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 Nigella.com; 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.

INGREDIENTS:

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
mozzarella

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
emulsion.
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!

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The Ultimate Roast Chicken

I've admitted to my food magazine problem before on this blog. One of those magazines is Good Food, which always has the most to read and often has some seriously good recipes tucked inside. In terms of presentation, Good Food is less glamourous than Olive, but it has more substance; it feels more experienced too, less prone to the superficial and more seasoned, somehow. Or perhaps that's just me. Anyway... one of the features I enjoyed in Good Food when it was running was Angela Nilsen's Ultimate regular feature, where she took a recipe and tried endless variations, seeking worthy expert advice, until coming up with the version she and tasters found best. Being an occasional borderline perfectionist myself (but lacking the culinary expertise to back this up), I liked Angela's articles. I was therefore only too pleased to splash out on her new book, The Ultimate Recipe Book, published by Good Food. In this book, Angela tackles fifty well-known recipes and works on them until finding the definitive version of, say, Thai green curry, or lemon meringue pie, or gooey chocolate cake. I have a bit of a quibble with the idea of an 'ultimate' recipe - mainly because I don't fundamentally believe in perfection; I believe in keeping on trying with the aim to be perfect but with no hope/expectation of getting there. That sounds too negative - what I mean by this is something altogether more positive: this recipe is fantastic, say, but I can (possibly) look forward to even better versions in the future. Recipes should be start-points, not endings. That said, it's always enticing to see how someone perfected a dish and to try it, given that there is no lack of mediocrity out there.

Entirely predictably, I started with the ultimate roast chicken recipe. Most people know by know about turning the bird over during cooking; Angela's recipe does that. For me, the revelation of this recipe lay in the suggestion for gravy: roast wedges of red onion in with the chicken for the last 45 minutes or so of cooking; when you remove the chicken, add creme fraiche to the red onion to make a tasty gravy. The gravy can be
thinned down with chicken stock if you wish. I didn't thin my gravy down, but it certainly wouldn't have hurt to do so. The gravy was delicious, though - really tasty and simple, and definitely one to make again, even if I wouldn't necessarily see it as the ultimate gravy recipe. (My nana makes that, and I'm not particularly sure how come hers is so different from everyone else's. The Yorkshire blood, maybe.)

So. Easter is almost here and the weather shifted disconcertingly quickly from icy this morning to radiant this afternoon. I was shivering at 7.30 as I made my way from the front door to the car, huddled inside my winter coat; by lunchtime I was carrying my coat over an arm and office workers were sitting around on benches eating M and S sandwiches. I can't pretend to suffer from SAD, not really, but I do know that the sunshine makes a difference. I've been filling in bureaucratic forms all day, the sort that ask the same questions in different words, repeatedly, and that when you try to print them, exceed the margins of the printable page. I can't even begin to describe the tedium, frustration and irritation that these forms induce in me, so I won't bother. Instead I should confess that on my mini lunchtime wander in the sunshine I somehow found myself buying Marcus Wareing's new book (blame frustration with the forms...) about which more, soon, no doubt.


Sunday, 1 April 2007

Nick Nairn's top 100 Chicken Recipes - chicken with penne, pesto and rocket

I bought Nick Nairn's Top 100 Chicken Recipes in 2004, probably not long after it came out - it was on sale ridiculously cheaply in Tesco and I couldn't resist. I have to confess, now, to having always had a bit of a thing about chicken, to the point where people used to ask if I clucked. I know chicken can be boring, dry, samey, but that doesn't quench my ardour. I also know that far too many people are still buying factory-reared poultry, because these mass-produced specimens occupy a far greater space on the supermarket shelves than their luckier free-range or organic cousins. I could go into a rant, but I won't, because it's all been said before. Anyway, back to Nick Nairn's book, which sounds horribly gimmicky (it isn't) and which also sounds like the sort of book you regret buying 10 minutes after you bought it. I guess it might be, if you aren't the sort of person who is on a permanent quest to try out new ways of cooking chicken. Needless to say, I am. I've only tried a handful of dishes from this book, but all of these I have ended up cooking again and again, ritualistically. There's a chicken lasagne made from leftover roast chicken which is delightfully simple and very tasty - great Monday night fare - and a chicken bolognese which is a lighter version of its beefy predecessor, and a chicken satay kebab dish with a peanut sauce so moreish it should come with a health warning. And finally there is chicken with penne, pesto and rocket, which is a lovely, light, spring-like dinner, again made with leftover roast chicken, and a favourite of ours.

I won't bother to copy the recipe because it is so simple. Cook penne until al dente, drain, and return to pan with the pieces of cooked chicken and a little cooking water, put on the lid, and leave to steam for a couple of minutes on a very low heat. Toss the pasta and chicken mixture with pesto and then add rocket and some grated Parmesan; let the rocket wilt and serve drenched with plenty more Parmesan.


I should add that Nick includes a recipe for pesto but we just use our standard homemade pesto recipe, which Simon or I make in bulk and then we freeze in ice cube trays for handy portions. I always feel erroneously domestic goddessy when I decant food into ice cube trays... even when I then forget, months later, whether I have frozen green pesto or Thai green curry paste (I have been known to defrost the wrong paste). Anyway, both are immeasurably nicer when homemade than when shopbought and neither is particularly taxing; furthermore they both work magically with chicken. Which just gives me more excuses to cluck.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Rachael Ray, Guy Food

A couple of months ago, my brother went on a trip to the US - a work trip - and asked if there were any books I'd like him to bring back (he knows me well. Other people want clothes; I want books. I like clothes too, but I wouldn't send my brother out to buy them). At that point I registered a gaping hole in my cookbook collection - American cookbooks - that needed filling. The only problem was that I know very little about US food writers. I did have one US cookbook, but it's about France (Patricia Wells, Bistro Cooking), that I found very cheaply on Ebay (I don't really do Ebay, don't even have an account, but I tapped into Simon's). Anyway my methods for finding out about American cookbooks were a bit haphazard. I've seen some in Borders and the font has frequently put me off (I know that sounds shallow, but some seem to have a very bold font that makes me feel I am being shouted at. I like cookbooks to seduce me, not yell at me). I couldn't remember any likely authors or titles from my many trips to Borders, and in any case why ask someone to buy from the States a book that I can find in my nearby Borders. I ended up on the Internet, of course, surfing happily, and I came up with a shortlist of writers rather than titles. From my shortlist, Stuart found Giada de Laurentiis's lovely Everyday Italian, about which more soon, and Rachael Ray's Guy Food. In fact, he saw Guy Food, found it hilariously tacky, and bought it for me as a present anyway.

Googling Rachael Ray suggests that the American public are pretty divided in their opinion of her. I have to confess that when I shortlisted her I had no idea of her public persona. I was therefore somewhat taken aback when Stuart produced Guy Food. The blurb reads as follows: Rachael says, 'Guys who cook are hot! Step into the kitchen with these Top 30 meals with guy appeal. This collection of greatest hits features simple recipes with big flavors, perfect for date nights, game nights, or just hangin' out'. Throughout, Rachael exhorts her projected male reader to be 'hot' in the kitchen, to find his soulmate (or just a date) through simple but tasty manfood that can appeal to girls as well. It is indescribably tacky. The book even looks tacky; it's an annoying shape and size. Still, far be it from me to look a gift horse in the mouth (actually, I imagine I would look a gift horse in the mouth. I'd never look a gift cookbook in the mouth though) and I was entertained as I read through Rachael's recipes. I also tried one -the inside-out bacon cheeseburger with green onion mayo. It is a basic burger but inverted; the cheese and (cooked) bacon are inserted inside the burger, which gives it an interesting taste and texture.


