Friday, December 22, 2006

Spicy potato cakes

Some recipes for potato cakes involve flour, in a ratio of about 1 g flour to 4 g potato. The flour acts as binding; but I find the results a little glutenous. (Or perhaps I mean glutinous, which means gluey.)

If you leave out the flour, you have to treat the cakes with care. The longer they spend in the frying pan, the more likely they are to break up; so I fry them quickly, and then put them in the oven to warm through. The quick frying means that they absorb less oil, because they rapidly develop a crust.

The quantity of spices here may seem large. But you need a lot of spice to spice up a potato.

For 2
4 medium potatoes
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
4 dried chillis
Groundnut or sunflower oil, for frying

Peel the potatoes, cut them into chunks, and put them into a saucepan of cold, salted water. (Salt speeds softening -- and you're going to mash these potatoes.) Bring to the boil, and simmer until tender. Drain, and return to the hot pan to steam. When they're dry, mash them. (I use a masher, because I don't mind a course texture; but when I'm cooking mashed potatoes, I push them through a vegetable mill.)

Meanwhile, put the cumin and coriander into a dry saucepan above a gentle heat, and cook them until they give off a toasted aroma. Whizz them with the chillis. (I have a small, electric herb mill. You might also use a pestle and mortar -- though it's hard to disintegrate chillis in this way.)

Tip the spices and chilli into the mashed potato; add salt if necessary. When the mixture is cool enough, form it with your hands into eight patties. If you have time, put them into the fridge, where they will firm up.

Turn the oven to gas mark 6/200 C. Heat a frying pan above a medium to high flame; add a layer of oil, and fry the potato cakes; you want each side to be browned in a couple of minutes. Transfer the cakes to a baking tray, and put in the oven for 10 minutes to finish warming through.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bread sauce

Here is the bread sauce recipe (for 4 to 6) from my book (links on the right). It still seems plausible to me; you might, bearing on mind the comment I made yesterday about salty bread, leave out the salt.

Bring 280 ml of milk slowly to the boil with half a peeled onion studded with a couple of cloves, along with a little salt, a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, and a pinch of nutmeg; turn off the heat, cover, and leave to infuse for half an hour. Strain into another pan through a sieve, add breadcrumbs, and warm through. I’m afraid that I don’t know how many breadcrumbs you’ll need. Add some, stir and simmer; the sauce will continue to thicken, so err on the side of too few at first (unless you want an excuse to add more milk and create more sauce – but of course this milk will be unflavoured). When the sauce has the consistency you want, take it off the heat and stir in a walnut-sized knob of butter. You could add a couple of tbsps of cream too. You can leave the sauce and warm it up later, by which time it will have become very thick, and will need loosening with a little more milk.

Among the Christmas cooking tips in the Guardian yesterday, Tom Norrington-Davies suggested throwing slices of bread into the milk, and then whizzing the sauce in a blender. The drawback with this method is that you will not know whether you have added too much or too little bread until you've blended the sauce; whereas with my method you can add breadcrumbs gradually, until the consistency is right. Norrington-Davies simmers his milk until the onion is soft, and blends the onion with the milk and bread. Chacun, etc.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


You can follow an elaborate recipe when making the stuffing on Christmas day, or you can put together almost any combination of breadcrumbs and flavourings, and it will be delicious. Here is a recipe that I am making up as I write. It will work, I promise.

2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 plateful breadcrumbs
3 heaped tbsp chopped parsley
Zest of 1 lemon
1 egg, beaten

Soften the onion and garlic in butter or oil until golden -- about 15 minutes. Tip them into the breadcrumbs in a bowl, and mix in the parsley (you might use other herbs, or a combination, of course) and lemon zest, along with generous grindings of black pepper. (You may not need any more salt than is already contained in the bread.) Bind the mixture with the egg, and pack it into a buttered oven dish.

You can put the stuffing into the oven when you take out the turkey (or other fowl) to rest. Timing and oven heat do not have to be precise. Thirty minutes at gas mark 5/190 C should work fine; but no doubt you'll have potatoes roasting in the oven as well, possibly at gas mark 6/200 C. They'll be on the top shelf, and the stuffing will have to go underneath. That will be fine, too.

There are some general tips about Christmas lunch in my New Stateseman column, here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sticky rice

Little time for blogging today. I'm off to a Christmas lunch given by Much Ado Books, which has invited me, Nick Hornby and Geraldine McCaughrean as speakers. The audience will have heard of two of us.

I cooked rice for my daughters last night. I rinsed it, covered it in just over 1.5 times its volume of water, brought it to the boil, covered it, put a heat disperser under the pan, lowered the heat, and left it for 20 minutes. That produced a sticky, starchy clump. Washing the rice was probably one of my mistakes; I wish I knew what the others were.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Stuffed cabbage

Stuffed cabbage is the kind of "simple French food" that involves painstaking work. You make your stuffing; you carefully detach leaves from a head of cabbage; you blanch them; you assemble little parcels of leaves and stuffing. The recipe suggestion in my vegetable box last week dispensed with all that stuffing nonsense. You slice the cabbage, and steam or boil if for five minutes; you layer it with sausage meat; you put it in the oven. That's it. It might be simpler still: why bother with the initial cooking of the cabbage when it's going to steam in the oven for an hour and a half?

I like an easy life; but even I think that it may be worth putting in a bit more work than that. This is what I made (for four) yesterday.

250 g pork mince
250 g beef mince
2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Large handful parsley, chopped
1 cabbage
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

As I have written, the easiest way to brown mince is to form it into hamburger-like patties. Make about eight patties with the pork and beef; put a frying pan over a medium-to-high heat; when the pan is hot, pour in a layer of oil. Fry the patties in two or three batches -- if you crowd the pan you will lower the temperature, with the result that water escaping from the meat will not evaporate and the meat will not brown. You want to give it no more than a minute on each side. Put the browned mince into a bowl.

In another pan, soften the onion and garlic in some more olive oil until golden -- about 15 minutes. Tip them into the mince, along with the parsley, salt, and a lot of pepper. (You might like a little nutmeg, too.) Mix it all up, with your hands if you like.

Halve the cabbage vertically, then slice horizontally. You do not have to get rid of the core, which will soften with slow cooking. Wash and refresh the cabbage slices for a minute or two in a bowl of cold water.

Put a layer of cabbage in a casserole or other oven dish. Add a layer of meat, some more cabbage, some more meat, and some more cabbage. Cover, and bake gently in a gas mark 1/140 C oven for three hours.

Cabbage is delicious if cooked for five minutes, or if cooked for an hour and a half or longer. Cook it for 20 minutes, and it will evoke the horrors of institutional dinners.

The cabbage at the top of the dish will brown. That doesn't matter. Make sure the oven heat is gentle, though. I turned down my oven to its lowest setting for the last hour.

The meat does not cohere, as the term "stuffing" would imply. So this is a stuffed cabbage in which the cabbage is not stuffed, and the stuffing is not stuffing. I recommend it, though.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Sausage sauce

Often, home cooking involves compromises between timing, quantities, tastes and ingredients. I had two sausages from Rocco's deli that I wanted to use in a pasta sauce. The girls were eating before us. One daughter likes tomato sauce, and had not been given it for a while. Normally, I would use a 400 g tin of tomatoes in a sauce for two (that's a lot by Italian standards -- but this was an inauthentic, British pasta supper), so I needed some extra for her.

I bought two large, fresh tomatoes -- Dutch ones, which I usually avoid, but which were going to have their thin flavour concentrated through cooking and combination with other ingredients. I softened an onion and a clove of garlic in olive oil, added the tinned tomatoes and their juice, and the fresh tomatoes, chopped. I simmered the contents of the pan until they were thick, and pushed them through a vegetable mill. I dressed my daughter's pasta with some of this sauce.

I skinned and broke up the sausages, and added them to the tomato mixture with 100 ml double cream. (Browning the sausages would have given extra flavour, but is a messy job -- bits of sausage tend to stick to the pan and burn.) I simmered this sauce for about 30 minutes, to thicken it again and to cook the sausage.

We ate it with conchiglie -- pasta shells, inside which bits of sausage satisfyingly nestled.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Baked custard

Books for Cooks invited me to give a lunchtime talk when the paperback of Don't Sweat the Aubergine (links on the right) came out. The shop did not blow my cover by asking me to cook the lunch; Eric Treuille, co-owner with his wife Rosie Kindersley, did that. He made both versions of the custard in the book: one, richer, including egg yolks; the second including whole eggs. He told me that he preferred the lighter version.

We had it for lunch yesterday. It took 10 minutes to prepare.

For a classier result, you might use a vanilla pod. The bain-marie is not essential; but it does help to spread the heat through the dish, and to prevent the edges from overcooking.

This recipe would serve three, or, in dainty portions, four. Two of us ate it all.

