The Little Cooking Company

Providing a bespoke personal chef service to Oxshott, Cobham, Esher and the surrounding areas of Surrey

Getting dressed...

So the sun has finally decided to come out of hiding. It's been a long, cold winter and in this house we have consumed gallons and gallons of soup in a bid to keep warm and make sure we are getting our precious 5 a day. But halleluiah, we have broken the 20 degree barrier for at least 4 days now and that means a definite switch in our eating habits: from comforting to crunchy, slow roasted to sautéed, gratinated to grilled and, in its simplest form, soup to salad.


A few week's ago an old school friend rang me up and asked whether I'd prepare a few 'interesting' salads for a BBQ dinner party that she had coming up the following Saturday. It made me laugh, as I often refer to salads as 'interesting' by which I mean surprising, innovative or just plain crazy. (I have a guilty habit of adding cottage cheese to my lunch salads, and then tossing it around, which can only be described as the latter.) But then I got to thinking, what makes a salad interesting? Now don't get me wrong, I've nothing against a collection of crisp or buttery green leaves, tossed in a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Alongside a juicy roast chicken, I can think of no better accompaniment. Or a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes, still warm from the sun, cut in half and seasoned with nothing more than a pinch of flaky sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper. But an interesting salad to me is really just a collection of textures and tastes that make it rise above the norm. Something that ticks all of the following boxes: crunchy, crispy, salty, sweet and sometimes even a little creamy (I find it hard to eat a green salad without avocado in it!). But most importantly, it must have a good dressing or vinaigrette. Nothing too oily or claggy, and certainly nothing that strips it of its 'healthy food' accreditation.

Knowing how to make a good salad dressing is a skill really worth having in your cooking arsenal, as it will save you a lot of money, mean that you have the ability to transform a pile of otherwise non descript leaves and veg into something quite spectacular, and mean that you don't need to consume xantham gum, parmesan cheese powder, acidity regulator, and spirit vinegar on a regular basis. (These are just a selection of the questionable ingredients that are listed on the bottles of a few store-bought dressings that I have seen recently.) And better yet, you've probably already got the ingredients in your store cupboard!

The basic rule of thumb to remember is the oil to acid ratio, which is 3:1. That's three tablespoons/teaspoons/whatever vessel you are using, of oil, to one of your chosen acid. By acid I mean vinegar (balsamic, sherry, red wine, cider, champagne vinegar...) or simply lemon or lime (or even orange!) juice. I actually often use more of a 2:1 ratio as I prefer more of a kick but 3:1 is seen to be the Industry Standard. 

When it comes to the oil, think about what you are trying to achieve. Do you want some pepperiness? Then go for an Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, or even a Rapeseed Oil (which has all the same omega-3 goodness). Something a little mellower and not so overpowering...a lighter Olive Oil is probably your best bet. If you're going for more of an Asian feel, a Groundnut Oil and perhaps a slick of Sesame Oil will do the trick. The only ones I'd probably try and avoid using are Sunflower or Vegetable Oil as they are pretty tasteless.

So you've got your oil and your vinegar measured out in a clean jam jar, or small bowl. With just a pinch of sea salt and a grinding of some black pepper, you've already got a great dressing. But I quite like to add some sweetness, often in the form of honey, but sometimes a little maple syrup to balance out the acidity of the vinegar and bring out the flavour of some of the salad ingredients. Just a little teaspoon will do, you can always add more later. Lastly, I almost always add some Dijon. I'm not a big fan of mustard, but somehow in a salad dressing it just brings the right amount of punch. It even works with the Asian flavours I mentioned earlier - kind of like an inexpensive wasabi. So a squeeze of honey and a little dollop of Dijon and you are done. Give it all a stir or a shake and have a taste.

Fresh or dried herbs, chilli, tahini, finely chopped shallot.....there are so many other things that can be used to liven up a basic vinaigrette and so I urge you to grab an empty jam jar and have a go. Keep tasting along the way, and just add (a little at a time), whatever you think it is lacking. And please, please, please...dress your salad before serving it. Not too far in advance as the leaves will begin to wilt and go soggy, but it will make all the difference to your salad if each leaf or grain is coated in your lovingly concocted dressing.

