Friday, 30 April 2010

BEEF INVOLTINI (Beef rolls stuffed with ricotta)


This is adapted from a Nigella recipe where the involtini are stuffed aubergines slices. I am a great one for reinventing recipes, and since I had some thin steak slices in the fridge, I thought it would be nice to try a variant on a recipe I cook quite often. I made this in record time, since I had just come in from a meeting and needed to get a meal on the table quickly. Normally, when I make involtini, I like to spin the process out: I griddle the aubergine slices and set aside, then make the filling and the tomato sauce, and finally, assemble everything. It is quite therapeutic.

This is one of those brilliant dishes that can be made in advance and then left, before bunging in the oven about half an hour before you want to eat.

Serves 4

4 thin cut steaks (I buy mine in M&S), flattened between cling film

Filling

200g ricotta
2 tbsps grated fresh parmesan or pecorino
2 tbsps breadcrumbs
1 tsp good quality dried oregano (or fresh if you have it)
A handful of pine nuts
1 garlic clove, minced
1 egg
Salt & pepper

Tomato sauce
400g can of chopped tomatoes
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt & pepper
A couple of generous tbsps of breadcrumbs mixed with grated fresh parmesan

Oven 180 C

Flatten the steak by bashing it with a rolling pin between two sheets of cling film, and set aside.
Make the filling by mixing all the ingredients together. For the tomato sauce, heat some olive oil in a saucepan and fry the garlic gently. Then add the tomatoes and season. Sometimes tinned tomatoes benefit from a pinch of sugar.

Assemble the involtini by placing a spoonful of mixture at one end of the steak slice and then rolling up. You can brown off the meat in oil before baking, or just place the involtini in a baking dish. Pour over the tomato sauce and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs mixture. Bake in the oven for about 30 mins, or until the breadcrumb mixture is crisp and golden brown.

Serve with a green salad.

For a vegetarian version, slice an aubergine and griddle the slices, then stuff and bake as above.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

FORGOTTEN COOKIES


These delicious crunchy-on-the-outside-soft-in-the-middle meringues are full of good things (chocolate chunks and pecan nuts), and are very, very moreish. My friend, and fellow cook, Michaela made me some as an anniversary gift: they arrived in a beautiful silver box, nestling on pretty tissue paper. A perfect gift for a greedy, foodie like me! My instinct was to eat them all at once, at one sitting, but I was restrained, and rationed myself to one cookie, once a day, with a cup of good, strong coffee.

Michaela recommends using a very good quality dark chocolate. (I used Chocolat Menier, the upmarket cooking chocolate.) The slight bitterness of the chocolate cuts nicely into the sweetness of the meringue. The pecans just add more deliciousness.

As to the origin of their name, apparently it's because you put them in the oven overnight and forget about them. But don't forget to eat them!
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 120g golden caster sugar
  • 120g pecans, roughly chopped
  • 150g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4/fan 160C. Line two baking sheets with foil to cover. In a large clean bowl, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff and dry. Gradually whisk in the sugar a little at a time to make a thick and glossy meringue. Tip in the pecan nuts and chocolate, then the vanilla extract and gently fold into the meringue with a large metal spoon.

Spoon heaped teaspoonfuls of the meringue mixture, spaced apart, on to the lined baking sheets. Put the sheets in the oven, then turn it off and leave the cookies for at least 3 hours, overnight or until the oven is cold.


Carefully peel the cookies from the foil. Store in an airtight tin where they will keep for 3-4 days.

NIGELLA'S NUTS


Once you start eating these, you will never want to stop.....

These scrummy, seasoned mixed nuts are perfect with an aperitif, or three. The recipe is from Nigella Bites and is "adapted from the recipe for the spiced nuts served at the Union Square Cafe in New York". They are ridiculously easy to make and are absolutely delicious.

