Recently I told a long lost friend that I was living in East London. He looked at me, eyes brimming with pity, and asked whether I’d had to eat many jellied eels. If he wasn’t being deadly serious, I wouldn’t have been so shocked. But he was.

The East End has been shackled with a reputation of jellified, fish-based produce. People think that the 24-hour bagel shop is as good as it gets. Otherwise it’s Bethnal Green’s Chicken ‘n Ribs joints or a dodgy Brick Lane curry…. 

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Dr Durkin makes a chicken, olive & PRESERVED LEMON tagine

On Thursday evening Natalie invited me round for supper.

Just to keep you up to date, I shall from now onwards refer to her as Dr Durkin - firstly, because Dr Durkin is a more comic name than Natalie. And secondly, because this is now her real title…. 

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Savoury tarts for a posh picnic

It’s been a true British summer so far - the sun’s been teasing us by skulking behind clouds, re-emerging in its full glory just as we’re packing up to go home.

But don’t let the weather dictate your picnic. The trick is the mindset: British stoicism and determination to have a damned good lunch, come rain or shine.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a post on a classic picnic recipe so that you’ve at least got the food part sorted…even if it does get washed away as soon as you lay it out.

By doing savoury tarts, you’re cutting down on all the faff, coordination and packaging that can mar a cocktail sausage and scotch egg-based picnic. All you need is one container for the tarts, a bag of salad, and a jam jar of dressing (or- even better, an old mustard pot so you get the dregs of the mustard flavouring the olive oil, vinegar and lemon).

No chasing packaging caught by gusts of wind, or lugging home bags full of empty plastic containers – but a simple, sophisticated and delicious picnic.

Ingredients (makes 12 tarts - 6 of each)

500g plain flour
250g butter
18 teaspoons of cold water

600ml creme fraiche
4 eggs
slosh of milk
2 red onions
slosh of balsamic vinegar
1 pack of goat’s cheese
fresh thyme
5 lumps of frozen spinach

Start off by making the pastry. Mix together the flour and butter, then stir in the water. If you’re the lucky owner of a Kenwood Chef with a K-whisk, then use this. If you don’t, then get your hands involved. Once it’s bound together, and moulded into a ball shape, then wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for at least 10 minutes.

People get hysterical about pastry, but it really is quite easy-go on, give it a go-you’ll taste the difference!

Roll out the pastry. Make sure there’s lots of flour on the board and on your rolling pin to stop it from getting too sticky. You can roll it all out in one go, and then use pastry cutters to lift out all the circles for your cases.

I tore off little blocks from the ball of pastry, and then rolled them out one by one, then pressed it into the (buttered) cases.

Now the controversial bit. Conventionally, you’d start messing about with baking beans and greaseproof paper to blind bake the cases. BUT, I think that it changes tart-making from being a relaxing and quick(ish) activity to being quite a fiddley and arduous task. (and I always find it so demoralising when I blind bake a fairly shallow tart case, only to take it out and see that the pastry’s shrunk and the filling won’t fit.) The contents of the tart should mainly prevent the pastry from developing bubbles-and if the odd one does happen…well, it’ll just make it look rustic.

Next, fry the red onions in butter, then add a couple of cap-fulls of balsamic vinegar for a bit of bite. Cook until they’re soft.

For the base of the flans, mix the creme fraiche and eggs with a slosh of milk and lashings of pepper. The beauty of this is that you can now flavour it with pretty much anything.

I divided the filling-base in two. For my first six tartlettes, I lined the bottom of the flan cases with the red onions, then poured the mixture on top. Finally, I topped with goats cheese, thyme and a generous grind of pepper.

Next, I popped the frozen spinach in the microwave, and then added it to the other half of the filling-base. Once spooned inside the tart cases, grate a generous amount of nutmeg over the top - it adds a fresh and interesting taste to the spinach tarts.

Pop the tarts in the oven at 180C for 20-25 minutes. Check half way thorough, because if you’re cooking all the tarts at once, you might have to switch round some of them in the oven so they’re all done evenly.


These make a brilliant picnic treat. No messing about with cocktail sausages, scotch eggs and fussy packaging. Pack the tarts, a bagful of salad, and dressing in a jam jar.

…or if you fancy treating yourself to a posh packed lunch, then that works just fine too!

Fariy Cakes

Delicious magazine (one of my monthly indulgences) have set up a ‘cook’s challenge.’ Each month, they’re choosing a specific recipe for their readers to cook and photograph. Seeing as I do a lot of cooking and a lot of photographing anyway, I thought I’d give it a go.

This month was cupcakes (see recipe lifted from the site below). The chef’s tip was to decorate with crystallised flowers…but if I’m ever clever enough to coax a plant to actually produce a flower, and not just shrivel and die (which is rare) then it seems a bit of a waste to pluck it and stick it on top of a cake. I thought of buying some specially, but that seemed a bit extravagant, so instead I made my own.

I took inspiration from the birthday cakes Mum made me when I was little. She’d mix together royal icing with half egg white and half water. Then she’d put greaseproof paper over a drawing in one of my picture books, pipe round the edges and fill it in . Once it’s dry (best left somewhere warm overnight - an airing cupboard or on top of the radiator is good) the icing shape can be lifted off the greaseproof paper, and painted with food colouring.

My 2nd birthday cake with royal icing farmyard animals

For the flowers, I piped a load of pansie shapes, then put them in a cooling (almost cold) oven.

I made a palette of food colours, and attempted to paint them like a little pansie - some are better than others.


1. 100g butter, softened
2. 100g caster sugar
3. 100g self raising flour
4. 2 eggs

For the icing

1. 100g icing sugar
2. 4 tsp water or lemon juice
3. Food colouring


1. 1. Preheat the oven at 180c/fan160c/gas 4. Line a mini cake tin with paper cases. Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and beat together until just smooth.

Divide between paper cases and bake in the centre of the oven for 12-15 minutes (or 20-25 minutes if larger cup cakes).

2. 2. Remove from the cake tin and leave to cool on a wire rack. Mix the icing sugar with water and colour with a few drops of your desired food colouring. Ice the tops of the cup cakes and decorate as you wish.

Chef’s tip

Flavour these cup cakes with a little lemon or orange rind, vanilla, lavender sugar (used in place of the caster sugar) or a little finely chopped rosemary. Then top with pink, white or lilac icing and decorate with any of the following: crystallised rose petals or violets, sugar flowers, blueberries and rosemary or lavender flowers.

PS For a SUPERB rant about the Death of the Cupcake (and rise of the fairy cake) click: