Olympic standard preparation for a tasty summer menu

Olympic fever has taken hold again; the almost irresistible pull has me hooked on all sorts of sports that I would never usually watch and it has been great fun. Every four years I get drawn in, and though the time difference is playing havoc with my sleep, it is certainly worth it so far and Team GB are making us so proud yet again.

What I love about the Olympics is how sportspeople from a wide variety of backgrounds have their chance in the limelight for a few days every four years. But what really fascinates me is the back story. It’s the certain knowledge that, aside from a few high-profile names, the vast majority of Olympians spend nearly every day of the year training, without the adulation of the crowds or the world’s media; getting up early, travelling to meets in the back of beyond with little prospect of prize money or recognition. It’s the single-mindedness and dedication that I admire so much.

The level of preparation that goes into that one race, one shot, one routine or one dive is off the scale. And people who haven’t done it can never really understand. It’s not dissimilar for a chef. It is the same formula which states that the level of preparation you put in is directly proportional to the success of the finished product. Which you always hope will be a triumph, of course!

August is generally a quiet month for me by choice, but this year I made an exception to cater a lavish party to celebrate the 60th birthday of our dear family friend Fiona Foley-Croft. 4 courses for 30 guests with the added complication that I was also a guest at the party. So more than ever the preparation was crucial as I would be handing over to another chef to finish the dishes and ensure everything was served as perfectly as I would want it to be.

For me it comes down to lists. I have always been a bit of a list queen: a daily to-do list, shopping lists, packing lists for holidays and the like. My sister Molly has always teased me about my list addiction and so it seems I have now found the perfect career to satisfy my predilection for itemising. Because when it comes to cooking there are always lots of lists. And the most important of all is the prep list.

In restaurants this is sometimes called the MEP or ‘mise-en-place’ list and it deals every little thing that has to happen ensure the food is cooked and gets to the table on time. It does not say for example, “cook dhal” or “roast lamb”. Each dish is broken down into its component parts, so it would say, “wash lentils; slice onions, garlic, chillies; boil lentils and add spices; fry onions and garlic; garnish and serve”.

For a chance to re-create a simplified version of the birthday dinner I created for Fiona, featuring a 3-hour Scotch Bonnet roast lamb shoulder, tandoori tiger prawns, baba ghanoush, salads, raitha and naan bread finished with a delicious Eastern Mess dessert, simply follow the steps below.

24 hrs before the event

  1. Make lamb marinade
  2. Marinade lamb shoulder
  3. Defrost tiger prawns in the fridge (if necessary)

4 hrs before service

  1. BBQ / slow-roast lamb shoulder (3 hrs minimum)
  2. Clean and prepare prawns if necessary
  3. Marinade prawns in tandoori style marinade (turmeric, chilli powder, paprika, ginger paste, lemon juice, salt and natural yoghurt). Cover and leave in fridge until required.
  4. Roast aubergines for baba ghanoush – 1 hour at 190ºC.
  5. Make rosewater berry sauce for Eastern Mess (berries, icing sugar cornflour, rosewater) and pass through a sieve to remove seeds. Store in a squeezy bottle or pouring jug and allow to cool to room temperature.
  6. Chop or break up meringues for Mess and keep in a food bag until required.
  7. Whip Chantilly cream for Mess. Decant into piping bag or a bowl, cover and place in fridge until required.
  8. Wash, prep and slice berries – cover and leave at room temperature.

2 hrs before service

  1. Remove aubergine flesh from skins, roughly chop and add to a bowl. Finely dice red onion, garlic, chilli, and chop fresh coriander. Season with sea salt and freshly squeezed lemon to make baba ghanoush. Cover with cling film and chill.
  2. Whiz 1 bunch coriander, 1 peeled garlic clove, 1 hot green chilli, pinch of sea salt, 1 tsp sugar in a blender. Add natural yoghurt to make raitha. Pour into serving bowl, cover with cling film and chill in fridge.

1 hour before service

  1. Prep items for green salad (iceberg lettuce, cucumber, celery, spring onions) and arrange in a service bowl.
  2. Finely slice red onion and add to sliced tomatoes and washed rocket leaves. Dress with sea salt, lemon juice and cold-pressed rapeseed or olive oil.
  3. Remove lamb shoulders from BBQ / oven and wrap tightly in foil and allow to rest for 30 minutes.

