Friday, 30 December 2011

Winter root veg casserole

For me Christmas is almost entirely about the food - it's an opportunity to seriously indulge in rich dishes that you'd probably never eat during the rest of the year, and there's the excess too. I don't know anyone who doesn't overeat at Christmas.

My dinner this year was a small partridge, roasted along with some root vegetables (parsnips and carrots) plus homemade cranberry sauce from a friend. Then there was the cheese, the stollen, the mince-pie ice-cream... All that came after my traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast with smoked salmon and cava. Then onto Boxing Day, which is where eating up the leftovers starts. I'd roasted two partridges so I stripped the spare of its meat and turned it into a casserole (and there was just enough left for lunch the next day). Last night's supper consisted of cheese - a by-now very runny Camembert and the rest of the Blacksticks Blue - plus chutney, gherkins, olives and oatcakes.

And now, with delayed-onset indigestion, I feel the need for simplicity again and to give my overworked stomach a break. After so much meat and fat, I want only vegetables. (I'm also seriously considering the alcohol-free January challenge, which is becoming more popular, but that's another matter.) And with a pile of parsnips, swedes, carrots and sweet potato to finish up, this is healthy, filling, frugal and seasonal. This makes up to two helpings, depending on how much veg you use.

What you need: 
1-2 parsnips
1 carrots
1 medium onion, diced
1 small swede
1 large sweet potato
1 small fennel bulb
Half a litre of vegetable stock
A little plain flour
Half a glass of tawny port
Worcestershire Sauce
A couple of sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves

What to do:
Peel all the roots and cut into large bite-size chunks. Trim the fennel and cut into slender wedges. Sweat the onion in a little olive oil over a moderate heat and when it's softened and translucent, add a couple of heaped teaspoons of flour. Stir the flour through and cook it a little then add the stock slowly, stirring into the flour to stop any lumps forming. Add the port and a small dash of Worcestershire Sauce, the thyme and the bay leaves. Grind in some black pepper. Add the vegetables, bring the pot to the boil then turn down the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes until all the veg are tender. Season to taste and eat.

Cook's tips:
No port left over? Use a glass of dry white wine instead, or a little cider or beer.

This casserole is ideal for using up some of the Christmas leftovers, so you could chuck in the last few mushrooms at the back of the fridge or ordinary potatoes. You can chop and change the roots - if you don't like swede, for example, use some celeriac instead, which will add some woody depth to the flavours. If you must have meat, chop up the last couple of slices of streaky bacon and cook them with the onions. You could also throw in leftover goose or ham if you have some.

Leftover duck or goose fat can be used to sweat the onions.

Strict vegetarians should leave out the Worcestershire Sauce as it contains anchovy. Use some soy sauce instead.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Bacalao, pan-fried with potato and egg

Salt cod is a staple in many countries -it's a traditional dish in France, where it's puréed with potato to create the classic dish brandade, and also in Jamaica, where it's usually served with ackee. But it is thought that the Basques were the first to dry cod with salt on their long ocean voyages, some 500 years ago, and spread the skill to the far-flung territories they traded with. Unsurprisingly, salt cod is still widely eaten in Spain and Portugal.

It is not a food you can cook on impulse, as it needs preparation, but if you have the time there are a lot of delicious recipes for salt cod out there. This one is based on a traditional Portuguese recipe, where it is often served for brunch, although in Portugal the eggs are usually scrambled rather than boiled. I had this for my supper on Christmas Eve - it satisfied my need to make something special that night but was also a lighter dish before the onslaught of rich seasonal fare.

What you need: 
1 piece of dried salt cod, about 5 inches square
A few small potatoes, sliced into rounds about 3mm thick
1 large egg
1 onion, sliced thinly
Olive oil
Black pepper
Fresh parsley, finely chopped
A few stoned black olives (optional)

What to do:
Put the fish in a bowl and cover it in cold water. Soak for at least 12 hours and change the water regularly.

Put the fish in a pan, cover it with water and bring it to the boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and let it cook for about 20 minutes, until it flakes easily. Boil the egg so it's firm. Drain the fish, let it cool on a chopping board then flake it, removing any bones and skin. Shell the boiled egg and set both aside.

Heat some olive oil and a knob of butter in a heavy sauteuse on a medium heat. Fry the potatoes until they start to turn golden and crisp up. Add the onions about halfway through and cook until they start to caramelise slightly. Together these need about 20 minutes.

Turn the heat down.  Quarter the boiled egg then chop roughly and add it and the fish to the pan. Stir them through to heat up, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the parsley and garnish with the olives, if using. Eat with a green side salad.

Cook's tips: 
A good fishmonger will have salt cod and should cut you a piece to size. Supermarkets with a good ethnic section should also stock it, but it will be sold in a plastic vacuum pack rather than fresh out of the fishmonger's box - follow the packet instructions for soaking, in that case. You can also buy it online.

The soaking is essential, as salt cod is extremely salty - 12 hours is the absolute minimum you should soak it for, ideally a good 24 hours. The fish will swell as it rehydrates and may appear to be too much for one person but don't be fooled - it will shrink back slightly on cooking and when you flake it you will most likely be removing a large piece of spine along with the pin-bones, so you'll end up with a sensible amount of fish.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas dinner for one

If you're on your own at Christmas, whether by accident or design, it can be hard to decide what to cook for your dinner. Most of the nation will be settling down to a feast of roast turkey with all the trimmings - a meal that is pretty much unattainable for one, not least because it's an awful lot of work. So, if you're cooking for yourself, what are your options?

First and foremost - treat yourself. It's Christmas, so go ahead and splash out but choose something that's not only manageable, so you won't be slaving in the kitchen for hours, but also something special, something you wouldn't normally have. 

Forget the turkey
It's not practical, unless you decide to buy a small crown roast or a portion such as a leg - even then, I guarantee you'll be eating turkey for the next four days. But if you want a roast bird there are some good options.

Pheasant, partridge, duck or guinea fowl are all delicious small birds. It's still not too late to pick up one of these from a butcher or supermarket. Look in the freezers at the discount supermarkets (Aldi and Lidl) if you can't find fresh - I have a brace of frozen partridges from Lidl myself. Make a one-dish tray roast with a couple of potatoes, some parsnips and whatever else you fancy. Add a portion of frozen peas or fresh sprouts, make a quick jus with some redcurrant jelly or cranberry sauce and red wine and you have a worthy feast.

Photo: Mike_fleming on Flickr
 Other meat ideas
One year, I treated myself to the most enormous sirloin steak - organic and hung for weeks - that cost the sort of money I'd pay in a restaurant. I made oven chips and a salad to accompany and savoured every mouthful.

A slab of belly pork, skin well scored to make crackling, and roasted in the oven makes a lovely dinner served with a couple of roasties, some festive stuffing and vegetables. There will be enough left over for a cold Boxing Day spread plus a little more to make a stir fry with the day after.

Something fishy
Smoked salmon is pretty much essential for a Christmas Day breakfast in my book, served with scrambled eggs on toast and washed down with Buck's Fizz. But what of lunch or dinner?

A piece of fresh salmon with asparagus and hollandaise sauce is timeless. Hollandaise is a bit of work for one but worth it. Or whisk up a homemade mayonnaise - it takes five minutes and is far superior to anything out of a jar.

My choice would be to raid the freezers at the discount supermarkets - Lidl is currently selling a whole cooked lobster for under £6. You can buy a whole frozen prepared crab for around £4 too. With a fresh salad and mayonnaise, either of these make a very affordable but luxurious feast. 

Photo by Snowpea&bokchoi on Flickr
I'm not keen on Christmas pudding myself - if I want something fruity I prefer Christmas cake (preferably without the icing) but for many people it's essential for finishing the meal. Pretty much all the shops sell mini puds just big enough for one portion. Get in some clotted cream or brandy butter to accompany. The easy option is premium ice cream - I always have some in the freezer. It's also worth buying a small Christmas cake and a stollen, not just to treat yourself but also so you can offer guests something cakey if they drop by after the big day.

