Sunday 30 May 2010

Minestra di Verdura

This is a lighter, quicker, green-er version of a classic minestrone. I topped it with crisp proscuitto because Paul was a bit unimpressed at being given a vegetarian meal when it wasn't even Monday. Still - it was delicious and healthy!

Minestra di Verdura

olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
2 artichokes, pared back to the hearts and sliced into 8ths
1 bunch of spring greens, washed and finely sliced
2 courgettes, cut into batons
chicken stock (or vege)
1/4 cup orzo pasta (or other small pasta)
proscuitto (optional)
the juice of half a lemon

Soften the onion and garlic in the olive oil. Add the shredded spring greens and artichoke hearts and cover with chicken stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the courgettes and the orzo and simmer another 10 minutes or until the pasta is tender. Stir through a dollop of pesto and the juice of half a lemon. To serve, garnish each bowl with another dollop of pesto and top with a couple of slices of proscuitto, grilled until crispy.

This soup is going over to Deb's Kahakai Kitchen for Souper (soup, salad and sammie) Sunday SouperSundays

Thursday 27 May 2010

Marmalade Buttons

It isn't often that Paul requests something sweet. He is very proud of the fact that he doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, so generally I only make desserts and cakes and things when we have guests, or when I have every intention of eating most of it myself.

But the other day he asked me to bake him some biscuits. That's cookies to you folks across the pond. He was fairly specific. He wanted quite a plain biscuit to have with a cup of tea, and he wanted hard icing on them.

I looked back through my archive of recipes that I have planned to make, and hit upon Dan Lepard's Marmalade Buttons. I have been waiting a long time to make these biscuits! In February 2008 I thought the moment had arrived, but then I didn't have the energy for home baking and I missed my chance. More than 2 years later I finally get to make them!

I'd say they were worth the wait, but I am actually irritated that it took so long for me to get to eat these delectable little shortbready biscuits. I didn't have rice flour or semolina, so I used tapioca flour, which gives the right sort of very short, crumbly texture. I used some of last year's home made whiskey marmalade, so they had a lovely dark sophisticated citrus flavour and weren't too sweet.

Next time I make them (and I can assure you I won't be waiting another two years) I will chop the marmalade up a bit, because mine had very long shreds which made slicing the dough a bit of a challenge. I will also put a bit more care into the rolling of the dough, because my biscuits were very wonky! I didn't do the rolling in demerera sugar, because of Paul's desire for hard icing on them, and I didn't take a picture after they were iced, because frankly they were much prettier without it. But icing he wanted, so icing he got. I'm a very obedient woman.

Sunday 23 May 2010

Best of British: Asparagus, shrimp, rhubarb, strawberries

It's amazing how different my outlook on life is when the weather changes. A bit of blue sky and temperatures high enough to go about without socks and I feel energised and enthusiastic about life. I want to eat salads and fruit and dishes that go together in a minute and then sit in the conservatory looking at the sky. This is a really, really nice time of year.

And as I have said before, this really is the best time of year to be eating seasonally in England! So many delicious things have their fleeting season in late spring, it'd be rude not to make a pig of yourself on them!

So last week we had a meal of all that is delicious and currently in season. And the best part about it was that it took all of 10 minutes preparation, and a few extra minutes cooking time. Quicker than a bowl of pasta.

We started with lightly steamed asparagus - a whole bunch each because I was feeling very greedy - alongside a big, puffy omelette filled with home made potted shrimps that I had in the freezer. The omelette sat on a piece of light rye toast, to soak up the delicious buttery juices. Wonderful! I've got my omelette making technique pretty much under control and I am very proud of them! But I still fold with a spatula, I don't flip them.

As the main course was quite light (if not precisely low-calorie) I felt justified in making a dessert. We'd bought some lovely strawberries at a local farm shop a couple of days before, but hadn't got around to eating them. So they weren't quite up to eating raw any more. So I decided to combine them with some beautiful fresh rhubarb into something with some of the delicious qualities of a fruit crumble, but slightly lighter.

