Friday, 31 December 2010

NEW YEAR'S EVE SUPPER

The end is the year is nigh and it's time to reflect on what has been - and what might be. Demon Cook is just over a year old, and I have a small, loyal following - and a bigger following whenever I mentioned "Nigella" and "buns" in the same paragraph! I have not yet had the success I dream of: my blog going viral and becoming the next Belle de Jour, or me as the next Julie Powell (of Julie, Julia fame), the inspiration of a surprisingly popular film about cooking and piano-playing, starring Renee Zellweger (with Demon Cook standing in as the "hand double" to do the close up cooking and/or piano-playing scenes)..... Ah, one can but dream!

So, it's New Year's Eve - again. Funny how it comes round every year, ain't it? I am rather "Bah, humbug!" about New Year's Eve (as I am about Christmas). I feel it is over-rated, and I make a point of not celebrating it and being curmudgeonly about it by going to bed deliberately early, only to be woken at midnight by fireworks. Many years ago, when we were all pre-children and able to party like it's 1999, we went to a fancy-dress murder mystery New Year's party with friends in Battersea. The men elected to take the female roles, and over dinner (the crime and its solving quickly forgotten in the sea of champagne cocktails) they all compared their "comedy breasts". Later, much later, we denuded the Christmas tree, took it into the street, set fire to it, and danced around it in some kind of strange South London pagan ritual. Needless to say, we all had very sore heads the next morning/lunchtime. New Year's celebrations rather went out of the window with the arrival of children and babysitters only being available for a king's ransom on the appointed night. Then, a few years ago, when friends Olga and Simon lived next door, we would go to their house to celebrate, rocking up at around 10pm, drinking steadily 'til after midnight, and then tottering the short distance back to our house. The second year we did this, I recall being so drunk that I flung my arms around Olga's neck and declared "I love you! You're the best neighbour I've ever had!!". Hmm. The things we betray when in our cups!

Meanwhile, back to the food. Tonight it's a simple dinner with good friends Jacky and Nick, and after we've eaten and drunk all we can, we'll play Scrabble and Nick will, once again, try and prove his theory that "he/she who starts wins". I had some shin of pork in the freezer, stashed away before Christmas, and I've made it into "Osso bucco", not the classic Osso Bucco alla Milanese which has a rich tomato sauce, but a very simple stew made with wine, stock, sage and orange peel. The trick is to cook it slowly so that the marrow seeps from the bones: it gives the sauce a gorgeous satiny sheen and flavour. To accompany the stew, a simply saffron and wine risotto. In fact, it won't be an accompaniment as I'm going to serve it ahead of the stew, as a "primo" dish, in the manner of a proper Italian meal. The Osso Bucco will be served with a fresh green salad, gremolata, and homemade focaccia.

It's finger-food to start: olives, stuffed Peppadew peppers, onion bhajis, smoked salmon on blinis, and the Sainted Delia's 'feuilles de brick' pastry canapes (find the recipe here), which are incredibly easy to make, and simply delicious. The Cava is chilling in the fridge, and I must remember to open the Creme de Mur (blackberry liqueur) which I brought back from France, to make Kir Royale.

Manchego & Membrillo, Salami Milano

Feuilles de Brick canapes

Blinis with smoked salmon and faux caviar

For pudding, it's Jo's Chocolate Tart. I'm calling it Jo's Tart because I ate this delicious and elegant chocolate tart when I was staying at Chalet JoJo in France last week, and this is a nod to Jo and her wonderful hospitality and cooking. It is the most beautiful chocolate tart I have ever eaten, redolent of the sort of thing you can find in a classy French patisserie, with a crisp pastry case and the silkiest, smoothest chocolate filling you can imagine. Under the chocolate, is a thin layer of raspberry jam, whose sharpness perfectly cuts into the sweetness of the chocolate.

Recipes follow..... Happy New Year, readers. I'm off to bathe, dress and primp and prime myself for supper.

Osso Bucco with White Wine and Sage
 
Allow 2 osso bucci per person (pork - or veal, if you're feeling extravagant and naughty)
Olive oil
Flour for dusting
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper
200 ml Chicken or beef stock
200 ml White wine
Fresh sage leaves, torn
A few strips of orange peel

Heat some olive oil in a non-stick frying pan. Dust the meat with flour, and fry until golden brown. Set aside. Meanwhile, fry the onion and garlic gently until soft, then add the meat, fresh sage, orange peel, stock and wine. Check seasoning. Bring up to the boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. I usually cook osso bucco for at least 2 hours, or until the meat is falling from the bone and the marrow has seeped into the sauce. Top up the liquid if necessary. Serve with fluffy polenta, mashed potato, or risotto.


Jo's Chocolate Tart

You can either make individual tartlettes or a large tart.

250g sweet pastry (a roll if cheating)
200g dark chocolate
250ml liquid cream
40g butter
150g raspberry or apricot jam (I used a seedless raspberry jam)
Icing sugar
Cocoa powder

Put the oven on at 180.  Put the pastry into the tart case/s and prick with fork. Bake blind for 15 mins, then take paper off and put back into the oven for 5 mins. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Put jam into saucepan, heat up and then spread over the pastry, leave to cool

Put half of the cream into a saucepan and once near boiling add the chocolate. Take off heat and add the remaining cream and the butter. If it starts to look granular, beat with a whisk to achieve smooth consistency. Pour over jammed pastry and put into the fridge to chill and set.
Just before serving, sprinkle over cocoa powder and icing sugar in a design you like.


Jo's Chocolate Tart takes pride of place!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

MOUNTAIN FOOD

Mention the Alps and food in the same breath and most people immediately think of fondue, that warming, comforting dish of melted cheese, with or without the addition of alcohol, into which one dips chunks of  bread.

If you break fondue down to "component level", it is easy to see this is a dish constructed from leftovers: old, hard bits of cheese, and stale bread. Like many other dishes from this region, fondue is "make do" food in many ways - using up bits and pieces left in the larder. The landscape has a direct influence on the food: in the old days, before the roads were made good and kept passable during the winter, it was important for the indigenous population to feed themselves without having to traipse down the mountain every day to shop. Thus, much of the food of this region is made to last through the hard winter: cured and preserved meats, like salami and air-dried ham; bottled fruits and vegetables; pickles.

Visiting this region in the winter, you also realise that this food is meant to sustain. Coming off the slopes the other day, my face raw from the cold, despite a generous application of Dr Hauschka's Rose Creme, I was grateful for a warming dish of baked cheese, potatoes, onions, bacon and cream. This, of course, is Tartiflette, another classic dish from the region, made from sliced potatoes layered with Reblochon cheese and bacon. It is a meal in itself and needs nothing more than a fresh green salad as an accompaniment.

Another dish I enjoyed during my week in the Alps was 'Berthoud', Abondance cheese baked in a gratin dish and served with charcuterie and pickles. It's filling and hearty, and really sets you up for a long walk in the snow (as I did after lunch in a hotel overlooking the beautiful Lake Montriond) or an afternoon on the slopes.
Lake Montriond

Classic fondue is a mixture of Emmental and Beaufort cheese (similar to Gruyere), Savoie wine, garlic and Kirsch. It's a very convivial dish to enjoy with friends, with everyone dipping their long forks into the bubbling cheese mixture, and passing around the accompaniments (like Berthoud, charcuterie and pickles). These days, it is possible to buy a ready-made fondue cheese mix from the supermarket (I've seen this in Waitrose, and you can definitely buy it in France), but Fondue is not difficult to make. You do need a fondue set, however, as the little burner under the bowl keeps the cheese at an even temperature.