When guests arrive

  1. BBQ / pan fry prawns, depending on size around 2 minutes each side
  2. Pull lamb from bone and arrange on a platter
  3. Heat naan breads in oven for 5 minutes
  4. Construct Eastern Mess (meringue, berries, Chantilly cream, berry sauce and garnish)
  5. Pour glass of wine for self and enjoy the party!

In a tribute to all our Olympians, my Eastern Mess recipe is given below. This is a recipe I have lovingly borrowed from my favourite Persian chef, Sabrina Ghayour, from her debut cookbook Persiana, published by Mitchell Beazley. I garnished them with golden sugar nibs to add the appropriate level of bling befitting an Olympic week. These are available from Waitrose – Cook’s Ingredients Bronze Sugar Nibs – but I think they look more like gold! I hope you enjoy the rest of the Games and that my recipes can help you plan a hassle-free summer menu to enjoy with friends and family.

The other recipes in this menu are available to view at smallaubergine.com For more of my recipes check out Kitchen Favourites with Saira: Chilli; Ginger and Garlic. Available to buy via amazon.co.uk

Eastern mess serves 8


  • 600 g mixed berries (e.g.: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • 4 tbsp icing sugar
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • 2 tsp rosewater
  • 600ml double cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 8 meringues (home-made or shop-bought)
  • Choose from crunchy sugar nibs; toasted almonds, pistachio kernels or toasted oats for garnish


  1. First make the rosewater berry sauce. Take 250g of the mixed berries and place into a small saucepan with 2 tbsp of the icing sugar and 2 tsp cornflour. Heat gently with some water, no more than 50 ml. You can use frozen berries for the sauce, but leave out the water. Gently simmer the berries for 15 minutes until they are completely soft. Taste the sauce and add more icing sugar if you like it sweeter.
  2. Pass the sauce through a sieve until you have a smooth sauce and set aside to cool. Once cooled, add 1 tsp of rosewater and taste. Only add the second teaspoon if you like the favour and want to make it stronger.
  3. Whip the double cream with the remaining 2 tbsp icing sugar and vanilla extract until holding its shape in soft peaks.
  4. Prepare the remaining berries and get ready to construct the dessert. Use a pretty glass bowl or glasses for maximum effect.
  5. Break or chop the meringues into bite-sized pieces. Start with meringue in the bottom of the glass, then add the fresh berries, whipped cream on top and a good drizzle of the rosewater berry sauce. Top the desserts with something crunchy, gold sugar nibs are a particular favourite for me, but you can use toasted nuts or oats or even crystallised rose petals if you can find them.

Velkommen til Norge

We’ve just come back from Norway. We went to visit our friends Inger-Anne, Jan-Erik, Astrid and Ingeborg who live in Oslo. When we lived in Cairo, my daughter Lily and Astrid were great friends and when planning a surprise trip for Lily to celebrate the end of her exams, it seemed the obvious choice. I have visited Norway many years ago with my parents but that was a long time ago and I only had vague memories of the place.

So we were delighted to arrive in Oslo to be met with glorious sunshine. We managed to get ourselves on a train to Skøyen where our friends lived. Norway is one of those countries where everyone seems to speak perfect English which makes life very easy for British travellers. It was incredibly easy to find our way around; the signs were in English and the dual-language announcements on the train meant there was no excuse to miss our stop.

We arrived on a stunningly beautiful day and it seemed that every stunningly beautiful Oslo resident was out in the city’s green spaces or waterfront areas sunbathing, eating, drinking and generally having a whale of a time. Our hosts prepared us a lovely buffet lunch and then offered to take us out on their little boat for a quick water-tour of Oslo followed by coffee and cake at their little cabin on an island called Lindøya. It was a fairly easy decision!

The little cabin turned out to be a picture-perfect wooden house with a large garden and a gorgeous sea view, 2 bedrooms, small kitchen, lounge complete with woodburner, shower room and a technological marvel known as an electric toilet. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so impressed by a toilet. The coffee was top notch (as it always is in Norway I was to discover – no instant coffee granules in sight) and the cake was a pavlova covered with piles of fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Lindøya was originally an escape for the workers in 1920s Oslo who would row over to the island and spend the summer in tents to escape the poor air quality of their industrial working conditions. Eventually the city council allowed them to build wooden cabins on their plots and the structures have remained pretty much unchanged since that time. There are no cars or bicycles allowed on the island, cabins are not allowed to be expanded or changed outside the original footprints and many of the owners are now third generation family members of the original owners. It was truly a magical day topped off with a fantastic supper on the way home at a restaurant only accessible from the water where I had a local ‘fiskesuppe’ or fish soup with crusty white bread and a very cold glass of wine. Heaven.

