Sunday, 28 February 2010

Roast vegetables the non-crap way


Above is a picture of the roasted vegetables I made for lunch today. I'm sorry that there haven't been many photos recently. It's because my camera isn't very good and I'm a terrible photographer. I blame my mother for this, who is the world's worst at taking pictures, which is completely insane, seeing as she has a degree in Fine Art. But honestly, she cannot take a photo to save her life. I also blame her for the persistent frog in my throat, my itchy ears (TORTURE) and weak veins. My anxiety and tiny black pinprick eyes I get from my Dad.

There hasn't been very much video either because after I record one, I watch it back and just think "OMG! Boris Becker in a WIG!!" and can't bring myself to post it.

But I've had a complaint from someone very grand and I'm nothing if not craven and cowardly so, voila, a picture.

I wanted to talk about this because I have discovered the secret of good roasted vegetables and that is: par-boil them first. All of them. I used butternut squash, turnip, celeriac, onion, garlic, white cabbage and a head of garlic because Giles likes roast garlic, although I don't. I boiled them for 4 minutes in salted water and then turned them into a roasting dish with some olive oil, groundnut oil, butter and salt and cooked them for 1hr 15m at 180 C. I also shook over some dried thyme and about 1hr into cooking, sprinkled over some fresh parsley. Neither of which is essential.

I'm sure that almost everyone else got the hang of roasted veg years ago, but I never did. What always happened to me, (and I've seen it happen once or twice to other people), is that I'd cut up the veg too small and they'd shrivel up and burn to black in the oven and taste okay but look pretty awful. Or I'd cut them up too big and they'd still be hard in the middle after six hours.

So, for the last two people out there who haven't cracked roast vegetables: chop them up big-ish, and by that I mean about 2 x 1in, boil them for 4mins and then cook for an hour or so.

I would say "Job done" but then I'd have to kill myself.

Friday, 26 February 2010

I'faith, a crumpety challenge

I have been challenged - yes challenged, practically with a glove-swipe to my face - to make crumpets. On Twitter no less. And when I say crumpets, I mean those porous, slightly rubbery things, rather than floury, cut-them-in-half, english muffins.

"Will you make them?" said my Twitter challenger. "I want to make them but I don't know if it's worth it," she said. "If you do it, I'll know if it's hard or not because you're, you know, quite lazy and slapdash, and if they turn out fine I'll know whether to bother or not." Okay, she didn't say that last bit, because she is too nice. BUT IT WAS WHAT SHE WAS THINKING.

And thus my role in life became clear. I don't have a job, you see. So I can spend a lot of time making recipes and getting them wrong. I am not a chef, I have no training and very little knowledge of the science of food. I don't know what yeast does. I don't understand why flour makes things thick. I really REALLY don't understand why you have to "rest" meat (but I know you must). I am as clueless in the kitchen as it's possible to be. So if I can make something, you can. If I say it works, it does; if I've made it, it is officially idiot-proof, and you can devote a few hours of your weekend to making whatever it is, in confidence.

So off I went to make crumpets, like a little avatar, merely an extension of the whims of my readers. The only thing I had to buy was a couple of egg poaching rings (usually I avoid recipes that I need to actually buy special equipment for - see "Very lazy salted caramel ice cream" - but I thought I would make an exception for these egg rings). You can also, I reckon, use a round metal pastry cutter.

So the news is: crumpets work. If you make this recipe, you will get slightly rubbery crumpets with those holes in the top that taste boring and doughy by themselves but are so delicious they'd instantly pacify a demented rottweiler when covered in butter and jam OR marmite OR honey.

The only thing you have to be careful with is that they burn quite easily at the bottom. Giles and his friend Ed, who ate three burned-bottom crumpets apiece for tea yesterday, said that the burnt bits actually added to the flavour, but not everyone will agree.

The burning problem is this: in order to cook the batter all the way through a) the pan has to be hot and b) cook for about 4-5 minutes. But if the pan is too hot, the crumpet bottom will burn. But if it's not hot enough, the top won't cook properly and you won't get those little holes.

My only recommendation is to experiment with different thicknesses of crumpet. I would say, personally, that the optimum thickness to aim for is about 1cm, which would mean about 2-3 tbsps of batter in each crumpet-ring. This is thinner than a shop-bought crumpet but comparisons of this sort are not good for morale.

Making the batter is very easy. There is slightly more faff to it than making, say, a pancake batter, due to the inclusion of yeast, but it works so in my mind, it's worth it. The crumpets vanished within 1.5 hours in my kitchen, but I imagine that if you made a batch they would keep for 24 hours in tupperware and would revive nicely under a grill or in a toaster.

This is good because if you wanted to have a tea party, you'd possibly want to keep the inevitable blue-ish smoke and on-fire smell that comes from this kind of pan-frying away from your smart guests and their party dresses.

So here we go. This recipe can be found in Delia Smith's Complete Illustrated Cookery course, p. 504 and is also available online here: http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/type-of-dish/sweet/home-made-crumpets.html

For 12 (halve the quantities if you're not feeling in the mood for that many)
275ml milk
55ml water
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tbsp dried yeast
8oz plain flour
1 teasp salt
butter or oil for greasing
some egg poaching rings or round pastry cutters

1 Heat the milk and the water in a pan until it is "hand hot". This just means slightly warmer than warm, not actually "ouch" hot - or you'll kill the yeast that you're about to put in it

2 Pour the milk/water into a jug and sprinkle over the sugar and dried yeast, stir, and leave in a warm place for 15 mins. The yeast will clump up and stick to the sides and generally look unappealing - don't worry, it sorts itself out and after 15 mins will be all frothy on top.

3 Sift the flour and the salt into a bowl, make a well in the centre and pour in your 15-minute yeast-and-milk stuff. Mix in first with a wooden spoon and then beat with a whisk until it's a smooth batter. One or two little lumps aren't the end of the world.

4 Then leave it in a warm place covered with a tea towel for 45 minutes, during which time you can put on the kettle and ring everyone you know, telling them to come round for crumpets.

5 To cook the crumpets, grease your egg rings or pastry cutters well with either butter or groundnut/peanut oil. This is really important, even if you've bought non-stick egg rings. Then lightly oil a non-stick pan or oil more heavily a not non-stick pan and get it QUITE hot - the aim is just before smoking point.

6 Place the ring or rings in the pan and then blob in your now-frothy batter. I didn't find a way of doing this without making a massive mess, but you might. I'd aim for about 2 or 3 tablespoons but definitely experiment with different amounts. Keep an eye on them. First bubbles will rise to the top and then as it cooks, the bubbles will pop and you'll be left with the little holes in the top.

7 When the tops of the crumpets look fairly dry, lift away the ring with tongs or whatever you've got and flip it over for a few seconds to cook the top. If you re-use the same ring, make sure to re-grease it. If you've greased the ring and the batter STILL sticks the side, you can loosen it by running round the outside with a knife.

And there will be your crumpets, ensuring you ever-safe from demented rottweilers.

Canteen

Last night, at about 7.30pm, I was just up-ending a stale, but cold, bottle of white wine into one of our least broken glasses, when the doorbell rang.

"Ding dong". Or rather "BEEERRRRRRRRIIINGNGNGNGNGNGNGNGNGNGNGNGNGN!!!!!" is more like it. We have the loudest and most unnerving doorbell in North London, that just goes right through you. You know - the sort that can be heard in outerspace.

Anyway, who should be at the door but Dominic Lake, he of Canteen fame. It's that restaurant you might have seen that seems to be, alongside Leon, taking over the world. There's one in Spitalfields, one in Baker Street, one on the ground floor of the Royal Festival Hall. I think there are others, too, but I'm too lazy to look them up.

This doesn't happen to me very often, restaurateurs popping by at dinner time. Henry sometimes comes round when he's been invited and we've had 6 months to plan what to give him for dinner. But off the cuff visits are more rare.

Dom hadn't come round for dinner, (although I stuffed him full of Hugh's Mango and Steak salad thing and some salted caramel ice cream anyway), he had come round to drop off the new Canteen cookbook, called Great British Food. Giles has written the foreword and Dom was bringing a book round to say thank you.

It's a fantastic book. More than anything else, it's such a lovely thing to HAVE. It's a great size, not quite A4 and not quite A5, not dauntingly long and, with a bit of pressure, will sit open flat on your worktop.

I don't think, funnily enough, that some chefs realise the importance of this when it comes to producing their cookbooks. Or maybe THEY do, it's the publishers and the designers - all eating nothing, or M&S ready-cook meals only - who produce impractical cookbooks, which are great to look at and useless to use.

