Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas timings

You can be a little more relaxed on Christmas morning if you don’t get obsessed by an ideal of military efficiency, trying to prepare every dish so that it is cooked to perfection at the precise moment you are ready to sit down at the table.

First, the turkey. We’ve all struggled with turkeys that have stubbornly leaked blood at the moment when they were supposed to be ready. But, provided you do not try to roast the bird from a frozen or semi-frozen state, you should find that it is cooked through after you have observed the standard timings (20 minutes for each 500g, plus 30 minutes). Try to arrive at this moment at least half an hour before you’re due to serve the meal. Covered in a loose tent of foil, the turkey will remain warm, and hot in places; there will be no harm in resting it for an hour.

You now have plenty of time in which to strain some of the fat from the turkey juices, and to use them to make a gravy. You can reheat the gravy at the last minute.

Bread sauce may also be heated at the last minute. It will have thickened while cooling in the pan, and may need extra milk.

Stuffing, whether cooked inside the turkey or in an oven dish, does not have to be piping hot.

You can parboil the potatoes for roasting some time before you transfer them to the hot fat in the roasting tin. In my experience, potatoes that have been sitting around for a while emerge from their roasting no less crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside than those tipped into the tin while hot.

So the last-minute jobs are: cook the vegetables (which your sous-chef will have prepared earlier); warm the gravy and the bread sauce; transfer the vegetables (including the potatoes) and sauces to serving dishes. I hope you manage to delegate the carving.

Bread sauce
Christmas things - salt cod, barley pudding, sprouts, chestnuts
Christmas tips

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gingerbread, with syrup

It is often a mistake to plan a particular recipe before you know whether you can lay hands on the ingredients. The idea is difficult to abandon, even when the ingredients are elusive; I get into my head the idea that no other recipe will do.

You cannot find black treacle or candied ginger at my nearest shops on a Sunday morning. Not allowing their absence to deter me, I used instead golden syrup and ginger preserve (from Sainsbury’s) for this recipe from Geraldene Holt’s Cakes (Prospect Books). I also used a round cake tin, because I did not have a 20cm square one.

As you can see, the cake sank in the middle, probably because my batter was more liquid than Holt's. But the texture was good throughout, and the flavour was delicious.

Lightly grease the tin with a drop or two of vegetable oil.  Put a couple of slivers of butter on the base. Lay the tin on a sheet of kitchen paper, draw a circle round it, cut round the line, and attach the circle of paper to the base of the tin.

150g butter
150g dark brown sugar
265g golden syrup (I spooned syrup out of the tin until I had taken what seemed to be the correct portion of the contents)
2 eggs, beaten
265g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
2-3tsp ground ginger
1/2tsp cinnamon
Walnut-sized knob of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1tbsp ginger preserve

Cream the butter and the sugar. I lack a food mixer, so find this pretty hard work. I’m never sure when to stop, tending to do so when I cannot bear the effort any longer. The mixture is supposed to be light.

Stir in the syrup, and then the eggs. Mix the flour and baking powder, and stir them in to the mixture. Add the rest of the ingredients. Spoon into the cake tin, and smooth level.

Bake in a gas mark 3/170C oven for about 60 minutes, or until an inserted skewer emerges clean. I found that my gingerbread was still liquid in the centre after an hour, though the perimeter was quite dark. I turned down the oven to gas mark 1/140C, for a further 15 minutes.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Lesley Blanch; moussaka topping

Lesley Blanch’s Round the World in Eighty Dishes is another lovely reissue from Grub Street. Blanch was an exotic, bold, beautiful, adventurous woman, of a type that seems no longer to exist. An artist and designer, a features editor at Vogue, she roamed the world, had many admirers, and was for 15 years the wife of French novelist Romain Gary. She wrote 12 books herself, and lived to the age of 102.

Grub Street's book is what the title says. Blanch introduces the recipes with pen portraits, anecdotes, and evocations. Of Tchaktchouka, one of the various north African dishes that involve a poached egg sitting in a stew of tomatoes, onions and peppers, she writes: “I don’t know how you will like this; but I loved it, as I sat among my Arab friends in the evening twilight, and the huge stars shone in the greenish sky, while the camels tethered to the palms above groaned and snorted for their own dinner – nothing nearly so nice.”

My only complaint is that the book has no index. Having spotted a moussaka recipe, I had trouble finding it again, because it appears in the Middle Eastern section – the recipe is from Syria, Blanch says. It reminded me that the topping for a moussaka can be yoghurt-based, rather than a sort of béchamel soufflé.

Blanch’s topping recipe contains 4 eggs, 3tbsps of flour, a jar of yoghurt, and salt and pepper. How large is a jar of yoghurt? I have no idea. For my version, I used a 170g pot of Total yoghurt, 1tbsp of flour (which stabilises the yoghurt, so that it does not split), and 2 beaten eggs. The mixture is runny, but sets when cooked on a moderate heat (gas mark 3/170C), and has a pleasing sharpness.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Falafels - Slater

Browsing through Nigel Slater’s The 30-Minute Cook after I had checked his spiced mackerel recipe, I came across his recipe for falafels. The version below includes far less garlic than Slater recommends, because we were eating the falafels at lunchtime, but as much cumin and coriander, even though I used one tin of chickpeas rather than his two.

The quantities below make what you see in the pan: a snack for two.

1 tin chick peas
1/2 a medium onion
2tsp cumin seeds
2tsp coriander seeds
1 clove garlic
1tbs flour

Drain and rinse the chick peas. Tip them into the bowl of a food processor. Peel the onion, cut it in half again (to aid the mixing process), and add it to the bowl.

In a dry saucepan over a gentle heat, toast the cumin and coriander. Ground them in a mortar. Add them to the chick peas and onion. Cut the garlic into a few pieces, put it into the mortar with a little salt, and grind it to a paste. Add this, too, to the bowl, with more salt if you like – but be careful with the salt if your chick peas were tinned in salted water. Whizz until blended.

Tip the mixture out of the food processor bowl into another bowl, add the flour, and squidge everything together with your hands. Add more flour if the mixture fails to cohere. Form the mixture into small balls or patties.

Warm a generous layer – about 1/2cm - of oil (sunflower, groundnut, or olive) in a heavy pan, and fry the falafels, in batches if necessary, until brown on each side and warmed through. Be careful – the moisture in the onion particularly will cause the oil to spit. Serve with Greek-style yoghurt.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Spiced mackerel

This is adapted slightly from a recipe in The 30-Minute Cook by Nigel Slater, who in turn adapted it from a recipe in Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd. The chief difference in my version is that I cook the fish in the oven – easier than grilling them.

4 mackerel
4tsp cumin
1/2tsp cayenne pepper
4 cloves garlic, mashed with salt
Olive oil
4tbsp lemon juice

Slash the skins of the mackerel in various places.

If you have cumin seeds (rather than powder), toast them in a dry saucepan over a gentle heat, and then grind them, preferably in a mortar and with a pestle. Tip the cumin into a bowl.

Cut up the garlic a little, put it into the mortar with some salt, and grind it to a pulp. Or you could mash the garlic with the blade of a knife on a chopping board.

Return the cumin to the garlic in the mortar, with the cayenne. Stir in just enough oil to make a thick but spreadable paste. Smear the paste over the mackerel, and leave the fish for a while if you have time.

Line an oven dish or roasting tin with foil. Place the mackerel on the foil, and smear them with the spicy paste. Leave the fish for a while if you have time. (The picture shows the uncooked fish.)

Heat the oven to its highest setting. Bake the fish for seven to 10 minutes, or until cooked through. Sprinkle them with the lemon juice, and serve.

We ate the mackerel with potatoes Anna.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Potato gnocchi with spinach and cheese

Instructions about how much flour to use in potato gnocchi vary a good deal. Marcella Hazan suggests 225g flour to 900g of potatoes, in a recipe that she says will serve 6-8. In a recent recipe in the Financial Times (reproduced in the Week), Rowley Leigh gave only 75g of flour to 1.5kg of potatoes, alleging that his recipe served 4.

