Monday, April 30, 2007

Orange chocolate mousse

Elizabeth David gives a basic chocolate mousse recipe in French Provincial Cooking, but with the addition of the juice of an orange. I tried it at the weekend. Forgetting my previous recipe with two egg yolks and four whites, I used four yolks; the only other change to the procedure was that I added the orange juice to the melted chocolate and butter before stirring in the egg yolks, and folding in the whites.

Verdict: so-so. The mousse could not be anything other than delicious, of course; but it did not hold in suspension the juice, which collected in the bottoms of the ramekins. Instead, I should have used orange zest.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Linguine with anchovy and broccoli

To niggle at someone's recipes twice seems a bit mean. Lots of recipes include points one might niggle at. I just happen to be a reader of the Guardian, for which Allegra McEvedy began writing recently. In my New Statesman column, I mentioned a dish that she, or the Guardian, advertised as requiring a preparation and cooking time of 35 minutes; it had so many ingredients, many of them to be chopped, that most people would have struggled to get just the preparation done in that time. This week, her recipe is linguine with anchovy and purple sprouting broccoli. You can read it here.

The problem now, I think, is that she tries to make it too straightforward, advising the use of just one saucepan. You boil the broccoli; you cook the pasta in the same water, and drain it; you fry the garlic and chilli, melt the anchovies, and reheat the broccoli in the same pan; you add the pasta and the toasted pine nuts.

Have you ever allowed pasta to sit in a colander for five minutes? It clumps together. The best way to keep it separate is to drain it, shake the colander a little to get rid of excess water, and immediately add the pasta to a sauce, or to oil or butter. Unless you have only one ring on your hob, or own only one saucepan, there is no reason why you should not prepare the sauce in another pan while the pasta is cooking; linguine and sauce are ready at the same time, and the linguine does not have time to clump.

The easiest way to toast pine nuts, I find, is not in the oven but in a dry pan over a gentle heat -- more washing up, I know -- on the hob. They burn easily; this way, you can keep an eye on them, and stir them about a bit.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Southern fried chicken

Video Jug has a recipe for Southern fried chicken. In essence: you poach chicken drumsticks; you coat them in flour flavoured with cayenne, thyme and parsley; you deep-fry them.

It works well. I have a few comments, based on what happened when I tried it at the weekend.

The poaching. I used one stock cube, rather than two. I thought that otherwise the Knorr flavour would be too assertive in the resulting stock.

The coating. I used egg rather than buttermilk as an adhesive. Each drumstick gets, I should guess, about one tbsp of coating; the modest quantity of seasoning in this recipe is not going to add much flavour to the finished dish. Be more lavish, is my advice. For a crunchier coating, you could follow Simon Hopkinson's method: he suggests repeating the egging/flouring process three times.

The frying. I used sunflower oil. Groundnut oil, which is more neutral, might have been better.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Cheese frittata

Eggs, like any protein-rich food, toughen when subjected to heat, and need to be treated just as carefully as you would, say, a fillet steak. The technique both with fillet steaks and with omelettes is to cook them rapidly; making an omelette, you push the set edges towards the centre of the pan, allowing the runny egg to fill the vacated space and to set as fast as possible.

Cold omelettes -- tortillas, frittatas and so on -- usually contain various extra ingredients, and are difficult to manipulate. So, instead of cooking them at such speed that they do not have a chance to think about toughening, you try the opposite approach: slow cooking.

These omelettes are often quite thick. I admire their makers. I have found that more than five eggs in my 28 cm frying pan take so long to set that they become rubbery.

Crack five eggs into a bowl, beat them gently with a fork until the whites and yolks are just blended (experts tell you that the eggs for an omelette should not be beaten thoroughly -- I have never done comparative tests), and stir in three tbsp of cheese (I used Gruyere). Melt 30 g to 40 g of butter in a 28 cm frying pan on a very low heat. Pour in the eggs, and cook until the surface is starting to set.

Now, you can attempt the classic method of inverting the pan over a plate and sliding the upside-down omelette back into it -- a procedure I have never dared attempt. Or you can do what I do: flash the omelette under the grill for a minute or so. The heat of the grill is high: remove the pan as soon as the runny egg starts to set, because the cooking will continue.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Spaghetti and courgettes

This is what I made as a dinner for one last night. It would have been better with a couple of anchovies melted into the sauce, and with Parmesan cheese -- but Gruyere was what I had in the fridge.

