Monday, June 30, 2008

Asparagus, olive and cheese frittata

I must conduct an experiment sometime to test the truth of the frequent assertion that green vegetables, if they are to retain their colour, should be cooked in plenty of boiling water in an uncovered pan. The theory is good: acidity is what turns asparagus, broccoli and the rest an unappetising khaki, and acidity increases in a covered pan. Chefs also advise you to plunge the cooked vegetables into iced water, to "fix" the colour. But both these procedures -- boiling in a copious quantity of water, and refreshing the vegetables -- lose more nutrients than would steaming. Maybe it is better to put up with grey-green vegetables. We are trying to feed ourselves, not win Michelin stars.

For this frittata, for three, I used six eggs. But I think it would have been better to follow my previous advice and use five. The longer the frittata cooks, the tougher it will be. I also threw on the cheese towards the end -- and that was an improvement. It needs only to melt, rather than to cook with the egg.

5 eggs, lightly beaten
Knob of butter
60g hard cheese (I used Cheddar)
Bunch of asparagus
Handful of pitted black olives (I like the Crespo Greek-style ones)

Melt the butter over a very gentle heat to coat a heavy, 28cm frying pan. Pour in the eggs.

Meanwhile, bring a pan with an inch or so of water to the boil. Cut off and discard the tough ends of the asparagus, throw the stalks into the pan, and simmer for a couple of minutes, until tender when pierced by a knife. Drain, and cut into fork-sized pieces. Stone the olives, if necessary.

When the bottom of the omelette is set, but with a runny surface, scatter over the cheese, asparagus, and olives. Finish cooking for a minute or so under a low grill.

Cut into wedges, and serve hot or cold.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Summer lamb stew

The butcher has good cuts of stewing lamb at the moment, offputting only if you imagine a thick winter stew with flour and rich stock. This one has a light sauce, made by the meat and vegetables. For 4.

800g lamb neck fillet
1tbsp white wine vinegar
8 cloves garlic
3 onions, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
2tbsp olive oil
2 tins cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Cut the lamb into rounds. On a medium to high heat, brown the pieces on a ridged grill pan, in batches. Transfer them to a heavy casserole. Pour the vinegar on to the pan, allow it to bubble until reduced to about 1 dstsp, and pour it and the pan scrapings on to the meat. (If your pan is very hot, you'll find that the vinegar evaporates to nothing almost immediately.)

Throw in the garlic, onion and herbs, and stir in the oil. Season to taste. Put the casserole into a gas mark 2/150C oven for an hour. If the contents of the pan are bubbling, you can turn the oven down to gas mark S/130C. Cook for a further two hours. Half an hour before the end, stir in the beans.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Harissa 2

If you use the most widely available small, dried chillis (such as the Rajah brand) for my previous harissa recipe, you get a searingly hot concoction. Only when I saw this recipe, by Yotam Ottolenghi, did I realise that it was possible to temper the chillis with other ingredients. This is the version I made.

1 red pepper
2tsp dried chillis (for a milder version, but still with some kick, 1tsp would be fine)
1tsp of a mixture, according to taste, of cumin, caraway and coriander seeds
1 clove garlic, chopped
A little salt

Bake the pepper in a gas mark 6/200C oven for 30 minutes, or until the skin blisters.

Pour boiling water over the chillis in a bowl.

In a small saucepan, and over a gentle heat, cook the spices until they give off a toasty aroma. Grind them in a mortar (or in the machine you use to make the harissa).

When the pepper is cool enough to handle, skin and deseed it. Drain the chillis.

You could grind together these ingredients by hand; but it would be hard work. I use a small, electric mill (Moulinex). Throw in all the ingredients, and pulse until smooth.

Decant into a glass jar, and cover with oil. If the harissa remains submerged, it should keep in the fridge for three weeks to a month.