Deconstructed Rhubarb, Strawberry and Rosewater Crumble (serves 2-4, depending on appetite and sweet-tooth)

75g rolled oats
2tbs caster sugar
1 bunch rhubarb
500g strawberries
2tbs caster sugar, extra
1tbs vanilla extract
1tbs rosewater (depending on the strength of your rosewater - you don't want it to smell like soap)
Half-fat creme fraiche

Toss the oats and 2tbs caster sugar together & spread on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Toast under the grill, watching like a hawk and shaking from time to time, until the sugar caramelises evenly. Set aside to cool.

Cut the rhubarb into chunks, halve some of the strawberries and leave the rest whole. Place in an oven-proof dish (I used a flat enamelled cast iron dutch oven) with the rest of the sugar, the vanilla and the rosewater. Bake, uncovered, in a 180C oven for about 20 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender but not mushy. Allow to cool a bit.

To serve, divide the warm fruit compote between glasses, top with a dollop of creme fraiche and sprinkle with a spoonful of the caramelised oats. The rosewater really brings out the rhubarb and strawberry flavour and the whole dessert sings of summer.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Cook the Books - Eating for England Coffee and Walnut Cake

It's a very good thing that Johanna asked me to judge this round of Cook The Books. Her reasoning was based in part on me actually living in the UK, giving me a good perspective on all the entries, inspired by Nigel Slater's Eating For England. And my relief is based on the failure of the dish that I was intending to enter!

So this is not a formal entry, but I did want to chip in my tuppence worth on the book before I set to judging the entries after the round-up!

I really like Nigel Slater. His columns in the Guardian newspaper are a much-valued part of my weekend routine, with their gentle tone and straightforward, seasonal recipes. And on one occasion I emailed him a question and he got back to me almost instantly, even though it was quite early on a Sunday morning.

Eating for England is a collection of short pieces - some exceedingly short - on British food. It's not erudite essays on history or sociology, it's more of a personal food memoir, which, at it's best, gives an almost Alan Bennett-esque sense of time and place. I certainly felt that Bennett would recognise Slater's father's coffee-making. I thought that it would have benefited from a bit of editing. The several pieces on farmer's markets could probably have been condensed into one, likewise the pieces on biscuits. I got the definite impression that this is a book to be left in the spare bedroom, for people to dip in and out of, not to read the whole way through in a short space of time! But the only really unforgivable error was in the piece on seaside rock. How, how, can you write about the wonder of seaside rock and not talk about the magic of the letters going all the way through? I don't care how many flavours it comes in, how do they get the words in?

It didn't take me long to decide what I was going to make. I toyed with the idea of a treacle tart, because it is delicious and it is Harry Potter's favourite. I briefly considered making a custard tart, although I think the Portuguese and Chinese do them better. But I rapidly settled on Coffee and Walnut Cake. It gets a couple of mentions in the book: as a exemplar of British cake making and as a use for Camp coffee and chicory essence. And it also featured in one of Slater's columns as one of the things he could consider for his last meal on earth.

At this point, I would like to show you something.
This is my great-grandmother's first prize certificate for her madeira cake. I show this as proof that the blood of distinguished cake makers does in fact flow in my veins. Because god knows you'd never guess from my baking.

I followed the recipe - varying the ingredients only in that I used the famous Camp coffee and chicory instead of instant coffee in water. I don't have 2 21cm cake tins, so I thought I'd use a 23cm tin and vary the cooking time, and then just cut it through the centre to fill it. But when I went to scrape the batter into the tin, I realised that something was very, very wrong. The batter hardly covered the base of the tin. I stuck it in the oven, closed my eyes and hoped for the best. The best did not eventuate. It did rise enough to cover the base of the tin, but it rose in a bowl shape that was never, ever going to be sandwichable. So I made a smaller quantity of buttercream to top it, added a final walnut, took a picture and took a bite.

It was disgusting. It was heavy, leathery and had a nasty metallic tang. Absolutely horrible. And the thing is, I KNOW it was something I did. I have looked at dozens of recipes for this bloody cake and they are all pretty much the same. It is me that is wrong and I have no idea why. I couldn't bear wasting all that cake, so I ended up turning it into a really very successful bread and butter pudding, but that really is not the point. I think the current tally is Cakes 5, Alicia 1 (3 if we allow friands as a cake).

