Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Best Oven Fries EVER (seriously)

I'm going to make this quick, because I have a lot to do today, as I'm making a veritable Indian FEAST for a girlie sleep over tonight and I'm really excited.

I just wanted to share this method for what are seriously the best oven-fried chips you can make. Don't be fooled into thinking that they're a low-cal option, because they're not. I just don't like all the palaver involved with deep frying, cleaning up and filtering oil afterward.

This method produces a fry/chip with a crunchy, glass-like outer crust with the fluffiest, almost creamy interior. They take a little planning ahead, but you could do the par-boil the day before if you want to be able to bake them quickly before serving.

Sea-Salted Oven Fries To Die For
To serve 4 hungry people, takes approx 2 1/2 hours, including cooling

1 kilo (2.2lbs) floury potatoes, such as Maris Piper or King Edward
120ml (1/2 cup) goose fat or grape seed oil
plenty of sea salt.

Peel the potatoes, reserving the peels and cut them into 1/2" chips.
Boil the potatoes and the peels* in very salted water for 10-12 minutes until you almost think that they're cooked all the way. The outsides should be floury and loose, but obviously you don't want to cook them until they fall apart.
Drain the chips and when they're cool enough to handle, put the chips on a wire rack to cool and dry for an hour or so. Discard the cooked peels.

Heat your oven to 200C (400F) with a large baking tray containing the fat. When the oil is stonking hot, carefully tip in the chips and toss them in the oil to coat completely. They must be in one layer, so if your pan isn't big enough, use two pans on different shelves.
Put the chips in the oven and set your timer for 20 minutes, then check to see if they need to be turned (carefully) before finishing them for a further 15-20 minutes, or until really golden and crunchy on the outside.

Serve straight away with your favourite burger and plenty of lovely sea salt, then bathe in the the adulation from astonished, greedy family members.

*This is a tip I learned from Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection series. Cooking the peels along with the chips imparts a really potato-y flavour to the finished product that will knock your socks off.
I was skeptical too, but believe me, it totally works.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Love Is In The Air

My husband is not a foodie at all. Falling firmly in the "I eat to live, I don't live to eat" camp, there are very few meals that he gets excited about besides brinner and Captain Crunch with Crunch Berries.

On the rare occasion that we go out for a meal, if there is duck on the menu, Drew is almost guaranteed to order it. I do love to cook duck, but tend reserve it for special evenings when it's just going to be the two of us, as good free-range duck can be on the costly side and Stepson has the appetite of a small village.

Usually, I'll buy ducks whole but at one of my last trips to my favourite grocer's, they had huge crowns of free range Gressingham ducks for a fiver, so I snapped one up and popped it in the freezer.

I've done all sorts of things with duck in the past, but honestly, I think that the best thing to do with duck breast is roast it simply with a little seasoning and not for too long. Because of how fatty the meat is, I usually serve something tart or tangy along side and don't put anything else too fatty or heavy on the plate.

This recipe is so super simple and almost fool-proof, as long as you don't over-cook the meat. The citrus buttered asparagus and new potatoes are just what this little ducky needs to bring it into the Spring.

So grab a couple of breasts and your special someone and get ready to knock their socks off with this delicious and special, yet simple supper.

What do you cook when you're setting a romantic mood?

Roast Duck Breasts With Citrusy Asparagus And Crushed New Potatoes
Serves 2 lovers, takes 1 hour 

2 free-range duck breasts
salt and pepper

1 bunch asparagus, bottoms snapped off
zest of 1 lemon, juice of half
zest of 1 tangerine, juice of half
small sprig of fresh rosemary
 2 tbsp butter
sea salt

10 small new potatoes
2 tbsp olive oil (or, if you have leftover oil from confit garlic, use that!)
sea salt

First, boil the potatoes in salted boiling water for about 15 minutes, until tender, then drain.

Preheat the oven to 200C (400F)

Melt the butter for the asparagus in a small pan and when the foam has subsided, add the rosemary then cook for one minute before stirring in the orange and lemon zest. Pour the citrus butter into a ramekin or small bowl and pop it in the freezer to firm up while you carry on with the rest.

Squash the potatoes gently with the back of a fork, until they pop, then toss in the olive (or garlic) oil and sea salt to taste. Pop them into the oven in a small baking dish while you cook the duck

While the potatoes are boiling, use a very sharp knife to score the duck's skin into the fat, but without going through to the meat. The easiest way to do this is to lay the blade almost flat on the skin and pressing in a little, as opposed to cutting at a 90 degree angle. Season breasts all over with plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Heat an oven-proof frying pan over a med-high flame until hot. Don't use oil, there's plenty in the duck skin.
Lay the duck, skin-side-down in the hot pan and leave for 5-6 minutes until there is a pale, golden crispness to the skin and a lot of fat has rendered out.  Turn the breasts over and put the pan into the oven to finish cooking for 12-15 more minutes, depending on the size. The breasts I cooked were quite large and were medium-rare after 15 minutes.

Remove the duck breasts from the oven and move them to a warm plate to rest for ten minutes (very important!) and check the potatoes. If the potatoes are gold and crispy, turn the oven off but leave them in there while you do the asparagus.

In the same pan that you made the citrus butter, add a touch more butter and add the orange and lemon juice. Reduce the liquid by about half and add the asparagus. Cook the asparagus for 3-4 minutes, depending on thickness.

