Sunday, March 25, 2007

Simple Baked Lasagne

I know lasagne is a bit past it, in culinary terms; it's had its hey-day and now nobody serves lasagne at dinner parties anymore, even the pseudo-exotic Mediterranean vegetable variety. Still, regardless of passing trends, I continue to cook lasagne. I've tried quite a few versions of the ragu sauce that is its base and several different cheese or bechamel sauces; I've made it using my own freshly-made lasagne sheets, Tesco's 'fresh' lasagne sheets and dried lasagne sheets from a box. My favourite lasagne, however, still comes from Jamie's Dinners, the book that accompanied the TV show where he changed the fate of school dinners, except that the book came out before the television series and bore little relation to it. This book has mixed reviews, as I understand it, but it has some old faithfuls in it for me, and some recipes with a new twist. The slow-cooked lamb, turned the second night into shepherds pie; the fish with Parmesan crust; the lamb cutlets with basil sauce; the quesadillas with guacamole; the burger; the chicken tikka masala that is unbelievably easy and good... Oh and the simple baked lasagne, which is simple, but has a layer of butternut squash in it, that lifts it way above the ordinary.

Lasagne, to me, is comfort food; it is out of place in the summer, even a British summer, but it is incredibly warming in the autumn and winter. I realized I hadn't yet made lasagne this winter - thanks to the Jamie project - and set about rectifying that. Jamie's ragu sauce includes pancetta, beef and pork mince, cinnamon, onions, garlic, carrots, celery, tinned plum tomatoes, red wine or water. I left it to simmer away in the slow cooker yesterday while we went to Durham with my parents (back from Gran Canaria and unapologetically brown). I don't cook the lasagne quite as Jamie suggests (he lines the oven dish with pasta, and uses more layers than me), but I do include his layer of butternut squash, first roasted in the oven with crushed dried red chilli, coriander seed and black pepper. I also use his version of white sauce (creme fraiche with anchovies chopped into it and grated Parmesan), and, as suggested, tear mozzarella over the top. I recommend this over boring bechamel (which isn't to denigrate bechamel, particularly - I make it in other lasagnes and it's nice, really; this is just easier and really nice).

I watched part of an episode of Nigella Bites earlier, the one where she cooks to commemorate the past, her grandmother, her mother, her sister Thomasina, and where she makes liptauer. I recall my friend Victoria's verdict when Nigella's children dive into the fridge at the end of the programme and gobble up the liptauer: 'what did she bribe them with to get them to eat that?' I have never made liptauer and am sure it's really good, but it doesn't appear, at any rate, particularly child-friendly. Or else her children have better taste than most (which is obviously possible). Nigella also deep-fries whitebait in that episode. I used to love whitebait, and then on a Christmas works' night out three years ago, I was fed some suspect whitebait and could taste it for days afterwards. (Is it just me or is the food on work nights out inevitably revolting?)

The clocks went forward last night, spelling the beginning of British summertime. The sky was relentlessly blue today and from indoors it seemed as though summer had indeed begun; outside, though, a chilly wind still dominated. Nonetheless, changing the clocks seems to have a psychological impact, marking the time to wake up rather than hibernate, to look forward to warmer days, and to plan the summer. That is, if you aren't still knocked for six by having to get up an hour earlier.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Chilli con carne - from Happy Days

For a while, Happy Days with the Naked Chef was my favourite of Jamie's early books; as soon as I got it (my brother actually bought it for me, when it came out, from the book people), I bonded with it. The baked onions with cheese and cream are divine, as are the roasted winter vegetables and the parsnip and pancetta tagliatelle. This is the book where Jamie introduces his chicken-in-a-bag (roasted in the oven) and unveils more dried pasta dishes than in the previous books. The chilli, though, is an ultimate chilli recipe, for me, anyway. For a while we ate it almost every week; it is a useful dish to make ahead and serves as a tasty, easy, weeknight dinner if you do cook it in advance. It's also versatile - you can team it with rice or with bread and salad, as Jamie suggests, or with flour tortillas, guacamole and sour cream. Oh, and it has tinned kidney beans in it, so you don't have to remember to soak the beans. Bonus. This chilli is one of my failsafe recipes of all time; I don't need the recipe now, I make it on autopilot. The other day we both craved it so I made it again - for the first time in months and months. It won't be months before I make it again.

Everyone knows how to make chilli. This one isn't authentic, one presumes, but I've never been all that bothered about authentic, particularly for a dish of uncertain origins like this one. Jamie's version involves:
- blitzing onion and garlic in a food processor and gently frying until soft
- adding minced beef, powdered cumin and chilli powder, a chopped fresh red chilli (deseeded), 2 tins chopped tomatoes, a wineglass of water, a cinnamon stick, and 200g sundried tomatoes in oil, blitzed with some of their oil to make a paste, and simmering with greaseproof paper and a lid on the pan for 1 hour,
then adding 2 drained tins kidney beans and simmering for a further 30 minutes.

I like the addition of the sundried tomatoes - when I've been too lazy to use my Magimix, I've chopped the onion and garlic and then used sundried tomato paste, but it honestly isn't the same, not really. This chilli isn't super-hot; it isn't exceptionally different; it's just really nice. Proof of which lies in my having cooked it over and over again for the last five years.

Chilli, wrapped in tortillas, guacamole (Simon's speciality) on top and sour cream alongside.

This was our second Mexican meal recently. The first was chicken fajitas, with peppers and onions and garlic, guacamole, sour cream, grated Cheddar. OK so again inauthentic, but again I plead guilty (I do eat proper Mexican food, too).

In other news, in case anyone is interested, term ends tomorrow. Happy days indeed. Sadly contrary to popular belief, this does not mean I'm officially on holiday as of tomorrow evening, but it does mean that the pace can drop and the students go away. I might even be able to plan some Easter baking!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Return of the Naked Chef - salmon in prosciutto

I'm cheating. I figure since I made up the rules for my blog, then I'm perfectly entitled to cheat. My progress with Jamie has been shameful of late, a consequence of too much work and not enough time to seek out the ingredients I need to get on with my project. A tip to anyone considering cooking their way through a book - it is easier if you don't have a job. If you do have a job, you will end up either a) eating at midnight and slowly going mad or b) not living up to your own intentions. I have to accept that I simply don't have time at present to seek out John Dory or living lobster; I will hopefully find more time soon, but for now it is slow progress. From within my standstill, though, I've remembered Jamie's earlier books, all of which (apart from Jamie's Kitchen which I've cooked very little from and don't even know why because I love to read it; I suspect it is because the book is unwieldy and I can't easily read it while I dry my hair in the morning) have supplied me with long-term culinary favourites.

The Return of the Naked Chef gave me blackened aubergine, salad dressings, farfalle with Savoy cabbage, pancetta, thyme and mozzarella, tray-baked cod with runner beans, pancetta and pine nuts, fish pie, roasted poussin wrapped with streaky bacon and stuffed with potatoes and sage, fantastic roasted chicken, Pete's superlative lamb curry, some wicked marinades and rubs for meat, the Botham burger, baked carrots with cumin, thyme, butter and Chardonnay, not to mention Maltesers and ice cream. Some of these have become favourites; in the summer I obsessively return to the hot and fragrant or the Cajun spicy rub for chops. I hadn't tried the salmon fillet wrapped in prosciutto with herby lentils, spinach and yoghurt though. I don't know why. Then the other day I was reading this book whilst drying my hair and the recipe caught my eye and attracted my appetite. I had salmon in the freezer and the other ingredients to hand, apart from prosciutto which I cheekily replaced with pancetta.

To make it, basically, cook lentils (I used Puy lentils) until tender. Season salmon fillets with salt and pepper and wrap in the prosciutto slices, leaving some flesh exposed; drizzle with olive oil and roast for around 10 minutes. Drain the water from the lentils, season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and a few glugs of olive oil. Just before serving, stir chopped mixed herbs and spinach into the lentils on a high heat until wilted. Serve on plates with the salmon and drizzled with seasoned natural yoghurt.

The salmon was good (as fish wrapped in bacon tends to be). The lentils were really good - I loved the seasoned yoghurt, giving the dish some zing (lentils can be a bit earthy and dull). It was an easy but tasty dinner. One to add to my favourites list!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Prawn cocktail

Prawn cocktail, for me, is inextricably associated with my childhood, when it was the fall-back starter at every dinner table. I remember a friend inviting another friend and me back for tea on her 12th birthday; we had prawn cocktail and then tandoori chicken and we thought that we were the epitome of cool. Or rather she did - I predictably didn't really like prawns and was frantically thinking up ways to avoid the starter, whilst maintaining an air of sophistication. I don't remember how or if I contrived not to eat it. That episode apart, prawn cocktail was utterly ubiquitous as I was growing up, and then it did a vanishing act and I forgot about it completely until a few years ago, when I tried Delia's version for the 21st century and was bowled over- that version, like Jamie's, has avocado in it, and I can't resist avocado in any form. I am also alarmingly keen on the vile-sounding Marie Rose sauce, which by rights should terrify anyone. So if anyone is planning a retro dinner party, I'd be happy to come along.

