Splat!

February 26, 2010

Whenever I discover a new ingredient or cooking technique, it reminds me of just how much variety there is out there in the world of food. It also makes me realise that, despite having been cooking for nigh on 30 years, there is still so much to learn.

Last night, I decided to finish up some cabbage and flavour it with fennel seeds and a sprinkling of paprika (a delicious taste combination I’ve picked up from various Spanish recipes). And I really fancied something simple and meaty on the side.

Now, I rarely eat chicken breast, as it is usually rather bland in flavour, and no matter how carefully you cook it, I find it often ends up slightly dry. However, for some reason, last night I decided to give it another go.

I have no idea why this popped into my head, but it occurred to me that flattening the breast into a kind of escalope might help. It’s supposed to make the meat more tender, and my thinking was that, as it would be thinner, it wouldn’t need to be cooked for so long, and may end up being less dry.

So, I stuck the breast in a plastic freezer bag and gave it a good bashing with a rolling pin (quite a satisfying thing to do, actually). And, you know what? It worked! I griddled it in my Le Creuset griddle pan, with a little olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, on a very high heat. It cooked through in a matter of a few minutes, and still retained its moistness.

This is definitely going to be my favoured method of cooking chicken breast from now on – so expect a spate of recipes coming soon!

‘Scuse the delay in posting anything new since the weekend, but I was rather cooked out after the dinner party on Saturday night. (Now I definitely know I’m too old to be a professional cook, if I’m exhausted after one night of full-on cooking!)

Anyway, I managed to rustle up something vaguely interesting tonight, in the shape of tagliatelle with some leeks and courgettes, doused in plenty of lemon, garlic and parsley.

In a large non-stick frying pan, I fried slices of courgette in a little olive oil, until nicely browned on each side. Then I removed them to a plate, added the sliced leek to the same frying pan, and a couple of sliced cloves of garlic.

Once the leeks were soft, I put the courgettes back in the pan, added a good squeeze of lemon, some chopped fresh parsley and seasoned with salt and pepper.

The weather was noticeably warmer in London today, and my supper tonight really brought some spring flavours to mind. I just hope I’m not being a bit premature with thoughts of spring…

I’ve always quite fancied the idea of doing an underground restaurant. Unfortunately, my studio flat is so small that I’d only be able to fit in about six people, and two of those would have to perch on my bed with the food on their laps.

So, when my friend Lea asked if I’d help her do a charity dinner party at her house, to raise funds for her sons’ primary school playground, I didn’t need to be asked twice. In fact, I said, instead of me just helping her, I’d cook the whole meal.

And that’s how I found myself preparing a squid and aubergine stew at 7am on Saturday morning. (As you are well aware, I love my food – but I’ll freely admit, even I struggled with squid at that hour in the morning!)

I’d suggested to Lea that I do a kind of Turkish/Middle Eastern-themed meal, which she was very happy with. So, we started with a spicy Turkish lentil soup, which I learned to make at a cookery course I did last summer in Istanbul, and which gave me the opportunity to convert a few more people to my essential Turkish ingredient, pul biber. To go with the soup, Lea bought a couple of loaves of fantastic Turkish bread from a local bakery.

For the main course, alongside the aforementioned squid and aubergine stew, I made another Turkish dish called turlu turlu  – a recipe I got from the Moro cookbook. This is one of those dishes that belies its simple ingredients. A tray of aubergines, courgettes, baby turnips and potatoes is seasoned with allspice and coriander, and roasted for about an hour. Then, once cooked, a combination of tomato passata and chickpeas is poured over the top, and the whole lot is garnished with plenty of fresh parsley and coriander. The last dish of the main-course triumvirate was saffron rice.

Finally, for pudding, I turned to a recipe by Dan Lepard that I cut out of The Guardian – a peach saffron cake, which I served with some plain yoghurt.

Some very satisfied customers waddled home late that night, and Lea raised more than £100 for the school playground, which is fantastic. I had a lot of fun cooking the meal, and can’t wait to do something like this again. Now I just need to find someone else willing to lend me their kitchen and dining room.

Okay, as promised last week, here is part 3 of Adventures With An Onion Squash… Last night, my little sister was staying with me again, so I thought I’d introduce her to the delights of this new discovery of mine.

I’d spotted a Nigel Slater recipe in a recent Observer Food Monthly for roast partridge with pumpkin, and thought my chicken legs and onion squash were close enough replacements.

I took two chicken legs, jointed them (so they would cook a little bit quicker), and browned them in a little olive oil. I also chucked in about five whole cloves of garlic, with the skin still on.

Once browned. I placed the chicken pieces on top of the deseeded and sliced squashes in a large ceramic baking dish. A few sage leaves were added, plus a good amount of seasoning, then I poured in enough water to almost cover the squash slices.

Into an oven heated to gas mark 5 it went, for about 35 minutes, and out came a beautifully coloured, garlic-scented, sweet pile of chickeny-squashy yumminess. With it, we had some boiled pink fir apple potatoes, and the last of the cabbage, simply braised. And it was absolutely delicious – even if I do say so myself.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite dishes was my mum’s kidney and mushroom sauté. I’m sure it was probably one of her stand-by meals, but I loved it. Which makes it all the more surprising that I very rarely cook it for myself. So, when I found some forgotten lambs’ kidneys in my freezer a couple of days ago, it made me think of this childhood favourite.

I had some mushrooms in my fridge, and was all set to cook my mum’s sauté when I remembered that, years ago, I once cooked kidneys in a tomato and basil sauce. Now, given the option of a tomato-based sauce or a creamy sauce, I choose the tomato one every time. Not for health reasons, but purely because I adore cooked tomatoes.

