Monthly Archives: May 2011

I’m really into salads lately


One of the surprise highlights from a recent overnight business trip to London was a fantastic salad prepared by my generous host, a social media superstar and fellow swimmer / food lover.

The salad: a nicoise-style affair with boiled egg, green beans, olives, new potatoes, balsamic and oil. Substantial, but light and refreshing. Dinner in a bowl.

Ever since I’ve been on a salad kick, at first emulating my friend’s creation, and slowly evolving the mix with various vinaigrettes, seasonal veg, assorted add-ons and lots of fresh herbs.

Lunch salad

But there’s something more to this salad kick than inspiration. Maybe it’s the time of year – the long, sporadically sunny days, have me craving fresh, raw crunchy veg. Or maybe it’s the convenience – I can knock together a killer salad in the 20 minutes it takes to boil some new potatoes and hard-boiled eggs.

Sunday lunch

There’s added incentive to be found in the garden, where my salad crops remain so far the most successful veg in this year’s feeble gardening attempt. I’ve got rocket growing like a weed, a perpetual supply of perpetual spinach and radishes practically bursting from the soil.

First radish harvest Growing like a weed

My singular disappointment is this tray of “rocket”, which really never looked like rocket at all, despite what the seed packet claimed. Whatever it was, the leaves never developed into anything larger than the size of my thumb (and I have small thumbs). Still, I harvested the leaves anyway, and in the end got a decent bowl of “micro greens” to add to my various salad creations.

My current vinaigrettes of choice are: balsamic and olive oil, lemon juice and olive oil, and mustard vinaigrette (a la Bittman). The salads themselves typically involve some combination of at least five of the following ingredients:

  • Boiled egg, almost always
  • Chickpeas, occasionally
  • Lots of fresh herbs, especially dill and oregano (together or separate)
  • Capers, especially when there’s dill involved
  • Olives, memories of the good ol’ nicoise
  • Blanched asparagus, tis the season
  • Boiled new potatoes, tossed with the dressing while still warm
  • Raw broccoli, one of my favourite things
  • Sweet cherry tomatoes
  • Parmesan, particularly with a lemon & oil dressing and fresh oregano
  • Avocado, but I like avocado on everything
  • Crispy lettuce leaves like little gems or romaine
  • Salt and pepper

Not quite nicoise

The trick to all this seems to be a few things: good ingredients – not just high-quality veg, but also good vinegar and oil – plus sufficient use of dressing and seasoning (salt, pepper and herbs). Beyond that, anything goes really.

What’s in your favourite salad?

Barbecue with the Bankers

The gang's all here

Had the Banker’s ’round last weekend for a full-on food fest, Orchard Cottage summer-style (photo gallery on Flickr). That meant lots of bread, salads and barbeque, plus echos of my past life in The City of London. Fortunately, business attire was optional, and most chatter about credit risk and portfolio analytics was quickly kiboshed by the universal compulsion to stuff our faces with food.

And really good food at that.

When my friends aren’t nerding out on data and hard maths, they’re busy honing their hearty, adventurous appetites and thirst for alcohol and karaoke. If I only had a microphone (or a New Zealander with an acoustic guitar – but that’s another story).

Grilled corn

There were a lot of great moments last weekend, most of which which remain safely stored in our collective (though perhaps drunkenly forgetful) memories. I will share the food, though, and recipes where available.

Thanks for the help and company to all of my peeps, all of whom pitched to make the event a relaxed, convivial occasion for all.

And now, the menu, in all its glory…


  • Bread – I made four loaves, including two sourdough loaves made with the new starter, one malted grain loaf and one seeded no knead white loaf. The winner, as always, was the no knead bread – a star among breads with a brilliant flavour and texture. Sourdough needs more practise.
  • Hummus with Za’atar – Seemed a perfect pairing for the bread.
  • Muhamarra – A roasted red pepper and walnut spread that is becoming a tradition at my BBQs; my friends demanded I make it and I couldn’t let them down. It goes with everything – bread, pickles, raw veggies, grilled veggies, sausages (I’m told). The recipe is from 101 Cookbooks.
  • Veggies – Raw carrots, celery, broccoli. Nuggets of health and fresh variety, perfect for dipping in dips!
  • Gherkins – Waitrose cornichons and onions, one of my faves as they aren’t sweetened.
  • Crisps – Well, it was a BBQ after all.
  • Cheese – Lok kindly brought some blue cheese along, more fodder for the bread.

