All is quiet

This year has gone so quickly and I wanted to wish everyone a very happy new year. The holidays, like always, have gone by in a blur and here I am, early new year's eve morning, typing away. All is quiet here in Michigan, a fresh blanket of snow covers the beach and we're spending our last day skiing the tiny hills of a local mid-west ski resort.

Here is a recipe for a tried and tested mulled wine, one that says "happy holidays to you and yours" in a glass. I love the combination of the sharp citrus with the sweetness of the sugar and vanilla. When guests walk in the door wrapped in hats and gloves against the cold, they will be hit by an aroma that is instantly welcoming.

Mulled Wine
Adapted from Jamie Oliver

2 clementines, peel and juice
peel of one lemon
peel of one lime
1 1/4 cups sugar
6 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
3 fresh bay leaves
1 whole nutmeg or 2 tsp of ground nutmeg
1 whole vanilla pod, halved
2 star anise
2 bottles of Chianti or other Italian red wine

Peel large sections of your clementines, lemon and lime using a vegetable peeler. Put a large pan over medium heat and add the sugar, peel and then the juice of the two clementines. Throw in all other ingredients other then the star anise and wine. If grating a whole nutmeg, grate about 10 to 12 gratings into the mix. Pour in just enough wine to cover the sugar and bring to a boil. This will produce a flavored syrup that infuses the rest of your wine without cooking off the alcohol.

Keep this boiling for about 4-5 minutes until the sugar has dissolved and it's a nice thick syrup consistency. Once this has cooled slightly, turn down the heat to very low and add the star anise and the rest of the two bottles of wine.

Let the wine warm slowly. This should take about five minutes and you'll be ready to ladle them into welcoming glasses. I like to make this ahead and then warm it up when I know guests will be arriving.

Thank you all for reading my blog in 2009.... I'm looking forward to 2010!


It's on

It's on. Christmas is officially back on and my in-laws are due to fly in this Wednesday. Seeing as we've overcome several hurdles to get to this point, I'm approaching the cooking that this holiday requires with a calmness that is very unlike me. The week of cooking seemed to get kick started yesterday as I was preparing some pizzettes (mini-pizzas) for our neighborly holiday party.

I am hoping that the near disaster that occurred two minutes before we were due to head upstairs to the party is not a sign of things to come. As I went to fetch the innocent looking baking sheet from the very hot oven, I blinked and one entire tray of mini pizzas were upended on the oven door. With my face melting, I carefully salvaged all but one offensive pizza who's toppings were smeared across the oven's glass window. Mental note: add oven cleaner to the holiday shopping list.

Tis the season for get-togethers and festive gatherings of family, friends and co-workers. I am constantly in search for nibbles that will taste great with a cocktail or glass of wine. We decided to do a cocktail party for Christmas Eve at my sister's place and I'll be taking Ina Garten's roasted shrimp cocktail, some roast beef and arugula crostini and home-made chicken meatballs with peperonata.

These pizzettes, from Italian beauty Giada De Laurentiis, are perfect two-bite cocktail accompaniments. They use ready-made pizza dough that you can find pretty much anywhere these days. The last thing you want to be making from scratch at this time of year is pizza dough. Here's a helpful tip though: Make sure when you're rolling out the dough to use enough flour on both sides so that it doesn't stick to your counter-top and so the circles hold their shape.

I made three different toppings, but you can try a multitude of combinations depending on your tastes. Giada's toppings included caramelized onions, goat cheese and prosciutto and another with gorgonzola, cherry tomatoes and basil. I added a third topping combo with fresh ricotta, rosemary, red grapes and local honey from Heritage Prairie Market.

For the three recipes below, I actually bought 2 balls of store-bought pizza dough and got about 40 circles out of them and split them between the three different toppings.

Pizzettes with Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese and Prosciutto
Adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada De Laurentiis

1 ball of store-bought pizza dough (12-16 oz)
3 large onions, sliced
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp each of kosher salt, ground black pepper, herbs de Provence and sugar
1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese
5 slices of prosciutto cut into 2x2 inch pieces
handful of parsley, chopped for garnish
2 1/2 inch round cookie cutter (or you can use a glass about the same size and a sharp knife)

Start your onions first. These will take about an hour, so I started mine in the morning. In a heavy skillet, add the oil over low heat and combine the onions, salt, pepper, herbs de Provence and sugar. Stir together and cook over a very low heat for about an hour. Stir them occasionally until they become caramelized and are a dark, gooey golden brown.

Preheat the oven to 475F. Roll out your dough on a well floured surface until it is a 1/4 inch thick round. Using your cookie cutter or the top end of a glass, cut out the circles and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Top each dough circle with a spoonful of your caramelized onions and then some of the crumbled goat cheese. Don't add the prosciutto until after they come out of the oven.

Bake for about 10 minutes until the golden and bubbly. Top with the prosciutto pieces and place them on a serving tray. Chop the parsley and scatter over the entire platter and serve immediately.

Pizzettes with Gorgonzola, Cherry Tomatoes and Basil
Adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada De Laurentiis

1 ball of store-bought pizza dough
1/2 cup gorgonzola, crumbled
3 oz cherry tomatoes, quartered
handful of basil leaves, torn into pieces
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Follow the instructions above for the pizza dough and top each round with a spoonful of crumbled gorgonzola. On top of the gorgonzola, place 2-3 tomato quarters.

Bake at 475F for 10 minutes until golden and bubbly. Remove from the oven and place on a serving platter. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle the basil leaves over the entire platter.

Serve immediately.

Pizzettes with Ricotta, Rosemary, Red Grapes and Local Honey

1 ball of store-bought pizza dough
15 oz tub of ricotta cheese
2 tbsp rosemary, finely chopped
1 cup of red grapes, sliced in half
2 tbsp honey
salt and pepper

Follow the instructions above for the pizza dough and top each round with a spoonful of the ricotta cheese. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle the cheese with a pinch of rosemary. Top the cheese with 2-3 red grape slices and bake for 10 minutes at 475F until golden and bubbly.

Drizzle with honey and remove to a serving platter. Sprinkle over a little rosemary to garnish.

Serve immediately.


