Skip to content

Little Blueberry Cakes for a Picnic

A picnic was promised. I’ve been booking weekly slots to go to Kew Gardens since it reopened. I do miss just being able to go there spontaneously on a nice day since the gardens are local to me, just a couple of miles away, but I’m grateful they’re open again and I can once more enjoy the splendour of these world famous botanical gardens.

The problem with booking slots a week or so ahead of time is you can’t be sure of the weather and weather forecasts these days seem to change by the hour. However, as Monday is a good day for me I’ve taken to booking a morning slot then and add an extra ‘guest’ as my membership allows me to take someone else in. Last week it was friend Louise (which was particularly exciting as I hadn’t actually met up a friend by plan since Lockdown); two more friends are booked in over coming weeks. But this week I asked my son if I could take grandson Freddie. Freddie (5½) is back at school two days a week. He loves Kew Gardens; like most kids he loves big open spaces! He’s been going to Kew since he was a babe in arms and regularly since. I took him to the Chihuly exhibition there a year ago and he was so excited by it he was looking for the glass sculptures as we went in yesterday and I had to remind him they weren’t there any longer.

With an entry time of 11.00-11.45 we were going to be there at lunchtime so I promised a picnic. And a picnic has to have cake. Well doesn’t it? It does is you’re a 5 year old! I’m not a great baker, as in I don’t bake cakes often and only from a small repertoire. Even then it mainly consists of banana muffins, using up that suddenly ripened bunch that were not fit eating yesterday and won’t be fit for eating tomorrow. I love bananas but the ripening process brings its challenges. The ones sitting in my bowl from the Waitrose delivery at the weekend were still so green they weren’t fit for anything at all. So an alternative was needed. When I was a child my mother regularly baked rock cakes on Sundays. We all loved her rock cakes. So I dug out an old rock cake recipe. But as some of the family don’t eat raisins or candied peel (and I’m talking the grown-ups here, not the kids), I’ve taken to substituting any dried fruit with blueberries. So a blueberry version of rock cakes was born.

I also wanted to try out some new flour I’d ordered from Shipton Mill. I hadn’t been able to resist one of their speciality flours – Organic Fig, Spelt and Pumpkin Seed Flour. I’d had bread in mind but I’m not sure when that’s going to happen so I decided to use some in the ‘rock cakes’ as the fruity seed aspect seemed great for cakes. I thought 100% might be too much so mixed half quantity with Shipton Mill’s Heritage Blend organic white flour. If you don’t have the special flour, use all white or a mix of white and wholewheat.

I used the rock cake recipe as a guide to quantities as rock cakes (as their name suggests) are quite solid little cakes, which makes them perfect for picnics and small hands. Usually one puts the stiff dough in clumps on a baking tray but I decided to use muffin cases, again for picnic ease. I started with my 40-year-old recipe but took things as I fancied along the way. Most baking requires strict attention to the rules (maybe that’s why baking doesn’t really appeal to me!) but rock cakes are friendly little cakes that don’t take life too seriously and humoured me with their flexibility.

Because I used an old recipe the measurements are in old Imperial. I’ve put metric guide in brackets but use one or the other rather than mix.

 

Little Blueberry Cakes for a Picnic – Makes 12

  • 6oz (175g) Fig, Spelt & Pumpkin flour (or wholewheat)
  • 6oz (175g) organic white flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 6 oz (175g) soft butter
  • 6oz (175g) soft brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or essence
  • 1 egg
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk
  • 4 oz (110g) blueberries

Preheat oven to 190C/Fan 170/Gas 5

 

   

Measure the flours into a bowl and add the baking powder. Put the butter and sugar into another bowl. Rock cakes are usually made with the butter rubbed into the flour, like making pastry, but I wanted a more cake effect for the cakes I was making and so mixed the butter and sugar well together first.

 

Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and egg. Beat again.

 

Tip in the flours and beat until it just comes together. Add a little milk if too stiff, though it is supposed to be a stiff dough. Then stir in the blueberries carefully.

   

You can see below how stiff it is.

Transfer to 12 muffin cases in a muffin tin.

Put into the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, taking them out when nicely golden. Transfer to a rack to cool.

They didn’t look ‘beautiful’ but they smelled very enticing! And I could see the little specks of dried fig and pumpkin seeds that would add flavour and texture.

It was a pretty windy and chilly day given the heatwave of only a few days’ ago. But there’s no telling a 5 year old that it’s too cold for a walk! I gave Freddie the option of choosing which way we walked. We went to the Palm House first to look at the geese and ducks on the pond in front of it. At which point Nonna had to confess that she’d forgotten to bring the Quack Snacks to feed them, but Freddie turned out to be most excited by the huge fish he could see swimming around and coming to the surface – about ½ metre or more long. Then I suggested we made our way to the larger lake where we’d find lots more ducks, geese and even swans. Freddie remembered the bridge (Sackler Crossing) and said he wanted to go across it.

There were people around and I reminded him of social distancing and we mustn’t go too close to others walking, but he’s a sensible little chap who now has a good understanding of these things so Nonna didn’t have to keep reminding him or stress about upsetting anyone. As we moved further away from the entrance it was quieter anyway; only a few people around, so Freddie was able to run around and have great fun.

We spent a long time at the lake. A lone teenage duckling was amongst a group of geese who were hassling it. Freddie wanted the little duck to find its family. Then the duck flew off, which was a cause of wonder and excitement. It didn’t go far and we slowly followed it. Freddie crouched down – so it wouldn’t be frightened, he told me – and got really close and we were befriended. It took some persuasion to eventually move on as Freddie would have stayed there all day!

Freddie was charged with finding a bench to eat our picnic. I suggested not too close to the geese! He spied one up a little hill amongst trees near the lake and we settled down to eat. It was a simple picnic (we weren’t in Wimbledon or Glyndebourne mode) – just some sandwiches, a tub of cucumber and carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, olives (because all my grandsons love olives) … and cakes!!