The deadline for inclusion in the Cook the Books round up is tomorrow, but if you miss it, keep an eye out for the round up and the announcement of the next book that we are cooking!

Tuesday 18 May 2010

A modest ambition - the perfect burger

All winter, I have been making my plans for the summer outdoor cooking season. I have a list of things that I want to achieve this year. I want to perfect my grilled pizzas. I want to do a Texas-style barbecued brisket. I want to cook some of my home made halloumi over charcoal. And I want to make the perfect burger.

The buns I made for my pulled brisket sandwiches were so good (thanks to Rosa) that I don't think I will look elsewhere.

Which conveniently leaves me free to focus on the burger patty itself. I read, I researched, and I came to the conclusion that the best burgers are nothing but seasoned beef - no fillers, no binders.

For my first attempt, I used some supermarket minced beef - Aberdeen Angus with 10% fat. I seasoned generously: 2/3tbs Maldon salt and 1tsp freshly ground black pepper for 500g meat. I believe that the only way to get your burger properly formed is to use your hands - I kneaded the seasoning in well, and then divided the meat into 4 patties and pressed them together firmly, then chilled them for about half an hour.

Sadly, the weather was uncooperative, so the burgers were cooked in a frying pan on the stove.

Because we were keen to see how good the flavour was, we didn't add a lot in the way of condiments - just some cheddar and a few rings of fried onion, and some kohlslaw (kohlrabi instead of cabbage) on the side.

For a first attempt, I was very happy with them! The 10% fat was about right, the burgers were moist but not fatty, and the seasoning was good. For my next attempt I will start to tweak the type of meat I use, probably grinding my own. I have read that Heston Blumenthal uses a combination of chuck, brisket and short ribs, so I can probably be guided by one of the best chefs in the world! And of course, barbecuing them over charcoal will add so much more flavour. The journey is going to be very enjoyable.

These fine looking sandwiches are going over to Deb's Kahakai Kitchen for Souper (soup, salad and sammie) Sunday! SouperSundays

Friday 14 May 2010

Forging Fromage - Halloumi

Volcanoes? Don't talk to ME about bloody volcanoes! Volcanoes are the reason why this month's Forging Fromage challenge had to be delayed a week. Volcanoes and the inefficiencies of Parcelforce.

You see, this month we made halloumi. Lovely, squeaky, creamy halloumi. And as I read the recipe my heart sank - this was by far the most complex cheese I had attempted! I needed some more supplies: starter culture, a draining mat, some more cheesecloth, measuring spoons for very small quantities. So in ample time I placed an order with Leeners. Then the volcano under Eyjafjallajokull glacier had insufficient virgin sacrifices or whatever and blew its top, providing a significant embuggerance to the airmail system into the UK. I waited for the skies to clear.

After a couple of weeks I dropped a polite email to Leeners, who sent me a very prompt reply with a tracking number which stated that the parcel was in the UK and I should have it. Hmmm.

Eventually it transpired that it had been waiting for me at the post office for two weeks. But as they hadn't left a card when they attempted delivery (or rather, they did but it had the wrong address, no name and no tracking information on it) I hadn't known it was there, and because of the fucking volcano it hadn't occurred to me to make enquiries any earlier.

Paul went to fetch it for me, whereupon it turned out that cheesecloth makes an excellent shock-absorber, as he hit a pothole and went base over apex over his handlebars, landing squarely on my parcel. With no damage to husband or parcel. Very eventful cheese making!

So last weekend I had the wherewithal, and I forged fromage!

I made a half quantity, because I don't have a big enough saucepan for 2 gallons of milk.

There's a frisson to cheesemaking. You add the rennet (I used vegetarian rennet, on the offchance that I would be serving this cheese to vegetarian friends), and then YOU CAN'T STIR IT TO SEE IF IT IS WORKING. The impulse is to prod it to see if it is set but you can't because that might stop it from setting. Honestly, you wouldn't believe the emotional highs and lows. And I am not just saying this to hide the fact that I am a slightly sad person who makes cheese on her weekends.

When I was eventually allowed to cut the curds, they had set beautifully.

