Thursday, 28 June 2012

Chocolate chilli macaroni cheese

My last #foodiepenpals parcel contained a box of chocolate pasta. I was intrigued enough to do some research into the kind of dishes people usually make with it. I've used flavoured pasta before - squid ink, tomato, basil, etc - but I could see the possibility here to go two ways. Sweet or savoury.

I ended up bookmarking a few recipes to try later but as Ruth, my parcel donor, has also included a packet of pasilla chillies it seemed to logical to use them together - there's a long culinary history of using chilli and chocolate together, or even just chocolate with savoury dishes generally (the Mexican chicken in chocolate sauce I once ate in Antwerp was pretty memorable, for all the right reasons).
In the end, I decided to reinvent an old favourite. For who can resist macaroni cheese, one of the ultimate comfort foods? I wouldn't normally eat it at this time of year but the weather's been iffy enough for nippy evenings. I've used all the regular add-ons I throw into mac cheese - the challenge was to see if they were a good match for my parcel ingredients. They do - both the chocolate and the pasilla bring subtly exotic notes to the macaroni cheese, adding a pleasing extra dimension to it without overpowering it. You can taste all the different ingredients.

What you need: 
100g chocolate macaroni
1 pasilla chilli
150g lardons
1 small onion, finely chopped
100g cheddar cheese, grated
About 200g crème fraiche

What to do: 
Soak the chilli in hot water until it's soft, about 10-15 minutes. Boil the pasta for 8-10 minutes until it's al dente, drain and set aside.

While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce. Sauté the onion gently in a small knob of butter until it's soft and transparent. Add the lardons and fry until cooked. Chop the pasilla finely and add to the pan then stir in the crème fraiche. Mix well. Add about two-thirds of the cheese and stir again. Season to taste.

Tip the macaroni into a small ovenproof dish, pour over the sauce and stir it through. Top with the rest of the cheese and bake at 180C for about 30 minutes until the top is golden, crispy and bubbling.

Cook's tips: 
The pasilla packaging warned it was hot, hotter than chipotle, so I was wary at first. On cutting open the rehydrated chilli I was shocked at the number of seeds inside and left them aside. On tasting the fruit, though, I discovered it's not so hot after all - all the seeds went into the sauce. If you want heat, add some fresh chilli but tread carefully.

I rarely bother to make a bechamel sauce for pasta. It's just extra carbs - crème fraiche alone works just as well to coat the macaroni in creaminess, even the low fat version I usually buy. The cheese also helps make the bechamel redundant.

Be sure to use a decent cheddar with a robust flavour. Anything like a mild Cheshire or Wensleydale will get lost among the competing ingredients.

Larder larks no. 3

My #foodiepenpals parcel arrived mid-month and I can only say that I was overjoyed at the contents. Ruth, my benefactor, really pulled out all the stops to send me a truly exciting and inspiring box of goodies in the midst of a double house move.
Inside was a good mix of treats and snacks plus what I love to experiment with - ingredients! I wasn't disappointed with the latter and indeed went rushing off to research some of the more unusual items.

Among the treats and snacks were a packet of mini grissini - perfect for the solo snacker parked on the sofa in front of the TV, a tasty raw fruit bar that was free of all the usual additives (and I really like that the company supports some very worthwhile charities), a packet of organic instant miso soup - one of those items it's really handy to have in the larder, and a tiny pot of Barnet honey, local to the north London district. With spectacular timing, Ruth had also popped in a small pot of garam masala - mine had just run out so I was happy with that.

Perhaps the most unusual snack (in the long red packet) was the Iranian fruit roll - a long thin strip of pressed apple and barberry. I had to look up the barberry fruit as I'd not heard of it. The strips were encased in plastic film, which took some prising off and then, time to taste! The texture was very chewy, not unlike liquorice, and the fruitiness was intense, with a short burst of sweetness and a tarter after-taste lingering on the palate that pleased me as I don't have a hugely sweet tooth. Thumbs up. I have an Iranian deli near to me so that's something I'll look out for.