Another Norwegian speciality and a recipe I wanted to share with you is for ‘sour milk waffles’. It doesn’t sound too appealing but the sour milk is actually buttermilk whIch lends a great flavour and fluffy texture to the waffle and these are such a traditionally Norwegian thing to eat I had to share it with you.

The other traditional Norwegian dishes I was looking at were lutefisk – which is white fish, often cod, which is dried and brined and then soaked in lye, which gives it a gelatinous texture. Or maybe hvalbiff which was on the menu at the restaurant we ate in, which was whale meat served with boat potatoes and steamed vegetables.

So I thought the waffles would be best! The waffle mix smells lovely even before you cook it. Inger-Anne says for her it is the smell of childhood as they used to have these waffles all the time for any school events, festivals or perhaps at as a teatime treat at home. Every Norwegian household has a waffle iron but these could be made in a frying pan so don’t let that stop you. Serve these waffles with butter, strawberry or raspberry jam and sour cream. Or to be really traditional you could try them with a bit of brunost – which is Norwegian brown cheese and is completely delicious. Made with cows or goats milk, it is a soft-set cheese sold in a block with the same sort of texture as Port Salut. It taste a lot better than it sounds, which a delicate and slightly caramel-sweet flavour. If you come to Norway you must try it!

Served with coffee and always eaten with fingers, never a knife and fork, sharing and eating waffles is a big part of Norwegian food culture and one I was very happy to partake in. Have a go yourself for a brunch or teatime treat.

Norwegian waffles 


100g butter

4 eggs

200g granulated sugar

1 litre buttermilk

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

500g plain flour


Melt the butter the set aside for 5 minutes to cool down slightly

Place the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk lightly by hand until well combined together but not fluffy. Inger-Anne told me not to use a mixer for this. For waffles you must do it by hand.

Add in the buttermilk, bicarbonate of soda and the melted butter and whisk to combine.

Then add in the flour in stages, approximately a third at a time and whisk again to combine so it is fully incorporated without any lumps. You then must leave the mix aside for 30 minutes to develop before starting to cook it.

To make the waffles, thoroughly pre-heat the waffle maker and brush with oil or cooking spray. If you don’t have a waffle iron these can of course be made in a frying pan like American pancakes or drop scones – you will miss out of the pretty pattern but the flavour will still be the same.

Cook them for around 2 minutes on each side over a medium-high heat. Once both sides are golden brown you can take them out and rest on a wire rack briefly before serving warm and eating with butter, jam and sour cream.

Super summer salads

I have been thinking a lot about my forthcoming holiday lately and thinking I should probably go on a bit of a health kick in advance of the excesses that will no doubt ensue when I am surrounded by the culinary delights that Provence has to offer. In theory it should be easier to eat healthily during the summer months, but in practice I find this is rarely true.

But there is no doubt that the availability of fresh produce and the warmer temperatures make a good environment for some lighter meals, so I wanted to focus on a healthy theme for this blog. I had the perfect excuse to get creative with salads over the weekend as I was invited to a BBQ hosted by one of our neighbours for the residents of ‘our road’. We have these neighbourly events fairly regularly and it is great to get to know some of our neighbours a bit better. Some people (yes, I mean you Jim) will maintain that BBQs are all about the meat, but I would have to disagree. The meat for me is merely an excuse, a foil if you will, for the vast array of salads which I feel should be present at this sort of al-fresco dining event.

There always has to be a green salad of mixed leaves; this is the staple salad of any BBQ spread. My top tip for lettuce is to always serve it dry, if it is wet then the dressing will never cling to the leaves. If you don’t have a salad spinner to dry your lettuce after washing, I would recommend investing in one. I always make a tomato salad separately because I love the juicy sweetness of tomatoes in the height of their season and they don’t always stand up well when mixed with other crunchy vegetables. My salad is adapted from a Ree Drummond recipe (my favourite cowgirl cook) in which the tomatoes are marinated for an hour or two at room temperature with very finely sliced spring onions and lots of fresh basil and/or parsley in a dressing made from extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, light brown sugar and seasoning.

This is an amazing combination and the dressing is particularly good for being mopped up with crusty white bread at the end of the meal. My top tip for tomatoes is never to store them in the fridge. They taste so much better at room temperature; their natural sweetness will come through much more. Try mixing up the types of tomatoes in your salad; different colours and sizes or even heritage tomatoes if you can find them, make the visual impact much greater and the flavours better too.

