Friday, 30 November 2012


Flammekueche, street food from Alsace, is probably best described as a Franco-German pizza. You won't find any tomato sauce on it, or olives, peppers or any other traditional pizza topping but it's made in the same way - a very thin dough base topped with ingredients then cooked in a very hot wood-burning oven.

The French region of Alsace has historically changed hands with Germany many times, hence the German-sounding name for this dish. The Germans call it flammkuchen, the French tarte flambée, but the Alsatian name is what it's best known by. A while back I discovered that the discount supermarket Lidl sometimes has flammekueche in its freezer section, usually when it has a French promotion, so it's worth having a look there. If I see them, I snap them up quick!

However, it's ridiculously easy to make at home if you cheat. It's absolutely not worth knocking up a batch of pizza dough for one person but if you can get hold of a good quality, ready-made pizza base you can have food on the table in 15 minutes. All you need after that are the toppings - crème fraiche, onions and bacon.

What you need:
An artisan pizza base
Creme fraiche
A small packet of lardons
A small onion, finely diced

What to do:
Heat the oven to 200-220C - if you have time, get it hot well in advance so the heat really has a chance to build up and stay there.

Put the base on a pizza stone and spread it almost to the edge with the creme fraiche - about 3tbsp should be enough for a 12" base. Scatter over the onion and lardons and grind a little black pepper over. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes.
Cook's tips:
The base needs to be as thin as possible. Anything from a supermarket will be too thick and doughy. The one I used here came from a farmers' market and was handmade. At less than 1mm thick, it was perfect. Check the cooking instructions on the pack but the temperature and time I gave up should be about right. And of course it will depend on the idiosyncrasies of your oven.

If you're using regular bacon, 2-3 slices of streaky cut into 1mm shreds is a good substitute for the lardons.

A classic flammekueche has just the ingredients listed but variations in Alsace include mushrooms or cheese. If you decide to add cheese, don't use cheddar as it goes too gooey - a French-style hard cheese such as Gruyère works best.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Caldo verde

I absolutely love making this Portuguese classic of cabbage, potatoes and spicy sausage - it's a really simple but very nourishing soup that is easy to make and ready in under 30 minutes. This makes 2 portions (it reheats well).

This soup should be quite dense and chunky from the chorizo, kale and potatoes but be held together by a clear broth so it's almost like a casserole.

What you need: 
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium to large potato, diced into 1/2cm cubes
1 chorizo sausage, sliced
A very generous handful of curly kale, chopped
1/2 litre of stock
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

What to do: 
Sauté the onion in the oil over a medium heat until it turns transparent. Add the chorizo and fry until the fat starts to run off. Pour in the stock and add the potato. Season. Turn up the heat, bring it to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Check the potato is cooked. Add the kale and simmer for another 5 minutes. Dish up.
Cook's tips: 
If you can't find kale, use spring greens or savoy cabbage and shred it finely.

If you've got one of those large rings of chorizo, about a third of it should be plenty. You can fry it off separately if it's very fatty and you don't want too much oil in the soup.

I've found that both floury and waxy potatoes work well and I don't bother to peel them unless the skin looks tired. Floury potatoes will start to break down once cooked. Don't overcook them as the liquor should remain clear.

Either vegetable or chicken stock is best. Do go easy on the salt when you season as some brands of stock can be very salty.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Rabbit casserole with apple and cider

Rabbit was something I ate regularly during my sojourn abroad - it was fairly easy to find on the butchers' slabs in the Parisian markets and surprisingly easy to buy in Amsterdam's supermarkets. Joy of joys, I've just found a butcher in my city that has them every day - a discovery made purely by chance as I'd actually gone to buy fish because my local fishmonger was inexplicably shut (the butcher and fishmonger in town being next door to each other in an indoor market).

A whole rabbit for £4 was too good to turn down. If you've never eaten it, the meat is white and very lean, has a texture like chicken and a similar but slightly gamier flavour. As there's virtually no fat on it and the meat is well-developed muscle, rabbit is best cooked slowly for 2-3 hours. There's not a lot of meat on one - a small rabbit will feed two people, so for a solo cook that's a portion for dinner now and one to freeze.