Anyway, to make this particular prawn cocktail, I washed and drained a round and a little gem lettuce and dressed them with lemon juice, seasoning and a little olive oil. I made the Marie Rose sauce with mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and - this was a new one for me - a little brandy. I know brandy sounds really odd. I knew that as I added it, hoping it would turn out okay and wouldn't ruin that implausibly tasty sauce. To serve, I laid wedges of avocado on a plate, added the prawns and the lettuce leaves and spooned over the sauce, drizzling it around the plate, then smattering the dish with cayenne. On the side, as suggested, we had pangrattato made from stale white bread. I should add that prawn cocktail is often served in a glass; Jamie's, in the picture, is on a plate. I asked Simon what he thought about serving it in a glass and he insisted that that would be naff, so we stuck to the simple white plate. The kitsch exhibitionist in me quite liked the idea of the glass, but in the end the plate looked pretty good too...

What to say? It was really good; the brandy didn't ruin the sauce at all (although I am not convinced that the brandy is absolutely essential). It reminded me why retro isn't necessarily a bad thing and that the revival of the prawn cocktail is definitely a good thing (as long as it isn't the only starter doing the dinner party rounds). Who knows - maybe I'll kickstart the retro food revolution round here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Grilled and roasted red mullet with pancetta and thyme

Finally, finally back to Jamie. It is one of those weeks, jammed full of tedious meetings and flurries of paperwork, that I read and promptly forget the content of. There are weeks like that. Luckily there's nothing on television so I don't feel I'm missing out too much when the papers come home with me. Anyway yesterday Simon managed to use his lunch break to go to the fishmonger so we were lucky enough to be able to get red mullet. I don't know if I'd had red mullet before - I don't remember, but then I've had all sorts of fish in France that I didn't know the names for at the time, so I might have had. In any case I certainly never cooked it before so it felt more exciting than the usual suspects (salmon being most frequently called upon, mainly out of convenience). The only thing was that I was rushing around a lot yesterday and so hardly had time to brief Simon on what fish to buy. He returned from the fishmonger and announced he had found 2 red mullet, scaled, cleaned and gutted, but headless. I was disappointed because I liked the aesthetics of the head-on red mullet gleaming out of Jamie's photo; when it comes to food photos, I can be a bit superficial. I got over it quickly enough when we got home and unwrapped the fish - they looked pearly pink and beautiful, even without their heads. And losing the heads does make eating them feel a bit less visceral, somehow.

This is another simple recipe, which is good for those nights when you hurry home from work late under yet another raincloud and can't be bothered with fancy cooking. Basically, rub each fish with olive oil and season them, inside and out; stuff with lemon slices and sprigs of thyme or marjoram. Griddle on each side for 1 minute, remove to a chopping board, wrap each fish in two slices of pancetta and top with an anchovy fillet, then roast, topped with extra herbs, until cooked.

I had no idea how this was going to taste. I was hoping that the herbs, combined with lemon, pancetta and anchovy would make the dullest fish taste good. I was right, except that red mullet isn't dull at all - it had an amazing flavour. I really enjoyed this; it was incredibly tasty and, although headless, still exquisitely pink and pretty. I ate it almost drooling, and the bones for once didn't bother me, because the fish was so good. I can't believe I waited 31 years to try red mullet and I will definitely try it again, soon. Yum.

I've missed Jamie's recipes over the last week. The problem is simply finding an opportunity to locate ingredients and/or to find time to, for example, make pasta for dinner. If we get home by 6, it's fine. Any later and we're eating the wallpaper. Well, not literally, because we don't have wallpaper, but I have never been one to allow literality to cramp my style. The problem is I'm already craving red mullet again, but next I need to track down some John Dory, or a whole salmon small enough to feed two. Not to mention attend another series of meetings and read some more ozone-layer killing stacks of papers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Other blog!

I'm on my other blog for a few days, until I can locate ingredients for the next Jamie recipe... I even did my first meme over there!!!


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Minted peas in olive oil

It took me years to cotton on to the fact that the pea had become a socially acceptable, nay, desirable, vegetable. Through my childhood, peas and baked beans were inevitably offered as the fall-back vegetable in any children's meal, with the result that when I went to university I thought peas were totally naff. I forgot about them for a few years whilst experimenting with more unusual ingredients; they were simply off my radar, unless someone served me them, which to be honest didn't happen because in the nineties everyone was serving mangetout and sugar snaps, or butternut squash if they were a bit adventurous. At some point I realized that peas had resurfaced in the collective culinary consciousness but I couldn't subscribe to it; I carried on with my fresh greens, ignoring the frozen pea as the vegetable equivalent of a frozen ready meal. I can't remember when epiphany happened - perhaps I bought peas to serve with shepherd's pie, or perhaps in order to make a pea puree - but ever since that forgotten moment, I've kept a bag of frozen petits pois in my freezer, and when wondering what to make as a side dish, particularly for chicken or fish, I often opt for blitzed peas with mint or basil. Try it; it's easy but addictive and a bit chic (although I write as one with little idea, culinarily speaking, of what chic might look like).

I hadn't made this recipe, for minted peas in olive oil, despite the not-to-be
-sneezed-at convenience factor of frozen peas, because the blurb calls it a summer dish and that put me off temporarily. In my defence, frozen peas make it an environmentally sound way of eating summer food in the winter; no courgettes or asparagus have been flown across the world to indulge me this time. The dish is rewardingly simple: place peas in a saucepan and cover with a bunch of fresh mint. Pour in boiling water and return to the boil; simmer for a couple of minutes. Drain, transfer to a dish, season and add either lemon juice or wine vinegar (I went for lemon juice) and then cover with good extra virgin olive oil. Leave for at least half an hour for the flavours to infuse and serve.

These peas were nice - they had a good flavour - but they didn't blow me away. I think they might, in the summer; they just don't feel quite right for February. I served them with parmesan chicken; I think they deserved a more delicate plate-fellow. I think I'll have to try them again later in the year.

Oh, and I know it's Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day. I am not really a pancake person so this may be the only foodie festival I don't eagerly await. Nor - confession-time now - do I ever give anything up for Lent. That said, I look forward to reading about other people's pancakes. My friend's little boy loves pancakes more than anything else, and was once allowed a pancake when he was feeling sick and didn't feel like the food everyone else was having. Since then, he sometimes asks for pancakes and, when his request is denied, he rubs his stomach and says 'but I feel sick, so I need a pancake'. Shrove Tuesday must be food heaven for him, but for me, roll on Easter lamb and - most importantly of all - the end of term!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Overnight slow-roasted pork

I've been eyeing up the recipe for slow-roasted pork for months. I am very partial to slow-cooked meat in general, although I'd never tried roasting pork for as long as this recipe requires. Undoubtedly I'd have tried it earlier, but for the instruction to cook a 5-6 kg piece of pork shoulder on the bone, followed by the reminder to check that your roasting tin - and your oven - are big enough. I don't suppose either my trays or my oven would have been; in any case, we'd have been eating pork for months, which might have prejudiced my feelings about it. Usually I am undeterred by scaling recipes down, but another sentence put me off: 'this recipe only works with a whole shoulder'. I couldn't see why but I am an obedient cook and I thought that this (along with those elusive live lobsters) might prevent me from cooking right through this book. Which would be a shame because I genuinely love slow-cooked meat. Anyway I consulted an anonymous Scottish oracle who advised me on how to adapt the recipe to the meat I could find. I bought a 3kg piece of pork shoulder and cut the cooking time slightly; the smell emanating from the oven all day was seriously tempting, a clarion call from the kitchen as I indulged in a Sunday afternoon novel. I could hardly wait for it to be ready.

To prepare the pork, lay roughly chopped carrot, obion, celery and fennel (fennel again...) in a roasting tray with bashed garlic cloves and some thyme sprigs. Bash up fennel seeds with salt and massage all over the scored skin of the pork, pushing the mix into the scores to boost the flavour of the meat. Put in an oven preheated to maximum for 20-30 minutes until it has begun to colour, then turn the oven down to 120C and cook for 9-12 hours. Then tip a bottle of white wine into the tray and cook for another hour. Mash the vegetables in the tray. Add chicken or vegetable stock to the tray and boil until you have an intense gravy. Serve with borlotti beans, braised greens, roast veg mash and tasty sauce.

My method differed marginally. I did everything as suggested, kept the oven at 120 even though mine is a seemingly turbo-charged fan oven, wherein 120 is not really 120. I cooked it for 6 1/2-7 hours at that temperature before adding the wine.

I also didn't mash up the veg; I threw it out. I know that sounds wasteful, but it had absorbed so much fat from the pork that it didn't look appetizing. I served the pork with borlotti beans, steamed purple sprouting broccoli and the light gravy.