In limbo

I am currently in a state of limbo. My in-laws are due to fly over from London next week and with an airline strike looming, we're wondering if it will be a Christmas dinner for 5 or a lonely dinner for 2. We are all trying to be positive and hope that they will arrive, as planned, with all of their newly bought winter attire and ready to face the Chicago cold. When I put it in perspective, planning the Christmas meal at the last minute is the least of my worries. I know that if pushed, we'll all pitch in and make it happen. My sister-in-law, Helen, will definitely be put in charge of the roast potatoes. She is a potato fanatic. As long as there are a few cold roast potatoes and sausages left in the fridge Christmas night, I'm pretty sure she doesn't care what was served hot on the table.

In preparation for the holidays, I spent a weekend at my sister's with my two Aunts, Patty and Michelle, making Christmas cookies. I adore spending time in the kitchen with these ladies, sipping wine and chit-chatting. We managed to make 8 tins of cookies in one afternoon. The following are are a few recipes that are perfect for this time of year to either have around the house during Christmas or to give as gifts.

If you're like me, I spend a lot of time during December gathering recipes for parties, family gatherings and gift giving. I like to incorporate the new with the old, incorporating family recipes that are made every year with new ones to keep it exciting. Over the next week I'll be sharing a few recipes that are essential in my kitchen this time of year.

My Aunts spent the night before they arrived at my sister's making the dough for the Neapolitan Christmas Bars. These shortbread cookies are unbelievably tasty. In fact, many of them did not make it to the tins. The recipe came from my Aunt Patty's friend, Karen Howard, from LA and date back to 1983.

I brought Triple-Ginger cookie dough (in lieu of making gingerbread) with me. I made these after seeing them in the latest issue of Bon Appetit.

Click on the link above to see the recipe. I made the dough balls smaller so we could maximize the number of cookies. It says it makes 40 but we got about 60 smaller cookies out of the recipe.

They turned out perfectly chewy and packed a mighty spicy punch with the combination of cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves, grated fresh ginger and crystallized ginger.

We made the Spritz dough on-site. These cookies are a permanent fixture in my childhood Christmas memories. My Mom would always make these and chocolate chip cookies. We made them on the day because the dough cannot be refrigerated and we needed to use a cookie press. You can get a cookie press at most places that sell baking gear.

My sister, Stacia, is a great baker of cookies. You can always find some home-made cookie dough in her freezer ready to thaw and pop in the oven. I have a feeling this habit will come in handy as her 11 month-old twins grow older. I inherited most of my Mom's cookbooks, but there is one special book that had Stacia written all over it. It is the Better Homes and Gardens Cookies and Candies circa 1969. The Spritz cookies come from this book and she makes these sugar cookies every year.

I know that Christmas cookies are a thing of tradition, but I urge you to add these to your holiday cookie recipe collection.

Neapolitan Christmas Bars
Makes about 60 cookies

2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp good vanilla extract
1 square of unsweetened chocolate, melted
1/4 cup finely chopped maraschino cherries, well drained from their juices
1 or 2 drops of red food color
1/4 cup of finely chopped pecans or walnuts

Don't forget that the dough has to be refrigerated overnight for this recipe.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the butter until light with an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the sugar and add the vanilla. Continue beating until the mixture is very light and fluffy.

At a low speed, beat in half of the flour mixture and mix the rest with hand to form the dough.

Divide the dough into thirds and place in separate bowls. Add the chocolate to one bowl, the cherries and food color to the second and the nuts to the third bowl. Combine until completely mixed through.

Turn out the dough separately onto a lightly floured surface and divide in half. With hands, shape each half into a 7 inch long roll and flatten each roll to a 2 inch width. Stack a layer of each on top of each other and press lightly. Repeat. This should make about four separate sections of dough.

When you're ready to bake, preheat your oven to 375F and slice the dough in 1/8 inch pieces to produce a cookie that shows each of the three layers. Lay them on a non-stick baking sheet and cook for 10 minutes. They should be cooked through, and only slightly starting to turn golden. You don't want to over-cook these.

Spritz Cookies
Makes 5 Dozen

1 1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp good vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
Colored sugar sprinkles in green and red

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extracts. Beat well. Sift together the flour and baking powder and gradually add to the butter mixture, mixing until you get a smooth dough. DO NOT CHILL.

Using a cookie press, force the dough through it and onto an un-greased cookie sheet. This may take a little practice, but it's easy to get the hang of. Sprinkle each cookie with colored sugar.

Bake for about 7-8 minutes until just turning slightly golden.


Season's spice

I have no idea where the first part of December has gone, but all of a sudden, I look back and the last I've posted was Thanksgiving. A quick blink of the eye sees me wrapped in my eskimo coat and thanking my lucky stars for a nice warm fire to sit beside. As busy as we all are at this time of year, it's easy to cut a few corners just to stay above water. If I break down my holiday to-do list, I end up savoring every little chore- even writing and addressing cards. I can remember several years when my own Mother did not send out Christmas cards (shock/horror) and she was rewarded with a case of shingles the other side of New Year's Eve.

Having learned from that lesson, I decided that in order to tackle the holiday properly, one must start early and take your time. There's no reason to work yourself into a tizzy right before you're supposed to be relaxing and enjoying yourself.

Two years ago, I started making homemade Christmas gifts for close family and friends as a way of sharing a little bit of my kitchen with them during the festive season. As usual, I have referred to Nigella Lawson and her excellent gift ideas. Homemade gifts may seem like an extravagance, but I've found it ends up saving money and is so much more thoughtful than the obligatory bottle of booze (which isn't to say that booze isn't welcome during the holidays.)

2007 was my last Christmas in London and I made chutney delivered in little mason jars with a cheese knife and a block of mature Montgomery cheddar from Neal's Yard. If there is one place I miss most in London, it is Borough Market with its vibrant food stalls and delicious smells wafting from every direction. At Christmas time, there are carols being sung and vin chaud available to sip until you have no choice but be moved into the holiday spirit.

2008 saw a return of the chutney as I had moved state-side and all of my family had heard of it, but had yet to taste it. This time, my then very-pregnant sister sipped tea from my sofa while I dolloped the chutney into jars and she tied them up in pretty tea towels as packages.

This year, I have strayed from the edible gift and moved to the drinkable, which I feel will go down a storm among those around me. This spiced chilli vodka will not only dazzle when presented to the lucky receiver because of its floating cinnamon stick and red chilli, but it will be welcomed when a festive tipple is ready to be poured.

