Monday, 31 January 2011

GREAT STORECUPBOARD FINDS No. 5

No. 5 Pulled Ham Hock
Not strictly "storecupboard" as this item needs to be kept in the fridge. Nor is it some kind of peculiar bucolic sport from deepest Dorset: "Arrr, I'll be a-pulling your ham hocks later, my loverrr" (that's enough local dialect. Ed.)

This is another ingredient that reminds me of my childhood. My mother cooked ham hocks fairly regularly, braising them slowly until the fat turned sticky and the meat fell easily from the bone. She used to serve them with onion or mustard sauce. She also cooked pigs' trotters, and I have never ever been squeamish about eating most parts of the animal since....

I have always been rather averse to products like this, which I consider to be "lazy" ingredients. I would prefer to buy the ham hock, cook it and "pull" it myself, but ham hocks are hard to find these days, unless you have a specialist butcher nearby, or happen to work around the corner from Smithfield Meat Market (as Other Half does - occasionally, very occasionally, he brings a big fat pork chop home for my supper, or a rib of beef, if I'm really good). Since Waitrose took on the Sainted Delia, and Heston Blumenthal as figureheads, or something, more of these "cheat's ingredients" have appeared on the shelves, enabling curious shoppers and part-time cooks to recreate their recipes. Thus, one can also buy shredded duck and chopped chorizo (which I can imagine would be quite nice fried until crispy and sprinkled into a salad with Roquefort and some nice, peppery Rocket). I only bought the pulled ham hock because it was on offer, and, being greedy, I had to try it as soon as I got home. I was expecting something rather dry and possibly not terribly flavourful. In fact, it is succulent and sweet, and very reminiscent of dishes my mother cooked in the 1970s......

Pea and ham soup seems a great way to use this ingredient. Of course, you could also pair it with lentils, or yellow split peas, or have it on toasted sourdough bread, rather like the French rillettes. Or you could just do what I did, and pick it out of the packet and eat it with your fingers straight from the fridge!

Heston's Pea and Ham Soup, the recipe for which was supplied on the handy card near the ingredients when I was in Waitrose the other day, is a perfect spring dish. Light and fresh with a hint of mint, the finished soup looks so pretty with the pink pulled ham hock floating on the pale green liquid.

Find the recipe here.

More information about Waitrose Cooks' Ingredients range here

Thursday, 27 January 2011

GREAT STORECUPBOARD FINDS No. 4

No. 4 Orange Flower Water and Rose Water

These aromatic waters are clear, perfumed distillations of fresh bitter-orange, and rose petals respectively, and are essential ingredients in the cuisine of the south of France, the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East (rose water is in fact a by-product of the extraction of rose oil for perfume). They are readily available in the supermarket, usually to be found with other food flavourings such as almond and vanilla essence, and easy to find in specialist Middle Eastern stores. I buy mine from an Arabic supermarket on Goldborne Road, where I also buy Merguez sausage, preserved lemons (when I don't have time to make my own) and the spice Sumac.

Many Middle Eastern deserts call for rose water or orange blossom water, and both bring a wonderful 'perfumed' flavour to food. A dash of rose water over hulled and halved strawberries can enliven the fruit, giving it a whiff of Eastern exoticism, an aroma and flavour reminiscent of Turkish delight (for which rose water is used as a flavouring, of course).

In my store cupboard, I also have rose syrup, a beautiful deep pink liquid in a decorated bottle. I bought it intending to use it to make exotic Kir Royale, but so far I have only opened the bottle to enjoy its heady, perfume.

Orange flower water is, obviously, good with oranges and I quite often use it when I make my Spanish Torta di Naranja (orange and almond cake). It is also used in Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern sweetmeats such as Baklava.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

GIRLFRIENDS' SUPPER

A midweek supper at home with girlfriends seemed just about perfect - once we'd wrested the cork out of the Prosecco, and proved that we did not need a man around to have a good time. This was a gathering of friends we'd been trying to coordinate for several months, but then Christmas got in the way. January is always a rather flat month, with everyone feeling rather post-Christmas, and the days grey and cold. An evening with good friends is a great way to lighten the atmosphere.

I planned an easy menu to suit everyone: one guest was a fish-eating vegetarian, so I made Madhur Jaffrey's fish baked in foil, a Keralan dish called Meen Pollichathu, which is simple in its ingredients, but very tasty. As a canape to have with the Prosecco, I made onion bhajis, and for pudding, my current culinary piece de resistance, Jo's Chocolate Tart.

Whenever I am with women friends, I am amazed at the breadth and variety of our conversations,  ranging over subjects as diverse as our children, gay men and their quirks (irritating and otherwise), fashion and make up, politics, art, music. Our ability to dart from subject to subject, going off on weird tangents before returning to a subject touched on an hour or more before, is perhaps related to the female skill of multi-tasking.

