Thursday, 20 December 2012

Instant banana ice cream

This cheat's ice cream is the best way I know to use up overripe bananas. It's not quite instant but it involves very little work, has only one ingredient and tastes amazing.

Ice cream is one of those things I always have in the freezer as I don't make puddings unless I have guests or some fruit to use up. It has to be premium ice cream for me and a small bowlful is plenty to satisfy any cravings I have for fat and sugar. Bananas have both without the need to add any extras and the simplicity of this does away with hours of making a custard base, churning and rechurning.You don't need an ice cream machine either, just a food processor.

I've been making this for so long that I have no idea where I originally discovered this. A friend who knows about such things explained the science to me - namely, that when bananas are frozen the fat they contain undergoes some kind of transformation and blitzing it produces the same creamy texture you get in proper ice cream. Whatever - it works!

What you need: 
4-6 very ripe bananas

What to do:
Peel the bananas and slice into 1cm rounds, discarding any blackened or badly bruised flesh. Spread the slices on a baking sheet and pop in the freezer for about an hour - they should be three-quarters frozen, not solid.

Put the three-quarters frozen banana slices into a food processor and blitz them until smooth. Put into a suitable container and refreeze. This makes about a pint / 1/2 litre depending on the size of the bananas.

Cook's tips: 
It's really important that you don't over-freeze the banana - blitzing it fully frozen could burn out the motor  in your food processor. If the slices have frozen solid, leave them to soften a bit before processing.

This freezes rock hard once blitzed and refrozen so take it out of the freezer for 10-15 minutes to soften slightly before scooping a portion.

Extras -  you can, of course, add extra ingredients once you've pulped the banana flesh. Things I've tried that work well include chocolate chips, dessicated coconut, chopped nuts (pistachios, brazils and walnuts are especially good), candied peel. and chopped glacé cherries. For an even creamier texture you could stir through some double cream or Greek yoghurt after processing. Beware of using crème fraiche as it can split when it thaws.

As far as I know this will keep indefinitely, although it's never lasted long enough for me to find out!

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Book review: Quick and Easy Indian Cookbook

It's very rare for me to cook curry at home, as I've said before. So when I was asked to try out the Quick and Easy Indian Cookbook by the Three Sisters, I took as a good opportunity to increase my somewhat basic knowledge.

Despite the title, prepping the various spice mixes was time-consuming. The ginger and garlic paste used in many recipes took me half an hour to make, most of that peeling the garlic cloves. However, it made a generous quantity that can be kept in the fridge or frozen in ice trays and it's the kind of thing I would use for non-Indian dishes too, so I didn't mind. Likewise, toasting and grinding spices before the cooking could begin - I spent 30 minutes preparing the chaat masala spice mix (which is used in many of the book's other dishes). The recipes themselves were mostly fairly straightforward once everything was prepped, although a major challenge for me was working out how to cut down recipes intended for 4 or 6 people into 1 or 2 portions.

I was wary of the chopped green chilli in the Cumin Chicken as I don't like fierce heat, but I needn't have worried. The finished dish was warm and fragrant rather than searing although mine looked rather wetter than the book's photo of it. I made a little tomato and cucumber raita to go with it (not in the book).

The book gives a recipe for making paneer but my kitchen doesn't have the space for setting cheese curds aside to drain so I bought some from an Asian supermarket and cooked two recipes. The shahi paneer, or royal Indian cheese, was a fragrant tomatoey casserole that turned the paneer into very soft curds. The shallow-fried paneer chaat really was quick and easy. I will definitely make both these again.

The gosht boti (lamb chops with tomato) were a disappointment, tasting very bland despite the large number of spices. The instructions were also a baffling mess - during the browning of the meat it says to boil off the water, except the water gets added much later.
The Goan fish curry, which I made with king prawns, really hit the mark. Packed with ginger, garlic and chilli and softened with the coconut milk, it soothed the cold I was suffering from. Despite the long list of ingredients, it was simple to assemble and tasted amazing. And it was easy enough that I'd feel confident cooking it without the book on front of me.

All in all, it's definitely a book I'd cook from again especially if I had guests. A big downside is that too many recipes need you to toast whole spices then grind them as part of the cooking rather than something you can do ahead in quantity - that belies the claim of quickness. I've still got a few bookmarked recipes to try and of the five above, I'd make all of them again except the lamb chops. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Dauphinoise potatoes

This is one of my favourite ways to eat potatoes - it's rich, silky, unctuous and garlicky. It takes only 5 minutes to prepare and then you can just forget about it until it's ready. I rarely cook it for myself but it's one of those dishes that's fab when you have guests as it never fails to impress. But I'm currently thinking ahead about a solo Christmas dinner. I've not yet decided what meat to roast (I may just grill a very large steak) but if you're using the oven anyway, then it's worth making a single portion.

Dauphinoise is a bit of a heart attack on a plate if you follow the traditional recipe, so I go for a low-fat version which is just as tasty and creamy but slashes the calorie content. I also like lots of garlic in it.

What you need: 
1 large potato
2 cloves of garlic
300ml tub of low-fat crème fraiche
Salt, pepper

What to do: 
Grease a one-portion pie dish with a small amount of butter. Slice the potato very thinly - about 1mm thick. Peel and slice the garlic cloves thinly. Make a layer of potato in the bottom of the dish, season, scatter over half the garlic and spread over half the crème fraiche. Repeat then finish with a final layer of potato. Dot the top with a little butter. Bake at 180C for about an hour.

Cook's tips:
If you want to follow the traditional recipe, just cut one garlic clove in half and rub it round the dish after buttering. Instead of low-fat crème fraiche, use full fat cream. Single is easiest because it pours well, but go for double if you're feeling decadent because it produces the most luxurious version.