I have many breads

Salads & Veg

  • Jersey Royal potato salad – I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to make an American-style potato salad, with mayo and pickles and boiled eggs and all that jazz. But fearful of American recipes, I went for this one by Gordon Ramsay on I think it could have used more dressing, but overall I liked it, and we ate it all up.
  • Cole slaw – A Shaw family recipe, and I’m told one of the highlights of the bbq. It’s simple: cabbage, spring onion, toasted sesame seeds, toasted flaked almonds, olive oil, cider vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper. Add dried Ramen noodles for a truly American effect.
  • Chargrilled cauliflower salad – This Ottolenghi recipe was also well received, and rightfully so – I’ve made it before and I adore it! It’s also something interesting to do with veg on the grill, verses the usual portobello mushrooms or whatever.
  • Eni’s famous salad – romaine, orange spring onion, salt. Another tradition at our parties – it’s just so fresh and delicious.

Eni's famous salad

For the grill

  • Steaks, sausages and chicken brought by my guests and prepared with flames and panache by Lok.
  • Seabass, mackerel and prawns from New Wave Fish Shop.
  • Corn – Another declared highlight, cooked on the grill with butter, salt and pepper.

Grilling meats

For Dessert

  • Peter’s apple and rhubarb crumble – He even brought his own crumble top. A secret recipe known only to Peter. Delicious.
  • Ginger ice cream – A universally well-received ice cream I make using this recipe, which I realise is another Gordon Ramsay (swear I’m not a total Ramsay fan girl).

Peter's Apple & Rhubarb Crumble

For drink:

  • Pimms
  • Wine, and lots of it

Thanks again to the bankers for making this a wonderful weekend. I feel a new appreciate for my banker friends, having been reminded that they’re also chefs, comedians, photographers, nature-lovers, campers and great company. See you in autumn for the Orchard Cottage Apple Fest.

Click here to see all photos.


Tommy and Peter


Peter and Lok




More pics on Flickr…

Hanging Flower Baskets

Hanging baskets

I had a bit of the Sunday blues last weekend after an absolutely fantastic Friday and Saturday. Tim came for a visit and it’s always a joy to have people over to the cottage. For all of its peace and tranquility, such things are sometimes only as good as the people you share them with.

There was a lot of good food (Tim’s rhubarb and apple crumble a notable highlight), drink (Pimms of course and a delicious Pouilly Fume), walking (a sheepish jaunt around Bibury and the River Coln), talking (about getting free) and film-watching (Angles & Demons oh my), but one of the more notable highlights took place in the garden.

Hanging baskets

Tim suggested that the cottage needed a splash of colour, and that a couple hanging flower baskets would be a good start. This is something I’ve often thought about doing – I’ve even looked at the hanging plants at the garden center. But then I get struck by analysis (and price tag) paralysis and go home with my measly pack of seeds of compost or whatever. But per Tim’s encouragement I dragged him with me to Dobbies and enlisted his help picking out a couple of baskets and some flowers to go in them.

Hanging baskets

So what do we have here. Lots of Violas, Arabis Rosea, Sedum Autumn Stonecrop, and Hutchinsia Crystal Carpet, most of which I hadn’t heard of before. My gardening efforts have so far been concentrated on the veg patch, but there might be room in my repertoire for flowers, too. I find I’m especially drawn to interesting grasses and colourful leaves. The only downside is that with these two hanging baskets, the entry to the cottage now seems to be crying for a whole lot more.

Begging for more

Another highlight from the trip to Dobbies was Tim’s generous gift of these Fiskars Weed Pullers, a product that does what it says with intention and anger. My lawn is fulllll of weeds, big knarly ones, and we had a cathartic time pulling out the worst of them after I got home. A very impressive gardening tool:


So, many thanks to Tim for enriching my garden (and my weekend) with his inspiration, encouragement and gadgetry. Sunday blues be damned – when I look around at where I live, what I have, and the people I have to share it with, I have all the reasons in the world to be happy.