I softened a clove of garlic and a red onion (both chopped) in some olive oil and butter, for about 10 minutes. I threw in thin rounds (about the width of a pound coin) of two small courgettes, with a little salt, and turned up the heat slightly. They took about 10 minutes to soften, with regular tossing. After about five minutes, I added four whizzed, dried chillis -- that is an excessive number, but reflects my taste -- with the scrapings (making up about a tbsp) from a carton of creme fraiche bought back from France.

Meanwhile, I boiled 125 g of spaghetti until al dente. I tossed it with the courgette mixture, and with a handful of grated Gruyere.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Prawns with chilli and soy

Poaching is not the only way of cooking prawns. (Grey ones, I'm talking about; pink ones are cooked already.) You can fry them too. Because a hot frying pan is a less efficient cooking medium than simmering water, it may help you not to overcook them.

For a starter for four people, I had an ungenerous 16 prawns (I had been nervous about how much I was going to be charged). I chopped two Scotch bonnet chillis (having taken out the seeds and the membranes); I also used a tbsp of soy sauce, and a dstsp of sesame oil.

I heated a thin layer of groundnut oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, and threw in the prawns. When are they ready? When they go pink, is the supposed rule; but they went pink almost immediately. I gave them a couple of minutes. I allowed the heat to die down a little, and stirred in the chilli, soy sauce and sesame oil.

We ate the prawns at room temperature, with our hands, and with bread for any spare sauce.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Baked tomatoes

The large, vine tomatoes -- mostly from Holland -- that are widely available in the shops round here are far less impressive in taste than in appearance. But they can be improved by slow baking. I cut them in half crossways, insert slivers of garlic in the pulpy bits, anoint them with olive oil, season them with salt and pepper, and bake them at gas mark S/130 C for about two hours. (Whether this is better than fast cooking at high heat, I am not sure; but it means that you do not have to worry about them.)

They were the only new items I bought yesterday for lunch. Cooking meals from leftovers is particularly satisfying: you're aware, of course, of the money you're saving, and of the waste you're avoiding; but also you can surprise yourself with the quality of a meal you might not, in a more extravagant mood, have enjoyed.

I had a Camembert, brought back from France and only tinkered with at a dinner party the night before. I laid slices of the cheese on top of the baked tomatoes, and put them back into the oven for just a couple of minutes. We ate the tomatoes with some marinated olives, also remaining from the party; with a third of a bottle of organic artichoke hearts; and with some chunky bread.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Crushed new potatoes

Joel Robuchon, the maker of the most celebrated mashed potato in the world, uses a waxy variety of potato. I am no Joel Robuchon; and I am not as lavish with the butter and cream as he is. The effort of breaking down the firm textures, I find, causes the potatoes to become glutinous.

(A reader has pointed out to me a mistake in my book. Sticky rice, I wrote, was sometimes known as "glutenous", although it contained no gluten. I was borrowing from Sri Owen, but adjusting her spelling: in The Rice Book, she assumed that the term "glutinous rice" derived from the protein -- it was "either bad English or bad science", she complained. She and I should have checked our dictionaries, where we would have discovered that "glutinous" was an unrelated word, derived from the Latin word for glue.)

Crushed new potatoes, though, are lovely: they preserve the distinctive qualities of the potato, but have the richness of mash. Drain them, and crush them with a fork, preserving a few lumps; stir in a generous portion of butter with some salt, and with pepper if you like. It is a fine way to enjoy the Jerseys that are starting to come on to the market.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Pork and bean stew

I cannot afford regularly to buy (or to make) confit of duck, an essential ingredient of cassoulet; but I am happy enough in the meantime with pork and bean stews. The other day, I made one with some leftover loin of pork.

When you are on holiday, and going out in the afternoon, you do not want to spend the outing worrying about whether you are going to get back in time to start the dinner. So I put the 250 g dried beans (for a stew for four people -- I had soaked them overnight) into a heavy casserole, covered them with cold water coming about 3 cm above the surface, threw in a couple of garlic cloves along with a halved onion studded with four cloves, covered the dish, and put it in a gas mark S/130 C oven. I left it there for the three hours we were out. A miracle: the beans were perfectly cooked when we got back.

