Monday, 27 February 2012

Fennel roast pork belly with braised kale

Spring may be in the air but there's still a chill around in the evenings and I reckon I'll still be cooking a few cold-weather favourites over the next month or so.

There are plenty of winter veg still available at this time of year, particularly greens which are possibly my favourite vegetable. A bag of curly kale makes a good match for a slab or two of roast pig - if the bag's too big for one, save the leftovers for a bubble and squeak, or hold some back from the cooking to make a caldo verde with next day.

Fennel has also been a favourite of mine for many years. I often braise a bulb for dinner or throw it finely sliced into a fish soup, but I've recently fallen in love with the seeds too. A generous teaspoon of them recently brightened up a roast chicken, imbuing the flesh with a delicate fragrance, but pork and fennel are just made for each other and roasting the crushed seeds gives a real kick to the meat. 

What you need:
2 slices of belly pork
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 clove of garlic
4-5 juniper berries
1 bag shredded curly kale
Olive oil

What to do:
Heat the oven to 180C. Crush the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar. Season the belly pork slices with sea salt and sprinkle the seeds over. Roast for 1 hour, turning occasionally.

Wash the kale and leave to drain in a colander. Bruise the juniper berries in the pestle and mortar then add the garlic clove and a pinch of sea salt and crush it into a paste. Heat the oil in a heavy sauteuse and gently fry the garlic and juniper until the garlic turns translucent and the aromas are released. Add the kale, turning it over in the pan to stir through the garlic and ensure the leaves are coated in oil. Jam a tight lid on, turn the heat down a notch and let the kale cook through - it should take about 45 minutes and shrink down to about half its volume.

Cook's tips: 
Kale often turns up in veg boxes between September and March but finding it elsewhere, even washed and shredded, can be a bit hit and miss - that's a shame as it's a really underrated veg. If you find a whole one, chopping it up in a food processor with a shredder attachment is far easier than slicing it by hand. Savoy cabbage is a good substitute- remove the ribs before the shredding the rest of the leaves as they can be a bit tough.

A pork chop or two under the grill, or even a boneless loin steak, is a less fatty alternative to belly pork. Grind the fennel seeds down as fine as possible and use them as a rub, giving the meat and fennel a good half-hour to get to know each other before you cook it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Baked Vacherin

I'm not alone in my love for a bit of melted cheese - fondue, cheese on toast, Welsh rarebit, slices of squeaky grilled halloumi... We can't get enough of these classic dishes.

Fondue recipes are generally written up to feed at least two people, although a fondue for one, of sorts, can be knocked up easily enough, as my experimenting proved.

But the ultimate indulgence in hot dairy products is surely a baked Vacherin. It's basically a whole soft cheese in a box cooked at a highish temperature. But this prosaic description does a disservice to the sheer unctuousness of this seasonal delight. A bigger cheese is definitely plenty for two, but the smallest size is still substantial and perfect for a greedy foodie up for a luxury carb fest in front of the TV on a cold winter's night.

What you need:
1 Vacherin Mont D'or, in its box
A little white wine
A small clove of garlic
A tiny sprig or two of fresh thyme, oregano or rosemary (optional)
A portion of small new or salad potatoes, skins on
A handful of sweet-sour cornichons or gherkins
Crusty bread

What to do:
Heat the oven to 180C. Scrub the potatoes if necessary and put on to boil. Remove any plastic wrapping from the Vacherin. Make a few slits in the top of the rind and push in a few thin slivers of garlic. Tuck the herbs into the slits if you're using them. Sprinkle a generous tablespoonful of white wine over the top of the cheese, replace the lid of the box and bake for 20-25 minutes. The potatoes should be ready at the same time.

Serve up with the potatoes or crusty bread, torn into chunks fondue-style, and a side order of gherkins. Using a sharp knife cut carefully around the top rind of the cheese and remove this lid then scoop up the molten innards with the potatoes or bread.

Cook's tips: 
Vacherin is generally only available between October and April. It's released onto the market at different stages of ageing - the darker the rind, the older, more stinky and flavoursome it should be. With a very young cheese, as mine was, the rind will still be whiteish and can be eaten but the rind on older cheeses can be quite tough and somewhat bitter so is best discarded. Vacherin is usually sold wrapped in plastic with the lid underneath the box, so you can see the colour of the rind.

