Elderflowers and roses

There are roses everywhere. Varying hues in all the back gardens – deep reds, yellows and peach in ours, a vibrant fuchsia next door. Delicate white and pink blooms climb up the gates of the old church in the square. Given we don’t venture far right now, these new flowers make our daily walks all the prettier as we literally stop to smell the roses.

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On Saturday morning we were forced out of the house by Lexie who was doing acrobatics at 7am. We went on a little nature trail to see the aforementioned roses and find ‘treasure’…. a cat or squirrel, perhaps a puddle… (here are some pretty nature trail free print outs). I was beyond happy to discover a huge clump of fragrant elderflowers at the end of the square.

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Back home we roped dad into making elderflower cordial. Lexie proved herself most adept at this task and she particularly enjoyed pulling off any little bugs. We tried a River Cottage recipe and found it to be lovely. Here’s what they recommend: “The sweetly scented, creamy-white flowers of the elder tree appear in abundance in hedgerows, scrub, woodlands and wasteland at the beginning of summer. The fresh flowers make a terrific aromatic cordial. They are best gathered just as the many tiny buds are beginning to open, and some are still closed. Gather on a warm, dry day (never when wet), checking the perfume is fresh and pleasing. Trees do differ and you will soon get to know the good ones. Remember to leave some flowers for elderberry picking later in the year.”

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Elderflower cordial

For about 2 litres

  • About 25 elderflower heads
  • Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150ml in total)
  • 1kg sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp citric acid (optional)

Check the elderflower heads removing any insects and put the flower heads in a large bowl with the orange and lemon zest.

Pour 1.5 litres of boiling water over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave to infuse overnight.

Strain the liquid through a piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon and orange juice and the citric acid if using. Gently heat and dissolve the sugar and simmer for a few minutes.

Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. We sterilised by pouring boiling water into Kilner bottles, draining then leaving to air dry but we plan to drink the cordial quickly. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks.

Here’s how to make the Twinkle, a great elderflower cocktail: Put 25ml vodka (or gin) and 15ml elderflower cordial in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake then pour into a champagne coupe and top up with fizz. Garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

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Asparagus soup with poached egg on toast

There has been a chill in the air all of this week. We’ve been spending a lot of time indoors which I always find a struggle. At home Lexie seems to need constant attention. Why is she incapable of playing by herself? Ever? It drives me nuts! In an attempt to do something fun with her that wouldn’t end in (my) tears, we built our first fort. Thankfully it was a success, though it took a while to convince Lexie she didn’t have to put all her toys and clothes in it. Does anyone else’s child love stuffing everything into places? Lexie is obsessed with cramming things into her suitcase/bag/oven/Sylvanian camper van.

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Another soup recipe from me today. It seems fitting for the chilly weather. It’s from the Jamie at Home cookbook which is divided into seasons. Under spring falls my great love asparagus. I’ve tried all the recipes in this section and the standout winner is this creamy asparagus soup with poached egg on toast. It is really delicious and tastes so luxurious despite the lack of cream and butter.

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The book tells me asparagus is one of the most nutritious vegetables you can eat, full of vitamins and folic acid. It is also a diuretic and a good liver cleanser (although I think this soup is lovely with a nice glass of white burgundy). Lexie really enjoys eating this and helping to make it. She likes making soups as our handheld blender is broken so I have to use the magimix and she gets to press the button. She also loves poaching the egg, helping me crack it into a little bowl and stirring the water to create a vortex.

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Asparagus soup with poached egg on toast

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 35 mins
Budget: £5 (£3 asparagus, 20p onion, 20p celery, 50p leek, £1.30 eggs)
Ease: Easy for the soup – medium for the poached egg
Serves: 4

  • 1 bunch of asparagus, rinsed, trimmed of edges and chopped into 2cm pieces
  • 1 sliced leek
  • 1 sliced onion
  • 1 sliced stick of celery
  • Chicken stock cube
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 egg per person
  • Bread – ciabatta is nice for this recipe

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Gently heat a little olive oil in a saucepan and add the onion, celery and leek with a little salt. Sweat gently for 10 minutes without browning. Add the asparagus, stock cube and top up with water. You can make this soup as thick or as thin as you like depending on how much water you add. Cook for 20-30 mins. When it’s ready whizz it in a blender and season to taste. A word of warning – once I made this in a rush, didn’t sweat the vegetables and cooked it for just under 20 mins. The result was like eating the leftover stringy pulp from a juicer! So definitely respect the cooking times!

