Monday, December 21, 2009

Sweet potato, carrot and chick pea curry

2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Sunflower oil, for frying
2tsp cumin seeds
1tsp coriander seeds
6 black peppercorns
8 cardamom pods
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into fork-size pieces
2 carrots, peeled and cut into fork-size pieces
1 tin chick peas
Chicken stock
1tsp turmeric
Cayenne pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Sachet of creamed coconut
Chillis, chopped

Serves 2

Fry the onions and garlic, salted, in the sunflower oil (enough to prevent their catching) over a low heat, stirring, until golden.

Meanwhile, in a dry saucepan and over a gentle heat, cook the cumin, coriander, and peppercorns until they give off a toasted aroma. Grind, with the cardamom (to release the seeds), with a pestle and mortar. Fry these spices with the onions and garlic for a couple of minutes.

Tip in the sweet potato, carrots and chick peas. Pour in a couple of ladlefuls of stock (eccentrically, I used the bacon stock that also went into my potato and cabbage soup), with the turmeric, cayenne, salt if you need it, and coconut cream. Simmer, covered, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables are soft. You'll find that they absorb and thicken the stock - I needed to add another ladleful.

As you may be able to see above, I eat mine with a generous garnish of chillis.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Potato and cabbage soup

Bacon stock
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
Quarter of Savoy cabbage, finely shredded, chopped, and washed

At the weekend, I boiled a knuckle of bacon. I covered it in water, brought it to a simmer, and skimmed the froth. I threw in 2 onions, 10 peppercorns, and 10 juniper berries, covered the pot, put it on a heat disperser, and simmered for two hours. The beautifully tender bacon, costing £1.50, served three. The strained liquid, chilled, became a jellied stock.

To make the soup (for 2): cover the potatoes with stock, peppered if you like, and simmer until the potatoes are very soft. Mash with a potato masher. Do not boil the soup again: it will turn starchy. Tip in the cabbage, stir in, cover, and leave for three minutes. Serve.

Monday, December 07, 2009


The breast meat of chicken cooks much more rapidly than does the leg meat. When overcooked, it - like any foodstuff consisting of protein - dries and toughens. Keeping it tender presents a bigger challenge when you cook it in liquid than when you roast it, because the liquid is a more efficient cooking medium than oven heat.

This is the first flaw, it seems to me, of poule-au-pot recipes, which instruct you to boil the bird whole. The second is that they also tell you to cook your vegetables to the pot, adding them at intervals, according to how long you think they need. The chances are that some will emerge overcooked.

1 chicken, or hen (poule)
1/2 chicken stock cube
2 onions
2 bay leaves
12 peppercorns


Joint the chicken, or get the butcher to do it for you. I cut mine into eight pieces: I separated the thighs and the drumsticks, and cut the breasts in half.

Put the thighs, drumsticks, backbone and giblets (if you have them - but minus the liver) into the bottom of a stockpot or deep casserole. Pour in water just to cover, and bring to a simmer. Skim the froth (though it is harmless - chefs get rid of it in order to avoid producing murky stock). Throw in the half stock cube, onions, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Cover (for thoughts on covering stock, see here), and simmer for 60 minutes. (I, liking very tender leg meat, allowed 90 minutes.) Add the breast portions. There is no need to turn up the heat to bring the liquid back to a simmer - it is hot enough. Cover, and allow another 30 minutes.

Chop off the tough leaves of the leeks, cut them down the middle, and slice. Soak them in water, to get rid of the grit. Transfer them (without their soaking water) to a saucepan, pour over a serving spoonful of stock from the chicken pot, add a knob of butter and some salt, cover and cook on a low to medium heat for five minutes. Uncover the pan and continue to cook, stirring, until the liquid has evaporated.

Peel the carrots and cut them into thick batons. Cook them in the same way as the leeks, but allowing them 10 to 12 minutes in the covered pan before removing the lid and evaporating the liquid.

We had our chicken with rice as well. Plain, boiled potatoes (new or maincrop) would also have been fine.

Serve the chicken with a spoonful or two of its stock. Keep the rest of the stock to use in other recipes. A salsa verde, or a garlic mayonnaise, would be a good accompaniment.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Conger stew

4 conger eel steaks
2 onions, sliced
Butter and a little oil for frying
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 bulb fennel, tough or discoloured outer parts removed, sliced
2 leeks, sliced and washed
4 red peppers, sliced
Waxy potatoes for 4
150ml water
Salt, pepper
Saffron (I bought a small, transparent box of threads, and used them all)

Conger may seem an exotic, even alarming ingredient; but that's what I picked at my local fishmonger. It turned out to be a good choice, because it has a monkfish-like, firm consistency.

In a heavy stockpot or casserole, soften the onions and garlic in the butter and oil (vegetables are inclined to catch in butter alone, unless you use a lot of it). Throw in the rest of the vegetables with the water, and bring to a simmer. Put in the fish, with salt and lots of pepper (or cayenne). (Ground pepper can turn bitter if cooked in a stock or stew; but the cooking time here is brief. This dish needs an ingredient that will give it a kick.)

Cover the pot, cooking at a low to medium simmer. Check progress from time to time. You'll find that the vegetables give off a lot of liquid, possibly enough to submerge everything.

The potatoes and the fish should be ready at roughly the same time. If the fish is ready first, transfer it to a dish and keep it warm in a low oven.

Turn off the heat. Last, stir in the saffron.

Serve the stew in bowls.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lemon posset

If you have children, you may not find the word "posset" very appetising. But I assure you that this pudding, conjured out of three ingredients, is magically delicious. Serves 4-5.

350ml double cream
80g caster sugar
2 lemons, juice and zest

Gently, bring the cream and the sugar to a simmer in a small saucepan. Allow to simmer for three minutes. (I suppose that the simmering thickens and stabilises the cream, to counterbalance the curdling effect of the lemon.)

Stir in the lemon juice and zest. Divide the mixture between four (or five) bowls, cover with cling film, and refrigerate for about three hours. The posset should thicken into a blancmange-like consistency.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Omelette souffle

Slow-cooked omelettes such as frittatas or tortillas can sometimes be tough. The proteins in eggs, like those in meat, become leathery if overcooked. One way of creating a lighter-textured omelette is to souffle it.

6 eggs, separated
100g hard cheese, such as Gruyere or Cheddar, grated
A little salt, if you like (the cheese is salty)
Large knob of butter

Beat the egg yolks lightly, and fold in the grated cheese. Whip the whites. I do this with a hand whisk, until I get soft peaks when I lift the whisk from the egg. A little vinegar helps the process, apparently.

Fold the whites into the yolk/cheese mixture, turning it over repeatedly with a spoon until roughly amalgamated. (You do this gently, in order to retain the air bubbles in the egg.)

Melt the butter over a gentle heat in a heavy, non-stick, 28cm frying pan. Pour in the omelette mix, and cook until it sets on the bottom. Cook the top under the grill, at its lowest flame.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Pot-roasted lamb shoulder

I took on board Elwyn's comment (below my oxtail stew entry) when I pot-roasted a whole shoulder of lamb for our fireworks party. (Rain washed out the fireworks, so we simply ate and drank). I browned the onions in oil in my casserole dish first, but after that followed the principle behind the oxtail stew, throwing the rest of the ingredients into the pot: lamb, 2 bay leaves, sprig of rosemary, 1 head of garlic separated into cloves, salt. I had only about 50mls of chicken stock, which I poured in along with half a chicken stock cube. You may frown - but I think the cube added richness to the sauce, of which there was plenty for eight people.

You're supposed to cook meat gently. But shoulder of lamb is very forgiving. Because I was using my heaviest pot, I started cooking the dish at gas mark 6/200C, turning it down after an hour and half - and turning over the meat - once it was bubbling. The lamb, like the oxtail, browned inside the pot.

After another 45 minutes, I put the pot on the bottom of the oven, turned up the dial to 6 again, and roasted some potatoes on the top shelf.

At the end of all that, I was able to carve the meat with a spoon and fork. I strained the sauce (squeezing the garlic into it), and returned meat and sauce to the pot, to serve as a kind of stew. It was meltingly tender.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Oxtail stew made simple

I have got lazier since I wrote my previous recipe for oxtail stew. I am less fussy about submerging meet that is stewing entirely in liquid, because I have not observed that the higher temperature of a steam-filled, covered casserole causes it to toughen. However, it does brown - and that has led me to doubt whether it is necessary to brown the meat first. Simply turning it, so that each surface is exposed above the liquid, does the trick. So I rubbed my oxtails in just a little oil, which on the exposed surfaces offers some protection to the meat.

Softening onions in oil before stewing is another procedure that may not make much difference to the finished dish.

I have also grown reluctant to throw away flavoursome ingredients. The onions, having imparted their flavour to the sauce, are expendable; but it is a shame to waste the fat. The home cook has an advantage over the restaurant chef, who, largely for aesthetic reasons, must skim sauces.

Oxtail is particularly fatty. Oxtail stew with mashed potato may be a wintry treat, but, with unskimmed sauce, is too rich. Plain, boiled potatoes are fine; or rice.

4 oxtails
A little sunflower oil
2 onions, chopped
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
1 ladleful beef (or chicken) stock
Sprig of thyme
Bay leaf
1tbsp tomato ketchup
Splash of Worcester sauce
1/2 star anise (since writing the previous recipe, I've decided that a whole star anise is too assertive)

Anoint the oxtails with a little oil, and arrange them in a casserole. Surround with the onions, garlic, star anise, and herbs; pour the stock around, and add the tomato and Worcester sauces. Add salt to taste.

Cook in a low oven for three to four hours. My Le Creuset casserole will simmer very gently on a gas mark S/130C heat (but may take a good hour to get to simmering point); your oven and dish may behave differently. Turn the oxtails from time to time.

Remove the oxtails, and sieve the sauce into a saucepan. Return the oxtails to the casserole, and cover. Taste the sauce, and reduce it if you like. Serve the oxtails with the sauce poured over.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Rocket, beetroot and goat's cheese salad

This salad for two - you see half of it above - consisted of:

2 large and 4 small beetroot
1 bag rocket
125g soft goat's cheese
2tbsp pine nuts, toasted in a dry saucepan over a very low heat
1dstsp balsamic vinegar
1/2tsp grain mustard
Salt, pepper
2dstsp extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more

I like to cook beetroot (after giving them a quick wash and trim) by putting them in a bath of boiling water in an oven dish, covering them, and baking at gas mark 4/180C. They seem to emerge moister and sweeter than when baked in foil. The smaller bulbs took about an hour to soften, and the larger ones nearly two hours.

Dissolve the mustard, with salt and pepper to taste, in the vinegar. (I used Tiptree Hot East Anglian mustard, which in fact is not particularly hot, and which has a sweetness that's ideal for this dish.) Whisk in the olive oil. The dressing can be quite sharp, because the creaminess of the cheese and the sweetness of the beetroot will offset it. Wash the rocket, and toss with the dressing.

Divide the rocket between two plates. Arrange the beetroot, peeled and sliced, on top; crumble over the goat's cheese, and scatter over the pine nuts. Drizzle a little more oil over everything.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Curried salmon

This curried salmon, which I made just for me, contained:

1 salmon steak
1tbsp sunflower oil
1dstsp butter
1 onion
2 green peppers
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1tsp cumin seeds, 1/2tsp coriander seeds, 5 cardamom pods, 6 black peppercorns, toasted over a low heat in a small saucepan, and ground in a mortar
2/3 tsp turmeric
1/3tsp cayenne pepper
4 red chillis, whizzed in an electric vegetable mill until roughly chopped

(It doesn't have to be as hot as this, of course. Ginger would have been a nice addition, as would coriander leaves, scattered over the dish at the end of cooking.) 

I warmed the oil and butter in the pan, and threw in all the ingredients except the salmon. I covered the pan and cooked everything gently, and then uncovered the pan to evaporate most of the liquid.

This process took about 30 minutes. I put in the salmon steak, and cooked it in the covered pan (again over a very low heat) for about 15 minutes. As you can see, towards the end I chopped it into three pieces to speed the cooking.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Chicken, couscous and lentils

You could of course use left-over, cooked chicken in this dish. If you did, and if you cooked the lentils in water (draining them when soft) and soaked the couscous in water, you would get a much grainier result than I did - my concoction was sludgy, because of the syrupiness of stock when reduced. Serves 4.

6 chicken thighs
3 garlic cloves - 2 whole, 1 chopped
Chicken stock
150g green lentils
150g couscous
Handful of pine kernels, toasted in a small saucepan
6 spring onions, sliced (cover them in boiling water and soak them for 30 minutes if you think they may be too assertive)
1 aubergine, cubed, tossed in olive oil, seasoned, baked for 30 minutes until tender
Handful parsley, chopped
1 lime, juiced
Olive oil
Tin of tomatoes
1tsp harissa

Put the thighs in a pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Pour in stock (or water) to come up to a level with the tops of them. Throw in the whole garlic cloves, with a bay leaf and a few peppercorns. Bring to a simmer and cook on a low heat, covered, until very tender - about 60 to 90 minutes. Remove the thighs to a bowl, and shred.

Use the liquid in which you've cooked the chicken to boil the lentils. Wash the lentils, drain them, and cover with stock with about 2cms to spare. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender - about 30 minutes. Top up the liquid if and when necessary. When the lentils are nearly tender, uncover the pan and allow the liquid to evaporate.

Put the couscous into a measuring jug, check the level, then return it to the bowl in which you weighed it. Pour stock (you should have some left) or water into the jug to come to the same level. Bring it to a boil in a saucepan, tip in the couscous, make sure it is all soaked, and cover for five minutes.

Warm the chopped garlic in a tbsp olive oil in a saucepan. Tip in the tomatoes, with a little salt and the harissa. Add any stock you have left. (You can break up the tomatoes with a potato masher.) Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

In a large bowl mix the chicken, lentils, pine kernels, spring onions, aubergines, parsley, lime, and a tbsp or two of olive oil. Serve the tomato sauce on the side.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Damson oat crumble

Hurry, while the damsons last. Their intense, tart flavour is unique. We're working our way through a compote - damsons simmered in sugared water until very soft, pushed through a sieve, and frozen in a Tupperware container. We warm up chunks of it, and eat it with a little cream or ice cream.

The following recipe comes, as do many of the pudding dishes on this blog, from Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book (Grub Street). I quickly gave up the idea of stoning the damsons: most of the flesh adheres to the stones. So we had to pick out the stones as we ate.

It is difficult to rub butter efficiently into a mix of flour, oats and sugar. I ended up with a mixture that looked a bit like roughly ground hazelnuts. No matter.

This quantity served six at the end of a largish meal. It would be about right for four hungrier people.

675g damsons
115g brown sugar
55g porridge oats
25g plain flour
Pinch ground cinnamon
55g butter

Put the damsons in a buttered oven dish, sprinkle over half the sugar, and scatter over about 60ml of water.

In a bowl, mix the rest of the sugar, the oats, flour, and cinnamon. Rub in the butter. Do not worry about the lumpy texture.

Sprinkle the crumble mixture on top of the damsons, and bake in a mark 5/190C oven for about 30 minutes, or until the fruit is bubbling and the crumble is crunchy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fried cheese sandwiches

The ingredients for these three sandwiches were:

80g Gruyere, grated
2 egg yolks, beaten
1tsp mustard
Few splashes Worcester sauce
Cayenne and/or black pepper, if you like

Packeted, sliced bread works particularly well, I am afraid. Cut off the crusts. Mash the ingredients, and spread them on half of the slices, in the centre. Lay the other slices on top. You may find with this kind of bread that you can squidge the edges together.

Melt a knob of butter and a little olive oil in a frying pan, over a low to medium heat. (Use no more fat than you want to eat, because the bread will absorb it all.) Slip in the sandwiches, and fry until brown beneath - 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove the sandwiches, and add a little more butter and oil. The butter may sizzle rapidly, so to keep it from burning you may need to remove the pan from the heat. Fry the other sides of the sandwiches.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keith Floyd and Auvergne rarebit

The news that Keith Floyd had died at the early age of 65 does not come as a huge surprise. Even in his heyday he was clearly drinking too much; my publishing friends said that he was very difficult to deal with. In recent years, as his career declined, his health was the subject of various alarming bulletins.

I first watched him rather late in his TV career, and could not quite see why he was so popular. The charm and ebullience had faded, to be replaced by a more manic quality. He didn't seem to be enjoying himself much. You were uncomfortably aware of the tensions as filming took place.

The book of Floyd on France, which someone gave to me, was a nice surprise. The instructions for many of the recipes are a little too perfunctory: I don't believe that they would all work without adjustment. But the book is inspiring, nonetheless, because it is the work of a genuine enthusiast. That is the quality that fans saw in the best of his TV work.

Floyd's version of the following recipe has five to six cloves of garlic, simply squished into the mixture. Not everyone wants to eat nearly raw garlic, and especially not in the kind of dish you are most likely to eat at lunchtime. Floyd specifies Tomme de Cantal - the young, soft version of the cheese. It is hard to find. Serves 4.

4 thick slices of white bread (crusts as well, if you like), torn into chunks
1 clove garlic, chopped
50g butter
As much cheese (Cantal, Cheddar, Gruyere - that sort of thing) as you like, cut into slivers

Pour just enough milk over the bread to give it a good soaking. You want a quantity of bread that will make a layer in a large frying pan - lay it on a large plate to check.

Melt the butter in the pan, over a low heat. Add the garlic, and stir it about. Tip in the bread, and lay the cheese on top, squishing everything down with a spatula.