OK, so the book is unbelievably tacky but the burger was delicious. Actually, all the recipes look kind of tempting, once you've got past their annoying presentation. It is the kind of food people actually want to cook and eat; nothing too tricky, and a good mixture of recipes (spicy food, lots of different burgers, pasta, meat dishes). I'm still not sure about the whole Guy Food thing - it seems to be billing its recipes as both perfect to cook for a romantic date with a dream woman and as the sort of food that might go down well on a lads' night out. I'm not sure that these two categories are necessarily similar and I can't see why this is 'guy' food in particular (apart from the relatively high content of meat recipes, which food writers seem to associate with men). But if the concept bombs, the food doesn't. I can't say I'll be rushing to order more of Rachael's impressive list of publications (unless anyone out there thinks I'm missing something), so
I have no idea if this book is representative of Rachael's other books or if this one is a one-off... Still, one thing it does teach me is not to judge a recipe by the cookbook cover, or I'd never have tried this simple but tasty inside-out bacon cheeseburger. Oh dear. Even the name of the recipe is a bit, ahem, tacky.

In other news, we're going out with friends for dinner tonight, to a nice dining pub. I am salivating already. Oh, and it's got cold again, so it's a good thing that I didn't end up seduced by the sandals the other day.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Spring greens and pancetta pasta

This recipe comes not from a cookbook, but from the web; more precisely, from Admin at Nigella.com. It is, however, clearly inspired by the fabby farfalle with pancetta and Savoy cabbage from The Return of the Naked Chef, although this version is simpler and quicker. I am a big fan of Jamie's dish and was eager to try a variant on it; I am a bit of a fan of spring greens (and a lot of a fan of pancetta).

The recipe couldn't be easier: cook pasta as usual; meanwhile, shred a head of spring greens. Fry pancetta in oil until it crisps up a bit; add chopped garlic, the shredded greens and grated Parmesan and stir; cook until the greens are wilted and toss with the pasta. Serve with black pepper.


This pasta had lots of flavour but still managed to taste clean and zingy, somehow; it felt like a dish that could usher in the beginning of spring. I altered the recipe marginally in that I added some cooking water from the pasta to add flavour and I also grated Parmesan for the table. I would definitely make it again. It doesn't have the depth of flavour of Jamie's original but it is lighter and more vibrant somehow; it works really well.

On a nonfoodie note, the weather seems to be changing at last; the skies were blue all day today and the sun was surprisingly warm when I went shopping at lunchtime. The shops were full of spring clothes, in lighter shades than the wintry colours that have been dominating the racks. It still doesn't seem to be prime sandal-buying season yet though - the choice of summer shoes is not yet (I hope) in full glory. But for the first time this year, I could almost imagine taking off the high wedge black boots that have been imprisoning my feet for most of the winter, painting my toenails shell pink, and buying myself some pretty little summer sandals. OK, so we aren't quite there yet. Still - it feels a lot closer.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Poached plaice with cider and onions

Please excuse my mini blogging hiatus, caused by a combination of too much work to do in the working, a funeral that made writing about food seem self-indulgently irrelevant, and yesterday spent at work (again). I feel like a snail inching painfully slowly towards Easter, which isn't coming nearly quickly enough for me. I managed to miss St Patrick's Day and the excuse to make Nigella's chocolate Guiness cake but I won't miss out on Easter's culinary possibilities. Oh and today is Mother's Day, but my mother is sunning herself on an all-inclusive in Gran Canaria (postcard arrived earlier this week, showing a huge, white hotel sitting amidst greenery and swimming pools) while Simon's lives at the other end of the country. So no excuse there either for a baking fest - although I may well bake anyway later, because who needs an excuse, really? The weather forecast gloomily predicted snow today, but outside looks the same as always, bright-skied but icily windy. Just the right weather for chocolate..

Anyway for Valentine's Day, as reported a few posts back, Simon bought me The Fishmonger's Book, by Mitchell Tonks (a re-issue of his book Fresh). You'll have seen Mitch on various cookery programmes, typically grinning widely and enthusiastically as he raves about cooking and eating fish. I am perpetually on the look-out for new ways to cook fairly standard fish, as most recipe books include fish that I am simply unable to find. Also fish is a good weekday food because it is simple and speedy to prepare and cook; it would be an even better option if there were more fishmongers around. This book is endorsed by Jamie and Nigel and begins with the premise that the best seafood dishes tend to be the simplest, which sounds like a mantra for home cooking. Mitch begins with guides to buying, preparing and cooking fish, before launching into a series of appetising recipes divided as follows: 'favourites', 'pasta and rice with seafood', 'easy everyday seafood', 'easy food for guests', 'special occasions', 'eating outdoors' and 'side dishes'. Recipes like 'fried swordfish Milanese style with wild oregano and anchovy', 'linguine with scallops, artichokes and walnuts', 'haddock with creamed leeks, runner beans and chervil', 'sea bass with roasted whole garlic, rosemary and chilli', all sound extremely appetising. Not every recipe is accompanied by a photo; those that are make you crave fish as you read. It will be a particularly good book in the summer; many of the recipes have a Mediterranean vibe and will feel appropriate in the warmer months here.



For now, though, I tried poached plaice with cider and onions, from easy everyday seafood: characteristically simple, but I'd never poached fish in cider before. It was good; the cidery juices that were left to pour over the fish were very tasty and worked well with the plaice. As suggested I served with haricot beans dressed with thyme and olive oil, and - not as suggested - some purple sprouting broccoli.


Ingredients:

2 fillers of plaice
25 g butter
a glug of olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
500 ml dry cider
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
small handful fresh parsley, finely chopped

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the olive oil. Add the onions and cook slowly for 10-15 minutes so that they gently brown and melt but do not fry. Add the garlic, cider, bay leaves and thyme and simmer for 5-6 minutes. Add the fish and, with the liquid barely simmering, allow it to poach for 6-7 minutes. Lift the fish fillets out and place them on a serving plate. Add the parsley to the pan, turn the heat up and reduce the liquid by a third. Season to taste.
Place a pile of onions on top of each piece of fish and spoon the juices around. Creamy mashed potato, haricot beans dressed with thyme and olive oil, or buttered cabbage with just a bit of shredded smoked bacon are great with this.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Lamb chops with Marsala

I am an unashamed, unqualified Nigel Slater fan. I love his weekly columns in the Observer Magazine; I own all of his books and read the Kitchen Diaries in particular like a friend's diary. He has a reputation for food that is laden with fat and calories, for self-indulgent food - but if you actually read his Kitchen Diaries you will know that sometimes he eats like an ascetic monk rather than an artery-hardening foodie. What I like about him most is the way his writing conveys a love of food, of all sorts of food, without pretension. His books never fail to make me hungry, even without accompanying soft-porn style food pics. Oh, and his autobiography was incredibly moving and evocative, where most celebrity autobiographies are glib, artificial, and uninviting (for me, anyway).