My method of poaching eggs is not foolproof and doesn’t always work (I mean doesn’t always look pretty). Use the freshest eggs you can and crack them into bowls – one bowl per egg. Boil a small saucepan full of water and add a small splash of vinegar and a tiny bit of salt. Reduce the heat so the water is simmering and create a vortex by swirling a spoon around the water. Pour the egg into this simmering vortex and leave for 3 minutes. If doing more than one egg make sure you pour it into a different part of the saucepan at the same time – I’ve never done more than 2 at a time! Start toasting the bread and when the egg is done, remove with a slotted spoon and place on the toast. Serve the soup either as Jamie does, with the poached egg and toast resting on top of the soup or, as I do, on the side.

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Braised fennel, tomatoes and chickpeas (nice with cod)

When I was pregnant we lived with my mother-in-law for six months. Our beautiful flat (that we no longer live in… sigh) was being renovated. We moved into it in September and Lexie was born a month later. Although it was a bit stressful being displaced, it was also a golden time. Living in her light, airy Georgian house that summer I felt extraordinarily free. I wasn’t working, I spent a lot of time napping, reading and sitting in the shade of the fragrant garden. It was an oblique time compounded by the displacement perhaps and I was very happy.

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She also cooked us so many wonderful meals. This is one of her recipes that I love. Fragrant, filling and nutritious, I usually make this with baked or pan fried cod but it’s lovely by itself too. Ideally use dried chickpeas using the cooking water as the stock, but I rarely have the foresight and use tins. I haven’t managed to get Lex to eat the fennel yet but she loves the tomatoes, chickpeas, fish and broth.

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Braised fennel, tomatoes and chickpeas

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 20-30 mins
Budget: £5 no fish, £10-£15 with fish (£1 chickpeas, £1.50 tomatoes, £1 fennel, £1.50 herbs)
Ease: Easy
Serves: 2

  • 1 tin of chickpeas or equivalent dried chickpeas soaked overnight and cooked for 1 hour
  • 1 fennel bulb, sliced and rinsed
  • 1/2 red onion (white fine too)
  • Some small tomatoes on the vine
  • Bouillon
  • 1 clove peeled and sliced garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • A handful of chopped fresh parsley or basil
  • Splash of vermouth or sherry or white wine (optional)
  • Fillets of cod (optional)

Put the sliced onion and fennel in a pan with olive oil and some salt. Cook slowly, partially covered for 10-15 mins. Then, If using sherry or vermouth, add a splash now and sizzle for a bit until the alcohol has gone. I haven’t used any booze in this dish for ages – it’s fine without. Add the garlic and place the tomatoes into the pan and cook on a medium heat. Stir from time to time but the idea is for the tomatoes to retain their shape so stir around them with a wooden spoon. After another 20 mins add a small glass of water and a tiny sprinkle of bouillon. Add the drained and rinsed tin of chickpeas along with the chopped parsley or basil. Add more water to get the consistency you want – it can be as soupy as you like, maybe just add a little more bouillon in which case. Cook for another 5 mins or so and it should be done. Serve with olive oil for drizzling and some nice fresh bread to mop up the broth.

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  • If you have used dried chickpeas (so soaked overnight, drained and rinsed, then cooked for an hour in fresh water), use some of the cooking water in place of stock and also add the cooked chickpeas as above.
  • If having fish, either pan fry or bake. To pan fry – salt and dust the cod fillets with a little flour, heat some sunflower oil in a pan to a high heat, place skin side down and don’t touch for 2-3 mins, gently turn over add a squeeze of lemon and fry for another 2-3 mins. The fish should be ready and serve on top of the chickpea, fennel broth with a slice of lemon. To bake – place some of the chickpea, tomato and fennel broth into a casserole and place the fish fillets on top. Drizzle the fish with olive oil, coarse sea salt and a squeeze of lemon. Put in a pre-heated oven for 10 mins – you will need to judge the cooking according to your oven and the size of the fish – when done the fish should be flaky and slightly translucent.

