Monday, 14 May 2007

My brother's 30th birthday party!

I've been a bad blogger recently - too tired to want to write/turn on the PC/do anything much other than read and go to bed early. I promise I have been cooking, admittedly mostly speedy and unblogworthy pasta dishes that I have cooked so many times that they almost cook themselves, but I've also tried a few new home-made fast food recipes that have been pretty good. I just haven't managed to summon up enough energy to write about them. Anyway last week Simon and I made a cake for my brother's surprise 30th birthday party, organized fantastically by my sister-in-law, who has clearly spent weeks biting her tongue in order not to give the game away. Surprise parties are a bit of a gamble: some people would hate them (me included), others, like my gregarious brother, can be relied upon to relish them. My sister-in-law organized the local pub and invited lots of friends and family, all of whom managed, against the odds, not to blurt the secret out at an inopportune moment. We were staying there for the weekend and just keeping my mouth shut for 24 hours was ridiculously tricky, not to mention keeping Stu away from possible encounters with members of my family who had travelled over 200 miles to sing happy birthday to him when he walked into the local pub. He seemed to have a great time - it was a really fun night.

As I said earlier, Simon and I made the cake. Well, I made the cake, and Simon and I iced it. I had had grand plans for the cake but fatigue put paid to my more ambitious aims (probably for the best). Here is the birthday boy with his cake - guaranteed to annoy him when he reads this, if he reads this...

My sister-in-law deserves a medal for organizing the party without cracking up/giving the secret away/losing track of the increasingly convoluted arrangements. I had never realized how stressful organizing surprises can be. It was worth it, though.

On another topic, I was tagged by lovely Kelly-Jane to give 5 random facts about myself. I have done a variation on this before and am absolutely useless at thinking of any random facts - never mind ones that might interest anyone browsing. I'm giving it some thought!

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Parma ham bake

Apologies for the blogging gap; I just didn't feel the usual enthusiasm and don't seem to have managed to cook much that could conceivably be of interest. Until tonight, when I made parma ham bake, a recipe provided by Lou on; she posted it last week and I wanted to try it immediately. Some recipes have that effect, particularly when they include parma ham, mozzarella and mascarpone. I had intended to make it yesterday, but when I shopped at the weekend my brain skipped past the mozzarella on the shopping list and I simply forgot it; we had Nigella's fishcakes from Nigella Bites instead, which are a failsafe store-cupboard standby.

Anyway the recipe is copied below in case anyone is interested, but to whet your appetite: it is basically gnocchi in a sauce made from tinned tomatoes, sundried tomato paste, tarragon, onion, garlic, mascarpone and breadcrumbs, and topped with parma ham and then mozzarella before being baked in a hot oven until the cheese browns. The ingredient list is enough to make you salivate; the dish itself is simply gorgeous, although my attempt wasn't incredibly visually appealing.

I would definitely make this again - I made the full amount listed below (intended for 6) and am freezing some, since Lou said it froze well. Handy for days when you don't feel much like spending time in the kitchen. I would also make it again with penne rather than gnocchi - I reckon that would work too.

I am not sure why, but baked dishes seem immensely comforting to me (lasagne being the number one comfort food, really). This is no exception. And it has parma ham on top, which goes crispy and contrasts deliciously with the creamy tomato sauce. I will look forward to defrosted leftovers, and I don't always say that.


1 tin chopped tomatoes
3 tbsp sundried tomato paste
1 onion
2-4 cloves garlic
fresh white breadcrumbs
1 packet dried gnocchi
1 tbsp chopped tarragon
5 slices Parma ham

a tub mascarpone cheese

1. Bring a pan of water to boil and add dried gnocchi.
Wait for the dumplings to rise to the surface of the
water and then turn heat off and drain. Set aside.
2. Melt butter and onion in heavy based saucepan.
3. Add onion and garlic and saute until translucent.
4. Add tinned tomatoes and 3 tbsps of sundried tomato
paste and fresh tarragon.
5. Let simmer for 5 mins or so and then add tub of
mascarpone cheese.
6. Stir until cheese has melted and you a salmon pink
7. Add fresh breadcrumbs and combine.
8. Add gnocchi and mix until equally distributed
through the mixture.
9. Pour the mixture into a rectangular oven dish and
place the slices of parma ham over the top.
10. Place slices of mozzarella over the top of the ham and place in a hot oven for about 30 - 40 mins or until the cheese is melted and bubbling/golden.
11. Serve with garlic bread and italian salad leaves.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Doing A Delia

Delia is an intriguing character. On the one hand, she is so tidy, restrained and careful (with a hint of bossiness thrown in); on the other, she appears to throw herself into Norwich City. For someone who seems so moderate, she inspires dramatically opposed responses, from the fully paid-up Delia fan club to the people who appear to hate her way of cooking and everything she stands for. For me, whilst I find her almost risibly fussy at times, I have made quite a lot of her recipes over the years (and they tend to be as reliable as she is, or at least as she looks). The other night we went to friends' for dinner, and their dessert was a yummy, rich Delia chocolate raspberry trifle; the guests literally dived in. I had sort of forgotten good old Delia and then I remembered her, so I idly flicked through one of her books over the weekend and came upon a recipe befitting the warm weather and, crucially, using buttermilk, which I had bought and not used and was nearer its best-before date.