Before Gravy:

After Gravy:

It was utterly delicious; Simon called it a 110% dinner. The pork was as promised meltingly tender and it had absorbed masses of flavour from the fennel. The sauce was equally lovely. I would make it again, like a shot - it was so easy and yet fantastic.

It occurs to me that I would never think of making this sort of food when people come over. When people invite you over, they tend to serve prime cuts, presumably so you don't write them off as cheapskates. That is all wrong - this sort of food cooks itself while you rest; nobody ends up flustered and red-faced thanks to the last-minute cooking that prime cuts inevitably demand. This is ideal food for entertaining, or for a lazy Sunday when you feel like reading and drinking tea while the meat looks after itself in the oven. Given the oven is on so low, you could even pop out to the pub...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fabulous fish stew

I should confess here that once upon a time fish stew was the stuff of my nightmares- literally. I remember fish soups from childhood holidays in France; I found them utterly repugnant and would never have dreamed of even touching the seafood with my finger, let alone putting it into my mouth. I was, as I've said before, the quintessentially Picky English Child, who arrives in France and wonders why meat has blood oozing out of it and why fish doesn't always come battered. Campsites were social places and my parents always seemed to befriend French people with fish fetishes (or so it appeared to me); I remember one party where my brother and I were forced to go and there was very little we would eat. I repeated, over and over, polite but unyielding, 'non merci', to caviar, to what looked like raw bacon (I'd never had that kind of ham in Britain), to smelly cheese, indeed, to everything but the hunks of white baguette. Luckily my grandmother sneaked us back to our caravan for a Nutella sandwich and some Opal Fruits, smuggled in from England to appease us when necessary. Going out for dinner was okay, because there were creperies, where I inevitably ordered a ham and cheese crepe (I once braved a chocolate crepe, but the chocolate was too dark for me and I left it; I saw that as the result of changing a routine and learnt my lesson). There were also restaurants with lobsters and crabs on display, waiting to be killed and served up, that Grandma ordered, but these places also had non-fishy offerings and so I wasn't forced to starve.

Fastforward a few years. In September 1995 I arrived in the south of France to begin a year as an English assistant in two French schools. I had no idea what to expect: Cambridge didn't prepare me one bit for independent living in another country, other than ensuring that I was au fait with that country's literature and philosophy. I suppose that's a start, but it doesn't help when you're confronted with bewildering bureaucracy on the one hand, and an infuriating laid-back refusal to take anything seriously on the other. For the first month, I didn't even know what my timetable was because the two schools were at war with each other, using me as the pawn in their struggle. I felt tired all the time, worn out by listening to the southern French accent for hours on end, by the unfamiliar heat in late September, by waiting in queues at various bureaucratic places only to be told that the office was closed for a four hour lunch break. In the middle of all this, I was invited out for dinner a lot, which was welcome, but terrifying; nobody ever asked me what I did and didn't eat. I can't remember if this was a mid-90s thing (before we all got allergy obsessed) or if it was a French thing. Certainly in Cambridge we hadn't needed to consider food in that light: we either ate in the canteen, which ran a rota of stodgy but safe dinners (macaroni cheese, chicken casserole, deep fried fish) or we cooked, which in practice meant that we made pasta, stirfries or warmed up pizzas. Nobody cooked particularly adventurous food so we never really needed to ask what people ate or did not eat. In France, though, the first time I went out it was to the local tennis club, where my landlady's boyfriend was a member; we ate outside, very late in the evening, and the meal was bouillabaisse with aioli and crusty bread. I remember seeing the huge bowl in front of me; I remember thinking I would be sick if I had to eat it, but I had no idea how to refuse. In the end I ate it slowly, tempering it with bread, chewing methodically and deliberately not tasting it. I wasn't sick. I hoped it might be a one-off but it wasn't: people were always inviting me for a casual supper and every time that supper turned out to be bouillabaisse. After a while, I came to like it, which was a relief. (The same happened with olives. To my eternal regret I never managed to get to like raw tomatoes)

Despite my slow conversion to it, I have never cooked fish stew, partly because Simon only recently discovered that he liked seafood other than prawns and partly (this is going to sound feeble, but I'll say it anyway) because it's messy food and I like food to be neat; I like smooth soups more than chunky ones, for instance. It's all about perception and nothing about taste. I do eat messy food, but I tend not to cook it. Anyway, yesterday I went to the fishmongers and got the wherewithall for Jamie's fish stew. I bought a teeny bit of monkfish, a filleted sea bass, mussels, no clams because there weren't any, red mullet, and langoustines. I should say that I won't be going back to that fishmonger (it wasn't the one I've been going to, in town; it was another, further away) because she was utterly graceless and her filleting was decidedly odd.

Onto the recipe. The stew is served with saffron aioli (mayonnaise smashed with garlic, saffron and little salt and lemon) and crusty bread. To make the stew part, I simmered white wine, garlic, basil stalks and a tin of tomatoes for 10-15 minutes or so, then added all the fish and seafood in one layer (to do this, you need a very big pan. The biggest one I had was just big enough), put the lid on, and simmered for 10 minutes or so.

When the stew was ready, I toasted two slices of bread and put each in the base of a serving bowl. I poured over the stew and topped with fennel tops, basil leaves, a little olive oil and a big spoonful of saffron aioli.

We both enjoyed the stew a lot. I liked how the sauce soaked into the bread, and I loved the saffron aioli - it went really well with the tomatoey broth. Mmm. It is messy food, both to look at and to eat, but it tastes great. Shame that most people I know wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. I wonder if they should have the French treatment - come round and be told it's fish stew or just bread for dinner, tough if you don't like it/have an allergy/prefer meat. Once I invited someone for dinner and she asked what I was cooking; it was a mid-week dinner and I replied 'chicken curry'. She twisted her face like a contortionist and said 'I prefer lamb - could you do lamb for me instead?' This woman is so picky that she has a social as well as a food problem (she basically only likes lamb curry, beef pizza, and biscuits); I won't get started on her eating habits or we won't be eating tonight, but I dream of revenge in the form of a scary fish stew, complete with saffron mayo and protruding seafood limbs.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Valentines Day!

Yesterday was Valentine's Day... I couldn't see a suitably romantic recipe in Jamie this time so tune into my other blog to see my opinions on Valentines Day and what we ate!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Shell-roasted scallops

I vaguely recall Gordon Ramsay rebuking a hapless restaurant owner/chef for serving food in scallop shells; I can't remember the exact expletives but his scorn has stayed with me. Sorry Gordon, but I'm not a restaurant owner and I cooked scallops in their shells. Is that such a crime against food? Or public taste? I don't think so. I didn't set out to cook scallops yesterday. I went to court in the morning, accompanying a colleague who had got on the wrong side of the DVLA (note to anyone out there contemplating battle with the DVLA: don't) and, thanks to a series of errors, beginning with her garage failing to send the DVLA the appropriate documentation on time and complicated by the DVLA sending her mail to an old address, she was summoned to court by the Secretary of State for Transport. The whole thing felt Kafkaesque; the magistrate perched behind a high bar while we sat down below on those ubiquitous blue chairs that seem de rigeur in all functionary buildings now, including university buildings, if you are lucky enough to be in one that has been renovated (there are also ageing red ones with stuffing oozing out). Anyway the magistrate looked like a caricature of a television magistrate, straining in his old-fashioned suit and peering out of little round glasses. I kept wanting to laugh, except that it was serious. Luckily the magistrate had the sense to annul the judgement with reasonable speed. I came back into town on the metro; some students got on near town and began to debate the intensity of their hangovers. I got off the metro, wandered past the fishmonger and found scallops in their shells, so I bought them and decided to try out Jamie's recipes. I should say that they were pretty expensive; scallops aren't something you should buy on the spur of the moment as you pass the fishmonger, particularly large, juicy king scallops. Or maybe they are...

Jamie has three recipes for scallops in their shells and suggests making them as a starter - presumably choosing one of the three recipes. I decided to try all three; since I had six scallops, I made two of each so we both got to try each one.

Scallops the old-school French way:

Sit the scallops in their shells over chopped spinach and top with a mix of butter, lemon zest, parsley, garlic and nutmeg; drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Bake on top of a layer of rice or salt for 12 minutes.

Scallops with sweet tomato and basil

Blitz fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, balsamic vinegar and seasoning with a knob of butter; spoon into the scallop shells and put the scallop on top, covering with a rasher of pancetta. Bake on top of a layer of rice or salt for 15 minutes.

Scallops with ginger, soy and coriander

Lay scallops in their shells and pour over a mix of soy, lime, ginger, sugar, sesame oil and coriander, drizzle with olive oil and bake on top of a layer of rice or salt for 12 minutes.