The classic pairing in the UK is with apples and cider. In France they cook it with prunes and red wine. It goes well with root vegetables in the pot and mustard is a classic seasoning. Some people add bacon for an extra layer of flavour.

What you need:
1 rabbit, whole or jointed
6 round shallots, peeled but left whole
3 tart apples
2 parsnips
1 turnip
1/2 litre of cider or scrumpy
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1tbsp grain mustard
 A little olive oil
A generous knob of butter
A few sprigs of fresh thyme

What to do:
Heat the olive oil and butter in a casserole on the hob and brown the rabbit on all sides. Cut the parsnips and turnips into chunks, peeling first if the skins look wrinkly and tired. Quarter the apples, remove the core and pips then cut the quarters in half. Add the shallots to the rabbit and sauté them until they start to soften slightly. Put all the veg in the pot, pour in the cider and add the mustard, thyme and a little sea salt and black pepper.

Put it in the oven at 180C for an hour then take it out to check it's not drying out and to taste for seasoning. Turn the heat down to 140C and cook it for another hour. At this stage check it again - the meat should be falling off the bones. If not pop it back in for another half-hour (and top up with boiling water if it looks dry).

Dish up.
Cook's tips:
If you buy a whole small rabbit (around 750g), make sure the butcher guts it for you if it hasn't already been done and to cut it up if you prefer joints. You'll get 4 small joints - 2 hind legs, a torso and the saddle, which is the back and the prize meat.

It's getting increasingly hard to find Bramley apples now. My greengrocer told me he'd stopped stocking them as he couldn't sell them when so many people now buy apple pie instead of making it. Granny Smiths are the way to go as they're the sourest eating apple - he assured me chefs use them to cook with now. Peel if you wish - I prefer to leave the skin on for extra flavour and fibre. If you do find Bramleys, 2 will be plenty.

The root vegetables should be plenty to fill you up, but some celeriac mash on the side is a great accompaniment if you feel inclined and it'll soak up some of the sauce, which will have thickened as the apples collapse.

Don't be alarmed by the amount of mustard - the length of cooking takes the heat out of it, leaving a mellow flavour.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Bacon, broad bean and black garlic pasta

I call this 3B pasta and it's really easy to make although it does use three pans. I think it's worth it, though, as the flavours go so well together. It's a store-cupboard dish - I usually have all the ingredients to hand so it's just a case of raiding the fridge and freezer for bacon, broad beans and parmesan, and the larder for pasta and the garlic.

What you need: 
Enough dried pasta spirals for one
A small shallot, chopped very finely
A small pack of lardons or a couple of snipped bacon rashers
A handful of broad beans
A bulb of black garlic
Olive oil
Fresh grated parmesan
A knob of butter

What to do:
Peel the garlic and crush the cloves to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Pour in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, add a pinch of sea salt and work them together to create a dark flavoured oil. (One of those mini worktop food-processors will do an equally good job of blitzing everything together.)

Put the pasta on to cook and the broad beans. While they are boiling, sauté the the shallot in a knob of butter until it turns translucent, then add the lardons and fry until the fat starts to run off. Don't let them caramelise. Keep warm. Drain the beans (about 5 minutes) and pop them out of their skins then add them to the lardons. Drain the pasta when it's al dente (about 10 minutes) and add to the beans and lardons. Mix well, add a tablespoon of the black garlic oil, toss through and put in a bowl. Finish off with some grated parmesan.

Cook's tips: 
Black garlic is ordinary garlic that has been fermented - it has a deep, sweet flavour a little like licorice and is very soft. As a flavouring, it's not obviously garlicky at all but it will deliver a huge hit of umami to whatever you add it too. It's quite easy to find it online and a single bulb usually costs £1-1.50. Peel the cloves carefully with your fingers as they will be sticky and squishy.

The leftover oil will keep in a jar for weeks - try adding some to a mushroom risotto, dress a lamb chop with it before grilling or rub it over a chicken prior to roasting. On their own the cloves can be used to flavour dips, add to tapenade, or use in Asian stir-fries.

