Two risottos for autumn

I’ve written before about my love of risotto and its comforting properties. So, as a follow on from my ‘Summersotto’ post, here are a couple of suggestions for autumnal risottos:

(both recipes serve two)

Roasted butternut squash and blue cheese risotto


  • 500-600g butternut squash (about half a large one), peeled and cut into chunks
  • Nutmeg (optional)
  • About 40g pine nuts
  • A glug of olive oil
  • A knob of butter
  • An onion, chopped
  • A stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 150-165g risotto rice
  • 700ml hot vegetable stock
  • A tablespoonful of fresh sage, finely chopped, or a teaspoonful of dried sage
  • About 100g blue cheese
  • Black pepper
  • Truffle flavoured oil, for drizzling (optional)

Start by roasting the butternut squash. Place the chunks of squash into a roasting tin and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and grate on some nutmeg if you fancy it. Scrunch with clean hands to coat the squash in oil. Roast at gas mark 5 (190⁰C) for about 45 minutes or until the squash is tender enough for a knife to easily go into it. Set aside.

When you’re ready to make your risotto, get all your ingredients ready.

Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan (use the same pan that you plan on using for your risotto) until they start to turn golden but without burning them. Set them aside in a bowl.

Heat the olive oil and butter in the pan, then add the onion and celery and fry them gently until they are translucent. Add the risotto rice and stir it in until it’s covered in buttery oil.

Begin to add the stock a ladleful at a time as you normally would with any risotto. After the first couple of ladlefuls of stock have been absorbed, stir in the sage before continuing to add the stock.

When you’ve used up all your stock, test a couple of grains of rice to see if they’re cooked. If not, add a bit more stock or boiling water and keep stirring for a couple more minutes.

Turn off the heat and crumble in the blue cheese, stirring it in until it’s nicely melted. Season well with black pepper and divide between bowls. Scatter the butternut squash and pine nuts on top and serve.

I like a drizzle of truffle flavoured oil on this, but it’s just as nice without.

Mushroom risotto with bacon


  • 4 rashers of bacon
  • A glug of olive oil
  • A knob of butter
  • 250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • An onion, chopped
  • A stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 150-165g risotto rice
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • Sherry
  • 650ml hot vegetable or chicken stock
  • A tablespoonful of fresh thyme or a teaspoon of dried
  • Parmesan

Grill the bacon until crispy and set aside.

Heat the oil and butter in a pan and add the mushrooms, onion and celery. Fry until the onion and celery are translucent and the mushrooms are softened. Add the risotto rice and stir to coat with oil and butter. Add the garlic and fry gently for a couple more minutes.

Turn up the heat and add a generous glug of sherry. Allow it to bubble down a bit before beginning to add the stock a ladleful at a time. Add the thyme after the first couple of ladlefuls have been absorbed.

When you’ve used up all your stock, test a couple of grains of rice to see if they’re cooked. If not, add a bit more stock or boiling water and keep stirring for a couple more minutes.

Turn off the heat and grate in a decent amount of parmesan, stirring to melt it in.

Divide between bowls and trim the bacon into strips on top.

Note added 9th January, 2012

I made this mushroom risotto tonight, but used a pack of fresh shiitake mushrooms (which we like to pronounce ‘shit-ache’ in our household because we’re childish) which were in the reduced bit at Sainsbury’s. I also added several chopped chestnut mushrooms and a few dried porcini mushrooms, which I soaked in boiling water to rehydrate them. I then used the soaking water in the stock. I can definitely recommend the porcini mushrooms for an extra mushroomy flavour hit. You don’t need to use many of them- I find a pack of dried ones (stored in a kilner jar) goes a long way.


Kent Wildlife Trust ‘Wild about Gardens’ award scheme

I began turning our bare concrete balcony into a garden in spring 2010. We’d moved in the previous November and I saw the potential to create a garden which, although only measuring one metre by three, could be an enjoyable space and attract wildlife.