The Keralan fish dish is great for supper parties because it looks good: a pale pink salmon steak topped with an aromatic mix of tomatoes, onion, garlic and curry leaves. I like to serve it with plain Basmati rice, and a pickle or relish of some sort. Last night, I made Aubergine and Sweet Potato Subji as an accompaniment, not a Keralan dish (it hails from the north Indian Punjab region). The fish can be prepared in advance, wrapped in foil and then cooked to order. According to the preamble to the recipe in Madhur Jaffrey's 'Flavours of India', traditionally the fish is wrapped in a banana leaf and 'baked' in a wok. Unfortunately, there were no banana leaves available in Teddington for ready money..... You can use a whole fish, such as red snapper, turbot, kingfish or grey mullet, or steaks from a meaty fish such as salmon, swordfish or cod. It has just occurred to me that this would be a great dish for the barbecue. As with many Indian dishes, you make a spice paste first and combine this with the other ingredients.

Fish baked in foil (serves 4)


Spice paste
2 tsps sunflower, vegetable or similar oil
3oz shallots or onion, peeled and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced
15-20 fresh curry leaves (if you can get them) or dried curry leaves
4 tsps cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp vinegar
1 tsp black peppercorns

You will also need
3 tbsps oil (see above)
1 medium-large red onion, finely chopped
4-6 fresh green chillies
1 medium-sized tomato, finely diced
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbps coarsely chopped fresh coriander
4 fish steaks


Make the spice paste first. Heat the oil in a small pan over a medium-low heat. When hot, add the shallots/onions, garlic, ginger and curry leaves. Stir and fry for a few minutes, until the onions begin to soften, then add the cayenne pepper and salt. Remove from heat and blitz in the food-processor or blender with the vinegar and 2 tsbps water. Meanwhile, put the black peppercorns in a small, heated pan. Roast over a medium heat for 2 mins, then crush in a mortar and add to the onion mixture. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a wide pan or wok over a medium-high heat. Add the onion and fry until soft. Add the chillies and fry until they begin to soften. Then add the tomatoes, sesame seeds and salt. Cook until the tomato is soft. Set aside.

To assemble, place each fish steak on a piece of foil big enough to make a little bag. (If using a whole fish, make sure the foil bag is big enough to wrap the fish.) Make a couple of slashes in the fish, smear with the spice paste, sprinkle fresh coriander and the spoon the tomato/onion mixture. Seal the foil bags and bake in a preheated oven (200C) for about 15 mins, or until the fish is cooked. Unwrap and transfer to warmed plates. Serve with plain Basmati rice, or spicy potatoes.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

FREEBIES FOR DEMON COOK

Gravy in a Box Kit
Some of my regular readers, and friends, will recall that last autumn I was contacted by a PR company representing Marmite in response to my blog post about Nigella's surprisingly tasty Marmite Spaghetti. I was kindly sent a limited edition jar of Marmite - limited in the sense that it did not last long in my house!

Once again, Demon Cook has been lucky enough to earn some free samples, this time from the PR company representing British Onions, who contacted me yesterday to ask if I would like a Gravy In A Box Kit from British Onions. Now, I'm not once to turn down a free lunch, nor indeed a box of foodie goodies, so of course I accepted, and at lunchtime today, a large and satisfyingly weighty box arrived for me. Inside, a good kilo or more of red and brown onions, plus other delights: another jar of Marmite, proper old-fashioned tomato ketchup by Wilkin & Sons, good old Colman's English Mustard, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, and Mushroom Ketchup, an ingredient which has always intrigued me, and one which I regard as a store-cupboard essential, like Anchovy Essence, which my mother always kept in her larder. I very rarely make gravy, but I do like onions - and Marmite, and ketchup and mustard, and Worcestershire Sauce is essential for cheese on toast or on a cheese omelette - so there is no question everything will be put to good use. So, thanks again, British Onions and Phipps PR!

I wonder if I were writing a fashion blog, might I be in line for some Louboutins or the odd Mulberry handbag.....?

CHOCOLATE MENDIANTS

The word 'mendiant' comes from the French word for 'beggar' or 'mendicament'. These little beggars are disks of dark, milk or white chocolate topped with a selection of mixed nuts, dried fruit and seeds. They are also sometimes called 'chocolate bark'. I thought I would have a go at making some as a hostess gift for a dinner party I am going to tomorrow evening. I always think homemade gifts are nice to receive: the fact that someone has gone to the trouble to actually make something special, rather than nip down to M&S for a box of chocs. Sometimes, I take a freshly-baked loaf of bread or foccaccia, still warm from the oven. Or a box of chocolate macaroons or amaretti biscuits. I will never forget Nigella, on one of her TV programmes, making 'honeycomb' (like the inside of Crunchie bars) as a hostess gift, and then gobbling most of it in the taxi on the way to her friend's house.

This recipe will make 20-25 small mendiants. And they should be small - think petit fours to have with coffee.  

