yesterday (my spellchecker doesn’t recognise ‘spatchcocking’, and suggests I use ‘knocking shop’ instead – honestly). If you didn’t, have a quick look, then come back here. This recipe will have you marinating a whole bird in some extravagantly delicious paste full of lemongrass, chilli and coriander, then grilling it over hot charcoal. It’s my version of a recipe that’s originally from Laos. When I lived in Paris, most weekends found me face-down in a plate of sticky rice, Ping Gai (the Laotian term for what the Thais and subsequently the Brits call Gai Yang) and Laotian wind-dried beef at Lao Lanxang (105, Avenue Ivry, 75013 Paris). This is a handsome treatment of a chicken, aromatic, sweet and smoky from the grill.

The recipe is also found in the Issan province of Thailand, and has now been subsumed into the melting pot of Thai food, so it’s in Thai restaurants that you’re most likely to find it in the UK – but if you’re intrigued by food from Laos (and you should be – it is fascinating and delicious), read Natacha du Pont de Bie’s Ant Egg Soup, a foodie backpacking travelogue with a handful of recipes at the end of each chapter that takes you all over the little country, sampling marvels like silkworm grubs, river algae and bottled chicken. The book seems to be out of print now, but there are plenty of copies available second-hand at Amazon.

To marinate a whole spatchcocked chicken (enough to serve four with rice), you’ll need:

1 stick lemongrass
5 green chillies
4 fat, juicy cloves garlic
1 large handful fresh coriander, with stems
1 in ginger, grated
1 tablespoon turmeric
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 ½ tablespoons soft brown sugar

Chop the lemongrass, chillies, garlic and coriander coarsely, and put them in a pestle and mortar. Bash and squash until you have a rough, emerald-coloured paste, as in this picture. (Don’t worry about squishing everything until it’s completely smooth – you are aiming to break the cell walls to make an aromatic paste, and this sort of texture will be fine.)

Transfer the green paste to a large bowl, big enough to fit your chicken in, and add the other ingredients. Stir well to combine all the ingredients, and slip the chicken into the bowl, turning and spooning so it’s well covered with the sauce. Refrigerate, covered, for 24 hours, turning occasionally in the marinade.

When you are ready to barbecue the chicken, bring your charcoal up to temperature and set the grill high above it. Ideally, the chicken should cook relatively slowly, to prevent the delicious skin from charring too much. The spatchcocked chicken will lie flat, which helps it cook evenly. Stand over your chicken as it grills, turning it every couple of minutes (again, this will help to avoid the skin from turning too black), and basting each time you flip the chicken over with the remaining marinade from the bowl. After 20 minutes, poke a skewer into the fattest part of the chicken at the thigh. If the juices run clear, you’re done – transfer the chicken to a plate to serve. If the juices are still pink, give the chicken another five minutes and repeat the test until you’re satisfied it’s cooked.

Serve with rice and some grilled corn cobs, drizzled with lime juice.

How to spatchcock a chicken

We’ve been promised something called a ‘barbecue summer’ by the Met Office this year, so I thought I’d go with the flow and bombard you with some barbecue recipes – I’m a big fan of charcoal. There’s a recipe for a whole barbecued Thai chicken coming up tomorrow (here it is), but before you cook it, you’ll need to learn how to spatchcock the bird (removing its breastbone and backbone) so that it’ll lie flat on the grill to cook evenly. It’s much easier than you’d think, and all you’ll need is a pair of stout kitchen scissors (or, better, poultry shears) and a sharp knife – here’s how you do it.

Start by putting the bird back-side up, feeling for the spine of the chicken and cutting with the shears or scissors immediately to the right of it, all the way along the bird. Snip through the ribs as you go – they’re not very tough.

Repeat to the left of the spine and lift out the whole backbone. Don’t chuck it out – pop it in a saucepan with the other bits you’re going to be removing from the bird, and make stock.

Pull the legs apart and look into the cavity of the chicken. You’ll see the arrow-shaped breast bone (the bit my knife is pointing at in this picture). Slip your knife all the way around it, loosening it from the surrounding flesh.

