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.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Best whole baked carrots (and a chocolate cake)

Anyone with a good memory (and nothing better to fill it with...) might remember that I made these carrots last Sunday night but the photo was deleted before I had a chance to upload it onto the PC. I don't want to blog without images because a) it might make people think I am hallucinating all these lovely meals while living on beans on toast and b) I can witter happily about how good food tasted but it is much easier to imagine it when you see it and c) I like the visual record that helps me to remember dishes when I look back. Yesterday I made the baked carrots again, only with orange carrots this time, not purple; this inevitably means that they look a bit less exciting (mind you, I am pushing it to put carrots and exciting in the same sentence in any case).

These carrots are a doddle to make: buy some young, bunched carrots, scrub them, toss them with olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, crushed garlic and thyme leaves, put in an oven dish, cover with foil, bake for 30-40 minutes, remove foil, and put back in oven for 10 minutes. Simplicity itself.

They looked better when they were purple, but the orange variety tasted just as good. Funny to think that once upon a time purple was a standard carrot colour...

We ate the carrots as part of a roast pork dinner, photographed below (before I poured gravy over - my favourite bit).

I know that food bloggers the world over participate in SugarHigh Friday. I never seem to be sufficiently awake on Fridays to join in! Instead, I have my own, Kathryn-shaped Cake Sunday, when I bake for us and for the week ahead (random colleagues get to benefit from the results). Yesterday I joined in another cookalong from an MSN group I am part of; we are cooking from Nigella's How to Eat and I leapt on the chance to make her chocolate birthday cake. It wasn't anyone's birthday, but that cake is too divine to save for special occasions - it has proper chocolate in as well as cocoa powder, and condensed milk (spooky but good) and is covered in chocolate ganache. It was, incidentally, the first cake I ever made, back in the days when I didn't bake cakes. I was incredibly proud of it and I partially blame that cake for my eventual conversion to cooking. So yesterday, I made it again. This time, I wanted to play a bit, so we made some butter icing and piped white smears over the dark ganache - we need to practise our piping skills but it looked quite pretty with the contrasting dark and white.

I like cakes that are resolutely cakey, rather than too wet, but they run the risk of being dry; this one is both cakey and moist (the condensed milk factor?).

It strikes me as amusing that I began this post with carrots and ended with chocolate cake. I think that sums up my eating habits quite well, though, on reflection; I do eat a lot of vegetables, but I also - ahem - eat cake.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Return of the egg salad

I don't think I used to eat the much-scorned egg salad of my childhood. I don't remember avoiding it, but I am sure I must have been side-stepping it skilfully, because it is definitely the sort of thing I wouldn't have eaten. I preferred boiled eggs and soldiers, in those days, out of my Noddy egg cup (I gather that Noddy and Big Ears are un-PC these days. What a shame. I loved Enid Blyton and I am sure she inspired my passion for reading, even if her female characters all stayed in the house and helped Mother while the boys helped Father in the garden - remember the Faraway Tree?). I decided on this dish because we bought very fresh eggs this morning at the farm shop and the photo caught my eye, but I was resigned to not liking it that much before I began; I presumed it would probably be a bit too eggy for me. We were going into town this afternoon, to shop (which for me means meandering from bookshop to bookshop, punctuated by the odd clothes shop, Lakeland, and the kitchenware department of Fenwicks) and didn't have much time to prepare lunch, which was fine because this egg salad was as fast as can be.

We boiled the eggs in slightly salted water, refreshed them in cold water, drained, peeled and halved them, before drizzling over some lemon-spiked mayonnaise. We served with toast and rashers of pancetta.

A couple of our eggs were a bit over-boiled; others were just right. I tucked in with a smidgen of wariness, but they were nice - the lemony mayo really worked with the eggs.

This experience made me think about the extent to which fashion prevails in terms of what we eat. I suppose this might mean we miss out on a lot of dishes that people loved in the past, but in practice it probably doesn't because fashions in food as in clothes have a habit of returning, slightly modified, but in more or less familiar form. Fashions arise partly because we are fickle, grow tired of the familiar and want to branch into something more exciting, but then it would seem that we miss the past, or we miss its familiarity, and thus we embrace the once-forgotten foodstuff on its second or third time around. I think the important thing for me is to be open-minded, because I greet these retro foods with a degree of suspicion. I can eat sushi and seaweed with the best of them, but I am still repulsed by rice pudding (memories of school and the skin that formed on top). I am not afraid of the new or the foreign, but I am terrified of the old foods that made me retch during school lunchtimes and that made me hide behind the settee refusing to go to school until I was allowed to take packed lunches. I wonder what would have happened if Jamie had come to my school - I suspect I would have staged a hunger strike. All that said, I have now eaten egg salad and am proud of it; I will probably, even, eat it again.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Southern Indian crab curry

Friday night in our house is, as I've said before, very frequently curry night. Sometimes this means takeaway; other times I feel like cooking it myself (curry isn't difficult to make, but on Fridays I often prefer to inhabit the living room rather than the kitchen. The rest of the time, the kitchen feels like my space). Yesterday, I had decided to cook and bought some freshly picked crabmeat in preparation for this curry, but my throat began to hurt on the way home from work and I realized I was coming down with a cold. I used to get colds a lot - at university, they struck me down fairly regularly, as soon as the holidays began, and when I first began to teach then I inevitably caught a cold in Fresher's week (commonly known as Freshers' Flu) along with all the new undergraduates. More recently I have been careful to ward that off by stoking up my vitamin C levels and not opening my mouth too wide when in the same room as alcohol-dulled and sleep-deprived Freshers, making the most of their first time away from home. I haven't had many colds in the last couple of years (touching wood as I write this); Simon catches colds more than me these days. I am, however, not entirely immune and last night I found myself with a scratchy throat and runny nose - that is, in the condition I like to describe as 'cold-infested'.

