Some like it hot

My first taste of hot sauce was a revelation. The ordeal leading up to it may have played a part in why it blew my mind, though I can’t be sure. The year was 2011 and I was a young foolish foodie in search of cheap kicks. Having heard whisperings of a hip new burger joint in town, suffering from FOMO before the phrase had been coined, three friends and I headed down to a disused carpark behind Selfridges (the glamour) and took our place in the queue snaking down the street.

On a sunny day this would have been fine, but we’d rocked up on the coldest night of the year. Mother nature was in a particularly spiteful mood. An icy wind stung our cheeks as we huddled together like penguins protecting their young. After an hour we were no longer able to feel our feet and were so cold we’d lost the ability to speak. The queue had barely moved. As the minutes ticked by and the snow began to fall we wondered whether to give up and go home. But the longer we stood there and the hungrier we got, the more determined we became to stick it out.

Two hours later we were finally inside the graffiti filled meat Mecca and took our places around a small circular table, still shivering and unable to remove our coats. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hungry or desirous of food. Giant silver trays piled high with Dead Hippie burgers and chilli cheese fries paraded passed us tauntingly. I toyed with the idea of ordering the entire menu but kept it simple, settling on a buffalo chicken burger. The wait was excruciating and talk seemed futile.

Hot sauce fans will go wild for this dip – peachy perfection

And then it arrived. A gargantuan deep fried chicken breast drenched in hot sauce cascading audaciously from its brioche bun, finished with a generous dollop of mayo and a few token wisps of lettuce. There was no way of eating it elegantly, but I was too ravenous to care. Opening my jaws as wide as I could, the first peppery bite of that burger is one of the most satisfying mouthfuls of food I have ever had, and one I return to in dreams. The warming tang of the buffalo sauce was an entirely new experience for me, and a flavour I instantly adored.

Hot but not aggressively spicy, it cut through the the fattiness of the fried chicken with its vinegary kick. I’ve been a Frank’s fanatic ever since. Made from a mixture of cayenne peppers, vinegar, salt and garlic powder, Frank’s RedHot is over 100 years old, first hitting the shelves back in 1920. The original recipe used Louisiana peppers, which have since been replaced with Mexican-grown chillies. I was recently introduced to a decadent dip that makes a hero of the hot sauce by an American friend who likes to whip out a bubbling platter of it at dinner parties.

Fresh out of the oven and ready to be devoured

There are various riffs on the recipe, but all combine cooked chicken breasts, a tub of Philadelphia, a bottle of Frank’s, a cup of soured cream or ranch dressing (or a mixture of both) and a generous sprinkling of cheese – I used Cheddar. Making the magnificent melting mess couldn’t be easier – all you have to do is shred the chicken, pour over the hot sauce and soured cream, spoon in the Philly and stir until it turns peachy pink. Once the flavours have had a minute to marinate, transfer it to a dish, blanket it in grated cheese and bake at 200° for half an hour.

Avoid using mozzarella as it turns to rubber when it cools. Hard cheeses like Cheddar and Monterey Jack work a treat. Those who like it really hot can ramp up the spice by using the Frank’s more liberally – I found a bottle the ideal amount for an assertive tang without it overpowering the rest of the flavours, which mingle so seamlessly with one another it’s hard to tell when one ingredient ends and another begins. The dip is best enjoyed with a huge bowl of nachos, and tastes equally delicious cold the next day. I look forward to making it for friends when we’re allowed to break bread again.

The thighs have it

I can’t, sadly, claim these thighs as my own…

Until last week I had never cooked a chicken thigh. I have nothing against them, they’d just never entered my culinary orbit. Keen to try out a few recipes from Nigella Lawson’s latest tome, Cook, Eat Repeat, I jotted down all the ingredients required to make two of her most comforting dishes: fennel gratin and chicken in a garlic cream sauce, and off to the shops I went. With the pandemic still raging, a trip to the supermarket feels like a reckless, high risk act in the name of good food; the supermarket aisles a battlefield filled with (potentially) deadly combatants.

My strategy is to shop at antisocial hours in the hope that it will be all quiet on the West London front. Not so on my latest visit – the place was rammed and my shop turned into an unwelcome game of dodge. Like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, I sped through the aisles flinging linguine and loo roll into my trolley like my life depended on it. In my haste I made a fundamental error in my ingredient hunt. Having lugged an inordinate amount of food home in the rain, on unpacking I discovered, like a character in a Nick Park animation, that I’d bought the wrong thighs. Rather than the required skin-on thighs, I’d picked up the fillets.