Allow the mixture to brown underneath. Then brown the top under the grill.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Scrambled eggs with vinegar

I have concluded that it is best not to put vinegar and salt in the water when you poach eggs: they soften the whites, which fail to cohere. But their softening effect is ideal for scrambled eggs. To four eggs, I added 1tsp of white wine vinegar, which we could not taste when the eggs were cooked. They were deliciously soft and creamy.
Melt 1tbsp butter in a non-stick pan. Beat the eggs lightly (to encourage them to set) with the salt and vinegar, pour into the pan, and cook over a low heat, stirring regularly. Meanwhile, keep another tbsp of butter, cut into pieces, to hand.
The trick is to judge the moment when to take the pan off the heat. The eggs should be approaching the perfect state, in which they are set but still creamy, but not quite there - they will carry on cooking in the hot pan. Stir in the remaining butter, which will help to arrest the cooking process.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Potato cake

I have not found the ideal recipe for potato cakes. Ones bound with flour - as in a Simon Hopkinson recipe in Roast Chicken and Other Stories - taste too floury, in my experience (though perhaps I should have made them smaller and flatter, like Scotch pancakes). Mashed potato simply formed into patties and fried tends to fall apart. But the one above worked pretty well.

It is bound with beaten egg. I used just enough egg to bind the potato, which became alarmingly squidgy. However, once placed in hot oil in the frying pan, it cohered.

My daughter complained that the texture was too dry.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Bubble and squeak

Like Tuesday's recipe, this is an adaptation from one in my friend Carolyn's recent piece in the Guardian.

2tbsp sunflower oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped

2 large potatoes, cooked and mashed
1 quarter cabbage, chopped

2 cooked sausages, sliced

80g Gruyere, grated

Salt, pepper

In a frying pan, and over a low to medium heat, soften the onion and garlic with a little salt for about five minutes. Tip in the potato, cabbage, and sausage, add salt and pepper to taste, and stir everything about a bit. Flatten the mixture with a spatula, and cook it for a further five minutes, or until the underside starts to brown.

Tip the mixture into an oven dish. Sprinkle the cheese on top, and amalgamate it a little by pressing down with a fork. Bake for about 30 minutes at gas mark 6/200C.

The result is pictured above. I ate it all.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Stir-fried pork and cabbage

This is a rough approximation of a recipe from a delightful piece by my friend Carolyn Hart in the Guardian.

Bunch (6) spring onions
3 cloves garlic, chopped
450g pork mince
2tbsp sunflower oil
1/2 cabbage, chopped
1 lime, juiced
1tsp sugar
1tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)
A few splashes soy sauce

Unlike Carolyn, I threw the onions, garlic and mince into the pan with the oil at the same time. I fried the mixture on a low to medium heat. It took about 25 minutes for the mince to start to brown.

Meanwhile, I steamed the cabbage for three minutes. I drained it, and added it to the browned mince, allowing it to warm up again for a few minutes. While that was going on, I dissolved the sugar in the lime juice, and stirred in the nam pla and soy sauce. I poured the mixture into the pan, stirring and allowing it to bubble for a minute.

Carolyn's addition of coriander would have been nice - but I didn't have any.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Steamed rice, refined

Every so often, cooking rice obsesses me (see below, and previous posts, including this). The following method, I reckon, works perfectly with most of the widely available brands of Basmati rice, so I should be able to give the subject a rest for a while.

1) Soak rice for 20 minutes or longer.

2) Drain, tip into a saucepan, and cover the grains with 1.5 times their volume of cold water. Add salt, if you like.

3) Bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to its lowest, cover the pan, and put a heat disperser under it.

4) Cook for a further 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and serve when you're ready.

Pre-soaking means that the rice will soften in less water. (If you are cooking 250g or more rice, you may find that you need less than 1.5 times its volume of water. Covering it by a mm or two should work.) By the end, its surface is dry, and it separates when stirred, even after it has stood for a while. Boiled straight from the packet and then covered, it is apt to clump.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rice, steamed

My most recently recommended method of cooking rice works very satisfactorily. (Wash, bring twice its volume of water to the boil, tip in rice and a little salt if you like, lid on, return to boil, heat down, simmer for 10 minutes, drain.) But I get restless after doing things the same way for a while.

Yesterday, I soaked my rice for half an hour - as when you soak beans or lentils, it has a softening effect, and reduces water consumption and cooking time. I measured out water to 1.5 times the volume (of rice), poured it into a pan with a little salt, and tipped in the rice (drained). The water came to just above the level of the rice.

If you cook unsoaked rice in just 1.5 times its volume of water, it may remain hard - it will absorb the water too quickly, and the subsequent steaming will not tenderise it. The pre-soaking compensates for the less efficient tenderising process; the cooking time is probably the same as for boiling unsoaked rice. I reckoned that giving the rice a longer submersion, by starting it from cold, would aid the process.

I brought the rice to the boil in the covered pan, turned down the flame, and allowed 15 minutes in total.

The cooked grains were smaller than normal. The rice clumped a bit, but separated when fluffed with a fork. The Basmati rice available here in France tends to get mushy more readily than do the brands I buy in England, so this process may work better there. I may be on to something.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Stock, covered

Stock should be simmered in an uncovered pan, is the conventional wisdom. Covered, the liquid boils too rapidly; impurities that would otherwise float to the surface, to be skimmed off, get absorbed, and turn it cloudy. A temperature just below boiling point is sufficient to extract the flavour and the collagen (which converts to gelatine).

Some years ago, I read a piece by Heston Blumenthal recommending that you cook stock in a pressure cooker. That way, he said, the flavour did not disperse. I was sceptical: was steam from a simmering pot really carrying away valuable flavour? Surely, if you wanted to concentrate flavour in a sauce, you boiled it uncovered? Nevertheless, I tried the Blumenthal technique. It produced stock that tasted flat and stale. (As I mentioned in the comments section of a previous piece.)

I wonder now whether the tired flavour was produced by overcooked vegetables. As I have written before, you should add vegetables to a stock no more than 40 minutes before the end of cooking it. And do we home cooks need to worry about cloudy stocks? We're not producing consomme - or, if we are, we should probable clarify the liquid anyway.

So now I am experimenting with covered pans. The advantage of them is that, once you are sure that the liquid is simmering gently (I use the smallest ring on the hob, and put a heat disperser under the pan), you can leave the pot for several hours without worrying that the stock is boiling away. The appearance of the stock is little different, and the flavour is at least as good.

Perhaps my next experiment should be to try the pressure cooker again, without vegetables.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Baked spinach

It may have been crude, after finding some squeaky-fresh spinach at L'Aigle market, to subject it to an hour's cooking - nutritionally wasteful, too. Still, the result was delicious.

It is adapted from a recipe in Richard Olney's Simple French Food. Pictured is half a kilo of spinach, washed and sliced and crammed into the dish, with some salt. On the surface is scattered about 2 tbsps of flour, over which is dribbled olive oil - the idea being, I think, to protect the top layer of leaves. I baked the dish for 45 minutes at gas mark 6/200C. (Looking up Olney, I see that he recommends gas mark 8/230C for the first 10 minutes, gas mark 4/180C thereafter.) Then I spread a layer (about 3tbsps) of thick creme fraiche over the surface, and baked it (I might have turned down the heat at this point) for about 10 minutes longer.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Roast Charlottes

One of the mysteries of my cooking life is how the cheap, thin, elderly roasting pan pictured above, and that I use here in France, has a far more effective non-stick surface than the expensive, solid pan I use at home.

First, I roasted a chicken - with butter between the skin and the breast, olive oil smeared on the skin, half a lemon squeezed over, and the hull of the lemon, along with two garlic cloves, placed in the cavity. (Gas mark 6/200C for 30 minutes; gas mark 2/150C for a further 60. It was a 1.7kg bird. The oven here is probably hotter than the settings imply.)

I covered the chicken in foil, and tossed the sliced Charlotte potatoes (washed first in cold water) in the sauce it had left behind, along with a little more oil. The garlic cloves were not tender, so I put those in the pan too, with a couple of sprigs of rosemary. Gas mark 6/200C, for 60 minutes, with the potatoes turned half way through.

The stickiness of the roasting juices and the starch from potatoes that had not been parboiled would, at home, have necessitated a great deal of scraping. Here, the potatoes lifted from the pan easily.

We ate the chicken and potatoes with green beans and mayonnaise - the latter containing the two cloves of roasted garlic.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lamb stew with aubergines and chick peas

2 lamb shanks
1tbsp sunflower oil

1tsp cumin seeds

1 orange, cut into quarters

1 ladleful chicken stock

1tsp turmeric

6 unpeeled garlic cloves

1 large aubergine, cubed

1 tin chickpeas, drained

Heat the oil in a heavy casserole, and brown the shanks. You want the oil to be hot enough to brown the meat quickly, but not so hot that it burns. Once the browning has started, you should be able to turn the flame quite low.