The local spirit is Génépi, a digestif made from several Alpine plants. It is related to Grappa and Schnapps, and, like the food, warms the body after time spent out in the snow. The vibrant green liqueur Chartreuse is the commercial version, but many restaurant owners and residents make their own. Go into a local produce shop in Les Gets, and you will find row upon row of different flavours of Genepi, including aniseed, forest fruits and violet. Another local liqueur is made from chestnuts, and makes a delicious Kir Royale when added to champagne or cava.

On my last day in the Alps, I ate a dish called Ecorce de Sapin, a whole Camembert-type cheese baked and served with boiled potatoes, charcuterie, salad and pickles. I drank a glass of very cold Rose wine with it - entirely delicious!
Ecorce de Sapin


Click this link to find recipes for Tartiflette, Berthoud and Fondue.
La Chamade - a fine restaurant in Morzine

Monday, 20 December 2010

DEMON COOK IS ON HOLIDAY

I am away in the French Alps, enjoying the cuisine of the Haute-Savoie - and a bit of skiing for good measure.

Demon Cook will return with a full food and snow report after the holiday.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

SYLVABELLA

I suppose this recipe should come under the heading "Legacy" which Nigella Lawson uses in her book Nigella Bites. For her, "legacy" recipes are those handed down from her mother or grandmother. This recipe, for a very rich chocolate mousse dessert, was not exactly handed down to me by my mother, as I do not have the recipe in any of my "scrapbooks" of recipes, but it definitely brings back memories of my childhood, as it was one of my mother's 'signature' puddings, and I do remember helping her make it. I also recall that it was almost better the day after it was made, when it had spent a night in the fridge and the chocolate (milk and dark) and butter had solidified, and the boudoir fingers were soggy with alcohol.... It's a grand dessert, rich and naughty, and should be reserved for special occasions. I would make it for an alternative Christmas pudding, if I were cooking Christmas dinner (which I am not!).

After a bit of digging on the internet, I found this recipe on a French recipe site. It's the closest I can find to my mum's version. A reader of this blog contacted me to ask if I had a recipe, and now I can say I do! (Please note: this is my translation from the French!)

SYLVABELLA 

75 g dark chocolate  
75 g milk chocolate
20 boudoir fingers, soaked in Tia Maria or Baileys or something similar

2 eggs beaten
120 g caster sugar
50 g coca
300 g butter 

Melt the chocolates and the butter in a bain-marie or on a low setting in the microwave. Do not allow it to bubble or, worse, burn. Mix the eggs, sugar and cocoa together and stir until fully combined. Line a nice bowl or pudding basin with cling-film or foil and arrange the boudoir fingers around the edge. Mix the melted choocolate and butter with the egg, sugar and cocoa mixture and then pour the whole lot into the bowl. Leave the chill in the fridge. Serve with whipped or Chantilly cream. 

Keep refridgerated after serving - as I said, it is good the day after it's made....

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEMON COOK!

Yes, Demon Cook is a tender one year old. This time last year, it was cold and I was blogging about eating steak and kidney pie in The Guinea, a wonderful old-fashioned pub in Mayfair. Today it is also cold - much colder than this time last year - and later I will be blogging about curry, porridge and other comfort foods.

Meanwhile, I owe a debt of thanks to my dear friend Jacky - for it is she! - who coined the title of this blog (she also calls me Demon Shopper). She has also been one of the main inspirations for it, as she was always requesting my recipes, or asking me how I'd made something. Since most of my recipes are begged, borrowed or stolen from others, a cookbook seemed a bit of a con - and very possibly plagiaristic - so a blog it is. As readers can probably tell, I enjoy the activity of writing about food almost as much as I enjoy the activity of cooking and eating it. Someone, who sampled my monkfish paella over lunch one day, once asked me, "How come you're such a good cook? Did your mother teach you?" to which I answered, "Well, yes, in a way. I learnt a lot from standing next to her in the kitchen." But the real reason why I'm a good cook is because I am very, very greedy. And very interested in food. From the moment I wake in the morning, I am thinking about lunch and, better still, what to have for dinner. I love trying out new recipes, revisiting old ones, hunting out ingredients, and visiting food shops, especially foreign markets and supermarkets, delis, and other interesting suppliers of provenders.

Demon Cook will continue in the same vein, but I am very open to suggestions from readers for improvements or additions to the blog.

Meanwhile, happy reading, and, more importantly, happy eating!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A PERFECT STOLLEN

Stollen is my 'alternative' Christmas cake. I don't like Christmas food, and have always had a particular aversion to dried fruit, especially raisins, sultanas and currants. People seem to find it hard to comprehend that I really do not like Christmas cake, mince pies or Christmas Pudding. "Oh, you must like mince pies!" they insist, pressing the dread things upon me. When I was growing up, my mum used to make about a million mince pies for corporate events at my father's office: she did classic mince pies, iced mince pies, and, her piece de resistance, mince pies with a frangipane topping. She also made her own Christmas cakes and puddings (one year she forgot to add the flour to the pudding and it came to the groaning board like a dark, flaming cowpat), and something called Eyemouth Tart which hails from the Borders. I do admit to liking the icing and especially the marzipan from Christmas cake. When I got married, my mum made a special layer of my wedding cake - just for me - minus the mixed, dried fruit.

Stollen is a traditional German Christmas cake, and has a Dutch cousin in the Kerststol, and an Italian relation in Panettone (which I like, especially toasted when it is slightly stale) in that all are enriched yeast cakes. The mixture of fruit and spices gives Stollen a lovely festive scent and flavour - it fills the kitchen with the most comforting bready fug - and I love the thick, yellow slab of marzipan which runs through the centre of it (and turns delightfully crisp and caramelised at the edges if you toast a slice of Stollen). I make Stollen myself because I can then control what goes into it: Marks & Spencer's Stollen, and dainty 'Stollen Bites' are just about tolerable, but they do contain the dread dried fruit and raisins....

This recipe comes from baking supremo Dan Lepard, and the quantity given will yield two good-sized loaves. It freezes well (allow it to cool completely). I'd say it keeps well too, but it won't last long because it's so delicious.

The recipe begins with a "sponge", a method of getting the yeast going in a mixture of warm liquid, flour and sugar, before combining it with the main ingredients. It is quite a convoluted process, but well worth the effort.

For the sponge:
50g strong white bread flour
1 tsp caster sugar
2 level tsp easy-blend yeast or Dove's Farm Quick Yeast
100 ml warm milk

Mix all these ingredients together in a bowl and leave them to bubble for 30 mins.

For the dough:
450g strong white bread flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
3/4 tsp salt
50g icing sugar
150g unsalted butter, softened
1 egg
2 tbsp dark rum
175g warm milk
250g raisins
125g mixed peel
250g marzipan
melted butter and icing sugar to finish

If, like me, you do not like raisins, subsitute dried cranberries, or chopped apricots, or similar.

Place the flour for the dough in a big, wide mixing bowl, or the bowl of the food mixer, with the cinnamon, lemon zest, icing sugar and salt. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until all the lumps disappear. Beat the egg, rum and warm milk into the yeast sponge mixture and then pour this into the buttery flour. Add the dried fruit and stir everything together. Cover the bowl and leave for 10 mins, then lightly oil the work surface and your hands and gently knead the dough for 10 seconds. Return the dough to the bowl, cover and leave for another 10 mins. Repeat this light-kneading twice more at 10-min intervals. Leave the dough covered for a further 30 mins.