So here is my number one Salad Of The Moment, courtesy of the wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi. It definitely registers very highly on the acclaimed 'Interesting Salad' scale, is fairly straightforward to make, and is complemented by the most lip-smackingly good dressing. Enjoy!

Ottolenghi's Roast Cauliflower and Hazelnut Salad with Pomegranate and a Cinnamon & Maple Syrup Dressing:

CAuliflower salad.jpg

1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets
5 tbsp. olive oil
1 large celery stalk, cut on an angle into 1/4 inch slices
5 tbsp. hazelnuts, with skins (I actually substituted cashews here, which worked brilliantly too)
1/3 cup flat leaf parsley leaves
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
1 tbsp. sherry vinegar
1.5 tsp. maple syrup
generous 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
generous 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 220 C.
Roast the cauliflower by placing it on a parchment lined backing sheet, drizzle with 1-3 tablespoons of olive oil and toss it together with some salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 25-35 minutes until parts of it are turning golden brown. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool down.

Decrease the oven temperature to 170 C. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (I used the same one as the cauliflower, just switched the paper) and roast for 17 minutes (although depending on your oven, I suggest watching these closely, mine were burnt at 17 minutes, and I took my second try out around 10 minutes).

In a jam jar, measure together 2 tablespoons olive oil, sherry vinegar, maple syrup, cinnamon and allspice. Give it a shake and set aside.

Allow the nuts to cool a little, then coarsely chop them and add to the cauliflower, along with the pomegranate seeds, celery, parsley, and the dressing. Stir, taste, and season with salt and pepper accordingly.

Serve at room temperature.

Joining the Revolution....

Today is Food Revolution Day 2013, a day of global action which aims to raise awareness about the importance of good food and better food education. It’s a chance for people to come together within their homes, schools, communities and workplaces to cook together and share tips and skills.

I will be teaching my three little girls to cook scrambled egg for their tea this evening. Sure, it’s not ground-breaking stuff, but it’ll be fun and it’s about laying down the foundations and getting them interested in food, and at the same time passing on the essential skills that they, in turn, will hopefully one day share with their children….my grandchildren (scary thought!).

I also thought I’d take the chance to share a recipe with you that I cooked last night: Gnocchi with Pumpkin Seed Pesto. It’s a pretty simple recipe, but it was delicious, and can be cooked in stages – which is always good if you’ve got little kids running around who require a fair bit of your attention in the afternoon.

Making the Pumpkin Seed Pesto

You will need: Olive Oil, Pumpkin Seeds, Garlic, Fresh Basil, Parmesan Cheese, Salt.

Stage 1:

Start by toasting the pumpkin seeds. In a frying pan, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil and add 2 tbsp pumpkin seeds, stirring from time to time until they begin to ‘pop’. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

In a small processor (a mini veg chopper type thing works well here) chop the toasted pumpkin seeds, 1 garlic clove, a couple of large handfuls of fresh basil leaves and a good glug or two of olive oil (or Extra Virgin if you want to add a bit of peppery flavour to it) until you have an earthy green paste. Remove from the processor and scrape into a small bowl. Grate a handful or two of fresh parmesan cheese into the bowl and stir together. Taste the pesto; it will need some salt. Add a pinch and possibly a bit more oil, and keep tasting, until you have a taste and consistency that you are happy with. Set aside in the fridge until later. You can use a pestle and mortar to do all of the above too – it just requires a bit of brute force!

Making the Gnocchi

You will need: 3 Large Potatoes, 1 Egg, Plain Flour. 

Stage 2:

Place 3 large potatoes in the oven to bake for 40-50 mins, or until they are cooked right through, but not too squishy. I used Waitrose baking potatoes as this is what I had, and I think you’d be better off with a floury potato – so something like a Maris Piper or a King Edward would be perfect.

Stage 3:

Remove the potatoes from the oven and set aside to cool for a few minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, using a knife gently peel the skin off. Place the unpeeled potatoes in a potato ricer and push through into a large bowl. If you don’t have a potato ricer, I’d be inclined to place them on a large chopping board and kind of mash them with a fork until you have a pile of fluffy, floury mash which you can then scrape into the bowl.  Leave the potatoes for another 5 mins or so to cool a bit more. <wipe snotty nose, separate two fighting siblings, get load of washing out of the dryer>


Stage 4:

Measure out 175g of plain flour into a bowl. Beat one egg in another bowl. Now is the time to make the gnocchi! It’s a bit like playdough and if you’re not too precious about the consistency, you could even let an older child help with this bit – or give a bit of the potato dough to little ones and encourage them to roll their own gnocchi!

