A perk of the job…

March 31, 2010

One of the most important parts of my job at the women’s magazine where I work is to suck up to the food editor. After all, he needs to know he has a Deputy Receiver Of Free Stuff he can trust!

Okay, so I’m not always the first person to get the freebies that land on his desk (he has this strange sense of fairness that means everything gets shared out equally in the office…), but last week he did hand me an interesting looking, British-made chorizo, from a company called The Bath Pig.

I left it in my fridge for a few days, because I knew, as soon as I opened the packet, it would be a matter of minutes before the whole thing was gone. And I was almost right.

I started off by adding some to a grilled pepper salad (pictured above), which I took to work for lunch yesterday. The chorizo had a very nice, strong, paprika flavour, but, in my opinion, needed to be slightly more oily. It was very dense, which is great, but just very slightly too dry.

Although, that certainly didn’t put me off making a determined effort to finish it last night.

For supper, I fried up some more slices alongside a clove of garlic and a few scallops, then put them on top of braised leeks, added a squeeze of lemon juice and a handful of chopped parsley, and mopped it all up with some lovely, warm, crusty white bread. Frying the chorizo made it very crispy, and a bit bacony, but this actually went really well with the soft sweetness of the scallops.

Despite my concerns about the texture of this chorizo, I did think the flavour was very authentic. I bought another British chorizo last year, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s online shop, and I have to say that The Bath Pig one was definitely better.

So, if you do come across it, why not give it a go.

Veal chop with frittedda

March 29, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I met up with some old friends in Southgate, which, if you don’t know London, is just about as far north as you can get on the Victoria Line before falling off the end. It is, without doubt, suburbia.

We met in an updated version of an old-fashioned family-run Italian restaurant, called Fantozzi, and, if I’m totally honest, I wasn’t expecting much of the food. So, with that in mind, it was a rather risky choice to go with the veal chop from the menu. However, I was very surprised to find a full-flavoured, gloriously tender piece of meat on my plate. Mustn’t judge a book by its cover, I reminded myself that night.

Last Saturday, while wandering around Borough Market, I thought I’d give the veal chop another go, this time cooking it myself. So I headed to The Ginger Pig to buy one.

One of the best butchers in London, I imagined I’d be getting another succulent, tasty piece of veal. I decided to cook it simply – salt, pepper, a good olive oil and slap it on the griddle pan. On the side, I thought one of my favourite spring vegetable dishes would be perfect.

A Sicilian dish, frittedda is a sautéed concoction of onion, fennel, broad beans, peas and fresh baby artichokes. With a smattering of salt and pepper, plus a pinch of sugar, this dish absolutely makes the most of the flavours of new season vegetables, and goes beautifully with meat of any sort.

And the frittedda was delicious. Unfortunately, the veal was more of a disappointment. It was much tougher than the one I’d had in suburbia, and it didn’t have a great deal of flavour. As I said, I’d assumed that coming from a great butcher, it would be a treat of a piece of meat. Hmm, I once again thought, mustn’t judge a book by its cover.

But, not wanting to see it go to waste… oh, okay, because I’m a greedy so-and-so, I still ate the lot.

Keep on the ‘grass

March 27, 2010

The last of Zoe’s dad’s Thai lemongrass went into the pot last night, along with some lime leaves that came to me in the same package.

I know, being lucky enough to live in London, these kind of ingredients are readily available here. But there’s something about knowing they came direct from their country of origin, tucked into the corner of a suitcase, that makes them taste so much better.

As well as giving me these Thai delights, Zoe also pointed me in the direction of this Nigel Slater recipe for pumpkin and tomato laksa.

Obviously, coconut milk is the essential ingredient that makes a laksa a laksa, and as I didn’t have any, I’ll just call last night’s supper a Thai curry.

The other things I changed in the recipe were replacing the pumpkin with butternut squash, adding some sweet potato (simply because I had some that needed to be finished), adding some peas (there’s my obsession with green stuff again) and using tinned tomatoes instead of cherry ones (again, just because I had an open tin and it needed to be used).

Served with rice vermicelli noodles, this spicy, citrussy, fresh combination is very hard to beat.

My work colleague Zoe recently gave me some lovely fresh lemongrass, which her dad had brought back from Thailand. Instead of using it in the usual Thai curries, I thought I’d see if I could find a sweet recipe.

I found a number of cakes that had this delicate herb in the list of ingredients, but nothing really grabbed me. Until I spotted this recipe for lemongrass, ginger and sesame biscuits.

Perfect, I thought. Especially as I had a jar of sesame seeds in my cupboard that I wanted to use up. (Don’t you just love it when something crops up like this that conveniently takes care of the dregs of your cupboard?)

Apart from some arm-aching grinding of spices, it was very simple to put these biscuits together, and they really are a taste sensation. Thin, crispy and nice’n’spicy, I’d highly recommend trying them.