This harissa was looser in texture than the stuff you buy in tins and tubes. After making it, I looked again at Ottolenghi's recipe, and saw that he included tomato paste. I shall try that next time -- although I wonder whether it might contribute a somewhat artificial flavour. I might also try adding fried onion and garlic, while being mindful that it is impossible to get a red onion "dark and smoky" after six to eight minutes' frying.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More about moussaka

You might prefer to fry the aubergines, rather than to bake them, for a moussaka. In which case, you might be tempted to salt them first -- not because they are bitter, but because according to some writers they will absorb less oil if treated in that way. Salting is not necessary. Treat the aubergines as you would if you were baking them, by brushing them with oil. Lay them in a heavy-bottomed pan, over a low-to-medium heat, and season them. As they cook, they will of course lose the moisture that an initial salting was intended to remove. In other words, you get the same result.

Browning mince is another procedure about which most cookbooks are misleading. The process takes a long time if you throw 400g of mince into a pan and stir it around: first, the mince throws off its moisture, in which it stews; eventually, the moisture evaporates, and the mince starts to brown; bits of the mince start catching on the pan. If I want to brown mince (perhaps for shepherd's pie), I form it into patties, which I flash-fry or place on a hot grill pan. For the stews in spaghetti Bolognese or moussaka, I don't bother -- and I am not sure that I notice the difference. (More about this subject here.)

Monday, June 16, 2008


Moussaka, prepared properly, is a time-consuming dish. The version I made yesterday was not proper. My use of pork and beef mince, rather than lamb, was just one of the inauthentic touches. For 4. (Or, in our case, 3.)

2 medium-to-large aubergines, cut into rounds the thickness of 2 £1 coins
Olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
200g beef mince
200g pork mince
1 bay leaf
1/2 chicken stock cube
2tsp tomato puree
3dstsp plain flour
35g butter, or enough to make a roux with the flour
300ml milk
1 egg, beaten
2tbsp Parmesan or Pecorino

Pour some olive oil into a saucer. Dip in a fork, and brush the aubergine rounds with the back of it. Place them in a roasting tin or on a baking sheet. Season with salt, and with pepper if you like. (You may, as I did, need a second tin or sheet; place it in the oven below the first one, and transfer it to the top shelf when the first batch is ready.) Bake at gas mark 6/200C for 20 to 30 minutes, until soft. (This is a far easier method of cooking aubergines than frying.)

Make a simple stew. Soften the onions and garlic in about 2tbsps of olive oil, over a gentle heat, for a few minutes. Throw in the beef and pork mince, and keep stirring. It will separate as it sheds moisture and the fat runs. Add the bay leaf, the half stock cube (I use Knorr), and the tomato puree. (I also added a drop of fish sauce, and a few splashes of soy sauce -- as I said, the recipe was inauthentic.) Season, and cook for about 10 more minutes. The meat should have produced enough liquid to stop it sticking.

I do not add any more liquid. Here (and in a lasagne), I like the stew to be moist but not runny. If I had been cooking for adults only, I would have been tempted to pour in about 200mls of red wine, and to cook the stew very gently until most of the liquid had evaporated. If there had been stock in the fridge, I would have used that instead of the cube: again, gently cooking it to evaporate it and concentrate the flavour.

Make a thick bechamel. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a gentle heat. Add the flour, and stir it in. The roux should have the consistency of wet sand. Cook it for a minute. Pour in the milk gradually, stirring to incorporate each portion before adding the next. Let the sauce bubble for a minute or two, stirring constantly, then turn off the heat. You want a thick, almost pasty consistency. When the sauce has cooled a little, stir in the egg. (After baking, the sauce should puff up.) You could season the bechamel with nutmeg as well as salt.

Assemble the moussaka in a gratin dish. I started with a layer of stew, followed by aubergines, followed by the rest of the stew, followed by the rest of the aubergines; I poured the sauce on top, and scattered over the Parmesan. Bake at gas mark 6/200C for 30 minutes, or until the top is brown and everything is bubbling.

Moussaka is delicious if served warm, rather than piping hot. Here is a vegetarian version.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cheese omelette

My omelette pan is thin, old, and bashed-about. It may once have been non-stick; now the surface is patchy and grimy. You cannot rest the pan flat. It has only one use, for which it is ideal. Omelettes slide about on it, and never get stuck.

It is 20cms, a good size for a two-egg omelette.

The two important points in cooking a tender omelette are to beat the eggs only lightly, and to cook the omelette quickly -- in no more than a minute. Have your grated cheese (no more than a couple of tbsps) and your beaten eggs, seasoned at the last minute (apparently salt does something to the texture) ready.