I use chipotle chillis quite a lot, as I prefer their smoky flavour to the searing heat of fresh varieties, so I was delighted to find a pack in the box. On closer inspection, they were not chipotles at all but a variety of dried chilli called pasilla. This is also smoked when dried but is much hotter than chipotle and the pack comes with a warning to wear gloves when preparing them.

I was also very excited to receive a packet of artisan pasta produced in the oldest traditional manner - with an unusual twist. It was flavoured with cocoa (at nearly 10% of the ingredient list). There was a recipe on the box for a sauce made with mascarpone, parmesan, pine nuts and parsley - almost a pesto - but I've been experimenting...

Here's my twist on a much-loved favourite.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Aubergine Howard

Many years ago I cooked professionally at a long-gone restaurant in Leeds - the Wharfe Street Vegetarian Café. Before it closed, the owners published a cookbook of the same name, full of many of the recipes they'd served up over the years. I lost my copy only a couple of years later after lending it to someone and, inevitably, it went out of print. I spent a couple of decades looking for a replacement but a friend recently tracked a copy down for me, so I've had a delightful trip down memory lane.

This original recipe, Aubergine Jamaica, was an exotic sort of moussaka, with the sliced aubergines layered with potatoes, celery and mushrooms and the spicy coconut sauce inspired by both Caribbean and Sri Lankan food. I've stripped it right back, ousting the potatoes and the rest and substituting peppers. I've tinkered quite a lot with the sauce too, changing most of the spices. I've renamed this incarnation for my book-hunting friend.

What you need:
About 250g baby aubergines
A large red pepper
Half a block creamed coconut (about 100g)
1 small red chilli, finely chopped, or 2tsp "lazy" chillies from a jar
1/2 inch grated fresh ginger root
1 heaped tsp allspice
1/4tsp paprika
1/4tsp celery salt
Flaked almonds

What to do: 
Trim the stalks off the aubergines then halve, or even quarter them depending on their size. Put them in a small casserole dish. Deseed the pepper and dice it. Scatter over the aubergines.

Make the sauce. Put the creamed coconut in a pan with 1/2 pint (300ml) boiling water, a heaped tablespoon of tahini and all the spices. Warm it over a low hob, stirring while everything blends together and creamed coconut has fully melted. Don't let it boil. Taste to check the seasoning and adjust the spices and salt to suit. Pour the sauce over the aubergines, cover it with a lid and bake for 45 minutes at 200C. Check it during cooking to ensure it's not drying out - top it up with a little boiling water if you need to.

Take the lid off and scatter over some flaked almonds then pop back in the oven for 15 minutes more.

Cook's tips: 
Don't be alarmed at the amount of aubergines - they will shrink right down during cooking.

Do add more heat with chilli and ginger if you like things hotter - the coconut and tahini can absorb quite a lot of spices before their flavours become masked. Check for salt too - aubergines love salt and this is one dish where I'd add more than I usually do. Just add a pinch at a time and taste in between.

For a less calorific sauce, use half a can of low-fat coconut milk instead of creamed coconut.

If you want carbs alongside, rice is the best partner.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Warm summer salad

The news this morning said a month's worth of rain fell yesterday. I can believe it - I went out briefly to the shops and got drenched. The streets in my neighbourhood were completely awash because the drains were overflowing. And yet, it's still summer and the shops are full of delicious seasonal produce.

So despite the wind and rain last night, I used some of my favourite summer vegetables to knock up this salad for my supper.

What you need: 
Handful of Jersey Royal potatoes
A portion of fresh broad beans
4-5 asparagus spears
A couple of large salad leaves such as Cos or Romaine
Olive oil
Fruit vinegar

What to do: 
Pod the broad beans. Halve or even quarter the potatoes if large then boil until tender. Boil the broad beans for 3-4 minutes and cook the asparagus for 5-6 minutes.