They may not have looked pretty but wow … they tasted brilliant! The special flour had brought a gorgeous extra taste to them and I love the way the blueberries burst just a little into the dough. The picnic was a success. But then even the 5 year old was feeling the wind and cold were getting a bit much and asked if we could go back to Nonna’s house now. But we’d been there for almost a couple of hours and, according to my phone, walked a couple of miles … so home it was.

Dreaming of Travelling

Like many people, I’m really missing making travel plans during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m fortunate that in normal times I get away four or five times a year. Usually for short breaks and rarely longer than a week. I like to always have something to look forward to in the fairly near future, and as I travel solo a lot, and like cities, short breaks suit me well.

As the world begins to open up again, albeit with many restrictions still, we can start to think about travelling again. But this proves to be a bit of a minefield for discussion; people have very different ideas about when they would go abroad, jump on a plane, stay in a hotel, or wander round a city again. Even ‘normal’ life reveals a big range of what is acceptable to people, never mind what is actually ‘allowed’ now. Some people are still having to shield; some people still don’t feel comfortable going out at all; some wear masks and gloves while others (unless it’s mandatory, like on public transport) wouldn’t dream of it. Many people say they can’t envisage when they’d go into a restaurant, cinema or theatre again, let alone into an airport and onto a plane; others can’t wait to get back into pubs and restaurants. This isn’t a time for judgements. Everyone must do what they’re happy with and according to their own personal circumstances.

Nothing is risk free, of course, and I happen to think that so many safety precautions are being put in place in airports and on planes that it’s probably not that unsafe. But for me, the real issue is not the flight itself, but the hassle involved in getting on the plane in the first place and what I’ll find the other end. Places like Italy and Spain may have ‘opened up’ but there are still restrictions. I’m not keen on the idea of arriving and finding I can’t wander in and out of restaurants, cafes and bars at will; visit art galleries and museums without a mask or having to maintain a ‘social’ distance as I go round; sit in places separated from fellow diners by glass or plastic panels; be surrounded by and served by people wearing masks. Frankly, I think, just what kind relaxing holiday would that be! It actually feels easier to just stay at home where I’m now accustomed to what I can do and what to expect. I’m actually spending less money than usual because I’m not going to theatres and restaurants or travelling, so it makes sense to save towards a pandemic-free holiday next year and plan to treat myself a bit more than normal.

I started an ‘After the Lockdown … ‘ list a few weeks ago. It was both an action of positivity and optimism, and a bit of a reality check. There seemed no point in planning a trip this year. If things change dramatically for the better than I can book a last-minute trip but otherwise, let’s concentrate on and look forward to a sunnier future in 2021.

It got me thinking about the kind of holidays I’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. It also made me think about the many things we’ve learnt – and hopefully will remember and act on – from the pandemic. So, of course, we must all take the care of our world into account and all the environmental issues we’ve been largely reluctant to engage with up to now. Thus my planning has been about exploring ideas for fewer but longer trips; less miles in the air over a year.

It’s made me feel better to look towards some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Then a couple of days ago I saw an article in National Geographic magazine about ‘why planning a trip can help your mental health’. So now it was official – thinking ahead really was good for me.

What’s interesting is where my dreams take me. In normal times I like to return to old favourite destinations with one or two new ones in a year. But my longings are for places I know well or a bit already. I crave the comfort of the familiar. This made me realise that the stress we’ve all be under for the past three months, even when we think we’ve adjusted and are doing okay, surfaces at the prospect of dealing with anything new or vaguely challenging. Of course, this is personal. I’m sure some people are longing to at last make a reality a trip to somewhere they’ve always dreamed of going. If the pandemic has done nothing else (and of course it’s done plenty), it’s highlighted that we should enjoy life while we may and not put off things that we could do now.

Certain things have ignited my desire for travel to particular places.

I want to go back to beautiful Turin because it’s become a favourite haunt and I had to cancel my trip there in March; a trip I’d planned out carefully, not only staying in one of my favourite hotels anywhere, Grand Hotel Sitea, but now I knew the restaurants and cafes I liked best, I would just indulge myself in enjoying them and not pressurise myself into feeling I should try new places.

I have a great yearning to return to Granada, which I visited for the first time in 2017. I have some earrings I bought there and always think of the beautiful city when I put them on. And I listen to ClassicFM most of the time I’m in the house (and car!) and whenever they play Francisco Tarrega’s ‘Recuerdoes de la Alhambra’ (Memories of the Alhambra), which they do quite often, it stirs my own memories and I always think: ‘I must go there again.’

It was Fred Sirieix’s new series of Remarkable Places to Eat last Thursday that put Marrakesh in my mind again. I find him very entertaining and I really enjoyed watching him wandering around this Moroccan city with Andi Oliver and eating the kind of gorgeous food I love. I’ve only been to Marrakesh a couple of times; the last back in 2008 with my friend Tina. So it really must be time I returned to this vibrant, colourful and exciting city.

It’s a remarkable 5 years since I was last in Venice – April 2015. I say remarkable because I love it so much and have been so many times, I’ve lost count. I’ve been in touch by email with Walter and Sandro, owners of my favourite hotel – Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo – during the pandemic to ask how they are. I promised I would visit when I could. The hotel has reopened but I want to wait for things to ease more and become a bit more normal before I book a trip.

Are you dreaming of travelling? Where would you like to go on your first post-pandemic trip? Do please let me know.

Linguine with Tuna, Tomatoes & Olives

It turned out to be a perfect supper plan. After my lovely afternoon with the family at Wisley Gardens, a simple, easy-to-prepare supper was ideal. It was really a store-cupboard meal, even though the idea of just rooting around to see what I had in store wasn’t the inspiration. The inspiration was Donna Leon’s Unto Us A Son Is Given – her 28th Commissario Brunetti novel.

My book group has a theme once a month and in April our theme was crime. One of the authors who came out as well liked was Donna Leon and her Brunetti series. I was pretty sure I had one of the books somewhere … don’t we all buy books we don’t get round to reading, or not for a long time? … but I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I ordered the latest in paperback: Unto Us A Son Is Given.

