Friday, 20 January 2017

Book review : Medusa - Torkil Damhaug

I'd never heard of Torkil Damhaug but according to the front cover, he is an international bestseller and Medusa is one of the Oslo Crime Files series. I went to investigate and discovered that, written in 2015, Medusa was the first book in the series and there are now two more, Death By Water and Fireraiser, both published in 2016.

The story introduces us to Axel Glenne, who is apparently a well-liked doctor, happily-married family man and conscientious son, who regularly visits his mother who has Alzheimer's and mistakenly calls him Brede - that's not necessarily a sign of her failing mental health though, as Brede is Axel's identical twin and banished black sheep of the family that nobody likes to mention.

When two dead women are discovered, apparently mauled by a wild animal that would appear to be a bear, police investigate to see if there are suspicious circumstances - finding a wild bear in this urban part of Norway is highly unlikely after all. The only link that they can find is Axel, who was one of the last people to speak to both of the victims. He becomes the prime suspect but is convinced that he is being framed by his vengeful twin - the only problem is, nobody except his senile mother has ever met him or even seen a photo of him. 

As Alex tries to prove his innocence, even the reader ends up questioning the existence of this missing twin. Does Axel have a split personality? Is he really a serial killer? Or is he a part of some big Machiavellian plan?

For the first part of the book, I thought this had the makings of a taut, gripping psychological thriller, with the author skilfully playing with the reader's interpretations and suppositions. The constant doubt over whether or not Brede exists and, if he does, wondering what the big family drama was that led to his banishment, added an extra level of enjoyment for the reader, forcing him to step back and psychoanalyse Axel and his motives.

However, as the plot developed, I found that the tension started to fizzle out. Axel's dubious moral choices tarnish our view of him and make it harder for us to empathise with him and I found the final denouement to be unfulfilling because it is a bit flimsy and improbable. I also kept thinking of the famous Shakespearean stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear" which was even deemed farcical when the Bard wrote it !

It was readable but I felt that the middle section dragged and the ending left me wanting more, which was a shame, because the idea of an unknown identical twin letting his brother take the rap for his crimes had great promise.

star rating : 3.5/5

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Headline (8 Oct. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472206835
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472206831

Globecooking recipe : Spaghettata Piccante (Italy)

As I mentioned yesterday, when I shared my recipe for Bacon, Leek & Porcini Mushroom Risotto, this week I've been working my way through some lovely authentic Italian products that I received from To Tuscany after taking part in their recipe competition last year. Two of the products that I discovered were some gorgeous artisanal tagliatelle and a sachet of Spaghettata Piccante spices.

The pasta was from La Pasta di Aldo and I love the fact that you can see the hooked ends from where it was hung up to dry. It has a wonderfully coarse, rugged texture that even the high-quality mass-produced stuff never has, so I knew we'd be in for a treat. This was Tagliatelle al Tartufo so it had tiny nuggets of black truffle dotted throughout - they also have lemon, squid ink and saffron varieties that look equally appealing.

The Spaghettata Piccante spices come from Casa Porciatti, a delicatessen, wine bar and restaurant that has existed in the main Chianti town of Radda for fifty years, according to the packaging. The spices are a blend of  chilli pepper, garlic, parsley, salt  and chervil (French parsley).

I tasted some out of the pack on my finger and it has a massive chilli kick so you need to go easy on the dosage ! You lightly fry a spoonful of the spices in olive oil for a couple of minutes (To Tuscany sent me a lovely bottle of olive oil at Christmas too which was perfect)  then, after cooking the pasta in boiling salted water for 4-8 minutes, you  toss it in the pan.

Top with a sprinkle of parmesan and that's it - there's no need for a heavy sauce which helps cut the calories if you're on a New Year diet !

I served ours with some grilled sausages and it was delicious. Very simple and it allowed the flavour of the pasta to come through without overpowering it. I think the spices would be great scattered over pizza too.

If you want some more Italian-inspired meals, how about CrostataCourgette InvoltiniParmesan Crusted Risotto Balls or Pistachio cream semifreddo ?