To serve, slice the rested duck breasts into 2cm (3/4") pieces and arrange on warm plates with some of the roasted, crushed new potatoes and the asparagus. Top the asparagus with a teaspoon or two of the citrus butter and sit down with some candles and a lovely bottle of red wine.

Duck Breasts on FoodistaDuck Breasts

Saturday, 22 May 2010


There are few things in this world more guaranteed to bring smiles of joy to the faces of my husband and stepson than brinner. That is, breakfast for dinner.
Usually, this will mean a 'full English' breakfast of eggs, grilled bacon, sausage or black pudding, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms and toast. Stepson squirts liberally with ketchup, husband with Tabasco, and we all tuck in to our naughty supper with childlike glee.
So when I asked my husband "What would you like on the menu this week?" I was not surprised to hear "Brinner!"....."But not normal brinner. Can we have pancakes pleeeaaase?"

To be completely honest, I'm not a huge fan of pancakes, preferring crepes or waffles if I had to choose. I generally prefer a savoury meal, but who am I to deny the occasional sweet-toothed whim of my favourite person?

Now one of the things that we have battled over a little in this house is what a pancake should be like. I prefer the more tender, thin version that is more common over here in the UK, with perhaps a little lemon juice and icing sugar. Drew is a staunch American pancake fan, fighting in the "It's called a panCAKE for a reason!" corner. American pancakes are definitely thicker and fluffier than their European friends and benefit most from lashings of real maple syrup and butter. They wouldn't be American pancakes without the requisite side of smoky bacon, although I used English back bacon rather than streaky because it has more meat in it.

It has taken me a while to get the recipe just right for these American pancakes, and I know that most of my readers are American,  so this is like teaching Grandma to suck eggs. If you're an English person (or other ferner) married to a yank and would like to know how to make a lovely, light and fluffy American pancakes for your beloved, then this is how to do it. These are my husband's absolute favourite pancakes of all time. Given that he is my most honest critic and aficionado of food from "back home" that's high praise indeed. Now if I can only replicate some Taco Bell for him....

American-Stylie Pancakes
makes about 8 10" pancakes, takes approx. 40 mins

400g (14oz) plain (all purpose flour)
3 1/2 tsp baking powder
 4 1/2 tsp caster sugar
3/4 tsp salt
3 lg eggs
2 cups whole milk (plus extra if needed) or buttermilk if you can get it.
3 tbsp butter
oil for cooking

To serve:
Crispy grilled free range bacon
real maple syrup

Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar (if the sugar is fine enough to fit through your sieve, otherwise, add it separately)
Beat together the eggs and milk well and add to the flour mixture. You want a fairly thick batter, rather than a thin, heavy cream texture. Add a little more milk if the batter wont pour easily. Melt the butter in a small skillet and cook until the foam subsides and the butter starts to go ever so slightly brown, with a nutty scent. Whisk this into the batter mixture and let it sit for 20 minutes.

Heat an iron skillet or other heavy-bottomed pan or griddle over a medium heat. Use a heat-proof pastry brush to spread a little oil in a thin film over the bottom of the pan and use a ladle to pour the batter into the centre of the pan, tilting this way and that to spread the batter in a circle.
Cook the pancake for 1-2 minutes, until there are bubbles breaking on the surface and the edges are dry. Flip carefully in one movement with a spatula, or if you're fancy, with the flick of your wrist.
When the second side is cooked (after 45-60 seconds) move it to a warm plate, brush the pan with more oil and pour in your next pancake. Rub a little butter all over the top of the pancake, drizzle with a little real maple syrup and cover with an upside-down bowl. Repeat 7 more times, until all the pancakes are cooked, buttered and syruped.
Divide the pancakes onto serving plates and top with more butter and lashings of maple syrup.

Meanwhile, while the pancakes are cooking, put 2 slices of bacon per person under the grill and cook until just crisp but still with a little bend in it. Serve hot on the side of the pancakes.

My two guys ate 4 pancakes each, but they are gluttons with hollow legs. This recipe is plenty for four people with human stomachs and self-restraint.

Speaking of American pancakes and self-restraint, has anyone else heard about these IHOP cheesecake sandwich pancakes?? I I don't think that there's much I can say that the article and picture don't. Ugh.

Do they come with a tube of anti-chafing gel?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Not For You, Sookie

I feel really bad for vampires. I mean aside from the obvious problems of constantly needing to prey on us mortals for sustenance and your friends and loved ones dying of old age while you just carry on living.

Imagine never being able to eat garlic or make out with an Italian! I bet even vampires' significant others have it tough, much like people who are dating a person with a peanut allergy.
You wouldn't be able to have anything with garlic in it, in case when you kissed your vampire, their lips and throat swelled up and they died-died (as opposed to undead-died.)

So Sookie, this recipe is not for you unless Bill stays missing and you finally hook up with Sam.

Can shapeshifters eat garlic?

This garlic soup recipe is a variation on a lovely looking dish that food blogger extraordinaire Wendy Tien at Upstart Kitchen. There are three bulbs of garlic in here, but the flavour is so mellow and golden. You know what I mean, right? I served this as a main course with some toasted sandwiches and it was absolutely beautiful. Stepson went on and on about how tasty this was, which is high praise indeed from him, because he isn't a big soup fan generally. It was wonderful as a main, but would be a fantastic starter if served in cups the way Wendy does.
If you like the mellow sweetness of gently roasted garlic, then this is the soup for you.