While everything's on the hob, wash the leaves, pat dry and tear into pieces. Put in a bowl. Make a very light dressing with the oil, vinegar and a pinch of sea salt and black pepper.

Drain the potatoes and tip them over the salad leaves. Drain the broad beans and scatter over the potatoes. Pour the dressing over and lay the asparagus over the top. Eat while still warm.

Cook's tips: 
You need about 500g of broad beans in the pod for one portion. If the beans are small, they won't need skinning. Larger beans will need boiling for around 5 minutes and should be skinned as their skins are much tougher.

You don't need much dressing at all - just enough to coat the ingredients slightly, not to drown them. A herb-infused oil works really well for this and if you have a citrussy vinegar, use it (raspberry vinegar is also nice). Taste and taste again to check the balance of flavours.

To make this more substantial, you could include some crispy bacon or top it with a poached egg.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Griddled sumac lamb with herby lemon peas

As with asparagus, the season for fresh peas and broad is brief so it's good to make the most of them before resorting once more to the useful frozen standbys. I find podding very therapeutic and it's a nice task while listening to the radio or watching TV.

The lamb here is not a million miles from souvlaki except I've not used skewers here. The principle is the same though - marinate then griddle. Peas are naturally sweet so balance well with the tartness of the lemon.

What you need:
150g lamb fillet
1 heaped teaspoon of sumac
1 small shallot, finely chopped
A portion of fresh peas
A generous handful each of flat-leaf parsley and mint
Half a lemon
Half a small preserved lemon
Olive oil

What to do:
Marinate the lamb - cube it, trimming off any excess fat, then put it in a bowl with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, the juice from the half-lemon and the sumac. Set aside for 30 minutes while you pod the peas.

Sauté the shallot in a small knob of butter until it's soft and translucent. While it's cooking, boil the peas - they need 3-4 minutes depending how big they are. Wash the herbs, pat them dry with kitchen roll and cut the stems off. Chop the leaves, but not too finely.

Heat a cast iron grill pan until it's almost smoking hot.Grill the lamb cubes for 2-3 minutes each side.

Turn the heat right down under the shallots, add the herbs and stir through. Let them wilt for a few minutes then add the peas and finely sliced lemon. Season to taste and keep warm on a low hob until the lamb's ready. 

Make a bed of the peas and place the lamb on top.

Cook's tips: 
As an alternative to oil and lemon juice for the marinade, you could use plain yoghurt mixed with the sumac - its acidity works just as well as lemon in tenderising the meat, while its fat will keep it moist.

Be careful not to overcook the herbs - you want them just wilted and no more.

For a generous portion of peas, you need about 500g or just over 1lb in their pods. I really like the sharp, sour saltiness of preserved lemon but if it's too much for you use the zest of a fresh lemon instead.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Prawn and asparagus tagliatelle

The asparagus season is woefully short so I practically live off it at this time of year. You can, of course, buy it all year round if you're happy to pay supermarket prices for imported spears. I think British asparagus tastes better though and I prefer to shop local (we all need to watch our food miles, in my view) and in season. And anyway, if you can buy it all year round there's nothing to look forward to. (Parsnips in summer are just plain wrong, too.)

This is a lovely summery dish that can be rustled up really quickly - 15-20 minutes if you prep in the right order. As ever, adjust the quantity to suit your hunger level.

What you need: 
150g cooked and peeled king prawns
4-6 asparagus spears
125g fresh tagliatelle
1 small shallot, finely chopped
Creme fraiche
Parmesan cheese

What to do: 
Cook the asparagus for about 6 minutes in lightly boiling water. Melt a small knob of butter in a pan over a moderate heat and sauté the shallot until it's transparent and soft.

Get the pasta water on to boil. Drain the asparagus and slice the stems into 3cm lengths. Deglaze the shallots in the pan with the tiniest splash of vermouth, toss in the prawns and asparagus plus two generous spoonfuls of crème fraiche. Stir everything through and season to taste.