After I cooked the curd, and drained it, I was delighted to find that at that stage they already had the characteristic halloumi squeak. Very gratifying! It's traditional to add some dried mint to halloumi, but I didn't. Because I forgot to get any.

When I'd read the recipe, one of the things that had scared me was the weighting of the cheese. It was very precise - an hour at 30lbs, then an hour at 40lbs. I ended up rigging an effective cheese-draining contraption. A baking tin, with a cake rack in it. Bamboo draining mat on the cake rack. Egg rings lined with cheesecloth on the draining mat. I filled the eggrings with the drained curds, pressing down firmly but letting the curds mound up above the rims and folded over the cheesecloth. Then on each curd-filled egg ring I placed a can of tomatoes, wrapped in cling film. On top of THAT I balanced a wooden cheeseboard, and 15kgs of dumbell weights.

After the first hour, I turned the cheeses out of the eggrings, and re-built the structure, in a simplified form. No egg rings, no cans of tomatoes, just the cheeseboard, the weights and an additional 7kgs of dumbell weights.

At about this point I was reminded of Rule Number 1 of cooking: Always Read The Recipe The Whole Way Through. I had neglected to do this. So I suddenly discover that there is talk of heating the cheeses in whey, and talk of brine, but no actual connection between the two things. Fortunately Canada was awake and Natashya came to my aid quicksmart.

The end result? Glorious, creamy, salty cheese! But I do think that I should have cooked the cheeses in a whey brine and then allowed it to dry. While the texture is spot on for eating raw, they are a bit too wet to fry to that beautiful golden crust that halloumi gets. It did melt into lovely long pizza-cheese strings though.

We served it, fried to melting, on top of wholemeal spaghetti, tossed with pesto and spring vegetables (artichoke hearts, courgettes and asparagus, cooked in olive oil and lemon juice).

Keep an eye on Forging Fromage to see the round-up, and also next month's challenge!

Monday 10 May 2010

Meat-Free Monday - Asparagus Orzotto

There are times when this whole business of trying to eat seasonally and locally is a bit of a chore. Remember the endless, pink-stained days of beetroot? But finally the seasons turn and I can get excited about vegetables again. And this really is the most brilliant time of year to be eating vegetables in England - the asparagus is coming in for its brief, glorious season and broad beans are right around the corner. There are spring greens, the last of the purple sprouting broccoli, new potatoes and all is well with the world.

Last week, some lovely fat asparagus appeared in my vegetable box. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough of it for us to gorge on with eggs or hollandaise sauce, so I decided that I had to pad it out with a goodly amount of starch. I was thinking about risotto. I was thinking about a pasta dish. And then I decided to see if lovely, plump, barley-shaped orzo pasta Iknown in our house as torpedoes) could be treated like a risotto. Guess what? It can.

I started as per normal rice risotto - with a good knob of butter, and a finely diced onion sweating in it. I added my orzo, but didn't toast it for as long as I would rice, just turning it over in the butter to get a good coating, then I added about 1/4 cup of wine (I used a nice chablis). I stirred in the sliced stalks of the asparagus, reserving the spears for the end, and added half the stock and gave it a good stir. At this point, I put the lid on, rather than adding the stock little by little and continuing to stir, because orzo overcooks in the blink of an eye, and I didn't want it pureed. After 7 or 8 minutes, I added the rest of the stock and the aspargus spears and continued to cook it, covered and stirring occasionally, for another couple of minutes until the pasta was tender. At the end, I added butter and grated parmesan, and seasoned with a little salt and quite a lot of black pepper. It was creamy and delicious! The perfect delivery system for the beautiful fresh asparagus.

Friday 7 May 2010

Other Blogger's Dishes - Halvah Shortbread & Melitzanosalata

It's time for another round of "Other Blogger's Dishes" - the delectable things I cook from around the blogosphere. I can tell you, I have hardly looked at a food magazine since I started food blogging, because there are so many wonderful dishes knocking around.

Peter at Kalofagas is always a source of inspiration - I have heaps of his dishes bookmarked to make at some stage. I actually made two of his dishes on the same day - his melitzanosalata and the pork ladorigani.

