Thursday, 26 April 2018

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper for Cook The Books

It's been ages since I cooked along with Cook The Books Club - even when there's been a book scheduled that I was really keen to read or already loved, time has got away from me and I've missed it.

I thought this was a good time to come back though. Deb, from Kahakai Kitchen chose Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, which I have been wanting to read for a while. Fuchsia is a bit of a national treasure: she gets trotted out whenever people want to talk to an English-speaking person about Chinese food, or authenticity, or the migration of food culture. The broad strokes of her career (first Western person to train as a chef at the culinary school in Sichuan) are very well known but I was interested in the detail.

And the detail was very interesting. A snapshot of China in the early 90s, when things were starting to open up a bit. The experience that white people seldom have of being completely other. The deep, rich history of Chinese cuisine. The desire to break off the treadmill of being a clever woman on a predictable academic and career path.

Unfortunately, I found much of the actual food descriptions stomach-churning. While her desire to immerse herself in the cuisine and to learn to appreciate the foreign textures and flavours is admirable (it reminds me a bit of Anthony Bourdain "you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. You’re at Grandma’s house, you eat what Grandma serves you"), I found it very hard to deal with the things she found herself eating. The almost blasé approach to animal cruelty and eating endangered species (although she did say she may end up vegetarian and gives quite an interesting explanation for the animal cruelty) was a kind of cultural relativism that didn't sit well with me.

As it happens, the dish I personally most associate with Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan is 成都豆腐花 - Chengdu street tofu with soy chilli, peanuts and preserved vegetables as served at A Wong. Which is vegan. And Andrew Wong has shared the recipe.
Chengdu street tofu - not as pretty as Andrew Wong's.
The fish-fragrant aubergine that initially captured Fuchsia's imagination can also be vegan if you use vegetable stock, so I made that as our main course (following Diana Henry's recipe for Fragrant Sichuan Aubergine in Simple), along with some marinated mushrooms (which I reheated to serve). And then I let the vegan side down by serving it on egg fried rice. But it was delicious. And no endangered species died.
Urchin kept bumping my elbow - didn't get one single focussed picture)

Monday, 2 April 2018

Easter 2018

Happy Easter, to those who celebrate!

Paul's had a break between contracts, so the Easter weekend this year is the conclusion to a pretty restful few weeks. We had a chance to go to see friends, to see a movie, to get away for a few days to the Lake District, to sleep in and do some DIY. Nice.

And on Saturday we had friends over to lunch. Paul's volunteered us to cook at an event in the summer, and we're tentatively planning to do barbecued shoulder of lamb, so we thought this would be a good excuse to do a test run. Unfortunately the weather didn't play along at all. So I slathered the shoulder of lamb with wild garlic salsa verde, poured in some vegetable stock and wrapped it tightly in foil before baking it at 100C overnight. After about 13 hours I opened the foil and put it back in the oven to get a little colour before shredding it with a couple of forks, mixing it through the copious juices.

With it we had one of my new favourite things - the spinach and preserved lemon freekeh from On the Side, although I used a bunch of wild garlic leaves instead of cloves of garlic to add a seasonal twist. And to really amp up the fresh, herbal quality of the meal I also served Diana Henry's wonderful tomato and pomegranate salad with feta and soft herbs.

It was one of the best meals I have cooked in ages. And all doable ahead which made it very low effort. Low effort is definitely what you want for a low-key weekend.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Ginger and lemon friands

March 3rd, 2018
As you'll probably know if you have any friends in the UK, over the last few days we've had snow. Snow in places and quantities that don't usually get snow. Yesterday it was bitterly cold and coming down pretty much all day, leaving an even blanket this morning.

Now, our house is magnificently insulated. In our previous house winter was freezing, we'd have to run the heating constantly and still have a sleeping bag piled over the winter duvets, wearing gloves to keep hands flexible enough to type. In this house, unless the wind is howling we sleep with the bedroom window open and we haven't even put the winter duvets on the bed. It's comfy. It means that now when we look at charming character properties in estate agent windows we just give a shudder and think of the energy bill. We're finding the mod cons of insulation and double glazing to be, well, convenient.
Makes 12. One had already been snaffled for science

What I am saying is I didn't really have to bake. It's not like I wanted to run the oven to help heat the kitchen, or that we needed the extra calories for warmth. But I had eggwhites and we weren't leaving the house, so I spent a few quiet minutes pottering in the kitchen.

Ginger and lemon friands (makes 12)

85g plain flour
250g icing sugar
100g ground almonds
1tsp ground ginger
Grated zest of a lemon
45g blanched almonds
85g crystallised ginger
7 eggwhites (210g liquid eggwhite)
190g melted butter

Preheat the oven to 180C (fan). Use a little of the melted butter to grease the friand tins.