What's Cooking at The Madhouse? menu plan 20/1

Last week, I sat down and went through all my old Kitchen Trotter recipe booklets to see what I can make again, to use up odds and ends of jars and packets, and also to see if there are any recipes that got overlooked and therefore have random ingredients cluttering up the cupboards. I'll be incorporating some of these into my menu plans over the coming weeks, as well as continuing my concerted effort to work through bookmarked recipes.


lunch - it's the weekend so I get a morning off - McDonald's for the soft play and a chicken Caesar salad, if I'm feeling healthy. I'm rather partial to their chicken and bacon wraps though so we'll see !

dinner - homemade soup - maybe French onion if I can be bothered with peeling a million onions. I might drag the bread machine out too


lunch - roast dinner, maybe with rice instead of potatoes for a change

dinner -  leftover soup


dinner - chakalaka, a veggie African dish, but I might incorporate leftover meat from the roast - served with couscous or mash to tame things down if it comes out too spicy !


dinner - chicken with Bisquik dumplings (I still have a box of this US baking mixture to use up - it's similar to flour but has extras (baking powder, etc) so it's hit and miss when used in baking !), boiled potatoes and peas


lunch - savoury palmiers (rolled puff pastry) - not sure what to put in them but possibly tuna or cheese, with a jar of relish that needs using up - served with rice and veg or salad, or possibly raita (a creamy cucumber/tomato salad)

dinner - goulash and spaetzle from my Austrian box


dinner - kibe de carne (Brazilian meatballs) with aish baladi (Egyptian pitta bread) and chermoula-spiced carrots (Moroccan inspired) - how's that for fusion food ?!


dinner - I'm guessing there will be a fridge full of leftovers - if not, pizza or spag bol

***Click on my Menu Plans tag to see all my other weekly menu plan blogposts.***

Join in with the weekly meal plan bloghop !

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Globecooking recipe : Bacon, Leek & Porcini Mushroom Risotto (Italy)

This week, Sophie has been in Italy on her school trip to Rome and Florence, so there were a few moments of stress when the earthquakes hit on Wednesday. Luckily, they managed to avoid them and didn't even feel them. It'll be good to have her back tomorrow though ! In honour of her Italian escapade, I've been cooking lots of Italian meals this week, mainly using products that I won after taking part in a Tuscan recipe competition with my recipe for Tuscan slow-cooked pork belly and beans.

The starting point for my risotto was a bag of dried porcini mushrooms - looking around the kitchen, I spotted a couple of forlorn-looking leeks and I grabbed some bacon lardons out of the freezer. Pancetta would be more authentic but it tasted lovely and was a big hit with the whole family.

Bacon, Leek & Porcini Mushroom Risotto

ingredients :

half a bag of dried porcini mushrooms
1 pack bacon lardons (or pancetta)
2 leeks
150g rice 
glug of white wine (optional)
some of the soaking liquid from the mushrooms
generous sprinkle of parmesan

Start by soaking the mushrooms in boiling water for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, fry the bacon.

Add the leeks and cook for 3 minutes until soft.

Toss in the uncooked rice and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute.

Add a ladleful of liquid - it could be water, chicken stock, liquid that the mushrooms were soaking in ... I had the end of a bottle of white cooking wine so I added a glug of that.

Remove the mushrooms from the water and add to the pan.

Cook, stirring constantly, for 15 minutes or so, depending on the rice you use. Add another ladleful of liquid from time to time as required to allow the rice to cook and prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Taste to check the seasoning - I didn't need to add salt because the bacon was already salty enough. Scatter a handful of parmesan over the top just before serving.

I'm not usually keen on dried mushrooms because I find they are rubbery and full of grit, but these ones were lovely - packed with earthy flavour and beautifully soft when rehydrated. For an authentic risotto, you should use short-grained Arborio rice which releases starch and produces a creamy risotto. I was having a #KitchenClearout though and had a tub of Amira Silver Basmati rice (this was a free sample offer that I shared in my "fab freebies of the week" Saturday roundup back before Christmas so you might have some too !) and it worked beautifully.

