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.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012


This dish of eggs baked in tomato sauce is found all over the Middle East and north Africa, where it's usually eaten for breakfast. I first tried it back in the mid-80s when I was thumbing my way round Israel and had pitched up in the small northern town of Safed. I stopped at a café to get a beer and got chatting to an elderly man called Jack, who seemed to know absolutely everyone - he kept telling me, "this is Jack's town". He very kindly invited me to his home for a late lunch, which consisted of shakshuka and more beer, followed by coffee.

It took me a while to track down a recipe or two when I finally got home, in those pre-internet days - there are so many variations you could eat a different version every week for a year at least. The basic ingredients are eggs and tomatoes, obviously, and usually peppers - the variation is in the added spices and other flavourings. It's simplicity itself and if you don't fancy it for breakfast, it makes a great brunch, lunch or supper. This is my take on it.

What you need:
1/2tsp fennel seeds
Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 peppers (red/green) sliced very thinly
2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 preserved lemon (optional)
1 small bay leaf
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp muscovado sugar
2-3 sprigs of thyme, just the leaves
Pinch of saffron (optional)
1 egg
A little paprika

What to do:
Dry fry the fennel seeds in a heavy sauteuse over a medium heat until they start to toast and release their aroma then pour in a generous splash of oil and fry the onion until it starts to soften and turn translucent. Add all the other ingredients except for the egg, stir it through, put a lid on and let it cook down gently for about 30 minutes.

Put the tomato sauce in a small ovenproof dish. Break the egg into a small dish, make a well in the tomatoes and gently slide in the egg. Sprinkle with the paprika and bake in a hot oven (180-190C) for about 20 minutes until the egg is fully set.

Cook's tips: 
I like my eggs well cooked, so my shakshuka always goes in the oven but it's just as usual to cook the egg on the hob. Keep the mix in the pan, make the well as before and slide in the egg. Put the lid back on the pan to help the top cook - this method will produce a runnier yolk.

A lot of versions pack in the heat, so don't be afraid to add red chillies to the tomatoes if you like it spicy.

This is also a great way to use up leftover peperonata. Just reheat on the hob and add the egg.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Steamed lime haddock with mango and pepper salsa

This chilly wet summer has sent me scurrying back to favourite dishes I'd never normally cook between May and September. On the rare nice days we've had, though, I've been buying the best seasonal veg at my local market and seeing what's on the slab at the fishmongers. In warm weather I don't want heavy food that lies like a stone in my stomach fish is my first choice for something light and healthy as well as versatile. Whatever fish I buy, I usually steam it or bake it en papillote, as it traps all the flavours and juices and you don't need to add oil.

What you need: 
For the fish
Haddock fillet
1 lime
2 spring onions
1 small stalk of fresh lemongrass
a few slivers of sliced fresh ginger

For the salsa
1/2 a ripe mango
1/2 a red pepper, deseeded
2 spring onions
A few sprigs of fresh coriander

What to do:
Put the fish on a large sheet of tin foil and pull the edges up slightly to start making a pocket. Zest the lime and scatter it over the fish. Shred the spring onions lengthways, slice the lemongrass finely and scatter these and the ginger slices over the fish. Squeeze the juice from the lime and drizzle half of it over the fish. Close the foil parcel tightly.

Bring a pan of water to the boil and then pop a steamer over the top and steam the fish for 10-12 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the fish.

Make the salsa. Cut the mango into cubes, dice the red pepper and slice the spring onions on the diagonal. Chop the coriander finely and add, then pour over the rest of the lime juice. Season to taste then mix well.

Plate up, keeping the spring onions and ginger with the fish (if, like me, you plan to eat them) and pile the salsa alongside.

Cook's tips: 
En papillote means "in paper", but tin foil works just as well as baking parchment. 

You don't need a special steamer pan to steam food. One of those Chinese bamboo lidded steamer baskets works just as well in a pan as in a wok. Or you can improvise, as I do - I use a metal sieve over the top of the pan, which also makes lifting the food out very easy.

Preparing a mango can be a bit fiddly but I've always found the easiest way is to quarter it with a sharp knife then insert the knife blade inside to cut round the stone and ease each quarter off it. Once the stone's out, cut the flesh lengthways and across then carefully cut the cubes off the skin.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Globe artichokes

I absolutely love globe artichokes - I usually have a jar of artichoke hearts in oil lurking in my fridge somewhere as they make a great addition to a deli plate supper. But I love them fresh too and they are in season right now so I'm making the best of them while I can.

Eating them freshly cooked reminds me of happy times eating al fresco in the French countryside with friends and Parisian Boy, a huge platter of globe artichokes piled in the middle of the table and extra bowls to hand for the discards. Small bowls of French dressing and homemade mayonnaise, plus crusty baguette and dry white wine.

I suspect a lot of people pass up on them in the shops, unsure what to do with them when really they are unbelievably easy to prepare. They are a bit fiddly to eat, but that's half the pleasure. I love to eat with my fingers and if you live alone there's no one to see you sucking away at the fleshy part of the leaves, while dressing dribbles down your chin. Really, they are perfect for solo dining. 

