Monday, July 30, 2007

Lemon jelly cheesecake

My latest New Statesman column concerns a subject I've tackled here a few times: the search for the cheesecake of my dreams. This recipe, from the messageboard on Delia Smith's website, is not it; but is good in its own way. Do not try it if the thought of wobbly, lemony condensed milk does not appeal.

I made the base in my usual way: 150 g of whizzed digestive biscuits stirred into 75 g of melted butter and compacted into a 20 cm porcelain flan dish. I put the dish in the freezer while I prepared the very simple filling.

I whipped together a tin of condensed milk and a 200 g packed of Philadelphia cheese. I put a lemon jelly into a small saucepan, poured over 150 ml of water (ie, far less than you would use if making the jelly on its own), and heated it gently until the jelly dissolved. I stirred in the zest of a lemon and the juice of half of it, and -- without waiting until the jelly had started to set -- stirred this mixture into the milk and cheese. I poured the filling into the chilled base, and put the dish into the fridge to chill. (I covered the dish with foil.)

I had worried that the runny -- at this stage -- filling would turn the base soggy. But it did not.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pork stir-fry with rice

I do not cook stir-fries as you are supposed to, in a scorching wok with smoking oil. I do not have a wok, is one reason. The other is that I cannot believe that burning oil -- for that is what it is -- will enhance the flavour of food. Still, it would be foolhardy to argue with Ken Hom.

So here is a wimp's inauthentic stir fry. I cooked it last night for three. (I did not have ginger, but would have used it if I had, adding a tsp of it, minced, with the garlic.)

3 spare rib pork chops
Groundnut oil
2 carrots, cut into batons
2 spring onions, chopped
150 g mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 dstsp sesame oil
225 g basmati rice

Cut the chops into fork-sized pieces. Put a heavy frying pan over a medium to high heat, pour in a splash of groundnut oil, and fry the pork. You may need to do so in two batches: otherwise, you will lower the heat of the pan and will crowd the meat, which will sweat rather than brown. The browning process should take a couple of minutes. Remove the meat to a plate.

(You have to cook the pork separately at first. If you added the vegetables to the meat in the pan, the meat would overcook while the vegetables were softening. If you cooked the vegetables first, then the pork with them, the pork would not brown.)

Add another splash of oil to the pan, and fry the carrots for a few minutes. Add the spring onions, mushrooms and garlic. When they have softened, lower the heat, and return the pork to the pan to warm through while you boil the rice.

When the rice is drained, stir the vinegar, nam pla and soy sauce through the meat and vegetables. Fold in the rice. Serve with chilli sauce, if you like.

We're off to France. I'll start filing from there next week.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cold curried chicken

We had a street party on Saturday. I bought a large chicken, thinking that I might make coronation chicken; but none of the books on my kitchen shelf included the recipe. As I thought about it, I realised that recipes I had seen included mango chutney -- which I did not have. So I decided to improvise something on a similar theme. People seemed to like it.

As I say, this is an improvised recipe: the brand of curry powder is not an essential detail. I mention the one I used both because it is very good and because the quantity is based on the packet advice. Your brand may work differently. I made a light stock with the neck giblet and a carrot because they were the ingredients to hand; if there had been an onion in the house, I would have used that as well.

1 chicken, 2.2 kg
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
1 lemon
1 neck giblet
1 carrot, peeled
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 tsp Seasoned Pioneers Sri Lankan curry powder
1 200 g tub Greek yoghurt
1 200 g jar mayonnaise

Preheat the oven to gas mark 6/200 C. Rub the chicken with a little olive oil, season it, squeeze half the lemon over it, and put the hull with the other half into the cavity. Roast for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to gas mark 1/140 C, and roast for a further hour and 30 minutes. Baste from time to time if you like; basting gives the skin an appetisingly mottled and burnished appearance. (There is more on roasting chickens here.)

Pour water over the giblet in a small saucepan, add the peeled carrot, and simmer on a very low flame for an hour.

Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to cool. It should have produced some sauce; tip this into a bowl, and deglaze the roasting pan with a little water over a medium heat, scraping up the sediments. Add this liquid to the bowl.

Fat will rise to the top of this sauce. Discard all but a tbsp of it, with a spoon at first and then by applying strips of paper towel to the surface. In a small saucepan, soften the garlic in the reserved fat over a gentle heat, and add the curry powder, stirring and cooking it for about a minute. Pour in the sauce from the chicken and the stock, simmering until the mixture has reduced to a syrupy consistency.

