Sunday, March 30, 2014

Soaking lasagne sheets

Non pre-cook lasagne does not necessarily live up to its promise of saving you trouble. Cooked from raw, it can absorb a good deal of sauce, leaving you with a dry wodge in the oven dish; if bits of the pasta are uncovered by sauce, they remain brittle.

You can ensure more even cooking by blanching the sheets for a minute. But you have to do so in small batches, because otherwise the sheets stick together, as if superglued. Pouring boiling water on to a batch of sheets, as Yotam Ottolenghi once advised (see this entry), is asking for trouble.

However, you can soak all the sheets you need in cold water. After 5 to 10 minutes, they should be floppy. If they look as if they’re sticking, they can be peeled apart (because you don’t have to put your hands in scalding water); but I have found that they do not stick hard. You’ve saved yourself the trouble of boiling the pasta and laying out the sheets separately; and you have ensured that it will cook evenly.

Having said this, I should add that this kind of lasagne is not as nice as fresh, or as the dried variety that does require pre-cooking. But in many shops and delis nowadays, it is all that is available.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Aubergine with tomato, onion, and Neufchatel cheese

I have cooked many versions of this, the root of which is melanzane parmigiana. It works very well with a soft cheese, which complements the melting texture of the aubergine. I used Neufchatel (my local butcher, Highbury Butchers, sells an excellent version); Camembert, its Normandy neighbour, would obviously work just as well. You want the cheese just to soften without going completely runny, so don’t give it longer than five minutes in the oven.

Serves 2, generously (with rice, perhaps)

2 aubergines
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 red onions, chopped
1 tin tomatoes
1tsp sugar
Neufchatel or Camembert cheese – as much as you like

Cut the aubergines in half crossways, and then cut them vertically, into four or five slices about 40mm thick. Pour some olive oil into a saucer, and brush the aubergines with oil on both sides using the concave side of the tines of a fork – or use a pastry brush. Lay the slices in a baking tray, season them, and bake them for 20 to 30 minutes at gas mark 8/230C, until soft.

Put about 2tbsp of oil into a heavy saucepan over a gentle heat, throw in the garlic, and let it sizzle for a minute or so. Add the onions, and cook until softened. Tip in the tomatoes, add the sugar (tinned tomatoes, and indeed a good many fresh ones, benefit from sweetening), season to taste, and simmer until thickened, breaking up the tomatoes in the pan.

Tip the aubergines into the tomato sauce, mix them up, and pour the mixture into an oven dish. Bake for 20 minutes, uncovered, at gas mark 4/180C, to allow the flavours to mingle and the sauce to thicken further.

Slice the cheese, and lay the slices on top of the tomato and aubergine mixture. Return the dish to the oven, and cook for a further three to five minutes, just until the cheese has started to melt.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Spare rib chops in barbecue sauce

If you find that pork chops are too often dry, you may be pleased to find spare rib pork chops, which come from the shoulder (whereas, confusingly, spare ribs come from the belly). You can grill or fry them, and you can also braise them slowly, without causing them to turn tough. The ones I cooked yesterday – from the excellent Highbury Butchers – were tender, with just enough fat to keep them moist.

In a recipe for Hawaiian pork chops in yesterday's Guardian, Yotam Ottolenghi advised that you marinate the chops, then scrape off the marinade before grilling them, and then recombine them with the marinade for a brief roasting. If cooked for longer, the chops will become tough. But you can poach spare rib chops, for about an hour and a quarter, before slicing them and combining them with your marinade. Finish them by blasting them in a hot oven (gas mark 8, 230C ) for 15 minutes.

The first advantage of this two-stage process is that you get tender meat. The second is that if you had roasted the chops from raw, you would have found that they exuded a good deal of water, making it difficult to achieve the ideally sticky result. The third is that if your marinade includes ingredients such as honey and soy, it will not spend long enough in the oven to burn.

My marinade, for 2-3: two cloves of garlic, crushed with a little salt; 2tbsp tomato ketchup; 1tsp honey; 1tsp Dijon mustard; a few splashes of soy sauce; 1dsp sunflower oil; generous grindings of black pepper.

Don't throw away the liquid in which you poached the chops. Today, we enjoyed a lovely soup made with this liquid and onions, garlic, squash, and red lentils.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

How to pour coffee - spare the crema

I have always drained my cafetiere when pouring my coffee. From the last drops, you get the attractive golden foam that, on an espresso, is the crema.

