Posh Food on a Pittance

After a slough of despond in my freelance/writing life, things are looking up. Three books I edited as a freelancer just got brilliant reviews, which I fed to myself intravenously as an emergency measure to revive flatlining confidence.

Then a US publisher confirmed that a collection in which I have an article is finally going to be published. They changed the book title because Women of Faith was already taken, and have called it Enduring Love instead (?!?) so I’m not sure what Ian McEwan will think about that…

I have also been enjoying working with great authors on books that are going to be excellent, and relishing the fact that I can have a life in between instead of flinching every time my phone beeps. For instance, I  popped round to see my lovely writer/editor neighbour, who was suitably outraged at SerialCommaGate (see previous post) and assured me that similar things have happened to her. After this encouragement, I went for a gorgeous autumn walk with her dog, Gracie, and foraged a handbagful of chestnuts.

Foraging for free food gives me more joy than all the bargains I bag at Poundland, Lidl, Wilko and Asda put together. By way of celebration, here are a couple of recipes for truly posh food that I made for almost nothing.


This is adapted from a recipe in the Guardian, whose food pages are usually full of obscure and expensive ingredients, but can inspire even the cash-strapped to create great food. This week, someone gave me a good white bloomer that was past its sell by date, so I turned to this recipe to use the stale bread.

Romesco is a thick, pesto-like sauce that tastes incredible but costs very little. I used red peppers from a Lidl jar (£1.79), blanched almonds from a Lidl bag of mixed nuts (£1.59), smoked paprika from the local Asian shop, red wine vinegar which I had in the cupboard instead of the sherry vinegar recommended, and of course the free stale bread.


75g blanched almonds

3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for frying

Thick slice of stale bread, torn into chunks

1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped

½tsp smoked paprika

110g roasted red peppers, drained

1tbsp red wine vinegar (or any wine/cider vinegar)

Salt and black pepper



1 Preheat the oven to Gas mark 6/400F/200C. Place the almonds on a baking sheet and roast for 8–10 minutes until golden.

2 Heat olive oil in a pan and fry the bread until golden brown. Add the smoked paprika and garlic and cook for another minute, then take off the heat.


3 Put the nuts and fried bread in a food processor, add the peppers and blitz to a coarse paste – you want a bit of texture.


4 Put all this in a bowl, add the olive oil and vinegar and mix, then season to taste. You can add a little water if it is too thick, or a bit more oil or vinegar to get it how you like it.


Romesco makes a fantastic spread on sandwiches and is also great used like pesto: stirred into pasta, noodles, rice, soup or potatoes. You can also use it as a marinade for roasting vegetables.

And if you’re wondering what I did with those chestnuts…

Pumpkin and Chestnut Dim Sum

This recipe wraps up the fruits of a European autumn – pumpkin, sage, leeks and roasted chestnuts – in a decidedly Chinese parcel, so let’s be really posh and call it Fusion Food. The whole pumpkin was only 50p in Asda, and I used about an eighth of it. I had leeks from my Dad’s garden, but you can of course use onion. You can make up your own flavourings: spring onion, ginger and garlic would also work well. I had the Chinese pancakes in the freezer, left over from when I made Peking Duck because the garden was overrun with plums and I had to make Hoi Sin Sauce.


Chestnut foraging note

The best chestnuts are found by busy roads, because squirrels don’t go there. The first ones I found were beside the A26 with traffic roaring by. They had bounced out of their prickly skins from sheer exuberance at being so huge and glossy, whereas in the woods, you find the ones the squirrels couldn’t be bothered with. The ones photographed are the latter category, but I still found some that were big enough to be worth the effort for someone more determined than a squirrel.

Equipment note

You need a bamboo steamer – don’t buy one in a cookware shop as they are much cheaper in Asian supermarkets.