Happily, Delia's website provides the recipes for the dishes I made, although I used her 'Chicken' book to make my marinated chicken brochettes with green couscous and her coriander chutney. You can find the chicken/couscous recipes here and the chutney here
(which saves me from typing the recipes out). Basically, the chicken is marinated in spices, herbs, chilli and buttermilk and grilled, whilst the couscous is flecked with coriander, spring onion, and so on.

This dish works really well - the chicken, skewered with bay leaves, yellow pepper, and red onion, is incredibly moist and the couscous tastes really fresh; the wedges of lime and the coriander chutney (not photographed - I served it separately) lift the dish into the realm of spring. It is apparently low fat and would be ideal barbecue fare. One could do far worse than follow Delia.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Coronation chicken sandwich

Whatever its origins, coronation chicken in a sandwich can be particularly unpleasant. Often I see sandwiches advertised as 'coronation chicken' with an off-puttingly lurid yellow filling that holds little appeal. Mass catering often serves some version of this and when it isn't violently yellow, it is often soggy, sickly, singularly unappetising. I have no idea what a coronation chicken sandwich looks like in Pret-a-manger, but for some reason the recipe from the book that has just come out, called Food on the Move, appealed to me and I overcame my prejudices to give their coronation sauce a try. We take sandwiches to work every day and we can get stuck in a rut, which was a good excuse to buy this new book (OK, so I don't really need an excuse, but I like to offer one anyway) and do some experimenting.

The base of the coronation chicken sandwich is the sauce. Pret's sauce is made as follows: fry a small diced onion, 6 diced dried apricots, a diced green apple and 1 tbsp raisins until beginning to brown. Add 1 tbsp mild curry powder and cook for 3 minutes, stirring well. Add 100 ml water and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the apricots are soft. (Keep a lid on and add more water if needed) Whizz everything in a food processor until smooth and cool before adding juice of half a lemon and 25g mayonnaise (preferably homemade).

Mix cooked chicken in a little of the sauce and spread over a slice of malted grain or wholemeal bread. Spread mango chutney over the chicken mixture and then sprinkle over some toasted almonds. Add a tomato slice, season and top with a Cos lettuce leaf and another slice of bread.

I liked this sandwich. It contrived not to be yellow, soggy or sickly, and it had gutsy flavour. The best thing was that the sauce keeps in a sealed container in the fridge for a few days, providing a tasty base for a few days worth of packed lunches. I look forward to trying more homemade Pret lunches!

Friday, 13 April 2007

Bill Granger - curry night!

There's something immensely pleasurable about making (and then eating) curry. I suspect it's partly because the quantities don't need to be exact; it is allowed to look sloppy; it is very forgiving (unless you go overboard with chillies) and it's easy to eat. Oh, and it almost always turns out tasty, which helps. Yesterday we spent an afternoon at home after a morning shopping (where we discovered the most amazing bread, in a bakery/deli I hadn't known existed: bonus) and it was almost hot, so I sat outside with my book for a while and then flicked through a few cookbooks and decided to make Bill Granger's fragrant chicken and spinach curry and cumin, mint and coriander yoghurt, because I had some boneless chicken thighs that needed using up and was in the mood for curry.

This curry recipe isn't particularly innovative but it works, in a simple but flavoursome way. The recipe is below for anyone interested, which to be honest I would be because it was surprisingly lovely. It really did taste fragrant and spicy all at once, without being too rich or too hot and it worked beautifully with thr coriander, mint and cumin yoghurt, which was simply natural yoghurt, ground cumin, chopped fresh mint and coriander, grated ginger, chopped deseeded green chilli, seasoning, mixed together and topped with toasted cumin seeds. I didn't take a photo of the yoghurt but Simon did manage a snap of the curry before we dived in.

Fragrant chicken and spinach curry (serves 4)
2tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2tsp ground cumin
2tsp ground coriander
½tsp turmeric
pinch of cayenne pepper
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1tbsp freshly grated root ginger
750g (1lb 10oz) boneless chicken thighs, cubed
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
½tsp salt
2tsp soft brown sugar
1tbsp fresh lime juice
90g (3¾oz) baby spinach leaves, finely chopped
large handful fresh coriander, chopped
steamed rice, to serve

1 Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring for 5 to 6 minutes until the onion is soft. Add the spices, garlic, ginger and cook, stirring for 2 minutes more. Add the chicken and increase the heat to medium high. Cook stirring often until the chicken is browned – about 5 minutes.
2 Stir in the tomatoes and salt and bring to simmering point. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the brown sugar, lime juice and baby spinach and stir until the spinach has just wilted. Remove from the heat, sprinkle with the chopped coriander and serve with steamed rice.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Griddled lamb chops with spinach, garlic and cream