I always make a cheeseboard - it will last a week or so. I like to have something very stinky and runny (that's my French sojourn coming out) such as Epoisses or Vacherin. Neither are cheap but are a treat for Christmas. Vacherin especially is at its best right now. It's probably too late to order one now but it should still be possible to find Epoisses in the biggest supermarkets. Otherwise get a brie or camembert right now and keep it at room temperature - it'll be ripe by Sunday. Stilton is traditional for the blue cheese, but I adore Roquefort and I also buy a wedge of Blacksticks Blue. Shropshire Blue is another delicious choice. For the hard cheese I tend to go for an artisan cheddar or Spanish manchego. If you like goat's cheese these make a good contrast to the other cheeses. Some rough oatcakes, plus grapes and celery, and some homemade chutney or quince jelly will complete your cheeseboard.

Photo by Ewan_M on Flickr
Whatever you decide to eat, dine well, crack open a bottle of something and enjoy! Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Game soup

An excellent way to use up leftover pheasant or other game birds. This makes a very filling and hearty soup that is just the ticket in cold weather.

What you need:
Half a cooked pheasant
2 pints/1 litre of game stock
1 onion, finely diced
1 carrot, diced
About half a mugful of broth mix
A sprig of fresh thyme

What to do:
Strip the meat off the carcass and set aside. Make the stock.  

Sweat the onion in a little olive oil until it's translucent. Meantime, tip the broth mix into a sieve and rinse it well under the cold tap. Add the carrots to the pan and sweat for a couple of minutes then pour in the stock and add the broth mix plus the thyme. Simmer for an hour to an hour and a half until the grains and pulses are tender. Ten minutes before serving add the pheasant meat, chopped or torn into bite-sized pieces. Season to taste.

Cook's tips:
Broth mix, or soup mix, is a blend of pearl barley and dried pulses. The ingredients can vary but it usually contains red split lentils, yellow split peas and green split peas. Sometimes it contains marrowfat peas and other larger pulses too - if so, you will need to soak the mix overnight then drain and rinse well before cooking. Do not add salt until the end of the cooking process or the pulses will stay tough and hard.

Roast pheasant with roasted roots

The pheasant season runs from October to February, so now is the perfect time to buy one. Yes, I know they usually come in pairs (a brace) but a good butcher should sell you just the one (if not, stick the spare in the freezer). Most pheasant these days is farmed rather than shot in the wild, but you may still find a lump of lead or two embedded in the flesh so be careful with your teeth while eating. And it's not usually expensive - my local butcher usually sells a brace for a fiver, so a bird for £2.50 is very good value. I never plan to buy pheasant but if I see fresh birds being sold at a reasonable price, I'm in. Best of all, a pheasant feeds two so if you're not cooking for a friend that's two separate meals for you.

The meat is very lean and has a delicately gamey flavour. This makes a perfect Sunday dinner.

What you need: 
1 pheasant
A few strips of fatty bacon - streaky is best
A couple of parsnips
1 large beetroot
Redcurrant jelly
Half a glass of red wine
Juniper berries
1 bayleaf

What to do:
Scrub the beetroot, trim carefully and wrap it in foil before popping it on the top shelf of the oven at 180C. It needs 2 hours to cook through.

Prepare the pheasant. Pluck off any stray feathers and check inside the cavity - you probably won't find any fat but you may find some leftover liver from the gutting. Pull out any remaining innards and rinse the cavity carefully. Pat the bird dry with kitchen towel and put it in a roasting tin. Bruise a few juniper berries in a pestle and mortar and pop these inside the cavity, along with the bayleaf. You can add a sprig or two of thyme or a shallot but don't pack it out too much as you want to enhance the flavour, not overwhelm it. Oil the skin with a little olive oil and then cover the breasts completely with the bacon.

Peel and trim the parsnips, then quarter them. Toss in a little olive oil and put them in a ovenproof dish. Roast for an hour, turning halfway through.

Roast the pheasant for an hour to an hour and 20 minutes, depending on size. Check it every 20 minutes or so to check it's not drying out - a little water in the tin will help out here. Take the bacon off near the end so the skin has a chance to brown and crisp. Take the pheasant out of the oven 10 minutes before serving, cover it loosely with foil and let it rest.

While it's resting, making the jus. Put two dessert spoonfuls of redcurrant jelly in a small pan with the wine. Warm through on a moderate heat until it's just starting to simmer, stirring all the while to ensure the jelly is thoroughly dissolved.

To serve, unwrap the beetroot and quarter it, slice off one breast and leg from the pheasant, and arrange on a plate with the parsnips. Spoon the jus over the meat.

Cook's tips: 
You could halve the pheasant with a pair of poultry shears if you want to set half aside for another recipe. If you cook both halves together, adjust the cooking time as they will cook faster and you may need to cover the roasting tin with foil for at least some of the time as the bird will dry out more this way. Either way, do not skimp on the bacon as it keeps the flesh moist during cooking and the fat prevents the skin from becoming over-roasted.

Cranberry sauce is an excellent substitute for redcurrant jelly and is something most people have in the larder, as there always seems to be half a jar left over from Christmas.

Keep the other half of the pheasant, including the carcass, for soup.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Roast duck leg with fennel and baby roasties

I love duck. I'd probably rank roast chicken as one of my favourite meals but finding chicken that hasn't come from a factory farm is not always easy and in the absence of good quality chicken I will always opt for duck. It's very versatile and works well in both east Asian and Western dishes.

Duck breasts are quite expensive, unsurprisingly as they are the best part of the bird. But the legs are much cheaper and just as tasty, maybe even more so as the flavour can be much deeper. They need much more cooking, though. Roasting them in the oven for an hour or more will render them tender but still juicy. I'm greedy at the table so will gnaw the meat off the bone so as not waste any of it (I do the same with chops).

What you need: 
1 duck leg
2 small or 1 large fennel bulb
4-5 small new potatoes
A couple of cloves of garlic
olive oil

What to do:
Trim any excess skin off the duck leg and then stab the leg all over with a fork. Pop it in a roasting tin skin side down and season with some sea salt and a little black pepper. Put it in a hot oven - 180C - for an hour, turning it after about 15 minutes to skin side up so it can brown and crisp. 

Halve the potatoes, put them in an ovenproof dish and drizzle a little olive oil over them. Shake the dish so they get thoroughly coated in the oil and grind a little sea salt over them. Tuck in the garlic cloves. Put in the oven next to the duck.

Trim the fennel - cut off the stems at the top, remove any fronds or tough outer leaves, trim the root and quarter it. Peel, trim and quarter the onion. Heat a little olive oil in a heavy sauteuse and lightly brown the fennel quarters, turning them to cook on each side. Add a glass of vermouth or white wine, and the onion quarters, then turn down the heat to a low simmer and put a lid on. The fennel needs 20-30 minutes, depending on size and freshness.

Sprinkle with roughly chopped flatleaf parsley to serve.

Cook's tips:
The duck leg will render a lot of fat. This is why stabbing the skin is important - it enables the fat to run off, to produce a tasty and lean piece of meat. Don't waste the fat - drain it from the roasting tin into a jar and store it in the fridge. It keeps indefinitely. Duck fat makes great roast potatoes and can be used for lots of other dishes too. It's not cheap to buy, so don't waste it but save it.

Roasting the leg this way is a poor man's version of duck confit (I'll post my recipe for this soon), but almost as good. With the oven at the right temperature, the skin should be wonderfully crisp but the meat should fall off the bone.

Both duck breasts and legs are usually sold in pairs, unless you have a good butcher who will sell you just the one. Freeze the one you don't need until another time. A pair of legs usually costs around £3, so it's good value for money.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Warm mackerel and beetroot salad

I love fish, almost all kinds, and I aim to eat it twice a week. Oily fish especially is a very healthy food as it contains important omega oils that are good for the heart. I'm lucky enough to have a fishmonger on my doorstep where I can get super-fresh fish off the boats that morning. The bigger supermarkets have a fish counter but I must admit I'm sometimes a little wary how fresh the fish is.