Unless you're Sookie.

Velvety Garlic Soup
serves 3 as a main, or 6 as a starter, takes 1 hour

3 bulbs garlic, cloves separated and peeled
2 cups olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
500ml (1 pint) free range chicken stock (preferably home made)
1 floury potato (about the size of a tennis ball) peeled and finely diced
2 sprigs thyme
the top of a sprig of rosemary (about 2")
2 bay leaves
100ml (4 oz) double cream (heavy whipping)
2 tsp sherry vinegar
salt and white pepper to taste
truffle oil to serve (optional)

Some of the garlic growing in our garden

Put the garlic cloves and olive oil in a small saucepan over a very low heat. The garlic should be completely submerged in the oil with room to move around. If you need to, add a little more oil. Allow the garlic to poach gently for about 30 minutes, until it is a warm honey colour, floating on the oil and the kitchen smells fragrant. Turn off the heat and let the garlic cool for a few minutes before removing from the oil with a slotted spoon.
What ever you do, don't throw away the oil. It is wonderful used in cooking, or on breads and in salad dressings.

Use a little of the oil in a medium sized saucepan to gently sweat the chopped onion until translucent. Add the garlic cloves, herbs and potato, then add the chicken stock and simmer for 15 minutes, until the potato is completely cooked and the herbs are tender. Remove the herbs, they should be floating on the surface.

Pour the lot into a blender and wazz for 30 seconds or so, until completely smooth and velvety. Return the soup to the pan and add the cream. simmer for a minute, then add the sherry vinegar and seasoning.
Taste to check seasoning before serving in warm bowls. Drizzle with a little truffle oil if you're using it.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Don't Judge Me!

I cooked rabbits.

I know, I know, But before you say "But eating bunnies is so cruel! Wook at their widdle faces!" I'll just say this-
Yes, bunnies are really cute, but then so are pigs, chickens, pheasants, lambs, cows and even prawns. The rabbits I cooked were wild and so as free-range as you can get. They're a fabulous source of lean protein and super cheap, at a mere £2.50 each from a game supplier at my favourite local farmers market.
I'll admit that for many years I couldn't conceive of eating bunny, as I'd had them as pets growing up but I would much rather that than cook any of the millions of factory-farmed animals that never see the light of day or live any kind of natural life.

*Give me a second to climb down from my soap box....*

I've only cooked rabbit a handful of times before, having tried Jamie Oliver's Essex Fried Rabbit once with tough, dry results and a few casseroles and stews with marginally better texture and flavour.

The problem with rabbit is similar to those we all experience with many game birds in that if the whole rabbit is cooked in the same way, you end up with at least one tough and chewy component.
The legs benefit from long, slow cooking much the same way that duck legs do, while the loin turns to dry, splintery nastiness when given anything more than a quick flash in the pan or oven.

I bought Flopsy and Mopsy home without any real idea of what I wanted to do with them, but I knew it had to be something different from my previous attempts and that if the result wasn't satisfactory, I would probably leave bunnies alone from here on out. I thought about it for a few days and decided to give the rabbits a little bit of a Chinese treatment, slow 'red' cooking the legs and then giving the loin a quick stir-fry with some carrot (of course!) and cashew nuts. Simple right? You'd think so....

So that afternoon, I can't remember why, I got to thinking about Nine Inch Nails and how much I loved Trent Reznor when I was in my teens. I decided to Google him to see what he was up to these days and landed on his Wikipedia page. At the bottom, there was a link to a video that he had narrated for PETA about the Chinese fur industry. I am not going to post a link to it here, because there is no amount of disclaimers or warnings that could prepare you for what you see, and his isn't even the hardest of these Chinese fur PETA vids to watch. Basically, the undercover video shows images of animal abuse so horrific, it makes the Hostel and Saw movies look like Sesame Street. Google them if you like and try to watch if you can. I have said before that when we were in China we were shocked by the animal welfare standards (or lack thereof) but this is something else. I have resolved to never again buy a Chinese animal product, including leather.

Wow, look! I somehow ended up back on my soap box!

*climbs down*

So I felt pretty guilty while washing residual fur from my rabbits and really didn't think I'd be able to eat them, especially cooked Chinese style. I told myself that I was being silly and that these rabbits had had happy, hoppy lives and had been dispatched in a humane way and that I couldn't stop cooking Chinese food just because of a horrible video. I forged ahead and I'm glad that I did, because the result was by FAR my best rabbit result to date. If you do cook rabbit, I would definitely give this a try. If your childhood memories of Peter or the Velveteen Rabbits are still too fresh, then skip this post and stick around for the completely animal-free one coming tomorrow.
If you dig on swine, the red cooking is traditionally done with pork belly and is seriously out of this world.