Cook the tagliatelle at a fierce boil for 3 minutes - it should be al dente. Drain well and tip onto a plate. Spoon over the sauce and finish with a few Parmesan shavings.

Cook's tips: 
First, boil a kettle. Twice. It's the quickest way to get things simmering on the hob and in a recipe where you have two pans that need boiling water, boil the kettle for the asparagus, use what you need then top the kettle up from the tap and boil again for the pasta.

Timing is everything but it's better to have the prawns and asparagus ready first - they'll be fine keeping warm on the hob on the lowest heat - use a diffuser if you need one. Prep the shallot first before you do anything else and the rest should flow easily.

Asparagus doesn't need much prepping - just snap the ends of the stems off at the point between tenderness and woodiness, usually the last inch or so.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Larder larks extra - with love from the NEC

My kitchen's been a bit quiet over the past week - I've had a few meals out, you see, and in between I've either had beans on toast for supper (such a classic standby!) or cheese, oatcakes and some fruit. And I've been busy with work and also preoccupied with a couple of foodie projects on the horizon.

However, on Wednesday I took the train to Birmingham to visit the Good Food Show at the NEC. I don't go every year but I do like to browse the stalls to buy interesting foods and look at the equipment - you just need to watch your ankles as everyone seems to be trailing trolley shoppers behind them (ok, me included - how else am I to lug everything home?).

I'm a bit of a store cupboard junkie so my mission is to shop for ingredients rather than fresh, prepared foods. I always make a beeline for the artisan traders and if the stalls aren't too busy I'll talk to them to find out more about their products.

I came across these amazing flavoured sea salts - just look at the colour of the lemon one! It has a good, firm taste too. The garlic one smells incredible when you take the lid off, a whiff that smells as fresh as ramsoms in season. I tried a black one too - and it was black - it was supposed to taste of charcoal but I couldn't taste it. The salt comes from salt pans in Cyprus (I'm not sure where exactly), although the company is Swedish. You can buy from their website.

I have the usual infused oils next to my hob - chilli, lemon, rosemary, garlic - but this bottle from Casa de l'Oli was something else. They don't infuse their oils - they press the additional ingredients with the oil to extract the full flavour. The range was impressive so I tasted quite a few while chatting with the owner (a Brit with an olive grove in Catalonia - they press at a local mill there). This one contains thyme, lavender, fennel and rosemary - a wonderfully intense blend. It can be used to cook with or as a drizzle or in dressings.

I also succumbed to this lovely bottle of Womersley's lime, black pepper and lavender dressing, which is versatile enough to use in cooking as well as spiking up a salad. I tasted a fair few of these too - I found most a little too sweet for my savoury palate, but this one had a pleasing sharpness to it. (Is it me or does the bottle remind you of something posh for bathtime?)

I wouldn't be stocking up properly if I didn't come home with some chutneys, so I snapped up a pot of Mr Pitchfork's Pickles Fig Relish, which he tells me is perfect with blue cheeses, and this awesome Hot Garlic Pickle from The Garlic Farm. It's fair to say you need to be a serious fan of garlic to go for this, but you won't be disappointed if you are - there's a major hit of it in that jar.

It's not entirely true that I didn't buy anything fresh. I had a look at the stalls selling some fabulous artisan meats and cheeses but passed up on them because they'd have been unrefrigerated too long by the time I got home. I did get these giant elephant garlic bulbs from The Garlic Farm though (honestly, their stall had so many tempting goodies) - they are crossed with leeks so are much milder (you can eat the stem, apparently). I'm going to roast one tonight, halved and drizzled with some oil, to go with some chicken thighs and french beans. The other I'm going to dry on a window sill for a bit - the stall holder says this intensifies the flavour.

I also bought some very posh scotch eggs from Handmade Scotch Eggs - alas they didn't last long enough to be photographed, as I ate them for a late supper when I got home! After filling up on tastings all day it was enough.