250g of dark, white or milk chocolate
150g of mixed nuts, seeds and dried fruits of your choice (e.g. flaked, toasted almonds, pistachios, crystallised ginger, crystallised violets/rose petals, candied orange peel)


Break the chocolate into small pieces and melt gently in a bain-marie. Stir from time to time to keep it smooth. Chop the nuts and fruits. Cover 2 large baking sheets with baking parchment, and using a tablespoon, spoon the melted chocolate onto the parchment, making 20-25 fairly thin rounds. Sprinkle with fruit and nuts as you go along. Refrigerate the mendiants until set, then peel off the parchment. They will keep for 4-5 days in an airtight container - but they won't last that long in my house!


COOK'S NOTE: I melted the chocolate in the microwave - Nigella's method - but beware if using white chocolate as the low cocoa content means it is liable to catch and burn. I ended up chucking an entire bar of melted Green & Black's white chocolate down the sink on the first attempt. Otherwise, these are dead easy to make!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

GREAT STORE-CUPBOARD FINDS No. 3

No. 3 Hearts of Palm
I first ate heart of palm in a salad in an Argentinian restaurant in Caracas in 1993. I was in Venezuela for a holiday which promised to be fascinating and turned out to be frustrating, mainly because I was struck down with a dreadful stomach bug for the duration of the trip. Flying into the tiny airport of the Andean town Merida was probably one of the most terrifying experiences of my life (the plane flew straight down a valley in the Andes, the miniature airstrip visible beneath the wing), apart from taking a bus with balding tyres up into the Himalayas when I was travelling in Indian as a student....

There used to be a Brazilian restaurant in Hammersmith (called Paolo's, I think) which also served heart of palm salad; now you can buy them tinned in Waitrose. According to that font of knowledge, Wikipedia, heart of palm, which is also called palmito, burglar's thigh, chonta, palm cabbage or swamp cabbage, is a vegetable harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees (including the coconut). It's difficult to explain their flavour and texture: slightly nutty, slightly sweet and exotic, while the texture on first sampling them is not unlike avocado or asparagus, in that it is unexpected. Something of an acquired taste, I'd say.

Heart of palm can be used in a variety of dishes, both hot and cold. I tend to eat them cold, sliced in a salad with avocado and tomatoes, and plenty of fresh coriander and lime juice, for a slightly South American twist. I have also seen recipes for gratin of heart of palm: baked in a cheese sauce. Somehow, this does not appeal to me.

You can find heart of palm (Green Giant brand) in the tinned vegetable aisle of the supermarket. I was surprised to discover that even my local Tesco Metro, which seems to specialise in 30 different kinds of tinned tuna (do the good people of Teddington really need that much tuna?), now stocks heart of palm, which perhaps says something about the demographic of Teddington!

Monday, 17 January 2011

GREAT STORE-CUPBOARD FINDS No. 2

No. 2 Togarashi Seasoning
For a while now, my son has been pestering me to try and find "the stuff they put on the noodles at Wagamma" by which he means a brownish-orange seasoning which is liberally sprinkled over a serving of Yaki-Soba (No. 40) or Yaki-Udon (No. 42). Browsing the shelves of Waitrose Cooks' Ingredients, as I do quite frequently, shopping in Waitrose for me being almost as pleasurable as shopping in Jigsaw or LK Bennett, I spotted a small deep purple box called "Togarashi Seasoning". Reading the ingredients list, it looked like "the stuff" my son wanted. I bought noodles and stir-fry ingredients, and cooked up a feast for his supper, sprinkled the Togarashi Seasoning on top and asked him if it really was "the stuff".

It was! Togarashi Seasoning is, according to the Waitrose website, "a blend of chilli, orange peel, black and white sesame seeds, szechuan pepper, ginger and seaweed. Sprinkle over fish or meat before cooking, or simply use to season Japanese noodle dishes". It is also known as Japanese Seven Spice Powder, and gives a hot and spicy bite to noodles, meat, fish, or indeed any food that needs perking up. I have seen tuna steak rolled in it, and I like it so much, I have taken to sprinkling it over most savoury food, and it does not taste distinctly oriental. Waitrose's version costs £1.59 for 40g and can be found in the oriental section (part of the Cooks' Ingredients range). I am sure it can be easily found in oriental supermarkets, or if you know someone who is going to Japan (as I do!), ask them to bring some back for you.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE BROWNIES

Freshly baked
As Nigella says in the preamble to her recipe to Chocolate Brownies in her book 'How To Be A Domestic Goddess', "I don't know why more people don't make their own brownies". These squidgy, fudgey chocolate squares are dead easy to make and require little more than some melting, whisking and stirring - all in one bowl, if you like - before pouring the mixture into a tray and cooking it.

I'm not a great cake nor pudding maker, so I often make brownies for pudding after supper. They have a pudding-ey texture, when made correctly, and can be served warm with ice-cream, or creme fraiche. I don't know anyone who has refused one of my brownies, and I am often asked to make them to tea parties after concerts or for coffee mornings.

This recipe replaces flour with ground almonds, which makes the brownies even more moist and yummy, as well as making them entirely appropriate for those with gluten-intolerance issues.

225g best-quality dark chocolate
225g Butter, softened
2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract
200g Caster Sugar
3 Eggs (beaten)
150g ground almonds
100g chopped walnuts- optional

Oven 180C


Melt the chocolate and butter over a gentle heat, or in the microwave. Beat the eggs and add the vanilla essence. Add the melted chocolate and butter to the eggs and then stir in the ground almonds. Pour into a prepared baking tray (e.g. 24cm square tin) and bake for about 20 mins, or until the top is slightly cracked and firm to the touch. The brownies will turn fudgey as they cool. Cut into squares, dust with icing sugar. Serve. Eat.

Friday, 14 January 2011

GREAT STORE-CUPBOARD FINDS No. 1

The first of an occasional series highlighting my favourite ingredients and interesting foodie finds.

No. 1 Maggi Coconut Milk Powder
I usually use tinned coconut milk for curries and other recipes which call for this, but one day, while browsing the "special section" of my local Tesco (a store which I detest, but use because it is ultra local), I found this coconut milk powder. It's a really useful thing to have in the cupboard, for those occasions when I'm wondering what to cook for dinner and I think "ooh yes, I'll make a south Indian curry" (see previous post), and it can be used for both savoury and sweet dishes.

Follow the instructions on the packet to make up coconut milk or cream of coconut, or just pour the powder straight into the dish.

FRIDAY NIGHT SUPPER - MALABAR CHICKEN CURRY

Malabar chicken curry
Curries appear fairly frequently on this blog, and I do love making them: there's something very therapeutic about all that chopping of onions, garlic and fresh ginger to make the base for a sauce, adding the spices and enjoying the aromas, and stirring the sauce. Many people think making curry is very fiddly and time-consuming, but most curries can be made quickly, or part-prepared in advance. Obviously, if the recipe calls for something to be marinaded, you need to do a bit of advance planning.

Like many students, I travelled in India when I was at uni, but I didn't get down to the south. In fact, the furthest south I got was Agra, to see the Taj Mahal, which truly does have to be seen to be believed. I also visited Kashmir, spent a week staying on a houseboat on the Dal Lake, and stepped back into the 1930s, when the English would go to Kashmir to escape the extreme heat of the summer on the plains. I walked in the foothills of the Himalayas, before taking the train east to Simla, another former English hill-station. Sadly, it is now impossible to visit this beautiful region due to the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. The food that I ate in India was very different to the kind of Indian food I'd eaten in restaurants and cooked at home in the UK: it was largely very simple, though no less flavoursome. Some of the best food was eaten straight from a vast vat of boiling oil down a narrow street in Simla: vegetables samosas and pakoras, and onion bhajis cooked to order. I would love to return to India one day, to visit the southern states (Kerala and Madras): I found it a fascinating country, not least because it seems familiar in many ways because of the enduring influence of the Raj.

South London is blessed with a number of excellent south Indian restaurants, particularly around Balham and Tooting, which is home to perhaps the most famous of them all, the Sree Krishna. Never mind the brown interior, the dim lighting, and the rather grubby jackets of the waiters, the food is superb. Here you can try the Masala Dosai, a crisp giant pancake made from a batter of fermented rice flour and filled with spicy potatoes, or an Uthappam, a southern Indian 'pizza' with a topping of chopped onions, tomatoes, coriander leaves and green chillies. This is not the sort of food you will find on your average British tandoori restaurant menu (which is, generally, northern Indian food).

The following recipe is adapted from Jamie Oliver's Malabar Prawn Curry, and, in fact, the only adaptation is that I use chicken instead of prawns. I have also made this with fish (salmon or cod works well). This curry comes from Kerala, the southernmost state of India, and it is the combination of fenugreek and mustard seeds, curry leaves and coconut milk that gives this aromatic dish its distinctive fragrance and flavour. It is not hot (some southern Indian curries are very hot indeed!), but has instead a pleasing warmth. The coconut milk gives the sauce a wonderful richness: creamy and slightly sweet. This is an elegant curry, and I would not hesitate to serve it for a dinner party. I like to serve this with plain Basmati rice and a vegetable accompaniment; Madhur Jaffrey's simple fried aubergine slices
tonight.

Malabar Prawn Curry
4 tbsp coconut oil (or vegetable oil)
½ tsp black mustard seeds
¼ tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
12 curry leaves, fresh or dried
3 small red onions, finely chopped
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp ground coriander
¼ tsp ground turmeric
150g tomato, chopped
1 tbsp kokum (or 20ml tamarind pulp)
6 chicken thighs, skinned
400ml coconut milk
Basmati rice, to serve

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan and when it starts to smoke, add the mustard seeds, fenugreek and curry leaves. Cook for a few moments and then add the onion. Cook until it is slightly golden. Add the other spices, chopped tomato and kokum or tamarind, then add the chicken pieces. Pour over the coconut milk and give everything a good stir. Simmer for about 30 mins, or until the chicken is cooked through.