Red-Cooked Rabbit Legs
serves 4, takes 2 1/2 hours (only 20 mins or so work)

4 each front and back rabbit legs (either wild or free-range)
2cm piece of ginger, sliced approximately 2mm (1/8") thick
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tbsp caster or granulated sugar
3 tbsp ground nut, canola or sunflower oil
3 star anise
3 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
3 tbsp light soy sauce
500ml (1 pint) chicken stock (home made or good quality bought)

It's best to leave the meat on the bone, but if you have family members who whine when you leave bones in messy meat dishes (as I do) you can remove them. It may also be necessary to cut the legs into pieces to make it easier to remove any buckshot. Leave the meat on the bones of the front legs.

In a hot sautee pan or wok, heat the oil over a med-high heat and add the sugar, stirring for a minute until the sugar has melted. Add the rabbit pieces to the oil and stir-fry for a few minutes in the sugary oil until you have a nice, brown colour all over. Add the remaining ingredients to the pan, bring it to a simmer, then cover the pan, lower the heat and let it cook for about two hours, checking now and then to make sure there's still liquid in the pan. When the two hours is up, remove the lid and turn up the heat to allow the remaining liquid to reduce into a thick, syrupy sauce.

Stir-Fried Rabbit Loin with Cashews and Carrots
serves 4 (as part of the 2-part dish) takes 20minutes

4 rabbit loins (from two rabbits) silverskin removed
1/2 cup raw cashews
8-10 small Chantenay carrots, topped and quartered
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns, crushed
3 spring onions (scallions) sliced about 2" long
2cm (3/4") piece of ginger, julienned
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp preserved black beans
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Szechuan rice wine
1 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tsp corn flour
2 tbsp ground nut or other flavourless oil
Slice the rabbit loin into 1 inch pieces.

Mix together the soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, black beans, peppercorns and corn flour together in a bowl and add the pieces of rabbit loin, set aside to marinade while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

Heat a wok or frying pan over a high heat until smoking, then add the oil. Toss in the garlic and ginger, stir-frying for a few seconds until fragrant but not brown. Add the marinated rabbit pieces to the pan, leaving the marinade behind and stir-fry for a minute or so, until beginning to brown on the surface all over.
Add the cashews, stir those in and then add the scallions and carrot, stir-frying for a further minute-90 seconds. (if you prefer your carrot soft, add it before the cashews) Add a couple tbsp of water to the marinade and pour this into the pan, cooking for another minute until the sauce has thickened and coats all the ingredients well.

Serve both rabbit dishes on either side of a pile of plain boiled rice with some extra sliced spring onion.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Annie Leibovitz I Ain't

Those of you who have read this blog before, especially at the beginning, might find it hard to believe that there are actually pictures of my food that I deem too bad to use. I take my photos with my phone right before we dig in and I have appalling lighting in my kitchen. I WILL sort myself out soon and get a decent camera, but for now, I've decided that I'd rather post my rather poor excuses for food photography than not post at all.

I nearly didn't post this recipe for rhubarb and apple crumble because I couldn't get a decent picture of it  (I made a mess serving it, bad lighting). Yesterday I made a 6-hour roasted and barbecued piece of belly pork that was probably the best I've ever had, but forgot (yes, forgot!) to take a picture of it on the plate and so will wait til the next time I make it to post it.

This crumble was a special treat for my husband who was sulking because his shiny new laptop that had been due to arrive was stuck in UK customs. Given the sheer scale of his geekiness, it's unlikely that it completely made up for his disappointment, but he certainly didn't mention it after he ate this. All of us agreed that this was my most successful crumble yet and that the rhubarb and apple is a serious winner.

The rhubarb is the first and only harvest we'll be able to get from our juvenile plants this year, so it was important that I make the most of it. The recipe is very simple and I think really makes the most of the rhubarb, which is at the height of its season here at the moment. Not including baking time, this is a quick dish to make and because of its rustic nature, is super, super easy.

Best Ever Rhubarb and Apple Crumble
serves 6, takes 90 minutes

4 stalks rhubarb
5 eating apples, such as Braeburn or Gala
1 knob of stem ginger in syrup, finely grated
100g (3.5oz) golden caster sugar
2 tbsp plain flour
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

For the topping:
175g (6.2oz)  plain flour
100g cold butter, cut into 1cm dice
30g rolled oats
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 170C (340F)
Cut the rhubarb into pieces approximately 5cm (2") long and peel, core and cut the apples into half-moon slices about 1" thick.

Sprinkle both with the sugar, flour, nutmeg and ginger, then mix well to combine. Leave the bowl to sit for 15 minutes while you prepare the crumble.

Put all of the crumble ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and pulse for 20-30 seconds until you have the texture of coarse breadcrumbs.

Arrange the apples and rhubarb in a baking dish, with the rhubarb at the top. Sprinkle the crumble mixture over the top in an even layer and then bake for 55-65 minutes, until you have a golden-brown top with a warm, syrupy bubbling around the outside.

Allow the lot to cool for about ten minutes before serving with custard or vanilla ice cream.

*I made a vanilla bean custard, cooled it and then folded in sweetened whipped cream. Holy CUSS! Is there a name for this already or did I just invent the most amazing dessert accompaniment EVER?