Cold notwithstanding, the crab curry turned out to be easy and quick. Fry fennel seeds, black mustard seeds, cardamom pods (crushed and husks removed), cumin seeds, chopped ginger, garlic, onion and red chilli until lightly golden; add turmeric, butter and brown crabmeat. After a minute add coconut milk and water; simmer for five minutes, then add lemon juice and simmer for around 10 minutes. Stir in some coriander and white crabmeat and simmer for a few minutes, check the seasoning and add more lemon juice if you like, then serve sprinkled with more coriander leaves.

In the book, Jamie's curry looks brown-ish; mine is more yellow, possibly because I was, as usual, converting a recipe for 4-6 to serve 2 and didn't pay attention to the turmeric, and also I didn't have any black mustard seeds and had to use standard ones. That aside, I like the bright and fresh appearance of this curry and it tasted fragrant and light, an elegant and vibrant sort of curry. I would make this again with prawns instead of or as well as crab, I think.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Mussels steamed with fennel and creme fraiche

Three months ago, Simon tasted (and liked!) his first mussel, tested in Jamie's recipe for spaghetti with mussels and basil oil. Thankfully he wasn't scared off and has turned himself into a guinea pig par excellence for seafood. I love mussels and would take up any excuse to eat them, except that I do find cleaning and debearding them a bit tiresome. Mussels I buy seem to be very hairy and I wouldn't like to taste a strand of mussel beard in the scrumptious white wine and cream sauces that invariably accompany them. Yesterday I made it to the fishmongers after work (late night shopping on Thursday) and we could therefore have mussels for dinner. It is no surprise by now that there is fennel in this dish - Jamie's favourite ingredient, or so it would seem. There is also creme fraiche and white wine, which are two of my favourite ingredients, particularly together...

To make this dish: for four people, chop half a fennel bulb and an onion. Sweat them with 4 chopped cloves of garlic, leaves of 2 sprigs of fresh thyme and 1-2 crumbled dried red chilli, until soft. Turn up the heat and add 1 kg mussels, 340 ml creme fraiche and 1 large glass white wine. Mix together vigorously, put the lid on, let it cook for a couple of minutes, check it, shake the pan, wait until mussels open and then lift them into bowls with a slotted spoon. Season with salt and pepper. Check the sauce; if it needs thickening put it back on the heat, season and then pour over the mussels. Sprinkle with fennel tops plus the other half of the fennel used earlier, shaved finely, and some drizzled olive oil. Serve with warm crusty bread and white wine.

Mussels don't look as good as they taste, do they? They were delicious though - the sauce was divine. I loved the aniseedy sourness of the creamy sauce; it was perfect. We ate it with crusty bread and scooped up the sauce left once the mussels had gone with hunks of the bread. I am now, predictably, fantasizing about a trip to France for moules-frites (amongst other things).

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Roasted cauliflower with cumin, coriander and almonds

Yesterday we had a work 'away day', a bizarre term for a bi-annual event that takes us away from our desks and individual offices with the main aim of making us talk to each other with no means of escape. For years, this event was held in a wildlife area just outside the city, inconveniently distanced from most forms of public transport to ensure we didn't plan a getaway at any point; recently it has been held in different city venues, which are more accessible but also seem to specialize in deep-fried chicken dippers for lunch. Anyway after a day trapped in a hotel with all of my colleagues, I needed to get into the kitchen when I got home and cook off its effects. I had already decided to make a diced lamb recipe from Rachel Allen to go with Jamie's spicy cauliflower recipe; I just had to work out some side dishes. I settled on couscous, wholemeal pitta, and yoghurt to go with the lamb and cauliflower, so that the meal had a sort of Moroccan vibe, although to be honest the cauliflower was more Indian.

To make the spicy roast cauliflower, I cut it into florets and steamed it briefly, before leaving it to steam-dry. Meanwhile I bashed up cumin and coriander seeds plus dried red chilli in my pestle and mortar, adding salt and blanched almonds, and toasting the mixture lightly, adding the cauliflower and, once it has coloured a little, some lemon juice and zest. I transferred the pan to the oven (preheated to 200C) for 15 minutes.

I have roasted cauliflower before, dusted with cumin, and liked it, but this tasted more complex and had more depth. It tasted good and it was easy enough to make.

I also as I said above made lamb with raisins and pine nuts from Rachel Allen - heat some oil in a pan, fry some diced lamb, add cumin and coriander (both ground), fry for 5 minutes, then add pine nuts, home made hummus, raisins and chopped coriander. Serve with couscous and pitta.

The whole meal worked pretty well - a nice different midweek supper with a bit of spice.

As a mid-week treat, I made gateaux choco-granola from Ma petite robe noire by Trish Deseine - a chocolate biscuit base with chocolate and creme fraiche set on top using a silicone muffin tin. I reduced amounts and used a silicone heart-shaped bun tin, making one for each of us. Mmm...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Slow-cooked leek soldiers with bacon

According to Leanne Kitchen, whose book I'm reading intermittently at the moment - it's called Grower's Market: Cooking with Seasonal Produce, is half price in Borders at the moment and has extremely interesting commentaries on almost all fruit and veg that you could imagine - leeks used to be very highly esteemed and still are in some cultures. In ours, leeks often, she points out, end up relegated to the soup or stock pot, despised in their own right. I like leeks and am happy to do my bit to give the leek some recognition. My long-term leek recipe comes from Nigella Lawson and involves leeks, butter and white wine; I vaguely recall that she says this is a German technique, but I could be wrong. Anyway I haven't really ventured beyond this in leek-preparation and welcomed the chance to try something new. The title of the recipe (leek soldiers) also appealed to me because it looked and sounded a bit different and in vegetable terms I am always trying to vary my repertoire and pep up our meals a bit. I love vegetables (can't think of one I don't care for) and I like to mix them up a bit; there's nothing worse than steamed broccoli, say, three days in a row, however virtuous it may sound.