Divide the dough into two pieces and form each in to a ball. On a lightly dusted work surface, roll each ball of dough out into an oval, roughly 2 cm thick. Take the marzipan, divide it in half, and mould each piece into a sausage the same length as each oval of dough. Place the marzipan along the length of the dough, and then fold the dough in half so that the marzipan is covered. Press gently around the lump where the marzipan is with your fingertips to seal the marzipan in. Place each stollen on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment, leaving about 10 cms between each of them so they don't stick together as they rise. Put the try in a carrier bag to keep the dough moist and snug, and leave in a warm place for about an hour, or until the stollen have almost doubled in volume.

Heat the oven to 210C (190C for fan oven)/gas 6. Place the tray in the centre of the oven and bake for 20 mins, then reduce the heat (190C/170C/gas 5) and bake for a further 15 mins. Remove from oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. While still warm, brush each stollen with melted butter and dredge heavily with icing sugar, then wrap in waxed paper and store in a cool place.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

TENDER & DAMP LEMON POLENTA CAKE

As her TV series draws to its thrilling climax, it seems that Nigella's double-entendres and suggestive asides grow ever more ridiculous. Or maybe I am just reading too much into the Buxom Goddess's comments? Or perhaps there are just certain words which sound faintly risque, even if they are not: damp, moist, flange, and clematis spring immediately to mind....

Thus, I curled up with laughter when She described this cake as "tender and damp". In the previous episode, her comment "I always like to keep a few chicken thighs somewhere" had me in tucks. Like Harry Hill in his show TV Burp, I am becoming adept at reading far too much into her perfectly innocent vocabulary.

This cake is both Italian and English in its ingredients and inspiration. The polenta and almond mixture is all Italian, producing a tender, crumbly, slightly grainy texture, while the lemon syrup, which is poured onto the cake as it emerges from the oven, makes its interior damp and redolent of old-fashioned Lemon Drizzle Cake. This is both a tea-time cake and a dinner party dessert, and is delicious served with very cold whipped cream, creme fraiche, Greek yoghurt, or, if you're feeling really naughty, clotted cream. I have also seen a version of this recipe with the Italian lemon liqueur Limoncello in the syrup, which I am sure would give it a deliciously intensely lemony kick. Had I not greedily drunk all the Limoncello I brought back from my trip to Italy in September, I would have used it....

This recipe yields a good-sized cake. It fed 4 generously last night, and there is still at least another 4 servings left. So, let's say it serves 8!

Oven 180C. Line and grease a 23 cm diameter springform cake tin.


200g ground almonds
100g polenta
200g caster sugar
1.5 tsp baking powder
200g soft butter
3 eggs
zest of 2 lemons

Drizzle:
juice of (the same) 2 lemons
125g icing sugar

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. (I did this in my Kitchenaid, with the flat paddle attachment.) Mix the dry ingredients together and beat some of this into the butter-sugar mixture, followed by one egg. Repeat the procedure until all the eggs are beaten in. Add the lemon zest. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 35 mins, or until the top is golden brown and springy.

While the cake is cooking, make the syrup by bringing the lemon-sugar mixture to the boil and allowing it to reduce slightly. When the cake is done, pierce it with a piece of spaghetti or a fine skewer, and pour the drizzle liquid over. Don't worry if it puddles in the middle - it will gradually soak through, creating a lovely damp centre. When all the liquid has been absorbed, dust with icing sugar.

Having made and sampled this cake, I think it would make a very nice alternative to the dread Christmas pudding (which I detest). There's something about the lemon-almond flavour that is quite festive, redolent of marzipan and Christmassy spiced drinks.

PS It's almost more delicious eaten the day after it's made. Keep it wrapped in foil.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

UNRECONSTRUCTED STEAK & KIDNEY PIE

Following on from the success of my Deconstructed Chicken and Mushroom pie, I decided to attempt another. I have always liked the classic combination of steak and kidney, and have never been squeamish about eating things like liver and kidneys: my mother cooked these, and hearts and other offal, and what are now called "forgotten cuts" when I was growing up. I know some people can be fussy about kidneys, but to be perfectly honest, when they have cooked for 2 hours in a Guinness-enriched sauce, you hardly know they are there. Because the pie mix has mushrooms in it, it seemed logical to pile the filling into the broad cup of a Portobello mushroom - as I did for the chicken and mushroom pie - and then top it off with a crisp disc of puff pastry.

The filling mix is from Nigella's How to Be A Domestic Goddess, and it is definitely best made a day in advance as it gives all the flavours a chance to deepen and meld together. The long cooking time contributes to this too. I used flat field mushrooms for the pie base, piled the filling inside, and cut discs of puff pastry for the tops. As before, I made a dainty initial for each pie - and then when I served them Jacky tried to sit down at my place. Doh!

Traditional hearty food like this demands traditional, hearty accompaniments, so it seemed appropriate to serve the steak & kidney pies with simple mashed swede and baked potatoes. I made another round of soda bread, which was greeted with "aahs!" of delight as it arrived, still steaming from the oven, at the table. The mushroom pie cups were perfect - I love the meatiness of a Portobello mushroom - really setting off the rich filling. For afters, we ate big, squidgy squares of Flourless Chocolate Brownies (ground almonds are used in place of flour) and drank mugs of Redbush tea, as the Merlot had been quickly exhausted, everyone suffering from that "Thank God it's Friday feeling!". And, as is customary at Friday night suppers, the Scrabble board was brought to the table and Nick proved his theory that "he who starts wins" - and beat us fair and square.

I am now planning the next deconstructed unreconstructed pie.... Steak and Stilton perhaps?

Friday, 19 November 2010

THEMES & VARIATIONS

After my success earlier in the week with Nigella's wheaty soda buns, and the happy memories they evoked of my summer holiday in Ireland, I had a go at a whole loaf this morning, as I fancied a slice of straight-from-the-oven-hot soda bread for breakfast. As I said in the Nigella's Buns post, the great thing about soda bread is the speed of its production. Admittedly the circumstances were not ideal this morning, as I was simultaneously mixing the ingredients and trying to unblock the sink (what an exciting life I lead!), while dressed in my most unsexy nightie, and Ugg boots.

The resulting dough mix looked decidedly dodgy: far too liquidy, so I chucked in some more flour and then poured the mixture onto a sheet of Bake-O-Glide. It spread alarmingly and immediately took on the appearance of a pale brown cow-pat. I decided I would have yoghurt for breakfast instead.

However, after 20 mins cooking, a lovely aroma was rising from the oven and the cow-pat was now cooked, with a lovely burnished crust and an encouraging lightness when I lifted it from the baking sheet and onto a cooling rack. Unable to resist, I broke off the nose of the loaf and smeared it with unsalted French butter (my favourite). Heaven! I greedily tore off the other end, repeated the process, made myself a mug of Lapsang Souchong tea, and returned to my bed for half an hour, to check my email and blog about art and life and food.....

There is half a can of Guinness in the fridge, just begging to be made into more soda bread, so later on, when I have finished teaching, I will make another batch of Nigella's buns for supper. The ingredients for a whole soda loaf are exactly the same as those for the buns.

My curiosity about soda bread is now thoroughly piqued and so I would be interested to hear of variations on the main theme. For example, fruited soda breads? Suggestions please, readers.