As a freelance book editor, I spend a lot of time reading books that I might not choose to read. Sometimes this works well and I discover a new author I like a lot; sometimes it’s a struggle to read a book word by careful word which is a necessary part of the job. So my new Donna Leon waited until there was a break in work – and what a treat it turned out to be. I really don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get to know Commissario Brunetti. Apart from being set in beautiful Venice (that I love and know so well), Brunetti – much like his counterpart down in Sicily, Commissario Montalbano – is very fond of his food, and food features quite a lot in the book. Brunetti goes for lunch with a colleague one day to a favourite restaurant, the colleague ‘passed a menu to Brunetti. It was a show gesture and meaningless. Brunetti always ate paccheri with tuna, olives and pomodorini’. And thus my supper was born. I didn’t have paccheri (large tubes of pasta commonly used for fish dishes in Italy), but I did have linguine. And I ordered the next, 29th, Brunetti novel for my next reading treat …

I didn’t really need a recipe but thought it was fun to look through my books. It took a surprising amount of time (for someone who has so many Italian cookbooks!) but then I found pretty much what I had in mind in Giorgio Locatelli’s Made at Home. Giorgio uses spaghetti rather than linguine. He does use tinned tuna but is more particular about his olives than I was planning to be. I had some good quality pitted Kalamata olives open, but Giorgio says you must always use olives with stones then ‘crush them, so that the bitterness from the stone is released into the flesh, before pitting them’. A step too far for me yesterday … I also put some shallot into my tomato sauce, not just garlic as he does, because that’s the way I like to make it.

I had some excellent quality tinned chopped tomatoes which I buy in Corto Deli; they’re amazing. I also had some very good tuna in olive oil that I buy in Waitrose to keep in my store cupboard. I normally use it for sandwiches at lunchtime; maybe a salad but mostly I’ll buy fresh tuna if planning to make a meal with it.

The dish is very easy to put together; it’s also adaptable. If you have a different kind of pasta, use what you have; it’s OK to use green olives rather than black; if you don’t have capers or fresh parsley, leave them out; if you don’t like spicy food leave out the chilli. The essentials are the pasta, tuna, tomato and olives. As I was cooking just for myself I made the sauce with one 400g tin of tomatoes but kept half back to freeze for another day, before adding the tuna, olives and parsley at the end.

 

Linguine with Tuna, Tomatoes & Olives 

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely grated
  • 1 pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • level teaspoon capers
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • linguine (about 100g per serving)
  • a few black olives
  • small (80g) tin good quality tuna
  • small handful roughly chopped parsley

 

 

Heat the olive oil with the chopped shallot in a medium-sized saucepan. As the shallot starts to soften (1-2 minutes), add the grated garlic and pinch of chilli. Let it cook for another couple of minutes until the shallot has softened but not coloured.

 

Add the chopped tomatoes and capers. Season with salt and pepper (take care with the salt if your capers are a bit salty; if preserved in salt, rinse them first. Also bear in mind saltiness of olives at the end). Give it all a good stir, bring up to a simmer and then turn heat down to low and cook gently with a lid for about 10-15 minutes. [If you’re cooking for just one, divide the sauce in half once ready to freeze one portion for another day.]

 

Meanwhile, cook the pasta (about 10 minutes or according to instructions on your packet). Try to match the cooking time to when the sauce will be ready so everything can go together as it’s done.

   

Add the olives, tuna (flake it a bit as you take it from the tin) and chopped parsley. Stir carefully to mix all well together. Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water. Tip the pasta into the tuna and tomato sauce, with a little of the water. Stir well over a medium heat for a minute or two.

 

Transfer to a serving plate and – if the fancy takes you – sprinkle over a little more chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil.

It really was delicious. I served it on one of my lovely Italian plates for maximum gorgeous effect. It’s the sort of dish that you can quickly put together from ingredients easily found in your store cupboard but despite its simplicity, it’s very special. Hopefully Commissario Brunetti would approve!

A Family Outing to RHS Garden Wisley

Wisley gardens are one of my favourite places to go. Just a 20-minute drive from my home, they’re a regular destination. Normally – not in lockdown times – they have a terrific schedule of events and exhibitions and I’ve been there a lot with the family – to see an exhibition of life-sized safari animals made of Lego; huge dinosaur sculptures; butterflies in the Glasshouse; birds of prey displays. During the 3-months of lockdown, Wisley been one of the places I’ve really missed going to. But now it’s open again!

Just as for my visit to the reopened Kew Gardens, even as a RHS Member (which I and all the family are), it’s necessary to book an entry slot. Lyndsey organised it all and we were booked to go in between 2-3pm today. We arrived a bit after two and were surprised by how busy the large car park was – it took quite a while to find a space.

At the entrance we came first to a long queue for the Garden Centre & Shop, with the social distancing 2m marked out for people. Wisley’s garden centre is my favourite; it’s wonderful, both for the huge choice of plants and their fantastic quality. But there was no way I was going to join that queue after our visit!

The queue into the actual gardens wasn’t so long and also had 2m-markers indicating the space to leave between people.

The boys (5½ and 2½) were so excited to be back, recognising Wisley from previous outings. They were literally jumping for joy and rushing around.

Freddie wanted to go to see the bear. The bear – a large sculpture by a stream, catching a fish – was formally a thing of great fear. He was terrified when he first saw it and on subsequent trips we had to distract him so he didn’t see it. But since that time Freddie has discovered David Attenborough, loves wildlife programmes, and the bear is now a cause for excitement of a happy kind. He even knew the way to go, leading us up some steps towards the Jellicoe Canal and the iconic Laboratory building – such a recognisable feature of Wisley – and from there past the walled garden.

The walled garden has a wonderful display of ‘alternatives to box’ hedges.

There was also an amazing display of acers in the borders. As a family we’re a bit addicted to acers (don’t ask me why! We just love them) and the ones seen here and others in the Wisley gardens are glorious.

Walking along the path by the Alpine Meadow we saw the bear. The boys were so happy and excited and we stopped there for a while.

 

We cut through a path by the bear and into Oakwood, a lovely wooded area with little winding paths going through it. It was actually quite busy so we took the quietest routes. There was a lot of colour, which was a joy to see.