Tear the meat off the chicken with your hands, reserving the carcass for stock. The curry sauce may have thickened further as it cools; loosen it a little with the juices that come out of the chicken.

In a large bowl, mix the curry sauce with the yoghurt and the mayonnaise. Fold in the chicken. Test the seasoning.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bacon and broad bean salad

For two, I used about eight pods of broad beans, a small packet of rocket, about 12 new potatoes, a clove of garlic, and four slices of unsmoked streaky bacon.

I cooked the podded beans in boiling water for about eight minutes. When they were cool, I slipped them from their grey-green sheaths.

I simmered the potatoes slowly, according to the instructions here, with the unpeeled garlic clove.

Meanwhile, the bacon was sizzling very gently on a ridged grill pan. It took about 25 minutes to crisp. Only when you have cooked bacon this slowly -- there is more about the process here -- do you appreciate how much fat it contains. I did not throw away the fat, but used it for the salad dressing, with one tbsp of red wine vinegar into which I had mashed the softened garlic clove, 1 tbsp of olive oil, and salt and pepper.

In this dressing, I tossed the potatoes (which I had sliced), the bacon cut into pieces, the rocket and the broad beans. I have to admit that I added some cubes of cheddar cheese too; but the salad would have been better without them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chicken and fennel

This very simple recipe is based on one in Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book. She recommends cooking the fennel for about seven minutes before baking it with the chicken. I followed that advice, but I am not sure that it was necessary: the fennel had plenty of time to soften and sweeten in the oven. Her recipe includes a spatchcocked chicken; I, cooking for three, used thighs and drumsticks. That was an advantage, because it enabled me to adjust the oven temperature without worrying about drying out breast meat.

Fennel -- 1 to 2 bulbs a person
Knob of butter
150 ml hot water or stock
A chicken thigh and drumstick for each person
Salt and pepper

Remove discoloured leaves as well as tops and fronds (you can use them to flavour the sauce in the pan) from the fennel. Slice the bulbs about 5 mm thick from the tops through the roots. Lay them in a roasting tray with the butter, pour over the hot water or stock, lay the chicken pieces on top, season, and bake in a gas mark 4/180 C oven for about an hour.

You want the chicken to brown and the liquid to reduce to create a couple of tbsps of flavoursome sauce for each person. You may have to turn the oven dial up or down to achieve those results. If the sauce dries up, add a little more liquid. If the chicken and fennel are cooked and there is too much sauce, strain it into a small saucepan and bubble it on the hob to reduce it, meanwhile keeping the roasting pan in a warm oven.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lentil soup

My latest New Statesman column concerns cooking with miscellaneous items of food that need using up. If you have fastidious tastes, you may find it difficult to assemble meals in this way. If you are not too fussy, you can create all sorts of dishes that, while not deserving to be commemorated in recipes, will be perfectly good to eat. And the amount of food you throw in the bin will diminish.

The lentil soup builds on a template that I rely on a lot. You simmer the lentils, perhaps with a garlic clove that will later, minus the husk, be mashed into the soup; you sweat onions, garlic and possibly other vegetables in olive oil; you combine these vegetables with the lentils, and puree the soup (I mostly use a hand blender). The alternative is do it all in one pan, starting with the aromatic vegetables and adding the lentils and the stock to them. Version one takes less time. The other advantage is that you are not cooking these vegetables for so long. Simmered until the lentils have softened, they can lose their freshness of flavour.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Grilled chicken breast

Lean meat such as chicken breast toughens if cooked for too long. The breasts sold as "chicken supremes", usually with a piece of wing bone attached, are thick at the wing end; the heat of a grill chars their outsides quickly, but is slow to invade further. It is worth cutting them into three or four portions. There is a flap of meat that you can slice off; you can then slice off another portion at the rear, thinner end; and slice through the breast at the thick end to produce portions about 50 mm thick.

The amount of flavour imparted to meat by long marinating is often overrated. I usually soak the breasts for about half an hour: perhaps (for two supremes) in the juice of half a lemon, a good glug of olive oil, and a clove of garlic, crushed with a little salt.

You could simply fry the breasts in this marinade, although you would risk burning the garlic. Or you could scrape off the marinade, and cook the chicken on a ridged grill pan or on a dry frying pan. Get the pan hot over a medium heat, and turn the breasts several times as you cook, so that the outsides do not burn before the heat penetrates the centres. They should take about five minutes.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Mashed Charlottes

After quite a few helpings of crushed new potatoes, I felt that it was time for a change. We were eating grilled chicken, a plain dish that could take a rich accompaniment. I decided to cook the Charlottes in the usual way (brought slowly to a gentle simmer), in their skins, and to pass them through a vegetable mill, mashing them with cream and butter (warmed first in a small saucepan). The mill would catch the skins, I figured. I was wrong; the mash was decorated with tiny speckles. No matter.