By all means, this is made to be the base layer of a well-rounded bloody mary (see last post for bloody mary inspirations.) You may also find it goes well with a little tonic and a squirt of lime. Please let me know how you use it!

I ordered my glass flasks from the Container Store but if you can't get them there (or you're in the UK), then I would just recommend getting something that holds a 1/2 liter of vodka. I also purchased a small funnel, so keep that in mind if you don't already have one. In order to sterilize the bottles, I put them in my dishwasher (without soap of course) or you can follow these instructions.

Chilli Vodka
Adapted from Nigella Christmas by Nigella Lawson
Makes enough for one 1/2 liter bottle

2 cups of vodka (I use Svedka)
1 dried red chilli
1 tsp coriander seeds
3 cardamom pods, crushed
1 cinnamon stick

Sterilize the bottles (see above). Drop all of the spices into the bottle and pour the vodka in. You may need a little extra vodka to fill to the bottom of the neck of the bottle. Close the container and let it sit in a cool place for about a week.

You'll notice in this picture that I made the one on the far right last. They'll become a darker auburn color as time goes on, mainly from the cinnamon stick.

Serve with tomato juice (and all the fixin's) for a festive bloody mary!


Meal in a glass

I wanted to share a quick recap of a few Thanksgiving highlights. We started the day with my sister's bloody marys that were laden with her famous "fixins". If there's one thing that girl can do, it's top a bloody mary with meats, cheeses and assorted pickled vegetables to keep you coming back for more. I know a bloody mary can be made an infinite number of ways, but we start with a good tomato juice mix and add horseradish, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce as a minimum. We call it "meal in a glass," and I would definitely recommend that you make these at your next home made brunch. You can add the traditional celery and then go crazy from there. Below is a pepperdew pepper, pickled asparagus, dill pickle, stuffed olive, salami and marinated mini-mozzarella ball.

As so many holiday cooking stories go, our turkey was cooking away nicely, the butter laden cheesecloth neatly laid on top was doing its job of keeping everything moist whilst browning the skin to a delicious crispiness. Meat thermometer at the ready, we plunged it into the leg after about 3 hours and declared it done. Oh dear. We hadn't started cooking any of the sides, although everything was expertly prepared by my Dad's wife, Lisa. After she and I quickly finished off all the side dishes, another inspection of the turkey proved that alas, it was not finished. Back into the oven it went. Instead of pressing the panic button, we decided to drink through many, many bottles of my Dad's wine and a gorgeous bottle of Champagne that our friend, Phillipe, had brought. I like Julia Child's mantra of never apologizing for any mistakes you make in the kitchen.

Luckily, it turned out to be a very relaxing Thanksgiving and the turkey was expertly cooked and carved.

Here are two recipes that are staples with my family and can be cooked throughout the holiday season. I mentioned the shrimp loaf before the weekend began, and remarkably, it successfully set when I made it Wednesday night. Unfortunately, I dipped it for a few minutes too long in the warm water bath I made it. After several glasses of wine, I cared very little, but wished it had turned out of its mold perfectly.

The recipe is from my Grandmother, Dorothy, who obtained it from a friend she used to play bridge with. It really is a great salad that pairs wonderfully with turkey, which is why it made its way into our holiday traditions. I can imagine it would also blend perfectly into a ladies' luncheon buffet and a nice game of cards and cocktails.

I'm painfully aware that the photo is not as appetizing as I might have hoped. It's pale pink and wobbly, but trust me- it's fantastic with turkey, especially leftover turkey sandwiches.

Shrimp Mold
1 cup mayonnaise
8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
1 lb cooked small shrimp (if you only have larger, cut it into small pieces)
1/2 ground pepper
1 1/2 celery
1/2 onion
1 pkg lemon jello, regular size
1 1/2 cup tomato juice
1 pkg Knox unflavored gelatin

Mix the Knox gelatin with a few tablespoons of water and whisk until it's dissolved. Heat the tomato juice until just before boiling. Add the hot tomato juice to the gelatin and dissolve the lemon jello into the tomato juice.

While that is cooling, cream the mayonnaise and cream cheese together. Finely chop the onion, green pepper and celery in a food processor and add to the cream cheese/mayo mixture.

Add 1/2 tsp salt and combine with the tomato juice once it has cooled.

Take a loaf pan or any other gelatin mold you have and grease it with Pam spray or take a paper towel with vegetable oil and make sure the mold is greased.

Pour the mixture into the mold and refrigerate overnight until firm. To turn out successfully, make a warm water bath in your kitchen sink and dip the mold into the water for a matter of 30 seconds before turning it out onto a plate. Don't leave it too long in the water like I did!


This year, my Mom's pumpkin soup didn't make the main event, but I just finished off the holiday weekend by preparing it for an early supper. In years gone by, she used to serve this pumpkin soup in small individual pumpkins for a fancy start to any festive meal. You can also make this and serve it out of the pumpkin you got the meat from, but honestly, it's fairly tedious. I like to make a big batch of this and dip ladle after ladle into it until it's gone.

Another thing to mention about this pumpkin soup is it's nicely rounded out with a tablespoon of rice and potato, so it's got body and richness, unlike other thin pumpkin soups I've come across.

I took a large pumpkin that I bought at the end of October and cut it's meat into large chunks and froze them in two batches. I think cooking with squash or pumpkin can be tricky because of all the peeling and knife work involved, so doing the pumpkin ahead of time makes the soup preparation super simple.

Pumpkin Soup
Adapted from the Winners cookbook by The Junior League of Indianapolis

1 medium size pumpkin cut into large chunks (or about 3 cups)
4 tbsp unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup chopped ripe tomatoes or 16 oz can of chopped tomatoes, drained
1 quart boiling water
1 quart chicken stock
1 tbsp long grain rice
2 cups peeled and sliced potatoes
freshly ground pepper
freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the butter in a large saucepan over low to medium heat. Add the pumpkin and tomatoes and cook for about five minutes. Do not brown.

Add the boiling water, chicken stock, rice, potatoes, salt and pepper. Simmer for 40-60 minutes Puree the soup using a hand blender (which I prefer because it literally takes seconds and you can do it in the pot you're cooking in or risk burning yourself while blending) or a little at a time in a blender or food processor.

