Friday, June 29, 2007

Broccoli soup

What to cook when you arrive home at 9 p.m., with a few glasses of wine inside you? Nothing that involves much time and effort. Last night, I did not want to order a pizza, because there was plenty of food in the house; and I did not want anything wheat-based (pasta, bread and hummus), because I had eaten toast for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch. I wanted vegetables.

I am a little wary of broccoli or cauliflower soups. You have to soften the vegetables; like all brassicas, they acquire a rank quality if overcooked. But this one worked well. It might have served 2; I consumed it all, in two mugfuls with a spoon for the thicker bits, in front of a tape of Timbo's sad Wimbledon exit.

3 ladles chicken stock
I head broccoli, divided into small florets
I spring onion (head and all but toughest of green parts), chopped
Knob of butter
Salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper to taste
2 tbsp double cream

Bring the stock to a simmer in a saucepan, with a little salt. Throw in the broccoli and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, or until tender. The broccoli will not be completely submerged; that does not matter, if you stir the contents of the pan from time to time. I leave the pan uncovered for two reasons: to concentrate the flavour of the stock; and because of my theory, never properly tested, that vegetable soups have a fresher flavour if cooked in this way.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan and over a gentle heat, soften the spring onion in the butter. (You use two pans simply to save time.) Tip in the broccoli and stock, and blend with a hand blender; or blend the soup by passing it through a vegetable mill, or by whizzing it in a blender. (I prefer the rougher texture that the hand blender gives.) Add the cream, more salt if necessary, and as much of the pepper or two types of pepper as you like. Warm the soup gently, and serve.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Chicken salad

This is the very basic chicken salad, made with what was left from the weekend's shopping, that we ate last night. The cherry tomatoes were sweet, English ones from the local greengrocer, and were in a different league from any -- no matter how superficially attractive -- I have bought from a supermarket.

I often include roasted peppers in salads such as this. Put them in the oven at the highest heat for 20 to 25 minutes, until the skin chars; allow to cool, peel, deseed and slice.

For two.

8 medium Jersey Royal potatoes
I garlic clove
1 dstsp red wine vinegar
3 dstsp olive oil
Salt, pepper
2 portions roast chicken pieces
Handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
16 cherry tomatoes, halved

Scrape and halve the potatoes (or cut them into thirds, if they seem large), put them with the garlic clove into a saucepan of cold water, bring slowly to the boil, and cook at a gentle simmer until tender. This gentle cooking helps the potatoes to retain a firm texture, as does the omission of salt. Drain; if you like, cut the potatoes into smaller pieces.

Squeeze the boiled garlic from its hull, and mash it into the vinegar in a salad bowl, with some salt and black pepper. (Raw garlic in a salad is of course more assertive.) Whisk in the oil. Turn the potatoes in this dressing; they tighten in texture as they cool, but they will absorb a good deal of dressing if they are still hot. Stir in the other ingredients.

Monday, June 25, 2007


I was wondering yesterday whether I could be bothered to make a pudding for lunch. Then I thought about the cherries in the fruit bowl; and I looked for a simple clafoutis recipe. I found it in Mediterranean Cookbook by Arabella Boxer (out of print with Penguin). It took about 10 minutes to prepare.

This custardy batter is just right for a clafoutis, I think. A bit of vanilla and of nutmeg might have made it even better.

I halved the ingredients in Arabella Boxer's book, to serve three. I used a gratin dish. Roasting tins are good for toad-in-the-hole batters, which should be crispy; but that is not what you want here.

15-20 cherries
280 ml milk
2 small to medium eggs
1 1/2 tbsp caster sugar
1 1/2 tbsp plain flour

Butter the gratin dish, and scatter the cherries in it. (I did not stone mine; we had to pick out the stones as we ate.) Warm the milk in a small saucepan. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar. Pour the heated milk on to them, gradually at first so as not to curdle the eggs. Whisk in the flour, and pour the batter over the cherries. Arabella Boxer tells you to bake the dish in a gas mark 6/200 C oven for 30 minutes; you might get a more tender batter at a lower heat such as gas mark 4/180 C.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Pea and blue cheese risotto

My most recent New Statesman column concerns risotto. Here is a very rich version, with cream and blue cheese complementing the green vegetables. I have recommended peas; you might use broad beans, or asparagus tips, or broccoli. This is a generous portion for 2.