My worry about the Leigh recipe is over whether the gnocchi would cohere. If you increase the flour content, though, you have to be sure you’ll enjoy a squidy, doughy result. I’m happy with squidginess, so I settled on the following quantities, for decent platefuls for 2. I used gluten-free flour.

600g potatoes
200g spinach
150g flour
1 egg, beaten
2tbsp Parmesan
Knob of butter

Peel the potatoes, cut them into even chunks, put them into a pan of cold water with a tsp of salt, bring to the boil, and simmer until tender. Drain, and mash. (I used a potato ricer.)

Meanwhile, wash the spinach. Pile it into a saucepan, clamp on the lid, and put it on a high heat. After a minute or two, when the spinach starts to wilt, start stirring it until it has all wilted. Drain.

When the spinach has cooled down a little, squeeze it in your hands. It will appear to be capable of disgorging water endlessly, so you have to decide when enough is enough. Chop it very finely, or whizz it in a food processor.

Mix the potato, spinach, flour, egg, and 1tbsp of Parmesan, with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Knead the mixture gently, until it is a sticky mass.

Take bits of the mixture, and on a lightly floured chopping board or work surface roll them into thin sausages – about half way between a chipolata and full-size sausage. Cut the sausages into 2cm pieces. My crude efforts are picture above.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Drop in the gnocchi. As the water returns to the boil, the gnocchi will rise to the surface. Give them a further minute or so, and drain.

Melt the butter in a gratin dish. Tip in the gnocchi, and stir. Sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan, and put the dish into a gas mark 6/200C oven until the cheese browns.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Toad in the hole, in a frying pan

The cast-iron frying pan (28cm) in the picture, like my shallow casserole dish (Steamed fish, spring onion sauce), will go in the oven as well as on the hob. Because my smallest roasting tin was too large for the quantity of batter I needed, I used the frying pan for a toad in the hole.

The batter (for 3 to 4)

100g flour
2 eggs
250ml liquid – 200ml whole milk/50ml water

In the past I have advocated pouring the flour gradually into the liquid. But, as long as you do not beat the mixture too vigorously, I think that the other way round works fine too. So: fold the eggs into the flour, and gradually add the milk/water mix, blending it with a whisk with each addition. Add salt to taste.

You are supposed to allow the batter to rest for half an hour. The resting helps develop the gluten that will bind it, but may not be necessary.

Heat the pan in a gas mark 6/200C oven, with a couple of tbsps of sunflower oil. After 10 minutes, take out the pan, and put it on the hob, on a low/medium heat. Pour in the batter.

Roll the sausages in a little oil, which will help to prevent the exposed skin from drying and cracking. Place the sausages in the batter, and put the pan back into the hot oven for 30 minutes, or until the batter is set and browned.

The batter does not have such a crispy base as it would have developed in a roasting tin, but is fine in every other respect.

Toad in the hole

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Beef stew with red wine

The standard way to cook a stew – apart from a pale one, such as a blanquette – is to brown the meat, and then to submerge it in barely simmering liquid. The browning adds flavour, and the submerging ensures that the meat is not subjected to an overly aggressive heat.

If the liquid does not cover the meat, the exposed surfaces will brown while the stew cooks. In theory, this method should be less satisfactory, because a temperature that is high enough to brown meat will eventually dry it out. But you may find, particularly with cuts that have plenty of lubricating fat and connective tissue, that the result is perfectly tender anyway.

Serves 2 to 4

Sunflower or olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 onions, chopped
500g stewing steak
250ml red wine (I had a small bottle of Marks & Spencer Claret that I had received in a goody bag)
1 bay leaf
1/2 star anise
1 bay leaf
10 peppercorns
Salt to taste
1 carrot, diced

In a heavy casserole over a gentle heat, soften the garlic and onions in a couple of tbsps of oil, adding more oil if the vegetables threaten to stick. When the onions are soft, add the rest of the ingredients, apart from the carrot. Bring the contents of the dish just to simmering point, cover it, and put it in the oven at gas mark 2/150C. Turn down the heat to gas mark S/130C once the contents are simmering again. Stir from time to time. A cooking time of two and a half to three hours is usually about right.

In most stew recipes, you would soften the carrot with the onions. But I think that you get the best flavour from carrots if they are not overcooked. Throw in the dice half an hour before the end.

The next bit is slightly tedious. Tip the contents of the casserole into a sieve over a saucepan. Pick out the meat, return it to the casserole, cover, and return the casserole to the oven.

Press down on the vegetables in the sieve, and scrape the thick juice that adheres to the underside of the sieve into the saucepan. Discard the vegetables.

Put the pan on the hob on a medium to high flame, and boil until the sauce thickens slightly, has a rich flavour, and seems to be of the right volume to satisfy two or three people. Take the casserole out of the oven, pour the sauce over the meat, and serve.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Steamed fish, spring onion sauce

A large (28cm), shallow, cast iron and enamelled casserole dish is a great accessory. You can fry in it, roast in it (I used it recently for a shoulder of lamb) make stews in it, and use it for large gratins; because of its size, you can easily transfer it from the stove top to the oven. Because of its weight, you can keep things warm in it for a while. So, for example, I was able to drain off the sauce from my roast lamb, carve the lamb and put the pieces back in the casserole and cover them, finish the sauce, and then pour the sauce back over the lamb for serving. Had I felt it necessary, I could have warmed the carved lamb and sauce on the hob.

The dish will also contain large fish fillets, and keep them warm while you make a sauce.

2 fish fillets (I had smoked haddock)
1/3 pint of milk
A few peppercorns
A bay leaf
A scraping of nutmeg
Salt (smoked fish will already be salty)
18g unsalted butter
1dstsp flour
4 spring onions, chopped

Put the fish in a heavy dish or saucepan, and cover with the milk. Add the peppercorns, bay leaf, nutmeg, and salt (if using).

Cover the pan, and put it over a medium flame on the hob. Check to see when the milk starts simmering, and when it does turn down the flame to its lowest (with the pan still covered). The fish should be tender about five minutes after the milk simmers.

Meanwhile, make a roux: melt the butter in a small saucepan over a gentle heat, add the flour, and cook gently for a minute. The mixture should be the texture of loose sand. Add more butter or flour as necessary. Set aside.

Remove the fish to a chopping board or plate, strain the milk into a jug, return the fish to the pan or dish, and cover.

Put the pan with the roux back on the hob, above a medium heat. Stir in the milk from the jug, a little at a time, incorporating each portion before adding the next. After the second or third addition, throw in the spring onions, which will throw off liquid and thin the sauce. Keep adding milk until you have a sauce of a texture you like, adding more from a bottle (or carton) if necessary.

Serve the fish with the sauce poured on top.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chorizo sauce for pasta

For 2

4 chorizos (the uncooked kind)
Olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 large red onion, sliced
1 large red pepper, deseeded, cut into fork-size pieces

Chorizos, unlike ordinary sausages when cut up, do not have a tendency to stick to the pan. You may not get a sauce flavoured with crusty bits, but you do get the paprika-spiked oil that the sausages release.

How you cut them up is a matter of taste. You may like discs; I prefer to skin them, and chop them into small pieces.

Put a splash of oil into a heavy pan over a gentle heat. Throw in the chopped chorizos, and fry them gently until they lose their raw colour and throw off their oil. You may find that you now have plenty of oil with which to cook the garlic, onion, and pepper, which you add to the pan now, with a little salt. Stir everything, and cover the pan, cooking the contents gently until the onions and peppers are soft. If they exude a lot of liquid, evaporate it by uncovering the pan while you cook the pasta.

I like conchiglie (shells), or tortiglioni (big tubes, larger than penne), with this.

Of course, numerous variations are possible. You might, for example, add cumin (1tsp), throwing it into the pan and frying it for a minute before adding the vegetables. You might heat up the sauce with dried chillis, or with a tsp of harissa, stirred in once the onions and peppers have started to collapse.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Spiced salmon

For 2.

