Friday, August 29, 2008

Potatoes, cheese and bacon gratin

There is an obvious solution to the problem that I described in this post from July. If you put cheese with the sliced potatoes in a creamy gratin, I wrote, the acidity in the cheese delays the softening of the potatoes. The solution is to add the cheese later.

The other night, I put sliced potatoes, pancetta cubes, and chopped garlic into a buttered gratin dish, with a little salt. (The dish would have benefited from some nutmeg). I poured over about 150ml of double cream (there were enough potatoes for two), stirred everything about, covered the dish with foil, and put it into a gas mark 5/190C oven.

The potatoes were tender after about 50 minutes. I gently stirred through about 110g of grated Gruyere, covered the dish again, and put it back into the oven, turned down to gas mark S/130C -- I needed only to melt the cheese. I gave it another five minutes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Chicken in yoghurt

Recipes for grilled, marinated meats generally tell you to scrape off the marinade before placing the meat on the barbecue or griddle. Discarding that flavoursome stuff seems a shame. That is why I prefer to cook dishes involving yoghurt marinades in the oven. You can simply bung the whole lot into a roasting dish.

The following recipe is one I cooked just for myself. Yes, it is very self-indulgent, in quantity and in heat. But I should point out that most chillis (unless they are Scotch Bonnets), even seeded ones, are not unbearable hot; and that my 10 free-range chicken wings cost just £1.70.

10 chicken wings
1 regular tub Greek yoghurt
1/2tsp coriander seeds
1/2tsp cumin seeds
1/3tsp black peppercorns
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2tsp turmeric
1/3tsp cayenne pepper
6 green chillis, stalks cut off, whizzed in a small vegetable mill, or chopped

Warm the coriander, cumin and pepper in a small saucepan (dry) over a gentle heat until they give off a toasted aroma. Grind them in a mortar. Add a little salt, and grind the garlic with them too. Tip the yoghurt into a bowl, and stir in the spice and garlic mixture with the other ingredients. Throw in the chicken wings, turning to coat them in the spicy yoghurt. It is worth doing this several hours in advance of cooking -- the spicy yoghurt does penetrate the meat.

I tipped my chicken into a roasting tin, which I put into a gas mark 6/200C oven for 30 minutes, by which time the yoghurt had become a kind of glaze. Bits of the marinade were catching, so I turned the oven right down, to gas mark S/130C, allowing another 20 minutes.

The chicken was wonderfully tender, and, as you may imagine, headily spicy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


The large artichokes on sale in Normandy markets in August are probably best suited to boiling whole. You strip off the leaves, dip them in vinaigrette or butter, and suck out the fleshy bits. Once you have done that, you discard the hairy choke, and eat the heart.

Nice enough, but a bit boring. I thought that I would pare away the leaves and cook the heart. There were two problems: I should have started with a smaller, more compact artichoke; and I have always had difficulty in understanding cookery writers' instructions on how to do the preparation. I found it impossible to snap off the leaves while leaving behind the fleshy parts, and I wasted a fair amount of decent vegetable.

Nevertheless, the hearts, eaten in a salad, were a rare, if expensive, treat.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Chicken gratin

This is a rather posh description of a dish using up leftovers. I apologise for the vagueness of the quantities, my only excuse being that it's in the spirit of an improvised recipe. For 4.

4 portions cold chicken
About 56g butter
I clove garlic, chopped
2tbsp flour
About 600ml chicken stock
2tbsp creme fraiche or double cream
1tsp Dijon mustard
Handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper

Arrange the chicken in a gratin dish.

Melt the butter over a gentle heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Soften the garlic in it for a minute or so, and then stir in the flour, allowing it to cook for a minute. Add more butter if the roux seems thick: it should be the consistency of loose, wet sand. (My general rule in recipes involving a roux-based sauce is to allow as much as will be thickened by a dstsp of flour for each person.) It does not matter if this roux -- unlike the one for a bechamel -- takes on a little colour.

Turn up the heat and add the stock, portion by portion, incorporating each one until the lumps disappear before adding the next. Stop when you have a pourable, coating consistency, not too thick. Stir in the cream, mustard, and parsley; allow the sauce to bubble for a minute or so, stirring constantly. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the sauce over the chicken. (You might like to cover everything with a layer of breadcrumbs, or Parmesan.) Bake in a gas mark 5/190C oven for about 15 minutes, or until bubbling and warmed through.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Aubergine and courgette gratin

This gratin, simpler than this one or this one, was particularly delicious because of the quality of the ingredients, which came from a French market. The aubergine, with its rich and creamy flesh, made me realise that most of the ones I buy at home are poor relations.