Throw in the cumin, and let it fry for a minute or so. Then throw in the orange, and pour in the stock; add the turmeric, garlic, and salt to taste.

Put the casserole, covered, into a low oven. My Le Creuset, pictured above, will reach a very gentle simmer at gas mark S/130C, though I sometimes start at a higher heat, to get it going. Other pans, and ovens, may behave differently.

After two and a half hours, stir in the aubergine. After a further 45 minutes, stir in the chick peas. Cook for another 20 minutes or so.

At this point, I removed the meat from the bones and stirred it into the stew, which served 3, generously.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Spinach and Gruyere tart

Either my pastry-making - which is certainly fallible - or the use of Dove's gluten-free flour caused the crust of this tart to be disappointing. It was dry and powdery. But the filling was delicious.

For the pastry, I used 200g of flour, 100g of butter, and a few tbsps of water. I cut the butter into cubes, and put it and the flour into the fridge before rubbing it in. I had my water in a bowl with some ice, and added it until the mixture cohered. I wrapped the pastry in clingfilm, and put it back into the fridge.

When the time came to line the tart tin (a 22cm one), I followed Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's advice and grated it in, before pressing it down and round the edges. I blind-baked it, roughly as he describes.

For the filling, I used:

1 bag spinach
1 whole egg, 2 yolks
150ml double cream
150ml milk
100g Gruyere
Grated nutmeg

Wash the spinach, remove the thicker stalks, cram it into a pan, and put it, covered, on to a high heat. Allow it to wilt for a minute or so, then uncover the pan and continue to cook, stirring, until all the leaves are wilted. Drain.

When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze out the water. Doing it thoroughly is important, because otherwise the liquid will dilute the custard and stop it setting.

Beat the eggs. Stir them into the milk and cream. Stir in the cheese. Grate in a little nutmeg and salt.

Spread the spinach over the pastry base. Pour over the custard mixture. Place the tin on a baking sheet, and bake at gas mark 3/160C for 30 to 45 minutes, until the custard is set.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Beetroot and goat's cheese

A perfect combination, and perfect too with the lentil salad I mentioned last week.

Some recommend wrapping beetroot in foil and baking it. In my limited experience, it remains moister if, after washing it, you bake it in a shallow bath of boiling water in an oven dish, covered with foil. I gave my medium-sized beetroot an hour at gas mark 6/200C.

Peel it, slice it, and top with the cheese, crumbled.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lentil and tomato salad

100g Puy lentils
1 onion, peeled, halved through the root
1 carrot, peeled, cut into chunks
1 clove garlic
10 cherry tomatoes
1dstsp balsamic vinegar
Salt, pepper
1/2tsp Dijon mustard
2tbsp olive oil
8 sundried tomatoes, cut into small pieces

Rinse the lentils. Put them in a pan, cover with cold water with a few cms to spare, throw in the onion, carrot and garlic (they will flavour the lentils a little, one assumes), bring to the boil, and simmer, partly covered. You want them softened but not mushy - it may take 20 to 40 minutes. The water may need topping up from time to time.

Roll the tomatoes in a little oil, and bake on a baking sheet at gas mark 6/200C for about 25 minutes. It doesn't matter if they burst.

Drain the lentils. Fish out the garlic, squeeze it from its skin, and mash it into the vinegar in a bowl. Stir in salt and pepper and mustard; then whisk in the oil.

Return to the sieve, discard the onion and carrot pieces, tip the lentils into the vinaigrette, and stir. Stir in the sundried and roasted cherry tomatoes. Some herbs would be good, too.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Egg-light frittata

This frittata, cooked in a 28cm pan, contains only three eggs - because three were all I had. It means that you don't necessarily get a coherent mass of omelette to slice and lift on to plates, but in other respects works well - vegetables with an eggy accompaniment.

New potatoes, scrubbed and sliced - enough to form a layer in the pan
Olive oil
1 large red pepper, deseeded, cut into fork-sized pieces
120g mushrooms, sliced
Large knob butter
3 eggs, lightly beaten
120g hard cheese, such as Gruyere, grated

Drop the potatoes into a pan of lightly salted water, and simmer until tender. Drain.

Warm about a tbsp of olive oil in another pan, and add the peppers, frying on a low to medium heat and adjusting the flame if the oil threatens to burn. After about five minutes, add the mushrooms, with some salt, and cook until all the water they have disgorged has evaporated. Turn up the heat, if necessary, to speed this process.

Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan over a gentle heat. Pour in the eggs, and tip in the potatoes, peppers and mushrooms, spreading them out. Scatter the cheese over the top.

Cook gently until the egg shows signs of setting. Put the pan under a low grill to melt the cheese.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Tuna, beans and olives

This is a very easy lunch. It consists of a tin of tuna, drained; a tin of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed; a large handful of Crespo, "Greek-style" olives, stoned; a tbsp of mayonnaise; and a dstsp of Encona hot pepper sauce. Parsley would have been a good addition. You need the olives not only for their tang, but to relieve the beigeness of the other ingredients.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mixed leaves and soft cheese

I can find a salad of mixed leaves, no matter how varied they are and no matter how flavoursome the dressing, rather drab to eat. There is a monotonous, leafy chewiness to it. Mixing in a soft or softish cheese, though, transforms it into something much more beguiling. Goats cheeses work particularly well. Cream cheese works fine too.

The salad above would have been even nicer with some toasted pine nuts. As it was, it contained an organic salad bag, one dstsp of white wine vinegar, a little salt, two dstsps of olive oil (you don't need more, because of the creaminess of the cheese), and about 150g of Philadelphia. As you toss the salad, the cheese breaks up and coats the leaves.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Chicken, potatoes, garlic, rosemary and lemon

This has been the best year for Jersey Royals I can remember in a long time. The potatoes are earthily flavoursome, and have a pleasing, waxy consistency. Buy them while you can. In a few weeks, many greengrocers will no longer have them, as the supermarkets hog the supplies.

Last night, we had chicken pieces roasted on a bed of sliced Jerseys, with rosemary, a whole head of garlic, and a quartered lemon. I sliced the Jerseys lengthways, about 50mm thick, and put them into a bowl of water. I rubbed them gently, to try to get rid of as much surface starch as possible. Even then, they can stick to the roasting tin; but it would be a shame to boil them first, losing more flavour.

I tossed the potatoes with olive oil, layered them in the tin, and scattered the rosemary, a whole head of garlic cloves, and the quartered lemon on top. (I did not squeeze the lemon - the acidity would have hindered the softening of the potatoes.) I rubbed a little oil over the chicken pieces, salted them, and placed them on top. I placed the tin in the oven for an hour and a quarter, turning the potatoes half way through.

We ate it with a garlic mayonnaise. Rather than use pungent, raw garlic, I removed one of the roasted cloves from the oven, and mashed that with my egg yolk and mustard.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pot-roasted lamb shoulder

I once believed that the way to preserve tenderness in meat was not, as many people believed, to surround it in water or steam, but to roast it at a low temperature. I have since discovered that the temperature of my oven, at its lowest setting, is higher than the temperature inside a heavy casserole placed in the oven. This lamb fell off the bone. Serves 4.

1 half-shoulder of lamb
1tbsp sunflower oil
2tbsp white wine (or red wine) vinegar
1 head of garlic, separated into cloves
1 large onion, cut into chunks
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves

In a heavy casserole, warm the oil over a medium heat. Put in the lamb, salted, browning it on all the sides it will rest on. The pan will get very hot; the trick is to turn down the heat if the oil threatens to burn, while still getting the meat to brown.

Pour in the vinegar, which may splutter and evaporate almost immediately. Tip in the garlic, onion, carrot, and herbs. Cover, and place in a gas mark S/130C oven, for three and a half to four hours.

Check on the progress from time to time. You want a very gentle simmer, and you may find that this low heat does not achieve it, at least at first. My smaller Le Creuset pan will respond to gas mark S; my larger one takes ages to warm up, and may require a gas mark 2/150C setting to achieve the same effect. You have to learn how your oven and equipment behave through trial and error.

Remove the lamb from the casserole on to a chopping board. Tip the vegetables and sauce, of which there may be a fair amount, through a sieve into a saucepan. Return the lamb to the casserole, cover it again, and return it to the oven. Squeeze the garlic from the husks into the sauce; discard the other vegetables. Simmer the sauce until you have a consistency and concentration of flavour you like. Check the seasoning.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Spaghetti and tuna

I noticed a recipe for linguine and crab in the Guardian a few weeks ago. Fancying something similar, but having neither crab nor lemon in the house, I tried the following instead. Tinned tuna does not respond well to heating: allow it simply to warm through with the hot spring onions and garlic in a covered pan. Serves 2.