We looked at the Gunnera manicata – the giant’s rhubarb. It did indeed look like enormous rhubarb but I’m not at all sure it was rhubarb of the culinary kind!

Eventually we emerged from the woods to find ourselves facing the Glasshouse. During these socially distancing times, it’s closed but they’d put a lovely display of plants by the entrance.

There’s also a lake there with a few ducks to please the boys.

We started wandering up towards the arboretum but then decided we needed to head back to an open space for the boys to run around – and find coffee for ourselves!

We slowly made our way back towards the entrance and the Food Hall. That would be closed, but there were coffee stalls outside and we knew there was a big open space for the boys to run around.

We passed through Seven Acres and found a huge vegetable sculpture.

Then Freddie started running towards another of the lakes and the Japanese pagoda.

At the lake there were not just ducks but enormous fish swimming around, sometimes coming to the surface and opening their huge mouths. The boys thought this was wonderful but the anxious grandmother in me told them not to put their fingers near. The fish were coming right up to the edge and we could have easily touched them.

It’s a lovely peaceful area. I said to my son Jonathan how much I loved Wisley. I love Kew Gardens, but Wisley always seems much more intimate; a little more casual in the nicest way. Casual only in terms of how it feels to be there; the gardens are beautifully laid out and cared for and it’s one of the UK’s most famous and respected gardens. I always think of it being much smaller than Kew, but that must be because of the way it’s laid out as it’s 240 acres to Kew’s 300 acres – so smaller, but not massively so.

The grown-ups eventually got their coffee and we’d brought drinks for the boys and some banana and blueberry muffins I’d made in the morning. We sat down for a while having our snack before heading home. We’d been there for a couple of hours but planned (especially with our memberships) to go back again soon. It’s a great place for us to head to for a walk in nature and to get out of London, without it being a long trip.

Out through the exit and back towards the car park we spotted some tables set up with some plants for sale, with no need to queue for the garden centre to pay for them. It was a limited choice but I couldn’t resist buying a couple of things to bring home.

They’re now happily settled in my garden and will be a great reminder of a happy and lovely afternoon out with the family at Wisley.

Cooking with Freddie: Olive Focaccia

Well it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to cook with Freddie, my gorgeous 5½-year-old grandson. With the pandemic lockdown, for weeks we couldn’t see each other and then only at social distance, which Freddie was very strict about! ‘The virus’ is part of his new vocabulary. One has to hope there won’t be a long-term scar.

Now, as someone living alone, I’ve been able to ‘bubble’ with my son and his family (who live within walking distance) and thus seeing and even hugging Freddie is ‘allowed’. This is truly a delight.

Freddie came to my house a couple of mornings ago. Now he can visit me again, he likes being here as it’s part of his ‘normality’ (in ‘normal’ times I take him to school three days a week; pick him up once and bring him back to my house for about three hours until his mum’s home). He has toys here (shared with the other two grandsons) and knows the treats Nonna will allow him. ‘Tickle water’ for a start; i.e. Pellegrino sparkling water. Whenever the family come for a meal, Freddie’s first question will be: ‘What’s for pudding?’ Because he knows I’ll always make a dessert. A treat was on offer on Tuesday … a promise that we’d go for a walk down by Twickenham Riverside, feed the ducks and geese, and go into Corto Deli, which now sells ice cream from Gelateria Danieli. Gelato for Freddie; coffee for Nonna; Quack Snacks (a new find of safe, healthy duck food) for the ducks and geese.

But we’d also decided to make some focaccia. Freddie’s dad, my son Jonathan, makes wonderful sourdough bread; Nonna keeps things more simple and makes focaccia. Focaccia is so simple even a 5½ year old can (almost) make it (with a little help from Nonna). So that was our plan. And although I’ve made focaccia for years and years, I’d never thought of putting olives on top. But when I asked Freddie what we should put on it, ‘Olives!’ he immediately said. So we did.

I said it would be a good idea to make the dough before we went out, as it needs to be left for an hour to rise (with his dad’s regular bread making, this was completely understood by Freddie). While it was rising, I said, we’d go down to Corto and get his ice cream and feed the ducks.

For my focaccia recipe click here. I’ve started using half semola and half Italian ’00’ flour and buy these and fresh yeast from Corto.

 

We measured the flours. I pointed out the numbers on the digital scales to Freddie and we watched until we reached the required amount and he tipped them into a big bowl. We measured out the water – some boiling water and cold. Was it lukewarm? Could you leave your finger in it comfortably? No, not quite. A little more cold water. Then the fresh yeast (already weighed) went in and Freddie mixed it all together with a small whisk then poured it into a well I’d made in the flour. We added sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. Then I gave Freddie a spatula to start mixing it together.

I had to take over to gather the dough into a ball and start the kneading. Then I left him do it for a bit. (He’d already learned to knead with his dad.) I did take over after a while (10 minutes of kneading is a long time when you’re five!).

We put the dough back into the large bowl and covered the bowl with clingfilm. Now it was treat time! And we headed down to central Twickenham and the riverside.

We bought not only gelato and coffee in Corto but some prosciutto too, for lunch. We told Romina we were making focaccia and Freddie said we were going to put olives on it. Romina seemed suitably impressed; she’s always so lovely with him and has watched him grow from a tiny baby in arms to the schoolboy he is now.

Back at my house the dough had risen well.

I do think this is an exciting cooking experience for a child – the magic of the way the dough slowly puffs up! Really, who wouldn’t be awed by it.

I lifted it carefully out on to the worktop. Then knocked it back slightly and shaped it into a baking tray. I gently pushed shallow holes into the dough in rows and poured on a little olive oil and spread it all over with my fingers. I seasoned it with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper; sprinkled over a little dried oregano. Then Freddie and I counted the olives. We counted the holes I’d made first … 20. So we counted out 20 olives from the jar. Freddie carefully put an olive into each little dip. This is something that a child can easily do but gets so much satisfaction from. Now it had to be left for another 30 minutes to rise again.

The preheated oven was hot and ready and into it went the focaccia dough. A little over 10 minutes later it was beautifully golden brown and ready. Nonna lifted it out (not something for a 5 year old to do!) and transferred it to a cooling rack.