150 ml double cream
150 ml milk
1 tbsp caster sugar, or 1 dstsp honey
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
A little butter

Warm the cream, milk, sugar (or honey) and vanilla in a small saucepan. Beat the eggs. Butter an oven dish, and put it in a roasting tin. When bubbles appear on the cream mixture, pour it gradually into the eggs, whisking all the time. (You need to disperse the heat so that you do not get bits of scrambled egg.) Pour the custard into the oven dish. Pour boiling water into the roasting tin to come half way up the sides of the dish.

Bake at gas mark 3/160 C for about 30 minutes, or until the custard is set. Eat hot or cold.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Aubergine gratin

One of my favourite dishes is Parmigiana di melanzane: layers of aubergine, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and parmesan. But it is let down by many brands of mozzarella, which toughen when cooked. Another favourite is moussaka, particularly when it has a buoyant, cheesy topping. Let's perm them.

For 2
1 aubergine
Olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 400 g tin tomatoes
28 g butter
28 g flour
250 ml milk
Pinch nutmeg
2 heaped tbsp pecorino
1 egg yolk

Cut the aubergine into rounds about 5 mm thick. Brush them with olive oil (I pour the oil into a saucer, and brush the aubergines with the tines of a fork), put them in a roasting tin, season, and bake at gas mark 6/200 C for 20 to 30 minutes, or until soft. (There is more on cooking aubergines here.)

Soften the garlic in a saucepan with another tbsp olive oil. Pour in the tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon as they cook. Add a little salt, and simmer until the sauce is sludgy. (This is a very basic sauce. You might begin with a base of onion, celery and carrot; you might add herbs.)

Make a bechamel. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the flour, and cook for a minute or so; don't let it go brown. Pour in the milk gradually, stirring to incorporate each portion before adding the next. Let the sauce bubble for a minute or two, stirring constantly, then turn off the heat. The sauce should be quite thick. Stir in the cheese (you might use any hard cheese -- cheddar would be fine), then the egg yolk (which would scramble if added to the boiling sauce). Add nutmeg and pepper; you should not need salt.

Unless your gratin dish has a small base, you may not have enough ingredients to form several layers. When I made this dish the other night, I simply poured in the tomato sauce, arranged the aubergine slices on top, and finished with the cheese sauce. I baked it at gas mark 4/180 C for 30 minutes, after which the topping was brown and, thanks to the egg, pleasingly puffed up.

We ate this when it was lukewarm, an hour later. It was at its best then, I think; but it would also have been delicious hot, or cold.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Steaming rice

I am clueless. I fail to understand even quite straightforward aspects of the world's workings. Geography was one of my worst subjects at school: the explanations for such phenomena as the building of cities by rivers were opaque to me. Learning to cook has been a slow wrestle with this natural disability. When I first made a Bolognese sauce, I did not grasp that the reason why the contents of my uncovered pan were drying up was that the liquid was evaporating. That is how clueless I am.

A branch of the budget supermarket Lidl opened in Finsbury Park last week, offering a vegetable/rice steamer for the irresistible price of £9.99.
You put the rice basket inside the steamer basket. I tried it; 20 minutes later, my rice was still dry and hard. I checked Sri Owen's Rice Book, and discovered that you're supposed to put rice AND WATER into the basket. Doh!

I tried again, using my usual formula with Tilda basmati rice: one part rice by volume to two parts water. The rice was cooked after 20 minutes, but still sitting in water.

For my third attempt, I used just enough water to submerge the rice. Not bad, but a little clumpy. Perhaps the grains would have separated had I stirred a little butter or oil through them. The advantage of the steamer was that the rice did not stick to the basket.

My only fail-safe method of cooking rice is to boil it in plenty of water. Drained after 10 minutes, the grains are separate and of a perfect consistency. The "absorption method" -- by which you cook the rice in just the amount of water it will soak up -- preserves more flavour and nutrients; but, despite long experience of cooking the same brand of rice, I still get variable results. The quest goes on.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Heston's carrots

Heston Blumenthal's television programme will end soon, and then what will I have to write about? He has given me the subjects for several entries here, as well as for a column in the New Statesman. I shall miss him.

The third component of his meal last week, along with the roast chicken and the roast potatoes, was carrots. Do not boil them in water, he said: put them in a pan with some butter, salt and pepper, and let them steam in the liquid they produce. He lifted the lid of a saute pan, revealing bright orange carrots bearing, suspiciously, no trace of caramelised butter.

Usually, I cut carrots into thick batons (not rounds, which cook more quickly), put them in a pan with water just to cover them and with a knob of butter, and boil them rapidly until the water evaporates, leaving them with a butter glaze. The softening and evaporation times coincide. The carrots retain their sweetness, which tends to dissipate when they cook in a large volume of water. I could see that Heston's method might retain even more flavour.

It worked pretty well when I tried it last night. The only problem was that my carrots -- chunky, knobbly, organic ones -- did not throw off as much water as Heston had predicted: the result was that the butter caught in places on the pan, and that one or two carrot edges charred. I think that about 3 tbsp water in the pan would be a useful precaution. When the carrots are nearly ready, one can take off the lid, turn up the flame, and allow the carrots to become glossy with butter.

Should one add salt to the pan? As I wrote on the subject of roast potatoes, salt speeds softening. My large and slightly mealy carrots were a little too mushy at the edges, but might not have been had I waited to season them at the table.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Chicken soup

The 2 kg Label Anglais chicken I bought last weekend cost £11. That money -- about £8 more than I might have paid for a battery bird -- went a long way. There was the roast chicken. There was my chicken curry. There was a sandwich for one of my daughters. And there was a stock, which contributed to several dishes, including a chicken soup.

The soup also gave a home to a box of out-of-season plum tomatoes, which someone had unwisely bought and left untouched for a week, and to the last carrot from the organic box. Some lentils provided thickening. Cumin and cardamom, those regular features of my cooking, also put in an appearance.

This recipe made four helpings, which two of us ate.

1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp cumin
5 cardamoms
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, diced
50 g red lentils, washed
4 ladlefuls hot stock
1 punnet plum tomatoes, chopped
Cooked chicken, diced

Soften the garlic with the spices -- crushed in a mortar -- in some oil of your choice (I used olive). Add the onion and carrot, and fry gently until golden. Tip in the lentils, add the stock, and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until the lentils and carrot are soft. Season.

Meanwhile, tip the tomatoes into another saucepan on a gentle heat, and cook off the juices until you have a concentrated sludge.

Push the contents of both pans through a vegetable mill, which will catch the tomato skins.

Throw in the chicken, and warm the soup gently, adding more stock or water if the consistency seems too thick.

When I made this soup, I did not concentrate the tomatoes, but added them to the lentil/onion/carrot mixture and cooked them for five minutes. Their flavour was too thin. Also, again using a leftover (this time from the orange and lemon mousse), I swirled in some cream.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Heston's roast potatoes

Sorry: him again. There were three components to his perfect roast chicken meal on Tuesday night: the chicken, the roast potatoes, and the carrots. I wrote about the chicken yesterday, and I shall come to the carrots some other time. There are a couple of features of his roast potatoes I want to mention.

Blumenthal boiled his potatoes -- Maris Pipers -- until they were crumbly at the edges. As he said, you have to get the timing right: a minute later, and they would have turned into mash. But, as I have written, I parboil maincrop potatoes for just a few minutes, to get rid of some of the surface starch. The edges will crumble a little if you stir them in a hot, dry pan, and be crunchy once roasted.

On the other hand, Heston Blumenthal is a Michelin three-starred chef, and I am someone whose daughters accuse of being unable to cook frozen peas properly.

He boiled two batches of potatoes: one in salted and the other in unsalted water. The former batch was crunchier when roasted, he said. He did not explain why -- although he may do in his book. Turning to his guru -- and mine -- Harold McGee, I learn that the reason may be that salt speeds the softening of cells. The potatoes from the salted water were probably crumblier.

He roasted his potatoes in olive oil. I do too, sometimes; but more often I use sunflower oil -- frowned upon in some quarters.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Heston's roast chicken

Heston Blumenthal's perfect roast chicken on BBC 2 last night was a refinement of the slow-roasting technique he promoted in his first book, Family Food. You brine your chicken -- a Poulet de Bresse, please. You blanch it for 30 seconds, plunge it into iced water, then repeat the process. You cook the chicken for four and a half hours at 60 C. You fry the chicken quickly in groundnut oil. Voila!

The brining helps to keep the meat moist. The blanching -- the Chinese do it with duck -- promotes crispy skin. Slow cooking means that the proteins do not squeeze out moisture. The last stage is the crisping of the skin in a frying pan.

I am sure that brining works well -- it certainly did when I tried it with belly pork. It does produce salty meat, though, so you have to be sure that you want that. However, something else rules out my trying the Blumenthal method: my oven. A not-inexpensive Parkinson Cowan, it has a lowest temperature, according to my oven thermometer, of more than 100 C.

So I shall stick to my imperfect recipe. Roasting chicken -- unless, like Gordon Ramsay, you separate the legs and the breast -- involves a compromise: you have to cook the legs properly, and to brown the bird, while trying to ensure that the breast, which requires only a short cooking time, does not dry out too much.

I follow Nigella Lawson's timings: 20 minutes for each 500 g, plus half an hour. But she suggests a temperature of gas mark 6/200 C throughout -- unnecessarily high, I think. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tells you to lower the temperature to gas mark 4/180 C; but that, too, is fiercer than you need.

I reported that, for the first time ever, I had found my chicken not properly cooked after the standard time. At the weekend, I was determined to make no mistake. I took the chicken out of the fridge four hours before I was due to put it in the oven. (Richard Ehrlich has shown that a chicken will hardly warm up at all after the one hour that is usually recommended.) I turned the oven up to full heat for half an hour, spread butter over the chicken and between the skin and the breast, squirted over half a lemon and put the hull inside the bird, ground over salt and pepper, turned down the oven to gas mark 6/200 C, and put in the chicken. After half an hour, I turned down the dial to gas mark 2/150 C.

You need the initial blast of heat, I think, to brown the skin and to get the cooking process properly underway, so that the chicken will not have to spend too long in the oven. After that, a low temperature -- next time, I shall try gas mark 1/140 C -- will continue the job perfectly well. In my experience, turning the chicken during cooking is not worthwhile.

I took my 2 kg chicken out of the oven after one hour and 50 minutes, and let it rest in the grill section above the warm oven for 25 minutes before carving. (Hacking is what I do.) It was not perfect. But it was pretty good.

See also:
Brining chicken revisited
Heston's roast chicken: support for my scepticism

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Browning onions; a crude curry

One of the first disillusioning discoveries the home cook makes is that softening and browning onions takes a lot longer than the recipe books state. You have to fuss over them as well, or else bits of onion stick to the pan, and burn.

Butter, which itself browns easily, helps the browning process. But you need quite a lot of butter for even one onion, because of the separation of the solids and liquid, which evaporates. That does not happen to oil; so, to ensure that there is lubrication in the pan, I usually brown onions in a butter/oil mixture. They need regular stirring, because the oil will not protect the butter from burning. Turning up the heat in an effort to speed the process is a bad idea.

Brown onions enrich the sauce in a stew or a curry. Last night, I made a chicken curry, of the kind that is likely to feature leftover turkey in many homes at the end of this month. It is the kind of dish -- makeshift, and hot -- that I love to prepare when I'm cooking for myself.

I browned my onion, and threw in a chopped clove of garlic and a finely chopped (small) knob of ginger, along with 1/3 tsp cumin seeds and 4 cardamoms -- both crunched a bit in a mortar. After another couple of minutes of stirring and frying, I poured in the remains of some roast chicken gravy (I had about 125 ml) and a ladleful of stock, along with a little salt, 1/3 tsp turmeric, and 1/3 tsp chilli powder. I let this bubble for five minutes. Then I added leftover chicken, and simmered for five minutes longer.

Browning the onions apart, this meal -- including some boiled rice -- was very quick and simple to prepare. It was far nicer than any takeaway I've had recently. The ginger was the key ingredient, lifting but not dominating all the other flavours.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Orange and lemon mousse

I am sorry to keep banging on about mousses. But their preparation raises a few issues that I have not yet resolved. Here is another recipe, following the one for cold caramel souffles, adapted from Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book. Notes follow.

5 eggs -- 3 whole, and 2 separated
55g caster sugar
1 orange, zest and juice
1 lemon, zest and juice
4 leaves gelatine
150 ml double cream

In a bowl suspended over hot water, beat the eggs, egg yolks and sugar until they are pale and thick. Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water for about four minutes, until they are soft and slippery. Remove them from the water, and gently squeeze them. Put the orange juice and lemon juice in a pan on a gentle heat; when the liquid is warm, but long before it shows signs of bubbling, stir in the gelatine, which should dissolve. Beat this juice into the egg, and allow to cool.

When the egg and juice are starting to set, lightly whip the cream, and whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold cream and egg whites into the egg mixture. Pour into glasses, cover with clingfilm, and put in the fridge to set.

I thought that I had an orange in the house; I did not. I grated a satsuma -- which, being soft, is not well suited to such a procedure. Then I squeezed the juice from it. The resulting mousse needed a little more citric tartness.

After misjudging the amount of gelatine I had needed for the caramel souffle, I poured the beaten egg and sugar into a measuring jug. They reached the 600 ml mark. I had yet to add cream and fruit juice. Each gelatine leaf, according to my packets, sets 200 ml liquid. Hence the four leaves.

At what point do you decide that the gelatinous egg and juice mixture is "starting to set"? I am not sure; but I think that I, nervous of trying to blend cream and egg white into jelly, tend to jump the gun. You want the juice to be thoroughly merged into the mousse. It separates from the egg mixture; but then it gets stirred in again, and the folded-in cream and egg white hold it in suspension. There was just a very thin layer of juicy jelly beneath my mousses; had the mixture been thicker, it might not have escaped.

What does "lightly whipped" mean? I whipped the cream until it held its shape, but before it would have gone stiff . But that appeared to be too much -- the cream stayed in globs in the egg mixture, and had to be beaten in to be properly incorporated. So I think that you should whip the cream until it just starts to thicken while remaining liquid, stir it into the gelatinous egg and juice, and then fold in the egg whites.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Beetroot for lunch

We received our second lot of beetroot in the vegetable box this week. The first time, I surrounded them -- after washing them gently -- in a pool of boiling water in a baking dish, covered the dish with foil, and put it into the oven for an hour and a half at gas mark 4/180 C. Yesterday, I simply wrapped each beetroot in foil, and baked the parcels for the same length of time. (I had in both cases tested the vegetables after an hour -- not quite done.)

The first technique worked better. (Unless it was the beetroots that were better.) The beetroots were moister, and sweeter. We ate them as a side dish, with just a sprinkling of red wine vinegar.

Nevertheless, lunch yesterday was very good. I toasted a couple of tbsp of sunflower seeds -- the deliciousness of which I had discovered in a salad made by a neighbour -- in a dry saucepan. (Pine kernels would have worked well too.) I washed and dried a bunch of watercress, and tossed it, and the seeds, in a vinaigrette made with 1 tsp red wine vinegar and 3 tsp olive oil, with salt and pepper. I arranged the watercress on two plates, put sliced beetroot (one each) on top, and sliced feta (100 g each) on top of that.

A lovely combination of nutty, peppery, salty and sweet flavours.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cold caramel souffles

Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book is an inspiring work. In 1970, when the book first appeared, Costa's seasonal structure was unusual; now, of course, everyone uses it. She arranges the recipes thematically: you get dozens of pear and apple dishes in the autumn chapter, for example. There is nothing fancy about the descriptions, and there are no pictures; but the abundance of appealing ideas makes you want to get into the kitchen right away.

The language of the recipes is straightforward; but some of them do require a little experience to negotiate safely. Perhaps that's my excuse for a couple of not entirely successful ventures.

Making the cold caramel souffles, I should have done a little research into gelatine, or at least read the packet instructions, first.

You start by making a caramel with 300 ml water and 115 g sugar.

For the souffle: 15 g powdered gelatine; juice of 1 lemon; 2 eggs; 1 egg yolk; 2 tbsp caster sugar; 90 ml softly whipped cream; 2 egg whites.

My first mistake, I think, was with the caramel. You put the water and the sugar into a saucepan on a low heat until the sugar dissolves, then turn up the heat and cook until the syrup is golden brown. I used golden caster sugar, so I had a golden liquid already -- I was not confident that I could distinguish between this colour and caramel. I was too timid, and arrested the cooking early. Then I added, as Costa suggested, 4 tbsp hot water.

I had leaf gelatine. I assumed that one leaf would be about the equivalent of the powdered gelatine specified.

The recipe continues: beat the whole eggs and the yolk with the sugar in a bowl suspended above hot water, until the mixture increases in volume and thickens. Remove from the heat. At this point, I stirred in the gelatine, which I had softened for 4 minutes in cold water, and stirred until I was sure that it had dissolved. I added the (thin) caramel and the lemon juice. I covered the bowl, and put it in the fridge.

You're supposed to wait until the mixture begins to thicken. Two hours later, it was showing no inclination to do so. I decided that it needed another leaf of gelatine, which I softened in water, then melted in a pan on a low heat. I added my runny mousse to this pan, stirred thoroughly, and poured the mixture back into my bowl.

Time was moving on. Instead of waiting, I beat the egg whites, and folded them and the whipped cream into the eggy lemon. I poured the mousse into four glasses, covered them in clingfilm, and put them in the fridge.

Two and a half hours later, when we came to eat our puddings, they were still not set, although they had thickened slightly. There were two layers: a foamy mousse, and a lemony jelly.

Two hours after that, the single mousse left in the fridge had at last reached the right consistency. I ate it for lunch the next day. Perfectly pleasant; but it offered too weak a hint of caramel.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Red cabbage

While I was fussing over the braised belly pork and the lentils, some red cabbage was maturing uncomplicatedly in the oven.

Red cabbage goes well with acidic things, in part because the flavours complement it, and in part because the acid preserves, even heightens, the purply red colour.