Smoked fish is a good option if you can't get fresh. As with all fish, you may need to pick out some bones but smoked mackerel has very few. It can be a bit smelly so wrap it well when you store it in the fridge. This recipe is very quick to make, filling and very good for you.

What you need: 
2 small fillets of smoked mackerel
4-5 small potatoes
1 medium cooked beetroot, peeled
9-10 capers
A generous handful of flat-leaf parsley
Oil, white wine vinegar and grain mustard

What to do:
Boil the potatoes in their skins until just tender. While they are cooking, skin the mackerel and break the flesh into large flakes. Cut the beetroot into quarters and then each quarter into 2-3 pieces. Rinse the capers to rid them of their brine and drain them. Roughly chop the parsley.

Whisk up a dressing of olive oil, white wine vinegar and half a teaspoon of grain mustard, then season it with a little freshly ground black pepper. Drain the potatoes when ready, then halve or quarter them into bite-sized pieces. Put all the ingredients into a bowl and pour over the dressing so the potatoes can absorb it while they are still hot. Stir through to mix everything.

Cook's tips:
It's easier to skin the mackerel by hand. Take it out of the fridge at least half an hour before you start cooking - the skin slides off easier at room temperature. I also break it into pieces by hand.

I like to roast my beetroot as it brings out its sweetness but it can take 1.5 to 2 hours (scrub, wrap in foil and bake at 180C, then skin when cool) so I often roast 3-4 or in one batch, keeping most in the fridge after cooking until I'm ready to use them. If you buy precooked beetroot, make sure you don't get the ones preserved in vinegar as they are too sour for this. Most supermarkets sell cooked beets that are preserved only by their vacuum-packing.

If you don't like capers, use sliced gherkins. Either way, rinse before use to get rid of the vinegar.

For the dressing I like to use 2/3 olive oil and 1/3 lemon-infused oil to add a sharp lemon tang. Mackerel is a very oily fish so I tend to use more vinegar in the dressing than I would usually - a proportion of 2/3 oil to 1/3 vinegar, rather than the usual ratio of 3/4 to 1/4. Don't add salt - there's plenty in the fish.

Monday, 5 December 2011

One haggis, two suppers

Somehow, a whole month has passed - a month filled with settling into a new home and extreme busyness with work. Naturally, I've been cooking and eating but I've been pretty short of time to blog. So, without further ado, here's the first in a backlog of dinners!

Haggis is rather like Marmite - it's one of those things you tend to either love or hate, with no middle ground. The squeamish are put off by the ingredients, but much as I love haggis, I wouldn't want to eat a sheep's pluck* on its own. Yet when minced with oatmeal, suet and spices it's nothing short of delicious. And if no one told you what the meaty bits were you'd not be able to tell.

A haggis is not just for Burns Night (25 January, if you're wondering). One haggis will feed two people very well indeed, but as I live alone I don't see why I should deprive myself - I just turn it into two dinners instead.

A traditional haggis dinner sees the meaty mix accompanied by "bashed neeps and tatties". Neeps are not actually turnips, but swedes and both these and the spuds are cooked and mashed separately and served alongside the haggis, with a tot of whisky. It can sit very heavy in the stomach after - my take on the mash is both sweeter and lighter, to cut through the dense spiciness of the haggis. The leftovers I turn into a shepherd's pie.

*That's the heart, lungs and liver.

Haggis with three-root mash

What you need: 
1 haggis
1-2 parsnips
2 sweet potatoes
2-3 carrots
black pepper

What to do:
First, catch your haggis. Just joking... Cook the haggis according to the instructions - most come in a plastic casing rather than a sheep stomach these days. Boiling, steaming or baking are the usual methods - each takes around 60-90 minutes. Follow the instructions on the packaging or, if you bought it loose from a butcher, ask their advice on cooking times.

Half an hour before you want to eat, peel the roots, chop them into evenly sized chunks and put on the boil with just the tiniest pinch of salt in the cooking water. Simmer until they are so tender they start to break up when you test them with a fork. Drain well, add a knob of butter and mash. Beat in a spoonful of crème fraiche and season with black pepper.

Serve half the mash with half the haggis and set the rest aside. 

Now for the leftovers...

Shepherd's haggis pie

What you need:
Half a cooked haggis
1 onion, finely chopped
I small carrot, finely diced
Gravy granules
Leftover mash

What to do:
Gently fry the onion in a little onion until it's very soft and translucent, then stir through the carrot, fry for a few minutes more then take it off the heat. While that's cooking make up 200mls (1/4 pint) of gravy granules. Put the leftover haggis in the bottom of a small pie dish and break it up gently with a fork. Add the onions and carrots, mix well then stir in enough gravy to keep it moist but not sloppy. Top with the leftover mash, dot with butter and pop into a hot oven (180-190C) for 30 minutes.

Cook's tips:
If you don't eat meat, haggis comes in vegetarian versions these days and they are so tasty they are hard to tell apart from traditional sort.

You can use any sort of root vegetable for the mash - celeriac works well with haggis, but if you only have potatoes and swedes to hand use them and add a third root to lift the flavour.

The shepherd's pie will keep in the fridge for a couple of days if you don't fancy haggis two days in a row. It also freezes well - assemble the pie in a foil container and reheat in a hot oven (200c) - 30 minutes from chilled, an hour if from frozen.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Greek-style goat stew

If you've never eaten goat meat, you are missing a real treat. It has a wonderfully deep flavour that is similar to mutton, yet it is far leaner than anything butchered from a sheep or lamb. Like mutton, though, it requires long, slow cooking to get the best out of it - apart from the chops, which are best marinaded in olive and lemon juice before being grilled quickly over charcoal, goat meat can be tough if not treated with the time it needs.

Goat is eaten around most of the Mediterranean - aside from the ubiquitous chicken it may be the only native meat available, particularly in areas that are arid with inhospitable terrain where only goats can graze. It's harder to find in the UK, as goat herders tend to farm them for their milk rather than the meat - much of what is sold as Caribbean goat curry, for example, is in fact mutton.

This dish is common across Greece and its islands - in the tourist resorts it's more likely to be made with mutton, but on islands like Crete, which has little farmland, goat meat reigns supreme. It's quick to prepare but needs plenty of cooking time, so it's probably best made on a weekend.

What you need:
200g lean goat meat

1 onion, roughly chopped
4 large tomatoes
Tomato purée, a generous squeeze
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Half a lemon, cut into quarters
A few baby aubergines, halved
Olive oil

What to do:
Trim any fat off the meat and dice it. Fry the onion gently in the olive oil until it's translucent. Turn up the heat, add the meat and brown it. Transfer to a casserole or slow cooker and add everything else. If you're using fresh oregano, you'll need a few sprigs otherwise a generous pinch of the dried variety will do the job. You can add a splash of red wine at this stage too.

If you're using an oven, it should be heated to around 130-140C, but at a pinch you could also cook it very gently in a heavy-based sauteuse on the stove top. Whatever you choose, it needs a good 3 hours. Check it occasionally to ensure it's not drying out - top up with hot water from a kettle if needed. Test the meat after 3 hours - it should be meltingly tender.

Cook's tips:  
The best place to find goat meat is in a market or butcher's shop in the kind of neighbourhood that has a large Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern population. It's quite likely to be sold on the bone though, so you'll need double the weight. Otherwise, try a farmer's market or buy it online - many goat farms have diversified from cheese and yoghurt and started selling the meat too, usually trimmed and diced. If you're struggling to find it, mutton is the best alternative.

The oregano is essential - it is the one herb that distinguishes Greek cuisine from other Mediterranean styles. 

You can use tinned chopped tomatoes instead of fresh. The acidity of the tomatoes helps to tenderise the meat, as does the lemon. The wine just helps the process as well as adding another note of flavour. This recipe provides 3 of your 5 a day - add a side salad if you want more.

