Crispy Fennel Seed Flatbread Crackers

fennel seed flatbread crackersThe past week has seen a lot of spring related posts and articles popping into my inbox: recipes flaunting tender young vegetables, some pastel-tastic decorating ideas. Even a white (!) tarmac-scraping trouser suit stared back at my disbelieving face. But I really shook my fake fur hat-wearing head at this one, allegedly taken in Stockholm – a city not really known for its floaty miniskirt-friendly weather. Yes, I am wearing a hat indoors.

I think you will have surmised by now that it is snowing here in Edinburgh. March ruddy 19th and we have horizontal snow and sleet. Continue reading

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Crispy Olive Oil and Lemon-Rosemary Flatbreads

As some of you might have noticed, if you have the same addiction, I like a bit of Anthropologie. For those of you who don’t know Anthropologie you might be thinking, my goodness, doesn’t she know how to spell by now? Or, what does the study of comparative cultures have to do with flatbread?

For the uninitiated Anthropologie, with an ‘ie’, is a fantastic clothing and home wares store full of well-crafted, unique items of lust. Yes, lust. These must-have, cleverly detailed and designed bits and bobs are displayed in such as way as to make you think ‘to hell with the budget, I’ll take it all’. A real credit card in flames kind of place.  For me at least, but perhaps you as well. Continue reading

A Non-Purist’s Gazpacho

Pittenweem, the picture-postcard fishing village where we are staying the weekend, is gearing up for its week in the British cultural spotlight hosting the Pittenweem Arts Festival (6-14 August). This dinky village, so tiny that it doesn’t have a cash machine, or even the ubiquitous Tesco Metro, hosts one of the best, most accessible art shows to be found anywhere. By accessible I mean that the art displayed is wide-ranging enough to please the culture-vultures (my in-laws) and Philistines (that will be me) alike. Gorgeous, colour-soaked abstract canvases jostle with simple pen and ink studies, blowsy floral whimsies and beautiful sea-inspired tapestries in this most egalitarian of art festivals.

The Westshore, Pittenweem

Although Pittenweem boosts an unusually high number of galleries for such a bijou place, the ever-increasing number of artists who exhibit over the week means that the ground floors and gardens of many houses are co-opted and hung with paintings, dotted with sculptures and draped with textiles and decorative baubles. The village is always eye-achingly gorgeous, especially the Shore area, with its pastel tied fishermen’s cottages, tumbling gardens and step-gabled roofs, but it really comes alive in August. If you are anywhere near the east coast of Scotland come and have a browse around this uniquely homey art festival.

Even if nothing catches your eye art-wise there are always the home-baking stalls spilling out onto the pavement to tempt you. And the Cocoa Tree, where I use coffee-purchased wi-fi for the occasional blog post, has dangerously addictive chilli cocoa to sup while enjoying homemade crepes and other goodies. Great chocolate shop too. The fish and chip shop a few doors down is also a good find. Anstruther, the next village up, has a famous fish and chip shop (it boasts photos of celebs noshing with the plebes from cardboard trays). But Pittenweem Fish Bar is just as good at two-thirds of the price, with efficient staff to keep everyone in their place as they queue down the street for their portions of crisp-golden fish.  And no cardboard tray-plates, just good old paper to unwrap while sitting on the harbour wall watching the fishing boats go out for the night.

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Mediterranean Sauteed Artichoke Pasta with Poor Mans’ Parmesan

What a great weekend! Despite the vagaries of a Scottish ‘summer’ – which is basically autumn with added midges and tennis –  my family and I had an idyllic Saturday and Sunday.  A perfect mix of socialising and doing bother all. Humour me for a few minutes while I elucidate.

Every year we host a big barbecue, with work colleagues, family of colleagues and Mr A’s fellow Maggies Monster Bike and Hikers in attendance. I buy decent sausages and fish, and make homemade burgers, salads and maybe a fruity pavlova or two. But it’s really about the mildly alcohol-enhanced chat (Scottish stereotype intact), daft games involving malted milk balls and water guns, and treating our tolerant neighbours to my daughter’s frankly awesome taste in tunes.