I brought in various different containers, hauling them up the stairwell and through my flat to the balcony, and gradually covered the concrete with greenery. At some point around this time, a colleague mentioned to me that the Kent Wildlife Trust were advertising a gardening award scheme, and half-jokingly suggested that I should enter it. So I did.

Fast forward to this week, and I’ve just managed to win a gold award from the ‘Wild about Gardens’ scheme for the third year running. I should mention here that they give out lots of awards in each of the gold, silver and bronze categories, but I’m still chuffed to bits to have achieved the hat trick. In 2010, I also won the first prize in the ‘Best balcony, container or small garden’ category and was presented with a big metal plaque along with my certificate and smaller plaque given for the gold award.

The idea of the scheme is to encourage people to adapt their gardens to attract as much wildlife as possible, as well as conserving water and generally being environmentally friendly. Volunteers come out to look round the gardens which have been entered, and give advice as well as judging the competition. They look at the plants that have been grown to attract wildlife, provisions for birds (such as feeders and baths), what habitats have been created (such as ponds, log piles and bird and bat boxes), how wisely water is used and how compost waste is used. Obviously I can’t really install, say, a pond on my tiny balcony, so they take into account the resources available and how well gardeners have maximised the potential. They also look at how entrants have documented the wildlife visiting their garden.

I know my awards aren’t exactly up there with winning first prize at the Chelsea Flower Show, but it’s still worth remembering the importance of keeping green corridors open to wildlife. Even if all you have is a window box or a tiny balcony like mine, with a bit of imagination you can still make a difference.

So, in celebration of my achievement, I thought I’d post some of my favourite photographs from my balcony garden this year:

Snake’s head fritillary- one of my favourite flowers.

Unidentified caterpillar


Coriander flowers

Dill flowers

Bean and chorizo stew

In the words of House Stark: “Winter is Coming”. This is my favourite time of year- I know it’s a bit sad when the nights begin to draw in earlier each day, and getting out of bed for work when it’s cold and dark is a pain in the arse. However, I like getting all cosy at home in a big jumper and eating something suitably stodgy. We’re also at that nice stage at the moment where the weather hasn’t turned properly cold yet and the autumn sun is making everything look lovely (listen to me- what an old romantic I am).

Autumn cooking is my kind of cooking- oozy risottos, chutneys and jellies made from foraged ingredients or gluts of fruit shared by friends and colleagues, warming curries and comforting casseroles and stews. I’ve been enjoying all the autumnal blog posts that have been popping up in my feed recently- lots of pumpkin and squash recipes and good hearty dishes to stick to the ribs.

My slow cooker tends to see a lot more action over the autumn and winter months, and this is one of my favourite slow cooker recipes. It’s cheap, nutritious and tasty. This recipe serves four (or two with some portions left over for the freezer or for lunch the next day).


  • About 125g chorizo, cut into small half moons/ chunks
  • About 250g of mixed dried beans (I usually use a mixture of red kidney, cannellini, haricot, black turtle, pinto, adzuki and mung beans and chickpeas)
  • An onion, halved and chopped into half moons
  • 2 sticks of celery, washed and finely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tablespoonful flour
  • A generous glug of red wine
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • About a tablespoonful of thyme (use fresh if you happen to have some, but dried is fine)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 vegetable stock cube, crumbled
  • 200ml water
  • A couple of heaped tablespooonfuls of pearl barley
  • A carrot, scrubbed or peeled and then diced

Soak the dried beans overnight or for at least 8 hours in plenty of water with a bit of bicarbonate of soda added to it. When they’re soaked, drain them well and add to a pan with enough water to cover. Bring them to the boil, then let them simmer with the lid on for 10-15 minutes. Drain and set aside. (Don’t be tempted to miss out this step- The beans need to be soaked and boiled in order to get rid of toxins in their skins that can apparently cause severe stomach cramps.)

