Thursday, May 31, 2007


An important point in making mayonnaise is to use ingredients at room temperature. If they are cold, the sauce is more likely to split. I get my egg or eggs out of the fridge and put it/them in lukewarm water for 10 minutes or so. But I got overenthusiastic the other day, using water that was too warm. The combined egg and oil did not thicken, merely producing a runny liquid.

I hesitate to say this, because it is asking for trouble: this is the first mayonnaise ever to have gone wrong on me. I have never had one split. I should add that I do not make mayonnaise very often; perhaps for that reason, I am cautious -- usually -- about the temperature of the ingredients, and about the speed with which I add the oil. I always use mustard, which assists in the amalgamation.

I use a pestle and mortar. The heavy mortar stays steady while I work away. But I have also made mayonnaise successfully in a bowl with a small whisk.

1 egg yolk
1/3 tsp Dijon mustard
75 g olive oil and 75 g groundnut or sunflower oil, combined
Lemon juice

Combine the egg, mustard and a few grindings of salt in a mortar. Add the oil a drop or two at a time, stirring vigorously with the pestle to amalgamate it before adding any more. When the mixture gets very stiff, thin it a little with a drop or two of lemon juice -- I keep it to hand in a saucer, and add it with a teaspoon. Continue to add the oil, carefully; once you have used about half of it, you can start pouring it in more generous amounts. Use the lemon juice to bring the mayonnaise to your preferred consistency. I like mine wobbly.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Asparagus, endive and stilton

I bought my first bunch of English asparagus at the weekend. We ate it in a salad, with some of that purple, lettuce-style endive, cubes of Stilton, and toasted pine nuts. There is little point in giving a recipe: the proportions are a matter of individual taste. I recommend a fairly sharp dressing -- I used one part of vinegar to three parts of oil -- to offset the cheese. As I've mentioned in an earlier posting, the easiest way to toast pine nuts is in a dry pan over a gentle heat. Keep stirring, and watch carefully, because the transition from toasted to burned is rapid.

Chefs like to boil green vegetables, and then to plunge them into iced water, to fix a bright colour. That is because their customers are more likely to be impressed by the colour of their food than by its taste. I steamed my asparagus; but, because I was using it in a salad and wanted it to retain some vigour, I did refresh it. I gave it three minutes in the steamer, followed by a brief dunk in the cold bath.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Roast potatoes IV

Being lazy, and lacking dexterity, I am always keen to simplify kitchen tasks. Roasting potatoes is scarcely the most bothersome procedure; but the bit when you have to heat the oil in the roasting tin, tip in the potatoes, turn them all over to coat them, and then arrange them so that they are not in a heap -- that is a nuisance.

The theory is that the oil should be hot so that a crust, impermeable to further oil, forms quickly. But is it true that this is the only way to ensure a crispy, and not excessively oily, result? If you could use cold oil, you would simplify the job.

Peel the potatoes, cut them into whatever shapes you like, and drop them into cold, unsalted water in a saucepan. Bring the pan to a boil; meanwhile, put a roasting tin into the top of a gas mark 6/200 C oven. Simmer the potatoes for three to five minutes, and drain. Return the potatoes to the hot pan; perhaps over a gentle heat, stir them about to get rid of the surface moisture. Now add your oil -- for this experiment, I used groundnut. Use just enough oil to coat the potatoes, and turn them about in it. Take the roasting tin out of the oven, tip in the potatoes, spread them out, and return to the oven for 50 minutes to an hour, turning once.

These potatoes were just as good as ones started in hot oil. For more on the subject, look here, here or here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pasta and mushrooms

I learned, or relearned, an important lesson last night: that with pasta sauces, less is usually more. Throwing in further ingredients may bump up one's daily vegetable intake, but does not necessarily improve the dish. Instead of the shallot below, I used a whole red onion; it was not a particularly good onion, and it overwhelmed the other ingredients with its mediocrity.

This is a version, for one person, of the rigatoni and spinach idea. Again, a tubular shape such as rigatoni, or penne, would work well.

