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

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
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.