Friday, September 28, 2007

Lentil, fennel, green leaf and Gruyere salad

Some recipes -- for instance, in Claudia Roden's Food of Italy -- tell you to soak Puy or other green lentils for 30 minutes or so before cooking. That may be good advice. I have tried it a couple of times recently: the lentils have cooked evenly, and have drained well. (If the cooking process is not so efficient, the liquid tends to adhere to the lentils when you drain them.) There is a previous entry on lentils here.

They need plenty of flavouring, I think. For this salad, for two, I soaked and drained 60 g of lentils, covered them with fresh water, and simmered them for about 30 minutes with a whole, unpeeled garlic clove. I fished out the garlic, squeezed out the flesh, and mashed it into a dstsp of red wine vinegar. I added salt, and a lot of pepper; I stirred in a generous tsp of Dijon mustard. I whisked in 2 dstsps of olive oil until the mixture emulsified. It was a pungent dressing. I drained the cooked lentils, and stirred them in. If there had been any parsley in the kitchen, I would have added that too.

Into this salad I folded: thin slices of fennel, grilled until translucent on a ridged pan; a bag of mixed leaves from the organic box; about 75 g of Gruyere (a goat's cheese would have been nice, too), cut into cubes.

Monday, September 24, 2007


My latest New Statesman column concerns changing your mind about ways to cook. You decide on a method, but after practising it for a while you start -- partly out of boredom and partly out of curiosity -- to question whether it really is the only or best way of working.

In Don't Sweat the Aubergine, I followed Michel Roux's advice in recommending that you cook chicken stock for two hours. Longer cooking, I claimed, would cause the flavours to grow dull. But recently I have come to suspect that the dullness of flavour comes from overcooked vegetables, and not from the meat. Longer cooking extracts more collagen from the bones, converting it into gelatin and enriching the stock. Now I simmer stock, very gently, for three and a half to four hours, adding chopped vegetables just half an hour before the end.

At the weekend, I made a kind of double stock. I poached pig's trotters, for another dish. Covering them required quite a lot of liquid, which I reduced before using it to cover the bones of a roasted chicken. I simmered this stock for three and a half hours. It was Saturday evening, and I was too lazy to add vegetables.

The stock, chilled, became a firm jelly.

I am not sure how long you should keep stock. In a recent Observer column, Nigel Slater advised that you throw it out once it starts to weep -- in other words, once bits of the jelly liquefy. The Food Standards Agency tells you to consume stock within two days. But I must admit that I have used stock that has been in the fridge for a week, with no ill effects.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Blanching sausages

I wrote a while ago about Heston Blumenthal's method of simmering sausages in water below boiling point before frying them. It did not work for me; but possibly the temperature of my water was too high.

Blumenthal's was not a completely new idea. In French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David advises that you "stiffen" Toulouse sausages for frying or grilling by dipping them briefly in boiling water. Italian sausages have a similar, coarse texture. Valentina Harris, in her book Italian Regional Cookery (now out of print), gives a recipe for "Alvaro's sausages with beans": you put the sausages into the water with the dried beans for the last 15 minutes of cooking, again before frying them.

I am not convinced. Very gentle frying -- I allow sausages 30 minutes to cook -- seems to me to be the best way to retain their texture and tenderness.

That is my theory. But for some reason, it does not apply to barbecues. The heat of a barbecue is fierce; but a barbecued sausage is a lovely thing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Macaroni cheese

Smothering pasta in a flour-based sauce is not the kind of thing that Italians would do. But macaroni cheese is one of those dishes -- curry is another -- for which I get cravings.

Sometimes, I bake it. Baking dries up the sauce a little, and makes the pasta rather sticky -- but that can be what you want. Simply finishing the dish under the grill retains all the sauce and ensures that the pasta remains separate.

Heat up the water for the pasta.

Gruyere, Comte and Cantal are all good cheeses to use. I like a strong Cheddar best -- about 3 heaped tbsps for each person. After grating it, grate a little nutmeg on top. Grate also about 2 tbsps of Parmesan.

Warm a gratin dish. When the pasta goes in, it should not cool down.