I have a ceramic oven dish that will also go on the hob. I put it on a gentle flame, poured in about a tbsp of groundnut oil, and softened a chopped onion. Meanwhile, I chopped half a small cabbage and an apple, turning the apple pieces in the juice of half a lemon -- it stops them going brown. When the onion was soft, I added the cabbage and the apple with its juice, half a tbsp of caraway seeds, a star anise, a little salt and a sprinkling of vinegar, and stirred everything up. I covered the dish with foil, and put it in a gas mark 2/150 C oven for an hour and a half. All I had to do was to check after about 45 minutes to make sure that the dish was progressing nicely.

My ceramic dish is quite thick, and does not cook things quickly. The cabbage retained a satisfying crunch. It was quite sharp -- possibly too sharp for some tastes. I might have put the chopped apples into acidulated water, draining them of liquid before adding them to the cabbage and onion; or I might have left out the vinegar.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


The easiest way to cook Puy or other green lentils is to simmer them in water, drain them, and stir in flavourings such as fried onions and garlic, celery, and parsley. But yesterday, with the braised belly pork, I thought that it would be a shame not to flavour the lentils with the pork broth, which I did not want to discard; so I cooked them (about 50 g for each person) by a kind of absorption method. It's as difficult to get right as it is with rice.

I rinsed the lentils in a sieve under running water. Then I put them in a saucepan, covered them in broth with about 2 cm to spare, brought them to a simmer, put on the lid, and turned down the heat. You can never tell how much liquid the lentils will absorb. These were drying out after about 10 minutes, so I added more broth. But I did not want to pour in too much, because at the end of cooking I hoped that there would be only a little liquid remaining. Add too little, though, and the lentils won't soften. So I had to top up with broth, check again after five minutes, taste the lentils to try to guess how much longer they needed, add more broth, and repeat. This is supposed to be a humble foodstuff.

Meanwhile, I softened an onion and a clove of garlic in olive oil until they were golden.

The lentils were softening after about 35 minutes. I removed the lid, stirred in the onion and garlic mixture, added a little salt and a lot of pepper, and allowed the liquid to evaporate.

The third component of this meal, red cabbage, required a lot less attention. Details tomorrow.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Braised belly pork

After roasting a joint of belly pork a few weeks ago, I thought I would try a braised version. There is a recipe in Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson. You cover a 1.8 kg joint with 2.3 litres of water, including in the broth dry sherry or sake, star anise (3), a cinnamon stick, slices of root ginger, dry chilli, soy sauce, redcurrant jelly, balsamic vinegar, and garlic cloves (30), with coriander sprigs, spring onions and a fresh chilli for garnish.

I had a 0.8 kg joint, and I did not have sake or sherry, cinnamon, redcurrant jelly, balsamic vinegar, or the garnish. But I used the other ingredients, scaled down; and added a couple of tbsps of rice vinegar. Hopkinson tells you to bring the water to the boil, and then to add the meat; I poured cold water over the meat, then brought the pan slowly to simmering point. At that point, I skimmed the surface of the liquid, and added all the other ingredients, rather than doing so in the stages Hopkinson recommends.

I cooked the braise on the hob, because I had another dish to go in the oven. Hopkinson tells you to cover the pan; but I find that a covered pan on even the lowest flame on my hob bubbles more energetically than is good for the meat. I put a heat disperser under the pan -- a Le Creuset casserole; but when all hints of bubbling disappeared from the surface of the liquid I began to worry that the temperature had got too low. I might have taken off the lid; but then liquid would have evaporated, and had to be replenished in order to keep the pork covered. So I spent a good deal of time faffing around, making little adjustments.

No doubt I should have been more relaxed about it: belly pork is a forgiving cut of meat. I simmered it for two and a half hours.

Hopkinson says that you should remove the pork, garlic and slices of ginger to a serving dish before reducing the sauce to a syrupy consistency. There had been very little evaporation from my casserole. Reducing the two litres of broth to a syrupy consistency would have required about half an hour of fast boiling.

I boiled the contents of the casserole for about five minutes, to concentrate the flavour a little. Then I added a couple of ladlefuls to the pork, as a flavoursome moistening agent. I kept the rest of the broth to use in a soup.

This is a typical story of a home cook and a recipe book. You do not have all the ingredients; the recipe does not work as described; but, with a bit of improvisation, you can still end up with something very nice.

Friday, November 24, 2006


My favourite ever cheesecake was on the menu at a hamburger restaurant in Exeter. It -- the cheesecake -- had a crunchy, chocolaty base and a lemony, mousse-like topping. It probably came out of a packet.

Nothing I have eaten since has quite matched that ideal. You might point out that what I am after is not proper cheesecake; and it is fair to see that the heavy, mouth-coating variety is not so much to my taste. Nevertheless, I have tried making what is sometimes known as "New York Cheesecake", with mixed results.

Nigel Slater has a recipe of this kind in his Kitchen Diaries. You make it in a springform cake tin placed in a bain-marie, wrapping the tin in a double layer of foil to keep out the water. Alas, I failed to do a proper sealing job. We ate a soggy base -- a dispiriting thing in a cheesecake. The topping was very nice, though.

I tried another version, from Olive magazine (a delicious lemon mousse from which has featured here). The base included hazelnuts as well as biscuits and butter; the topping featured a lot of cream cheese (900 g), with sour cream, eggs, flour, and vanilla essence. Olive did not recommend a bain-marie. It suggested a cooking time of about 40 minutes at gas mark 1 (140 C). The centre of my cake was not nearly ready by then; it was still liquid after an hour and a half. After another quarter of an hour it was wobbling, and I felt confident that it would set once cooled.

The centre of the cake was light and fluffy, but the rest was rather dense. A bain-marie -- sealed by a competent person -- might have helped to protect the perimeter of the cake and to spread the heat more efficiently.

Olive tells you to put the base into the oven first to help it to firm up; but I am not sure that oven heat has that effect. Better, surely, to put the base into the fridge, or even into the freezer. We ate some of this cheesecake, because of my bad planning, four hours after I had cooked it. The biscuit and hazelnut mix was soft, but crunchier when we ate the leftovers the next day.

I am not sure what proportion of butter to biscuit produces the crunchiest result. Some recipes give 1 g of butter to 2 g of biscuit; others, a 1:3 ratio.

I still like the inauthentic cheesecake in my book. But I may have found one -- it has mousse in the title -- that comes even closer to reproducing my experience of long ago. I shall keep you posted.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Some squeaky-fresh chard arrived in the vegetable box yesterday. It was multicoloured: green of course, and purple, crimson and yellow. Someone should have painted it before we ate it.

I suppose that a very simple preparation, involving a speedy cooking, would have flattered the freshness best. But it is hard to resist returning to old favourites; and I am particularly keen on chard gratins.

You can eat both the leaves and the stalks (the stalks are more highly valued); but they require different cooking times. I washed the chard in a bowl, folding the halves of each leaf together and stripping them from the stalk. I cut the stalks into lengths of about 2 cm, and put them into a saucepan with a layer (about 1.5 cm) of simmering water and a knob of butter. I put the lid on. After about 10 minutes, I removed the lid, turned up the heat, and allowed the liquid to evaporate until the stalks were covered in thin, buttery juices.

Meanwhile, I cooked the chard leaves as I do spinach: I shoved the wet leaves in a saucepan, clamped on the lid, and put the pan above a high heat. After a couple of minutes, I took off the lid and stirred the collapsing leaves. I put the lid back on for another minute, then drained the chard, pushing down on the leaves with a wooden spoon to squeeze out the liquid.

There was a decent-sized portion for two. I made a bechamel with a third of a pint (about 190 ml) of milk. (There is a recipe for bechamel, albeit a double-thick one, in my entry on Alsace Onion Tart.) I stirred in about four tbsps of grated pecorino cheese. Then I stirred in the chard leaves and stalks, and added a little salt (the pecorino is salty), a lot of black pepper, and some scrapings of nutmeg. I tipped the mixture into a gratin dish, and put it into a very hot (gas mark 8, 230 C) oven for about seven minutes, by which time it was bubbling.

That was long enough. You can wait until the surface of the gratin goes brown: but that means a longer cooking of (and greater loss of nutrients from) the chard, as well as a drying up of the sauce.

I might have given the gratin a topping of breadcrumbs, or of parmesan, or of breadcrumbs and parmesan mixed, and finished it with a browning under the grill. Sometimes I leave out the bechamel, simply giving the chard a breadcrumb and parmesan crust.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sausages -- an update

I reported on my trial of Heston Blumenthal's technique, recommended in his television programme, for cooking sausages. You poach them at 65 C for 20 to 30 minutes (TV programme and Sunday Times version varied), then fry them. It seemed to work well. But I neglected to validate the trial with control sausages.