The French-style scallop was nice; the Asian-style scallop tastier still and the Italian-style scallop (with tomatoes and basil and pancetta) was absolutely delicious. The bacon had infused the scallop and worked really well with the tomato and basil sauce. It would be a fantastic starter, always presuming your guests are the sort of people you can feed scallops to, which isn't a given around here, because you can layer up the scallop in advance and refrigerate until you're ready to bake it. I suppose you might not want to serve scallops in their shells to Gordon Ramsay, but I thought they looked and tasted lovely; as Jamie says, they might look like '1980s retro campness on a plate', but who said there was anything wrong with 1980s retro campness? I defy anyone not to succumb to a scallop, baked in its shell.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Greek salad; baked and dressed courgettes

Greek salad inevitably reminds me of a restaurant we used to go to as students, a ridiculously cheap Greek place with an alarmingly long menu, which we liked just because it was cheap, really, and set up like a real restaurant, unlike the other cheap places. We often went for people's birthdays and before I went on my year abroad, my friends (who mainly weren't going abroad) took me to dinner there and there was a big cake with good luck inscribed on it in colourful icing. Anyway, whatever you ordered, they always plonked a huge Greek salad on the table as well and I always used to steal the torn pieces of oregano-infused feta cheese from the top. I should admit now that I don't eat raw tomatoes, which apparently makes me something of a pariah; it wasn't a great position to defend when I lived in the south of France, where they seemed to be almost compulsory. This is the last salad in the book apart from the green salad, that I promise I have made but didnt take a picture of because, well, it looked like green salad and as someone who doesn't eat tomatoes, I have eaten an awful lot of green salads. I put off the Greek salad purely on account of tomatoes; I have trouble seeing tomatoes in salads as a good thing. I finally decided to make it, though, to go with lamb chops and baked courgettes and pretend summer was coming, which is obviously unlikely in rainy February.

The salad is easy - mix plum tomatoes, roughly cut up, with wedges of avocado, black olives, chopped shallot, oregano, splashes of red wine vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper. Add cos lettuce leaves (the larger leaves torn) and dress with lemon oil (ratio 1: 3 lemon juice: oil) and transfer to a bowl; crumble feta cheese over and drizzle with olive oil and more oregano.

With the salad, I made lamb chops and simple baked and dressed courgettes, also from Jamie. You should use small courgettes. wash and dry them, then toss in olive oil, salt and pepper and then bake for 15 minutes. Dress with red wine vinegar, chopped parsley and mint; balance with extra virgin olive oil and more seasoning if needed.

The salad was good; I approve of the addition of avocado, but then I'm a fully paid-up avocado fan. The courgettes looked simple but tasted surprisingly nice and, given how easy they are, they are definitely to be repeated. The lamb worked well with the courgettes and salad.

It doesn't look beautiful but nice dinners frequently don't, well, not unless some food stylist comes along and changes everything. Speaking of food stylists, am I the only one to be irritated when in a cookbook a photo bears no resemblance to the recipe cited, and you can very well see that the recipe has been altered slightly (presumably to improve the photo)? That was a rhetorical question as I know it has exercised the mind of Julian Barnes, the wonderful Pedant in the Kitchen. Jamie is less guilty than some (Donna Hay springs to mind, and I do like her recipes, but... ) because his books take care to appear less orchestrated (but we all know that the natural look takes time to achieve). Simon is our resident photographer; when I get hold of the camera our dinners all look muddy.

Anyway since the salad section is complete, time to take stock. One recipe stood out: the Fifteen Christmas salad. I loved that and it is really versatile. I also loved the homemade coleslaw- what a revelation. Other highlights for me: potato and horseradish salad with fine herbs and bresaola and warm salad of crispy smoked bacon and Jerusalem artichokes, as well as the all-day breakfast salad and the warm grilled peach salad. I think that might be too many favourites, but I am only a blogger and not a professional constrained by hierarchies. I am now a convert to warm salads. I can't believe another section is finished. At one point I felt as though the book would go on forever; now I can see the end and I don't want to, because there has been something exciting about the whole project (I can't explain why) that makes me not want it to end. I guess Jamie needs to write another book soon...

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ultimate gingerbread

Why do weekends go so fast? I know it's a cliche but it is true. This weekend we did nice things: on Saturday we had lunch with my parents and then saw my grandmother, who had baked a lovely walnut cake and made us tea. Yesterday we went shopping and I indulged in the Clarins event at John Lewis (my excuse is that I have poor skin and cheap products often give me a rash. Make of that what you will) and bought some espresso cups that I had been craving. I also baked gingerbread (see below) and we had roast beef for Sunday dinner (which we have in the evening...) which was as delicious as it always is (Don't worry. I didn't take a picture of it. I am sure you all know what a rib of beef looks like) and suddenly I woke up and it was Monday. It seems to have been raining for days here; we haven't had the snow that has plagued other parts of Britain, but we have had interminable rain.

Anyway, onto food. After I wrote the last post mentioning gingerbread, the thought of gingerbread insinuated its way naughtily into my head (isn't it always the way...?) and so I felt obliged to make Jamie's ultimate gingerbread recipe yesterday. It is derived from the fabulous recipe from a shop in Grasmere, a recipe that is around 150 years old and has attracted much publicity - I think this is it here; the owner keeps the recipe a secret, and this is Jamie's attempt to recreate the secret recipe. I have never tasted the original and thus can't comment on the comparison, but I am now feeling the need to make a trip to Grasmere.

This gingerbread has a shortbread base, which, Jamie suggests, you can make yourself from his shortbread recipe or buy. His shortbread recipe is utterly heavenly and I have vowed not to go back to the bought stuff, so I made the shortbread first, but of course Simon saw it come out of the oven and was excited at being given that shortbread again - it is, honestly, delectable. I could see the disappointment in his face when I admitted that the shortbread was simply one ingredient in the gingerbread. I admit I shared his misgivings - the shortbread is just too good to waste if the gingerbread doesn't turn out really well - but I knew that I had to get past that stage and get on with making the gingerbread. A little voice was playing in my head, though, as I turned the shortbread into gingerbread, saying, repeatedly, 'this won't be as good as the shortbread on its own'.

To make the gingerbread, blitz the shortbread with some powdered ginger and caster sugar, setting aside 100g of the mix. Add mixed peel, crystallized ginger, plain flour and baking powder; pulse until well mixed.

Melt a mixture of butter, treacle and golden syrup in a large pan, then add the mix from the food processor and stir until combined. Spoon the mix into a baking tray and smooth it level across the baking tray with a spatula or your fingers; once flat, bake in an oven preheated to 170C for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and scatter over the reserved shortbread mixture, pressing it down with your fingers or a spatula. Cut into pieces with a sharp knife and then leave to cool before turning out.

The smell of ginger was almost irresistible as the gingerbread cooked and cooled. I was worried about removing it from the tray as initially it seemed a bit bendy, but once it had cooled it was easy to lift out and serve. And I am happy to report that I definitely hadn't wasted the shortbread - this gingerbread is incredibly gingery and has masses of flavour; it is really the ultimate gingerbread, not just one of Jamie's over-statements. It was even better today, which I find is an important criterion in judging recipes because when I bake on Sundays I really want a piece of baked goodness to cheer me up on a wet Monday faced with hungover students and moaning colleagues. As I ate a piece after lunch today, I remembered that Jamie suggests that as well as eating it as a biscuit, you could use it as a cheesecake base... which is now somewhat inevitably making me dream of gingerbread cheesecake. A good way to spend a Monday evening!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

New blog!

I've cooked over 100 recipes from Cook with Jamie now. I still have a good few to go but it has reached a stage where the remaining recipes can't practically be cooked as quickly as I have been doing, unless I give up any pretension to sensible eating and live on a diet of seafood and desserts (they being the bulk of the outstanding recipes). I have inevitably begun to imagine Life After Jamie, which I hadn't done before, although I still haven't started counting (it seems horribly soulless). Anyway I will of course continue to blog my way through the remaining recipes but I've also started a new blog project, which I'll develop while I work on through Jamie and continue more frequently after Jamie. My new blog is called From Page to Plate and is intended as a space in which to enjoy and explore my twin loves of food and books (and cookbooks, that neatly combine the two). I will be reviewing my over-extensive cookbook collection, testing out recipes, trying out new foods, and also writing about the novels that sustain me as much as food. Check out the beginning of my blog on

I won't forget about Jamie, though, and this blog will continue apace - plenty of exciting recipes to come (I haven't even got to the meringue section yet.... that could be very exciting, since I've never made a meringue in my life). In a sense this blog is the most extensive cookbook review I've ever done and will ever do, and I feel I've still got some distance to go before I can offer up a considered opinion. I certainly need to try the Ultimate Gingerbread first!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Grilled or roasted monkfish with black olive sauce and lemon mash

I honestly don't recall ever eating monkfish when I was younger. I don't remember anyone eating monkfish. It entered my consciousness about the same time as rocket, which I now eat almost every day, and as sundried tomatoes. Probably I was a bit slow to catch on because I was a student living in the culinary backwater of Cambridge and living on stir-fries and nights out in the local pub; I was hardly at the front of cutting edge food trends. That said, I am convinced that I ate monkfish in France, reasonably often, before I tasted it here. My favourite monkfish recipe comes from Happy Days, Jamie's third book, that my brother bought for me in 2001; at that point I already owned the first two books, The Naked Chef in paperback and its sequel in hardback. I found Happy Days immediately appealing and accessible, more so than the first two books, although time has nuanced that impression and I have come to love the Naked Chef in particular. Anyway from Happy Days I tried the baked onion recipe - which is to die for, almost literally, given the cream and bacon - the parsnip and pancetta tagliatelle, the chicken in a bag, the roast vegetables, and the roasted monkfish smeared with blitzed sundried tomatoes, basil, garlic and oil and wrapped in prosciutto. I now make a cheapo version using other white fish fillets, because monkfish is trendily expensive in this country. Anyway I had been looking forward to this new monkfish recipe as an excuse to splurge on monkfish, instead of making do with cheaper fish fillets, and as a chance to try lemon mash, which sounded intriguing.

