Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mashed carrot salad

This recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern Cooking, an attractive, square hardback that I bought for £1.99 in Sainsbury's 20 years ago. Roden tells you to slice the carrots and boil them; but I think that they are likely to turn a dull orangey grey if you do that. Instead, cut them into thick batons (slice horizontally into three or four pieces, and then cut each piece vertically into two or three), and cook them, covering the pan, in just a little water with a dstsp of oil. The pan may splutter. Add a drop or two more water from time to time, if the carrots threaten to catch.

3 medium carrots
1 dstsp olive oil, plus 2/3 tbsp
1 dstsp red or white wine vinegar
1 small clove garlic, crushed with a little salt
1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted in a dry saucepan
Salt and pepper
Cayenne, to taste

Cook the carrots, as advised above and with the dstsp of olive oil, until soft. At the end of the cooking time, uncover the pan and boil off any surplus liquid. Mash the carrots with a fork. (I whizzed them in a small electric vegetable mill.) Stir in the other ingredients, and chill.

Claudia Roden recommends garnishing the dish with olives. You might also add some chopped parsley.

You might serve the salad alongside an aubergine dip, and hummous.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Black pudding, creamed kale

Frying lengths of black pudding, as some recipes suggest, is not an efficient procedure. The casing shrinks, and the pudding bulges out like a paunch over a belt. Slicing the pudding works better. You can fry or grill the disks, or -- much easier -- bake them on a lightly oiled baking sheet. I give them 15 minutes at gas mark 5/180C.

Creamy things, such as gratin dauphinois, and acidic things, such as stewed apple, go particularly well with it. But last night we had it with small (about 1.5cm cubes) roast potatoes, and kale. I steamed the kale for about eight minutes, and stirred it into a bechamel seasoned with pepper and nutmeg.

My general rule with bechamel is to cook as much as will be thickened by a dstsp of flour for each person. There is a recipe for bechamel in this entry on macaroni cheese; but this time, I flavoured the milk first. I peeled an onion, halved it, covered it with milk in a small saucepan, and added a bay leaf, some grated nutmeg, and a little salt. I brought the contents of the pan slowly to a simmer, turned off the heat, covered the pan, and left it for 30 minutes. I strained the milk into a jug, and carried on in the normal way.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Foil and slow-roasting

I have mentioned here before the flaw in the theory that covering meat -- with foil or with a lid -- keeps it moist during cooking. It is not the atmosphere that is important, but the temperature and the cooking medium. A build-up of steam will cook meat very efficiently, and dry it out.

The flaw in that theory, I have realised, is that my oven gets pretty hot, even on the lowest setting. The likes of Heston Blumenthal have ovens that they can keep at 70C; mine -- a not inexpensive model -- gets as high as 130C, even on gas mark S. A foil covering for slow cooking is protective. (Here is a slow-cooked belly pork.)

Last weekend, I browned a half-shoulder of lamb. The time was 1.15 p.m. I put the joint into a roasting tin with a little oil, a scattering of rosemary and chopped garlic, and seasoning; I covered the tin with foil, and put it on to the bottom of the oven, at gas mark S.

I turned and basted the meat occasionally. At 5.30 p.m., I parboiled some sliced potatoes, drained them, and tipped them into the tin with the meat, turning them in the fat and the -- surprisingly meagre -- juice. At 6.45 p.m., I took the meat out of the oven, transferring it to a hot plate and leaving it in the warm grill section. I turned up the oven to gas mark 6/200 C and put the tin of potatoes on the top shelf to brown.

That took half an hour, after which the meat was rested and deliciously tender. We ate it with the potatoes and some leeks.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The absorbing problem of rice

I have written here before about my inability to get satisfactory results when I cook rice by the absorption method. Boiling rice in plenty of water always produces separate and distinct grains; too often, when I cook the rice until its covering of water has disappeared, I end up with a cloggy mass. But I do not want to give up. By trial and error, I have arrived at methods that work pretty well.

The reason rice gets sticky is that it has overcooked. You need to learn the propensities of your brand. Most types of basmati, in my experience, take 10 minutes to tenderise, with a little steaming time on top; but they absorb different quantities of water.