250g spaghetti, spaghettini, or linguine
2tbsp olive oil
4 spring onions, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 or more dried red chilli (to taste), whizzed
1 tin tuna flakes (in spring water, preferably)
A few splashes of soy sauce
Grated zest of 1 orange
Handful parsley, chopped

Put a large pot of water on to boil. Salt it, and add the spaghetti, allowing it to fold in to the water as it softens. Keep it cooking at a lively simmer.

In a heavy pan and over a gentle flame, soften the spring onions, garlic, and chilli in the oil, for about three minutes. Turn off the heat, and stir in the tuna, soy, orange zest, and parsley. Cover the pan until the pasta is ready.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, and tip it into the tuna mixture. Stir it through.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Baked sausages, revised

My objections to baking sausages have been that the heat required to brown them may cause them to dry up, and that the skins often get tough. Being dense, I didn't twig until I read a Jamie Oliver recipe that the obvious solution to the latter problem was to roll the sausages in the oil or fat (I use olive oil, mostly, and rub it over them with my hands) first.

My theory had been that frying sausages on the lowest possible heat was the best way to retain their tenderness and juiciness. But practice has not borne it out. Baking them at what would appear to be the dangerously high heat of gas mark 6/200C for 30 minutes, turning them once, works fine.

For previous - and possibly misleading - entries, start here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cucumber soup; cucumber salad

Salting appears to concentrate the sweetness in cucumbers. It tempers the sharpness of vinegar, producing a zingy, sweet-and-sour flavour. It also has the benefit of sweating out the water that might otherwise dilute the soup as you cool it.

For 2 to 3
1 cucumber
150g Greek yoghurt
1tbsp white wine vinegar
1tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed with a little salt
Handful mint leaves, chopped
Jellied chicken stock

Peel the cucumber, cut it into dice, arrange in a colander, and sprinkle over salt, stirring the dice to distribute it. Leave for half an hour. Rinse, and dry with paper towels.

Mix the yoghurt with the vinegar, oil, garlic, and mint. Stir in the cucumber. Stir in stock until you have a consistency that suits - I used two serving spoons-worth. Check the seasoning - you may not need any more salt. Chill for at least an hour.

For 2
1/2 cucumber
1dstsp white wine vinegar
1/2tsp sugar
1tbsp herbs - mint, or dill, or a mixture

Peel the cucumber, and slice thinly. Arrange the slices in a colander, sprinkling over salt as you go. Leave for half an hour. Rinse, and dry with paper towels.

In a salad bowl, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar. Stir in the cucumber, with the herbs.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tomato sauce, blended

I use my stick blender a lot. It saves me the effort of transferring soup to a regular blender, or of pushing it through a mouli-legumes; and, because it is less efficient than those other devices, it leaves behind a rougher, more interesting texture.

I also use the stick blender when I make a tomato sauce with onions - I like to incorporate them in the sauce.

1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2tbsp olive oil
400g tin tomatoes (I use Cirio)
1/2tsp sugar
Bay leaf

In a heavy pan, and over a gentle heat, sweat the onions and garlic in the oil with a few grindings of salt (as recommended by Lisa in her comment on this entry) until golden - 10 to 15 minutes. Add more oil if the vegetables threaten to catch. Tip in the tomatoes. Add a little water to the tin, swirl it around to dissolve the tomato adhering to the sides, and pour this mixture into the pan too. Bring the contents to a simmer, and break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Now get to work with the blender - it will work less efficiently if you allow the sauce to reduce and thicken. (If I sweated carrot and celery with the onion and garlic, I am not sure that my blender would be able to break them down.)

Return the pan to the heat, add the sugar (tinned tomatoes usually benefit from a little sweetening) and bay leaf, and simmer until thickened. Check the seasoning.

We ate this sauce with meatballs. (A recipe for which, with a slightly different version of the sauce, is here.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Potato salad

Jersey Royal potatoes are at their best now, and as a weekend treat are worth, in my view, the £1-plus a pound they cost.

I am puzzled that so few potato salad recipes include mayonnaise. Liking potatoes is fine, and liking mayonnaise (home made) is fine; but mixing them appears to be infra dig. Is it because there is mayonnaise in ready-prepared potato salads?

Well, I like potato salad with mayonnaise. Scrape the potatoes, and if necessary cut the larger ones to correspond in size to the smaller ones; put in lightly salted, cold water, bring to a simmer and cook gently until a prod with a sharp knife tells you that they are cooked.

Meanwhile, make the mayonnaise.

Drain the potatoes, and let them cool - hot potatoes thin the mayonnaise and can split it. Cut them into smaller pieces if you like. Mix with the quantity of mayonnaise that suits you, along with salt and pepper if desired. Chives, snipped in with scissors, are a very good addition. Or spring onions - if they are likely to be harsh in flavour, soak them in boiling water first.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I do not have a recipe for hamburgers. I buy steak mince from the butcher, and I form it into flattish patties of about 150g each. That's it. No seasoning, and no egg for binding - the mince is usually moist enough to hold together.

The cooking is quite hard to judge, though. In line with Matthew Fort's advice on cooking steaks in the Guardian, I heat a heavy, cast-iron pan for 10 minutes (but over a medium rather than a high flame), and I rub a little sunflower oil over the burgers. (Oil put into the pan is likely to burn.) Now I salt them, and I fry them for about 10 minutes; I turn them over after three to four minutes, and then more regularly.

I always have to cut into the burgers to see whether the insides are cooked, and I think that I am often too timid to remove the burgers from the pan at the right moment, when the rare parts are just about to cook and will do so away from the heat.

Louis' Lunch, which claims to be the home of the hamburger, serves the burgers in slices of toast rather than in rolls. It is a good idea. I find a roll too much to digest, particularly if I am eating potatoes as well. I put each burger on a slice of toast, which absorbs the juices that come out as the meat relaxes.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Crackling, cracked

Well, possibly. Such a claim is asking for punishment - like asserting that you've perfected your golf swing, or tennis serve. But I may be on to something.

Various recipes tell you to rub vinegar, as well as salt, into your pork rind. At the weekend, I tried it. First, I rubbed table salt into the rind, left it for 15 minutes, and patted dry the rind with paper towels. Then I rubbed in about a tbsp of white wine vinegar, grinded over sea salt, and - as I did last time - put my 1kg joint of belly pork into an oven pre-heated to the highest temperature.

After 40 minutes, I knew it was going to work. The crackling was dry, crunchy and golden. We could have eaten it then; but I cooked the pork for a further 2 hours, 45 minutes at the bottom of the oven at gas mark S/130C.

Why it works, or why lemon juice helps to crisp the skin of roast chicken, I am not sure. Something to do with the fats dissolving in the acid, I suppose.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tarragon and rosemary stuffing

The stuffing I made at the weekend was similar to this one. As I wrote earlier, you do not have to be at all precise about quantities: all you are doing is binding breadcrumbs with egg (and with the butter you may have used to soften onion and garlic), and flavouring them with as large a quantity of herbs as you like. I think that lemon zest is a winning addition.

This time, I used three thick hunks of white bread, which I whizzed with the leaves from a stalk of rosemary. I softened two small onions and a clove of garlic in about a tbsp of butter for only about five minutes, until they had started to turn golden. I added a handful of tarragon, chopped, and the zest of a whole lemon, with just a little salt (bread is salty) and generous grindings of black pepper. I mixed everything by hand with one beaten egg.

I put the stuffing inside my chicken. I can see the point of cooking it apart; but it stays moister inside the bird.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chicken Basquaise in the oven

If you can cook this dish in the oven with a minimum of fuss, why not use the technique for other chicken stews? My earlier Chicken Basquaise recipe was pretty simple; here's an even easier one.

4 chicken thighs, 4 drumsticks
1 tin tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 onions, chopped
4 red peppers, cut into fork-sized chunks
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp olive oil

Mix the ingredients in a roasting tin, arranging the thighs skin-side up. Put into a gas mark 6/200C oven. Check the progress every 15 to 20 minutes, and turn down the heat if the dish is bubbling too energetically. (After 30 minutes, I turned down the oven to gas mark 4/180C.) Once the tomatoes are cooking, you can break them up with a wooden spoon. You need to give the ingredients a stir quite regularly, and if they threaten to catch at the edges you can thin them with a little stock. (Or add half a stock cube at the beginning, and add water to the tin when necessary.)

Cook for 60 to 75 minutes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Leek and potato soup

If you've ever made the mistake of mashing potatoes in a food processor, you'll know that the blades give them the consistency of Uhu. As do the blades of a liquidiser when you blend the potatoes in a soup. The solution is to cook the potatoes separately, and mash them. Serves 4.

3 medium potatoes
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
3 medium leeks
Chicken stock

Peel the potatoes, and cut them into chunks as you would for mash. (I usually cut mine into pieces about 2cm square.) Cook them in about 200ml of chicken stock, with a little salt. If you put a lid on the pan, the potatoes do not have to be submerged in liquid - and it is better to go easy on the stock now than to end up with a thin soup.