Jamie's slow-cooked leek soldiers with bacon serves 6-8. I know I should have waited to cook this for 6-8 people but I was impatient and, in any case, I rarely cater for that many people. Anyway I did the complicated maths and planning, and made it for two. To make this dish for 6-8 people: trim the ends of 12 leeks and discard the outer layers; cut off the dark green parts, slice and wash them, and fry in a little olive oil with garlic, thyme and a knob of butter for about 10 minutes; spread them over the bottom of an oven-proof dish. Cut the white sections of the leeks into 5cm pieces and pack them tightly into the dish on top of the garlic, thyme and green leek mixture. Add a wineglass of white wine and 285 ml chicken/vegetable stock and lay the bacon rashers over the top, before covering with dampened scrunched greaseproof and then foil. Cook in an oven preheated to 200C for about an hour, remove the foil and greaseproof and replace in the oven for 30 minutes or until the bacon is crisp and golden.

Hmm. It is probably now you've seen the photographic evidence that I have to admit that my soldiers didn't all stand to attention. This is because I didn't have the right sized dish for the number of leeks appropriate for 2 people to eat with pork chops and sweet potato mash. Stupid, I know, but my individual pie dishes were too small and everything else too big. I went for too big and some of my leeks, not tightly packed in at all, toppled over. I still found it pretty.

When it is ready, remove the bacon and chop it up, sprinkling it over the leeks.

My leeks might not all have remained standing, but once served up and sprinked with bacon noone would be able to tell. The leeks are delicious - the winey juices, plus the bacon fat, make them incredibly tasty. Bacon tends to do that to vegetables.

This is certainly a vegetable dish to repeat, even if the leeks topple over due to the wrong sized dish. The pork chops are, incidentally, cooked according to a Hugh F-W recipe in his Meat book, with garlic and then white wine. They were pretty good too. A nice, homely weekday dinner, which I would definitely make again.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Steamed broccoli with beurre blanc

This was intended to be a post about whole baked carrots - purple, to boot - and I was half-way through when Simon confessed that he had deleted the photo from the digital camera before I managed to upload it onto the computer. This is the first time that this has happened and we had a debate/argument as to whether I should blog it without a photo or not. I didn't and don't want to because I want visual proof that I made these dishes and didn't hallucinate them, whereas Simon is more chilled about the whole thing and can't see why I insist on photographic evidence. I won because it's my blog, but I'm not sure I convinced my lovely husband. Never mind: I will repeat the carrot dish another time (it's nothing particularly special, but it's nice) and for today, I will turn to last night's dinner - steamed broccoli with beurre blanc.

Beurre blanc is probably a Weightwatchers nightmare - for 4 people, Jamie suggests 170g butter. It makes a huge slice of cake seem almost saintly... I have made beurre blanc before, following Rick Stein's recipe for grilled seabass (with crispy skin - mmm) and beurre blanc; I can't begin to describe how good that is. This time, Jamie pairs beurre blanc with broccoli, which, let's be honest, could do with an injection of flavour (I write as one who likes broccoli). Once my parents invited Simon's parents for a weekend lunch when the latter were up from Devon staying with us, and one of the vegetables served was broccoli. Simon's dad, never known for his table tact, mused 'broccoli is a very boring vegetable, isn't it?' I know what he means, but actually I like broccoli - and even so, it can only benefit from some luscious beurre blanc.

Everyone knows how to make beurre blanc (put white wine, chopped shallot, herbs (parsley and tarragon) and peppercorns into a pan, bring to the boil, and simmer until reduced by half, before removing from the heat. Pour through a sieve into a bowl over a pan of water on a low heat and add cubes of cold butter one at a time, whisking continuously. Use at once or carry on whisking over the pan of water (if you don't, it may split). Jamie has an alternative method - pour boiling water into a Thermos flask, drain, and sieve the wine liquid into it, adding the butter, putting the lid on and shaking. That way you can keep the sauce warm in the flask until you're ready to serve it.

Genius idea, clearly, since it removes the fear of the sauce splitting and the need to prepare it at the last minute. Genius idea unless you mess it up, which we almost did. Simon uncovered our flask (missing, presumed dead...) and poured in boiling water, draining it and then following instructions. But when he opened the lid, the butter began to ooze over the top. We think perhaps we should have left the boiling water in the flask slightly longer, or let it settle before we opened the lid; we aren't sure. After that, however, it seemed to work (although there was less of it, which may be a good thing for our arteries).

It was as nice as beurre blanc has to be (butter, wine, herbs... heaven, really) and it worked well with the broccoli (although I do prefer it with the grilled seabass - expensive tastes, me). I know the butter looks a bit bright in the photo but it wasn't quite that lurid yellow in real life. I will definitely try the flask trick again because it was a winner (well, after we'd spilt some, that is). I might even try serving it this way to my father-in-law, and see how he reacts.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Middle Eastern duck salad

