Thursday, December 20, 2007

Treacle sponge

The Observer Food Monthly last Sunday carried two recipes for treacle sponge. It must be seasonal. But I took mine from Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book (from Grub Street, which is constructing a new website), which has featured here before. Instead of the golden syrup, I used black treacle; because treacle is stickier, I might have left out the breadcrumbs. The addition of lemon juice to cut through the sweetness was delicious; and the sponge was soft and airy. (It goes dense when cold.) Serves four to six.

2 tbsp golden syrup
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp breadcrumbs
115 g caster sugar
115 g butter
Zest of 1 lemon
2 eggs, beaten
140 g self-raising flour
Pinch of salt
Milk

Mix the syrup, lemon juice and breadcrumbs, and put them into a 1 litre, buttered pudding basin.

Cream the 115 g butter and sugar. (Soften the butter, and smear it into the sugar with the back of a spoon until entirely blended. The mixture should lighten.) Stir in the eggs and the lemon zest. Do not worry if the mixture curdles, because now you stir in the flour (with the pinch of salt -- I am not sure what this is for), which should sort it out. The mixture will be stiff. Add a couple of tbsps of milk, until you get what they call a "dropping consistency". Pour this blobby mixture on top of the syrup in the basin.

Wrap the basin in kitchen paper, and then, tightly, in three layers of foil. Put it into a large pot with a lid. Pour boiling water carefully round the basin to come half way up the sides, cover, and cook at a gentle simmer for one hour and three quarters, topping up the water level if necessary. Serve with cream or custard.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Potato lasagne

Here is an unusual recipe, from Yotam Ottolenghi's "New Vegetarian" column in the Saturday Guardian.

Tackling it, I was less worried about the combination of potatoes and lasagne than about whether the ingredients would cook properly. Non pre-cook lasagne is tricky stuff to get right, in my experience. It needs to soak in the other ingredients in order to soften, and it absorbs a lot of liquid; but make your sauces too runny, and you end up with a soggy mass. Too dry, and the lasagne stays crunchy. The owner of a local deli gave me the answer; parboil the sheets for a minute. It makes them far less absorbent, and allows you to cook the dish in the normal way, with ragu and bechamel at the consistency you like. But the sheets sometimes curl up after their parboiling; and what is the point of this type of lasagne if you have to pre-cook it anyway? So I decided to try Ottolenghi's method. He includes plenty of liquid.

To fit the lasagne into my dish, I had to break up the sheets. Little shards split off; but that did not seem to matter.

I was not sure about mixing cheese and garlic with the water, milk and cream before pouring the mixture over the layered lasagne. The solids would sink; they would emerge in a clump when you poured, and sit in a mass on the top of the dish. So I layered the cheese with the lasagne sheets, potatoes and onions. The best way to incorporate the garlic, I realise with hindsight, would have been to blitz it with the olives. I also realise with hindsight that heating the liquid first would have helped along the cooking.

I used new potatoes, peeled and sliced very thin. After an hour in the oven (half the time at gas mark 4/180C, and half at gas mark 2/150C), the dish was not very well cooked. I removed the foil, and pressed down on the top of the lasagne: the liquid rose above the surface. I scattered cheese on top, and put the dish back in the oven at gas mark 5/190C for a further 30 minutes. It emerged well-browned, with the liquid absorbed; but the potatoes were not entirely soft. Heating the liquid first, and pressing down on the ingredients after the first 30 minutes to ensure that everything was soaked, would probably have sorted them out.

My dish included 200 g of lasagne, and eight small new potatoes. I cut down the liquid, using 100 ml of water, 200 ml of double cream, and 150 ml of milk. I did not use herbs, and I reduced the garlic from four cloves to three. The quantities of the other ingredients were the same.

Two of us ate it all, including the slightly crisp potatoes. With just a green salad on the side.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sauteed courgettes

I try to use the Tesco Express that opened nearby in the summer only for items that I cannot get in the local independents. There are one or two grey areas, though. All the Turkish and North African supermarkets sell garlic and courgettes; but Tesco's garlic and courgettes are rather good. The garlic cloves have purplish skins, are firm, and do not have bitter stalks at their centre. The courgettes are firm too: their flesh is not pulpy, and their skin is not acrid. Yesterday, for lunch, I simply sauteed them in olive oil as an accompaniment to scrambled eggs on toast.

Courgettes cut into batons retain their firmness for longer when cooked than do sliced ones. (The same phenomenon is true of carrots.) Despite the risk of overcooking, I usually prefer to slice them: the skin is less noticeable that way. Some people salt them first, to extract some of the water that they would otherwise disgorge in the pan and that would stew them; but I am not so disturbed by the odd soggy courgette that I am prepared to go to that effort. I put a layer of olive oil in a large saucepan, turn the heat to medium, throw in the courgettes, grind over salt and pepper, and cook, stirring almost constantly, until the pale flesh goes a darker green. I might add chopped garlic (probably also from Tesco).

Here is a recipe for spaghettini with courgettes.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Roast potatoes V

Roast potatoes IV suggested parboiling the potatoes, draining them and allowing them to dry, and turning them in oil before roasting. The theory was that they crisped just as well this way as they would have done when added to hot oil; and this method was easier. I had always found turning the potatoes in hot oil in the roasting tin a bit of a nuisance.

But what if you don't need to give them an initial turning? Browsing on Video Jug when I should have been at work, I came across its roast potatoes recipe. You start as usual by parboiling the potatoes; the recipe advises draining them by tipping the pan with the lid partially ajar, but there is no good reason why you should not use a colander. Meanwhile, you warm some fat in a roasting tin. Then you simply lay the potatoes in the hot fat -- no turning. The Video Jug demonstrator adds his potatoes one by one; I am prepared to risk splashing by tipping them all into the tin at once. You turn the potatoes half way through cooking as normal.

The advantage of this method is that the potatoes form a crust quickly, and therefore absorb less fat. You need not worry about giving every surface an initial coating to get a crisp and tasty result.

I have been slicing my potatoes for roasting rather than cutting them into chunks. They work well.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Grainy mousse

I had forgotten my previous recipe for chocolate mousse. This time, making a decent quantity (for pudding following the fish stew), I used about 175 g of Green & Black's dark chocolate, with five egg yolks, and five whites.

What alarms me about mousse-making is that the melted chocolate always stiffens, and appears to acquire a grainy texture, when I stir in the egg yolks. The finished dish is fine, if somewhat stiff too. This time, I tried very hard to avoid this effect. I gave the chocolate time to cool; I loosened it with about 4 tbsps of double cream; I loosened it further by beating in a little of my stiffened egg white. I beat the egg yolks, and stirred them in little by little. The mixture seized up again.

The finished mousse was the most mousse-like (light in texture, I mean) chocolate mousse I have ever made. But it was also grainy. I do not understand why.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Fish stew

This recipe is vague on the subject of what fish to use. I asked my fishmonger for mixed fish for a stew: he gave me various fillets, and an incomprehensible answer when I asked what they were. I am a little vague, too, about the quantity of stock. About 1.5 litres is my guess, arrived at later after pouring that amount of water into the same saucepan.

This stew serves eight, easily.

For the stock
Fish offcuts and heads (ask a fishmonger -- mine charged me £1 for a bagful)
Dark green parts of three leeks and of a bunch of spring onions, washed
Stalks and fronds of a fennel bulb
Stalks of a handful of flat-leaf parsley
2 sticks celery
8 garlic cloves

For the stew
1.5 kg mixed fish fillets, cut into pieces about three times the size of a forkful
Olive oil
2 onions, roughly chopped (ie, into chunks rather than fine pieces)
White and pale green parts of three leeks, sliced into fork-sized pieces
White and pale green parts of bunch of spring onions, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 fennel bulb, roughly chopped
4 sticks celery, roughly chopped
125 ml white wine
2 bay leaves
500 g carton passata
Zest of 1 orange
Salt
1.5 l fish stock
450 g new potatoes, boiled and sliced
Handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tsp saffron fronds


Prepare the stock. Cover the fish offcuts in cold water in a stock pot, bring to a simmer, skim off the surface froth, and throw in the vegetables. Cook on a very low light for about 40 minutes. (It is said that overcooked fish stock is bitter.) Sieve, return the stock to a pan, and simmer until reduced to about 1.5 litres.

Meanwhile, choose a large saucepan or casserole. I used a 28 cm, oval Le Creuset; the stew filled it almost to the brim. Pour a layer of oil into the bottom, and throw in all the vegetables (except the cooked potatoes), cooking them over a low to medium heat until they start to turn golden. Pour in the wine, and allow it to bubble for a couple of minutes. Add the bay leaves, passata, orange zest, and salt to taste. Simmer until reduced and thickened.

Have your stock simmering in a saucepan. Turn up the heat under the stew, and pour in the stock. This is how you're supposed to make a bouillabaisse, liaising the stock and the vegetable mixture. You'll be surprised at how thick the sauce remains. Let it simmer for five minutes or so. Throw in the cooked potatoes, and bring back to a simmer. Check the seasoning.

Submerge the fish in the stew. Cook for five minutes longer. Check the fish: it should be ready. Turn off the heat, and stir in the parsley and saffron.