The shopping wouldn't have been complete without some booze - this bottle of sloe vodka certainly hit the spot during a tasting at SloeMotion. They had a nice range of sloe and damson chutneys too.

I was also in the market for kitchen kit. I got a Berghoff cleaver (in the garlic photo) from their stall. I've never owned one before - they make me nervous. The seller gave me a crash course so I don't take my fingers off with it, but I definitely need practice. I was looking for a new mandoline but in among all the stalls selling fancy plastic shredders and the latest potato peelers there were none to be had.

Gripes? Well, obviously, not enough variety among the equipment retailers. @PinkDiva1970 had trouble finding a piping bag despite the plethora of cake decoration stalls. There were around half a dozen retailers of rapeseed oil, ditto producers of the ubiquitous chilli jam. And I really wanted a pint of real ale mid afternoon - lots of drink sellers, but only a Pimms stall selling to actually drink on the spot. I settled for a bottle of Becks from the NEC's own bar, priced at an outrageous £3.80. C'mon Good Food Show, you can do better than that...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Spring greens and black beans with chorizo

Although you can buy them pretty much all year round these days, spring greens are at their best in the spring. There's a good month still before they go "out of season".

This beauty cost me a mere 59p at my local market and will feed me for the best part of the week. First up was this recipe. As I still have some chorizo left over, I'll use that and more of the greens to make a quick bowl of caldo verde. The last will probably end up in a stir-fry.

This is very quick - if you're organised, you'll be eating it within 20 minutes.

What you need:
A few leaves of spring greens
1-2 small cooking chorizo sausages, sliced into rounds
1/2 can black beans
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp nigella
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
A little vegetable oil

What to do: 
Heat the oil in a heavy sauteuse over a medium heat then toast the nigella and mustard seeds until they start to release their aromas. Add the chorizo, onions and garlic and fry for about 10 minutes until the onion is translucent.

Quarter the leaves lengthwise and chop. Add to the pan and stir through. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the black beans, stir through again, pop a lid on the pan and cook for another 5 minutes. Dish up.

Cook's tips:
Discard the toughest outer leaves of the greens, especially any that look as if the slugs have had a little nibble on them. Wash the rest thoroughly before use as they can harbour grit and mud.I usually cut the central ribs out of the bigger leaves and discard them as they are too tough to eat. The innermost leaves are the tenderest but all cook very quickly. Spring greens don't lend themselves well to longer cooking, like a savoy cabbage will - fast and dirty is the way to go.

Black beans can be difficult to find. They are a staple in Mexican cooking and usually used to make refried beans, although the tinned refried beans in the shops here usually contain pinto or kidney beans. Sainsbury's sell them in small cartons but the best place to track them down is in an Asian grocery, where they can usually be found alongside the tins of chickpeas. 

Use the other half of the tin to make my Mexican-style chicken.

Nigella is also known as black onion seeds. Most supermarkets stock it in the herbs and spices section, otherwise look in the Asian grocery stores.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

An adventure with icing

I like a nice slice of cake now and again - who doesn't? With a mug of tea it's the perfect afternoon snack. The world would be a nicer place if we all had more cake, as it's civilising.

I don't often bake for myself - if I fancy cake, I'll buy myself a slice from somewhere. I like to bake for friends, though - my grandmother's legendary baked Jewish cheesecake (recipe handwritten and handed down) has been taken to Teawitter for sharing. I recently discovered @GoodEggFoodie's delicious tea loaf - the recipe is simplicity itself and it's fruity, my favourite sort of cake. Friends dropping by will always be offered a slice if there's any in the tin.

A couple of weeks back, @MybakesUK tweeted a photo of some doughnuts that had been decorated with Union Jacks using their ready-to-roll fondant icing - they looked amazing and I said so. Before I knew it, they were offering me a pack of the red, white and blue to try out.

