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.