Monday, 15 November 2010

NIGELLA'S BUNS

Not a reference to the buxom one's ample bust (sorry to disappoint you) but a recipe for delicious wheaten rolls. Unlike yeasted bread, which can be tiresomely time-consuming especially if one is in a hurry, soda bread is quick to make and delicious to eat, especially still warm with a thick slathering of unsalted butter. It is the action of bicarbonate of soda which gives soda bread its name, and its distinctive texture. This recipe includes stout and honey, and the resulting buns have a lovely depth, both of colour and flavour. I knocked out a batch while listening to the 5pm news programme on Radio 4, and making supper. The ingredients require only a good stir before shaping into rolls (in fact, I just spooned fist-sized dollops onto a baking sheet) and cook in only 15 mins. It was hard to resist a hot bun straight from the oven when they were done.

Makes about 12

400g wholemeal bread flour
100g rolled oats (not instant oats)
2 tsps flaked sea salt or 1 tsp fine table salt
2 tsps bicarbonate of soda
300 ml flat Guinness or stout
150 ml buttermilk, or liquidy plain natural yoghurt
60 ml groundnut or similar vegetable oil
60 ml runny honey

Oven 220C

Line a baking sheet with baking parchment or Bake-o-Glide.

Mix the dry ingredients together. Mix the wet ingredients together. Combine the two. Do not worry if the mixture seems unduly wet - keep stirring and very quickly the bicarb will work its magic chemistry and the mixture will turn moussey before resembling damp sand. Shape the mixture into rough bun shapes, or spoon it onto the baking shape. Sprinkle with oats and flatten slightly (I forgot to do this). Bake for about 15 mins, or until the buns come away easily from the baking sheet and are burnished and shiny underneath. Transfer from baking sheet to a wire cooling rack and resist the urge to eat all of them at one go - with lashings of butter.

These lovely soda buns brought back happy memories of my holiday in southern Ireland in the summer.

Demon Cook enjoying Guinness in a Dublin pub

Sunday, 14 November 2010

DECONSTRUCTED CHICKEN & MUSHROOM PIE

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not overly keen on fussy or 'cheffy' food. Thus, I surprised myself when I decided to make a recipe which featured on the recent TV series 'Masterchef: the Professionals' (a sort of culinary 'The Apprentice' - and judge Michel Roux Jr bears more than a passing resemblance to Alan Sugar!). It worried me, watching 'Masterchef' the other week, as two contestants were told they were not going through to the next round. Witness their faces, crumbling in disappointment. If I were the makers of the programme, I would hide the knives and meat cleavers....

I am rather fond of pies, individual or communal, though will avoid like the plague anything with the words "Nursery"  in the title, for example "Nursery Fish Pie" or "Nursery Chicken Pie", which just scream "BLAND!!!" at me. And Grown Ups should not be eating nursery food anyway (it's like reading Harry Potter books, in my view: they're for kids, you know). Done well, a good pie can be robust and flavourful. I love discovering what lies beneath the pastry top, the way the steam rises off the filling as the top is broken, the bubbling filling beneath.

This recipe is by one of the finalists from this year's Masterchef. It uses the classic ingredients of a traditional chicken and mushroom pie, but is given a witty twist in its "deconstruction", making it a more elegant arrangement, and perfect for a dinner party. Reading the recipe in bed yesterday morning, I was worried it would be fiddly and time-consuming to make, but in fact it is not complicated. I deconstructed the recipe (memorising it for the next time I make it), and soon realised that the constituents of the pies could be made, and assembled, in advance. I hate food which requires me to faff about in the kitchen when my guests arrive. I would far rather be enjoying champagne and conversation with friends than tending to dinner.

This is one of those dishes that requires a degree of multi-tasking, something which, as we all know, women do extremely well. After I'd made an early morning dash to Waitrose to buy the ingredients (and Other Half insisted that the finest, most authentic and, above all, correct ingredients be purchased - "otherwise there's no point doing it!" Eh? - including a rather pricey bottle of Madeira and two bottles of very nice Villa Maria Gisburne Chardonnay-Viognier to drink with the pies, I whizzed home and had the oven heated up in readiness by 9.45am. By 11.00am, everything was made - amazingly. I had deconstructed the chicken, as required, and after re-constructing the pies, including "personalising" the puff-pastry discs with the guests' initials, I tidied up the kitchen, loaded the dishwasher and turned my attention to pudding, Flourless Chocolate Brownies, which I made on Thursday (because Nigella assured me they would benefit from being made in advance). They just needed a light dusting of icing sugar and cocoa. Thus, I spent a leisurely afternoon reading the papers, doing a little piano practise and getting changed for the evening's event.

A friend brought the canapes, but I did make my cheese crisps to have with the champagne. "Game on!" declared the same friend, when I texted her to warn her that she might be fighting over the cheese crisps with another guest, who also adores them.

The pies were assembled and brought to the table, the initials on their lids serving as place-settings for my guests. This little quirk went down very well: Nick removed the 'N' from his pie, placed it on the side of his plate and declared "it was too nice to eat!".

Trouble is, now I have done one Masterchef supper, my regular dinner guests will be expecting more of the same - I just hope I can pull off another one!

Rather than type out the recipe, follow the link below. And enjoy browsing other recipes from 'Masterchef: the Professionals'.

Deconstructed Chicken and Mushroom Pie

Don't be put off by the long list of ingredients, nor the direction that this can take 30mins to an hour to prepare. It's easier than it first appears, and it's very satisfying to produce something which looks stunning on the plate.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

MY BUBBLE & SQUEAK

Wikipedia, that fount of knowledge, states that Bubble and Squeak is "a traditional English dish made with shallow-fried leftover vegetables from a roast dinner. The chief ingredients are potato and cabbage..... The name comes from the....sound it makes as it cooks."

In reality, bubble and squeak is any combination of leftovers, chucked into a pan with some oil, and fried. Potatoes are a crucial ingredient, either mashed or whole, and bacon can be used for flavour. One could add an egg.  My version today comprised chorizo sausage, leftover baked potatoes, and a handful of Cavolo Nero darling. I fried the chorizo until it was just turning crisp around the edges, then flung in a baked potato, sliced, and finally the fancy cabbage, which, when fried, began to take on the texture and flavour of that Chinese restaurant standby starter - crispy fried seaweed (which, as we all know by now, is not seaweed but dark green cabbage). I added a small amount of chopped garlic and a pinch of chili flakes. And, as you can see from the pic, I topped off the whole lot with some chunks of St Agur cheese. Naughty - but nice.

Eating it while multi-tasking (making almond chocolate brownies - to be blogged at a later date - and listening to the lunchtime news while contemplating piano practice and teaching later on), I am happy to confirm that the combination of ingredients I selected was perfect. The cats were pretty keen on it too!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

BROUGE

Twenty-odd years ago, when I was in my third publishing job in London, two "themed" restaurant chains were born: one, a Japanese noodle bar/canteen, was Wagamama, and the very first was in Streatham Street, Bloomsbury, just round the corner from my office on Great Russell Street. The other was a Belgian restaurant, called Belgo, which specialised in Belgian food, particularly "moules frites" and had a beer menu longer than the longest long arm. They both had two things in common - aside from the uncommonly good and tasty food, and lively, buzzing atmosphere - the minimalist decor and the exposed kitchens.

The first Belgo opened in 1992 in Chalk Farm, next door to the design studio of archiect Ron Arad, who designed the interior. It was well worth the schlepp up the Northern Line to eat there, for Belgo was truly a dining 'experience'. The staff were dressed like monks, in long, dark habits, Gregorian chant played soulfully in the background, or jaunty Jacques Brel, and the diners sat at long wooden trestles, as if in a monastery refectory. As well as the "moules frites", of which there were at least five varieties, ranging from the classic Moules Mariniere to Thai Green Curry, there were wholesome and robust Belgian specialities - sausage and stoemp (Belgian mash), Waterzooi (chicken, leeks and potatoes in a light cream broth), braised lamb shank, rabbit, all cooked with beer. The beer menu, which was vast, featured Trappist beers, White beers, Champagne beers, fruit beers, and the staff were happy to recommend a beer to have with your meal, rather as the traditional sommelier might recommend a wine. It was a great place to go with friends and one could be guaranteed to emerge, stuffed and tipsy, at the end of the evening.