Check seasoning at this point and add salt, pepper and a little nutmeg before tasting again.

Pour soup into individual or the larger pumpkin shells to serve and garnish with nutmeg.


Divide and conquer

This year, we are approaching Thanksgiving with a divide and conquer strategy. I'm heading south today to Indiana to spend the holiday with my family and we're each bringing something. Other than assisting in my Dad's kitchen, I'm bringing the all important cranberry sauce and attempting my Grandmother's shrimp loaf. Before we go down the shrimp loaf path, let me just say that it is either loved or hated. One thing's for sure- I can't remember a Thanksgiving without the gelatin based shrimp loaf that my grandparents used to make and it is the secret ingredient to leftover turkey sandwiches. More of that to come over the weekend.

Let's start with the cranberry sauce. As I was running through the grocery store yesterday on the way to the fruits and vegetables, I spied cans of cranberry sauce whirring past me, conveniently located at the end of an aisle along with other Thanksgiving essentials. If canned sauce is part of your holiday meal, try this simple recipe to turn the beautiful ripe berries that farmers in Massachusetts harvest every year into an unforgettable side dish. My Aunt and Uncle, who live in Cape Cod, were lucky enough to go and see the harvest last month.

My family from England will be joining us for Christmas this year, which means more turkey. I've convinced my sister in-law, Helen, to try a turducken this year, but everything else will stay traditionally English, including my favorite- bread sauce. When I put the cranberries on the stove yesterday with the brandy and sugar, I made a double batch to freeze for our Christmas dinner. As soon as I tumbled the crimson fruits into the pan, it felt like the clock had started to tick on the festive season. My mind wandered to the time I'll be spending at the stove over the next six weeks preparing for that one special meal. I've been squirreling away holiday treats in the pantry and just waiting to bring out the decorations. If you're like me, I adore the holidays, but hate the out-of-season run up and wince when I see Christmas lights in windows before Thanksgiving.

Like so many of my holiday dishes, I refer to the Queen of Christmas, Nigella Lawson. Many of them work for Thanksgiving as well, but I have to admit I was dreading eating the same meal twice within the matter of a month. I'll definitely be mixing up my Christmas menu to vary it, but I'm equally excited about both holidays this year.

Cranberry Sauce

1 x 340g packet cranberries
1 cup of granulated sugar
3 tbsp cherry brandy (or other red fruit brandy you can find)
1/3 cup water

Put everything into a pan and turn the heat on high. Stir everything together and let it bubble and pop for about 10-15 minutes. Keep in mind, as Nigella quite rightly shares in her book, that once the berries have burst, it's best to take the pan off the heat, even if you feel there is slightly too much liquid. It will solidify quickly as it cools (like jam). Let it cool completely before you put it in a jar ready to serve. Taste to make sure it's not to tart, which it probably won't be. If it's too sweet, add a squeeze of lemon juice.

You'll need to fluff it up with a fork when you're transferring it to a serving dish.

If you're like me and make double, put the cooled sauce into a container and freeze it until December.


Luckiest girl on earth

I've had a few weeks to process our trip to Napa, and though I'm still waiting for our wine shipment to arrive, I can't recall a place I've visited in the US that I liked more. It was truly an escape from my mid-west city life filled with discount wines from Costco. Although we did little more than drink, eat and rest, I felt as if we packed a lot into our three days. I know there weren't many moments when I didn't have a glass of wine in my hand, but I honestly think I could move to Napa tomorrow and be happy. The landscape was spectacular and varied. We visited vineyards in the valley and then drove up winding paths until we felt as if we were on top of the world.

I am most certainly not a wine expert, but we learned as we went along. Our first day was shrouded in mist and rain as we arrived from San Francisco. Our first stop was Frog's Leap, where as novices we stumbled past their red barn and a pomegranate tree towards the tasting rooms. When you are from the land of corn, the sight of pomegranate or persimmon, as we later saw, on a tree, tends to blow the mind.

The beautiful tasting building was complete with a roaring fire and a dozing orange tabby cat.

We headed straight to their back deck overlooking the vineyard and gardens to start our first tasting, unsure of what to expect.

We were immediately approached by a friendly woman who set us right at ease as she poured each of their wines into the glasses set before us. We picked at a selection of cheeses and dried fruits and immediately began to enjoy ourselves. Huge, ripe pumpkins studded their gardens and we patted ourselves on the back for choosing to visit in autumn. It felt as if we were sitting on our own back porch, sipping wine and chatting as a tempting croquet set sat next to us.

Reluctantly, we moved on. From there, we drove up a never-ending path past red wood trees and eucaplyptus until we reached Kuleto Estate. As promised, this place is something to behold. The tour, which we completed under umbrellas, was undoubtedly our most drunken affair. Lets just say they pour extremely generously there, and we had a fabulous time. The property is vast and pizza ovens and party areas seem to be around every corner.

After drying off, we continued through their tasting (and a huge plate of artisan cheeses) until we realized we had definitely missed our last appointment of the day. At this point, no one cared. We headed up to a room overlooking the vineyards where our late lunch was laid out.

Enticing smells wafted from the adjoining kitchen. Inside, Executive Chef, Janelle Weaver, was preparing a rabbit stew and putting the finishing touches to her panna cotta for an upcoming tasting event. Like a shy school-girl, I chatted to her for a few moments as I let my job envy get the best of me. Wine does this to me.

We spent the evening back at the Inn on First, soaking in the jacuzzi and heading out to Angele where we enjoyed a laid back French dinner, expertly prepared and paired with a half carafe of the house wine. My sister had the cassoulet, which inspired me to include lamb sausages the next time I make my own version. Several of us were wondering how we would wake up and do it all over again the next day.

The following morning started with the promise of bubbles. Before we left the Inn, Jim made us a hearty breakfast of his rosemary soft polenta topped with mozzarella, poached egg and crumbled Italian sausage. As we finished our coffees, Schramsberg beckoned where we toured the caves and learned the pain-staking steps that are gone through to get those bubbles in each bottle.

"America's first house of sparkling wine" did not disappoint and I particularly enjoyed how Ann, our tour guide, talked us through possible food pairings. Of course, my favorite was the toasty, buttery $100 bottle, which would go perfect with home-made macaroni and cheese.

With the sun shining, we headed to Pride Mountain, tasted the makings of Merlot from barrels and lunched atop a hill with hawks circling overhead.