In Greece, casseroled goat is usually served with rice or chips. I prefer rice as it soaks up the lovely rich sauce, which you could mop up with pitta or crusty bread.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Frisée aux lardons

My sojourn in Paris two decades ago, when with Parisian Boy, meant I discovered an absolute treasure trove of culinary delights. Holidays in France as a kid served as a fairly basic introduction to such things as proper frites - thin, crispy, salty and piping hot - served with bloody steaks that were chargrilled almost black on the outside and oozed almost-raw pinkness when cut open, baguettes and pain au chocolat still warm from the baker's oven, the vast array of cheeses, sirop de grenadine... I still remember the year we went camping near La Rochelle on the Biscay coast and seeing all the French campers grubbing around under hedges with buckets the morning after a heavy storm. They were hunting for snails.

Moving there, however, cranked me up several rungs on the food ladder. Parisian Boy introduced me to many regional dishes and taught me a lot about wine. He was also a damn fine cook and I learned quite a few recipes from him.

Frisée aux lardons, a traditional dish often on bistro menus, was one of his specialities - it's a very substantial and robust warm salad and we ate it at least once a fortnight, not least because it's cheap and we lived on a very tight budget. It's incredibly simple to make yet utterly addictive. The combination of bitter leaves, hot bacon and crunchy croutons drenched in a firey dressing is a real party on the palate. You must do this in the right order as once you get the pan on the stove you need to be quick to assemble the salad.

What you need:
4-5 leaves from a curly endive lettuce (frisée)
Half a packet of decently sized lardons
A couple of slices of bread, cut into cubes
A clove of garlic
Dijon mustard
Olive oil and white wine vinegar for the dressing
A pinch of sea salt

What to do:
First wash, dry and shred the endive leaves and put in a salad bowl. Next make the mustard dressing. Dump a couple of teaspoons of the mustard into a small bowl or wide tumbler and add a drizzle of the olive oil - use the teaspoon to beat the oil in to create an emulsion. Once you get going, you can add more oil each time until you have a generous amount of emulsion. You generally need about three times the oil to the amount of mustard. Check the taste - the mustard and oil should balance each other. Thin it with the vinegar to taste - it should be loose but not too runny. Add a tiny pinch of sea salt and the garlic, crushed through a press.

Heat a tiny drizzle of olive oil in a frying pan on a high heat and fry the lardons. As soon as the fat begins to run off the bacon, add the cubed bread to make croutons. The bread should soak up the bacon fat as it fries. Keep frying everything until the bread crisps and colours and the lardons are golden.

Quickly assemble everything - tip the lardons and croutons, plus as much of the bacon fat as you can scrape off, out of the frying pan onto the frisée, pour the mustard dressing over and toss everything together. Eat immediately, while the bacon is still hot. And if you're making it for yourself alone, eat it straight from the salad bowl! (Just double up the ingredients if you have a guest.)

Top with a poached egg, like they do in the bistros, if you are very hungry.

Cook's tips:
Frisée can be quite hard to find in the UK, unlike in France where it is on every vegetable stall at every market. I was lucky enough to find one a couple of days ago at my local market - for just 50p. Use the inner white leaves for this - they are curlier and hold the other ingredients well. A good substitute is radicchio or any other bitter leaf.

Lardons are pretty easy to find these days - most supermarkets stock them now, alongside the bacon. Otherwise ask a butcher to sell you some bacon in the piece and cut it into chunky strips yourself. Don't use pancetta - its delicate flavour will be lost in the more robust tastes of the dijon mustard and bitter leaves.

Lardons can be quite salty so go easy on the salt in the dressing. In all honesty, I often leave the salt out as the bacon provides more than enough for me.

The garlic is a must but if you can't tolerate it raw, then crush it into the frying pan with the croutons and lardons for the last couple of minutes so that it cooks a little. I usually add any scrapings from the garlic press at this stage for that extra touch.

This is a great way to use up leftover bread. In Paris we would hack bits of stale baguette into chunks for the croutons, perfect for this salad's peasant origins. I prefer wholemeal bread made with rye or spelt if I can get it - sliced white simply won't do for this.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Boston baked beans

Ah, beans on toast - possibly one of the finest comfort foods around, as well as being nutritious, cheap and filling. I've had many a supper of just a small tin of beans atop a couple of slices of wholemeal bread, occasionally with a slice or two of grilled black pudding or some grated cheddar on top. On busy days, beans on toast makes a hearty breakfast and a welcome change from porridge.

But when a tin just won't hit the spot, it's time to brew up a pot of the real thing. Boston baked beans date back to the American pioneers some 300-400 years ago and there are dozens of recipes for this dish - what they have in common are some sort of beans, tomatoes, some cut of pork, and flavourings that include sweet and sour - often molasses or treacle matched against vinegar. Other seasonings can vary wildly. And many versions include vegetables such as carrot and celery.

This is my take on this classic dish, stripped right back to the basics, and it's enough for two portions, so you can freeze one for another day or invite a friend round to share it over a bottle of robust red wine. It takes only 15 minutes to prep and then you can leave it to cook slowly for several hours.

What you need:
1 400g tin of haricot beans
1 large onion, finely chopped
A punnet of cherry or baby plum tomatoes
2 slices of belly pork, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
A heaped dessert spoonful of muscovado sugar
Two dessert spoonfuls of balsamic vinegar
A splash of red wine (optional)
Tomato purée, a good squirt or a small tin's worth
A clove of garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf

What to do:
Gently fry the chopped onion in a little vegetable oil until translucent. Trim any excess fat off the belly pork (if it's very fatty, I grill it a little first to get rid of some of it) then add it to the onions and fry for another 5 minutes. Tip the onions and meat into either a small casserole dish or a slow cooker, add all the other ingredients and mix well. If using the oven you want a moderate heat of around 140C. 

Leave it to cook for around 3 hours. Taste it an hour or so in and adjust the proportions of sugar to vinegar to your preference. Check it now and then to make sure it doesn't dry out, adding a little water if needed - the sauce should be thick rather than watery but you don't want it so dense that it's more like a paste. About 10 minutes before it's ready to eat, check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Don't add the salt at the start as it can make the beans harden.

Mop up the sauce with some crusty bread.

Cook's tips:
You can use any sort of white bean - borlotti, pinto and cannellini beans are all good options. I use tinned beans for pure convenience but if you can be bothered to soak the dried variety overnight, you'll need 100g for every 400g tin. You can also substitute the fresh tomatoes for chopped tinned ones, if you must - the beauty of this dish is that you can make it almost entirely from store cupboard staples.

The belly pork makes this a very meaty dish. For a lighter touch, use a half-packet of lardons or snip a couple of bacon rashers into strips. Vegetarians can leave out the meat entirely, obviously, but then I'd add in some dried porcini for depth of flavour.

The sweet/sour combination is entirely down to preference. I'm not keen on black treacle and prefer the more toffee-flavoured muscovado. Demerara will just about work but it does lack the smokier tones of a darker sweetener. If you've no balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar is the second best choice but even a malt vinegar will do - just rein it back a little. Adding a little red wine adds both sharpness and flavour.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Ready meals - the good, the bad and the just plain horrible

I moved house last week and was minus a cooker for the best part of a week as I waited for a new one to be delivered and installed. In the interim, I didn't have much to fall back on when it came to cooking - my microwave, which I never cook with as I only use it for defrosting or reheating occasionally, and my slow cooker, plus a toaster.

I often batch cook, eating one portion and freezing two to three more - these are my homemade ready meals and what I eat when I'm too tired or unwell to cook or when I'm in a serious hurry to go out but still need to eat quickly. Casseroles, stews and curries all freeze well and are worth making because in all honesty making just one portion of any of these is a lot of work - you might as well make more for later on. I also sometimes make a lasagne from scratch - my lasagne dish holds 4-6 portions and homemade is far nicer than the supermarket version, as I discovered a few days ago.

