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).

Thursday, 15 September 2011

A roast chicken, French style

As I have previously mentioned, I'm rather fond of a roast but they are not usually a practical option if you live on your tod. As it happens, though, not only is roast chicken in my top 10 favourite meals, it's also the one that's worth making for yourself because the leftovers provide extra meals and you get a carcass to make stock with.

A small chicken weighing about a kilo is about the right size for one. If I can, I'll buy an organic bird, but even a non-organic free range chicken is preferable to a battery one. Most organic chickens tend to be on the large side because they are slaughtered later and thus have had more chance to grow into adulthood. They are undoubtedly the best for flavour so if you can find a smallish one buy it - the extra cost is well worth it for the taste.

I was briefly married to a Parisian many years ago - his mother was a fiercesome woman on first acquaintance but as I got to know her I discovered she was, in fact, a very warm-hearted soul and I became rather fond of her. She was also an absolutely amazing cook. Parisian Boy and I went often to the south suburbs for Sunday lunch with my in-laws, an occasion I always looked forward to knowing that my MiL would dish up some stunning grub - roast capon was a regular on her menu, for example. Once we'd become friends, and I was allowed to say tu to her, she passed on many recipes to me. These she would write down in that standard italic script taught to all French schoolchildren because the recipes were all in her head, passed on by her Auvergne forebears. If I was very lucky (not often), I'd be allowed to watch her in her kitchen.

So, the chicken. The typical British style of preparing a chicken for roasting is to smear it with softened butter and then fill the cavity with seasoning and stuffing. My former MiL's version is rather different and will pack even the blandest of birds with plenty of flavour.

What you need: 
A small chicken, about 1kg
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
A quarter-lemon
1 shallot
2 cloves of garlic
A large bayleaf
Herbes de Provence

What to do:
Heat the oven to 190C. Cut off any trussing string from the chicken and remove any fat from the cavity. Peel the shallot and garlic, then stuff the cavity with these, the lemon quarter and the bayleaf. Oil the chicken outside with the olive oil - be generous with it. Grind some sea salt and black pepper over it then sprinkle liberally with the herbes de Provence. Chicken generally needs about 20 minutes per 500g, plus 20 minutes, but I often give it 30 minutes instead, turning the oven up to 200C for the last stretch as it crisps up the skin nicely. Don't forget to baste regularly.

Stay tuned for ideas for the leftovers and how to make stock.

Cook's tips:
I don't usually bother to make real gravy just for me - it's a lot of faff for one person. If I have a gravy craving I'll cheat with Bisto, making just enough in a coffee mug. Otherwise I'll have a dollop of onion marmalade on the side.

Proper herbes de Provence contain lavender, which is widely eaten in France. The fields of Provence are full of lavender, mainly grown for the perfume industry in Grasse, but much of it finds its way into sweets, ice-cream, chocolate and the herbal blend for which this province is famous. Supermarket blends routinely miss out the lavender. It's worth tracking down a supplier that sells an authentic mix, or to buy the separate ingredients from a herbalist and blend your own. The lavender should be about 10% of the whole.

To serve, I'll either have some greens such as kale or spring greens sautéed over a low heat for an hour, or I'll fill a second roasting tin with some potatoes, onion and peppers, and maybe some parsnip or carrot, toss them in olive oil and put them alongside the chicken for an hour.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Creamy portobellos on toast

On busy days, I like to be able to rustle up an evening meal very quickly. My aim is 30 minutes or under, but if I can do it in 10 minutes that's even better. At the moment I'm craving simplicity because I've had several meals out this week with friends - one was a heavily meat-laden grill which I still feel bloated from, another had a decadently rich pudding of the sort I only indulge in once a year. So something quick, plain and simple was key for this supper. And as the weather turns nippy, something comforting also ticks the right boxes.

