Thursday, 29 March 2012

Homemade duck confit

If I'm eating out and duck confit is on the menu, it's pretty much a given that I'll order it. It's irresistible, delicious and one of my favourite ways to consume meat. It can also be a bit pricey in restaurants, inexplicably so when the ingredients are cheap and preparation doesn't require lots of complex steps. It's simply meat poached gently in its own fat.

Of course, if you're in France on a break it's much cheaper to buy a tin or jar or two from a supermarket to bring home. The main disadvantage is the weight - if you're flying, lugging back confit will seriously affect your baggage allowance.

My advice is make it yourself. Duck legs are incredibly cheap - you can usually buy a pair from around £3.50-£4 in the bigger supermarkets. They sell at this price because the breast is in greater demand as a separate cut. As well as a frugal treat, confit is incredibly simple to make, but it does need time so it's probably best to do it on a weekend when you can be around to keep checking on it. This is how Parisian Boy's mother taught me to make it.

What you need: 
2 duck legs
White wine or white vermouth
Fresh thyme and bay leaves
2 cloves of garlic
2 heaped teaspoons of sea salt

What to do:
Check the skin on the duck and pull out any stray feather stumps. Chop the garlic roughly and tear the bay leaves into pieces. Make a layer of half the garlic, half the bay leaves and thyme sprigs and half the sea salt in a dish in which the legs will fit snugly. Put the legs on top, skin side up, and cover with more salt and the rest of the garlic and herbs. Cover with a lid or some clingfilm and pop it in the fridge for 24 hours.

Next day, brush off all the salt, garlic and herbs from the duck. If there's liquid in the bottom of the dish, discard it and pat the legs dry with kitchen paper if necessary. Place both the legs, skin side down, in a snug saucepan - they should fit as tightly as possible. Pour over a very generous glass of wine or vermouth - at least 150ml. Turn on the hob and bring the pan almost to the boil - as soon as it starts to bubble, turn the heat right down to the lowest setting and put a lid on the pan.

You can now leave it to poach for 2 hours. The fat should start to render fairly soon so check on it regularly - you don't want the fat bubbling over and catching fire. This shouldn't happen on such a low heat, of course, but you also don't want the meat cooking too fast so use a heat diffuser if you need to reduce the lowest setting a little further.

By the end, the meat should have shrunk back from the ankle and the skin should look thin rather than plump with fat. Take the pan off the heat and let the legs cool in the fat for 20 minutes. Once the fat is cool enough to handle safely, you can take the duck legs out of the pan.

To eat, reheat in the oven, skin side up, for about half an hour at 200C. The skin should crisp up nicely. 

Cook's tips: 
To store, pack one or both legs into a plastic or foil container or a wide-necked glass jar and cover with the fat. It'll stay fresh in the fridge for at least a month as long as it is completely submerged in fat. You can freeze the duck at this stage - defrost only in the fridge overnight, not in a microwave.

If you're like me, you'll want to eat one of them immediately, but the confit will stay fresh for a day in the fridge without submersion in its fat. Just pop it into an airtight container or cover it with clingfilm on a plate.

Don't throw away the fat - it's full of flavour and makes the best roast or sauté potatoes. If you make confit more than once, use the fat on subsequent occasions for the poaching - the vermouth brings flavour but is really there to kickstart the initial process. The fat will stay fresh indefinitely if you keep it in an airtight jar in the fridge. Sometimes enough liquid is released during the poaching that it will form a layer of jelly under the fat - you can use this to make gravy.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Green beans French-style

I love green beans a lot but my culinary repertoire with them was very limited until I went to live in France for years. In my youth, they were served up plain boiled, as a side dish. On a good day, they were tossed in a little butter. Very occasionally they turned up in a salad nicoise or a navarin. In short, fairly dull.

So - to France. Not long after my arrival, Parisian Boy dished them up this way for supper. It was a revelation and I've been cooking them this way ever since when I've used them as a side dish.

This recipe is simplicity itself. It takes almost no time to prepare and only 10-15 minutes to cook. It goes well with grilled chops or sausages and almost any kind of fish.