To the bowl containing the mashed potato, add 1 tsp salt and all of the beaten egg. Add 1/3 of the flour and gently, using a fork or spoon, begin to combine the potato with the flour and egg. Add another 1/3 of the flour and gently mix. You are aiming for a dough that is light, and can be rolled out without it sticking to your fingers, the table, your toddler’s hair, etc too much. The less flour you add, and the less the dough is worked, the lighter the gnocchi will be. So go slowly, and only add just enough to bring the dough together so that it can be rolled. You might not need all of the flour.

Sprinkle some flour over your worktop. Divide the dough into 3 or 4 pieces and gently roll each piece into a long strand, about the thickness of a cocktail sausage.

Cover a large baking sheet or chopping board with parchment paper and sprinkle a bit of flour over it – this is where you are going to keep the gnocchi until it’s time to cook them. (Gnocchi can be covered with cling film and then frozen on a baking sheet like this. When frozen, put them in a plastic bag and keep in the freezer for another meal if you’ve made too many, or if you’d like to make them in advance).

Right...cutting the gnocchi. Grab a fork and rub some flour over the prongs, and using the side of the fork, gently but firmly begin to cut the dough sausage into individual gnocchi, using a kind of flicking motion. They will look like little pillows. You could probably do this stage with a knife too, but I was shown with a fork and so always do it this way. From time to time, you might need to wipe dough from the prongs and rub a bit more flour in to stop the fork from sticking as it cuts through the dough. As you cut the gnocchi, place them on the floured baking sheet.

When you have cut all of the gnocchi, either get ready for supper and encourage your little helpers to wash their hands and set the table, or else cover with cling film and place them in the fridge or freezer for use later. <change nappy, clear up spilled drink from the playroom, separate fighting siblings again>

Stage 5:

Bring a large saucepan of well-salted water to the boil (you will cook the gnocchi in this pan). Place a large frying pan on a low heat (you will heat the pesto and toss the gnocchi in it in this pan). Have extra parmesan ready and kids assembled at the table, as gnocchi cooks fast!

Add a few tablespoons of the pesto to the frying pan and rotate the pan around so that the surface is covered with the lovely green sludge. Begin to add the gnocchi to the pan of boiling water. You might need to cook them in a few batches, depending on how big your saucepan is. It is very difficult to overcook gnocchi as they float to the surface when they are cooked. So…..when you see them floating to the surface, use a slotted spoon and carefully place them in the frying pan with the pesto. As you continue to do this with all the gnocchi, give the frying pan a little shake to ensure that the gnocchi don’t stick to the bottom. When all the gnocchi are cooked, add a little more pesto if you think it needs it, and shake the frying pan one last time until all the gnocchi are coated in the deliciously pungent sauce.

Divide the gnocchi between your hungry brood, sprinkle with parmesan (or add a dollop of ricotta and a few shredded basil leaves, as I did) and tuck in!

Gnocchi cooked.jpg

A little bit of sunshine

The sun is shining, my three little cherubs are playing harmoniously in the garden (read: taking turns tripping each other up on the trampoline) and I have a spare moment to try out a new recipe from an excellent blog that a friend suggested to me: Dinner A Love Story. Now whilst I am lucky enough that my eldest girls are junior foodies, I can't quite guarantee that everything served up for tea will be greeted with the same kind of enthusiasm that, say, Waitrose Finest's pizza will be. "Mummy, this is DELICIOUS, you are the best cookerer ever!" Thanks girls. It came out of a box. So, tonight, to go along with the parmesan and polenta-crusted plaice and minty mushy peas, I wanted to try these chips (, as in my children's minds chips/fries/crisps elevate any meal into the treat category.

We're having sweet potato later in the week (Eating Well's black bean & sweet potato chilli) so I just used white potatoes instead. Also, my oven is on the hot side (generally temp is out by a whopping 30 degrees) and so I did need to keep my eye on them but after 15 mins at 220 they were crispy, crunchy and the perfect vehicle for persuading my littlest to eat her greens. Look....chip, mushy peas, KETCHUP - yum!

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