Expect to pay around £10 for a small cheese - at that price it really is an indulgence. If you're on a day trip to France, though, you can usually find them for around £6 so it's worth bringing back a couple if you don't mind it stinking your luggage out.

I usually have a green salad on the side, not just to cut through the carbs but to get some greens in me. Go easy on the dressing so it doesn't overpower the cheese. If you're very health conscious you could dip crudites into the Vacherin, but that would rather defeat the object of the exercise.

No wine? Use another white alcohol - fino sherry, kirsch and vermouth are all good substitutes. And for my next time, I plan to experiment with gin...

Other soft cheeses can also be baked this way. Out of season, Epoisses, Stinking Bishop and Camembert all do well in the oven. If your Camembert comes in a cardboard box, take it out, put the cheese in a small ovenproof dish and cover tightly with foil.

Pong and  Just Cheese both import artisan French cheeses at reasonable prices.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Vegetable tagine

I tweeted in passing the other week that I'd rustled up a vegetable tagine and someone tweeted back to ask for the recipe. Alas, I hadn't taken any photos or made any proper notes of what I was doing.

I'd originally planned to make a vegetable curry - the night before, I'd had a Spanish takeaway and ended up with half a carton of leftovers from a chickpea and spinach dish. I also had a sweet potato that needed to be eaten and a red pepper in the fridge. Then I discovered I had no curry paste in the cupboard, but I remembered I did have a jar of tagine paste. And voila, dinner!

The recipe here is for is my original dish from the other week, the photo is what I knocked up last week, with slightly different vegetables. I must say, the original looked prettier - with lots of contrasting colours - but for me tagine is as much about the flavours as the look and sometimes the tastiest flavour combinations don't necessarily look attractive.

What you need:
1 onion, roughly chopped
A clove of garlic, chopped
1 small sweet potato
2 small carrots
1/2 tin chickpeas
1 red or green pepper, deseeded and sliced
A small bunch of spinach
Tagine paste (Al'fez, from most supermarkets)
A handful of stoned olives
1 preserved lemon (can buy in most supermarkets)
Small handful fresh coriander 

What to do:  
Boil the kettle. Sauté the chopped onion in a glug of olive oil. When it's soft and translucent, add half a small jar of tagine paste and fry for 2 minutes. Add the diced sweet potato, sliced carrot rounds, sliced red pepper and the chick peas. Throw in 3-4 lumps of frozen spinach (or use a small bag of washed fresh). Stir through and add the boiling water to make a sauce). Add a handful of stoned black olives and a preserved lemon, sliced finely. Put a tight lid on and turn down the heat. Simmer until the root vegetables are tender. Finish with a little chopped fresh coriander and eat with flatbreads.

Cook's notes:
Tagine is a Moroccan dish and can be made with meat too. It's also the name of the clay pot it's cooked in - a round, flattish dish with a tall, conical lid. The pot goes in the oven at a low temperature to braise slowly and the lid acts as a funnel to keep the steam circulating, ensuring the food won't dry out. A decent sauteuse will do the job well on a hob, or transfer the ingredients to a casserole once before you add the hot water and pop it into a moderate oven for an hour or two.

Olives are pretty much an essential for any kind of tagine and many recipes include preserved lemon, a staple in Moroccan cooking. Dried fruit of all sorts is often added - apricots, figs, dates and prunes all pop up regularly, making a good sweet/savoury contrast with the other ingredients - particularly if you're using meat (lamb and chicken being the most common).

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Quick pea and ham soup

This hearty, warming soup is incredibly easy to make and can be almost flung together from ingredients you already have. It's a good way to use up leftovers too, which is how I usually put it together. This makes two portions.

One of the butchers in my neighbourhood has a hot counter, selling cartons of stew and roast chicken quarters. He also sells huge baked ham shanks for just £2. I sometimes bring one home for lunch and stuff some of the hot juicy meat into a bap with nothing more than some sliced tomatoes.