What you need: 
A portion of green beans
A couple of ripe tomatoes
A couple of cloves of garlic
Olive oil

What to do:
Slice the garlic thinly. Halve the tomatoes then cut each half into quarters (so you have 8 wedges per tomato). Heat a little olive oil in a heavy frying pan over a low to moderate heat. Tip the garlic and tomatoes together into the oil and stew them gently for about 10-15 minutes until the tomato is breaking down and the garlic has turned translucent.

Meanwhile, top and tail the green beans then put them on to boil. They are ready when they are al dente - about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside until the tomatoes and garlic are ready then toss them through, season to taste and dish up.

Cook's tips: 
It's important not to overheat the frying pan - the garlic especially needs to stew rather than fry - if it starts to caramelise it will add a bitter note to the other ingredients and at that stage it can turn burnt very quickly.

This is a great way to use up leftover vegetables. Overripe tomatoes that are past their best for anything else but not quite beyond use work well here as they will cook down quickly. If you already have some cooked green beans left over in the fridge all you'll need to do is warm them up in the pan with the tomatoes. Even uncooked green beans that are just starting to look a little limp and blotchy can be redeemed this way instead of binned.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Beetroot and broad bean risotto

Risotto is my go-to comfort food when I need something soothing and creamy and I have two standby favourites - my chicken and pea risotto and a broad bean and bacon recipe, which I think I borrowed from Nigel Slater back in the mists of time. But once in a while I'll ring the changes and shuffle the ingredients around. Springtime offers endless possibilities, with all the lovely new vegetables coming into season. Earlier this week, I came home from the market laden with tiny haricots verts, young turnips and beetroots, purple sprouting broccoli, a bunch of asparagus, two globe artichokes (the first I've seen this year) and fresh garlic.

Wednesday's supper was going to be based around the purple sprouting - it's one of my favourite vegetables and only in season for a very short time so I tend to eat a lot of it when it's around. But then there was a change of plan and it was risotto for tea instead.

This is very brightly coloured but has a light, creamy texture and a surprisingly delicate flavour. Suitably springlike, it also hits the spot while there's still a nip in the air as we ease towards Easter. 

What you need:
Half a mug of Arborio rice
1 onion, chopped
2 small cooked beetroot
A mug of broad beans
A pint of vegetable stock
Half a glass of vermouth
Olive oil
Crème fraiche
Fresh dill and chives, chopped
Parmesan cheese

What to do: 
Blanch the broad beans and skin them. Dice the beetroot finely.

Sauté the onion in the olive oil over a medium heat until it turns translucent. Slosh in the vermouth and stir well. When it's almost absorbed, start adding the stock - little by little, stirring well each time and making sure it's almost absorbed before adding more.Test the rice after 15 minutes; it should be al dente. When it's at this stage add the broad beans. Keep stirring for another 5 minutes and add more stock if you need to. Add the beetroot and stir through very carefully.

Take the pan off the heat, stir through a generous teaspoon of crème fraiche, a handful of grated fresh parmesan and the chopped herbs. Season to taste.

Cook's tips: 
As usual with beetroot, it's a good idea to wear protective gloves when handling it if you don't want to stain your hands red. Ready-cooked beetroot saves you an hour of preparation time - don't buy the sort in vinegar though.

The easiest way to chop a very small amount of herbs quickly and finely is to put them in a coffee mug and snip them with kitchen scissors.

If you use frozen broad beans, dump them in a heatproof basin and pour boiling water over them. The water will cool fairly quickly and the skins should just slip off.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Puff pizza pie

Pie again. In one of those surreal flights of daydreamery, I imagine a world in which the Talking Heads sing a song called "More Songs About Pies and Food" and I don't even like the Talking Heads...

Anyhoo, this hybrid is something I've been improvising for a long time and it's one I'm particularly likely to rustle up when I already have some leftover puff pastry in the fridge, because I wouldn't buy puff pastry especially for this, and am also feeling somewhat lazy. It is, as the name suggests, a sort of pastry version of a pizza or an open, flat pie. Not unlike those dinky little puff pastry tartlets recipe books suggest you can knock out as a canapé or starter, except this one's a fully grown adult. And with the below ingredients, it's not dissimilar to a flammekuche.