Another beautiful salad is one that my Canadian friend Christine makes. She tells me it is originally a recipe by Rick Stein from one of his European odysseys, but I’ve always considered it to be hers! This salad combines canteloupe melon, cucumber, tomato, crumbly goats cheese and fresh mint leaves and is finished with a dressing made from olive oil, red wine vinegar, caster sugar and salt and pepper. The combination of sweet melon and salty goats cheese, seasoned with lots of freshly ground black pepper is a complete revelation and delicious on its own for a light lunch.

And the third salad I made uses one of my favourite summer ingredients, peaches. For me peaches and nectarines, which work equally well in this salad, are the taste of summer. They remind me of European holidays as a child, where I was amazed by the intense flavour and juiciness of these stone fruits when eaten in Greece or Spain on a hot sunny day. Although the flavours of peaches bought in this country is not always so good, in this recipe they are grilled and peeled which increases the intensity of the flavour. Mixed with rocket, feta cheese and crispy prosciutto or Parma ham in a balsamic vinaigrette this was the biggest hit with my neighbours on the day!

So here are the recipes – I hope you enjoy making them too.

Marinated tomato salad

6-8 ripe tomatoes, sliced

4 spring onions

150ml extra virgin olive oil

60ml balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp light brown sugar

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

handful fresh chopped basil and/or parsley, finely chopped


  1. Cut the tomatoes and arrange in a shallow bowl. Slice the spring onions very finely and scatter on top.
  2. In a screw top jar, add all the dressing ingredients and shake together until well combined.
  3. Pour the dressing over the tomatoes and leave to marinate for 1-2 hours at room temperature before enjoying.

Melon & goat’s cheese salad

1/2 canteloupe melon

1/2 cucumber, peeled and sliced

2 vine tomatoes, de-seeded and sliced into wedges

150g crumbly goat’s cheese

12-14 mint leaves, roughly torn

60ml virgin olive oil

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp caster sugar

salt & pepper


  1. Slice the melon, cucumber and tomatoes and arrange on a serving platter.
  2. Crumble the goat’s cheese on top then scatter over the torn mint leaves.
  3. Whisk together the dressing ingredients until well combined then drizzle all over the salad.
  4. Season with some more freshly ground black pepper then enjoy.


Rocket, peach and feta salad

200g feta cheese, cut into cubes

6 slices prosciutto / Parma ham

100g rocket leaves

4 peaches or nectarines

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

salt & pepper


  1. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and season well with salt & pepper.
  2. Grill the prosciutto under a hot grill until crisp and remove to a plate to cool.
  3. Cut the peaches into quarters and remove the stones, then place under the hot grill, skin-side up for 3-4 minutes until the skins blacken.
  4. Take the peaches out and remove the skins with a paring knife. They should come off very easily.
  5. In a serving bowl, place the rocket leaves and toss with half of the dressing.
  6. Arrange the peach slices, scatter over the feta cheese and then chop the crispy ham into thin slices and scatter over the top.
  7. Drizzle with the remaining dressing and serve.

Coronation Chicken

To celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday and the Patron’s lunch today I have revised a classic recipe. You could call this a retro fusion recipe, originally thought to have been created for the silver jubilee of the Queen’s grandfather George V in 1935. Coronation chicken is a cold dish often used in salads and sandwiches and is one of the only dishes that I will use curry powder for! The mix of the gentle spices with the creamy mayonnaise, tender chicken and sweet fruit has been enjoyed for decades and is still one of my husband Jim’s absolute favourites. Poaching the chicken is a great way to cook to add gentle favour and ensure the chicken stays very moist. The recipe can of course also be made with leftover cold chicken from a roast dinner or other meal as well.

Enjoy the dish and many happy returns to her Majesty. ?

Ingredients (serves 2)

115g dried fruit (I used a mix of golden sultanas and dried apricots)

1 large chicken breast (approx. 250g)

