October, 2008


30
Oct 08

Friends in the fridge

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We all have our fridge stalwarts – things we know we can turn into a supper in a flash, a light lunch or a few canapés to present to unexpected guests bearing champagne (well it sometimes happens!). I have always got good chorizo, a block of parmesan and a bunch of thyme in mine.

It’s rather embarrassingly crammed with condiments too. Cleaning it requires manoeuvring around pickled chillis, Bahan chilli jelly, at least four different types of jam, five mustards, two types of ketchup, a jar of hot horseradish, three jars of chilli sauce.

One thing I always keep on hand for all occasions is smoked fish. It lasts for ages, doesn’t cost the earth and carries serious flavour – particularly if you search out the good stuff. I always bring a couple of trout back with me from a little smokery in Cley, North Norfolk, whenever I’m lucky enough to pass by. They are the colour of a summer’s sunset on the local coast – golden and blue, flecked with pinks and greens.

Fishmongers are your best bet for some great smoked fish – much drier and smokier than the supermarket versions – but use whatever you can get for this delicious recipe. You could also use ready cooked lentils, but not tinned, to speed things up.

Lentils with smoked trout, dill and crème fraiche

Ingredients (Serves 3-4)

  • 75g puy lentils (uncooked weight)
  • a bunch of dill
  • 3 tbs crème fraiche
  • 2 tsp hot horseradish (you may need to use more if using the creamed variety)
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 3 inch piece of cucumber
  • 6 gherkins
  • 3 trout fillets

Method

Cook the lentils according to the packet instructions – probably about 12-15 minutes, until they just retain a little bite. Once cooked, drain and add a splash of olive oil to keep them moist. Allow to cool.

Mix the crème fraiche, horseradish, and lemon juice together. Finely chop the dill and add this with the crème fraiche mixture to the lentils. Halve the cucumber, scrape out the seeds with a spoon and finely slice. Roughly chop the gherkins and add them along with the cucumber to the rest of the ingredients. Lastly, flake in the trout and fold gently in to avoid breaking up too much. Season and serve.


27
Oct 08

I miss my kitchen

my_560.jpgDo you ever find that sometimes you end up being away from your kitchen for days on end? When that happens I suffer from withdrawal symptoms. It’s the odd things I crave in these periods away from the stove – my pots and pans, my beautiful handmade Japanese knife and oddly even my spatula (the most under-rated of kitchen implements).

There is something therapeutic about the noise of cooking – butter bubbling, the sizzle of meat in the pan, the plop of a jelly as it turns out of its mould – that one misses. While it’s undeniably a pleasure and a privilege to be cooked for, in the end I simply long to be back at the culinary helm.

And although I love eating foreign cuisines on holiday and make it my quest to find as many local, neighbourhood joints as I can, after a certain period of time, no matter how good the food, I always end up longing for a good sausage, a healthy mound of mash and some dark onion gravy. Nobody makes sausages like the English.

That’s my opinion anyway. Perhaps I should throw this one open to the board… why not let me know what you miss when you’re abroad or end up away from your kitchen for a little too long?


23
Oct 08

The spice is right

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As you know I’m a big fan of South-East Asian food, it’s just so different, so colourful, so exotic. The hot, sour, salty triumvirate of Thai cookery strikes a perfect chord with me. I’ve even learnt to love the smell of nam pla, the fish sauce made by fermenting the little blighters – a whiff of which is enough to make most run a mile. Yet its pungent saltiness is as quintessential to Thai cuisine as soy is to Chinese. It adds that background note, much the same as anchovies do when stuffed into roast lamb with rosemary and garlic.

Sometimes when you make a Thai curry at home it can lack a bit of punch. Rolled up into a cigar and finely sliced, fresh Kaffir lime leaves – the dried ones aren’t worth a sniff – from your local Asian supermarket will really give it zing. Add an extra splash of fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, and you’ll be fighting over the last spoonfuls in no time.

Squid can be tricky – overcooked it turns instantly to rubber. Watch it like a hawk while you’re cooking it, or steam as an alternative. I love the light crispy coating coupled with the sour, spicy sauce in the following recipe.

