Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rhubarb sponge

The forced rhubarb that you can still get at the moment is good for crumbles and sponges, because it is tender enough not to require pre-cooking. As you can see, it gives off quite a bit of liquid - but not too much.

The recipe is based on one in a kitchen favourite of mine (and of many others), Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book.

450g rhubarb, washed and cut into pieces
55g soft brown sugar
55g butter
55g caster sugar
Rind of 1 orange
1 egg, beaten
85g plain flour

Place the rhubarb in an oven dish, and scatter the sugar on top.

Cream the butter with the caster sugar until soft and pale. Stir in the egg and the flour. (I used gluten-free flour, which gets particularly thick and sticky: I added the best part of a further egg.)

Spread the sponge mixture over the rhubarb. Bake at gas mark 5/190C for about 40 minutes, until the sponge has risen and browned.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Quick stir-fry

A Ripple Farm "stir-fry bag" came in my vegetable box this week. It contained broccoli, a few very thin leaks, and various leafy vegetables I could not identify.

Recipes tell you to heat the oil for stir-fries until it is smoking. Don't, unless you want to consume burnt oil. I put a Le Creuset casserole (I don't own a wok) on a medium heat for a few minutes, before pouring in a couple of tbsps sunflower oil. Immediately, I threw in the washed and drained greenery, and turned up the heat, stirring everything around rapidly until it wilted - no more than a couple of minutes. I stirred in a few shakes of soy sauce, divided the contents of the pan between two plates, and laid sliced goat's cheese on top. That was it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oven-baked stews

Certain stews, as I have mentioned before, require very little preparation. You do not need to start by browning the meat, or softening the onions, because the cooking process will perform those functions anyway.

The dish above has three chopped red onions, two red peppers deseeded and chopped into fork-size pieces, and two cloves of finely chopped garlic - all tossed in the dish with two tbsps of olive oil and some salt. The chicken thighs are coated in a little oil and placed on top. I baked the dish for 30 mins at gas mark 6/200C, after which I stirred the onions and peppers, turned the chicken, and lowered the heat to 4/180C. I gave the dish 90 minutes in total, stirring and turning once more after an hour.

Meat will also brown in a covered casserole, if it is not submerged in liquid. Yesterday, I cooked a couple of lamb shanks: three roughly chopped onions, a whole head of garlic separated into cloves, rosemary, bay, and salt, all tossed in a couple of tbsps of oil (sunflower this time). I coated the shanks in oil and laid them on top, with half a chicken stock cube. Gentle cooking: gas mark 2/150C for 90 minutes, until the stew was bubbling, then gas mark S/130C for another 120 minutes - again, I stirred the ingredients and turned the meat from time to time.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

'Perfect' rice from the Guardian

I may as well just face it, and admit that I'll never come up with a 100% satisfactory and fool-proof method of cooking rice. Such a method may not exist: the 153 comments below Felicity Cloake's Guardian article on How to cook perfect long grain rice, many of them claiming also to be perfect but giving widely differing instructions, suggest its elusiveness. What of Cloake's "perfect" advice?

She suggests 450g basmati rice for four people. Wash it in a sieve under running water; soak it for 30 minutes; put it in a pan with 585ml water, and salt, on a medium heat; bring to a simmer, cover, and cook on a very low heat for 25 minutes. Place the pan on a wet tea towel, leave for a further five minutes, fluff up the rice, and serve.

I had three reservations about this recipe. The first is that the measurements are unhelpful, unless you want to cook precisely 450g of rice. What you need are proportions, or general guidelines, that work for various quantities. It turns out that 585ml of water is about 1.2 times the volume of the rice; perhaps the more important point is that it covers the rice in the pan with just a mm or two to spare. If you had not pre-soaked and softened the rice, you would need more water than this to cook it.

My second doubt concerns the cooking time. Twenty-five minutes? As many of the comments on the Guardian piece point out, the rice will be cooked in 10 at most. Are the extra 15 minutes required to separate the grains by steaming?

I followed the recipe to the letter. The rice was a little clumpy, but not nearly as clumpy as I had feared; and the grains separated nicely with the addition of sauce. But I think the result would have been better had I switched off the heat after 10 minutes.

Do you need - this is my third doubt - to soak the rice at all? The practice originates in places where rice is not as clean or as carefully sifted as the stuff we buy. Yes, soaking softens the grains; it also leeches nutrients. The only occasions on which I think it is necessary is when you cook the rice with other ingredients, in a pilau, for example. Then, you want to ensure that the rice will cook with just enough water to cover it. Otherwise, the bulk of the ingredients forces you to use too much water in order to ensure that the grains are submerged.

The closest I came to perfection recently was when I reheated rice. Every grain was separate. It explains why Indian restaurants' rice - reheated, for sure - is usually good. So maybe the ideal recipe involves cooking rice in your normal way, tipping it into a foil-lined colander above steaming water, wrapping up the foil, putting a lid on top, and allowing it to steam until you need it. But who can be bothered to do that?