Following on from the success of the Chalk Farm branch (called Belgo Nord), a new, bigger restaurant opened in Covent Garden (Belgo Centraal). Also designed by Ron Arad, but on a more industrial scale, one entered across a gantry and was transported to the basement dining area in a large lift, as if descending into a mine. Downstairs, the decor was similar to the Chalk Farm branch, and the staff were similarly attired, but the vastness of the restaurant space meant that during busy times the service could be rather slack. Later, a Bierodrome opened on Clapham High Street, also very popular and crowded.

I have not visited Belgo for years, so I was curious to try to local equivalent, Brouge at The Goat on the Fulwell/Twickenham borders. The pub, before it was done up and gastro-ed and Belgo-ed, was very non-descript (I'm being kind here!). It was renamed and a conservatory extension became Brouge, a restaurant specialising in Belgian food. Like Belgo, it has a long beer list (and a relatively short wine list) and a good menu, on which beer features heavily.

Arriving by bus (the 281 or 33 from Teddington stops close to the pub), there was time for a drink at the bar before we sat down. I chose a 'Brussels Framboise', a fruit beer which was a little like drinking raspberryade - only better, because it was alcoholic! My companion chose a Steenbrugge Brune. Later, we drank Leffe and Champagne beer. The food was robust and comforting: I had a lamb shank braised with a redcurrant, fruit beer and garlic 'jus' (that's 'gravy' in old money), served on stoemp (Belgian mash with potato, swede, carrot and parsnip), while my companion had the Flemish Fish Pot (with North Atlantic Cod, Scallops & Scottish Mussels, served with Frites). At the next table, four people were enthusiastically tucking into various types of moules frites. My lamb shank could have been braised a little longer - I like the meat to be falling off the bone, and I did have to hack at it, but it was flavourful and just the thing for a cold, windy November evening. The Flemish Fish Pot was declared "delicious" - I think I'll try that next time.

For pudding, my companion read my mind and selected Banoffee Pie (to share). Too often Banoffee Pie is temple-achingly sweet and cloying, but this was just right, with fat slices of banana nestled on a buxom layer of "dulce de leche" (that's condensed milk cooked until it is thick, brown and lucscious). Overall, a very nice evening out - and good value too. I would definitely eat there again: while I know I could cook anything on the menu at home, it was good food, well-presented, and the service was attentive without being sycophantic.
There are regular special offers and promotions, plus beer tastings and beer "masterclasses".

For more information and to view sample food and beer menus at Brouge and Belgo:
Brouge
Belgo

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

FOOD INTO FASHION?

These clever and stylish photos are by Italian photographer Fulvio Bonavia. My particular favourites are the Parmesan handbags, the lettuce G-string (below), and the aubergine pumps.....








Tagliatelle belt
























Monday, 8 November 2010

THE FLAVOUR THESAURUS

This intriguing book was given to me as a birthday gift by fellow foodie and Waterstones manager, Nick. We had talked about it when it was first published, and I admit I was curious, though felt it might be just another food book to clutter up my already groaning bookshelves..... In fact, it is a thoroughly good read - well-researched and entertaining, and, like a proper Thesaurus, useful.

The author, Niki Segnit, has taken 99 flavours (including coffee, chocolate, earthy, spicy, cheesy, meaty) and grouped them into hundreds of pairings, each with an elegant mini-essay, some containing concise recipes embedded within the text, others with fascinating and often very entertaining information or anecdotes relating to the foodstuff being described. Many of the pairings are nothing new, especially to a keen cook like myself, but it is the witty, fleshing out of these pairings which makes this book such a gem. I read it in bed last night, and actually laughed out loud at some of the descriptions:

Black Pudding & Shellfish: A modern classic. In fancy restaurants, pale scallop is often found perched, trembling like an ingenue, on filthy old black pudding's knee.

Presented in the manner of a serious reference book, rather than a cookbook, The Flavour Thesaurus is not illustrated, and it is something of a relief not to be bombarded with 'food porn' on every page (though I never tire of seeing pictures of the buxom Nigella and her equally buxom food). And the tone is often tongue-in-cheek, or at least ironic, which prevents this book from sounding overly high-brow and pretentious.

flavourthesaurus.com

Sunday, 7 November 2010

DON'T MAKE THESE!

Do not on any account make these. Do not even read this post. Don't be tempted. Do not succumb to the luscious charms of this salty-sweet confection. Shut down your computer and go for a run. Whatever you do, please DO NOT read on....


Nigella's  Sweet and Salty Crunch Nut Bars
I thought I'd entered foodie heaven when I made the chocolate and peanut butter slices from Nigella's earlier book 'How To Be A Domestic Goddess', but these are far, far better. They are reminiscent of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, which I got hooked on when I was a student in the 1980s. At that time, Reese's confectionery was not readily available in the UK. An American girl on my corridor in the hall of residence where I lived in my first year had Peanut Butter Cups shipped over from New York in box-fulls, and was generous enough to share them with her fellow students. I loved - and still do - the combination of salty and sweet, the cloying peanut butter and the smooth chocolate.

These are rather more sophisticated, though still redolent of Peanut Butter Cups, and should definitely not be offered to the kids. In fact, I suggest you greedily and selfishly keep them for yourself. I am eating two slices, with a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea, as I blog..... They make a great end of meal confection to have with a cup of strong coffee. They are very rich - and very moreish!

You can make these bars with milk chocolate, or dark chocolate, or a combination of both, which is how Nigella made them on the telly the other night. I used very cheap Tesco milk chocolate and a bar of very good quality dark chocolate. The result was perfect - they should be sweet, but not quite temple-achingly so. They are dead easy to make, and ready to eat in around 4 hours. Hurrah!

200g milk chocolate
100g dark chocolate
125g unsalted butter
3 tbsp golden syrup
250g salted peanuts
2 x 80g Crunchie bars, broken into rubble


Nigella used a 26cm springform tin; I used a rectangular tin lined with foil and lightly oiled

Melt the chocolate, butter and syrup together over a low heat until smooth and glossy. Add the peanuts and Crunchie rubble, and give everything a good stir. Pour into the prepared tin. Allow to cool and then leave in the fridge for a few hours to set. Cut into slices. Eat.


For more Nigella, recipes and info, go to http://www.nigella.com/

Saturday, 6 November 2010

IT'S MY BIRTHDAY - AND I'LL COOK CURRY IF I WANT TO!

Dinner with friends to celebrate my birthday (though I would prefer to ignore it this year - how depressing to admit to being officially "middle aged"!), and I'm cooking Nick's favourite dish: Indian Leg of Lamb, or Raan Mussallam. As Nick said last week, if anyone asked him what his favourite meal was, he would reply "Fran's Indian Leg of Lamb!". I don't cook it very often, because it takes a bit of preparation and fiddling about a few days beforehand, and maybe this adds to its cachet.

I use Madhur Jaffrey's recipe. For me, she is Mistress of the Masala and all things curried, and I still have her first book, 'An Introduction to Indian Cooking', a Penguin paperback with no illustrations, and turmeric-stained pages. She was in a series of adverts for Indian condiments some years ago - the catchphrase being "She's so bossy!". This has become one of my own kitchen catchphrases (and could equally be applied to me when anyone else is in the kitchen with me, attempting to help me!).