Nigel Slater, for example, is brilliant but his books, practically-speaking, are a disaster. Real Fast Food is like a paperpack novel, which you have to keep picking up and opening and muttering "two hundred grams" to yourself, before putting it back down. Real Cooking is better, because it's a short-ish book that you can lie flat on a surface. But Tender is just a nightmare. There are so many wonderful things in there that I just don't cook because the book is about 500 pages long, weighs a ton and you can't keep it open, not even on a cookbook stand.

Now, Nigella's got it sorted. How To Eat is a bit unwieldy - again, with the not-staying-open problem, unless you're really brutal with it and mercilessly break the spine, but her others are great. My Nigella Bites, Nigella's Christmas and Nigella Express are all food-spattered and dog-eared from use. And why? Because they LIE FLAT on my counter tops and they've got lots of pictures.

It's so simple.

The Canteen book is like that. Its brown-paper, Wartime Chic design is just so lovely and it does that stiff upper lip, Yay-We're-British! thing nicely without being cloying or too Cath Kidston.

I'm going to be making potted duck and Lancashire Hot Pot. And that's just FOR STARTERS. There's also a great section at the back for all those basics that you often have to hunt through other recipe books to find - Hollandaise, Mayonnaise, Onion Gravy, all that.

Pip pip. Hurrah for us!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Very lazy salted caramel ice cream

I am quite beside myself with excitement about this salted caramel ice cream recipe. It's because I think I invented it, although in all likelihood, I probably didn't. There is doubtless another one out there just like this one. But I'm not going to go looking for it because this is the best thing that's happened to me for a while and, you know, when you're not achieving much with your life you don't want to go looking for reasons to feel like a chump.

I don't even know why I decided to make ice cream. I've got really sensitive teeth, like REALLY sensitive. I went to the dentist the other week and he sprayed some slightly-too-cold water on my gums and I shrivelled up like a spider on fire. (I've never seen a spider on fire, I must add, before anyone thinks I am cruel to animals.) And Giles doesn't really eat puddings.

I suppose I'm just curious. And recipes for it seem quite complicated and require special machinery, which always gets my hackles up and makes me want to find a way of doing it in 5 minutes with your bare hands.

So, I found a recipe for salted caramel and then stole half a no-churn ice cream recipe off Nigella, via www.notquitenigella.com, and mashed them together to create this weird but amazing salted ice cream confection.

Now, I think this is a triumph and totally delicious. But be warned, it is a slightly bonkers flavour. There are three quite major things happening here: sweet caramel, salty stuff, yoghurty, cheesy stuff and creamy stuff. It doesn't taste like something Ben and Jerry's make, it's not creamycreamysweetsweet, it's more like... something else. If I was being very self-complimentary, I would say that it was very "grown-up".

But if that sounds like your kind of game, it goes something like this.


(I made quite a small amount, just to test it out, but you can double the quantities.)


For the salted caramel:
100g caster sugar
50g cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
50ml double cream (or whatever you've got)
3 pinches salt


For the ice cream:
300ml whipping cream
112ml natural yoghurt


1) put the sugar in a heavy-bottomed frying pan. I used a non-stick one, which I was quite pleased about, in the sticky end. Put the pan on a medium flame and cook the sugar until it melts into a runny, clear syrup. This takes about 3 or 4 minutes.

2) add the butter and turn the heat up a bit. It'll bubble around and go crazy. Stir it all up until it's the colour of, well, caramel. This takes about another 3-5 minutes. Don't worry if it all separates and goes gross.

3) take the pan off the heat and add the cream. It'll go bubbly and wild but then calm down and turn into glossy caramelly caramel.

4) add the salt. I recommend using sea salt crystals because it means that you get some sugary bits and then the occasional burst of saltiness. I added 3 small pinches to my caramel, but you might want to add more or less depending. Leave the caramel to cool.

5) whip up the cream until it's fairly stiff and then fold in the yoghurt. Pretty much whatever temperature the caramel is now, throw it into the cream and yoghurt and fold round. The caramel will go sort of lumpy and stringy, which is fine - just fold it in and around the cream/yoghurt until it's well distributed.

6) turn out into a plastic tub (one that's flat and shallow rather than tall and thin), and put in the freezer. Put it in the fridge to soften up a bit about 40 mins before you want to eat it. If I was feeling really inventive, I would bash up a Crunchie bar or some maltesers and sprinkle them over before serving.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Hugh's Mango and Steak salad-thing

How utterly utterly ridiculous of me to flag up Hugh FW's wonderful-sounding mango and steak salad thing and then wander off and not make it, like the fool I am. I haven't made it yet because a) it's raining and b) my car has broken down and c) I keep getting drunk and being really hungover the next day, which makes me really really not want to put on my welly boots and walk to Sainsbury's in Camden Town. I am scared of the Camden Town Sainsbury's. It's the place where all the crazy people in North London like to hang out.
But people quite rightly want to make this damned thing now, so I thought I'd post up the recipe, untested. It looks pretty straightforward and if anyone wants to try it out and email me what they think about it I'll post it up here. And then one day, when my car is fixed, I might make it for myself.

So, it's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe for Mango, Avocado and Steak Salad from p. 57 of Saturday's Guardian Magazine and available here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/feb/20/fairtrade-recipes-hugh-fearnley-whittingstall


N.B. I did make this in the end and it went really well. Easy and yummy. The only thing I would say is that there is WAY too much garlic (unless you're a real garlic fiend). There was so much that it kept waking me up in the middle of the night. If I was going to make this again, I'd halve the quantities all round - maybe leave the raw stuff out of the dressing altogether.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

100!!!

I was all ready to write a long dirge wondering why I get the Sunday blues so badly when I haven't got a job and my life is pretty much one long moment waiting to take something out of the oven, interspersed with periods of wondering what it was I came upstairs for.

But then as I shuffled onto the blog to have a big moan, I saw that I've got 100 followers!!! This calls for some serious celebration, but I can't think what. Maybe I'll just get incredibly drunk this evening, starting in 8 minutes' time (it is 17.49, 18.00 being officially Booze Time in our house) for a) festivity and b) to forget my Sunday blues.

I was thinking a lot about steak today. Hugh FW wrote in the Guardian magazine yesterday about steak salad and it got me to thinking about why I never, ever cook steak. And I think it's because it feels a bit to me like cheating. Cooking a steak is a piece of piss. You just COOK it and then leave it for ten minutes and then eat it with salad. Fine, you can pour over 15 different kinds of sauces and blah blah but basically steak is nice and I don't need to do something creative with it. All things being equal, I'd just buy fillet steak all the time and serve it with very crunchy, salty, thin chips. I'm also so much of a po-faced, no-fun protestant that steak always seems to me magnificently profligate.

It's the same with pasta. Pasta is just delicious no matter what you do to it, so don't give me an interesting recipe for it, okay? Because when it comes to pasta, I don't need help.

This doesn't include, by the way, that recipe for posh mac and cheese because that's strictly - to my mind - a solution to a dinner party problem, rather than an interesting thing to do with pasta.

The recipes I really like are ones which take a 5 week-old stick of celery and the cheapest part of a chicken (gizzard) and turn it, with the help of a garlic clove, stock and some stale bread, into an interesting thing.

But then I saw Hugh FW's exotic-looking steak salad and thought that maybe I'm being too much of an inverse snob. The recipe was for a mango, coriander, chilli, avocado and steak salad, along with a marinade and a dressing, (which always look complicated but never are), and it got me thinking that that might actually be worth doing. I can't just serve ceviche as a starter forever. I need a new trick and this might be it. And anyway, 3 lumps of rump steak are probably cheaper than a whole lot of top-quality firm white fish, if we're going to be all Oliver Cromwell about it.

I haven't made it yet but when I do, I'll report back. I've got a good feeling about it.

Until then - congratulations to us on our centenary!!! Where's the bottle opener?

Friday, 19 February 2010

Marmalade


I made marmalade yesterday. I have to write that down because I'm still really quite surprised about it. Although everyone who makes something a bit complicated, like marmalade or a pork pie or a souffle, has to say it out loud to make it real, and they always look a bit stunned when they tell you. "I made my own chocolate out of raw cocoa beans," they might say, apropos of nothing, and then look shocked, as if someone else is using their mouth to speak.

So, yes - I made marmalade, out of a grapefruit, some limes and some lemons. I've always shied away from jams and marmalade - and really anything that requires a specific chemical reaction to take place, (in this case, for the stuff to set firm-ish), because I don't like to fail. And trying to make jam seems like just setting yourself up for heartbreak and dismalness.