The past few times Mr A and his partner in all things childish, Issy, have taken to scouring the charity shops for the most dire, embarrassing and ill-fitting hats and garments to inflict on our game partygoers: every balding man has to have an Abba wig and at least someone has to sport superhero underpants over their trousers (hello Gordon!).  But every year there is the fret about what the weather might unleash. So, every year a marquee gets erected in the garden to act as a weather charm, warding off looming thunderheads that tend to gather like snarling dogs. Do you do that too? Not set up marquees but, say, drag an umbrella around so that you won’t need it: it always rains if I don’t have one rather than when I do. I practise a lot of rain god appeasing here in Edinburgh.

But, despite an almighty downpour of rainforest proportion at T minus 2 hours, we ended up dancing, singing, gossiping, marshmallow toasting and chowing without the downer of raincoats and wellies. All under under our nearly-midnight sun. Bliss. And to top it all off from two very thoughtful friends came the gift of little coats for our rescue hens. So even our girls could join in the dress up ‘fun’. We tried one on our most amiable (ie, daft) girl and it fitted perfectly. She wasn’t too sure about it, but I bet she will be clucking for it before too long. Continue reading

Kitchen-sink Spring Minestrone and Spring Green Pesto Focaccia

As I am writing this I am also keeping an amused eye on the antics at my bird feeders. The gnarly, old apple tree on which the feeders hang is suddenly alive with over a dozen balls of downy cerulean fluff, cheeping and and chasing as if battery powered. The extra life in the tree is due to a second set of blue tits having just today fledged and joined their older, bolder siblings. I would love to show you a picture of these hyperactive blue bullets but they are too darn fast, flitting from limb to limb with the ease of practised trapeze artists.

Because we have two cats it is with a certain amount of guilt that we hang and maintain bird feeders. One cat is too rotund to prove much of a risk to the visiting bird population, and is taunted by raucous crows who occasionally swoop low and  rocket off, cawing loudly. The other cat, a slinky tabby, is another story altogether. Let’s just say that at this time of year it is not a complete surprise to be given a ‘present’. He watches and waits with infinite patience for any clumsy, or distracted, chick upon which to pounce. A large recently fallen oak tree branch is proving a perfect eyrie to espy little ground-based birds as they scavenge for anything knocked from the overhanging feeders. Our cats are well-fed and of relatively advanced years (somewhat like myself) so are not as active in this respect as once they were, but it is still a source of guilt at this time of year. But right now, with the deft acrobatics I am witnessing before me, it’s all good. And both cats are doing as cats do and sleeping. On the master bed of course.

What in the world does this have to do with minestrone? Well, not much (my ramblings rarely dovetail with the accompanying recipe) except they are both delights of late spring. Root-based soups are sustaining and warming in winter, but a fresh-tasting, pesto-infused minestrone makes a wonderful light lunch as spring eases into summer. And even better if accompanied by a pillowy hunk of green stratified focaccia. Continue reading

Lebanese-style Broad Bean Hummus

I will let you in on something: I am typing this while eating pink peppercorn dark chocolate. Yes, little miss eat-your-greens is merrily chowing down on some delectable chocolate noir au poivre rose, to give it its proper name. I discovered it in the impulse buy section by the tills at good old TK Maxx. Normally I am immune to the lure of the well-thumbed packets of oddly flavoured liquorice and jelly beans that are the usual checkout fodder at said retail emporium, but my trash-o-meter must have been out of whack. It does have pretty pink packaging, so I can just about blame the buy on grounds of physical attraction rather than greed. But we know better. If you are interested, it is from quality Belgian brand Dolfin, who have a beautiful website that helpfully offers convincing health information to lessen the guilt. For more about benefits of chocolate and why not to feel guilty about it, see my earlier post. I subsequently saw ‘my’ chocolate in the posh chocolate section of Tesco  (no, I didn’t know they had a posh section either, let alone a chocolate one) but have resisted buying a job lot. Just to leave some for you. I’m not normally that nice. It’s well-balanced, not too bitter and comes in a petite 70g size – enough for two to share, or not…