1tsp cumin seeds
1tsp coriander seeds
1/2tsp mustard seeds
1 heaped tbsp Greek yoghurt
1/2tsp turmeric
Cayenne pepper to taste
1/2tsp fresh ginger, minced
2 salmon fillets

In a small saucepan over a gentle heat, lightly toast the cumin, coriander, and mustard seeds. Ground them in a mortar. Mix these spices with the yoghurt, and stir in the turmeric, cayenne, ginger, and salt. You’ll have a stiff paste. Smear it over the salmon. Leave the marinated fillets in the fridge for a few hours, if you have time. (The yoghurt will help the marinade to penetrate the fish, to a certain extent.)

Bake the fillets in a gas mark 6/200C oven. They should be ready in 10-12 minutes.

I didn’t have any lemon or lime. But the fish would have benefited from a squeeze of juice before serving.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nigella's fries

You may have seen, in the first episode of Nigellissima! on Monday night (24 September), that Nigella Lawson cooked her chips by immersing them in cold oil, and then heating them. It seems eccentric, but really is based on the same theory that informs the double- and triple-cooking methods: boiling the chips first in moderately hot oil or water, before browning them at high heat.

I usually adopt a method half way between single- and double-cooking: starting the potatoes in moderately hot oil, and then simply turning up the heat. It works fine. Would Nigella’s method – I have met her a few times, but somehow wouldn’t feel presumptuous in using her first name even if I hadn’t, as one doesn’t with Delia or Jamie – work just as well? Or would it work only for the waxy potatoes she specifies at the BBC website, and not for the Maris Pipers I used?

I didn’t bother about chopping off the rounded ends of the potatoes. I sliced them horizontally – they were of medium size – before chipping them, and placing them in a pan of sunflower oil. I put the pan on a back, medium ring of my hob, and set the flame at medium to high.

Perhaps because I was cooking only a single, albeit generous, portion, I found that the oil was soon bubbling. At this point, I lost my nerve, and turned down the flame to low for about seven minutes, to allow the potatoes to cook through. Then I turned up the flame again, to brown them. I stirred them, carefully, from time to time. The entire process took about 20 minutes.

In the end, this technique differed only slightly from my usual one. It works so well that I would never be tempted to go through the much more laborious triple method, for what could be, at best, only a marginal improvement.

Nigella’s Tuscan fries

Sceptical Cook: Chips

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bacon hock 2

I see from my previous post on this subject that I recommended simmering bacon hock in a heavy, uncovered pan, so that only a bubble or two rose to the surface of the liquid. The theory is that this sub-boiling temperature is quite sufficient to tenderise the meat, whereas a faster boil might dry it out.

That is the theory. But yesterday, I simmered a bacon hock for two hours in water that showed scarcely any activity, and discovered when it was on the plate that it was not as tender as I had hoped. I suspect that, despite the science, a covered pan would have produced a more pleasing result.

I covered the hock with several cms to spare, so that I could ladle off some of the liquid for cooking lentils. I had soaked the lentils (Puy; 100g, for 2) for two hours – they cook more readily after this treatment, I find. I barely covered them with the stock, and simmered them, with an unpeeled garlic clove, in a covered pan, topping up the liquid when they threatened to dry out. Meanwhile, I softened an onion with a clove of chopped garlic in olive oil. When the lentils were soft (after about 30 minutes), I tipped them on to the onion, allowing them to simmer further until there remained just enough liquid to moisten them. I squeezed the garlic from its skin, and stirred it in. Because of the saltiness of the bacon, the lentils needed only a little salt, but benefited from several grindings of pepper.

Bacon hock

Friday, September 14, 2012

Brining pork chops

In my last entry, I wrote about my unsatisfactory experiment with brining chicken. But I have had much more joy from brining pork chops.

This time, I took my advice from Matthew Fort, who in turn was indebted to Heston Blumenthal in recommending a 5% solution. My brine consisted of 1 litre of water, 50g table salt, 25g caster sugar, and about 10 black peppercorns and 10 juniper berries, the latter lightly crushed. I put three chops in an oven dish, poured over the brine, covered the dish with cling film, and refrigerated it for 4 hours.

My mistake was to fail to dry the chops thoroughly. I put my heavy, shallow oven dish over a medium heat on the hob, waited for it to get hot, poured in a little sunflower oil, and fried the chops. But because of their moisture, they failed to brown. So I had to turn up the heat to maximum. The result was that there were lots of charred patches on the dish by the time the chops were browned. So I had to clean the pan before making the sauce, sacrificing a good deal of flavoursome material.

I put the chops in a low oven while I softened four sliced shallots, along with four bashed cloves of garlic (to flavour the sauce, rather than to be eaten with it), in a little butter. Then I added a tbsp of white wine vinegar, boiled it hard to evaporate it, and poured in 150ml of chicken stock, boiling it until it thickened slightly. Last, away from the heat, I stirred in a knob of butter.

Pork chops are so often dry and tough. These were tender and delicious.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Brining chicken revisited

One of the most visited posts on this blog is Heston’s Roast Chicken (link below). In it, I express scepticism about the process of brining a chicken before roasting it. But some cooks continue to swear by brining, both for chicken and - as popularised by Nigella Lawson - turkey.

When I came across “Perfect roast chicken” in America’s Test Kitchen (a book I introduced in the previous post, on Skillet lasagne), I decided to give the method another go - particularly because this brining lasts for just one hour. It produces “maximum juiciness and well-seasoned meat”, the Test Kitchen authors assert.

The brine recipe (translated from US measurements) is: 4 litres of water; 150g salt; 100g caster sugar. Some writers instruct you to boil the mixture, allowing it to cool before dunking the meat; but you should find that table salt will dissolve readily in cold water.

Submerge the chicken in the brine in a non-reactive container. After an hour, remove the chicken, pat it dry with paper towels, rub the chicken with a little oil, and insert some butter between the skin and the breast.

The book advises you to cook the chicken at 200C/gas mark 6, turning it several times. I prefer to start at this temperature, and to dial it down to 170C/gas mark 3, or lower (depending on progress), after 30 minutes. I also ignored the advice about turning the chicken, because I usually find that this causes the skin to tear.

I remain a sceptic. The breast meat of a brined chicken may be moister, but it seems to me to have a consistency that evokes blotting paper. If the only alternative is dry and tough, I’d still prefer it.

Pork chops, though, are another matter. I’ll write about them next week.

Heston's roast chicken

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Skillet lasagne

As the title, and indeed the entire concept suggests, this is an American recipe. It comes from The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, accompanying a show that, having been through 12 seasons, has spawned a tie-in that weighs 28 kilos. It is quite American, with a Stepford Wives-ish flavour and chapter headings such as “Who wants pasta?”, “The Flair of the French”, and “It’s grill time!”, but it has lots of valuable advice on why the recipes work, and on what methods the team discarded before coming up with their final versions. I may become slightly obsessed with it.

My recipe is an adaptation, in part because I was cooking for a different number of people.

The only ricotta in my corner shop was Cypriot, and turned out to be quite unlike the real thing: as you can see in the picture above, slices of it remained intact when warmed.

Serves 3 to 4

Olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
Dried chillis to taste, finely chopped (in a coffee grinder or small electric mill)
200g minced beef
200g minced pork

1 bay leaf
300g lasagne sheets (the variety that does not need pre-cooking)
500g carton passata
Water or stock
200g ricotta
4tbsp Parmesan, grated

Warm a tbsp or 2 of olive oil over a low to medium heat in a 28cm frying pan, if you have one with a lid. (I used a shallow casserole dish.) Throw in the onion, garlic, and chillis (if using), and cook, stirring, until softened – about five minutes. Regulate the heat, and/or add more oil, if the onion threatens to catch.

