Chicken and Broccoli

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If you grew up in the nineties and routinely ordered from a certain kind of Chinese restaurant, you could be forgiven for thinking it was all MSG-laden bright orange sugary sauces and mystery meat. Even now, and even in London, those places still exist and I avoid them as much as possible; but there is the other side of Chinese food that I adore: the side with Xinjiang lamb and cumin skewers, with Sichuan peppercorn-spiked twice cooked pork and fluffy bao with sticky pork belly and loads of chilli.

I’m also a sucker for those dishes whose names give little away about what they actually are. For example, who knew that Silk Road‘s ‘home style aubergine’ would be the best aubergine dish I’ve ever eaten? Slippery sweet aubergine flavoured with a little bit of chilli and a lot of garlic. Being the unfussy eater as I am, taking a punt on a dish that has no real description is part of the fun of eating out. I even once ordered ‘saliva chicken’ to the tune of some rather appalled looks from my fellow diners, only to discover that the translation is that it is mouth-watering, rather than containing spit, and was, naturally, delicious.

Even though seeing ‘chicken and broccoli’ on a page will leave you under no illusions about what the dish contains, it seems somewhat simplistic as it really is so much more than that. It’s not really a common dish in the UK, although I have seen it on menus once or twice, but it was in America that I first fell in love with it. It may have been because it came in one of those cardboard boxes with a ton of noodles and some red chopsticks, and I ate it on the street, ticking another one of my American food cliché boxes, who knows, but since I have been back I have made it many times. According to my husband, it is the most comforting food ever and he always asks me to make it for him when he is ill, of course in his favourite noodle bowl with the extra hot sriracha on the side.

Whilst being far from an expert on the vast subject of Chinese cookery, this dish always seems like an anomaly amongst Chinese stir-fry dishes as the flavour is pure savoury, without any sweetness or spiciness at all; which is why my husband, a chilli fiend, always adds the sriracha. Yes, it may be somewhat inauthentic, and it’s origins could be more Chinatown than China, but there is something about its simplicity that keeps me going back to it again and again. When it comes to choosing between this dish and ringing for a takeaway, this wins every time. It takes about half the time that a delivery does and there is no bright orange sauce anywhere to be seen.

Chicken and Broccoli

3 chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp granulated sugar
2 tsp cornflour
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 large broccoli, cut into florets
75ml light soy sauce
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp rice vinegar
Sesame seeds

Place the chicken breasts in a large shallow bowl.  In a separate bowl, mix together 2 tbsp of the vegetable oil, bicarbonate of soda, granulated sugar, cornflour, dark soy sauce and 1 tbsp water, and pour over the chicken. Leave to marinate for half an hour.

Steam the broccoli for three minutes and set aside. Meanwhile, mix together the light soy sauce, dark brown sugar, garlic cloves, plain flour, rice vinegar and 2 tbsp water to make a sauce.

Heat the remaining oil in a wok and add the chicken with its marinade and a quarter of the sauce. Saute until the chicken is golden and cooked through. Add the remaining sauce and stir in the broccoli. Cook for another couple of minutes.

Top with sesame seeds and serve with rice or noodles.

Veganuary, and Sriracha-roasted Cauliflower

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Two things happened last week: I got sick and I fell off the Veganuary wagon.

It was bound to happen, really, for the fall always comes after the high, right? Last weekend, I had the best time. Naomi, my friend and fellow devotee to afternoon drinking, threw a daytime party at her house to celebrate her birthday. Being with old friends, and some rather spectacular cakes (including this beautiful one made by Jassy) we ended up drinking quite a lot of prosecco. When we left, there were more corks on the draining board than there were people at the party. My brother had also come to visit us, so after the party we went off to do the things you do when you have a 21-year-old brother: bar hopping around Brixton and downing shots of Jager. Of course, I was never going to escape that kind of heavy drinking unscathed, so had a pretty sore head on Sunday.

As it turned out, this was the least of my worries, for on Monday night I came down with the flu bug that has floored me for almost a week now.