I wrote yesterday that I used one roast duck as the basis for two recipes (I am still mentally patting myself on the back for thriftiness and for avoiding leftovers to clutter up our already space-challenged freezer). I should, however, have remembered that although the duck was the alleged star of this salad, its place was somewhat usurped by a pomegranate. I know pomegranates are uber-trendy, thanks at least partially to Nigella's championing of them; I know that I am probably the last person to jump onto the pomegranate wagon. I don't know why I haven't bought pomegranates before, because the seeds are like little jewels, and I can't resist beautiful food. All I can say is that I brought 2 pomegranates home, one of which was going towards this salad; the other I bought because it worked out cheaper to buy two, and because I had a sense that pomegranates were going to become my new craze. Anything bright and shiny - with the bonus of unquestioned status as a superfood - is always likely to hold my attention (I am irresistibly drawn to shiny red patent leather shoes, although I would never buy any). I cut the pomegranate in half and smacked it with a wooden spoon cut-side down; the seeds mainly tumbled as they were supposed to into the bowl I'd placed beneath, but some of the juices squirted sideways and one jet sprayed my pale blue cardigan. That will teach me not to wear an apron. Nigella has a pomegranate recipe called 'massacre in a snowstorm' - I can see where that name came from. Leanne Kitchen helpfully tells us that pomegranate juice is so indelible that it is still used as a dye in the manufacture of Persian carpets. Perfect. Anyway, to move onto the next step of the recipe, I processed 1/3 of the pomegranate seeds with the juice of two tangerine halves and the insides of some preserved lemons, sieved this and added olive oil to make a dressing. I then mixed parsley and mint leaves with toasted flaked almonds, chopped pistachios, sour dried cherries, the skins of the preserved lemons alluded to above, the remaining pomegranate seeds and the lamb's lettuce and tossed in the dressing, adding the duck meat (shredded from the bone).

This was one of those meals that looks colourful and tastes equally vibrant; the nuts, greens and dried fruit, plus the superfood pomegranate, make it FEEL healthy, but it is incredibly tasty, like the most deliciously sinful treat. Jamie suggests it for a lazy summer lunch, but here I refuse to accept that I am being unseasonal because pomegranates are in season now. Mmm. I loved this salad; it had real zing and energy, and it gave me a bit too, which is miraculous in mid January.

One nitpicking point. Jamie says in the preamble that this is a salad with rocket. There's no rocket in the ingredients though - he suggests lamb's lettuce. Not that it matters, but I just wanted to point it out. In so doing, of course, I have revealed my secret anal side, reflected in my obsessively neat little handwriting and my precision in maths and planning - but belied by the part of me that likes to lie around reading novels and won't read the instruction manual on my new mobile phone, even though that means I don't know what all the functions are.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Gorgeous slow-cooked duck pasta

Gorgeous slow-cooked duck pasta: if you read the ingredients, it isn't that far off the pot-roasted poussins agro-dolce that I made ages ago (well, in November - but that is ages ago in terms of the life-span of my project). Simon commented somewhat wistfully at Christmas that we don't eat the same thing twice very much at the moment - this is particularly odd for me because I am the sort of person who develops obsessions about food and I could easily eat the same thing every day for months before becoming suddenly repulsed by it and moving on to a new fad. That was how I was when I was little, in any case, but even as a grown-up foodie sort of person, I have always gone through phases. There was a phase when I made Jamie's parsnip and pancetta tagliatelle almost every week; the same happened more recently with his prawn, chilli and rocket pasta. At one point everyone who came for dinner got Nigella's seafood and pumpkin yellow curry; at another, it was her sage and onion chicken and sausage one-pot meal from Feast. I think these dishes all become, for a short period of time, my comfort blanket; they are always easy, week-night type dinners, often with store-cupboard ingredients, and I can manage them blind-folded. My staple week-night dinners very often involve dried pasta, most frequently with prawns, sometimes with bacon, because dried pasta is easy and convenient and because it is extremely warming food. Anything that can be eaten in a bowl instead of a plate, I would say, works to cocoon and to comfort - particularly in January, when purses are empty and holidays are a long way off. That is at least partly why I am probably statistically more likely to return to pasta recipes than any others; the other reasons are, predictably, time and convenience.

To make this dish, I roasted a duck that had been rubbed in olive oil, seasoned, and stuffed with orange quarters into its cavity. I actually used this duck as the basis for 2 recipes: this pasta dish and a Middle Eastern duck salad that I will write about tomorrow. This is because both recipes served at least four and we were two; it seemed like a sensible way to tackle two different duck recipes. Anyway, putting this aside and returning to the recipe for this dish as follows:

To make the sauce, I fried diced pancetta until golden, adding chopped onion, carrots, celery, rosemary, cinnamon stick and garlic and fried slowly for 10 mins until the vegetables softened. I added a tin of chopped tomatoes (for 2 people) and 1/4 bottle red wine and let it simmer for 25 minutes, before adding shredded duck meat and simmering for another half hour. If the sauce gets too thick, you can add stock or water (I added a little water). I removed the cinnamon stick and added sultanas and pine nuts.

Jamie suggests occhi di lupo or rigatoni pasta. I had neither in the house and Sainsburys had neither in stock, so I replaced with a tight spiralled pasta. When the pasta was cooked as per packet instructions, I tossed it into the sauce and stirred in butter, Parmesan, parsley, orange zest and juice and a good splash of vinegar. I loosened the sauce slightly with some cooking water and served.

The dish isn't very photogenic. I have noticed that pasta, like stews and curries, tastes a lot better than it looks. Desserts certainly have the aesthetic edge! Appearance apart, however, this is delicious. I said earlier that it isn't dissimilar to the ingredients for the poussins agro-dolce, but they included sun-dried tomatoes not standard tomatoes and somehow this tastes completely different. That dish was dark and sultry; this one is warm and cosy, and I like both.

I made a cake today too, for a friend of ours whose birthday it is tomorrow. She's a mini-egg fiend and Simon wanted her cake to reflect that, so I remembered Nigella's Easter cake recipe (which resembles a nest...). I'd never made it before but I knew other people had (and had seen photos); it is a craggy, flourless cake with a crater into which is scooped chocolate cream and then mini eggs. I include a photo because it ended up looking more or less pretty.