2-3 slices ginger root

4-5 black peppercorns

1 small onion, thickly sliced

Enough cold water to cover the chicken in the pan

6 tbsp mayonnaise

1 tbsp salad cream

1 tsp mild or medium curry powder

salt and freshly ground pepper

juice of half a lemon


  1. First poach the chicken. Place the sliced ginger, onion, peppercorns in the pan. Add the chicken breast and cover with cold water.
  2. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer, cover the pan and poach the chicken for 15 mins.
  3. Then turn the heat off and allow the chicken to continue cooking in the pan for another 10 minutes.
  4. Check chicken is cooked all the way through, using a meat thermometer which should read  a core temperature of 75ºC in the middle of the chicken. Or you can cut open the chicken and check the chicken is completely cooked through with no pink traces at all.
  5. Take the chicken out of the pacing liquid and allow to cool to room temperature (60 mins) and then refrigerate until completely cold. Cut chicken into bite sized pieces or slices, around 2cm wide.
  6. Mix together the mayonnaise, salad cream with the curry powder then season with salt if needed and plenty of fresh black pepper.
  7. Add in the chopped chicken and dried fruit and stir very well. Finally add a squeeze of lemon juice.
  8. The filling is great in vol au vents or as a jacket potato filling, but the classic use is as a sandwich filling. I like crusty white bread with shredded crunchy iceberg lettuce for a great combination.

Exam stress-busting recipe

Well the time has finally arrived. My daughter’s GCSE exams have started, so as you can imagine the stress levels in our house are through the roof. It seems hard to comprehend that she has come to this point already. Through my happy tears at her Leavers’ Assembly, I found it hard to process the fact that she has become this rather wonderful young adult when it seems like yesterday that she stood proudly in the playground on her first day at school, with her unruly hair in braids and fiercely clutching her brand new book bag.

I have asked several friends how to cope with the stress and what I should be doing as a parent to alleviate the symptoms, though clearly I can do nothing about the cause. I read somewhere that whatever you say as a parent will be wrong. If you seem very caring and interested in what they are doing and get involved in revision, you are stifling them and poking your nose in and you couldn’t possibly understand. If you try and stay out of it you are accused of not caring. So parents should just accept that whatever you say will be wrong and get used to the sound of slamming doors.

My friend Sue from the Lemon Tree explained that her strategy with her son Harry was just to feed him. That was the best thing she could do to support him with his workload. This sounded like a good idea to me so I am planning to cook all the things that Lily likes and that I think will help her work and function as effectively as possible. We’re always told that fish is great brain food, and it’s not always the easiest thing to get our children to eat, so I thought I would share my family fish pie recipe with you. It’s got all that lovely fish, but couched in a wonderful cheesey mash and a silky parsley sauce which makes it one of my all-time favourite comfort foods too. I’ve used white fish, salmon and prawns in my recipe, as the children are not mad-keen on smoked fish, but some lovely smoked haddock in the fish mix also works a treat.

Here’s the recipe for you. If you are one of those households supporting stressed-out, exam-crazed teenagers, give it a go and hopefully it will allow them to relax for a minute, get some good fuel inside them before they launch back into the study and revision. Good luck to them all!

Fish Pie

Ingredients (serves 4)

500ml milk

300g salmon fillet

300g white fish (cod or haddock)

125g raw large prawns, peeled and de-veined

1 small onion, quartered

1 bay leaf

4 black peppercorns

75g butter

50g plain flour

handful of finely chopped fresh parsley

salt and pepper

200g washed baby spinach (optional)

1 kg potatoes (Maris Piper or King Edward are best)

50g butter

50ml milk

50g grated mature cheddar cheese


  1. Heat the milk in a large shallow pan. Heat the milk to just short of boiling – you should just see a few small bubbles around the edges of the pan. Add the fish in large chunks (approx. 4cm) along with the onion and bay leaf and 4 black peppercorns. Reduce the heat and simmer for 8 mins, turning the fish once during that time. Lift the fish onto a plate and strain the milk into a jug to cool. You will need approx. 450ml milk, if there is slightly less top it up with fresh milk. Flake the fish into large pieces in a large ovenproof dish. Then add the raw prawns and mix thoroughly.
  2. Make the parsley sauce. Melt the butter in a pan very slowly then add the flour and stir well until you have a paste. Add the reserved milk from poaching the fish very gradually, stirring briskly all the time. Keep the heat on and keep stirring until the sauce thickens, this should take about 5 minutes. When the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon you can take the pan off the heat, season with salt and pepper and add the finely chopped parsley.
  3. Scatter the spinach leaves on top of the poached fish, then pour the sauce over the fish mix in the baking dish, making sure the fish and spinach are completely covered in the sauce. Now preheat the oven to 180ºC (fan).
  4. Peel and chop the potatoes into big chunks the cook in salted, boiling water until soft and cooked through. This should take 25-30 minutes. Drain off the water and allow the potatoes to dry off in the open pan. Then mash with the butter and 50ml of milk and season well with salt and pepper.
  5. Finally add the mashed potato to the top of the fish, scatter over the grated cheese and bake in the oven for 40 minutes until golden and bubbling on top. Serve with peas or any steamed green vegetables.


