Saturday, 26 February 2011

Mother-in-law's Madeira Cake

This is a mother-in-law's cake in more ways than one. It's the cake I always make for mine - she only likes fairly plain cakes, and she isn't supposed to have much in the way of sugar anyway, as she's diabetic. I only make it for her occasionally - any more and I feel as though I'm feeding a habit.

The recipe I usually use is in Nigella's Domestic Goddess, and is her own mother-in-law's cake. I am not one of Nigella Lawson's detractors. I think for the most part, her books are excellent - I loved How to Eat when it came out, have baked my way through Domestic Goddess and have recently raved about Kitchen - I couldn't watch the TV programme but the book - I loved it from all the advice on kitting out a kitchen (especially the her Kitchen Hall of Shame) to the totally inauthentic dishes she makes (I have no problem with this, being someone who can take pot luck with a label-less something from the freezer and consequently end up eating mutton curry with pasta and cheddar cheese). I was not so keen about the premise behind Forever Summer (strawberries in winter, natch) or her silly comments about "saving your sanity or the environment" which she fortunately readdressed in Feast.

Anyway, back to the recipe, which is an absolute cinch to make.

Cream together 240g butter, 200g caster sugar and the zest of one lemon. Gradually beat in 3 eggs along with 300g self raising flour. Add the juice from the lemon - you should have a fairly stiff dropping consistency. Put into a lined loaf tin, sprinkle with a couple of tbsp caster sugar, and bake in an oven, pre-heated to 170C for approximately one hour. Simple. 

You can of course change the flavourings. Caraway or poppy seed work very well - I recently made an orange and rosemary version which was lovely and will definitely be made again.

The only issue with the Nigella recipe, is that she specifies using a 450g loaf tin which is too small - I use a 900g/2lb tin.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

West Ealing Farmers' Market

A rare non cookery book post - sometimes the ingredients are so good, you don't need to do anything to them.                                                               

The other thing which made this cold-filled weekend bearable was a two hour double bill of The Killing (to which S & I are both addicted), served up with an array of produce from our farmers' market, which is a 5 minute walk away every Saturday.

I always go, whatever the weather - I always feel that if they've made the effort and are going to stand in the rain and cold, then I should at least go and see what they're selling. I always buy from Angela Malik (her Thai pesto and an assortment of samosas, usually), who have been loyal to the market since it started - this despite the fact the demographic of WEFM is quite elderly and generally pass over a stall selling Indian food. Shame. Yesterday I bought some sourdough, feeling too lazy and ill to make any,some lovely, sweet, fresh tomatoes from the tomato stall (organic certified from the Isle of Wight - I don't usually buy tomatoes out of season at elevated prices, but yesterday I just couldn't resist) and cheese from the Bath Soft Cheese Co - inspired combination of West Country organic dairy and an Italian cheesemaker, for a lovely creamy blue cheese (much more reminiscent of a dolcelate torta than anything I've before tasted from the UK) and a delicious soft cheese which oozed its way across the plate in minutes.

So, toasted sourdough with butter melted through it, a tomato and onion salad, and the cheese, along with a bottle of wine, and for me, a couple of rum hot toddies for afters. Just what I needed.

My only other purchase at the farmers market was a pot of hyacinths for a mere £2. So I'm looking forward to their scent filling my kitchen in the next few weeks.

I hear rumblings from the stallholders at West Ealing that the market isn't doing well in terms of footfall. I'd hate for any of them to give up - it may be a small market, but it's much better value than most of them (eg., Marylebone, which is lovely, but expensive)  if you are on a budget. I regularly buy chicken carcasses/backs for stock and soup, odd cuts like rolled lamb breasts, very cheap game (one supplier even has rook and squirrel) as well as all the regular deals with the fruit and vegetable stalls. It's an important part of my weekly shop.

Curry Easy - Maddhur Jaffrey

4 reasons why this weekend has been horrible:

After congratulating myself for throwing off a cold, I woke up on Saturday morning without a voice - cold back with a vengeance.

My father-in-law (who probably gave me the cold), also has a bad cold, which meant that S couldn't take the kids to the in-laws. Apparently he caught his cold from an out of date cheesecake. Don't ask.

Both of these combined meant I couldn't take advantage of the free pass I'd been given by S to go out and enjoy myself. So my day of treats, including some shopping, tea and cakes in Great Titchfield Street's Scandikitchen and cocktails in Bob Bob Ricard was cancelled.