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Sugared Spelt and Olive Oil Biscuits

spelt olive oil biscuits on rackTo be perfectly honest I’m not much of a sweet person (no comments please). Give me a bowl of hummus and some salty, herb-flecked flatbread crackers over a piece of cake any day – or a bowl of Doritoes and a glass of white wine when it’s been one of those days… But, I LOVE these biscuits. Anyone craving something sweet, crispy and delicate should find these lace thin ‘tortas de aceite’ an easily made treat. I have had similar biscuits from Spain but, although the flavour was amazing, they tended to be a bit drier and thicker, probably because they need to survive a ride in a delivery lorry. In Spain the sweet tortas are traditionally flavoured with anise seeds but as they are less available here in Scotland I’ve used complementary fennel seeds and ground seeds from star anise. This deficiency in my otherwise well-stocked, and frankly obscene, spice and herbs cupboard(s) is being rectified. As I write, I am hoping my online Steenberg purchase of anise seeds – along with dried rose petals and other oddments – is being packaged up for posting.

Most supermarket and bakery biscuits are a concoction of  heavily refined flours, oils and sugars, things many of us are trying to avoid. Although by no means a diet option these tortas have a modest healthy streak, and contain almost no saturated fat. To wit, spelt flour gives 25% more protein than traditional wheat (more filling, good for controlling blood sugar, reduces cravings), and the healthy-in-moderation olive oil gives a wonderful crispness usually only achieved by using butter or butter and lard.  These biscuits are so easy to make, and store so well, that you may find it just as easy to whip up a batch of these as to drive to the store when you need a hit of something sweet and, well, biscuity. The only trick is to roll the dough out as thinly as possible -shape doesn’t matter (well, at least not to me – I like the rustic/unskilled look). A walnut-sized ball of dough will give quite a large biscuit – tea plate sized – so you might want to go for a large marble-sized ball. I  favour the big ‘uns. They taste brilliant with a cup of green tea or even lapsang souchong. A version of these are for sale in a well-known British supermarket that starts with a ‘W’ – 6 biscuits for £3.99!

Sugared Spelt and Olive Oil Biscuits – ‘Tortas de Aceite’

spelt olive oil dough ballWhat You Need:

185g/1 & 1/2 c refined spelt flour OR all unbleached plain flour

4 tsps white sesame seeds

3 tbsp unrefined brown sugar (pinch out any lumps)

egg wash spelt olive oil biscuits½ tsp ground star anise (or 15 seeds from a few whole star anise pods – ground) OR 1 tsp anise seeds, lightly crushed

3/4 tsp whole fennel seeds – coarsely crushed

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp fine sea salt

80 ml/4 and 1/2 tbsp best extra virgin olive oil

70 ml/ 4 tbsp ice cold water

To glaze: 1 small egg white, beaten till foamy + granulated or demerara sugar for sprinkling generously.

What You Do: Beat all the biscuit ingredients together until they come together in a shiny mass. Pinch walnut (or smaller) sized pieces and roll individually between cling film or baking paper (I prefer cling film so I can see what I’m doing) as thinly as possible.

spelt olive oil biscuit put on trayPeel the top sheet from the biscuit and upend onto a lined baking sheet, carefully peeling away the bottom sheet once the topside is on the tray. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, promise. I usually get about five on each sheet so you will need to do a number of batches. Brush each uncooked biscuit with foamy egg white and sprinkle generously with sugar. Bake in a 200C/400F oven for 6-8 minutes or until starting to get golden and crusty looking. You may need to turn your trays to get even browning. Allow the biscuits to cool for a minute before using a fish slice/spatula to transfer to a cooling rack. Continue with the rest of the dough. These keep well in an airtight container. Makes approximately 15, 15 cm/6 in tortas. ¡Buena suerta!