A couple of handfuls of chestnuts

About twice the amount of pumpkin, skin removed, chopped

A little leek/onion

Pancakes for Peking duck

Nutmeg and black pepper

Soy sauce

Sage, chives and 2 bay leaves or any herb you have: coriander or parsley would be good


1 Slice the hard skins of the chestnuts round the middle/equator with a serrated knife so they will split as they cook.

2 Preheat the oven to Gas 7/220C/425F. Put the chestnuts in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a simmer, then drain and put on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes.

3 Meanwhile, fry the leek/onion gently in a little olive oil, then add the chopped pumpkin and herbs and sweat down for 5 minutes. Add a little water and a splash of soy sauce, put the lid on and steam, keeping an eye on it and stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin is tender. Add grated nutmeg and black pepper and season to taste.


4 When the chestnuts come out of the oven, put them in a bowl and cover with a towel to steam for another 15 minutes. You should then be able to peel off the skins and rub off most of the browned pith.


5 Blend the chestnuts with the pumpkin mix with a stick blender.

You could now use this as a dip, sauce or soup. You could use it to fill canelloni, rolled up lasagne sheets or ordinary pancakes. I decided to try making dim sum parcels. To do this:


6 Brush a little water round the edge of a pancake and put a dollop of pumpkin and chestnut mix in the middle. Pull up and stick the edges to make a little parcel and place this in a bamboo steamer. Repeat to fill the steamer.

7 Put a little boiling water in the bottom of a large saucepan, put in your steamer, filled with parcels, put lids both on the steamer and the saucepan and steam on the heat for around five minutes. Leave to cool a while before taking out and serving, as the pancakes are very soft when freshly steamed and tend to stick to the steamer and break.



Things Stop Making Sense

Courtesy of Palm Pictures: David Byrne in Stop Making Sense

I have had my first bruising experience as a freelancer.

The project was stressful from the start, with a mega-tight schedule, late delivering author and US co-publisher invoking fear and trembling in my UK client. At the peak of its urgency, software incompatability meant that files passed between my computer and the designer’s ended up scrambled, causing him hours of extra work. None of this was my fault, but that, it seems, didn’t matter.

After months of escalating stress, in which I tensed every time my phone made an email blip, it all ended with a furore over commas. I spent a day in the chill ambience of the UK office, trying to put everything right. I have never worked so hard on so little sleep. But I missed the comma issue. Americans like lists to have a comma before the final ‘and’. I did not put commas there.

This was the last straw. The deal breaker.

This has never happened to me before. I have always worked hard and done my utmost. I have always succeeded. But as I began the rest of my life today, I understood why those Apprentice candidates who are devastated to be fired by Alan Sugar always look so happy on the ‘You’re Fired’ show afterwards.

Because through all this, I have learned what makes sense to me.

I stood at the counter of the café where I volunteer today, presiding over a varied group of people, some there for the food, some for the company, some to serve the community, others for support or for the joy of doing meaningful work. There was warmth and mickey-taking, bacon and laughter. This all made sense to me.

Sitting with my Mum and Dad, putting the world to rights and working out what they are going to eat now Mum has been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Thinking of things I can cook for their freezer. This made sense to me.

Being there for friends and having them there when I need them. Supporting Jon on his long journey through depression. Watching my boys make their way in the world. This all makes sense.

An office full of nice people whom stress has made steely; evening emails asking me to explain my policy on serial commas; perfect work demanded under imperfect circumstances; an industry that has gained screw-tight efficiency, but lost its humanity – these things don’t make sense to me.

On Monday, someone dropped a bomb on a hospital in Aleppo.

I spent the day surrounded by faces pinched with tension over a book about skirts. Where, I ask you, is the sense in that?

I have lain awake lately, wondering if leaving my day job was the silly whim of a mid-life crisis.

I have considered writing a blog post entitled: Yes! I Have Fallen Flat On My Face.

But things don’t always have to be rosy – I know I have done the right thing. My ex-colleagues are brilliant and I love the work I still do for them. But I left the world of the office because it didn’t make sense to me any more, and I didn’t much like the person I was becoming.

I think I was right. And when I fall on my face, I’ll get up again.