A large baking potato is about the right size. I don't bother to peel it myself. The thinner the slices, the quicker they'll cook. Don't test with a knife for "doneness" - use a fork as it's a much better indicator of tenderness. If it's not quite ready after an hour, give it another 15 minutes.

Don't muck around with Dauphinoise too much - it's a simple dish and is best kept simple so resist the temptation to add sliced onions or bacon. At most, a tiny sprinkling of grated gruyère cheese will help to crisp up the top crust and add a little extra depth.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Stilton, rosemary and walnut scone

This almost-cakey slab of savoury carbs is really easy to knock up and the kind of thing I'm likely to bake when I need a supply of snacky stuff to nibble on when I'm working, or as the basis for a lazy supper on a tray in front of the TV.

What you need:
250g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
45g cold butter, cut into small chunks
150ml milk or soya milk
150g stilton, cut into cubes
A sprig of rosemary, leaves stripped off and very finely chopped
6-8 walnut halves, chopped
Parmesan cheese

What to do:
Heat the oven to 200C.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers - it should look like breadcrumbs. Add the milk and work it in gently until it forms dough. If it is too dry to take up all the flour, add a little more milk. If it's too wet sprinkle in a little more flour. Add the cubes of Stilton, walnut pieces and chopped rosemary. Knead the dough so everything is well distributed.

Line a baking sheet with a piece of baking parchment. Put the scone dough on to it, shape it into a round then flatten it very gently. Score the top into eight and grate a little parmesan over it. Bake for 25 minutes or so - it should be risen and golden.

Cook's tips:
Any blue cheese works really well here - try some gorgonzola or bleu d'Auvergne. Blacksticks Blue is especially tasty here but if you're on a budget a Danish blue is just as good.

I like to tinker with the additions - any good melting cheese can replace the blue. I sometimes add some chopped raw bacon or lardons instead of walnuts. A little very finely diced onion adds a good blast of flavour (sprinkle a little on the top too). Chopped fresh thyme or sage can take the place of rosemary. Sliced black olives also work.

I like to make it in a big round as you can break off as much as you want (keep the rest in a tin or wrapped in foil for later) but you could make individual scones with a cookie cutter - adjust the cooking time to 20 minutes then check on them!

The recipe doubles up really easily, just up the cooking time to 30-35 minutes.

Friday, 30 November 2012


Flammekueche, street food from Alsace, is probably best described as a Franco-German pizza. You won't find any tomato sauce on it, or olives, peppers or any other traditional pizza topping but it's made in the same way - a very thin dough base topped with ingredients then cooked in a very hot wood-burning oven.

The French region of Alsace has historically changed hands with Germany many times, hence the German-sounding name for this dish. The Germans call it flammkuchen, the French tarte flambée, but the Alsatian name is what it's best known by. A while back I discovered that the discount supermarket Lidl sometimes has flammekueche in its freezer section, usually when it has a French promotion, so it's worth having a look there. If I see them, I snap them up quick!

However, it's ridiculously easy to make at home if you cheat. It's absolutely not worth knocking up a batch of pizza dough for one person but if you can get hold of a good quality, ready-made pizza base you can have food on the table in 15 minutes. All you need after that are the toppings - crème fraiche, onions and bacon.

What you need:
An artisan pizza base
Creme fraiche
A small packet of lardons
A small onion, finely diced

What to do:
Heat the oven to 200-220C - if you have time, get it hot well in advance so the heat really has a chance to build up and stay there.

Put the base on a pizza stone and spread it almost to the edge with the creme fraiche - about 3tbsp should be enough for a 12" base. Scatter over the onion and lardons and grind a little black pepper over. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes.
Cook's tips:
The base needs to be as thin as possible. Anything from a supermarket will be too thick and doughy. The one I used here came from a farmers' market and was handmade. At less than 1mm thick, it was perfect. Check the cooking instructions on the pack but the temperature and time I gave up should be about right. And of course it will depend on the idiosyncrasies of your oven.

If you're using regular bacon, 2-3 slices of streaky cut into 1mm shreds is a good substitute for the lardons.

A classic flammekueche has just the ingredients listed but variations in Alsace include mushrooms or cheese. If you decide to add cheese, don't use cheddar as it goes too gooey - a French-style hard cheese such as Gruyère works best.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Caldo verde

I absolutely love making this Portuguese classic of cabbage, potatoes and spicy sausage - it's a really simple but very nourishing soup that is easy to make and ready in under 30 minutes. This makes 2 portions (it reheats well).

This soup should be quite dense and chunky from the chorizo, kale and potatoes but be held together by a clear broth so it's almost like a casserole.

What you need: 
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium to large potato, diced into 1/2cm cubes
1 chorizo sausage, sliced
A very generous handful of curly kale, chopped
1/2 litre of stock
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

What to do: 
Sauté the onion in the oil over a medium heat until it turns transparent. Add the chorizo and fry until the fat starts to run off. Pour in the stock and add the potato. Season. Turn up the heat, bring it to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Check the potato is cooked. Add the kale and simmer for another 5 minutes. Dish up.
Cook's tips: 
If you can't find kale, use spring greens or savoy cabbage and shred it finely.

If you've got one of those large rings of chorizo, about a third of it should be plenty. You can fry it off separately if it's very fatty and you don't want too much oil in the soup.

I've found that both floury and waxy potatoes work well and I don't bother to peel them unless the skin looks tired. Floury potatoes will start to break down once cooked. Don't overcook them as the liquor should remain clear.