So I put two sausages to fry in my normal way: heavy pan, heat disperser, a little oil, very low flame. Turning them every so often, I gave them about 40 minutes to cook. Meanwhile, I heated a pan of water until bubbles started to appear, turned down the flame, put another heat disperser under the pan, and dropped in two more sausages. After the compromise time of 25 minutes, I removed them, placed them on paper towels to dry, and fried them -- starting them on a medium flame, turning them frequently, and, in an effort to prevent splitting, lowering the flame as they started to brown. They were ready in about eight minutes.

There was little to separate the two versions. The only significant difference was to the debit of the Blumenthal technique: the poached sausages had somewhat rubbery skins. You, or Blumenthal, might suggest that my poaching water was hotter than 65 C; and I could not gainsay that charge. But, as I do not have the equipment to maintain a simmering liquid at a precise temperature, I shall revert to my previous, slow-frying method.

That reduces the number of useful techniques I have gleaned from In Search of Perfection to nil. I'm enjoying it, though.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Vegetable curry

I had a couple of small squashes, three carrots and a parsnip remaining in my organic box. A curry was in order. Apologies to purists; but this was home cooking for two on a Monday night.

I also had the tops of some leeks, a few sections of spring onions, and parsley. I boiled about a litre of water, shoved in the vegetables and herb with a chopped onion, and simmered them for 30 minutes to make a vegetable stock.

Vegetable curry for 2
2 small squashes
3 carrots
1 parsnip
2 onions
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
5 cardamon pods
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/3 tsp chilli powder
40 g creamed coconut
Vegetable stock
Groundnut or sunflower oil, butter

Cut the squashes, carrots and parsnips into fork-sized pieces. You may want to get rid of the woody cores of the parsnip; I slice the vegetable lengthways into quarters, then cut out the central bits. Place the pieces in a baking tray, and toss with groundnut (or sunflower) oil, the caraway and cumin, and some salt. Bake at gas mark 6/200 C for an hour, or until tender.

Slice the onion, chop the garlic, and crush the cardamon to release the seeds. Gently fry them in a tbsp (or more, if necessary) of groundnut (or sunflower) oil and butter combined, until brown.

Tip the cooked vegetables into the onion mixture with the coconut, vegetable stock, turmeric and chilli. Add a little stock at a time; the vegetables will absorb it, and the sauce will thicken. Keep adding stock until you have the consistency you want. Simmer for about five minutes. Check the seasoning, adding more salt and chilli if you like.

It is a pity that I did not have fresh coriander and chillis, which would have made a nice garnish.

Baking the vegetables. You could, of course, simply simmer them in the stock with the fried onion and garlic; but I like the sweetness that baking concentrates in them.

Butter and oil. Butter goes brown when heated; so it helps the onions and garlic to brown. But you have to be careful that it does not burn. And you have to be patient, attending to the pan for at least 20 minutes.

Cardamon. I love the citrus notes that cardamon imparts. It seems easier to fry the spice (I usually throw in the pods as well) than to extract the seeds and toss them with the vegetables before baking.

Coconut. The Biona brand conveniently divides 200 g of creamed coconut into five sachets, rather than presenting it in a block.

Monday, November 20, 2006


I love fresh sardines, but in their place -- outdoors. Grilled in the kitchen, they aromatise -- and not in a pleasant way -- the furthest reaches of your house. The worst of the smells come from the fats that burn under the fierce flame.

Cooking them in the oven limits the damage. Heat the oven, at its highest setting, for 30 minutes. Lay the sardines in a baking tin, season with salt and pepper, and put them on the top shelf of the oven. They will be ready in five to 10 minutes, depending on size.

Sardines for four cost me £3.10.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Chocolate mousse

I continue to experiment with the ingredients in chocolate mousse. Elizabeth David tells us that the standard recipe is 4 oz (115 g) chocolate with four eggs; and I think that her advice remains sound. More modern recipes often double that quantity of chocolate, losing, to my taste, the soft texture that a mousse should have. I have come to the conclusion that I do not like to include whipped cream: it enrichens the mousse in a rather cloying way.

Last weekend, I had two egg whites left over from another dish, and two whole eggs. By chance, I may have hit upon the perfect recipe.

115 g dark chocolate (I like Green & Black's in a mousse)
25 g cold butter, cubed
2 egg yolks
4 egg whites

Break up the chocolate, and place it in a glass bowl that you can suspend above simmering water in a saucepan, or in the top bit of a double boiler. Melt the chocolate. Stir in the butter, then the egg yolks. Whip the whites until they form peaks. Fold them into the chocolate. Pour the mixture into ramekins, cover with cling film, and chill.

This will make six after-meal treats, or four puddings if you're giving them to guests.

You could simply melt the chocolate in a saucepan; but you have to be careful, because it goes grainy if overheated. I am told that a microwave works well.

The chocolate goes stiff when you stir in the egg yolks. I am always dismayed by this reaction, because I want the mousse to be light; and I wonder what a mousse would be like if one made it simply with chocolate, a little butter, and egg whites. But you can loosen the mixture a little by stirring in some egg white, before folding in the rest more carefully.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dried beans

Gordon Ramsay gave a recipe involving dried haricot or cannellini beans in the Times the other week. (I cannot find it online.) Soak the beans overnight, he advised; cover them with fresh water, fast-boil them for 10 minutes, turn down the heat and simmer for an hour, or until soft. He did not explain these instructions. What is the point of them?

I have found it difficult to get authoritative information about the cooking of dried legumes. But I have come to a few conclusions.

Salt. Most cookery writers tell you not to add salt to
the water in which beans or pulses are cooking. It toughens the skins; it inhibits softening. I have found that dried beans will soften in salted water -- in the water that comes from my taps in North London, anyway. However, I thought that I should test this finding again.

I put two lots of beans -- they were organic haricots -- on the hob: one in unsalted, the other in salted, water. I tasted them after an hour. Both were cooked; but they had different textures. Behaving exactly according to the observations of Harold McGee in his great book, the salted beans had a mealy texture, while the unsalted ones were creamy. I shall leave the cooking water unsalted from now on, and season the beans when they are cooked.

Soaking. I set soaked beans and unsoaked ones to cook. The soaked beans were ready earlier; and, again, they had a more pleasing texture.

Fast boiling. The theory is that 10 minutes of fast boiling eliminates substances called protease inhibitors, which can block the digestion of proteins. However, protease inhibitors have beneficial effects too. My researches took me to Dr Claire Domoney of the department of metabolic biology at the John Innes Centre; she told me that protease inhibitors were, on balance, good things, and were in any event too stable to be affected by a short period of boiling on a domestic hob.

Red kidney beans. These contain lectins, which can cause stomach upsets. You should soak them (the Food Standards Agency recommends that you do so for 12 hours), fast-boil them for 10 minutes, and make sure that they are properly cooked.

Cooking the beans. Soak the haricot, cannellini or kidney beans -- I use filtered water, because hard water does toughen the skins, I find -- for five hours, or longer. Drain, cover in fresh, filtered water, bring to the boil, and simmer. Cooking times vary from 45 minutes to two and a half hours, or longer.

About 50 g for each person makes a decent portion as a side dish. I might allow for 75 g a person in a pork and bean stew or cassoulet. You can add an onion to the water; I usually throw in a garlic clove or two.

Drain the beans, retaining the water. Assuming you've cooked 200 g of beans: soften a clove of garlic in a tbsp of olive oil. Add a dstsp of tomato paste, the beans (with any garlic you have cooked with them), salt and pepper, and a tbsp or two of cooking liquid, to give a stew-like consistency. Simmer for 10 minutes. You can use the left-over cooking liquid for soups.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


The usual way of preparing bulgur, or cracked wheat, is to soak it in water, drain it, and then squeeze out as much liquid as you can with your hands. Unfortunately, it remains rather damp. You can attempt to pour over just as much water as the bulgur will absorb; but the quantity is hard to judge, and insufficient water will leave you with a plateful of grit.

There are two possible remedies: to stir the squeezed bulgur above a low heat in a saucepan; or (better) to spread it on a baking tray and dry it in a low oven for five minutes.

I go for the fine bulgur, and I cover it in cold water for 15 minutes. If I have coarse bulgur, I pour boiling water over it, and leave it for the same length of time.

The classic bulgur recipe is tabbouleh, made with plenty of parsley, mint, spring onions, and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. I like a lot of pepper with it.

Other ingredients I like to mix into the bulgur include -- often in addition to the above: feta cheese (the Cypressa brand is good, I think, with a salty tang), black olives, toasted pine kernels (I put them in a saucepan above a low heat), grilled aubergines, roasted peppers, aubergines or other vegetables that have been preserved in oil and bottled. About 50 g of bulgur is a decent quantity for one person.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Beef stew and dumplings (part 2)

Yesterday, we got as far as assembling the stew.

Put it in a gas mark 2/150 C oven, for about two and a half hours. Meanwhile, make the dumplings: stir together the flour and suet with a little salt and pepper, and add enough water (probably about 5 tbsps) to make a pliable dough. Roll the dough between your palms into balls a little larger than golf balls.