I quickly ran out of my homemade frozen dishes and found myself forlornly staring into the chill cabinet of my nearest supermarket. What a depressing sight - apart from the vegetarian options, none of them seemed to contain any vegetables. They were a slew of carb-heavy, meat-heavy concoctions such as pasta with sauce, shepherd's pie and sweet and sour chicken with rice. I came home with a readymade lasagne and a macaroni cheese, both of which were bland and tasteless as airline food. Only a salad, freshly tossed with some homemade French dressing, made them bearable.

The one meal I found that actually contained a portion of vegetables was so disgusting that only raging hunger stopped me tipping it straight into the bin after two bites - this "roast chicken dinner" contained a chicken breast that at least had the skin on but had clearly never seen the inside of an oven, a handful of floury and utterly unflavoursome roast potatoes, and a heap of baby carrots and peas that were edible (just) but had been slathered in a brown gloop that I think was the advertised gravy but I couldn't be sure.

Never again.

Some of my recipes on here will be the ones I batch cook, with recommendations for freezing or chilling - just look for the tag "ready meal" if you need inspiration. I can promise you'll never look in a supermarket chill cabinet ever again...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Baharat chicken with roasted aubergines

I'm a big fan of just chucking ingredients into a roasting tin and seeing what happens. Partly because I like roasts and as someone who lives alone, it's a good substitute for a Sunday roast with everyone gathered round the table. But also because if you have the time to cook something for an hour, it's a very simple way to cook - once you've prepped everything you have a spare hour to spend on other things while your home fills with cooking fragrances. I'm fortunate that working from home means I can cook this way on a week night - if I were a commuter arriving home starving at the end of a long day, I'd almost certainly want something on the table within half an hour.

This dish is so ridiculously simple, and tasty, that there's almost nothing to do once it's in the oven apart from check it occasionally.

What you need: 
A couple of small chicken joints (thighs or drumsticks)
2 shallots
1 bell pepper deseeded and quartered
A handful of baby aubergines
Olive oil
1/2 lemon (optional)

What to do:
Heat the oven to 190C. In a roasting tin coat the chicken, peeled shallots, pepper and aubergines in the olive oil and mix well. Sprinkle over a light dusting of baharat. Pop in the oven for about an hour. Halfway through, turn the ingredients over to brown them evenly.

Cook's tips:
Baharat is a wonderfully fragrant spice mix used across the Middle East. The ingredients can vary but it usually contains coriander, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin and cardamom. Sometimes it will also have nutmeg, chilli or cayenne pepper. You can find it in some supermarkets or ethnic grocers. Beware - it can be pungent and strong so go easy with it until you've got used to cooking with it. If you can't find it, the Moroccan ras el hanout is easier to find in the shops and makes a good, slightly less hot substitute.

Baby aubergines are easiest and cheapest to find in an ethnic greengrocer's. The flavour, in my opinion, is more concentrated than in the full-size variety, and roasting them whole or halved is a really delicious way to appreciate their taste. The skins will crisp up somewhat, while the flesh inside will melt into a creamy mush. If you opt for the larger type, one medium one will be plenty - cut it into generous chunks and go easy on the oil as aubergines will soak up everything you throw at them.

I often add a couple of lemon quarters to this kind of roasted dish because I like the tartness, but roasting lemons also brings out a concentrated sweetness that goes well with most kinds of meat and the kind of Mediterranean vegetables I like to use.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Grilled lamb steak with sweet potato mash

I absolutely love lamb, it's one of my favourite meats despite not being quite as versatile as others. If I have guests, it's a good excuse to roast a leg studded with garlic and rosemary. Conjuring up something tasty for one is a little trickier. There's the ubiquitous lamb chop - I buy chops, I'll often roast them with them root vegetables, adding the meat only for the last 10 or 15 minutes. The problem is you don't get a lot of meat on a chop, so you may need several for a decent portion.

I pick up leg steaks if I see them on the butcher's slab, especially if they are on special offer. Leg steaks are usually fairly lean and you can cook them quickly on the hob over a high heat, as quickly as a beef steak.

As winter approaches, this dish ranks well as comfort food and for that extra touch I'll make a quick redcurrant jus to accompany.

What you need: 
1 or 2 lamb leg steaks (depending on size and hunger)
2-3 sweet potatoes
Half-fat crème fraiche
Salt and black pepper
Olive oil
Half a dessert spoonful of redcurrant jelly
Half a glass of red wine.

What to do:
Put the lamb steak on a small plate and rub generously with the olive oil. Set aside. Peel and chop the sweet potatoes into 1-inch chunks. Put them on to boil but do not salt the water. They are ready when they break up when you stick in a fork in them - about 20 minutes. Heat a cast iron griddle pan on a high heat. Toss on the steaks - they need 4-5 minutes each side, depending on size and how pink you like your lamb. Season with salt and a little pepper. If you are very hungry, you could also put a second vegetable on now - my fallback is frozen peas.

Meanwhile dissolve the redcurrant jelly in a small pan with the red wine and heat gently until it's only just simmering. If you have any fresh rosemary to hand you can add a small sprig. When the sweet potatoes are soft enough, drain them well, crush them with a potato masher or a wooden spoon and beat in a generous dessert spoonful of creme fraiche. Season well with black pepper.

Put the meat and mash on a plate and pour the redcurrant jus over the steak.

Cook's tips:
Lamb can be quite fatty and it's not healthy fat but the artery-hardening variety. Leg steaks are usually quite lean but do trim off any excess fat.

Redcurrant jelly tends to appear in the shops only in the run-up to Christmas, but if you don't have any use cranberry preserve instead, which is now available all year round. Redcurrant works particularly well with lamb, but any red berry sauce is a good partner. The wine helps to take the edge off the sweetness of the jelly.

With ordinary potato mash, I like to add plenty of butter and even a splash of cream to enrich it, but you don't need these with sweet potatoes. They are indeed sweet so the crème fraiche adds a welcome touch of acidity and the pepper adds a spicy note.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Grilled figs with ginger and orange liqueur

Like most singletons, I don't bother much with puddings. They hardly seem worth making for one person, although I do make the effort for guests - that's when I'll make a comforting crumble or a boozy trifle, although friends are just as likely to be offered a cheeseboard.

I keep premium ice cream in my freezer, dark chocolate in the larder and yoghurt in the fridge for the rare occasions I want something sweet. And while I love my veg, I'm pretty bad at remembering to eat fruit.

I'm lucky enough to have an Asian supermarket right near my home - it sells a huge array of fresh produce, often at bargain prices. Last week I popped in and discovered they were selling fresh figs at 4 for a pound. Knowing that supermarkets usually sell them for a pound each, I snapped them up. They sat in my fruit bowl for a week, getting riper and riper, while I dithered over whether to bake them wrapped in prosciutto, eat them raw or turn them into a hot dessert. The pudding won out. This is quick, easy and will satisfy the sweetest of teeth.

What you need:
Several ripe figs
Clear honey
A little powdered ginger
Orange liqueur
Crème fraîche

What to do:
Heat the grill. Rinse the figs, trim the stalks off, then cut them in half. Arrange in a heatproof dish. Sprinkle over the powdered ginger, drizzle with the honey and slosh in half a glass of orange liqueur. Pop under the grill for about 10 minutes. Serve with the juices spooned over and a generous dollop of crème fraîche.

Cook's tips:
I like the sharpness of crème fraîche as the accompaniment, as it cuts through the sweetness of the fruit and juices. Plain yoghurt, Greek or regular, will do the same. For a more decadent finish, premium vanilla ice cream can't be beaten - it melts wonderfully over the hot figs. Richest of all would be a splosh of double cream.

There's not much to choose between orange liqueurs - it really boils down to the sweetness and your personal preference. Cointreau, Grand Marnier or Triple Sec are probably easiest to get hold of although I used Coeur de Comte, a French blend of half orange, half Armagnac. My favourite is the Cypriot Filfar - the most orangey of them all but almost impossible to find in the UK.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A brunchy supper of black pudding on wilted rocket

The last couple of weeks I've had the decorators in - not a euphemism - as I'm moving house shortly. An ex of mine - Leeds Lad - did the necessaries with tins of paint by day, then crashed on my sofa at night. This meant I was cooking for two rather than one most nights - a great opportunity to roast vast slabs of pork and lamb, make huge pots of soup and even a giant lasagne (half of which ended up in my freezer in portions). We also succumbed to takeaway curries and a trip to an Italian restaurant.

