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.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Serves me right

I had two culinary setbacks at the weekend -- retribution, no doubt, for setting myself up here as some kind of expert.

First, having boasted last week that I had worked out how to avoid stodgy noodles, I served up some stodgy noodles. I peeled and cubed -- what a boring job it was -- a butternut squash, and baked it with some sunflower oil, salt and pepper. I steamed some broccoli. I prepared the noodles according to the method I advised on 19th October; but I forgot to rinse them, and simply drained them and put them in a saucepan of cold water. I put the roasting pan with the baked squash on to a low light on the hob, added the drained noodles, broccoli and sauces, and stirred it all up until it was warm. The noodles clumped together. Perhaps it was because of my forgetting to rinse them; perhaps it was because there was a larger quantity (200 g) than last time. I shall not despair.

I cannot remember the last time this happened: my roast chicken was not cooked when I wanted to take it out of the oven. Juices from the thigh ran red. The bird was mocking the post I had planned to put up soon: I had been going to write that the oven temperatures given in most recipes for roasts were unnecessarily high. I have found -- until this incident -- that if I give the chicken an initial 30 minutes in a hot oven (gas mark 6, 200 C), I can turn down the heat to gas mark 2 (150 C) for the remainder of the cooking time. I allow 20 minutes for each 500 g, plus 30 minutes. Usually, the chicken is ready before then; but I like to give the legs plenty of time to tenderise, albeit at the cost of some toughening of the breast meat.

Perhaps I didn't give the oven long enough to heat up. (In the Observer Food Monthly yesterday, Clarissa Dickson-Wright and Johnny Scott's recipe for "The perfect roast chicken" recommended an initial temperature of gas mark 8/230 C.) Perhaps I cooled down the oven by placing a tin of potatoes on a lower shelf (a useless exercise -- I should have waited until the chicken was out and then cooked them for 30 minutes on a very high heat). It was a Label Anglais Special Reserve chicken; I've never had a problem with one of them before. But I am inclined to think that this particular bird was awkward. Next time, I shall give the oven at least 30 minutes to heat up before I put in the chicken; but I won't change the temperatures or the timing.

I carved the legs off my undercooked chicken and put them back in the oven alongside the potatoes. The temperature was 230 C; but the meat on chicken legs is forgiving. Anything dangerous in the blood that had escaped into the roasting pan was cooked away as I heated the gravy. I took a risk that there was no contamination of the rest of the meat. We are still here.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Alsace onion tart

A tart or quiche, with a bottle of white wine, is the perfect Friday supper. Creamy, comforting, undemanding; and the wine goes down easily. What I do find demanding, though, is the pastry. My kitchen table becomes a floury shambles.

Experts advise you to wrap the dough in cling film and to refrigerate it for at least half an hour. After that time, I find, it has dried out. It crumbles as soon as you threaten it with a rolling pin. Or, if you have compensated by adding a little more water, the dough sticks to the rolling pin and to the board; it makes tough pastry, too.

That is why I was pleased to see the tart recipe in my friend Vivienne Menkes' elegantly written Alsace: The Complete Guide (o.p., but you can pick up second-hand copies). You don't have to roll the pastry: you just shove it into the tart tin by hand. I have made some changes -- reducing the quantities, for example (Vivienne suggests a pastry made with 250 g of flour, which is far more than I need for my 22 cm tart tin). I also bake the pastry blind before filling it.

140 g flour
70 g butter
About 2 tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
3 medium onions
lard, or butter and oil
56 g butter
56 g plain flour
280 ml milk
2 egg yolks
Salt, pepper, nutmeg

Rub the 70 g of butter into the flour. Add salt, and just enough water to form a malleable dough. With your hands, spread the dough into a buttered tart tin (mine, as I said, is 22 cms in width). Prick the dough with a fork. Line the tin with foil or kitchen paper, weighed down -- to stop the pastry bubbling up -- with baking beans. (I don't have baking beans: I use a cake tin.) Bake in a gas mark 5/190 celsius oven for 15 minutes; remove the foil or paper, and bake for about 5 minutes longer, until the pastry is no longer tacky.

In a heavy saucepan, melt enough lard, or butter and oil, to fry the onions. (Sorry not to be more helpful on the quantity.) Add the onions, and a little salt; cover the pan, and cook on a very low heat. When, after about 20 minutes, the onions have wilted and are swimming in water, uncover the pan to allow the liquid to evaporate. Cook until you have a golden, sweet mass. (Menus sometimes, a little pretentiously, call this an onion confit.)

Melt the 56 g butter in a small saucepan. Add the flour, and cook for a minute, until you have a sandy (but not dark) roux. Still on the heat, add the milk in stages, stirring to incorporate each pouring before you add the next. You will have a double-thick bechamel, of the sort you would use in a souffle. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Allow the sauce to cool before stirring in the eggs (you don't want them to scramble).