When I was a child my mother would shop every day for fresh food and she often came home with huge, flat portobello mushrooms that she would turn into a quick tea by serving them on toast. What I liked most were the copious black juices that would soak into the toast and turn the crispy bread into a soaking, dark mass rich with the flavour of the mushrooms. Whenever I buy portobello mushrooms, it's pretty much guaranteed what I will do with them.

I usually add some greens alongside the mushrooms, to give the dish an extra lift as well as provide some of my five a day. On my latest trip to the shops, I found some late-season purple sprouting broccoli, which stirred some excitement. I'm no fan of the more common calabrese broccoli, which I find largely tasteless and prone to turning quickly into soggy mess, but I adore purple sprouting which has a finer flavour and is less inclined to turn into mush if you take eye off it for a few seconds. 

What you need: 
2 portobello mushrooms
A little unsalted butter
A generous tablespoon of half-fat crème fraîche
2 slices of wholemeal bread
A pinch of fresh thyme leaves
6 spears of purple sprouting broccoli

What to do:
Melt a generous knob of butter in a small non-stick saucepan over a moderate heat. Slice the mushrooms into 3-4 strips then cut the strips into chunks. When the butter starts to froth and sizzle, toss in the mushrooms and stir with a wooden spoon to ensure they are all coated with the fat. Turn the heat down slightly and let the mushrooms cook. Meanwhile, pop the bread in the toaster and put the broccoli on to cook - you can steam it for around 6 minutes but I usually put half an inch of water into a pan, bring it to the boil, throw in the spears, jam a lid on and give them around 3-4 minutes, so they are still al dente.

The mushrooms are cooked when the pan is full of black juices. Turn the heat down as far as you can and add the crème fraîche and stir it through. Add the fresh thyme leaves and season with black pepper to taste (and salt if you used unsalted butter). Put the toast slices on the plate and tip the mushrooms onto them, spreading them out so the juices cover the bread. Serve the broccoli alongside.

Cook's tips: 
Timing is most critical for the broccoli. Get your pan on in good time. If the toast is ready before the broccoli, just leave it in the toaster, where it will stay warm for several minutes. Likewise, just turn off the heat under the mushrooms if you need to. 

I don't bother to butter the toast - there is already butter in the mushrooms, plus the crème fraîche and the juice from the mushrooms, which is plenty.

Lemon thyme, if you have some, works even better than plain thyme as the citrus notes help cut through the richness of the sauce. If you don't have any fresh thyme a tiny pinch of the dried variety will do, but add it earlier so it has a chance to soften during the cooking and release its flavour fully.

You can use any greens if purple sprouting broccoli is out of season - a little stir-fried kale or spring greens are a good substitute. If you use late-season purple sprouting, be sure to trim the stems well as they can be woody - you may need to cut off 3-4cm.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Sunday roast of sorts

The thing about living alone is that you can really miss a Sunday roast. There's something special about this British tradition of roasted meat, potatoes and vegetables, plus gravy and maybe stuffing, and followed with a proper pudding. Ideally accompanied by a bottle of good wine.

If I'm lucky, I'll be invited to a friend's for the roast, or we might meet at a restaurant so someone else gets to cook and wash up. Small as my house is, I try to invite people round once in a while for my own Sunday cooking even if it means eating off our laps on the sofa.

But even when I'm on my own, I still want something "roast-like" on a Sunday. Every few weeks I'll buy a small chicken because I can do lots of interesting things with the leftovers, including making stock from the carcass. If you don't have a joint, however, there are still things you can toss in the oven for an hour that almost replicate the meal. The following dish makes just enough for a generous portion.

What you need: 
3 good quality sausages
1 onion, peeled and cut into wedges
8-10 baby plum tomatoes
2-3 cloves of garlic
A handful of new potatoes (or old ones cut into small chunks)
Olive oil

What to do:
Heat the oven to 210C. Line a roasting tin with some foil then put all the ingredients in and drizzle generously with the olive oil. Turn everything with your hands until well coated. Season with sea salt and black pepper and tuck in a couple of bay leaves. Put in the oven for about an hour. I usually have a look about halfway through and turn things again with a wooden spatula to make sure everything browns evenly. It's ready when the house is full of wafting aromas and everything looks pleasingly sticky and just crispy round the edges.