Warm the pan for 30 seconds on a medium heat, and throw in a knob of butter, which should foam, but not turn brown. (Throughout this process, you may have to move the pan on and off the heat, to regulate the temperature.) When the pan is coated, pour in the eggs. Swirl them around, and with a spatula draw the edges of the omelette as it sets towards the centre of the pan, so that runny egg can fill the place. Keep doing this, to set the omelette as quickly as possible. (You need a very slick pan.)

When you have just a film of runny egg on the surface of the omelette, turn the heat right down, and scatter over the cheese. You do not want too much, or it will get in your way as you try to roll the omelette. This is the bit I am not very good at; but I am getting better. Tip the pan away from you (there should still be a hint of runniness, because the omelette will carry on cooking), and coax the near edge of the omelette to roll over. Keep encouraging it, with a mixture of tipping and pushing. As the omelette falls towards the far edge of the pan, complete the process by turning the pan almost upright to tip the omelette on to a waiting, warm plate.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Store cupboard essentials

My latest New Statesman column is about store cupboard standbys. I wrote it in response to an Observer Food Monthly feature on the subject.

A favourite quick lunch is rice with several of these items, and others, stirred in. On Saturday, the ingredients were a handful of olives, half a dozen sun-dried tomatoes each sliced into about four pieces, two handfuls of halved cherry tomatoes, and cubes of Gruyere. I had mine with a splash or two of Encona. Instead of the cheese, there might be fried cubes of pancetta, or tinned tuna, or tinned sardines. Artichokes, spring onions, peppers, and pine kernels are among the many other possible ingredients.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

New potatoes, Gruyere and onion pie

This is a variation on Nigel Slater's blue cheese and potato pie. It works particularly well at this time of the year, because the new potato skins add interest to the texture. Any hard cheese would suit -- as would any blue one. A generous portion for two.

600g new potatoes, scraped
4 onions, each cut in half then cut into chunks
Olive oil
150g Gruyere, grated
Salt, pepper

Put the potatoes into cold water in a saucepan, bring slowly to the boil, and simmer gently until tender. Drain.

Meanwhile, fry the onions in enough oil to prevent their catching on the pan, until soft and golden. About 20 minutes.

Roughly mash the potatoes with a fork, leaving them slightly lumpy. Stir in the onions and cheese. Add a little salt (the cheese is salty), and pepper according to taste. You could grate over a little nutmeg if you like.

Tip into a warm gratin dish, and bake in a gas mark 6/200C oven for about 15 minutes.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Spinach and pea risotto

This was a very rich, indulgent risotto for a Friday night. The combination of cream, Gruyere, and green vegetables -- tanginess, richness, and freshness -- worked perfectly.

The basic risotto technique is here. In brief: soften an onion, slowly and thoroughly, in a little butter, adding water if it threatens to catch; meanwhile, heat stock in another pan; tip the rice on to the onions, and stir until the grains are coated and hot; add stock, a ladleful at a time, keeping the contents of the pan at a gentle simmer and adding more stock when the previous addition has been absorbed; stop cooking when the rice is plump but still ad dente.

This time, I had 300g of arborio rice, a bag of spinach from the vegetable box, three handfuls of frozen peas, 150g of grated Gruyere, and about 125ml of cream. I washed the spinach and removed the stalks, and cooked it in my usual way: shoved wet into a pan, covered and cooked at full heat, stirred round after a minute or so until it has all wilted, and drained. When it was cool, I squeezed out some of the water (it seems as if you could go on extracting water from it for ever; I give up after a while), and chopped it. I cooked the peas in a little of the stock.

You (perhaps I mean I) want risotto that is moist but not fluid, so the trick is to get it to that state just as the rice is perfectly cooked. At this point I added the cream; there seemed to be rather a lot, and I turned up the heat to thicken it. But the risotto threatened to catch on the bottom of the pan. So I turned down the heat, tipped in the spinach and peas, gave them a quick stir, turned off the heat, and stirred in the Gruyere. I need not have worried: it all thickened up nicely. It served three greedy people.