Pull the breastbone out of the bird (the whole thing – it widens and goes all the way to the end of the chicken). You might need your scissors again to release it from the breastmeat.

And you’re done. Your finished chicken will be lovely and rubbery and foldy, ideal for marinating and grilling. Pop back tomorrow for marinade and cooking instructions.

Samphire, scallops and black pudding

The samphire season has just begun, and with this in mind, we drove up to Norfolk at the weekend with a coolbag to try to find some at a fishmonger. Unfortunately, it being a Bank Holiday, everybody else and his mother had also driven up to Norfolk. The fishmongers were empty of anything you’d have fancied eating, as if picked over by piscine locusts, and every seaside town we encountered was so full of people that we gave up and decided to go for a hike into the bleak salt marshes near Stiffkey (pronounced ‘Stooky’) to get away from everybody. Picnic backpack hoisted aloft, legs encased in waterproof boots, we walked out about three miles until we found the perfect spot by one of the causeway bridges that punctuate the saltmarshes – flowing, salty water running through a sticky clay bed. This is perfect samphire territory, and sure enough, there were beds and beds of the stuff growing along the water margin. I scrambled down into the water, offering up a prayer to the makers of Gore-Tex, and picked enough, roots and all, to fill both our picnic napkins.

Samphire is a glasswort, sometimes called sea-asparagus. (See the picture below for a bowl of raw, cleaned samphire.) There are a few different plants which are called samphire – we’re after the best-tasting variety, marsh samphire, which is a spectacular bright green, and grows in salty mud. The samphire Shakespeare mentions in King Lear was probably rock samphire, which is comparatively bitter. Marsh samphire has an assertively salty flavour reminiscent of oysters, and is tender enough to be eaten raw in a salad. (Dr W and I found ourselves snacking on it raw as I picked, straight out of the mud.) At this time of year, the samphire is young and tender – aim to collect shoots about the length of your forefinger, roots and all. Wrap them in a damp cloth and they’ll keep nicely in the fridge for a few days. To prepare, just rinse carefully in cold water from the tap and snip the roots off with scissors. Older samphire may be a bit twiggy – use your judgement, and snip off anything that’s not a tender tip.

If foraging’s not your thing, Tig (who is extraordinarily good value on the subject of seaweed and other salty things) mentioned in the comments of an earlier sea-vegetable post that the Fish Society will send mail-order samphire to you, in season.

Samphire’s at its absolute best with shellfish, so I grabbed a bag of tiny, sweet queen scallops from the supermarket and came up with this dish, which makes the most of the odd affinity pork has with scallops and samphire, sets them on delicious crisp discs, and marries the lot up with a beurre blanc flavoured with dill and Pernod. This looks and tastes most impressive, and while it’s a bit of a faff to put together, it’ll go down a storm at a dinner party, or served to people you love for a special occasion. To serve four as a starter or two as a main course, you’ll need:

150g cleaned marsh samphire
200g queen scallops
4 slices white multigrain bread
150g slim black pudding (if you can only find the pre-sliced kind, buy 12 slices)
3 fat, juicy cloves garlic
100g salted butter, plus another 225g salted butter for the beurre blanc
1 shallot
1 bay leaf
3 peppercorns
3 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons Pernod
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon double cream
2 tablespoons freshly chopped dill

Preheat the oven to 220°C while you chop the garlic finely, and cook it in 100g of butter until it is a very pale gold. Remove the garlic from the heat. Remove the crusts from the bread and use a rolling pin to roll the slices of bread until they are squashed flat, then use a round cookie cutter to make three circles out of each slice. Dip the twelve rounds in the garlic butter, lay on a baking sheet and cook on the top shelf of the oven for 8 minutes, until golden brown. Put on racks to cool.

