Thursday, 28 February 2013

Beef rendang

I've rejoined the #foodiepenpals gang after a break last autumn. I was very happy with my matches this month and overjoyed when I learned my parcel would be arriving from the Netherlands courtesy of Dutch food blogger Eefke. I lived in Amsterdam for 9 years and while my spoken Dutch never rose much beyond basic I acquired a vast love for Indonesian food, which is as widespread in the Netherlands as Indian food is here (going out for a rijstafel [literally rice table] is the Dutch equivalent of us going for a curry).

I asked Eefke if I might have some Indonesian ingredients as a treat as it's extremely difficult to find them in the UK. I also asked her not to send me any stroopwafels or speculaas, as I'm not keen on Dutch biscuits. Her reply made me laugh - she was relieved not to have to send these as that was what she usually sent to other penpals.

The parcel I was sending was to another Mancunian, Kelly, who cooks at Earth Café in the city's Northern Quarter, so I offered to deliver it in person. It's always lovely to meet other foodie penpals, the more so as it's a rare opportunity. She gave me a free slice of the café's signature beetroot cake in return and it was really tasty - beets are quite sweet so lend themselves well to cakes and desserts.

My Dutch box, when it arrived, was wrapped in this gorgeous paper - all windmills and tulips in a typical blue and white Delftware design, hinting at the treasures inside.
Well, I was not at all disappointed! It was crammed with lovely Indonesian spice pastes, a crushed peanuts and spice mix, and a satay sauce mix. There was also a bag of emping melindjo - similar to prawn crackers, but made with the ground-up seed of a native plant (the rest of it is eaten as vegetable in Indonesia) and sprinkled on the side of a plate. One of the spice pastes was for rendang, so that was the first one I cooked.

Rendang is a hot, spicy dish of beef or sometimes chicken, cooked very slowly in coconut milk. You can't hurry a rendang - it needs a lot of time even though the prepping is very quick. The reward is a deeply flavoursome and aromatic curry with a sauce so thick you could probably plaster your walls with it.

Beef rendang

What you need:
300g lean stewing steak, in bite-size cubes
1 onion
200ml coconut milk
2 shallots, roughly chopped
1.5cm fresh ginger
1.5cm galangal
3 garlic cloves
1 stalk fresh lemongrass
2 small fresh chillies, deseeded
1/2 tsp turmeric
(OR 50ml readymade rendang spice paste)

What to do: 
Make the rendang paste: Peel the shallots, ginger, galangal and garlic. Take off the tough outer layer of the lemongrass. Roughly chop all these plus the chillies then put into a food processor with the turmeric and blitz until you have a paste. You may need to add a little vegetable oil to help it on its way. Use a tablespoon of paste to marinate the meat in a bowl - use your hands to coat the beef thoroughly. Leave it at least an hour, overnight in the fridge if possible.

Chop the onion very finely and fry it gently in a little vegetable oil until it starts to soften. Turn up the heat and add the meat, scraping all the marinade out of the bowl and letting it brown. Pour in the coconut milk then turn the heat down again and let it simmer very gently for 2-3 hours until all the liquid has evaporated and you are left with a very thick sauce coating the meat, which should be just about falling apart.

Serve with some plain basmati rice and a topping of Indonesian-style crispy onions.*
Cook's tips: 
If you can't get hold of galangal, just double the amount of ginger. Add an extra chilli if you want a lot of heat although my view is that rendang should be hot enough that you need a hanky for when your nose starts to run but it shouldn't be so hot that your mouth starts to really tingle. Leftover paste will keep in the fridge for a few days in an airtight jar but it also freezes well.

Crispy onions garnish just about every Indonesian dish that hasn't been topped off with satay or gado-gado sauce. You can buy them here in the supermarkets but they are really easy to make and won't have the additives that bought ones contain. Peel, quarter and slice an onion. Toss the onion first in a little beaten egg then some plain flour. Heat a couple of inches of vegetable oil in a deep pan and fry the onion in batches until deep golden brown. Drain well on kitchen paper and leave to cool.

You can make the onions while the rendang cooks. I don't advise using a deep-fryer if you have one as the oil gets really dirty. You can strain off the leftovers into a jar very carefully, leaving all the sediment and bits behind - it's fine for frying veg or meat in the first stage of cooking a dish.

Leftover crispy onions can be stored in an airtight container - they make a great topping for salads. If they go a bit limp, spread them on a baking sheet and reheat for 10 minutes maximum at 200C.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Warm watercress and black pudding salad

I love the peppery taste of watercress although it's not always easy to find even in season (if I see a bunch or bag of it for sale I snap it up fast). As well as delicious in soup, watercress can also be wilted or stir-fried but it also makes a substantial supper salad. This takes only 15 minutes to make.