Cut off the roots and the tough leaves of the leeks. Split them down the middle, then slice them vertically, and wash them. Allow them to soak for a few minutes, so that the grit can disperse. Drain them, and put them into a saucepan with about 25ml stock, a knob of butter, and a little salt. Cook them gently in a covered pan until soft and glossy (about 10 to 15 minutes), adding a little more stock if they threaten to catch.

When the potatoes are soft, fish out the garlic, slip it from its skin, return it to the pan, and mash it with the potato.

Add enough stock to the leeks to enable you to blend them. Put them in a liquidiser, or use a stick blender.

Combine the leeks and the potato, adding more stock if necessary. Warm up the soup gently - if you boil it, you'll bring out the glueyness in the potatoes. Check the seasoning. Away from the heat, stir in another knob of butter.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Chicken with aubergines, lemon and garlic

My most recent chicken saute recipes (here and here) have involved a certain amount of fussing: do you cover the pot or not? If you leave it uncovered, will the chicken, and other ingredients, cook through and tenderise?

It need not be that complicated. You do not even need to brown the chicken pieces first.

4 chicken thighs, 4 drumsticks
2tbsp olive oil
2 aubergines, cubed
1 head garlic - 1 clove peeled and chopped, the rest left whole
1 lemon, quartered
200ml chicken stock
1 bay leaf

Mix the ingredients in a roasting tin, and bake at gas mark 6/200C for an hour. Stir from time to time, and allow the thighs to sit skin side up for a while, so that the skin browns. Add more stock, depending on how much sauce you want and on whether the contents of the tin threaten to dry out.

Chicken legs will take this blast of heat without becoming tough. If you have breasts as well, add them about 25 minutes before the end of cooking.

You could add minced chillis to the dish, stirring them in at the end. Or (mixed with the stock at the start of cooking) harissa. Serve with rice or couscous.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

One-pan lamb chops

Allegra McEvedy has offered some very attractive recipes in the Guardian recently. I think I shall give this one a miss, however. Perhaps it's unfair not to have a go; but there are several details that make me think it would give me trouble.

You fry spiced lamb chops, then onion rings, then slices of butternut squash. You layer them in the frying pan with broccoli, pour stock over it all, and bake for 10 minutes.

First, I would not use a cast iron pan of the type illustrated in the newspaper. Any seasoning that the pan has had - the accretion of a slick layer thanks to cooking fat - will be compromised by the deglazing effect of the stock.

Allegra McEvedy can peel and slice a squash in four minutes, while her onion rings are frying. That is beyond my competence. My biggest reservation, though, concerns the cooking time. Squash is often tough. You cannot rely on it to tenderise after a brief frying and a 10 minute immersion in stock, as it receives here - even assuming that the stock is sufficient to immerse it. The broccoli might be a problem, too. If it does not touch the liquid, it might remain crunchy; if it is immersed, it will overcook.

What do you do with all the liquid at the end? Use some as sauce, and the rest later as stock, I suppose.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Gravy with roast chicken

Roasting a chicken, I usually simmer the giblets (excluding the liver) with a few vegetables in a small saucepan, and add this stock to the juices in the roasting tin.

This weekend, I put the giblets and the vegetables (an onion and a carrot, both sliced, along with some garlic cloves) in the tin with the bird, roasting them alongside it for 30 minutes at gas mark 6/200C. Then I poured in half a glass of white wine, stirring giblets and vegetables into the liquid, and turned down the oven to gas mark 2/150C for a further 90 minutes (it was a 2kg bird). Every so often, as the liquid evaporated, I added a little water. I doubt whether I used more than 150ml liquid in total; the chicken contributed its own juices.

What was left at the end of the two hours was, strained, our gravy - nothing else added.

My reservation about this technique is that a steamy atmosphere in the oven might cook the chicken too efficiently, drying out the breast. But that was not a problem in this instance.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fishcakes in breadcrumbs

One can never match at home the perfect breadcrumb coating that restaurants achieve. But one can get closer to it than the messy process of applying the crumbs suggests is possible.

For fishcakes, use a similar volume of fish and potato. After boiling the potatoes and draining them, allow them to cool for a while before mashing them. They seem to become starchier - a quality you don't want in ordinary mash but that helps the cakes to cohere.

To cook the fish, I usually put it into a warm gratin dish, pour over a half pint or so of milk (flavoured with bay, salt and peppercorns), cover with foil, and bake at gas mark 6/200C for about 15 minutes. I use the milk to make a bechamel, perhaps with parsley.

Flake the fish into the mash, stir, and form into cakes. Have to hand a plate of flour, a dish of beaten egg, and a plate of breadcrumbs. Coat the fishcakes in flour, dip them in the egg, and turn them in the crumbs. This last process is messy, and sticky; you'll be lucky to be able to achieve a consistent coating.

Heat a generous quantity of sunflower oil, with butter if you like (perhaps to a depth of 0.5cms), in a frying pan, until a breadcrumb sizzles in it. Fry the fishcakes over a low to medium heat until brown on each side and warmed through. You'll find that the cooked coating looks more impressive than the raw one did.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


If you have eaten aligot (cheesy mash) in its native region, the Auvergne, you may have found it somewhat gluey. This quality comes from the beating it has received in the pan, as the cook has combined the mashed potato and the cheese, over heat. The process releases a good deal of starch.

It is not unpleasant, and can be comforting. But if you want to avoid it, you can warm through the mixture in the oven.

The quantity of cheese may seem high. I often use more than this. For 2.

4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 garlic clove
50g butter
200g Cantal or similar cheese (Cheddar is fine)
Salt, pepper

Put the potatoes and garlic into lightly salted, cold water in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer until soft. Drain, and allow to steam for a minute or two.

Heat the oven to gas mark 7/220C. Warm a gratin dish in it.

Put the butter into the hot saucepan. Pass the potato and garlic through a mouli-legumes into the pan (or slip the garlic from its skin, and mash it and the potato with a masher). Stir in the butter until melted. Stir in the cheese.

Tip the mixture into the gratin dish, cover with foil, and give it 10 minutes in the oven to warm through.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Red cabbage salad

I have come to admit to myself, rather late in life, that I am not especially fond of cooked red cabbage. Perhaps my problem is the assertiveness of the acid content, which is essential to preserve its colour. I like it raw, though.

Quarter red cabbage, shredded (this may be a job best done by a mandolin) and washed
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
5tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt, pepper
3tbsp raisins, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
3tbsp pine kernels, toasted in a saucepan over a very gentle heat

Grind salt to taste into the vinegar in a salad bowl, stir to dissolve, and whisk in the oil. Throw in the cabbage, raisins, and pine nuts, grind over pepper to taste, and toss.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Chicken with balsamic vinegar

In my most recent chicken saute recipes (here, for example), I have suggested covering the pot for a while, before uncovering it to allow the sauce to reduce. This one has vinegar, albeit of a mild kind, and requires reduction right from the start - hence the uncovered pan throughout. The disadvantage was that the cloves of garlic did not soften thoroughly. Nevertheless, I squeezed them from their skins about 10 minutes before the end of cooking, and mashed them into the sauce.

4 chicken thighs
4 drumsticks
1dstsp sunflower oil
150ml balsamic vinegar
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
Chicken stock
Sprig of rosemary

In a heavy casserole or saute pan large enough to contain the chicken pieces in a single layer, fry the thighs and drumsticks, salted, gently, until brown. You should not need more oil, because the chicken pieces will exude their own fat. Pour in the vinegar, throw in the garlic cloves and rosemary and simmer gently, uncovered, for an hour to an hour and a half. (I like my chicken well-cooked; and this method will not tenderise it as efficiently as would a covered pan.)

When the vinegar turns syrupy and threatens to catch, thin it with a little stock; and keep adding more liquid as necessary. When you are nearly ready to serve, fish out the garlic cloves, slip the garlic from the skins, and mash it into the sauce.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Rhubarb fool

This would be the easiest dish in the world were it not for the slight difficulty of judging the consistency of the rhubarb. It should be sludgy, not runny; and that usually means that you have to reduce the liquid it throws off.

The quantities below served 4 people. The rhubarb sticks were thick, and the volume of cream was about a third of that of the rhubarb.

6 sticks rhubarb
1 1/2tbsp caster sugar (or more, or less, according to taste)
284ml double cream
1 tsp vanilla essence

Wash the rhubarb, cut it into short lengths, and throw it into the pan with 50ml water. You need the water to stop it catching, even though you'll find that you have an abundance of liquid later. Cover the pan, and cook over a medium heat. Add the sugar after a few minutes. (If you put the sugar in right away, it might catch on the pan and caramelise.) Turn down the heat once the contents of the pan are cooking properly. Allow the rhubarb to soften - about 10 to 15 minutes.