This meant there was little to take my mind of the fact I'd just sold my beloved car- a pepper white and black Mini Copper, which went by the name of Pig (a prize for anyone who works out why). I desperately wanted to keep it, but it just wasn't practical - we don't need two cars, and Pig simply isn't big enough to cope with 2 car seats and Adam's pushchair, let alone any luggage or shopping we might have.

So was feeling very miserable.

So, I made what I usually make when I want something comforting with least amount of effort: a big pot of spicy, cold-combatting dahl.
I've never actually followed a recipe before. Instead, I make a vague approximation of what my mother-in-law does instinctively - lazily, I usually just select a load of whole spices (clove, cardamon, cumin & coriander seed, cinnamon bark, bay, black pepper), some ground spices (turmeric, cayenne) throw them into some oil, along with some chopped onion, garlic and ginger, then add water, lentils, and either one or other of tomatoes/coconut milk - sometimes both. Sometimes I'll add some diced lamb at the beginning. I'll always cook in a pressure cooker - 10 minutes on high for the meat, before adding the lentils. If I'm just cooking lentils, the whole thing is done in 5 minutes. So you can see - minimal effort and really tasty.

But the point of this blog is to try actual recipes, so I thought I'd better put a dahl recipe to the test for the first time - I have loads of them. I'm not sure how many Indian cookery books I have, but they would fill a long shelf. As I was (am) feeling delicate, I thought a simple one would be best, so I went for one of several options in Maddhur Jaffrey's Curry Easy, Red Lentils with Ginger.

It was the most pared down I could find - onions, garlic, ginger fried in oil with ground coriander, cumin, cayenne and turmeric, then cooked with tomatoes and red lentils, with fresh coriander leaf and some butter stirred in at the end. It was nice, but unfortunately, nowhere near  as good as the one I usually make.

I have lots of dahl recipes to try (another 7 recipes in this book alone), so I'm going to keep a tally but so far, it's Me 1: Cookbooks 0.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Far Eastern Odyssey - Rick Stein

Rick Stein. The only "celebrity" chef I will go out of my way to watch. Not only do I have all his books, I've cooked from them all too, and even bother to get the DVDs. He just ticks all the boxes for me - I don't mind the Clarkson-esque jeans & Ralph Lauren shirt combo, or Floydian exuberance of his red faced, drink fueled cri de coeurs to camera. It's endearing. He has boundless enthusiasm, a sense of humour and a strong ethical bent, hence his campaigning for Food Heroes.

More importantly, he writes as he speaks - extremely well, and his recipes are interesting and always (for me at least) work.

So last night I had a crack at a recipe from Far Eastern Odyssey. I may have remembered this wrong, but when he cooked this recipe on the television show, he did say something along the lines of, "If you only cook one recipe from this series, make it this one." I will check in due course, as I have the DVD coming. Anyway, it's Vit Nau Cam - Duck braised in a spiced orange juice.

I'm not a fan of duck a l'orange, but slightly tart orange works so well with rich duck and some heat, I hoped it might work. And it did - even S, who doesn't like anything very sweet, loved it. Strangely, it tasted more like a Thai curry than a Vietnamese dish. It's definitely something I'll cook again.

Here's my abbreviated version of the recipe - I followed it almost to the letter, just used the breasts and legs of duck (so I could make stock with the rest), used half the amount of orange juice, because I was cooking it in the pressure cooker (for 20 mins instead of 1/1/2 hours simmering) because there isn't any evaporation, and then, as it reduced well when I added the spring onions, I didn't bother with the cornflour. 

Take a 2.5kg duck and joint it into 6 pieces. Put them in a heavy based casserole (I used the pressure cooker) and fry, skin side down, until crisp and golden, then turn over. Remove the duck pieces, then drain off most of the rendered fat. Reduce the heat, then add 50g crushed garlic and 50g thinly sliced ginger. Fry gently for a couple of minutes, then add 1 litre orange juice, 4tbsp fish sauce, 5 star anise, 2 finely chopped lemon grass stalks, 4 red bird's eye chillies and seasonings. Return the duck pieces to the pan, part-cover and leave to simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Take a the white parts of a bunch of spring onions (reserving one), halve lengthwise and add to the duck, and simmer for another half an hour. Shred the remaining spring onion, lengthways, for a garnish. Lift the duck pieces into a warmed serving dish, skim the remaining sauce of fat (if you like), then simmer vigorously until reduced and concentrated. Mix 1/2 tsp cornflour with 1 tsp water, stir into the sauce and simmer for 1 minute more, stirring all the while. Pour over the duck and garnish with the shredded spring onion.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Valentines, Schmalentines