Stir the onions into the sauce, then pour the mixture into the pastry case. Bake in the centre of a gas mark 3/160 celsius oven for about 25 minutes, until the filling is set and golden.

The ingredients for pastry should not be warm. I cut the butter into cubes, and put them and the flour into the fridge for at least half an hour before starting. I put the water into a bowl with some ice.

I haven't yet decided whether simply whizzing the flour and butter in a food processor results in tougher pastry than you get by rubbing them together with your fingertips. What I do know is that I prefer to make the dough by hand, rather than pouring water through the processor funnel.

An Alsace onion tart usually includes bacon. Vivienne recommends pouring boiling water over bacon strips or lardons before draining and drying them. You then add them to the bechamel and onion sauce.

The filling for most savoury tarts is a custard. This one is very nice too; but it is a floury sauce inside a floury casing. That's the Alsaciens: they like food that fills them up.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Chinese noodles

Following the packet instructions on Chinese noodles usually leaves you with a sticky clump.

You're told to drop the noodles -- which come in rectangular blocks -- into boiling water, turn off the heat, leave them for five minutes or so, drain them, rinse them in cold water, and add them to your stir-fry to warm through. The first problem with this method is that the inert hot water does not expel much starch. The second problem is that, no matter how thoroughly you think you've rinsed them, the noodles stick together as they cool in the colander.

A Chinese brand on sale in a local store gave me a clue about how to solve this problem. The instructions tell you to remove the noodles from the heat "for a bathing". It may mean rinsing; but I -- having boiled the noodles until the blocks broke up -- drained them and immersed them in a pan of cold water. Then I separated the strands by hand, and left them in their bath.

For lunch yesterday, I fried two small courgettes, cut into batons, in sunflower oil. I added a little garlic and rice vinegar, then the noodles (drained again -- I used two rectangles, weighing 100 g in total) with some soy sauce, fish sauce (nam pla), chilli sauce, and a dash of sesame oil. All those sauces are salty: I should have used just a few drops of soy and fish sauce. Nevertheless, as the instructions promised, "It is a dish of delicious noodle."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Roast belly pork and crackling, and a pudding

The other day, I achieved the dream ticket: tender, moist belly pork and crisp crackling. Here's what I did.

The meat

I had two ribs'-worth of pork, weighing about 700 g and enough to feed the three people in our family who like it. It was top of the range, Plantation Pork, but still cost only about £4.50. I rubbed a little sunflower oil over the meat, and ground over salt and pepper. I turned it rind-side up, patted the rind dry with a paper towel, and salted it. Then I put the joint, in a roasting tin, on the floor of the oven, set the oven at the lowest setting (gas mark 1/4, 110 celsius), and left it -- for seven hours.

The first recipe I saw that recommended this slow cooking at a low temperature also recommended that you place the pork on a rack above water. As I argue in my
book, water does not -- as many writers assert -- keep meet moist. Because it conveys heat efficiently, it is more likely to leave meat dry.

Seven hours may have been more than the pork needed. Still, it was perfect.

The crackling

I have tried various techniques: starting the meat in a very hot oven, starting it under a grill, starting it in a frying pan. None has been reliable.

Some writers advise you to smear a little oil on the crackling; some insist that you do not. This time, I followed the latter course. After all, it's fatty already, I reasoned.

When I took the meat out of the oven, I sliced off the crackling. Some of the meat came away too; I scraped that back on to the joint, which I put on a hot plate and left in the warmth of the grill section above the oven. I was happy to let it rest for half an hour.

I put the roasting tin with the crackling back into the oven, which I turned up to full blast. It's important to keep an eye on progress -- crackling burns easily. This time, it was puffed up and brittle after 20 minutes.

After a good many failures, and complaints from my daughters, I had got it right.

In conclusion: no oil, salt (helps to draw out moisture), a blast of heat (apart from the joint, so that the meat does not dry out).

Lemon mousse

After belly pork and crackling, a tart pudding is welcome. I got this recipe from
Olive magazine.

1 284 ml pot double cream

1 lemon, zest and juice

60 g caster sugar

2 egg whites

Whip the cream, the lemon zest and the sugar until the mixture is thick but not solid. Add the lemon juice and whip again, to the same consistency. Whip the egg whites until they stand in stiff peaks. Fold in to the lemony cream. Spoon in to glasses, and chill. Makes 6. (The portions may not seem large, but are quite rich.)


This has the foamy texture that the word "mousse" suggests but that my chocolate mousses never attain. I used
Rachel's Organic cream, which is very creamy; I wonder if a whipping cream might have produced an even airier result.

You have to be careful when you whip cream: it goes from thick to solid in no time, becoming useless for mousses and fools.

I whip egg whites with a small, hand-held whisk (washing it thoroughly after whipping the cream, of course). It's quite hard work. But so is getting out the mixer, assembling it, and washing it afterwards; and the old-fashioned method enables you to get a much better feel for the progress of the foam.