Drain the rhubarb in a sieve over another pan. Don't throw away the liquid it sheds: boil and reduce it, until you have a liquid with a syrupy consistency. Recombine with the rhubarb, mix it up into a mush, and cool. Add more sugar, if you like.

Whisk the cream, with a balloon whisk, for a minute or so, until it stands in peaks. Be careful: if you go on too long, the cream will get very stiff. Fold the cream into the rhubarb, with the vanilla.

Divide the fool between four glass bowls, cover with cling film, and chill.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Lamb shoulder, potatoes boulangeres

One of the principal ways in which the experience of the home cook differs from the one promised in recipes is that we constantly have to check and adjust our oven temperatures. Even when we're confident about our ovens and utensils, we cannot be sure that a dish put in an oven at gas mark 4/180C for an hour, say, will behave as it is supposed to. This is what I found when I cooked a shoulder of lamb yesterday.

I had studded the joint with garlic and rosemary, anointed it with oil, seasoned it, and left it overnight in a roasting tin in the fridge, with a foil covering. At 8.30 in the morning, I placed it in a gas mark S/130C oven, still with its foil - the theory being that the foil would keep the temperature of the tin below the oven temperature, and so help to cook the meat gently. After a few hours, all was going well.

I peeled and sliced potatoes, and put them into cold water, giving them a good rinse. I then changed the water. I did this because I had decided not to parboil the potatoes, and because I wanted to get rid of as much of their surface starch as possible. Surface starch can cause them to stick, and also forms a tough, rather than crunchy, crust.

At 11.30am I removed the roasting tin from the oven, lifted the joint on to a board, and tipped in the drained potatoes, mixing them with a ladleful of chicken stock and some splashes of olive oil. I seasoned them with salt. I put the joint back on top, covered the tin again, and returned it to the oven. I turned up the temperature to gas mark 3/160C. I wanted the potatoes to steam, before I uncovered the dish and browned them.

After 45 minutes, there was very little activity inside the foil. Eventually, to get things going, I turned the dial right up to 7/220C. I took out the joint at 1.05pm, lifted the tin to a higher shelf, and gave the potatoes 20 minutes to brown, uncovered, while the meat rested.

I have noticed before that a roasting tin, particularly a crowded one, does not heat up very efficiently when covered. Still, the lamb, being a forgiving cut, showed no ill effects from the blasting heat.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Kale gratin

If you have a vegetable box, you probably receive quite a lot kale during the winter months. Last week, it was a vivid purple. But, no matter how attractive in appearance, kale can have a harsh, chewy consistency. Preparing it as a gratin can soften it, and make it palatable even to those who are wary of brassicas. Serves 4.

Bagful of kale
About 50g butter
3dstsp flour
About 350ml milk
100g grated Cheddar, Gruyere, or some such
Scraping of nutmeg
Salt, pepper
2dstsp grated Parmesan

Warm a gratin dish in a gas mark 5/190C oven.

Strip the kale from the stalks, and wash it. Pour water a couple of cms deep into a saucepan, bring it to the boil, shove in the kale, and cook it, covered, for about five minutes, or until wilted. Drain, and squeeze out as much water as you can.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in the flour, and cook very gently for a minute or so. (Use more butter if this roux is too thick.) Turn up the heat slightly, and pour in the milk a few splashes at a time, incorporating each addition before pouring in more. Stop when you have a thick but pourable sauce, and let it bubble, while you stir, for a minute or so. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Stir in the Cheddar or Gruyere. Mix the sauce and the kale. (I found that there was a lot of kale in my bag, so I made the mixture a little more liquid by adding some cream from the fridge.)

Tip into the gratin dish, sprinkle over the Parmesan, and bake for 20 minutes. If you'd like a browner top, finish it under the grill.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pot-roasted chicken

Pot-roasting enables you to cook a joint when you have a hob but not an oven. But because people like the technique, they pot-roast in the oven anyway - as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall does in this Guardian recipe.

If you follow his advice to the letter, you will need a very large pot. I cooked a 2kg chicken at the weekend, and I found that my largest, oval Le Creuset casserole was only just large enough. The lid was not a snug fit.

The second point worth noting before following this recipe is that a large Le Creuset such as mine takes a long time to warm through. After an hour at gas mark 4/180C, the cooking process is still at an early stage. So the timing Fearnley-Whittingstall gives may not be adequate.

The third point is that 10 minutes at the end may not be long enough to brown the skin - although some browning will have taken place inside the pot. In this recipe, from the River Cottage website, the technique is different: you uncover the dish 30 minutes before the end. Again, I think that his suggested overall cooking time may be inadequate.

I browned my chicken in a little oil and butter first, before throwing in bay, rosemary, onion, and whole garlic cloves.

The fourth point is that, once cooking really is underway, the steamy atmosphere of the pot will cook the chicken more efficiently than would the unmediated heat of the oven. It means that the chicken breast is at greater risk of drying out than it is when roasted conventionally.

It seems to me that if you want to cook your chicken in a pot, you might as well joint it first, add the breast portions just 25 minutes or so before the end, and call it a stew.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Parsnip soup

Is it always necessary to cut the central, woody parts from large parsnips? Yesterday, making a soup, I did not bother, and did not find any woody quality, or woody fragments, in the cooked product. Indeed, the soup had an extraordinarily sweet flavour, reminiscent of marmalade. Serves 2.

1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1tsp cumin seeds
Knob of butter
Sunflower oil
2 large parsnips, peeled and cut into small pieces (it's quite hard work)
Stock, or water and half a stock cube
1/3tsp cayenne pepper

Cook the onion, garlic and cumin, gently, in the butter, with a little oil to prevent the mixture from sticking. Allow the onion five to 10 minutes to soften.

Throw in the parsnips, and pour in the stock (about 500ml, probably - you could heat it first, to save time) to come to the top of the vegetables. Add the cayenne, and salt to taste.

Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook on a low heat for about 15 minutes, or until the parsnips are soft. Pass through a mouli, or put in a blender, or use (as I did) a stick blender.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Cabbage gratin

I have seen many recipes for vegetable gratins, but not one that includes cabbage. Why that should be, I don't know: cabbage works just as well in this context as chard, say, or spinach, particularly with a strong cheese such as Cheddar.

This recipe involves my new favourite method of cooking cabbage. For two.

1 onion, chopped
Butter and a little sunflower oil, for frying the onion
Half a cabbage, such as Savoy, chopped and washed
About 35g butter
2dstsp flour
About 350ml milk
100g Cheddar, grated
Grating of nutmeg
1tsp Dijon mustard
2tbsp Parmesan, grated

Heat the oven to gas mark 8/230C. Warm a gratin dish. (I put mine into the grill section above the oven.)

Cook the onion, over a gentle heat, in enough butter to prevent its catching (the addition of a little oil is helpful). Give it five to 10 minutes to soften and start to turn golden. Throw in the wet cabbage, and cook, on a slightly higher heat and stirring regularly, until the leaves have wilted and softened - another five to 10 minutes. (The green colour deepens.)

Meanwhile, melt a large knob of butter in a small saucepan, and add the flour. (Use more butter if this roux is too thick.) Cook the roux, very gently, for about a minute - this process helps to soften the floury flavour. Turn up the heat to medium, and add the milk, a few splashes at a time, incorporating each before adding the next. Stop when you have a fairly thick sauce (which liquid from the vegetables will thin). Bubble it for a minute or so, and add the Cheddar, nutmeg, and mustard, with a little salt. (Remember that the cheese is salty.)

Stir the sauce into the cabbage and onions, and tip the mixture into the warm gratin dish; sprinkle the surface with Parmesan, and put the dish into the hot oven for five minutes. (You're just giving it a blast of heat. There's no need to cook it for any longer.) Brown the surface under the grill, if you like.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Don't blanch the lasagne

From a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi, I found a way to ensure that non pre-cook lasagne was properly cooked (as I wrote here). Before that, I had always blanched the pasta sheets before assembling the pasta.

However, last Saturday in the Guardian Ottolenghi gave a recipe for mushroom lasagne, and told us to pour boiling water on to the sheets, leave them for two minutes, and dry them on a tea towel.

This is a very bad idea. The sheets will stick together, and you will have trouble prising them apart.

Use the dry sheets, breaking them up as necessary to fit them in the dish. As I wrote in the earlier entry: cover the dish, after you have assembled the lasagne, with foil, and cook for 30 minutes at gas mark 4/180C, and then for another 30 minutes at gas mark 2/150C. Test the lasagne with a knife. If the pasta is soft, you could scatter parmesan on top and brown the dish under a grill.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cabbage, sweated not stir-fried

Many recipes, Chinese-influenced ones especially, tell you simply to fry cabbage rather than to boil or steam it first. I find that the flavour of fried cabbage can be a bit assertive. But stir-frying in a wok over a fierce heat is not the only way. For a simple lunch, you can simply cook it over a modest flame, part frying it and part sweating it.