I've tried to rank Nigel's books in my head before (OK I'm sad. I occasionally do rank cookbooks in my head, mainly when I can't sleep. I rarely manage it) and I never quite manage, because I'm attached to all of them in quite different ways. Real Cooking is perhaps the least aesthetically pleasing, the least outwardly appealing, but its recipes are simple and hit the spot. The fish recipes (like grilled fish with lime leaves, Greek baked fish, roast fish with Indian spices and coconut) are fabulously easy and delicious; I recommend all of them. Nigel is always good with pork and sausages, so no surprises that that section is particularly satisfying (although the recipe for pork chops with chicory inevitably makes me think of Julian Barnes's unpicking of it in The Pedant in the Kitchen). The Moroccan lamb shanks with aubergine are delicious, ditto the unglamourous slow-cooked Italian style aromatic lamb. One of the easiest lamb dishes, though, is Lamb Chops with Marsala. I love Marsala, having first been introduced to it by Nigella and then Delia, and subsequently I keep a bottle to hand for deglazing pans in which stuffed chicken breasts have been cooked. I hadn't paired Marsala with lamb until Nigel's easy-as-can-be recipe caught my eye.

I am not going to type out the recipe because it barely warrants the effort; basically, saute lamb chops briefly in olive oil until browned but still pink inside, remove from pan and pour away most of the oil, add Marsala, scrape at the crusty goo on the bottom of the pan and let bubble. Pour the sauce over the chops. Mmm.


This is really easy but very good, nonetheless; a good weeknight dinner. This time I altered it and used lamb leg steaks, which worked just as well. I served it with garlicky Italian-style roast potatoes, mashed carrot and spinach. Sometimes it's worth going back to the old favourite books, discovering what you may have missed or forgotten, particularly when, like me, you own far too many cookbooks and risk neglecting some. Nigel, at least, should not be forgotten.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Pork with Peppers

When I was a student, I almost lived out of my wok. It was a cheap Ken Hom one from Argos; we all had them, and we all cooked up stirfries with scary frequency, because you could make a little bit of meat go a long way. In my final year as an undergraduate, I cooked with a friend every day and we alternated pasta and stirfries. The pasta rotated between bacon and tomato, tuna and tomato and plain tomato (with veggies); the stirfries contained chicken, bacon or just vegetables. I couldn't have lived without a wok then- it was used more than the oven, although suddenly I recall that we didn't even have an oven in our final year. (Cooking was frowned upon; we were all expected to eat the stodge served up in the college buttery - silly Cambridge word for canteen - even though it was only occasionally particularly edible. (Their speciality was florets en vert et blanc au gratin - broccoli and cauliflower cheese - and a particularly sickly tarragon chicken) Anyway all those years ago I couldn't have imagined that I would have lived as long as I have recently without a wok. I have been stirfrying, but I've been damaging my lovely Le Creuset frying pan. The weekend before this one, we bought a wok in the Fenwicks Household Event, an electric wok with adjustable heat settings that can stirfry in minutes, as opposed to my struggling Le Creuset pan on our admittedly hot gas hob. I've rediscovered the joys of stirfrying: speedy, easy, tasty, easy way of eating veggies. Fast food but good for you.

Simon bought me a little book last week in WHSmith called 'Everyday Wok and Stirfry', a small £3.99 book with 100 recipes in. It's a surprising little gem: it has soups and curries as well as stirfries, and the recipes aren't at all samey. Some of the recipes (like fish with pine nuts or kara-age chicken) are quite different from what you'd expect in a wok recipe book. Anyway tonight we tried a simple traditional stirfry: pork with peppers. It was delicious: fillet of pork, sliced and stirfried with red and yellow peppers, spring onion, ginger, chilli oil and chilli sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce and lime juice, and served with rice noodles and parsley.


I had never cooked rice noodles before without ruining them - in truth, I gave up on them years ago - but these were really good. The dish had lots of flavour and was pleasurably easy to eat as well as to cook! Which was really needed today, because the last couple of days have been professionally and personally tough. A colleague died this weekend and the workplace has become a space of tears and disbelief. I spent yesterday screaming and then having emergency dental treatment, which hopefully means an end to my toothache (and related moaning), although the emergency dentist just stopped the pain; my real dentist (who I am starting to doubt...) takes over again on Wednesday. Just to warn anyone fed up of my dental stories not to read me on Wednesday or Thursday... Anyway, self-pity aside, and back to food, because I can't write about real life without descending into meaningless cliche. Stirfries are comforting because they invigorate as well as satiate; they offer interesting depths of flavour but don't weigh you down. And they are unbelievably easy to cook, even when nothing could be further from your mind.

Pork with Peppers

Serves 4

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp chilli oil
450g pork fillet, sliced thinly
2 tbsp green chilli sauce
6 spring onions, slived
2.5 cm piece fresh ginger, sliced thinly
1 red pepper, sliced
1 yellow pepper, sliced
1 orange pepper, sliced
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp Thai soy sauce
juice of 1.2 lime
4 tbsp chopped parsley
cooked flat rice noodles, to serve

Method:

1. Heat both the oils in a wok. Add the pork in batches and stirfry until browned all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
2. Add the chilli sauce, spring onions and root ginger to the wok and stirfry for 1-2 minutes. Add the peppers and stirfry for 2-3 minutes.
3. Return the meat to the wok, stir well and add the fish sauce, soy sauce and lime juice. Cook for a further 1-2 minutes then stir in the parsley and serve with the rice noodles.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Olive, 101 Smart Suppers: Slick Ideas for weeknights

Food magazines. I bought my first in winter 2003, in Sainsburys, attracted by the Christmassy cover of Good Food magazine and the tantalizing possibility of homemade edible Christmas gifts. Since then I've been a bit of an addict. I currently, courtesy of Tesco customer points, subscribe to Good Food, Olive and delicious., and I buy the Sainsburys magazine when I go there (which is probably often enough to allow me to buy it more or less every month, if I'm honest). Oh and then there's my naughty Donna Hay habit, which to be fair to me is less than once a month but to be less fair is cripplingly expensive. There, I've confessed. Anyway, as I've already said, I tend to wander wildly in terms of which magazine I prefer; they all go through better and worse phases, and probably so do I. I've noticed that delicious. seems to have its own international fan club, as does Good Food, whereas Olive is often dismissed. I find that interesting because I like the format of Olive; I like that it covers food trends as well as recipes, although I suspect I cook from it less than Good Food.

When I saw this bargainsome Olive book (£4.99 for 101 recipes, in the compact format of the Good Food books that everyone knows), I felt it would be a crime not to buy it (and I had a Borders token). I should say immediately that it is very different from the delicious. book I bought recently too. Where the delicious. book is large, elegant, and covers a range of recipes, the Olive recipes are shorter, simpler and definitely geared towards weeknights (although there's nothing to stop you from cooking a speedy meal at the weekend either). That appealed to me because I have an incurable desire to cook new dishes every day of the week, even when I'm exhausted and have no time. This can lead to tears at bedtime, as I don't do 'tired in the kitchen' very gracefully. (I don't know how most food bloggers cope. Do they never slump exhaustedly onto a sofa and watch mindless television, or read a trashy novel? Is every waking moment devoted to the discovery and invention of new recipes? Do they eat at midnight? Rest assured, I am not that person. To start with, I'm never still up at midnight.) A book that enables me to feel I'm trying something different while not delaying our dinner and not transforming me into Grumpy Old Woman in the Kitchen, is definitely a good thing. (That was probably why I raved so much about Jo Pratt's book - it fit my life so perfectly)

So: 101 Smart Suppers. 'Smart suppers' sums up the Olive approach to food: simple, but always smart and stylish. There are a lot of shortcuts in Olive, which some foodies would despise; I have to confess to an occasional desire to cheat. Anyway, the book covers soups, salads, poultry, meat, fish, seafood, veggie, and desserts; dishes include clams with linguine, crisp seabass with Vietnamese vegetables, chilli lamb cutlets, chocolate pots with cherry compote (the usual Olive-style recipes, really), and none looks prohibitively tricky or scary. These recipes aren't groundbreakingly different; they are just modern, mainly fast food with a stylish edge.