And the recipes don't half bang on and make it sound impossible, what with preserving pans and jelly bags and sterilising jars and all that crap. And then who wants 5 litres of jam anyway? You can't give it to people as a gift - you really can't. The recession simply isn't that bad. Well, you can if it's really amazing. But it's never that amazing, I find. Home made jam, unless it's home-made BY A CHEF is always a bit un-set, too sweet or rammed full of skin and pips and string and all kinds of weird stuff that you really don't want on your toast first thing.

So I've never done it. But then I had to yesterday, for reasons I won't go into. The recipe I was working from, I must say, wasn't very good. It was badly-written and weird and I had no faith that it would work. I stood in the kitchen, stirring my acid-smelling slop despondently, angrily re-writing the recipe in my head to make more sense and wondering how I was going to dispose of 1 litre of marmalade.

And then an amazing thing happened. It actually worked. It WORKED! I blobbed a teaspoonful of the mixture onto a cold plate and it set. It f***ing SET like... like... JAM. And I was so excited that I didn't care about the faff of sterilising the jar in the oven (170C for 20 mins) or about the fact that I have got 1 litre of marmalade that I'm never going to eat. And I just had to tell you that it works.

So here we go. This is a recipe for grapefruit, lemon and lime marmalade. It makes one litre but you can halve the quantities if you like.

You will need:
One large-ish casserole pan
One saucer
Some muslin, about one foot square - you can get this from most cooking departments or a material shop.
Some string
1 grapefruit
3 unwaxed lemons
2 limes
1.5 litres water
900g granulated sugar (eek)

1 Wash the 3 lemons and 1 lime, cut in half and juice. Set to one side the rind and all the pips (picking out all the pips is a bit fiddly, I apologise). Keep the juice also to one side.

2 Cut the rind into strips. These don't have to be gorgeous as you're going to boil the shit out of them later, so just vertical strips, the best way to can see how. Don't worry if they've still got strings of flesh attached, it all goes in. Put your strips into your casserole pan. If you're reading about marmalade on an amateur cookery blog I'm assuming you don't have a preserving pan. But if you DID, put the rind in there instead.

3 Peel the skin from the grapefruit and the other lime - a potato peeler works fine -and set aside, for use in a minute. Carve the pith away from the flesh of the grapefruit and set aside. Cut the grapefruit into quarters and take out any pips you find (I didn't find any, but you might) and add the flesh only to your casserole/preserving pan. Put the peeled lime, the grapefruit pith and your painstakingly picked-out pips (tongue twister!!!!) into your 1 square foot of muslin and tie it at the top with string. (Feeling very much like someone in 1875.)

4 Chop up the grapefruit and lime skin - my recipe said 'into thin strips' but that would have taken me about four hours, so I just smashed them up a bit with a long sharp knife and it was FINE. Add your skins to the casserole/preserving pan, then plonk in the muslin bag and then pour over the 1.5 litres of water. Simmer gently for 1.5 hours with the lid off.

5 Turn off the heat under your almost-marmalade and, using a variety of improvised implements in your kitchen, devise a way of lifting out and squeezing as much of the contents of the muslin bag out into your pan as possible. Those of you who are wide awake will notice that this is tricky because it's BOILING HOT and you can't just squeeze it with your hands, unless you are the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four. I did this by picking the bag out with one pair of tongs and then squeezing it as best I could with another pair of tongs. If I was going to do this again I would enlist Giles - or probably a grandchild, by the time I need to make more marmalade - to hold it up with the tongs and then I would use both hands with another pair of tongs to really squeeze the bag hard. The stuff in the bag is full of pectin - the setting agent - so the more of it you squeeze out of the bag the better your chances of your marmalade setting.

6 Put a saucer in the freezer for later. You ought to have about 1 litre of gunk by now, but measure it out just to make sure. Add 450g sugar for every 500ml of marmalade mixture. Then put the pan back on the heat and bring it to a rolling boil, stirring every so often. The recipe I had said to start testing your marmalade for readiness after 15 mins. You do this by blobbing a bit on a cold plate and then pushing at the side with your finger and if it wrinkles up like it's set then it's set. I must say that this was very dispiriting as it didn't work after 15 mins, 20 mins or 30 mins and I threw things across the kitchen in a rage. I would just advise that you just boil this for 45 minutes straight and then put a blob on your cold saucer and watch it set like magic.

Then work out what the hell you're going to do with a lifetime's supply of marmalade.

....

I'd like to add as a P.S. to this that to my surprise, it's actually really lovely having this much marmalade around the place. It's delicious on toast, looks nice and other people really like its homemade-ness (even if it DOES have bits of string in it) Definitely one of my top-five things I've ever made.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Ceviche

As I sit here, bleary-eyed and covered with a thin but pungent layer of vegetable oil and chicken fat, recovering from an all-star Fried Chicken Nite, I can't believe that I haven't written about ceviche yet.

What was I thinking? Perhaps that I ought to seek out new and complicated recipes to make a mess of and mis-type out here, sending you all off to make the wrong pancakes, like Isola Bay (I still feel really bad about that) or too-much-cheese-too-little-cream-mac-cheese like Fay Schopen. Although Fay and I go way back and we had a Faceboook consultation about what went wrong and I think it's all cool now.

In reality, I ought to just be talking about things that work, that are simple but new, uncomplicated, fresh and delicious. And there is nothing more like that than ceviche.

I'm pretty sure that ceviche is just a generic term that refers to 'cooking' fish in acid - i.e. citrus juice or vinegar. I'm not talking battery acid here. You can do it all kinds of different ways, but I first came across this in Nigella Express, (my first ever cookery book, which you may or may not guessed by the number of appearances it makes here), where she makes it with monkfish cooked in lime juice and decorated with coriander, spring onions and chilli.

"Yah" said Henry, when we were talking about it the other day. (Henry is REALLY posh) "Yah ceviche is wonderful, but you need some sweetness in there. I add avocado."

I nodded blithely (and then tucked that piece of information away in order to steal it and try to pass it off as my own another time).

So here were are. What follows is a sort of hybrid of stolen recipes, jammed together without even the guts to pass it off as my own.

This works best, I find, as a starter, served with nachos. Henry thinks nachos are common. But I think worrying about being common is common, so I always serve ceviche with about 6 bagfuls of the cheapest nachos I can find.

I'm sure none of you is frightened of raw fish but if you are - don't be. I was a bit apprehensive about just chopping up a load of raw monkfish and squid and serving it to people but I was wrong. People LOVE IT. Just get nice fish, I guess. Giles refuses to get it from Waitrose, (although I think that would be fine), instead driving purposefully to a titchy fishmonger in Hampstead in order to pay 8 times as much. But they are real fishermen, covered in tattoos and everything. Not very friendly, but I guess that's all part of the reason you go to some tiny indie meat or fish vendor - to get fleeced and treated like crap, to assuage your huge guilt at being happy and middle-class.

Ok, so here we go. This gets you enough for 8 people as a starter-with-nachos.

1 large pack lightly salted pack of Doritos
1 monkfish tail or equivalent size of turbot or seabass. If you're not sure how much that is, just say to the fish guy "I need enough to feed 8 as a starter" and they're usually quite helpful. If brisk.
2 large handfuls of squid - with tentacles or not depending on how much they gross you out
2 red chillies and 2 green chillies - deseeded and chopped finely
2 spring onions or one shallot, chopped up
the juice of 3 limes
1 large or two small ripe-ish avocadoes
1 large handful of coriander
large pinch of salt


1) Chop up the monkfish (or turbot, or seabass) and the squid FINELY. Yes, it's a pain in the arse, but you really have to chop it up into bits the size of your thumbnail (unless your hands are REALLY HUGE, in which case, the size of your index finger nail). This especially applies to the squid, which can be chewy.

2) lay the fish out in a shallow dish and pour over the lime juice. Swizzle it around a bit and then leave it for 8 minutes - no more than 10.

3) drain off the lime juice, then pour over and stir in one tablespoon of olive oil to stop the fish sticking together, which it will insist on doing

4) add to the fish, which now ought to be opaque, the chopped chillies, onion, chopped avocado and coriander and then season. You will probably need more salt than you think - although bear in mind that there will be an extra hit of salt in each mouthful from the nachos

The really great thing about this is that you can never make too much. Whatever you have left over put in the fridge - the next day flour it and fry it off and then eat with chopsticks. The chopsticks, I find, are essential.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Fried chicken night



So, this is what I've been doing all day - coating and frying chicken. Ok fine, not ALL day. For the last hour I have been watching movie gag reels on YouTube. But definitely all morning. Above is a photo of the production line in full cry.