Here is a picture of my mum and Lexie enjoying my mother-in-law’s beautiful garden last summer.

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Leo and Lexie eat pesto – it is a success

Sarah is one of my oldest friends. We met at secondary school but lost touch during our early 20s. By chance we both moved to Waterloo and bumped into each other in Borough market. Our kids are 5 months apart and it was so brilliant living by such a good friend during pregnancy and that difficult first year! I was very sad when Sarah and little Leo left us to move to a humongous house in West London 😦 Thankfully there is a speedy train between us so meeting up is not impossible (it’s still not the same Sarah!! We miss you!!).

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Leo and Lexie have a special relationship. It’s safe to say I consider him to be my future son-in-law (although he has a lot of competition from Albert… and Louie…). Apologies in advance for the photo overload – these two are just too cute. Most of the photos are from Lexie’s second birthday party which was loosely themed ‘Confetti and Cake!’

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Leo now has a baby brother Charlie, in those pics above Sarah is heavily pregnant! The other week we hopped on the train and went to visit this little family. Sarah prepared the most delicious pasta pesto using a recipe she adapted from the Eagle gastropub’s cookbook reducing the garlic and salt. I was secretly hoping the kids wouldn’t finish theirs so I could have more but they scoffed the lot! They also tried to feed the baby pasta which they found hilarious!

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Sarah kindly gave me her recipe and here it is. This is great to make with kids if you have a food processor. Lexie absolutely loved helping me – all she had to do was press the scary button on the magimix which terrified her at first and then became such a big thrill!

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Sarah’s pasta with pesto

  • A large bunch of fresh basil
  • 45 g approx of pine nuts
  • 2 1/2 heaped tbsp of grated parmesan
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled (or even 1/2 garlic clove)
  • Salt – Sarah left this out for the kiddies
  • 100ml olive oil
  • Pasta

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Either chop the basil, pine nuts and garlic by hand then pound in a pestle and mortar, or pulse in a food processor. Then slowly add the oil either by hand or in the processor still. Finally stir in the grated cheese by hand. Season to taste with salt if using. Cook the pasta as per the packet instructions and – importantly – when draining do it very quickly so a little of the pasta water is retained. This will help loosen up the pesto sauce. Add 2 tbsp of pesto per 200g of pasta or to taste, mix well and serve with extra parmesan. I only mixed a tiny bit of sauce for Lexie as it has raw garlic which is hard to digest. Err on the side of caution if serving to little ones.

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  • An even simpler ‘cheat’ pesto that is ideal for little ones is pasta with a little olive oil and lots of chopped basil and grated parmesan – tastes very similar and is lighter on little tummies.

Globe artichoke with butter and lemon

I distinctly remember the first time I ate a globe artichoke. It was 2002 in Aix en Provence where I was living for 6 months as a student. Here’s a pic of me outside my wonderful studio flat! There are a gazillion things I loved about living there – the weather, the beautiful architecture, the beaches and countryside of Provence – and of course the wonderful food markets and bakeries.

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One week my cousin from Australia came to visit me and we duly perused the local market. She bought huge globe artichokes and cooked them so simply, with some melted butter and lemon to dip the leaves into. We ate the artichokes on my little rooftop balcony, watching the sun set with a bottle of Rose! La vie est belle!

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Yesterday I cooked a wonderful roast chicken for a big Sunday lunch with my mum – her first proper outing since a knee operation in January. I made Mimi Thorisson’s lemon, thyme and rosemary roast chicken and it was delicious – I highly recommend it! Mum and I love artichokes and, spotting them at the market, they were an obvious starter along with some asparagus.