I first made Raan Mussallam, which is a whole leg of lamb marinaded in spiced yoghurt for a couple of days and then cooked slowly, when I was trying to sell my flat in Wimbledon. House-selling 'experts' suggest brewing coffee or baking bread when prospective buyers come to view your property, but I don't think any of them have suggested cooking Indian Leg of Lamb. In any event, my tiny flat was filled with the most delicious, nose-filling fug of warm spices and roasting meat, and it seemed to distract the people who'd come to view the flat that day from the fact that I did not have a fitted kitchen; indeed, they seemed more concerned to steal culinary secrets from me than view the nice parquet floor in the living room.....

The beauty of this dish is that the yoghurt marinade makes the meat wonderfully tender. The marinade makes a sauce all of its own, and this dish requires little more than rice and perhaps a vegetable curry as an accompaniment.

However, because tonight is a celebratory meal, I am going the whole hog and making various additional dishes: an aubergine subji, a classic Punjabi dish, Basmati rice with cinnamon, carrot and saffron, yoghurt raita and green coriander relish. Alongside these delights, will also be the obligatory lime pickle, brinjal (aubergine) pickle, poppadums, and rotis. For a starter, we will have my homemade onion bhajis, to eat with Bellini cocktails. After all that rich and filling food, something fresh and palate-cleansing for afters: my mango sorbet, which tastes so delicious you won't believe it's just mango pulp, egg whites, sugar and lime zest. Oh, and I weakened and made Nigella's Sweet and Salty Crunch Nut Bars, because I thought they might go well with the sorbet.....

Now for the recipes:

Aubergine Subji
The onion/spice base for this can be used with other ingredients: the other day, after making the dish to the recipe as given, I made a variant, and used prawns and tomatoes. The result was very tasty, and a good light supper.

Serves 2-3
1-2 medium onions, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1-2 green chillis, deseeded and sliced (depending on how hot you'd like it!)
salt & pepper to season
a good swig of olive oil or sunflower oil
1 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp garam masala
2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tin chopped tomatoes, or 200g fresh tomatoes, chopped
a good handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped.

Vegetables
2 large aubergines, cut into small cubes
OR
1 large aubergine and 2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into cubes (leave skin on)
2 good handfuls of fresh spinach.

Cook's note: I like to fry or roast the aubergine cubes before adding to the base mixture. Otherwise, the aubergine tends to take on the unappetising consistency of an old bathroom sponge! Parboil the sweet potatoes before adding to the dish.

Fry the onions, garlic, ginger, cumin seeds and chillis with a pinch of salt (to stop the mixture catching) in the oil until soft. Stir in the garam masala, turmeric and cardamom, followed by the chopped tomatoes and half of the chopped coriander. Simmer for 5-10 mins, then add the aubergine. Leave to simmer for about 15 mins, then add the sweet potatoes. If it gets too dry, add a little more water. Check to see if the sweet potatoes are cooked, then add the spinach and simmer gently until it wilts. Finally, add the rest of the coriander, and check seasoning. This can be served with a yoghurt raita. It makes a nice vegetarian supper, and needs only basmati rice, toated pitta bread, or Indian bread as an accompaniment. It also works well as a side dish to another curry.

Raan Mussalam
Serves 4-6

Start to prepare this at least 24 hours in advance as the meat needs to marinade. This is Madhur Jaffrey's recipe and she does not cook the meat as long as I do.....

2.25kg leg of lamb, trimmed of fat and fell (parchment-like white skin).  
50g ground almonds
225g onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
8 garlic cloves, peeled
Four 1 inch cubes of ginger, peeled
4 fresh green chillis, chopped
570ml plain yoghurt
2 tbsps ground cumin
4 tbsps ground coriander
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
3.5 tsps salt
1/2 tsp garam masala
6 tbsps vegetable/sunflower oil
1/2 tsp whole cloves
16 cardamom pods
2 inch stick of cinnamon
10 black peppercorns
4 tbsps sultanas
10g split or slivered almonds

Oven  200 C

Blitz the ground almonds, onions, garlic, ginger, green chillis, and 3 tbsps of the yoghurt in a food processor. Put the rest of the yoghurt in a bowl and beat lightly with a fork until smooth and creamy. Add the onion paste, and the cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt and garam masala. Mix well.

Make deep slashes in the lamb and spread this mixture over the meat, pushing it into openings. Be sure to turn the leg over so that both sides are covered. Use all the marinade mixture. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge for 24 hours.

When you are ready to cook the meat, take it out of the fridge, remove the cling film and allow it to come to room temperature. Heat oil in a frying pan, and when hot, add the cloves, whole cardamom, cinnamon and peppercorns. When the cloves swell - only takes a few moments - pour the hot oil and spices over the leg of lamb.

Cover the baking tray tightly with foil and bake, covered for 1.5 hours. Remove the foil and bake uncovered for 45 minutes. Baste 3-4 times with the sauce. Scatter, or arrange in a pattern, the sultanas and almonds and bake for another 5-6 mins. Remove from the oven and let the lamb rest for 15 mins. Spoon all the fat off the top of the suace and fish out all the whole spices and discard. Pour the sauce around the leg and carve.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

I [HEART] NIGEL!

It is no accident that my ultimate cooking heroes are both called Nigel (male and female equivalents!). They both share my love of straightforward, tasty, unfussy, non-cheffy food, and are not afraid of ingredients like butter, cream, good-quality chocolate, and wine. They also see food as something for sharing (like music!); as Nigel Slater says on his website:

"There is something quietly civilizing about sharing a meal with other people. The simple act of making someone something to eat, even a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, has a many-layered meaning. It suggests an act of protection and caring, of generosity and intimacy. It is in itself a sign of respect." 

I have long been a fan of Nigel Slater's cooking - and it was Nigel who first introduced Nigella to our screens, as she appeared in one of his earlier television series. Like Nigella, he writes beautifully and enthusiastically about food, and I always find his books a pleasure to read - in the kitchen and in bed. His recipes are easy, flavourful and imaginative. He is not into sexy, food-porn illustrations, and is more than likely to have a photograph of some potatoes, just pulled form the earth, or a bundle of freshly-picked herbs, next to a recipe.

Thus, it was a wonderful treat to see him back on television last night in the second series of his 'Simple Suppers' (somehow, I managed to miss the first series). After watching the final of Masterchef: The Professionals the previous evening (yes, I got sucked into it in the end!), it was so refreshing to watch someone who clearly adores food - preparing and eating it - making a new take on cottage pie (with turkey mince and mashed butternut squash topping), vivid green pesto with watercress (handmade in a pestle and mortar in the traditional way), and a free-form apple pie with a cheese pastry. He also possesses a beautiful kitchen, clean, simple, and uncluttered with unnecessary kitchen gadgetry or trinkets: the sort of large kitchen I dream of! Finally, he is a cat-lover - as am I - and many of his books are dedicated to his feline companions.

Fortunately, for me and my bank balance, there is no book to accompany this series; rather, the recipes are simply drawn from his personal archive. Otherwise, I would find it hard to resist adding another volume to my collection.


For more on Nigel Slater and his recipes go to:
Simple Suppers Series 2 BBC2
Nigel Slater's website
Amazon's Nigel Slater page

AN EARTHY VEGETABLE TAGINE

I can't remember where I first came across this recipe, though I do recall that it included monkfish. The first time I made it, I decided the fish was an unnecessary addition to an otherwise delicious roasted vegetable tagine. This is another of those lovely comforting dishes, full of robust flavours and the colours of autumn, and it can be assembled in advance and then finished off when required.