Jamie points out that monkfish can leach out juices when cooking and thus the recipe involves bashing up salt, rosemary and lemon zest in a pestle and mortar and rubbing it into the fish before leaving the fish to marinate for an hour. After an hour, rub it dry and either grill it or fry it for 2 mins in an oven-proof frying pan and then turn over and move the pan to a hot oven for 6-8 minutes, until cooked. Meanwhile, make the salsa, which consists of chopped basil, parsley and marjoram, celery heart leaves, garlic, lemon juice, black olives and red chilli, and also boil floury potatoes for the lemon mash. When cooked, mash the potatoes with olive oil, milk, lemon juice and seasoning. Serve with rocket dressed in lemon juice and olive oil.

This is a very nice recipe. The lemon mash was quite a revelation, but I suggest anyone who finds lemon overpowering beware; I love lemon, and I loved the lemony mash, but I am probably more citrus-obsessed than most. I will definitely make that again. The monkfish was deliciously meaty and the salsa very tangy - I will probably repeat the salsa with different fish too, as it has masses of flavour. This was a lovely dinner, ideal for a Thursday night treat when you're exhausted and the working week is grinding slowly to its conclusion and the weekend is finally approaching, though it would be a lovely dinner party meal too... Well, it would if your guests like olives and fish, which in my world is actually not to be taken for granted. Don't get me started on picky people, although I am coming to realize that I am closer to the picky child I once was and now mainly despise than I tend to believe. I'm not really in the mood for dinner parties at the moment: teaching is a pretty sociable activity, and at the moment I talk almost all day long, so I don't really feel like opening my mouth much in the evening. I just want to cook, eat something delicious and slump into a novel or the television and shut out the world. Monkfish with black olive salsa and lemony mash is a pretty classy way of doing that and comes highly recommended if anyone feels like giving it a go.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Gnocchi with gorgonzola dolce

This recipe has to be the ultimate in lazy comfort food; it must have almost no nutritional value. My excuse is that I have to tick it off in the book, that I've had a tiring few days (students crying, paperwork avalanches, and so on) and that everyone deserves to forget about their vegetable quotient occasionally. Before I get to the gnocchi, though, I promised to present my brother's little dog, Shea. Stuart kindly obliged in sending pet photos (anyone would think he was proud of them). Anyway here is Shea, with her best friend, Bonnie (who belongs to my brother's mother-in-law); Shea is the little cocker spaniel, Bonnie the golden retriever.

Here are the two dogs and the cat, Chloe, eating together (feeding time at the zoo...)

It is quite easy to imagine what happens after the cosy threesome eat their dinner: the cat doesn't finish hers and the dogs keep trying to gobble hers up on top of their own. Anyway - hopefully my food tastes better than theirs, although I can't say I don't sometimes feel like diving right in and troughing it up in one go as the dogs do....

To make the gnocchi with gorgonzola dolce, you might want to source gorgonzola dolce; I couldn't, and made do with ordinary gorgonzola. Anyway make the potato gnocchi as usual and boil. Meanwhile, heat up gorgonzola cheese with butter and double cream, season, and stir into a smooth cheese sauce. Toss the gnocchi in the sauce and add marjoram; serve with grated Parmesan. It couldn't be easier, really. Except that I am still in the novice category in terms of gnocchi making, and, mindful of the imperative not to add too much flour, I was possibly over judicious with my pasta flour. The gnocchi didn't fall apart, but they were more fuzzy-edged than my previous effort.

This didn't seem to matter; at least, it didn't matter to me. The sauce was divine - anything so sinful is likely to be, I suppose. It slipped down very quickly, very comfortingly, probably far too easily.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Warm salad of crispy smoked bacon and Jerusalem artichokes

This weekend we went to London, so that I could attend a day-long work meeting and Simon could meet some friends. The good part was we got to stay with my brother, Stuart, and his wife, Lisa, and their menagerie - by which I mean a dog and a cat. Their personalities are dramatically different (the dog as opposed to the cat, not Stu and Lisa): the cat is like a very cool teenage girl, who expects to be waited on and betrays little sign of neediness, whilst the dog - a cocker spaniel - is like an eager toddler, thirsting for human attention. I'm not an animal person (and that is an understatement) but I have a particular soft spot for that little dog. She sits and gazes imploring at you while you eat, beseeching you to hand some food over to her; she likes to have her tummy tickled. I've asked Stu to send me a photo of the animals so that they can make a guest blog appearance; I don't know if he will oblige. Anyway, animals aside, it was a good trip; the trains were a bit late both ways, and pretty late on the return leg of the journey, but it was nice to see my brother and sister-in-law and I managed to read two novels on the train (one each way): School's Out by Christophe Dufosse and The Girls by Lori Lansens, both of which are compelling in completely different ways. The former is a sort of French answer to Donna Tartt's The Secret History; it is menacing and intelligent and suspenseful, with the usual dose of French weirdness. The latter I expected to hate, but didn't, because the girls of the title - craniopagus twins, which means joined at the head - are portrayed very convincingly.

I realize I am off-topic, but then that isn't anything new. Yesterday I was too tired to embark on the usual Sunday marathon bake session but I did want to try something new for lunch - hence the warm salad with crispy bacon and Jerusalem artichokes (I am a fan of Jerusalem artichokes. I know many people are not). I like warm salads - they manage to make you feel you're eating healthily (the green parts) but they aren't rabbit food either; they are substantial enough to keep you going. This salad involved scrubbing the artichokes and boiling them until tender; then cooling, halving and setting them aside. Meanwhile I washed and sliced radicchio and little gem lettuce and placed in a bowl with chopped flat-leaf parsley. I sliced the bacon and fried it in a little olive oil, adding the arichokes and sliced red onion when the bacon was golden, and continuing until the artichokes were crispy. I then divided half that pan between our plates, before adding balsamic vinegar and olive oil to the pan, mixing, and tossing the pan's contents over the salad leaves in the bowl, before transferring it all to the plates.

The salad was delicious, in the way that warm salads with bacon inevitably are; calling it a salad is probably a bit of a con, since it seems somewhere between salad and fry-up, but that has to be a good thing. Jamie suggests varying it with sausage instead of bacon - I can imagine it working well with garlicky Toulouse sausages and new potatoes replacing the artichokes. I might feel compelled to experiment.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Lovely crab linguine

When I began this project, I had no idea what its implications might be. I knew, obviously, that it would mean cooking a lot of dishes that I'd never tried before and a few that might not immediately tantalize me, whereas my natural tendency is to ignore recipes that don't have instant page appeal. I've already commented on how liberating it is to discover that you shouldn't judge a recipe on a first glance. On the one hand, cooking through one book is limiting (there are all those other books out there, calling me..); on the other, it opens up avenues that other books would not, because I simply wouldn't take them if I hadn't resolved to do so in advance. I insisted I wouldn't count, but I have now made over a hundred recipes from Cook with Jamie and that feels like an achievement. The corollary of that success is, of course, that I am reaching the end of certain sections of the book, which means that it is going to be increasingly difficult to 'cook with Jamie' every day. Watch this space for Life After Jamie (so to speak). For now, I have finished the dried pasta section; it is unsurprising that this is the first section of the book to be completed because dried pasta really is the ultimate everyday food, ideal for the home cook with a job to do as well as dinner to make.

I say that pasta is everyday food, but crab linguine doesn't feel like the culinary equivalent of a pair of worn slippers; it sounds simple but elegant (maybe the food version of a beaded flipflop: comfy but stylish). The book says that it is a classic on the menu at Fifteen (where I still haven't been, by the way, but I will definitely go). It also recommends buying freshly picked crabmeat, which I've managed to do lately by stopping off at the fishmonger on Thursday evenings (late night opening). To make the dish, I smashed up fennel seeds and mixed with chopped red chilli, lemon zest and juice, shaved fennel, extra virgin olive oil, white and brown crabmeat (more white than brown) and seasoning. This mixture warmed through in a bowl sitting on top of the pasta pan as the water came to the boil, while I shaved some asparagus spears lengthways. When the pasta water was ready, I moved the crab mixture and cooked the linguine before draining it and tossing it with the crab mixture, adding a little reserved pasta cooking water to lighten the sauce. To serve I divided it between pasta bowls and added fennel tops and the asparagus spears dressed with a little oil and lemon.