500g assorted mixed nuts (including peeled peanuts brazils, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, whole unpeeled almonds)
2 tbsp coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (or hot smoked Spanish paprika)
2 tsp dark muscovado sugar
2 tsp Maldon salt
1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted.

Preheat the oven to 180C, gas mark 4.

Toss the nuts in a large bowl to combine and then spread them on a baking sheet. Toast in the oven for about 10 mins, or until they are light golden-brown.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the rosemary, cayenne (or paprika), muscovado sugar, salt and melted butter. Remove nuts from the oven and thoroughly toss in the spiced butter. Serve warm. You will be fighting with your guests to get your hands on these!

SALTIMBOCCA - FOR KAREN


According to my vast and wonderful tome, La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy, published by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, Saltimbocca is typical of Rome, and the name means "leap into the mouth".

This is one of those dishes that can take me right back to a fairly specific point in my childhood in Sutton Coldfield in the 1970s, as my mother used to make this often for dinner parties, and whenever I think of it I get a rush of nostalgia, remembering cooking by my mother's side and getting to lick the bowl when she had made a rich chocolate mousse cake with boudoir fingers, which she called Sylvabella. I rarely make this dish myself, but the aforementioned tome on Italian food has reawakened my interest in what I regard as "retro" dishes from my childhood, but which are, in fact, traditional recipes from Italy.

Properly speaking, Saltimbocca should be made with veal escalopes, but these days people can be sensitive about veal (see my post on Osso Bucco), so turkey, chicken or pork can be easily substituted and the end result is no less delicious. I made this dish with turkey escalopes, and, remembering how my mum used to make it, added a slice of cheese on top of the ham. Naughty, but nice!

I am dedicating this post to Karen, a friend who is in hospital, and who told me in a recent text that she was really enjoying reading my blog. I have never cooked this for Karen, but I have a feeling it is a dish she would enjoy. Her lovely comments have inspired me to keep writing - and to keep cooking!

SALTIMBOCCA ALLA ROMANA
Veal Cutlets with Prosciutto and Sage


For 8
8 slices of veal, turkey, pork or chicken
8 slices Prosciutto crudo, or Parma ham or anything similar (e.g. Spanish Serrano ham)
8 sage leaves
8 slices Provolone or similar cheese (optional)
All-purpose flour for dusting
3 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
2/3 cup dry white wine
Salt & pepper

Pound the meat slices into thin escalopes. Lay half a slice of ham and a sage leaf atop each slice and secure with a toothpick (if using cheese, secure this over the sage leaf). Dust each slice with flour. Melt the butter in a pan over a high heat and cook the veal, seasoning with a little salt and pepper. Brown on both sides (don't do this if using cheese, but do check that the meat is cooked all the way through). Remove the meat slices from the pan and deglaze with white wine to create a sauce. Pour over the Saltimbocca. Serve hot.

I served this with lightly steamed spinach and boiled new potatoes, but it would also work well with fluffy polenta or mash, or pasta.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

A COUPLE OF OLD TARTS


Trying to use up odds and sods of veg and creme fraiche in the fridge, I decided to make some savoury tarts with puff pastry, redolent of the sort of delicious and elegant tarts found in French patisseries and delis. These are distinct from quiche as they do not have an egg custard; instead, I used creme fraiche with some fresh parmesan grated into it. When it cooks, the creme fraiche creates a kind of fake custard, with a nice sharpness which cuts into the savoury sweetness of the toppings. Good things to put on top include bacon and fried onions (for something closer to quiche lorraine), sliced tomatoes and basil, leeks and blue cheese, or thinly sliced courgettes. Once, when a neighbour's tomato plants produced a glut of fruit and she gave me a basket of red and yellow cherry tomoatoes, I made a tart with a topping reminiscent of the Spanish flag, in bold stripes of red and yellow.

The quantities given here will produce two tarts, each of which will serve two people generously.