Add the pork and beef mince, along with salt to taste and the bay leaf, and continue to cook until the meat is broken up and is no longer pink. (The book does not suggest that you need to brown the mince, and is in line with other recipes in giving this advice – see previous entries on Bolognese and moussaka.)

Turn the heat to its lowest. Break each lasagne sheet into four or five pieces, and lay the pieces on top of the meat. Pour over the passata, along with enough water or stock to cover the lasagne pieces.

Turn up the flame slightly to bring the contents of the pan to a simmer, then turn it down again, and put on the lid.

Stir the meat and lasagne mixture after five minutes. Try to separate the lasagne pieces, which may stick together. Put the lid back on, but keep stirring the dish regularly.

This kind of lasagne absorbs a good deal of liquid. You may find that you have to add more water or stock, particularly because the thickened mixture may threaten to stick to the pan.

The lasagne should be tender after 20 to 25 minutes. Take it off the heat, and stir in 2tbsp of Parmesan. Dot the surface with dollops of ricotta, cover again, and leave to stand for five minutes.

Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan, and serve.

I missed the béchamel. But this version was very nice in its own right.

Browning mince

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Armenian rice pudding

This is a delicious and easy pudding, adapted from Arto der Haroutunian’s Middle Eastern Cookery (Grub Street). It is traditionally served to visitors on the birth of a son, he tells us. "When I asked my mother what people served on the birth of a daughter, she gesticulated with her hands, shrugged her shoulders and said: 'Oh, a glass of orangeade or something like that.'"

I used raisins rather than the sultanas in the recipe, and pine kernels rather than split almonds, which some members of my family do not like.

75g pudding rice
1 pint milk
Peel of 1 lemon
100g raisins
100g caster sugar
2tbsp (yes, really) vanilla essence
50g pine kernels, toasted in a small saucepan over a very gentle heat

Bring a pan of water to the boil, throw in the rice, bring the water back to the boil, and drain. You’re getting rid of some of the surface starch and dust.

Put the drained rice into a heavy saucepan with the milk and the lemon peel. (I managed to peel my lemon in about five vertical strips.) Bring slowly to the boil, and simmer gently, uncovered, until the rice is tender and the milk is absorbed – by this, I took Haroutunian to mean that you want a consistency like that of a thickly soupy risotto. Stir in the raisins and simmer for a few more minutes. (I soaked the raisins first in boiling water, perhaps unnecessarily.)

Remove from the heat, and stir in the sugar, vanilla, and pine kernels. Chill.

Remove the lemon peel before serving, and loosen with a little milk or cream if you like.

These quantities will provide about six modest portions.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Potatoes, and when to peel them

Some people insist that potatoes boiled in their skins produce the best mash. I am doubtful, but perhaps this is because I have allowed the potatoes to cool before peeling: the flesh has firmed up, requiring more vigorous efforts with the masher, which has released more starch, which has given the mash a gluey quality. (Making potato salad, you should dress the potatoes with vinaigrette when they’re hot, so that their looser textures absorb more sauce.)

One possible solution, I suppose, would be to wear a rubber glove on one hand, hold the potatoes in it, and peel them with the other. But I have never found peeling cooked potatoes as easy as it is reputed to be. The skin often comes away in tiny strips, which stick to one’s fingers.

I wondered whether a potato ricer or a food mill, which will de-skin cooked tomatoes, would spare me the aggravation. So I tried both yesterday. Neither was satisfactory.

It’s back to pre-peeling, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Plum tart 2

With the addition of a dessert spoonful of sugar and a few drops of vanilla, and with the cheese omitted, the savoury custard in my previous post became a filling for this plum tart.

The pastry included 150g flour; 75g of butter, cubed and rubbed in; another dessert spoonful of sugar, stirred in; and a few teaspoons of water to bind it. As usual, lacking the skill and patience for pastry-rolling, I shoved the dough into the lightly greased (with sunflower oil) tin, and worked it into place by hand.

I baked the pastry blind for about 20 minutes at gas 6/200C, until it was firm. (I took a risk in not weighing it down with foil topped by baking beans; it didn’t buckle.) I spread halved and pitted plums over the surface, scattered sugar over them, poured the sweetened custard on top, and baked the tart at gas mark 3/170C for 30 minutes.

I don’t believe the pastry would have improved with rolling. It was crisp and buttery.

This was much simpler, and just as good, as the tart in the recipe below. Also, I no longer include salt in the pastry mix, believing that it encourages the development of gluten.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Savoury custard topping

Sparing flour in consideration of a gluten intolerance in the family, I made this as a topping for a gratin of aubergines and tomatoes. Double cream might be a safer option than the crème fraiche, of which many factory-produced brands tend to split, in my experience. Any hard cheese would do instead of the Comté, though Comté and Gruyere would be my favourites.

For a gratin serving 3 to 4

1 egg, beaten
150ml crème fraiche
50g Comté, grated
A few scrapings of nutmeg

Beat the cream into the egg until well amalgamated. Stir in the cheese and the nutmeg.

Pour the custard over your gratin, and bake at gas mark 3/170C for 20-25 minutes, or until the top is golden.

Aubergine gratin (the one I made this time included onions in the tomato sauce; also, I prepared the aubergines the same way, but fried them gently rather than roasting them)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spiced chicken with yoghurt in a parcel

Another recipe adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Easy. I doubled the quantities of cumin and coriander, and increased the cooking time.

Serves 4

2tsp cumin seeds
2tsp coriander seeds
2tsp paprika
Cayenne pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, placed in a mortar with salt and crushed
1 1/2tsp fresh ginger, grated
3tbsp Greek-style yoghurt
2tsp lemon juice or white wine vinegar
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
8 chicken pieces (thighs and/or drumsticks), skinned

Toast the cumin and coriander over a gentle heat in a small saucepan. Grind them in a mortar. Mix them with all the other ingredients (apart from the chicken) into a paste.

Choose an oven dish large enough to hold the chicken pieces in a single layer. Place in it, overlapping the sides equally, a piece of foil of at least double the size; lay the chicken pieces in it, and smear them all over with the spiced paste. Fold over the foil, and leave for a few hours or longer, refrigerated if necessary.

Bake the dish - still with the chicken enclosed in the foil - at gas mark 4/180C for 90 minutes, turning the chicken pieces once.

As I’ve noted before of a Madhur Jaffrey dish involving yoghurt, the yoghurt splits. No matter: you can spoon the spicy curds over the chicken, and the rest of the sauce around it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Jerk chicken

Following recipes, I find, is usually a matter of deciding whether I have the ingredients in the house, whether I can do without the ones I’m missing, and whether I can substitute ingredients I do have for ones the writer recommends. I am too mean to buy items such as allspice berries especially for one dish, because I reckon that the packet may go to waste before I need them again.

Another consideration when adapting Felicity Cloake’s ‘Perfect’ jerk chicken from the Guardian is what high heat does to sugar. The chicken illustrated in the piece is blackened. (I know: the pieces illustrated above look pretty dark; but the photograph has exaggerated the colour.) Soy sauce by itself tends to caramelise, and can burn; sugar will ensure that you get chicken with a burned exterior, particularly if you cook it on the barbecue.

Like many of the recipes involving chillis on this blog, this serves one – the other members of my family would not enjoy it. But the quantities in the marinade may of course be adjusted upwards.

1 spring onion, cut into pieces
2 scotch bonnet chillis, pith (which, rather than the seeds, is the hottest part) removed
1 clove of garlic, cut into pieces

1tsp fresh ginger
1/4tsp allspice
Sprinkling of cinnamon
A couple of gratings of nutmeg
Ground black pepper (to taste)
Salt (to taste)
1tsp soy sauce
1dstsp white wine vinegar (or lemon or lime juice)
1dstsp sunflower oil
2 chicken thighs

Put the spring onion, chillis, garlic, and ginger into an electric vegetable mill. (A food processor is likely to be too large for this modest quantity.) Whizz. You don’t need to create a slush, but can have a mixture in which little pieces of the vegetables are distinct. Stir in the other ingredients, apart from the chicken.