I'd intended to cook my aubergine for the melitzanosalata on the barbecue, but the weather didn't play along at all. It was blowing a gale, 10 degrees colder than it had been and pouring with rain. But in the recipe Peter says "I’m let down when I taste that the eggplant was roasted in the oven", and I couldn't bear to disappoint him! So I lined my roasting tin with foil, put a good bed of beech smoking dust down, and put the aubergine on a rack over them. Covered the whole lot in foil and put it on the stove to start smoking, then into the oven to bake. It didn't give as smoky a flavour as doing them directly on charcoal, but it certainly gave a bit of the lovely smoked aubergine aroma that you look for in this sort of salad/dip.

The pork dish was much more straightforward - and absolutely delicious! I cut the skin that I'd removed from the pork belly into chunks and baked them in a hot oven and used the lovely resulting crackling as a garnish for the dish, but followed the rest as written (ish - I used tequila instead of white wine because it was open and sacrificable).

I served the melitzanosalata and pork ladorigani with some (bought) wholemeal pita bread, some courgettes sauteed in olive oil and garlic, finished with a squeeze of lemon juice and some hummus. A really wonderful meal - and definitely enough garlic to keep the vampires at bay. Thank the foody gods that Paul likes garlic just as much as I do!

Of course, when I make hummus I have half a jar of tahini left over. Normally, I just make more hummus. But on this occasion I was keen to try out a dish I saw on Laura's blog Hungry and Frozen - halvah shortbread. Now, I am a sucker for shortbread anyway, but the addition of ground almonds and tahini sounded just wonderful! Unfortunately, my food processor is too small for this quantity, so I just went in with my hands to combine all the ingredients. It is completely delicious! It has the rich sesame flavour of halvah and the wonderful buttery flakiness of shortbread. Because the halvah gives so much flavour, I think this would be a really good recipe to veganise - you really wouldn't miss out on anything by using vegetable shortening instead of butter. I think this would also make a wonderful dessert with some yoghurt and poached figs. Definitely try this one!

Monday 3 May 2010

Meat-Free Monday: Onion Tart

I don't know why I've had quiche and savoury tarts on my mind recently, but the idea has been niggling at me for about a month. So, when we got onions in the veg box for the 3rd week running, and somehow I hadn't used any of them, I decided that it was time to give in and make an onion tart. I prepared the onions the day before, which is the really time consuming bit, so then it was a pretty speedy Monday night dinner.

Onion Tart

1 sheet ready-rolled shortcrust pastry
1 metric fuck-tonne of onions (I think it was 9 medium onions and 3 red shallots - basically keep peeling and slicing until your patience runs out)
1tbs butter
1tbs olive oil
1 sprig of thyme
150g mild cheese (I used a firm goats cheese, but the goat naysayers could use a mild cheddar, or gruyere)
150ml sour cream
3 eggs
black pepper

Heat a heavy-based saucepan with a lid over a low heat, add the olive oil and butter and when the butter melts add the thinly sliced onions and the thyme. Turn the onions over in the melted butter and oil until well coated, then cover tightly and cook in a slow oven until, as the Hairy Bikers say, "wilted to the point of apathy". These had an hour at 120C. If you haven't got anything better to do, you can do the onions on the stove top, stirring frequently. Basically you want them completely collapsed, translucent and beginning to take colour. If you try and hurry this stage, the onions will burn or, even worse, stay raw. And raw onions in this quantity lead to soggy pastry and unsettled tummies.

Let the onions cool.

Grate the cheese into a mixing bowl and add the sour cream and eggs, beating well. Add the cooled onions and season well with grated nutmeg and black pepper.

Line a pie dish with the pastry, prick all over with a fork and blind bake for 10 minutes at 180C, just to begin to set the pastry.

Pour the onion mixture into the pastry case and return to the oven, baking for about 35 minutes, or until golden and puffy. Allow to sit for 15 minutes to firm a little before cutting, and serve with a sharply-dressed green vegetable or salad. We had steamed purple sprouting broccoli dressed with lemon juice and garnished with some panko breadcrumbs, tossed with olive oil, garlic and lemon zest until golden and crisp.


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