Rhubarb Crumble on FoodistaRhubarb Crumble

Friday, 14 May 2010

Prawn Yesterday

I have a confession to make.
Remember yesterday that I said I thought that we should get free booze as a reward for keeping our families well-fed and healthy?
Well I told my husband about that and so today when we got to the cash register at the grocery store I grabbed a bottle of really good ale I'd been lusting after. (No, I'm not a bearded 50 year old farmer with a pipe, I'm just a gal who missed English ales for 20 years who indulges occasionally.)
I got back from the store and put away my spoils, updated the menu on the kitchen calendar and went out to the garden to check on/chat with my seedlings and sprouts, carrying my bottle of ale with me.

Did I mention that it is about 1:00pm at this point? (But it's 6:00 O'clock in Yekaterinburg.)

So it went like this:

Sip, Sip, "Hello little corn plants! I see you're doing well. in a couple of weeks you'll be able to live outside!" sip... sip...

Sip, "Hi radishes! my goodness look at you! You're doing ever so well in spite of this cloudy weather. You'll be tasty in some salads in no time. sip, sip, sip....

Sip, "Asparagus! Why do weeds love growing around you so much?? (sip, sip)  Look at the beetroots and garlic! No weeds there, so what are you doing?" Sip, sip, sip......sip

And so on and so on. Sip.

It's 2:00pm now and I am what you might call three sheets to the wind. I looked at the alcohol content (4.9%) and the back of the bottle and it turns out, I just drank 2.45 units of alcohol in the middle of the week. At Lunchtime. Alone. Without eating lunch.
Part of me is ashamed, but the rest of me thinks it's pretty awesome and like I'm getting away with something. Something that I will not make a habit of though, because I keep having to go back and fix typing errors.
I am also aware that I will probably have a hangover at around 5:00pm.

Anyway, on with the cooking.
Last night I made this tasty and quick Thai prawn and noodle dish. Bright with the flavours of fresh lime, lemongrass and coriander it's a delightful Spring evening meal.
I used wide rice noodles, which are lovely but chin-slappy, so rice vermicelli might be a better idea if you like a dry face.

Coconut Prawn Noodle Soup
serves 4, takes less than 45 minutes

1 can organic coconut milk
1 can water
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised and roughly chopped
2 thumb-sized pieces galangal thinly sliced
2 shallots, chopped
2 red chillies, sliced
6 lime leaves (fresh or dried)
400g (14oz) large, uncooked prawns, peeled and deveined
300g (10.5oz) rice noodles
juice of 3 limes
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar
1 tbsp flavourless oil such as ground nut or sunflower
green tops from two bunches of pak choi, sliced thinly (reserve the white parts for another use)

Prepare the noodles according to the instructions on the packet, more than likely pouring boiling water over them and allowing them to soften before draining and refreshing with cold water. Divide the noodles into four bowls and set aside.
Sweat the shallots, galangal, chili, lemongrass and lime leaves together in a medium saucepan until soft and beginning to colour. Add the coconut milk, palm sugar, water and the fish sauce and bring up to the simmer for about 15 minutes until the liquid has reduced and is very fragrant.
Strain the broth through a fine sieve, pressing on the vegetables to squeeze out all the flavour.
Return the liquid to the pan and bring up to a simmer again and add the prawns. Cook for 2-3 minutes (depending on their size) until almost cooked then add the pak choi, cooking for half a minute more.
Squeeze the lime juice into the pan and give it a quick taste to check the sweet, spicy, sour and salty harmony, adding more sugar, cayenne pepper, lime juice or fish sauce if necessary.

Ladle the broth, prawns and pak choi over the noodles and scatter with coriander leaves before serving.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Eating Apples

Being responsible for the diets of each of your family members is no small feat. Not only do you need to take everybody's likes and dislikes into consideration, you must also make sure that it's nutritionally balanced, varied and interesting, all while staying under budget. I think that we deserve free booze at the end of a grocery shop, as a reward for not giving up entirely or ending up in a clock tower with a semi-automatic weapon.  Free booze would work better for grocery stores than loyalty cards any day.

For me, one of the things I rarely get right is the quantity or selection of fruit that fills the bowl in the kitchen. If I buy two bunches of bananas, six apples and a kilo of grapes one week, All the apples and two bananas might get eaten, leaving the rest to soften and moulder on the counter.
The next week, two bunches of bananas might be gone in three days, while the apples turn dull and mealy. Oranges might be a hit for three weeks, only to inexplicably fall out of favour the very minute I buy three kilos on sale.
It's enough to drive a girl crazy!

One thing that IS nice about having all this left over fruit is that I can usually cook with it in one way or another. Cakes, sauces, crumbles and even chutneys are often thrown together when I know that they're past their eating best, which I think is sometimes why the guys leave it there in the first place. I mean what teenager wouldn't rather eat a piece of apple or banana cake instead of the whole fruit?

This cake is a very subtly spiced caramel apple upside down cake, with apple in the batter too. The spices are really only enough to enhance the mellow brown sugar flavour, rather than strong enough to really taste them, although if you like very cinnamony or nutmeggy apple, feel free to go crazy!

Caramel Apple Upside Down Cake
Serves 12, Takes 1 hour, 40 minutes +cooling

8 eating apples, like Gala or Braeburn (whichever is local or in season)
4 tbsp brown sugar
1 pinch salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
about 8 cardamom seeds (out of their pods) crushed in a pestle and mortar
2 tbsp butter, softened
1tsp finely grated orange peel (optional if you don't have a fruit bowl full of oranges..)