Cut the black pudding into 12 rounds, leaving the skin on for now. Fry it over a medium heat in the remaining garlic butter for about 5 minutes per side, until the outsides are crisp. Peel off the skin and keep the little rounds of sausage on a plate in a warm place while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

To make the beurre blanc, put the wine, Pernod and vinegar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with the sliced shallot, the bay leaf and the peppercorns. Bring to a simmer and reduce until there are only two tablespoons of liquid left. Sieve the liquid to remove the shallot, bay and peppercorns, and return to the pan off the heat. Get the butter out of the fridge and cut it into cubes about the size of the top joint of your thumb.

Put the pan back over a low flame. Add a teaspoon of cream to the wine reduction and use a whisk to incorporate it into the liquid. (As I’ve mentioned in previous beurre blanc recipes, this addition of cream is cheating, but it does mean that your sauce won’t split.) Whisking vigorously, add the butter to the pan, three cubes at a time. When they are half-melted, add another three, still whisking hard. Repeat until all the butter is incorporated and remove from the heat.

When the beurre blanc is nearly ready, bring the remaining garlic butter and fat from the black pudding to a frying temperature and fry off the scallops for two minutes, until they are coloured and just barely cooked. Steam the samphire for four minutes.

To assemble the dish, make a little bed of steamed samphire on each plate, and put three discs of bread crisp on top. Put a slice of black pudding on each of these, pile the tiny scallops into the middle of the plate, and spoon over a generous amount of the beurre blanc. Serve immediately.


No photos of this one, since cassoulet à la Liz, once dished up, turns out to look totally unlovely; and I really don’t want to scare you off, because it tastes divine. I hope you made the duck confit (I have cunningly recycled the picture here from that recipe) from a few weeks back, which, along with its fat, forms an important part of this dish. If you didn’t, though, you can usually find tins of excellent Castelnaudry confit in good delis in the UK (I’ve also seen it in Waitrose).

Cassoulet is one of those social-climbing dishes, which began life as a French peasant dish full of preserved meats and dried beans, and now gets sold for vast amounts of money in swish restaurants. You can buy tins of cassoulet, but a cassoulet you have made at home is even better, especially in mouth-feel. It’s a wonderfully warming dish, and it’s fantastic to serve to friends; somehow it’s an especially cheering and convivial thing to eat. You can serve it up as is, or with crusty bread and a salad. I’ve used Japanese panko breadcrumbs here, which are not at all French. I’m developing a slight addiction to them – wonderfully crisp, with a slightly malty flavour and a perfect balance between absorbency and crustiness, they’re terrific for topping baked dishes or making breaded coatings for baked or fried meats. If you can’t find any, normal white breadcrumbs, whizzed in your food processor, will be absolutely fine. If you’re in France, try to pick up some of the wonderful long, white haricot beans (haricots blancs lingots) which are traditionally used in cassoulet and have an amazingly creamy texture. They’re hard to find in the UK, so I have fallen back on standard haricots, which are a shorter bean. They are still excellent in this dish.

Thanks not least to Iris Murdoch (whose A Fairly Honourable Defeat, which contains a very stressful cassoulet incident, managed singlehandedly to put me off making cassoulet myself for about fifteen years), cassoulet has a bit of a reputation as a complicated, work-intensive dish. It’s really not all that bad; most of the work is done by your oven, with you stirring occasionally to help the slow-cooked beans become tender and creamy, and while there are short bursts of frying, skimming and stirring, you can easily fit all the other things you have to do in a day at around the long cooking time. Packed with moist pork belly, fat duck legs and garlicky sausage, this isn’t for days when you’re worrying about your blood pressure – as always, my philosophy on these things is that the rush of endorphins you get when eating something that tastes this good more than cancels out any health negatives, and hey – I understand beans are good for you.