There's quite a bit of meat on a ham shank, though - when it's cooled I strip off the leftovers and make stock from the bone. The rest of the meat I use for lunchtime sandwiches, or it might go into an omelette. And it's perfect for soup.

What you need:
1 onion or 1 leek, roughly chopped
I largeish baking potato, cut into small cubes
About a litre of stock
2 servings of frozen peas
Ham, a generous handful

What to do:
Heat a little vegetable oil in a large heavy saucepan. Sauté the onion in a medium heat until it's soft and translucent. Pour in the stock and add the potato. Bring to the boil and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Add the peas, bring back to the boil then simmer for another 5 minutes. 

Chop the ham into tiny pieces and add about 2/3 to the soup. Using a stick blender, blitz the soup until it's almost, but not quite smooth so you can still see little bits of pea. Add the rest of the ham and season to taste.

Cook's tips:
The meat is what really gives this soup the flavour, so don't use supermarket slices as they tend to be tasteless and watery. It's essential to source proper ham. If it's on the bone, even better, as you can make stock with it (boil in water for 2 hour, or 1 hour in a pressure cooker, with some fresh bay leaves, an onion and a dozen juniper berries).

Don't season until the end - the ham may be salty enough to bring up the flavour of the other ingredients. If you don't have homemade stock, a ham or chicken stock cube is fine but they tend to be quite salty. Let everything cook together then check for seasoning. I like plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

I almost never peel potatoes as the skin has all the fibre and most of the vitamins. It also brings a little more texture to the soup. Baking potatoes are great for soup as they soften wonderfully when boiled, in a way you'll never get from using new or salad potatoes.

For a more luxurious finish, stir in a dollop of crème fraiche or some single cream before dishing up.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Lille gastro-tour

I've just come back from a two-day trip to Lille in northern France. Apart from doing a bit of sightseeing, which on previous trips I'd not had the opportunity to do, I was there to eat some of the local specialities and buy foodie treats to bring home.

When I lived in Paris, Parisian Boy and I would make the trip north every September for the famous Braderie de Lille, staying with friends and wandering the streets over the weekend to browse and maybe buy. The 1st of September is also the start of the mussel season - all the brasseries spill out onto the streets with extra tables and everyone tucks into moules frites, washed down with some of Lille's fabulous range of locally brewed beers.

I skipped the moules this time, as I was keen to sample different dishes. Here's a snapshot of some of the things that pleased my palate.

Tarte au maroilles - this local cheese is used as an ingredient in many dishes. The tarte is based on a thin pizza-like dough and the only topping is maroilles. It is briefly baked at a very high temperature so the cheese melts and forms a crisp crust. It's on menus everywhere as a starter and often sold in slices as a snack.

Carbonnade flamande - this gorgeous rich beef casserole is made with brisket and cooked very slowly with lots of onions and the local brown beer. The onions melt into the sauce to make a thick gravy. That little triangle is a melba toast made from pain d'epices, which is produced in Lille as well as other big cities.

Les delices de Quinquin - three different tarts (flamande, made from apples and cinnamon, sucré, with a sugary, syrupy topping, and chicory, which shouldn't work but did, the bitter chicory complementing the sweeter base perfectly) and chicory ice cream, dense and bitter-sweet and utterly moreish. Le petit Quinquin is a cute little statue in the centre of the city, in case you're wondering.

That blow-out three-course meal, washed down with a pichon of house red and finished off with a balloon of Armagnac, was enjoyed at Aux Moules, my favourite brasserie in the city. Its speciality is mussels, of course, but there are plenty of other local dishes on its extensive menu. I was too squeamish to try Lille's famous potjevleesch - a mishmash of chicken, rabbit, belly pork and veal set in a thick jelly - because I don't like aspic, but it truly is a unique dish for this region.

Tartiflette au maroilles - tartiflette is from Haute Savoie, but this version uses the local cheese again. Underneath the crispy top layer of melted maroilles was a creamy blend of soft, sliced potatoes, lardons and creme fraiche.