You can make the sauce in the eight to 10 minutes it takes the pasta to cook. I use penne; conchiglie also work well, as do most shapes other than spaghetti or other ribbon types. About 100 g for each person, thrown into the boiling water with plenty of salt (about a tsp for each litre of water), is enough in this rich dish.

I like a generous quantity of cheesy bechamel: about as much as will be thickened by a generous dstsp of flour for each person. (You will need about 300 to 350 ml of milk for each serving, in other words.) Stir the flour into enough melted butter (about 20 g for each dstsp) to make a roux that is the texture of damp sand, and cook it over a gentle heat for about a minute -- long enough for some of the floury taste to be cooked out, but not long enough for the butter to brown. Turn up the heat to medium, and add the milk a few splashes at a time, incorporating each before pouring in the next. (If you have cream, you might like to use that instead of about a third of the milk.) The sauce should be of a coating consistency, but not stiff. When it is bubbling, stir in the cheese (with the nutmeg) until melted, and turn off the heat. Grind in pepper if you like. You do not need salt.

Drain the pasta. Stir it into the sauce; or, if the sauce is not sitting in a large enough pan, stir the pasta and sauce together in the pasta pan. Tip the mixture into the warmed gratin dish, sprinkle the Parmesan on top, and put the dish under the grill. (I remove the rack from the grill pan and put the dish in it, for easy manoeuvrability.) Watch out: Parmesan burns very easily.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Grilled chicken thighs

Overhead grills -- what Americans call broilers -- are unfashionable pieces of equipment. If you're grilling indoors, a ridged pan -- which is certainly better for cooking a steak -- is the thing. But for some foods, such as fish or chicken thighs, an overhead grill is better than a pan. Fish sticks to a pan; and a thigh gives off so much fat that the pan fries it rather than grilling it. The overhead grill has the second advantage of enabling you to baste the meat. (However, I do grill boneless breasts on a pan -- see here.)

I bone the thighs: they are just as juicy filleted, and they cook faster. You lift up the exposed end of the bone and scrape away the meat with a knife until you can cut loose the other end, chopping off as many hard bits and sinews as you can. At the weekend, I marinated six boned thighs in the juice of a lime, a glug of olive oil, two garlic cloves crushed to a pulp with salt, and four whizzed dried chillis.

A half-hour soaking is adequate, I think, if the meat is going to be basted during cooking. If you left the thighs in the marinade for longer, would you be able to taste the difference? I am not convinced that you would.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Late-night rice

Three and a half pints of London Pride; arrived home at 9.30 p.m. Not my favourite feeling. I did not want to eat anything with bread, because I had eaten sandwiches for lunch. So I put together a rice dish, in 15 minutes: chopped onion, green pepper and garlic, thrown into a pan with some groundnut oil and softened; meanwhile, rice thrown into boiling water and cooked for 10 minutes; rice tipped into vegetables and stirred up with a teaspoon of harissa. If your overriding aim is to get some food inside yourself, that is a pretty decent supper. One of its pluses as a late-night dish is that it does not sit heavily on the stomach.

To soften a pan of onion and pepper in little more than 10 minutes, you need a medium heat. As I wrote in my previous post, that compels you to keep the vegetables moving, or they and the oil will burn. The pan gets hotter and hotter; once the cooking is underway, you can turn down the flame.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Burnt offerings

My latest New Statesman column (sorry -- the link is simply to the home page, because the column itself appears not to be on the site) is about burning food: setting it alight, charring it, heating it until it gives off smoke. It is a fashionable thing to do, but is not healthy and is rarely tasty.

Burning oil -- even vegetable oils with high smoke points -- is easily done. If you cook onions over a medium heat, and if there is room in the pan, the exposed oil will soon start smoking, to the detriment of the flavour of the dish. High heats are essential in wok cookery, to keep the ingredients fresh and crisp; the trick is to have everything constantly on the move. When you brown the meat for a stew, throw away the oil afterwards.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Potatoes Anna

This is a simple, classic dish that for some reason has become rare. It appeared in one of Elizabeth David's early books, French Country Cooking, and for a while was a standard on bistro menus; perhaps it carries an unflattering association with check tablecloths and coq au vin.