Normal life has resumed now and I'm back to pottering in my galley kitchen, juggling small portions for me alone. My "Sunday roast for one" plans fell apart when I realised I wasn't very hungry. I roasted the chicken drumsticks I'd left marinating all day in a pineapple and chilli sauce purchased from my local foodie market and ate them on their own in front of the TV - sticky, spicy and the perfect accompaniment to Downton Abbey.

Still short on appetite, Monday supper was always going to be brunchy in style. And with the move looming I'm also trying to use up things in the fridge. I have a borderline obsession with black pudding, so this formed the centrepiece of my TV dinner. I also made some French-style sautéed potatoes and grilled a tomato to accompany.

What you need:
2 big slices of black pudding
A bag of rocket, rinsed and well drained
A handful of new or salad potatoes, scrubbed and cut into chunks
1 big clove of garlic
Duck fat
A large tomato

What to do:
Heat half a dessert spoonful of duck fat in a sauteuse and when it starts to just smoke, toss in the potatoes, stir them around so they are completely coated in the duck fat and turn the heat down to moderate. Let them fry gently until they start to take on a golden colour and crisp up around the edges (if you have leftover boiled potatoes, these work well too). This takes about 20 minutes.

After 10 mins put a dry frying pan on the stove and get it hot. Fry the black pudding about 4-5 minutes each side. It shouldn't need any fat as black pudding usually has plenty of its own. Heat the grill, halve the tomato and pop it under. Peel and crush the garlic clove and add to the potatoes a few minutes before they are ready. Season with salt and pepper.

When the potatoes are done, scoop them out of the sauteuse with a slotted slice and pile on the side of the plate. Leave the pan on the heat and toss the rocket in the leftover duck fat for a minute until it's wilted.

Make a bed of the rocket in the middle of the plate, put the black pudding slices on top and pop a grilled tomato on each side.

Cook's tips:
Can't find rocket? Use spinach instead, which is the traditional brasserie accompaniment to black pudding served brunch-style.

If you're extra hungry, top the black pudding with a poached or fried egg.

Duck fat is hard to find, unless you have a good family butcher near to you - most supermarkets sell goose fat, though, which is just as good. Both are excellent for sautéeing or roasting potatoes. I save the duck fat every time I cook a breast or roast a pair of legs, to keep my jar topped up - it keeps almost indefinitely in the fridge. Another good source is tins of confit de canard, which you can find in good delis or pretty much any supermarket if you're on a day trip to France.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Smoky roast belly pork with butternut squash

I just love belly pork. It's one of the tastiest cuts off the pig, it's incredibly versatile and it's dirt cheap, which is good news if you're a gourmet on a budget. I'm not but the cheaper cuts are often the most interesting. Belly pork has a wonderfully rich flavour that can handle the addition of lots of spices or herbs, but is equally good unadorned except for a seasoning of salt and pepper. The contrast between the meat and the creamy fat is also deeply pleasing on the palate, both when it's crisped to a golden hue or is still a wobbly white underneath.

If I'm cooking for friends, a 1kg slab of belly pork from the butcher will feed 4 easily, as well as providing crackling. Otherwise, I'll seek out slices - two will feed one person to the point of feeling stuffed. Supermarkets often sell packs of four slices for £2-3, a bargain. I'll cook half and freeze half for another day if I pick up one of these.

I like to roast the slices, especially on a weekend as there's more time to devote to making something special and it makes a good Sunday roast for one. I usually bake a butternut squash alongside the pork - I like the contrast of the squash's sweetness with the richness of the meat.

Two days ago, I also raided my local Asian store for fruit and veg - I love this shop as it's so much cheaper than the supermarkets and it stocks a really good range of the more exotic, unsurprisingly. I came home with four figs and three pomegranates that cost me just £2 for these, alongside some staples such as onions and parsley. Pomegranates are delicious in a salad so I rustled up a cooling side dish for the spicy belly pork.

What you need:
2 slices of belly pork
A butternut squash
Smoked paprika powder
A little chilli-flavoured oil
1 pomegranate
I small cucumber
A little sumac
Olive and lemon juice
Sea salt

What to do:
A couple of hours before you're ready to start cooking, rub the belly pork generously all over with the smoked paprika and set aside.

Deseed the pomegranate. This is really worth learning to do properly as cutting right into the fruit tends to spray the juice everywhere and it will stain everything it touches. It's a little fiddly but once you've got the hang of it, it only takes 10 minutes to get the seeds out. Fill a bowl with cold water and carefully slice the crown off the pomegranate with a sharp knife. Score through the rind at intervals from top to bottom, being careful to cut into the pith but not the seeds. Turn it upside down and leave to soak in the bowl of water for about 15 minutes. This softens the pith and internal membranes. Keeping your hands under the water, break through the skin and gently loosen the seeds from the pith, letting them fall to the bottom of the bowl. The membranes should float to the top - scoop out the debris with a spoon and discard then empty the seeds into a sieve and let them drain.

Heat the oven to 190C. Grind some sea salt over the belly pork slices and pop into a small roasting tin. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Score both halves in a criss-cross pattern and brush with the chilli oil (if you don't have any, use olive oil and then sprinkle with the lightest dusting of smoked paprika). Put everything in the oven and leave for an hour, turning the pork after half an hour.

Ten minutes before you're ready to eat, make the cucumber and pomegranate salad. This recipe originates from Lebanon and usually contains mint and feta but that is too much alongside the meat here. This recipe strips it right back to the basics. If you can, use one of the small Middle Eastern type cucumbers - they are about 5-6 inches long and the flavour is more intense than our British variety.

Slice the cucumber in half and deseed it, by running a teaspoon down the length to scoop them out. Slice it thinly and put into a bowl. Add about a third of the pomegranate seeds (the rest will stay fresh in the fridge for 2-3 days). Sprinkle with a tiny pinch of sumac. Whisk together a very light dressing of around 3 parts olive oil to 1 part lemon juice. Dress the salad.

Cook's tips:
You won't find sumac in the supermarkets. Try a deli that stocks Middle Eastern foods or order it online. It's used widely across the Middle East so if you like to cook Lebanese or Persian dishes, it's worth tracking down. It has a slightly gritty texture and a light lemony taste. Mixed with plain yoghurt it makes a delicious marinade for chicken.You can substitute a little grated lemon or lime zest for the sumac in the salad.

If your belly pork has the skin on it, score it with a Stanley knife and rub lots of salt in to make crackling, being careful not to get any spice on it.

I usually find half a butternut squash is plenty with a salad alongside, unless I'm very hungry. I keep the other half back and make soup with it.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Lettuce and peas with preserved lemon

After a carb-heavy week in which I consumed not one but two cheese fondues (and recycled the leftovers of my own homemade one into a rarebit for the next day's breakfast) plus potatoes and much bread, I craved something light for supper. And with the unexpected early autumn heatwave hitting 28C in my city, a summer recipe was on the cards.

I'm not wildly keen on lettuce in its natural state - too many bad memories of the native English sort, all green and floppy and tasteless to start with then going soggy the minute dressing is applied - although I do enjoy a Caesar salad if the dressing is not too heavy and I'm very partial to frisée aux lardons, the recipe for which came from Parisian Boy.

I do like cooked lettuce though - the secret is to braise it gently until it's just wilted - and it goes spectacularly well with peas. Versions of lettuce with peas can be found all around southern Europe, each bringing out the essential sweetness of the main ingredients and many involving a generous dollop of double cream in the sauce. I find this too heavy for my liking, so I use half-fat crème fraîche instead for lightness and I like to add a note of tartness with preserved lemon.

