Sunday, 27 January 2013

Red lentil and sweet potato soup

I really need colourful food at this time of the year - it cheers me up no end when outside it is grey, cold and spring seems a long way off. A trip to the market brought beetroots (which went into my beetroot risotto), a bundle of bright green chard that I steamed with prawns in coconut milk and spices, and sweet potatoes.

This soup is very filling and warming, a welcome splash of orange in the bowl. Makes two portions.

What you need: 
1 finely chopped large shallot
125g red lentils
1 large sweet potato
2/3 litre vegetable stock
1/2 tsp English mustard powder
1/4 tsp sumac (optional)
Salt, pepper
Harissa (optional)
A little chopped fresh parsley

What to do:
Peel the sweet potato and cut into 2cm cubes. Rinse the lentils under the cold tap in a sieve, to remove any dust. In a large pan, sauté the shallot in a splash of vegetable oil until soft and translucent. Add the lentils to the pan, stir through then pour in the stock and add the sweet potato. Add the spices - the mustard powder and sumac, if using, then a generous pinch of sea salt and a good grinding of black pepper.

Bring the pan to the boil then turn it down to a gentle simmer and let it cook for half an hour. Red lentils can absorb a lot of water so keep an eye on the liquid level and top up with boiling water from the kettle if necessary.

When the lentils are swollen and soft and the sweet potato is completely tender, take the pan off the heat and use a stick blender to blend it. Add more salt to taste and put the pan back on the hob until it starts to bubble again. Dish up and top with the parsley.

Cook's tips: 
Even allowing for the salt in the stock and the early seasoning, I find lentils need a lot of salt to stop the soup tasting bland. Check as you go and add more if you need to. While I normally shy away from adding salt if I can get away with it, this is one dish that really needs it.

You can freeze the second portion - I like to jazz it up with a generous teaspoonful of rose harissa to add a little zing to it as it reheats.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Lemon and dill lamb

I love the aniseed tones of dill but it's a herb usually only associated with fish. It does have an affinity with other things - it's used in cures for pickled gherkins for example and also turns up a lot in dishes from Poland, Russia and other east European countries. It also partners really well with lamb and goat meat - not the obvious choice but trust me, it works.

This is a really tasty and easy casserole to sling together - it takes only 5 minutes to prep - but it needs about an hour on the hob. When I buy dill for fish I always seem to have masses left over and that's when I might make this.

What you need: 
150g cubed lamb
1 large shallot, finely diced (or a small onion)
1 large potato, cut into bite-size chunks
250ml vegetable stock
Dill, chopped, about 2 handfuls
1 bay leaf
1 lemon, juiced

What to do: 
Fry the onions in a sauteuse in a little vegetable oil until they soften and turn translucent. While the are cooking, dust the lamb cubes in a little plain flour then add them to the onions. Brown the meat, stirring all the time to stop the flour sticking and burning. Pour over the stock and lemon juice, add the dill and bay leaf and some black pepper. Simmer gently for about half an hour. Add the potatoes and simmer for another half hour or so until they are tender. Add salt to taste then dish up.

Cook's tips: 
The acid in the lemon juice helps to really tenderise the lamb, although tough cuts such as neck will need more than an hour. I usually go for the best lamb available. It should be melt-in-the-mouth tender when ready.

The lemon also produces quite a tart gravy. I like to hold back a little of the dill and stir it into some plain yoghurt for a creamy relish on the side that takes the edge off any sourness.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Smoked haddock and spring onion risotto

I'm back on the comfort food now the snow has arrived. Great steaming-hot piles of carbs help keep the cold out. My slow cooker has been hauled out of the cupboard to braise lamb shanks and oxtails to be accompanied by heaps of mash, a baked potato or chunks of crusty bread to mop up the gravy.

I also want rice and in this weather that means risotto. And I want fish too - the smoked haddock here produces a sunny yellow that lifts the spirits as the snowflakes drift past my windows.

What you need:
1 fillet smoked haddock
1/2 mug of risotto rice
1 small onion, finely chopped
Vegetable oil
Knob of butter
1/2 litre (1 pint) vegetable stock
2 spring onions, sliced diagonally into 1/2cm pieces
Chopped fresh dill
A little grated Gruyère or Emmenthal

What to do:
Heat the oil and butter in a sauteuse over a medium heat and fry the onion until it's soft and translucent. Add the rice and stir it through so every grain gets coated in the fat. Pour in a little stock and stir well, turning up the heat so it stays on a simmer.

Simmer the fish in a little water until it's just cooked, around 4-5 minutes. Lift it out, break it into large flakes with a fork and set it aside. Add the water to the rice, then keep ladling the stock into the rice and stirring until almost all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is just turning from al dente. Add the smoked haddock and spring onion and grind in a little black pepper. As soon as the stock is absorbed stir in the cheese and dill and dish up.

Cook's tips:
I've discussed the difference between dyed and undyed smoked haddock before. You won't get the lovely bright yellow colour if you use undyed fish - the colour leaches into the cooking water and the rice takes on the yellow when you add the water to it. Tastewise there is no difference.

I don't bother to add salt as smoked haddock can be salty and there will also be salt in the stock. But, as always, check the seasoning before you dish up and add it if you need it.

Don't use parmesan, the traditional risotto cheese, for this, as the fish will overpower its flavour. I like the Swiss cheese as it adds a nice stringy texture as it melts and it's just strong enough to balance the fish. A medium strong cheddar also works well.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Roasted sea bream with chermoula on couscous

I acquired a taste for north African food when living in Paris. The city has a huge population of first, second and third-generation Moroccans and Tunisians thanks to France's colonial past and their food is as ubiquitous as curry is in the UK. Parisian Boy and I used to go out for couscous every week - a glorious mix of grilled spicy meats, vegetable broth laced with harissa and the couscous itself.