Waxy potatoes are not ideal for mashing. They can become gluey. But sometimes a moderate glueyness -- just enough to give the mash a stiff texture -- can be pleasant, particularly if offset by buttery creaminess. I was generous with the butter and cream.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Spaghettini and courgettes

Professional food writers, if the evidence of their work is to be trusted, cook different things almost every day, keeping themselves endlessly supplied with new recipes. At the same time, they imply that their recipes are for dishes that they cook regularly ("We always have this with . . ."; "This is a favourite in our family . . ."). We home cooks tend to return to standbys. I do so particularly when I cook for myself. So: pasta again, for the second time in a week, with courgettes. There are similar recipes here and here.

Courgettes become soggy when they cook in liquid. For this reason, writers such as Richard Olney (you'll find his great work Simple French Food here if you scroll down) suggest cooking them at a high heat, so that the liquid evaporates immediately. I am not usually so punctilious.

For this dish, I put my two small courgettes, sliced into thin rounds, into a medium saucepan with a chopped clove of garlic, some dried chilli (whizzed), a little salt and a splash of olive oil, and cooked them over a medium heat, stirring regularly, for about seven minutes. You can tell when they're cooked: their white centres moisten and turn green. I added about three tbsp of double cream, bubbled it for a minute or so until thickened, and tossed this sauce into 125 g of cooked spaghettini. I sprinkled some Parmesan on top.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Spaghetti or spaghettini and sardines

This -- simply a variation on the sardines and rice I made recently -- is a store-cupboard dish. (Of course, it would be even nicer with fresh sardines, grilled or roasted.) Tinned sardines want only gentle warming. If you cook them, they melt, as do anchovies. The dried fruit/pine kernels/chilli theme is one I return to often: of North African origin, it is a feature of the food of Sicily. Parmesan is inappropriate with seafood pasta and rice dishes, the books insist.

These quantities are for each person.

1 slice white bread, whizzed into crumbs
Olive oil
125 g spaghetti or spaghettini
1 tin sardines
1 handful raisins
1 handful pine kernels
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 dried chilli, whizzed (I use more)

Put a thin layer of olive oil into a saucepan, warm it, and fry the breadcrumbs over a low heat until golden. You need to keep stirring them. Set aside. (The pan will carry on cooking them for a while after the heat goes off, so if you are worried about burning, tip the breadcrumbs into a bowl.)

In a small, dry saucepan, toast the pine kernels over a low heat, again stirring watchfully. Set these aside too.

Bring a pan of water to the boil. Pour a ladleful of the boiling water over the raisins in a bowl. Add a generous portion of salt (about a tsp for each litre of water) to the pan, and stir in the pasta. Use the packet instructions as a guide, but start testing the pasta for doneness at least a minute before the packet suggests it should be ready. Drain it when it is edible but retains some firmness at the centre. Remember that it will retain enough heat to carry on cooking for a while.

Meanwhile, drain the sardines of their oil, and warm them through in a saucepan over a very low heat with a dstsp or so of your own oil (which will be nicer than the stuff in the tin). Throw in the drained raisins (soaked for about 10 minutes), pine kernels, parsley and chilli. Toss this sauce with the spaghetti, breaking up the sardines. Serve with the breadcrumbs scattered on top.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Spare ribs

My latest New Statesman column concerns my fear of barbecues. Great food; a sense of satisfaction in producing it; too much to worry about. I might have mentioned a further reason for treating this method of cooking with caution: the current weather. It is very depressing to light the charcoal, wait 45 minutes for it all to glow, put the food on it, and watch as everything gets drenched.

I was cooking for myself at the weekend, and had found a small rack of spare ribs. The oven was the ideal place in which to cook them. I made a marinade with about 2 tsp each of nam pla (fish sauce), soy sauce, rice vinegar, and groundnut oil, along with a third of a tsp of chilli powder as well as a clove of garlic, mashed to a pulp with some salt. I poured the liquid over the ribs on a baking sheet, and baked them at gas mark 1/140 C for 30 minutes, and at gas mark S/130 C for a further 30 minutes. The soy sauce caramelises, and would burn at a higher temperature; the low heat also keeps the meat tender.

I turned off the oven, left the ribs in there for 15 minutes, and ate them with my hands.