Either vegetable or chicken stock is best. Do go easy on the salt when you season as some brands of stock can be very salty.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Rabbit casserole with apple and cider

Rabbit was something I ate regularly during my sojourn abroad - it was fairly easy to find on the butchers' slabs in the Parisian markets and surprisingly easy to buy in Amsterdam's supermarkets. Joy of joys, I've just found a butcher in my city that has them every day - a discovery made purely by chance as I'd actually gone to buy fish because my local fishmonger was inexplicably shut (the butcher and fishmonger in town being next door to each other in an indoor market).

A whole rabbit for £4 was too good to turn down. If you've never eaten it, the meat is white and very lean, has a texture like chicken and a similar but slightly gamier flavour. As there's virtually no fat on it and the meat is well-developed muscle, rabbit is best cooked slowly for 2-3 hours. There's not a lot of meat on one - a small rabbit will feed two people, so for a solo cook that's a portion for dinner now and one to freeze.

The classic pairing in the UK is with apples and cider. In France they cook it with prunes and red wine. It goes well with root vegetables in the pot and mustard is a classic seasoning. Some people add bacon for an extra layer of flavour.

What you need:
1 rabbit, whole or jointed
6 round shallots, peeled but left whole
3 tart apples
2 parsnips
1 turnip
1/2 litre of cider or scrumpy
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1tbsp grain mustard
 A little olive oil
A generous knob of butter
A few sprigs of fresh thyme

What to do:
Heat the olive oil and butter in a casserole on the hob and brown the rabbit on all sides. Cut the parsnips and turnips into chunks, peeling first if the skins look wrinkly and tired. Quarter the apples, remove the core and pips then cut the quarters in half. Add the shallots to the rabbit and sauté them until they start to soften slightly. Put all the veg in the pot, pour in the cider and add the mustard, thyme and a little sea salt and black pepper.

Put it in the oven at 180C for an hour then take it out to check it's not drying out and to taste for seasoning. Turn the heat down to 140C and cook it for another hour. At this stage check it again - the meat should be falling off the bones. If not pop it back in for another half-hour (and top up with boiling water if it looks dry).

Dish up.
Cook's tips:
If you buy a whole small rabbit (around 750g), make sure the butcher guts it for you if it hasn't already been done and to cut it up if you prefer joints. You'll get 4 small joints - 2 hind legs, a torso and the saddle, which is the back and the prize meat.

It's getting increasingly hard to find Bramley apples now. My greengrocer told me he'd stopped stocking them as he couldn't sell them when so many people now buy apple pie instead of making it. Granny Smiths are the way to go as they're the sourest eating apple - he assured me chefs use them to cook with now. Peel if you wish - I prefer to leave the skin on for extra flavour and fibre. If you do find Bramleys, 2 will be plenty.

The root vegetables should be plenty to fill you up, but some celeriac mash on the side is a great accompaniment if you feel inclined and it'll soak up some of the sauce, which will have thickened as the apples collapse.

Don't be alarmed by the amount of mustard - the length of cooking takes the heat out of it, leaving a mellow flavour.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Bacon, broad bean and black garlic pasta

I call this 3B pasta and it's really easy to make although it does use three pans. I think it's worth it, though, as the flavours go so well together. It's a store-cupboard dish - I usually have all the ingredients to hand so it's just a case of raiding the fridge and freezer for bacon, broad beans and parmesan, and the larder for pasta and the garlic.

What you need: 
Enough dried pasta spirals for one
A small shallot, chopped very finely
A small pack of lardons or a couple of snipped bacon rashers
A handful of broad beans
A bulb of black garlic
Olive oil
Fresh grated parmesan
A knob of butter

What to do:
Peel the garlic and crush the cloves to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Pour in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, add a pinch of sea salt and work them together to create a dark flavoured oil. (One of those mini worktop food-processors will do an equally good job of blitzing everything together.)

Put the pasta on to cook and the broad beans. While they are boiling, sauté the the shallot in a knob of butter until it turns translucent, then add the lardons and fry until the fat starts to run off. Don't let them caramelise. Keep warm. Drain the beans (about 5 minutes) and pop them out of their skins then add them to the lardons. Drain the pasta when it's al dente (about 10 minutes) and add to the beans and lardons. Mix well, add a tablespoon of the black garlic oil, toss through and put in a bowl. Finish off with some grated parmesan.

Cook's tips: 
Black garlic is ordinary garlic that has been fermented - it has a deep, sweet flavour a little like licorice and is very soft. As a flavouring, it's not obviously garlicky at all but it will deliver a huge hit of umami to whatever you add it too. It's quite easy to find it online and a single bulb usually costs £1-1.50. Peel the cloves carefully with your fingers as they will be sticky and squishy.

The leftover oil will keep in a jar for weeks - try adding some to a mushroom risotto, dress a lamb chop with it before grilling or rub it over a chicken prior to roasting. On their own the cloves can be used to flavour dips, add to tapenade, or use in Asian stir-fries.

Much as I love broad beans, I find the skins can be tough sometimes. I won't skin the beans if they are very small but the bigger ones definitely benefit from losing their outer coat. If the beans have been boiled for 4-5 minutes, the skins will slip off very easily. If you're not a fan, use peas instead.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Blind dining

No recipe today, but some food for thought.

Yesterday evening, I took part in an event called Dining in the Dark here in Manchester. Along with another 7 or 8 food bloggers, we were there to taste the new menus at the local branch of the Living Room chain. The twist was that we did it blindfolded.

I was confident that I'd be able to identify lots of flavours and ingredients. In fact it was harder than expected. Much harder. Between tastings we could remove our blindfolds and write down what we thought we were eating or drinking (for there were cocktails too). At the end we passed our sheets to our neighbour for marking. I scored a paltry 8.5 out of 40. Even the winner, a very deserving one, managed only 14. (We did have some disagreements with the Living Room about the difference between flavours and ingredients!)