I sent a photo to my son, who was working at home: Look what Freddie and I have made! He said he’d join us for lunch.

The prosciutto that Romina had cut freshly only about an hour ago was laid on one of my lovely Italian platters. Roasted peppers in oil from a jar; buffalo mozzarella; sweet cherry tomatoes with some fresh basil; a little mound of olives in the middle. And our freshly baked focaccia. I’d cut in half (half could go back with Freddie to his home).

What a perfect lunch. What a delight to cook with Freddie again; to enjoy a simple lunch of the best ingredients with two of my favourite people in the world. Joy can be found in small moments.

The Bubble Barbecue

Ten weeks of Lockdown and for the first time, this week, I could celebrate my single, solo-living status: the government announced that as part of the gradual easing of restrictions people living alone could now form a social ‘bubble’ with one other household. While before I could go round to my son’s and sit in their garden at a 2-metre distance, I can now legally go into their house and even hug them. And with gorgeous little grandsons of 5½ and 2½, that’s a very big thing.

Fortunately there was no need to agonise over who to ‘bubble’ with. Only people living alone can do this; couples can’t and nor can two families ‘bubble’. I immediately saw how fortunate I was that I’m the sole single grandparent living near my son and his family; my daughter-in-law’s family are in North Wales. My daughter lives in Worcestershire, so again, not a practical bubble companion. I observed all this with some relief for we are only allowed to form one social bubble: how difficult it must be for some people to have to choose between one parent living alone over another; one child rather than another. It must also be difficult for some people living alone and choosing friends to ‘bubble’ with, but luckily for me, with my son a clear choice for my bubble, there’s no risk of me upsetting friends.

Yesterday we met for a walk by Twickenham Riverside and stopped at Corto Deli to buy takeaway coffees, babyccinos for the boys, and pastries to eat, and then found a bench by the River Thames to sit and enjoy our morning treat. Eel Pie Island was opposite us, a famous music venue in the 1960s where groups like The Who, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and many others started out playing.

Ducks, geese (Canadian and Egyptian varieties), and graceful swans, floated past. Small boats chugged along the river, their outboard motors seeming to strain with the effort; canoes and kayaks with serious rowers glided past, just a faint plashing sound as their oars rhythmically hit the water. Pre Lockdown, the family and I regularly met for a morning coffee on Saturdays but somehow this small step back towards a more normal life again seemed incredibly special.

It was decided that we’d have a Sunday meal together. We don’t really ‘do’ lunch – eating a big meal halfway through the day never appeals. It always seems like the second half of the day is lost to the after-effects of a big meal and most likely some alcohol. But with two little ones, supper needs to be quite early – around 6.00pm. Jonathan offered to barbecue; I offered to take lamb mince and some chicken breasts out of my freezer and make a couple of our favourite Moro recipes.

I used to live by Moro cookbooks. For years I thought of Moro as one of my favourite restaurants but for many reasons – certainly not a bad meal – I just haven’t made it back there for a few years. Moro East, Moro the Cookbook and Casa Moro are three of my most used cookbooks. Their worn appearance and a proliferation of those little sticky coloured tabs poking shyly out from the tops of pages, is testament to my addiction. It was therefore with considerable surprise that I discovered that I’d never put their ‘chicken with tahini marinade’ and ‘lamb kofte’ recipes on the blog. As a family, we’ve cooked them so many times we barely need to check the recipes when we make them. The chicken is actually a chicken wings recipe for the barbecue but I’m firmly a chicken breast person, despite the current obsession with chicken thighs for cooking. But do feel free to swap in thighs or wings for this:

Barbecued Chicken with Tahini

  • Chicken (I used 3 large chicken breasts but thighs or wings are great too)

Marinade

  • 2-3 garlic cloves, grated and mixed with 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 2 tablespoons tahini paste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix all the marinade ingredients together in a bowl, then add the chicken. Turn the chicken over (best done with your hands) and make sure it’s well coated with the marinade. I kept my breasts whole, to be sliced once barbecued, but you can cut them into smaller pieces and put on kebab sticks, if you like. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave for at least an hour before cooking. If you make it well ahead of time keep in the fridge but bring out to come back to room temperature before barbecuing.

 

Lamb Kofte (makes about 16)

  • 400g lamb mince
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion or shallot
  • good pinch of dried chilli
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely grated and mixed with 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • about 2 tablespoons fresh coriander, chopped (optional – see below)
  • freshly ground black pepper

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl by hand (don’t be tempted to put in a food processor or you’ll get a paste, which won’t work). Once everything is well mixed together, take spoonfuls of the mixture and roll into small balls with hands greased with a little oil. I actually weighed mine! (Yes, dedication to accuracy here 😉) I worked out I could make 16 balls of 27g each.

The original Moro recipe has 750g of mince and so I adapted the measurements a bit. They make larger kofte, more sausage shape, that they work onto skewers. They also use fresh chillis, which I didn’t have, but normally use, so I just guessed an amount of dried chilli. Neither did I have fresh coriander so I just left that out (I’d thought I’d pick some parsley from my garden supply but forgot until it was too late!). The message here is only that don’t worry about getting it all perfect. It’s a pretty adaptable recipe and as long as you more or less follow the original then it will all be fine.

I made some Glorious Grains & Roasted Vegetables to go with it all, but some roast potatoes and a green salad would be great too. Sometimes I make a couscous or freekeh salad, or perhaps fattoush, to accompany this kind of meal.

It was so lovely to sit round the table, en famille again. Large doors opened onto the still warm garden, glasses were raised, for it was our own small celebration of the good things in life.

Return to Kew Gardens

Everyone has missed something during Lockdown since late March, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. There have been many common experiences but each person has had their own unique experience too. There have been some really difficult things to negotiate a way through for many people but, though I long for a return to a greater ‘normality’, I’m conscious of ‘gains’ too: more regular contact, albeit via FaceTime or Skype, with some family and friends; time to mentally process changes and think about what direction I want to take as Lockdown eases; focus on what’s really important in my life. If that sounds a little serious then I think a lot of people have experienced Lockdown as an imposed Retreat and been forced to take stock of various parts of their life – and that can be a good thing!

