Thursday 30 May 2013

Two potato latkes

There are some days when my list-making lets me down. I usually make a rough meal plan for the week, showing dinners and any lunches we will be home for. But some days I forget to provide for a weekend lunch, or we plan to be out but then stay in and need feeding.

This was one of those. I needed most of the pack of bacon for my shrimp and grits and we had no bread and not enough eggs for an omelette or frittata. I had one potato and one sweet potato, so I decided to make latkes.

Two potato latkes (makes 12)

1 large potato
1 large sweet potato
1 large onion
2 eggs
1-2 heaped spoonfuls plain flour
Salt, pepper & nutmeg

Peel and coarsely grate the potatoes and onion. Wrap in a cloth (I used a jelly bag) and wring out over the sink to get as much liquid out as possible. It's amazing how much liquid they throw off.

Place the wrung-out shreds in a mixing bowl, add the eggs and 1-2 spoonfuls of flour until it feels like it will hold together, and season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.

Heat some olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and squash heaping tablespoonsful of the potato mixture into it. Then DON'T TOUCH THEM until bubbles start coming up through the middle of them and the edges start to frizzle. Turn once with a palette knife and then again DON'T TOUCH THEM. When they smell cooked, flip onto a paper-towel-lined baking sheet and keep warm while the rest of them cook. My pan needed three batches of latkes to use the mixture.

Serve with bacon and fried tomatoes. The leftover latkes are nice at room temperature with a bit of cheese. And I suspect they'd be lovely with sour cream and smoked salmon.

Monday 27 May 2013

Victoria Sponge

I hope everyone who is lucky enough to have a long weekend is enjoying the rest and relaxation!

On a recent cold and rainy afternoon, I decided I wanted cake. I gave the craving and the contents of the pantry some thought and came up with Victoria sponge - I had eggs, flour, butter and vanilla, and a jar of strawberry jam.

Now, this was a slightly risky undertaking. For all Victoria sponges are considered one of the easiest of the sponge family to make because they contain fats and raising agents, I can't remember ever having made a good one. I'm also usually put off because the instructions tend to say to divide the mixture between two tins, and for all my prodigious collection of cake tins, I don't have two of the same size.

I had Felicity's perfect Victoria sponge bookmarked, which uses the old-school direction to weigh the eggs in their shells and then use that weight of butter, sugar and flour. And when I realised that I only had two eggs, that seemed like the right approach to take.

My friend Suelle had commented that she felt the tins called for in the recipe were a bit big for a three-egg sponge, so I thought I would be OK using a single 6" tin for a two-egg sponge. I also used a splash of vanilla extract. Felicity has frequently expressed her distaste for vanilla extract in her column and it isn't a feeling I share. Because of that bit of vanilla I didn't end up needing any milk to get the mixture to the right dropping consistency.

The cake rose beautifully.

I didn't fancy buttercream (in Australian cookbooks sometimes called "mock cream") in the middle, and didn't really fancy going out to get fresh cream (it was, as previously mentioned, a cold and rainy afternoon). I did, however, have a tub of half-fat creme fraiche in the fridge. I dunked a spoon in it and decided that in both flavour and texture it would work well in my cake. It did.

Friday 24 May 2013

Shrimp & Grits & bonus leftovers

I found grits! As I mentioned, I was having a bit of a hard time tracking down grits for less than an exorbitant price. Even Whole Foods let me down. In the end I found a box of old-fashioned hominy grits at a South African market stall in the next town over for less than the price of an arm and a leg.

I was ready to continue on my journey into the food of the Southern states of America.

The problem for an outsider, of course, is that shrimp & grits doesn't really exist. There are dozens if not hundreds of recipes out there, but no two are the same. The shrimp might be cooked in a gloopy dark roux, like for gumbo, poached in butter, boiled in beer, sauteed with garlic, bacon and lemon juice or done in a smoky sausage and tomato sauce. But the grits are generally creamy, cheesy or both.

I didn't want to make a separate vegetable dish, so I decided that the shrimp had to have enough greens to make the meal.

I peeled and deveined some enormous raw prawns and put the shells in a pot with a bit of water and simmered it to make a prawn stock.

I sauteed a couple of slices of smoked bacon, cut into strips, then added a huge pile of the holy trinity (two green peppers, two onions, three sticks of celery) and several cloves of garlic. When the vegetables had softened, I added the prawns and some of the prawn stock. At this point I realised that I wanted a bit of wine in it, but didn't have any, so I added a little gin and then cooked it just until the prawns were opaque and pink.