I served the stew with boiled Camargue rice, which has pleasingly plump and absorbent grains.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sardine pilaf

It is a kind of kedgeree, I suppose; and another way of cooking this dish. The reason for the different technique is that I have been experimenting with preparing rice by the absorption method. My past experiments have not been successful; but I do not like admitting defeat, especially as the method, which leaves you simply with your ready-to-eat rice in the pan, is potentially so satisfying. For two.

1 onion, chopped
1 or 2 tbsps groundnut or sunflower oil
2 portions curry powder (check packet for quantity)
150 g basmati rice
2 tbsp raisins
2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted over a gentle heat in a dry pan
2 tins sardines, drained

Fry the onion gently in the oil until golden -- about 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the curry powder, and cook for a minute or two longer. Meanwhile, check the volume of the rice in a measuring container, and get ready double that volume of cold water. Stir the rice into the onion and curry powder, and pour over the cold water. Throw in the raisins, and add a little salt if you like (the sardines will be salty). If you have a pilaf with quite a few, bulky ingredients (including leftover chicken, for example, you may find that the rice is not completely submerged: you will need a little more water. But the quantities should work in this case. Bring the contents of the pan to a gentle simmer.

I use Tilda basmati rice, or sometimes a Fair Trade brand such as Crazy Jack. I have been allowing 12 minutes over the heat, but I am starting to think that 10 may be sufficient. Anyway, my method has been to cook the rice, uncovered, for about seven minutes, adjusting the heat so that most of the water has been absorbed or has evaporated in that time; and then to cover the pan, turn the heat to its lowest, and to continue the cooking for another five minutes. Then I leave the pan undisturbed for another three minutes.

At this point in the pilaf recipe, stir in the pine nuts and the sardines, allowing the fish to break up a little. Cover the pan for another couple of minutes. Serve.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Monday miscellany

Belatedly, here is a link to my latest New Statesman column. It concerns the cancer scare over bacon and other cured meats. I lack the expertise that the subject demands; but no one has complained yet about my inexpert remarks. (I am not convinced by the warnings, is the gist.) Here is my blog entry on bacon sandwiches.

I have written several times about roast potatoes, and about whether you should parboil the potatoes first, and for how long. Some while back in his Times column, Gordon Ramsay wrote that he preferred not to parboil the potatoes before putting them into the fat. A few weeks ago, he gave a recipe recommending a five-minute parboiling. Perhaps he has changed his mind. Or perhaps inconsistencies are inevitable in such columns.

While searching for the Ramsay roasts, I came across the Times's "Five steps to perfect roast potatoes" (with step one missing). The piece recommends cooking the potatoes in their skins -- something I rarely do, partly because maincrop potatoes are often too big to sit whole in a normal saucepan, and partly because I find peeling cooked potatoes very fiddly. Little bits of skin stick to my fingers. Is it true that potatoes boiled in this way are less watery -- and, if so, do they taste better? I shall try the method sometime. I once tried cooking potatoes in their skins for mash: it was very gluey.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Belly pork and red cabbage

Theories are all very well, but sometimes they do not tally with practice. My theory is this: that the common belief that a joint of meat stays moist if you surround it with foil, or cover it, or put it on a rack above liquid, is a fallacy. The steam does not keep the joint moist: it cooks the meat very efficiently, and so is more likely to dry it out than is the unmediated heat of a low-temperature oven. That is the theory; but when I cooked some belly pork in a casserole, it emerged beautifully succulent and tender.

All I did was chop a red cabbage and pile it into a large, oval Le Creuset casserole with four chopped apples, a couple of tbsps of red wine vinegar, some salt and pepper, and 10 juniper berries. (The acid in the apples and vinegar are supposed to preserve the colour of the cabbage, but did not -- another theory challenged by this recipe.) There was a lot of cabbage; once I put the belly pork (a 1.5 kg joint) on top, I was unable to put on the lid. So I started the cooking (without the pork) at gas mark 6/200 C for half an hour, after which the cabbage had started to collapse; I put in the pork, covered the dish, and carried on cooking at gas mark 1/140C for an hour; and then, when I was sure that everything was cooking gently, at gas mark S/130C for another two hours. Simple, and splendid. Served 6.

Perhaps my theory would work better if my oven operated at a lower temperature than 130C. As it is, the well-insulated environment of a heavy Le Creuset may offer gentler cooking.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Orange surprise pudding

This recipe did not quite work when I made it yesterday. I offer it here because it, or close variations on it, have always worked in the past; and because it tasted fine anyway. I think that the mistake I made was not to blend the batter thoroughly: the creamed sugar and butter were a distinct component of the finished dish, and the custard did not set properly. I used golden caster sugar -- was that the problem? I doubt it.

I first got the recipe, as lemon surprise pudding, from Real Cooking by Nigel Slater. He adapted it from one in Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book (from Grub Street -- the link to the food and drink page is not working). It appears, too, in Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham's Roast Chicken and Other Stories. Serves four.

50 g butter
85 g caster sugar
3 eggs, separated
Zest and juice of one orange (or one lemon)
25 g flour
250 ml milk

Cream the butter and sugar. I do this by hand, working away at the mixture with a spoon or spoons, pressing it to the side of the bowl, until it lightens and looks creamy.

Stir in the egg yolks and the orange zest and juice. The mixture will probably separate. Stir in the flour. Pour in the milk and give this batter a good whisk.

I also whisk egg whites by hand. Instructions for this procedure are often scary, implying that it will not work unless the egg, bowl and whisk meet strict requirements. Yesterday, I thought that I could see traces of yellow in my egg whites; but if there was some yolk there, it did not do any harm. You whisk until the point at which, when you lift the whisk from the white, it creates a peak that does not collapse. Fold the stiffened white into the batter.

Butter an oven dish, place it in a roasting tray, and pour boiling water round it to come half way up the sides. Pour the batter into the dish, and bake at gas mark 3/160 C for 40 to 50 minutes.

The pudding forms a sponge, below which is in theory the surprise: a tangy custard.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Custard

In my baked custard recipe, I gave proportions of 2 whole eggs to 300 ml cream and milk. But a pouring custard, beaten in a bowl suspended over simmering water, needs a higher proportion of egg to thicken. The process can be worrying, particularly if you are unsure whether you have got the proportions right. You warm the mixture; it shows little sign of thickening; you want to carry on warming it, but are terrified that the egg will start curdling. If the mixture seems hot and is steaming, stop: it will not get any thicker. If you want to thicken it further, beat another egg, pour a little of the mixture on top of it (whisking all the time), then a little more, and then tip the contents of this bowl into the first one. Warm it again, hoping that the magic will work this time. Stop, too, as soon as you sense a thickening: if you carry on, you are likely to find bits of curdled egg in your custard.

2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks
150 ml double cream
100 ml milk
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence (of course, a vanilla pod is preferable)

Heat a saucepan of water over which you can suspend a bowl (I use a pyrex one, which is not ideal, but does work). The bowl should not touch the water. When the water boils, turn it down to a gentle simmer. Or use a double saucepan if you have one.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan with the sugar and the vanilla. Beat the eggs in your bowl. When the milk is showing bubbles on the surface, pour it into the beaten eggs -- start with just a little milk, whisking rapidly as you pour to avoid overheating the eggs and scrambling them; then add a little more, then the rest. Place the bowl in the saucepan above the simmering water, and carry on whisking until you feel the mixture thicken. Remove the bowl from the heat right away, and keep on whisking, because the egg in contact with the hot sides of the bowl might still curdle. Serve hot or cold; if you are cooling the custard, cover the bowl immediately with clingfilm, which helps to prevent the formation of a skin.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Good noodles


I have written here before about trying to keep Chinese noodles from clumping together. You simmer them, drain them, and keep them soaking in cold water -- but not for too long -- until you need them. But a better option would be to find a brand of noodles that are not sticky; and at last I have. They are Blue Dragon egg noodles. You simmer them for about three minutes. When drained, the linguine-like strands remain slippery and separate.

The vegetables were a less satisfactory aspect of our most recent stir-fry. I do not own a wok, and rarely feel that I need one. But the ingredients the other night included pak choi, which exudes quite a bit of liquid; my frying pan did not reach as high a temperature as a wok would have done, so the liquid took too long too evaporate, and the vegetables stewed rather than fried. Still, with some soy, fish and chilli sauces, along with a little sesame oil, they tasted fine.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Baked apple sponge

Sometimes, aspects of recipes do not work entirely as they should, but are flavoursome anyway. So it was when I tried Nigel Slater's Baked Apple Sponge. (The recipe is here, if you scroll down.)

It was to follow a roast lunch. I might have put it into the oven when the main course came out; but sometimes one is ready for pudding in less than 40 minutes. So I put it on to the floor of the oven while the potatoes were roasting, at a high heat, above it. When the potatoes were crisp, I turned down the heat to the specified temperature of gas mark 4/180C, and put the pudding on to the middle shelf.

The sponge emerged brown and firm on top; but, perhaps because I had messed around with the cooking temperature, some of the mixture had merged with the apples. No matter: they gained a deliciously buttery, almondy richness.