Put the chicken into a bowl or oven dish, and spread the jerk marinade all over it, including under the skin. Leave “for at least six hours”, Cloake says; I left mine for three.

It’s certainly not worth starting a barbecue for one person. I prefer to bake/roast chicken rather than to grill it, liking it tender. So in order to avoid charring the skin, I cooked it covered with foil for an hour at gas mark 4/180C, before uncovering it.

Of course, when I uncovered the dish, I found that my chicken thighs were swimming in liquid. Not to worry: I poured this sauce into a small pan, returned the chicken to the oven, and boiled the sauce until it had a syrupy consistency. Then I spread this syrup on to the chicken, and cooked it, uncovered, for a further 15 minutes, until the marinade had caramelised slightly.

You can never be certain, until you eat them, how hot chillis will be. These were just right. Their zingy heat, combined with the spicy, sour sweetness of the other ingredients, was delicious.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Dhal 2

Many recipes for curries suggest you make the sauce with water, and sometimes quite a lot of it, rather than stock. I have always been a little dubious about this, and have even sinned against authenticity by using a stock cube – or rather half of a cube – in order to add a body of savoury flavour. But perhaps water allows the spices to express themselves with a little more freshness. It certainly did in this dhal, which I made just for myself. You could, of course, adjust the quantities as appropriate.

100g red lentils
1tsp turmeric
1/4tsp cayenne pepper
1tbsp creamed coconut
1tsp cumin seeds
1tsp coriander seeds
5 cardamom pods
5 black peppercorns
Sunflower oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2tsp ginger, minced

Wash and rinse the lentils. Put them in a small saucepan with water to cover, the turmeric, cayenne, and coconut. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered. Check them frequently: they absorb water readily, and may need more. The aim is to achieve the consistence of thick soup once they are soft, after about 20 minutes. Uncover the pan if the consistency is too runny.

Meanwhile, put the cumin, coriander, cardamom, and black pepper into a small saucepan on a gentle heat. Cook until they give off a toasty aroma. Grind the spices in a mortar.

Warm a tbsp or two of sunflower oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, throw in the onions and garlic, and fry until the onions are soft, yellow, and sweet. Add more oil if they threaten to catch. Add the ground spices, and fry for about five minutes longer, again ensuring that they don’t catch. Add the garlic, and cook for a further minute.

Tip the lentils into the spiced onions, add salt to taste, and simmer for a minute longer. Finish the dish with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, if you like.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Harissa 3

I have found a delicious harissa, called Alfez. It has all the heat you could want, but is tangy as well: the flavours of the spices and of the acidic ingredients come through.

According to the ingredients list, chillis account for only about 15% of the total mixture.

Here, loosely based on the Alfez formula, is a version I made. I measured by desert spoonfuls. But of course larger or small measures would be fine.

1dstsp cumin seeds
1dstsp coriander seeds
1dstsp caraway seeds
1.5dstsp tomato puree
2dstsp dried chillis
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1/2tsp cayenne pepper
1/2tsp sugar
2dstsp olive oil
1dstsp white wine vinegar
1dstsp lime juice

Toast the cumin, coriander, and caraway in a dry saucepan over a gentle heat. Grind in a mortar.

Put the spices, with all the other ingredients, into a small blender, and whizz. Add a little more lime juice, or water, if you need to loosen the texture.

Keep the mixture in a clean jar in the fridge, with a layer of oil covering the surface.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Carrot hummus

This is delicious. Try it, and you may abandon the chick pea version for a while.

The recipe is a scaled-down adaptation of one by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the Guardian. But I’ve added spices, along the lines of a carrot dip recipe of his from a couple of years ago. In other respects, his newer version appears to be an improvement, because the roasted carrots have a stronger, sweeter flavour than do the boiled ones.

4 carrots, peeled and cut into fork-sized chunks
1 clove garlic
1tbsp olive oil

1dstp tahini paste*
1tsp coriander seeds
1/2tsp caraway seeds
Cayenne pepper to taste
1tbsp orange juice

Put the carrots and garlic in an oven dish, and toss with the oil and salt. Bake, uncovered, at gas mark 6/200C, tossing the ingredients again after 20 minutes. The carrots may need longer to soften than the 30-35 minutes that Fearnley-Whittingstall specifies.

Toast the coriander and caraway over a low heat in a small saucepan. Grind in a mortar.
Slipping the garlic from its skin first, tip the contents of the oven dish into a food processor or small electric mill. Add the tahini, coriander and caraway, cayenne, and orange juice. Whizz. Add a little more juice if you need to loosen the texture.

*Apologies to those who read this recipe when I first posted it: I forgot this vital ingredient.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


This dish comes from a 1990 BBC book, Italian Regional Cookery by Valentina Harris, and must be related to the Flemish and French carbonnade, which is often made with beer. Harris says that the Italian version is “absolutely typical” of the Aosta Valley in the north west. She specifies a “very heavy, strong red wine”; I used a nero d’avola, from Sicily.

The technique Harris gives appears to resemble that for a risotto: you add the liquid - wine, in this case - in stages. I write “appears” because she does not tell you whether to cover the casserole, instead saying that you simmer the stew until the wine “has been absorbed”, before adding more. But absorption is not what happens: meat as it cooks expels liquid rather than absorbing it. Rather, the wine evaporates. So my conclusion is that you need to cook the stew in an uncovered dish.

The problem is that, because the meat has not been entirely submerged in liquid for the two hours’ cooking time, it may still be tough. At this point, I moistened the stew with a little stock, and put it in the oven, covered, for a further hour.

The flour creates another problem, thickening the liquid and causing it to stick as it simmers. You need to stir the stew regularly.

I tend not to put flour in stews. The next time I cook carbonata, I shall leave it out, but include another onion or two. I’ll let the winey sauce evaporate until it thickens with the onions, before putting the stew into the oven for the last hour.

In the following recipe, the technique for searing the meat and the oven cooking both differ from Harris’s version. The star anise is my idea, too.

800g chuck steak, cubed
3tbsp flour
1tbsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 bottle red wine
½ star anise
Stock or water

In a bowl, toss the steak with the flour. Then toss it with the oil, adding a little more if you need it to coat all the chunks of meat.

Get a ridged grill pan very hot. Brown the meat on it in batches, turning once. Return the meat to the bowl when done.

In a heavy casserole and over a low heat, soften the onion in just enough butter to prevent pieces of onion from sticking and catching. Adding a little oil may help.

Tip the meat, with any juices, into the casserole, add salt and star anise, and pour in enough wine just to cover the ingredients. Bring to a simmer, and cook in the uncovered casserole over a gentle heat, stirring regularly. As the liquid diminishes, add more wine.

Continue for two hours, allowing the liquid to reduce down at the end. Add just enough stock or water to create as much sauce as you’d like, and put the casserole into a gas mark S/130C oven for a further hour.

Harris says that you might serve this dish with polenta or with jacket potatoes. I chose rice.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Potatoes in olive oil

This is from a recipe I found in the Week, for squid and potatoes. The magazine took it from Canal House Cooking by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton.

The recipe gives 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut crosswise into approx 5cm slices; 1 onion, sliced; 125ml olive oil; and 125ml of water.

The first thing you notice is the 5cm instruction: 5cm is not a slice, it’s a chunk. The second is that 125ml is an awful lot of oil. The third is that the recipe tells you to put all the ingredients in a heavy frying pan over a medium heat, cover, and cook for 30 minutes. A medium setting on your hob will almost certainly get these ingredients bubbling too fiercely; and 30 minutes is almost certainly longer than they will take to cook.

In spite of my doubts, I gave the recipe a try, but with less oil and more potatoes, cut into 1cm slices; I also added salt, which the recipe does not mention. You’ll need a waxy variety of potato: piled up in the pan, sitting above the liquid and with unequal access to the steam, they cook unevenly, and maincrop varieties will collapse under the treatment - especially if you need to lift the lid at the end and turn up the heat to evaporate the remaining liquid. I thought that even my Jerseys were more beaten up than ideal. But, having absorbed a good deal of oil, they were flavoursome.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Coronation chicken - an alternative

Easier than coronation chicken, and just as nice.