However, no cafetiere plunger is so efficient that it traps all the coffee grounds. The free grounds are in the last drops of coffee you pour, and, settling in the bottom of your cup/mug, steep for too long, and impart bitterness. The last quarter of your drink may be unpleasant.

My recommendation is to allow the coffee to settle for a short while after plunging, pour it carefully, and leave the last 50ml or so in the cafetiere.

Making coffee, I follow Victoria Moore’s technique of using a lot (I allow 2tbsps for 300ml water) but plunging almost immediately.
If allowed to steep for the standard recommended time of three to four minutes, coffee is more likely to be bitter, in my experience.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

'White' potatoes

Potatoes labelled simply “Whites”, I have always thought, are the poor relations of the maincrop world – the equivalent of robusta coffee, or the Aligoté grape. But the Whites on sale at my local greengrocer – White Bros, as it happens – are excellent. Roasted, they have a crunchy exterior and a creamy, earthily flavoured interior.

I have banged on about the best way to roast potatoes quite a few times. Essentially: I peel them, cut them up, put them in cold water with a little salt, bring them to the boil, and boil them for three to five minutes. I bash up the surfaces.

I do not think it essential to put them in hot oil or fat. (But of course if you have fat or dripping, you need to melt it.) I toss the potatoes in sunflower or olive oil, and roast them at gas mark 6/200C, turning them a few times, for about an hour.

The posts to which I've linked below may not be 100% consistent with what I've just written.

Heston's roast potatoes
Roast potatoes IV
Roast new potatoes

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Heston's roast chicken - support for my scepticism

"Brining the bird before cooking, as Heston Blumenthal suggests, just masks the flavour of the meat – definitely not worth the hassle," Felicity Cloake writes, in her recipe for "perfect chicken pie".

This is my view, too. Others disagree, as responses to one of the most visited posts on this blog, Heston's roast chicken, indicate.

I have had greater success, however, with brined pork chops.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Beef stew with red wine 2

I continue to worry over the question about the best way to brown meat for roasting or stewing. At the beginning or end of cooking? If you’re browning meat for a stew, do you do so in the casserole dish, or in a frying pan? The advantage of the latter process, I have always thought, is that you leave behind in the pan all the burned bits that might taint the flavour. But after I had fried several batches of meat for the stew below, I had a casserole with a various blackened patches on its base, and I could not taste any bitterness in the finished dish.

After sitting in a marinade, the pieces of meat may disgorge liquid that prevent them from browning. On the other hand, the residues from the marinade caramelise quickly.

As I have noted before, the maillard (browning) reactions work with increasing efficiency as one goes through the batches. This is why I browned the pancetta first.

Serves 4

1.2kg beef for stewing, such as chuck
1/3 bottle red wine
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and bashed
1 star anise
4 cloves
12 peppercorns
1/2tsp salt
Olive oil
75g pancetta, cubed
12 shallots, or 16 button onions, peeled
Knob of butter

In a large bowl, stir the meat with the wine, onions, garlic, star anise, cloves, peppercorns, and salt. Cover, and leave overnight in the fridge.

Put a splash of oil in a heavy casserole, and fry the pancetta over a gentle heat, until the cubes have shed their fat and have browned. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon.

Meanwhile, tip the meat and its marinade into a colander over a saucepan or bowl. Separate the meat from the marinade ingredients, which you can throw away.

Pat the meat dry in batches with paper towels, and fry it in the casserole dish – with just as many pieces in each batch to cover the base – over a medium heat. Allow the pieces to brown on one surface (it should take less than a minute) before turning once, and then removing to a large plate before browning the next batch. Add splashes of oil if necessary. You will probably find that areas of your dish blacken.

When the last batch has browned, pour in the reserved marinade, and add the rest of the meat and the pancetta pieces. Stir, and place in a gas mark 2/150C oven for about two and a quarter hours. After half an hour or so, check that the stew is simmering gently, and adjust the heat up or down if appropriate. Stir the stew from time to time.

You may find that you have more liquid than you want. If so, tip the stew into a colander over a saucepan, return the meat to the casserole and put back in the oven, and boil the sauce vigorously to reduce it. Taste the sauce. I found that I needed a little more salt. Pour the sauce back over the stew.

Melt a knob of butter in a heavy saucepan or frying pan over a gentle heat, and brown the shallots or onions. Tip them into the stew 45 minutes before serving.

Here's a beef and wine stew I made in a different way