And this photo above is of the evil deep fat fryer (although it's done such great work today, that I'm thinking of granting it a pardon and merely relegating it to lifelong imprisonment in the cellar).



And this photo, above, shows the final thing: 32 pieces of deep fried chicken, all ready to be finished off in the oven just before dinner.

If I ever get the smell of KFC out of my hair, it'll be a miracle.

I promise to write about something other than deep fried chicken soon.





Monday, 15 February 2010

Jazza

I can only feel huge sympathy for Jasper Gerard. Foodie blogs are alive with talk that Jasper, who is the restaurant critic of the Daily Telegraph, offered a restaurant/hotel in Ludlow, called Mr Underhill, a review in exchange for free accommodation for him, his wife and two children. Jasper denies all of this and, having met Jasper a couple of times and done a bit of work for him when I was a work-experience girl at the Sunday Times, years ago, I can't believe it's true.

But I can see how you could, as a restaurant critic, get into trouble, despite being innocent, over this kind of thing. Poor old Giles spends most of his life pleading with people to stop offering him freebies. It's not just that you can't give somewhere an honest review if you are someone else's guest, it's that the staggering fuss that gets made over you if a hotel or restaurant knows that you're coming is horribly overwhelming.

In some restaurants or hotels, where Giles has booked in advance under a fake name, or in a hotel where we are staying just for a holiday - and yet he has been 'busted' - I become reluctant to ask for anything or where anything is. If you ask where the ladies is, someone will practically follow you in there. If you're in a hotel you have to hide in your room to avoid being leapt on by staff who want to know why you're not smiling. If you ask for a glass of water you get 18 questions about what exact temperature you'd like it at, how fizzy, how still, what percentage of filtration and if I'd like a sous-chef to be ritually sacrificed at the table. I have seen grown men shake as they pour wine or take an order and laugh until they cry at completely unfunny jokes. The food arrives cold and 20 minutes after it would if you'd been anyone else, because the chef goes mad and keeps throwing platefuls in the bin because he thinks Giles will be annoyed if his medallion of beef isn't EXACTLY 1.5inches across. Eight different people will come and ask you if the food is okay, while you are in the middle of a really, really exciting argument.

None of this is a criticism: I would be the same - probably worse - if I spied Giles, or any other rezzy critic, stamping into my place of work, pissed off from not being able to park, with a slight cold on the way, ready to sit down and do some serious judgment-passing on the establishment that pays for my childrens' shoes.

All I mean is that if you are a normal person and not some delusional freak, once you've experienced this level of over-service, over-attentiveness and frightened kow-towing, you learn that you want to limit it as much as possible. That's all.

No food today: I've got two overwhelming food projects on at the moment - brining and frying enough chicken for 10 on Wednesday and two different sorts of quite complicated chutney and marmelade to test out for the Leon cookbook. But I thought I ought to write something because otherwise you'll all get bored and wander off. And I'd really miss you.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Shrove Tuesday

Everyone knows how to make normal pancakes - or crepes, as I guess they are technically known. It's about 200g flour, an egg and enough milk to make it into a batter. Heat pan, pour in, flip, flip, onto a plate, lemon, sugar. Fine lovely and wonderful.

But I think Shrove Tuesday, which is this coming Tuesday 16th February, is THE time to branch out and make naughty pancakes, or American pancakes. I know I'm doing a lot of American stuff here, but I do have a real thing for their kind of food.

Anyway, this recipe can be found on p.93 of Nigella Lawson's excellent Nigella Express. I halve the quantities, but her recipe in full goes like this:

600g flour
3 x 15ml tablespoons baking powder
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
4og sugar (I tend to leave this out)
1 egg
250ml milk

Shake or stir the dry ingredients together. You can leave this mixture in a jar until you're ready to use it.

For each 150g of flour mixture, crack an egg into it and half mix it with the flour, then add the milk (or if you want to be really authentic, buttermilk) and whisk to combine to a thick batter. Then cook in blobs, as large or small as you'd like and serve with butter and maple syrup and, if you're really not worried about your heart, crispy bacon.

From these you get those fluffy, light, yet creamy pancakes that always hit me right in the temporal lobes. I usually have to be restrained from leaping to my feet, still chewing and, saluting an invisble flag with my fork, launching into Amazing Grace.




NB. Thanks and huge apologies to Isola Bay (see below) who pointed out that my first posting on this was very misleading. And when I say misleading, I mean completely and utterly wrong. I guess it just goes to show that you can only be SO creative and slapdash when it comes to cooking and get away with it.

More chicken news

In my despair yesterday over the underdone fried chicken, I failed to say properly how staggeringly good the chicken is, when it's been cooked through. After the Raw Disaster, I put it back in the oven for 15 minutes, then re-heated it for another 20 minutes the next day.

And, oh my God... it was just fantastic. Crunchy, tasty coating, juicy, juicy chicken underneath. It's like a magic trick (even when executed in a particularly sloppy way, re-heated crudely), this brining lark, and I urge all of you to try it, at least once, just to be in on the joke.

We're so excited about it, that we're making it for a dinner party for 10 people on Wednesday. The amount of brine we'll need makes my eyes water, but we'll all be in KFC heaven.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

How not to deep fry chicken

Well, the chicken was delicious, no thanks to me. Or, rather, no thanks to the deep-fat fryer, which has signed its own death-warrant thanks to it behaviour last night.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Last time, on Recipe Girl:
I was making deep fried chicken according to a recipe from Thomas Keller's excellent 'family-style' cookbook, ad hoc at home. I'd made the rather complicated brine, had several moments of worry regarding weights and measurements, but in the end been rescued by my deeply-felt sense of slapdashed-ness, going at it half-arsed and unprepared and hoping for the best.

This resulted in some lovely organic free-range chicken thighs and drumsticks in this complicated brine, sitting on the floor of my larder for most of yesterday.

[Opening credits - some kind of haphazard music plays, with a montage of me dropping things and crying and being caught unawares drinking deeply from a bottle of cooking marsala.]

At about 6.45pm - a mere 7hrs and 45 minutes of brining time, not the 12 recommended hours - I fished the chicken out, patted it dry and then set about flouring it and 'dredging' it in buttermilk (Keller's words, not mine), before sending it off for its glory time in the deep fat fryer.

The coating, or flouring meant adding to plain flour:
1 tsp paprika
2tsp garlic granules
1 tsp cayenne pepper
salt and black pepper

and then dividing it between two bowls, set either side of a bowl of seasoned buttermilk.

Each chicken piece was coated in flour, then dipped in the buttermilk, then coated in the flour again and then left to rest on some greaseproof paper.

Then in the deep fat fryer they went, three-by-three. And they came out looking gorgeous, really crispy yet plump. I made a salad (green beans with shallot-and-mustard dressing, figs, pecorino, walnuts) and set it all out, called for Giles to come and have a look, took a photo, sat down, poured wine, bit into a drumstick and... red. Really red and bloody and almost raw in the middle. Also staggeringly juicy and flavoursome with no hint of dryness at all - but undercooked. But the deep fat fryer SAID only put it in for 8 minutes. Yes yes you're all laughing your arses off now, I'm sure - who would only cook a bit of chicken with bone in it for 8 minutes? But it SAID IT ON THE THING - 8 minutes for chicken. I know, I know - Keller himself says 11-12 minutes but what does he know? I thought to myself. HE doesn't do it in a deep fat fryer.

But we were starving. And I didn't want to take everything away and ram it back in the deep fat fryer. So we ate around the scary bits, telling ourselves that raw chicken per se is not dangerous and these, being as high-quality as they were, were unlikely to have salmonella. But I felt pretty bad and pretty sheepish after all that time and effort and drum roll and poncing about to dish up raw chicken.

And here's what makes it worse: when you live with the world's most observant, unforgiving and quick-witted man, who makes a living making and breaking chefs, it's not, funnily enough, mean words that you fear.

Giles in a bad mood? Ha! I eat his black looks for breakfast. I laugh in the face of his gimlet-eyed asides, I drop ice cubes down the back of his crushing one-liners. It rolls off me, under me, past me; it's like a knife through water.

No - what kills me, what floors me for days, what sends me wobbly-lipped to hide under my duvet, is when I make a ginormous mess of something - and he is kind.