Adding to this month's #KitchenClearout linky because it used some dried porcini mushrooms, a small tub of rice and the end of a bottle of white cooking wine.

New Year means new product lines for Baylis & Harding ! (review)

With Christmas and New Year behind us, our thoughts can start to turn towards Valentine's Day and Mother's Day and, with those celebrations in mind, Baylis & Harding have come up with two brand new product lines for 2017.

First is the vibrant, carefree Pink Prosecco and Cassis range, which is their SS17 Limited Edition signature collection. The packaging is girly and bang on trend, with a chic rose gold colouring, but the best thing about it is the fragrance - light, fruity, fun, with blackberry and raspberry topnotes giving way to a mellow vanilla undercurrent. You can even match your home fragrance to your beauty products for the whole bubblicious package !

We received a Pink Prosecco and Cassis Diffuser Set which has an RRP of £15 and is available from ASDA. It smells lovely, looks elegant and lasts for up to four weeks. You can also buy a stylish single wick candle in a glass cloche (RRP £15, available from Tesco).

Going all out on the romantic Valentine's theme, this heart-shaped Ultimate Bathing Treats Set is sure to score your husband/boyfriend lots of Brownie points, but it would also appeal to mums, friends and daughters of any age. It contains 300ml Shower Creme, 300ml Body Lotion, 130ml Body Wash, 100ml Body Butter & Bath Soak Crystals, plus the box can be reused afterwards for storing keepsakes or knick-knacks. (RRP £25, available from Debenhams). There is also a Hand Wash & Lotion Gift Set (RRP £8, available at Morrisons).

The second range is La Maison Linen Rose & Cotton which replicates the calming, comforting scent of freshly laundered linen blowing freshly in the summer breeze, accompanied by a delicate rose fragrance.

The Bathing Essentials Tin is gorgeous - it contains 300ml Body Cleanser, 300ml Bath & Shower Creme, 125ml Bath & Shower Gel and 125ml Body Balm and is delivered in a beautiful and practical tin, decorated with a pretty heart design (RRP £30, available from Argos). 

Also available in the range are a Luxury Bath & Shower Crème (RRP £12, available at House of Fraser), a single wick candle (RRP £15, available at House of Fraser) and a set of three candles (RRP £20, available from Debenhams).

These would all make lovely gifts for any occasion, from a birth or birthday to Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, but why save them for others? Splashing out on some of the gorgeous home fragrance items counts as buying something for the house, not yourself, so you can buy the whole range without feeling the slightest twinge of guilt !

Disclosure : I received some of the products in order to write an honest review.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Globecooking recipe : Chicken Palava aka Plasas (West Africa) #readcookeat

I first came across a mention of Chicken Palaver when reading Fractured by Clár Ní Chonghaile (click through to read my review).

p115 We had eaten thick palava sauce and fufu at a little roadside café not far from the beach where waves ended their long journey from another world by crashing exhausted on this new shore.

I debated using it as a #readcookeat recipe but, to be honest, when I looked it up on wikipedia, it didn't appeal to me, so I opted for Curried Minced Beef & Pea Samosas instead.

I did love the totally crazy description of the sauce, though : "Palaver sauce or Palava sauce or Plasas is a type of stew widely eaten in West Africa, including Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The word palaver comes from the Portuguese language and means a talk, lengthy debate or quarrel. It is unclear how this led to the name of the stew. One theory is that when the stew was first made, with long, ropey greens, people would start quarrels by slapping each other with the greens from their stew. Another is that the spices used in the stew mingle together like raised voices in an argument. It has been thought of as having the power to calm tensions, or to cause them. Other names for the dish include Kontonmire, Kentumere, Nkontommire and pla'sas."