250g (8.8oz)unsalted butter, softened
250g golden caster sugar
250g self raising flour (or plain flour with 1tsp baking powder)
1/2 tsp baking soda
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Turn your oven on to 170C (340F) and butter and line the inside of a 22cm (9") square or round cake tin.
Peel, quarter and core 5 of the apples and slice into sorta half-moon shape slices.
Mix the softened butter, spices, orange peel and the pinch of salt together in a large, heat-proof bowl. Toss the apples into this mixture to coat well. I put my bowl into a wok with filled-halfway with boiling water to help melt the sugar, butter and spices well and coat the apples nicely. You don't have to worry about dissolving the sugar, that will happen in the oven.
Tip the apples and sugar mixture into the cake tin and press to make an even layer. If you want to be fancy, you could lay them out in a pretty pattern, but I was making this cake just before midnight, so there was no cussing way I was about to do that.

Peel the remaining 3 apples and grate the flesh off all the way down to the core, then put the grated apple in a colander and set aside for a few minutes while you:

Cream the 250g of butter and the caster sugar together for several minutes until pale and fluffy, then beat the eggs in one at a time, mixing each in well before adding the next.

Squeeze out as much of the excess liquid as you can from the grated apples, then add them to the butter/sugar/eggs mixture, stirring just enough to combine well.
This mixture will look rather curdled and unattractive, but fear not, it will be fine.
Sift in the flour and baking powder, stir well and then add the vanilla. Don't work the batter more than you need to, as you'll toughen the flour. Tip the batter in over the top of the apples and spread into an even layer, with a bit of a crater in the centre to compensate for rising.
Bake for 55-65 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Allow to cool completely before turning out (unless you want hot brown syrup running everywhere...)

I sprinkled the top with a little coarse cane sugar before I cut it but to be honest, it didn't add anything, so I'd leave it off next time.
Apple Cake on FoodistaApple Cake

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Bread. The Saga Continues...

I've spent the better part of the last year and a small fortune on flour trying to achieve a really good loaf of sourdough bread. I'd made starter after starter, following a few slightly different methods, finally to end up with Algernon, my starter who has been living in my fridge for about four months now. Like leading men and Iberico ham, Algernon is improving with age, giving me a slightly more complex flavour and more active rise every time I use him. So it seems that while yes, it can take a while (days) to make a really good loaf of sourdough, it is worth investing some serious time in your pet starter, as over time you'll be rewarded a better and better loaf.

Last week, I bought a bag of Malted Blend organic wheat flour produced by Bacheldre Mill, a 16th century traditional watermill in Wales. Being still fairly new to bread baking, I'd never used malted flour before. I even had to Google 'malted wheat' because I wasn't quite sure what it even was.
Apparently, they let the grain germinate, thus releasing some of the sugar from the kernel, giving the bread a sweeter, nuttier flavour. This blend is a mixture of malted wheat and rolled malted wheat flakes.
I made the bread the same way that I made my last loaf of white sourdough, but replaced all of the flour with the malted blend. I made it to serve with a pasta dish I was making for dinner (tasty but not worth posting) for my hubby, stepson and stepson's friend. (In case you had not noticed, ours is a carb-friendly house.)

My stepson has an almost pathological aversion to wholemeal bread and the crusts in particular. It's not bad enough that I pack it in his lunch every day, but now I'm serving it with dinner??! I had put a large plate of the still-warm bread on the table, from which he and his friend took the smallest pieces.
Three pieces and a return trip to the kitchen to get more later, I said to Christian "I thought you didn't like wholemeal or crusty bread!" to which he said, wide-eyed "I KNOW, but this is SO GOOD!" His friend nodded enthusiastically with his mouth full.

That was yesterday. There is no more bread left now. as it got polished off with breakfast and at lunch today but I'm going to make another loaf tomorrow. I also bought a bag of Bacheldre's wholemeal rye flour, so I'll report back and let you all know how that turns out.

Malted Wheat Sourdough Bread
For the sponge:
250g (8.8oz) organic malted blend wheat flour
300ml (10.14oz) warm water
100ml (3.38oz) sourdough starter -Here is one of a few good resources for starter recipes/methods.

For the finished loaf:
285g (10oz) more flour
10g (.4oz) fine sea salt
 tbsp cornmeal or polenta for dusting

At least 24 hours before serving, start the sponge. Mix together the warm water, starter and flour well until you have a wet, stretchy batter. Cover with cling film and leave in a warm place overnight.

After 12 hours, you should have a bubbly, frothy mixture that smells all sour and beery. If only a little foamy, leave it for several hours more and see if it doesn't get the light, loose spongy appearance you're after. One thing I definitely learned is that you can't rush a sourdough and that at the beginning, a starter might need a little longer to work its magic.

Add the remaining flour and the salt to the dough (you can use the dough hook on your stand mixer for this part) and then knead well by hand for a good 8-10 minutes, until you have a very smooth, elastic dough that is a little on the wet side.
Spread a little olive oil all over the inside of a large bowl, form your dough into a ball and put in the bowl, covered with cling film in a warm place until at least doubled in size. This may take 4 or 5 hours, it may take ten, it just depends on your starter.

Punch the dough down and give it one final little knead, then shape it into whichever shape loaf you'd like and place on a board scattered with polenta or cornmeal to prevent sticking.