"Poor you," he said. "All that work. It was so delicious, though, honestly - it just needed a couple more minutes."

And I crumbled.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Brining chicken day

It's only 0935 and today has already gone off the rails. It's my fault, which I'm quite surprised about. I'm pretty organised, you see - it's one of my great qualities. I don't lose things. I know my National Insurance number AND my passport number off by heart. I'm never late. It's just sad that these qualities are offset by my monstrous laziness and the fact that whatever I'm doing, I'd so much rather be in bed reading a book or eating an egg sandwich with a lot of salt on it, or watching back-to-back episodes of Glee.

I am mostly really organised and efficient so I get all the neccessary shit done so that at my earliest convenience I can jump back into bed with Nicholson Baker, or get those eggs in a pan, or take a running jump onto the sofa and fire up the V+ box.

But today it's all slipped out of my grasp. Tonight I am making for Giles some Thomas Keller fried chicken, which I've been boring you all about. It's a long process, which involves brining the chicken in a salt-and-herb mixture for 12 hours. Well, that's out of the window immediately, because I didn't do it yesterday and so I had to do it this morning. But by 8am, it was already 12 hours before dinner. And I hadn't made the brine yet, which you have to boil and then ALLOW TO COOL. Damnit all to hell. Why didn't I read the recipe more carefully yesterday?

So now it's cooling down in the kitchen. And my 12 hour soak is being reduced to a 10 hour soak. Will it matter? Will it all just be a terrible waste of time? And then, I was pretty loose in my interpretation of Keller's brine instructions.

Standing blinking and barefoot in the kitchen in front of the ad hoc cookbook, having thrown a teaspoon out of the window at that horrible black cat who always does huge poos in our nice fern garden, (and usually I love cats), I was brought up short at the ingredients for "2 gallons" of brine. O I hate Americans and their stupid strange measurements - cups and gallons and sticks - blast you all! So I took a deep breath and just winged it. I filled a medium sized stewing pot about 4/5 full of water and threw in an approximation of Keller's brining ingredients which were:

3 lemons, halved
One head of garlic, cut across the equator
Bunch of thyme (which I got out of the freezer and just plunged into the pot, refusing to contemplate the idea that it was going to go brown and die - like plunging a lobster into boiling water)
About ten bay leaves
Bunch of parsley
Peppercorns
200g salt (!!!!!!)
About 2 tbsp of honey

I was going to throw in some cloves, but I've tried to be clever in the past like that, with terrible results. So I just left it at that. Then I put the lid on and put it on the scariest burner on my stove and boiled it up, stirred it to dissolve the salt and then left it to cool down. I've just stuck my finger in it and it's almost there. So, I may be able to sneak a 10-hour-ish brining time out of it.

And then there's nothing to do but wait. To kill the time, I could tell you the story of the deep-fat fryer. We got it as a present - or rather, Giles got it as a 39th birthday present. I thought it was quite a funny gift. I didn't know if the present-giver was taking the piss, Giles being a bit of a health freak and everything. But it seemed quite a large and expensive present to give as a joke. Anyway, I was quite pleased with it. For a few months we had regular fried chicken nights (although not working to Thomas Keller's recipe), until it became very obvious that we were going to have to change the oil, which was a quite traumatisingly gross process.

I don't like to think of myself as a squeamish person, but unfortunately I think I might be. I'm not crazy about other people's blood, or being stuck in traffic behind a rubbish van, or our own compost bins, or pulling out all that crap that collects in the kitchen sink plughole strainer. And changing the oil in the deep fat fryer scored about a 7 on a scale of yuck. And then I didn't know what to do with the old oil. I didn't want to throw it down the sink, or in the bin, so I drove it all the way to the dump and put it in the special oil-disposal unit.

Well, after that the deep fat fryer's days were obviously numbered. I'm not doing that more than once a year. Or ever again, frankly. So into a cupboard it went. And I really must get rid of it, now, because it's taking up valuable space that I need for all sorts of other kitchen equipment that has fallen out of favour and needs a half-way-house between the counter top and the shelves of Oxfam.

But I thought that seeing as I now have this ad hoc cookbook with the best fried chicken recipe in the world, I ought to give the old thing a last workout before it finds a new home among the patrons of the Oxfam shop of Kentish Town Road.

9hrs 45min possible brining time left. And I'm not sure what to do with myself for the rest of the day. Glee may be featuring strongly.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Recipe testing

I've spent today - well, part of today - making a green curry. It's to test a recipe for the new Leon cookbook (which I may have mentioned 80 or 90 times), which is out in September.

I asked if I could write about it, because I like nothing more than sneak previews, and they said hell yes! Write about it! But don't include the recipe. And I thought, oh right. Um. So I've done some really blog-worthy cooking but I can't give you the details.

But I think I can get around it by saying that if you were to add three good lumps of green curry paste to about 200ml of coconut milk and stir in strips of chicken and some bamboo shoots and a slug of nam pla - or fish sauce - and some soya beans and then cook it for about 10 minutes you might get something really delicious. I have changed the recipe very slightly so this is NOT the one from the Leon cookbook, but it may very well bear similarities.

I have also today been reading up on Thomas Keller's deep-fried chicken that was so out of this world, which I'm going to make tomorrow night for the deep fat fryer's last hurrah before it goes to Oxfam.

The secret, I read, is to brine the chicken in a salty mixture for 12 hours before cooking. I really don't know what the rule is about copying recipes out on blogs. I've done it before and no-one seemed to care, but Keller is American and therefore I fear he may be wildly litigious. Anyway, I'm just going to go for it and hope that it's just totally fine. Or that no-one notices.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

ad hoc

I sat down at my desk this morning feeling gloomy and despondant, as I am wont. It was snowing AGAIN, little flakes of hell drifting down from the sky making everything cold, making Spring seem even further away. I had woken up in the night feeling monstrously sick (am I dying again? Or was it the 18 drinks + massive supper + red velvet cupcake that did it?) and spent a few sleepless hours listening hard, straining my little ears, for burglars.

So I was tired, bilious and grumpy as I turned on my laptop. And I had run out of things to say. The cupboard was bare. I had an inkling of an idea to write about making choux pastry, as I'd seen a thing in the paper about how eclairs are the new cupcake but then I thought "Urgh, more pastry, more sweeties, more sugar - do not want."

I was all ready to leap from my window in despair when two things happened.

The first was an email from my very stylish former colleague at the Evening Standard, Sophia, who now works in Dubai, to say that I now have international readers! And to also say her friend Katie had made the quinoa risotto and it had been a success.

Well, what can I say? I cheered up immediately.

And then there was a ring on the doorbell. And it was a nice man with a package for Giles. So I opened it and it was... dun dun.... Thomas Keller's new recipe book from his Napa Valley restaurant ad hoc! It's called "ad hoc at home". For some reason Keller's not crazy about CAPITAL LETTERS (his New York restaurant is called "per se").

"What is it?" called Giles from upstairs.

"Nothing!" I shrieked. "Just an Amazon thing for me." And I scurried back to my room, cackling, with the cookbook under my sweater.

So, Thomas Keller - he owns the French Laundry, that very smart, very modern restaurant, also in Napa Valley; it constantly wins all those Best Restaurant in the Universe prizes. Only we went two years ago and had a terrible time. Just awful. And I don't mean that in a "posh-food-is-all-rubbish" way, I just mean that we didn't have a nice time.
The fact that we were practically in this man's HOUSE, eating the world's most famous food, paying through the nose to do so, only made the whole thing so much worse. There was just too much food. There - I said it! TOO MUCH! There were something like 24 courses and I wanted to kill myself after course #12. I started to sweat and gibber, and nod off at the table. I had to go outside into the cool American night air to walk around the gardens and slap myself round the face in order to go back for course #13.

I know. Don't say it! I am aware of the ingratitude, of the philistinism of saying that there is "Too much food" at the French Laundry, but that's just how I felt. How I still feel.

But THEN we went to Ad Hoc, sorry - ad hoc - Thomas Keller's other Napa Valley restaurant - it's the kind of restaurant that Americans describe as "family style", which I think roughly translates as "relaxed". And Ad Hoc is relaxed, in that way that Americans do "relaxed", which means that the service matches any of the best restaurants in London and everything is spotless, chic and fun.

We had fried chicken, which had been marinated all night in a herb lemon brine and then dipped in buttermilk (obviously) and was just unbelievable. They also do a thing at ad hoc where the vegetables are all really interesting and the salads are practically as tasty as the hot, fatty, salty chicken.