Fried Aubergine Slices
This recipe, from what I regard as my Indian food 'bible', Madhur Jaffrey's 'Indian Cookery', is very simple and, as Ms Jaffrey herself says, can be served with any Indian meal. Sometimes, I serve this with a garlic-spiked yoghurt sauce or raita (Ottolenghi Yoghurt Sauce works well). It's best made just before you want to eat it, but you can make it in advance and reheat.

1 aubergine, halved down the middle and cut into half-moons
Sunflower oil, or similar, for frying
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper
A good grind of fresh black pepper
Sea salt (Maldon is best)

Put the aubergine slices in a large bowl. Mix the spices, pepper and salt together, pour over the aubergine, and give it a good stir to ensure each slice is well coated. Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the aubergine slices until soft and slightly brown.

Monday, 10 January 2011

LADIES WHO LUNCH

The Communal Table at Le Pain Quotidien
On Mondays, I do my "other job", that is, looking after My Old Man of Kensington. When people ask me what I "do" for him, I am sometimes tempted to wink naughtily and smile knowingly. Or reply that I am "a gentleman's companion", with all its Victorian connotations. In reality, I am his secretary and half a day a week, usually on a Monday, I go to his large house in Notting Hill to help shuffle papers, take dictation and listen to his sometimes rather risque stories. He's an interesting man: his father was Sir David Kelly, a high-achieving diplomat, who was Ambassador to Moscow during the Cold War. Laurence (for it is he!) himself has a strong association with Russia and has written biographies of two of Pushkin's contemporaries, Alexander Griboyedov (author of Woe from Wit) and Mikhael Lermontov (author of A Hero of Our Time). He has interesting, more ancient antecedents too: one of his relations, on his mother's side, was an aide-de-camp to Napoleon at Waterloo, and subsequently fled France after killing someone in a duel.

I love Notting Hill, and often say it's the area where I'd live if I won the lottery (I envisage a large house, with a big room to house my grand piano, and a spacious kitchen). I love the idea of living "in town", and would far rather move further into central London than out to the country. Notting Hill is such an interesting area, from the station on Notting Hill Gate right down Portobello Road to the Westway, where Halal meat shops rub shoulders with designer clothes shops and chi-chi delis. There are streets and streets of elegant houses, leafy squares, and cobbled mews where horses were kept before the motor car became the favoured mode of transport. Sometimes, when I leave Laurence's house, I wander the surrounding streets (he lives on Ladbroke Grove - at the smart end), enjoying the architecture and the people. Other times, I meet a friend, who works near Notting Hill Gate, for lunch. We have lately switched our allegiance, again, from the bistro in the Nicole Farhi store on Westbourne Grove ('202') to Le Pain Quotidien on Notting Hill Gate.

Le Pain Quotidien ("the daily bread") originated in Brussels in 1990. Founder and chef Alain Coumont wanted simple bread, hearty and wholesome, with a firm slice and a good crust. Unable to find the right bread for his restaurant, M. Coumont opened his own bakery. Le Pain Quotidien now has over 140 restaurants/bakeries worldwide. The first PQ I visited was on Marylebone High Street; there are now branches all over London (I went to one behind Oxford Street the day I purchased my piano to recover from the shock of putting such a large transaction through my Visa account!).

PQ has what it calls a "communal table" in each branch, which is just a fancy way of saying a big table, around which about 20 people can sit. If you don't want to go communal, there are smaller tables around the dining space, with wooden benches. The interior tends to be similar from branch to branch: upmarket French patisserie, with lots of scrubbed, bleached wood, exposed brickwork and old posters. The menu is not huge, and the main focus is on the "tartine", an open sandwich, made with a very good wheaten bread, with a variety of toppings such as avocado and crab, rare roast beef, pesto and parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and rocket, and such like. There are daily specials, salads, hot main courses and some very naughty patisseries and cakes - if you've still got room for a little extra something. It's good value - the servings are generous, and everything I've tried at PQ has been tasty and interesting. It's not flashy food, but the high-quality ingredients and imaginative combinations make it an enjoyable dining experience.

Meeting not one, but two friends for lunch today, we enjoyed chilled glasses of Rose while perusing the menu and caught up, having not seen each other for several weeks. Around us, the restaurant had quickly turned into Macbook Central, and everywhere I looked, there were laptops open or people busily tapping away at their iPhones (PQ has free WiFi). Some inoffensive classical music - barely loud enough to be intrusive or recognisable - played in the background. Lunch - a tartine, a glass of wine and a single espresso came to £16.50/head, which, given the location, seems reasonable.

You can buy bread and cakes, and other delights including something extremely naughty-but-nice called Brunette, a praline spread (a little like peanut butter or Nutella, only much, much nicer), from the deli. I have to admit the Granola was stupidly expensive, but it was rather delicious - and reminded me that I really should make my own.....