Thinking back to Simon's point about us not eating the same thing twice at the moment, I think that probably that is the main downside of the project. I try something one night, love it, think I want it again, immediately, then try something else the next night and forget the previous night's success. Fickle, me? Well, maybe. That said, I have noticed that some books call me back to cook the same recipes over and over more than others. I can already say with some confidence that I am looking forward to returning to most of the dishes I've cooked from this book, always with the question in my head as to whether they will taste as good, second-time around - or better. I already have a clear idea in my head of what I think is missing from this book and what I hope Jamie'll do more of in the next book; I feel as though this book is becoming a friend. It looks terrible, by the way. At the end of the project I'll take a picture of the book, to show its battle stains. The words 'COOK WITH JAMIE' on the cover have almost worn off; there are marks on lots of pages and my hair seems to be moulting into it. At the end of the project, if I want to make any recipe again, I might need to buy myself a new copy.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Delicious roasted white fish wrapped in smoked bacon with lemon mayonnaise and asparagus

Before I decided to embark on this project, at the stage when I was flicking through the book idly wondering what I would decide to cook from it (apparently most people never make more than three recipes from any one cookbook, but I bet they imagine making more as they first skim through the book. I always do, and I don't always get round to making all those recipes that first caught my eye, for one reason or another - and I am quite an obsessive cook compared to many), this recipe was one that I knew I would definitely make, along with various pasta dishes, the chicken dishes, the pork chops, salmon fillets, and chocolate brownies. This doesn't mean that these were the recipes that stood out most or excited me most; they are simply, realistically, the ones I was most likely to make. Again it doesn't just mean that they are the easiest recipes, but they work with the most familiar and accessible ingredients and don't take too long and therefore they slot most easily into weekday dinners. This particular recipe caught my eye because I love white fish wrapped in prosciutto or pancetta, not to mention lemony mayonnaise.

It is clearly unseasonal, but forget that for now (and see my previous post); January is sluggish enough without too many foodie prohibitions being slapped on it. This recipe is a perfect weeknight dinner, particularly if like me you use decent bought mayonnaise. To make it, you season fish fillets with chopped rosemary, grated lemon zest and pepper, and wrap the fish inside flattened out slices of smoked bacon or pancetta. Fry the fish briefly then transfer to the oven (preheated to 200C) and roast for 10-12 minutes. Steam the asparagus (or boil it) and spike some mayonnaise with lemon juice and pepper; it will be a thinner texture than usual, but this makes it more of a sauce. Serve with the mayo drizzled over.

I changed the recipe slightly because where Jamie suggested 1 inch thick fish fillets, mine were pretty thin; I didn't use the oven at all and simply fried the fish wrapped in pancetta on the hob, which worked beautifully (the fish began to turn an appealingly golden shade.) The lemony mayo was delicious as usual and the fish was tasty - but then, anything wrapped in smoked bacon is likely to be. Most importantly, probably, this is the kind of dinner you can rustle up easily after work without breaking into a sweat; it is probably the perfect meal for a mid-week supper, when the weekend seems a long way off and you want to eat something nice but you don't want to be chained to the stove.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Asparagus, mint and lemon risotto

Risotto seems to me to be an autumnal or wintery sort of dish. This is partly because it involves standing in front of the stove, stirring, for a reasonable length of time, which, if you're lucky enough to live somewhere warm, could be unpleasant; I don't, and in any case I am happiest when toasting myself somewhere. I have been known to come out of the garden from a bout of sunbathing and turn on the heating once inside the house. I know that this is not something to be proud of, but then if my blog was intended to make me look good, then it would probably have to change genre and become fictional. Anyway the other reason I see risotto as cold-weather food is the combination of ingredients, which end up tasting luxuriously creamy and thus somehow warming. This particular risotto shows my preconceptions to be entirely wrong - risotto is more versatile, I think, than I have typically given it credit for.

A risotto with asparagus is obviously a summer dish. I should be making it with English, local asparagus, in its pitifully short season; I broke all the rules (again) in making it this week. (In my defence, it is a particularly blustery January, and risotto is ideal comfort food - if you think about it, it's almost like baby food with alcohol and cheese - perfect) This risotto also has lemon and mint, which also evoke warmth to me, although I seem to be engaged in a love affair with lemons which has well outlasted the brief summer heatwave. To make it, you make the usual Jamie risotto base, and I did this in advance and let it cool on an oiled baking sheet as he suggests, because this method seems more convenient to me. You chop asparagus stalks into tiny discs and leave the tips whole; add these to the risotto base and add stock in the normal way (see my other risotto posts for an explanation of the Jamie technique. Turn off the heat, beat in butter and Parmesan, chopped mint, lemon zest and juice; season, rest with the lid on, and serve with a smattering of lemon zest and a drizzle of olive oil.

This risotto is a little bit different - Jamie calls it 'simple' and 'clean' and it is; it is somehow fresh and zingy and summery, although it didn't hurt suffer from being served up in the windiest January I can remember. Jamie also suggests varying it by sprinking in freshly picked crab or lobstermeat, or fresh peeled prawns - I can imagine how lovely that would be. But actually I will, probably, wait until this recipe feels more seasonal to try out the various suggested variants on the original. It may be babyfood in disguise, sort of, but that doesn't stop it from being good.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Poached salmon steak

It is probably worth prefacing this post with an admission. On Monday, deadened by the return to work and toothache, I misread Jamie's book. This happens from time to time, thanks to my habit of reading cookery books while I dry my hair every morning at 7 am. At that time, I am still half asleep and only half-focused; this is considerably worse on a Monday morning, when I can't quite believe the weekend has ended so abruptly, and even more so this Monday. Anyway, cold and achey and a bit grumpy on Monday morning, I skim-read Jamie's recipe for poached salmon and picked up only the last paragraph, where Jamie offers suggestions as to what to do with your poached salmon - flake it into mashed potato with parsley to make fishcakes, into farfalle with peas and cream, blitz with creme fraiche and lemon juice to make pate, and so on. Immediately I assumed that these were the end result of the recipe and began to fantasize about fishcakes; I hugged the prospect of comforting fishcakes to me all day as I re-immersed myself in the working environment I had temporarily forgotten. When I got home and re-read the recipe, I realized that the first and clearly main suggestion is to eat the poached salmon with the vegetables it was poached with. I know that sounds obvious and I sound deranged for not even imagining it; well, guilty as charged. I could of course have abandoned the fishcake idea at that point, but I couldn't, not really; my mouth was craving fishcakes. So I give you: Jamie's poached salmon steak, with one of his suggested variations - that is, salmon fishcakes.