Apart from not seeing family and friends in person, which of course has been the most difficult thing, I’ve missed theatre, cinema, restaurants, art galleries, travelling; things as simple as taking a break from work and jumping on a bus into Richmond to stroll round the shops and stop for a coffee or maybe in the summer an ice cream. I’ve missed waking on a sunny morning and being able to just jump in the car and drive the couple of miles to Kew Gardens for a long walk in what are the largest and most diverse botanical gardens in the world. So when I got an email saying they were reopening I couldn’t resist booking a slot. They’ve obviously had to adapt to the social distancing rules and therefore even Friends of Kew Gardens (like me) who can normally just turn up, wave their membership card, and go in, need to book an entry slot (at no extra cost). Numbers are limited and booking is essential – you won’t be allowed in unless you’ve pre-booked.

I had an entry time of 11.00-11.45am this morning. Once in, you can stay as long as you like. It was a bit disappointing after the wonderful weather of late that it was a cloudy and slightly chilly morning, but there wasn’t rain! I’d been informed of various rules and changes to visiting in my booking email but was a little uncertain how I would find things when I arrived. I knew that entry was only via the Victoria Gate, but you can’t exit there; you have to exit via the Lion or Elizabeth gates (the less used Brentford Gate still operates a 2-way system). Once in, I wondered, would paths be marked – like in shops now – indicating you had to go in a particular direction? It turned out that once inside you could go in any direction you liked – still adhering to the 2m social distancing rule, of course. As warned, shops and restaurants, the glasshouses and galleries, were closed. But – as also informed – there as a stall where one could buy coffee. So, it being 11am and coffee time, coffee was first on my agenda once inside.

I passed the closed main shop and cafe to find an open coffee stall tucked just round the corner.

Soon I had a hot coffee and delicious carrot muffin in my hands.

Not far away I saw an empty bench and sat down to enjoy my snack with a view across to the Palm House.

There were a few people around but – as expected – it was fairly quiet and there was going to be no difficulty in maintaining the social distance required.

I’m so used to this view but what immediately struck me, looking over to the Palm House, was the lack of colour. Usually in June one would go into the Gardens and find a blaze of glorious colours, yet there wasn’t much colour in sight. The large beds in front of the Palm House, normally full of bright bedding plants, lay empty. I guess this is because while the Gardens were closed the gardeners couldn’t work. They were clearly trying to catch up now: bedding areas were newly dug over and composted; long hosepipes were watering newly planted areas.

After finishing my coffee, I took my accustomed route round the large pond. I always love this view back across to the Palm House.

Further round I walked a little way up the Great Broad Walk. This too would normally be full of colour at this time of the year but only a few bright things could be found that seemed (a bit like in my own garden!), leftovers from last year.

 

I backtracked towards the Palm House again.

Walking round to the back of the Palm House I came to the Rose Garden where bright roses were bursting all around. From almost no colour, suddenly I was surrounded by pinks, reds and yellows. Later on I found some heavily fragranced, white Philadelphus ‘Audrey’ near the Pagoda. Their wonderful perfume filled the air.

  

But back to the Palm House – from here I walked through deserted areas towards the lake and the Sackler Crossing. It was both weird and wonderful to be there when it was so quiet. I often choose – being a local – to go into Kew Gardens at quiet times and avoid the crowds and coach loads when I can, but this was a unique kind of quietness!

The lake and crossing are one of my favourite parts of the Gardens. I thought the bridge – the Crossing – might be closed but in fact people were walking across it; a notice asked you to keep to the left at all times to maintain social distance.

I didn’t go all the way across but headed back towards the Treetop Walkway and Temperate House. I know my way round well enough to know this was good route back towards the Lion Gate where I would exit. I’d planned ahead and parked my car near there and walked along the road (about 10 minutes) to go in at Victoria Gate.

This is a route I most often take anyway, liking to stop by the Japanese Gateway and garden and enjoy a moment of stillness there.

Moving on towards the Pagoda I went right up close.

I looked up to the dragons breathing their fire from above me!

   

I walked past the Pagoda and made my way through a slightly wooded area to the Lion Gate.

Once at the gate I met a riot of bright alstroemerias. They looked so gorgeous and cheerful, it was a wonderful way to end my visit.

I really enjoyed my visit. Things may be a little different inside the Gardens – much as they’re different outside! – with less colour and more overgrown parts. They were a little wilder than normal; less manicured. But still lovely and still very special. I’ve booked to go back next week. I feel so fortunate that Kew Gardens are one of my local gardens and I want to make the most of enjoying them now. I always go a lot throughout the year, but right now my visit this morning spoke of the hope of slowly getting back to doing the things we love best.

Griddled Tuna with Mango Salsa (2)

This is the second version of a favourite family dish – hence the (2) in the title. The original version was one of my first ever posts on the blog back in 2011. I used to often make the dish, partly because I liked it so much and it’s really simple, especially for a midweek supper, but also because tuna is about the only fish my son eats – and he likes this dish a lot.

I’m still getting a lot of food online or from local deliveries. I’m going into shops again occasionally but the queues are so long that I end up thinking it’s easier to put in an online order. I like ordering fish from the local fishmonger, Sandy’s in Twickenham, but tend to order a few things at a time and freeze it. I still have some left from my last order … but no tuna. And I saw someone cooking tuna on TV the other day and was reminded I hadn’t cooked it in ages; so I added tuna steaks to my Waitrose list … and a mango! I rarely cook tuna without making this salsa; it’s just a perfect accompaniment.

But as so often happens now, a little bit of adaption was necessary this evening: I didn’t have fresh red chillies, nor lime or fresh coriander. Instead, I made the salsa a little ahead of eating so that I could put in some dried chilli flakes and give them time to soften a bit and impart their gorgeous fiery hit. The tuna was simply griddled with a bit of oil coating and seasoning. I also griddled half a Little Gem lettuce as they griddle well and are a great accompaniment to fish; I roasted some new potatoes.

Prepare the salsa about an hour before you want to eat if possible. If you’re cooking last minute, don’t worry, it will still be delicious.