Basic recipe
500g of bought puff pastry, divided into two pieces and rolled into long, thin oblongs
Approx. 2 tbsps creme fraiche mixed with 1 tbsp of grated parmesan cheese.

Spread the creme fraiche mixture evenly over the pastry, leaving a thin border round the edge, before covering with your chosen topping.

Leek & Onion topping
Fry 2 leeks, thinly sliced, with 2 medium onions thinly sliced and one clove of garlic, sliced, until everything begins to caramelise slightly.

Friday, 23 April 2010

ONION BHAJIS


I was making Onion Bhajis at 8am this morning, as canapes for an anniversary party I am hosting tomorrow night. The theme of the party is 'Mad Men' from the cult TV series set in an early 1960s New York ad agency, of which I am a huge fan. I did think of making retro party food and serving cocktails such as Old Fashioned and Whiskey Sour to keep to the theme of the event, but in the end I decided life was too short to stuff a mushroom, or indeed a vol-a-vent.....

Homemade onion bhajis are easy to make: you don't need a deep-fat fryer, though it helps. A deep wok or frying pan works just as well. These delicious bronze bundles are crisp on the outside and soft in the middle and are, of course, best served as soon as they're made. However, they keep well and can easily be warmed up. They are a doddle to make and are far more delicious than those dark, claggy balls that pass for onion bhajis at most Indian restaurants.

2-3 medium onions, sliced
1.5 cups Gram (Chickpea) flour
1 tsp black onion seeds (Kalonji)
1/2 tsp Turmeric
1 tsp salt
About 2 tbsp soda water

Heat sunflower oil in a deep-fat fryer or deep work/frying pan.

Put all the ingredients except for the water in a bowl and mix well. The Gram flour should coat the slices of onion. Add some water: you are aiming for a fairly stiff batter.

When the oil is hot (you can test it by dropping a strand of the mixture into it), form small balls of clumps of mixture using a two spoons, and drop into the hot fat. Cook for about 5 mins, or until the bhajis are bronzed and crispy. Drain on kitchen paper.

Serve with pickles (Pataks Brinjal (aubergine) relish - is delicious).

Friday, 16 April 2010

BANANA TARTE TATIN


This French upside-down tart is one of those dead-easy puddings that is so simple to make, and yet so delicious, you wish you had discovered it years ago. It is adapted from a traditional tarte tatin (usually made with apples), and you can use the same method with other fruit: I like to make it with pears, but figs, and even pineapple slices (with glace cherries for for a really 1970s retro feel), would work well too. I have also come across a savoury version made with onions or leeks.

I am very fond of bananas and things that taste of banana, including those lurid yellow banana shaped fondants that are temple-achingly sweet and doubtless full of horrible chemicals and synthetic banana flavourings. They are often sold in sweet shops alongside 'shrimps', equally lurid and chemical-laden - also a favourite of mine!

The first time I served this at a dinner party, some guests were wary of the cooked bananas, while other, more adventurous diners, declared the pudding a great success. It has become a regular on my menus, mainly because it is so easy to make. I serve it with very cold creme fraiche, which cuts into the caramelly sweetness, or good quality vanilla ice-cream (not that horrible yellow stuff which is paraded as "Cornish" or "Devon" ice-cream). Or, if feeling really naughty, clotted cream.....

A word of caution: part of the process of making this pudding requires you to heat sugar. On now account turn your back on the sugar when heating it. Sugar has an annoying habit of suddenly turning from a nice, burnished caramel into a black, sticky mess which adheres to the cooking pan, never to be removed. You have been warned!

A proper tatin tin is useful for this recipe, but not essential. I have a rather elegant copper and tin one. Basically, you need a pan that can be heated on the hob and then put in the oven. A shallow Le Creuset type dish would work well.