I cover my dough with the large clear plastic bowl from my salad spinner, but you could use a tea towel. Leave it to rise for a final time, probably around 2 hours, then turn your oven to 200C (400F) and put a baking sheet or (even better) a baking stone in to get nice and hot.
When the oven is hot, remove the baking sheet, (or stone) slash the top of the loaf quickly with a sharp knife and carefully slide your risen loaf onto the baking sheet.

Put a small bowl of water on the floor of the oven to help form a crust and set the timer for 40 minutes.

Check the loaf after 40 minutes by turning it over and tapping on the bottom. It should be dry and firm and there should be a hollow sound when you hit it.

After baking a few loaves of sourdough, as is true for many foods, you'll be able to smell when it's done. It's like a little nose alarm goes of like an oven timer and even if you're engrossed in a book (or 30 Rock...) your head will snap up and you'll just know. The first time I was aware of this phenomenon was when I was roasting chicken as a young thing.

Anyway, back to the bread. That's pretty much it. Take it out of the oven when it sounds right and you're happy with the colour. Try not to cut into it while it's really hot because you'll squish the inside into a doughy wad.

This was so good, I ate more bread in the past 24 hours than I usually do in a week. I then made pizza for supper, so I'm in a gluten stupor and I'm getting muscles in my upper arms from all the kneading. I'll look like Madonna with a potbelly in no time!

I wont pretend to be any kind of authority on the vagaries of sourdough, this is just the method I've been following recently. If you have helpful hints or critiques, please leave them in the comments section. xoxo

Malt Bread on FoodistaMalt Bread

Monday, 10 May 2010

Holey Cluck!

This is the kind of dish that makes garlic breath totally worth it, to say nothing of the garlic burps!

What? I never pretended to be a classy lady.

There are a few flavour combinations that never fail to excite me, and they're usually indigenous to places a lot warmer than the British Isles and with considerably more frightening insects. Thai, Indian, Mexican, North African and Middle Eastern cuisines are all charactarisd by the generous amounts of fresh mint, citrus and coriander to foil the firey chillies and smoky spices that are essential parts of their culinary identity.
As much as I love European foods, there's something so lively and almost celebratory about a plate of food filled with such contrasting colours, textures and flavours. It scratched a culinary itch that meat and two veg never could.

Moroccan food, with the characteristic combinations of harissa spices, contrasted with creamy tahini dressings, fruit and cooling salads is something I've loved since I can remember and never gets old. Guaranteed to give you serious garlic breath, it's the kind of thing that makes your whole mouth feel like it's on vacation, whatever the weather outside.

This dish isn't strictly Moroccan, more like a Moroccan who's having an affair with a Lebanse with loose morals. It's fairly quick and definitely easy to make, with the harissa being the most time-consuming part. I usually make about 4 times this much and just keep it in a jar in the fridge under a little olive oil.

Harissa-Spiced Chicken with Cool Rice Salad 
Serves 2, takes 1 hour (ish)

2 each, chicken thighs and drumsticks (or if you're cooking for Cauldron Boy, 2 breasts;-) Skin removed, bones left in.
1 cup plain yoghurt

For the harissa:
2 cloves garlic
3 tbsp olive oil
1 fresh red chilli, sliced
2 tsp red chilli flakes
2 tsp caraway seeds
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin seeds
1tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp sea salt

For the salad:
1 cup (240ml by volume) basmati rice
1 1/2 cups water
7cm (3") cucumber (English/hothouse) de-seeded and diced small
1/2 cup pistachios, blanched for 15 minutes and leathery skins removed, roughly chopped
 4 radishes, diced finely
1 tbsp white sesame seeds
1 sm clove garlic, crushed
2-3 (depending on size) sprigs of fresh mint, leaves pulled and finely chopped
Juice of one fresh lemon
1 tbsp olive oil

Tahini sauce:
Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
2 tbsp tahini
1 small clove, garlic, finely grated
2 pinches, salt

To serve:
coriander (cilantro) leaves
sliced pickled onions or gherkins

To make the harissa, put all of the ingredients into a pestle and mortar and grind well to form a semi-smooth paste.
Use a very sharp knife to cut lots of slits in diagonal rows all over the chicken. This will help the marinade penetrate the meat well and will look attractive when served.
Mix the yoghurt with the harissa and then add the chicken pieces, rubbing the marinade well into all the cuts, nooks and crannies then put the dish off to the side at room temperature while you do the rest.

Rinse the rice really well until the water runs clear, then in a small saucepan, add just shy of 1 1/2 cups of water and a little salt and bring to the boil. As soon as bubbles start to break on the surface, turn the heat almost all the way down, cover the pan and leave the rice to cook for 6-7 minutes, until all of the water has been absorbed.
When the rice is cooked, tip it into a bowl and drizzle over with the tbsp of olive oil and 1/2 of the lemon juice. Fluff well with a fork to coat each grain and prevent sticking. Set to the side in a cool spot until no longer steaming, then pop in the fridge while you prep the veggies for the rest of the salad.

To cook the chicken, put your grill on HIGH and put the grill pan underneath to allow it to get as hot as possible. When stonking hot, place the chicken on the rack of your grill pan and put under the grill, closing the door and leaving to cook for 7-8 minutes, until black sports start to appear, then turn over and give it another 5 minutes. Let the chicken rest for a few minutes before serving.