I have had the best results with the Crazy Jack, Fair Trade brand. Put it into a measuring cup to assess its volume, transfer it to a sieve, and rinse it under running water. (Judging by the colour of the scum that rises to the surface when I boil rice, I reckon that it needs a wash.) Tip it into a saucepan, and pour over twice its volume of water. (Salt the water if you like; I am not sure whether salt has an effect on the consistency of the grains.) Bring the pan to a simmer, and turn down the heat. After five minutes, a good deal of the water should have disappeared. Cover the pan, and cook for five minutes longer. Turn off the heat, and allow the rice to steam for a further three minutes. Give it a stir with a fork.

Tilda basmati rice absorbs less water -- about one and a half times its volume. If you use more, the grains are likely to be sticky.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Quick, spicy lunch

If you like hot food, you should keep some harissa in the fridge. I stir it into couscous and its accompanying sauce, of course; and also into pasta sauces, hummus, and soups. Here is a recipe; I also buy the stuff in tins and tubes. In both cases, I decant the harissa into a glass jar, and cover it with olive oil. If the harissa stays submerged, it should last for a month.

For lunch yesterday, I fried a chopped onion and half a clove of chopped garlic in some olive oil, starting on a medium heat and then turning it down as the vegetables threatened to catch. I sliced six button mushrooms and threw them into the pan, grinding over some salt and pepper and turning up the heat again. I stirred constantly, in order to avoid burning the onions. The mushrooms disgorge water; you can turn the heat right up when they do, to evaporate it. The total frying time was about 10 minutes. I turned off the heat, and stirred in a teaspoon of harissa.

I toasted two slices of bread, spread hummous on them, and tipped the mushroom mixture on top.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Frozen peas

Someone gave me an interesting tip at a new year's eve party. We were talking, as you do, about frozen peas. Don't boil them, he advised: saute them. As someone on the receiving end of regular accusations that I have undercooked or overcooked my peas, I was excited by the idea.

It turns out to work well. But they need a drop or two of moisture. Put a little cooking oil or butter in the pan, turn the heat to medium, and tip in the peas. Their own moisture may help to stew them; or you may need to add a little. Cook, stirring, until the peas soften: it does not take long.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Fish stew in the NS

My latest New Statesman column concerns fish stew. Do not fear that this is an intimidating dish: it is easier to make -- because you do not have to worry about browning, or the consistency of the sauce -- than a meat stew. This recipe is an outline of the technique and of possible ingredients rather than a set of strict instructions.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mushroom risotto

This is the simple risotto I made with my makeshift stock. The stock included sweated shallots, so I did not include any onions or shallots in my recipe. Serves three, generously.

1 punnet mushrooms (I used flat ones)
300 g arborio rice
Stock (you'll need more than a litre; top it up with boiling water if it runs out)
100 g Gruyere
50 g Parmesan
25 g butter, cut into cubes and kept in the fridge

Saute the mushrooms in a little butter. Use a medium heat, and turn it up if you need to evaporate the liquid that the mushrooms disgorge. Add the rice, and turn it in the mushrooms.

Keep the stock hot in a nearby pan. Add enough to cover the rice (about a ladleful and a half), and regulate the heat so that the contents of the pan come to a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed. Add more stock.

After about 20 minutes, the rice will start to plump up. Be cautious now when adding stock: you do not want to drown the rice and overcook it. The texture you want is slightly al dente.

When the rice is ready, stir in the cheese, and cover the pan to allow it to melt. Now stir in the butter. This technique of stirring in cold butter away from the heat is advised by Giorgio Locatelli: it prevents the butter from splitting.

This risotto will be an unattractive, sludgy grey colour. It should taste good, though.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A makeshift stock for risotto

Wanting to make risotto, and having no stock in the house, I concocted this from the few vegetables that were lying around. Of course, the vegetables may be varied; and the quantity of water given here is not a strict guide. I did not measure it: I poured enough water over the vegetables to give a generous covering.

6 shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
6 carrots, chopped
1/2 chicken stock cube
1.5 l water

Soften the shallots and garlic in a knob of butter for about five minutes, adding a little more butter if the vegetables catch. Throw in the stock cube and the carrots, pour over the water, bring to the boil, and simmer, uncovered, for 35 minutes.

This made enough stock for a risotto consisting of 300 g of arborio rice.

The instruction to leave the pan uncovered stems from my belief, never properly tested, that stocks and soups taste fresher if cooked in this way. My suspicion is that steam condensed on a pan lid and then falling back into the contents does not enhance flavour. Or perhaps it is because the cooking process is faster in a covered pan -- the flavour of stocks and soups deteriorates if they are overcooked.

Recipe for my mushroom risotto to follow on Monday. Meanwhile, there is more on risottos here.