So much of how we eat is visual - we see what's on the plate and we know what to expect. Our tastebuds ready themselves. Even before the food arrives, we've chosen from the menu or, at home, have decided what to cook. There is anticipation.

And then there is smell - our noses also help us to recognise what we are eating, even alerting us when food has gone off. Experts say 90% of what we taste is in fact smell. With the blindfold on, though, I felt like I'd lost not one sense but two - my ability to smell also seemed impaired. And without those, my tastebuds became confused. A coconut and passion fruit crème brulée tasted of the vanilla and sugar I expected with a hint of brandy. How wrong I was.

I did best with the Glamorgan vegetarian sausages above and also the Thai curry.

It was a lot of fun and a stark reminder that eating isn't just about taste. It's about much more - touch and sound also can play a role.

Thanks to the Living Room for their hospitality - I'm more of an "old-fashioned boozer" type of drinker but if you stop by for their food, the new menu is not bad at all.
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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Quick winter minestrone

Soups are currently top of my menu as the weather gets chillier and I crave something substantial, warming and comforting. Soup generally ticks all those boxes for me and this minestrone is especially hearty as well as very simple to make.

Best of all, you can get it into a bowl inside 30 minutes. The other huge bonus is that you probably have most of the ingredients in the larder already.

As usual, prep everything first. This makes two generous bowlfuls and I reckon it tastes as good if not better for reheating next day.

What you need: 
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, finely diced
1 small packet of lardons (optional)
1 litre of vegetable or chicken stock
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
1 small (half-size tin) haricot beans
A handful of small pasta (baby macaroni or orzo)
A generous handful of greens, finely shredded
Pinch of mixed dried herbs

What to do:
Heat a glug of olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium hob and sauté the onion until it starts to soften. Add the lardons if using and fry until the fat starts to run off. Don't brown them or let the onions start to caramelise. Add the carrot, stir through for half a minute then pour in the stock, the tomatoes, the beans and the pasta. Season to taste and add the herbs.

Bring the pan to the boil then turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the greens and simmer for another 5 minutes until the pasta is cooked to al dente. Dish up!

Cook's tips: 
Although minestrone is a chunky soup, the greens do need to be finely shredded - I aim to cut them as thin as Chinese "seaweed", which is actually made from cabbage, because they need to cook quickly. Most greens work well - spring greens, kale, cavolo nero and savoy cabbage all suit minestrone.

You can throw pretty much any veg into a minestrone as it's a seasonal soup that makes the most of what's available. If you don't have carrots to hand, use a parsnip, turnip or some celeriac. Use whatever beans you have to hand in the store cupboard - borlotti, cannelini and pinto, for example.

The basis of minestrone is vegetarian - any meat (or meat stock) is entirely optional. Bacon definitely suits this best if you want meat because of the depth of flavour it brings - use snipped-up rashers if you don't have lardons, or some chopped leftover ham or gammon.

You can finish the soup in the bowl with a teaspoon of pesto swirled through if you like (not my personal preference as I find it too overpowering) or a little grated parmesan or pecorino.
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Monday, 5 November 2012

Chicken and vegetable pie

Own up - who doesn't love pie? I do. I was invited to a pie-tasting event the other week. I hadn't eaten pie of any sort for some time and as I tucked in to a truly delicious peppered steak pasty I realised I hadn't made pie at home since, ooh I don't know when.

Homemade pie is definitely a bit of work and for one person, even more so. But once in a while it's worth making the effort, because it will feed you several times over and if you have leftovers it's a good way to use them up. Have one portion hot and enjoy the rest for packed lunches (although it reheats well too).

As it happens, I'd just been given a very large (2kg) organic chicken. I roasted it for a weekend supper then spent the next day pulling the rest of the meat off the carcass, which I turned into stock the bones. I also had a leek that was on the verge of going slightly limp. Pie sprang to mind - chicken and leek are made for each other.

What you need:
Half a leftover roast chicken - 1 breast, 1 leg
A small leek, diced
1 carrot, diced
Handful of frozen peas
250g shortcrust pastry
Bechamel sauce
1 egg

What to do:
Make the pastry first. Rub 110g butter into 225g of plain flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add a tablespoon of cold water and, using one hand, work it in to a dough. Add more cold water bit by bit if you need it. The pastry should be stiff, not sticky. Wrap it in cling film and put in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

Make the filling. Sweat the leek in some butter until it starts to soften. Add the carrot and continue to cook gently. Throw in the peas. Cut the cooked chicken into bite-sized chunks and add to the veg. Stir well and season lightly. Set aside to cool.

Make the bechamel. Melt 50g butter in a pan on a low heat and add a tablespoon of plain flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to get rid of any lumps. Add 300ml milk a tablespoonful at a time, beating furiously each time to prevent lumps. Turn up the heat and keep stirring as it thickens.Turn the heat down again when it starts to bubble and cook it for a few minutes more (this is to cook the flour as it's not nice raw). Pour into the chicken and veg and mix well.

Heat the oven to 200C and grease a 20cm pie dish.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and cut it in half. Sprinkle a little flour over the worktop and roll out half the pastry into a circle until it's about 1mm thick and about 1.5cm bigger than the pie tin. Line the pie tin across the base and up the sides, making sure you have an overhang. Tip in the filling, spreading it evenly across the dish. Roll out the rest of the pastry to make the lid. Make an eggwash by beating a small egg in a mug. With a pastry brush, smear a little eggwash round the edge of the pie, roll the lid on top and crimp the edges together. Brush the rest of the eggwash across the pie lid and then cut 2-3 slits in it. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden and crispy.