Much as I love broad beans, I find the skins can be tough sometimes. I won't skin the beans if they are very small but the bigger ones definitely benefit from losing their outer coat. If the beans have been boiled for 4-5 minutes, the skins will slip off very easily. If you're not a fan, use peas instead.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Blind dining

No recipe today, but some food for thought.

Yesterday evening, I took part in an event called Dining in the Dark here in Manchester. Along with another 7 or 8 food bloggers, we were there to taste the new menus at the local branch of the Living Room chain. The twist was that we did it blindfolded.

I was confident that I'd be able to identify lots of flavours and ingredients. In fact it was harder than expected. Much harder. Between tastings we could remove our blindfolds and write down what we thought we were eating or drinking (for there were cocktails too). At the end we passed our sheets to our neighbour for marking. I scored a paltry 8.5 out of 40. Even the winner, a very deserving one, managed only 14. (We did have some disagreements with the Living Room about the difference between flavours and ingredients!)

So much of how we eat is visual - we see what's on the plate and we know what to expect. Our tastebuds ready themselves. Even before the food arrives, we've chosen from the menu or, at home, have decided what to cook. There is anticipation.

And then there is smell - our noses also help us to recognise what we are eating, even alerting us when food has gone off. Experts say 90% of what we taste is in fact smell. With the blindfold on, though, I felt like I'd lost not one sense but two - my ability to smell also seemed impaired. And without those, my tastebuds became confused. A coconut and passion fruit crème brulée tasted of the vanilla and sugar I expected with a hint of brandy. How wrong I was.

I did best with the Glamorgan vegetarian sausages above and also the Thai curry.

It was a lot of fun and a stark reminder that eating isn't just about taste. It's about much more - touch and sound also can play a role.

Thanks to the Living Room for their hospitality - I'm more of an "old-fashioned boozer" type of drinker but if you stop by for their food, the new menu is not bad at all.
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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Quick winter minestrone

Soups are currently top of my menu as the weather gets chillier and I crave something substantial, warming and comforting. Soup generally ticks all those boxes for me and this minestrone is especially hearty as well as very simple to make.

Best of all, you can get it into a bowl inside 30 minutes. The other huge bonus is that you probably have most of the ingredients in the larder already.

As usual, prep everything first. This makes two generous bowlfuls and I reckon it tastes as good if not better for reheating next day.

What you need: 
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, finely diced
1 small packet of lardons (optional)
1 litre of vegetable or chicken stock
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
1 small (half-size tin) haricot beans
A handful of small pasta (baby macaroni or orzo)
A generous handful of greens, finely shredded
Pinch of mixed dried herbs

What to do:
Heat a glug of olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium hob and sauté the onion until it starts to soften. Add the lardons if using and fry until the fat starts to run off. Don't brown them or let the onions start to caramelise. Add the carrot, stir through for half a minute then pour in the stock, the tomatoes, the beans and the pasta. Season to taste and add the herbs.

Bring the pan to the boil then turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the greens and simmer for another 5 minutes until the pasta is cooked to al dente. Dish up!

Cook's tips: 
Although minestrone is a chunky soup, the greens do need to be finely shredded - I aim to cut them as thin as Chinese "seaweed", which is actually made from cabbage, because they need to cook quickly. Most greens work well - spring greens, kale, cavolo nero and savoy cabbage all suit minestrone.

You can throw pretty much any veg into a minestrone as it's a seasonal soup that makes the most of what's available. If you don't have carrots to hand, use a parsnip, turnip or some celeriac. Use whatever beans you have to hand in the store cupboard - borlotti, cannelini and pinto, for example.

The basis of minestrone is vegetarian - any meat (or meat stock) is entirely optional. Bacon definitely suits this best if you want meat because of the depth of flavour it brings - use snipped-up rashers if you don't have lardons, or some chopped leftover ham or gammon.

You can finish the soup in the bowl with a teaspoon of pesto swirled through if you like (not my personal preference as I find it too overpowering) or a little grated parmesan or pecorino.
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Monday, 5 November 2012

Chicken and vegetable pie

Own up - who doesn't love pie? I do. I was invited to a pie-tasting event the other week. I hadn't eaten pie of any sort for some time and as I tucked in to a truly delicious peppered steak pasty I realised I hadn't made pie at home since, ooh I don't know when.