My fennel gratin before I left it in the oven too long…

Drenched and exhausted, my heart sank. I’d been looking forward to making the recipe for days, and it depended on gloriously golden crispy skin. The fillets wouldn’t fly. I abandoned my unpacking, put the thighs in my handbag and rushed back to Sainsbury’s. The customer service clerk took mercy on me, allowing me to exchange my thighs, checking the receipt to make sure I’d just bought them. You only have half an hour to return fresh goods and I’d snuck back in the nick of time.

One of the downsides to living alone and experimenting in dinner party-style cooking is that you will always cook too much. With an ice box rather than a freezer, I opted to cook seven of the ten thighs, if only for them to look good in their glamour shot. Their preparation coincided with Boris’ bleak announcement that England would be going into lockdown for a third time with no determined end date. The only way to deal with the news was to drown my sorrows in cream.

My lavish lockdown feast

It probably wasn’t wise to cook two of Nigella’s richest dishes side by side with only my furry friend Florence to share them with, but I rather liked the idea of whipping up such a lavish feast on a Monday night. Sadly, the fennel gratin wasn’t a triumph. It had all the makings of a great dish, but my timings were off, and, in a bid to coincide its release from the oven with the thighs, what had been a beautiful, bubbling celebration of the aniseed-scented veg emerged caramelised and overcooked, ten minutes too long in the oven taking it beyond the realms of civility.

It tasted good, but was so rich I could only manage a few mouthfuls. The thighs, thankfully, were more successful. Between the gratin and the thighs I used a pot-and-a-half of double cream and a 375ml bottle of dry vermouth from Charante. The recipe begins by frying the thighs, skin side down on a medium heat, for 10 minutes until the skin crisps up. Once golden, you have to drown the thighs in vermouth, with a dash of water, then fling them in the oven to roast for half an hour.

The retro garlic cream sauce couldn’t be easier – you need to warm 250ml of double cream with three fat cloves of minced garlic and a confident grinding of pepper in a saucepan and stir until it thickens. When the thighs are done you can make the most of the vermouth-soused cooking juices by adding a generous glug to the cream sauce for added depth of flavour. Once it has thickened, fling in a handful of parsley then pour liberally over the chicken and dive in. Defeated after three thighs, Florence was happy to devour the leftovers. She’ll be demanding foie gras soon…

Return of the mac

Love her or loathe her, you’ve got to admire Nigella Lawson. From her flirtatious sideways glances at the camera to her sensuous spoon licking, she has single-handedly made home cooking sexy. I’ve long been a fan of the domestic goddess and her unapologetic pursuit of pleasure. “No one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure they get from eating; the only thing to feel guilty about is the failure to feel grateful for that pleasure”, she writes in her latest culinary tome, Cook, Eat Repeat. “I see every mealtime, every mouthful, as a celebration of life.”

In our current climate of clean eating and mindful drinking, Nigella’s approach – in viewing food as a passport to pleasure rather than a necessary source of fuel – is reassuring, particularly now, when food is one of the few pleasures left available to us as the nation, once again, goes into a lockdown. January is a bleak month at the best of times. Throw in a pandemic spiralling out of control and it’s easy to feel desolate. To help me get through the month, I’m going to be focusing on comfort food, cooking carb-laden dishes that satiate and soothe.

Aiding me in my quest for comfort is Nigella’s new cookbook, which I gave to my stepmother for Christmas and received two copies in return. She touches on the pleasure of food in her introduction: “Food is a constant source of pleasure: I like to think greedily about it, reflect deeply on it, learn from it; it provides comfort, inspiration, meaning and beauty, as well as sustenance and structure.” Oscar Wilde believed that people were either charming or tedious. I tend to think that, when it comes to food, people fall into two camps: those that live to eat and those who eat to live. I’m firmly in the former and find those in the latter hard to relate to.

Nigella’s new culinary tome, Cook, Eat, Repeat

Like restaurants, all cookbooks have their signature dishes, and Nigella’s crab mac and cheese is likely to emerge as the must-make plate within Cook, Eat, Repeat. It first entered my consciousness when my friend Phoebe French, a fiercely talented young cook, sent me a photo of her version, which I spent minutes drooling over. Rather than macaroni, the dish is made with the more sophisticated, and beautiful, conchiglie rigati – their shell shape is perfectly suited to cradling pools of the rich, crab-laced sauce. It also features lashings of one of my favourite cheeses – Gruyère.

Lawson’s recipe riffs on a modern restaurant classic – lobster mac and cheese – one of the signature dishes at diner deluxe Bob Bob Ricard in Soho. In order for it to work, she insists on equal amounts of white and brown crab meat, the former offering subtle sweetness and the latter the intense briny taste of the sea. Rather than being drowned out by the tang of the cheese or the heat of the paprika, the flavour of the crab remains defiantly (albeit discreetly) in the foreground, giving the sauce an alluring depth and richness beyond its crowd-pleasing cheesiness.