1.5kg chicken, roasted and shredded
170g Greek yoghurt
2tbsp mayonnaise
2tsp harissa, or other hot sauce, or pesto
1 clove garlic, chopped and crushed with a little salt
Salt and pepper

Mix the chicken with the other ingredients.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Katherine Hepburn's chocolate brownies

Yes, this recipe is ascribed to THE Katherine Hepburn, the one who, as pub quiz enthusiasts may know, won a record four Best Actress Oscars. At first sight, it appears to have far too little chocolate, and a surprisingly modest amount of flour. But it produces delicious, fudgy results, albeit - as you can see - somewhat crumbly ones.

The espresso that I included features in only one online version, and may not be canonical.

50g dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more)
120g butter
200g sugar (I used caster; some recipes specify granulated)
1tsp vanilla essence
2tbsp brewed espresso coffee
2 eggs, beaten
45g plain flour
Pinch of salt
Handful of chopped walnuts (optional)

In a small saucepan, melt the chocolate and butter over a very gentle heat, stirring all the time. Take the pan off the heat as soon as you think the mixture is hot enough to melt any remaining solids.

Pour the chocolate mixture over the sugar in a bowl, and stir, adding the vanilla and espresso. Stir in the eggs, flour, salt, and walnuts, if using. (I am not sure why you need the salt. It does promote the development of gluten, so may help the brownies to cohere – but perhaps not in this small amount.)

You’re supposed to bake the mixture (at 170C), which is almost alarmingly runny, in a lined (with greaseproof paper), 8” (20cm), square tin. I had only a round, 23cm tin, and my brownies were too thin. They took about 40 minutes.

Bee Wilson: Please, less chocolate in my brownies! (Telegraph)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Spaghetti carbonara

Felicity Cloake's instructions on "How to cook the perfect spaghetti carbonara" look pretty good to me. My version has only slight differences - matters of preference rather than disagreement.

I'd use just two eggs, not bothering with the extra yoke. And I'd probably use a bit more pancetta, because I like it so much.

I'd put just a tiny bit of oil in a pan, and fry the pancetta with the clove of garlic, cut in half; I'd fish out the garlic later. The point is not to have to start with a tbsp of oil, because the pancetta will give off a lot of fat of its own.

If the pancetta is cooked before your pasta is ready, turn off the heat. But turn it back on again as you're about to drain the pasta. Toss the pasta and the pancetta in the hot pan, and turn off the heat again. The contents should be able to curdle the eggs, but not so hot that they stick.

I prefer to keep the eggs and the cheese separate. Tip the eggs over the spaghetti and pancetta, toss until the strands of pasta are coated with curdled egg, and then toss with the cheese.

I like the idea of taking a cup of cooking water from the pasta pan. I've always kept some of the water by draining the pasta over the pan. But it's easier to control the quantity if you pour from a cup - an important advantage when all you need is just enough to loosen the texture.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Guardian blog

"The great recipe swindle", the headline on this blog I wrote for the Guardian, may be putting my argument a bit strongly. Still, the piece attracted more than 200 comments. Very few of them gave me a hard time: considering the overheated atmosphere that can prevail in such fora, I feel that I got away unscathed.

Perhaps it was my good luck that many of the posters ended up arguing with each other, particularly about how to cook rice. It is a subject that I have explored somewhat obsessively here, as the link on the right demonstrates.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Don't Sweat the Aubergine - pastry

A third and final extract from the new edition of my book Don't Sweat the Aubergine.


The first edition of this book contained no recipe for pastry. The reason for the omission was personal: I am hopeless at making it. I did not feel that I could, in good faith, offer advice on the subject.
I am not dextrous. My efforts at woodwork at school were a jumble of ill-fitting joints, and my Airfix models were encrusted with surplus glue and misapplied paint. Today, I am incapable of wrapping a present without scrunching up the paper, or of folding a shirt without leaving it in need of another go with the iron. And I cannot rub fat into flour efficiently. When I try to roll pastry, I always get it stuck to the rolling pin and to the table, and end up with an uneven, glutenous slab with holes and ragged edges.

I can still make a tart, though. A food processor does the work of my incompetent fingers (though the machine has potential disadvantages – see below), and, leaving the rolling pin in its drawer, I simply spread the dough (as recommended by Elizabeth David), or grate it (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall).

(For a 23cm tin)
140g plain flour
70g butter
About 2tbsp iced water

Cut the butter into small pieces, and put it back into the fridge for 30 minutes. You could put the flour in its bowl there too.1 – see why you do it

Tip the flour and butter into a food processor. On a medium speed, whizz the ingredients, in short bursts, until the butter is blended and the mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs.2 (Or, if you prefer, carry out this process with your fingertips.)

Tip this mixture back into the chilled bowl in which you had held the flour. 1tbsp at a time, sprinkle over the water, lifting and blending the mixture gently until it coheres; or stir it into shape gently with a knife.3 Put it back into the fridge, wrapped in clingfilm if you want to protect it from the odours of other foods, for another 30 minutes.4

A loose-bottomed tin will enable you to transfer the cooked tart to a plate. Grease it with a little olive or vegetable oil – the solids in butter can cause sticking. Spread the pastry by hand over the bottom and sides of the tin; or grate it into the tin, and smooth it out.

Prick the pastry with a fork, lay foil or kitchen paper on top, and weigh down this covering – with baking beans, or with uncooked rice, or, as I do, with another tin of the same size. Cook the pastry “blind” (without a filling) in a gas mark 6/200°C oven for 15 minutes; remove the weight and the foil or paper, and continue to cook until the pastry loses all tackiness. Now it is ready for your filling.5

Why you do it
1) Cold ingredients. The trick in pastry-making is to minimise the creation of gluten - the rubbery, tough protein that forms when molecules in starch granules bond, with the help of water. “Shortening” – a fat such as butter or lard – coats the grains of flour, repels water, and inhibits these chains of molecules from forming. A low temperature also inhibits gluten formation. The recipe includes no salt, you’ll notice: salt “greatly strengthens the gluten network”, Harold McGee warns.

2) Machine or hand? I use the machine, because I tend to botch the hand-rubbing. But it has drawbacks. The vigorous beating can cause the water in the butter to hydrate the starch, creating gluten, as can the heating of the rapidly whirring blade. I try to minimise these effects by using the motor in short bursts. Lard, if you’d like to use it, has a lower water content.

3) Adding the water gradually, and gently. This is a delicate stage of the process: you’re introducing an ingredient that will cause gluten to form if handled insensitively. Do not pour water through the spout of the processor. As the ball coheres, it will be kneaded by the blade. Kneading is fine for bread, but not for pastry.

4) Resting. Even with your delicate handling, the dough has developed some lengthier protein molecules. During the next 30 minutes or so, they will relax.

5) Blind baking. Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book is a wonderful work, but offers bad advice in suggesting you pour your tart filling into a case of raw dough. You end up with a soggy crust. When baking blind, you prick the pastry and weigh it down because it can buckle as the water in it steams.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Don't Sweat the Aubergine - sponge cakes

A second extract from the new edition of my book Don't Sweat the Aubergine. The first edition gave no cake recipes, largely because I'm an inexperienced and inexpert baker. But it struck me that a book that purports to tell you how and why things work in the kitchen ought to have a section on this branch of cookery, in which, you could argue, some knowledge of the technicalities is particularly important.

I start with a bit of theory, and follow with three basic sponge recipes.

Sponge cakes

If a net is, according to Samuel Johnson, “holes tied together with string”, a cake may be described as bubbles contained by batter. You create the bubbles in three principal ways:

Beating (creaming) butter and sugar
Incorporating a raising agent, either by using self-raising flour or by adding baking powder (and/or, in some recipes, bicarbonate of soda, an ingredient of baking powder)
Creating an egg foam

The recipes here involve various permutations of these methods. But let’s start with the technical stuff, some of which applies not only to cakes but to other sweet things in this chapter.