Sift the flour and icing sugar into a bowl and add the ground almonds, ground ginger and lemon zest. Either finely chop or pulse together in a small processor the blanched almonds and crystallised ginger. Not to a paste, but to a crumb. Mix that through the other dry ingredients. Whip the eggwhites with a fork until frothy and fold in with the melted butter. It takes quite a bit of folding to convince the butter to play nicely.

Divide the mixture between the tins - for 12 friand tins it comes up about 2/3 of the way.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce temperature to 160C and bake for another 10 minutes. This initial high heat (in my old oven I did it at 210C but this oven - again a mod con - is much more efficient) gives the characteristic central cracked dome.

Cool for a couple of minutes before turning onto a wire rack. Will keep a week if you let them.



Monday, 19 February 2018

Pasta with tuna, capers and lemon


About 18 years ago I cooked for Paul for the first time. I made a very simple pasta dish, and I still remember even that being a challenge because he was kissing the back of my neck distractingly. I'm not entirely sure what day it is today and yet I also remember vividly that after we ate he said that he really liked the way I put slivers of the lemon zest in with the tuna. I like that bit too, so I think the lemon zest is essential.

I've been making it exactly the same way ever since. The only thing I have done differently this time is boosted the lemon flavour a bit by dropping the shell of the juiced and zested lemon into the cooking water.

Pasta with tuna, capers and lemon (serves 2)

Pasta (you know how much 2 of you eat. I am not going to recommend or judge)
Olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 tbs capers, drained
1 lemon, zested and juiced
A handful of flatleaf parsley, chopped
Good quality tuna in oil. 1-2 large cans depending on whether you have to share it with your cat

While the pasta (I think this is best with linguine, but we were eating in front of the TV so a smaller shape was more manageable) is boiling, put the capers, lemon zest and juice, parsley and tuna in a bowl. Slice the garlic.

When the pasta is cooked, reserve about a quarter of a cup of the cooking water and drain the rest, discarding the shell of the lemon if you added that to the water. Return the pot to the heat. Warm a slosh of olive oil and saute the sliced garlic until it is fragrant and beginning to brown, then add the bowl of tuna etc. Return the drained pasta to the pot, add the reserved starchy cooking water and bring back to the boil, simmering for just a minute or so. If you want to add some grated parmesan, in the teeth of Italian disapproval, go ahead. Silvio Berlusconi's ongoing career demonstrates that not all Italians get it right all the time.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Quince and ginger upside down cake


At Christmas, I bought some quinces. I had several extravagant plans for them, but then we didn't end up doing much in the way of desserts over the festive period. So I peeled, quartered and cored them and baked them in some sugar syrup until they were tender and amber coloured.

Some went into the quince and clementine trifle and the rest, with their syrup, went into the freezer until inspiration struck.

And inspiration has struck.

Quince and ginger upside down cake

75g caster sugar
2tbs water
4-6 quarters of poached quince (only use 4 if you are cooking it just for this recipe because otherwise it is madness)
140g golden caster sugar
140g butter, softened
2 eggs
40g ground almonds
100g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground ginger
5-6 pieces crystallised ginger, cut into chunky pieces

Preheat oven to 180C.

Line a 1lb loaf tin with a non-stick liner (or baking parchment).

In a small pan, gently melt together the 75g caster sugar and water until the sugar is dissolved, then increase heat and boil to an amber caramel. Pour into the base of the loaf tin and rotate tin to cover evenly.

Arrange the quince pieces on the caramel in a more-or-less pleasing fashion.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, then fold in the dry ingredients and crystallised ginger until combined but don't overwork.

Gently spread the batter over the quince, trying not to disturb it.

Bake for about 45 minutes or until well browned and a skewer tests clean.

Stand for 5 minutes before turning out to cool.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Happy New Year! And festive feasting

New Year's Eve fondue
Happy New Year, all! Hope you've been able to muster some cautious optimism for the year to come.

Bit of an unusual festive season for us. We entertained! And we mostly didn't eat meat!

My aunt came to stay with us for a couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year. She's been a vegetarian for almost 40 years, and I couldn't face the idea of making two different meals for three people, so we resolved to cook vegetarian at home while she was with us.