Add the chorizo, onion and celery to a pan and fry until the onion is looking translucent but not brown. Some fat should come out of the chorizo but add a bit of olive oil if the onion and celery need it to fry in. Add the garlic and fry for a minute or so. Add the flour and mix in until all the flour is coated with oil. Turn up the heat, add the red wine and simmer for a minute or so, stirring to mix everything together. Mix in the chopped tomatoes, thyme, bay leaves, stock cube and water, then add the drained beans, pearl barley and carrot.

Put the whole lot into a slow cooker and cook on high for about 4-6 hours, adding water if it looks dry.

Eat with some nice crusty bread for dippage.

For the vegetarian version, leave out the chorizo and add a teaspoon of smoked paprika instead.

Rose hip syrup (and jelly)

I’ve occasionally wondered what rose hip syrup would taste like, but had never got round to foraging any rose hips to make it. While visiting my dad this week, I realised that one of the bushes in his front garden was laden with rose hips, so thought now was as good a time as any to give it a go. My dad’s garden has proved useful to me in the past when it comes to making preserves, which helps make up for the fact that I don’t have a proper garden of my own.

Rose hips are rich in vitamin C, and people were apparently encouraged to make rose hip syrup during the war when citrus fruit wasn’t readily available. This was confirmed to me by an elderly gentleman who happened to walk past my Dad’s garden when I was collecting the rose hips for this recipe – he asked me if I was going to make syrup and said he used to collect them when he was a child.

I don’t want to get all ‘Nigella’ about this, but aren’t these the most beautiful Christmassy crimson colour?

After having a look at various different recipes online, I decided to follow roughly the following ratios of ingredients:

  • Rose hips (I had about 450g of them)
  • Water (about 1.5 litres per 500g of rose hips- I used 1.25 litres)
  • The same weight of sugar as rose hips (I used 300g of caster sugar because I only made two thirds of the liquid into syrup and the rest into jelly-see below)

The rose hips I picked were ripe, but not too squishy. I didn’t bother topping and tailing them or anything like that- I just gave them a good rinse and drained them. This is the method I used for the syrup:

Put your water in a pan and heat it up. Put your rose hips into a food processor and whizz thoroughly. (If you haven’t got a food processor, you could chop them up but this could take a while.) Scrape the rose hip mush out of the food processor into the pan as quickly as possible. I say as quickly as possible because apparently the vitamin C begins to oxidise as soon as the rose hips are damaged. I’m basing this on advice from the internet, which also suggests that despite the boiling process, much of the vitamin C will be retained. If anyone out there is scientifically minded, please feel free to confirm or refute this information…

Allow the water and rose hip mixture to come to the boil, stirring often. Once boiling, allow the mixture to simmer for about five to ten minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the mixture to steep while it cools.

Once cooled, put the mixture in a jelly bag or muslin and allow it to strain through into a bowl. Normally, I’d say don’t be tempted to squeeze the bag or you’ll end up with cloudy syrup, but this came out quite cloudy anyway. Incidentally, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce the set up I use for straining things through muslin- it’s a wooden stand I persuaded my dad to make to my own specifications and it’s brilliant. He’s very good at this sort of thing, as well as having a garden which provides inspiration and ingredients for cooking projects:

Once the mixture had strained through, I had about a pint and a half of liquid. I decided to make some into syrup and some into jelly.

For the syrup, I added a pint of the strained liquid and 300g caster sugar to a pan and heated it gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar was dissolved, I decanted the hot syrup into sterilized bottles.

For the jelly, I added half a pint of the strained liquid and half a pound of jam sugar (with added pectin) to a pan and boiled until it reached the setting point (about 104⁰C). This filled about one and a half sterilized jars.

Apologies for the hotchpotch of metric and imperial measurements by the way, but maths isn’t my strong point and this just made it easier for me to work out.

The verdict

It’s always a worry when making jams, jellies and syrups that the flavour of the fruit will be lost in among all the sugar. I could still taste the rose hips in this syrup though- they have an unusual taste which to me had a hint of tomato or perhaps physalis about it (I could well have imagined the bit about the tomato flavour…)

As for how to use it, I’d suggest drizzling it on ice cream, pancakes or porridge, using it in cocktails or topped up with champagne, or just taken by the spoonful when you’re feeling under the weather or a bit hungover.

