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...