I also call this my deli pie because I'm most likely to assemble it with the sort of nice things you can buy in a deli for a plate of antipasti. And, if I'm honest, my fridge is full of such deli ingredients for precisely that purpose - the evenings when I'm too lazy to cook and just want to sit in front of the TV with a plate of cheese, ham, olives and gherkins.

What you need: 
1/4 pack puff pastry
2 slices of Serrano ham
Artichoke hearts
4-5 pitted black olives
8-10 capers
1 mozzarella
Creme fraiche
Black pepper
Olive oil

What to do: 
Heat the oven to 220C. Sprinkle a little flour onto the work top and roll out the pastry into a 15cm by 15cm (6 inches) square. About 1cm (1/2 inch) in from the edge, score gently all the way round with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut right through.

Smear the base of the pastry, inside the scoreline, with a teaspoon of crème fraiche. Tear the ham into strips and the mozzarella into small pieces. Scatter the ham over the pastry, keeping everything inside the scoreline. Top with the olives, capers and a 3 or 4 artichoke hearts from a jar. Finish with the mozzarella. Drizzle with a little olive oil and season. Brush the edge of the pastry with a little olive oil and bake for about 15-20 minutes until the mozzarella has melted and the pastry has puffed up to a golden rim round the edges.

This goes down well with a green salad on the side.

Cook's tips: 
Pastry likes cold, so keep it in the fridge until you're ready to use it and wash your hands under the cold tap before you start. 

I never buy frozen pastry - when you live alone, a standard 500g slab is far too big, but if you defrost one, you can't refreeze the leftovers to use another time. Buy it fresh. You can quarter it, use what you need then portion and wrap the rest separately in cling film and pop them in the freezer. Then you can just defrost what you need each time.

The beauty of this sort of pie is you can fill it with whatever you have to hand - a little leftover cooked chicken, goat cheese, finely sliced peppers... You could also smear the base of the pie with a little passata or tomato purée. To finish it, you could scatter over a few torn basil leaves, if you have them, or tiny dollops of pesto.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Lamb chops baked in the oven

I've been making this dish so long, a sort of one-portion hotpot, I have totally forgotten if it came from a recipe in a book or a magazine or if I just made it up to see what happened. It's a staple of my winter repertoire of warm, filling standards and it's pretty foolproof - it takes less than 10 minutes to assemble and then you can just pop it in the oven and leave it to do its thing, although it's not one for a week night if you're coming home from work and want food quickly.

It's also not a dish for warm weather so March/April is about the latest I trot this out until the weather cools in October and it's time for comfort food again.

What you need: 
A couple of lamb chops
1 large potato (or 2 medium), thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 large clove of garlic, thinly sliced
About 1/2 litre of stock
A little fresh rosemary
Olive oil

What to do: 
Heat a little oil and a small knob of butter in a frying pan. Fry the lamb chops until they are brown on both sides and set aside.

In the bottom of a small casserole dish, make a layer of half the potato slices, then cover it with a layer of half the onions and all the garlic. Sprinkle over the rosemary, and season. Put the lamb chops on top, then make another layer of onion and top it with the rest of the potato slices. Season the top of the potatoes.

Deglaze the frying pan with the stock then pour it into the casserole dish. It should be about 2/3 deep. Dot a little butter onto the top potato slices then put the dish in the oven for 90 minutes. Check it occasionally to make sure it's not drying out - top up with a little hot water if it is.

Cook's tips:
If you don't have lamb stock (fresh or from a cube), use vegetable stock. Any other meat stock will skew the flavours and you want the lamb to shine through. 

This benefits from some greens of some sort on the side to counteract the carbs. I like to dish up some green beans or a little braised savoy cabbage.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Blue Monk pie

It's been National Pie Week and hard to avoid it when all the food magazines are plugging it everywhere. Not that I mind - I'm rather partial to pie, as it happens. I even belonged to Manchester's short-lived but no less legendary Pie Mob, which was a bit like flashmob except instead of doing something arty we'd organise a spontaneous lunch meet and descend en masse to a nice pub for a proper pie and a pint. But I digress. I'm not a fan of official "weeks" of any sort. If anything, they make me want to run screaming in the other direction and do the total opposite. So if I'm told to bake pies or save the whale, I don't.