For the apple base, I used four Coxes and four Russets. I peeled, quartered, cored and sliced them; I put a large knob of butter into a heavy pan on a low heat, throwing in the apples as each was ready and putting on the lid. I added a splash of water every now and again. When all the apples were in the pan, I uncovered it, turned up the heat to medium, threw in just a dstsp of caster sugar with a little cinnamon and two cloves, and cooked the apples until they were softened but retained their shapes.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A failed curry

My latest New Statesman column concerns curries and authenticity. It was prompted by Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection recipe for chicken tikka masala -- a dish created in the UK, but one with no less right to be regarded as authentic than many to be found in India. Or rather, dishes in India are often as bastardised as those to be found in Indian restaurants here.

I remark in the piece on the fattiness of Blumenthal's creation. The fattiness comes not only from the ghee, but from the coconut milk, as I discovered the other night. I browned two onions with some garlic in groundnut oil, added my spices and stirred them round a bit, and poured in a can of coconut milk and a couple of ladlefuls of chicken stock. I wanted this mixture, to which I planned to add some cold roast chicken, to simmer and thicken. First, I bubbled it on the hob; then, when I had to go out for an hour, I put the saucepan, uncovered, into a low oven.

I had a thickened sauce by the time I came back. I also had, separated from it, a phenomenal quantity of fat. The finished dish was one of the most disgusting things I have ever cooked: greasy, heavy, and crude.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mushroom and pea risotto

Risotto for two last night. This recipe has the basic technique.

After softening the onion, this time with half a clove of garlic (I added a splash of water every so often to prevent the vegetables from catching, and used a heat disperser under the pan for the last 10 minutes of the 25-minute process), I stirred in the rice, and then added chopped (quite small pieces) mushrooms -- three portobellos. I got everything hot, before adding the stock, ladleful-by-ladleful as usual.

Green vegetables should go into a risotto at the end, so that they retain their freshness. Mushrooms can be there from the beginning, contributing their flavour to the sauce. The disadvantage is that you get a risotto that is a sludgy, grey-brown. If appearance matters, saute the mushrooms apart, and stir them in when the rice is ready.

Parmesan is what you should stir into a risotto. But I fancied a milder flavour. When the rice was al dente, I took it off the heat, adding the peas and about 100 g (I should guess) of grated Gruyere, along with 20 g of butter, cubed and chilled.

Monday, October 29, 2007

New potato and cheddar mash

For what might be called a light supper, but in fact contains more calories than most plates of meat and two veg, I often try variations on cheese and potato. Here is one; here, another. I made the following because I had a lump of cheddar to use up, as well as a half-consumed pot of cream. For two.

500 g new potatoes
30 g butter
100 ml double cream
150 g cheddar, grated
Salt, pepper

Scrub the potatoes, cover them in cold water, bring them slowly to the boil (here's why), and simmer until tender. Drain, and return them to the pan, allowing them to steam for a minute or two. Roughly mash them, with their skins. (I gave them three or four goes with a potato masher; a fork would be fine.) Stir in the butter, cream, and cheese. Taste; you may not need much salt, because of the saltiness of the cheese. I think that you need plenty of pepper, though.

Tip the mixture into a warm oven dish, and put it into the oven at gas mark 6/200 C for five to 10 minutes.

Or, as I did, warm the mixture on the hob. Stir the butter and cream into the mash, and warm above a gentle heat, stirring cautiously (to avoid releasing too much starch into the dish). Then add the cheese, stir again, and give everything another minute. Season, and serve.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Stewed neck of lamb

You can begin a stew of the saute type (one in which the meat is browned first) in a variety of ways. Do you fry the onions and any other vegetables first, then add the meat? Do you fry the onions, remove them from the pan, and add the meat? Do you brown the meat first, and add the onions? Do you brown the meat in a separate pan?

The only one of these options I do not like is the first -- although many recipes pretend that it is feasible. You need a high heat to get meat brown. On a low heat, it simply stews and goes grey in the liquid it disgorges. But if you turn up the heat when onions are in the pan, some of them will catch on the bottom and char.

All the other options will work. The easiest is the last. When I made a lamb stew the other day, I used a griddle pan for the browning.

I had neck fillet (about 650 g, for four), which I sliced into medallions. I coated them in flour. I put the griddle on to a medium to high heat for five minutes, distributed a little groundnut oil over the surface, and gave the medallions (in three batches) about a minute on each side to brown. I added them to my casserole, in which I had softened two chopped onions and two cloves of garlic. I completed the stew with chicken stock to cover, a bay leaf, a splash of soy sauce, a star anise, and salt.

The process was just like that for the oxtail stew, but with the shorter cooking time of two hours at gas mark 1/140 C. I removed the meat, strained the sauce, put the meat back into the casserole and covered it, and boiled the sauce until it was rich and thickened. I recombined meat and sauce. Then I added a bottle of strained, rinsed alubia beans. (Alubia beans are a kind of kidney bean. Bottled beans and chickpeas are a better bet than canned ones, lacking the hint of a metallic taste that can spoil the latter.) I put the stew back into the oven to warm through.

It was not quite as simple as that. You can never be sure how long it will take to warm up a heavy, Le Creuset casserole. In this case, half an hour in a low oven was not enough; so I finished the process above a gentle flame on the hob.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fennel and pesto salad

When a bag of salad and a bulb of fennel arrive, as they often do, in the organic box, I like to make salads such as this one. Possible ingredients also include black olives, pine nuts toasted in a dry pan, sun-dried tomatoes, and mint. Cracked wheat (bulgur) instead of the lentils, perhaps. Any cheese that you can cut into chunks, and even soft blue or goats cheeses, will work.

The other day, the proprietor of our nice deli/cafe Good for Food (there's a mention of it here) gave me a sample of her home-made pesto. I stirred about a tbsp of it into a salad (for two) consisting of leaves, fennel, cheddar (about 70 g), and pine nuts; I added a dstsp of vinegar and a tbsp of olive oil, along with pepper and a little salt. It was delicious.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Baked vegetables

My usual routine is to throw vegetables in a roasting dish, coat them in oil, and bake them at gas mark 6/200C. But they can burn before they soften. Last night, I tried a hybrid method. I cut an aubergine into fork-sized chunks, sliced two red onions through their roots to about the width of a £2 coin, and tossed the vegetables with about 2 tbsps of olive oil, a tsp of cumin and ajowan seeds mixed, and salt and pepper. I covered the roasting dish with foil, put it into the oven for 30 minutes at 200C, took off the foil, and baked the vegetables for 15 minutes longer. I might have turned up the heat for the uncovered stage; but I would have needed to check the progress carefully.

The aubergine and onions were tender and caramelised. I stirred them into couscous. I shall use this technique from now on.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Chicken with vinegar and tomatoes

This is a basic version of a recipe -- which is not very complicated in the first place -- in Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories. It serves three: an awkward number. A single can of tomatoes does not produce a generous quantity of sauce for four: so you might, if you have that number to feed, add an extra third of a can, plus some more vinegar.

1 dstsp olive oil
6 chicken thighs
Salt
2 cloves garlic, chopped
150 ml red wine vinegar
400 g can tomatoes
Handful parsley, chopped

Warm the olive oil in a heavy pan large enough to contain the chicken in a single layer. Salt the thighs, place them skin-side down in the pan, and brown them over a moderate heat for 10 to 15 minutes, turning once. You should need only this small amount of oil, because the chicken pieces will exude their own fat.

Throw in the chopped garlic, allow it to soften in the oil, and pour in the vinegar. (You could add rosemary and bay at this point.) Simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until well reduced. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon (it becomes easier once they have cooked for a while), and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce thickens -- about 30 to 45 minutes. The oil will separate from the tomatoes: you can discard some of it if you like. (I do not.) If the sauce is still liquid as you approach meal time, remove the chicken to a warm plate, turn up the heat and bubble the sauce to reduce it. Return the chicken to the pan to warm through.

Check the seasoning. Stir in the parsley. It needs pepper, in my opinion; you might add it at the table.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Squash curry

There is a similar curry here, with a recipe. This is an outline of what I did last night, again using the excellent spices from Seasoned Pioneers.

I baked fork-sized pieces of squash (half of one), tossed in groundnut oil, with black cumin and ajowan seeds.

To give the curry some body, I simmered 50 g of yellow lentils, covered, in about double their volume of water with cayenne pepper. You need to keep checking so that the lentils absorb the water and become sludgy, without drying up. I stirred in a 40 g sachet of Biona creamed coconut.

I fried three onions, sliced (more on browning onions here). I threw in a chopped clove of garlic, along with 1 tsp of cardamom masala, and cooked this mixture for a couple of minutes. Now a really inauthentic touch: I poured in the leftover sauce from the oxtail stew. There was about 200 ml of it. I allowed this mixture to bubble, and tipped in the lentils and the squash, along with 1 tsp of garam masala. I salted the curry, and allowed it to simmer for five minutes.

My vegetable box last week included some chillis called, alarmingly, Ring of Fire. They are good, and do not have the effect on your rear end that they threaten. I chopped up two of them (without being too fussy about discarding the seeds and membranes), stirring them into the curry as a garnish.

This would have been enough for two, had I not been greedy.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Oxtail stew

The weather remains warm, but our appetites are turning towards winter dishes.

I cook many variations of this stew; the invariable ingredient is the tomato ketchup. For four.