Despite the opinions of many, I am still a believer that social media can be a force for good. A chance Twitter conversation with the author Clare Mackintosh led to my being invited to appear as part of a stellar line up at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival this year. The festival, dubbed ChipLitFest, took place over 4 days in April in the beautiful Cotswold market town of the same name. With names such as Joanne Harris, Fay Weldon, Brian Blessed, Ben Miller, Prue Leith and others on the bill it was a no-brainer when festival director Jenny Dee asked me if I would like to be involved.

For people who have visited the town, you will know that it is a lovely-looking place, with all the honey-coloured stone houses and cobbles that you would expect to find in such a setting. First stop was the town hall for my cooking demonstration. I prepared dishes from my cookbooks (we covered chilli mojito, dhal bora, baked ginger cheesecake and pumpkin and prawn curry) for a really delightful audience. I always enjoy live cooking demonstrations, but there are some occasions where everything falls into place; the audience laugh at my jokes, the dishes timings work perfectly, I don’t forget to include all the important things I’d wanted to say, I have audience participation, in short everything works perfectly. This was one of those occasions.

Once our work was done, we were able to enjoy some of the generous hospitality laid on by the festival directors. First a stop at Jaffé & Neale, the independent bookstore in the centre if the town which had set up a wonderful green room.There we could hang out with the other authors, though I was far too starstruck to say anything to anyone.

We joined a team for the ChipLitFest literary quiz . We didn’t disgrace ourselves entirely, achieving mid-table mediocrity. Janet Ellis on the table next to us was clearly very motivated (and pretty vocal) and her team ran out eventual winners. The fun didn’t stop there, next it was on to the authors dinner where we met children’s fiction authors Jo Cotterill (Electrigirl), John Dougherty (Stinkbomb and Ketchup Girl) and Paul and Henrietta Stickland (Ten Terrible Dinosaurs) I think tiredness and mild hysteria had set in by then, so we had an intensely funny evening, punctuated by MasterChef-themed drinking games, i.e.: when anyone said ‘jus’ or ‘deconstructed’ we had to take a drink!

Before heading home on Sunday we were pleased to be able to squeeze into an event about food blogging run by Kathy Slack who writes a blog named Gluts & Gluttony – inspired by recipes she had developed from gluts of fruits and vegetables from her allotment and focussed on growing your own organic vegetables and what do do with the resultant produce. This was a great hands-on session at the town’s premier fine-dining restaurant Wild Thyme. Kathy had some very good advice for food bloggers with the main themes being consistency of message, posting regularly and deciding if your blog is a photo-blog or about the writing. And if it is about the writing, edit and edit again so you have clarity of message. Definitely a lesson I need to learn!

My favourite lesson was about long and irrelevant introductions. For example if you are blogging a restaurant review, don’t waste the first 200 words talking about waiting for the babysitter or how you got to the restaurant, just get on with it. I must try to remember this! Finally we got to practise food styling with a rhubarb and ginger cake provided by Kathy and it was highly entertaining to watch 20 people poking, prodding and photographing their cakes rather than just tucking in.

I participate in events up and down the country but this one was special. As well as performing and catering for the audiences, I got so much back. It was meticulously organised by a small army of volunteers, the variety and quality of events was excellent, and as participants we were looked after so well. I’ll definitely be going back, and for anyone with a love of books and literature I would absolutely recommend you get yourselves there for ChipLitFest 2017.

MasterChef revisited

Hands up who is loving the new series of MasterChef? If so did you catch my appearance as a guest judge in episode 4 of the latest series of ever-popular BBC show? I was reunited with Natalie and Larkin but this time we were sitting on the calmer side of the swing doors and being cooked for by the latest batch of plucky cooks hoping to prove themselves worthy of a place in knock-out week.

It was quite a different experience to my previous time on the show. Firstly I was much more able to appreciate the sheer professionalism and energy of the production team behind the scenes. When you are competing in the show you are just in your own little world; focussed on getting your food out on time and to the standard you wanted. But the way the producers, directors, sound and camera crew, runners and everyone else keep the thing running is really quite impressive.