Transfer the meat from the stew to a colander over a bowl. Strain the sauce through a sieve into a saucepan, pushing down on the vegetables to extract as many juices as possible, and adding any sauce that drained from the meat. Return the meat to the casserole, and put the lid on.

The sauce may be a little thin. Put the pan on to a moderate heat, letting the sauce bubble until it thickens slightly. Do not be too enthusiastic: you don't want something that congeals on the plate, or that, owing to concentration, has become unbearably salty. Taste it.

When the sauce is ready, pour it over the meat in the casserole. Bring the contents to a gentle simmer, throw in the dumplings, cover, and cook very gently -- either on the hob or in the oven -- for 20 minutes.

You do not need to bring the stew to a simmer before putting it in the oven. The slow rise in temperature is good, because cuts such as chuck steak need very gentle cooking. But, in assessing the timing, you should have a rough idea of how your casserole dish and oven will behave. This stew in my 24 cm Le Creuset takes about an hour to come to simmering point at gas mark 2; but I have a larger, oval Le Creuset that seems to resist heat for a lot longer. Once the stew is simmering, I turn down the oven to its lowest setting.

You could cook the stew on the hob -- but that tends to set it bubbling at a faster rate than is ideal for the care of the meat.

You cover the meat with liquid because it will be cooler in its bath than it would be if exposed to oven heat and steam.

Check the state of the meat from time to time. Do not carry on cooking it after it has become tender.

After two and a half hours, the onion, carrot and celery have given up all their flavours to the stew, and are nutritionally null. I prefer to discard them.

Suet is not as widely available as it used to be. The only stuff I could find was Atora Light vegetable suet. It worked fine. I was less sure about the organic flour I used: it gave a stodgy result, I thought. You could add parsley or other herbs to the dumplings, and/or parmesan cheese; you could enrich the dough with a beaten egg.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Beef stew and dumplings (part 1)

I shall have to spread this post over two days. That is not because making a stew is particularly complex; but it is something one does in various stages, each of which is worth a few comments.

The quantities below are what I cooked at the weekend. The stew fed three of us, and gave us seconds; with 700 g of beef, it would easily have fed four.

570 g chuck steak, cubed
1 tbsp plain flour
Olive oil, for frying
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
About 500 ml stock (the unusual base of mine was a chicken carcass and the bone from a roasted shoulder of lamb)
1 bay leaf
1 tsp nam pla (fish sauce) or Worcester sauce

100 g self-raising flour
50 g suet

Stage one
Heat a heavy frying pan above a medium flame. In a bowl, toss the meat with the flour until the cubes are coated. Pour in about a tbsp of oil, and toss again. Brown the meat in batches, and transfer to a casserole.

Turn down the heat. Pour in another splash of oil, and immediately -- before the oil has a chance to burn -- add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic, stirring until they are soft and golden. Add them to the casserole, with the bay leaf, fish or Worcester sauce, a pinch or two of salt, and enough stock to cover the meat.

The sauce in a beef stew should be thickened slightly, I think. Browning the flour contributes to the colour of the sauce, and also tempers the floury taste. Apparently, it also diminishes -- but does not disable -- the thickening properties.

If you see a reference to "sealing" meat in a recipe, you know that the writer is either ignorant or a lazy reproducer of hackneyed terminology. Browning meat does not seal it; but it does make it more flavoursome, thanks to processes called Maillard reactions. You need only a little oil to facilitate these reactions. I have come to the conclusion that it is neater to coat the meat with oil rather than to heat a layer of oil in the pan. Brown the meat in batches, so that you do not lower the temperature of the pan; leave the cubes to fry for a minute or less, and turn once to brown a second surface.

Be cautious with the salt at this stage. Fish sauce and Worcester sauce (which add savouriness) are salty; and you may want to reduce the sauce later, increasing the salt concentration. Ground pepper in stews and stocks can become acrid; add it at the table.

Frying the vegetables sweetens them. If they start to brown, all the better for the richness of the sauce.

Tomorrow: simmering the stew and finishing the sauce; and the dumplings.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Sardine lunch for one

I drained a tin of sardines, and mashed them with a fork. I added chopped (flat leaf) parsley, chopped cucumber, black pepper, and about a dstsp of Encona Original Hot Pepper Sauce (a brilliant product).

This mixture was too loose to put in a sandwich; and the bread, which Good for Food on the Blackstock Road gets from the Spence Bakery in Stoke Newington, was so fresh and moist that I did not want to toast it. So I cut two slices, and piled the chilli sardines on top.

This lunch gave me as much pleasure as I might have got from, say, lobster ravioli in saffron sauce.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Triumph of the bland

I halved a red pumpkin, scooped out the seeds and stringy stuff, anointed it with a little olive oil and some caraway and cumin and salt, and put it in a gas mark 6/200 C oven. While it was cooking, I chopped an onion and a clove of garlic, and fried them in olive oil until soft and golden.

The pumpkin was not quite soft after an hour. I turned down the oven to gas mark 4/180 C (high enough to continue the cooking process, but not so high as to scorch the flesh), and gave the pumpkin another 30 minutes.

I poured four ladlefuls of stock on to the onion and garlic, and brought the pan to a simmering point. I scooped the flesh from the pumpkin shells, added it to the pan with a little more salt, and simmered for five minutes. I blended the soup with a stick blender. I threw in some chopped parsley.

It was bland.

The next day, I reheated the soup with some more stock, garlic, spices, and a tin of cannellini beans. It was still bland.

The blandness of this pumpkin was, oddly, assertive. It was an enveloping nullity. Like a weak hi-fi component, or like a slow member of a walking party, it reduced its partners to its mediocre level. There is something depressing about that.

The same soup made with butternut squash would have been delicious.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Panna cotta

Whenever I see on a menu panna cotta, the gelatinous Italian dessert, I order it. A creamy, vanilla-flavoured jelly: heaven. But, until this weekend, I had been wary of making it at home. Gelatine is an ingredient that makes me nervous. My one attempt to use the powdered stuff was a debacle; and advice on the quantities to use is inconsistent. However, when I came across some leaf gelatine in a local shop, I thought that I should give one of my favourite sweet things a go.

(What you should do with powdered gelatine, I think, is pour it into a small volume of water in a bowl. Leave it for five minutes to go spongy, then suspend the bowl above a pan of simmering water, stirring the mixture until the gelatine dissolves.)

Some recipes for panna cotta involve simply heating milk, cream, vanilla and sugar, stirring in the gelatine, and pouring the mixture into moulds. Others, such as those by Nigel Slater, tell you to whip a portion of the cream and to fold it into the gelatinous liquid. I decided to follow the latter course.

I was not confident about the quantity of gelatine. The packet says that five sheets will set a litre of liquid; but I assumed that I would need a lower proportion than that, owing to the thickening of the cream. I was serving eight people.

600 ml double cream
200 ml milk
2 vanilla pods
60 g icing sugar
3 leaves gelatine

Pour the milk and 400 ml of the cream into a small saucepan. Slice the vanilla pods from end to end, scrape the seeds into the milk and cream, throw in the pods as well, bring the pan to a simmer, and allow the contents to bubble gently for five minutes. Meanwhile, soak the gelatine in a small bowl of cold water. After about four to five minutes, it will become slithery. Take the pan off the heat, remove the vanilla pods, lift the gelatine from the water, and stir it into the milk and cream until it dissolves. (It does so much more readily than does the powdered stuff.)

Whip the remaining cream with the sugar until the mixture makes soft peaks, but before it becomes firm. Fold the sweetened cream into the gelatinous cream and milk; pour everything through a sieve into a jug. Pour the mixture into eight ramekins, cover with clingfilm, and chill.

A little fruity acidity offsets a panna cotta nicely. I tipped a punnet of blueberries into a small saucepan with a dstsp of caster sugar, and heated them until they had burst and reduced to a compote-like consistency. I chilled this compote separately. Just before serving, I put a spoonful of compote on to each ramekin.

Some people like to turn out the panna cottas. The technique is to dip the ramekins briefly in hot water, before inverting them over plates.

After the panna cottas had been in the fridge for two hours, I was worried. They were still liquid. But they set during the following hour.

Some recipes, though not Nigel Slater's, tell you to let the gelatinous cream and milk cool and thicken a little before you stir in the whipped cream. That seems to make sense, because otherwise the whipped cream thins out on contact with the hot liquid. But I mixed them up right away, and got a very satisfactory result.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

More roast potatoes

The potatoes with the roast shoulder of lamb were not a complete success. I should have cooked mash; but some children round here have been heard to grumble that mash is boring. I like potatoes cooked under the joint and crisped up at the end; but I did not want to give them eight hours in the oven. So I sliced and blanched the potatoes, checked on the meat 60 minutes early, and then decided.

The joint looked and smelled fantastic. The juices were too good to lose to absorption by the potatoes, I thought, so I took out the meat and made the sauce as I described yesterday, pouring it into a small saucepan. I tipped the potatoes into the empty roasting tin, and placed the lamb on top; I put the tin back on to the bottom of the oven.