This is why I don’t bake

I’m not much of a baker. My cavalier attitude to cooking (a handful of this, a glug of that) doesn’t translate well to the scientific, accurate world of baking. However, every now and then I think: “How hard can it be to bake a cake/ some bread?” and give it a go, only to end up ballsing it up spectacularly and reminding myself why I don’t bother the rest of the time. This happened this week, when I decided to bake some fairy cakes to take into work on my last day (as I’m leaving to start a new job). I had all my ingredients ready, along with some Smarties and marshmallows to decorate the cakes with, and was feeling rather positive about the whole thing.

The recipe I used was the cupcake version of the dense chocolate loaf cake from Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess. I’m not going to blame Nigella- in my eyes she can do no wrong, and I’m not going to blame my oven (even though it’s rubbish), because a bad workman blames his tools. This is a summary of what went wrong:

I decided to double the cupcake recipe and also had to keep turning back a page because the actual method for the batter was under the loaf cake heading. Because I wasn’t concentrating properly, I ended up adding four eggs instead of two because I was looking at the ingredients list for the loaf cake and not the cupcakes. In my panic, I then had to make up the extra ingredients to match the four eggs I’d added and ended up with a huge, almost unmanageable amount of batter. I also missed out the bit in the recipe about adding boiling water to the batter to make it more liquid (although I added it to the remaining mixture while the first batch of cakes was cooking and they still didn’t turn out right).

So, after a lot of swearing and mess, I calmly admitted defeat. Behold, the culinary abomination that is my attempt to make fairy cakes- something that most children have mastered by the time they’re about eight years old:

I won’t tell Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry if you don’t…

Yorkshire (part two): York

After saying farewell to Pickersgill Manor Farm, we headed to York for two nights. We’d been watching the reports on the news showing the flooding in York which had resulted from the wet weather on previous days and didn’t really know what to expect. However, we were staying on the outskirts of York city centre and it was mainly right down by the River Ouse where the worst of the flooding was. The racecourse (which we passed on the bus on the way into town) had also suffered badly in the rain and looked like a lake. The birds seemed to be enjoying it, but I can’t imagine how horrible it must be to have your home flooded (as some were down by the river).

Anyway, as we got to York fairly early on our first day there, it meant we effectively had two days to explore the city. Everyone I’d spoken to before going said that York was lovely, and they were right. It’s a lot like Canterbury, which happens to be my favourite town (well, city) in Kent. We also just happened to be there while the York Food Festival was on, so there was even more to see and eat than usual.  There were cakes, champagne tents, meats, preserves, and all manner of other local Yorkshire goodies on show, and I feel very foolish for not having taken any proper pictures of them…

We got lunch from York Hog Roast on our second day there. As well as their two places in York city centre they also had a stall at the food festival. I had the works- roast pork, crackling, stuffing and apple sauce. It was gooood. As we’d stuffed our faces with hog roast at lunch time, we didn’t want an enormous dinner, so we opted for tapas at Ambiente on Goodramgate. I know tapas isn’t exactly traditional Yorkshire grub, but it was probably one of the best meals we’d had while we were away. Ambiente is a small place and they could only accommodate us in the bar area, but it was just right (and an interesting challenge to fit all of our tapas plates on the tiny bar table!) The caramelised chorizo and potato and the mushrooms with caramelised shallots and tarragon cream were particular highlights. It’s worth mentioning that the restaurant has a good vegetarian and vegan selection- not just a few token dishes. I’ve had better calamari but I’m not complaining- the food went down well with a nice glass of red (or pint of light, refreshing Cruzcampo in Owen’s case) and it was a nice way to end the holiday.

Our other York-centric activities included visiting the Jorvik Viking centre, walking the walls (all of them) and visiting the (alleged) grave of Dick Turpin. And, of course, here are some photos…

Flooding in a park by the River Ouse.

