POCO Sicilian, Leeds

Food & drink
POCO Sicilian, Leeds

Last year, we went to Sicily.

It was wonderful, a beguiling and fascinating place, riven with history, fiercely hot, passionately intense and honest. We swam in the sea from makeshift pontoons made of scaffolding, drove around the mountains and hills, stood in awe in the middle of a Roman amphitheatre, facing the spectacle of the Mediterranean, and we ate well.

We ate very well.

‘Eating well’ isn’t too difficult in Italy, because food is a serious business, and eating is the reason for living. One day, we tracked down a restaurant in a small town in the hills that had been enthusiastically recommended by a very trusted friend, and ate one of the most memorable lunches I’ve ever experienced – three courses from a blackboard, a different menu to yesterday, one which changed constantly as things sold out, a kitchen that cooked entirely based on what was good that day, with no compromises whatsoever.

This was typical. Everything we ate on Sicily had something about it, something good, right down to the quick slice of pizza or arancini here and there as a snack. Of course, this is all a heady combination of place, circumstance and experience, but Sicilian food was absolutely excellent, especially from the street, from the little cafes and takeaways – fresh, lively, inventive, cheap food. [continue reading…]

Standard Sunday morning waffles

Food & drink
Standard Sunday morning waffles

There are several non-negotiable traditions in our family, and chief among them are Sunday morning waffles with maple syrup.

Nothing else, nothing more, nothing less. Waffles and maple syrup. Ever has it been, ever shall it be.

I fiddled around with a variety of recipes when we started out on this weekend ritual. I wanted to replicate Belgian waffles, but the whole thing was too involved for lazy Sunday mornings … yeast, stiffly beaten egg whites … just too much  faff. I wanted/needed a recipe that could be knocked together in minutes almost robotically, with nothing to actually think about.

This is that recipe. It’s an understated thing, hidden at a dark corner of the BBC’s food website, self deprecatingly titled ‘awfully good waffles’.

It really is very good. Reliable, simple, forgiving and very quick.

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Smoked and slow-roasted beef short ribs

Food & drink
Smoked and slow-roasted beef short ribs

I started cooking tonight’s dinner this morning at about half past eight, before anybody else was awake, and most importantly, before any of the neighbours had hung any washing out to dry.

Short beef ribs take a long, long time to cook, and they’re at their very best when they meet a little smoke. So, I made this introduction early on a Saturday morning, alone in the back garden, burning the dew off the grass with a serious pile of fire and a lot of oak scented smoke.

Beef ribs are everywhere at the moment, but the best place to get them is the market. The butcher had two great hunks of meat, each with two substantial ribs and a good ten centimetres of flesh, proud slabs of meat from an animal that had worked hard and eaten well. I bought both, about five kilos, about twice as much as I needed, and not cheap at about £25 for the pair. One piece fed four very well in the end, with plenty left over for late night fridge grazing and sandwiches.

The beef needs some flavour, so I sprinkled it liberally with a couple of tablespoons of a general multipurpose Cajun spice rub I make frequently and store in a jar. This is a magic standby, capable of transforming meat and fish into fiery, tasty goodness. It’s worth making a batch and keeping it to hand – the uses are endless.

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Saag Aloo

Food & drink
saag aloo madhur jaffrey

This is an important dish for me.

Its one of the first curries I learnt to make, from an old and battered Madhur Jaffrey book. I used to make it in my mum’s kitchen, and we’d eat it outside on the old wooden table, the one with the benches, in the sun, by the hedge that hid a nest of benign wasps.

Saag aloo is a glorious thing, a simple dish of potato, onion and spinach. My version has evolved over the many years I’ve cooked it. It’s become more refined and less blunt, crisper and cleaner of flavour, more architectural.

I’ve toyed with the potato variety, and settled on the waxier end of the spectrum, cooking them on their own before adding them to fried onions and spices to soak up the flavour quickly and sharply. The spinach is now the last stage, where it started as the first, fresh and no longer frozen, all the better to cling onto that tang of bitterness.

I cook this dish by sight. There is no recipe anymore, and all measurements are instinctive and approximate. It doesn’t matter, for this is a curry that bends readily to your whims. More…

North African chicken and butternut squash tagine

Food & drink
North African chicken and butternut squash tagine

The best types of recipes use just one pot, the same one right through from the moment the first dice of onion hits hot olive oil right through to its placement at the centre of the table.

It’s efficient, streamlined, but to work properly, the pan itself is important, and that’s where heavy, solid cast iron cookware comes in.

My most used pan is a large, deep braising pan with a heavy lid, the type that will outlast generations. It has a weight and heft to it that’s quite satisfying, and the iron holds the heat in a way that no other material quite can.

And here, it’s perfect for a quick and simple North African tagine, a one-pot meal to lift the gloom of a late February day.

First, a chickenMore…