Our last stop was a private tour of Jericho Canyon who are just finding their feet when it comes to visitors. We didn't mind- we had the place to ourselves. Our final night was spent in Yountville at Thomas Keller's Ad-Hoc. I loved the simplicity of the menu and the fact that there are no choices to be made. Before slipping off to bed, we sat around the Inn's open fire, sipping glasses of velvety Prager port, vowing to add a bottle to our shipment.

On more than one occasion during the trip, I felt like the luckiest girl on earth. Napa had a way of taunting me, somehow showing me what I'm missing out on in a valley dedicated to wine and food. I definitely plan on going back, but maybe, just maybe, I can re-create some of the magic I found there in my very own mid-west kitchen.


California dreaming

Since returning from San Francisco and Napa, my mind has been racing with a plan for my next visit. As I mentioned last week, I'd never been to California before, and she definitely didn't disappoint. I'm convinced that one does not visit this area of the world only once in their life, and I'm secretly planning another trip in the not to distant future. Martin and I spent two feet and leg aching days traipsing up and down San Francisco's unforgiving hills and only scratched the surface, but loved every minute of it.

Day one started with our hungry stomachs calling for a substantial lunch after we made our way from the airport to the hotel. Nopalito, in Lower Haight, was our destination and we were rewarded with a sunny window spot and two chilled glasses of "Death and Taxes", a Moonlight Brewing Company black lager. As we quenched our traveler's thirst, we munched on spicy corn nuts as they brought us a bowl of Totopos con Chile to share. Home made tortilla chips doused in salsa de arbol, topped with cotija cheese left us licking our fingers as we squeezed wedges of lime and dipped them in crema. Their signature carnitas followed with house made corn tortillas and pickled vegetables- perfect with the black lager.

Needless to say, we needed to walk off the heavy lunch and only San Francisco's streets know how to make you shed a few pounds. As bike enthusiasts, we visited the Mojo Bicycle Cafe to revive ourselves in the late afternoon. After seeing death-defying feats of fixed-wheel cyclists skidding to stops on brightly colored bikes, we decided we were thankful for Chicago's flatness.

Later in the day, I chased uphill after cabs to take us to the next foodie destination, only to realize that in the end, making the trip to Berkeley to Chez Panisse on our first day was too much of a trek. Somewhat disappointed, but too exhausted to care, I've vowed to return some day soon. To brighten the spirit of my taste buds, I reminded myself that we had booked a table at Delfina for the following evening and fell deeply asleep dreaming of a morning at the Ferry Building and the Golden Gate Bridge.

I awoke bleary eyed the next morning to a call from my sister and her husband, Stacia and Andy, who were at the airport in Chicago on their way to join us. From the sound of her voice, her cold had worsened and the only medicine awaiting her on the west coast was a fantastic combination of cough syrup and wine.

We quickly headed to the Ferry Building for breakfast where my husband promptly seated himself at a cafe to sip coffee and nibble a croissant while I indulged myself amongst the food stalls. The market outside was in full swing and inside, I was drawn to Cowgirl Creamery.

Even early in the morning, I can't fight the urge for cheese. The macaroons at Miette also proved to be a temptation.

We had just enough time to finish our coffees outside on a bench overlooking the bay when we headed back into town to meet Stacia and Andy.

We spent the afternoon with them on a cruise around the bay, passing underneath the Golden Gate bridge and circling Alcatraz. Even as the cold wind whipped through our hair and threatened to toss us overboard, we felt lucky to have seen these two iconic sights up close.

That evening, we made our way to Delfina in the Mission district, and as we slid into our seats, the waitress poured a stunning Syrah to start off the evening.

We each ordered pastas to start with, passing them around with eyes rolling at the melt-in-your-mouth goodness. The unanimous winner was a special of the evening- a pappardelle with duck sugo, a ragu of sorts that's been passed through a sieve until it is so rich that it coats each noodle with its deep, delicious flavor.

The salad that Stacia and I shared may seem as if it wasn't the star of the show, but I'm a sucker for a great salad, and this is definitely one to try at home. Try this lemon vinaigrette paired with little gem lettuce, blue cheese (they used Pt. Reyes), radishes and sieved hard-boiled egg. Season well and drizzle the dressing. I could have eaten a huge plate of it.

We shared portions of Fulton Valley roasted chicken and perfectly cooked pork chops before calling it quits and heading straight for dessert wines. On our way back to the hotel, we were starting to see the affects of a weekend indulging in food and wine and realized this was only the beginning. The following day we would leave the city behind for wine country. Napa was calling my name.


Finally here

It's finally here. It's the night before my first real holiday since.....hmmm, can't remember. I don't count Michigan, as a holiday in my mind is truly an escape to somewhere you've never been before. It's hard to believe, but I've never been to California. I've just finished packing my bags, incredibly into a carry-on that includes all of my curly hair products to manage any frizz that the San Francisco fog may blow at me. I've got plenty of eating and drinking just waiting for me on the west coast.

With so many choices, but with only two nights to spend, I've booked tables at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Delfina in the Mission District, and then we're off to Napa. We're meeting my sister and her husband in San Francisco and then driving to Napa for a few days of touring local wineries and eating more fantastic food in the valley. I can't wait to tell you all about it and start cooking from the inspirations I'm sure to find.

We're staying at the Inn on First, and from the looks of it, the breakfasts are stand-out amazing. I'm getting used to having breakfast made for me. Last weekend, my Dad's wife, Lisa, made this amazing breakfast tart. It's almost savory enough to serve with a green salad, but a fruit one will do.

As usual, don't worry about making the pastry yourself and make this for the ones you love this weekend. I'll be back to report on my experience in foodie heaven.

Breakfast Tart
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma
Serves 4

1 sheet puff pastry (ready-made from the grocery)
1 egg, beaten lightly with 1 tsp of water
3 oz creme fraiche
2 oz shredded Gruyere cheese
8 bacon slices, cooked until crisp
3-4 free range eggs
2 tbs finely chopped fresh chives

Thaw your pastry (I like to put mine in the refrigerator overnight). Lightly grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 425F. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry until it is 1/4 inch thick and is a 10 x 8 inch rectangle. Place it on the baking sheet and score a border 1/2 inch in from the edge around all four edges. Prick the center of the pastry with a fork so it doesn't puff up in the cooking process.