To serve six, you’ll need:

500g haricot beans
2 large onions
2 sticks celery
1 carrot
5 cloves
1 bouquet garni
1 large sprig rosemary
1 large sprig thyme
3 bay leaves
6 fat cloves garlic
1 tablespoon herbes de provence
¼ bottle white wine
4 tomatoes, chopped roughly
400g slab pork belly
3 confit duck leg and thigh joints
6 garlicky sausages (if you can find saussice de Toulouse, they’re traditional here, but any very dense, meaty sausage will be good)
Japanese panko breadcrumbs OR bog-standard white breadcrumbs to sprinkle

The night before you want to eat, soak the beans in plenty of cold water. In the morning, drain the beans, discarding the soaking liquid, and put them in your largest casserole dish (you’ll need plenty of spare room in there for the cooking liquid, the other ingredients and the eventual swelling of the beans) with the bouquet garni, the rosemary and thyme, one of the onions, halved and studded with the cloves, the carrot, halved lengthways, one stick of the celery, two of the bay leaves and two of the garlic cloves, peeled and left whole. Chop the pork belly, complete with its rind, into 1 inch chunks, and add it to the saucepan. Pour over cold water to cover the contents of the pan by a couple of inches, and bring to the boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface.

When the pot is boiling, lower the heat to a simmer and put the lid on. Ignore it for an hour and a half while you brown the sausages in a tablespoon of the fat from the confit in a frying pan. Remove them to a plate, and use the sausage pan to fry the remaining onion, garlic and celery stick, chopped finely, until soft, in another large tablespoon of duck fat. Preheat the oven to 180° C.

Remove and discard the herbs and vegetables (except the garlic and the bouquet garni) from the beans mixture and drain and reserve the liquid (now stock) from the casserole dish. Return the beans and pork to the casserole, adding the onion, garlic and celery mixture, the chopped tomatoes, the remaining bay leaves, the sausages and the confit duck legs. (Don’t worry about scraping off any fat clinging to the legs – it’ll just add to the wonderful texture.) Pour over the wine and add the reserved stock from the pork and beans to just cover the mixture. Add a tablespoon of salt. Bring the contents of the casserole to a simmer on the hob and put it in the oven for two hours with the lid on, stirring every half an hour.

When the two hours are up, there should be no visible liquid; the whole cassoulet should have an even, creamy texture. Taste for seasoning – you will probably need to add extra salt. Sprinkle the top of the cassoulet with the panko crumbs or breadcrumbs, and cook for another 20-30 minutes with the lid off, until the crumbs are brown and the cassoulet is bubbling through it in places. Serve up, making sure everyone gets a bit of duck, a bit of sausage, and a bit of pork with their creamy beans and crusty top.

The Hind’s Head, Bray, Berkshire, UK

Once a very quiet village about four miles from Windsor, Bray suddenly gained a lot of traffic around meal times when Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck (which you have doubtless heard of – it’s regularly voted the very best restaurant in the UK, and fights each year with El Bulli in Spain for the title of best restaurant in the world) opened. Meal-time traffic, composed almost entirely of taxis from nearby train stations packed with salivating diners, has increased even further in the last five years, since Blumenthal bought the pub next door to the Fat Duck.

The Hind’s Head menu is a showcase for what Blumenthal considers the very best of straightforward, traditional British cooking. Blumenthal’s cooking at the Fat Duck (at £130 for the tasting menu without wine, you are going to have to wait until the ads on this site are paying a lot more before you can read about the Fat Duck here, so get clicking) is all crazy-wonderful, experimental, molecular stuff. I wandered over to inspect the menu on the day we visited the Hind’s Head, and there was lots to appeal to the side of me that does the perfume writing as well as my foodie half. Oakmoss used as a flavouring, sprays of aldehydes, violet tarts, pine sherbert fountains – I breathed a heavy sigh and went back to the pub, words like ‘straightforward’, ‘traditional’ and ‘British’ boiling around in my head, convinced that I was bound to spend the evening wishing I was next door.

Sometimes I’m very happy to be proved totally wrong.

I think that the last completely uncritical review of a restaurant I wrote was posted here back in 2007, and I found it very difficult to write; roundly complimentary reviews of food make me sound, as I said back then, an unthinking and uncritical diner, and they are likely to be as boring as hell for you, the reader. (Un?)fortunately, the Hind’s Head turns out to be another of these little bits of restaurant heaven. Even the menu prices were a delight, and the incredibly enthusiastic, very young waiter made our evening a real pleasure. I spent the meal looking for something to get ratty about, and I am proud to be able to give you one piece of fierce criticism. I do not like paper napkins.