I did do everything Jamie said in the recipe (I am an obedient sort of person, really). I put chopped fennel, carrot, onion, celery, tomatoes, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, white wine, white wine vinegar, salt and pepper, water, and beetroot, into a large saucepan, filled it up with cold water and brought to the boil. I added the salmon and when the water was boiling again, simmered for 5 minutes on the heat before turning off the heat and letting the fish sit in the liquor for another 5 minutes for the residual heat.

I then drained the water and flaked the fish into the potatoes I had boiled and mashed, with parsley. I served with broccoli and mayo gently spiked with lemon, just because I like lemony mayonnaise.

This dinner was as comforting as I had imagined all day, the food equivalent of a hug. I should say that lots of fishcakes involve breadcrumbs or polenta crusts, or Matzo meal in Nigella's storecupboard tinned salmon fishcake recipe from Nigella Bites. The guru of comfort food, Nigel Slater, wrote somewhere that fishcakes don't need this crust, and I tend to agree; while the crust is lovely, fishcakes are delicious as they are. Everyone likes fishcakes, even people who don't like fish all that much, or so my experience tells me. I am glad I misread the recipe on Monday morning, because I couldn't have imagined anything more reassuring than the fishcakes we ate on Monday evening, while the wind raged around the roof (literally) and we returned to a normal routine.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Victoria sponge cake

I used to really, really hate Victoria sponge cake when it was wheeled out at children's parties; not the sponge part, but the inevitably sickly filling (or so I saw it), which clagged up the plate and the mouth. Victoria sponge cakes couldn't be easier to make, but for some reason many people buy them, and they can taste horribly artificial; the real McCoy makes a huge difference with Victoria sponges, as with almost everything else. I have moved on from my childhood mistrust of all things sweet that weren't chocolate or ice cream and I now predictably enough really like a good sponge cake, in addition to the little buns and muffins that I have always liked. While I was making this cake, I had a sort of flash back to teenage me and thought about how shocked I would have been if someone had told me that years later I would be spending a Sunday afternoon making Victoria sponge cake. I suspect that teenage me wouldn't have liked the 31 year old me all that much, or at least all we would have had in common was books; we wouldn't have had much luck going out for dinner together (though a glass of wine would probably unite us). Whimsy aside, part of me still feels that Victoria sponge is a bit staid; when I first baked cakes they tended to be luscious, glossy chocolatey confections, courtesy of Nigella. I baked with the girl who had the room opposite mine in our university accommodation; we made each other and the rest of our house cakes for birthdays, special occasions and just for fun. Our favourite was the chocolate ganache birthday cake from Nigella's How To Eat, occasionally eclipsed by her chocolate hazelnut cake or her sour cream chocolate cake. There was a girl in the house who got on our nerves and who had the cheek to ask for a cake for her birthday, and because we were polite we made a cake, but because we were secretly mean, we made her a boring sponge with butter icing inside, and I used an evil looking green cake decorating pen to inscribe Happy Birthday on top. She was really, really touched; she didn't at all understand that we were trying to snub her, and she loved her cake, as did the other neighbours, even though it bore little resemblance to our more sophisticated cocoa-laden offerings. That taught us a lesson: not to look down our noses on the humble sponge.

I can't believe I've just admitted to doing things like that, but sadly I have a mean streak.

Anyway, back to Jamie's Victoria sponge, which I made on Sunday before returning to work on Monday. This was my last day of lazing around and - just as Freya used hers to make a superb Sachertorte, I used mine to make a sponge. I have made sponge before, obviously. I made little buns for our wedding cake(s) and decorated them with white icing and white sugar roses; I have made sponge for Eve's pudding, and so on. This is Jamie's recipe though, and for some reason on Sunday, contemplating the end of a lazy holiday, I needed something homely to make; this sprang to mind. The sponge part is standard: 225g butter/ flour/caster sugar, 4 large eggs, plus some lemon zest. I creamed the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs, and folded in the flour and lemon zest, before dividing into 2 sandwich tins and baking for 20 minutes or so until lightly browned and risen. I left the cakes briefly in their tins and then turned them onto a rack to cool. Meanwhile, I warmed raspberry jam in a saucepan and stirred in raspberries (Jamie suggested strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or a mixture; he said he loves strawberries, but out of season strawberries aren't that great in my opinion); I then spread it over the top of one of the two sponges. I whipped double cream with the seeds from a vanilla pod and some sugar, and smeared that over, before topping with the other sponge.

It looks pretty, as Victoria sponges do, and it tasted fresh and lovely - completely different from the cardboard sponge and sickly fake filling of the bought versions. We had a kind of afternoon tea; I made a pot of tea and brought the milk jug into the living room (I don't really do that for just us, usually) and we ate cake and drank tea and I felt very English, all of a sudden. It was surprisingly nice. There is something about sponge, with fruit and sweetened cream, plus jam, that would make anyone feel settled and contented, particularly with a huge pot of tea and a suitably engrossing novel. Teenage Kathryn would have despised this; I now enjoy this sort of thing as a privileged part of our culinary heritage and as a simple, tasty cake that really makes an afternoon special.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Courgette fritters

I've made various versions of courgette fritters before: a Nigella version from Forever Summer - which make a good veggie starter in the courgette season (ahem) - and a Delia recipe which I vaguely recall has potatoes in too. I should preface this by admitting that the word fritter doesn't do much for me: it evokes frying and grease and batter, and I really don't like batter much. (Simon heard Rick Stein say the other day that fish and chips is the best meal in the world, and repeated it somewhat triumphantly, because Simon loves fish and chips and I can't honestly see the appeal. They smell good but they are so greasy and they leave you with a horribly dry mouth. Or perhaps that's just me.) I wish someone would come up with another name for courgette fritters - courgette cakes sounds good, or courgette clusters. At any rate, I like courgette fritters a lot, despite their off-putting name, but I've never been much good at fritter-type food; I am better at cakes and curries (odd combination but it works for me). All this as something of a preamble to my take on Jamie's courgette fritters, which I made on Sunday (again. Sunday was a good day, in cooking terms) for dinner, with roast chicken and a baked butter bean dish.