Brush the borders with the egg wash and place in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the creme fraiche and cheese together and season with salt and pepper. Spread it on the pastry, keeping the border nice and clean. Lay the bacon on top, draping it over each other, and bake for 14 minutes, rotating the tray halfway through cooking.

Remove the sheet from the oven and using a fork, prick any large air pockets that have appeared. Crack the eggs onto the tart so that they're spaced out nicely around the surface. Bake until the egg whites are set and the yolks are soft- about 7-10 minutes depending on your oven. Watch them closely at this point- you don't want to over-cook the yolks.

Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the chopped chives and serve immediately. I like to cut this with a pizza cutter.


Nostalgia bubble burst

I spent last weekend re-visiting my college town of Bloomington, Indiana with my Dad as my husband rode in the Hilly Hundred. On one hand, the entire campus was gloriously bathed in sunshine, mums bloomed from every street corner and the students traipsing through the leaves took me back to a care-free time where the worst thing that could happen was a pop-quiz. Just as my nostalgia bubble burst, I felt incredibly old.

To combat any walk down memory lane, especially one that included too much fast food and pizza, I yearn for uncomplicated food like the dishes I got on a visit back home. I have a real soft spot for the simplicity of a hearty, soul-warming casserole. Here are two of my go-to recipes that are popped into the oven and emerge steaming and ready serve, with no real need for side-dishes other than a crisp green salad or some bread.

The first is a twist on a traditional English cottage pie, the beef-based brother of the perhaps better known, shepherds pie. I like Jamie Oliver's version which adds cheese to the mashed potato. You can add chives and/or horseradish to the mash- ideal with beef. This is the type of fare my mother-in-law would make for my husband when he came home for a weekend's visit while away at college (or university as they would say in England). She still makes the meanest casseroles I've ever tasted. Whether it's creamy chicken with bacon and potatoes, a simple homemade lasagna or her famous lancashire hotpot, her one-dish meals could warm any soggy Manchester evening. I'll definitely be attempting her hotpot in the very near future.

The second is literally a one-pot wonder. This is almost an ode to my own mother's way of cooking. Although I got many of my skills from her, I remember that she used to take any short cut to make a recipe quicker. That's not always my philosophy, but this roasted vegetable and chicken casserole is exactly the type of meal she would have adored when time was an issue.

I like to use whatever veggies I have in the fridge and I do vary it. I've listed everything below that I used, but you can add whatever you've got in stock. Cherry tomatoes on the vine are a great addition as they tend to burst and add a little sauce to the end result. Just mix everything together and place the tomatoes on the top- two vines would be good with this amount of chicken and veggies.

I always have chicken breasts in the freezer, but I've made this with thighs and legs before to make a more robust roast.

If you cut everything the same size, they'll all cook at the same time.

Roasted Autumn Vegetables with Balsamic Chicken
Serves 2-4

1 butternut squash cut into cubes
1 red onion, peeled and quartered
1 red pepper, cut into fat strips
3 potatoes, cut into chunks
1 small can of sliced black olives
2 chicken breasts, cut into strips
1/2 cup of feta cheese, cubed
1 large handful of fresh basil, torn
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp chilli flakes
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine all of the above (except the feta) and toss everything together in a large casserole dish so that everything is coated equally with the oil, vinegar and seasonings.

Roast in the oven for about 45 minutes until the potatoes, squash and chicken are cooked and tender.

Add the feta and roast for a further 5 minutes until it becomes slightly golden on top and starts to melt.

Serve on it's own or with a salad.
As we left for Chicago, we drove the long way through some old country roads lined with the remains of corn stalks ready to be torn down while some fields were being plowed as we passed.

I remember driving out into the countryside as a kid in high-school to snap some pictures for my photography class. Most of those fields are filled with homes now, but there are still some farms that remain.

After so long spent in another country, it seemed a fitting end to a weekend full of looking into the past.


Stolen and sacred

There are few things I find more soothing than walking quietly through my neighborhood with my dog. With only a few trees to distract Indy, it's a chance for me to clear my thoughts and appreciate a perfect autumn day. Admittedly, when it's warm and the sun is shining, I can slow my pace and allow myself to enjoy the moment- the leaves changing color and the sweet smell of laundry wafting through a window. When it's cold or the rain is beating against my jacket, we're both in a rush to get home.

It's on a day like today, after a week of below normal temperatures and the fear of winter was running deep, that a warm day feels stolen and sacred. It's just a normal Wednesday. My husband has been fighting a cold all week, and instead of venturing out to a few of our favorite local haunts, I've been trying to fill him with as much home-cooked goodness as I can.

Here is a perfect, comforting mid-week dinner idea; seasonal and wholesome, delicious and moreish. It combines my obsession for smooth, creamy parmesan polenta with autumn kale and wild mushrooms.

The basis of the mushrooms comes from one of Jamie Oliver's recipes in Jamie at Home for mushroom bruschetta. I love these fried wild mushrooms spooned over toasted, garlic ciabatta and a crisp glass of white wine. I added kale and all of a sudden, we have a delicious vegetable sauce perfect for pasta or even better, over polenta.

I am lucky enough to live a few doors down from a dry cleaners owned by a lovely little man and Terragusto, an Italian cafe that makes their own pasta daily and serves the creamiest, most heavenly polenta.

Ground polenta is available at Whole Foods and other grocery stores. I use Bob's Red Mill Corn Grits (also known as polenta) and follow the recipe on the bag for a basic Italian polenta. The mixture can be poured into a cake pan and allowed to set, which you can then slice and grill, but I like the creamy version best.

A typical topping for polenta in Italy is a meat and tomato sauce. It's an extremely versatile alternative to other carbohydrates that you may pair with meat, and I especially like it with a simple roast chicken.

Polenta with Kale and Wild Mushrooms
Serves 4

for basic Italian polenta:
6 cups of water
1 tsp salt
2 cups of polenta or corn grits
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup of grated parmesan

Bring the water and salt to a boil in a saucepan and gradually stir in the polenta. Simmer for 30 minutes, keeping it covered as it will pop and bubble. Keep the heat low and stir often so it doesn't stick to the bottom. After 30 minutes, season with salt and add the butter. Stir in the parmesan and take it off the heat. Keep it covered until you're ready to serve.

for the mushroom and kale saute:

2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1 large bunch of kale, roughly chopped
3 cups of wild mushrooms, torn or sliced (crimini, chestnut, oyster or any of your favorites)
t tsp thyme leaves
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tsp red chilli flakes
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp water
salt and pepper to taste

Tear or slice the mushrooms and heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. It's important that the mushrooms have enough room in the frying pan to lie in one layer or they will not brown properly.

