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


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.