Crispy Squid Salad

Ingredients (Serves 2-3)

  • 350g cleaned squid
  • 75g corn flour
  • 10 lime leaves, rolled and finely sliced
  • Groundnut oil for deep-frying

For the dressing

  • 2 stalks of lemongrass
  • 5 Thai pink shallots or red onions
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of galangal or ginger
  • 2 limes
  • 1 tbs nam pla (fish sauce)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 or 2 bird’s eye chillis

To serve

  • 60g peanuts, lightly crushed
  • optional bunch of mint, chopped

Method
Peel the lemongrass, removing the tough outer leaves until you are left with the soft centre. Finely slice. Peel and finely slice the shallots or dice up the red onion. Peel and grate the ginger or galangal if using. Squeeze the limes and mix with the fish sauce, sugar and chillis. Add the rest of the ingredients for the dressing, stirring to ensure the sugar dissolves. Set aside.

Heat an inch of groundnut or other flavourless oil in a deep-sided sauce pan. You can test the temperature by dropping in a cube of bread – it should turn brown in one minute. Make sure the squid is clean and dry, then slice into rings.

Season the cornflour and place it in a bowl. Toss the squid in the  cornflour and, after shaking off the excess flour, fry in batches for a minute or so. Don’t overcrowd pan as the fat may bubble up. As usual when deep frying, take extra care. Drain rings on kitchen paper and keep warm in a low oven.

When all the squid is cooked, deep fry the lime leaves for around ten seconds, until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.

To serve, place the squid on a serving dish and spoon over the dressing. Scatter over the mint and peanuts and lime leaves.


20
Oct 08

The simplest of suppers

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What is it about roast chicken that is just so satisfying? Is it the anticipation – the gorgeous smell wafting through your house while it cooks to crisp-skinned perfection? Is it all the tastes and textures you get as you work your way from light moist breast through dark, meaty thighs to sticky, chewy, caramelised bits like the wings? Or maybe it’s just the ease of it: what could be simpler than popping a chicken in the oven for supper – and with what splendid results!

For me, though, it has to be the anticipation of left-overs. Being a small household with only two (slightly greedy) gobs to feed there are always pieces remaining the next day. Does life get better than cold roast chicken sarnies with crusty white bread, great swathes of mayonnaise and slivers of crisp lettuce? Not in my book, unless, of course, there’s roast beef instead…

When I was growing up Mondays would always feature something along the lines of chicken in cream sauce, which I keep meaning to make, maybe out of nostalgia. Comfort food at its finest – we would dig pits in our mashed potato and bury lumps of butter to make golden pools.

Coleslaw is a wonderful accompaniment to roast chicken and this winter version is stylish and yummy, packed with cranberries and pecans. A tarragon butter gives wonderful richness to the bird; don’t be put off by the herb’s raw smell – it mellows wonderfully when cooked.

Roast chicken with tarragon butter and winter slaw

Ingredients (Serves 4-5)

  • 1 chicken approx 2kg (preferably free range or organic)
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 cloves of garlic

For the tarragon butter

  • 50g butter
  • 2 tbs chopped fresh tarragon
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • Salt and pepper

For the winter slaw

  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 medium parsnip
  • 200g white cabbage
  • 1 medium red onion
  • 150g celeriac
  • 2 handfuls of dried cranberries
  • 1 handful pecans
  • a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley


For the dressing

  • 150g Greek yoghurt
  • 3 tbs mayonnaise
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Method
Pre-heat your oven to 180°C. Take the chicken out of the fridge an hour before you need to cook it. This will ensure even cooking. Mix together the ingredients for the butter with a fork. Work your fingers up under the skin along the chicken breast, taking care not to tear it. Separate the butter into two and push each half under the skin of each breast. Smooth the butter along the length of the breasts. Cut the lemon in half and bash the garlic cloves with the flat of a knife. Put them inside the chicken. Place the chicken on a roasting tray and cook for around an hour to an hour and a half. Once cooked, let it rest out of the oven for at least 15 minutes. This will allow the flesh to relax and make it much easier to carve.

To make the slaw, peel and grate the carrot and the parsnip. The insides of parsnips can be very woody – if so, just go in as far as you can and leave the rest for a soup or stock. Finely slice the red onion and cabbage on a mandolin if you have one, or else with a sharp knife. Grate the celeriac or cut it using a mandolin. Mix the vegetables together and throw in the pecans and cranberries. Finely chop the parsley and add this. Combine the ingredients for the dressing and stir through the slaw thoroughly. Serve with the roast chicken – just remember to leave some for tomorrow!