Wow, and to think I said all that without barely a mention of food. Could I be expanding my horizons a bit? And if I’m ever in doubt, I need only watch this ridiculously cute lamb moment from our walk in Bibury to lift my spirits:

Dr. Weil’s Best Ever Tofu Burgers

Crossposted to Ultimate Veggie Burgers, my food mission to find the best veggie burgers in the world!

Tofu Slab Veggie Burger

A lot of the veggie burgers you see involve lots of ingredients, grated, chopped, mushed, and reconstituted into a burger-shaped patty. This may be the foundation on which ALL burgers are based, but when it comes to veggie burgers, it almost seems like a shame. You take such glorious ingredients and then mush them together into a homogenous lump that all too often falls apart or goes to mush as soon as you bite into it.

Dr. Weil’s burger gets around all this by using tofu as the burger patty and marinating it in a delicious, Marmite-based mixture. I know what you’re thinking: marinated tofu? Haven’t we been there, done that? I wanted a burger, not a stir fry.

But here’s the magic touch, the surprise, the transformative step that turns this into a meaty, chewy burger: Dr. Weil FREEZES the tofu, then thaws it, then squeezes it dry before adding the marinade.

For those of you who have never frozen tofu before, let me tell you: the process is completely transformative. Freezing tofu changes its texture from gelatinous and almost creamy into a something spongy, almost bread-like. Why? Well, tofu is inherently MOIST, but when you freeze it, the water in the tofu expands and forms ice crystals. Then when you thaw it, the ice melts, you squeeze out the water (gently, by pressing down on the block in a towel), leaving you with a sponge that’s just perfect for soaking up lovely marinades.

Frozen then thawed tofu

This only applies to firm tofu, not the silken stuff – I’ve tried.

(For a great primer on freezing tofu, and a delicious cooking suggestion, check out Just Bento’s Poached Frozen Tofu and Fried Frozen Tofu Cutlets.)

The things that bother me about this burger are totally superficial. First, my review is making me sound like a total Dr. Weil fan girl which I totally am not. I mean, he’s fine and all, actually I don’t know very much about him, so perhaps he’s a quack and I’m doing the world a disservice by extolling his burger. But this is about the food, not the man. Which brings me to my other objection – this burger is not an original Dr. Weil creation, but from Bryanna Clark Grogan’s The ( Almost ) No Fat Cookbook. I am forced to object to any cookbook, diet or food philosophy that seems to imply that eating fat is a bad thing. That’s just not how I roll. (Mind you, I did roll the no-fat way once, but I consider it a low point in my culinary escapades, marked by too many egg white omelets, and not enough avocados and almond butter).

But enough food philosophy – this is about veggie burgers, after all. Let’s see how Dr. Weil’s Tofu Burger stacks up up on my five-tier veggie burger rating system:

  • Ingredients – 4/4 – I appreciate Dr. Weil’s use of whole, natural ingredients that are relatively easy to find, and are the types of things most of us have in the cupboard, provided you’re from England, New Zealand, Australia or any other place where Marmite and Vegemite are staple foods. And on that note, I really appreciate the use of Marmite in the marinade. It gives these burgers a deep, earthy flavour that you don’t often get in veggie burgers.
  • Preparation – 4/4 – You can’t get much easier than this. The only knife-work required is slicing the tofu into slabs. The marinade is made with dried herbs and various liquids, so there’s no dicing or chopping required. Perhaps the only niggle is that its best to do the prep ahead of time so that the tofu has time to marinade. But really, this is a small niggle.
  • Texture – 4/4 – I simply adore the texture of these tofu burgers. Their chewy, just a tad juicy, and with good bite. A total win in my book.
  • Structural integrity – 4/4 – Again, since there is no reconstituted mush matter to these burgers, they hold their shape well. That is, provided you were GENTLE when squeezing out the water from the thawed tofu. Excessive pressure can crumble the tofu apart, so be careful in thsi stage.
  • Flavor – 4/4 – This is one of the more interesting burgers I’ve ever tasted. I credit the combination of Marmite and tomato ketchup in the marinade. Its tangy, but earthy, lightened a bit by the basil and oregano.