But then, on a whim, I entered a competition on Facebook to create a pie recipe using one of Butler's cheeses.* You didn't actually have to cook it, just come up with an idea. I duly came up with a pie I was pretty sure had yet to be created and, blow me, but I won.

The prize was a gift pack of three of Butler's cheeses, but before they'd even arrived friends were asking me for the recipe - for this pie I hadn't yet made, only dreamed up. As I'd won, I thought it'd be churlish not to actually make the pie and I was keen to see if it would actually work.

So here it is - this is the exact recipe I used, in what was basically an experiment. To my delight it worked beautifully and tasted pretty good too. It makes enough for two pies.

The pie's name is courtesy of my expat friend Martin Cleaver, who suggested I should cook this while listening to Thelonius Monk's cool jazz. I don't have any of the great man's music, but the name's certainly appropriate!

What you need:
Half a wedge of Blacksticks Blue (about 75g)
80g samphire
300g monkfish
1 pint bechamel sauce
250g ready-made puff pastry
A little melted butter or eggwash

What to do:
Make the bechamel sauce, cut the Blacksticks Blue into cubes, add it to the sauce and stir through until it has melted and the bechamel has turned pale orange. Season to taste. Wash the samphire thoroughly under cold running water then steam for about 3 minutes. Poach the monkfish gently in a little water or milk until it just starts to flake. Set it aside to cool and flake it into bite-sized chunks.

Assemble the pie in two individual ceramic pie dishes. Make a layer of sauce, sprinkle over some samphire, add a layer of monkfish, another layer of samphire and finish with a layer of sauce.

Cut the puff pastry in half and roll out each piece to about 2mm thick and slightly bigger than the pie dish. Tuck a pastry lid over the top of each pie and cut a couple of slits to let the steam out while cooking. Brush each lid with a little melted butter or eggwash.

Bake in a hot oven (220C) for about 25 minutes until the pastry is risen and golden.

Cook's tips:
Samphire is very salty so it needs a thorough wash. I soaked mine 2-3 times in a bowl of cold water, rinsing well each time. Go easy on the salt in the bechamel because of this - you'll probably need less than you think.

The bechamel recipe I've linked to is not one I use but it's a fairly foolproof one if you've never made a white sauce before (just leave out the parsley). I don't drink milk so I make my own bechamel with soya milk and I've got pretty good at judging the proportions of fat and flour over the years without weighing them. Don't make the sauce too runny, it should be thick enough to just drop off the wooden spoon. If it's too thick, just thin it with a little more milk. 

If you can't find monkfish, any other dense meaty white fish can be substituted. It just needs to have enough flavour to stand up to the cheese and samphire.

* Disclosure: I have, of course, used Blacksticks Blue in recipes on here before but I've also been the recipient of Butler's products to try in my day job as a journalist, which I've also mentioned on here. I eat their cheeses because I genuinely love them, not because I'm being paid to write about them.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012


For such a simple dish, there's been an awful lot of hoohah written about how to make ratatouille - whole columns on which order to add the ingredients, or whether to cook them separately then bring them together, or if it's acceptable to use an Italian olive oil in this quintessentially French dish...

Personally, I don't think it matters much. I prefer to cook everything together because I think the ingredients should get to know each other in the pan rather than on the plate. And besides, life's too short to have five pans to wash up instead of one. I use the olive oil to hand - as long as it's good quality I don't care if it was pressed in Outer Mongolia.

What does matter to me are having good quality fresh ingredients, nothing wrinkly or tired-looking. The tomatoes matter most of all - a good tomato needs sunshine to have flavour, which means it needs to come from a hot country where it was grown outside in soil. I never, ever buy Dutch or Belgian tomatoes as they are grown in vast sheds under artificial lighting and rooted in water. They don't see earth or fresh air and they taste of nothing. I buy British in season and the rest of the year I only buy Spanish or Moroccan or whatever, as long as it's had sun.