16
Oct 08

The brown and the beautiful

brownies_560.jpgLet me introduce you to a wickedly indulgent, pure chocolate brownie. No messing around here. Pistachios, hazelnuts and even chunks of white chocolate fell by the wayside in the search for perfection. I am very proud of these. Trial and error combined with tips from many a cake-baking amigo has led me here – to the pinnacle of chocolatey excellence.

Ingredients

  • 200g butter
  • 300g 70 per cent dark chocolate
  • 130g caster sugar
  • 100g demerera sugar
  • 3 tsp instant coffee
  • 2 eggs
  • 280g flour
  • pinch of salt

Method
Break the chocolate into small pieces and place in a bowl with the butter over a pan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted and set aside.

Use a food mixer to combine the eggs, sugars and coffee. Add the chocolate mixture a little at a time with the mixer going. Sift the flour and salt together into the bowl of mix and fold in by hand with a spatula or spoon.

Pre-heat oven to 170°C. Line a 23cm cake tin (round – a break from the conventional square, I know, but it’s what I had to hand) with greaseproof paper and spoon the mixture into this. When the oven is up to temperature put the brownie in. Cook for 25-30 mins – it sounds daft but about 27/28 mins would be perfect.

The skewer test won’t work with these, so just go with it. It’s better to be slightly under than over. Allow to cool before cutting into slices and devouring.


13
Oct 08

Confessions of a chocoholic

chocs_560.jpgAm I a chocolate addict I often wonder as I happily work my way through an entire bar of Green & Black’s milk chocolate; the big one, not those piddly excuses for a proper bar.

Less sweet then normal milk chocolate, the G&B version hints at something darker; but it’s not my only indulgence. How I get my latest ‘fix’ depends on my mood. Sometimes, in the cinema perhaps or at home in front of the TV, I’ll eat Malteser after Malteser until I’m surprised by an empty bag.

Revels are another treat, and I have to ‘fess up that I’m one of the oddballs who actually likes the coffee-flavoured ones. While the Cadbury’s mini egg, with it’s crisp, crunchy, speckled shell, is the ultimate Easter seducer.

And then there are the luxury brands. The ones that come in silky smooth packets, flavoured with real vanilla and spices, bearing symbols depicting their heritage, their organic-ness, and clever little marketing nuances which make us feel better about buying them.

Alongside them sit the brands that just do the job, and do it well. Think Montezuma – giant, heavenly buttons which make a grown-up treat if ever there was one. Or the original, the king of cacao, L’Artisan du Chocolat Neatly piled according to their beautiful colours and patterns in the shop behind Sloane Square, these spectacular creations promise to brighten up even the most dull autumn day. I always end up with my favourite, the super-indulgent sea-salt caramel – a crisp outer chocolate shell encasing golden, buttery liquid heaven.

Then there’s Wonky Chocolate Factory Willy’s Venezuelan Black… If you haven’t already tried this, do. It’s 100 per cent cacao, so strong it makes you sneeze. Mixed into a chocolate cloud cake this is the stuff dreams are made of, and will probably send you a little bit loopy for a few, wonderful moments.


9
Oct 08

The mighty meringue

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In the original Blues Brother movie Jake Elwood defined his goal as being “on a mission from God” – and that’s how I’m feeling about my current cooking endeavour, the meringue. I’ve seen so many towering white icebergs in shop windows lately I thought it time I got to grips with them myself.

Meringues are frustrating things, and patience is key. It drives me a little bit mad, though, when you’ve waited hours for your meringues, only to discover they aren’t quite right.

That’s what happened this week. They looked incredible, gorgeously speckled with different shades of dark chocolate. But when I broke one open it was still much too squidgy inside.

I guess that’s where the science of cooking comes in – as opposed to my favoured approach of a pinch of this or a handful of that. There was a sense things might not be smooth sailing when I started; I used funny sized eggs and the sugar turned grainy. At least I’ve learned something, though, they clearly call for a more regimented tactics!


6
Oct 08

Going Orange

carrots_B.jpgSometimes necessity can drive our dining, and today is one of those days. Carrots are currently occupying a large corner of my fridge. I bought a nice big bag for myself and then popped round to see my sister who was having a clear out before a trip abroad and happened to have her own bag – which ended up accompanying me home.