Being in the throes of illness is the worst time for me to stick to any food plan, restricted diet or exercise regime, as I channel all of my limited energies into feeling better. I was, of course, medicating with hot lemon drinks, bed rest and Netflix; but I was also, for some reason, incredibly hungry. I managed four whole days of sickbed veganism, then yesterday I caved and put some milk in my tea.

Then I made mushroom pasta with a load of creme fraiche. Of course, neither of these things have cured me of this lurgy, but I can’t tell you how restorative it is just to eat what you have been craving.

I managed 29 and a half days of veganism and, aside from this week, I have really enjoyed the experiment. The Veganuary website claims that 51% of participants in 2015 pledged to stay vegan and food writer Jack Monroe has also spoken of their intention to stay vegan beyond the end of January. I can understand why: changing your diet for a month really opens you up to a different kind of cooking, and a different relationship with food. It’s exciting and inspiring to use new ingredients and recipes, especially immediately following December, where food is all about tradition, glutton and excess. I thought I would miss meat, fish and dairy far more than I did (even poached eggs) and felt better by choosing generally healthier options for both cooking and eating out.

Being vegan for (nearly) a month has reminded me that I need to adjust my diet to a little less meat and a lot more vegetables, has given me a new-found love for lentil curries and has made me appreciate how the food we consume affects our environment. Remaining vegan is a great idea. There are hardly any downsides at all. Except one: Me.

When I got down to my lowest ebb this week, snivelling into my trash mag on the sofa, all streaming eyes and hacking coughs, I was miserable without the foods I felt would comfort me. Now I’m on the mend, it seems somewhat idiotic, but then I think back to the day I discovered that Oreos were vegan and promptly scarfed an entire pack. Yes, it’s probably what some would consider an unhealthy relationship with food, but sometimes I am powerless against cravings. Plus, I wouldn’t want my unhealthy relationship with booze to get lonely out there all on its own.

So my post-veganuary plan is this. Cook, eat and enjoy vegan food as much as possible, but not exclusively. Eat more fruit and vegetables, but allow myself treats; for cheeseboards, chocolate fondants, MEATliquor burgers, potted shrimps, poached eggs and rib eye steaks are also wonderful in moderation too.

Before I leave you, I wanted to share the recipe for one of the most brilliant discoveries of the whole of Veganuary: Sriracha-roasted cauliflower. Even if you’re not vegan, nor ever intend to be, I urge you to try this.

Sriracha-roasted Cauliflower

1½ tbsp olive oil
1½ tsp sesame oil
3 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp rice vinegar
4 tbsp sriracha
1 small cauliflower, cut into florets

Preheat the oven to 220°c.

In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sriracha. Tip in the cauliflower florets and toss until they are evenly coated.

Arrange on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, turning once.

Serves two as a side dish. Adapted from I am a Food Blog.

Vegan Double Chocolate Banana Bread

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After six weeks with a broken oven, few things could ever make me happier than the prospect of baking. Fortunately, I have good friends who are generous with their kitchens, and was invited by my friend Aimée, an amazing baker herself, and currently on maternity leave, to come and bake in her home.  After 10 days of veganism, I was itching to try out some dairy-free, egg-free baking.

From what I have read in various books and blogs, the key to successful vegan baking is to make sensible substitutions; and for me this means choosing recipes that don’t contain a great deal of dairy to begin with. Of course, there are endless recipes for vegan cakes online, if you know where to look, but I was keen, instead, to ‘veganise’ some non-vegan recipes. With some bananas ripening in my kitchen, banana bread seemed a good place to start. Smitten Kitchen‘s double chocolate banana bread to be precise which, with only 115g butter and one egg to sub out, ticked all of the relevant boxes.

A quick glance at this recipe told me immediately that this would satisfy my craving for home-baked goods: a banana bread made rich with dark brown sugar, cocoa and dark chocolate chips. The idea was that I would make one as per the recipe for Aimée, and a ‘veganised’ one for myself. The butter was easily substituted with Pure vegan margarine, and the egg with the No Egg Egg Replacer, which I have talked about before. As is always the case when I adapt a recipe with ingredients I am unfamiliar with, I was skeptical about the results, but I needn’t have been, as it turned out exactly as I had hoped: moist and squidgy in the middle, with pockets of melted chocolate and a crackly crust. The result was no less enticing than any other banana bread I have made, which makes me confident about vegan baking for the rest of the month.