On the basis that it is almost impossible to make one portion of ratatouille, this makes two generous ones, or even three if you dish it up alongside meat and carbs. And besides, ratatouille is one of those dishes that often tastes better next day...

What you need:
1 onion
4-6 medium size tomatoes
2 small courgettes
1 small aubergine, or 5-6 baby ones
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
A handful button mushrooms (optional)
2-3 cloves of garlic
Herbes de Provence or a bouquet garni
A bay leaf
Olive oil

What to do:
Heat a very generous amount of olive oil in a heavy pan on a moderate heat. Prepare the veg - cut the onion into wedges, the peppers into wide strips, the tomatoes into quarters, the courgettes into thick rounds and the aubergine into chunks (you can leave baby ones whole, or halve them). Peel and crush the garlic.

Sauté the onion and garlic until they are soft and the onion turns translucent. Add the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and a pinch of the herbs, stir through, turn the heat down a notch and let everything stew gently for 20 minutes. Add the courgettes to the pan, stir through again and let stew for another 10-15 minutes. If you're including mushrooms, this is the time to add them. Season to taste and dish up. 

Cook's tips:
Ratatouille should not only look glossy and luscious, it should be unctuous too. If it's watery, it's not right. That's why it's important to turn the heat down and cook it slowly - if the hob's too hot the vegetables will boil and leach water. They will also break up too much. Don't put a lid on - let the water evaporate during cooking. This is another reason not to use hydroponic tomatoes as their water content is ridiculously high. It's also why I add the courgettes a bit later as they can turn soggy very quickly once they are cooked.

More on tomatoes - a punnet of cherry tomatoes or the baby plum type also work well in ratatouille.

Mushrooms have no place in a classic ratatouille but are a useful and acceptable extra to pad it out, especially if you're vegetarian and won't be having any meat on the side.

Grilled meats make a good accompaniment for carnivores - a lamb chop or two, sausages of some sort, or even a steak. Grilled or roasted fish is good too.

If you want carbs, rice, grains such as cous-cous, bulgur or quinoa, or a noodly pasta such as tagliatelle are all a good match. Or mop up the juices with some crusty bread.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Thai-style soup with glass noodles

I had a major craving for heat the other day. Not the sort where I pile on the woollies and sit with my back to the radiator, but heat in the form of chillies. I'm also haunted every time I open the larder by a huge pack of glass noodles that I bought several months ago and have yet to open. Something soupy and Eastern came to mind. Something that would make my tongue seriously tingle while nourishing me.

I needed to hit my local market anyway, to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables so it was a matter of moments to add fresh chillies, lemongrass, coriander, a hand of ginger and a bag of limes to my basket.

This soup is quick to put together and makes a generous bowlful. The noodles make it surprisingly filling.

What you need:
1 tbsp homemade Thai spice paste
2-3 spring onions, sliced into small rounds
1 small carrot, sliced into matchsticks
A small handful green beans, top and tailed
12 baby button mushrooms
1 small packet jumbo prawns
Coconut milk (optional)
1 pint stock
Vegetable oil
Glass noodles, 1 twist

What to do: 
Make up the stock. Heat the oil in a deep pan and gently fry the spring onions until they start to soften. Add the spice paste and pour in the stock. Add the carrots, beans and mushrooms and simmer until just tender. Meanwhile dump the glass noodles in a heatproof basin and cover them with boiling water. Leave them for 10 minutes to soften. Add the prawns to the soup and simmer for 5 minutes. Check the seasoning - if it's too fiery temper it with a little coconut milk (there is already some in the spice paste). Drain the noodles well and put in the bottom of the soup bowl then ladle the soup over the top. 

Cook's tips: 
If you have fresh stock, great, but a chicken stock cube will do the job just as well or some vegetable stock powder. If you use bought stock, it will be saltier so check the seasoning as you go.

Glass noodles are easiest to find in Chinese supermarkets but sometimes turn up in Asian stores or even the big four supermarkets.

If you've no fresh spice paste, use a small tablespoonful from a jar of Thai red or green curry paste. You will need about half a can of coconut milk, in that case, and possibly less stock.   