The Pain Quotidien

Sunday, 9 January 2011

CHEAT'S SOURDOUGH

Pain Poilane rye sourdough
Sourdough is an ancient loaf: breads have been made using wild yeasts for at least 6000 years, though how and why they made the bread rise was not properly understood until Louis Pasteur discovered that they generated carbon dioxide as part of the fermentation process in the mid 19th century. The first leavened breads (i.e. raised through the use of yeast, wild or otherwise) were almost certainly raised accidentally. Later, 'active' yeast, such as brewer's yeast, was used to leaven bread, and now most breads are made using this process with commercially produced yeast.

Sourdough has a distinctive tangy flavour and chewy texture, which makes wonderful toast. The long fermentation process allows the flavours to develop fully, whereas bread made with active yeast is made quickly and has a less intense flavour and texture. There are some famous sourdoughs, perhaps most notably Pain Poilane, which has been made in Paris since the 1930s, using a traditional sourdough method (the large round loaves have a special "P" carved into the top). Baker and Spice in London also makes a variety of sourdoughs and 'artisan' breads: there seems to be a greater than ever demand for "proper" bread these days, and even the most bog-standard supermarket now offers a range, including ciabatta (an Italian sourdough), foccaccia and sourdough, though I find most commercial breads to be rather disappointing. Since I started making my own bread 12 years ago, I've become very discriminating and fussy about commercial bread and will only purchase one or two varieties. Waitrose keep Poilane, but it is very expensive; they also offer their own take on Poilane, a 'wheaten quarter' which is pretty good, though also rather pricey.

I have resisted making sourdough because the process is quite fiddly and time-consuming: you need to make a "starter" or "poolish" (a English-American word derived from Polish - the Poles were considered the finest makers of rye bread and they exported much of their bread-making knowledge as they moved across Europe and then to America). The starter has to be "fed", in effect, nurtured to keep it alive, and when you take some out to make a loaf, you must replenish it. When I was a kid, my mum and a group of friends got into making "Herman Cake" or "Friendship Cake" (obviously an American import), and would share a piece of starter. I remember the starter in its box in the fridge, lovingly fed every day by my mother, though I do not recall the cake. A quick trawl of the internet reveals that Herman Cake is still very much alive - great-great-great grandcakes perhaps of my mother's! I'm afraid I've decided life is too short to make a sourdough starter - at least at the moment, when my teaching term is about to recommence, and I need to spend less time in the kitchen and more at the piano! So, when I stumbled across the following recipe the other day, I was delighted to find a "cheat's sourdough": no starter required, but leaving the dough to rise and mature for longer then usual (I usually leave my basic bread dough to rise for about an hour) results in a good imitation of the real thing. The addition of caraway seeds gives this white-rye loaf a nod to the Eastern European Jewish baking tradition. The rye flour does give a slightly grey hue to the bread, but that's just aesthetics.

I don't know why more people don't make their own bread: it's dead easy, cheap and nutritious. You don't need specialist equipment (I don't have a bread machine), just good quality ingredients, and a bit of patience. My homemade bread is always greeted with "oohs" and "aahs" of delight when it is brought to the table, and my friend and regular dinner companion, Nick, quite often sulks if there is no "Fran Bread" with the meal. It also freezes well (make sure it is completely cooled before wrapping and freezing), though without the addition of preservatives, it does need to be eaten quickly. Any left over, stale bread I make into breadcrumbs. A note of advice: never never attempt to slice a fresh loaf straight out of the oven. Always let is cool before slicing it.

I found this recipe in The Guardian

500g rye flour
500g strong white bread flour
20g fresh yeast (or half a sachet of instant or 1 tsp of Dove's Farm Quick Yeast)
20g salt
700g warm water
25g caraway seed, lightly cracked with a rolling pin (optional)



Combine the lot in a bowl and stir initially with a fork or scraper then dump into the bowl of a mixer and give it a good seven minutes at top speed with the dough hook.

Shape into a large ball, coat with a little more flour and place in a bowl covered with a clean tea towel.
Leave the dough to rise. In a warm place, it will achieve 1½ times its original size in an hour or two. Slow the rising process down - in a cold porch, or even in the fridge - and it will take all night, developing better, sourdough flavours as it does.

Half an hour before you're ready to cook, put a baking sheet in the oven and turn it up full. 5 minutes before baking, fill a small ovenproof dish with hot water from the kettle and stick it in the bottom of the hot oven.

Finally turn your dough out of the bowl straight onto the hot baking sheet and stuff it back into the hot, steamy oven as fast as you can. Try to leave the door open for the shortest possible time so the temperature doesn't drop.

After 10 minutes, drop the oven temperature to 180C and open the door. This lets you check on your loaf and allows the oven temp to drop a little faster. After about 20 seconds, close the door and leave for another 20 or so minutes.

At the end of this time the loaf will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. It should cool thoroughly before slicing.