Monica’s notes on toppings:

These burgers would do very well with traditional burger toppings such as lettuce, tomato and raw onion. But if you’re more adventurous, I highly recommend sauteed onion and sauerkraut with avocado and giardiniera. A little sweet pickle doesn’t hurt, either.

Best-Ever Tofu Burgers


Rating: 4 out of 4

Originally from Bryanna Clark Grogan’s The ( Almost ) No Fat Cookbook

Dietary stuff: Vegan, Nut-free


  • 2 lbs. medium-firm or firm tofu (NOT silken tofu), frozen at least 48 hours
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce (regular or mushroom)
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup (fruit-juice sweetened, cane-sugar sweetened, or organic)
  • 2 teaspoons Marmite, Vegemite or other yeast extract (gives a “beefy” flavor) or 4 teaspoons red miso
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic granules (or 1 clove garlic finely minced)
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder



  1. Thaw out the tofu. Slice each pound block into three thick slices. Place the slices on a cookie sheet covered with a couple of clean, folded tea towels. Cover the slices with more tea towels and another cookie sheets. Weigh this arrangement down with something heavy for about 15-20 minutes. Now the tofu slices are ready for marinating.

    Frozen then thawed tofu


  3. Mix the marinade ingredients together and pour over the prepared tofu slices in a shallow container in one layer. Cover and let marinate for several hours or days.

    Tofu Burger Marinade


  5. Just before serving, pan-fry on a lightly-oiled heavy skillet or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until browned on both sides. Or cook on an indoor grill. Serve on buns with all the trimmings.

    Marinated Tofu Burgers

Makes: 6 burgers
Amount per burger: 121 Calories | 6.3 grams Fat | 14.2 grams Protein | 4.4 grams Carbohydrates | 1.5 grams Fiber

Running Again

Our Driveway
My running track.

It took years of NHS tomfoolery to finally get through the system and wind up with a specialist who really wanted to get to the bottom of my ankle and knee injuries.

About a year or so ago, yet another GP referral found me at the Royal Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath. This has marked a turning point in my injury recovery. Although they quickly ruled out rheumatic disease as the source of my ailments (PHEW), the folks at the hospital seem willing to do whatever it takes to solve my problem.

As such, I’ve been seeing a range specialists, including a physiotherapist and sports injury doctor, both of whom are extremely encouraging. It was the physiotherapist who suggested I treat my running injuries with, well, more running.

But not running like I’ve ever done before.

She assigned the following running drills:

  • High Knees – Using a short stride and bouncing on your toes, raise your knees as high as possible on each stride. There should be little forward distance covered, but keep moving forward for 30-50 meters.
  • Heel Kicks – Using a short stride and bouncing your toes, raise your heels as high as possible behind your body. Attempt to bounce your heels off your bum. Concentrate on raising your heels as high as possible (you can hold your hands behind your butt and make sure your heels touch your hands with every stride). Most of the movement should be with the lower leg. There should be little forward distance covered, but keep moving forward for 30-50 meters.
  • Skipping – Just like you did as a kid. Take off and land with one foot, concentrate on raising the knee as high as possible and landing lightly. Do this for 30-50 meters.

The driveway leading from the cottage (shown above) makes for a nice, flat, continuous surface for doing the drills. The first couple of times I did these, I was sore for days and days and days. Sometimes in the muscles. Sometimes in the joints. But I let myself recover fully, and with every running drill session, the exercises got easier and easier. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still hard, especially the high knees, but they do get easier all the time.

The best news about all of this is that I’m pretty sure the drills – plus the strength training I’ve been doing at the gym in the FiveFingers – have really helped strengthen my legs. I haven’t had any knee or ankle problems, neither with running or swimming, and am exceedingly encouraged.

I say I’m running again, though really I’ve been at it for the last few months. But doing the drills has felt more like physiotherapy than actual running, you know, the kind where you set off and go and let your mind wander and then boom you’re done.