Thai-style curry paste

Those jars of Thai red or green curry paste you can pick up in any supermarket are the sort of thing it's useful to keep in the back of the larder. Gawd knows I've been bailed out of a dinner dilemma on more than one occasion by a jar of paste, some leftover cooked chicken and a carton of creamed coconut.

Fresh paste is so much nicer though, the flavours more intense, the colours brighter. And of course, you can tinker with the quantities to suit your own taste.

This takes about 5 minutes to rustle up and makes a decent quantity, with enough left over to freeze a few portions.

What you need:
3 chillies, red, green or mixed, deseeded
4 cloves garlic, peeled
About 3ins fresh root ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
3 stems fresh lemongrass
1 large or 2 small limes, halved
10 black peppercorns
1/2 tsp each of ground turmeric, ground coriander and ground cumin
1/3 tin coconut milk
Very generous handful of fresh coriander

What to do: 
Put everything into a food processor and whizz to a paste. That's it! Use in a recipe in the usual way - add it once you've fried the onions and before you add the other ingredients.

Cook's tips: 

A generous tablespoonful of this mixture is about the right quantity for one portion of curry or soup. You can keep the leftovers in a sealed jar in the fridge but you should use it up quickly in that case. I freeze it in small portions - my local curry house delivers the relishes in little plastic cartons when I order in a takeaway and they are the perfect size for this. 

You can also use the paste as a marinade for prawns or meat. Give the two about an hour to get to know each other, or marinate overnight in the fridge.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Beetroot marmalade

I like making things to eat but I also like making things to cook with. I make my own stock when I have bones, for example, and I buy certain fresh herbs to dry - living in a flat has its limitations and with no garden or balcony I can't grow my own but a greengrocer I use sells huge branches of fresh bay leaves for a quid that invariably end up in a kilner jar.

There's a few other ingredients I make when I have time, space and need. I'll be sharing these whenever I rustle up a fresh batch of something. Look for the "extras" tag if you want to do a search.

The original recipe for this was given to me by a woman called Pat I "met" on a non-food website. She mentioned it in passing and I was intrigued enough to ask for more information. Her recipe was for industrial quantities and had slightly different spices. With a little tweaking, I came up with a version that makes enough to fill a largeish jar, the sort that dill pickles come in. This is delicious with hot roast lamb or game and also goes well with cold cuts. It's a great alternative to cranberry sauce or redcurrant jelly.

What you need:
1/4 pint white wine vinegar
2 tbsp raspberry vinegar
1 bay leaf
6 peppercorns
1 star anise
2 small strips orange peel (no pith)
Pinch of sea salt
A small packet of raspberry jelly
250g cooked beetroot

What to do:
Grate the beetroot coarsely into a dish and set aside. 

Put both vinegars and the spices in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Break up the raspberry jelly into cubes and put it into a heatproof jug. Strain the vinegar through a sieve into the jug and stir until the jelly is dissolved.

Add the grated beetroot and stir well. Check and adjust the flavour, with a little more, salt sugar or vinegar as needed. Pack the mixture into a sterilised jar. Top up the jar with boiling water to the top of the beetroot if needed. When it has cooled, seal the jar and pop it into the fridge to set firmly. Once opened keep it in the fridge.

Cook's tips: 
If you're not cooking your own beetroot, buy the vacuum-packed sort that is not preserved in vinegar - it's quite easy to find in supermarkets. Beetroot in vinegar is too sour for this. Beetroot stains everything it comes into contact with, including skin, so it's a good idea to wear latex gloves when grating it.

Sterilising glass jars is easy. Wash the jar and rinse thoroughly, heat the oven to 180C and pop the jar in for 20-30 minutes. Some people say you should put layers of newspaper on the oven shelf but I've never bothered. If you're sterilising more than one jar make sure they're not touching in the oven and if you're using a kilner jar, remove the rubber seal first. 

The jar needs to be hot when you fill it, so only take it out of the oven when you're ready to use it and be sure to rest it on a heatproof surface. Never put hot food into a cold jar or vice versa, unless you fancy cleaning up the mess after the jar has exploded and splattered its contents across the kitchen.