Autumn vegetable tagine

Serves 4, or 2 pigs

1 aubergine, cubed
1 red or orange or yellow pepper, cut into approx 1 cm square pieces
Half a butternut squash, deseeded, peeled and cubed
1 red onion, cut into rough quarters
a whole head of garlic, cloves separate, skins left on
approx 200g cherry tomatoes
1 large carrot, cut into rough discs
approx 1 tbsp whole cumin seeds
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, drained of liquid
zest of 1 orange
a little chilli or Harissa paste
a handful of black olives
half a block of Halloumi cheese, sliced
chopped fresh coriander to garnish
olive oil
salt & pepper


Oven 200C

Lightly oil a large baking tray and tumble the chopped vegetables onto it, together with the garlic and tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and scatter over the cumin seed. Drizzle with olive oil and bake in the oven for about 30 mins, or until the vegetable are just beginning to brown. Remove from oven. Mix in the chopped tomatoes, chickpeas, Harissa or chilli (if using), orange zest and black olives. Check seasoning and adjust if required. Place the vegetable mixture in a tagine or heavy casserole and bake for a further 40 mins. Check periodically to make sure it does not dry out too much. Approx 10 mins before the end of cooking, place the Halloumi slices over the top. Serve with plenty of fresh coriander, more Harissa. This does not really require an accompaniment, though a serving of couscous, or Basmati rice works well. Oh, and a dollop of Ottolenghi yoghurt sauce. You could also serve this tagine as a side dish to a roast.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

NIGELLA'S MASALA OMELETTE

I fancied something quick and tasty to sustain me ahead of an afternoon teaching piano in my cold conservatory (and it will be cold in there come 5pm when the sun goes down!). This omelette is a great alternative to the classic version, full of interesting, piquant flavours and spices. It's simple and warming. It can be served with, or without a chapatti, roti or similar Indian bread. I like to make an accompanying green coriander relish (also a Nigella recipe) to go with it, but I went easy on the garlic today as I did not want to breathe garlicky fumes over my students.....!

An omelette joke:
- Why do you need 2 eggs to make an omelette?
- Because one egg is not an oeuf

The ingredients given here are a basic suggestion to give a reasonably authentic Indian "flavour". You could add chopped fresh mint leaves, or fresh ginger, finely sliced, or some green or red pepper slices. Eat the omelette flat on a plate, or wrapped up in a chapatti.

This recipe comes from Nigella's book 'Nigella Bites'.

Masala Omelette for 1

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 spring onion, sliced finely
1-2 chillies to taste, red or green
1 clove garlic, Microplaned or finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 eggs, beaten
Freshly chopped coriander for sprinkling over chapattis to eat with, if you feel like it

Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the spring onion, chillies, garlic and turmeric, and fry until soft. Then add the other spices. Pour in the beaten egg and swirl the pan around to help the eggs set underneath. Nigella suggests finishing this off by shoving it under the grill. I just flipped it into a half-moon.

Green coriander chutney
More a relish, or sauce than a chutney, this is delicious with the masala omelette, or with grilled chicken, or any curry or spiced meat dish which is not awash with sauce. When I've made a bowl of this emerald-green relish, I quite often eat it off a spoon, straight out of the fridge - very Nigella-esque!

½ long big green chilli - or more if you like it hot - deseeded and roughly chopped
 2.5cm piece ginger peeled and grated or chopped
4 garlic gloves crushed
75g of creamed coconut or 1/3 can of coconut cream (or Maggi dried coconut - brilliant stuff!)
Large bunch of fresh coriander
4 stems of mint leaves, without stems
1/2tsp salt
pinch of caster sugar
juice of 2 limes or more to taste
Throw the whole lot into a food-processor or liquidizer, and whizz to a fragrant puree.
 
This keeps well in the fridge, covered with cling film, for a few days. The coconut will harden slightly in the fridge - allow the relish to come to room temperature before serving.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A TAGINE WITH PRUNES & RED WINE

I might have called this 'Pig Cheeks in Mulled Wine' since the sauce contains many of the same ingredients - red wine, cinnamon, orange peel - and has the same spiced-wine Christmassy aroma. And when I purchased the ingredients this morning, I happened upon bottles of ready-made mulled wine in Tesco and wondered if I should buy half a case in readiness for my Christmas concert.....

I have a great fondness for Middle Eastern food, though I have yet to travel in this region. I love the combination of fruit, meat and spices in a tagine, cooked slowly so that all the flavours meld together perfectly. I like mezze, little dishes to eat with a hunk of pide (Turkish flatbread) and a group of friends, and I love Middle Eastern sweetmeats like baklava and halva. Much as I love the food of India (and I travelled around northern India when I was a student), I think Middle Eastern food is far more interesting - and less likely to blow your head off with its chili content! The ingredients are relatively easy to come by: I am fortunate in that where I work on Mondays, I am only a short walk from Goldborne Road and its Arab supermarkets where I buy orange flower and rose water, fiery harissa, preserved lemons, and merguez (spiced lamb sausages).

This recipe is in fact two recipes rolled into one: it is based on a classic tagine made with lamb and prunes, and a Nigel Slater recipe for slow-cooked oxtail with prunes and orange. I dispensed with all the chopping, frying and browning, opting instead for my usual method for making any slow-cooked casserole or tagine: throw it all in a pot and cook slowly for three hours. I used pig cheeks for my version, because they happened to be in the freezer and I am completely addicted to them at the moment. They really lend themselves to slow-cooking being both succulent and gamey, but shoulder of lamb, oxtail or beef would work equally well. And don't worry if you don't like prunes much: they cook down so much as to be virtually unrecognisable, and make the sauce rich, thick and sweet.

Serves 2 generously

500g meat (diced lamb shoulder, oxtail, stewing beef, pig cheeks)
1 medium onion, grated
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
500g pitted prunes
A few strips of orange zest, finely sliced
half a bottle of red wine
a dash of orange blossom water
salt and black pepper
olive oil
fresh coriander

Heat the oil in a casserole (I use a Le Creuset or my tagine for this) and fry the grated onion gently until soft. Add the spices and garlic. Then add the meat, prunes, red wine, orange zest and orange blossom water. Check seasoning. Bring up to a simmer and then cook for about 2 hours, or until the sauce has reduced.

Serve with fluffy couscous and plenty of fresh chopped coriander.

I couldn't resist this picture of Beaver brand prunes!

More slow-cooked recipes from Nigel Slater.

Monday, 1 November 2010

CAVOLO NERO

Not an Italian opera singer, but a dark-leafed cabbage that, for a while, was frightfully exclusive and fashionable, especially with afficionados of The River Cafe. Hard to obtain, and, when found, fiendishly expensive, it was once the vegetable de jour. Then Waitrose started to stock it, when in season, and suddenly it stopped being quite so trendy and instead became an interesting vegetable that's worth taking the trouble to seek out and cook. It hails from Tuscany and has a pleasantly tangy, slightly bitter flavour which sweetens with cooking.

My neighbour, Jenny, who has a big garden AND an allotment, grows Cavolo Nero, and when she has an excess of it, she leaves a bundle on my doormat. (She also grows courgettes, potatoes, tomatoes, rhubarb and other delicious fruit, veg and herbs.). I had a recollection of a recipe for it, stir-fried in olive oil with garlic and chilli. I made it and it was delicious. Cooked like this, it makes a great Italian-style side dish for meat or fish. Tonight I will be serving it with my coq au cidre (see previous post).