So, I fried half an onion, sliced thinly, in some olive oil, along with a chopped clove of garlic. The kidneys were chopped up into fairly small pieces and added to the onion once it was soft. Some sliced chestnut mushrooms followed, then half a tin of tomatoes, a teaspoonful of my pul biber paste from Istanbul, and a little seasoning.

Once it had simmered for 5 minutes or so, I added a few chopped basil leaves, and – just because it was there and needed using up – a handful of chopped parsley.

My mum always served her kidney and mushroom sauté with rice, but I thought, with the tomato and basil, that pasta would be the thing to eat with my version – which it was!

Last night, I wanted one of those super-quick suppers that involve very little thought or effort. Of course, omelettes fit that bill perfectly, and with a leek and some mushrooms in the fridge, I decided that would be my filling.

Until recently, it had never occurred to me to add spices to egg dishes, but they seem to go very well together. I also like adding soy sauce and sesame oil to the beaten eggs to make a Chinese-flavoured omelette, and I thought the leeks and mushrooms would work particularly well with this.

So, I gently fried the sliced leeks and mushrooms in a little vegetable oil, and added some grated ginger and garlic and a chopped red chilli. To two beaten eggs, I added about a dessertspoon of soy sauce and a dash of sesame oil, and when the vegetables were nice and soft, I poured over the eggs.

My intention was to let it cook through, rather like a tortilla, but it became clear very quickly that I would need more eggs to do this. And I’d just used my last ones. So, instead, I flipped it over into an omelette – which is why it looks a bit rough around the edges!

Anyway, it was a quick, filling, tasty supper – and that, really, was the point.

Last night I had my little sister to stay – which is always an excuse to cook something special. As well as being my biggest fan, she is also my most honest critic, and I know she will always tell me if something is not quite right.

There was a recipe I’d cooked once before and had been meaning to try again for some time – a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall dish he calls Tupperware Chorizo, which he cooks with purple sprouting broccoli and clams. Chorizo is one of my sister’s all-time favourite foods, so I knew this would be something she’d enjoy.

However, as is so often the case with me, I didn’t quite have all the right ingredients. So, on Sunday night, I took the combination of spices that Hugh uses for the chorizo – paprika, cayenne, fennel seeds, a splosh of red wine and salt – and added it to about 400g of pork mince, leaving it overnight (in, you may have guessed, a Tupperware box) for the flavours to develop.

What I did have to go with the pork was a fantastic cabbage from the Secretts Farm stall at Borough Market. It looked like a cross between a red cabbage and a Savoy, and was sweet and crunchy – a perfect foil for the intense smoky flavour of the meatballs.

Once I’d fried the meatballs, I removed them to a plate, and sautéed the shredded cabbage in the same pan, so the greens took on the spices of the pork. Meanwhile, to keep in with the Spanish theme, I made saffron rice with some paella rice. I made it in the same way as you would a risotto – frying an onion, then adding stock with saffron in it until the rice absorbs all the liquid.

So, over to you, Sis… How was it?

An Indian supper

February 14, 2010

I was heading off to a birthday party in west London last night. Rather rashly, I offered to contribute a pudding to the Indian-themed meal, and after a glance through a cookery book called simply Indian Cookery by Dharamjit Singh (one of my mum’s 1970s staple recipe books, which has been passed on to me), I decided on what I thought was a very straightforward dish – gajjar karrah, or carrot halva.

The list of ingredients was short and basic, and the method simple, so off I set, cooking vast amounts of grated carrot in several pints of milk. Boil until reduced to a quarter of the original volume, Dharamjit instructed.

What he didn’t tell me was that to reduce that amount of liquid would take about three hours! A fact I didn’t realise until an hour and a half into the boiling, when the milk had reduced by barely half. Oh well, I didn’t have anything else to do with my Saturday afternoon.

Luckily, I’d started early enough to finish the halva in time to catch my train – and the guests at the party thought it tasted very authentic. Phew…

And the cupboard is full…

February 13, 2010

I have that wonderful Saturday morning feeling. I’ve been to Borough Market, my fridge is full of fresh, tasty delights and a whole weekend of culinary adventures is ahead of me. Oh, and I’ve just had breakfast.

Today it was chicken livers and a fried egg on soft white bread. Yes, it’s shop-bought sliced white, but come on, even the most dedicated foodie has to have some kind of guilty pleasure! (Although I did wait until I’d taken the photo before slopping tomato ketchup all over it…)

A spice odyssey…

February 10, 2010

After my rather chilli weekend, I began wondering just how many different kinds of chillies and hot spices I have in my cupboard. So, I’ve just got them all out, and counted nine different ways of heating up my food! Some I use more often than others, and one – the jar of Very Lazy Red Chillies, which I was given – I haven’t used at all.

From left to right, they are: hot chilli sauce, for Thai-style soups; the jar of chopped chillies in wine vinegar, which I haven’t been lazy enough to open yet; the pul biber/tomato paste mix from Istanbul, which I use in my Turkish and Middle Eastern cooking; dried piri piri chillies that I bought on holiday in Portugal a couple of years ago, which I use in more Mediterranean flavoured cooking; flaked pul biber, which, again, I use for a Middle Eastern taste; hot mixed peppercorns, suitable for pretty much anything you want to give a kick to; hot paprika, which is, of course, essential in Spanish cooking; cayenne, for Indian or Mexican food; and, finally, a string of what were originally small, fresh chillies, but I thread them and hang them up to dry out, and these I use mainly in curries.

I know there are much bigger chilli-heads than me out there, so can anyone tell me if I’m missing out on some hot delights? And what about some new ideas for my current chilli collection?