Still and all – paper napkins in a pub are probably absolutely right, so you can probably scratch that.

This being a pub, you can grab a beer at the bar before you sit down. There’s a short but good list of beers and a lengthy and very keenly priced wine list. We ended up with a bottle of 06 Bordeaux at £24 – it could have done with being cellared for a few years, but was terrific at the price. There are bar nibbles too – Scotch eggs made from quail’s eggs, devils on horseback (prunes wrapped in bacon, secured with a toothpick and grilled – they’re one of my favourite Edwardian savouries, and Blumenthal is very into his historical foods) and something called a Warwickshire Wizzler, which turned out to be a cocktail sausage which tasted as if it was made from the fatty flanks of angels, spiced heavily with sweet paprika. Our table of four spent a happy few minutes gumming our way through a selection of nibbly bits.

The menu presents you with a mixture of seasonal and traditional dishes. The asparagus is at its sweetest at the moment, and it was listed here with some free-range ham, cress, a dense Hollandaise and a rich, yolky pheasant’s egg. (See the photo at the top of the page.) It was a simple and very generous presentation, which is precisely what you want with asparagus in May.

I ordered potted shrimp. Tiny, sweet, fresh, brown shrimp, peeled and poached in clarified butter with the traditional spike of mace and pepper, then set in a ramekin, were served just above room temperature with slices of brown toast. The butter was dense with flavour – had the shells and heads been used to flavour it? I’ve no idea, but I do know that this was far and away the best example of potted shrimp I’ve ever eaten. (The worst? That’ll be the unseasoned, woolly pre-frozen white prawns in fridge-hard butter at Shepherd’s in Pimlico.) I found myself unconsciously running a finger around the bottom of the ramekin when I’d finished. Dish-scraping was about to become a theme for the evening.

An excellent beef carpaccio, scattered judiciously with capers and shallots and dressed with a little parmesan, olive oil and lemon juice was a really lovely example of a dish that’s often overseasoned; and a guineafowl terrine, gloriously spiced and seasoned, jewelled with pistachios, wrapped tightly in pancetta and served with shaved slivers of fresh apple and an apple compote, left a distressed Dr W scraping his empty plate with the back of a knife, trying to dislodge any remaining molecules of flavour. Starters over, all four of us started drumming at the table with our fingers to try to distract from the unseemly drooling.

The problem with a menu this good is that it’s extraordinarily hard to make a decision. I went for the shut-eyes-and-jab-at-menu-with-finger approach, and ended up selecting a very dull-sounding main course – the T-bone steak – which I stuck with simply in order to try the sauce that came with it. This is a kitchen which has studied its classical French sauces, and the seared steak (a favourite cut, T-bone, with the softer tenderloin on the smaller side, and the tougher but more flavoursome strip loin on the larger) came with a little pot of sauce marchand de vin (butter, wine and dark beef stock), studded generously with little diamonds of rich, beefy bone marrow. Tipped over the steak, the marrow melted a little into the meat, the dense sauce so packed with flavour that thinking about it a few days later is giving me flavour hallucinations. I am alarmed to note that I found the whole thing almost viscerally sexy. Food shouldn’t be this good.

The steak was accompanied with Blumenthal’s famous thrice-cooked chips. (Fries for you Americans.) They’re thick-cut, as pub chips should be, and boiled, chilled, and deep-fried twice. We ordered another bowl for the table – shatteringly crisp on the outside, and fluffy within. A good chip shouldn’t be something to get terribly excited about (after all, Heston’s chip method is very similar indeed to the one my Mum used when I was a kid), but the sad truth is that most English chips are, frankly, rubbish; it’s very good to find some which haven’t been frozen and shipped into the restaurant in giant catering bags.

