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Gratin for dinner

10 January 2023

Tuesday 10 January

As I reached into the fridge for the head of red cabbage for a quick slaw yesterday, a riot of cauliflower, kale, and leeks, all precariously wedged among the milk and yogurt pots for lack of space in the vegetable drawers, tumbled into my hands.

So instead, I made gratin. And on a wet, wintry January evening, it was much the better choice.

The trick with gratin is to not be deterred by making béchamel. It always goes much quicker than I fear. I usually eyeball it. I use a good third of a bar of butter (which would come to about 100 grams), let it melt completely, then add the flour while constantly stirring — a few tablespoons, just enough to absorb all the melted butter. I cook the clumped butter and flour for a minute or two while stirring, before adding the milk. This can be done all at once or little by little, either method works. I usually do it gradually since I don’t measure the ingredients beforehand. As the milk meets the flour/butter mixture it will first stiffen (or become clumpy is adding a lot of milk at once) but whisk briskly and the béchamel will soon become silky. When it reaches the desired consistency, anywhere from lava thick to gravy thin, add a generous pinch of salt, black pepper, nutmeg, and perhaps some grated cheese.

Cauliflower, kale, and leek gratin

1 head of cauliflower
1 bunch of lacinato kale
3 to 4 leeks
1 clove of garlic
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the béchamel:
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Grated cheese (gruyère or cheddar or parmiggiano)

Preheat the oven to 175C (350F).

First, make the béchamel:

In a saucepan, melt a large pat of butter completely (I usually use about a 1/3 of a bar, about 100 grams). Stirring constantly, add just enough flour to absorb all the melted butter (a few tablespoons). Cook the clumped butter and flour for a minute or two while still stirring, then start adding milk. The milk can be added all at once or little by little, either methods work. I usually do it gradually since I don’t measure the ingredients beforehand. As the milk meets the flour/butter mixture it will first stiffen (or become clumpy is adding a lot of milk at once) but whisk briskly and the béchamel will soon become silky. When it reaches the desired consistency, anywhere from lava thick to gravy thin, add a generous pinch of salt, black pepper, and lots of nutmeg. Optionally, melt a small handful of grated cheese into the béchamel.

Cut up the cauliflower into small florets and wash in cold water. Trim off the hard stalks of the kale, cut into pieces about 4 to 5 cm (1 1/2 inches) long, wash, and strain as much of the excess water as possible. Trim (top and tail) the leeks, remove the tough outer layer, and slice thinly. Wash in cold water and strain thoroughly.

Rub a large ovenproof dish all over with the (peeled) garlic clove, then butter the dish.

Scatter the vegetables into the dish and toss with a generous pinch of salt and ground black pepper.

Pour the béchamel over the vegetables as evenly as possible, making sure to reach the edges, then cover generously with grated cheese.

Bake in the oven for at least 45 minutes (up to an hour) until brown and bubbly. Let sit for a few minutes before serving.

Pecan pie and a Boulevardier cocktail, more good things for Thanksgiving

9 December 2022

Yesterday I wrote about some disasters of our Thanksgiving meal, one perfect exception — the stuffing —, and a few other good things. I alluded to a pecan pie, and, despite the photo, quite forgot to mention the cocktail, which we sipped late into the night long after the last guests had left and the dishes were all washed. I am using this as a reminder for next year.

Photo by Thomas

Note number one: Premix the Boulevardiers

When friends arrive mid-afternoon, is it too early to start mixing bourbon? Absolutely not! I hear you whisper, and I am listening. Yet our habitual scenario is to start mildly with beer and wine. Too often we miss the moment. Next time a carafe of Boulevardiers will simply be ready — regardless of Helen Rosner’s injunction to “[not] make this ahead of time; the flavors soften and blur as they rest.” Better a lightly melded cocktail, then none at all.

Boulevardier recipe
It is often described as a variation on a negroni — the classic version of which is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari — in which the gin is substituted for bourbon or rye whiskey. Many recipes recommend a higher proportion of whiskey.

1 to 2 oz of bourbon or rye — whiskey choice and proportion both according to individual taste
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz Campari
Orange or lemon peel to garnish

Add all the ingredients (except the peel) to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir well until chilled.

Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass, or over ice into a rocks glass.

Squeeze and drop the citrus peel into the glass.

Note number two: A very good pecan pie

I was relying on Balthasar to make our best, award-winning pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. But on Wednesday evening, as we settled into the kitchen — Thomas for his now traditional cranberry curd pie, and I with the intention of gaining a head start on some prep for the next day — Balthasar was nowhere around and the promise of pumpkin pie soon evaporated.


Thanksgiving cannot happen without either pumpkin or pecan pie. One may be enough but they cannot both be absent. And pecan is quicker.

After frantically tracing emails back a decade looking for a friend’s mum’s recipe (I didn’t find it), I went straight to Smitten Kitchen — a site I’ve always followed but if I’m honest have only rarely cooked from, though, always, cake! Reliably, I found an ideal recipe.

Here is the direct link to Smitten Kitchen’s excellent pecan pie .

And now I am very much looking forward to next year’s Thanksgiving!

An apricot tarte with a verbena syrup and the latest Letter from N&Q on Summer eating

13 September 2022

The latest Letter from Nettle & Quince is out on Substack!

Before landing firmly into September, it’s a look back to the summer and how we eat on holiday. Feasts occasionally, but more often simple food that slots in easily with the holiday mode. Quick lunches, tins of fish, many tomatoes, and plenty of tartes, including this superlative and super easy apricot tarte with a lemon verbena syrup — recipe below.