The pairing of baked pasta and cheese dates back to the 14th century, when a pasta and Parmesan dish appeared in the Italian cookbook Liber de Coquina. At the same time a pasta and cheese casserole, crafted from hand-cut pasta sandwiched between a layer of melted butter and cheese, made a cameo in the English culinary tome Forme of Cury. The first modern recipe for macaroni cheese appeared in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1770 cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper, and featured a mornay sauce made by marrying béchamel with Cheddar.

Nigella’s crab mac and cheese is both opulent and elegant

With only white crabmeat to hand, I made the dish the day after Boxing Day and hoped the lack of briny brown crab wouldn’t detract from the enjoyment of it. I’ve always loved the lull between Christmas and New Year when the architecture of your days is shaped around your next meal. If only life could always be like that. I added more Gruyère than the recipe required – I always do with cheese – and was happy with how it turned out for a first attempt, the smokiness of the paprika working well with the nutty tang of the cheese and the salty sweetness of the crab.

Nigella suggests pouring any leftover sauce over a pile of nachos – an inspired idea I’m keen to try if I haven’t hoovered it all up first. The beauty of this dish is its ability to deliver on the comfort front while also being sophisticated enough to serve to a lover you’re trying to impress. It’s both opulent and elegant, and has already become a firm favourite of mine. You can find a link to the recipe here – I urge you to give it a go. Nigella recommends enjoying it with a flinty white or Provence rosé. Mine paired a treat with Gusbourne’s glorious 2018 Guinevere Chardonnay.

When life gives you lemons

Hope is something we’re in short supply of at the moment, at a time when we need it most. I’ve never been so aware of the power of light as during the pandemic. The long, light-filled summer days were like a balm that soothed the wounds inflicted by months of self isolation, making a difficult situation more bearable. Spending months on my own, I became acutely aware of the passing of time, and with it the changing seasons. As spring unfurled into summer, the warmth and abundance of light seemed like a symbol of hope; a reminder of brighter days ahead.

The clocks went back today and by 5pm the sky had turned to ink. As our days get shorter and light more scarce, the need to cling to hope becomes ever more important. For those feeling blue, solace can be sought in the simplest of ingredients – the lemon – the ultimate symbol of hope. Its vivid yellow hue and delightfully dimpled skin is enough to lift the spirits. There’s something inherently optimistic about lemons. They embody all that is wonderful about the world – a distillation of sunlight and warmth. Ripening slowly, like a photograph they capture a moment in time, expressing the essence of summer in their bracing juice.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Girl Holding Lemons

I find it hard to imagine life without lemons – it would be like living without sleep or sunlight. While we regularly cook with them, we almost never enjoy them as a solo act, but their power cannot be underestimated. A spritz can enliven all manner of dishes, from a delicate piece of fish or a simple salad to a decadent dessert. The lemon is as fundamental and important to cooking as salt for enhancing flavour.

My love of lemons is entwined with my love of Italy. I remember being beguiled the first time I saw the size of the lemons growing on the Amalfi coast. They looked like colossal mutant cousins of the dainty citrus fruit we get in the UK. Staying true to his Italian roots, Alessandro Palazzi uses Amalfi lemons in his lethally strong Martinis at Dukes Bar, pinching the lemon peel so its essential oils infuse into the gin, meaning before you take your first sip, you’re treated to its potent perfume.

The word lemon comes from the Persian word ‘limu’. The origin of the fruit is disputed, though citrus trees have flourished in the foothills of the Himalayas for centuries. The lemon is thought to have first grown in Assam in northeastern India, entering Europe via southern Italy in the second century AD, though it would be a long time before the fruit was widely cultivated. Considered a rare luxury in ancient Rome, before being used in food, lemon trees served as ornamental plants and were used in medicine. It wasn’t until the 15th century that they were widely cultivated, with Genoa, rather than Sicily or Amalfi, serving as the production hub.

My ultra zingy lemon drizzle cake

What better way to let the lemon express itself in all its mouth-puckering glory than in a lemon drizzle cake? I’m often bitterly disappointed by the whispering suggestion of lemon in shop bought versions, as if us Brits might not be able to cope with the zingy onslaught of the real deal. Citrus fiends looking for a confident hit of lemon in their drizzle cake, should give this recipe a go. It bills itself as ‘the world’s best lemon drizzle cake’, and, having made it five times, I’m inclined to agree.

I go one step further and add the juice of two lemons to the batter, in addition to using two lemons in the syrup. This pushes the cake to its lemony limit, weeding out all but the most ardent of citrus lovers. It’s a celebration of sourness and the high juice content means it stays marvellously moist for days. As the nights draw in and sunshine becomes more scarce, the lemon serves as a reminder of brighter days ahead. That this too shall pass. That spring will return and life will renew itself. That however dark it may feel right now, there is reason for hope.