The last time I met with the physio – about a week ago – she said I should start a real training program. She suggested the Nike half marathon beginners program which is nice and slow. I do find it a little crazy to be starting with a half-marathon programme. But when she asked me what my goal was, I said “I’d like to be able to run a half-marathon”, so I guess it makes sense…to her at least!

So, I need to start this programme, eh?

I must admit I’ve grown to like my little once-per-week running drill sessions, the most recent of which was about an hour ago this morning. Today and last weekend, I followed the drills with a run around the farm – about a 25 minute jaunt in the grassy fields. So I guess I’m ready for a little more. It’s exciting – there are times when I’ve felt resigned to never running again. But the docs don’t seem to question my ability to not only run, but to run far. Doctors know best?

One issue I’ve had has been painful achilles tendons for the days following my runs. I think this is a stretching issue. Yet another thing for me to improve upon.

One more thing – gotta give props to my Twitter friends who’ve been encouraging through all this, particularly Azelia of Azelia’s Kitchen. This morning’s run may not have happened were it not for her helpful encouragement. In fact, her running is just as inspiring as her cooking. Seven words: cheese and onion tart with cheese pastry. Need I say more?

Garden Update: Come Rain And Shine

Rain at last

The few plants living outside enjoyed a welcome dose of rain last night and this morning. Everything is looking a little more alive.

I’ve already been making use of my humble herb garden. I’m all about the fresh oregano lately, especially in salads.


Meanwhile, the rocket and spinach are coming along, though not sure what to make of the reddish/pink veins in my rocket. Maybe that’s just the variety?

Rocket Perpetual Spinach

I also have radishes on the go.


Inside is sprout central: French beans, tomatoes, onions, tomatillos, cucumber, melon, serranos, jalapenos, pepperoncinis… have I gone overboard?

Seedlings galore Yellow onions on their way

The French beans are looking ready to go outside, but I’m worried – we still have very cool mornings, almost bordering on frosty. I would hate to lose my precious beans to a cold snap. What do you do? How do you know when it’s ready to plant out seedlings? Yes, I could just read my copy of Joy Larkom’s Grow Your Own Vegetables, but if I can learn from you folks, all the better.

Hummus with Za’atar

Hummus with Za'atar

People always say hummus is so easy to make, why buy it at the store? But whenever I make hummus, it’s always a huge mess: tahini seems to end up all over everything. And it takes many spelt pita bread wedges and carrot sticks of taste-testing to get the hummus just right.

But it’s so worth it, because homemade hummus is really special. You can make it as lemony or garlicky or tahini-y as you want, and customize it with spices, herbs, and add-ons like olives or roasted hot red chilli paper as I did in this case.

But the ultimate kick the pants for any hummus recipe is my new favorite thing: Za’atar, a Middle Eastern condiment made from dried thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. Za’atar is often consumed with pita bread and olive oil, but it’s also a great add-on to hummus and other foods. Look at all these great inventions I found:

Below are recipes for both hummus and za’atar, adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The photo, however, was inspired by Heidi’s own picture of Hummus en Fuego on 101cookbooks (they say imitation is a form of flattery?). The bit about the tahini, well, that was the one bit of this post that was uniquely my own. And both are a great match for my spelt pita bread on the grill.


Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. A great partner with raw veggies and spelt pita bread!


  • 2 cups drained well-cooked or canned chickpeas, cooking liquid reserved if possible
  • 1/4 cup tahini, or more to taste
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus oil for garnish
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled, or more to taste
  • Juice of 1 lemon, plus more as needed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • paprika for garnish
  • Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish


  1. Put the chickpeas, tahini, oil, garlic, and lemon juice in a food processor (or a blender for even smoother hummus), sprinkle with salt and pepper, and begin to process; add chickpea-cooking liquid or water as needed to produce a smooth purée.
  2. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or lemon juice as needed. Serve, drizzled with some olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of paprika or za’atar (below) and some parsley.


Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.


  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp dried thyme
  • 2 tbsp sumac
  • salt and pepper


  1. Toast the sesame seeds then leave to cool.
  2. Combine everything else in a container and toss together. Presto! Your za’atar is done!