To make the tahini dressing, simply stir the ingredients together well until smooth. If it's not loose enough for you, add a little more lemon juice.

Serve the chicken with the rice salad and a big spoonful of the tahini sauce. Scatter with the coriander leaves and your choice of pickled veggies.
I'm terribly sorry about the appalling photos, they're even worse than usual I'm afraid...Moroccan Style Chicken on FoodistaMoroccan Style Chicken on Foodista Moroccan Style Chicken

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Mini Update!

Just one quick thing.
Yesterday I mentioned that I was going to try cooking the small side shoots of the asparagus ferns growing outside.  Well, I cooked them for about one minute in some butter until they were just tender and served them alongside some hazelnut and herb-crusted lamb chops. YUM!
Like the tiny leaves growing out of baby beets  and courgette flowers, these are some of the best things about growing herbs and veggies. You get to experiment with the things that never make it to the grocery store.

It's a Rap!

I really am so daft that when I'm cooking dinner, I will put on music that fits what I'm cooking. Usually this means listening to some Banghra or some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan while making a curry or Dean Martin while tossing a pizza. What can I say, it gets me in the mood.
While making these Chinese beef and enoki mushroom lettuce wraps, because I don't have any classical Chinese music (my MP3 library THAT varied), I thought Wraps! Raps! And so I put Tupac on my iPod dock and made a genius play list.

There's nothing like the sound of an overly sensitive smoke detector mixing with the dulcet tones of Lil Kim's Hard Core album to get you slicing and dicing like there's no tomorrow. Maybe it's a Big Momma Thing?

These speedy little treats were inspired by fellow foodie blogger Cajun Chef Ryan, who always tempts and delights with bold flavours and clever techniques.

My recipe isn't really the same as Ryans, because I wanted to use up a spare steak I had and some bits I've picked up during my grocery shopping. I also know that if I don't serve carbs with dinner (especially if it's Chinese!) my stepson will be hungry again .0445837 seconds after he's cleaned his plate.

The rice is cooked with star anise and lots of black and white sesame seeds, which give a lovely perfume and texture. The stir-fry is soft and spicy, while the lettuce is cool and crisp, so the combination of the three is lovely. Just as I did after reading the Cajun Chef's post, you can totally tweak this to make use of what you have knocking about in your fridge or your personal preferences. Shrimp or minced pork would be a particularly lovely substitution for the beef.

So go put on some Snoop Dog or Pitbull and get cookin'

Rump Steak and Enoki Mushroom Lettuce Wraps with Sesame Rice
serves 4, takes 30-40 minutes

400g (14oz) rump steak, trimmed of fat sliced 5mm (3/16") THIN
1 large onion, sliced top-to-bottom into half-moons 
1 bundle enoki mushrooms, bottoms trimmed, separated carefully
200g white cabbage (or napa) sliced very thinly

2cm fresh ginger, roughly chopped
2 whole red chillies, roughly sliced*
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns*
2 tbsp preserved black beans*

1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce (yes, I know this isn't Chinese, but it tastes really good so there.)
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry)
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp oyster sauce
100ml (4oz) water
2 tsp corn starch

2 tbsp ground nut, sunflower or canola oil

16 baby gem lettuce leaves (or the top half of romaine leaves) washed and dried

1 cup long grain rice
1tbsp white sesame seeds
1 tbsp black sesame seeds
3 star anise
1/2 tsp salt

sliced spring onions to serve

As with any Oriental meal, it's best to get all the prep done before the flame meets wok, as things move pretty quickly. I usually freeze meat that I want to slice v.v. thinly for an hour or so to make it easier to slice.

Mix together the soy sauce, fish sauce, corn starch and rice vinegar and stir the beef slices into this mixture and set aside while you do the rest of the prep.

Put the chillies, ginger, garlic, Szechuan peppercorns and black beans in a pestle and mortar and pound for a few minutes to make a coarse paste.

Wash the rice for a few minutes in cold running water, then put into a small saucepan with 1 1/2 cups of cold water, the salt, star anise and sesame seeds.
Bring the rice to the boil then immediately turn down the heat to low, cover and leave to finish cooking for 7-9 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed. Leave the cover on the rice until you're ready to serve.
While the rice cooks, start the stir-fry.

Heat a wok or a large frying pan over a high heat until smoking and add the oil. Add the beef to the hot oil and stir-fry quickly for 3-4 minutes until well browned and going a little crisp, then remove to a plate with a slotted spoon. If there's not much oil left in the wok, add another tbsp and toss in the chilli-bean paste you've made. Stir-fry for a minute until very fragrant and beginning to go golden, then add in the onions and cabbage tossing well into the paste for a minute before adding a little water, any leftover beef marinade and the oyster sauce. Cook for about one more minute, until the veggies are *just* going tender, then toss in the mushrooms and turn off the heat, as they really don't need more than a second's cooking time.

Serve the rice and stir fry with the lettuce leaves and some sliced spring onions, letting everybody build their own wraps, so that the lettuce stays crisp and cool.

*These ingredients may be replaced with a couple of tablespoonsful of a good quality chilli bean paste if you like.

Spicy Asian Lettuce Wraps on FoodistaSpicy Asian Lettuce Wraps