Cook's tips: 
Pastry: the trick to good pastry is keeping everything cold. Use butter straight from the fridge (rubbing in is easier if you cut it into cubes) and keep your hands cold. I wash mine under the cold tap at this stage and also when rolling out. Chilling the pastry before rolling is essential - it stops it shrinking from the sides of the dish as it bakes. No rolling pin? Improvise - last night's wine bottle (a trick I learned in my student days) will be fine. Of course, if you're feeling lazy, there's nothing wrong with using bought shortcrust pastry. You can even buy it in ready-rolled sheets now.

You shouldn't have any leftover pastry from this quantity and a 20cm dish, but if you do use it to make jam tarts. Or a mini pasty if you have leftover filling too.

Bechamel: Yes, you can buy it in a jar but homemade doesn't take very long and it has only 3 ingredients, which is a lot fewer than the readymade version. Quite a few well-known chefs advocate putting the butter, milk and flour together in the pan at the very start and whisking everything furiously as it comes to the boil. Done properly, it should be lump-free.

The filling: Most cooked leftover meat will lend itself well to pie filling. Add some chopped bacon if you don't have quite enough meat. For the veg, mushrooms also have an affinity with chicken but you could use anything - sweetcorn, chopped onion, diced peppers, broad beans... If you have some fresh herbs, a little thyme, tarragon or parsley will lift the filling.

Preparing leeks: the quickest, easiest way to dice a leek is a complete no-brainer when you know how - it's just not immediately obvious to non-chefs. I spent years slicing leeks into rounds then cutting those into quarters before a chef taught me differently. Pull off the outer leaves and trim off the top. Leave the root intact. Put the leek on a chopping board and slice it vertically from root to tip, turning it to make a fresh cut every 1/2cm. Then slice it horizontally and it will fall into dice. Wash well in a colander to get rid of any grit.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

South-east Asia in a bag

The #foodiepenpals “club” never ceases to thrill, surprise and amaze me – although I cook for one day to day, food for me is also about sharing and that’s where #foodiepenpals just keeps delivering. I love putting a parcel together every month for the recipient I’ve been matched with and there’s also the anticipation of getting one in return from yet someone else.

There was extra excitement in store this month, as my parcel not only arrived hand-delivered but was also entirely homemade. Lex, aka LadyNom1, was passing through my neighbourhood so she dropped by for tea and a natter, while handing over this exotic-looking bag.

Lex writes the LadyNom blog and runs a supper club called Nomsensical in Altrincham, just south of Manchester. There are several supper clubs in my city although I’ve yet to attend one. We had a chat about these and she encouraged me to sign up for her next one. I then told Lex about Manchester’s legendary GastroClub, which she’d never tried yet. It’s currently on hold but hopefully she’ll book when it gets going again.

After she left, I dived into Lex’s bag of goodies, which contained four jars of handmade fresh dips and pastes from south-east Asia. She certainly knows her stuff, having travelled extensively in the region and cooked professionally there so these were all as authentic as can be. She’d very thoughtfully made up each jar in one-person portions for me – Cambodian amok curry paste, a Laotian spice paste for fish and noodles, a Vietnamese dipping sauce and a Thai curry paste.

She’d also included six (six!) pages of info about her travels and the food, plus a recipe for each item, also thoughtfully in one-person portions. Most of my repertoire is pan-European so I was delighted to receive such a fabulous parcel and couldn’t wait to get cracking in the kitchen.

I chose to cook the Cambodian amok first – you’ll have to ask Lex for the recipe, but it’s a mix of chicken and spinach or beet leaves steamed in coconut milk and her spice paste, which is based on coriander. For true authenticity, you’re supposed to wrap it in a banana leaf but I used her suggested method of steaming it in a bowl over a pan of boiling water instead. It was fragrant and warming, the perfect supper for a chilly, drizzle evening.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Chicken and banana curry

I have a very lazy relationship with curry. I either go out to eat it, or I order in a takeaway - both on the basis that it'll be far superior to my own efforts. I have a jar of balti paste in the cupboard for when I do decide to rustle up a curry of my own, particularly if I have ripe tomatoes that need eating. And once in a while I make this.

Years ago my parents used to make a chicken and banana curry from a recipe book, but it wasn't particularly tasty as it used a standard curry powder blend. Despite my laziness, I did learn a bit about curry spices some years back and I'm confident that this is an upmarket recreation of that dish from my teens. If you can be bothered it's well worth experimenting - whole spices vastly improve a curry, but South Asians already know that!

I like the combination of chicken and banana as I'm not keen on very hot curries - this produces something milder, slightly sweet and more aromatic. It's not quick - you need about an hour from start to finish, but for soothing, warming comfort food it's hard to beat. Makes 2 portions, on the grounds that curry often tastes better the day after.

What you need: 
Vegetable oil
2 skinless chicken thighs
An inch of cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
6 cardamon pods, lightly crushed
6 crushed black peppercorns
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
an inch of fresh ginger, grated
1 small onion, diced
1/2 pint chicken stock
1 small green pepper, sliced
2 medium ripe bananas, thickly sliced
A handful of roughly chopped fresh coriander

What to do: 
Prep all the spices first and chop the vegetables. Heat a splash of vegetable oil in a sauteuse on a medium hob and brown the chicken thighs. Set aside, add a little more oil if the pan looks dry then fry the whole spices until they release their aromas.

Add the ginger, garlic and onion and fry until the onion starts to soften - about 5 minutes. Pour the chicken stock in, then add the chicken thighs, banana and green pepper. Stir well and turn up the heat until it starts to bubble gently. Then turn the heat back down, put a lid on, and leave to simmer gently for about 45 minutes.

