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.