For two people, slice an onion and cook it gently in a tbsp or more of sunflower (or groundnut) oil, with a chopped clove of garlic, until it softens and starts to turn golden. Meanwhile, take half a Savoy (or other green) cabbage, cut that in half, remove the core, slice it, and halve the slices. Place the cabbage in a bowl of water.

Throw the cabbage, drained but still wet, into the pan with the onion. Add a little minced ginger too, if you like. Cook, stirring, for five to 10 minutes, until the water has evaporated and the cabbage is wilted and softened. Add a few splashes of soy sauce, and some toasted sesame oil.

Serve with rice or noodles.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Rice - one further refinement

I shall post this entry, and then I shall shut up on the subject for a while. Since writing last Thursday, I have discovered that you need use only twice the volume of water to rice if you cover the pan. So:

Wash rice (75g a person is a generous quantity) in a sieve, or by giving it a quick bath in a bowl and draining it. Do you need to wash it? I am not sure; but it can be a bit dusty.

(If you do believe that you should wash it, then surely you should wash the rice you use in a risotto as well? Experts tell you not to, in order to avoid losing any starch and in order to ensure that the grains are properly coated in fat before you add the liquid. I doubt whether damp grains would affect the consistency or flavour of the finished dish at all.)

I have a measuring cup which holds the right amount of rice for one person. So, cooking just for myself, I pour two cups of water into a pan, bring it to the boil, tip in the rice, and cover. I start counting 10 minutes from that point. When the contents of the pan are simmering again (steam starts puffing from the lid), I turn down that flame to its lowest.

After 10 minutes, there is usually just a little water left in the pan. Drain the rice in a sieve. You can return it to the pan to stay hot: put a paper towel over the top, and the lid on top of that.

This technique works perfectly with most of the widely available Basmati brands.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rice again

Since blogging compulsively (see this post, and previous ones) about ways of cooking rice, I have continued to experiment. I have discovered that a lot of what I have written before, particularly in my book, is wrong. Well, not wrong exactly - it won't lead anyone to make disastrous mistakes; but not based on entirely correct premises.

The key point about rice - obvious, really - is not to overcook it. So when I wrote that soaking rice always caused it to go sticky on me, I should have realised that it was not the soaking that was at fault: the problem was that soaking softened the rice, reducing its absorbent qualities and its cooking time. If I then cooked it by the absorption method, I ended up with a sticky mass of overcooked grains that had been sitting together in a covered pan.

Nevertheless, it remains preferable to cook rice in the smallest volume of water possible, to reduce the dispersion of nutrients. So you need to know, with each variety you use, the optimum cooking time, as well as the amount of water it will absorb.

Ten minutes is about right for most commercially available types of Basmati; and I find that three times its volume of water works well. I bring the water to boil in a saucepan, and give the rice a rinse, either by putting it in a sieve and running water through it, or by putting it in a bowl and giving it a quick bath. When the water is boiling, I tip in the rice, bring the pan back to a simmer, and simmer it for 10 minutes (counting from the moment when the rice hits the water - even when there is a large quantity that takes longer to come back to the boil). When or if the water reduces to the level of the top of the rice, I cover the pan and turn down the heat. At the 10-minute mark, I drain away whatever water is left.

You can hold the rice, once drained, in the pan, with a paper towel on top and the lid clamped on top of that. It might clump together a little, though. The steam will continue to cook it for a while - another reason why you need to be careful not to simmer it for too long.

A friend recently brought me some organic rice from Indonesia. It takes about 12 to 13 minutes to cook, and turns the surrounding water very starchy. I find that the only way to prevent this rice from becoming sticky is to cook it in at least five times its volume of water. But, with most other brands I have tried, this ratio is not necessary.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Gluten-free rhubarb crumble

I have mentioned that I now need to cook gluten-free. Yesterday, I tried a crumble with Doves gluten-free flour. It was fine - though softer, less crumbly, than a wheat flour version. I thought I detected a faint, soapy (but not unpleasant) aftertaste. But I'll try it again.

The sticks of rhubarb I cooked a couple of weeks ago were quite thick. This batch was thin, as forced rhubarb usually is. That is one reason why the cooking time is shorter; also, I felt that it needed only to be tender, rather than cooked down to compote consistency.

Serves 2

4 sticks rhubarb, cut into short lengths and washed
2dstsp muscovado sugar
1/2 cinnamon stick
1tsp vanilla essence

80g Doves gluten-free flour
40g unsalted butter, cut into slivers
1dstsp muscovado sugar

Turn the oven up to full heat. Place the rhubarb, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla essence in an oven dish, and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the rhubarb is tender to the sharp point of a knife. You may want to give the mixture a stir.

It occurred to me that a way to get butter into manageable portions to rub into flour (for crumble or pastry) would be to cut it off the block in slivers. Measure the 80g of flour, and then shave thin pieces of butter to drop on to it until the scales move up to 120g. Rub in with your fingertips - you do not have to be absolutely thorough. Stir through the sugar.

Scatter the crumble on to the rhubarb, and bake for 30 minutes at gas mark 6/200C, or until the top is golden.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bacon hock

My butcher sells bacon hocks for about £2.50 each. There is enough meat on one to feed three to four people - and it is delicious.

Some smoked hocks are very salty, and require soaking for 12 hours or longer. The ones I get do not. I put a hock into a stockpot (or pasta pan), cover it with water, bring it to a simmer, skim off the froth, and turn down the heat to its lowest. My pot has a heavy base; a low flame causes the liquid (with the pot uncovered) merely to show a few bubbles rising to the surface, rather than to simmer. Gentle heat tenderises the meat without drying it out. (Recipes that imply that meat will remain moist if surrounded by liquid or vapour - from the effect of a foil wrapping, say - are misleading. Indeed the liquid, because it is so effective at cooking, will dry out the meat faster.) I give it two hours.

It seems unadventurous to poach the hock in plain water - though it is hard to believe that a few surrounding vegetables will have much effect. However, you can keep the liquid and use it as a stock; for that reason, I usually throw in an onion or two, a couple of carrots, celery if I have it, and peppercorns.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lighter batter

Farah, who blogs at Confessions of a Novice Baker, kindly credits as the source (adapted) for her recipe for Yorkshire pudding. I would not put anyone off making a batter in this way; but I am rather inclined nowadays to use half milk (semi-skimmed, too) and half water, for a lighter, less gooey result. Many recipes suggest you use two eggs, or even three, with these quantities of flour and milk. Perhaps egginess is desirable in pancakes; but not in baked batters, in my view.

Another common suggestion is that you should let batters stand, for at least half an hour and preferably longer. When I made a batter some three hours in advance of cooking it, I found it heavy and sticky when cooked, as if the resting period had caused it to become more glutenous. Perhaps I was just unfortunate.

Here is a recipe for toad in the hole.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Baked rhubarb

To retain rhubarb chunks rather than turning them to mush, try baking them. You need a high heat to get them going, though; and you may find that they take 30 to 45 minutes to braise, even on maximum. Keep checking, and stirring. If you cover the dish, you may end up with too much liquid.

These quantities served 2 of us, being greedy; they might do for 3, or even 4.

3 big sticks rhubarb, washed and cut into chunks
Juice of 1 orange
2tbsp muscovado sugar (or more, to taste - check at the end)
1/2 cinnamon stick
Grating of nutmeg
1tsp vanilla essence

Throw everything into an oven dish and bake (uncovered) at a high heat, stirring from time to time.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Cochin coconut curry

Emma Bradford kindly sent me some spice packages from Season & Spice. Each package comes with a recipe card, and consists of just the right quantity of spice to make the dish.

The curry recipe is for 4. I made it for 2, using the same quantity of spice and coconut milk, but cutting back the other ingredients (and leaving out the two tomatoes specified).

1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Sunflower or groundnut oil, knob of butter
1/2tsp grated ginger
1tbsp keralan curry powder (it consists of coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, chilli flakes, star anise, cardamom, and cloves)
400ml tin coconut milk
150ml chicken stock (the recipes gives 200ml water)
Leftover chicken, diced, for 2 (if you use fresh chicken, you probably need to simmer it in the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes)
1tsp mustard seeds
Handful curry leaves
1 lime

Gently fry the onion and the garlic in the butter and enough oil to prevent them from catching, until they are golden. Add the ginger and the curry powder, and cook gently for a further 10 minutes. (You want the powder to lose its powdery taste, but you have to be careful that it does not burn.)

Add the coconut milk and the stock, with salt to taste, and simmer gently, uncovered, for 30 minutes. (You want the sauce to concentrate a little.)

Stir in the chicken, and let it warm through. Meanwhile, cook the mustard seeds and curry leaves in a tbsp of oil until the seeds pop and the leaves wilt. Stir them into the curry, with a squeeze or two of lime juice.

Serve with boiled rice, in bowls.