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Globe artichoke with butter and lemon

Prep time: 2 mins
Cooking time: 20-30 mins
Budget: £5 (2 artichokes for £5)
Ease: easy
Serves 2-4

  • 2 globe artichokes
  • Half a pack of butter
  • 1 lemon
  • Salt

Place the artichokes in a deep pan, cover with water and boil for 20-30 mins until it’s easy to pull the leaves off. Just before serving make the butter sauce – melt the butter gently in a pan, add salt and a good squeeze of lemon juice to taste. Drain the artichoke and serve alongside the buttery dipping sauce and a big bowl for the discarded leaves.

(In the pic below Lexie is protesting that she wants to start eating NOW!!)

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Simple asparagus tapas

My family is obsessed with asparagus. In fact I think the whole of the Basque country is obsessed. Whenever we have big family dinners there’s always a plate of asparagus as an appetiser, it’s always in the bars – the ubiquitous green vegetable. If it’s a special occasion, like Christmas, we have delicate white asparagus served with langoustines and mayonnaise – divine! I’m very very happy that my daughter loves asparagus too!

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Here is a super simple and traditional way to serve a tapas of asparagus! This is my go-to starter for all meals with friends and family – I made it recently as a starter for friends before crab linguine, and yesterday as a starter before a delicious roast chicken (I made Mimi Thorisson’s rosemary, lemon and thyme roast chicken – I highly recommend this recipe!). It’s great with other tapas – jamon, boquerones, Spanish tortilla, garlic mushrooms, pan tumaca etc.

I just have to add, having written asparagus a few times now, it is totally one of those words the more you write it, the weirder it becomes! Is it really spelt like that etc!?! Apparently it derives from a latin word that derives from a greek work that derives from the Persian ‘asparag’ meaning to sprout or to shoot! There you go!

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Asparagus tapas

Prep time: 1 min
Cooking time: 5mins
Ease: Easy

  • 1 bunch of green asparagus, rinsed and ends trimmed
  • 1 lemon
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Place the asparagus in a wide pan and cover with water. Parboil for a few mins depending on thickness. Drain and set aside. Heat the olive oil in the same pan on quite a high heat, add the asparagus and sprinkle with salt. Fry for a couple of mins then you can shake the pan a bit or turn the asparagus with a fork. Add a generous squeeze of lemon and after a couple more minutes they should be done. Sometimes I cook asparagus on a really high heat and blacken some of the sides, other times I lightly fry them – they are pretty versatile!

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Spaghetti with prawns and aubergine

They said on the radio it’s been the wettest January in 250 years. Unsurprisingly I’ve started dreaming of summer, blue skies, the sea the sea…

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Every summer we spend a week at Lewis dad’s house in Provence near Cassis. It’s on the coast and the light is incredible – a never ending horizon of blue. Thinking of these far off summer days I put on some Francoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg then made this wonderful recipe of my French mother-in-laws I had for the first time on one of these holidays.

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Spaghetti with prawns and aubergine

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 20-30 mins
Budget: £10-15 depending on prawns (£5 for 6 prawns, £1.50 tomatoes, £1.50 basil, £1 aubergine)

  • 3 prawns per person (sounds stingy but they are huge and it’s all about the amazing juices they release into the pasta)
  • 6 vine tomatoes
  • Chopped fresh basil
  • 1 aubergine sliced into thin rounds
  • 1 or 2 cloves of crushed garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Make this fresh tomato sauce. Put the pasta on to boil as per the packet instructions (usually 8-10 mins). Put the aubergine on a baking tray, season and rub with oil and crushed garlic. Grill until turning golden on both sides, remove and set aside on a plate. Season the prawns and mix in a bowl with some oil and crushed garlic. Heat a griddle pan as hot as it will go and fry for roughly 3 mins on each side or until the prawns are happy and rosy. Set aside on a plate (this is also how you do the prawns for my garlic and lemon butterbeans recipe). Once the pasta is done, drain and mix into the tomato sauce. Serve with the separate plates of aubergine, prawns and basil so everyone can help themselves. Remember a spare bowl for the prawn shells and lots of napkins! Lexie loves loves loves prawns – look at her little mitts grabbing them below!

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