I served the shrimp on top of the grits, which I had cooked slowly in vegetable stock and then stirred in a couple of handfuls of sliced spring onions and a small tub of mascarpone. And of course drizzled each portion with hot sauce.

It was delicious. The grits were coarser than any polenta I have had, so the creaminess was interspersed with grains that were a bit more al dente. The prawns were firm and bouncy and the whole thing was lovely and harmonious. Paul, who doesn't like polenta so I was really apprehensive about serving him this (not apprehensive enough not to do it, though) said it was one of my most successful recent experiments and he would be happy to eat it again. Maybe twice a year.

I made loads more than we could eat (it was a large bag of prawns), and had a good cupful of prawn stock spare, so the next day we had to address what to do with the leftovers.

I had the last portion of grits with some of the vegetables reheated for lunch. This was a good opportunity to have a proper think about the grits. I decided that they tasted somehow more like sweetcorn than polenta does, and that I preferred the texture. The mascarpone added a subtle cheesiness and tang that worked very well.

My thought on the leftover prawns had been to boil some corn and potato in a bit of stock, give it a rough going over with a stick blender and then add in the prawns and remaining prawn stock for a quick chowder. Paul decided that he wanted to cook though. A sort of jambalaya concoction, Camargue red rice, chunks of smoked Polish sausage and the prawns added for the last five minutes. Because the prawns had been so lightly cooked before, they kept their springy texture, which went very nicely with the nutty red rice and snappy chunks of sausage.
So that craving has been satisfied. What should I try next? A Southern dessert? A burgoo? Brunswick stew?

Monday 20 May 2013

Meat Free Monday: Baked tomatoes and feta and a bottle of Bucky

I don't generally consider myself a playful cook. Actually, I tend to look sideways at people who give themselves those sorts of labels. But this was a fun meal for a couple of reasons.

Firstly the recipe I mostly followed for the tomatoes was in Afrikaans. I don't speak Afrikaans. But after a steer from Paul (uie is onions) there were enough cognates to English and culinary German for me to get on with. Some of the words look odd but are recognisable if you try to say them out loud ("olyfolie", "kersietamaties"). Fun.

The dish would have been a raging success too, had it not been for my utterly flavourless and woolly out of season tomatoes. I know, out of season tomatoes, I brought it on myself. But I didn't expect them to be quite so crisp.
The other fun element to the meal was anticipating the expressions of horror that I know will cross my Scottish readers' faces when I reveal the secret ingredient in my caramelised garlic baguette. You see, normally I would blanch my garlic cloves and then cook them in a mixture of sugar and cheap balsamic vinegar. And unfortunately (in a way) I only had nice balsamic vinegar. I decided to use some not-brilliant sherry vinegar and add a bit of extra richness with some fortified wine.

Buckfast Tonic Wine, to be precise.

Why, you may well ask, did I have a bottle of Bucky, recently linked to over 7000 crimes in Scotland in the last three years? A drink that is actually being sold with anti-crime labels, so strong is the association with antisocial behaviour?

Well, that's down to Paul's sense of humour and ideas of romance. You see, I spent five years working for a charity that helped Scots living in London who had run into difficulties. Some of whom, no doubt, had a passing acquaintance with the bottle of Bucky.  His fascination was compounded by the Ted Leo and the Pharmacists song. Paul's sense of romance led him to proclaim that as runner-up to be "our song" (current front runner is the Arctic Monkeys Dancing Shoes, for the lyric "put on your dancing shoes, you sexy little swine"). Then he spotted some of the dread beverage in our local corner store and  felt compelled to buy it.

We had to taste it, of course, but it wasn't something I would choose to drink again. Essential thriftyness and the fact that it had been bought as a somewhat romantic gesture prevented me from throwing it away. But drowning the flavour with sugar, vinegar and garlic was A-OK.

I cooled the garlic cloves and rolled them into the centre of some baguette dough, baked it and served it to mop up the baked tomatoes and feta. Due to the flavourlessness of the full-sized tomatoes, I drizzled the dish with the remaining garlicky Bucky caramel. Fortunately there wasn't enough of it for the caffeine (which I had forgotten about) to interfere with our sleep.