1) Equipment. Springform cake tins of 20cms and 23cms will cover a good many recipes. If you’re making a sponge sandwich, you’ll need two 20cm tins.

2) Lining and greasing the tin. Place the cake tin on a piece of greaseproof paper, draw round it, and cut along the pencil mark. Smear a very small piece of butter on the base of the tin, stick the round piece of paper on top, and smear a little oil on the surface of the paper and round the sides of the tin. Oil works better than butter as a non-stick agent, because the solids in butter can be adhesive.

3) Creaming. Generations of (mostly) schoolgirls suffered arm ache as they spent domestic science lessons – as they used to be known - mashing margarine, butter or some other shortening ingredient into sugar, and laboriously working away at the mixture until it lightened. These days, chefs tend to use hand-held mixers or food processors. Both machines require some manual intervention during the creaming process, because the mixture clogs up until it becomes properly amalgamated.

A creamed butter/sugar mixture, the texture of double cream, contains lots of air bubbles. It also separates the grains of flour, preventing lumps. This is why fats are known as “shortenings”: they interrupt the formation of gluten, which is a long chain of protein molecules.

4) Sifting flour. Unnecessary, despite what recipes may say. You are unlikely to find weevils left behind in your sieve; and any airiness you give to the flour now will be lost when you stir it into the batter.

5) Separating an egg. Crack the egg on the edge of a bowl, and allow the white to pour in. Gently, with your hand held over the bowl and your fingers straight, tip the yolk on to your fingers, opening them slightly to allow further white to slip through. Moving the yolk from hand to hand can encourage this process. (I got this technique from the opening sequence of a TV biopic of Elizabeth David.)

6) Whisking whites. Try to avoid letting any trace of yolk creep into the egg white. Don’t add salt or, despite what some experts recommend, lemon juice or vinegar: they soften egg whites.

I use a hand-held whisk, feeling that, in spite of the work involved, it enables me more accurately to judge the progress of the foam.

Use a large bowl, and tip it towards you, so that the whisk gets access to as much egg white as possible. You should stop beating when the whisk, lifted from the foam, creates peaks, which do not subside. It’s tempting to carry on, just to make sure you’ve got the right consistency. Resist. Further beating causes the peak stage rapidly to be succeeded by collapse.

7) Dropping the cake. In The Science of Cooking, Peter Barham offers the bizarre recommendation that, on removing the cake from the oven, you drop it from a height of about 30cms on to a hard surface. (An average ruler is about 30cms long.) The theory is this: as a cake cools, the air bubbles in it deflate, like collapsing balloons. Dropping the cake allows some of the bubbles to break, letting in air, which sustains the structure.

8) Turning out. Some recipes recommend that you wait five minutes, just long enough for the cake to contract from the side of the tin, before turning it out on to a wire rack. If you do this, place the cake top-side (the firmer one) down. I find that bits of cake stick to the rack anyway, and I usually allow the cake to cool in the tin.

Basic sponge
This sponge does contain a certain amount of gluten, which you create when you blend the flour with the sugar and butter, and when you stir in the eggs. If you have ever handled bread dough, which has a lot of gluten, you’ll know that it has an elastic quality. Here, that elasticity maintains the structure of the cake as the air bubbles expand. If the structure were to break and the bubbles to pop, the cake would collapse. The texture of the cake is, nevertheless, foamy.

100g self-raising flour (or plain flour, plus 1tsp baking powder)
100g caster sugar
100g softened butter
1tsp vanilla essence (optional)
2 eggs, beaten

Pre-heat your oven to gas mark 4/180C. Put in a baking sheet.

Line and grease a 20cm springform cake tin.2 – SEE HOW/WHY YOU DO IT, ABOVE

In a food processor, blend the flour, sugar, and butter, in short pulses, until you have a stodgy mass. Tip the mixture into a bowl, and stir in the vanilla (if using – I like it, but you may prefer less, or none at all) and a portion of the egg. Keep adding egg until you have a gloopy batter; it should drop off a spoon, but reluctantly. Don’t feel obliged to use all the egg; but, if you have done so before you get to the gloopy stage, add a little milk too.

Tip the batter into the cake tin, spread it out and level the surface, and put the tin into the oven on top of the baking sheet, which helps to convey the heat. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until an inserted skewer emerges clean.

Drop the cake tin from a height of about 30cms on to a hard surface (I hope the spring is secure).7 Allow the cake to cool before turning it out.8 I keep it in greaseproof paper, wrapped inside foil.

Add the zest of a lemon, or of an orange, to the mix. And/or poppy seeds. Or any other dry flavourings.

Make a sandwich: double the ingredients, and divide the batter between two tins, baking the layers side by side.

Fillings. You might go for a cream tea theme, with a layer of jam topped by whipped cream. Or try lemon curd, from Geraldine Holt’s Cakes: 1 lemon; 60g caster sugar; 1/4tsp cornflour; 1 egg; 30g butter. Use a small bowl that will rest in a saucepan of simmering water without the base touching the water’s surface. Grate in the lemon zest, and add the juice too, along with the sugar, cornflour, and egg. Cook the mixture, stirring all the time, above the simmering water. After about five to seven minutes, the mixture should start to thicken. Remove the bowl, and stand it in cold water; while the mixture still has some warmth, stir in the butter in small pieces. Allow the curd to cool before spreading it on the cake.

Victoria sponge
The same ingredients as above, but, you’ll notice, in a different order. Creaming the butter and sugar before adding the egg and gently folding in the flour results in a cake that is lighter in gluten, and that therefore has a lighter texture. The drawback is that the air bubbles are more likely to burst in the less elastic batter, particularly if your mixture is too loose.

100g caster sugar
100g softened butter
1tsp vanilla essence (optional)
2 eggs, beaten
100g self-raising flour (or plain flour, plus 1tsp baking powder)

Pre-heat your oven to gas mark 4/180C. Put in a baking sheet.

Line and grease a 20cm springform cake tin.2 – SEE HOW/WHY YOU DO IT, P000

Cream the sugar and butter until the mixture is soft and fluffy.3 Beat in about three quarters of the egg – this may be enough. Add the vanilla, if you’re using it, and gently fold in the flour. You should have a gloopy batter, which will drop off a spoon, but reluctantly. If the batter is too stiff, gently add more egg. If it’s still too stiff, add a little milk.

Tip the batter into the cake tin, spread it out and level the surface, and put the tin into the oven on top of the baking sheet, which helps to convey the heat. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until an inserted skewer emerges clean.

Drop the cake tin from a height of about 30cms on to a hard surface.7 Allow the cake to cool before turning it out.8 I keep it in greaseproof paper, wrapped inside foil.

See the suggestions below the basic sponge recipe, p000. Here’s an extra one: lemon drizzle. Put the zest and juice of two lemons in a bowl, and stir in 100g granulated sugar until dissolved. When you remove the cake from the oven, spoon this syrup all over it.

Genoese sponge
In this sponge, the eggs produce the foam – there is no other raising agent. A cake the size of the sponges described above would again have 100g of flour and 100g of sugar, but with four eggs, and 50g melted butter. You need an electric whisk to beat together the sugar and eggs; eventually, after a good 10 minutes and maybe more, they increase in volume by as much as six times, and become stiff and very pale. Then you fold in the flour. Last (because the fat collapses the air bubbles), you stir in the butter, quickly transfer the batter to the tin, and bake it as in the recipes above.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Don't Sweat the Aubergine - aubergines

A revised, updated edition of my cookbook, Don't Sweat the Aubergine, comes from Black Swan on 26th April. Here it is, on the publisher's website. And here is what I have to say in the book about aubergines.


