Sunday, January 03, 2016

Ovens - fan on or off?

I have a new cooker (a Smeg), a huge improvement on my increasingly erratic former model. The electric oven is much more efficient and reliable.

The fan made cooking our Christmas dinner, with its various components, a great deal easier. But I haven't worked out yet whether the fan is worthwhile for cooking individual dishes, and various online forums do not give a clear answer: while everyone knows that you should use a lower heat when cooking with the fan than you would otherwise, no one seems clear on whether the fan improves the baking process or whether it tends to dry out the food. And if I put a dish under the grill, will it brown more efficiently with the fan on or off?

Yesterday, I used the fan when cooking a toad in the hole. It worked brilliantly: the batter rose, and was light; and the sausages were as juicy as we could have wished. But would the conventional, non-fan setting have produced just as good a result?

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The disappointing first pancake

Why, you may reflect on Shrove Tuesday (17 February), is the first pancake out of the pan so often a flabby, ragged mess? My theory is that the pan may not yet be hot enough.

After making your batter, put a knob of butter or a tbsp of oil into a frying pan over a medium heat, and leave it for five minutes. The oil or butter will have burned, so throw it away (if it’s butter, not down the sink), wipe the pan with a paper towel, and return it to the heat with a little more of your frying agent. Give the batter another quick whisk (some of the flour may have sunk), and proceed.

Gluten-free crespolini, with spinach and cheese

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Roast chicken at a high heat

I have always subscribed to the view that to cook a perfect roast chicken you need to cook it at as low a temperature as possible while also finding a way to brown it. Starting it off at a high heat and then lowering the dial is the standard method. I like the leg meat to be well done and tender, but of course I don’t want the breast meat to dry and toughen.

I bought a small Cotswolds chicken (1.4kg). I put it in the top of the oven at gas mark 6, 200C. Forty-five minutes later, I transferred it to the bottom shelf, replacing it with a roasting pan of potatoes. I took the chicken out of the oven 40 minutes later.

It was perfect. The legs were very tender, and the breast – I had massaged butter in between the skin and the meat – was still moist.

Sometimes, or rather quite often now I think about it, food does not behave how science says it should. I do recommend Cotswold chickens.

Roast chicken, with its stock
Heston's roast chicken

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Easy vegetable moussaka

Moussaka-style dishes, with meat or otherwise, involve quite a deal of labour. You have to slice aubergines, paint them with olive oil, and fry or bake them. You have to prepare any other vegetables individually, because they have different cooking times and you don’t want to end up with a vegetable mush. If you’re eating meat, you have to prepare a ragout. But for a dinner for two, at the end of the week, I could not be bothered to go through this palaver. How bad could it be if I baked the vegetables together, topped them with a bechamel, and baked the dish further? Not bad at all.

I put 2 chopped cloves of garlic, a sliced aubergine, 2 chopped red peppers, and a sliced courgette, with salt and pepper, into a heavy casserole dish. I tossed the vegetables with a generous quantity of olive oil, and put them into a gas mark 8/220C oven for half an hour, stirring regularly. By this time, the aubergines were tender. I stirred in a drained tin of chickpeas. I turned down the oven to gas mark 5/190C.

Meanwhile, I had made a tomato sauce, simply tipping a tin of tomatoes into a saucepan, adding salt, a few pinches of cayenne, and a tsp of sugar. I mashed the tomatoes with a potato masher, and simmered them until they were thick. I stirred the tomatoes into the vegetable mixture.

I made a bechamel (see this moussaka recipe) with about 30g butter, a tbsp of flour (I used gluten-free), and just under half a pint of milk – it made a thick, pasty sauce. I stirred in a couple of tbsps of Parmesan, and seasoned the sauce with salt and nutmeg. Now that it was cooler, I stirred in a beaten egg – it causes the sauce when baked to puff up, souffle-like.

I spread the sauce over the vegetable mixture, sprinkled a couple of tbsps of Parmesan on top, and baked the dish for 25 minutes. Then, I browned the top under the grill.

This was a meal by itself.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mashed potato with an electric whisk

In Don’t Sweat the Aubergine, I had the nerve to question Delia Smith’s method of making mashed potato, with a hand-held whisk. Overworking mash turns it gluey. Surely the whisk would bash up the starch granules and release their contents?

I did add - conscious of my temerity - that I was sure that Delia had never served a plate of gluey mash in her life; but I am embarrassed to admit that only now, 10 years after I wrote those libellous and sacrilegious words, have I tested the technique.

I was prompted by my discovery that a hand-held whisk produces more flavoursome hummus than does a food processor (this post). And, as you would expect, I learned that Delia was right.

The mash I made with the whisk was not impeccably light and fluffy; but its slight glueyness – which you often get from enthusiastic stirring with a wooden spoon – was a quality that I rather like. Delia’s recipe is here.

Instead of crème fraiche, I used a little milk with about 50% more butter than the recipe recommends. (And I did not bother with the business with the tea towel.) I warmed the butter and milk in a small saucepan before pouring them over the potatoes.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Salmon and spring onion fish pie

This is a simple fish pie for a family Friday supper. The spring onions are a nice contrast with the blandness of the fish. By “a bunch”, I mean of the slim ones you find in supermarkets. Serves 3 to 4.

Maincrop potatoes – 2 medium ones for each person
Large chunk of butter
Salmon fillets – about 350g
1/2pint milk
A dozen black peppercorns
A few scrapings of nutmeg
28g butter
1tbsp flour – I used gluten-free
1 bunch spring onions, chopped
1tbsp Parmesan

Peel the potatoes, cut them into smallish pieces (about 8 for a medium-sized potato), put them into cold water with about a tsp of salt, bring to a simmer, and simmer until soft. Drain, and mash – I use a potato ricer. Beat in the amount of butter you like, with salt to taste. If the mash coheres, you don’t need milk.

Put the salmon into a saucepan, pour over the milk, and throw in the peppercorns. Over a medium heat, bring to a simmer, and cook at a very gentle simmer for just a few minutes, or until the salmon has lost its raw pinkness. (You may want to cover the pan if the fish is not submerged – in this case, just leaving the fish to cook with the heat turned off will work.)

Lift out the fish with a slotted spoon. Remove the skin, and break up the fish into fork-sized pieces.

Strain the milk into a jug. Melt the butter in a non-stick, small saucepan over a gentle heat. Stir in the flour, and allow this roux to cook gently for a minute. Turn up the heat, and add the milk gradually, merging the roux and milk completely before adding the next batch. Keep adding milk (and more if necessary) until you have a thick sauce (which the onions and salmon will thin).

Mix the sauce, salmon, and spring onions, and tip into an oven-proof dish. Cover with the mash, and sprinkle the Parmesan on top.

Bake in a gas mark 6/200C oven for 10-15 minutes. You want to get the heat through the dish, but not to overcook the salmon. Brown the top under the grill.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hummus with a hand-held blender

I got this idea from Morito by Sam and Sam Clark, having introduced one of the Sams (him) at a lunch at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. It’s my impression that hummus tastes better made this way than it does from a food processor, perhaps because the processor blade gets very hot and affects the flavour. It’s a theory.

A pitcher-type vessel is ideal, so the ingredients don’t spray everywhere.

1 tin chickpeas, drained
1 1/2tbsp tahini
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove garlic, chopped (it needs this, but you’ll be able to taste it all afternoon if you eat the hummus at lunchtime)
Salt (go easy if the chickpeas have been tinned in brine)
Pepper, cayenne pepper to taste
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Blend all the ingredients apart from the oil (which loses its fruitiness if overworked) with a hand-held blender. You may need to stop to scrape down the sides. Stir in the oil.