I onion, finely chopped
Knob of butter, or a little more
200 g Italian rice (see the article)
1 litre chicken stock, brought to a simmer in a pan next to your risotto pan
2 handfuls frozen peas
100 g blue cheese, such as Gorgonzola (Stilton is also possible)
6 tbsp double cream

Soften the onion in the butter, over a very gentle heat, in a heavy saucepan. You need to stir it regularly; you may need to add a little water, to stop it catching. The onion should reach almost a melting consistency, so that it does not give any harshness to the dish. The process may take 15 to 20 minutes.

Tip in the rice, and turn up the heat a little. Stir the rice to coat the grains. As I say in the piece, I am not sure why this stage is important: coating is protective, but the method of cooking risotto is designed to encourage the rice to release its starch. Nevertheless, it is helpful to get the contents of the pan hot, particularly if you want to add a little wine (about a third of a glass) at this stage: bubble it until it evaporates before adding the stock.

Now start adding the hot stock. I sometimes pour in more than a ladleful at this stage, submerging all the grains so that I can leave the pan briefly to make a salad, or to carry out some other bit of kitchen business. The contents of the pan should simmer gently: you do not want a fierce heat, or you will need a lot of stock -- because it will evaporate quickly -- to make the dish, which will have too chickeny a flavour. Once the stock has been absorbed, add another ladleful, and stir the contents of the pan regularly until that portion has been absorbed. Repeat.

Meanwhile, pour a ladleful of stock over the peas in another pan, bring to the boil, simmer for a couple of minutes, and drain (pouring the stock back into the stockpot, rather than down the sink). Keep the peas warm in the pan, covered.

After somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes, you will notice the rice plumping up.
Stir in the drained peas. Taste a grain or two of rice. The grains should give, but have a firm (though not brittle), chalky centre.

The trick is to get the dish to the desired consistency at this point. It is another reason -- in addition to creating a creamy starchiness -- why you add the stock ladle by ladle. You want a risotto that is a coherent, moist mass, and not soupy. If it is soupy when the grains are cooked, you may risk overcooking them if you try to reduce the liquid further.

Turn off the heat. Stir in the cheese, cut into small pieces (if you can do that with creamy Gorgonzola), and the cream. Cover the pan. After a minute, stir again, and serve.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Skinning tomatoes

I mentioned the skinning of tomatoes in my chicken Basquaise recipe. You drop the tomatoes into boiling water, leave them for 20 seconds or so, let them cool (or refresh them under cold water), and peel off the skin. There is no need to score them first.

Recipes often tell you to deseed the tomatoes before chopping them. This is a very chefy thing to do. About half of the vegetable (or fruit, if you prefer) seems to go into the bin. You might put the pulp into a sieve, in order to discard only the seeds; but writers who claim that the seeds are acrid possess tastebuds of a sophistication, or fussiness, in a different league from mine.

I like one of Nigel Slater's recipes for tomato sauce: you make your base, with oil and garlic say, and add roughly chopped -- skins and all -- tomatoes. When the sauce has reduced, you pass it through a vegetable mill, which traps the skins.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Chicken Basquaise

Making chicken stews such as this, I used to throw away the fat in which I had browned the chicken before proceeding with the rest of the dish. I still do that with beef and lamb stews. But chicken can be browned at lower temperatures, so the fat is less likely to burn; and it seems a shame to throw away anything flavourful.

I made this dish, for two, in a Le Creuset casserole.

1 dstsp olive oil
4 chicken thighs
I onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
4 plum tomatoes, blanched for 20 seconds in boiling water, peeled and chopped
1 red and 1 yellow pepper, deseeded and cut into pieces

You need only a little oil, because the chicken will exude fat. Warm it over a gentle heat, and add the chicken pieces, skin side down. Sizzle them, taking care that the pan does not get hot enough to burn the oil, for about 10 minutes each side, or until browned. Remove to a plate.