Walking the walls

The Shambles: For centuries, this street was lined with butchers’ shops. Butchers’ waste such as offal and guts would be discarded into the middle of the street. Lovely!

York Minster in the evening.

Yorkshire (part one): Pickersgill Manor Farm

After visiting relatives in Cheshire for a couple of days, Owen and I began the main part of our holiday at Pickersgill Manor Farm near Silsden, on the outskirts of the Yorkshire Dales. Pickersgill is a working farm which is home to sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens and a duck. It has two large, comfortable B&B rooms, and we stayed in the one on the ground floor. The room was immaculate with a large en suite bathroom and beautiful views across the Yorkshire countryside (when the weather allowed it!) The photograph above was taken from the door to our room.

The breakfasts here are (literally) award winning and are cooked by Lisa, who runs the B&B while her husband Marcus runs the farm. Lisa and Marcus were friendly and welcoming, and breakfast is eaten at the family table in the kitchen. We were also invited in for tea and cake when we first arrived, which I thought was nice. A full English breakfast at Pickersgill includes, among other things, eggs from the farm’s chickens, sausages made with pork from its pigs and black pudding which is handmade locally (and which was some of the best black pudding I’ve ever tasted). On one of the days we were there we had porridge, which was lovely and creamy. I’m not sure if it was made with full fat milk or whether there was some cream in there but it was a good start to the day, especially with some local honey dolloped into it. We also sampled one of Lisa’s tray suppers on the first night we stayed there (as we didn’t really feel like venturing out). This was brought to our room and was a hearty roast lamb dinner followed by apple pie and custard (proper custard, made from scratch) and a jug of elderflower drink.

We ate at a few local restaurants after asking Lisa for recommendations- these included The Fleece in Addingham, which was lovely and cosy with friendly service and good, reasonably priced food. We’d incidentally eaten lunch earlier that day at another pub called The Fleece which was in Skipton. The name was the only similarity between the two places- our experience in The Fleece in Skipton involved walking into a pub which was eerily quiet (apart from one country music song which suddenly played over the speakers before everything went quiet again) and ordering something which was apparently a cheese toastie, but which was almost unrecognisably flattened and cooked to a greasy crisp. This was served with an enormous portion of chips in an apparent attempt to satisfy your appetite once you’d given up on the salty inedible sandwich.

On our last night at the farm, we ate at the Purple Garlic Indian restaurant in nearby Silsden. Again, the service here was friendly and welcoming and the food was excellent and very reasonably priced. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do justice to the generous portions (including onion bhajis the size of your fist), mainly because feeling under the weather had taken away my appetite and I couldn’t really taste anything properly. It was a real shame as I love curry and I hate wasting food- I’d have asked for a doggy bag if circumstances had allowed!

During this first bit of our holiday, we also visited Betty’s Tea Rooms in Ilkley. We had tea and cake (well, Owen had coffee and cake as he doesn’t drink tea because he’s odd) and it was all very civilised. This was another of Lisa’s recommendations- she’d mentioned at breakfast (while icing a cake, as you do) that she’d trained with Betty’s previously and said that it was a nice place to go on a wet day (which it was).

Apologies for the lack of pictures of food- I’m not really one for taking pictures of my food when I’m out and about but have a look at the websites if you’re interested or are looking for somewhere to stay or eat in Yorkshire!

To make up for the lack of food pictures, below are some photographs we took while walking the Ingleton Waterfall Trail. We walked the trail when I was feeling particularly snuffly and full of a cold, and had therefore only managed a bowl of Rice Krispies for breakfast. I really should have forced myself to have a bowl of porridge because the 8km walk nearly finished me off! It was very enjoyable though and the scenery was beautiful. It was also the only day the weather was good enough to do it while we were in that part of Yorkshire so I’m glad I sucked it up and just got on with it.

Tree trunk covered with coins.

Thornton Force- the most well-known waterfall on the Ingleton trail, which apparently provided inspiration for the artist William Turner.

The hump to the right of the picture is Ingleborough- one of the Yorkshire Dales Three Peaks.