Now, I'm not great with icing. I learned to make buttercream as a kid (but don't think I've made any since I was about 12) and the only other time I attempted to ice a cake was one Christmas about 12 years ago when I was still living abroad - that was done with ready-to-roll royal icing and it was passable (my attempt, not the icing which was fine). One reason I don't go for icing much is that I don't have a massively sweet tooth - probably why I prefer a plain slice of fruit cake of some sort. So - a challenge loomed!

I opted to bake a cake that was a cross between a madeira sponge and a fruit loaf - I can't claim any ownership of the recipe for Fruity Teacake, which came from the BBC Good Food website (it was foolproof) but I left out the demerara topping so I could ice it instead.

Being honest, the result wasn't brilliant. That was mostly down to me as I'm not particularly artistic and, as I confessed earlier, am not very experienced at icing (there was no way I was going to attempt a Union Jack so I opted for a simple lattice effect). However, I did feel the instructions on the box could have been more detailed as they seemed to be aimed at people who mostly know what they are doing (I discovered after that there is a lengthy video on their website that fills in the knowledge gap). 

Things I learned the hard way:
  • Don't roll the icing too thin
  • Be frugal with the water when sticking it down
  • If it gets too wet, the colour transfers to everything else 
  • The main sheet needs a base to stick it to the cake (jam glaze or buttercream)
  • It needs time to dry out a little before cutting the cake
  • I need practice!
What is it like to eat? It has a pleasant subtle taste of vanilla and a nice texture on the palate although it was a little too sugary for my very unsweet tooth. I have some left over and I would definitely use it again if baking for an event like Teawitter. Not a bad product all in all - it's worth keeping it in the cupboard and it comes in a lovely retro-style box. PS the cake recipe was lovely too.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Garlicky lamb chops with chipotle roasted tomatoes and radish tzatziki

This plate of deliciousness is made up of three different dishes that work well together and, for me, taste of summer. Radish in the tzatziki instead of cucumber adds a nice twist as it's less watery and more crunchy, while the mint and radish balance each other for cool and heat. 

Although you need to prepare ahead a little, the preparations take almost no time and everything will be cooked and ready to eat in half an hour. The longer you can give the lamb and tomatoes to sit in their marinades the better - you could do this before going to work, for example. Cover both with clingfilm then pop the lamb in the fridge but leave the tomatoes out as they hate cold.

What you need: 
2-3 lamb chops (depends on the size and your hunger)
Tomatoes - 8-10 cherry or baby plum, or 2-3 regular tomatoes halved
Olive oil
1 small chipotle chilli
Small bunch of radishes
A little fresh mint
A small pot of Greek yoghurt

What to do:
Crush 2-3 cloves of garlic finely in a press (one per chop) and rub well into the meat. Drizzle some olive oil over and set aside. Crush or chop the chipotle chilli as finely as possible. Put the tomatoes in a small baking dish, coat well with olive oil, add a pinch of sea salt and a small grinding of black pepper, then sprinkle over the chipotle and set aside.

When you're ready to cook, heat the oven to 180C and pop the tomatoes in - bake them for half an hour until they are soft and juicy.

Make the tzatziki. Wash the radishes, pat them dry with kitchen paper and top and tail them. Grate them coarsely into a bowl. Chop the mint finely and add to the radishes. Tip in the yoghurt, mix everything well and season to taste. Chill in the fridge. 

Get an iron griddle pan as hot as possible and slap the cutlets on - 5 minutes each side is about right for thick chops if you like them a little pink in the middle.

Plate up - put the chops and tomatoes on the plate and drizzle some of the smoky tomato juices over both. Add a generous dollop of radish tzatziki on the side and toast a pitta bread as an extra if you're hungry enough. 

Cook's tips:
The tzatziki will keep, covered, in the fridge for 2-3 days once made. Although radish is considerably less watery than cucumber, I like to squeeze it dry through a sieve after grating to reduce any separation once mixed with the yoghurt. 

If you can't get hold of whole chipotle chillis, a pinch of chipotle powder works just as well. Otherwise try a pinch of smoked paprika and drizzle a little chilli-flavoured oil over the tomatoes before roasting them.