Tip the onions, garlic and bay leaf into the casserole, and soften for five minutes. Add the tomatoes (you do not have to skin them -- it depends whether you are bothered about finding skins in the finished dish), peppers, and salt to taste. Nestle the chicken pieces among the other ingredients, bring to a simmer, and bubble gently, with the pan uncovered, for about an hour.

You will find at first that the chicken is sitting on ingredients that have not merged into a sauce. Do not worry: they will soften and give up a lot of moisture as they cook. You may find that the sauce is still too liquid after an hour: remove the chicken pieces to a plate, put them in a warm oven, and turn up the heat under the casserole to bubble the sauce fiercely and thicken it. (Chicken legs do not toughen easily, but they are probably best kept away from fast-boiling at this stage.) Return the chicken to the pan for a couple of minutes, and serve.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A bulgur lunch

I have recommended the Cypressa brand of feta as a good thing to stir into bulgur grains. Much as I like both ingredients, I have come to find the combination somewhat heavy going; inauthentically, I often use instead hard cheeses such as Gruyere, Pecorino or even Cheddar.

The following lunch for one consisted of leftover ingredients. It was a treat.

50 g bulgur
Handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
40 g Gruyere, cubed
40 g Cheddar, cubed
1/2 bottle artichoke hearts, sliced
1 tbsp green olive tapenade
1 dstsp red wine vinegar
2 dstsp olive oil

Soak the bulgur in cold water for 15 minutes. Drain in a sieve, and squeeze it in your fists. Spread it on to a baking sheet, and dry it in a gas mark S/130 C oven for five to 10 minutes.

Mix it with all the other ingredients.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Poached eggs

Of the four poached eggs in my eggs florentine, only one emerged from the pan with a white neatly surrounding the yolk -- and it was not the one I had dropped into the centre of the whirling water first. I watched with envy recently as my brother-in-law prepared a perfect specimen. As with rice, you either have the knack or you do not. But appearance is not everything.

The theory is that you bring the water to the boil, stir it, and drop your egg into the centre of the whirlpool, encouraging the white to cohere round the yolk. I suspect that if it is going to cohere, it will do so no matter what you do; and if it is not, it will not.

Turn down the heat to the lowest simmer, so that the whites do not toughen. Some people think that salt in the water toughens the whites; in fact, it helps to keep them soft, as does vinegar.

Poached eggs take longer to set than the books advise, in my experience. Perhaps that is because I do not like runny yolks. Four to five minutes is about right.

I transfer the eggs to a wooden board to drain for a few moments. Not infrequently, I break one of the yolks when I lift them up again.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Eggs florentine

There are three ways to make eggs florentine. 1) Cook spinach, put in gratin dish, break eggs on top, pour over cheese sauce, bake in oven for 20 minutes. 2) Cook spinach, put in gratin dish, poach eggs and place on top, pour over cheese sauce, flash under grill. 3) A compromise between 1 and 2.

The drawback of method 1 is that the spinach gets cooked twice. The dish is most appealing when the ingredients are lightly cooked, with bright flavours. But the drawback of method 2 is that everything has to be prepared at the same time, so that it is all hot when it gets its brief bubbling under the grill. So I usually opt for method 3.

This is a light supper for 2 people.

2 bags (900 g) spinach
28 g butter
28 g plain flour
280 ml milk
4 heaped tbsp cheddar, gruyere, pecorino, or other hard cheese
Grating nutmeg
4 eggs
Salt, pepper

Because it is best to cook spinach very quickly, you may want to do so in two batches. Shove it into a saucepan, put the lid on top, and set the pan over a high heat. After a minute, take off the lid and stir the spinach until the leaves have wilted. Drain immediately.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, and stir in the flour. Allow to cook very gently, without browning, for about a minute. Turn up the heat to medium, and add the milk in splashes, stirring to incorporate each splash before adding the next. Bubble the sauce for a minute or two, turn off the heat, and stir in the cheese. Add a grating of nutmeg, and pepper if you like. Thanks to the cheese, you may not need more salt. (I cannot have too much cheese sauce, and usually make about half as much again as this.)