Friday 17 May 2013

Here's looking at you, kid - wild goat tagine

It was unexpectedly tricky to come up with an appropriately punny title for this post. The classic "I like kids but I couldn't eat a whole one" was used by Michael Smith for his Great British Menu winning goat tagine (which is actually what inspired this, but when I read his actual recipe I didn't fancy it). And Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall co-opted "The kids are alright" for the recipe I did end up mostly following.

So here we are, with my third choice of pun.

Having been inspired to make a goat tagine, I actually had a bit of a hard time getting hold of the meat. Then Blackface sent out an email saying they had a few boxes of wild kid meat available, and Bob's your uncle. I now have quite a bit of goat in the freezer, so there will be a curry and something else coming in future posts. And of course, I usually think I am going to like tagines more than I do - many of them end up being inedibly sweet - so I needed to find one that had a little sweetness but a good balance of flavours.

I mostly followed this tagine recipe, but I left the meat whole on the bone and cooked it for much longer. I also didn't pay an enormous amount of attention to the quantities of spices he used and just added them in quantities that felt right. And instead of adding apricots and almonds to it, I used this trick from youtube of simmering the apricots in a sweet syrup ( I used honey not sugar) and stuffing them with walnut halves.

The meat just fell off the bone. If I was serving it to company I would have dished it onto a big platter and surrounded it with sauce, but it was just us and I wasn't prepared to dirty another dish. So I just broke it into chunks with a couple of forks and stirred it back through the thick, aromatic sauce. I served it with a thoroughly bastardised version of this pilaf recipe, using my current favourite ingredient, canned artichoke hearts in water instead of pretty fresh artichokes, and leaving out the olives and almonds and using shreds of preserved lemon peel as well as fresh lemon juice. 

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Chorizo and mushroom frittata

We ran into a scheduling problem on Saturday. We'd been planning to go to a bonsai show on Sunday, while I met up with friends for yum cha on Saturday. Only it turned out the bonsai show was also on the Saturday. So we had to set off in different directions.

Whilst I was going out for a substantial meal, I wanted to have something for breakfast which would hopefully prevent me from eating everything in sight as soon as we got to the restaurant. And the options for eating at the bonsai show were likely to be non-existent.

I had a rummage in the fridge and found a piece of chorizo, half a punnet of mushrooms and a wedge of not-very-good Pont-l'Évêque. And eggs. Always eggs.

I cut the chorizo into small pieces and sauteed them in a little oil until their own oil ran, then added the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms had softened, I poured on some beaten eggs. When they were starting to set around the edges, I topped it with slices of the cheese, then stuck the pan under a grill until the eggs were cooked and the cheese melted.

Really delicious, quite satisfying but still light enough to leave room for loads of dumplings a couple of hours later.

Friday 10 May 2013

Ginger banana cake

For the last couple of years at Christmas I've bought decorative blue and white china jars filled with chunks of crystallised ginger. Hardly any of it has survived to be made into anything, I just dip my hand into the pot every time I walk past the kitchen. I love fresh, lemony ginger, chocolate coated crystallised ginger, firey, sweet ground ginger, weird ginger gummy bears, ginger beer, ginger liqueur and ginger cordial. Acting on a tip from an Indian friend, I recently banished a lingering cough with ginger tea (made a ginger infusion with a little sugar and used that to make my normal black tea). I just love ginger.

I saw this recipe for making your own crystallised ginger. Serendipitously, it coincided with some very nice root ginger being discounted at the supermarket. It was meant to be. Reading the recipe more closely, I realised that it was actually to make something more like what the British call "stem" ginger - candied ginger preserved in syrup - rather than crunchy-coated crystallised ginger (which is what the picture shows...).

Even though there are several steps involved, none of it was onerous. And the end product was delicious - really firey, with a good texture (tender but with a bite to it). It also worked out marginally cheaper than the bought stuff.

I couldn't decide what to make with it. Ginger biscuits? Gelato? Parkin? Truffles? In the end, other factors forced my hand. Three over-ripe bananas.

I thought I'd posted about Nigella's banana bread before, because it is my favourite banana bread, but I can't find the post so I obviously didn't. And it very conveniently requires three over-ripe bananas (well, the recipe in How to be a domestic goddess calls for 300g, or four small, and my three large bananas weighed 300g). Instead of 100g sultanas and 75ml rum, I used 70g of my ginger, chopped, and 50ml ginger wine (just chucked them in, didn't worry about the warming etc).