Since then I’ve tried to use them in pretty much everything I’ve cooked. I’ve made a simple grated carrot salad, with sultanas and a mustardy dressing to tart it up, mashed them to go with a roast dinner, and mixed them with swede to accompany sausages and a dark onion gravy.

Today I fancy something a little different and need a snappy supper. Crispy carrots coupled with bacon – another sisterly donation – and a little spring of tarragon I’ve got stashed in the vegetable drawer and we’re away.

Carrots and bacon salad with hazelnuts and tarragon

Ingredients (Serves 2 as a side salad)
4 medium carrots
a handful of sultanas
a handful of hazelnuts, chopped
3 rashers of back bacon

For the dressing
2 tablespoons crème fraiche
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon grain mustard
1 tablespoon of tarragon
juice of half a lemon
a pinch of sugar

Method
Cut the bacon into thin strips and fry in a hot pan until really crispy. Rest on some kitchen paper. Grate the carrots. Add the hazelnuts and sultanas. Combine all the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl, then stir together and season. Mix dressing thoroughly with carrots, hazelnuts and sultanas, sprinkle over bacon and serve.


1
Oct 08

Comfort zone cooking

raddicio_206.jpgI am as guilty as the next of cooking in my comfort zone. The same things crop up every few days in my house. Among them are the easy supper standbys of roast chicken with roasted roots, cous-cous salad or a warming bowl of pasta with tomatoes and crème fraiche. Other staples include sausages with a mustard and herb-flecked mash and baked potato, dotted with butter, strong cheddar and served with a large spoonful of home-made piccalilli.

There’s nothing wrong with cooking these kind of things – far from it. To get them right, timed correctly and on the table at the same time, is an art form in itself. They do, however, leave something to be desired in terms of variety.

Often missing are simple things I’ve eaten once or twice but never contemplated incorporating at home. Take radicchio or leaf chicory, for example. I usually pick it up in bags of ‘Italian’ salad from the supermarket. I’d read about griddling it, though, and thought it sounded fun.

My first thoughts were of sliced radicchio with pink griddled sirloin and Roquefort – or some other strong blue cheese – maybe sprinkled with something nutty. Then when I got to the shop I spotted a box of knobbly blood oranges, and a new plan was hatched.

This is easy and ready in a flash. It also looks beautiful. The blood oranges add such a splash of colour to the deep purple of the radicchio. And while radicchio can be very bitter, it mellows with cooking and it’s flavour is set off by the sweetness of the vinegar.

Griddled chicken and radicchio salad with blood oranges and balsamic syrup

Ingredients (Serves 4 as a light lunch)

  • 1 unwaxed blood orange
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 2 radicchio or treviso (the spider variety of radicchio, which look incredible and are worth hunting down)
  • 150ml balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp honey
  • A handful of walnuts, roughly chopped
  • A handful of sultanas or raisins

Method
Put the oven on to 100 degrees C. Pre-heat a griddle on the hob until it starts to smoke. Cut each chicken breast into eight or ten pieces depending on size of breasts. Pop them in a bowl with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Swish round until they are coated. Put a few at a time on the griddle and cook for two or three minutes on each side, or until cooked through. When cooked, sit them on a plate in the oven to keep warm.

Zest the orange into a saucepan and add vinegar and sultanas. Reduce over a medium heat until you are left with a syrup. It will thicken slightly as it cools. Add honey, swirl around and remove from the heat.

Cut the top and bottom off the orange and sit it flat on the chopping board. Using a sharp, flexible knife cut down and around the orange, removing the skin, following it’s natural curve. You should be left with a completely skin and pith free orange. Cut out the orange segments from between the membranes and lift each piece out carefully. Set aside in a bowl, squeezing any juice from the remnants of orange into the bowl.

Cut the radicchio into halves or quarters depending on size. Pour a little oil over it and griddle for a few minutes on each side until dark char marks show.

Arrange the chicken, radicchio and orange on the plate. Pour any juice left in the orange bowl into the balsamic syrup – this will loosen it if it’s become too thick and add a fresh, zesty edge. Drizzle this over the top, spooning over the sultanas, and then add walnuts onto the plate. Serve immediately.

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