What you need:
A small bag of watercress
1-2 slices black pudding
2 rashers of bacon, snipped into pieces
A few walnut halves
Parmesan shavings
Walnut oil
White wine vinegar

What to do: 
Wash the watercress, drain then pat dry. Fry or grill the black pudding and the bacon. The bacon needs to be crispy. Drain on kitchen paper

Make a light dressing using a dessertspoon of walnut oil, a teaspoon of white wine vinegar and a little salt and pepper. Put the watercress on a plate and dress it. Scatter over the walnut pieces and crispy bacon. Crumble the black pudding into a small heap in the middle and scatter over the parmesan shavings.

Cook's tips: 
Make sure you wash the watercress thoroughly even if it comes ready-washed, as occasionally it can contain a water-borne parasite called liver fluke (watercress is grown in water).

If you don't eat meat, some roughly chopped hard-boiled egg is a tasty alternative.

Walnut oil is strictly for dressings - it has a wonderful distinct nutty flavour that can really lift a salad. A small bottle will last ages.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Oat-crusted pan-fried herrings with chard and beetroot

Herrings rolled in oats and then fried is a traditional Scottish dish although not one you see much of these days. It's a pity, as herrings are cheap, plentiful, tasty and nutritious. And as mackerel is currently off the menu for most people keen to eat oily fish, herring is a good alternative.

In Scotland, herrings eaten this way are traditionally fried in lard or dripping and served with fried potatoes, and maybe a heap of fried onions too. I use butter here and plate up with some fresh veg for a healthier alternative.

What you need: 
2 small or medium herrings
Porridge oats
Swiss chard
2 small cooked beetroot

What to do: 
Get the fishmonger to prepare the herrings - they need to be scaled, gutted, heads off and filleted. At home, rinse the herrings well under the tap then pat dry with kitchen paper. Use a pair of tweezers to remove the pin bones (see tips) and a sharp pair of scissors to snip off any remaining bits of fin.

Spread some porridge oats on a plate or chopping board, season lightly then roll the herrings in them until they are well coated. Wash the chard, chop the stems into 1cm slices then shred the leaves. Boil a kettle, fill a saucepan with the boiling water and steam the chard stems for 5 minutes.

At the same time, heat a knob of butter into two frying pans. Put the herrings in one pan and fry over a medium heat, taking care not to burn the butter. In the other pan, sauté the beetroot slices. Turn over both the herrings and the beetroot slices after 5 minutes and add the chard leaves to the steamer.

Everything should need about 10 minutes apiece and be ready at the same time, but if not turn off the heat under whichever pans you need to while the rest catches up.
Cook's tips:
The main reason a lot of people won't eat herring is the bones - they have a lot (and much as I love kippers I rarely eat them because I spend as much time picking the bones out as I do eating the flesh). However, you can get rid of almost all of them if you spend a few minutes pinboning them before cooking. The pin bones are the bigger ones that often get left behind during filleting, the ones that stick in your throat if you're unlucky enough to eat one. The very fine bones, which are almost hairlike, won't kill you - they can tickle a little in the mouth but they won't stab you.

Don't let the butter get too hot or it will burn, and so will the oats. I tend to have the heat up slightly higher under the beetroot while keeping a very sharp eye on the herrings. The fish is done when the flesh has turned from translucent red to creamy white. If you cook the herrings flat (kipper shaped) they will be done in 5 minutes but I prefer to cook them with all the flesh on the inside so the oats are only on the skin.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Valentine photography competition

So, tomorrow is 14 February and many lone gourmets will be doing their best to avoid the relentless commercialism of Valentine's Day. Perhaps, like me, you prefer to snub overpriced "romantic meals for two" in restaurants where the maître d' will try to hurry you to vacate your table quickly in order to give it to another couple. Perhaps you prefer to cook something special at home for your significant other. Maybe you're not planning to do anything at all, whether coupled up or not.

Whatever you're doing tomorrow with food, I've had this great Valentine's Photo Challenge competition brought to my attention. All you have to do is photograph tomorrow's dinner and upload it to the n0tice website for a chance to win a hamper of meat.
(C) j.segers on Flickr
The rules don't seem to exclude singletons who lovingly prepare solo meals, so get snapping. The rules are on Foodie Sarah - you do need to register on n0tice first then go to the Valentine board to post your pics. You have until Sunday to enter.