I tried chicken wrapped in parma ham first, which is no surprise to anyone who knows me because chicken wrapped in parma ham is a bit of a Kathryn-speciality. I have tried it in so many ways, with so many different stuffings. I like most of them. This is my sort of food, which I can make without trying too hard. Here is the Olive version, stuffed with roasted peppers and aubergines (both from a jar), served with rosemary potatoes and purple sprouting broccoli.


It was very good - neat, tasty food, that makes the most of the sometimes dry and tasteless chicken breast. It was a good start to the book, because it was ridiculously easy but it came out looking and tasting good. I like this kind of food that you can produce after a trip to a deli, or even Tesco; it might not win any prizes for originality, but it works very well even on a Monday night, when the working week stretches endlessly ahead and you just want to collapse in front of the television.


CHICKEN WRAPPED IN PARMA HAM
45 minutes

chicken fillets 6 skinless
roasted peppers 1 jar (about 440g)
char-grilled aubergines 1 jar (about 200g)
Parma ham 12 slices
rosemary 6 sprigs
baby fennel 6, to serve

Heat the chicken to 180C/fan 160C/ gas 4. Put the chicken fillets on a board, skinned side-down. With a small kinife, make a 'pocket' in the fillet by cutting along its length; if there is an extra bit of fillet attached then fold this back and make your cut under it. Be careful not to cut all the way through.

Fill each pocket with a slice each of pepper and aubergine. Lay 2 slices of Parma ham out flat, slightly overlapping, and put a sprig of rosemary in the middle. Put a fillet on top of the rosemary and wrap it with the ham. Repeat with the remaining fillets.

Lightly oil a baking sheet, put the chicken on ot, and cook in the oven for 35 minutes. Serve the fillets whole, or, for a more glam look, cut each one in half at an angle, and serve drizzled with the cooking juices. Serve with baby fennel steamed for about 8 minutes or until tender.
Serves 6.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Lamb shanks French daube-style

There is a story behind the lamb shanks. We were in something of a rush on Sunday and this dish had caught my eye; we wanted to make it but didn't have time to go out to the farm shop to buy the lamb. So we considered buying it in Tesco, where we were doing the weekly shop. We found the meat aisle and a couple were standing in front of the lamb shanks, scrutinising them closely and debating whether an unnamed 'he' would like them or not. I was waiting (im)patiently, shifting from one foot to the other, while they agonized over whether the shanks were good enough for their anonymous recipient, when suddenly the man said to the woman, 'well as long as there are bones in it; dogs love bones, he'll love one' and the woman replied 'but they don't look very nice. I hate the idea of him eating something like that. I think he'd prefer a lamb chop'. Her partner replied: 'okay, we'll get him some lamb chops instead, he'll like chewing on those'. Once I realized that they had rejected the lamb shanks on behalf of their dog, there was no way I was going to buy them for us. We made time and went elsewhere.

I should say here that I love lamb shanks. This was my third opportunity to eat them this autumn/winter and I was eager for the recipe to work. It looked delicious - daube style, according to my Larousse Gastronomique, means braised in red wine and stock and seasoned with herbs - and like all slow-cooked dishes, after an initial effort you're free to do something else. The recipe is below, but here is the outcome:


Images of braised food can rarely capture just how good they taste; this dish was no exception. It was utterly full of flavour; the meat melted in the mouth and the sauce was rich and tasty. My third attempt from delicious. and a bit different from the other two, this is a sort of simple French-style dish and I think I'll try it out on my francophile parents-in-law next time they come to visit. I certainly wouldn't sacrifice it to a dog.


Lamb shanks French daube-style, from delicious.: 5 of the best,

60 ml olive oil
120g mild pancetta, chopped
2 large onions, sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
12 Frenched lamb shanks [Frenched means that the meat is cut away from the end of the bone]
seasoned flour
1 75 ml bottle red wine
600 ml tomato passata
20 ml beef stock
1 bouquet garni

Mustard mash

1 kg desiree potatoes, peeled
200 ml milk, warmed
50g unsalted butter
2 heaped tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 heaped tbsp dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 17pC/325 F/ Gas mark 2.

Heat 20 ml of the oil in a large ovenproof casserole dish over a medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the onion, garlic and carrot and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the mixture starts to colour, remove and set aside.

Toss the lamb in the seasoned flour. Heat the remaining oil in the casserole dish, add the lamb and fry for 2-3 minutes until lightly golden all over. Set aside. [Note: I would reverse the steps and do the lamb first then the vegetables - it involves less effort in moving ingredients in and out of the pan!]

Return the vegetables to the pan, add the wine and bring to the boil for 2-3 minutes, then add the passata and stock. Season, then add the bouquet garni. Bring back to the boil, then remove from the heat, cover and place in the oven for 2 1/2 hours. Remove and set aside for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the mustard mash. Put the potatoes in a pan of cold, salted water, bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes until just tender. Drain and mash, then, using a wooden spoon, slowly beat in the warm milk and butter until smooth and creamy. Season with salt and pepper and stir in both mustards.
Use paper towels to dab off any excess fat that may have risen to the surface of the lamb shanks. Serve with the mustard mash.

Note: the shanks can be cooked the day before and refrigerated overnight. Spoon off any fat on the top, heat in a 180C oven, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, until hot.

Monday, 5 March 2007

delicious.: 5 of the Best

I first bought delicious. magazine in early 2004, just after I'd started reading Good Food and Olive. I could probably have done without yet another food magazine, but I didn't realize that at the time, or perhaps I did and I bought it anyway. I've gone through phases with all three of these magazines - oh and I've also bought fresh, which I found had an irritating typeface and too much about growing, rather than cooking, food (that issue may not have been typical) and Donna Hay's magazine, which I confess to liking because it is so beautifully stylised, but the import price is quite prohibitive. At first my favourite magazine was unquestionably delicious., followed by Olive and Good Food, but the formats of all seem to change regularly and they each appeal more to me at certain times. In terms of delicious., I've noticed that where I used to cut out and try lots of recipes, now I try very few and sometimes none. Admittedly this may be a side effect of the Jamie project, but I suspect it is more than that; certainly I haven't discovered any amazing new dishes recently, whereas I did in the earlier days. I enjoyed 'Jamie's quickies', the cut out and keep recipe cards, and tried lots of them; I often tried recipes by Jill Dupleix (her sausage and red wine pasta is fantastic) and I am still making lots of their barbecue recipes from summer 2005. Thus when I saw '5 of the Best', recipes from delicious., I was eager to see which recipes Valli Little had picked out as favourites.

The premise of the book is simple and effective: it covers a range of categories (salads, cold and hot soups, eggs, boiled pasta, baked pasta, savoury tarts, pizzas, rice, vegetarian, potatoes, vegetables, white fish, salmon, chicken, beef, lamb, pork, stir-fries, casseroles, curries, sweet tarts and pies, cold desserts, cheesecake, ice-cream and semifreddo, hot puddings, pikelets and pancakes, big cakes, small cakes) and includes, for each category, five of the most popular or successful recipes from either Australian or British delicious. Given this background, we can have full confidence that the recipes are likely to work.