And, the ultimate accolade - it's where Thomas Keller is most often seen off-duty. So there you go, we agree with each other on something.

So, as you can imagine, I'm pretty excited about this cookbook, and it'll probably make a few appearances here. I'm at that stage in my life where a cookbook full of the most artfully created "family-style" cooking in the world does wonders for a bad mood.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Valentine's Day


When I was younger and always had boyfriends who didn't like me, I was forced to dismiss Valentine's Day as something that didn't matter.

On about February 6th, whichever boyfriend who didn't like me I was with would say: "You don't actually want to DO something for Valentine's Day do you? I mean, do you actually want flowers?!" And I would say "No! Don't be stupid" and then I would be crushed when they really didn't do anything. And I would sit at work on Valentine's Day and watch as all the other girls, (who had been clever and threatened their boyfriends with castration if they didn't get onto Wild At Heart pronto and cough up BIG BUCKS), graciously and coyly receive bouquets of flowers so huge they interfered with their keyboards.

And then I got a nice boyfriend, and his name was Giles. And I confessed to him everything. I said "The thing is that it's not like I'm a spoilt cow and want presents all the time and stuff, but when you're sitting at work and everyone gets flowers except you it's just so *sniff* SO HORRIBLE *HOWL* and you feel SO UNLOVED *waaaaah*." And he said "Okay I'll send you flowers on Valentine's Day."

That year I got a bunch of flowers so ginormous that they prevented me from typing anything for two days and everyone complained about them for the three months I kept them on my desk.

But my point is that Valentine's Day matters. I have a feeling that I'm preaching to the converted, but I want every girl to be able to say to their boyfriend or husband without fear of recrimination "Valentine's Day matters. It might not matter to YOU, but it matters to ME." Not paying heed to Valentine's Day because it's "so commercial" or "so fake" or whatever other excuse they come up with not to put their hands in their pockets, is like refusing to buy Christmas presents. What are you left with? Nothing. £40 (MINIMUM) that you'll only go and spend on drink.

So it matters, it matters to ME. And although there's so much stuff about it and it all gets quite boring, I am going to add my own little devotional act here in anticipation of the great day. So I've got for you one recipe for Red Velvet cupcakes and one plug for a Valentine's Day cookie service.
And for anyone who's still lingering on the edge of Valentine's Day sceptisim, this year it falls on a Sunday, so if nothing happens, there's no-one to see.



Red Velvet Cupcakes
I first came across these when I was working on the features desk of a newspaper. Someone on the desk was writing about the ten best cupcakes and for a week, we were besieged with giant boxes full of massive foamy cupcakes decorated with more and more outlandish sparkly whatnots, little high heels made out of sugar and plastic butterflies. I ate so many (neatly spitting out the plastic butterflies when one accidentally went in) it nearly put me right off sugar. But only nearly.

One day during this onslaught, when we were all lying around on the floor groaning with our hands clutching our tummies, a box arrived from the Magnolia Bakery and we opened it and all went "?"
Inside was a box of bright red cupcakes with white icing. "Red... Velvet... cupcakes..." someone read out from the note attached. I bit into one and it was like biting into... I don't know... I suppose it was like biting into red velvet. It was like cake, but made of silk. And it was red, red, red, with a creamy white icing. It was like a cupcake from outer space. But then I Googled "red velvet cupcakes" and it turned out that they weren't from outer space, they were from America.

Like most delicious things from America, they are made with buttermilk. We don't really cook with buttermilk in this country, which is a shame, because it makes all kinds of really excellent things. They cook with it a lot in Ireland - which is probably, now I come to think of it, how it got over to America in the first place. I understand buttermilk is available pretty much everywhere in Ireland. Here, the only place I've found it is in my local organic wholefoods shop, Earth, on Kentish Town High Street - but I think St Ivel do a version you can buy in larger branches of Waitrose.

You can also make your own, using lemon juice and milk; to one tablespoon of lemon juice you add enough milk to make 225ml in total of liquid and then let it stand for five minutes. I think you need the milk to be at room temperature before you start. I must say that I haven't actually tried this, but I'm reliably informed that it works fine, althoug I think it does go sort of lumpy so don't throw it away in horror if this happens.
Other than the blasted buttermilk, the only other nasty surprise in this recipe, which is from the Magnolia Bakery itself, is the quantity of red food colouring required - it needs 6 tablespoons, which works out as being nearly two of those little bottles of food colouring you can buy.
And try not to be frightened of the vinegar-and-baking powder mixture that happens about half way through the recipe - your cupcakes will not taste like vinegar! I have absolutely no idea what this reaction does to the baking process, but it seems to be quite vital.

Alas, this recipe didn't really work out for me. Neither did the icing. But I have faithfully written out the recipes as they stand - so attempt them at your own risk...

(Makes 24)
500g plain flour
165g unsalted, soft butter
500g sugar
3 large eggs
6 tbsp food colouring
3tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
1.5 tsp salt
330ml buttermilk
1.5 tsp cider or white vinegar
1.5 tsp baking soda.
1 - Preheat oven to 180C/gas mark 4. In a small bowl, sift the plain flour. Set aside. In a large bowl cream the butter until smooth by hand or with an electric whisk. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about three minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
2 - Whisk together the red food colouring, cocoa powder and vanilla. Add to the batter and beat well.
3 - Stir the salt in with the buttermilk and add the resulting liquid to your red batter in three parts, ­alternating with flour. With each addition, beat only until the ingredient that you have added has disappeared, in a kind of folding motion.
4 - In a small bowl, stir together the cider vinegar and baking soda and add to the batter and mix well. The vinegar and baking powder will fizz up like mad so don't freak out if this happens.
5 - Divide the mixture into cases, then bake for 20 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Cool the cupcakes in the tins for 15 ­minutes. Remove from the tins and cool ­completely on a wire rack before slathering on the icing.
For the icing:
6 tbsp plain flour
440ml milk
450g unsalted butter, softened
450g sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract

The recipe I've got forgot to include a method for the icing, but I'd imagine you cream the butter and then add the other ingredients and it'll come out as icing. Alas, I decided to be clever and make a marscapone cheese icing and it went horribly wrong - it tasted fine but started leaking this sort of watery sludge, so we'll skip over that.


Cookie plug
If your arms sore as hell from cooking and can't face all that beating, but you'd still like to give an edible Valentine's Day present, Millie's Cookies are offering a service where you can order a 12-inch heart-shaped biscuit with a personalised message on it (up to 20 characters). It takes 2 hours and costs £14.99; you can ring ahead to your nearest store and collect it when it's ready.

Freezing herbs: don't do it

I don't usually like to write about disasters - unless it's in the context of being useful. For example, I don't think you need to know that the other week I made a fillet of pork with figs and marsala, and that it was bland, pointless and bad, unless I was also going to write about a recipe for pork fillet that was delicious and handy.

But I undertook, for the sake of this blog, an experiment with freezing herbs at the beginning of last week and I thought I would share the massively disappointing results with you. It all started when Giles mentioned casually to me the other week that his mother used to make a lot of gravalax and kept bags of dill in the freezer to make it with - and a small light went on over my head.

The ebb and flow of herbs through my kitchen occupies me greatly. From my garden I can harvest Savoury, which is sort of like thyme but not quite, and Sage, which I have to scrub in hot water to get rid of the strong smell of cat wee (there are approximately 2.5 cats per house in our street and collectively their favourite place to crap and piss, and murder song birds, seems to be our garden). From Sainsbury's up the road I can get parsley and sometimes coriander - but they only come in those pots, which I don't want because you get one handful out of them and then they sit next to the sink slowly dying, despite my best efforts.

For anything more exciting - mint, dill, scented thyme - I must go to Waitrose.

And herbs are vital because they make boring things interesting. Cous cous with tomato and cucumber: boring. Cous cous with tomato, cucumber, parsley and mint: interesting. But as I stand, hungry, in larder doorway, knowing that what is going to really liven up my lunch is a packet of fresh mint, I am not going to actually get in the car to go and fetch some. So the idea of freezing herbs seemed just marvellous - I would have an array of magic leaves at my fingertips to snazz up a bowl of grains.

I was cackling with joy as I drove to Waitrose on my mission to buy a range of herbs to freeze. I thought I would grow famous as the woman to bring a frozen herb revolution to the UK. I could write a cookbook "Cooking with frozen herbs".