My oven arrives on Friday – hurrah!

Banana bread previously: I always feel that the world doesn’t ever really need another banana baked thing, and yet I always find myself baking one and writing about it. The allure of a bunch of spotted bananas with little fruit flies buzzing around them is always too much for me to resist, and I find myself dreaming up new versions of the old classic. The banana, rum and coconut bread is the one I make most often, and could easily be ‘veganised.’ It’s my husband’s favourite, after all.

Vegan Double Chocolate Banana Bread

2 large, or 3 medium, bananas
115g melted vegan margarine
145g dark brown sugar
Egg replacement made up for one egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
¼ tsp fine salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
125g plain flour
60g cocoa powder
150g vegan dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 175ºc. Spray a medium loaf tin with cake release spray (I use Dr. Oetker.)

Mash the bananas in a large bowl, then whisk in the vegan margarine, sugar, egg replacement and vanilla extract.  Combine the bicarbonate of soda, salt, cinnamon, flour and cocoa powder in a separate bowl then sift into the banana mixture. Mix until just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Bake in the oven for about an hour, until risen and a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean. If the top looks like it is browning too quickly, cover loosely with foil.  Allow to cool in the tin before transferring to a wire rack.

Adapted from a recipe by Smitten Kitchen.

Kale, Spinach and Spring Onion Potato Cakes

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One of the aspects of modern life I find the most tedious is the occupation of ‘hipster-bashing’. It seems to be a bit of a lazy stick used by white, middle class people to beat other white, middle class people with; and sadly few really ever consider the term. The list of criteria that categorises a hipster varies from person to person, rendering it a fairly useless moniker. One of my friends called one of her friends a hipster because he had a beard and enjoyed craft beer. The mind reels at this outpouring of judgement based on such inconsequential details of a person’s life.

And it has gotten a little out of control. Take the recent anti-austerity protests, for example, where an angry mob targeted not Starbucks, McDonalds or, even, a Versace shop that had just opened around the corner as the object of their anti-capitalist rage; but an independent cafe selling cereal. Yes, everybody has a view on Cereal Killer. It is, perhaps to some, faintly ridiculous that there is a cafe selling bowls of cereal at £3.50 a pop when you can buy a whole box for half that price but, and I hate to be the one to break this, but that’s how restaurants work. Hence why a £6 bottle of wine from Sainsbury’s will set you back twenty quid in a restaurant. Regardless of this, it seems somewhat idiotic to target such a place when there are far worse offenders out there: ironic beards or no ironic beards. I’ve been there a couple of times and don’t remember feeling particularly offended by anything I found there.

Certain foods have also got caught up in this mania. Kale, much like avocado, has been tarnished with the hipster tag for some time; inspiring several memes where eaters are encouraged to ‘get over themselves’ in favour of something less fashionable; a bag of chips, for example. Whilst it is funny to watch foodies fall over themselves to praise the latest trend in gastronomy, it doesn’t need to necessarily be derided by the masses. Kale has been around for ages. Hailing from an Anglo-Irish background, I was energetically lectured about ‘how good it is for you,’ and have subsequently eaten a lot as an adult as a way to try and fend off colds, not die etc. This resurgence in its popularity means that there are new and inventive ways of enjoying it, and new recipes to try out, which my Irish grandmother, boiling it for half an hour in water, did not have access to. That can only be a good thing.

Ironically, she probably would have made potato cakes similar to these, but in the form of bubble and squeak.  Again, I’ve enjoyed bubble and squeak all my life, but it was only when I moved to London ten years ago that I ever had it for breakfast. The crispy edges are the perfect contrast to soft egg yolk, and the creamy innards work so well smeared across a bit of sausage or crispy bacon.