Serves 2-4

2 bundles of cavolo nero, trimmed of any tough or damaged outer leaves and tough stalks, and finely shredded
1 medium onion, thinly sliced (optional)
1 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a wok or similar pan and fry the onion (if using) and garlic until soft. Add the chilli and cook for another minute or so. Add the cavolo nero and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until wilted. Season generously with salt and pepper, and serve.

A COMFORTING CASSEROLE FOR 1st NOVEMBER

The clocks have gone back, and I drove back from Waitrose in the dusk. I had to remind myself to turn the headlights on as I left the carpark. It was pitch dark outside by house by 5.30pm. The evening air, when I opened the front door to let the cats out, smelt of damp leaves and bonfires.

This recipe, which I will call Coq au Cidre, since it's a take on coq au vin, with the wine replaced with cider, was in an article on slow-cooked food by Nigel Slater in The Observer Food Monthly supplement a couple of weeks back. The apple flavour of the cider gives it a lovely, autumnal flavour. The addition of potatoes and mushrooms make this a one-pot dish, though Nigel suggests steamed brown basmati rice as an accompaniment.

Serves 4

chicken 1, jointed into 8 pieces, or 8 chicken thighs, skin on
butter or olive oil 30g
olive oil 1 tbsp
small chestnut mushrooms 250g
small potatoes 400g
cider 500ml
double cream 150ml
dill a small bunch

Melt the butter in a casserole, add the oil then, when it starts to sizzle, put in the chicken. Season with salt and pepper and fry until the chicken is pale gold on both sides. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.

Cut the mushrooms in half or quarters depending on their size and add to the pan. Let them soften, adding more butter or oil if necessary. Halve or quarter the potatoes. Add them to the pan and leave till lightly coloured, then pour in the cider. Return the chicken to the pan and bring to the boil, lower the temperature and simmer gently.

Leave the chicken to cook, covered with a lid, for 30-45 minutes or until it is cooked right through.

Stir in the cream and chopped dill, wait a moment or two, then serve.

Monday, 25 October 2010

OLD MASTERS AND MINESTRONE

Sunday in town! What a civilised way to spend the day. I met a friend at the Royal Academy of Arts to see the Treasures from Budapest exhibition, which was surprisingly interesting, once one got beyond all the Renaissance religious paintings and Baroque mythologies. There were some beautiful drawings, including some real gems by Leonardo, Raphael, Watteau, and some very fine paintings. The exhibition was not busy and it was lovely to stroll through the quiet rooms, while outside Piccadilly seethed with tourists lost in London. Afterwards, we walked down St James's Street, past the eccentric bookseller where we once worked together, through St James's Park, pausing every so often to admire a wonderful vista, lit by the most gorgeous autumn sunshine, and on to Jacky's flat in Pimlico for Prosecco and her homemade minestrone soup. Jacky and I first met when we worked at the Dictionary of Art in the late 1980s. She is probably the only friend with whom I could talk about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight without feeling horribly pretentious - indeed, this Medieval poem was the subject of our conversation the first time we met while doing some menial task such as stuffing envelopes (when one works as a publisher's dogsbody, as I did in my first job, one spends a great deal of time stuffing envelopes!). Jacky is also a fellow foodie: in fact, she came up with the nom de plume Demon Cook (she also named me Demon Shopper).

Jacky's minestrone was robust, flavourful and comforting,  just the thing after a walk in the cold autumn sunshine. The word 'minestrone' literally means "the big soup", and is one of the cornerstones of Italian cuisine, along with pasta. There is no set list of ingredients and there are many regional and seasonal varieties. I suspect any good cook has their own personal minestrone recipe: Jacky's was more "soupy" than mine, which tends to be thick, almost a stew, but it was packed with interesting flavours and ingredients, and it was so filling, I could not finish mine.

I tend to make my minestrone with whatever is in the fridge, but there are a few ingredients which I consider essential: tomatoes, bacon, carrots, onions, small pasta and beans. And fresh Parmesan or Pecorino to grate over the finished soup.

Other good things to put in minestrone:

Dark green cabbage, Cavolo Nero, or kale
Green beans
White beans
Salami, sliced
Courgettes
Fresh torn basil leaves

For an authentic Italian touch, throw in the hard rind of the Parmesan: it will soften and melt. Serve minestrone with a dollop of Pesto and lots of freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese.

KITCHEN CONFESSIONAL

What do you eat for breakfast?
Usually, Activia fig yoghurt. Not because I believe the advertising blurb, but because I like it. When it's cold, I like porridge, with a swirl of maple syrup. Fry-ups are reserved for camping trips. I love scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, boiled egg with Marmite soldiers, or fried tomatoes on toasted sourdough.

What food reminds you of your childhood?
Anything with kidneys or liver. My mother's puddings: 'Sylvabella' - a sort of chocolate mousse with boudoir fingers soaked in alcohol; Charlottoe Malakoff - almonds, cream, sugar and butter on top of boudoir fingers soaked in alchohol.


Ever eaten anything just to be polite?
No. If I don't like something, I just leave it. I cannot bear oysters, celery or dried fruits.

Marmite. Love it or hate it?
I LOVE it!! And I cannot recommend Nigella's marmite spaghetti too highly - delicious!

Coffee or tea?
I'm a big tea drinker and get through at least 10 cups a day - it's what keeps me going when I'm teaching. My favourites are Redbush and Lapsang Souchong. I like my tea weak and milky with one teaspoon of sugar. I like coffee, but I am fussy about it.

Favourite alcoholic drinks?
Prosecco, a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Campari and Orange, Caipirinha cocktail, Leffe Belgian beer.

Are you a competitive cook?
Oooh yes, I am terribly competitive, so much so that my friend Nick calls me The Kitchen Nazi, and will not allow me in the kitchen when he is cooking because I have a dreadful tendency to meddle and tell everyone else how to do it because I am convinced I am right - all the time!

What kitchen gadget could you not live without?
My trusty Kitchenaid mixer. Ultra-powerful and uber retro, it makes fantastic bread dough and the lightest meringues. Also, my Ikea garlic press: the best one I've ever owned.

What do you always keep in your fridge?
Skimmed milk, Greek yoghurt, garlic, Belazu rose harissa, eggs, fresh Parmesan cheese, Feta and Halloumi cheese, President unsalted French butter

What is your signature dish/dishes?
'Fran Bread' (my foccaccia)
Pollo al ajillo (Spanish chicken with garlic and white wine)
Chocolate brownies
Kleftiko (Greek lamb stew)
Indian leg of lamb

What are your guiltiest food pleasures?
Lying in bed with a good book or my Macbook, drinking Lapsang Souchong tea and eating Green & Black's White Chocolate.
Cheese - especially gooey soft cheeses like Gorgonzola and Camembert.

Fantasy dinner guests?
Kevin McCloud, Phil Spencer, Kirstie Allsopp, Nigella Lawson, Richard Dawkins, Dr Brian Cox, Professor Jim Al Khalili, Ian Bostridge, Beethoven, pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Could be an interesting evening - music, science and popular culture! Oh, and my food.

Dinner party disasters?
Do I look like the kind of person who has dinner party disasters?! My tip is never to cook an untried dish for dinner guests. I always have a dry run if I'm doing something new.

Is the kitchen the most important room in your house?
In a way........it's where I go to think and cook. I find cooking very therapeutic - half an hour chopping and stirring with The Archers on the radio is my way of unwinding at the end of the day. I would love to have a big kitchen so that friends could sit and chat to me while I cook.

Most memorable meal?
A recent 12-course tasting menu at Ca' Mea, a restaurant near Baldalucco in Liguria (see earlier post).