Cook's note: sourdough takes longer to cook than normal bread, so err on the side of caution when making it. When it is done, it should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom and should feel lighter than when it first went into the oven.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

ITALIANATE MUSHROOMS AND POLENTA

I make this quite often, to remind me of a holiday spent in Riva del Garda, a picturesque Medieval town on the shores of Lake Garda. One evening we found a little restaurant, tucked away off the main tourist trail, up a cobbled twitchell. The menu was simple, and most of the main courses dishes were rich, pungent stews made with venison, wild boar, or mushrooms. Everything was served with fluffy polenta.

Polenta can be tricky to get right, and I admit I've had a few disasters with it in the past. The trick is to keep stirring it, and to add lots of butter and seasoning. Fluffy, or "wet", polenta, should have a consistency similar to mashed potato. Set polenta can be sliced and deep-fried. In the Trentino region of Italy, it is traditional to serve the polenta with a slab of Taleggio cheese melting over it, and then pile the stew on top.

I use big, flat field mushrooms, or Portobello mushrooms, for this dish. They have a meaty texture and lots of flavour, but be warned: mushrooms have a habit of shrinking when cooked, so it's worth over-estimating the quantities. Any left over can be fried for breakfast with scrambled eggs! I also bear in mind a quote from the film 'Julie, Julia' - "Don't crowd the mushrooms!". Mushrooms cook better if allowed plenty of room - hence, "mush-room". Ha ha de ha ha.

This simple supper dish needs nothing more than a green salad and a good bottle of wine (Valpolicella, tonight, I think).

About 6 big flat field mushrooms, halved and then sliced
2 large cloves of garlic, cut into slivers
approx 50g of butter
100g cream
Truffle oil - optional
Salt & pepper
Lots of freshly grated Parmeson
A couple of slabs of Taleggio cheese, or similar (optional)
750g polenta

Heat the butter in a large frying pan and add the mushrooms and garlic. Cook until just tender, season with salt, and set aside. Just before serving, heat again and add the cream to make a sauce. Add a dash of truffle oil to really enhance the mushroom flavour.

Cook the polenta according to the instructions on the packet. Spoon onto plates, lay a slice of Taleggio on top, and finish off with the mushroom mixture. Sprinkle over plenty of fresh Parmesan. Bon appetito!

Friday, 7 January 2011

FRIDAY SUPPER - MY KLEFTIKO

I've been making Kleftiko (slow-cooked Greek lamb), or variants on it, for years, but it was only this morning that I discovered the meaning of the word 'kleftiko'. This comes from the Waitrose.com website:

"In Greek, kleftiko means -stolen meat-," says Theodore Kyriakou, owner of London restaurant, The Real Greek. "According to legend, this dish would be made with a lamb stolen from a flock as it grazed on a hillside. The thief would cook the meat over many hours in a hole in the ground, sealed with mud so that no steam could escape to give him away." Nowadays, the lamb is sealed inside a paper package, which keeps the meat moist and traps its fragrant juices.

Nor did I know, until I read this, that it is traditional to cook Kleftiko sealed in a paper package, something I've never done. It's amazing what you can learn from a bit of internet trawling, isn't it?!

My Kleftiko is simple, robust and flavoursome, and is one of those ultimate one-pot dishes which just cooks itself. You throw the ingredients together, put everything in the oven for a few hours and let chemistry do it's chemical thang: the end result is meat so tender is it falling off the bone into a rich, fragrant, Oregano and lemon-redolent sauce.

I've only visited Greece twice for holidays, and on both occasions, it was something of a disaster: the first time, there was a freak typhoon across the Greek islands, and, as torrential rain and fierce gales pounded the island we were staying on, we were forced to stay in our cramped hotel room, playing cards and drinking Metaxa (Greek brandy), while watching the beach being washed away by the boiling seas. Added to that, we all had the most awful stomach bug. Athens was a huge disappointment, being horrendously busy, noisy and dirty (this was in the days before the Greek government put in place measures to try and reduce the pollution which was damaging the ancient architecture). I do, however, recall a very enjoyable day trip to the island of Aegina. We took the local bus from the port to the local temple (of Afaia), crammed in with home-going schoolkids and goats (yes, really). The temple was amazingly beautiful, set atop the hill, with views across the sea.

I love the food of Greece (and the eastern Mediterranean in general), especially mezze, baklava and that other Greek classic slow-cooked dish, Stifado (beef cooked with onions and red wine). I like to serve my Kleftiko with fluffy couscous, spinach and Feta salad, and a dollop of Rose Harissa, not strictly traditional, but it lends a perfect piquancy to the food. For pudding tonight we're having Jo's Chocolate Tart (again!) - naughty but nice, and I concluded that Lemon Almond and Polenta Cake was possibly more calorific than chocolate tart.....