That hour was pointless, potato-wise: their cooking did not progress at all. I took out the meat, put it in a warm dish, turned up the oven to gas mark 7/220 C, and put the potatoes on the top shelf. I checked after 15 minutes: there was hardly any fat in the tin, and the potatoes were dry, pale, and sticking to the bottom. I poured over some olive oil, and scraped them about a bit. After another 15 minutes they were much more appetising; but not as appetising as they would have been had I simply roasted them in my normal way (after taking the meat out of the oven). Better still, I might have made mash.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Roast shoulder of lamb

Shoulder of lamb responds very well to slow-roasting. Like belly pork, it is a forgiving cut, with plenty of lubricating fat: long cooking at a low heat makes it succulent and tender. Yesterday, I cooked a shoulder for eight hours in a roasting tin on the floor of an oven at its lowest setting. The meat was basted with the following marinade, which I had read about recently -- I cannot remember where.

2 cloves garlic
8 anchovies
1 sprig rosemary
1 dried chilli
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

Chop the garlic, and crush it in a mortar with a little salt. (Or crush it on a board with the flat of a knife blade, and scrape it into a bowl.) Crush the anchovies with the garlic. Whizz the leaves of rosemary and the chilli in a herb mill. (Chopping them by hand is very tedious.)
Add them to the garlic and anchovies. Blend in the vinegar, then the oil. Season with a little salt (the anchovies are salty) and a lot of pepper.

At the end of the eight hours, I lifted the lamb from the roasting tin and put in on a warm dish; I let it rest for half an hour on the grill shelf above the warm oven. I put the tin on a medium heat on the hob, and poured in a small glassful of white wine, scraping the tin and allowing the wine time to reduce. I poured this sauce into a small saucepan.

As the sauce cooled, a good deal of fat surfaced. I scraped off most of it. The volume of sauce was not generous; fortunately, I had some left over from a roast chicken, so I poured that in. I let this curious mixture bubble on the hob for a few minutes, before serving it with the lamb.

The anchovies did not taste fishy, but gave the dish a rich savouriness. The chilli was unobtrusive.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Chilli heat

I try to test the commonly repeated advice that cookery writers give. But the assertion that the seeds are the hottest components of chillis is one that I have repeated unquestioningly, never suspecting that I should doubt it until I read The Book of General Ignorance. The hottest part of a chilli, the book says, is not the seeds: it is the white membrane to which the seeds are attached.

I did test this assertion. I deseeded a pimento -- a conical chilli. I put a few seeds into my mouth: a mild tingle. I tasted the membrane: blimey. It's a good thing that I didn't try this out on a Scotch bonnet.

The heat of chillis is unpredictable. The last pimentos I bought had a pleasant kick. Without its seed and membrane, this one had no heat at all.

I chopped a couple of pimentos and stirred them -- along with some crushed garlic, pepper and a little salt -- into a pot of Greek yoghurt. We ate this mixture with the grilled aubergines.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Heston Blumenthal said at the start of his new television programme that he would present us with techniques that we could use at home. A sausage stuffer? Liquid nitrogen? Dry ice and protective clothing? They won't be featuring in my home any time soon.

However, one idea of his did interest me. He advised a poaching of sausages for 30 minutes (the Sunday Times version gave the timing as 20 minutes) in 65C water, before frying on a medium heat. The gentle poaching helped to retain the juices of the meat, he said. A high heat for frying would cause the sausages to split; a low heat would cause the outsides to overcook.

I am not sure that I follow the logic of that last bit, but I do understand the need to cook sausages gently. I usually fry them on a very low heat, sometimes with a heat disperser beneath a heavy frying pan. The only other recipe I know that advises pre-poaching is Valentina Harris's sausages and beans in Italian Regional Cookery (BBC, now out of print). I thought I would give Heston's technique a try.

I had to guess the water temperature. I heated a saucepan of water until bubbles started to appear, put a heat disperser underneath it, turned down the flame to minimum, and dropped in the sausages. The water steamed, but did not bubble again. After 30 minutes (20 would probably have been enough), I took out the sausages, and let them dry on kitchen paper.

I heated a heavy frying pan on a medium flame, poured in a little groundnut oil (the oil that Heston recommended), and fried the sausages.

Sausages split much more easily than cookery writers allow, in my experience. At the weekend, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall offered a recipe for toad-in-the-hole, recommending that you heat oil or fat in a roasting tin in a gas mark 7/220C oven for 10 minutes, then throw in the sausages. If my butcher's sausages were to get that treatment, they would burst like an overstuffed corset. Even a medium heat puts them under pressure.

Small fissures, through which liquid spurted, appeared in my frying sausages. What I should have done was start them on a medium heat, turn them over after a minute, then gradually lower the flame as they continued frying.

Heston is on to something. In spite of the escape of juices, these sausages were plump and moist, and retained their chunky texture. I sometimes find that the meat in slow-fried sausages is, though juicy, rather compacted.

I should have slow-fried one of yesterday's sausages in order to compare the results. My failure to do so means that I am reluctant to assert that Heston's method is the best I have found. But I shall definitely use it again.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Grilled aubergines

I have argued that salting aubergines to extract juices before cooking is unnecessary. To summarise: modern strains of aubergine are not bitter; even if they were, salting would disguise rather than remove the bitterness -- adding salt just before the aubergine went into the pan would have the same effect; pre-salting does not influence how aubergines cook if you slice them, brush them with oil, season them, and bake them.

What if you grill aubergines, though? Sometimes, in a salad, a grilled aubergine is just what you want. If you salt the slices so that they go floppy, do they cook more easily?

The first important point about grilling aubergines is that they need a coating of oil. If you grill them dry, with the intention of dressing them later, they never soften. I pour some olive oil into a saucer, slice the aubergines into rounds about 3 mm thick, and brush the oil over both sides of the rounds with the tines of a fork. I put them on to a ridged grill pan, with the heat underneath set on the low side of low to medium. I season them.

They take 10 to 15 minutes to soften. If they brown too quickly, I adjust the heat.

Last night, I set aside half a dozen rounds of aubergine, and salted them. When the rest of the aubergine was cooked, I patted these rounds dry of the moisture they had sweated out, and put them on to the pan. They cooked no faster and no slower than the ones that had not been pre-salted.

I do not yet see a case for retitling my book.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Roast potatoes

I was dismayed to read, in Xanthe Clay's column in the Telegraph, that sunflower oil gave "a distinctly chip shop flavour" to roast potatoes, and was "to be avoided". I like potatoes roasted in lard, dripping, duck fat or goose fat, but I do not always have these ingredients, and am perfectly happy to use sunflower oil instead. The potatoes are crisp; the oil is unassertive. (The only time when I dislike the flavour of sunflower oil is, for some reason, when it has been used to fry sausages.)

As for that alleged chip shop flavour. I had some rather grim fish and chips recently. I could taste the oil for hours afterwards; I could feel it swilling around inside me. It did not remind me of my roast potatoes.

Some people assert that you should boil potatoes thoroughly before roasting, so that their surfaces rough up and go crispy. I have started to think that cooking potatoes twice, and thus expelling most of their nutrients and a good deal of their flavour, is going too far to achieve this crispiness. However, I do think that it is worth getting rid of some of the surface starch of maincrop potatoes such as King Edward and Maris Piper, which otherwise acquire tough and slimy exteriors in the oven.

I cut up the potatoes, put them into cold water, and bring them to the boil. I simmer them for about three minutes, drain them, and return them to the pan, stirring them on a low heat to dry them out. As soon as they start to stick to the pan I turn off the heat, and let the potatoes carry on steaming for a minute or two.

I do not pre-boil new potatoes for roasting. The drawback is that their surface starch can cause them to stick to the roasting pan.

I pour enough sunflower oil into the roasting pan to give a generous surface layer, and put the pan into a gas mark 6/200 C oven at the same time as I turn on the heat under the potatoes. When the potatoes are dry, I take out the roasting pan, put it on the hob with a low to medium heat under it, and pour in the potatoes. They should sizzle fiercely. I turn them in the oil, and put them back in the oven.

Timings vary, depending on how many potatoes you've got (they should sit in a single, uncrowded layer) and on whether there is anything else in the oven. I usually look at them after 20 minutes, turning them if the undersides are brown. In a hot oven (7/220 C, say), you can roast potatoes in half an hour. I usually give them 45 to 60 minutes.

How big should they be? "No bigger than half an egg," Xanthe Clay instructs. I confess that I sometimes cut them smaller than that. They're more crunch than potato: more sunflower oil than starch. But very tasty.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Browning mince

Gordon Ramsay gave a recipe for lamb chilli in the Times on Saturday. You start by softening an onion and some garlic, before adding 400 g lamb mince and browning it. Have you ever tried such a procedure? (The complete recipe is here.)

This sequence -- soften vegetables, brown mince -- is common in recipes, but very hard to achieve satisfactorily. The mince releases water, and stews in it. Once the liquid has evaporated, bits of onion stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.