What you need: 
A small onion, chopped
1 Little Gem lettuce, rinsed, drained and quartered
A mugful of frozen peas (or fresh if in season)
100ml of hot vegetable stock (a teaspoon of Marigold vegetable bouillon is enough for this quantity)
A generous spoonful of half-fat crème fraîche
Black pepper to season
1 preserved lemon
6 or 7 capers, rinsed (optional)
Small handful of chopped flatleaf parsley (optional)

What to do:
Make up the stock and heat some olive oil in a heavy sauteuse. Sauté the onion over a moderate heat until it turns translucent. Add the quartered lettuce and fry gently for a minute or two, turning it to wilt on all sides. Pour in the stock, add the peas and a good grinding of black pepper, then turn the heat down so it's only just simmering. Leave for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, halve the preserved lemon and pick out any pips, then slice very thinly. Purists say you should remove the flesh and only use the skin but I love the salty sourness of preserved lemon so much I use all of it. I also like to throw in a few capers, again for the tartness - give them a quick rinse under the tap if using (they are an acquired taste) to get rid of the brine. Add to the pan then stir in the crème fraîche. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the chopped parsley if using.

Cook's tips:
You can buy preserved lemons in most big supermarkets - Belazu and Al'Fez are the two main brands. You can also order them online from specialist websites that stock exotic ingredients, if you can't find them in a deli.

Little Gem really is the best salad leaf for this. Don't use anything bitter, like raddichio or endive, as it doesn't lend itself well to be cooked this way and the end taste is too sour. Iceberg is utterly tasteless, cooked or raw, and will bring nothing to the dish. Cos/Romaine, lamb's leaf and Batavia all work well - you'll only need only 3-4 large leaves of the Cos or Batavia, just shred them roughly before adding to the pan.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Two fondues and cheesy suppers

It's been British Cheese Week this past week - I don't normally get excited about "official weeks" for this, that and the other as most seem rather trivial, but the revival of artisan cheeses in this country is to be applauded. Some 20 years ago, when I upped sticks to France for a bit, UK supermarkets were full of generic slabs of factory cheddar and it was almost impossible to find real cheese in this country. There has been a revolution since then, with cheesemakers all over the UK vying to create some truly delicious cheeses that can easily match those from across the Channel. (Sadly, the supermarkets are still full of factory cheese.)

Cheese is a staple for solo food lovers. As a lone gourmet, once in a while I'll dig out the oatcakes and dine on a cheeseboard - a slice of Brie so ripe it's almost running off the plate, a slab of tangy, salty Roquefort and a wedge of artisan cheddar plus an apple make a very decent supper in front of the TV with a glass of wine. And I sometimes resort to the comfort of cheese on toast in the evening when I'm not massively hungry and feeling a bit lazy. I aim to have good bread in the house and will spread the untoasted side with some French grain mustard or some onion marmalade before topping with slices of cheese. I have a particular liking for Red Leicester, if I can find a decent piece, but all the traditional British hard cheeses toast up nicely.

Melted cheese, yummy as it is, always makes me yearn for fondue. It's a dish for sharing, of course, and it looks difficult, but it's actually really easy to knock up enough for one person and you don't even need a fancy fondue set (although I get mine out if I have guests). This takes under 10 minutes after you've prepped the ingredients.

What you need: 
100g Emmental, grated
50g Gruyère, cheddar or other hard cheese, grated
2tbsp Kirsch
1/2 level tbsp cornflour
1 clove garlic
Sea salt and black pepper to taste

What to do:
Peel and cut the garlic clove in half then rub it all over the inside of a small non-stick saucepan. Carefully blend one tablespoon of Kirsch in a mug or small jug with the cornflour. Warm the pan on the stove over a moderate heat and slosh in the second tablespoon of Kirsch until it starts to simmer. Turn the heat to low and start adding the cheese to the liquid a bit at a time, stirring the whole time with a wooden spoon to stop it sticking and burning. Make sure each handful of cheese is fully melted into the Kirsch before you add the next.

When all the cheese is in the pan and has melted, add the cornflour and Kirsch mixture to it and keep stirring furiously - this is really important, else the fondue will separate and curdle. Let it cook for two to three minutes more so the cornflour cooks through - it's ready when it looks like a creamy cheese sauce and comes away from the sides of the pan. Season to taste, though you'll probably find you don't need salt at all. Tip into a bowl and get stuck in. You can use chunks of crusty bread, boiled potatoes or crudités to scoop up the fondue. I usually have a small green salad on the side too - it helps cut through the richness of the cheese.

Cook's tips:
Be sure to use Emmental for the most authentic flavour and texture - this rubbery Swiss cheese has a high melting point and a pleasingly nutty flavour. Emmental usually, but not always, has holes in it, like Gruyère which is the other traditional cheese in a fondue. You can substitute other cheeses for the Gruyère, such as cheddar, but the results can be a little unpredictable as their melting point will be different so do keep an eye on the pan if you experiment.

If you don't have Kirsch, white wine is a good substitute. I have even used vermouth, vodka and grappa as a replacement when there's been no Kirsch in the cupboard. The point is to have a clear alcohol in which to melt the cheese.

The lazy gourmet option
I'm no fan of prepared foods, as it's usually just as quick to cook from scratch and it'll certainly be healthier, with less fat, salt and additives.

However, the lovely artisan cheesemakers at Butler's Cheese were kind enough to send me a sample of their new product a few days ago, to mark British Cheese Week. I've been a big fan of Butler's ever since I discovered their amazing Blacksticks Blue on the cheeseboard at the Mark Addy when dining there a year ago. A striking tangerine colour with thick grey veining and a black rind, it has a creamy texture and a defined mould taste that easily rivals Stilton, although I'm not sure it'll displace Roquefort as my favourite blue cheese.

Anyway, the cheese boffins at Butler's have created a mini microwaveable fondue made with their own handmade Lancashire cheese - I had my doubts when I first looked at it, because I struggled to believe you can make an edible prepackaged version, but the ingredients list is tiny and apart from cheese, milk and cream it has only a small amount of preservative. No Kirsch, but it is veggie-friendly and it comes in two little white plastic ramekins (see, I told you fondue is for sharing).

Putting my scepticism aside, I prised off the lids and popped the ramekins in my microwave, which is normally only dusted down for defrosting or reheating. Thirty seconds, a quick stir, another 15 seconds and another stir and it was ready.

I have to admit I was impressed - this really is almost as good as a homemade fondue, being both creamy and slightly stringy, and you could really taste the sharp and salty Lancashire cheese. Shared between two people, it would make a great tasty starter. For a lazy lone gourmet, the two pots together made a surprisingly filling meal with some crusty bread. If you don't have the confidence to rustle up a fondue yourself, this is a very acceptable alternative.

You'll need to be quick though - the Butler's fondue is only available between now and Christmas at Sainsbury's. It'll set you back just £3.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A chicken risotto

I've had one of those weeks where I've done very little cooking - there were a couple of evenings spent in the pub that saw me raiding the fridge for snacks at 11pm after drinking beer on an empty stomach. Then I got ill - too ill to cook - and ended up ordering Chinese takeaway to be delivered one night. And yesterday I just felt too lazy - the curse of the lone cook - and ate a pastrami sandwich and a slab of halloumi while parked on the sofa watching Nigel Slater doing infinitely more interesting things with food than I was.

Foodwise, from a health point of view it was not a great week - I didn't eat nearly enough fruit and veg, despite my best intentions. And drinking generally leads to cravings for fat and salt when the hunger pangs kick in, which is why I was picking at cold cuts and cheese before bedtime.

But before my chaotic week got properly underway, I did actually do some real cooking. I still had some leftover chicken in the fridge from the roast of a few days previously, plus a lovely bowlful of homemade chicken stock that had set to a deep golden, thick jelly. There was only thing on my mind - risotto.

Risotto is one of my favourite comfort foods - it's fairly easy to make although it does require attention (I find the stirring very relaxing as there's a lovely rhythm to it), and it's also a very good way of using up leftovers. This chicken risotto is one I invariably make after roasting a chicken. It's not dissimilar to the classic Venetian risi e bisi, although I don't like my rice quite as sloppy. I've been cooking this so long (decades), I have no idea where my recipe came from originally - most likely, my usual habit of seeing what food I had in the house and slinging it together. The quantities given make one very generous bowlful.