Plate up - sprinkle the chopped coriander over the curry and add a portion of basmati rice on the side.

Cook's tips:
This works just as well with chicken fillet - if you're in a hurry, it'll cook in about 30 minutes.

Don't use bananas that are very ripe else they will break down completely and you want to have some texture from the fruit even while it's melted into the sauce. And don't swap the green pepper for red or yellow - it will make the curry too sweet. If you prefer more heat, substitute a fresh green chilli, finely chopped, for the mustard seeds.

You can turn this into a korma by using half stock and half coconut milk, plus a tablespoon of ground almonds and a few sultanas.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Orzo risotto with porcini

Orzo is a kind of pasta that looks like tiny grains of rice - it's often used to bulk out soups (it works well in minestrone, for example) or make the base of a salad. It's rare to see it in supermarkets, but if you find a bag somewhere grab it as it's a versatile store-cupboard staple and a 500g pack will last for ages. I found my most recent bag in a discount supermarket some months ago and paid about £1.20.

Because orzo looks like rice, it's a good substitute for it in some dishes and it makes a great "risotto". It takes about half the time to cook, so you don't want the pasta in the pan for more than about 10 minutes.

What you need:
Orzo, about half a mug full
Small handful of dried porcini
4-5 sundried tomatoes
1/2 litre of stock
1 small onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
Parmesan cheese

What to do: 
Using separate bowls, soak the porcini and tomatoes by covering with boiling water and leaving for 15-20 minutes (or according to packet instructions). Drain, reserving the liquid. Make up the liquid to the right amount by topping up with boiling water and adding in a little stock powder if you wish. Chop the sundried tomatoes into small pieces.

Sauté the onion in the olive oil until it's soft and translucent, using a heavy-based sauteuse over a medium heat. Toss in the orzo, stir through until it's coated in oil (as you would for a rice risotto), then pour in about half the liquid. Bring the pan almost to the boil then turn the heat right down so everything's on a gentle simmer.

Stir the risotto and add the tomatoes and porcini after 5 minutes. Stir again and add more liquid if it starts to dry out. The orzo should cook within 10 minutes but check it - it needs to be al dente, not mushy. Stir in some grated parmesan, season to taste and dish up.

Cook's tips:
Be really careful with the cooking time. Risotto rice needs 20-25 minutes, orzo much less, so get all your ingredients ready before you switch the hob on. Orzo also needs a lot less liquid than rice as it is much less absorbent, so you need to watch how much you add and only top up it little by little.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Pulled beef

Pulled meat is surprisingly easy to make - all you need is time to shove a roasting joint in the oven and leave it cook really slowly on a low heat for anywhere between 3 and 5 hours, until it literally falls apart when you jab a fork into it. The "pulled" refers to the strands of meat that are produced when the muscle breaks down completely.

Pork is typically used for pulling - this recipe for pulled pork is fairly standard in the ingredients it uses. I prefer to make a massive bed of sliced onions to put the meat on and I don't add extra liquid as the onions generate enough. What is important is a low oven of about 140C and ensuring the roasting tin is sealed with a tin foil cover to keep the juices in.

However, you can pull beef too. The best joint to use is brisket - it's traditionally pot-roasted as it needs a lot of cooking. And I do mean a lot - even after 3 hours, brisket will still be tough. On the plus side, it's ridiculously cheap. A slab of about 750g will rarely cost more than a fiver and it will produce 4 decent portions.

What you need: 
750g joint of brisket
Cooking liquid
What to do: 
Heat the oven to 140C. Put the brisket in a roasting tin with a handful of unpeeled baby shallots. Season the meat and pour in about an inch of liquid. Cover with tin foil, making sure it's sealed tight round the edges of the tin. Pop it in the oven.

Check it after 3 hours - the meat won't be nearly ready but you may need to top up the cooking liquid. And don't be alarmed by the meat shrinking.

Put the meat back in the oven for at least another hour - I find 4.5 to 5 hours is about right. It's ready when you can shred it with a pair of forks.

Lift it out carefully on to a plate to shred it, then enjoy a portion with the vegetable and carbs of your choice. You can eat the shallots too if you prise the flesh out of the skins.

Cook's tips:
Choose a piece of brisket that has plenty of fat round the edge and also marbled through the meat - it helps to keep the meat moist and tender as it cooks.

If you use stock for the cooking liquid go for something not too salty. I usually make up some Marigold vegetable bouillon, but there's no reason not to use beef stock. Or you could throw in some cooking wine. If you use plain water, then toss in a couple of bay leaves and a bouquet garni, plus a few sprigs of fresh thyme if you have some.

What to do with the leftovers? From a 750g joint, you should have enough for 3 more meals. Pulled brisket is great in a sandwich for lunch with some horseradish sauce. It's also excellent in a fajita and as the meat in a small cottage pie (make enough mash for leftovers if you're having it with the brisket straight out of the oven). Cheap eats for half a week...

Brisket will dry out quickly after cooking - cover the plate of leftover shreds with some tin foil to keep the juices in as it cools. Then split it into portions and pack it into containers - the meat will keep 3 days in the fridge and it also freezes well. I usually add a little of the cooking liquid to each portion for extra moisture at this stage.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Tricolore with halloumi

Tricolore is Italian for 3 colours, and in Italian cooking that usually means the red, white and green of the national flag. It's also the name for a salad that is a jumped-up version of the classic caprese.