But, alas, there's a reason why people don't freeze herbs and that's because when you take them out of the freezer they collapse and die in a brown, stinking heap. Well - mint and coriander do anyway. I've still got bags of dill, sage and thyme in the freezer, which I now don't dare release from their frozen idyll. I really, really thought it was going to work because when I looked at the frozen herbs in the packet they looked fab - caught at their most fresh and perky, but the freezing process seem to do unspeakable things to them, once you release them from the sub-zero clutch.

So that's that. Don't you feel depressed now? Because I do. That's why I try not to write about disasters.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Cracking it: roast beef for 6 people

I've written here before about my problems with mass catering. The fiddliness of getting everything ready, while also smiling, taking coats, handing out drinks and exuding calm and hostessly bonhomie. I can't really do it. I freak out, go red, drop things, sit down and eat my lunch with audacious haste so that I can start freaking out about coffee and pudding and keep saying "Is it okay? Really? Is it? Sorry the veggies are a bit burnt! You don't have to eat it if you don't want!!!" rather than leaning back and saying something divine like "Henry, did you know that you and Sally share the same views on Renaissance art?" as if I'm some Princess in Anna Karenina.

Anyway, yesterday we gave a lunch for six and it went just fine. Admittedly, there were two of us doing it, which always helps but, amazingly, nothing was burnt, undercooked or gross and we all managed to talk at the table about something other than the niceness or not of the food.

So the menu went like this:

Chilli and Parmesan popcorn to snack on while stragglers turned up
Roast rib of beef with Henry's macaroni cheese and roasted vegetables
Steamed treacle pudding (which I bought from the farmer's market but it wasn't very nice, so I'll skip over this).

Chilli and parmesan popcorn is just brilliant stuff; pop the corn as you normally would in a large pan with a thin layer of vegetable oil on the bottom. Tranfer it to a large bowl and toss in a few shakes of mild chilli powder (or paprika) and sprinkle over a handful of parmesan. Delicious.

In the morning, we made Henry's macaroni cheese, which I've described before in my Dimbleby's dinners post. I really can't recommend that you try this out for a dinner or a lunch party highly enough. Everyone loves it.

I cooked 500g of macaroni until al dente (about 4 minutes) and then rinsed it immediately a few times in cold water to stop it from cooking any more. We couldn't find any morels, so we rehydrated a handful (when dry) of chanterelles and porcini mushrooms in a small bowl with just enough water to revive them. Henry says that you want to steep them quite tightly so you can use the mushroom water to give added wow to the mac cheese sauce.

With the now-cool pasta in a large pan, pour over two slim tubs of single or pouring cream (I think this was about 350-400ml). Squeeze the mushrooms dry of liquid in your hands and add these, then strain the mushroom liquid through a tea strainer or normal sieve (to get rid of grit) and throw that in. Grate in a handful of Gruyere cheese.

Season with salt and pepper and give it a stir. Then generously butter a large-ish gratin dish and pour the pasta in. Grate over enough Gruyere cheese to completely cover the pasta (it melts right down in the oven so don't be shy about really walloping the cheese on). This is then ready to go in the oven for about 25-30 mins, while the meat is resting.

The rib of beef Giles bought from a butcher in Kew and it was a bit of a beast, I think 2.3kg. Before it went in the oven, Giles rubbed dripping all over the meat and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper.

We cooked it according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's meat cooking times in the River Cottage Meat book - I think it was half an hour's sizzle at 200C and then 1.5 hours at 180C and then half an hour's rest, kept warm under tin foil and a tea towel.

While the meat was resting, we put the mac cheese in the oven at 180C. In the roasting tin that the beef had been roasting, we put in 3 young leeks and five carrots, chopped up and par-boiled (for about 4-5 minutes), swirled them around and slid them in the same 180C oven. Both the roasted veggies and mac cheese cooked for about 24-30 mins.

And that was that! For some reason, it was really easy. Nothing burnt. Nothing was gross. Except the bought steamed pudding, but the less said about that the better.

Perhaps finally after so many bad dinner parties and lunches this is my reward: a good, stressless lunch?

Perhaps I am, actually, learning something.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Tempura batter

video

I had a rather traumatic trip to the dentist this morning and I'm feeling very sorry for myself. My dentist is very handsome, you see, and so some time before Christmas I let him and his bedside manner talk me into fixing my wonky teeth, at vast expense, with a sort of clear brace called Invisalign.

I had forgotten all about it until the dentist's receptionist called me last week to make an appointment to come in for a fitting. Not only did my dentist SAND OFF some bits of my tooth (I tried to stay calm during this but I confess I broke out into a light sweat) to 'make room' for the movement of my other teeth, he also stuck on, using fcking glue, (in my mouth: glue in my mouth) some tooth-coloured 'buttons' so help the braces, two clear, hateful gum-shield-type things that snap on over your teeth, top and bottom, grip onto my teeth.

I have to take the braces out to eat, which involves sticking both hands most of the way into my mouth and unpicking them off my molars and then yanking them off the front. Then after I've eaten I have to brush my teeth and put the stupid things back on, which means pushing and pushing and pushing them on my teeth until suddenly they snap on, quite loudly and surprise me.

They are absolutely horrible and squeeze my teeth together, giving me a headache and they make me drool and I can't speak properly. And I've got to wear them for a year. So as you can imagine, I'm feeling a bit down and distracted.

But since Giles tweeted this blog I've got 67 followers! And the Lord knows that you all need entertaining so I thought I'd pick myself up from the living room floor, where I was groaning and drooling and clutching at my mouth slurring sloppily "Why? Why did I let him take advantage of me?"

And if you want to put on a show in your kitchen, you could do worse than deep-frying a lot of stuff in tempura batter. Tempura is different from a normal batter, usually made with egg, flour and milk, in that it uses water rather than milk and you make it very cold. The coldness of it means - I read this somewhere - that it doesn't absorb as much oil while it's cooking and so stays light and fluffy rather than soggy.

So, for a good four or five ladlefuls of batter you will need:

3oz plain flour and 1tbsp cornflour, sifted together

1 egg

about 150ml chilled sparkling water (if you want it extra bubbly, just plain old chilled tap water if not)

To keep the batter nice and cold, fill one bowl with about ten cubes of ice and then fit another mixing bowl over the top, to make a sort of ice bath. Crack the egg into the top mixing bowl and beat. Then pour in about 100ml of the sparkling water and then add the two flours. Mix it round to combine but not until smooth - lumpy is good.

Use the batter immediately. Pat dry whatever you're deep-frying on some kitchen paper, dabble in the batter and then fry for about 1-2 mins or until it's golden, then remove to a wad of kitchen paper.

My deep-friend bananas didn't puff up into massive clouds of batter, as I was expecting, but I'm still very pleased with them. Next time I'll be doing courgettes and in the meantime, I'll mostly be drooling.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Sick, dying

Oh my god I am so ill. I was planning today to talk about tempura batters and banana fritters but all I can do is sit at my desk with my forehead gently resting on the table top going "Mmlerrruugh." I can touch type (I knew it would come in handy one day) though so my forehead being on the desk doesn't interfere with my writing.

Giles suggested going for a walk! A WALK?!?!?! I'm dying. I would utter a profanity but I'm too exhausted.

Anyway, I can, in lieu of anything more interesting to say, tell you that I had a great dinner last night at Aqua on Regent Street. I was really surprised, as it's one of those restaurants that plays loud music and there's a lot of red lights and black lacquer and orchids. Do you know what I mean? It was a Japanese joint and usually raw fish served anywhere that has red lighting and loud music and cocktails will probably give you trichonosis.

But the food was really excellent and it was packed out and I recommend that you get your reservations in now before maybe one or two people give it an okay review and you can't get in the door for love nor money. Although don't go if the idea of red lights and lacquer makes you queasy.

The same goes for a French place called Terroirs in Covent Garden - they do a cassoulet there that will make you fall to your knees and thank god for the haricot bean: book now or forever have your nose pressed against the glass.

*Cough cough*. Goodbye then. Farewell. I am going to put on Mozart's Requiem and walk slowly to the bedroom.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Brioche



There are so many reasons NOT to make a brioche.
1 It takes an entire morning
2 You can buy them from the shop
There's only one reason TO make a brioche and that is, to make a brioche.
I initially wanted to make one because of a thing I ate at Dean Street Townhouse a few weeks ago. We kept going to DSTH, which is Nick 'Soho House' Jones' new place on, err, Dean Street, because Giles kept getting drunk, or overexcited and got home and couldn't remember enough to write a review. So I ate mostly the whole menu, including a really fabulous mushrooms on toast starter. And the toast was a slice of brioche. Scandalous!