Poach the eggs. Bring a pan of water to a simmer, add salt and a dstsp of vinegar, crack the eggs and drop them in, turn down the heat to very low, and cook for five minutes. Lift the eggs out of the water with a slotted spoon, and allow them to drain on a chopping board. (I'll write more about poaching eggs later this week.)

Meanwhile, squeeze out the water from the spinach (by hand if the spinach is cool enough, or by pushing it against the colander with a wooden spoon). Arrange it in a gratin dish. (Warm the dish first, so that the ingredients heat up in the oven as quickly as possible.) Put the eggs on top. Pour over the cheese sauce. Bake in a gas mark 8/230 C oven for five minutes.

I like the eggs to be moist and squidgy. They were still runny when I made this dish the other day. It is impossible to be sure how they will behave.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Sardines and rice

This is what I had for lunch yesterday. The North African combination of spice, dried fruit and toasted pine nuts is one I cannot get enough of at the moment.

1 onion, sliced
Olive oil
Handful raisins
Handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
Handful pine nuts
75 g Basmati rice
1 tin sardines
1 tsp harissa

Put a pan of water on to boil. Meanwhile, gently fry the onion in a tbsp or two of oil; they will be ready in the 15 or 20 minutes it takes to assemble the rest of the ingredients.

When the water is boiling, pour a ladleful of it on to the raisins in a small bowl. Tip the rice into the rest of the water, and boil for 10 minutes. (There is more on rice here.)

Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan over a low heat, stirring from time to time, and keeping watch so that they don't progress from toasted to burned.

Drain the rice. Add it to the onions. Drain the raisins, and stir them with the parsley and the pine nuts into the onion/rice mixture.

(I also stirred in harissa, even though my good Portuguese sardines, a brand called Queen of the Coast, came in a spicy tomato sauce.)

Stir in the sardines, breaking them up a little with the spoon. You may not need salt. Serve.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cucumber salad

Eating cucumbers in Mediterranean countries can be a shock: so that is how they are supposed to taste! You realise that most of the ones available at home offer the gustatory equivalent of shadows on the walls of caves. They have to be livened up a little.

I usually sprinkle salt over the cut cucumber chunks, and leave them in a colander to sweat for 30 minutes or so. Then I squeeze them gently in paper towels, and mix them with a little -- roughly a dstsp for half a cucumber -- vinegar, which seems to bring out the sweetness of the vegetable. You can add pepper if you like, and any herbs you think appropriate -- dill would give the dish a Scandinavian flavour.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Yoghurt and lemon cake

This recipe comes from a lovely book, Classic Turkish Cookery by Ghillie Basan. I have adapted it, substituting the lemon zest for the 2 tbsp of dessicated coconut and 2 tbsp of sultanas she includes. She suggests that you might use a 450 g loaf tin; I used a 20 cm springform tin. The cake had a pleasingly foamy texture, with a squidgy centre.

More expert bakers than I would know what difference it makes to follow the procedure below with the eggs and sugar rather than creaming the butter and sugar.

225 g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
175 g butter
175 g caster sugar
2 eggs
175 g thick yoghurt
1 tsp vanilla essence
Zest of 1 lemon

Cut a disc the size of the base of your tin in a sheet of greaseproof paper; put a little butter on the base, and fix the paper on top. Assemble the tin.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl.

Melt the butter and leave to cool. Whisk the eggs and sugar until they are light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, beat the melted butter into the yoghurt, and add the mixture to the eggs and sugar. Stir in the vanilla and lemon zest. Fold in the flour.

Spoon the mixture into the tin, and bake in the centre of a gas mark 4/180 C oven. My cake was ready in 45 minutes (an inserted skewer came out clean). Loosen the cake from the sides, release it from the tin, and leave to cool. Wrapped in a layer of paper and then foil, it keeps for several days.