The book is beautifully laid out, with an image for every recipe; the photographs are almost all extremely appealing. The pages feel spacious; words and images are not clamouring for space. The food looks simple but stylish, the sort of food you want to cook.

The recipes vary, from comforting British-style food to the Australian sunshine food I associate with Bill Granger and Donna Hay; there are a lot of healthy-seeming recipes, but a good range of desserts too. They all look pretty straightforward; there are no endless lists of ingredients and a cursory read-through suggests that these are mostly pretty accessible.

I've tried a couple of recipes. One is the chicken with pesto and mascarpone, which I mentioned in an earlier post:

The chicken is stuffed with a mixture of pancetta, breadcrumbs, onions, parsley, Parmesan and egg, roasted, and served with a sauce made from pesto, white wine and mascarpone. It was delicious!

My second dish was a beef stirfry. I know stirfries aren't exactly foodie news, and like everyone else I lived on them and pasta when I was a student, because they were cheap and quick. I've made a few stirfries recently, in the interests of saving time after a long day at work, and realized two things: a) that I really like trying new stirfries out and b) that my Le Creuset frying pan doesn't do a great stirfrying job. Yesterday we bought a new, electric wok, in the Fenwicks household event so my stirfries will be much enhanced in future. Anyway this one I made in my frying pan... It was basically beef, rolled in peppercorns, five-spice and groundnut oil, stirfried and then roasted in the oven briefly, with stirfried spring onions, garlic, chilli, ginger, noodles , cashews and spinach, and tossed with a sauce made from soy, sugar, oyster sauce and sesame oil. It was easy and tasty - what you'd expect from a book that comes from a magazine like delicious. - without being anything particularly different. Good weeknight fare, anyway.


The cashews lift this dish, I think, mainly because I'm a bit of a cashew fan. The recipe said hokkien noodles, but I just used what we had in the house. I think the biggest compliment I could pay this dish, though, is that I hadn't stirfried for ages - thanks to not having a wok and just an expensive Le Creuset frying pan that stirfrying probably doesn't do any good to - and that I've made two since (blog report to come). This book may not contain the recipes I have taken to heart from delicious., but that's all to the good, really; it has recipes I may have missed the first time, for one reason or another, and it's nice to give them a try now.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Lamb steaks with pea and chickpea mash and mint and lemon pesto

This week has been extraordinarily tiring, thanks to a series of meetings that required prior reading and thought; I've spent my evenings struggling to keep my eyes open as I plough through another pile of mindbogglingly dull documents. I am more than relieved that it's now Friday and I can start to relax (and think about food again....) - and even blog again. The problem is that my mind is still playing in a continuous work-loop, which means I'm writing jerkily and hesitantly. I do resent work occupying my brain on Friday nights.

Anyway onto the recipe: this is one I made earlier, to borrow the Blue Peter phrase, because this week has been a bit slow on the cooking front (I've had to cut corners to make as much time as possible for the aforementioned boring paperwork). This recipe is from the healthy section of In the Mood for Food, but it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what you might expect a diet dish to look like. It is, basically, lamb leg steaks served with pesto (made from almonds, mint, parsley, lemon, extra virgin olive oil, Parmesan and seasoning) alongside a mash made with tinned chickpeas, frozen peas, paprika and lemon juice and blitzed in a processor or roughly mashed. Hardly rabbit food...


This was delicious. Really easy, allegedly healthy but very tasty (so often, healthy and tasty don't go together). I served it as suggested with briefly roasted cherry tomatoes on the vine. Another dish I'd make again, not least because I liked the mix of colours and textures (how superficial am I...?). Thank goodness it's the weekend, and I get to cook properly again...

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Duck, orange and honey stirfry with lots of greens

I think you may all be glad to know that I am probably moving on from Jo Pratt. I could feel this turning into Jamie project revisited, which wasn't what was intended; I am meant to be reviewing books in the plural, not obsessively revisiting one in particular (I have my Jamie blog for that). Anyway the duck, orange and honey stirfry sounded like a good way to start off the week in a vague pretence at healthy eating that still allowed for something a bit different (I'd never stirfried duck before) and that was fast (Mondays are my busiest days and we get home later than usual).

To make it, marinate strips of duck breast in orange zest, garlic, ginger, soy sauce and honey. Remove duck from marinade after up to 30 mins and stirfry as usual, removing then adding green veggies (Jo suggests pak choi, asparagus, spring onions and broccoli; I skipped the asparagus and broccoli as I didn't have any of the former and didn't feel like the latter), stirfrying, then adding the rest of the marinade with orange juice stirred in and returning the duck to the wok when the sauce has thickened. Serve either alone or ('if you're feeling really hungry') with cooked noodles.


You'd probably guessed before seeing the photo that we were likely to be feeling hungry (!). I was a bit worried about the orange in this dish as I'm not keen on duck a l'orange and was hoping it wouldn't be too orangey; I was relieved that the orange flavour was subtle. The honey worked really well, making the duck sticky and brown. I am always looking out for new stirfries, and duck opens up a whole new avenue of stirfrying to come!

Monday, 26 February 2007

White chocolate and macadamia cookies

We had friends over at the weekend, for dinner. They brought dessert: lovely lemony moist lemon drizzle cake with chocolate honeycomb ice cream which I'd never had before but will have to have again soon (Crunchie icecream? Imagine). The combination was utterly divine. They kindly left the remains of the cake and ice cream so I didn't feel the urge to bake yesterday; I had however baked Jo Pratt's white chocolate and macadamia cookies last week and forgotten to write them up, so I'm taking the opportunity today. I love macadamias; I am less keen on white chocolate, but I was prepared to give it a go since the cookies looked easy and moreish.

To make the cookies, you simply beat together butter and sugar until pale and creamy, beat in vanilla extract and egg yolk, and mix in plain flour, white chocolate chunks and chopped nuts. Mix until you have a smooth dough. Roll into balls the size of golf balls and press flat onto a greased baking sheet; bake until golden and cool on a wire rack.


They were really moreish and the white chocolate did work, although I suspect I'd have preferred milk or plain chocolate in them just because they were pretty sweet. I don't have an achingly sweet tooth and am very partial to dark chocolate. That said, I couldn't stop eating these cookies; they should have had a Do Not Touch sign attached to them. I took one to work for a coffee break and found myself nibbling its edges furtively, like a mouse, far too early for cookies to be on the foodie agenda. I offer hungover students as my excuse; when they've been into your office, bleary-eyed and confused and dishevelled, and smelling of last night's trip to the pub, I don't need an excuse for a cookie.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Roast chicken for two... in one pan

When it comes to winter Sundays, I'm a bit of a traditionalist. In the summer, my Sunday repertoire varies wildly, embracing a range of culinary traditions and experiments, but in the winter I am dreadfully dull and am inevitably drawn towards a roast dinner or something vaguely akin. The trouble is partly that I can get bored of a rotation of roasts and partly - if I am honest, more than partly - sometimes we run around like headless chickens on Sundays and I can't face spending so long in the kitchen in the evening making all the trimmings, with the oven blasting away. Also Sunday is designated Baking Day so sometimes the oven is in double demand and the kitchen begins to bear too much resemblance to an inferno. I am always looking for twists on the traditional roast dinner - different flavours or methods, and particularly alternative gravy recipes - just to ring the changes a bit (and to convince myself that I'm not stuck in a culinary rut).