 

Griddled Tuna with Mango Salsa – Serves one

  • new potatoes (enough for one) cut into chip/wedge shapes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • za’atar (optional)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tuna steak
  • ½ Little Gem lettuce

Salsa

  • Half a mango, cut into small cubes
  • ¼ small red onion, finely chopped
  • pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • handful of chopped fresh herbs (coriander if you have it or I used a mix of flat-leaf parsley and mint from my garden)
  • extra virgin olive oil, about 2 tablespoons
  • good squeeze fresh lemon or lime
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Put all the salsa ingredients in a bowl, give them a good stir to combine well, cover with cling film and put in the fridge for about an hour.

About a half hour before eating, cut the potato, with skin on, into chip-sized wedges. Put in a pan of salted water, bring to the boil and boil for just a minute. Drain. Transfer to a small roasting dish. Drizzle over a little olive oil and sprinkle over a little za’atar if you like. Roast in a 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 oven for about half an hour, turning a couple of times, until nicely golden brown.

 

Heat the griddle until hot. Smear a little oil over the tuna steak and season with salt and pepper. Put on the hot grill. You can see on the side how it’s cooking through. Turn over and grill the other side. Depending on how rare you like your tuna, allow a little ‘raw’ to remain or cook through if you prefer it well done, but try not to overcook it or it will dry out.

I chose to griddle half a Little Gem lettuce at the same time, coated with some olive oil, and grilled both sides.

It’s all incredibly easy. Serve the hot food with spoonfuls of the mango salsa at the side.

It’s fantastically summery and was perfect for the end of a hot day when the air was still very warm and I could eat supper in the garden. The salsa wasn’t quite the same without the fresh chillies, coriander and lime but still excellent. I just love the combination of the tuna with the spicy mango salsa.

 

The Patio Allotment

OK, so ‘Allotment’ maybe over-stating things; in reality I’ve got just courgettes, tomatoes, lettuce and strawberries growing, as well as my usual tubs of fresh herbs that sit just outside my kitchen door to the garden, in a sunny sheltered spot they – and I! – love. But like many others at the beginning of Lockdown back in March, when it was difficult to get hold of a lot of foods, including fresh veg and fruit, I decided to grow some myself.

At first I sought seeds online. On reflection, as a bit of an amateur in this home-growing business, it’s probably as well that it was impossible to buy any. Even the Royal Horticultural Society was saying they’d have no more seeds this season. And having a small London garden, with only a dilapidated shed at the far end, and a small kitchen that doesn’t offer convenient windowsills for nursing seedlings, I wasn’t really set up to give birth to plants … I needed to adopt some from the garden centre instead.

A friend told me that Squires in Twickenham was closed but delivering (they’ve since reopened). It’s the garden centre I usually go to. I sent a message, as requested on their website as phone lines were closed, and it took a couple of days to get a reply. But when they rang me they were wonderfully helpful; absolute gardening heroes. Apart from veg, I was trying to get a few plants for window boxes and pots, and saying things like, ‘Well last year I bought this lovely trailing plant with little round, waxy looking green leaves …’ And rather than obviously despairing at my minimal knowledge, I was passed to the woman working outside amongst the plants and she helped me sort out my order with patience and friendliness.

I’m not a total novice in the garden. I’ve had my own garden for 40 years and love it. They’ve always been small London gardens though, so rather limited in terms of horticultural aspirations. When children arrived I had to give them priority – a large climbing frame; footballs (and then rugby balls when we moved to Twickenham!) were kicked and thrown around, so there was no point in any serious gardening; in spending a lot of money. It was when I went to my first Chelsea Flower Show – sometime in the 1990s – that I was truly inspired. I came back and starting claiming more land; cutting away parts of the small lawn and planting shrubs, herbaceous borders. My son, about 10 at the time, challenged me: What was I doing!! I had to offer to take him to the local park – Marble Hill Park – and thankfully less than 5-minutes walk away from my old house, instead. My son has now grown into a keen gardener himself and the last two years we’ve been to the Chelsea Flower Show together, which is a real highlight of my year. We had tickets for this year – in fact, yesterday – and I’ve swapped them for tickets on the same day in 2021.

I’m not a planner in the garden. I’m more a stream-of-consciousness gardener much in the way I write things like this blog as words and thoughts come into my head, without much prior planning. And then I press the ‘Publish’ button; I don’t do drafts. In the case of gardening, I walk slowly round the garden centre and grab things I like the look of and into the trolley they go. I’ll find somewhere for them, I decide. Occasionally I try to be organised enough to sketch out a little plan showing where I have gaps … I take it with me … it partially works but when some gorgeous plant takes my eye, the plan may be thrown aside and I’m determined I will find a place for it. I’m sure all those lovely gardeners on BBC TV’s Gardeners’ World (which I’m addicted to) would be horrified that when I decide a plant is in the wrong place – I move it! Regardless of the time of year. To be fair to myself, plants and shrubs rarely die on me so I must have fairly green fingers. My dad was a keen gardener and as a small child I used to follow our gardener, Old Tom, around, learning lots from him as he patiently gave me little jobs and gently taught me about plants. I still have a vivid memory of being shown how to look after our blackcurrant bushes by him and being told that worms are a gardener’s friend as we looked at a few wriggling out of the earth as we turned it over – I could have only been about 6 or 7.

I always have lots of fresh herbs growing – a huge rosemary bush I grew from a cutting when I moved into my current house 14 years ago; different varieties of thyme; flat-leaf parsley; oregano; garden mint and Moroccan mint; chives and fennel. I’ve occasionally grown tomatoes and did last year, buying a special ‘patio’ plant from Squires which grew cherry tomatoes. This was mainly for my grandson Freddie’s benefit as at 5 he already loves gardening. I’d promised him that this year we’d grow strawberries too and so when I gave my order to Squires that had to be on the list.

When my plants arrived back in early April, they were very small … little plugs … clearly in need of some TLC – tender loving care. And indeed I’ve given them just that!