We aren't great believers in Valentines Day in our house, both hating the idea of prescribed romance. Despite this, S inexplicably bought me a huge bunch of flowers yesterday ("in case you're being a girl and saying that you don't care about Valentine's Day when you do really."), so I thought I'd better mark the occasion somehow. Nothing sweet for us though. He loves offal, so I thought I'd be a bit more literal with the heart motif and cook actual hearts*. I have had a couple of lambs' hearts knocking around the freezer for a while (bought on a whim, for £1 the pair, at the local farmers' market) - ideal opportunity to use them up, right?

Let me say right away that I feel a bit let down by my cookery book collection this time round, as there aren't many recipes out there which use heart. I could have made faggots (from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's Meat Book) or Paprikash (ditto) - but I wanted to preserve the heart shape, which ruled out cutting up or mincing. The other common method is to stuff them, but I couldn't find a stuffing recipe that inspired me. Most were variations on sage and onion stuffing, even the recipe in Nose to Tail Eating, although this one at least was a much richer affair (including a red wine reduction). Rachael McCormack recommended looking in Turkish/Middle Eastern books - nothing. Perhaps I haven't got the right books? I had high hopes of Claudia Roden and Arto der Haroutunian, but no luck.

So in the end I abandoned the books. I used Nose to Tail Eating as it had the best description on how to prepare the hearts:

"trim the hearts of any excess fat nodules at their openings and any obvious sinews, and the flap at the top that looks like the bit that has a string to tighten at the top of a knapsack. Finally, with your finger, scoop out any blood clots at the base of the ventricles."

I gave them a quick wash too. Next for the stuffing. I wanted more meat, so into the Thermomix went an onion, some lamb mince, then seasonings - lemon zest, dried mint, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, lots of sumac, a merest hint of cayenne and, of course, salt and pepper. Everything was whizzed up together, then stuffed into the hearts (I had lots left over, so they got fried up as little patties for Adam's dinner). I browned the hearts in butter and olive oil, then added some lamb stock, a glug of beer (no wine to hand) and threw in some unpeeled garlic cloves, then simmered for a good couple of hours. I should have followed Marguerite Patten's lead** and pressure cooked them, but I was worried about the stuffing falling out. Next time.

I ended up with two hearts, which somehow managed to be tender and retain firmness at the same time, with a sauce which had reduced enough to be almost a glaze, and a stuffing which had just enough zest to it to cut through the richness of the hearts. We ate it simply on toasted sourdough. Very tasty.

*slightly inspired by an old Buffy episode in which Angel-as-Angelus gives Drusilla a fresh human heart to suck on. Yum.

** Marguerite Patten is a big fan of hearts. When I interviewed her last year she recounted a time when she asked her local butcher if people still bought hearts, and his reply was yes - for their dogs. She said that she was happy for the dogs of course, but what a shame that people didn't eat them themselves.

Monday, 14 February 2011

A Risotto for Optimising Sofa Time.

Being full of cold and generally grumpy today I've been in a bit of a rant mode. One of my main sources of irritation was a tweet from Ruch Reichl who never fails to annoy. She epitomises a particular style of food writing which takes itself oh, so seriously. It's very stylised and tries to be spare, but is in fact adjective rich, humourless and intensely precious. Ms Reichl's tweets are almost self-paradic. Here's a sample: 

"So cold. Heavy snow-swollen sky. Butter-toasted oatmeal, rivers of thick cream, brown sugar. Fresh orange juice: such fragrant hope."

And my favourite:

"Chilly morning; summer ebbing away. Last night's peach pie, fragile and fragrant on this bright morning. Each bite a tiny farewell."

I just can't stand it. The other thing I can't stand is the way in which some writers fall into the trap of the easy

cliche. I'm sure the first time I read a passage which talked about the soothing, meditative, zen like effects of stirring risotto, I would have found it original, but now everyone's at it and it's just annoying. I'm sure I enjoy stirring risottos (or anything else for that matter) as much as the next person, but please, can't we find something else to say about it? Why is there always this need to mysticise cooking. Do I think cooking is good for the soul? Yes, I do, but sometimes, the main benefit is simply that I want something good to eat.

