Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Fresh tomato chutney

Autumn is definitely the time to start thinking of stockpiling food for the cold months. It's harvest time and a good opportunity to use up any excess fresh produce. I eat a lot of tomatoes - at least 500g a week - but an unexpected windfall from a veg box scheme meant I needed to use them up fast.

I've made this a few times and it always turns out well - it's simple to make and doesn't require a huge preserving pan or a thermometer. Because it is a fresh chutney, it will only keep for 6-8 weeks, so keep it in the fridge.

What you need:
250g finely sliced red onions
500g very ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped (including skins and seeds)
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2cm/1in piece of ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
125g muscovado sugar
75ml red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds

What to do: 
Prepare all the vegetables and put them in a big, heavy, non-aluminium pan. Add the sugar, vinegar and spices. Bring the pot to simmering point over a medium hob then let it simmer gently for an hour. Stir regularly. While it's cooking, sterilise a couple of jars.*

After an hour, most of the liquid should have evaporated. Now bring it to the boil to get rid of the rest of it - the mixture should turn thick, with an almost jam-like consistency. Don't take your eye off it at this stage. When it's thickened, take it off the heat and spoon carefully into the jars. Let it cool completely, then put the lid on the jar and pop it in the fridge.

Cook's tips:
Feel free to vary the spices. Fresh chilli (just one small one, or 1/2 tsp of powdered) will add some heat. Paprika also works well. If you haven't got mustard seeds, use 1/2 tsp of Colman's English mustard powder. I've also experimented with a couple of star anise, but it's a good idea to try and find them and take them out before bottling.

* To sterilise jars, wash well with hot water then dry out in the oven at 100-120C for half an hour or so. Bottle the contents while the jars are still hot. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Thrifty cheesecake

This is a great way to use up bits and pieces from the fridge and larder to make a small dessert. I started making this after I froze a spare packet of cream cheese and when I defrosted much later, I discovered it had split. I hate throwing food away so had to think up ways to use it up. This makes enough for two individual cheesecakes - perfect for when you want something sweet but just a small taste of it.

What you need:
1/2 packet of soft cheese, such as Philadelphia 
A level dsp of icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp lemon essence
2-3 plain hobnobs or other biscuits
A small knob of butter

What to do:
Put the biscuits in a paper bag and crush them with a rolling pin. Melt the butter in a small bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Add the biscuit crumbs and mix well. Spoon the mixture into two small ramekins and press it down well to make a firm base. Pop the ramekins in the fridge. 

Put the cheese and sugar into a bowl and mix well. Taste to check the balance of flavours - you want to be able to taste the cheese and it shouldn't be too sweet. Add the two essences and mix well. Spoon it over the bases, pressing it in and smoothing the top, and put back in the fridge. Leave for a good hour to set firmly. 

Cook's tips:
How much biscuit and butter you need will depend on the size of your ramekins. I find2.5 is about right to make a base of about half a centimetre deep. You need just enough butter to coat the crumbs so they'll stick together, but not so much they set rock hard in the fridge - the base should hold together but still be crumble. About a teaspoon should be about right.

I use the bowl over hot water as the amount of butter is too small to melt directly in the pan and tends to just dissipate across the surface without coating the crumbs.

For a slightly posher version, omit the essences and substitute a little grated lemon zest and some seeds from a vanilla pod.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Quick fig chutney

Occasionally when I have overrripe fruit I try to use them up in ways that preserve them, rather than eating them immediately. Bananas get turned into ice cream and I blitz overripe mango into a pulp in the food processor then freeze the coulis in portions.

Figs that are well on the turn make great chutney. The quantity this makes is small - only a couple of tablespoons - but for one person that's plenty. It won't keep, so store it in the fridge and use within a week. It's delicious with roasted or cold meat, or some cheese (especially goat cheese).

What you need: 
2 chopped overripe figs
About 50g leftover blueberries
1 dessert spoonful of raspberry vinegar 
1 heaped dessert spoonful of muscovado sugar

What to do:
Wash all the fruit well - figs can be dusty on the skin and pick out any blueberries that are starting to sprout a soft, white mould. Put everything in a non-aluminium pan. Cook it down over a medium heat until all the juices have thickened and the fruit has broken down - about 10-15 minutes. Pour into a clean (preferably sterilised) jar and let it cool. Put a lid on and keep in the fridge.