Heat the olive oil and 1 tbsp of the butter in the pan and place the mushrooms in the pan with the thyme leaves, garlic and red chilli flakes. Saute for a few minutes until the mushrooms are just cooked and remove them from pan leaving the juices behind.

Place half the kale (the pieces with the stems should go in first) in the same pan over high heat and add 2 tbsp of water. Cover and steam for a couple of minutes. Add the rest of the kale and steam again for a few minutes until just wilted and the stems are tender.

Add the mushrooms to the pan with the other tbsp of butter, then add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Take off the heat ready to spoon over the creamy polenta. Be sure to pour the juices over the polenta and grate some parmesan over the top to serve.


Cassoulet not casserole

Cassoulet first made a big impression on me many years ago during a romantic dinner with my husband at La Poule Au Pot, a French restaurant in London. Set in Pimlico on a little square, the candle-lit tables are perfect if you're looking to be transported to France without taking the Eurostar. Thick-accented waiters brought hot plates of garlicky, buttery escargot that started my love affair with the snail. To follow, we split a bubbling bowl of French baked beans with melt in your mouth goose, pork and sausages and then sopped up all the juices with crusty french bread- this cassoulet had me hooked.

After many of my trips to France, it's clear that this country dish is made an infinite number of ways based on local traditions, family traditions and personal preference. Julia Child, who included a recipe for cassoulet in her first volume, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" researched all different types of beans and meats only to be told by her French co-author that her efforts were not French.

Having said that, I felt a little pressure lifted from my shoulders. I wanted my version to be as authentic as possible, but easy enough to make in one day or make ahead. Julia suggests that you can prepare it in one day, but "two or even three days of leisurely on-and-off cooking are much easier." Her recipe calls for dry beans and homemade sausage cakes, neither of which have made it to my version.

The types of meat that are included in a cassoulet is also widely debated, but can include any of the following: goose, duck, game, pork, sausage, lamb and mutton. I've played around with this recipe and decided to use Andouille sausages, duck confit and pork loin. I've added lamb in the past and you can as well, but you can omit it and add more pork if it's easier. I also use canned cannellini beans which takes out the time consuming soaking and cooking process.

To serve this, I make a bistro salad with a zingy mustard vinaigrette and oven-hot French baguettes. The salad does wonders to cut through the richness of the cassoulet.

Last weekend, I made this for our friends Alethea and Philippe and finished the meal with Ina Garten's French Apple Tart for the full on effect. This is perfect for a dinner party in the middle of winter. I served this last year to our friends Karyn and Nick while we polished off several bottles of red wine.

This quick version does not take long at all to put together, and you can bake it ahead, even the day before. You heat it back up in the oven and then top it with breadcrumbs to make the crusty topping.

I would suggest you get your meat from a local butcher- my thick cut bacon, duck confit, Andouille sausages, pork and lamb were all bought from the guys at Paulina and were amazing.
I always call ahead to see if they have duck confit, which they have frozen. If you can't find duck confit, you can omit it, but they add an extra depth to the dish and the meat is so tender it literally falls off the bones.

Use sausages that are available to you- I love the taste of Andouille, but you can use Toulouse sausages if you can get them or hot Italian or plain pork- whatever you like.

Controversially, I sprinkle gremolata on the top of this - it's something that I like on the top of many hot casseroles as it adds a little freshness and depth of flavor to it. It's Italian, so don't tell the French.

Adapted from Small Parties by Marguerite Marceau Henderson
Serves 6-8

1/4 pound thick-cut bacon, diced
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced into half moons
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 pound boneless pork loin, cut into 1- inch cubes
1 pound boneless lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 links of Andouille sausages, cut into 1- inch pieces
2 legs duck confit
1 x 6 oz can of tomato paste
2 cups beef broth
1 cup water
4 x 15 oz cans white beans (great Northern beans or cannellini), not drained*
1/4 cup brandy or cognac
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

For the topping:
2 cups of fresh bread crumbs from a French loaf
4 tbsp melted butter

For the gremolata:
handful of parsley leaves, chopped
zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, minced

*I don't drain the beans until I'm ready to use them- depending on the size of your pot, the liquid in this might come to the top. I add the beans at the end and if I need extra liquid, I drain a few cans and then add one or two with the bean liquid.

Preheat the oven to 350F or 200C. Start with a large, heavy, oven-proof dish with a lid and put it on the stove-top over a medium-high heat. I love this earthenware pot I got in London at Gill Wing- it's perfect for stovetop and in the oven.

Saute the bacon in the olive oil for 3-4 minutes and, then add the onion for another 2 minutes, stirring often.

Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaves, pork, lamb and sausage, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to brown the meat on all sides. Add the duck confit at this point along with the tomato paste, beef broth, water, beans, brandy, salt and pepper. Stir and bring to a bubble, then cover.

Cook in the oven for one hour. You can make it ahead up to this point.

If I'm serving it that day, I do all this in the morning and then put it on the stovetop. If it's the day ahead, I put it in the refrigerator and bring it out an hour or so before I want to put it in the oven again.

When you're getting ready to serve, put it into the oven, covered, again at 350F, for about 15 minutes. I always reserve a little of the beef broth just in case the mixture has dried out too much at this point.

Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs and the melted butter in a bowl.

After the 15 minutes is up and it's nice and bubbly, pull it out of the oven and remove the bay leaves and sprinkle the crumb mixture on top.

Bake, uncovered for about 10 minutes until the crumbs have browned lightly. You may need to keep an eye on it at this point.

Sprinkle with the gremolata and serve.

French Bistro Salad
Adapted from Jamie's Kitchen by Jamie Oliver

2 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
white wine vinear
2 bunches of lettuce- frisee, gem, or other green leafy leaves
leaves from one chicory bulb
1 bunch of fresh chives, left whole, not chopped
1 handful of chervile, leaves picked
2 handfuls of fine french green beans

for the dressing:
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 cloe garlic, peeled and finely chopped
9 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the shallots in a small dish and cover them with the white wine vinegar- leave for about 10 minutes.