What you need: 
2 globe artichokes
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

What to do: 
Trim the long stalks off with a sharp knife, cutting them as close to the base as possible.They should sit up right after trimming. Don't worry about any brown outer leaves - they are still edible.

Put a very large pan of water on to boil, with a pinch of salt added. Boil the artichokes for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour - they are done when you can easily pull out a leaf.

While they are cooking, whisk up a very light French dressing of olive oil, vinegar and seasoning, and pour it into a small bowl. When the artichokes are cooked, drain them and put on a plate, with the bowl of dressing. Have paper napkins and a second plate to hand.

How to eat:
Pull the leaves off one by one and dip the fleshy inner at the base of the leaf into the dressing and suck the flesh off, using your teeth. Use the second plate to discard any very tough inedible outer leaves and the leftovers of the ones you've eaten.
Don't choke on this bit

When you've eaten all the leaves (the innermost ones being the smallest and tenderest), you'll reach a fibrous mass called the choke. You can't eat this so pull it off with your fingers or cut it away with a knife. Discard. What's left is the prize -  the artichoke heart, a soft and fleshy disc that makes all the previous effort so worthwhile.

The prized heart

Put this lot on the compost
Cook's tips:
Cooking time varies depending on how fresh the artichokes are and how late in the season it is. I usually bet on a good 45 minutes, but very young ones will need less time and older, bigger ones will need around 60 minutes. The only way to tell is to keep trying to pull a leaf out.

White wine vinegar is traditional in a French dressing, but a light fruity one such as raspberry or apple works well too. Keep the proportion of vinegar to about a third.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Cheat's chicken cacciatore

This Italian classic of chicken baked with tomatoes and olives is a perennial on restaurant menus and it's not hard to see why - the chicken and tomatoes are reassuringly familiar while the olives add a touch of exotic. The full-on version involves baking chicken joints on the bone in the oven for an hour and a half to extract their full flavour, then enriching the sauce with mascarpone. Great if you're eating out or cooking for your friends. Not so practical for one.

A stove-top version for one can easily be rustled up within half an hour. And it's a good storecupboard standby as most of the ingredients are the sort of thing you'll have in the fridge and larder.

What you need: 
1 chicken breast, skin off
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Olive oil
1/2 tin of tomatoes, or fresh equivalent (quartered)
Glass of red wine (optional)
1 tsp tomato purée
Half a dozen black olives
1 dessert spoonful half-fat crème fraiche
Pinch of rosemary 

What to do:
Heat a little oil in a sauteuse and fry the onion and garlic gently in the oil until soft and translucent. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and add to the pan. Turn the heat up a notch and fry it for a couple of minutes until it takes a little colour on. Add the tomatoes, the purée, the olives and the wine, plus the rosemary. Put a lid on and let it simmer for 20 minutes or so.

Stir through the crème fraiche and warm it for 2 minutes, then dish up with some cannellini beans

Cook's tips: 
You can use yoghurt instead of crème fraiche - just stir it through at the very end and don't cook it else it risks curdling.

For the cannellini beans, use a half-size tin - rinse them well under the tap, then heat gently in a saucepan with a dribble of olive oil, a dribble of water and some seasoning.

This dish also goes really well with rice or roasted potatoes, the traditional accompaniment in its home country.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Butternut squash and parma ham salad

I love the versatility of butternut squash. It's a fine key ingredient for a soup and makes great mash. Halved and roasted, it's a worthy main dish in its own right if you add a few extra ingredients to star alongside. And it's cheap as well as tasty. so what's not to like?

The downside for solo dwellers is that even the smallest butternut squash will merrily feed two. If you're making soup, you can freeze half, of course. Otherwise you need to be inventive to use it all up. It's best to cook it all in one go then use up the leftovers in something else - curry, a stir-fry, or even make banana bread using the squash instead of the bananas.

I like it in a salad, where the sweetness contrasts well with the other ingredients - the salty ham, sharp tomatoes and crunchy leaves.

What you need: 
1/2 a butternut squash
Mixed salad leaves
2 slices of Parma or other air-dried ham
A handful of cherry tomatoes
A few black olives
Olive oil
White wine vinegar

What to do:  
Deseed and peel the squash, then cut it into bite-sized cubes. Spread on a baking sheet, drizzle with a dribble of oil and toss well, then bake for about 40 minutes at 180C. Leave to cool.

Wash and dry the salad leaves and put them in a bowl. Halve the cherry tomatoes and scatter them and the olives over the leaves. Shred or tear the ham into small pieces and tuck into the salad. Lastly, add the squash cubes. Whisk up a light dressing of olive oil, vinegar and a little black pepper, pour it over the salad and toss everything together.

Cook's tips: 
Don't use too much oil to roast the squash - you only need just enough to stop it sticking to the baking sheet and no more. Cooked, the cubes should be quite firm and dry, almost like oven chips.

If you don't eat meat, replace the ham with slices of salty goat's cheese or feta.

A ripe avocado works really well too as an extra ingredient.

I don't bother adding salt to the dressing - the ham has plenty.