Monday, April 28, 2008

A stew with lamb shanks

Saturday was the nicest day of the year so far. Something grilled, with new potatoes, seemed appropriate; but, when I got to the butcher, I found the lamb shanks the most tempting items on display. My greengrocer is not selling any Jersey Royals yet -- still too expensive, he says. So we had a wintry lamb stew, with mash.

The shanks were large. I bought two for three people, and I cooked them roughly as in this recipe, but with a couple of modifications. First, I used a little sunflower oil rather than olive oil for the initial browning -- it has a higher smoke point, and is therefore less likely to degrade and tarnish the stew. Second, I deglazed the pan with white wine vinegar: about 80ml, which I allowed to bubble until it had almost disappeared. Then I added the stock -- bought beef stock, from the butcher -- before putting the casserole in the oven.

At the end of cooking, I removed the shanks, and sieved and reduced the sauce, as in the previous recipe. But this time I stripped the meat from the shank bones, and returned it to the sauce (of which there was now about 250ml) to warm through. This stew, with its combination of tender, gelatinous meat and garlicky sauce, was quite the most wonderful I have eaten for a long time -- despite the season.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Tahini from a jar is, I find, palate-coating, like a savoury form of peanut butter. It gives hummus a sludgy, adhesive quality. Making your own tahini is not complicated. There are two ingredients.

Recipes tell you to put the sesame seeds on to a baking sheet in a gas mark 4/180C oven for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring them every so often to make sure they do not brown. It is easier to cook them in a heavy saucepan over a low heat -- but you have to stir them regularly, and to recognise the point after which they will be overcooked. Toasted sesame seeds, delicious in a salad, are bitter in a tahini sauce.

I have a small, electric mill -- similar to what Delia Smith calls a mini-chopper. When the seeds are cool, I whizz them in the mill with sunflower oil. The standard ratio is about 4 parts sesame seeds to 1 part, or slightly more, of oil. It is a good idea to add the oil a little at a time, until you get the consistency you want. You need to whizz the mixture thoroughly -- and you are unlikely to get a completely smooth result.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Red onions

Raw red onions can give you an unpleasant shock. They are supposed to be mild, and sweet; but often they are not.

A good way to ensure sweetness is to slice the onions, put them in a bowl, and cover them with boiling water. Leave them for half an hour, or longer, and drain them, squeezing out the liquid (with your hands, or with the back of a spoon pushed gently against the onions in a sieve). The milkiness in the bowl, and in the liquid that emerges from the squeezed onions, is sulphur, which is what causes raw onions to burn our mouths and sting our eyes.

I like red onions in salads with beans and/or rice. It might go, instead of the fried onions, in this recipe, for example.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Penne with mushrooms and purple sprouting broccoli

Some vegetables do not go very far. Mushrooms, once they have given off their water, shrink dramatically; you need a substantial bunch of purple sprouting broccoli, even if you keep as much of the stalks as possible, to feed several people. Last night, I used the entire bag of mushrooms and the entire bag of broccoli from the vegetable box in a pasta sauce for three -- and the portions of vegetables were not generous. But there was plenty of cream. More than was healthy, no doubt.

I brought my pasta water to the boil, and dropped in my broccoli for just a couple of minutes. Some people insist that you cook green vegetables this way, rather than steaming them: it retains the colour, they claim. I am not sure about that, but I have never given the argument a proper test. In this recipe, though, it is economical to use the water twice. I fished out the broccoli (with a slotted spoon), and transferred it to a colander. I salted the water, and tipped in 375g of penne.

Meanwhile, I had been cooking my sliced chestnut mushrooms with a chopped clove of garlic, a little salt, and a splash or two of olive oil. My normal practice is to wait for the disgorged water to cook off; but that was not necessary here. The mushrooms were not likely to be undercooked. I poured in an entire 284ml pot of Rachel's Organic double cream, and bubbled it for about five minutes, until it had thickened and reduced. With about a minute to go before the pasta was ready, I added the broccoli to the mushroom sauce to warm through.