Banana Tarte Tatin

250g good-quality bought puff pastry, rolled out to slightly larger than the tin size
4 slightly under-ripe bananas, sliced. Sprinkle with lemon juice to stop them going brown
About 4 tbsps sugar (granulated or caster is fine)
Approx 25g, very cold unsalted butter, cubed

Oven 200C

Put the sugar in the tatin pan and set it on the hob over a high heat. Make sure the sugar is evenly distributed over the base of the pan. The sugar will start to melt and caramelise from the edges first. Swirl it around to ensure all the sugar cooks at roughly the same time. It will turn a lovely burnished copper colour. Remember: DO NOT TURN AWAY FROM IT! At this point, turn off the heat and dot the caramel with cold butter. It will froth up a little. Then place the banana slices on the caramel, and top with the pastry, tucking the edges down a little around the sides of the pan. Place in the oven and cook for about 20-25 mins or until the pastry is puffed up and golden brown. Remove from the oven and while the tarte is still warm, put a place over the top of the pan and turn it upside down to turn out the tarte. Set aside to cool. It is best served at room temperature.

With the leftover scraps of pastry, I sometimes make little puff-pastry cheese palmiers or other nibbly things to have with an aperitif before dinner.

LOAVES (AND FISHES)


I don't know why more people don't make their own bread. It's cheap, simple and delicious, it freezes well, and it is always greeted with coos of delight when I serve it, still warm from the oven. I think people think bread making is one of the "mystic arts", but it's just chemistry, a wonderful, magical chemistry which takes place when flour, yeast and water meet, and are then left to get on with it for a few hours.

Bread baking is one of those special homely smells, like the sweet fug of banana loaf cooking, or onions fried with garlic. It is no surprise that supermarkets pump out ersatz just-baked bread aromas into the store to encourage people to buy a loaf: it is one of those comforting smells that envelopes you like a soft, fleecey blanket, and has you heading for the sofa to curl up with a cup of tea and a plate of toast and Marmite.

I tend to bake bread at least once a week. I do not have a bread maker, preferring to throw the ingredients together in my trusty Kitchenaid (which has a very robust dough hook) and then let chemistry take its course. I have found over the years that certain flours produce a better loaf. My favourite is Waitrose Very Strong Canadian Flour. It has a high gluten content which makes for a good texture and 'crumb'. Another brilliant discovery is Doves Farm Quick Yeast, which I use all the time.

This recipe is for my basic white bread.

500g strong white bread flour
1 generous tsp Maldon sea salt
1 tsp Doves Farm Quick Yeast
1 cup of tepid water

Put the flour and salt in a bowl, or the bowl of your food mixer, if using. Make a well and pour in the water, then sprinkle over the yeast, combining a little to draw in some of the flour to make a yeasty soup in the well. Cover with a tea cloth and leave to "sponge" for about 20 mins. This will allow the yeast to get to work and when you go back to the mixture, the liquid should have frothed up a bit.

If making in a food mixer, fit the dough hook and set the motor running at a low speed. Add some more tepid water until a soft, pliable dough is formed. I sometimes add a little olive oil or sunflower oil at this point. The dough needs to be kneaded for at least 5 mins: you are after a smooth, soft dough. When done, cover with a tea cloth and leave in a draft-free place to prove.

If making by hand, use a wooden spoon to draw the mixture together, adding water gradually to end up with a soft, pliable dough (see above). Knead for 10 mins to achieve a smooth dough. Leave to prove.

You should test to check if the dough has proved sufficiently by prodding it with your finger. If the indentation disappears slowly, the dough is ready for the next stage: kneading and shaping.

Now turn the oven on: it should be at least 220C. Bread needs a hot oven!

I read somewhere that a French bread maker preferred to roll the dough with a rolling pin, rather than knead it by hand in the traditional way. I've found this method is best for removing the air pockets which can cause the bread to cook unevenly. Roll the dough, then fold it, turn it and roll it again. Repeat this process. You should be able to hear the air snapping out of it. Now shape the dough and leave it to prove again on a prepared baking sheet. The loaf is ready for cooking when it has doubled in size. (Your oven should have heated up sufficiently by this time!).