Cook's tips: 
If you don't have sausages, use a couple of chicken thighs. You can use whatever vegetables you have to hand - peppers cut into quarters, chunks of butternut squash, carrots, parsnips and wedges of fennel are all good options. Don't leave out the potatoes though - it's these that help create the illusion of a Sunday roast.

Depending on the ingredients of the sausage, I might use a flavoured olive oil. I particularly like using a lemon-flavoured olive oil if I use chicken and then I'll also tuck in a couple of lemon quarters and bit more garlic. If you use half a ring of chorizo cut into chunks, you could use chilli oil to boost the spiciness.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

French brasserie-style fish chowder

I don't often make soup because I always seem to end up with a giant panful that would feed 8 or 10 people, when there's only me. I keep a couple of tins of lentil soup in the cupboard for those occasions when I'm ill or it's late and I'm tired and I want the easy option.

But there is one soup recipe I always go back to because it's foolproof and it's possible to make it in a quantity that produces two or three generous helpings (you can freeze it if you defrost with care and reheat it slowly).

My inspiration came from a Nigel Slater recipe called "A French(ish) fish broth", which I found in his 1997 book, Real Cooking. The original version is for 4 people and contains leeks, celery, chilli flakes, tomatoes and tarragon - none of these appear in my adaptation. I'm not keen on tomato in fish soup even though it's a standard ingredient of bouillabaisse and I steered away from the chilli because Slater also uses pastis in the broth - I felt it would overpower the delicate aniseed flavours of the pastis and the fennel he includes. As I adore both fennel and pastis (both hangovers from when I lived in Paris), my version sticks with the aniseed tones and incorporates fresh dill too. My added vegetables, apart from the fennel, are carrot and pepper and the end result is a wonderfully aromatic, brightly coloured chowder that I think would not be out of place on a brasserie menu.

What you need: 
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, crushed
Olive oil
A generous glug of pastis
About a pint/half a litre of vegetable stock (I use Marigold bouillon)
A generous pinch of saffron
I medium carrot, diced
I small red pepper, deseeded and sliced into thin strips
I fennel bulb, thinly sliced
4-5 small new potatoes, cut into 1cm chunks
A pack of fish pie mix (from the supermarket or fishmonger and usually containing a mix of cod, salmon and smoked haddock chunks)
Fresh dill

What to do:
Sauté the onion in a little olive oil on a low heat until it turns translucent, add the crushed garlic, stir through and cook for a couple more minutes then pour in the pastis, let it sizzle briefly, and then the stock and the saffron. Add the carrot, fennel, potato and red pepper, turn up the heat then let it simmer for around 20 minutes with a lid on until the vegetables are tender. Add the fish, bring it back to a simmer and cook for a further 5 minutes until the fish is just starting to flake. Turn off the heat, season to taste and stir in a tablespoon of roughly chopped dill. Then dish up.

Cook's tips:
If you don't have any Pernod, Ricard or other type of pastis, any other aniseed drink such as ouzo or raki will do.

Do add more water to the pan if it looks too dry -you don't want a very watery soup, rather it should be like a stew just held together with the broth.

If your fennel bulb has the fronds on it, keep them back and add to the soup with the dill, or instead of if you can't get fresh dill.

I often add a small bag of frozen cooked jumbo prawns a couple of minutes before I chuck the fish in, or a handful of frozen mixed seafood (usually mussels, squid and prawns). I don't bother to defrost first - they are already cooked and will thaw and heat up quickly in the hot broth.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Quinoa stuffed peppers

With a food delivery due tomorrow, I'm having a leftovers spree as I clear out things from my fridge that need eating. I never bin food unless it's obviously gone off, then it goes into a special food waste bin that the council collects from every week. Things that have use-by dates get sniffed - if they smell ok, they are almost certainly still edible. Not so long ago, I ate a pot of plain yoghurt that was more than a month past its due date - it hadn't been opened and it was fine (it must have been - I'm still alive, with no symptoms of food poisoning, and anyway, yoghurt is fermented so unless it's been exposed to air and left out of the fridge it's unlikely to go off).