1 shallot, chopped
1/2 clove garlic, chopped
Olive oil, or oil and butter
1 or more dried chillis, whizzed
10 button mushrooms, sliced
2 anchovy fillets
5 tbsp double cream
Parmesan, to taste
125 g penne or rigatoni

Soften the shallot and garlic in a little olive oil, or oil mixed with butter, for about five minutes. (If you use butter only, you have to cook the shallot very gently, and be careful that it does not catch.) Tip in the chillis and mushrooms, turn up the heat, and keep stirring. After a minute or two, the mushrooms will disgorge liquid; cook, turning up the heat if necessary, until it evaporates. Turn down the flame. Stir in the anchovies and cream, and simmer, stirring in order to help the anchovies to dissolve, until the sauce thickens.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the packet instructions -- but don't rely on the timings. Taste it, and drain when it still has a hint of firmness (al dente). It will carry on cooking for a bit.

Stir the pasta into the sauce, with Parmesan, if you like.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Meatballs in tomato sauce

In March, I gave a recipe (from Valentina Harris) for meat loaf, and I used it again to make meatballs. Checking that recipe now, I find that the meatballs I made yesterday were similar, though with a handful of chopped parsley substituting for the cinnamon.

I am never quite sure whether to add a beaten egg to a mixture of this kind, to bind it. I left it out yesterday, and the balls
-- which I had rolled between my palms into shapes of about half to two-thirds the size of golfballs -- still managed to cohere.

The main variation in this meal was the sauce. Someone whom I shall not name had bought Dutch cherry tomatoes from the supermarket. Unappetising as salad ingredients, they might make a reasonable sauce with plenty of onion and garlic, I thought.

2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
I punnet cherry tomatoes, chopped

Soften the onions and garlic in the olive oil for about 15 minutes. Tip in the tomatoes, with a grinding of salt, and simmer until they have broken down. Pass the contents of the pan through a vegetable mill. The pre-milled sauce may have been thick, but it will be runny now. Simmer it gently to reduce it.

Meanwhile, heat a thin layer of sunflower or groundnut oil -- olive oil might burn -- over a medium heat in a large (28 cm) frying pan, and brown the meatballs, which should fit into a single layer. Leave them undisturbed for a couple of minutes to brown on one side before turning them over.

Transfer the meatballs, minus the oil, to the simmering tomato sauce, and allow to cook uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes. They should be sitting in a thick coating of sauce, rather than in a pool of it.

Three of us ate these meatballs (made with 200 g each of pork and beef mince), which I served warm, with an unconventional accompaniment of Jersey potatoes in mayonnaise.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Marmalade and treacle sponge pudding

My first thought on seeing a Dan Lepard recipe in the Guardian for marmalade and treacle sponge puddings was, "Isn't it May?" Then I looked out of the window, and decided that sponge pudding was just the kind of warming comfort food I fancied.

Here is the recipe. I halved the ingredients, and I made the pudding in a single basin. I was not conscientious enough to sift the flour with the baking powder two or three times, merely stirring in the powder. Also, I decided to try putting the basin, wrapped in several layers of foil, in a steaming basket.

The last decision turned out to be a mistake: after an hour and a quarter, the pudding had not set. Clearly, a steamed pudding needs to sit in a bath, coming half way up the sides. I transferred it to such a bath; it was ready half an hour later.

The pudding was soft and light, as well as satisfyingly rich. Two of us ate it all, greedily. It might have served four.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Late-evening snack

I have mixed feelings about seeing friends for drinks after work. The drinks bit is a pleasure; but I do not enjoy arriving home at 9 p.m., muzzy-headed and hungry, unwilling to cook but reluctant to order a pizza. Yesterday, I lucked upon an almost effortless meal that turned out to be exactly what I wanted to eat. I do not offer it as a recipe: I would not cook it for two, and you'll probably think that it is disgusting. But it was a way of using food that might otherwise have been wasted.