Of course, there were other delights - piping-hot fresh waffles slathered in melted chocolate bought from street kiosks, baked chicory (this vegetable pops up everywhere in the local cuisine) and I also sampled a little waterzooi. I heard of a shop specialising in homemade ice cream, but didn't have time to find it - a shame as I was keen to sample their beetroot ice cream.

As well as the eating, there was the buying - a supermarket raid netted me a large bottle of raspberry vinegar, mustards (Dijon and tarragon), a large saucisson fumée and a big tub of dried ceps, which was a bargain at around £1.50.

But it was the fromagerie that yielded my best purchases. At the rear left is a small standard maroilles - the washed rind is sticky and the texture inside is a little like a port salut. It's as stinky as a munster. Front left is an artisanal maroilles - the rind washed in local beer and then encrusted with sea salt from the salt pans at Dunkirk (and outrageously expensive at £10 but so worth it). The red pyramid next to it is fresh maroilles - it's very young and fresh at this stage, more like a cream cheese or a crottin, and rolled in paprika, tarragon and black pepper.

Not local at all but a bargain for a fiver - a Vacherin Mont d'Or. Well, it would have been rude not to...

Friday, 3 February 2012

Paella for one

Paella can seem a pretty daunting prospect for one - those fancy paella pans all look big enough to feed an army and the quantities of ingredients tend to be huge. I don't think I've ever seen a recipe for this Spanish standard for fewer than eight people.

I was once lucky enough to be invited to Sunday lunch by a family in Valencia, the city that is the home of paella, and that was exactly what they dished up. Paella is the sort of food that often gets cooked in front of others - indeed, it practically demands show-off cheffery. Isabella was kind enough to let me help her with some of the preparation, which was fun, as she cooked up a storm in front her guests and I picked up some useful tips.

A true paella valenciana has rabbit as the star meat ingredient, plus snails. More commonly, there will be chicken and various types of seafood, and maybe some chorizo because traditionally paella is about using what you have to hand. 

This recipe actually makes two portions, so you can feed a friend or reheat the leftovers next day. Don't be daunted by the long list of ingredients - this is actually very easy. It helps to do all your chopping before you get the pan on.

What you need:
Olive oil
1 small onion, roughly chopped
A clove of garlic, crushed
A small handful of flatleaf parsley
About 6cm of cooking chorizo, sliced into little rounds
A small handful of leftover chicken, shredded
Paella rice, about a third of a coffee mug
1/2 litre of chicken stock
1 small green pepper, deseeded and sliced
2 small tomatoes, cut into quarters
A tiny pinch of smoked paprika
2-3 tsp tomato purée
A handful of cooked jumbo prawns
Lemon wedges

What to do:
Heat the oil in a heavy sauteuse over a medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic. Separate the parsley leaves from the stalks and set the leaves aside. Chop the stems finely and add to the onion, along with the chorizo (and the fresh chicken, if you're using it). Tip the rice in and stir through so it is thoroughly coated in the oil then let it fry gently for a minute or two.

Pour in the stock and stir everything. Add the pepper and tomatoes, a generous pinch of saffron, the tomato purée and a little freshly ground black pepper. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to low so the liquid is only just bubbling. Now leave it for 20 minutes, only very occasionally stirring it so the rice doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.

Chop the parsley leaves finely. Five minutes before the end, stir through half the parsley and the leftover chicken, then tuck the prawns into the top of the paella to heat through. It's ready when the rice is soft and all the stock has been absorbed. Serve it with the rest of the parsley sprinkled on the top and a lemon wedge or two on the side.

Cook's tips:
At a pinch, you can make this almost entirely from store cupboard ingredients, especially if you have a freezer. I keep bags of prawns in my freezer, as well as a bag of mixed seafood - the sort that contains squid, mussels and prawns, all of which can be used in a paella. If you don't have fresh tomatoes, half a tin of chopped tomatoes will do the job - just omit the purée. No peppers? Use sliced frozen ones if you have them, or a couple of peppers from a jar, torn into strips.

Other things you can toss into a paella include other shellfish or seafoods such as baby octopus, pork belly, leftover turkey or game and sliced green beans or broad beans.

If you don't have any leftover chicken use half an uncooked chicken breast.

Risotto rice is an excellent substitute for paella rice.