There's also a bit in Bridget Jones' Diary (book not film) where Bridget Jones' mother says to a tax man who is patronising her about money: "Listen, can YOU make a brioche?" and that's always made me want to try it.

So I thought I would make one. Yes, it is time-consuming but it's not hard at all, as long as you follow the recipe I've posted below. It'll take up a whole morning but in the end there's a BRIOCHE that YOU MADE sitting in your kitchen!!
It is possibly not the best recipe in the world - it's just off the BBC website, but it worked well for me and it made a fabulous mushrooms-on-toast lunch:



So if you wake up one Saturday or Sunday morning thinking "I want to make a brioche" then I say go for it. Not hard: very tasty.

For the Yeast Batter
2 tsp dried yeast or 15g/½oz fresh yeast
3 tbsp milk, hand-hot
1 tsp sugar
25g/1oz strong white flour

Other Ingredients
200g/8oz strong white flour
large pinch of salt
1 tbsp caster sugar
50g/2oz butter
2 eggs, beaten


1. Stir yeast into the milk. If using dried yeast leave it to stand for 5 minutes.
2. Mix in the flour and sugar and leave in a warm place until frothy - about 20 minutes.
3. Sift together the flour, salt and sugar.
4. Rub in the butter.
5. Beat the eggs into the frothy yeast batter.
6. Stir in the flour mixture and work to a soft dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and no longer sticky.
7. Cover the dough and leave to rise until doubled in size - about 1-1½ hours.
8. Knock back the risen dough.
9. Grease twelve brioche tins 7cm/3in in diameter or twelve deep bun tins.
10. Divide the dough into twelve equal pieces. With each piece cut off a quarter and form the largest part into a ball and place in tin. Firmly press a hole in the centre of the ball and place remaining small piece of dough as a knob in this. Glaze with beaten egg.
11. Cover and leave to prove until light and puffy - about 30-40 minutes.
12. Bake in a very hot oven 230C/450F/Gas 8 until golden brown - about 18-20 minutes.

Some notes: Above is the recipe as it appeared on the BBC website. I made my brioche in a small loaf tin, 7in x 3in in order to slice and toast it. If you have a fan-assisted oven, make sure you set it to a slightly lower temp than 230C or you'll burn the shit out of it - I've got a fan oven and cooked mine at about 210C.

Complicated cookery

You know, I get the feeling that we might be seeing a return to complicated cooking. In the last couple of years it's all been a handful of this and throw in that and stick it in a pot and stir it round and cutlery is just so fcking bourgeoise, just eat it with your hands! Straight from the oven!!

But I've now received (or pinched out of Giles' post) two really fiddly cookbooks. The first was Cuisinier Gascon, which I mentioned in my Quinoa Risotto post and the second, which arrived this morning, is called Fusion: A Culinary Journey, by Peter Gordon.

Gordon is from New Zealand is one of London's most accomplished 'fusion' cooks, which basially means there's quite a lot of coriander and lime in his recipes and the occasional deep fried lotus root.

No, I'm being facetious - the man is a very serious cook and I am beside myself with excitement at this cookbook. Everything - EVERYTHING - in it looks divine.

Gordon owns The Providores on Marylebone High Street, which I've been to and the Tapa Room, which I haven't. It's all, as I said, stunning stuff but also incredibly complicated, with a lot of different ingredients from far-flung places (can I get cassava in Waitrose?) and dishes with a lot of 'construction' to them - everything is piled up or rolled up and round each other.

I can't go into detail because the book came with a very strict print embargo notice until 4th March. BUT the publicists for the book have said that, being a blog, I can give you a preview from 1st March.

I mean, not that anyone would notice if I copied the whole thing out here, word for word, but I don't want to get Giles into (more) trouble. So I'll just leave you, until 1st March, with the premonition that perhaps we are going to see a gradual end to bish-bash-bosh cooking and a swing round to something a bit more dainty. Just a thought.

Mastering muffins

I made muffins once before, about five years ago and they came out like fairy cakes. So, with typical perseverence, I never made them again. But then I bought the Ottolenghi cookbook, which has a whole section on muffins and, such is my faith in Ottolenghi I thought I'd give it another go.

Although I had a disaster along the way...

.. The muffins came out brilliantly, with that proper semi-bready, light texture. They really taste like muffins, rather than just cake - I think it's because there's not too much sugar in them, so they have a grown-up taste rather than being a sweetie explosion.


When I make them again I'd fill the cases right to the top with mixture as it doesn't rise very much and you do kind of want that spilling-over-the-top Starbucks muffin look, without the greasy Starbucks taste.

So these are blueberry and apple muffins from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, found on page 211. I used frozen blueberries and a gala apple, rather than a Granny Smith. I also halved the quantities and used silicon fairy cake-sized cases, rather than those huge, straight-sided muffin cases and had I not dropped one load on the floor I would have got about 30 little muffins.

Anyway, here is the recipe as it is in the book, which is for blueberry and apple muffins - you can halve the quantities if you like, you still get a vat-load of batter. There is also a crumble topping to these, which I left out because I felt it was overkill. You hear me, Yotam? Stop gilding the lily, ok?

540g plain flour
5 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
340g caster sugar
140g unsalted butter, melted
380ml milk
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 Granny Smith apple (unpeeled) and cut into 1cm cube
200g blueberries, plus a few extra for the topping


1 Preheat the oven to 170C and get out your muffin cases
2 Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. In mixing bowl, lightly whisk together the eggs, sugar and melted butter (make sure the melted butter isn't too hot). Whisk in the milk and lemon zest, then gently fold in the fruit.
3 Add the sifted dry indredients and fold together very gently. Make sure you stir the mix just enough to combine; it should remain lumpy and rough.
4 Spoon the mixture into your cases and fill up to the top (this instruction I didn't see, to my peril) and dot with one or two extra blueberries. Bake for 30-35 mins or until a skewer comes out clean.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Quinoa risotto


Yes, this is recipe number 2 on this blog using quinoa, but what can I say? It's brilliant. I was resistant to it for years, dismissing it as the preserve of hippies and weirdos with food intolerances. But, in fact, it's an impeccable rice/pasta replacement if you're craving a stodge-fest but don't want to either fall asleep after lunch or GET FAT.


This recipe was inspired by a cookbook that arrived at my house that at first, I'm ashamed to say, made me laugh out loud. It's called Cuisinier Gascon, by Pascal Aussignac, the head chef at Club Gascon Group, a very smart sort of chain of Gascon-inspired restaurants in London.


It made me laugh out loud for its unimaginable complexity. It's all beautiful and gorgeous, no doubt, but the idea that I would make a Cappucino of Black Pudding with Lobster and Asparagus or a Carpaccio of Foie Gras with Figs and Walnut made me snigger. Not that, I must hastily add, this book was intended for me - it's recipient was supposed to be Giles, but little do people know that I intercept all of Giles' post, stack up the press releases, burn the hatemail after passing names and address onto the police, put all the knickers in the bin, give Giles the fanmail to read over breakfast and appropriate all the cookbooks.


I was about to dismiss the book as too silly to be useful when I suddenly sobered up and realised how damn lucky I am that I live in a house where top chefs send in signed copies of their books, even though they're not meant for me.


So I sat down with Cuisinier Gascon and read it from cover to cover and it's brilliant; I will make one of its more complicated recipes soon as a penance, but for now, I made today for lunch a quinoa risotto, inspired by a seafood quinoa risotto I found in the book.


It serves 2 and goes something like this:


80g quinoa

300ml stock

1/2 stick of celery

2 shallots

a few snippets of lemon zest

parmesan

butter

parsley

chorizo

garlic


1 Chop up the shallots, garlic and celery and saute gently for about 8 mins in 1 tbsp groundnut oil and a generous lump of butter.

2 Add the quinoa and fry off for about 3 mins

3 pour in all the stock and leave to bubble gently for about ten minutes, giving it the occasional stir. The quinoa ought to absorb all the liquid, after about 15 minutes. You can add more if the quinoa is too al dente for you. The quinoa basically behaves like risotto rice so if you've made a risotto, it'll all be pretty familiar. The bonus is it takes much less long to cook than risotto rice.

4 When the quinoa is cooked, add another knob of butter, salt and pepper, lemon zest, a handful of parmesan and a couple of thick rounds of chorizo, chopped up, Stir to combine and then turn out onto hot plates - sprinkle over more parmesan and the parsley.


I served this with a sprig of roasted cherry tomatoes, which worked really well - to roast baby tomatoes just put in the oven for about a hour at 180 C.