Cook for about 25-30 mins. Check for done-ness by tapping the bottom of the loaf: if it sounds hollow, it is done. Cool on a rack. Do not, on any account, try and slice a loaf straight from the oven.

Some variants:

Focaccia:

Additional ingredients: Sprigs of fresh rosemary, sliced onion/garlic, sea salt, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, olive oil.

Make bread as above but when you get to the shaping stage, roll out the dough to about 1 inch thick and leave to prove in an oblong baking tray. Just before baking, make indentations in the dough at regular intervals and stuff with rosemary or olives or sundried tomatoes etc, or scatter over sliced onions/garlic, and then drizzle with good olive oil and scatter with Maldon sea salt.

Pizza and flat bread dough: Use the quantities as given in the recipe above, but use only HALF a teaspoon of quick yeast. Roll the dough very thinly for pizza bases and flat bread. I have for some time been trying to recreate the airy, "balloon bread" which is served as an appetizer in my local Turkish cafe, but it's tricky without a hot, charcoal oven. Instead, I heat a flat griddle pan on the hob and then drop the thinly-rolled dough onto it. It will puff up. Serve immediately with Turkish accompaniments.

Brown bread: Recipe as before but use half white and half brown flour. I also add a little honey and some sunflower oil to give a slightly sweeter flavour.

Bread dough is great for carrying other flavours: walnuts, rosemary (chopped and infused in warm oil), raisins etc. Add these ingredients when you mix the dough after the sponging. If freezing a homemade loaf, wait until it is completely cool and then freeze on the day of baking. Homemade bread does not keep as long as commercial bread, because it is not stuffed with stablizers and other chemicals to increase its shelf life.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A SIMPLE SUPPER FOR MONDAY NIGHT


I'm just back from a fantastic week in the French Alps, where I surprised myself by learning to ski AND enjoying it immensely. One of the attractions of that part of France for me is the food: I love those warming, homely dishes like Tartiflette and Fondue. After a day on the pistes, a big slab of Tartiflette seemed entirely deserved, especially with the added luxury of having it cooked by our wonderful hostess, Jo.

However, now that I'm back home and my 20th wedding anniversary party approaches, I realise I need to go on a crash diet to get my sexy LBD done up. So some restraint is required in the food department, in terms of both ingredients and volume.

I'm not sure what to call this dish - I ripped it off from a Waitrose recipe which a friend gave me - but it definitely falls into my category of 'Temple Food', food that is satisfying, yet not too cloying, heavy or fattening (hopefully!). The sort of food that leaves you feeling pleasantly sated, with clean, fresh flavours that excite and cleanse the palate.

The rice is a great staple as it can be adapted. This version has slightly Asian notes, but it could easily be made more Middle Eastern in flavour the addition of spices like harissa, cumin and ginger. It also goes very well with chicken or lamb, both grilled or in a stew. Or just on its own.....

SPICY SPINACH RICE
1 tbsp groundnut oil
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
2 aubergines cut into cubes (optional)
1 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
2 tbsp tamarind paste
1 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
250g basmati & wild rice, rinsed well
½ 20g pack fresh mint, leaves only, roughly chopped
½ 250g bag of baby spinach
1 medium onion, finely sliced in half-moons
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1/2 fresh red chilli, finely sliced

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or wok over a medium heat, and fry the onion for about 10 mins or until brown. Turn up the heat and add the cubed aubergine, the sliced chilli, garlic, tamarind paste and sugar. Stir fry until the aubergine begins to soften and turns brown.

Meanwhile, cook the rice. When done, add the ingredients from the frying pan, then toss with the fresh spinach and mint. Add some more fresh sliced chilli to garnish, if liked. This is best served warm rather than hot. It is also delicious cold the next day.....

For a simple Monday night supper, I served this with salmon fillets, marinaded in Teriyaki sauce and then lightly pan-fried.