The caprese salad is really simple - just tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil leaves, dressed with a little olive oil and seasoned. The tricolore throws avocado into the mix. I often have an avocado lurking in my fruit bowl but I also often forget to eat them before they get overripe. I don't always have mozzarella in the fridge but I do usually have a pack of halloumi. This can be knocked up in a couple of minutes - it's healthy and quite filling and utterly delicious.

What you need: 
1/3rd of a block of halloumi
1 ripe avocado
A large handful of cherry tomatoes
1 lemon
Olive oil
Black pepper

What to do:
Slice the halloumi and arrange on a plate. Zest the lemon and scatter it over the cheese. Halve the avocado, take the stone out, then halve again so it's in quarters. Cut the flesh into slices and put them between the cheese, piling any extra into the middle.

Halve the cherry tomatoes and scatter over the plate, along with a heaped teaspoon of capers. Grind some black pepper over everything then drizzle with a little olive oil and the juice of half the lemon.

Cook's tips: 
I usually skip the salt as halloumi is quite salty, enough for this salad. Don't skip the lemon zest though - it helps to cut through the saltiness while lifting the vegetables.

If you don't like capers, use some halved green or black olives instead.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Baked onions

I've had a thing about whole cooked onions ever since I was a child and we ate shepherd's pie for tea with a side order of boiled Spanish onions as the main vegetable. Boiling makes them very soft - if you can find the Spanish variety, which are pretty large, all you need to do is peel them, leaving the root intact, then bring to the boil on the hob and keep them on a medium simmer for about an hour.

However, baking them in their skins really concentrates the flavour and makes them very sweet.

What you need: 
2-3 large whole onions
A little balsamic vinegar
Grated cheese

What to do: 
Make sure you choose onions with several layers of skin on - you don't want any that have just one thin layer peeling off and exposing the white flesh. Give them a wash under the cold tap if they have any mud on them and pat dry with kitchen paper.

Trim the roots very carefully with a small paring knife, just enough so they are flat enough to stand the onions upright. Put them in a roasting tin, sitting on the roots, and stick them in a very hot oven - 200-220C for a good hour.

When the onions are ready, you will find the skins quite blackened. Halve them across the root, sprinkle with a little balsamic vinegar and grated cheese, and season to taste. Then scoop the flesh out like you would a baked potato.

Cook's tips: 
Because baking makes the onions very sweet, a salty cheese works best to accompany. Cheshire, Lancashire and Caerphilly are all good matches. You need a cheese that will melt a bit when it hits the hot onion, so despite its salty flavour feta is not such a good choice.

These make a meal on their own if you bake enough of them to sate your hunger. I roasted a couple of slices of belly pork, marinaded in chipotle sauce, for the plate above plus a side salad. Grilled bacon also works well, if you want meat, as do chops of some sort or even a steak.

Lovely as onions are, eating this sort of quantity does make you windy next day so be warned! But it also makes them ideal for lone diners...

Friday, 28 September 2012

Eating my way through Sicily

One of the pleasures of foreign travel is being able to try different foods - if I'm honest, it's one of the main attractions, more interesting than lying on a beach for a week or two. I've been known to dash off for short breaks purely for the food, but longer trips really give you plenty of time to eat your way round a cuisine.

I've been to Italy many times, but not Sicily until now. I was itching to climb Etna but had to read up on the food culture before I flew out. No surprise to learn that pasta and pizza are as widespread in Sicily as the rest of the country, but there are lots of local specialities too.

I was based in the east, where fish dominates the menus, thanks to the thriving fishing industry and abundance of varieties. At Catania's massive outdoor fish market, a daily theatrical spectacle, I saw hundreds of fishy things I'd never seen before.

With so much fish on menus everywhere I ate very little meat. Stuffing and rolling fillets is a local speciality. The sarde a beccafico (sardines stuffed with pine nuts, capers, breadcrumbs and almonds) were delicious, as was the swordfish (involtino di pesce spada) stuffed with anchovies, garlic and salted ricotta (and an unexpected but very tasty side of deep-fried celery leaves).

Sampling the pasta all Norma was a given - a plate of pasta, tomatoes, fried aubergine slices and salted ricotta, named after the opera by Bellini, who happens to be Catania's most famous son. I also enjoyed this plate of pasta with tomato sauce, peas, fresh anchovies and fried breadcrumbs (which are another local tradition).
And this is what I call a proper rocket pizza.
The desserts also delighted. Annoyingly, my every attempt to try the cassata was thwarted - time and again I was told sorry, it's off the menu. But I did scoff a few cannoli - deep-fried rolled pastry shells (a bit like a brandy snap), stuffed with fresh, sweetened ricotta and candied fruits then dipped in crushed pistachios. And the semifreddo of pistachio, marsala-soaked sponge and soft meringue was amazing.
There were many more memorable meals, too many to post here. Naturally I came home with food - a large hunk of salted ricotta, a lump of coppa, a jar of pistachio cream, bottles of limoncello and fennel liqueur, and a basket of these beautiful marzipan fruits...
Lastly, I've just found this lovely blog on Sicilian food and I'm enjoying dipping into the recipes and learning even more about the food culture there.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Creamy spring greens

I'm back! I've been in Sicily in my blogging absence, stuffing my face with local specialities yet somehow losing 5 kilos in the process (probably because of all the hiking). I'll share some Sicilian foodie pics in another post but now, after days of of being waited on in trattorias, osterias and street cafés I'm back to cooking for myself.

The cold weather was a shock to my system on my return so I've already turned to warming winter dishes. Spring greens are one of my favourite vegetables - despite the name it's available most of the year and it's very versatile. This is one of my favourite ways to cook spring greens and happily takes centre space on the plate with a bit of protein on the side.