Nowhere in the literature of cookery is the sway of received ideas more evident than in the treatment of aubergines. Routinely, recipes advise you that aubergines should be salted, rinsed and dried before cooking. You leave them, sprinkled with salt, in a colander, perhaps with a plate on top to squeeze them a little, for half an hour or so; or, more rarely, you use the technique given in Classic Turkish Cookery by Ghillie Basan, who suggests you soak aubergine cubes or slices in salted water. Recipes may add the gloss that the point of the exercise is "to remove the bitter juices".

Once upon a time, it seems, aubergines were bitter. Some varieties still are, no doubt. But I’ve never found one. In any event, salting probably does not remove bitterness: it disguises it (cf McGee on Food and Cooking).

Supporters of salting who acknowledge the lack of bitterness in modern strains of aubergine advance a second reason for the practice: that pre-salted aubergines do not soak up so much oil when you fry them. It is true that unsalted aubergines soak up all the oil you give them as soon as they touch it. But salted ones soak up quite a lot too; and, if you have cut the vegetable into cubes and are stirring them around, the flesh soon starts sticking to the pan. Stuck bits apart, the cubes are usually still firm after the 10 minutes that recipes tend to give as the cooking time. Aubergine is not nice unless it is soft.

Delia Smith says that pre-salting concentrates the flavour, ensuring that the cooked aubergine won't be watery. I experimented. I pre-salted the cubes of half an aubergine; then I baked it with the cubes of the other half, salted only as I put them in the oven. I tasted each kind. There was no difference between them.

Cut aubergines into cubes. Put them on a baking tray or in a roasting pan, and pour olive oil or sunflower oil over them - about 1 tbsp for each medium-sized aubergine. Add salt, and pepper if you like. Toss with spoons, or with your hands. Cook at gas mark 6/200°C for 20 minutes to half an hour, or until tender.

Recipes such as Parmigiana di melanzane and moussaka require rounds (cut into 1/2cm discs horizontally) or slices (cut the aubergine in two horizontally, then cut 1/2cm vertical slices), according to your preference. Brush them with olive or sunflower oil (if you don't have a pastry brush, pour some oil into a small saucer, dip a fork into it, and brush the aubergine slices with the backs of the tines), season, and bake as above.

You can brush slices of aubergine with oil and cook them in a frying pan or a ridged grill pan, or on a barbecue. But I like the flesh of my aubergines to have a melting texture; and I find that texture harder to achieve by frying or grilling than by baking. Frying cubes of aubergine is, in my experience, very unsatisfactory: as I say above, the cubes soak up all the oil, stick to the pan, and take ages to tenderise. However, you can cook them in an pan on the hob if it also contains onions, which provide a moist environment. Cook the onions in oil first for about five minutes, tip in the aubergines with some salt, stir everything around, and cover. Cook on the lowest heat, stirring regularly. The aubergines should be tender in 15 to 20 minutes.

Another way of cooking aubergines is to bake them in their skins, then to mash up the flesh with garlic, oil, lemon, salt and any other flavourings you fancy. Tahini, the sesame paste with the consistency of peanut butter, works well. I like a dash of cayenne or chilli pepper. Cumin, dry roasted in a pan until it gives off a toasty aroma and then ground in a mill or mortar, is also nice. One clove of garlic, finely chopped or mashed, for each aubergine; 1tbsp of tahini; 1tbsp olive oil; 1tbsp of lemon juice; 1tsp of cumin seeds.

There’s a neat way of baking aubergines in Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Heaven. You slice the aubergine in half, slash the flesh, sprinkle one half with garlic, add oil, seasoning and, in his recipe, a sprig of rosemary, put the halves together and wrap them tightly in foil, bake at 220°C (gas mark 7) for 45 minutes, then at 110°C (gas mark 1/4) for a further 25 minutes (the aim is to get the flesh really soft). You scoop the flesh (discarding the rosemary, which will have imparted its flavour) into a pan. Then, Ramsay says, you heat it to evaporate the liquid and to achieve a thick, creamy consistency. So Ramsay clearly doesn’t think the juices will be bitter: this technique will concentrate them.

My one variation on Ramsay’s method is to add the oil at the end of cooking, in order to get its full flavour.

My favourite aubergine dish is Parmigiana di melanzane. You slice and bake the aubergines as in HOW TO COOK THEM above, layer them in a dish with tomato sauce (it doesn't matter whether you end up with tomato or aubergines or a mixture on top), put chopped mozzarella on top and grated Parmesan on top of that, then bake at, say, gas mark 4/180°C to blend the flavours and brown the cheese. It's delicious hot, even more delicious at room temperature, and most delicious lukewarm.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Fried chicken - without egg

I read somewhere that it was a solecism, when making southern fried chicken, to dip the chicken in egg before coating it in flour. Flour only, is the rule. I have indeed found that the crusts of my egg/flour fried chicken have been somewhat stodgy.

The coating above consists only of gluten-free flour - which I have found, when making onion bhajis, produces better results than wheat flour – seasoned with salt and a generous quantity of cayenne pepper. I put sunflower oil to a 1cm depth in a frying pan, warmed it over a low to medium heat until a small piece of bread sizzled in it, and fried the chicken pieces with the flame turned right down for 30 minutes, turning once. It was the best I've made.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Baked salmon with soy and lemon

Baking salmon steaks, or indeed any fish, is a lot easier than frying or grilling them. Ten minutes in a gas mark 6/200C oven left these steaks tender and juicy. They are anointed with slivers of butter, salt and pepper, and soy sauce. I squeezed over some lemon juice at the end.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Onion bhajis

These bhajis are adapted from an Angela Hartnett recipe in the Guardian. I made two bhajis with plain flour (which she suggests), and two with gluten-free flour. The gluten-free versions - perhaps gram flour would have been even better - were far superior: wheat flour produced a stodgy, crusty texture. I used more spice than the pinches Hartnett suggests.

1 onion, cut in half, sliced into half-moons, then quarter-moons
30g gluten-free flour
1/2tsp cumin seeds
1/2tsp coriander seeds
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 egg, beaten
200ml sunflower or groundnut oil

Warm the cumin and coriander in a small saucepan over a low heat, until they give off a spicy aroma. Grind them in a mortar.

In a bowl, mix the onion, flour, spices, and salt to taste. Gradually add the egg, stirring or mixing by hand until you have just enough to produce a squidgy and coherent mass. Divide it into four bhajis.

Warm the oil over a medium heat in a saucepan or frying pan. Put in a small piece of bread: if it sizzles, gently lower in the bhajis. Fry until brown, turning once.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lambs' liver and onions

I asked the price of calves' liver at my local butcher. £24 a kilo. The lambs' liver? £4.90. Choosing between them did not take very long. The quantity below, plenty for two people, cost less than £1.50.

Olive oil
4 red onions, sliced
1tbsp red wine vinegar
275g lambs' liver, cut into fork-sized slices
Handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped

Warm about 3tbsp of oil in a heavy casserole over a very low heat, and throw in the onions with half a tsp of salt. Stir, and cover. Continue to cook gently for 45 minutes to one hour, stirring regularly at first to ensure that the onions do not catch. You should find that as they collapse they throw off enough liquid in which to stew. (If not, add a tbsp or two of water or stock.) Indeed, you may find that there is too much liquid, in which case you can encourage it to evaporate by uncovering the pot.

Once you have a pot full of soft, sweet onions, moist rather than runny, add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate for a couple of minutes. (It is pretentious to call this, as some do, an onion "confit", because no preservation - the process that the name implies - is involved.)

If you were cooking calves' liver, you would flash-fry it in butter in a separate pan, stir it into the onions, and serve immediately. But you may want to cook lambs' liver slightly more thoroughly. Simply stir it into the onions, cover the casserole again, and stew for about 10 minutes, or until cooked through but still tender. Stir in the parsley, and serve.

You may want to add black pepper with the liver. Or you could go for a goulash theme, adding a tbsp of paprika once the onions have collapsed, with a dollop or two of sour cream stirred in at the end.