8 chunks of oxtail; or, if they are of varying size, chunks weighing 850 g to 1 kg
Plain flour
Groundnut or sunflower oil
2 onions, chopped
I carrot, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
350 ml beef stock (chicken would be fine)
330 ml beer (I used Pilsner Urquell)
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp tomato ketchup
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp nam pla
1 star anise
Salt

Coat the oxtail pieces in flour. You could put the flour in a bag, and shake the oxtail in it; or turn the pieces in flour on a plate. This is a simple way of getting a certain amount of thickening agent into the dish.

Warm a heavy frying pan over a medium heat, pour in enough oil to coat the bottom, and brown the oxtail pieces -- in two batches if necessary. Start with a medium heat, lowering it as the oxtail starts to brown in order to avoid burning the oil. Transfer the oxtail to a heavy casserole large enough to contain the pieces in a single layer.

Adding more oil to the pan if necessary, soften the onion, carrot and garlic. They will catch and burn immediately if the pan has not cooled down after you browned the meat, so keep stirring. Allow the vegetables to become golden. Tip them into the casserole.

Deglaze the frying pan with a little of the stock or the beer: pour it in, allow it to bubble, and scrape the pan with a wooden spoon. Pour this liquid into the casserole, along with the rest of the stock and the beer; add the other ingredients. Be cautious with the salt -- you can add more later.

The oxtail should be submerged, so that it cooks gently in its bath. (Exposed, it would be subjected to stronger heat.) Add water, or more stock, if necessary; any dilution of the stock will not be greatly significant, because you can reduce the sauce later.

Put the casserole, covered, into a gas mark 1/140 C oven. It may take an hour to come to simmering point. That does not matter: very gentle cooking is what you want. Cook the stew for about three hours in total, or until the meat is tender.

Leaving the stew overnight works well. Allow it to cool, then put it into the fridge. The next day, you will find on the surface a layer of fat, which you can lift off with a spoon.

If you are going to eat the stew today: lift out the meat, and strain the sauce into a large glass bowl. (Return the meat to the casserole, and cover.) You will see the layer of fat on top. Spoon it off (not into the sink, where it will congeal). Do not feel you have to get rid of all of it: what you leave behind will contribute flavour. Pour the sauce into a saucepan, and boil it until it reduces and thickens slightly. Keep tasting, and stop the process when you think that the flavour has the right concentration. Add salt, if necessary. Return the sauce to the casserole, and warm everything through on a low light.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Fried potatoes 2

In an earlier post, I wrote about frying potatoes in the same way as you would chips. The only real difference from chips is that these are cubed.

The second method, which I tried the other day, is to parboil the potatoes first. You cube them, cover them in cold water, bring them to the boil, and simmer them for about 10 minutes. They need to be soft, because frying in a thin layer of oil does not tenderise them much further; but if they are too soft they will break up. Drain them, and return them to the hot pan to steam. I think that there is a case for sprinkling them with flour, to add crunch to the surfaces. (I do not think that is necessary with roast potatoes.)

Warm a layer of sunflower or other oil of your choice in a frying pan. (As I wrote earlier, you will need a 28 cm pan to accommodate four medium-sized potatoes.) Tip in the potatoes, and cook them on a medium to low heat. It may take 10 minutes or longer for the undersides to brown. Turn them, to get them as thoroughly brown as you like.

In my last entry on roast potatoes, I wrote that you could turn the parboiled potatoes in cold oil, and get perfectly crispy results. Why do I not say that here? Because these potatoes have been parboiled for longer, and are softer. They might break up if you agitate them a lot; and they will absorb more oil. Tipped into hot oil, they will form a crust more rapidly.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Pasta with anchovies and roasted peppers

Anchovies go well with green vegetables (here, for example). But they also go with mushrooms (here), and with peppers. I put together this dish last night: it does not need the spring onions, which I used because I had them in the house; I included chillis because I always do. The spaghetti worked well, despite the usual advice that cream sauces suit shapes such as penne better. For two.

2 red peppers
I tbsp olive oil
4 spring onions, sliced (optional)
I clove garlic, chopped
200 ml double cream
I tin anchovies, drained
1 or more dried chillis according to taste, whizzed (optional)
Pepper
250 g spaghetti

Roast the peppers in a gas mark 6/200 C oven for 20 to 30 minutes until the skin blackens. Allow them to cool. Peel, deseed and slice them, retaining the juice. (I break the peppers apart with my hands above a bowl, discarding into it skin, seeds and juice.)

Soften the spring onions (if using) and the garlic in the olive oil. Pour in the juice from the peppers through a sieve, allowing it to bubble and thicken for a minute or two; pour in the cream, the anchovies, and the chillis if using. Grind over the pepper. Allow this sauce to bubble and thicken. (The anchovies should melt.) Tip in the strips of pepper, and give them time to warm.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti. Drain it, and toss it through the sauce.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Barbecue marinade for spare ribs

Here is another marinade for spare ribs, this time for four people. (You want three or four ribs for each person, I think.) Four tbsps of tomato ketchup; 2 cloves of garlic, crushed with salt; 1 tbsp of groundnut oil; 1 dstsp of rice vinegar; 1 tsp of soy sauce; 1 tsp of nam pla (fish sauce); 1 star anise, chopped up a bit; salt and pepper. Spread this marinade over the joint of ribs, and roast it for two hours at gas mark 1/130 C. (Another marinade is here.)

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall included a spare rib recipe in his Guardian column on Saturday. The marinade looked interesting. But I prefer to cook the meat at a lower temperature than the one he recommended (gas mark 4/180 C for 45 minutes in a dish covered with foil, and then uncovered for 20 minutes). The steam inside the foil will cook the ribs so efficiently that it may dry them out; and 20 minutes' exposure may be enough to burn the honey and soy in the marinade. In the accompanying picture, the ribs were blackened, in a way that food stylists think appetising but that should, as I have written before, put you off.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Lentil, fennel, green leaf and Gruyere salad

Some recipes -- for instance, in Claudia Roden's Food of Italy -- tell you to soak Puy or other green lentils for 30 minutes or so before cooking. That may be good advice. I have tried it a couple of times recently: the lentils have cooked evenly, and have drained well. (If the cooking process is not so efficient, the liquid tends to adhere to the lentils when you drain them.) There is a previous entry on lentils here.

They need plenty of flavouring, I think. For this salad, for two, I soaked and drained 60 g of lentils, covered them with fresh water, and simmered them for about 30 minutes with a whole, unpeeled garlic clove. I fished out the garlic, squeezed out the flesh, and mashed it into a dstsp of red wine vinegar. I added salt, and a lot of pepper; I stirred in a generous tsp of Dijon mustard. I whisked in 2 dstsps of olive oil until the mixture emulsified. It was a pungent dressing. I drained the cooked lentils, and stirred them in. If there had been any parsley in the kitchen, I would have added that too.

Into this salad I folded: thin slices of fennel, grilled until translucent on a ridged pan; a bag of mixed leaves from the organic box; about 75 g of Gruyere (a goat's cheese would have been nice, too), cut into cubes.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Stock

My latest New Statesman column concerns changing your mind about ways to cook. You decide on a method, but after practising it for a while you start -- partly out of boredom and partly out of curiosity -- to question whether it really is the only or best way of working.

In Don't Sweat the Aubergine, I followed Michel Roux's advice in recommending that you cook chicken stock for two hours. Longer cooking, I claimed, would cause the flavours to grow dull. But recently I have come to suspect that the dullness of flavour comes from overcooked vegetables, and not from the meat. Longer cooking extracts more collagen from the bones, converting it into gelatin and enriching the stock. Now I simmer stock, very gently, for three and a half to four hours, adding chopped vegetables just half an hour before the end.

At the weekend, I made a kind of double stock. I poached pig's trotters, for another dish. Covering them required quite a lot of liquid, which I reduced before using it to cover the bones of a roasted chicken. I simmered this stock for three and a half hours. It was Saturday evening, and I was too lazy to add vegetables.

The stock, chilled, became a firm jelly.

I am not sure how long you should keep stock. In a recent Observer column, Nigel Slater advised that you throw it out once it starts to weep -- in other words, once bits of the jelly liquefy. The Food Standards Agency tells you to consume stock within two days. But I must admit that I have used stock that has been in the fridge for a week, with no ill effects.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Blanching sausages

I wrote a while ago about Heston Blumenthal's method of simmering sausages in water below boiling point before frying them. It did not work for me; but possibly the temperature of my water was too high.

Blumenthal's was not a completely new idea. In French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David advises that you "stiffen" Toulouse sausages for frying or grilling by dipping them briefly in boiling water. Italian sausages have a similar, coarse texture. Valentina Harris, in her book Italian Regional Cookery (now out of print), gives a recipe for "Alvaro's sausages with beans": you put the sausages into the water with the dried beans for the last 15 minutes of cooking, again before frying them.

I am not convinced. Very gentle frying -- I allow sausages 30 minutes to cook -- seems to me to be the best way to retain their texture and tenderness.

That is my theory. But for some reason, it does not apply to barbecues. The heat of a barbecue is fierce; but a barbecued sausage is a lovely thing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Macaroni cheese

Smothering pasta in a flour-based sauce is not the kind of thing that Italians would do. But macaroni cheese is one of those dishes -- curry is another -- for which I get cravings.