Roast chicken is the ultimate in comfort food; stew is too, of course, but not in the same way. Roast chicken is, in my opinion, like the good friend you can take anywhere and who will always fit in. When I was a child, my nana used to come to stay every Tuesday; she would arrive (on the bus) while Stuart and I were at school, and when I walked through the door after school, bang on time for Sons and Daughters, that appalling Australian soap, I could smell the chicken roasting. Nana always did a roast, not always chicken, but often; the smell is incredibly evocative even now. I was a bit of a chicken obsessive when I was younger and I confess I could still probably eat chicken for every meal for quite a while before I got fed up. I go through phases of spending Sunday afternoons roasting chickens and making all the trimmings (usually in the winter), but that sort of dinner ties up the oven somewhat; roast chicken can be so much more versatile than that. I often roast a chicken to eat with other kinds of food, and if I do, I follow Jamie or Bill Granger, most often Jamie, in making a stuffing to put between skin and breast. This time, I followed Jamie in The Return of the Naked Chef, with butter, prosciutto, herbs, garlic but I added chopped apricots because I like them in stuffing, and then I roasted the chicken. I made a Tessa Kiros baked butter bean dish to go with the chicken, plus a lemon mayo, and the fritters.

The fritters sound easy but are annoying when you only want half quantities and aren't sure how to use half an egg. For 4 courgettes (and 4 people...), matchstick them and then toss them with 1 egg yolk, t tbsp plain flour, a deseeded red chilli, the chopped leaves from a bunch of mint, lemon zest and Parmesan; scrunch together. Whip the egg white with a pinch of salt until stiff and fold into the mixture. Shape into patties and fry.

This worked quite well for me, bearing in mind my innate inability to cope with fritters. They didn't burn or fall apart, which were the most likely possibilities. I could/should have cooked them a bit longer, but they tasted pretty delicious anyway, and they went very well with the chicken. Here is my plate, in case anyone is interested: roast chicken; tomatoey baked butter beans; courgette fritters.

Noone would imagine this if I told them I'd just had a roast. Funny, really. I suppose this is summer time eating, really, but it works surprisingly well in January when you've had a lot of rich food and your system wants a break (or in my case wants space to consume some chocolate or some cake). I would probably say, though, that roast chicken always hits the spot when needed; it is really the perfect food. To continue my analogy of chicken as a versatile friend, when it goes with gravy and veg, it is more middle-aged and sensibly dressed (M and S) to brave the cold air. Here it is marginally trendier - let's say Next, able to cope with a range of moods and occasions, not too old but not teeny bopper either and unfazed by the cold also. I will stop, here, before I start comparing chicken to shoes (I am capable of so doing) and return to fritters, which, I am thinking, come in a variety of forms too and can be truly delicious. Maybe Jamie is converting me.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Amazing potato and horseradish salad with fine herbs and bresaola

If I sound a little odd, it's because I just did my first day's work of 2007 and, coupled with ongoing tooth infection, it has drained me completely. I had forgotten that life was about more than curling up with a novel and hitting the shops; I had also underestimated the extent to which my antibiotics are tiring me out. Moan over, but do understand if I don't quite make sense here; I am trying.

I made the most of yesterday and made no less than three dishes from Jamie's book; I am far too dopey to blog them all now, so I will start with the first I made, for lunch, partly because I wanted to use the bresaola I bought in Edinburgh the other day. Bresaola, as most people will know, is air-dried and aged salted beef fillet; supermarkets tend to sell ropey versions of it packaged up with salami and prosciutto in their delicatessen sections. I bought this in Edinburgh and had been agitating to try it; I also had some Pink Fir Apple potatoes, bought from our farm shop but originating from Carroll's Heritage potatoes which are based in the north-east, a specialist potato grower which also sells lovely Yukon Gold, Salad Blue, and so on. I like the colour and nobbliness of Pink Fir Apple, which is a waxy potato, ideal for salads; although Jamie's recipe probably implied Jersey Royals, I knew these would substitute beautifully. Fortuitously I also had some creme fraiche to use up, so this recipe was effectively a store-cupboard lunch.

To prepare the salad: scrub and boil new (or waxy) potatoes until cooked; drain and cool for 5 minutes while you get on with the rest of the salad. This means mixing lemon juice withsalt, pepper, celery, parsley and grated horseradish (um, here I cheated - didn't have any fresh horseradish to hand so used jarred horseradish sauce... oops) and mix in creme fraiche. While they are still hot, halve or quarter the potatoes and add to the bowl, toss together, taste, season if necessary.

Arrange slices of bresaola in a circle on each plate, pile the salad in the middle and then draw up the edges of the meat into the middle; sprinkle over tarragon and celery leaves, drizzle with olive oil and serve. Except that I left the meat in its retro circle because I liked how it looked - I know, sad!

This was a fantastically flavoursome lunch and definitely one to make again (Jamie suggests you can also use cold roast beef... yum). It was surprisingly delicate for such a butch-sounding salad and I will definitely make it again; it's one you could serve people staying with you too, because it is relaxed but lovely and the sort of thing most people would dive into happily. Well, we did anyway!