The roast chicken for two recipe from Jo Pratt fits the above requirements: traditional(ish), but a different gravy (with sherry, honey and cream) and chicken plus veggies cooked in one roasting tray. The recipe involves parboiling new potatoes, draining them, and scattering them with some peeled shallots around a small chicken in a roasting tray, then roasting for an hour or so. The chicken is rubbed with garlic and lemon and then garlic cloves and rosemary are scattered around it with a couple of lemon quarters; the other lemon quarters are stuffed into the bird. I didn't use a small chicken because we like to have lots of meat leftover for sandwiches for the week, so I started the chicken off before adding the vegetables. When the chicken is cooked, remove the chicken and potatoes and keep warm; meanwhile, throw away the garlic, rosemary and lemon, add sherry and honey to the tray over the hob, deglaze, add chicken stock and frozen peas and simmer until the peas are cooked, then add double cream.


I was worried that the potatoes would absorb too much chicken juices and turn out squelchy rather than crunchy, but that wasn't the case; they were delicious. The gravy was delicious too - you could taste the sherry, in a good way. And best of all, it was quick. I have a bit of a thing for roast chicken; I love the crunchy skin and the tender meat inside. When I was little, my Nana used to come to our house on Tuesday and leave on Wednesday evening and she often roasted a chicken. Roast chicken was the comfort food of my childhood and it still works a bit of magic now. I could probably have roast chicken every Sunday, but I would feel that I was getting stuck in a rut; that said, there are much worse ruts that one could get stuck in!

Friday, 23 February 2007

Chianti baked meatballs

For some weeks now I have been teasing my brother that he is becoming a creature of habit, because he had meatballs every Friday night for a succession of weeks. To be fair to him and his wife, they tried out different recipes each time so they weren't entirely stuck in a rut. (And they've now shifted sideways in mince terms to spaghetti bolognaise). Also I shouldn't ridicule meatballs because they are real, honest good food, the sort of food I tend to forget about while I'm trying out the latest fad. It was probably thanks to Stuart's shortlived meatball mania (as I write that I can imagine his face reading it and I wince) that I jumped on Jo Pratt's meatball recipe. Yes, I'm still on her. I am physically restraining myself from cooking my way through her book; instead I'm picking and choosing. This recipe claims to be for weekend cooking, but I made it midweek; it doesn't take that long and as usual with these recipes it's incredibly easy. To make the meatballs, mix together minced beef, chopped onion, crushed garlic, chopped black olives (stoned), breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan, egg, paprika, chopped red chilli, chopped parsley and seasoning, and then shape into meatballs. Toss them in olive oil in an oven proof dish that is large enough to hold the meatballs in a single layer but not much larger than that. Bake for 10 minutes, then pour over Chianti, turning the meatballs to coat them in the red wine. Return to oven for 10 minutes then stir in tinned chopped tomatoes, sugar and basil. Cook for another 20-25 minutes and serve with pasta or baked rosemary potatoes.


Thne meatballs were nice - proper winter food. I liked the idea of baking them rather than cooking them on the hob, because it liberates you from the kitchen while the meatballs cook. Anything for an easy life! Also this makes it quite good weekday food, for me, as long as you get home in time for the cooking time not to be prohibitive - it's easy and warming and hearty, as Jo points out.

I feel the need to support easy homemade food at the moment. I saw in my local (mammoth) Tesco Extra that Jean-Christophe Novelli is coming on Tuesday; initially I presumed he was coming to sign a new book, but it would seem that he is promoting a ready-meal range from Findus. I'm not impressed. People in my local Tesco honestly don't need encouragement to buy ready meals - their trolleys are full of them already. I think I will be boycotting Tesco on Tuesday.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Fish pie with a sweet potato topping

I'm back on Jo Pratt again. I can't help it. I saw the fish pie with sweet potato topping and it struck me as an ideal weeknight dinner; it was a bonus that I had most of the ingredients in the house, even if the fish and seafood were in the freezer. Any pie made with mashed potato has to be high on the comfort food charts, but sometimes fish pie can take a bit of time to make. This version is quicker, mainly because the topping is grated raw potato, rather than cooked and mashed potato. This is the first dish I've tried from the 'Comfort Food' section of 'In the Mood for Food' - other recipes include a decadent baked breakfast baguette, cauliflower cheese soup and baked orange and lemon curd pudding. All wintery sorts of food - why is it we all need more comforting in the colder months? - and all reassuringly filling, yet also with a bit of a twist, which helps.

This recipe was a dream to make: cook some spring onions in melted butter until soft; add flour, stir, then add milk; simmer briefly; add pieces of white fish, smoked salmon and cooked tiger prawns with dill or parsley (chopped), lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon; season. When the fish is flaking, remove from the heat and spoon into a pie dish.
For the topping, coarsely grate either sweet potato or white potato (or, as I did, a mixture), and squeeze out the excess water. Melt butter in a pan, add the potato and toss it around in the butter for a couple of minutes. Scatter it over the pie and then top with grated mature Cheddar. Bake.


This was really good - I know it's a quick version of a fish pie but you would never know. I loved the topping - really different and very tasty. The absence of spinach, eggs, etc, inside the pie didn't seem to matter. It slid down really easily and reassuringly. I'll definitely make this again.

Five Things You Didn't Know About Me

My brother says this is geeky. He might be right. I didn't even know what a meme was until recently; I thought being tagged meant you were on parole and having your movements monitored. The blogging world seems to have its own phrases and habits, and I will probably always be somewhat alien to it.

Anyway Ros at Living to Eat tagged me for this meme, where I'm meant to tell you five things you might not have known about me. Since most of the blogging world know quite little about me, apart from what I eat everyday (which I suppose could count as quite a lot, in fact) this could be very easy; the fact that my husband and brother read me might make it tricky. I've decided to try, anyway.

1. When I was little, I kept asking to change my name to Violet, in honour of the Malory Towers character. This is odd not just because the name Violet was such an inappropriate, ghastly name at the time, but also because the character in Malory Towers was an almost imperceptible ghost in the corner of the classroom, ethereal, slightly feeble, and easily forgotten; it is particularly peculiar that I should have hit on Violet as my chosen name.

2. I have a photographic memory. Well, almost. I have a very good memory, anyway; I can still recall huge chunks of rote-learnt rhetoric for school and university exams. Luckily for me, the academic world has a tendency to confuse a good memory with intelligence.

3. I have no artistic ability whatsoever. I'm the world's worst Pictionary player. Never ask me to play because I ruin it for whoever is stuck with me, I get bored and I end up reading a book instead.

4. I have a tendency to fall into water. In my childhood I fell into rivers implausibly often. Now I avoid rivers, lakes and other natural phenomena other than the sea. I've never fallen into the sea, except off a lilo.

5. I read very, very fast. This skill was developed when I was a kid and perfected at university when we had to cover masses of novels every week. It is now less a skill than a terrible character flaw, because it means I finish novels far too fast and then sulk until I can get hold of my next fix.

Reading those random facts back, I realize I don't sound very exciting. Good thing I'm not using my blog as a form of self-promotion...

Friday, 16 February 2007

Pasta pronto!