Sometimes, I bake it. Baking dries up the sauce a little, and makes the pasta rather sticky -- but that can be what you want. Simply finishing the dish under the grill retains all the sauce and ensures that the pasta remains separate.

Heat up the water for the pasta.

Gruyere, Comte and Cantal are all good cheeses to use. I like a strong Cheddar best -- about 3 heaped tbsps for each person. After grating it, grate a little nutmeg on top. Grate also about 2 tbsps of Parmesan.

Warm a gratin dish. When the pasta goes in, it should not cool down.

You can make the sauce in the eight to 10 minutes it takes the pasta to cook. I use penne; conchiglie also work well, as do most shapes other than spaghetti or other ribbon types. About 100 g for each person, thrown into the boiling water with plenty of salt (about a tsp for each litre of water), is enough in this rich dish.

I like a generous quantity of cheesy bechamel: about as much as will be thickened by a generous dstsp of flour for each person. (You will need about 300 to 350 ml of milk for each serving, in other words.) Stir the flour into enough melted butter (about 20 g for each dstsp) to make a roux that is the texture of damp sand, and cook it over a gentle heat for about a minute -- long enough for some of the floury taste to be cooked out, but not long enough for the butter to brown. Turn up the heat to medium, and add the milk a few splashes at a time, incorporating each before pouring in the next. (If you have cream, you might like to use that instead of about a third of the milk.) The sauce should be of a coating consistency, but not stiff. When it is bubbling, stir in the cheese (with the nutmeg) until melted, and turn off the heat. Grind in pepper if you like. You do not need salt.

Drain the pasta. Stir it into the sauce; or, if the sauce is not sitting in a large enough pan, stir the pasta and sauce together in the pasta pan. Tip the mixture into the warmed gratin dish, sprinkle the Parmesan on top, and put the dish under the grill. (I remove the rack from the grill pan and put the dish in it, for easy manoeuvrability.) Watch out: Parmesan burns very easily.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Grilled chicken thighs

Overhead grills -- what Americans call broilers -- are unfashionable pieces of equipment. If you're grilling indoors, a ridged pan -- which is certainly better for cooking a steak -- is the thing. But for some foods, such as fish or chicken thighs, an overhead grill is better than a pan. Fish sticks to a pan; and a thigh gives off so much fat that the pan fries it rather than grilling it. The overhead grill has the second advantage of enabling you to baste the meat. (However, I do grill boneless breasts on a pan -- see here.)

I bone the thighs: they are just as juicy filleted, and they cook faster. You lift up the exposed end of the bone and scrape away the meat with a knife until you can cut loose the other end, chopping off as many hard bits and sinews as you can. At the weekend, I marinated six boned thighs in the juice of a lime, a glug of olive oil, two garlic cloves crushed to a pulp with salt, and four whizzed dried chillis.

A half-hour soaking is adequate, I think, if the meat is going to be basted during cooking. If you left the thighs in the marinade for longer, would you be able to taste the difference? I am not convinced that you would.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Late-night rice

Three and a half pints of London Pride; arrived home at 9.30 p.m. Not my favourite feeling. I did not want to eat anything with bread, because I had eaten sandwiches for lunch. So I put together a rice dish, in 15 minutes: chopped onion, green pepper and garlic, thrown into a pan with some groundnut oil and softened; meanwhile, rice thrown into boiling water and cooked for 10 minutes; rice tipped into vegetables and stirred up with a teaspoon of harissa. If your overriding aim is to get some food inside yourself, that is a pretty decent supper. One of its pluses as a late-night dish is that it does not sit heavily on the stomach.

To soften a pan of onion and pepper in little more than 10 minutes, you need a medium heat. As I wrote in my previous post, that compels you to keep the vegetables moving, or they and the oil will burn. The pan gets hotter and hotter; once the cooking is underway, you can turn down the flame.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Burnt offerings

My latest New Statesman column (sorry -- the link is simply to the home page, because the column itself appears not to be on the site) is about burning food: setting it alight, charring it, heating it until it gives off smoke. It is a fashionable thing to do, but is not healthy and is rarely tasty.

Burning oil -- even vegetable oils with high smoke points -- is easily done. If you cook onions over a medium heat, and if there is room in the pan, the exposed oil will soon start smoking, to the detriment of the flavour of the dish. High heats are essential in wok cookery, to keep the ingredients fresh and crisp; the trick is to have everything constantly on the move. When you brown the meat for a stew, throw away the oil afterwards.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Potatoes Anna

This is a simple, classic dish that for some reason has become rare. It appeared in one of Elizabeth David's early books, French Country Cooking, and for a while was a standard on bistro menus; perhaps it carries an unflattering association with check tablecloths and coq au vin.

I have not given quantities. You will know how many potatoes and how much butter you want for each serving. You could slice the potatoes into water before layering them; but some starchiness is pleasing in this dish, as it is in gratin dauphinois.

Waxy potatoes, such as Charlotte
Butter
Salt, pepper

Butter a gratin dish. Peel the potatoes. Cut them into rounds, arranging them in the dish; when you have a layer, cut slivers of butter and place them on top, and grind over salt and pepper. Build the layers of potato, butter and seasoning.

Cover the dish loosely with foil, which will help the potatoes to cook by steaming them. Bake at gas mark 4/180 C for 45 minutes; uncover the dish and bake for another 30 minutes, turning up the heat if the top layer is not browning.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Spinach and chick pea curry

I do not think that 25 minutes is too long to spend on cooking lunch for one. Sometimes, you want a break; and you don't want a sandwich. I might have prepared this curry even faster.

I washed a bag of spinach from the organic box, shoved the wet leaves into a saucepan, covered it, and put it on a high heat. After about a minute, once the spinach had started to collapse, I stirred it around until all the leaves had wilted. I drained the spinach, leaving behind the water, to which I added more water for some rice. I put the pan back on the heat.

Meanwhile, I had been softening a chopped onion with a chopped garlic clove in some groundnut oil.

When the water was boiling, I threw in my rice (75 g). (There is more on cooking rice here.) With five minutes to go, I brought out my pack of Seasoned Pioneer spices, and added half a tsp of the cardamom masala and half a tsp of the black cumin seeds to the onion and garlic, along with a minced, thumbnail-sized piece of ginger. I gave this mixture a minute to cook before tipping in a drained and rinsed can of chick peas, turning up the heat a little to warm them through. I squeezed the spinach, chopped it, and threw it into the pan, with a half tsp of balti garam masala and a third of a tsp of cayenne pepper. Canned chick peas are salty; but I ground a little more salt into the curry. I drained the rice.

Not the most refined of dishes. But just what I felt like eating.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Coffee: beans versus ground

The consensus is that it is better to buy coffee beans than ground coffee. The ground coffee will already have leaked flavour, and will lose more, rapidly, once the pack is opened. But that, with vacuum-sealed coffee, is not my experience. I cannot claim to have done exhaustive tests; but I have found that the ground coffee is more flavoursome than the beans. Why, I have no idea.

I keep it in the freezer -- again, not recommended by coffee lovers, who point to the moist atmosphere of freezer compartments. I screw up the bag, and put the bag inside a jar with a tight lid. This protection seems to work fine.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Steamed apple pudding

I adapted this pudding from a recipe in Olive magazine. The magazine version suggests you use four small pudding basins, and do the cooking in a microwave. It is also a little unclear on the quantities of butter and sugar.

You want the apples to hold their shape. The Coxes that are just starting to come into the shops should work. Serves four.

6 apples, peeled, quartered, cored, and held in acidulated water
150 g butter
150 g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
125 g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
Milk

Over a gentle flame and in a large saucepan or frying pan, heat 50 g of the butter and 50 g of the sugar until bubbling, then throw in the drained apple quarters and cook slowly until they start to caramelise.

Mash up the remaining butter and sugar until the mixture is creamy. If you work by hand, rather than with an electric beater, you need to press at the mixture with a spoon, smearing it against the side of the bowl and then stirring again, until you have produced a lighter substance. Stir in the eggs. Do not worry if the mixture looks lumpy and curdled: stir in the flour and baking powder, which will help to smooth it. But it will be stiff. Loosen it with a little milk, until you arrive at a gloopy -- Olive uses the word "spoonable" -- consistency.

Butter a pudding basin. Arrange the apples in the bottom; pour the sponge mixture over them. Insulate the basin -- I surround it with kitchen paper, and then with three layers of foil. Put it into an appropriately sized saucepan or casserole, pour in boiling water from the kettle to come half way up the sides, and steam the pudding for an hour and a quarter. It needs cream, or custard.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Roast chicken pieces

You might think that jointing a chicken before roasting it would, at least in one respect, be preferable to roasting a whole one. You can add the breast portions later, giving them enough time to cook but not enough to dry out. But my experience suggests that roasting the whole bird works better.

I was cooking just for myself one Saturday. I removed a leg from a chicken, and browned it gently in oil and butter while my roast potatoes were getting a 30-minute burst of gas mark 6/200 C heat. Then I lowered the setting to gas mark 4/180 C, turned the potatoes, and placed the chicken on top. I squeezed on some lemon juice. I gave the dish another half an hour. It was fine; but the chicken was not as tender as I would have liked.

The next day, for the whole family, I browned the rest of the chicken pieces, and put the remaining leg (cut into two) with the wings into the oven at the same time as the potatoes. I felt that I could risk an oven setting of gas mark 5/190 C, to brown the potatoes without drying out the meat. Again, I turned the potatoes after half an hour; I added the breast pieces with 20 minutes to go.