This dish is surprisingly delicate - it would work really well as a spring/summer dish, but it is probably good all year round. It is more sophisticated than most pasta suppers, but it certainly isn't difficult and is definitely repeatable. The flavour of the crab comes through very clearly, so people who are ambivalent about shell-fish should definitely beware. The sauce is light and unobtrusive; it coats, rather than clags, the linguine, in a seductive sort of way.

Having finished the dried pasta section, I should really name my favourites. I wouldn't rank them; food is a matter not just of personal taste, but also of the frame of mind you were in when you ate it. I can honestly say that I enjoyed all of the dried pasta dishes, but the recipes that stood out most were the spaghetti with mussels in white wine and basil oil, the fabulous honeycomb cannelloni and finally the truly fantastic fish lasagne, which is genuinely different and absolutely divine. Anyone who hasn't tried it, it is honestly a dinner to rave about - perfect dinner-party fare but also comforting and tasty even without any guests.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

My favourite crunchy squid with lime and chilli mayonnaise

I'm scared of deep-frying. I know I'm not alone; there are probably therapy sessions to teach nervy souls like me how to cope with a deep fat-fryer, but I'm not about to enrol on one. This fear dates back to my childhood when I used to rush out of the kitchen whenever the deep fat fryer was turned on; the sizzling fat did more to put me off cooking than school dinners, even. I've always been a scaredy-cat sort of person. Simon does the deep fat frying in our house, although to be honest we don't eat deep-fried food much (which has to be a good thing). Yesterday we bought some squid and decided to make Jamie's crunchy squid, which is effectively a euphemism for deep-fried squid, but sounds less off-putting to the health police. It goes with lime and chilli mayonnaise, which is enough reason to make it - who could resist lime and chilli mayo? As I wrote that last, apparently rhetorical, question, I realized that my friend Litlove will be recoiling in horror as she reads this. Litlove is even more squeamish than me. Quite a lot more sqeamish than me, in fact. In the days when a friend of mine tested my stomach to its absolute limit with some seriously dodgy food, Litlove would listen to my stories and I could almost see her stomach churn in empathetic repulsion. Anyway, going back to last night's dinner, crunchy squid and lime and chilli mayo sounded perfect to me.

First, make the mayo: mix 4 heaped tablespoons of mayonnaise with chopped red chilli, lemon and lime zest and juice so that it is zingily citrussy.

Then toss the squid in seasoned flour and deep-fry at 180 C until crispy and golden. Drain on kitchen towel, season, and slice at an angle. Serve with the mayo.

The photo definitely doesn't do the dinner justice; squid isn't very photogenic and the mayo, thinned down with lemon and lime juice, was runny. Never mind - it was as yummy as deep fried food inevitably is; and the mayonnaise was delicious and will definitely be repeated. I served this as suggested with a root veg salad, the same one I made at the weekend. The combo worked pretty well and the veggies in the salad made me feel as though I wasn't breaking every health rule in the book. Oh, and I managed to stay in the kitchen while the squid sizzled dangerously. I must be overcoming some of my fears.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Roasted baby leeks with thyme

Yesterday was one of those work days where everything that can possibly go wrong, does. I spent half of the day sorting out the impossible dilemma of how to screen a film for 60 students when one videocassette snapped, two were stolen and one was unmasked as an illegal copy and I was therefore banned from using it. British Amazon no longer stock this (French) film; even French Amazon had run out, and I was reduced to panicked pleas for help to colleagues all over the city, people I hadn't even met. The next problem was how to fit 55 students into a room that seated 40 (answer: steal chairs frantically and illicitly from a neighbouring room, and squeeze the students in like sardines; don't, on any account, alert any administrative system to this potential health and safety hazard). Then I contrived to partially lose my voice. A good start to a term, you might say. I came home dragging my feet, simultaneously exhausted and over-wired, longing to forget the day and yet unable to. I have yet to learn the art of zen; I do worrying so much better.

Anyway I did manage to make dinner, cooking being one way I destress (another one is to sink into a hot bath with a novel); I smeared cod fillets in sundried tomato paste and basil leaves, wrapped in parma ham and baked. (This is a rip-off easy version of the stellar monkfish in parma ham from Happy Days, which is a fantastic recipe) I also made Jamie's roasted baby leeks with thyme from Cook with Jamie. Wash and trim baby leeks, blanch for 2-3 minutes in boiling salted water, drain, then toss with olive oil, red wine vinegar, sliced garlic cloves and thyme leaves. Roast in an oven preheated to 200C for about 10 minutes until golden and caramelized.

I was a bit underwhelmed by this recipe. It's not that different from the whole-baked carrots recipe I tried recently, which I really liked; this one was nice, but it didn't really excite me much. This may be because baby leeks aren't in season - mine were dodgy imports. It may be because leeks just aren't exciting enough to warrant a blog entry. It is probably also because my boiled potatoes were a boring accompaniment. Anyway the leeks were nice enough that I would make them again if I had baby leeks, but wouldn't go out of my way to buy those leeks again - until spring/summer, when I promise I will give them a go in their correct seasonal setting. I have been breaking seasonal rules for this project and perhaps this is nature seeking its revenge. In any case, dinner did me good. It stopped me fretting about rooms and videos and pieces of paper and reminded me that work doesn't have to shadow me all day long like a persistent ghost; it can and should be laid to rest. I need to remember that when I wake up at 3 am with raging toothache fretting about the practicalities of the working day to come.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tea-party fairy cakes

Where are all the tea parties? So many cookbooks have sections devoted to tea parties and when celebrities are interviewed they often extol the virtues of afternoon tea. I never get invited to tea parties. In fact, I think my one and only tea party was when I was a student and an American exchange girl liked the idea of an English afternoon tea, so she invited everyone round for outsized mismatched and chipped student-style mugs of PG Tips, with chewy Sainsburys scones, a Sara Lee chocolate cake and a packet of digestives; we sat around on the floor and on the bed, because she didn't have a table. She called it afternoon tea, but it was just a formalization of normal student behaviour - that is, sitting around drinking endless mugs of tea and eating biscuits (no one should be surprised that we moved seamlessly from tea to gin and tonic, and eventually onto the local pub when the gin bottle ran dry). Hardly afternoon tea as I imagine it, with delicate, crustless cucumber sandwiches, homemade scones with jam and clotted cream, Earl Grey in little china tea cups, and doilies (there has to be doilies. I don't own any doilies, but I do recall biscuits appearing on doilies during my childhood). Anyone out there who wants to invite me to afternoon tea, please feel free - I've been missing out. Although I'm not entirely sure how afternoon tea fits into a busy working schedule...

These musings are not entirely irrelevant to fairy cakes, because Jamie points out that they are great to serve at tea parties. I can't imagine Jamie at a tea party. The photo is incongruous, of a tiered cake stand with cutesy little cupcakes in shades of pink; it doesn't look like the sort of picture you would tend to find in a Jamie cookbook. The icing is not immaculately smooth, though, which it might be in a different kind of book; moreover, the icing has fresh fruit in it, which raises these little cakes up a notch, or at least sets them apart a bit from the standard fairy cakes that everyone can make.

At the risk of sounding like a fairy cake bore, which I am not, all fairy cakes are not the same. Nigella's fairy cakes, which I usually make, contain milk and vanilla extract; Jamie's have lemon instead, and you can taste the lemon in his sponge, which makes a difference (I don't know which I prefer. They're just different). The sponge recipe is the same as for the Victoria sponge
that I made recently, so I won't repeat it; the difference here is simply using bun tins and cooking for a little less time. The icing is the interesting part: mash up some fresh berries (raspberries, strawberries or blackberries) and mix with icing sugar, then drizzle over. Jamie suggests adding crystallized fruit petals for decoration, but I used a heart-shaped bun tin so I thought mine were cutesy enough.

The fresh fruit icing is unsurprisingly delicious, much nicer than plain icing; mine was runny, as you can see, because I wanted a lot of fruit in the icing (Jamie's is runny too). The only problem is that the fresh fruit icing doesn't last long, which means you have to eat them up quickly - in some ways that isn't such a problem since they taste good and are little mouthfuls of sweetness. I only made half the suggested recipe amount, and gave some away immediately...