No time to baste

The money shot – a dry brine crisps up the skin

Dear reader, I have a confession to make. I have never roasted a chicken. Quite how I’ve managed to avoid such a classic dish my entire adult life is a feat that surprises me, but roasting a bird has always seemed like a culinary step too far. I have, thus far, felt ill equipped to tackle such an endeavour. There are so many ways to slip up, I’ve never had the gumption to give it a go. “You can always judge the quality of a cook by roast chicken. A juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird requires a greed for perfection,” says Julia Child. No pressure then.

“Some of the most glorious French dishes have been created for chicken – the most important aspect is that you procure a good, flavoursome bird,” advises Julia. “If you buy on price alone you’ll often end up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear”. The Holy Grail of the poultry world is Poulet de Bresse – a breed of chicken from eastern France revered for its rich depth of flavour and tender flesh. While chickens have been eaten as far back as 600BC, they didn’t become a staple until the Middle Ages, when spit roasting came into fashion.

In 16th century Britain, before steam and clockwork, spits were turned by small dogs that were bred specifically for the task. The clever canines were taught to run on a wheel that turned the roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces. How they were kept from devouring the meat is remarkable. The first thing that surprised me while hunting for a bird was how inexpensive they are. As I was only cooking it for myself, I sought out the smallest chicken I could find, which cost just £3.

Having struck upon a selection of petit poulets, I arranged them in a row in a bid to choose the prettiest bird, which sounds absurd, but they varied quite dramatically in shape, so I went for the neatest looking one. Having grappled with chicken livers for my last blog post, coming face to face with a whole chicken felt less gruesome, though seeing the pair of neck bones jutting up where its head once resided made me feel a little queasy. Bird home, before I got to work prepping it I felt I ought to do my research. While this was probably a good idea it sent me down a rabbit hole.

There is no single way to roast a chicken – the options available to the novice cook are dizzying. I ended up feeling so confused by the contradictory recipes that I putt of cooking it for a day. This worked in my favour, as I was able to experiment with a ‘cheffy’ technique – dry brining. In the quest for crisp skin, I patted the bird dry then doused it in salt to draw out the moisture, leaving it in the fridge overnight. Keen to get ahead, I made my roast potatoes in advance, adding a teaspoon of baking soda while parboiling them to crisp up their skins even further.

While olive oil is far healthier, I opted to slather my spuds in beef dripping, giving them a shuffle every 20 minutes to ensure an even roasting, and flinging in a few sprigs of rosemary towards the end for a herbal hit. They emerged gloriously golden and satisfyingly crunchy – if I ended up cremating the chicken then at least I’d nailed the roasties. You’re supposed to take your bird out of the fridge an hour before putting it in the oven. I forgot, which was the start of my downfall.

At least my roasties were a triumph

Then there’s the fiddly business of trussing, which requires the dexterity of a sailor to do successfully. Lacking butchers twine, I had to make do with thread. Tying its legs together and keeping its wings in place is said to result in a more even roast. Having generously seasoned it the night before, I was tempted to smear the bird in butter, as Julia suggests – she even massages it into the cavity – but moisture is the enemy of crispy skin and Thomas Keller advises against lubrication of any kind.

To prop the chicken up, you’re supposed to lay it on a bed of veg. All I had to hand was a bag of carrots that were on the turn, which I hoped would do the trick. The Keller recipe gives the bird a short blast of heat at a very high temperature (230°) – in an hour I was promised a golden bird with crisp skin and moist flesh. It sounded too good to be true. Cranking up the heat, I lay my bird on its bed of browning carrots, slid it into the oven and hoped for the best. Basting fanatic Julia would have been horrified that I didn’t regularly reach into the oven to moisten the bird.

My little bird, trussed and ready to go

“One is under compulsion to hover over the bird and see that it is continually basted”, she said. My fuss free recipe meant I could squeeze in a Joe Wicks workout while the oven worked its magic. After an hour I retrieved my prize and stuck a thermometer in its thigh. It shot up to 180° – higher than required. The skin had crisped up nicely – it looked like I was on to a winner. But after hours of agonising over the recipe and an anxious wait for the results, my appetite had disappeared. Just as well it had, as when I ripped off one of the legs, the flesh was pink inside.

Treating the exercise like a science experiment, I conducted a post mortem. As Keller promised, the flesh throughout was moist, but much of it was far pinker than I would have been comfortable eating. The breast meat just beneath the skin was swan white and beautifully tender, but the sight of so much pink meat put me off trying it. Roasting a chicken is a fine art I’ve yet to master. I’m looking forward to experimenting with different techniques. My next bird is getting slathered in butter and a lemon up its bottom. I may also, in Julia’s honour, give it a good basting.