The chicken -- even the breast meat -- was not as succulent as it can be. Perhaps a whole bird retains more juices.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

De-seeding tomatoes

A feature that marks out a chef's cookery book from one written with the home cook in mind is the instruction to de-seed tomatoes. People in professional kitchens may be comfortable with throwing away half the vegetable (fruit, if you like); to the home cook, it seems both fussy and wasteful.

There is a case to be made for throwing away the seeds and jelly if you are incorporating the tomato in a sandwich. You might not want the juice to dilute a salad; but in that case the better option, in my view, is to fold in the tomatoes at the last minute -- or to rest them on top. Perhaps you do not want seeds in a sauce. You might sieve them, retaining the jelly; but surely that is a ridiculous effort.

I am delighted to see that Harold McGee, the food science guru, endorses my laziness. Here, he reports on some research prompted by Heston Blumenthal: the researchers found that the jelly of the tomato contained more flavour than the flesh.

Here is an easy tomato sauce, the method for which I read about in one of Nigel Slater's books. Soften a chopped garlic clove in a tbsp of olive oil; throw in four chopped tomatoes with a little salt (if the tomatoes are unripe, you might add a tsp of sugar), and simmer until the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce has thickened. Pass the sauce through a vegetable mill. Check the seasoning. If the sauce seems thin, simmer it for a little longer.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Lasagne, part 2

Part one is here; or immediately below. For 4.

300 g lasagne, cooked as in part one.

For the ragu
Olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
200 g beef mince
200 g pork mince
Bay leaf
1/2 chicken stock cube
1 tbsp tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste

For the bechamel
About 50 g butter
2 tbsp flour
About 450 ml milk
2 tbsp double cream
Grating of nutmeg
Salt to taste
2 tbsp Parmesan

Soften the onions and garlic in a layer of olive oil in a heavy saucepan. How much oil? Start with enough to layer the bottom of the pan, warm it over a gently heat, and tip in the vegetables. If they start to catch, add a little more oil. It is impossible to give measurements. I suspect that inexperienced cooks are nervous if they need more oil than the recipy specifies; but they need not be. Cook the onion and garlic until they are golden.

When I made this lasagne, I did not brown the meat. (As I have explained before, it is very hard to start the browning process now, because it needs a high temperature that will burn the vegetables.) Over a low to medium heat, break up the mince as it cooks. Add the other ingredients, and simmer over a low heat. You may want a little water; but the stew should be thick. Give it about 30 minutes.

Melt the butter in a small, non-stick saucepan. Add the flour, and stir to make a roux the consistency of wet sand. As with the onions, add more butter if necessary. (These quantities give more bechamel than recipes usually specify, to suit my taste.) Cook the roux very gently for a minute (it helps to minimise the floury flavour), then turn up the heat a little and add the milk, several splashes at a time, incorporating each addition before making another. You want a thick sauce that will stick to the back of your wooden spoon. When you have it, stir in the cream, nutmeg and salt.

Assemble the lasagne. Lightly butter your oven dish. Put a layer of lasagne in the bottom, cutting the pieces to fit. Do not overlap them too much: the pieces will stick together and become stodgy. Try to work out how many layers you will get, and whether you want that many. Then calculate how much ragu you can put into each layer. Spread this amount over the lasagne in the dish.

Some recipes tell you to alternate layers of ragu and bechamel; others suggest spreading the bechamel on to the ragu. I chose the latter option, but I used the bechamel sparingly, because I wanted there to be plenty left over for the topping.

Put a layer of lasagne on to your ragu and bechamel; top that with more ragu and bechamel; and so on, finishing with a layer of lasagne. Spread the remaining bechamel over that, sprinkle the Parmesan on top, and bake in a gas mark 4/180 C oven for 40 minutes.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lasagne, part 1

Apologies for splitting this post. The reason is that I want to say something about the pasta before getting to the recipe.

The "no pre-cooking required" varieties of lasagne are often the only ones available. I am not particularly keen on them. The sauces, the instructions tell you, need to be runny, in order to surround the pasta and cook it, and to compensate for absorption into the sheets; but how do you get the consistency right? Too runny, and you end up with slop; too thick, and you get a dried-out dish with crunchy pasta.

A local deli owner gave me the answer: par-boil the lasagne first, for just a minute. The process gets the cooking underway, and prevents the pasta from drying out the sauces (a ragu and a bechamel). Of course, you now have to do just as much work with this so-called labour-saving lasagne as you would with a variety that did require pre-cooking.

Get a large pan of water to the boil, salt it, and drop in four sheets of lasagne. (If you try to cook lots of sheets at once, you are likely to find them sticking together.) After a minute, fish them out with a slotted spoon, transfer them to a colander, and run cold water over them. Separate them if they have stuck together. Lay them out on a clean surface. Repeat, until you have par-boiled all the sheets the recipe requires.

I have found that if I adhere to the timing of 60 seconds and apply the cold water quickly, the lasagne does not curl up. It sometimes does, nevertheless. That is not disastrous.

Recipe to come on Friday.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Apple and plum crumble

Anna Shepard asked how to prevent crumble from sinking into a fruit filling. At her Eco Worrier blog, someone suggests cooking the fruit first: beneath the pie base, many fruits emit a lot of liquid, submerging the crumble. But, as I discovered with my plum tart, the pre-cooked fruit may become too soft. The apple and plum crumble I made yesterday was a compromise, containing pre-cooked apples (Discoveries) and raw plums (Victorias).

Some people like crunchy crumble. I am happy with a soft and buttery version.

This pudding offered modest portions for four.

100 g flour
60 g butter
2 dstsp caster sugar
4 apples, peeled, quartered, cored, sliced, and held in acidulated water
Knob butter
6 plums, quartered and stoned
Cinnamon, if liked

Cut the butter into little pieces, and return to the fridge. When chilled, rub it into the flour with your fingertips. Or whizz the flour and butter in a food processor. Stir in 1 dstsp of the sugar.

Melt the knob of butter in a saucepan, remove the apples from the water with your hands (it does not matter if they are wet), and throw them in. Cook over a low to medium heat until starting to soften.

(The Discoveries I used did not throw off much liquid. Some apples do. The liquid needs to be cooked off, either in the pan if the apples will not break up, or apart if they are fragile. Some apples become mushy; others retain their shape. Mine were somewhere in between.)

Tip the apples into a pie dish, and tuck in the quartered plums. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar, and with cinnamon if you like it.

Spread the crumble on top of the fruit, and bake at gas mark 6/200 C for 30 minutes, or until the top is browned and the filling is bubbling.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Plum tart

The plum tree in our garden here in France is shedding fruit indefatigably, like a magician from a cloak. You feel that you have to do something with it, even if you can make only a small inroad on the total.

We have bought a 28 cm tart tin with a removable base. I made a pastry with 220 g of flour, 110 g of butter, a tbsp of sugar, and enough iced water to form a dough. I prefer not to enrich pastry with egg, especially if it is to be a base for something rich and eggy. I dropped the ball of dough into the tin, and spread it out with my hands. (There is more about pastry here.)

I was not sure about whether or not to bake the pastry blind. I reasoned that the plums would not saturate it as a quiche custard would, and that putting the tin on a baking sheet would help the pastry to crisp. There were disagreements about the result. I felt that the pastry was underdone; our guests, probably out of politeness, said that they preferred it that way.

I should have measured the quantity of plums I used. There were enough, whole, generously to cover the tin -- perhaps about 700 g, unstoned. I halved and stoned them. Then I did something unnecessary: I put the plums into a saucepan with a sprinkling of sugar and a little water, covered the pan, and cooked them until soft. I overdid it; and they might have softened satisfactorily anyway. I arranged them in the tart.

Recipes differ in their instructions over custard. Some suggest that you make a custard, pour it into the pastry base, cook until set, then lay the fruit on top and cook further. Others tell you to make the custard in a saucepan, set it in the fridge, and spread it over the tart base. The third method is to pour custard over the tart towards the end of cooking. I chose the third method.

I cooked the tart for 25 minutes at gas mark 6/200 C. Meanwhile, I reduced the plum liquid to a syrup in a small saucepan, and in a bowl I beat two eggs, whisking them with a dstsp of sugar, a tsp of vanilla essence, three tbsp of creme fraiche, and a little milk -- about 75 ml of liquid altogether, I should guess. (This is a very thick custard, compensating for the liquid in the plums.)

After the 25 minutes, I poured the syrup over the plums, and baked the tart for five minutes longer. I turned down the oven to gas mark S/130 C, poured the custard over everything, and waited for another 30 minutes, by which time the custard was set. I allowed the tart to cool in the oven.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Pork and bean stew 2

My latest New Statesman column concerns dried beans. I gave a recipe for one such bean stew here.

I cook these stews often, with variations. The following, unlike the one mentioned in the column, does not include chicken stock; to add interest to the sauce, I added tomato paste. For 4.