I drained the pasta, and tossed it with a large knob of butter (our hearts will need a couple of days to recover); I plated it, and served it with the sauce on top.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Lamb with lemon and garlic

Not all the recipes in Delia Smith's How To Cheat at Cooking involve cans, frozen things, or other pre-prepared foods. There is a wonderfully simple one for Greek lamb baked with lemon and garlic. My adaptation is even simpler, because I did not have any flat-leaf parsley, which Delia suggests scattering over the dish at the end in a mixture with lemon zest and garlic -- gremolata.

I was grateful for the illustration in the book. Delia tells you to wrap the ingredients in foil, to which food can stick; the photograph shows kitchen paper inside the foil.

For two.

1 lamb neck fillet, weighing about 350g
Zest of 1 lemon, juice of half
1 clove garlic, sliced
Salt, pepper

Cut the fillet crosswise into medallions -- 2.5cm thick, Delia says. Make cuts in the flesh with a sharp knife, and insert the slivers of garlic. Give each medallion several slivers if that is necessary to use up the clove.

Lay a sheet of foil in and up the sides of a roasting tin. Lay a sheet of kitchen paper on top, and the meat on top of that. Squirt over the lemon juice, and distribute the zest. Grind over salt and pepper. Fold up the foil and paper to make a parcel, and bake the dish at gas mark 1/140C for three hours. It is delicious.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Chilli sauce

I stir chilli sauce or harissa into almost everything I cook that is vaguely compatible: pasta dishes, rice dishes, bean and lentil dishes, soups. This week, I returned to the most widely available chilli sauce brand, Encona, after experimenting with various others including the excellent Asia's Finest (a past winner of a Great Taste Award); and I concluded that it is as good as any. It has a distinctive, fruity zing -- perhaps some would find it a little too vinegary.

Richard Whittington, in his otherwise excellent Home Food (out of print, sad to say), says that you can use Encona chilli sauce as a marinade for jerk chicken. You cannot, in my experience. It turns acrid when grilled or roasted.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Onion sauce

The onion sauce I made at the weekend was not a success.

My theory had been that cooking the onion in milk first, rather than in water, would produce a more flavoursome sauce. But the reduced and grainy milk gave the dish a rather sickly quality.

I roughly chopped two onions, covered them in milk seasoned with salt and nutmeg, and simmered them for 25 minutes. I made a roux with a dstsp of flour and enough butter (about 20g, I should guess) to turn it into the consistency of wet sand; I cooked the roux very gently for two minutes, and poured in the milk and onions gradually, incorporating each addition before pouring in the next.

In Nigella Lawson's How To Eat, the recipe advises cooking the onions -- cut however you like them -- in water. You retain the water when you drain them, and make a sauce with that and an equal quantity of flavoured milk; then you add onions and cream.

Or there is Nigel Slater's baked onions, from Kitchen Diaries. You peel the onions, simmer them for 20 minutes, cut them in half and place in a baking dish, pour over cream and scatter with parmesan. Bake until bubbling.

I am sure that both recipes are nicer than mine.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Rice and lentils

Rice and lentils offer complementary proteins, and are often paired in recipes. Here is a basic one that I came up with.

It seems neater to cook the rice and lentils together, rather than to boil them separately, drain them, and mix them. That means using the dreaded absorption method. I have found two brands whose rice does not turn into a starchy lump when cooked in this way: Crazy Jack and Essential. (Tesco's is hopeless; but fine when boiled in plenty of water.)

For dishes such as this, or a pilaf, it is no good measuring the water as you would when cooking the rice on its own. Twice its volume of water might not cover it, because of the volume of the other ingredients.

These quantities give generous portions for two. Rice and lentils is good with poached eggs. Or perhaps with leeks in a cheese sauce.

2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1tsp cumin seeds
Olive oil
100g Puy or other green lentils, rinsed in a sieve
100g basmati rice, rinsed in a sieve
1tsp harissa, or more to taste
Salt, black pepper

Soften the onion and garlic with the cumin seeds in a tbsp or two of oil. Tip in the lentils and harissa, and pour over enough water to cover by about a cm; bring to a simmer, turn down the heat, and cover. Keep checking, and top up with water if necessary.

When the lentils are starting to soften, tip in the rice. Add more water, again covering the contents of the pan with about a cm to spare, return to a simmer, replace the lid, and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and leave for a further five minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.