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Your questions answered

Antony Worrall Thompson tackles all your food, drink and entertainment dilemmas.

Fresh from the farm
What are the main benefits of shopping at a farmers’ market versus a supermarket?
Charlie Edwards, 33, Basingstoke

Antony replies I love to go to a farmers’ market to see what’s on offer, to look at great, fresh produce and to keep up my newfound love of eating with the seasons.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting fed up with eating strawberries all year round. And bored with eating asparagus with no flavour when I know how wonderful English asparagus can be – even if it does only have a six-week season. It’s time to get back to seasonal eating. It makes sense to eat summery salads and light vegetables in the summer and earthy roots during the long, cold winter.

We seem to have forgotten the seasons somewhat, and it’s time to reintroduce them. There’s nothing better than British foods eaten at the right time of year. We have got the produce, now we must learn to appreciate it.

Perfect pairing
When I hold dinner parties, I never know what drinks to serve with food. What wines do you think complement a dish with red meat?
Theresa Vaughn, 57, High Wycombe

Antony replies: So much has been written about red meat with red wine that it’s difficult to say anything new on the subject, but we shall try with this sentiment: it isn’t the colour that counts. Sure, red meat, especially a cut cooked on the rare side, is a good match for an elegant red wine that is velvety and smooth yet finishes with firm tannins. But not all red wines are best suited to red meat.
The best red wines for a fine steak are those produced from the classic Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a few lesser-known varieties. In Argentina, where beef is king, Malbec is often the preferred wine. But, add black pepper to the steak, as in steak au poivre, and you have a completely different situation. Steak prepared with pepper, or any other hot spice, needs an equally peppery wine like Shiraz/Syrah. The same can be said for lamb dishes, except in this case it is not heat that cries out for a peppery wine, it is the gamey flavour of the meat. In Burgundy, beef and the mighty Pinot Noir marry, but in the New World many Pinot Noirs are lighter and fruitier than their French counterparts. For that reason, many lamb eaters prefer New World Pinot Noir – light and fruity wine can often make a fine contrasting accompaniment to the intensity of lamb. However, a lot of lamb preparations include sweetened mint jelly. If overdone, the sweet flavour of the mint jelly gets in the way of most red wines.

Simple and seasonal
Now that winter is here, I love making stews. What vegetables are best to use this season for a delicious, warming stew?
Alison Knight, 51, East Croydon

Antony replies: I adore my winters, when the nights draw in, the thermostat gets turned up and we look for something comforting and warming to eat. At this time of year it is important to keep yourself well fed to ward off any nasty colds and flus. For my money, nothing beats a good, hearty stew – slow cooking at its traditional best.
Most people use a lot of root vegetables, tubers and bulbs, such as carrots, leeks, parsnips, potatoes, squash, fennel, garlic and onion in stews, as these tend to hold up well during slow cooking. But you can also use courgettes, beans, tomatoes and mushrooms, as long as you add them towards the end, otherwise they’ll end up mushy.
In my mind, the more vegetables the better, as this makes stews even more healthy and flavoursome. You can reduce the meat and increase the vegetables so that you get all the benefits of flavour but still reduce your saturated fat intake. Take inspiration from some of the peasant dishes of the world where meat is used sparingly, such as Irish Stew and Lancashire Hot Pot.

Festive headache
It’s my turn to host Christmas day this year, and with such a large family, I’m worried about cooking dinner for everyone – there are about 15 of us. Have you any tips on how to prepare and organise the food for the big day?
Sue Wilkinson, 36, Edgware

Antony replies: Start on Christmas Eve, or even before. Pre-make cranberry sauce, bread sauce, a gravy base and brandy butter. Prep all vegetables the day before, trim sprouts, peel potatoes, make a puree, and pre-steam the Christmas pud.