I drained the beans, kept the garlic (slipping the flesh from the casings) but discarded the onion and cloves, and reduced the cooking liquid until it was thick and sludgy. I added a couple of ladlefuls of chicken stock to the liquid, and brought the pan back to a simmer.

Meanwhile, to give the dish some extra flavour, I fried -- in the casserole -- a couple of tbsp of smoked lardons in some olive oil with a clove of chopped garlic. I put back with them the beans and garlic flesh, along with four slices of pork chopped into fork-sized pieces. I added salt. I poured over the stock and bean liquid, and covered the stew with breadcrumbs. (The stew should be moist but not runny.)

I baked the stew, uncovered, in a gas mark 5/190 C oven for 30 minutes. The stew was bubbling and thickened, and the breadcrumbs formed a golden crust.

This stew is particularly good with slices of belly pork. The pork goes with the beans for the second cooking, which you do slowly, at about gas mark 1/140 C, for one and a half to two hours.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A simple chicken

I am in France, under a clear blue sky. I want to cook something simple, for three reasons. The first is not to adulterate the excellent ingredients here. The second is the arrival of spring: one feels less of a need for sauces and whatnot. The third is that I do not have much in the house.

I have a very good chicken (a Poulet de Challans), though, and some potatoes described as "raclette" -- they are on the waxy end of the potato spectrum. The roasting tin is poor, so I anoint the bird with olive oil rather than butter, which would certainly burn. I wish I had remembered to buy garlic. The rosemary in the garden is flowery and unfragrant, but I use it anyway. I scatter over some coarse salt.

I start roasting at gas mark 6/200 C, for 20 minutes; that is 10 fewer than I would allot usually, because this oven is fierce. I turn down the dial to its lowest setting. I have no idea what temperature that is -- at least 130 C, I should think. I allow a roasting time of one hour and 50 minutes. (The chicken weighs about 1.8 kg. It cost 14 euros.)

Meanwhile, I peel the potatoes and slice them, lengthwise, about the width of two pound coins (two one-pound coins that is, not a two-pound coin). I soak them in water, and then pat them dry with paper towels, in an effort to get rid of some of the starch that might cause them to stick to the roasting tin. I scatter them around and under the chicken when there is about an hour of cooking time left.

I check again, 20 minutes later. Not much activity. This is when the cook starts to dither: do I keep faith that the temperature is high enough, or do I adjust the temperature? I move it up a notch, to 1.

I take out the chicken, and put it on a plate. There is sauce in the tin, but it will be sacrificed to the potatoes, which will absorb it. I stir them, turn up the oven to gas mark 6/200 C, and return them to brown, on a higher shelf, for about 20 minutes.

That's it. Chicken and potatoes. And a salad. Just a little leftover sauce. Perfect.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Bread and butter pudding

I got a reminder yesterday that the varied qualities of ingredients and of kitchen equipment mean that recipes cannot be definitive. The eggs, cream and milk I used in this bread and butter pudding should have set into a custard in about 40 minutes; but the eggs were smallish, and my oven dish was particularly thick. The pudding needed 20 minutes longer. Nevertheless, I offer it here, because I think that it is essentially reliable.

Serves six, in modest portions -- but it is rich.

4 slices white bread, buttered (on one side is enough, I think; I leave on the crusts, but you may prefer to remove them)
250 ml double cream
250 ml milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 dstsp honey
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks

Arrange the bread in a buttered gratin dish. Warm the milk with the vanilla and honey in a small saucepan. Beat the eggs. When the milk is hot, pour a little into the eggs, whisking; pour in a little more, continuing to whisk; then add the rest. (You don't want any of the egg to scramble.) Put the dish into a roasting tin, and pour hot water into the tin to come half way up the sides of the dish; this bain-marie protects the custard touching the sides of the dish from curdling. Bake in a gas mark 3/160 C oven for 40 minutes, or until the custard is set.

The ratio of custard to bread should be quite generous on the side of the custard. Otherwise, all you get is eggy bread.

We're off to France today. I'll post from there, if our flaky dial-up connection can cope with Blogger.