250 g dried haricot beans, soaked for five hours or longer
4 cloves garlic, three whole and one chopped
2 onions, peeled but left whole
4 slices cooked roast pork, cut into fork-sized pieces
Handful smoked lardons
1 tbsp tomato paste
4 tbsp olive oil
Plateful breadcrumbs

Drain the beans. In a casserole, cover them with water with a few cms to spare. Bring to the boil, skim off the scum, and throw in the onions and garlic. Cover, and simmer on a low heat until tender. (Cooking times of dried beans are not predictable; it may take from one hour to three or more.) Keep checking the level of the liquid. As the beans approach softness, take the lid off the pan to allow evaporation, until you have beans in a thickened, sludgy sauce. Discard the onions; squeeze the soft garlic from the hulls, and return it to the pan.

In a small frying pan, soften the chopped garlic in the olive oil over a gentle heat. Pour it into the casserole. Stir in the pork, lardons, and tomato paste; add the salt you want. Cover the stew with breadcrumbs, and bake at gas mark 6/200 C for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the top is golden and the stew is bubbling.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Haricots verts

French green beans, so much more vibrant in flavour than the muddy Kenyan ones that dominate the supermarket shelves in Britain, are coming to the end of their season. We have been eating them whenever we can.

Some people assert that you should never steam green vegetables, or put the lid on the pan of boiling water. The science behind that theory appears to be that the atmosphere inside a closed pan has higher acidity -- and acidity causes the vegetables to lose greenness, turning an unappetising khaki. I am not sure about this effect from my own experience; but perhaps the water in North London is low in acidity. I usually steam these vegetables (unless there is an opportunity to cook them in boiling water I am about to use for pasta), because I have read that steaming retains more nutrients.

However, I boil vegetables here in France, where we do not own a steamer. I give green beans three and a half minutes from the moment I plunge them into the boiling water.

Whether or not to salt the water is another difficult question. Harold McGee says that salt speeds softening, and therefore reduces the time that the vegetables have to spend in the colour-sapping pan. But I usually leave it out.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Apple and bread pudding

This is adapted from a recipe in Simple French Food by Richard Olney. (Scroll down the Grub Street page to find it; here is a piece by me about the book.) Here in France, I have baguettes to work with; removing the crusts is far too fiddly an operation, so I whizz them up as well. I am not sure that it is necessary to cook the breadcrumbs, rather than simply tossing them in melted butter: they become thoroughly soaked by the liquid. I made more custard than he specifies.

Apples such as Granny Smith that hold their shape would work well here. I used some from my neighbour's garden; they turned to mush almost as soon as they hit the pan.

For 6.

10 apples, peeled, quartered, cored and sliced (you can hold them in acidulated water, to prevent discolouration)
Plateful breadcrumbs, crusts removed if possible
80 g butter
4 eggs
50 g sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
300 ml milk
100g creme fraiche or double cream

In a large pan, cook the apples in 40 g of the butter, tossing regularly, until soft. It may take up to 20 minutes. Melt the remaining butter, and toss the breadcrumbs in it; if you like, cook them over a very gentle heat until crisp.

Beat the eggs with the sugar and vanilla. In a small pan, warm the milk and the cream. Pour a little of the hot liquid into the eggs, stirring to disperse the heat and prevent curdling; add a little more liquid; then add the rest.

Lightly butter a gratin dish. Spread the crumbs on the bottom; lay the apples on top of them; pour over the custard mixture. Put the dish into a roasting tin, pour hot water around it to come half way up the sides (it prevents the outside of the dish from getting too hot and spoiling the custard), and bake at gas mark 3/160 C for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the custard has set. Serve hot, or warm.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Barbecued shoulder of lamb

My barbecue enthusiasm continues. I am almost a convert.

With guests staying, and with the weather encouraging us to dine outdoors, I decided that a barbecued joint would be both a treat and simple to prepare. Our local butcher created a work of art: a boned shoulder of lamb, rolled into a torpedo shape and tied. I shoved slivers of garlic and sprigs of rosemary into the folds, rubbed the meat with sunflower oil, and salted it.

I heated a good mound of charcoal, adding to it continually for about an hour and a half. The barbecue allows you to insert the rack at different heights: I started on the middle setting, but found that the heat was intense enough to allow me to raise it.

A shoulder of lamb is fatty. The fat drops on to the coals, igniting small fires. You have to manipulate the joint constantly at first, to prevent charring.

I cooked the lamb for 40 minutes, turning it regularly. Sliced, it was still slightly pink in the centre: perfect, in other words.

We ate it with gratin dauphinois and green beans.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Grilled mackerel

In spite of I had written here, I had a yearning to fire up the barbecue on the first decent day of summer. I had some vividly striped mackerel, bought at the l'Aigle market -- a cornucopia of magnificent, vibrant produce.

Our barbecue is a basic model: a large bowl on a stand. I have had trouble getting it hot enough. My clever brother-in-law found the solution: a grille that fits inside, holding the coals and allowing air to pass underneath. The heat you get now is scorching.

You need to do nothing to the mackerel apart from washing them. There are just two things to worry about. The first is that the skin will stick. At home, I have a fish-shaped basket that will contain the fish without attaching itself to them, but I did not bring it to France with me. So I had to resign myself to a messy presentation. The second issue is how long the fish will take to cook. You learn to judge how a cooker works; but the conditions on a barbecue are more variable. I gave the mackerel about two minutes on each side. That turned out to be too long; but they were delicious anyway.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Lemon jelly cheesecake

My latest New Statesman column concerns a subject I've tackled here a few times: the search for the cheesecake of my dreams. This recipe, from the messageboard on Delia Smith's website, is not it; but is good in its own way. Do not try it if the thought of wobbly, lemony condensed milk does not appeal.

I made the base in my usual way: 150 g of whizzed digestive biscuits stirred into 75 g of melted butter and compacted into a 20 cm porcelain flan dish. I put the dish in the freezer while I prepared the very simple filling.

I whipped together a tin of condensed milk and a 200 g packed of Philadelphia cheese. I put a lemon jelly into a small saucepan, poured over 150 ml of water (ie, far less than you would use if making the jelly on its own), and heated it gently until the jelly dissolved. I stirred in the zest of a lemon and the juice of half of it, and -- without waiting until the jelly had started to set -- stirred this mixture into the milk and cheese. I poured the filling into the chilled base, and put the dish into the fridge to chill. (I covered the dish with foil.)

I had worried that the runny -- at this stage -- filling would turn the base soggy. But it did not.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pork stir-fry with rice

I do not cook stir-fries as you are supposed to, in a scorching wok with smoking oil. I do not have a wok, is one reason. The other is that I cannot believe that burning oil -- for that is what it is -- will enhance the flavour of food. Still, it would be foolhardy to argue with Ken Hom.

So here is a wimp's inauthentic stir fry. I cooked it last night for three. (I did not have ginger, but would have used it if I had, adding a tsp of it, minced, with the garlic.)

3 spare rib pork chops
Groundnut oil
2 carrots, cut into batons
2 spring onions, chopped
150 g mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 dstsp sesame oil
225 g basmati rice

Cut the chops into fork-sized pieces. Put a heavy frying pan over a medium to high heat, pour in a splash of groundnut oil, and fry the pork. You may need to do so in two batches: otherwise, you will lower the heat of the pan and will crowd the meat, which will sweat rather than brown. The browning process should take a couple of minutes. Remove the meat to a plate.

(You have to cook the pork separately at first. If you added the vegetables to the meat in the pan, the meat would overcook while the vegetables were softening. If you cooked the vegetables first, then the pork with them, the pork would not brown.)

Add another splash of oil to the pan, and fry the carrots for a few minutes. Add the spring onions, mushrooms and garlic. When they have softened, lower the heat, and return the pork to the pan to warm through while you boil the rice.

When the rice is drained, stir the vinegar, nam pla and soy sauce through the meat and vegetables. Fold in the rice. Serve with chilli sauce, if you like.

We're off to France. I'll start filing from there next week.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cold curried chicken

We had a street party on Saturday. I bought a large chicken, thinking that I might make coronation chicken; but none of the books on my kitchen shelf included the recipe. As I thought about it, I realised that recipes I had seen included mango chutney -- which I did not have. So I decided to improvise something on a similar theme. People seemed to like it.

As I say, this is an improvised recipe: the brand of curry powder is not an essential detail. I mention the one I used both because it is very good and because the quantity is based on the packet advice. Your brand may work differently. I made a light stock with the neck giblet and a carrot because they were the ingredients to hand; if there had been an onion in the house, I would have used that as well.

1 chicken, 2.2 kg
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
1 lemon
1 neck giblet
1 carrot, peeled
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 tsp Seasoned Pioneers Sri Lankan curry powder
1 200 g tub Greek yoghurt
1 200 g jar mayonnaise

Preheat the oven to gas mark 6/200 C. Rub the chicken with a little olive oil, season it, squeeze half the lemon over it, and put the hull with the other half into the cavity. Roast for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to gas mark 1/140 C, and roast for a further hour and 30 minutes. Baste from time to time if you like; basting gives the skin an appetisingly mottled and burnished appearance. (There is more on roasting chickens here.)

Pour water over the giblet in a small saucepan, add the peeled carrot, and simmer on a very low flame for an hour.

Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to cool. It should have produced some sauce; tip this into a bowl, and deglaze the roasting pan with a little water over a medium heat, scraping up the sediments. Add this liquid to the bowl.