Shepherd’s pie with lamb shoulder, breast and sweetbreads was joyous. It arrived in a cast-iron cocotte, the top cru
sted with crisp potatoes. Inside was a dense, meaty, almost syrupy filling; the lamb breast gave the sauce a rich, jellied thickness, while the sweetbreads gave the whole an intense richness and a malevolent hint of offaly darkness. Happily, the friend who ordered this wasn’t quite able to finish her very rich and generous portion, so her remaining pie filling was enjoyed by the rest of us, slathered all over those chips. This bowl got scraped clean too.

The serving and cooking temperature of foods, as we saw with the potted shrimp, is something that the kitchen here considers carefully, and salmon with shrimp and peas was cooked and served warm, not hot. The waiter made sure that the person eating it (James, who nearly choked to death on chillies in Montreal last year) was aware that it wouldn’t come piping hot, and explained through one of Berkshire’s biggest smiles that this is to ensure that the flavour is at its absolute best. I really like the service here. Befittingly for a pub, it’s not very formal, but the staff are so enthused by what they’re serving and by what’s going on in the kitchen that their excitement translates to the diners. This was another seasonal triumph; more of those brown shrimp, sweet peas, flakingly moist salmon in a savoury marinade – simply gorgeous.

Chicken and leek pie, sitting in a sea of intensely savoury Mornay sauce thick with whole-grain mustard, was one of those dishes you could happily keep on snuffling down plate after plate of, until hustled out of the restaurant for revolting the other diners. Happily for those other diners, desert beckoned.

Blumenthal’s a history buff, and the Quaking Pudding arrived with a little notecard (which I believe Ros has now pasted into her scrapbook) full of historical detail about wrapping things in guts and so forth. No guts were apparant here; Quaking Pudding was a delightfully wobblesome jellied milk pudding, a little like a panna cotta (and made in the same way, with milk and gelatine), flavoured with sweet spices like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Unbelievably good (and far better than you could possibly imagine from looking at this photograph, which has an anticipatory thumb in the background) – I’ve been piling through my collection of old recipe books for a comparable recipe.

I’d seen Heston prepare his treacle tart with milk ice cream on television once (an exercise which ended with him milking a cow into a bowl full of liquid nitrogen). Utterly, unctuously, good stuff, crisp and squidgy all at once, with an intense, caramelised sweetness offset by a tiny sprinkle of fleur du sel. It was perfectly accompanied by the unassuming milk ice. And trifle – well, I wasn’t allowed to try the trifle, which Dr W appeared to be trying to inhale.

All this, alongside a bottle of wine, several beers, a couple of cocktails, three dishes of nibbly bits, extra chips and a bowl of broccoli with anchovy and slivered almonds, still only rocked up at £60 a head. This is unbelievably good value for such exceptional dining, and it’s a total delight to find that there’s at least one restaurant in the country that’s demonstrating that British food isn’t all lung and slurry. All hail Heston – he’s a one-man army changing the face of the British restaurant, and I hope you’ll visit Bray soon to confirm it for yourselves.

A quiet week…

I’m away from the kitchen this week (and mostly, joy of joys, away from the computer), taking a short break in sunny Windsor. I have Malaysian noodle restaurants and Joel Robuchon to investigate in London, Heston Blumenthal’s pub in Bray to visit on Thursday, and I’m on a quest to find any non-chain restaurants here in Windsor itself. Updates will be brief and even more sporadic than usual this week, but do keep tuning in; there are some interesting reviews coming up.


I had an email a couple of weeks ago from a lady from Mornflake oats, asking if I’d like some samples. Now, I was a big fan of Mornflake as a kid, when the sixth-formers at school had a weekly stall in the dining room where they sold us teenies snacks of the very limited sort allowed by our health-fascist teachers. There wasn’t much that was very good – nobody really liked licorice twigs, and I would sooner die than ever have to eat a carob bar again. Happily, there was one thing on sale I loved without measure – a muesli made by Mornflake with oat clusters, coconut, and chunks of candied papaya and pineapple. Infinitely better for breakfast than school gruel.