Apart from the lettuces, it’s too soon to harvest much but the tiny courgette plant has sprouted flowers and tiny courgettes, slightly hidden by its large leaves. My daughter Nicola – a more expert gardener than me who has a large vegetable garden with her wife – told me one courgette plant would be plenty for one person!

I like to water my plants by hand with a watering can. I find this soothing; a touch of ‘mindfulness meditation’ at the end of the day. And it means I do take special notice of what’s happening in the garden. Of course, it’s only really possible because the garden is small!

The leaves on the courgette plant were growing fairly fast. Then yesterday I saw the first flower and the tiniest little courgette at its stem.

This morning when I came down and went outside to check on them, as I do, I was almost overwhelmed with delight on this sunny morning to be greeted by the sight of a beautiful sunny flower, fully open to start the day.

Really, even if you didn’t have the bonus of a courgette growing, it would be beautiful enough to earn a place in your garden.

I’ve got two ‘tumbling’ tomato plants. It’s too early for actual tomatoes but they both have a healthy display of little yellow flowers promising the fruit to come.

I ordered a selection of salad leaves that went altogether in one big pot. I was slightly wary. I tried growing salad leaves 4 or 5 years ago and they got eaten by snails and slugs too quickly to harvest enough to eat. My daughter helped out again – they’d had success with copper tape. I thus ordered some and put it round the pots; I also rose the pots from the ground, standing them on other large pots turned upside down or, in the case of the lettuces, on a metal garden chair. Whatever trick worked my lettuces have survived, despite there being quite a few slugs and snails about. I now have enough to pick to make a green salad and of course they will just keep growing through the summer.

The strawberries! By chance I had an old strawberry pot and so planted my two plants in it. The pretty little white flowers are slowly giving way to the budding of plump strawberries; not ripe enough to pick yet but full of promise and the first small sight of red in them.

I’ve got a few pots of herbs and love being able to pick a bunch of parsley; make fresh mint tea with the Moroccan mint; chop chives into omelettes or scrambled eggs; sprinkle little oregano leaves into a Greek salad. The chives have beautiful lilac flowers at the moment and, like the courgette, are almost worth growing just for the pretty flowers.

It’s a very small ‘allotment’ but full of my favourite things. In the difficult days of the pandemic and lockdown, growing them has brought huge pleasure and – as I watch them grow and flower and fruit – they are such a glorious sign of hope and promise of good things to come.

Prawn & Courgette Risotto

Almost two months into Lockdown, I’m finding I have more food than normal in the house rather than less. Because food comes via deliveries, I order more than if I was just wandering into and around shops in my normal way, buying on almost a day-by-day basis with just a bigger shop once a week. Even the bigger shop doesn’t involve bulk buying; it’s just replacing things I’m running out of; buying heavier things like cartons of juice or milk that is more easily transported home by car than on foot or bus. But now during lockdown, when I’m sitting at my computer ticking items on the Waitrose list, phoning through to shops to bring an order, I more easily get carried away with what I think I ‘need’, or fulfilling a minimum order amount, and then an embarrassment of riches arrives at my door. I open my fridge or cupboards and food almost falls out … I am not going to starve!

Last week I had a delivery from Sandy’s fishmonger, bringing some wonderful smoked salmon, which went into a lovely salad. There was also excellent organic salmon fillets; a large sea bream filleted into two portions; and some large raw tiger prawns, all of which went into my freezer. I had one of the salmon fillets a couple of nights ago and then took out a bag of prawns yesterday to thaw in time for supper.

I decided to make a risotto with the prawns. I often make prawn risotto with peas (Italian style) but with the vegetable drawer in my fridge crammed with fresh veg, it seemed crazy to take out frozen peas. Instead, I drew out a lovely courgette, which I regularly use for risottos but today would combine with the prawns. And I’d add some saffron.

There was a strong ozone whiff of Mediterranean memory playing out here. For risotto + prawns + saffron immediately makes me think of Nice and an amazing lunch I had there last September at Bar des Oiseaux after a visit to the Matisse Museum.

My risotto wasn’t going to come up to that standard –  but it could still be very good!

 

Prawn & Courgette Risotto – Serves One

  • 1 shallot, finely sliced
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 courgette, diced into small pieces
  • a pinch of dried chilli flakes
  • handful (about 10-12) raw tiger prawns
  • pinch of saffron
  • ½ cup risotto rice
  • about 50ml white wine
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

   

Put the sliced shallot in a large shallow pan with about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Gently fry for a minute or two and then add the diced courgette. Cook gently, stirring frequently, until both are softening and slightly colouring.

Meanwhile, In another smaller pan, heat a little olive oil (about a tablespoon) and add the pinch of dried chilli. When the oil is hot, add the prawns. As soon as you can see them colouring on the bottom – only a minute or so – immediately turn over and cook for another minute. Then lift them out onto a plate. Reserve the juices in the pan. Prawns needs to be cooked quickly and barely through to retain their juiciness or they go tough.

   

Put the saffron in a cup of hot water and set aside. Add the risotto rice to the softened shallot and courgette. Cook, stirring all the time, for a couple of minutes so that the grains of rice are well coated with oil.

   

Add a little white wine and let it bubble up and absorb briefly. Scrape in the remaining oil from the pan you cooked the prawns in to make the most of their flavour into the risotto. Add the cup of saffron water. Normally it’s best to add liquid to a risotto gradually in small amounts, but I wanted all the saffron to go in at the beginning to get the flavours going, so I put the liquid in in one go, but continued to stir most of the time to get a creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper.

When the liquid is almost totally absorbed check the rice to see if it’s done – al dente, so a slight bite still. If it needs a bit more cooking, add some hot water. Check the seasoning. Add the cooked prawns and stir in. Turn the heat off and pop a lid on the pan and leave for just a minute or so for all the flavours to be absorbed and the prawns warm through.

Spoon the risotto into a serving bowl. Drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle over some chopped basil or parsley if you have some. [Basil goes well with courgettes, hence that choice for me.]

I put the bowl on a gorgeous placemat I brought back from Nice last year that captures all those amazing Mediterranean and Matisse colours!

The risotto was gorgeous. It didn’t quite transport me to Nice but it was certainly a lovely summery supper!