You can find the link HERE.

You can also sign up for future newsletters here.

Apricot tarte with a lemon verbena syrup
I love the combination of verbena and apricot. It was a chance improvisation some years ago and I return to it every year. It’s one of my favourite.

All-butter pie crust, either home made or store-bought
Ripe apricots, enough to fill the pie when cut in half
200g ground almonds
75g sugar

For the syrup
200g sugar
A few sprigs of fresh lemon verbena

Preheat the oven to 175C (350F).

To make the syrup, pour the sugar into a small saucepan with just enough water to wet it completely. Heat until the sugar is entirely dissolved and let simmer for a few minutes. Add the sprigs of lemon verbena to infuse at least 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, assemble the tarte.

Place the pastry in a pie dish (or on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper). Dot the pastry with holes (for example with a fork) so that it doesn’t puff up while baking.

In a medium bowl, mix together the ground almonds and sugar. Cover the pastry with this mixture. Add the washed apricots, cut in half and stoned, onto the almond/sugar mixture.

Carefully drizzle the syrup over the apricots, taking care not to create big puddles. (If you want to decorate the tarte with verbena leaves, first dip them in the syrup so they crystallise while cooking rather than burn.)

Bake the tarte for 25 to 35 minutes.

Serve cool, with thick cream or just like that.

12 things to cook | in midwinter

29 January 2022

In January, I’ve realised, I often cook by colour. The light is softer then, better. Colours don’t blaze, they gleam, they glow from within. It isn’t that, at other times of the year, colours don’t matter. Perhaps they are less conspicuous, or simply taken for granted!

But the sudden appearance of a fluorescent purple or a tender green against the muted winter grays instantly makes one notice. So at this time of the year, when I choose what to eat, the question is often — what colour is my mood?

Here are some of the dishes I circle back to often, by tone.

BRIGHT — Salads, of course, and citrus!

Winter technicolour salad

Endive salad

Cabbage slaw

Marmalade cake

Orange and clementine salad

GREEN — Leaves and herbs

Soup in shades of green

Soba noodle soup

Kale and cauliflower gratin

BROWN — Low and slow cooked things

Slow cooked pork belly

Slow roasted pork shoulder

Baked apples

Three ginger cake

Quick and easy kombu miso noodle soup

27 January 2022

Snowdays were the magic of New York winters, here in London, it’s the flowers. Flowers in winter! I had never noticed.

Perhaps living most of my adult life in cities where temperatures in January usually sink far below freezing is to blame. Perhaps I just wasn’t looking. I have over the years gone from a reliable killer of every indoor plant, to a tentative balcony pot tender, all the way, most recently, to a mildly obsessive pruner, mulcher, planter, and general garden observer these past couple of years when there was Absolutely. Nothing. Else. To. Do. Somehow I hadn’t really realised that some flowers bloom in the dead of winter, and not because of climate anomalies.

This has changed my view on January. I don’t bemoan the absence of snow, or gripe at the soggy, bone-chilling but stubbornly above freezing — ‘this isn’t proper winter!’ — temperatures.

The camelia I was given last year (the day I also discovered these life-altering sourdough discard scones) has just begun to bloom. Hellebores are unfurling. And tiny tightly bound buds have appeared on all the mimosa trees nearby.

— Magic!

Quick and easy kombu miso noodle soup
This has become my favourite easy, one-pot, 40-minute (but only because the kombu needs to soak for half an hour) lunch.

A 5 to 15cm piece of kombu

Per person —
1/3 to 1/2ltr (1 1/2 to 2 cups) water
75g rice or soba noodles
100g-ish of tofu or salmon or boneless chicken thigh (or breast)
2 Tbsps miso paste
4 to 5 spring onions (scallions)
Tamari soy sauce
Favourite form of chilli (flakes, paste, rayu, …)

Let the kombu soak in the cold water in a saucepan for 30 minutes. => choose a pan that will hold about 3 times the amount of water.

Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the ingredients: (It’s important to prep everything in advance as the dish comes together in bare minutes at the end)

Cut the tofu/salmon/chicken into bite size pieces. NOTE: These pieces could be seared in a pan, which would be very good, but it creates an additional step and uses a extra pan that will need to be washed… For simplicity I added them directly to be cooked with the noodles.

Remove any damaged outer layer and chop the spring onions (scallions) very thinly (discard both ends).

Once the kombu has soaked for half an hour, turn on the heat and bring the water to a boil. Remove the kombu just before the water starts to boil (when there are just tiny bubbles forming around the kombu, before they erupt into a full boil).

Scoop a tablespoon of miso paste into each bowl, add just a spoonful of hot kombu water and mix well until the miso has dissolved (this will prevent the miso from forming clumps in the broth).

Put the noodles into the boiling water — the cooking time is usually just five minutes. Watch carefully and taste for doneness.

Tofu option: place the pieces of tofu inside the bowl with the miso.
Salmon or chicken option: put the fish/meat in the pan with the cooking noodles during the last few minutes of cooking — the chicken should take 3 to 4 minutes to poach, the salmon just 1 or 2 minutes so add this at the very end!

As soon as the noodles are cooked, remove the pan from the heat and pour the soup (and noodles) into each bowl.

Sprinkle a small handfull of spring onions over the soup and season with tamari or soy sauce and a spoonful — or two — of chilli.

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