Cook's tips: 
This is the sort of fresh chutney you can whiz up with almost anything - very soft tomatoes, wrinkly apples, squishy apricots or nectarines - just stay away from harder ingredients such as carrots, which take longer to cook. It's important to keep the vinegar and sugar in more or less equal quantities - taste as you go to ensure you have the right balance of sharp and sweet, and don't be afraid to add a pinch of salt.

Because it's fresh, it really won't keep long - it simply doesn't have the array of spices, pectin and other ingredients that go into the kind of preserve you can store long-term. 

To sterilise a jar, wash it well in very hot water with washing-up liquid, rinse well and dry out in a hot oven. If you don't have the lid, as I didn't for the jar above, cling film is fine for a cover but it's a reminder to eat up the contents quickly!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Food banks - no recipe for a caring society

No recipe today. I want to talk about something much more important - food banks.

Two little words that conjure up much of what is horribly wrong in society right now. Please don't switch off - please read this. It matters.

How can it be that we are the 6th wealthiest nation in the world but millions of our citizens can't afford to feed themselves? Many of those going hungry are in work but simply don't earn enough to cover this most basic human need. Many are not working and don't have the money to eat because their benefits have been sanctioned for some reason or another, or payment has been delayed, or because they've had to spend their precious pennies on paying off debts or bills or bedroom tax instead.
More than half a million people in the UK are currently being referred to food banks by social services, GPs or churches. They get an emergency food parcel that will keep them going for a mere three days. Millions more are going hungry but haven't yet reached rock bottom enough to swallow their pride and ask for help. At the moment, food bank use has tripled in the last 12 months. A new food bank opens in Britain every 4 days. We are not a third world country but the Red Cross has started distributing food here to the starving for the first time since the end of the war.

It breaks my heart.

I shouldn't have to, but I consider myself extremely fortunate that I work. That I work enough to feed myself every day. That I earn enough to feed myself beyond the basics and am able to splash out on wine, organic rare breed steaks, obscure ingredients from delicatessens and other treats.

I shouldn't have to but I do because it could so easily be me. It could be any one of us if our circumstances change. In recession Britain many people are only a month's wages away from financial collapse. I have been poor and struggled to feed myself. It was a long time ago but I've never forgotten trudging from shop to shop checking prices so I could save a few pennies on a tin of beans. Once, I was skint enough and hungry enough to nick a pint of milk and a bag of bread rolls at 6am from outside a corner shop where the delivery guy had left them for the shop owner to collect when they opened up.

It was World Food Day yesterday around the world. Here it was being marked as a way to draw attention to the food poverty we have in the UK. Here are some articles you should read to find out the shocking statistics behind the headlines.

Food banks are testimony to the Tories' massacre of hope and dignity.

Food poverty is an attack on society.

The Nasty Party is back, sneering at food banks and those who use them 

Thanks for reading. If you have a few pennies to spare, next time you're doing the shop buy a little extra and donate to a food bank - you'll be helping someone not to starve.
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Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Moroccan style roast lamb breast with lemon broad beans

Breast of lamb is a much underrated cut, usually overlooked in favour of shoulder or leg even though it makes a very good roast. It's cheap too (£3-4 average) and because it's small, it's ideal for the lone-dwelling cook. You'll have enough for a main meal and enough leftovers for sandwiches, a pilaf or risotto.

It's easy to make a mess of roast breast - it needs a good blast of heat to start with the a long, slow spell if it's not to end up greasy with a rubbery skin and chewy meat. Follow the rules to turn it into a dazzling dinner - tender and flavoursome.

This cut tends to be stuffed with the usual garlic and rosemary but, as mutton is eaten widely across north Africa, I prefer to give it a Moroccan twist with a good dollop of chermoula. The chillies and lemon help tenderise the flesh, while packing in extra flavour.

The warm side dish of lemon broad beans also originates from Morocco.