As judges, once our one-to-one interviews were completed we were seated in the dining room, poured a glass of wine and read our menus, then the conveyor belt began. Every 15 minutes we had a plate of food delivered; the contestant was filmed introducing their dish; a single plate shot was taken by the crew; then all 3 judges ate; then we commented, trying not to talk with our mouths full; more shots taken of particular elements of the dish that we picked up on, good or bad; and finally plates were cleared. Just in time for another plate of food to be delivered. All run to a meticulous schedule, unless the contestants were late of course which of course then pushed everyone else back.

So I should really issue a spoiler alert at this point. If anyone didn’t see the episode and still plans to catch up on i-player then look away now. We had main courses and desserts from Caron, Tom, Rob and Chris and there was some absolutely standout dishes amongst them. There was only one bad dish, unfortunately for Rob, which involved a duck breast that was still quacking, some very brown bulgur wheat with blood pudding and tough duck liver. Rob clearly had timing issues in the kitchen, and we’d all been there of course, so I like to think that we were not too harsh in our criticism.

As you can imagine the judging was filmed some time ago, so I couldn’t remember an awful lot of what I had said by the time the episode was aired last week. It was much more fun watching it back than when I was a contestant, but I was hoping the editing had been kind. As it turned out I still managed to pull some ridiculous facial expressions; I honestly had no idea that my face did those things until I was on the telly! I was accused of making eyes at the rather well-built personal trainer, which if it was true, was entirely because of his beautiful fish dish and rather magnificent banana soufflé, and nothing to do with his physique. But I wasn’t making eyes, I was just trying to put the contestants at their ease – nothing wrong with that I’m sure you will agree.

I couldn’t wriggle my way out of the comment I made after eating Tom’s lemon tart though. “I could eat that again and again,” I said. “I wonder if he’s married?” Well I copped a lot of flak for that one I can tell you. Jim and my mother-in-law, Mary were less than impressed. This is the problem with reality TV, you can never tell what will end up in the final cut!


So, once again it’s been a week to reflect on the strangeness of life and the quirks of fate that led to that application to enter a cooking competition which the led to appearances on national prime-time TV, a complete change of career and making some amazing new friends through my extended MasterChef family. You can never really know what’s just around the corner, don’t you agree? But when it comes, you just need to grab it.

Easter traditions

Whilst watching the valiant efforts of the Harlow U12s at the Braintree Festival of Rugby this weekend, I asked one question to several players and parents, “What’s the best thing about Easter?” I had a variety of answers but several themes emerged. My son Tommy went for the Easter Feast, with a particular mention of roast lamb; Asa who was nursing a sore knee in the tent said for him it had to be the chocolate; Dax, one of our coaches and Sarah the team manager decided the best thing about Easter was 2 days off work!

I’m starting to think I might prefer Easter to Christmas these days. I really look forward to it. I think it’s something to do with the fact that most of us have the whole long weekend off, and, of course, it’s always a weekend! Also unlike Christmas, you don’t really have to do anything specific, which let’s face it can make the Yuletide celebrations quite exhausting, particularly if you are the designated cook. I find that most families have their own traditions at Easter, and they vary significantly.

If you have been watching Mary Berry’s new programme, ‘Easter Feast’, you may be as interested as I have been to see some of the varied Easter food traditions from different communities. There is Jamaican loaf-cake called Bun served with cheese, Russian Pashka cheesecake, Polish Babka cake and Greek Tsoureki bread as well as the traditional English treats such as Hot Cross Buns and Simnel cake, with its 11 marzipan balls to represent the 11 apostles of Christ. Easter food is redolent of the coming of spring, the symbology is all about re-birth and new life whether we observe the religious festival or not. And for people that have given up certain foods for Lent, Easter really is something to look forward to after a period of abstinence.

For me, there are probably two staples of our Easter eating. The first is roast lamb, which to be fair I like to have all year round, but there is a special significance to lamb at Easter with all its Spring imagery. Sorry to burst your bubble, but actually the best time for British lamb is a bit later in the year, around May to July. It’s obvious when you think about it, lambs are being born in February and March so they won’t be ready for the table for a few months yet. Of course New Zealand lamb is always available, and I have no issue with eating it. British lamb is available this Easter but it tends to be indoor-reared and a little lacking in flavour at this time. Not a problem if you introduce lots of flavour into that leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary or maybe lemon and oregano for a Greek twist. Or if you want to have a spicy take on your Easter roast, why not try my Scotch bonnet roast lamb in my new cookbook Kitchen Favourites with Saira: Chilli.