My toothache has come back with a vengeance and has been vampirically draining me all week, jabbing at me insistently despite all attempts to ward it off with painkillers. I hope I'm not starting to rattle. Yesterday was definitely a day for easy comfort food, beginning with a piece of lemon drizzle cake that a friend brought me and that was delicious. There is something incredibly comforting and yet enlivening about lemon drizzle cake, the dessert equivalent of a Thai green curry with its spicy chillies and gently lapping coconut milk, and it did me good yesterday as I waded through avalanches of admin. At the end of the day, Simon and I were both tired, both ready to flop, and both craving pasta, because pasta has to be the ultimate tired person food. Well, it is for me, anyway. I am still unable to leave Jo Pratt's book alone; it is having the same effect that Jamie's had, although I am not going to cook every recipe in it - I can't keep neglecting my other cookbooks. It is just so incredibly practical, particularly for midweek cooking, that I find myself irresistibly drawn to it. I promise I will, eventually, move on... Anyway for now I'm still smitten, not least by the easy 'pasta pronto' section, that offers speedy satisfaction and many store-cupboard ingredients; I've tried two already that I can report on now.

I'm not going to post the recipes, because I've already posted a couple from this book and I don't want to break copyright laws. In a sense, though, these pasta recipes are hardly recipes - they are very easy.
The first I tried was chorizo, tomato, rocket and black olive pasta, which was basically sliced chorizo fried until crisp in a little olive oil and tossed in the pan with balsamic vinegar and halved baby plum tomatoes (I prefer them to cherry tomatoes, in general) until the tomatoes began to break up, then tossed with penne, tapenade and rocket.


This pasta has amazing flavour and colour; it was much more satisfying than the sum of its parts would suggest. Definitely one to repeat - a perfect weeknight supper. It also has man-appeal, which is surprising in such a girlie book. It probably isn't a dinner for the fussy eating brigade on account of the olive-based tapenade, but they wouldn't deserve it anyway.

The second pasta dish I tested was a kind of variation on the pasta with bacon, cream and peas that has figured in Nigella's Feast and Jamie's Dinners - the ultimate in comfort food. This version is similar - pancetta, peas, double cream, pasta - but also has basil on top and, more importantly, Brie in it, which elevated it a bit for me (for those who aren't keen on Brie, try the dish anyway, as it tastes quite different once melted).
I'm not sure of the nutritional value of this dish so I will try not to return to it too soon, but yesterday it definitely hit the spot and it wasn't at all sickly, which some creamy pasta dishes sometimes are.

I have been wondering why I find this book so compelling. It isn't the writing style, the way it is with Nigel Slater and Nigella (Nigel particularly). The photographs are beautiful but it isn't just the images. I feel as though Jo has spookily tapped into my life and her recipes fit easily into how we live; this is the first time a cookbook has caught me so close. With Jamie, I often feel that I am stretching myself, trying new things, which is exciting; the downside of this is that sometimes I simply can't get what I need (live lobster, anyone?), which simply isn't the case with this book. I'm maybe not quite ready to move on from it yet, other than (obviously!) to continue with Jamie.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Valentines Day!

I've noticed that people seem to take Valentines Day seriously. On the one hand, you have the people buying excessively ostentatious cards and over-sized bouquets of flowers and going out for over-priced meals in restaurants filled with identikit couples; on the other, the people who see celebrating Valentines Day as proof of superficiality or stupidity, or of a failing relationship that can only express itself through artificial occasions. I like to occupy a middle ground. I like Valentines Day because it offers an excuse to spoil yourself and drink champagne; it obviously doesn't mean that you ignore each other the rest of the year, but nor does it mean embracing the Cult of Romance and making Hallmark and Marks and Spencers even richer than they are already. Yesterday I went to M and S after work to pick up some single cream and it was even busier than usual, jam-packed with men and women clutching bouquets and bottles of pink cava and ready meals. We already had the wherewithall for dinner apart from the cream, but I waited a long time for that cream.

Anyway, for dinner I made a recipe from the book that came out recently full of recipes from Delicious magazine, for stuffed chicken breasts with pesto and mascarpone. I stuffed the chicken breasts with a mixture of pancetta, onion, breadcrumbs, egg and Parmesan, baked, and served with a sauce made from white wine, mascarpone and pesto. It was good - simple, so I wasn't in the kitchen all night, but tasty.


For dessert I made Jo Pratt's Exotic Chocolate Cups. I should reiterate at this point how much I love this book; Jo's food is easy and stylish and fun. These chocolate cups are made with chocolate, cream, orange zest, all-spice, rum, butter and yolk. I fell in love with the espresso cups that figure in Jo's image of the chocolate cups and managed to find some the same (albeit with an extra red spoon!) in Fenwicks last week, so I bought them. I stand guilty as accused of schmultzy kitsch.


The chocolate pots taste a bit exotic, with the allspice, rum and orange; they are really good and exceptionally easy. A lovely Valentine dessert. Oh, and Simon bought me some lovely pinky purpley earrings, The Fishmongers Book by Mitchell Tonks which looks really good - watch this space for more fishy dishes - and some heart-shaped cerise Le Creuset ramekins that I had been hinting towards. Earrings, pretty kitchen equipment and a cookbook - he knows me well. Shame we can't have Valentine's Day and an excuse for champagne and gifts every Wednesday night!

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Triple chocolate hit

I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, but I love chocolate - the darker and moodier the better. This recipe comes from In the Mood for Food, from the chapter entitled 'Naughty but nice'. You probably couldn't get much naughtier if you tried - Jo calls it 'the Ferrari of chocolate puddings' and she isn't far wrong. I made this a couple of days after buying this book; I simply couldn't resist. I should say here that I am a fan of pastry in moderation - I am not keen on double-crust pies and the like and prefer the pastry/filling ratio that you find in open tarts like this one. It helps that this one has cocoa in the pastry, which is enough to give me cravings.

The 'triple chocolate hit' comes from cocoa-laden pastry, a rich chocolate filling and malted milk chocolate icecream to go with it. I did say it was naughty! I'm not going to give the ice cream recipe here, although I did like it; I also had the tart without it and I think I preferred it that way - the chocolatey ice cream felt a bit much for me (I can't be that much of a chocaholic). I think the tart would go better with a bitter orange ice cream (there is orange zest in the crust) and that the icecream would work on its own with chocolate biscuits to dip.I'm just going to give the tart recipe here.

Pastry:

125g plain flour
20g cocoa powder
65g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
2 1.2 tablespoons of caster sugar
grated zest of 1 orange
t tablespoons milk

Filling:

3 large egg yolks
1 large egg
50g caster sugar
150g unsalted butter
200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), chopped
1 tablespoon grated chocolate or cocoa powder

To make the pastry, sift the flour and cocoa powder into a food processor and blitz with the butter to form fine crumbs. Add the sugar and orange zest and then gradually add the milk, processing briefly to form a soft dough. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes or longer.

Heat the oven to 180C/fan 160/gas 4.

Thinly roll out the chilled pastry on a well-floured surface and line an approximately 22cm loose-bottomed shallow tart tin. Don't worry if you have any gaps or cracks in the pastry because they can be gilled with the pastry trimmings. Cover with a piece of greaseproof paper and fill with a layer of baking beans or rice. Cook for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and cook for a further 5 minutes until the pastry is just becoming golden.

For the filling, whisk the egg yolks and egg with the sugar until very pale, thick and creamy. Melt the butter and dark chocolate. Add to the egg mixture and fold together until completely combined. Pour into the pastry case and bake for 10 minutes (the filling will still be slightly wobbly, but will set when it cools). Remove from the oven and cool completely. To maintain the gooey filling texture, the tart needs to be kept at room temperature. Sprinkle over grated chocolate or dust the tart with cocoa powder and serve with the malted milk chocolate ice cream.
The light in the above photo isn't very good but you get the general idea. We did eat the tart, the first slice anyway, with the malted milk chocolate ice cream, which I made concurrently with the tart; it would make sense to make it beforehand, but I hadn't put the ice cream freezing unit in the freezer early enough to do that. The result was that I dished up the ice cream before it had a chance to fully set in the freezer, then I got distracted, and the next thing I knew the ice cream was melting into a puddle next to the tart.