Fat will rise to the top of this sauce. Discard all but a tbsp of it, with a spoon at first and then by applying strips of paper towel to the surface. In a small saucepan, soften the garlic in the reserved fat over a gentle heat, and add the curry powder, stirring and cooking it for about a minute. Pour in the sauce from the chicken and the stock, simmering until the mixture has reduced to a syrupy consistency.

Tear the meat off the chicken with your hands, reserving the carcass for stock. The curry sauce may have thickened further as it cools; loosen it a little with the juices that come out of the chicken.

In a large bowl, mix the curry sauce with the yoghurt and the mayonnaise. Fold in the chicken. Test the seasoning.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bacon and broad bean salad

For two, I used about eight pods of broad beans, a small packet of rocket, about 12 new potatoes, a clove of garlic, and four slices of unsmoked streaky bacon.

I cooked the podded beans in boiling water for about eight minutes. When they were cool, I slipped them from their grey-green sheaths.

I simmered the potatoes slowly, according to the instructions here, with the unpeeled garlic clove.

Meanwhile, the bacon was sizzling very gently on a ridged grill pan. It took about 25 minutes to crisp. Only when you have cooked bacon this slowly -- there is more about the process here -- do you appreciate how much fat it contains. I did not throw away the fat, but used it for the salad dressing, with one tbsp of red wine vinegar into which I had mashed the softened garlic clove, 1 tbsp of olive oil, and salt and pepper.

In this dressing, I tossed the potatoes (which I had sliced), the bacon cut into pieces, the rocket and the broad beans. I have to admit that I added some cubes of cheddar cheese too; but the salad would have been better without them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chicken and fennel

This very simple recipe is based on one in Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book. She recommends cooking the fennel for about seven minutes before baking it with the chicken. I followed that advice, but I am not sure that it was necessary: the fennel had plenty of time to soften and sweeten in the oven. Her recipe includes a spatchcocked chicken; I, cooking for three, used thighs and drumsticks. That was an advantage, because it enabled me to adjust the oven temperature without worrying about drying out breast meat.

Fennel -- 1 to 2 bulbs a person
Knob of butter
150 ml hot water or stock
A chicken thigh and drumstick for each person
Salt and pepper

Remove discoloured leaves as well as tops and fronds (you can use them to flavour the sauce in the pan) from the fennel. Slice the bulbs about 5 mm thick from the tops through the roots. Lay them in a roasting tray with the butter, pour over the hot water or stock, lay the chicken pieces on top, season, and bake in a gas mark 4/180 C oven for about an hour.

You want the chicken to brown and the liquid to reduce to create a couple of tbsps of flavoursome sauce for each person. You may have to turn the oven dial up or down to achieve those results. If the sauce dries up, add a little more liquid. If the chicken and fennel are cooked and there is too much sauce, strain it into a small saucepan and bubble it on the hob to reduce it, meanwhile keeping the roasting pan in a warm oven.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lentil soup

My latest New Statesman column concerns cooking with miscellaneous items of food that need using up. If you have fastidious tastes, you may find it difficult to assemble meals in this way. If you are not too fussy, you can create all sorts of dishes that, while not deserving to be commemorated in recipes, will be perfectly good to eat. And the amount of food you throw in the bin will diminish.

The lentil soup builds on a template that I rely on a lot. You simmer the lentils, perhaps with a garlic clove that will later, minus the husk, be mashed into the soup; you sweat onions, garlic and possibly other vegetables in olive oil; you combine these vegetables with the lentils, and puree the soup (I mostly use a hand blender). The alternative is do it all in one pan, starting with the aromatic vegetables and adding the lentils and the stock to them. Version one takes less time. The other advantage is that you are not cooking these vegetables for so long. Simmered until the lentils have softened, they can lose their freshness of flavour.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Grilled chicken breast

Lean meat such as chicken breast toughens if cooked for too long. The breasts sold as "chicken supremes", usually with a piece of wing bone attached, are thick at the wing end; the heat of a grill chars their outsides quickly, but is slow to invade further. It is worth cutting them into three or four portions. There is a flap of meat that you can slice off; you can then slice off another portion at the rear, thinner end; and slice through the breast at the thick end to produce portions about 50 mm thick.

The amount of flavour imparted to meat by long marinating is often overrated. I usually soak the breasts for about half an hour: perhaps (for two supremes) in the juice of half a lemon, a good glug of olive oil, and a clove of garlic, crushed with a little salt.

You could simply fry the breasts in this marinade, although you would risk burning the garlic. Or you could scrape off the marinade, and cook the chicken on a ridged grill pan or on a dry frying pan. Get the pan hot over a medium heat, and turn the breasts several times as you cook, so that the outsides do not burn before the heat penetrates the centres. They should take about five minutes.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Mashed Charlottes

After quite a few helpings of crushed new potatoes, I felt that it was time for a change. We were eating grilled chicken, a plain dish that could take a rich accompaniment. I decided to cook the Charlottes in the usual way (brought slowly to a gentle simmer), in their skins, and to pass them through a vegetable mill, mashing them with cream and butter (warmed first in a small saucepan). The mill would catch the skins, I figured. I was wrong; the mash was decorated with tiny speckles. No matter.

Waxy potatoes are not ideal for mashing. They can become gluey. But sometimes a moderate glueyness -- just enough to give the mash a stiff texture -- can be pleasant, particularly if offset by buttery creaminess. I was generous with the butter and cream.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Spaghettini and courgettes

Professional food writers, if the evidence of their work is to be trusted, cook different things almost every day, keeping themselves endlessly supplied with new recipes. At the same time, they imply that their recipes are for dishes that they cook regularly ("We always have this with . . ."; "This is a favourite in our family . . ."). We home cooks tend to return to standbys. I do so particularly when I cook for myself. So: pasta again, for the second time in a week, with courgettes. There are similar recipes here and here.

Courgettes become soggy when they cook in liquid. For this reason, writers such as Richard Olney (you'll find his great work Simple French Food here if you scroll down) suggest cooking them at a high heat, so that the liquid evaporates immediately. I am not usually so punctilious.

For this dish, I put my two small courgettes, sliced into thin rounds, into a medium saucepan with a chopped clove of garlic, some dried chilli (whizzed), a little salt and a splash of olive oil, and cooked them over a medium heat, stirring regularly, for about seven minutes. You can tell when they're cooked: their white centres moisten and turn green. I added about three tbsp of double cream, bubbled it for a minute or so until thickened, and tossed this sauce into 125 g of cooked spaghettini. I sprinkled some Parmesan on top.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Spaghetti or spaghettini and sardines

This -- simply a variation on the sardines and rice I made recently -- is a store-cupboard dish. (Of course, it would be even nicer with fresh sardines, grilled or roasted.) Tinned sardines want only gentle warming. If you cook them, they melt, as do anchovies. The dried fruit/pine kernels/chilli theme is one I return to often: of North African origin, it is a feature of the food of Sicily. Parmesan is inappropriate with seafood pasta and rice dishes, the books insist.

These quantities are for each person.

1 slice white bread, whizzed into crumbs
Olive oil
125 g spaghetti or spaghettini
1 tin sardines
1 handful raisins
1 handful pine kernels
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 dried chilli, whizzed (I use more)

Put a thin layer of olive oil into a saucepan, warm it, and fry the breadcrumbs over a low heat until golden. You need to keep stirring them. Set aside. (The pan will carry on cooking them for a while after the heat goes off, so if you are worried about burning, tip the breadcrumbs into a bowl.)

In a small, dry saucepan, toast the pine kernels over a low heat, again stirring watchfully. Set these aside too.

Bring a pan of water to the boil. Pour a ladleful of the boiling water over the raisins in a bowl. Add a generous portion of salt (about a tsp for each litre of water) to the pan, and stir in the pasta. Use the packet instructions as a guide, but start testing the pasta for doneness at least a minute before the packet suggests it should be ready. Drain it when it is edible but retains some firmness at the centre. Remember that it will retain enough heat to carry on cooking for a while.

Meanwhile, drain the sardines of their oil, and warm them through in a saucepan over a very low heat with a dstsp or so of your own oil (which will be nicer than the stuff in the tin). Throw in the drained raisins (soaked for about 10 minutes), pine kernels, parsley and chilli. Toss this sauce with the spaghetti, breaking up the sardines. Serve with the breadcrumbs scattered on top.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Spare ribs

My latest New Statesman column concerns my fear of barbecues. Great food; a sense of satisfaction in producing it; too much to worry about. I might have mentioned a further reason for treating this method of cooking with caution: the current weather. It is very depressing to light the charcoal, wait 45 minutes for it all to glow, put the food on it, and watch as everything gets drenched.

I was cooking for myself at the weekend, and had found a small rack of spare ribs. The oven was the ideal place in which to cook them. I made a marinade with about 2 tsp each of nam pla (fish sauce), soy sauce, rice vinegar, and groundnut oil, along with a third of a tsp of chilli powder as well as a clove of garlic, mashed to a pulp with some salt. I poured the liquid over the ribs on a baking sheet, and baked them at gas mark 1/140 C for 30 minutes, and at gas mark S/130 C for a further 30 minutes. The soy sauce caramelises, and would burn at a higher temperature; the low heat also keeps the meat tender.

I turned off the oven, left the ribs in there for 15 minutes, and ate them with my hands.