I like cupcakes, fairy cakes, whatever you want to call them, because I like food in miniature; I prefer cupcakes to muffins. Sometimes in a coffee shop the muffins look obscenely enormous and off-putting, whereas a cupcake slides down easily. I made cupcakes for our wedding last year, because I had to work up until the evening before and didn't want to make a cake because we were having an untraditional wedding and would have had to carry uneaten cake to the next stage of the proceedings; it seemed a bit complicated. I liked the idea of the guests taking a little cake home each. Here are our wedding cakes:

I bought the stand (above) from an Ebay seller to hold the cupcakes for the wedding (it was a small wedding - only 26 of us). It occurs to me that I now have a cupcake stand, so maybe I should host an afternoon tea, and give in to my urge for crustless sandwiches and scones, and fragrant Earl Grey, plus fairy cakes, this time with the fresh fruit icing. Part of me sees afternoon tea as horribly upper class - and not only do I have no desire to be upper class, but also they wouldn't have me even if I did. That said, there is no reason why afternoon tea has to have anything to do with social class. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen might have said but didn't quite, that everyone likes cupcakes.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Unbelievable root veg salad

I'm starting to get irritated by the adjectives and superlatives in the recipe titles in this book - unbelievable, the best, the ultimate. It occurs to me that this can't go on for too long in Jamie recipeland because the next version of a dish will have to become the ultimate, and the recipes will end up cancelling each other out. I am a bit of a pedant secretly and that sort of thing can start to get to me. Having said that, I'd never made a root vegetable salad before; the idea wouldn't have entered my head, to be honest. I am a lazy salad-preparer; I tend to make a mustardy French dressing for green leaves (I cannot abide those mixed salads that people used to serve up, with cucumber and watery tomatoes) or, if it's just me, I just mix balsamic vinegar with olive oil or else (in my laziest moments) I squeeze lemon juice over rocket leaves and call it a salad (try it - it isn't that bad). Anyway, I liked the look of this root veg salad, not least because it was pretty colourful - and also because it uses seasonal vegetables, which I can buy from the farm shop and thus allow me to sleep at night without worrying that Hugh F-W will come and attack me for unethical purchasing. I got round to this salad yesterday - it seemed like a good idea for lunch, with some more baked Italian cheese; I was working on the (erroneous?) assumption that all those vegetables would cancel out the effects of the cheese, plus the chocolate tart I made later on.

The salad can, basically, involve any mixture of seasonal vegetables you like; the suggested range for autumn/winter is celery, carrots, beetroot, radicchio, radishes, fennel. (For anyone interested, baby asparagus, broad beans or baby courgettes are suggested for spring and summer). Slice or shave beetroot and carrots (I used a speed peeler), slice celery heart and leaves, radishes, radicchio and fennel. Toss in a grilled chilli dressing (grill red chillies, peel and deseed, toss with extra virgin olive oil, mint, lemon juice and seasoning) and serve sprinkled with fennel tops.

It's a pretty tasty salad, with interesting textures and the possibility for variation according to taste. It is both light and yet substantial; it feels superhealthy but the flavour is better than 'superhealthy' implies. Definitely a salad that suits the season and should be repeated!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Warmed grilled peach and frisee salad with goat's cheese dressing

When I was an undergraduate finishing my degree, I remember a PhD student in maths met his wife-to-be on the Internet. He was an odd sort of character, not just in terms of appearance -long, greasy hair scraped back into a shaggy ponytail, receding hairline, egg-shaped face - but mainly in terms of behaviour; he used to stay up all night playing Doom and other computer games and talking to strangers on line. We had barely heard of the Internet then and the news that this character had 'met' an American woman on the net and planned to marry her even though they had never clapped eyes on each other in real life (although admittedly they spoke to each other on the telephone, too) was a source of passing entertainment. We all wondered what this woman would make of him when they finally met, but we never found out because he finished his degree and departed and none of us liked him sufficiently as to stay in touch and discover what came of it. In any case we all assumed that the only people who might want to meet others on the Internet would be the sort of people we didn't really want to know. I tell this apparently irrelevant story mainly to indicate the prejudices that have underpinned my attitude towards the net; for years, my only cyber communication was e-mail with people I knew already. Then Simon set up his own music internet forum and got to know a few people on-line; two turned out to be veering on the psychopathic, but one has become a very close friend, was a witness at our wedding, and - although she purports not to like cooking, makes the most divine chocolate tart ever. It became clear that the Internet is pretty much like the world that invented it, that is, it harbours a huge variety of people, not all of whom you will get on with, some of whom might be dangerous but most of whom are just people like you. It is the last part of this sentence that makes the Internet a fertile source of new friends: that is, you are more likely to find like-minded people because you meet them via blogs and forums that reflect your interests. I am a member of a couple of cooking forums and through them have 'met' (none in real life, so to speak) a range of people who get what I mean when I am delirious over my new Kitchenaid (whereas my friends think I need my head checking) and can swap recipes and - even - food. I have come across some oddballs and some people passing themselves off as other people, but I don't let them spill over into my real life and can just ignore them in cyber space (it's the real beauty of cyberspace for polite British people like me, who tend to find it difficult to ignore people in real life) and carry on. Them aside, I have also encountered some intensely generous and fascinating people that I'd never have come across without the Internet. I have also, recently, experienced that generosity crossing over into my real life. I've swapped food parcels with people all over the world in the last few months, and these cyber cyphers have turned out to be very generous people off their keyboards as well as on them. Recently I taped Nigella's Christmas Kitchen, which was on television in Britain but not elsewhere, onto DVD for Internet friends all over the world - OK, well in Europe, the US and Japan! - and since then these recipients have sent lovely gifts back in return. I've had lots of chocolate from Norway and Finland (you won't believe how good Scandinavian chocolate is, but it really is!), saffron from Spain (very fitting), chopsticks and tea and cookies from Japan, magazines and chocolate from France, lots of spices from the US, including stuff from Dean and Deluca (fab packaging) and Tex Mex spices (Mmm), and most bravely cheese, hams and pancetta from Italy. Yesterday I also received a loaf of olive bread from Freya as part of a cake swap we decided to do (yes, she turned it into a bread/cake swap, well spotted). With my non-Internet friends, I can't imagine a cake swap, or any kind of food swap at all, really, and so I find all this quite exciting.

Last night, to go with Jamie's grilled peach and frisee salad, I used ham and cheese from Italy and Freya's bread.

The salad first, since it is in the title of the post: make a goat's cheese dressing by mixing goats cheese with olive oil, lemon juice, then Parmesan and walnut oil. The instructions read oddly here. Jamie explicitly instructs you to use a pestle and mortar, but keeps saying 'whiz the mixture up' - the word whiz doesn't go with a pestle and mortar in my mind. Bash it up, maybe, but whiz it up means a food processor to me, so I dithered a bit and then used the small bowl of the Magimix to whiz up the goat's cheese with the olive oil and lemon, then stirred in the walnut oil and Parmesan. I then grilled the peaches, drizzled over a little olive oil and seasoned lightly. To make the salad, use the inner leaves of a frisee or endive lettuce, and toss in the goat's cheese dressing, grate over a little Parmesan and then serve. Scatter with baby mint leaves.

The salad is very good. This is one of those dishes I wouldn't have bothered with if I wasn't doing the project - and I would have missed out! The peach goes so well with the crunchy lettuce and the creamy dressing.

The Italian cheese I was sent this week is called tomali, from Piedmont, and has to be cooked. The sender, Claudia, suggested wrapping it in parma ham and putting it in a very hot oven, so I did - it was delicious, the sort of thing it is dangerous to start eating because you might never stop. Below, the salad and the cheese wrapped in parma ham:

I served this with Freya's olive bread, which was dense and chewy and really good. I'm sure she will write how she made it in her blog - well, I hope so, so that I can have a go myself! It would definitely be worth repeating.

The whole dinner worked beautifully, and half of it was food I had been sent, which made it taste even better. It is true that the supermarkets sell foods from all over the world now; we can get pomegranate molasses and za'atar and miso paste, for instance, and I tend to take that facility for granted. But receiving food gifts from other parts of the world, from real people, is a world apart from standing in the 'exotic' aisle in Tesco buying the ingredients for a recipe derived from a cookbook. It is about finding out what real people eat, it's about cultural exchange of a real sort (as opposed to the abstract nonsense talked by most politicians) and it's about making connections, comparisons, and opening up your mind as well as your taste buds.

My mother-in-law remains highly suspicious of Internet-founded friendships; if she knew we'd been eating food sent by apparent strangers, she would probably warn us off in fear that we were being poisoned by Internet-dwelling serial killers (since she assumes that anyone who uses the net is a potential psychopath). I am sure that the Internet has its share of undesirables, but it's not so difficult to spot and steer clear of them - and in any case, I am more likely to be poisoned by the deep-frying fetishists who cater for all work events round here (the company who cater for us at work make turkey twizzlers. Go figure..). To all these disembodied Internet people who've made January into a second Christmas for me - thank you very much; you've enriched this dark, cold and most miserable month of the year immeasurably.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Crispy fragrant jumbo prawns

Thursday night is late-night shopping here, which means that the high street stores close at eight or nine rather than at six in the evening (hardly late-night, but late enough to allow me a chance to browse after work). I like shopping, even if admitting it to my colleagues earns me raised eyebrows and ill-disguised contempt (most of them eschew the city for nature and muddy walks, and despise shopping to the point that one colleague even sends other people to buy her clothes and shoes...), but then what they don't understand is that I like to wander around looking almost as much as I like to buy. In fact, I often come home empty-handed or simply with a book or two (I don't count books, since they denote necessity rather than luxury in my financial code). Anyway on Thursday I went to pick up the almond cream Kitchenaid blender that I had ordered on Wednesday - it was on sale, and I simply couldn't resist it. I had a blender already, so this was sheer profligacy, but it does go beautifully with my mixer and it is more sophisticated than my previous blender (which I am going to give to a friend whose blender was broken by her accident-prone mother). En route to collect the blender, we stopped at the fishmongers and bought some raw medium sized prawns; we knew we wouldn't have lots of time to cook when we got home and this breadcrumbed prawn dish seemed ideal for a night when you hit the kitchen running.