Years ago, I read a Prue Leith recipe that advised a difference method. You form the mince into patties -- about six for 400 g. Get the pan hot, pour in a little oil, and fry the patties at a high heat. The liquid from the mince should evaporate instantly, as you want it to do when you fry a hamburger or a steak, so that browning reactions may take place. In order not to lower the pan temperature, do three patties at a time. Leave them undisturbed, and turn them over after about a minute, or when they are brown.

Put the browned patties on a plate. Empty the oil -- which may have burned -- from the pan, add another tbsp or so, and soften your onion and garlic (and celery and carrot, if using). Return the patties to the pan with any juices they have exuded, break them up with a wooden spoon, and proceed.

Giorgio Locatelli also follows the Ramsay sequence. In his ragu alla Bolognese recipe in Made in Italy, he tells you to soften onion, garlic, celery and carrot before adding the mince, "making sure that the meat is covering the base of the pan", and leaving it undisturbed for five to six minutes. "Take care, though, that the vegetables don't burn," he advises. Well, yes, you would need to.

Browning the mince in an Italian meat sauce is not compulsory, however. Anna del Conte, in her authoritative Gastronomy of Italy, simply tells you to add the mince to the pan and cook it until it has broken up and changed colour.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Soup of the day

Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd's Plats du Jour, one of the latest of Persephone Books' treasurable reissues, is the kind of cookbook that sends me into the kitchen. Glossy books by chefs do not. Gray and Boyd were writers, offering provincial -- in the Elizabeth David sense -- fare for home cooks. Elaborate recipes originating in professional kitchens leave me, looking for inspiration in preparing everyday meals for families and friends, cold.

Not that I would follow Gray and Boyd's 1957 recipes to the letter. Why, for example, would you put flour in a dried bean stew? Here, though, is a recipe -- for Greek lemon and egg soup -- that I think needs only a little reinterpretation (I have put a few notes at the end). After the bean soup on Wednesday, I thought that I should offer something more classical.

Soupa avgo lemono (for 4)
2 pints (1.1 l) chicken stock
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 oz (57 g) patna rice
3 eggs
1 lemon, juiced
Salt and cayenne pepper

Heat the chicken stock with the onion in a saucepan. When it is boiling, add the rice. Beat the eggs in a bowl, and mix with the lemon juice. Start checking the rice after 10 minutes. When it is cooked, take the stock from the heat. Pour a little into the egg and lemon, whisking constantly to try to avoid curdling. Pour in some more (half a ladleful, perhaps), still whisking. Pour this mixture back into the stock, put the pan back on to a low heat, and stir constantly until the soup has a creamy consistency. Take the pan off the heat, and carry on stirring for a minute or so before serving.

I had only a pint of fresh stock, and used water and a cube to make up the rest. I did not have patna rice; I used arborio.

One oddity in Gray and Boyd's recipe is that they ask you to mix the "strained" stock with the egg and lemon mixture. If they mean that you should strain the stock from the onion and rice, they neglect to tell you to put those ingredients back in. Anyway, it seems unnecessary.

You pour a little hot stock into the cold egg and lemon so that the stock will be chilled, losing its power to curdle the mixture. But you still have to be careful. I was not stirring as I poured, and got a few fragments of set egg.

I heated the egg and stock mixture for a minute. It is a bad mistake to carry on, expecting the soup to thicken further. (Making a custard, you would use less than half this quantity of liquid with three eggs.) If it boils, you'll get a soup with scrambled egg in it. Carry on stirring away from the heat, because the hot pan still has curdling power.

The egg coats the mouth faintly, in a not unpleasant way; the lemon is mild. The
soup has a wonderfully soothing quality.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Apple fool

A neighbour gave us four large Bramley apples. I had one left after making a crumble the previous weekend, and used it to make a fool.

I peeled the apple, cut it into quarters, took out the sections of core, and cut the fruit into pieces, dropping the pieces as I went along into water acidulated with the juice of half a lemon (it prevents discolouration). When I had finished, I put the pieces into a saucepan with a drop of the water, a pinch of cinnamon, and a dstsp of caster sugar. I covered the pan, and set it on a low to medium heat. The apple had collapsed and was turning into a puree after about eight minutes: I uncovered the pan, to allow liquid to evaporate. I wanted the puree to be thick; but there came a time, after about another eight minutes, when it did not seem to be getting any thicker. I let it cool.

I poured a 227 ml pot of double cream into a bowl, and whipped it until it formed soft peaks. It's always tempting -- with cream and with egg whites -- to carry on for just a while longer; but double cream goes solid, and useless for fooling purposes, very quickly. As I had hoped, I ended up with roughly equal volumes of cream and apple.

I tasted the apple. Perfect: tart, but not sour. I folded in the cream, and poured the fool into four glasses, which I covered with cling film.

There were two hours until lunch. Fool should be chilly; so, for 20 minutes of that time, I put the glasses in the freezer.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A dodgy bean soup

We wean ourselves off many of our cruder childhood tastes. But all of us, save the most fastidious gourmets, carry on liking things that are not, judged by the highest culinary standards, good. I enjoy bought vanilla puddings. And Cheddars (they are inconsistent; but I like the small ones when they have been well baked, combining crunch with a moist savouriness). I overdose on chillis and chilli sauce, blitzing every other flavour. I have not eaten a Fray Bentos pie for a while, but I am sure that I would still like the slippery underside of the pastry.

I would not serve the following soup at a dinner party. On a scale of 1 to 10, a food critic might give it minus 10. But I cook it often at lunchtime, and consider it a treat. The quantity will serve 2; but I usually get through it all myself.

1/2 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 cardamom pods
1 tbsp sunflower oil
1 onion, chopped
1 400 g tin cannellini or borlotti beans
1/3 stock cube (optional) -- any flavour

Chop the garlic; crush the cumin and cardamom. Fry them gently in the oil, for about a minute, until they give off an aroma. Add the onions, and more oil if necessary; fry gently until they are soft and golden (this may take 20 minutes). Now the controversial bit: add the beans, and their juice. (Recipes usually tell you to get rid of this salty, slimy juice, and to rinse the beans.) If you're using a stock cube, dissolve it in a little boiling water, and add it, along with more boiling water to come to a level just above the beans. Bring the contents of the pan to a simmer, and leave to bubble gently for about five minutes.

I usually add some harissa (quite a lot -- but that's me) at this stage, and chopped parsley if I have it. (If you don't have harissa, and want some heat, add some chilli powder when you pour in the beans.) I blend the soup with a stick blender; but one might use instead a Mouli-legumes, a liquidiser, or a potato masher.

The soup has a mealy, viscous texture. If you have made it with borlotti beans, the colour is an unappetising, sludgy brown. Yum, yum.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chicken pie

I may have made a breakthrough with pastry. Yesterday, I rubbed 40 g of butter into 80 g of flour. I added iced water just until -- and not beyond -- the stage at which it had reached the consistency of Play-Doh. Having read Giorgio Locatelli's instruction in Made in Italy to wrap pastry in a damp towel (and not wanting to use a towel), I sprinkled a little water on to the square of cling film that I had waiting on the table, spread it around, then wrapped up the pastry and refrigerated it. Rolling it out, half an hour later, was straightforward.

Before that, I had put a couple of ladlefuls of chicken stock into a small saucepan with a finely sliced onion and a whole garlic clove. Now I made a roux with enough butter to turn a heaped tbsp of flour into soggy sand (about 28 g of each). After cooking it for a minute, I poured in about 125 ml of milk in two doses, incorporating the first with the roux before adding the next. Then, rashly, I poured in all the stock and onion. The resulting sauce seemed too thin, so I let it bubble while I chopped a good handful of flat-leaf parsley, and cut the meat from the half of the chicken that we did not eat at the weekend into fork-sized chunks.

The sauce still seemed thin, but it would have to do; I added a little salt, quite a lot of pepper, a grating of nutmeg, and the parsley and chicken. Now the stew was just right; I realised that a bechamel of a good, pouring consistency was appropriate in this case. I tipped the stew into a 16 cm dish; it came about two thirds of the way up the sides. (I had meant to crush the garlic into the sauce, but did not get round to it; the clove never got eaten, but did contribute some flavour.)

I rolled the pastry, wet the rim of the pie dish, and laid the pastry on top. Of course, it sagged in the middle; that did not matter. I slashed the surface, to let steam escape, and put the pie into the centre of the oven at gas mark 5/190 C.

Is my oven starting to play up? Nigella Lawson's chicken pie recipe in How To Eat (the book is not traceable on her publisher's website, for some reason) suggests a cooking time of 30 to 45 minutes, but cautions that you may need to cover the dish with foil if the pastry browns too quickly. After 45 minutes, my pastry was still moist. This follows my problem with an undercooked roast at the weekend; but yesterday, worried about my oven temperature, I put a thermometer next to the pie. It read 200 C; so I am no wiser.

I turned up the heat to gas mark 8/230 C. Ten minutes later, the pie was nicely browned.

It was good. The glutenous sauce put it in the category of comfort food rather than of haute cuisine; but, on a wet weekday night in autumn, that is what you want.