My veg bin is almost empty but I found three peppers that were just starting to wrinkle so I decided to stuff them. I also grabbed a half-full packet of lardons, half of which I ate a few days ago (I think they went into an omelette). And lurking in the back of my larder was an unopened box of quinoa. I bought this more than three years ago when I became single again and was stocking a larder from scratch in my new home but never got round to trying it. I usually use cous-cous as a filler grain but the jar is empty right now so it was time to experiment with the quinoa.

Cooking the quinoa ahead of preparing the peppers was interesting, to say the least. The packet instructions said to use 70g per person and boil in twice the volume of water - that is utterly meaningless when you're given two entirely different measurements so I did what I usually do and fetched my mug. This mug is old and white and I never drink from it - I use it only for rough measurements of dried ingredients, mainly rice (a mugful is enough for two generous portions). So I tipped the quinoa into the mug until it was just under half full, gave it a quick rinse in a sieve under the cold tap then put it in the pan and poured a kettle of boiling water on top. All guesswork. I left the grain to boil for 10 minutes as per the box instructions although, disappointingly, it only doubled in volume rather than quadrupled. I left it covered, off the heat, to absorb the rest of the cooking water and it did fluff up nicely. But my house now smells like wet cardboard.

Fortunately, the quinoa doesn't taste of wet cardboard but a bit like barley. Except nuttier.

What you need: 
2-3 peppers
1 small onion, chopped finely
Half a pack of lardons, or cut a couple of slices of bacon into strips
A clove of garlic, thinly sliced
A couple of small tomatoes, chopped
Small handful of roughly chopped parsley
Olive oil
Seasonings, to taste

What to do: 
Prepare enough quinoa to fill the peppers. Heat the oven to 180C. Sauté the onion gently in olive oil until it is transparent. Add the lardons and garlic and fry until cooked. Tip into a bowl with the grain, parsley and chopped raw tomatoes and mix well. Throw in a small handful of diced halloumi then season to taste - I used only black pepper as lardons and halloumi are already salty enough for me. Cut the peppers in half vertically, pull out the seeds and pith, then stuff. Pack the peppers into a small, ovenproof dish and pour about half a centimetre of cold water into the dish. Pop in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes.

Cook's notes: 
This is a great way to use up almost any leftovers - mushrooms, diced carrot or courgette, leeks, even a handful of frozen peas if you're short of veg (don't bother to defrost them). I've used spinach leaves and black olives before, and you can also add pinenuts, pumpkin seeds or capers. If you don't have quinoa, use cous-cous, rice, bulgur wheat or even breadcrumbs from a wholemeal loaf. Instead of halloumi, try feta or even some crumbled stilton or grated cheddar if that's all you have. If you don't have bacon, you can use leftover cooked chicken or pork, or ham or chorizo (replace the meat with nuts if you're vegetarian).

I had two half-peppers left over - that's tomorrow's lunch sorted, then...

Sunday, 4 September 2011

10-minute tortelloni with smoked salmon and rocket

I don't eat a lot of pasta but I do buy fresh tortelloni and ravioli. They are the only sort worth buying fresh because, frankly, it's not worth making your own stuffed pasta when there's only one of you and fresh tagliatelle etc go from raw to mush very quickly during cooking and it's hard to catch them at the al dente stage. I keep dried lasagne sheets and fusilli in my larder and that's the lot. Stuffed fresh pasta also freezes very well. Sainsbury's is also the only supermarket that does one-person portions of stuffed pasta in both meat and veggie varieties - yay! Whenever I do an online grocery shop, I always order two or three packs.