First, whizz white bread into breadcrumbs, then mix with chopped parsley, lemon zest, olive oil and Parmesan and lay the mixture on a tray to dry.

Toss the prawns in seasoned flour, then dip into whisked egg, then coat in the breadcrumbs. It is assembly line cooking, doesn't require a great deal of thought, and is pretty speedy. Place the crumbed prawns on an oiled baking tray and bake for 10 minutes or so until crispy and golden at 220C.

Sprinkle the prawns with salt and serve with rocket dressed with lemon juice and olive oil; serve with lemon quarters.

Jamie's photo shows a very restrained serving, with two huge prawns and just a few rocket leaves. My prawns were smaller but also we were eating this as a main meal (with bread), so I upped the quantities of both prawns and rocket (I am a tad obsessive about eating enough greens). I also used lemon salt to season both flour and prawns, to heighten the flavour. It was absolutely delicious - a dinner to repeat, definitely; Jamie suggests using squid, scallops or sardines as alternatives, which could also be good to try - and it was all so quickly done! Fast food again.

(In case anyone's interested and as an aside, I have tried out the blender. We had smoothies this morning - raspberries and blueberries blitzed with apple juice and yoghurt. They were pretty invigorating.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Gnocchi with braised oxtail

For some reason, gnocchi has always filled me with fear. I could never see why the little potato cylinders didn't just disintegrate into the cooking water and had a vision that if I made them, that might well happen. Yesterday evening, then, I was psyching myself up for disaster. I was also in a good mood because I bought a new cookbook - I know, I know, I need some sort of therapy - this time Jo Pratt's book, In the Mood for Food. It is gloriously and unashamedly girly, with a pink cover and enticing sections like 'lazy food' and 'extravagant food' and 'romantic food', as well as hangover breakfasts and the most seductive ice cream and chocolate sections. I came home, put potatoes into the oven to bake to make gnocchi, and read my new book. In my defence, I had already made the oxtail stew that the gnocchi accompanies in this particular recipe and thus half of the work was already out of the way. Nonetheless there remained the nagging worry that I might mess the gnocchi up, exacerbated because I felt that Jamie's book could give more details of amounts and method and therefore turned to Giorgio Locatelli, who warns that small amounts of gnocchi dough are notoriously difficult to work with, which in turn scared me further.

Fear aside, the gnocchi turned out fine. I scooped the potato flesh out of the baked potatoes and Simon mashed them; we added nutmeg powder and egg yolk and then pasta flour, until the mixture felt like dough. Then we tore a piece off and tested it; miraculously it didn't fall apart. I teased the dough into 2 sausage shapes, cut each one at 2.5 cm intervals as instructed, and transferred to a floured baking tray to set in the fridge for 10-20 minutes. Finally I boiled the gnocchi for a few minutes and served over the oxtail stew.

To make the stew, I seared an oxtail until brown all over, adding celery, leek, onion, and carrot and cooking until golden brown. I then added white wine, crushed fennel seeds and juniper berries, a crushed dried red chilli, tomato puree and tinned plum tomatoes. I removed from the oven and lifted the meat out of the stew, shredding the meat off the bone, and replacing it in the pot. I added oregano and simmered for 15 minutes.

Everything came out as it should, I think. The gnocchi were delicious - light and tasty. The stew was a real winter warmer, with all the flavour you'd expect from oxtail. I feel as though I have jumped another hurdle in food terms, although admittedly one successful batch of gnocchi doesn't actually mean that I am the gnocchi expert. Still, I am making progress, and that was part of what my project was all about. I suppose I might have to tackle meringues soon, and they really scare me, not least because I don't like them that much so I've never particularly wanted to try. I will, though - what I've learnt recently is to suspend prejudice and try things, and see how they turn out.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sctoch stovie (again!)

Yesterday, I returned to the dentist to have my tricky tooth checked out and to have a small filling in the other side of my mouth. The filling was fine, but left me with half of my mouth numb and the other half still in pain from before, which made eating logistically impossible. The tooth that has plagued me for the last five weeks apparently (according to my dentist) just 'needs time to bed down'; if it doesn't 'settle' (again, his words, not mine) then the choices are root canal work or extraction. You can imagine how cheered I felt as I left the dentist. Worse than that, though, I felt somewhat despairing, because the television was on in the waiting-room (which also irritates me, because it distracts from reading or planning classes, which is what I was trying to do), showing a programme I'd never seen but that appeared to be a British version of Jerry Springer, with an argument over which of two men was the father of a baby leading to a DNA test, the results of which were delivered live to the studio. I know these programmes exist; I used to watch their predecessors (Kilroy, Vanessa, eventually Trisha) sometimes when I was a student and kept the television on as wallpaper while I wrote endless essays. I just choose not to watch them because they are so disheartening and distasteful. One man didn't want to be the father and turned out to be; the other, who had been looking after the baby, was longing to be the biological father and of course wasn't. Both cried; the mother was stony-faced (apart from when she threatened to beat up her best friend for a crime I can't recall). I was almost glad to begin the dental work simply to get away from the vile programme (which seemed to be called the Jeremy Kyle show or something akin) and the message it was sending me about contemporary British society. I was less repulsed by the characters exposing their sordid lives on camera than the idea that people actually watch this kind of charade. A lot of daytime television is trash, admittedly, but what's wrong with the sort of frothy This Morning format for mindless entertainment?

Fastforwarding a full day's work to last night, I decided to make Scotch stovies again. I had made them once before but they didn't colour properly; apparently I didn't brown the onion for long enough. This time, I was more careful. The method is described here from my last attempt, so I won't go through it all again. Suffice it to say that this time I got more colour, although not as much as Jamie's picture.

It didn't matter - the stovie was really nice, very tasty. We served it with hake fillets topped with tapenade and baked in the oven (a simplification of a Rick Stein recipe), plus spinach and it worked well as a combination for an easy weekday dinner. Fortunately my mouth was no longer numb so I could appreciate it.

Here's to hoping that the tricky tooth 'settles in' soon!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Raviol(in)i of celeriac and thyme

According to my Grower's Market book, celeriac is 'an unpromising-looking brute of a vegetable'. That description strikes me as a tad unfair, given that few root vegetables would win first prize in a beauty contest, but I see what the writer is getting at. Celeriac does look brutish, in some ways; it looks tough, in any case, butch and uncompromising, compared with, say, the sylph-like grace of an asparagus tip or the subtle prettiness of purple sprouting broccoli. Yet celeriac is far less scary than it looks - it makes wonderful mash, for instance, and it works well roasted, too. I hadn't tried it as a filling for ravioli until yesterday, in fact, I'd never have considered it until I saw the idea in Jamie's book, but then, we've only been making our own ravioli since August so we are still relative novices, with countless potential ravioli fillings left to try out.

This time, the pasta was made with pureed spinach as well as with eggs and flour. I used baby spinach and cooked it very briefly before pureeing it; larger-leafed spinach leaves would have been cooked for longer and yielded a stronger colour, but I was using what I had.

The filling is made as follows: for enough for four people, cook diced celeriac with thyme leaves, seasoning and a little olive oil on a high heat until the celeriac has some colour, then turn the heat down to medium and add chopped garlic and chilli, cooking for another 3 or 4 minutes. Add boiling water, cover the pan and cook on a low heat for 20-25 minutes, untl the celeriac is soft and the water has evaporated. Smash the celeriac up with a potato masher and cool before filling the pasta.

At this stage, we cheated. Jamie stipulates raviolini, not ravioli, but we were hungry and time was marching on, so we made it into ravioli instead, which is quicker.

I should pause at this moment and say that when we bought the pasta machine (a manual Imperia one) there was a flicker of doubt in my mind as to how often we would use it. I know some people with pasta makers use them once and then effectively consign them to the Gadget Graveyard and I hoped we wouldn't. I can safely say that it was worth its weight in gold. I love fresh homemade pasta (that so-called 'fresh pasta' sold in the supermarkets bears no resemblance to it) and Jamie's recipes for it are inventive and tasty. I am not an experimental cook - I follow recipes, don't make them up myself - but I think I will start inventing fillings for ravioli, which may or may not work! This ravioli, though, was delicious, a pleasure to eat - and a funky colour to boot.