The tart was absolutely divine. I loved the chocolate orange pastry in particular, and the dense chocolatey filling. The ice cream was good, but I would have preferred a more bitter taste next to the chocolate tart. I wonder if I am less of a chocoholic than I sometimes think. I think I'll make this again and serve it with bitter orange ice cream, and see how that works. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Cranberry and Orange Breakfast Muffins

Cranberry and orange breakfast muffins are in the 'healthy' section of Jo Pratt's In the Mood for Love (reviewed below). I liked the idea of muffins for breakfast and particularly the possibility of healthy muffins for breakfast - I am not one to turn down a chocolate dessert, but I draw the line at naughty breakfasts because a) I like the idea of starting the day off well and b) I never enjoy breakfast that much anyway so it would be a waste of calories. I usually eat homemade granola with bio-active yoghurt, which I make every few weeks and store in an air-tight container; the granola is full of seeds and grains that I imagine can only do me good. We ran out of granola yesterday and instead of making more, I decided to try out these muffins, billed 'healthy' because they contain wholemeal flour (fibre), linseeds (Omega-3: good for high blood pressure and cholesterol), sunflower and pumpkin seeds (minerals and protein), cranberries and orange (vitamin C).

Recipe:


175g wholemeal self-raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
5 tablespoons wheatbran
2 tablespoons linseed
3 tablespoons sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds

75g soft brown sugar
finely grated zest of a large orange
75g dried cranberries
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 large eggs
250ml natural yoghurt
1 tablespoon rolled oats

Place nine large muffin cases in a muffin tin and preheat the oven to 190C/fan 170C/gas 5.
Stir together the flour, baking powder, wheatbran, linseed, sunflower/pumpkin seeds (I used both), sugar, orange zest and cranberries. Add the oil, eggs and yoghurt and mix until just combined. Spoon into the muffin cases and scatter a few oats over each one.
Bake for 25 minutes or until risen and cracking slightly; cool a little
, but eat warm.
To eat later, leave the muffins until cold and store in an airtight container for up to a couple of days. You can also freeze the muffins and then defrost overnight and heat through in a low oven before eating.

I only used half a tablespoon of oil because that was all I had left; I used both pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

The verdict? These were really good, although I had feared for them given the wholemeal self-raising flour (which sounded a bit too virtuous to me). It would be good to make a double batch of these and store them in the freezer for breakfast emergencies!

Jo Pratt, In the Mood for Food

The title gives it away: In the Mood for Food offers a blueprint for cooking and eating according to the way you feel, be it lazy, in need of comfort, in a hurry, trying to be healthy, eager to impress, or romantic. The premise behind the book – that ‘a little bit of what you fancy does you good’ – is not particularly innovative in itself; other books have been organized in similar ways even if they have not specifically referred to mood. This book is, however, more enticingly seductive than most. The cover is unashamedly pink and girlie, and the author looks lovely, relaxed, unthreatening, the sort of person you would want to be friends with, pretty. The cover matches the contents: this book is the sort of book you feel comfortable with immediately: it has gorgeous-looking recipes but nothing particularly intimidating or esoteric, more the kind of food you would want to make every day, but with twists. I don't think it's the sort of book that would appeal to the very serious, studious foodie - there is no attempt to give a history of recipes or culinary traditions; there are no references to celebrated food writers of the past - this is a book that doesn't take itself seriously.

In the Mood for Food has a range of recipes, from extraordinarily simple (like the hot jam sandwich, which looks surprisingly tempting) to the impressive (black forest souffl├ęs with cherry brandy); no recipe is prohibitively difficult. The book is beautifully presented and the photography is stunning.The ingredients are all easily sourced and no non-standard equipment is required - even someone with no experience or interest in cooking could easily cope. The introductions to each recipe are short and conversationally informal, more about mood and taste than about the food itself, with friendly asides that make you feel as though Jo is speaking directly to you.

The recipes don't belong to any particular culinary tradition; there are Asian-inspired dishes, Moroccan-style tagines and English afternoon tea cakes. These are twenty-first century recipes, borrowing from a range of cultures and traditions, and reflecting what thirty-somethings in the twenty-first century might want to eat, during the week and at weekends. There are healthy breakfasts (like cranberry and orange muffins and supervitality juice) and lunchbox ideas (including tuna, cannellini and lemon salad and Vietnamese chicken noodle salad), plus recipes for when you hit the kitchen running (sweetcorn and chilli pancakes, prawn and coconut satay broth); there are ideas for pushing the boat out and impressing your friends with a stylish dinner party (rack of lamb, fig, port and blue cheese salad, seafood paella) without breaking into a sweat. There are lots of quick pasta dishes, which is always a bonus for me because when I'm too tired to cook I always want pasta; there is comfort food (leek, dolcelatte and pancetta risotto, roasted balsamic onion and cherry tomato lasagnes) and romantic food (oysters, smoked duck, asparagus and fig salad, exotic chocolate cups). Finally there are plenty of sweet treats: white chocolate and Bailey's cheesecake, passionfruit and lime meringue pie, and so on.

I've tried a few recipes already and will be posting about these in the next few days. The proof of a cookbook's worth lies in the cooking it generates - or does it? Apparently on average people don't cook more than three recipes from any one cookbook; we are a nation of food porn viewers, lusting over cookbooks and television programmes about food, while speed-dialling the local takeaway or buying up the ready meal section of M and S. It follows that people buy cookbooks not to actually try out the recipes but to salivate over the images and to imagine themselves in domestic goddess-mode. Celebrity cookbooks sell mainly not for the recipes they offer but because they offer tantalising clues as to how to become - in the case of Nigella, for instance - a beautiful, intelligent domestic goddess or, in the case of Jamie, say, how to become incredibly successful while apparently tossing food together with intuition and personality. In this context, Jo Pratt, although less well-known than others, offers a very appealing package: dressed in feminine pinks and whites, she is presented in the book as an extremely pretty but friendly and unthreatening girl next door. Like Nigella's, her book seems to offer the tantalizing possibility of becoming like her or becoming her friend; like Nigella, she comes across as reassuringly human (admitting to lazy days, hangovers, and the like). We have to beware of buying into the characters that food writers adopt in their books: everyone believed that Nigel Slater, for instance, lived on creamy mashed potato and pies until we read The Kitchen Diaries, which show him to be the opposite of self-indulgent (I read that book and started to wonder if Nigel was eating enough!). I assume that Jamie isn't (always) the cheeky chappie that he appears in his books, and that Gordon isn't always mocking or angry. Jo may very well be far from the image that her book projects, but it has convinced me, anyway, that her life isn't so far from mine. She seems younger than Nigella, less life-beaten; Gordon Ramsay is quoted on the cover saying that her food is fun and lively. That is true - this is an upbeat book, that makes you want not to be a domestic goddess, but to enjoy yourself making modern and vibrant food, to indulge yourself sometimes, to show off other times, to be romantic, or lazy, or elegant, but taking pleasure in all of these different moods. The book looks very feminine; I keep thinking it is a sort of feminine version of Jamie's books. Some people would hate the pink cover, the recurring flower motif, the occasional cutesy image, but I am prepared to indulge my oft-hidden feminine side and enjoy it.