The trick for perfect turkey is to use a special meat thermometer. Stick it into the thickest part of the turkey breast or thigh to measure the temperature. You need to roast the turkey so that the temperature reaches 75-80°C for at least ten minutes. The meat may be pink near the bone, but it’s safe to eat and it’s still juicy.

Another dilemma is what to do with the stuffing. I always cook it separately in a baking tray because if you stuff the turkey with it, the bird takes longer to cook. This however, may cause another headache – trying to fit everything into the oven at the same time! My top tip to avoid overcrowding is to plan ahead. Cook your roast potatoes for 40 minutes first, then take them out when your turkey goes in. When you take out your turkey to rest it before carving, pop the potatoes back in to the oven for around 20 minutes to crisp them up.

Always write a checklist – being able to tick things off is such a morale booster. And best of all, get the family to help. They can lay the table, help prep the veg, tidy their rooms and pour you a glass of wine.

Eastern promise
My wife absolutely loves Thai food, and I’d really like to surprise her one evening with a Thai dish. Is Thai food easy to cook, or is it better
to just get a takeaway?
Alex Hayes, 38, London

Antony replies: Thai cuisine is adaptable, innovative and dynamic, and should be made with the freshest ingredients available. Its deliciously unique taste is defined by its fusion of all five flavours: spicy, sweet, salty, bitter and sour which play together harmoniously on the palate.
Here in the West, it may be difficult to find all the exotic ingredients used in Thai recipes. But don’t despair, with a little patience and creativity, you can create delicious dishes at home using just a few of the essential ingredients – Thai recipes are highly adaptable. What’s more, the characteristic flavours of Thai food come from the methods of cooking and ingredients used, not from precise quantities of the main seasonings. This means you should adapt the quantities, especially of things like fish sauce, garlic, and chillies, to suit your own tastes. Have a go at my chicken and prawn curry recipe rather than getting a take away!

Thai chicken and prawn curry
serves 4 1-2tbsp green curry paste
2tbsp vegetable oil
2 large cloves garlic, mashed to a paste with a little salt
2 stalks lemongrass, tender part only, finely chopped
2 lime leaves, shredded
750ml coconut milk
4tbsps chopped coriander leaves and tender stalks
12 chicken thighs, skin removed
2-3 green chillies, seeded and finely chopped
225g raw tiger prawns, de-veined
225g pea aubergines, washed *
4tbsp ripped basil leaves
1tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
30ml Thai fish sauce (nam pla) Fry curry paste in vegetable oil over a high heat for 3 minutes. Add garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves and half the coconut milk, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the sauce starts to split. Add coriander, chicken and chillis, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the remaining coconut milk and cook for a further 3 minutes. Add prawns and pea aubergines and cook for further 2 minutes or until the prawns have turned a pink colour. Just before serving, fold in the fresh basil leaves, lime juice and Thai fish sauce (nam pla). Serve with fragrant rice and garnish with coriander leaves.

Antony’s Tip
* If you can’t find pea aubergines, just use normal ones but cut them into 1⁄2 cm slices

Help with herbs
I’ve started to grow some herbs in my garden, such as rosemary, oregano and mint. But I’m not sure how to use them in my cooking. Any advice?
Tania Harmsworth, 41, Swindon

Antony replies: Herbs are easy to grow (they even thrive with neglect) and since they possess wonderful aromas, dinner becomes a special event when fresh ones are added to any recipe. Commonly used for cooking pasta sauces, herbs can also be added to soups, oils, eggs and even desserts and drinks. Make sure you add the herb at the last minute so that the taste stays vibrant. Here are my favourite culinary herbs to grow (or buy fresh).

Basil is absolutely essential for Italian cooking. I can’t imagine a summer without fresh pesto, or tomatoes and mozzarella without basil.

Bay – where would we be without this aromatic laurel leaf? Essential for many soups and sauces.

Chives are prized for both their extensive cooking applications and their gorgeous silhouette in the garden. Great with mixed vegetables, egg dishes, salads and dressings, poultry, stews, casseroles, baked salmon and other fish or just added to a simple baked potato with butter.