In the end there were loads of things I planned to make that I never got around to (the gado gado, cheesy polenta with roast shallots and figs, sage and walnut lasagne and the white bean puree with roast radicchio can all wait until her next visit) but what I did cook went pretty well, I thought.
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's savoury carrot and feta cake
Felicity Cloake's perfect panforte

Nigella's take on pizzocheri - pasta with potato, brussels sprouts and cheese - for Christmas Eve dinner
I started planning what to cook for Christmas Day a couple of months ago. We aren't wedded to any particular traditional Christmas meal, so we weren't trying to fit vegetarian food into a pre-existing format, but we wanted something a bit sumptuous and celebratory. I originally thought that a stuffed pumpkin would be good, but decided that there isn't enough room inside a pumpkin to have a decent amount of stuffing, so I reimagined it as a baked, layered dish.
Sour cherry couronne
We started Christmas day, however, with couronne. It's mostly Paul Hollywood's recipe, but substituting sour cherries for apricots (I didn't bother soaking them) and lovely Italian crystallised citrus peel for the raisins. Instead of plain marzipan I used a new-to-me brandy marzipan, which packed quite a wallop.
Mezze plate
For lunch we just had mezze - bought hummus, felafel, artichoke hearts, olives, dolmades and stuffed peppadews, with some leftover carrot and feta cake, and a few bits of pickled carrot and mooli. Then the layered baked squash for dinner.
November's trial run on the Christmas squash
In my practice runs I had used delica pumpkin, which sliced into neat crescents which cooked evenly and looked like a pretty sunburst.

Unfortunately Ocado let me down on the day and delivered a butternut - good flavour but not as pretty!

The layers of squash were interspersed with sauteed onion, loads of rosemary and sage, crumbled sourdough bread, toasted hazelnuts, crumbled Stilton cheese and garlic. Then I poured cream and white wine over the lot and let it bake slowly.

We had a persimmon and chicory salad with it (Diana Henry's recipe, although for obvious reasons I left out the cheese and nuts). Delicious, if not in any way photogenic.
Final version of baked layered squash
There was no need at all for dessert after all that! Later in the week I made a quince and clementine trifle, but we really didn't go in much for pudding at home.
Quince and clementine trifle
On New Year's Eve we had a fondue for lunch, and then friends came over for tea and cake. I'd been looking for an excuse to make Ottolenghi's walnut and halva cake, and this seemed like just the time. It's a very good cake.

Ottolenghi's walnut & halva cake
The other main home-cooking highlights of the festive period were a rather triumphant take on megadarra (I used siyez bulgar instead of rice, topped it with pomegranate arils and goats curd and served it with runner beans stewed in tomatoes) and pairing Ottolenghi's bulgar with mushrooms, feta and dill with Gizzi Erskine's brussels sprout, pomegranate and pistachio salad. Which end up looking quite similar, so fortunately we didn't have them back to back.
Megadarra and runner beans

Ottolenghi's bulgar and Gizzi Erskine's sprouts

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Prawn curries

For some reason, Paul's had a bee in his bonnet lately about prawn curry. He even called our home wifi network prawn curry. He declared that he believed a good prawn curry had to be possible, but that he'd never had one. He asked the guys at work for their best tips, and they all declared that asafoetida was key.

Which meant I had to buy asafoetida. And now means that I have most of a bag of asafoetida (which smells like an onion farted after drinking Guinness) in a sealed ziplock bag and that is in a tupperware tub and you can still smell it in the cupboard.

And I had to find a prawn curry recipe that actually used asafoetida.

I went with the Hairy Bikers Keralan prawn curry. Sorry about the autoplay video on that link. You'd have thought that everyone would know by now that autoplay is blooming annoying.
Hairy Bikers Keralan Prawn Curry
It was fine. A coconutty base but I found it too saucy and rich, and I honestly don't think the asafoetida contributed anything. I asked Paul whether the workmates he consulted have ever actually cooked anything and he assured me that they have.

Next up was Maunika Gowardhan's Malabar Prawn Curry. The slight acidity from the tomatoes and the hit of tamarind works much better with prawns than a rich coconut base, to my mind.
Maunika Gowardhan's Malabar Prawn Curry
We really liked the addition of the mustard seeds, but somehow it still wasn't quite there. We've had takeaway a few times recently from a South Indian restaurant, and discovered appam, so I had a crack at those as an accompaniment. Not very successfully.
First attempt at appam - batter too thick
Then we tried the prawn patia recipe from Camellia Panjabi's classic 50 Great Curries of India.
Camellia Panjabi's prawn patia
Another tomato-based one, with tamarind and a little sugar to balance.
2nd attempt at appam

And another unsuccessful attempt at appam. I think I will leave them to the experts.

The most recent one cracked the prawn curry, I think. I mostly followed Camellia Panjabi's recipe again, but added some black mustard seeds when I fried the cumin seeds at the beginning, included a good chunk of ginger in my garlic and chilli paste, and used fresh turmeric. It was exactly what I wanted in a prawn curry - hot, slightly sweet, with a tang that showcased the plump prawns.

I used leftover appam batter from my 2nd attempt as a frying batter for some squid rings, which I sprinkled with chaat masala (1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp amchoor, 1/4 tsp Kashmiri chilli, 1/4 tsp black salt) - much more successful than my appam.

My prawn curry



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