This recipe uses a mixture of kale and spinach, but you can use any leafy greens you have. This is a perfect time of year to make them, as there are so many robust varieties available in the farmers markets. Serve them up with anything you like. At the risk of being labelled hipsters, we had ours with a couple of poached eggs and a hefty slick of Sriracha. Then posted them on Instagram.

Kale, Spinach and Spring Onion Potato Cakes

6 spring onions
A large handful of a mixture of kale and spinach, or whatever leafy greens you have
2 eggs
Sea salt and black pepper
30g breadcrumbs
375g leftover mashed potato
Olive oil

Cook the spring onions in boiling water until soft, about five minutes, then chop finely.  In a medium bowl, combine the spring onions, leafy greens, eggs, salt and pepper, breadcrumbs and mashed potato and mix until fully combined.

Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Scoop balls of the potato mixture into the pan and flatten with a spatula (I use the equivalent of about two tablespoons.)  Cook for a couple of minutes until browned, then flip over to the other side.

Serve on a plate with poached eggs and hot sauce.

Adapted from a recipe by Smitten Kitchen

Chicken and Dumplings for the Overworked Soul

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Last week I came down with a cold. Before this, I had some friends over for drinks and three of them, my husband included, had a sniffle, and by mid-week it felled me too. Without meaning to sound too much like a water-cooler conversation, it seems to be the time of year. In fact, whenever I look through old blogs, posts and diaries, I can always find something written around the end of September or the beginning of October where I complain about how ill I am.

Sapped of energy and the desire to do anything beyond watch daytime television and sleep, cooking is often the last thing on my mind. Not only because the process involves so much standing up, but also that I just cannot face the dishes afterwards. That being said, there are only so many sandwiches I can eat, and I know that there is always one dish that makes me feel so much better.

My nan would always make us chicken and dumplings when we were ill as children and, now, as an adult, I cannot decide if it’s the dish itself or the association that revives me so much. The memory of being wrapped in a blanket in her living room, close to the fire, watching her big old television and eating this hearty stew from a bowl is certainly restorative, but I do think there is something in the dish itself.

As with all of  her cooking, that I loved so much, she never wrote down any recipes, and subsequently they were lost when she died nearly four years ago. To be honest, I’m sure there was actually no recipe to follow, she just threw in things that she happened to have around the house, as with many of the dishes she made. I’ve tried to recreate it as best I can, cobbling together ideas that I’ve found online and a rather good recipe in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Notes from My Kitchen Table, which uses suet-free dumplings that I much prefer.

It is, perhaps, not the easiest dish to make when you’re under the weather, after all, it involves jointing a whole chicken, but it is worth the effort. If you’re ill, it is best enjoyed with a bottle of Lucozade (another throwback from my childhood), if you aren’t, I suppose a glass of white wine will do.

Chicken and Dumplings

1 whole chicken, jointed into two legs, two thighs and four breast pieces
Sea salt and black pepper
Olive oil
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped
2 rashers back bacon, cut into 2cm pieces
1 bay leaf
½ tsp dried thyme
150ml dry white wine
500ml chicken stock

For the dumplings
125g plain flour
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
150ml single cream

Preheat the oven to 200c and season the chicken pieces.

Heat some oil in a large frying pan (with a lid) or chef’s pan over a medium-high heat. Brown the chicken pieces on both sides, about 5-6 minutes per side, and remove to a plate.  Add the celery, carrot, leek, bacon, bay leaf and thyme to the pan and cook for 10 minutes over a medium-low heat until the vegetables are soft and translucent but not browned.

Return the chicken to the pan and add the white wine, letting it bubble up and evaporate a little, for two minutes. Add the stock, with a little more seasoning, and bring to the boil.  Turn off the heat, cover the pan with a circle of greaseproof paper, then the lid, and transfer to the oven.  Cook in the oven for 1 ½ hours. Check periodically and if the sauce looks like it is reducing too much, add some water.

Meanwhile, combine the dumplings ingredients in a medium bowl and mix until a shaggy dough is formed. Take the pan out of the oven, discard the paper and lid and scoop large spoonfuls of the dumpling mixture on top of the chicken. Put the pan back into the oven for 10 minutes until the dumplings are golden.