What you need: 
1 lamb breast
Chermoula paste
100 g fresh or frozen broad beans (podded weight)
1 preserved lemon
Juice of half a fresh lemon
Half a dozen black olives, stoned and sliced
Olive oil
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 tsp each of cumin and paprika
A little chopped coriander
Salt and pepper

What to do:
Make the chermoula paste. If the meat has already been rolled and tied with butcher's string, cut it off and unroll it. Put the meat skin-side down on a chopping board and spread a very generous heaped tablespoon of chermoula all over it, working the paste into every nook and cranny and ensuring all the flesh is coated. Roll it up tightly again and secure it with butcher's string or a couple of metal skewers. Pop it on a plate, cover it with cling film and leave it in the fridge for at least 4 hours (overnight if you can).

To cook it, heat the oven to 220C and roast it for 25 minutes. The skin should be starting to turn crispy. Turn the oven down to 160C, then roast it for another 2 hours, giving it a good basting every half-hour with its juices. Let it rest for 10-15 minutes after it comes out the oven.

To make the beans, boil them for 2-3 minutes in salted water, drain and cool quickly under cold running water. Leave to drain again then slip off the tough outer skins. Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan and gently fry the spices and garlic. Add the beans, lemon juice and finely chopped preserved lemon. Cook gently for about 10 minutes, adding the olives for the last couple of minutes. Season to taste and garnish with the chopped coriander.
Cook's tips:
Breast of lamb can be very fatty so choose one that has a good ratio of meat to fat. If you're buying from a butcher and he's cutting it off the carcass for you, make sure he takes the ribs out. Don't undercook it - for such a small joint, it's easy to think it won't need too long in the oven. Trust me, it does. A lot of fat will come off during cooking, even off a lean cut. The skin should be wonderfully thin and crispy at the end.

I do advise boiling and skinning the broad beans ahead - I tend to do the skinning on the sofa as it's the sort of mindless task you can get on with while watching TV. You can finish all the rest of the dish while the meat is resting.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Beetroot and spinach tarte tatin

Tarte tatin is a traditional French dessert - an apple pie baked upside down - but it lends itself well to a savoury filling too. I saw a recipe recently by Yotam Ottolenghi for a potato version. That's a bit too carb-laden for me but other root vegetables work nicely, partly because they have an inherent sweetness.

Like the traditional apple tarte, you need to add a little sugar in some form or other to generate a caramel that will help hold all the filling together.

What you need: 
2 medium cooked beetroot
Half a bag of fresh spinach
2 tsp demerara sugar
Salt, pepper
Half a pack of puff pastry

What to do:
Heat the oven to 220C. First steam the spinach, until it's slightly beyond wilted, set aside to cool then squeeze out as much water as you can. Cut the beetroot into 5mm slices. Melt a generous knob of butter in a medium-sized (20cm) ovenproof frying pan then sprinkle the sugar in. When the sugar has dissolved and the butter has started to sizzle, add the beetroot slices and gently fry them off on both sides (they should fill the pan in one layer). Scatter the spinach across the beetroot and season.

Roll out the pastry into a round just bigger than the pan. Take the pan off the heat and press the pastry over the beetroot and spinach, tucking the edges under. Pop it in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes until the pastry has risen up and is golden.

Take it out, let it cool a little and the, using oven gloves, place a plate bigger than the pan over it and quickly flip it over. The tarte should slip out intact onto the plate.
Cook's tips: 
Those vacuum packs of cooked beetroots that you find in the supermarkets are perfect for this if you don't want to boil or roast then peel the beetroot from scratch, plus they are vinegar-free and cheap. If you don't like beetroot, you can make this with rounds of carrots or long slices of parsnip - scatter a few fresh thyme leaves over them at the frying stage.

If you don't have an ovenproof frying pan, start the cooking in your usual frying pan then transfer the beetroot to a cake tin and finish the prepping in that.

When I buy packs of puff pastry, I usually cut them in half or even quarters and freeze what I'm not using. Half a pack is about right for this (a quarter pack makes a puff pizza pie).

A whole tatin on its own is quite a filling meal. I like a generous slice on the side of a roast or some pulled pork or pulled beef, then I'll finish it for lunch next day.