I suspect my waxing lyrical about a childhood affection for Mornflake pressed some buttons, because the next morning three cubic feet of oat products arrived on the doorstep. Since then, I’ve been happily munching my way through some really fantastic muesli (the Swiss style is creamy and delicious with the traditional Swiss addition of milk powder, the Fig and Apple is gloriously crispy and tastes divine), oatbran flakes (Very Berry, with strawberries, raspberries and cherries were Dr W’s favourite) and porridge – microwavable single portions in packets, bags of rolled oats, and fine oatbran sprinkles for smooth porridges or garnishes. My cholesterol level is at an all-time low. Mornflake are a considerably older company than I’d realised; the same family has been milling oats for more than 14 generations, and they’ve just celebrated their 333rd anniversary, making them the UK’s eighth-oldest company. The folks at Mornflake tell me that oats will reduce my appetite, keeping me slim and gorgeous (a recent study from King’s College London has identified a hunger-suppressing hormone in oats, which, along with their cholesterol-squelching action appear to be almost sinister in their healthiness). They would also like you to know that a very varied assortment of people, including such luminaries as Tim Henman, Orlando Bloom, David Cameron, Kate Moss and Madonna, have gone on the record as being fans of porridge. I am not sure that this brings anything in particular to your own breakfast experience, but it may be useful for your next pub quiz.

Even after two weeks of artery-cleansing, appetite-suppressing, celebrity-endorsed oaten breakfasts, I still have a goodly portion of Mornflake’s oaten bounty left in the breakfast cupboard. Happily, there’s something really unhealthy and extremely delicious you can do with an awful lot of oats – make an awful lot of flapjacks.

Flapjacks are fast, easy and will make your house smell deliciously of caramel as they cook. To make 25, you’ll need:

275g rolled oats
225g salted butter
225g demerara sugar
2 heaped tablespoons golden syrup

Preheat the oven to 160°C and grease a 30 x 20cm baking tin. Melt the butter, sugar and syrup together in a saucepan over a low heat, and stir the oats into the molten mixture, making sure everything is well blended. Pack the oats into the greased tin, pressing down with the back of a spoon to make sure the mixture is firm and flat on the top.

Bake the flapjacks for 35 minutes, until they are a golden caramel brown. (Overcooking will make your flapjacks hard and dark – 35 minutes will give you crisp edges and a nice squashy middle, but some people prefer a crispier flapjack, so adjust the cooking time to your liking.) Remove from the oven and leave in the tin for ten minutes, then use a spatula to mark the flapjacks into 25 squares. Allow the flapjacks to cool completely before moving them into an airtight tin (or cramming the lot into your face – I’ll leave it up to you).

Chocolat Chocolat, St Andrew’s St, Cambridge

I’ve wittered on at length here before about the sad fact that Cambridge is something of a food desert. Restaurant-wise, we could still improve a lot, but if you’re a food shopper, things seem to be looking up considerably. Besides long-standing old favourites like the excellent Cambridge Cheese Shop in All Saint’s Passage, the increasingly impressive offerings at the daily market, Origin8 (a deli where you can find some obscenely good pies and organic hogroast) and local village offerings like the River Farm Smokery in Bottisham (look out for Dan on The Great British Menu on the BBC) and the farm shop at Burwash Manor Barns, the city has just found itself home to one of the loveliest chocolate shops I’ve ever set foot in. This is a very splendid thing, and I hereby upgrade Gastronomy Domine’s assessment of Cambridge’s food situation from desert to leafy wetland.

Chocolat Chocolat (which is so new that it doesn’t have a website yet, and so good that they named it twice) is on St Andrew’s St, just by the entrance to the Grand Arcade. Isabelle and Robin Chappell have imported a sugary morsel of France to the city – Isabelle prepares Bayonnaise slabs of chocolate at her tempering machine by the window, Robin serves up what I am certain is Cambridge’s best icecream (the Alfonso mango sorbet is rich, curiously creamy and made me consider driving the car over and stealing the freezer), and the whole shop ripples with gorgeously selected frou frou.