Like the vegetables, the salads in this book have been a revelation - brilliant recipes to keep and come back to. I would make this potato salad even without the beef - I am not very keen on potatoes swimming in mayonnaise but this horseradish cream is delicious indeed, and it does match beautifully with the potatoes and the beef, in a sort of salady remake of roast beef with horseradish sauce and roast potatoes.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Simple sauteed courgettes with chilli and lemon

Since I read Hugh Fearnley-W's inspiring exhortation to eat seasonally, a couple of years ago, I have been trying to live by the rules. We used to have an organic bag of vegetables delivered to work, but the scheme folded and since then we've bought locally-grown veg at a nearby farm shop. This system means that I can support local produce and avoid unnecessary airmiles; it also means I know what I am doing when I pick up a vegetable in Tesco that is clearly out of season. I know that sounds stupid, but when I shopped exclusively in supermarkets, I didn't really know what was in season and what wasn't; I've never lived in the country; I've never even weeded a garden, so I am not exactly close to nature. Anyway now I do know, and usually I do buy seasonally as much as possible... but then this project came along and it is tempting me towards the kinds of food I would usually wait until at least May to eat. I can't imagine I will be patient enough to wait until the summer to finish my project, so I am biting the bullet and being a bit unseasonal - I know, I know, but I am acting in full awareness of my own guilt and I promise that this project apart I am usually pretty good...

Yesterday we had pork steaks to use up and some potatoes, plus pancetta and prosciutto, so I returned to the fantastic pork chop recipe from Jamie's Italy. That involves making a stuffing with dried apricots, garlic, prosciutto and sage; cutting pockets in the chops to stuff the mixture into, browning briefly on the hob then into the oven, on top of a tray of diced potatoes par boiled and tossed with pancetta matchsticks and unpeeled garlic cloves. I love this dinner - I suspect Simon does too, since he proposed to me after eating it a year ago now, although he claims that the pork chops had nothing to do with it. I still wonder if we would be married now if I'd served him spaghetti bolognaise. Anyway, to go with this delectable dish yesterday, I made sauteed courgettes with chilli and lemon, which is dead easy but was a good counterfoil to the rich pork dish. I sliced the courgettes and fried for a couple of minutes with sliced garlic and crumbled dried red chilli, seasoned, added lemon juice, and waited until the juice evaporated, when I served it.

The courgettes were really flavoursome; they contrasted very well with the stuffed pork and potatoes. Another yummy dinner, all told.

It is funny: this sort of meal is really simple, in a way, but it is delicious, too. The courgettes, which are meant to be the subject of this post, would go with all sorts of food; they are feisty and zesty, ideal companions to a whole range of flavours. Another side-dish to remember - for when courgettes come back in season, obviously....

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Old-fashioned potted crab

Potted crab makes me think of Enid Blyton and the Famous Five, going on picnics with lashings of ginger beer and tinned sardines, or perhaps Malory Towers and their carefully planned illicit midnight feasts, and the tuck boxes full of home-made sponge cakes that they would share with their schoolmates. (Does anyone other than me remember the unfortunately named Alma Pudden in St Clare's, who used to steal the other girls' stashes of sweet treats?) I suppose it goes without saying that I've never eaten potted crab before. In fact, I haven't eaten a lot of crab full stop, because once upon a time I was too picky and since then I haven't actually seen much crab around to buy. I like crab, though, and Jamie has several crab recipes, which have long been calling for me to try them. There is of course the exciting option of buying a live crab, killing and cooking it myself; I would need to go to the coast to find one, probably, and I didn't, yesterday - I just bought a cooked one. I was impressed by how cheap it was, until I realized that it wasn't going to yield a lot of meat. As a crab novice, I found Jamie's apparently extensive instructions needed some back-up which Simon found via a Rick Stein book (of course); by coincidence I watched Rachel Allen take the meat from a cooked crab this morning on television and discovered that we did do it right. I must admit, though, that her crab was a bigger and healthier looking specimen than mine. Anyway once we had picked the meat from the crab, separating white and brown, checking that no scary shards of shell had sneaked into the two (annoyingly small) piles of crabmeat, I potted the crab. I had never potted anything in my life and I have to admit that this is one recipe I wouldn't have tried were it not for the project, because it isn't really my sort of recipe. I am more likely to eat crab with chilli and rocket and pasta, or in Thai-style fishcakes, than potted in a little ramekin to eat with hot toast. Which is exactly why this project has honestly revolutionized how we eat: not because we were unadventurous before - I love trying new dishes -but because my adventurous cooking never really took me out of my own taste comfort zone; I might have learnt to make pastry, to bake bread, have experimented with endless curries, but I'd never have bothered potting a crab because it just wouldn't have occurred to me. Back to the method: I smashed up fennel seeds, chilli and lemon zest in the pestle and mortar and scrunched them into softened butter and the brown crabmeat, grating over nutmeg and stirring in the white crabmeat. I seasoned it, shared it between two ramekins and spooned melted butter over, topping with chopped parsley, and refrigerating.

I had already decided that potted crab was a good thing when I tasted the mixture before it went into the ramekin; when I took the ramekins out of the fridge they did look like potted crab, but somehow potted crab doesn't look appetising, particularly.
I spread the mixture on toast and couldn't believe how delicious it was - it was absolutely lovely. I will never turn up my nose at potted anything again (apart from those little jars of potted meat you see in the supermarket - and wonder who on earth buys them). Jamie suggests potting prawns instead and I am definitely going to give that a go next; this was a flavour sensation to me, and I am now a reformed potted crab sceptic (turned evangelist).

Yesterday I also made stuffed vine leaves, because I had bought a packet in brine ages ago and forgotten about them until I read the Prawn Cocktail Years and remembered them. They are a world away from the ones you buy in jars: I stuffed them with rice, tomato, minced lamb, cinnamon, toasted pine nuts, garlic and cooked them very slowly in lemon juice and water for two hours. I served them with a homemade tomato sauce.

They don't look anything special but they are really good, way better than the ones you buy - and pretty different too. Mmm.