What you need: 
Spring greens - about 250g makes a generous portion for one
Half-fat crème fraiche - 2 heaped spoonfuls
Salt, pepper
Half a lemon

What to do: 
Wash the greens, shaking off the excess water in a colander, then slice them horizontally discarding the toughest part of the core. Melt a generous knob of butter in a heavy-based sauteuse or frying pan - as soon as it starts to froth add the greens and stir through until they are all coated. Season well with crushed sea salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then turn the heat down a touch and cook them for 10-15 minutes until they are tender.

Add the crème fraiche, stir it through and cook the greens for a few minutes longer. Finish with a spritz of the juice of half a lemon and plate up with the accompaniment of your choice.

Cook's tips:
If you can't find spring greens, some curly kale, a savoy cabbage or head of cavolo nero all make good substitutes. To slice a cabbage horizontally, first quarter it lengthways after washing, cut out the lower, thick section of core then shred across the leaves. For this dish aim for shreds that are about 1.5cm (1/2 inch) wide.

If you're not worried about your intake of saturated fats, single or double cream produce a more luxurious finish.

Cabbage and pork partner very well together - a pork chop, a couple of slices of black pudding or grilled belly pork, or some sausages all go well with this. If you don't eat meat, a couple of slices of grilled polenta are a good match.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Time for a takeaway

That's my way of saying I'm taking a short break.

I'll be back soon - I have some foodie plans in hand that need taking care of. They may involve pasta and lemons.

In the meantime, here's a Persian mutton stew with apricots and bulgur I made last week - I'll put the recipe up when normal service resumes.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Larder larks no. 5

August's larder larks have not only been about the ingredients, as usual, but it's been a revelation too. Some very interesting foods have crossed my path in the last few weeks.

First, of course, it's the time of the month for the big #foodiepenpals reveal - this month the sender of my parcel was the lovely @anoseforfood, aka Amanda. She sent me a veritable feast of delicious things to sample.

First out of the bag was this trio. I'm not really a popcorn eater - I prefer crisps - but this bag really hit the spot with its sharp spicy flavours. Incredibly I've not yet eaten the sugar-free chocolate. I'm saving it for a day when only chocolate will do. As my sweet tooth shrinks yearly like a melting polar ice cap, it's thumbs up to Amanda for delivering me a sweet treat that isn't sweet.

Ready-made polenta - whodathunkit? I absolutely love polenta but I've not cooked it once since I became a solo household again. Making polenta is pretty labour-intensive so not really on my radar as something to make just for myself. But ready-made? Now you're talking! I've not yet opened this packet but I'm hoping it's freezable so I can stash it in portions. Otherwise I'll be eating a lot of grilled wedges over the course of a week. But hey, I'm not complaining.

There were also teabags, including licorice tea. This has been a licorice month, bear with me...
There was a delicious sachet of smoky barbecue marinade which went on some pork belly slices before I had time to photograph it, but I really, really liked these:
On the mornings I remember to eat breakfast (sadly not often enough), it's usually a bowl of granola with soya milk. These little packets make the perfect topper, finely milled seeds containing all sorts of nutritional goodness. I like them so much I'm now tracking them down online to buy more. Thanks, Amanda.

Of course, I also had my Larder Box earlier in the month - as usual crammed with new things to try. This white truffle oil is gorgeous. Much as I blow my spare cash on great food, truffle oil is always so outrageously expensive I tend to pass on it. Also because I know a full-size bottle will take 5 years to get through it, by which time it may have turned rancid.This small 100ml bottle is just the right size for one and it retails at under £7, which is a bargain. Gorgeous on scrambled eggs...

Now - bacon jam. Yes, bacon jam. I'd heard of this before and thought "ewww!" I mean why would anyone want to taint lovely fruity jam with artificial bacon flavour? I was wrong. It's not jam at all and it contains real bacon! Who knew?

It's really a blend of onion marmalade with finely chopped grilled bacon, and originally intended as a gourmet burger topping. Thing is, it's a great match for all sorts of things, especially cheese on toast made with really strong cheddar. So that was the first big revelation.

The second one happened at Harvey Nicks. The lovely team that run the food hall and restaurant at the Manchester branch invited local food writers for lunch a few weeks back, and a chance to sample their new food lines.

I'm not really a Harvey Nicks shopper as I don't buy designer clothes, but I dined in their restaurant last year on a GastroClub outing and it was first class. I wouldn't normally have gone for dinner in a department store but it's fair to say that particular outing has been one of the more talked about among the GastroClubbers. The food hall on the same floor is fabulous and I've occasionally dropped in to pick up an ingredient I knew I wouldn't find anywhere else in town.

Harvey Nicks did us proud with a lunch mostly composed of the various products we'd been invited to try, but before we sat down to eat we had a couple of hours to meet the producers - there was a good array of olives, cheeses, hand-raised pork pies and artisan beers and ciders. There was also a lot of chocolate - I ended up having a nibble of some chocolate flavoured with mango, which was wonderfully intense. The same producer also had one flavoured with licorice.

Now, I love licorice. I grew up on All Sorts and when I moved to Amsterdam I discovered the Dutch eat licorice the way Brits scoff crisps and chocolate. So the chocolate licorice ticked a lot of my boxes. But then, then, the guy selling all this delicious chocolate asked me if I'd tried the licorice powder. I immediately shot off to find it. Cue revelation no. 2.

This is not a sweet but a proper ingredient. All the Harvey Nicks staff kept telling me it's the next big thing as lots of chefs are starting to use it. I was going to buy some, but I found some in the goody bag I was given. I've not used it yet, just dipped a finger in to taste its dark intensity. I'm having a good think about how to use it in main dishes, but I'm also keen to try it in a pudding of some sort, like a tiramisu or ice cream.