The Moroccans also invented chermoula, a fiery, sour paste used to marinate chicken and lamb, add to a tagine or to stuff into fish. The ingredients are fairly standard but you can tinker with the quantities to suit your palate.

What you need: 
1 sea bream
Olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2tsp each of ground cumin and ground coriander
1tsp each of chilli powder and paprika
Juice and zest of 1 lemon

1 heaped tsp of sultanas
5-6 pitted black olives, sliced
1 tsp flaked almonds
1 dessertspoon of fresh chopped coriander

What to do:
Make the chermoula. Crush the garlic cloves with a pinch of sea salt in a pestle and mortar until they form a fine paste. Add the chopped chilli and pound a little more to break it down and blend it with the garlic. Add the rest of the spices, the lemon juice and zest and about 4 dessertspoons of olive oil. Mix well.

Marinate the fish: Stuff the cavity of the sea bream with the chermoula and leave it for at least 20 minutes, longer if possible.

Heat the oven to 200C and roast the fish for around 20-25 minutes. While it's cooking make a portion of couscous (about 100g if you need to measure it) - put it in a heatproof bowl with the sultanas and cover it with boiling water to about 1cm above it. Cover the bowl with a plate and set it aside to soak up the water. Fork it through after 10 minutes to break up any lumps and if it looks too dry, add a little more water from the kettle. When it's ready, stir through the olives, flaked almonds and chopped coriander.

Make a bed of couscous on the plate and put the roasted fish on top.

Cook's tips: 
Get the fishmonger to prepare the fish how you prefer it. In Morocco, you'll get the whole fish on the plate - head, tail, bones - but I always ask mine to take the head off and fillet it while leaving it whole. If you use two separate fillets just sandwich them with the chermoula. Whichever way it's prepared make sure the skin is on as it protects the flesh during cooking. If you can't find sea bream, another small meaty fish such as red snapper or tilapia is equally good.

I like my chermoula really hot and garlicky although I usually discard the seeds when I'm chopping up the chilli - leave them in if you like more heat. For less heat, leave out the fresh chilli and just use the powdered. The finished chermoula should have the consistency of a thick paste so you may want to add the oil a spoonful at a time as you mix it, as you may need less than you think. If it's too thick, add a little more lemon juice. The quantities here make about 2-3 times what you need for the fish - it will keep in the fridge for 2-3 weeks.

Last year I bought Yotam Ottolenghi's brilliant book Jerusalem and discovered that he uses a couple of preserved lemons in his chermoula instead of fresh. I've started doing the same as I love the extra tartness. The preserved lemons need to be very finely chopped and the pips removed.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Baked ham

I started baking my own hams last year, fed up with searching for proper ham slices in preference to supermarket plastic ones (which are basically reconstituted and shaped scraps) and paying a premium for the privilege. I'd always shied away from it, thinking it would be really difficult but it's surprisingly easy - the only thing you need is time, so a weekend afternoon is ideal for this sort of pottering in the kitchen.

The best thing about a homemade ham is that you not only get to eat some of it hot for supper, but after it's cooled you've got lovely meat for sandwiches or for adding to dishes that call for ham as an ingredient (such as pea and ham soup or a pie).  
What you need: 
A piece of uncooked gammon, rind on, about 750g
1 onion
Bay leaf
Poaching liquid, about 2 litres

For the glaze:
Dark sugar
Grain mustard
English mustard powder

What to do: 
Put the gammon in a pan and cover with the poaching liquid. Add a bay leaf and a whole onion studded with cloves. Bring to the boil, then pop a lid on the pan, turn the heat down and let it simmer for about 90 minutes. Top up the liquid if you need to, to keep the meat covered.

While it's cooking make a glaze for the top. In a bowl mix together a heaped teaspoon of mustard powder and a dessert spoonful each of grain mustard, sugar and marmalade. It should make a thick paste.

Lift the meat out of the pan with a couple of forks and put it in a roasting tin. Using a sharp knife, carefully slice off the rind leaving as much of the fat on as possible. Spread the glaze over the fat and bake for 30-40 minutes at 200C.

Hot from the oven with braised kale and grilled tomato
Cook's tips:
When choosing a piece of gammon, make sure it has a decent amount of fat under the rind as it helps to keep the ham moist while cooking and it adds flavour. You can cut it off on the plate if you don't want to eat it. I usually buy unsmoked but that's just my preference as I like to inject my own flavourings.

For poaching you can just use plain water - it will produce fantastic stock, particularly if you plan to make a soup afterwards. However, as gammon is salted using some other type of liquid will help balance the flavours. Nigella Lawson has a famous recipe for cooking it in coca cola to add sweetness. Cider and apple juice are popular choices and I've done a couple in a fiery ginger beer to bring a little heat to the meat (and adding a little ground ginger to the glaze).

I've added star anise to the poaching liquid, also sprigs of thyme and even a cinnamon stick (not all at once). I like the toffee flavours dark muscovado sugar brings to the glaze, but I also use a dark demarara sometimes. I've also experimented with marmalades, trying both lime and ginger as well as traditional orange.

A piece of gammon weighing around 750g will give you a hot meal and enough cold for another 4-5 portions depending how you use it. Cover it lightly with foil as it cools to stop it drying out, then store it in the fridge covered in cling film.