The main event is, of course, chocolate, and here you’ll find tiny tongs and little wooden punnets which you can fill with hand-made chocolates from several chocolatiers, hand-picked by Isabelle and Robin. There are also chocolaty offerings from Dolfin, Bovetti and Willie Harcourt-Cooze – the Bovetti black mustard seeds enrobed in dark chocolate (there’s also coriander seeds in milk chocolate and anis in white) and the Dolfin bar flavoured with masala spices are must-tries. Robin says that Bovetti’s paté a tartiner (imagine Nutella, but approximately a thousand times nicer) sold out pretty much as soon as they opened, but more is on the way. There’s so much on offer here that it’ll take even the most dedicated chocoholic weeks to work their way through the whole selection – which is precisely as it should be.

Isabelle is originally from France, and alongside the chocolates, she and Robin have imported some sugary nibbles I’ve never seen on this side of the Channel before. Fight through the inevitable crowd of French students to get to the Carambars (a stick of caramel which should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been on a French exchange), the chocolate-coated marshmallow bears and the utterly divine callisons. There are Cote Garrigue jams in flavours like lavender and Cavaillon melon; nougat straight from Montelimar, scented with rose, violet and pistacho; Anis de Flavigny cachous; Palets Bretons (the world’s butteriest, most friable biscuit) and Madeleines from Commercy. Robin doesn’t know it, but in promising Pain d’Epice (gingerbread – but so much better than what you’re used to) direct from Dijon soon he made my heart flutter like a schoolgirl’s.

I plan to head back as soon as possible to apply a further good, hard sugar shock to my pancreas. Chocolat Chocolat is one of the most exciting additions to the town centre I’ve seen in years – head over there as a matter of urgency if you’re in town, and tell them I sent you.

Tom yum soup

Certain foods are perfect for times when you’re feeling a bit under the weather. Depressed? You need hot wings. Exhausted and frazzled? Mashed potato. Hormonal? Chocolate cake.

Right now, I’m sitting here with a streaming nose and stuffy head. It’s not swine flu, it’s hay fever. And there’s one sure-fire way to nip a stuffy head in the bud: tom yum. This hot, sour Thai soup is flavoured with some of the world’s most powerful aromatics, spiked with tongue-numbingly hot chillies and should be served hot enough to melt your spoon. Fantastic stuff.

You’ll need to make a trip to the Chinese supermarket for most of the ingredients here. To save yourself time when making soup later on, you can freeze any leftover kaffir lime leaves, chopped galangal and lemongrass in airtight containers.

To serve two, you’ll need:

1 litre homemade stock – pork or fish stock both work really well here
1 tablespoon tom yum soup paste (available at Chinese supermarkets and some Western ones too)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 lemongrass stalks
5 kaffir lime leaves
2 inches galangal
2 small shallots
3 bird’s eye chillies
1 tomato
1 carrot
12 fresh shitake mushrooms
8 fresh prawns (with shells and heads if possible – as usual, none of my local shops had any with shells on, which elicited loud cursing from me)
1 handful beansprouts
1 handful coriander
Juice of two limes

Wallop the lemongrass stalks with the end of a rolling pin until they are ragged, slice the galangal into thin coins, and remove the central stalk from the lime leaves. Slice the shallots finely, chop the chillies, dice the tomato, chop the carrot into julienne strips and slice the mushrooms. And breathe. Once you’re done with the chopping, you’ll be pleased to hear that you’ve done most of the work.

Bring the stock to a simmer, and stir through the tom yum paste and fish sauce. Add the lemongrass, galangal, chillies and lime leaves, and simmer for five minutes. Drop the tomato, shallots, mushrooms and prawns into the bubbling stock and cook for another five minutes.

While the tom yum is cooking, squeeze the juice of one lime into each of two soup bowls. Divide the raw beansprouts between the two bowls. When the five minutes are up, ladle the soup, aromatics and all (some people like to remove the lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal from the dish, but they will continue to flavour the soup once it’s in the bowls) into the bowls. Garnish with generous amounts of coriander and serve immediately.