It made a richly flavoured, very moist cake with a strong but not overpowering taste of ginger. Paul felt that it was almost as good as his Aunty Ena's cake, but since she was famed for carrot cake and this was banana cake I'm not sure how they could be compared? He also thought the ginger could have been in slightly finer pieces, which I will take on board.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Baked chicken with chickpeas, spinach and rice

On a Tuesday, I get home late and hungry from dancing. Because Paul has been working long hours recently, the easiest thing has been for me to make something large and substantial and tolerant of reheating so he can have his tea when he wants it and I have an instant meal waiting for me when I get home.

We've been eating a lot of pasta.

And there is nothing at all wrong with that. But I've never wanted to be the sort of person who ate on a set rota of dishes, if-it's-Wednesday-it-must-be-meatloaf. I decided to mix it up a bit and make a rice-based dish.

This is inspired by Delia's Moroccan baked chicken dish, but with some changes to streamline it and make it a more complete one-pot meal.

Baked chicken with chickpeas, spinach and rice (serves 3)

olive oil
4 chicken thighs (skin on, bone in)
1 large onion, sliced finely
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 pinch saffron stamens
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup white basmati rice (approx - it was how much was left in the bag and I didn't weigh it)
1 can artichoke hearts in water, drained and halved
200g spinach leaves, roughly chopped
1 cup vegetable stock
75ml dry sherry
handful coriander leaves
1 small preserved lemon, skin only

Brown the onion and chicken in a good splash of oil in a casserole dish. Add the garlic, cumin, coriander and saffron, then the chickpeas, rice, artichoke hearts and spinach leaves. Pour the vegetable stock and sherry over everything and put the lid on the dish. Bake in a 180C oven for about 30 minutes. There should be a lot of extra liquid in the dish and the rice should be cooked. Give it a bit of a stir and fish around with a spoon to bring the chicken pieces to the surface, then return to the oven for another 10 minutes just to get a more appetising colour on the chicken. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and shreds of preserved lemon.

This would also be very nice without the chicken as a vegetarian main course or substantial side-dish with grilled meat.

Sunday 5 May 2013


We have a long weekend in the UK this weekend. I'm not Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen, jumping over a bonfire or even drinking one of P.G Wodehouse's May Queen cocktails. I'm mostly having a relaxing time. But I did think it was time for a little culinary challenge.

I've made baguettes before but they've never been quite right. The crumb has been too stodgy or the crust has been too thick. They've been baguette-shaped but without the characteristic thin, crackling, slightly blistered crust and soft, irregular crumb. So I thought I would have another go.

Problem is, getting those bits right seems to be quite tricky. Various bits of advice including using French flour (lower protein, apparently), adding ice or warning not even to attempt it without a commercial steam oven were a bit off-putting. Julia Child's classic recipe was even more so.

Eventually I found this recipe. I've never used King Arthur flour (I don't know that it is available over here) but their recipes have a pretty good reputation, and the method seemed reasonably straightforward. 

Of course, when I set out I didn't actually calculate how long the process would take.

Fourteen hours for the pre-ferment (of course, that was the yeast putting the hours in, I slept for ten of them). Three hours for the first rise, with gentle knocking back every hour. Then dividing, resting for fifteen minutes, then shaping, then a second rise for an hour and a half, THEN baking. And then the torment of waiting for it to cool.

No wonder bakers have to get up so early.
Second rising

I had quite high expectations after all that carry on. I did mess with the recipe just the tiniest bit. After seeing all the stuff about the softer French wheat, I used a mixture of 2/3 strong white flour and 1/3 regular soft plain flour.
Apparently it's supposed to be seven slashes, but this wasn't as long as a proper one

The only other change I made was not spritzing the dough with water. Instead, I put a metal pan in the bottom of the oven when I preheated it, and just as I was about to bake I poured some boiling water into it - which of course erupted into clouds of steam.

The results were very, very pleasing. Because baguette has a reputation for going stale very quickly, when I divided the dough into thirds I froze two portions. I know whole cuisines have been founded on the things to do with stale bread but mostly I'd rather eat mine fresh. We'll see if the remaining portions rise as nicely when they are thawed and baked.

While the bread cooled, I cooked a steak and cut a few slivers of onion. Then lunch was served.


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