1 half-shoulder joint, bone in (a 1kg joint will feed 4 generously)
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
A generous sprig of fresh oregano, chopped (or rosemary)
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into slivers
A generous handful of black olives
A generous handful of small carrots (I use Chantenay)
Two pieces of lemon peel, torn up
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Salt & pepper
A good lug of olive oil

Oven 180C initially, then 150C

Pour some olive oil into the bottom of a Le Creuset or similar casserole dish (or a tagine), and put everything except the lamb in. Then place the lamb on top. Fill the empty tomato can with water and pour over. Season. Cook uncovered for about 30 mins, until the lamb is beginning to brown. Turn the heat down, put the lid on the casserole/tagine and cook for at least another 2 hours (depending on the size of the joint) until the meat is very tender and falling away from the bone (you should end up with a clean shoulder bone). Check to ensure the sauce does not dry up and add more liquid if necessary. Serve with mashed potato, fluffy couscous, or rice.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

OMELETTE SAVOYARDE

This is my take on something I ate when I was in the Alps over Christmas. Of course, without the addition of the Alpine soft cheese, Reblochon, this would just be a cheese and bacon omelette. The cheese, which melts into a lovely gooeyness, is what makes it "Savoyarde", as Reblochon is a cheese from the Haute-Savoie region of France. It is worth hunting down the real thing - though you could use Camembert or Brie or similar - as Reblochon has a very distinct, sweet-sharp flavour. Be warned, though: it is smelly, and needs to be stored well wrapped in the fridge to stop its aroma invading the kitchen every time you open the fridge door, and to prevent other foods in the fridge taking on its flavour. I have also seen recipes for this omelette using Gruyere or Raclette.


I ate this dish in the little restaurant, La Licorne, at La Grande Terche, the ski station close to St Jean d'Aulpes where I was staying. The cafe is run by a friendly Brummie, and at lunchtime it has a welcome fug of warmth and cooking smells - just what you crave after a cold morning on the piste! The Licorne Omelette Savoyarde is extremely generous and filling: one will feed two people generously. The omelette is brought to the table in the pan in which it is cooked, with an old bit of towell on the handle. My version, made with two eggs, would also serve two people as a light lunch, with green salad, but I greedily ate the whole thing by myself, though my cat Freddy was quite keen to share it with me!

This is not a fluffy omelette; in fact, it bears some relation to the Spanish tortilla as it uses onions (or rather leeks) and potatoes, and is cooked until it is set.

Omelette Savoyarde - for 1 or 2

2 eggs, lightly beaten
Half a leek, washed and finely sliced
About 4 small/medium waxy potatoes (I use Charlotte), boiled until just tender, then sliced and fried
A generous handful of bacon lardons
Approx 5 slices of Reblochon cheese (about an inch long)
Salt and pepper
A knob of butter

Fry the leeks in butter until tender, then add the bacon lardons and fry until cooked. Assemble the fried potato slices in the pan, and pour over the, swirling the pan around to ensure the egg mixture covers all the other ingredients. Lay the cheese slices on top, and cook omelette on a low heat. Cover the pan with a lid to help the omelette set. Season with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

IMAM BAYILDI

The name of this seductive and succulent dish literally translates as "the Imam (priest) swooned" and story goes that when the Imam tasted it, he fainted with delight because it was so delicious. It is one of those wonderful dishes that relies on very few ingredients, yet cooked together, the end result is utterly sublime. It is a useful standby for vegetarians, and makes a great starter served with other mezze or tapas dishes. I first tried it at a branch of Sofra, a small chain of excellent Turkish restaurants and cafes in London. I remember it was served at room temperature, but it is equally tasty served hot. The trick is to cook it so that the ingredients remain distinct, delicately intertwined, like a Moorish arabesque, rather than cooked to a mush. It can be made in advance and reheated, and, if anything, it is better made a day ahead.

I cook this dish in a large, deep frying pan, on the hob, keeping the lid on until nearly all the liquid has evaporated and a caramelly sauce is left.

2 aubergines
1 large onion, finely sliced vertically
3 large tomatoes, skinned and chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Bunch fresh parsley, dill and basil, finely chopped
Salt
150ml olive oil
4 tbsp water
1 tsp sugar
Juice of half a lemon

Cut the aubergines in half, lengthways, and slash lightly with a knife. Heat some olive oil in the pan and fry the aubergines, flesh-side down, until golden brown. Remove from heat.

Mix the sliced onion, chopped tomatoes and garlic together, and add the herbs. Season with salt and add a little olive oil and the sugar.

Turn the aubergines over and pile the tomato-onion mixture on top of the flesh. Add the water and lemon juice to the pan and bring up to a simmer. Cook covered until the aubergine flesh is soft (about 30 mins).

If I am serving this as a main course, I do a bowl of fluffy couscous. It also goes well with Favourite Salad, or a simple green salad. You can add slices of Halloumi cheese, or Feta.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

DEMON COOK ON FACEBOOK

Demon Cook now has her own Facebook page. Sign up for exclusive content: discussions, links, videos, photos - and more!

Follow this link to connect with Demon Cook on Facebook.