Wash your lettuce, chervil and chives and spin dry. Remove the chicory leaves and place them all in a bowl.

Cook your green beans in salted boiling water until tender, but not limp. Drain and cool. Leave these out and serve them room temp. Add them to the salad bowl.

Remove the shallots and add them to the bowl. Put 4 tbsp of the remaining vinegar in a bowl, add the mustard, garlic and a pinch of salt. Whisk in the oil until it emulsifies, taste and season with salt and pepper.

I like to make this in an old jam jar instead of whisking- I just shake up everything except the oil and at it a little at a time, shaking as I go. If you've got leftovers, this will keep in the fridge for about a week.

Dress the salad and serve.


One for the weekend

There's something deeply satisfying about putting something in the oven to roast for most of the day. This slow-cooked lamb salad is a favorite of mine, and one that I cooked on many a weekend in London. It can feed a small crowd, depending on how many sides you make with it.

This is definitely one for the weekend, so pick an upcoming Saturday or Sunday, one that you want to sit down and eat at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and this will be a lunch to remember. Last Sunday, I got this in the oven at about 9:30 while I was listening to records and pottering around the kitchen with my cup of coffee.

It's so easy to assemble at the last minute that we took the dog to the beach, stopped for a pint and made it back in time to pull together a late lunch and a lazy afternoon.

Pomegranates have become superfood stars in the last few years, and they adorn this warm lamb salad like bright pink jewels ready to burst open in your mouth. I like to beat the little things with the back of a wood spoon, spanking them until they all splash nicely on top of the shredded lamb. When there's plenty on top, I squeeze the rinds so the pink juices run all over the meat.

This is another of Nigella's recipes, one that I come back to again and again from her book, Nigella Bites. You'll probably need to order a shoulder of lamb from your local butcher- my friends at Paulina Meat Market set me up with a nice 5 1/2 pound specimen that was beautifully trimmed.

The shoulder is typically a cheap cut of meat for the amount that you're getting, and it really does cook down to the point of falling off the bone. Best of all, in my opinion, is the carrot that sits underneath the lamb. When I pull this out of the oven, I fish it out immediately and covet the soft vegetable that's been sitting in gravy all morning. Nigella calls it "the cook's treat," which I have seriously taken to heart. As I pull this out of the oven, my husband appears from nowhere and wants a little taste of carrot, maybe with a little hot lamb pulled from the underside of the shoulder. I know I shouldn't indulge him as he doesn't technically qualify as the cook, but I can never resist his gorgeous, pleading eyes.

I serve this with a platter of roasted peppers with almond and feta (also featured in the same book). If I'm looking to bulk this meal up for a group, I add a carb like couscous with sultanas and maybe some chopped coriander and mint. I've also done a creamy potato gratin with it that works well.

Warm Shredded Lamb Salad with Mint and Pomegranate
Adapted from Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson
Serves 6

1 shoulder of lamb (approximately 5 1/2 lbs or 2 1/2 kg)
4 shallots, halved but not peeled
6 cloves of garlic
1 carrot, peeled and halved
Maldon salt
2 cups of boiling water
small handful of freshly chopped mint
1 pomegranate

Nigella writes that you can cook this overnight, which does make sense if you'd like it to be ready for lunch time the next day. If you want to do this, just put it in an oven preheated to 140C or 280F and follow the rest of the instructions.

If you're going to do it the day of (which is what I do) then just preheat the oven to 170C or 340F and cook it for about 5 hours.

On the stove top, get the roasting tin you intend to cook the lamb with and put it over a medium-high flame. Put the lamb in, fat-side down, and brown it. This will take a few minutes- you'll get coloring across the middle and that's it.

Meanwhile, fry your vegetables briefly in the fat and sprinkle with a little salt while you're boiling the water. Pour the water over the vegetables and replace the lamb, fat-side up.

Let the liquid come to a bubble and then tent it with foil and place in the preheated oven.

It seriously couldn't be any easier than that....let it cook for about 5 hours while your house fills with the sweet smell of roasted lamb.

In the meantime, I char the peppers on the grill and have them ready to go.

When you're ready to serve, simply remove the lamb from the roasting tin (don't forget the cook's treat!) and let it sit for a moment before shredding it with a couple of forks. At this point, my dog is salivating at my feet giving me his best "I'm starving" look. The meat should literally be falling off the bone.

Get a large platter or a large shallow serving bowl and pile the shredded meat all the way to the edges. Sprinkle with the Maldon sea salt, that should crumble between your fingers, and the chopped mint.

Halve your pomegranate and with the back side of a spoon, pat the rind of the fruit until the little seeds start popping out. This may get a little messy, so an apron may be required. Once each side is complete, squeeze one of the halves until pink juice flows all over the meat. Serve at once!

Nigella also notes that if this is left to go cold, the fat will become a white and congealed, so keep this warm at all costs. If you're going for leftovers, simply pile some in a pita bread and microwave for less than a minute, finishing it with Nigella's suggestion of a bit of hummus.

Grilled Peppers with Feta and Almonds
Adapted from Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson
Serves 6

8 peppers, your choice of colors
100 g feta cheese
1/2 a lemon
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 handful of blanched or flaked olives
2 tbsp of freshly chopped parsley and mint

Wash and dry your peppers. You can grill these several ways, but the idea is to char the outsides until they are black. My favorite method is on my gas grill, conveniently located just outside on our covered porch. I wack up the heat to high and put the peppers on and close the lid. Every few minutes, I come back to check on them and flip them until they're cooked on all sides.

You can also do this over an open flame of your stove OR in a grill pan if that's easier for you.

Either way, when the peppers are charred, pop them into a bowl and immediately cover with cling film, letting their skins steam away from the flesh. Leave this about 20 minutes minimum. If I'm going out between cooking and having lunch, I leave these in the bowl for hours and come back to peel and de-seed them.

Cut or tear them into wide strips and arrange them on a large platter. Simply sprinkle with the extra virgin olive oil, a little salt and pepper, a squeeze of the lemon juice and then scatter over the almonds, feta and finally herbs.

It's a simple but tasty salad with colors that will brighten your table. Use any leftovers in pasta or with the lamb above.