Baking aubergine slices is the easiest way to cook them. But I usually saute courgettes, which need cooking only until the white flesh turns translucent -- they taste fresher that way. At home, I would have passed my tomato sauce through a vegetable mill; not having one here, I poured it through a sieve, stirring it through with a wooden spoon until only gunk remained. (Quite a bit of sauce needs to be scraped from the underside of the sieve.)

Serves 2.

1 aubergine
1 or 2 courgettes (mine was a large one -- normally large ones are dull, but this wasn't)
1 clove garlic
2 large tomatoes
Olive oil

Cut the aubergine into rounds the thickness of two £1 coins. Pour some olive oil into a saucer, and coat the aubergine slices with it using the back of the tines of a fork. Lay the slices on a baking sheet. Season with salt, and pepper if you like. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes at gas mark 6/200C, until soft.

Slice the courgette(s) thinly. In a little more olive oil, saute them on a medium heat. Salting them will encourage them to give up some of their liquid, which should evaporate.

Chop the garlic, and soften it in a little more olive oil. Roughly chop the tomatoes, and add them to the pan, again with a little salt. Simmer this sauce on a low to medium heat until thick. (The tomatoes will have broken down.) Pass it through a vegetable mill or sieve.

Mix the aubergines, courgettes and tomato sauce in a gratin dish (you could layer the ingredients if you like). Scatter a layer of breadcrumbs on top. Bake at gas mark 6/200C until the breadcrumbs have browned (about 15 minutes -- but keep checking). Serve hot, tepid, or at room temperature. (I like it tepid.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mackerel on the barbecue

I have written before about my insecurity concerning barbecues. One of my worries concerns when to decide that the coals are in their optimum state to be spread out, before I place the rack on top and start grilling. I suspect that I always go too soon, fearing that the temperature will fall. The problem then is that drops of fat cause the coals to flare up, charring the food.

Reading my entry on grilled mackerel from last year, I get the impression that it was a simple, untroubled processs. Not this time. I exacerbated the problem of flaring coals by coating the fish in a little oil, and by placing sprigs of rosemary in the breast cavities. Both encouraged ignition. It was crazy to oil mackerel, which is an oily fish; but here in France, I do not have the fish-shaped basket that protects the skin from sticking on the rack. The skin stuck anyway.

As soon as I put the fish on the rack, there was a conflagration. I moved the mackerel to the side of the rack until the flames died down. I moved it back; more flames. So I may have given it less time than it needed.

The largest mackerel was still a little undercooked. Still, all the cooked fish was delicious.

One is inclined to feel that it's essential to tart up food before cooking it. But all a grilled mackerel requires is the fish, with, when it's ready, perhaps a little lemon, salt, and pepper.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Split custard

I may have remarked before that factory creme fraiche always splits when I cook it. Creme fraiche fermiere never does. Unfortunately, the first kind was the only one available when I shopped yesterday, and I took a risk with it -- with the usual result. The following recipe -- a variation of this one -- would have worked perfectly otherwise.

I used a delicious, lemony honey that was a birthday present from my sister in law. It has the exotic provenance of Rotherhithe. There is more about it here, on the Pure London Honey website.

Whole eggs give a lighter texture than egg yolks. If you prefer the richness of yolks alone, use 5 or 6, depending on size.

Serves 5 to 6 (in small portions -- but it is rich).

4 whole eggs
400ml creme fraiche (fermiere) or double cream
100ml milk
1tsp vanilla essence (a vanilla pod would be better -- see this recipe)
3 dstsp honey
A little butter

Grease the oven dish with the butter. Heat the oven to gas mark 2/150C.

Beat the eggs.

In a saucepan, warm the creme fraiche, milk, vanilla, and honey. When bubbles appear, pour a little of the liquid on to the eggs; then a little more; then the rest. (If you pour on all the hot liquid at once, you risk curdling some of the egg.) Pour the mixture into the oven dish.

Put the oven dish inside a roasting tin or other receptacle, and pour in boiling water (not into the cream and egg mixture) to come half way up the sides of the dish. Put the tin into the oven, and bake for 40 minutes to an hour, or until the top of the custard is set and wobbly.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Banger to rights

My latest New Statesman column (the headline above is the NS's) concerns sausages, commenting on ideas in this entry and in this one. To summarise: I still believe that the best way to cook sausages is in a heavy frying pan over a low heat, allowing 30 minutes or more. Even in these conditions, some sausages might split. I do not think that pricking them -- a heretical action, in the view of some aficionados -- will make much difference to the consistency of the meat when fully cooked.

Here in France, most butchers sell merguez sausages -- red, spicy ones, made usually with lamb but sometimes with a mixture of lamb and beef. I fry them in the same way, unless there are enough to make it worthwhile to set up the barbecue. Like chorizos, though to a lesser extent, they release spicy oil, which one must not waste. I poured it over crushed new potatoes.