I'm on holiday for a few days - trying to prolong Easter. We went to my parents for Easter weekend but since have been at home, relishing the unexpected April sunshine, getting on with gardening (well, ahem, Simon has), reading (OK, that's mainly me), shopping (both of us) and arranging boring household necessities, like having the porch windows redone and the guttering sorted. Today we drove up the coast to the little Northumbrian coastal towns and villages with their dramatic ruined castles and quaint little houses and had lunch in a village pub. Holidays at home are vastly underrated, particularly when the weather is as lovely as it has been. And it also frees up time for cooking...

Yesterday I tried out two recipes from Marcus Wareing's How to Cook the Perfect.... Flicking through this book, the recipes are pretty straightforward, but they all look absolutely delicious, proper home-cooked dishes. I began with simple griddled lamb chops and spinach with cream and garlic, because we felt like lamb chops and Marcus suggested serving them with the spinach dish from his 'Vegetable' chapter. Both recipes are really easy. For the spinach dish, wash a 500g bag of baby spinach leaves and dry. Pour 200ml double cream into a saucepan and grate over nutmeg and a pinch of salt; simmer for 8-10 minutes and remove from the heat. Spear a garlic clove (cut into thirds) onto a fork and spoon some olive oil into a wok or deep frying pan; toss in the spinach leaves, season, then stir with the garlic fork until wilted. Drain the spinach in a colander, tip back into the pan and reheat gently. Pour the cream over the spinach and stir with the garlic fork until all the leaves are coated with cream. Serve.

Easy but very delicious. With the spinach, I served the Griddled Lamb Chops. First, make a mint sauce by melting 1 tbsp redcurrant jelly over a low heat, removing from heat and stirring in 3 tbsp malt vinegar. Cool and then add 15g chopped fresh mint.
Then, brush some lamb chops lightly with olive oil and season. Heat a griddle pan until very hot and put the chops fat side down in the pan and cook for 4-5 minutes until the fat renders and crisps up. (This is Marcus's tip to cooking lamb chops to perfection). Then lay the chops on their sides, strew rosemary over, and cook for another 4-5 minutes, basting with the fat in the pan, before turning them over and doing the same. Serve on a bed of spinach with the mint sauce in a bowl.

The chops were really good too - the fat was perfectly crispy - and the mint sauce complemented the crispy chops and the creamy spinach very well. I have to admit it doesn't look or sound like Marcus Wareing-style food, or at least it doesn't have 'Michelin star' written all over it - but it was very quick to make and really tasty. All the recipes in this book look invitingly unintimidating, the kind of food we (I) want to eat. I've never really had Michelin tastes. At the weekend I discovered some old exercise books at my parents house from when I was in junior school; their contents made me cringe. In my defence, the books were allegedly for 'creative writing' but the teachers set questions that were stunningly uncreative; in two consecutive years I was asked to write about 'what makes mum cross', 'my favourite food' and 'what I did on Sunday'. I defy a Booker winner to be creative on those topics. Anyway my favourite food was apparently chips swimming in vinegar, preferably thin-cut French fries not British fishshop varieties, followed by crepes in France, and then sandwiches and a packet of crisps (definitely British). I guess I've always been a bit of a pleb!

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Easter Baking

Easter is here! Which means time off. Which means cooking! And finally finding time to bake. Yesterday, the first work-free day, we went to the coast at Tynemouth, walked along the seafront and had fish and chips. (I should admit here that I don't like fish and chips much. I can't bring myself to like batter - it dries my throat out. But Simon does, so it was his Good Friday treat.) Today the sun is shining again but it's cold; we're off to my parents for a couple of nights, but I managed some Easter baking this morning.

I have been wanting to try the Easter-style cupcakes in last month's Sainsburys magazine since I saw them on the cover. In fact, the maagzine gives two variations: one is carrot and sultana cupcakes with cream cheese frosting; the other is orange and coconut cupcakes with a chocolate and cream cheese frosting. I made the latter, because I like orange and coconut, but then didn't feel like the chocolate and cream cheese combination on top so I made my frosting just with cream cheese and icing sugar.
I won't give the recipe because everyone knows how to make cupcakes... These have light muscovado sugar, eggs, flour, milk, orange juice and zest, dessicated coconut, and cinnamon. The topping was simply cream cheese and icing sugar; where Sainburys topped theirs with little sugar flowers, I topped mine with mini eggs in keeping with the season.

The other baking I did was also from the same issue of Sainburys magazine (I promise I'm not on commission). This was just little Easter-shaped shortbread biscuits. Sainsburys suggested icing, but I don't like icing on biscuits and I did want to eat some of these, so mine are boringly plain (they taste good, though!).

Happy Easter!