What you need: 
A handful of cooked chicken, torn into strips or chunks
A small onion, finely chopped
About 1/2 litre/1 pint of chicken stock
A glass of white wine or vermouth (optional)
Half a punnet of chestnut mushrooms, halved then sliced
Half a mugful of risotto rice
Half a mugful of defrosted frozen peas
A lump of parmesan cheese, grated
A few chopped sprigs of parsley

What to do:
An hour before you start, take the stock out of the fridge, skim any fat off it and let it come to room temperature to soften the jelly. Heat a little olive oil over a low heat in a heavy based sauteuse and gently fry the onion until it is translucent. Turn up the heat and tip in the rice, stirring it through with a wooden spoon until every grain is coated in the oil and it's "fried" a little. If you're using the wine, now is the time to add it to the pan - it will sizzle alarmingly and create a lot of steam. Stir it furiously with the wooden spoon. No wine? Use a ladleful of the stock.

Turn the heat down to moderate, keep the pan on simmer and keep stirring until all the wine or stock has been absorbed. Then keep adding the stock, a ladleful at a time. And keep stirring - the process helps release the starches from the rice grains to produce that lovely creamy texture. The whole process should take around 20-25 minutes.

About halfway through, add the mushrooms. Don't be scared by how much space they take up in the pan - they will shrink right down as they cook. Five minutes later, add the peas and the chicken. Cook for another five minutes or so, until all the stock has been absorbed and the rice is thickly creamy. Turn off the heat, stir in the grated Parmesan and serve, with the chopped parsley as a garnish.

Cook's tips:
Purists insist the stock should be hot before adding it but I rarely bother to tip it into a saucepan and bring it to the boil. As long as the heat under the sauteuse is just high enough to keep the risotto on simmer, it'll still work just fine. It's important to take the stock out of the fridge though - you do not want to be adding really cold stock to the pan otherwise the temperature of the risotto will fluctuate too much during the cooking. I usually boil a kettle before I start cooking in case I don't have enough stock and also because sometimes the rice may be more absorbent than others.

The rice - it's really important to have the right kind of rice, starchy and capable of absorbing a lot of liquid. The three main Italian risotto rices are Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone and you can find at least the first two varieties in the supermarkets. Using basmati or American long grain just won't work. Spanish paella rice makes a good substitute if you can't find risotto rice.

The cheese - like the rice, the right kind of cheese is essential. Parmesan is the ideal and easy to find in supermarkets. Do not use those nasty drums of grated Parmesan dust though - the contents both smell and taste like vomit, not the effect you want to achieve. Good substitutes for Parmesan are Grana Padano, which comes from the same region but is a cheaper generic version, much like cheddars, but otherwise almost (not quite!) indistinguishable, or Pecorino, which is made in Sardinia from sheep's milk but has a similar texture.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Mexican-style chicken and black beans

I have leftover chicken in my fridge and I'm slowly working my way through it. The leftover breast meat went into a sandwich for lunch two days ago. Then last night, being pretty much out of fresh food of any sort, I had a quick rummage to see what might go with the chicken.

A red pepper, a bunch of spring onions, some tomatoes and a few sprigs of coriander were all the veg I owned, apart from a butternut squash, which I have other plans for. Peering into the depths of my larder I spied a small carton of black beans and an idea formed.

I'd originally bought the beans to make quesadilla with, but the only recipe I have for that is for 6 people. Six! But still, with tomatoes and coriander to hand, Mexican seemed the way to go. This makes a generous bowlful.

What you need:
A small bunch of spring onions, trimmed and sliced
A small red pepper, deseeded and cut into strips
Two tomatoes, quartered (or use a dozen baby plum tomatoes)
1 fresh chilli, deseeded and sliced, or a teaspoon of chilli paste from a jar
A small tin or carton black beans in water
1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 tsp dried coriander
A handful of cooked chicken, cut into chunks or strips
A few sprigs of fresh coriander, chopped

What to do:
Rinse the beans well in a sieve under a running cold tap and leave to drain. Heat some vegetable oil in a heavy sauteuse over a high heat and quickly fry the onions, peppers and fresh chilli, if using, for a few minutes. Turn the heat down a little and add the tomatoes, then fry for a few minutes more. Add the spices and the chilli paste, if using instead of fresh chilli, plus the black beans. If it looks very dry, pour in a little water then put a lid on, turn the heat down low and leave to cook for about 15 minutes until the tomatoes have completely softened. Tip in the chicken, stir through and cook for another 5 minutes until the chicken is thoroughly heated through. Season to taste then serve sprinkled with the coriander.

Cook's tips:
Chilli paste is one of those things I keep in my larder for emergencies as it's an excellent substitute for fresh chillis. You can also add heat with a chilli-flavoured vegetable oil, but I recommend tasting before you add the chilli paste in that case.

The black beans are pretty much an essential, along with the coriander, if you want to keep it Mexican style. You could use any kind of beans, though - with a brown onion instead of the spring onions and a crushed clove or two of garlic, you'll end up with a dish equally tasty but more Mediterranean in tone.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Stocking up

If I've roasted a chicken I like to get my money's worth out of it, especially if I've shelled out a tenner for an organic bird. Nothing gets wasted. Nothing.

I count on getting 4 meals out of a 1kg chicken. That's a portion of hot roast meat, plus plenty of leftovers to do interesting things with (more on that another day). And then there's the carcass.

For me, a chicken is always good value for money not just because of the number of meals I can make for myself but because I get to make real stock. Forget stock cubes - they are nasty, mass-produced lumps of grit that when dissolved produce a bland but over-salty liquid. The only bought stock in my larder is Marigold vegetable bouillon, which is very good quality. But for meat stock, it must be home-made.

Home-made chicken stock is both sublime and versatile. Properly brewed, it makes a flavoursome base for soups, risottos, stews and casseroles.

What you need: 
A chicken carcass
Assorted vegetables
A big pan

What to do:
Strip the carcass of all the leftover meat and store it in the fridge. Boil a kettle full of water and then get some heat on the hob - put the roasting tin on and pour in a little boiling water, then stir and scrape with a wooden spatula to salvage all the leftover roasting juices and crusty bits from the bird. Pour carefully into the pan. Add the carcass - I usually stuff mine with lemon, garlic and shallots and these all go in the pan with the bones. A couple of bay leaves should join the mix. Depending what else I have in the house, I'll add a quartered onion, a carrot and a celery stalk, and possibly some fresh parsley. Add the rest of the hot water from the kettle and bring the pan to the boil.

What happens next depends on the pan you use. I like to use my pressure cooker as the intensity of the cooking process squeezes every last drop of goodness out of the ingredients - the bones especially will yield all their marrow this way. An hour in a pressure cooker should be enough. If you're using a regular pan, you'll need to keep it on a low simmer once it's come to the boil and put a tight-fitting lid on.This method needs at least 2 hours, preferably 3, and you'll need to check the water level regularly and top up if necessary - you don't want your stock boiling dry. Don't add too much water though - you want a stock rich enough to set to a jelly when cooled, not a dilute, watery one.

When it's ready, turn off the heat and strain through a sieve into a heatproof bowl or jug and let it cool.

Cook's tips: 
You should have about a litre or so of stock - depending on your plans for it, you might want to freeze half. Otherwise put it in the fridge, where it should set to a thick jelly and keep for about 3-4 days.

You can add pretty much whatever raw ingredients you want to the stock before you start cooking. An onion and a bay leaf is the bare minimum to accompany the bones but don't add too many different things - you want the stock to taste of chicken, enhanced with the herbs, onion and a couple of other veg, not overwhelmed by the entire contents of your larder. Be careful about over-seasoning it, particularly if you add the skin from the chicken (unlikely in my house as I love the roasted skin - it's the best bit, in my opinion).