So, as I said at the top, coldy and moany and the last thing I want to do is cook anything, but I have three other people in the house to feed and S is already floundering about wondering what to do. So I check the method in Richard Ehrlich's "80 Recipes For Your Pressure Cooker". Do a quick search and grab in fridge and cupboard (this was made with roast chicken leftovers) and make a risotto in less than 10 minutes. No stirring, beyond a bit of sauteeing at the beginning, and beating in of cheese at the end, and it tasted bloody good too.

Risotto, for those days when you are too tired to stand up and need some extra sofa time:

1 onion, finely chopped
250g risotto rice
A splash of vermouth
600ml chicken stock (mine was very garlicky, so no extra garlic, if you like add some chopped garlic with the rice) 
A pinch of saffron, wetted in some of the chicken stock
Some cooked chicken
A cupful of peas
Tarragon if you have it, or any other herb you fancy
A squeeze of lemon juice
As much grated parmesan as you fancy.

Heat a large knob of butter in your pressure cooker and add the onion. Saute until starting to soften, then add the rice and garlic if you are using it. Stir for a minute or two until the rice is well coated with the butter. Add the vermouth, let it sizzle, then add the chicken stock, saffron,  herbs and seasoning. Lock the pressure cooker lid into place, quickly bring up to pressure and cook for 5 minutes. Fast release under water, then add the chicken, peas and parmesan. If there is still too much liquid left, half cover and leave on a very low heat for 2-3 minutes. Beat to combine and for extra smoothness. Check for seasoning and add a squeeze of lemon juice if you like.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Omelette Book - Narcissa Chamberlain

Whoops. I started this blog just over a month ago, posted about 5 times, and then got so busy the whole thing got abandoned - yet, today I garner a mention in The Times. Better get cracking then, hadn't I?

I do 99% of the cooking in our household, but there's one thing my partner, S, excels at - omelettes. That is, if I manage to persuade him to keep things straightforward and not throw in anything he might find in fridge or kitchen cupboard. His philosophy is, if he likes x ingredient, and he likes eggs, it follows that he will like them together. And he usually does. I, however, am harder to please. I do not generally like my omelettes to contain tinned stuff - no to corned beef and tinned sardines in tomato sauce. Another no to tinned squid in ink, mainly due to aesthetics, although I have acknowledged that this wasn't too far removed from an omelette made with dark gilled mushrooms (I didn't point out that I have in the past removed the gills to stop my omelette going grey. I know this sounds mad, but I am sure I have read of chefs doing such things.)

Narcissa Chamberlain's book from the 1950s makes me feel conservative and unadventurous, as she has no qualms about experimenting with flavours and agrees with S that tinned goods are often expedient. There are over 300 recipes in this book - savoury omelettes, sweet omelettes, cold omelettes, Danish, Chinese, Japanese and  Russian omelettes. There are omelettes which seem designed to use up leftovers (brussel sprouts, mincemeat), those which are luxurious in the extreme (foie gras, truffles, caviar), some which I can't quite imagine the taste of (an Iraqi omelette, flavoured with walnuts, raisins, saffron, turmeric, chives, breadcrumbs).

So, considering the variety, and the fact that Narcissa Chamberlain is OK with tinned goods, I think telling S that he can cook any omelette as long as it is in this book is quite brave of me. Fortunately, after a heavy weekend, including a pork fest on Saturday (fry up for breakfast, roast pork belly for lunch, ham hock cooked for stock and cold cuts) he as well as I needed something green yesterday. So we made this:

Omelette Clamart

Braise a cupful of peas on a bed of shredded lettuce (we used little gems and frozen peas with no apology), with 1 or 2 spring onions, a pinch of thyme (I substituted tarragon), a sprig of parsley, a lump of butter, salt and pepper and a little sugar (presumably to counteract any bitterness of the lettuce?). Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water (I used white wine) and braise slowly until tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, but the peas are still moist.

Make your omelette. Put 3/4 of the peas in the centre of the omelette before folding. After folding make a shallow slit on the top of the omelette and place the remaining peas in this.

Delicious, but felt the lack of cheese!