Dill waving in the breeze is a welcome sight in any garden. The seeds and herb are used in all sorts of vegetable recipes, and are especially good with fish.

Mint may have the tendency to take over wherever it is planted, but I love to grow as many varieties as I can handle. Fresh mint can make an aromatic tea, add pizzazz to summertime lemonade, and is used in many Middle Eastern recipes, including lamb and couscous.

Oregano is another Italian food staple, and it’s also wonderful in omelettes or a Greek salad.

Parsley is not just a plate garnish – toss it by the handful into salads, soups and vegetable dishes.

Rosemary is great with lamb and I use it to make spiced plums.

Thyme should be chopped finely and, unlike most other herbs, added early in the cooking to get rid of the strong bitter flavour of the fresh leaf. It can be used with nearly all meats, including seafood. and shellfish. It can also be used to flavour egg dishes, casseroles and soups.

My kids are veg-averse
I want my children to eat more greens. What are the best ways of disguising or hiding them in foods?
Ann Maloney, 49, St Albans

Antony replies: Vegetables – the bane of most parents’ lives. Getting children to eat them is no easy task nowadays, as for some reason many parents feel like they have to give in to their little darlings’ likes and dislikes. For those of you who have youngsters, don’t give in. Be strong, take control, use your imagination, resort to bribery, try camouflaging, anything.

The key is to make mealtimes fun, something that children will look forward to rather than something they fear.

We need to increase our children’s knowledge of food and teach them the whole gamut of sensations: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. You might try giving them a raw carrot, then a cooked one so that they can understand texture. To explain mint, I would give my children toothpaste, chewing gum, chocolate mint, mint imperial, mint sauce and then the real thing, a mint leaf. I would give a green tomato, then red (in season, not forced) or a green and red pepper so that they could understand the benefits of the sun and its power to ripen. I would give them plain boiled cabbage (yuk), then cabbage blanched and tossed with some cooked onion, bacon and a hint of fennel seed (wow, that’s delicious). Meal times need to be fun, you can teach children manners later. The main thing is to build their confidence, get them into a routine. The aim is to get them not to say ‘Ah Mum (Dad) do we have to eat this?’

Start them with very small portions. Mix different vegetables together; slip some cabbage or spinach into a soup; wrap some asparagus in bacon; smuggle lots of vegetables into a stew, Shepherd’s pie or a risotto; and where possible introduce them to their own vegetable patch – if they’ve grown it, they’ll eat it. Trust me, there’s pride at stake.

Start the day
I’m always rushing in the morning and often skip breakfast. Have you any suggestions for a quick, easy on-the-go breakfast?
Emma Turner, 48, Harlow

Antony replies: In the morning our bodies need a kick-start – we need fuel to fire up the engine. We need brain food and we need enough of it to keep us going until lunch. One simple way to begin the day is with fresh fruit salad and yoghurt – try some delicious natural yoghurt with fresh berries and a little honey. Go for porridge a couple of days a week, but please don’t use those instant highly sweetened porridge pureed substitutes. You need the slow release energy of proper porridge. It’ll take five minutes to cook, hardly a large effort first thing in the morning, and it will give you energy right through until lunchtime with no need for a sweet mid-morning break.

Eggs should feature a couple of times a week – being whole foods they’re packed with healthy nutrients. You can save yourself time by poaching eggs the night before. Just fill a saucepan with about 4 inches of water, add 1tbsp of vinegar per litre of water, bring to the boil and crack the eggs into the roll of the boil. Reduce heat and cook for 21⁄2 minutes, then lift out, plunge into iced water and pop into the fridge. The next morning when making the tea or coffee and putting on the toast, just remove the eggs from the iced water and pour over boiling water from the kettle, leave for 45 seconds and you have perfect soft eggs ready to pop onto your buttered toast.

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