So, I cheat on the pasta but I always make my own sauces. For tomato-based sauces, I cook a big panful then freeze portions - more on that another time. Tonight, I made a very simple sauce that also used up lots of leftovers in my fridge.

What you need: 
Pack of tortelloni
Half a bag of rocket (or two fistfuls if you bought it loose)
About 70g smoked salmon, cut into strips
Crème fraîche
Black pepper, to taste

What to do:
Put a big pan of water on to boil, add a pinch of sea salt then when the water reaches a vigorous rolling boil, throw in your tortelloni - mine was stuffed with spinach and ricotta. Boil for around 5 minutes, then drain and return to the hot pan. Add a very generous tablespoonful of half-fat crème fraîche, the rocket and the smoked salmon. Grind some black pepper over it then stir everything through gently. The rocket should wilt in the heat to about a half its volume. Tip into a bowl and eat. I had a small salad on the side too, which meant I had three, possibly even four, of my five a day in one meal and barely noticed it.

Fridge staples: 
Crème fraîche: I always keep a pot of this in my fridge as it's so useful. The full-fat variety is calorie-laden but half-fat crème fraîche still gives the flavour and mouth feel. It's a great standby for lots of recipes that require cream of some sort. If you don't want to use crème fraîche then try 0%-fat Greek yoghurt (Total does a really good one), which still has a good, thick, creamy texture.

Rocket: I buy the ready-washed bags but I recommend giving it a quick rinse in a colander anyway. You can use it as a salad, for the green stuff in a sandwich or in hot dishes as an extra veg portion.

Smoked salmon: I love smoked salmon but it can be expensive. It's less of a pricey treat if you look out for 3-for-2 or 3 for £10 offers in the supermarkets - it freezes well so you can chuck the extra packs straight in the freezer and defrost in the fridge when you need (or want) them. A 120g pack of supermarket own brand normally costs around £4 so three for a tenner is good value. Half the pack is enough for this pasta recipe. Use the rest for a lunchtime sandwich or for a Sunday brunch with scrambled eggs (once the pack is opened it will keep for up to a week if you seal it carefully).

Saturday, 3 September 2011

A single chef

I live alone. And I like to eat well. The two don't go well together for most people, especially when you're used to cooking big feasts for a partner or friends. It's only too easy to order a delivered takeaway or pick up ready meals from the supermarket. I certainly resort to takeaways once in a while, but I don't trust ready meals as I don't think they are nutritious (they tend to be high in salt, sugar and hidden fats).

With imagination, a little planning, some freezer space and a willingness to go with the flow when it comes to buying ingredients it's possible to eat very well indeed. And why not? Most cooking is not that difficult - you do not need to be able to spatchcock a pheasant or have trained under Gordon Ramsay to be competent in the kitchen.

I grew up in a biggish family and my mother cooked everything from scratch on a tight budget. Nothing was wasted. We ate very well and I learned to cook from watching her, then helping, then progressing to solo efforts. When I left home, she gave me two cook books, Cooking in a Bedsitter and The Pauper's Cookbook, which I still dip into. I've spent 30 years tearing recipes out of magazines and collecting cookery books - the problem is that when you live alone, most of them are useless as they tend to assume you must be cooking for 4 or 6 and size the recipes accordingly. They only earn their keep if you are cooking for friends. How to eat well when there's only you?

I discovered Nigel Slater long before he was famous, when he wrote a monthly column for Marie Claire, and I fell in love, for two reasons - firstly, Slater understands that most people these days don't live in big families, but on their own or with a partner. All his recipes tend to be for 1 or 2 people, but can easily be doubled up for more guests. Secondly, he cooks like I do - I rarely use scales but prefer to judge quantities by sight, smell and taste, and I like to make it up on the hoof, throwing things together because they are in season or because they just happen to be what's lurking in my fridge.

And so, welcome to my guide to being a solo gourmet. These are my adventures in my single kitchen, armed only with some decent pans, a couple of sharp knives and a larder full of essential ingredients.