Homemade pie is definitely a bit of work and for one person, even more so. But once in a while it's worth making the effort, because it will feed you several times over and if you have leftovers it's a good way to use them up. Have one portion hot and enjoy the rest for packed lunches (although it reheats well too).

As it happens, I'd just been given a very large (2kg) organic chicken. I roasted it for a weekend supper then spent the next day pulling the rest of the meat off the carcass, which I turned into stock the bones. I also had a leek that was on the verge of going slightly limp. Pie sprang to mind - chicken and leek are made for each other.

What you need:
Half a leftover roast chicken - 1 breast, 1 leg
A small leek, diced
1 carrot, diced
Handful of frozen peas
250g shortcrust pastry
Bechamel sauce
1 egg

What to do:
Make the pastry first. Rub 110g butter into 225g of plain flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add a tablespoon of cold water and, using one hand, work it in to a dough. Add more cold water bit by bit if you need it. The pastry should be stiff, not sticky. Wrap it in cling film and put in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

Make the filling. Sweat the leek in some butter until it starts to soften. Add the carrot and continue to cook gently. Throw in the peas. Cut the cooked chicken into bite-sized chunks and add to the veg. Stir well and season lightly. Set aside to cool.

Make the bechamel. Melt 50g butter in a pan on a low heat and add a tablespoon of plain flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to get rid of any lumps. Add 300ml milk a tablespoonful at a time, beating furiously each time to prevent lumps. Turn up the heat and keep stirring as it thickens.Turn the heat down again when it starts to bubble and cook it for a few minutes more (this is to cook the flour as it's not nice raw). Pour into the chicken and veg and mix well.

Heat the oven to 200C and grease a 20cm pie dish.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and cut it in half. Sprinkle a little flour over the worktop and roll out half the pastry into a circle until it's about 1mm thick and about 1.5cm bigger than the pie tin. Line the pie tin across the base and up the sides, making sure you have an overhang. Tip in the filling, spreading it evenly across the dish. Roll out the rest of the pastry to make the lid. Make an eggwash by beating a small egg in a mug. With a pastry brush, smear a little eggwash round the edge of the pie, roll the lid on top and crimp the edges together. Brush the rest of the eggwash across the pie lid and then cut 2-3 slits in it. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden and crispy.

Cook's tips: 
Pastry: the trick to good pastry is keeping everything cold. Use butter straight from the fridge (rubbing in is easier if you cut it into cubes) and keep your hands cold. I wash mine under the cold tap at this stage and also when rolling out. Chilling the pastry before rolling is essential - it stops it shrinking from the sides of the dish as it bakes. No rolling pin? Improvise - last night's wine bottle (a trick I learned in my student days) will be fine. Of course, if you're feeling lazy, there's nothing wrong with using bought shortcrust pastry. You can even buy it in ready-rolled sheets now.

You shouldn't have any leftover pastry from this quantity and a 20cm dish, but if you do use it to make jam tarts. Or a mini pasty if you have leftover filling too.

Bechamel: Yes, you can buy it in a jar but homemade doesn't take very long and it has only 3 ingredients, which is a lot fewer than the readymade version. Quite a few well-known chefs advocate putting the butter, milk and flour together in the pan at the very start and whisking everything furiously as it comes to the boil. Done properly, it should be lump-free.

The filling: Most cooked leftover meat will lend itself well to pie filling. Add some chopped bacon if you don't have quite enough meat. For the veg, mushrooms also have an affinity with chicken but you could use anything - sweetcorn, chopped onion, diced peppers, broad beans... If you have some fresh herbs, a little thyme, tarragon or parsley will lift the filling.

Preparing leeks: the quickest, easiest way to dice a leek is a complete no-brainer when you know how - it's just not immediately obvious to non-chefs. I spent years slicing leeks into rounds then cutting those into quarters before a chef taught me differently. Pull off the outer leaves and trim off the top. Leave the root intact. Put the leek on a chopping board and slice it vertically from root to tip, turning it to make a fresh cut every 1/2cm. Then slice it horizontally and it will fall into dice. Wash well in a colander to get rid of any grit.