Palava sauce apparently has many regional variations and can contain beef, fish, shrimp, pepitas, cassava, taro (cocoyam) leaves and palm oil. Outside of Africa, spinach is often used as a substitute for other greens and in Liberia, the leaves are called Molokhia or Mulukhiyah

I didn't think any more about this dish until I saw a blogpost on The Daring Gourmet blog for West African Plasas (Chicken Cooked in Peanut, Spinach & Tomato Sauce), as cooked by a friend from Sierra Leone. This dish actually looked very appetising, so I decided to use it as the starting point of a #KitchenClearout recipe, using up various odds and ends that I had in the kitchen cupboards. It is a very loose interpretation of the original recipe though because, once I'd read it through, Juliette pinched my computer for doing her homework so I had to improvise - that suited me though ! 

Chicken Palava aka Plasas

ingredients :

2tbsp coconut oil
2 onions
3 chicken breasts
1/2tsp shrimp paste
2 cans chopped tomatoes
3tbsp tomato puree
1 cup frozen spinach
3tbsp molokheya powder (optional)
3tbsp peanut butter
1 cup gado gado sauce mix (ground peanuts)
salt, pepper
a shake of chilli flakes (optional)

Melt the coconut oil in a large pan and gently fry the onions. Hmmm the whole kitchen already smells of coconuts !

Chop the chicken and add it to the pot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the chicken is totally white and cooked through.

I had a rummage through my cupboards and found several exotic ingredients that I could incorporate but you could easily use more common alternatives : some gado gado mix for peanut sauce (just add chopped peanuts or extra peanut butter, preferably of the crunchy variety, if you prefer), some powdered molokheya (which you could just leave out or add extra spinach) and a tiny amount of shrimp paste (which you could leave out or replace with a small splash of fish sauce).

Add the shrimp paste, tomatoes and tomato puree.

One of the main flavours of this dish is peanut so I finished off a jar of peanut butter and added lots of coarsely ground peanuts which made the sauce nice and thick and gave it a lovely texture.

Give it all a good stir.

Time for the greens - I had some leftover spinach from last night's merluzzo con spinaci (cod with spinach) so I decided to use that up. I also decided to use up some of my powdered molokheya.

I'm still not at all convinced by this powdered form because it has no texture and very little flavour - I'd much rather use fresh or frozen greens, but it was sitting on the shelf (I'd received it in an Egyptian-themed Kitchen Trotter box) so it was a good way to use some up.

Stir in the spinach and molokheya then season with salt, pepper and, if you want a bit of a kick, some chilli powder or flakes.

Leave to gently simmer for 10-20 minutes for the flavours to mingle (but don't let it dry out too much or it might stick to the bottom of the pan and burn). Serve with rice, couscous or, as we did, rissoled potatoes because I had some baked potatoes in the fridge that needed using up.

Fancy cooking the books? Head over to Galina's #readcookeat challenge over at Chez Maximka.

This was a great recipe for clearing out lots of odds and ends so I'm adding it to this month's #KitchenClearout linky. I finished off a jar of peanut butter, a pack of gado gado peanut sauce mix, some leftover cooked spinach and some of my tub of molokheya powder.

Heinz have a soup-er way to fight the freeze !

Baby it's cold outside ! Our weather station tells us it's currently -4°C, despite the wishy-washy sunshine doing its best to thaw out the frost, so I'm sure it must have been colder than that when we got out of bed. Brrrr !

Everyone knows that chicken soup is the best (unofficial) cure for a cold and a bowl of steaming soup is always the ultimate comfort food on a freezing day like today. In fact, as temperatures plummet across the country, Heinz is expecting sales of soup to surge as people reach for winter warmers. In anticipation, Kitt Green, the Heinz soup production factory in Wigan, is at full tilt despatching a whopping nine million cans of soup over the next week alone. It is estimated that Heinz will sell over 20 million cans in January and typically, Heinz sees a five per cent increase in demand for every degree drop during the soup season. Heinz have come up with a novel way to help London commuters fight the freeze during this cold snap : ‘Break In Case Of Emergency’ cases containing a free can of the nation’s favourite Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup !

This isn't just for those in the capital though. Throughout soup season, Heinz will be popping up in the coldest cities and towns across the UK to surprise consumers, so keep your eyes open ! According to figures, the north is the number one ‘hot spot’ for soup during the winter months, with London a close second, so I'm sure there will be more popping up in northern cities too.

I know you all love a good freebie, judging by how popular my Saturday morning "Fab freebies of the week" round-ups are, and this is much more fun than filling in a form and waiting for the postie to arrive. Let me know if you manage to find one !

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

#readcookeat recipe : Merluzzo con spinaci (cod with spinach) (A Long Ways Home)

When author Mike Martin shared my recent #readcookeat recipe for Triple Layer Vegetarian Lasagne on his Facebook page, some of his followers said that they were looking forward to me trying out the dessert recipes. Sgt Windflower is a man who lives for his food, so I have several promising-sounding recipes bookmarked from A Long Ways From Home (click through for my review), including his favourite peanut butter cheesecake. I will get there eventually but last night, I wanted something healthy for dinner so I opted for another of his fish recipes.

p46 He stopped at the supermarket along the way home and picked up a barbecued chicken, a baguette and a salad bag. That would be supper tonight and a couple of days of lunches too.
When he got home, he cut off half of the chicken breast, sliced off a big chunk of bread that he smothered in butter, and filled the rest of his plate with salad and some cherry tomatoes he found in the fridge. He ate as slowly as he could, which wasn't very slow, rinsed his plate and made a large pot of tea. Might as well enjoy the evening, he thought. He put his teapot on the living room table, turned on the Blue Jays game and picked up his Brunetti book.
He liked this book by Donna Leon, but was getting a little bit irritated by the fact that she seemed to skim over the meals in this story, instead of describing them in the great detail Windflower savoured. The food was still there, like involtini with fresh asparagus and fish dishes such as merluzzo con spinaci, but Windflower felt a little cheated when neither the author nor the diners in the book paid too much attention to what they were eating.

Well, as he said, there are no detailed descriptions as to what this recipe entailed so, after finding out that merluzzo con spinaci translated as cod with spinach, I was given pretty much free reign. I did have a look online to see if there was an official, authentically Italian version but there seem to be as many variations as there are cooks - a creamy oven-baked dish, a very refined dish of rolled cod filled with spinach, a very basic grilled cod steak on a plate of pan-fried spinach, ... Well, I had a rummage in the fridge/freezer and came up with another new version - I give you Merluzzo con spinaci à la Madhouse !

Merluzzo con spinaci

ingredients :

a pack of cod fillets
a pack of frozen spinach
2 onions
a drizzle of olive oil and a knob of butter
a handful of pine nuts
10 cherry tomatoes
salt, black pepper, garlic pepper, garlic salt
a handful of dried breadcrumbs
a handful of grated parmesan

If using frozen cod, zap it in the microwave to defrost it. Put the frozen spinach in a large pan and cook over a low heat, stirring frequently, until it thaws and creates a creamy mass.

While the spinach is cooking, in a small frying pan, cook the onions in a drizzle of olive oil mixed in with a knob of butter. Don't overcook them or they will go bitter - you want them to be soft but not coloured. Toss the onions into the spinach, along with the pine nuts and mix them all together.

Halve the cherry tomatoes and add them to the mixture. Shake in a little garlic salt and stir.

Grind some fresh black pepper over the fish and add some garlic pepper and/or garlic salt.

Transfer the spinach to an ovenproof dish and lay the fish on top.

Scatter over some breadcrumbs and parmesan.

Put in the oven at 180° for about 10-12 minutes until the fish is cooked through (and flakes easily). Feel free to pop it under the grill on a high setting for 1 minute to add some colour.

Use a slotted fish slice to remove a portion of the spinach with the fish on top and serve on a bed of rice (we used coconut rice which was lovely).

Fancy joining in with the #readcookeat challenge? Head over to Chez Maximka.

Hijacked By Twins