In the fridge were a few chipolatas, some leftover hummus, and, in a jar, about a tsp of harissa. On the kitchen table were some leftover pancetta lardons, sitting in their lovely fat. In the bread bin was some day-old flatbread. I fried the chipolatas (in a small saucepan, with a little groundnut oil, over the minimum flame). Meanwhile, I toasted the flatbread, and spread on it first the harissa, then the hummus. When the sausages were cooked I tipped the pancetta, with its fat, into the pan; and once everything had warmed through I tipped it all on to the flatbread, which I folded, and stuffed inelegantly into my mouth. Gorgeous.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Braised lamb shanks

Do you like your stews fatty? Put like that, the question prompts the obvious answer "No"; and it's certain that stews you get in smart restaurants will have been rigorously skimmed. But in getting rid of the fat, you're discarding a lot of flavour. At home, what you want sometimes is a rich, unctuous sauce, with a plain accompaniment such as boiled or crushed potatoes, or rice.

If you brown the meat first, you sometimes have to discard the fat you have used. Cubes of meat have to be seared at a high temperature, because they do not brown otherwise: they simply stew in the water they disgorge. The oil usually burns -- you do not want it in the finished dish. But lamb shanks will brown over a gentle heat.

4 lamb shanks
1 tbsp olive oil
1 head garlic, separated into cloves
1 sprig rosemary
50 ml chicken stock, or wine, or water

In a heavy casserole large enough to contain the shanks in a single layer, warm the olive oil over a medium flame. Brown the shanks all over, turning down the flame if the sizzling is too dramatic, or if the oil shows any sign of degrading. You may find that, once the browning has started, a setting just above the minimum will suffice.

Add the garlic and rosemary, and pour in the stock (or wine, or water). Season, and place the casserole in a gas mark S/130 C oven for two and a half to three hours. Turn the shanks from time to time, and check to see that the liquid is simmering very gently.

You may find that you have quite a lot of liquid. Remove the shanks to a plate, and pour the liquid through a sieve into a saucepan. Return the shanks to the casserole, and put them back in the oven. Squeeze the garlic from the husks, and add them to the contents of the saucepan; discard the husks and the rosemary. Bubble the liquid until it becomes syrupy; but do not reduce it to such an extent that each person gets only a small puddle of it, or that it becomes unpleasantly salty.

Plate the shanks and pour the sauce over them; or serve the sauce separately.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Rigatoni and spinach

I cook many variations on this idea: green vegetables/anchovy/ garlic/chilli. Spinach, courgettes and broccoli all work well; peas would too, I should guess.

The inclusion of Parmesan is a solecism: the Italians do not add cheese to seafood in pasta sauces or in risotto. My excuse is that the anchovy here is a flavouring rather than a primary ingredient. Sometimes, I like to stir the cheese into the pasta and sauce; you might prefer to sprinkle it on top. You might prefer, also, to leave out the cream.

Of course, you can choose any pasta shape you like. I am going through a rigatoni phase at the moment; and it complements this sauce particularly well.

For two.

250 g rigatoni
450 g spinach
I tbsp olive oil
I clove garlic, chopped
I dry chilli, whizzed
4 anchovy fillets
142 ml double cream
3 tbsp Parmesan

Wash the spinach, cram it into a large saucepan, cover, and put it on to a high heat. Look inside after a minute or less: the spinach should be starting to wilt. Stir it around, until all the leaves have wilted, and immediately transfer to a colander, leaving the green liquid behind. Add enough water to this liquid to cook the pasta, and put the pan on to boil. Add salt, tip in the pasta, and follow the packet instructions. (But do not take the recommended timing as gospel: taste the pasta yourself.)

Meanwhile, heat the garlic, chilli and anchovy in the oil, until the anchovy melts. Pour in the cream, and allow it to bubble and thicken. Squeeze more liquid out of the spinach; chop it, and add it to the sauce to warm through.