I have not given quantities. You will know how many potatoes and how much butter you want for each serving. You could slice the potatoes into water before layering them; but some starchiness is pleasing in this dish, as it is in gratin dauphinois.

Waxy potatoes, such as Charlotte
Salt, pepper

Butter a gratin dish. Peel the potatoes. Cut them into rounds, arranging them in the dish; when you have a layer, cut slivers of butter and place them on top, and grind over salt and pepper. Build the layers of potato, butter and seasoning.

Cover the dish loosely with foil, which will help the potatoes to cook by steaming them. Bake at gas mark 4/180 C for 45 minutes; uncover the dish and bake for another 30 minutes, turning up the heat if the top layer is not browning.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Spinach and chick pea curry

I do not think that 25 minutes is too long to spend on cooking lunch for one. Sometimes, you want a break; and you don't want a sandwich. I might have prepared this curry even faster.

I washed a bag of spinach from the organic box, shoved the wet leaves into a saucepan, covered it, and put it on a high heat. After about a minute, once the spinach had started to collapse, I stirred it around until all the leaves had wilted. I drained the spinach, leaving behind the water, to which I added more water for some rice. I put the pan back on the heat.

Meanwhile, I had been softening a chopped onion with a chopped garlic clove in some groundnut oil.

When the water was boiling, I threw in my rice (75 g). (There is more on cooking rice here.) With five minutes to go, I brought out my pack of Seasoned Pioneer spices, and added half a tsp of the cardamom masala and half a tsp of the black cumin seeds to the onion and garlic, along with a minced, thumbnail-sized piece of ginger. I gave this mixture a minute to cook before tipping in a drained and rinsed can of chick peas, turning up the heat a little to warm them through. I squeezed the spinach, chopped it, and threw it into the pan, with a half tsp of balti garam masala and a third of a tsp of cayenne pepper. Canned chick peas are salty; but I ground a little more salt into the curry. I drained the rice.

Not the most refined of dishes. But just what I felt like eating.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Coffee: beans versus ground

The consensus is that it is better to buy coffee beans than ground coffee. The ground coffee will already have leaked flavour, and will lose more, rapidly, once the pack is opened. But that, with vacuum-sealed coffee, is not my experience. I cannot claim to have done exhaustive tests; but I have found that the ground coffee is more flavoursome than the beans. Why, I have no idea.

I keep it in the freezer -- again, not recommended by coffee lovers, who point to the moist atmosphere of freezer compartments. I screw up the bag, and put the bag inside a jar with a tight lid. This protection seems to work fine.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Steamed apple pudding

I adapted this pudding from a recipe in Olive magazine. The magazine version suggests you use four small pudding basins, and do the cooking in a microwave. It is also a little unclear on the quantities of butter and sugar.

You want the apples to hold their shape. The Coxes that are just starting to come into the shops should work. Serves four.

6 apples, peeled, quartered, cored, and held in acidulated water
150 g butter
150 g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
125 g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder

Over a gentle flame and in a large saucepan or frying pan, heat 50 g of the butter and 50 g of the sugar until bubbling, then throw in the drained apple quarters and cook slowly until they start to caramelise.

Mash up the remaining butter and sugar until the mixture is creamy. If you work by hand, rather than with an electric beater, you need to press at the mixture with a spoon, smearing it against the side of the bowl and then stirring again, until you have produced a lighter substance. Stir in the eggs. Do not worry if the mixture looks lumpy and curdled: stir in the flour and baking powder, which will help to smooth it. But it will be stiff. Loosen it with a little milk, until you arrive at a gloopy -- Olive uses the word "spoonable" -- consistency.

Butter a pudding basin. Arrange the apples in the bottom; pour the sponge mixture over them. Insulate the basin -- I surround it with kitchen paper, and then with three layers of foil. Put it into an appropriately sized saucepan or casserole, pour in boiling water from the kettle to come half way up the sides, and steam the pudding for an hour and a quarter. It needs cream, or custard.