Full disclosure: I have no commercial relationship with either n0tice or Farmers Choice or any official links in any capacity to the competition. Foodie Sarah is a work colleague.
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Sunday, 10 February 2013


Choucroute, or choucroute garni to give its full name (literally garnished sauerkraut), is one of the French dishes I acquired a taste for when living in Paris. Really, it's a Franco-German concoction as it hails not only from Alsace but is eaten across the border too. It's a simple assembly of fermented cabbage, potato and assorted cuts of pig - what it lacks in prettiness on the plate it more than makes up for in flavour and as rib-stickingly hearty fare it's just the job for keeping the cold out in winter.

This is a very scaled-down version of what would normally be served for two or more people in France - it's usual to get at least three sorts of meat such as frankfurters, thick slices of garlic sausage and smoked ham. I tend to improvise with what's to hand - in the photo, there's a slab of belly pork, some skinny German bratwurst and a couple of slices of streaky bacon.

What you need: 
About 175g sauerkraut from a jar
Half a glass of white wine
2-3 juniper berries, bruised
A potato
1 bacon chop, or a couple of slices of bacon
A slice of belly pork

What to do: 
Use a fork to take the sauerkraut from the jar, leaving as much of the brine behind as you can. Put the sauerkraut into a fine-mesh sieve and rinse it well, then set it aside to drain.

Put the belly pork slice in the oven to roast at 180C for about 45 minutes. Add the bacon chop and sausages to the belly pork 15 minutes later. Peel and halve the potato and put on to boil.

About 10 minutes before the meat and potatoes are ready, pour the wine over the sauerkraut, add the juniper berries and some freshly ground black pepper. Heat it through on a medium hob until the steam starts to rise. Don't let it boil.

Plate up, with a generous dollop of Dijon mustard on the side.

Cook's tips:
How much sauerkraut? The large jars usually have a full weight of 870g, or 530g drained weight. A third of a jar, or about 175g drained, is a generous portion for one. That means there are 3-4 portions in the jar - once opened, it will keep in the fridge for months as long as it's covered in its own liquid with the lid on.

The meat - it has to be pig, no arguments. You wouldn't catch any French or Germans eating their choucroute with bits from another animal. It's important to mix up the flavours and textures - a smoky cut such as bacon or gammon, something fatty and uncured, like the belly pork, and something sausagey. For the latter, it could be thick slices of garlic sausage from the deli heated gently with the cabbage, some frankfurters or a chunk of smoked Polish ring. Most of the German and Polish sausages work - kielbasa, kabanos, bockwurst. It's heresy but the garlicky Toulouse sausage from southern France is a good match and I've even used tiny whole black puddings.

Choucroute can be washed down with either a robust white wine or a beer - if I'm drinking beer, I'll use a splash of that instead of the wine in which to reheat the cabbage. If so, I'll pour it over sooner so the fizz has a chance to disperse.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Meat loaf

Meat loaf is a British classic and was a childhood favourite for me. It's ridiculously easy to make and easy enough to make a small one. This makes about two portions - cold, the leftovers make a good sandwich filling for next day's lunch, but it also reheats well and you could even freeze it in slices.

What you need: 
300g minced beef
1 egg
2-3 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
1 small onion
A pinch of dried mixed herbs
Salt and pepper
1 dsp tomato purée

What to do:
Heat the oven to 200C and line a baking tray with some tin foil. 

Grate the onion to a pulp using the coarse side of a grater, or chop very, very finely. Put it into a large mixing bowl with the mince and 2 tbsp of breadcrumbs. Season, add the herbs and tomato purée. Beat the egg and add a third of it to the mixing bowl. Use your hands to work all the ingredients together. If it looks too dry, add a little more egg. If too sloppy, add more breadcrumbs. You want a firm texture that you can shape, like burger patties. Form the meat into a brick, put it on the baking tray and bake for 30 minutes.
Cook's tips: 
This is one dish where I choose fatty mince rather than lean. The fat keeps the loaf moist while cooking. Too lean a cut and the loaf will be very dry.

I like to have a good heap of buttery mash on the side, plus some gravy - in my kitchen that usually means Bisto. I always make enough for leftovers so I can make fishcakes or bubble and squeak.

The greens on the side in the photo are kale chips. They are very easy to make - line a baking tray with tin foil, tip in the chopped kale and grind some sea salt over them.Drizzle with a little olive oil and toss with your hands to make sure all the leaves are coated. Bake in a hot oven (180-200C) for 8-10 minutes until crispy. For this recipe, that means I just pop in them alongside the meat loaf for the last 10 minutes.

If you end up with leftover beaten egg, it'll keep in a sealed container in the fridge for 2-3 days. You can use it up in an omelette or scrambled eggs, egg wash for pastry or even a cake if you're baking (an extra third or half an egg won't make any real difference to a recipe).