Drain the pasta, stir it into the sauce, and stir in the cheese.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Roast chicken salad

Composed salads belong to a large group of dishes for which recipes are merely templates. A salad is not a dustbin; but provided that the ingredients are harmonious, many variations on themes are possible. Obeying precise instructions is not in the spirit of the dish.

Still, recipes have their uses. The following is what I cooked (for four) last night, rather than a definitive recommendation.

750 g Jersey Royal potatoes
1 clove garlic
4 red peppers
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
Salt, pepper
Left over meat from a 1.7 kg roast chicken (about half of it)
100 g black olives, pitted
Large handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 Little Gem lettuces

Scrape the potatoes, cover with cold water in a saucepan, throw in the garlic clove, bring slowly to the boil, and simmer until tender. (There is more on cooking Jerseys here.)

Bake the peppers for 20 to 30 minutes at gas mark 8/230 C, until the skin is blackened and loose. When cool, peel and deseed, retaining the juices, and cut into strips.

Wash and dry the lettuce.

When the potatoes are tender, drain them, and fish out the garlic. Squeeze the garlic flesh from the husk, and -- in a salad bowl -- mash it, with salt and pepper, in the vinegar. Whisk in the oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified. Cut up the potatoes, and toss them gently in the vinaigrette. (If you do this when they are hot, they will absorb more dressing; they firm up as they cool.)

Stir in the meat, the peppers with their juices, the olives, parsley and lettuce leaves. Or you could lay the lettuce on plates, piling the rest of the salad on top.

Monday, May 07, 2007


My latest New Statesmen column is about a protest by some big Camembert producers at the stiff standards they have to meet to qualify for appellation d'origine controlee status. You can hear a Radio 4 Today programme item about the fuss here. I would not recommend it, though, unless you are interested in how news gets distorted in the media. Today makes little effort to explain what is going on, but implies that bureaucrats are stamping down on traditional cheese-making. That is not the story.

The box illustrated here is now a historical item.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Jersey Royals

The first Jersey Royal potatoes are coming into the shops. I could not resist last week, and paid £1 for one lb of them; but the price is coming down every day. My greengrocer will sell them until about mid-June; but the supermarkets will have them throughout the summer. How do they do that? Do they buy them in bulk, and store them? If so, it may explain why the greengrocer's usually have more flavour.

The behaviour of potatoes when boiled depends on the hardness and acidity of your water. Hard water helps to maintain firmness; but hard water is -- I think -- less acidic than is soft water, and acidity can maintain firmness too. What you should not do is salt the water: that does speed softening, and may compromise the firm, waxy texture that is one of the glories of a good Jersey.

To boil or to steam? If you have a large quantity of potatoes, boiling is easier, because a pile of them in a steaming basket will have uneven access to the heat. But steaming will retain more nutrients; and, because the steam is slightly acidic, may help to maintain firmness.

In spite of the above, I usually boil potatoes (new and maincrop), and I do it slowly. Harold McGee says that starting potatoes in cold water and raising the temperature gradually helps to reinforce their cell walls. It certainly produces the best results for me. I put them on to a low to medium heat, and maintain them at the gentlest possible simmer. The process may take 45 minutes.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Griddled lamb chops

If you are not careful, a griddle will thoroughly char thick cuts of meat before it cooks them through. But that is no reason to concede defeat: the griddled flavour is worth having. One answer is to start your lamb chops, say, at high heat for a minute or so on each side, before turning the flame low; a better method, I think, is to finish the cooking in the oven.

4 lamb chops
2 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper
Sprig rosemary
Olive oil

Chop and then crush the garlic with a little salt until it becomes a pulp. Strip the leaves from the rosemary, and chop them or whizz them in an electric vegetable mill. Mix with the garlic, pepper, and a little olive oil to form a paste; spread it on the chops.

Heat the oven to gas mark 6/200 C. Heat a griddle pan over a high flame, then grill the chops for about a minute each side, or until browned and striped with griddle marks. Put them on to a roasting tray, and finish cooking them in the oven for about eight minutes.