And my absolute favourite is the hot cross bun, which seem to start appearing in the shops around Valentine’s Day these days, but I have no issue with that. The longer we can get them the better as far as I am concerned. There has been a worrying recent trend toward adulterated hot cross buns, which I sincerely hope is just a fad. I mean; chocolate hot cross buns? That is wrong on every level. And though I cannot deny Heston Blumenthal’s genius in certain food matters, including space food, I am dead against his experiments with this British classic. Acacia honey and ginger? Earl Grey and mandarin? No, thank you very much.

I prefer to keep it simple, and I would encourage you to have a go at making your own hot cross buns this year. It is much easier than you might think, particularly if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment. I think these classic buns with a good spread of real butter are one of Britain’s finest inventions. There is nothing quite like a bite of a home-made bun, if you’ve never baked them before, make this the year to enjoy a spot of family baking on one of those lovely days off. Enjoy.

Classic hot-cross buns

Ingredients (makes 8 buns)

500g strong white bread flour (+ extra for kneading)

½ tsp salt

2 tsp ground mixed spice

50g caster sugar

50g butter cut in cubes

150g sultanas or mixed fruit

50g candied mixed peel

7g sachet fast-action yeast

200ml warm milk

2 medium eggs

for the crosses – 3 tbsp plain flour mixed with 3 tbsp water, enough to make a thick paste

for the glaze – 2 tbsp golden syrup, warmed through


  1. Place the flour in a bowl and mix in the salt, mixed spice and sugar. Then rub in the butter with your fingertips until combined and stir through the mixed fruit and peel. Then sprinkle over the yeast.
  2. Warm the milk either in a pan or with 30 second blasts in the microwave. It should be hot enough that when you dip a finger in, it is uncomfortable, but not hot enough to scald.
  3. Beat the eggs into the warm milk briskly, then pour into the flour mixture and bring the dough together with wooden spoon.
  4. Now to knead the mixture. By hand it will take 7-8 minutes; in a mixer only half that time. Set a timer and make sure you knew it for long enough – 8 minutes is a long time when you’re kneading! Sprinkle some extra strong flour if the dough is sticky, but try not to use too much as it will affect the lightness of the finished bun.
  5. I only prove the buns once, but if you have time you can prove the dough twice. For the single-prove method, divide the kneaded dough into 8 balls and shape into buns. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet, cover with oiled cling film and then set aside in a warm place to prove for and hour and a half.
  6. Pre-heat your oven to 210ºC (fan) whilst you make the flour paste for the crosses. Mix it together and use a piping bag (or a plastic food bag) to pipe crosses onto each bun. Bake the buns in the oven for 13-15 minutes until well risen and golden brown all over. Cool down on a wire rack.
  7. Finally, glaze the hot buns with the warm syrup before serving with lashings of butter and a nice cup of tea.

St David’s Day

Hapus dydd Dewi Sant – or Happy St. David’s Day!

Some of you will know that I am a Welsh girl at heart, born in the Rhondda valley and very proud of it too. Today is St David’s Day celebrating the patron saint of Wales, so what better reason to indulge in one of my favourite vegetarian dishes, Glamorgan sausages. This recipe uses Caerphilly cheese which is a unique and delicately flavoured cheese. Caerphilly is a hard, and crumbly white cheese which works really well in this dish. It is traditionally made in South Wales and has a beautiful tangy flavour.

It can be difficult to find sometimes, a good supermarket cheese counter will have it, and you will almost certainly find it at any good cheese shop. If you really can’t find it, a mixture of crumbly Cheshire and a good strong farmhouse cheddar will work.

Enjoy this Welsh classic today or any day…

Saira x

Glamorgan sausages


  • 1 small leek finely chopped, and sweated in a large knob of butter
  • 125 gms white breadcrumbs + extra for rolling
  • 100 gms Caerphilly cheese, finely grated
  • 2 eggs, beaten  + 2 more for crumbing
  • Rounded dessert spoon of whole grain mustard
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsps flour
  • Vegetable oil for shallow frying


  1. Sweat the leek gently over a low-medium heat for 8-10 minutes until completely soft but not coloured.
  2. Mix with the breadcrumbs, cheese, eggs and mustard and mix really well together. Form into 12 fat sausage shapes and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  3. Place the flour on a plate and season well with salt and pepper. Roll the sausages in the seasoned flour.
  4. In two shallow bowls, place the beaten eggs and the breadcrumbs.
  5. Roll the sausages in the egg then in the breadcrumbs until they are completely covered.
  6. Shallow fry carefully until golden brown all over, should take around 10 minutes.