A good pulse…

March 24, 2010

A while ago, a friend asked me if I had ever cooked the same thing twice since starting this blog, because, as far as he could tell, I wrote about something completely different every time.

Well, I now have to admit there is something I cook with great regularity, but haven’t blogged about it… until now. And that’s dhal.

I absolutely love dhal, and will happily eat my way through a big pot of the stuff on its own. Although, having said that, the great thing about it is that you can not only eat it on the side of other curries, but add any number of things to dhal and it becomes a substantial dish in itself – a kind of dansak, I suppose.

Some of the ingredients I often add to dhal include peas, leftover chopped-up chicken or lamb, spinach, prawns, tomatoes… Like I say, pretty much anything goes.

Last night, I made my basic dhal recipe, and had a cauliflower curry on the side. The cauli recipe is the same one as my sweet potato and cauliflower dish, but just without the sweet potato.

I’m sure there are as many different ways of making dhal as there are people who eat it. And I’m not sure if I got my version from a recipe somewhere or just made it up as I went along.

I always use red split lentils, and add a good pinch of ground cloves and cardamon seeds, which is what I particularly like about my recipe – although I’m sure, if they’re not your bag, you could leave them out.

Anyway, its appearance may not get top marks from the Masterchef guys, but sometimes substance has to win over style.

A food odyssey

March 23, 2010

Last night’s supper was, give or take, three days in the making. Not because of the cooking time of the dish itself, but because I decided to make my own beef stock as the basis for the sauce in the recipe. And, due to various events over the weekend, I didn’t manage to finish it until Monday night.

My plan was to use the two venison fillets I had in the freezer from the previous week’s shop in an adaptation of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent recipe in The Guardian for oxtail with star anise.

So, on Saturday, I picked up a lovely bag of beef bones from The Ginger Pig, and started to follow Delia Smith’s classic recipe for beef stock. (I have a couple of Delia’s cookery books, and don’t use them all that often, but when it comes to the basics, like stock, she can’t be beaten.)

The first step was to roast the bones with a few vegetables, before simmering them in water. However, once I’d got the roasted bones out of the oven, I realised I didn’t have time to simmer them for the requisite four hours, as I was meeting friends in town for a drink.

I decided I’d make the stock the following morning, then finish off the dish in time to have a late lunch, before heading down to Greenwich for a friend’s wedding reception on Sunday evening.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s plans were somewhat hindered by a truly stupendous hangover, thanks to someone having the clever idea of going on to a nightclub after a few drinks too many. (Erm, actually, it might have been me who had the idea…)

Anyway, I managed to drag myself out of bed in the early afternoon and set the beef stock on to simmer. The smell was absolutely amazing, and was actually quite comforting as I dozed on the sofa for the rest of the afternoon.

However, by the time the stock was finished, there wasn’t enough time for it to cool (which you need to do so you can scoop the solidified fat off the top), before I had to go to Greenwich. (In any case, I wasn’t really in any condition to cook or even eat a rich dish like venison.)

Day three, and by the time I got home from work, the fat was good and solid on top of the stock, was easily scooped off, and I was finally entering the home straights to finishing the dish.

I had thought that I would follow Hugh’s recipe exactly as it was with the oxtail, and let it braise long and slow in the sauce. But, after reading several online recipes for dishes with venison fillet, I realised it would end up as tough as old boots.

So, instead, I seared the fillets, then removed them to a plate. I made the rest of the sauce and let it simmer without the meat for about an hour. Then, after sieving the bits and bobs out of the liquid, I added the venison, which I’d sliced into thick coins, plus a couple of sliced mushrooms.

I just let it simmer for a few minutes, then served it with noodles. I’m not sure the sauce had quite the depth that it would have had if the meat had been in it the whole time. But it was still very tasty. And I’m definitely going to try it with the oxtail – but hopefully without the hangover.

Tunisian fish couscous

March 18, 2010

When growing up, my sister and I were lucky enough to have been exposed to some rather unusual foods – unusual certainly for Britain in the 1970s. My mum was always an adventurous cook, but she and my dad had so many international friends – Indian and Pakistani, Italian and French – that she picked up lots of recipes from them over the years.

Punjabi chicken curry, fresh artichokes with vinaigrette, spaghetti bolognese (in the days when most Brits thought pasta only came in a tin) all made regular appearances on our kitchen table. But, my absolute favourite of all these exotic dishes was chicken couscous – by which I mean the proper caboodle of broth, vegetables, chickpeas, chicken or lamb and harissa, plus steamed couscous.

Mum would poach a whole chicken in an enormous pot with baby turnips, carrots, onions and chickpeas, all simmering in a delicious broth tinged bright yellow with turmeric. On top of the broth would sit a vast sieve-full of couscous, steaming to soft perfection.

She always made far more than a family of four could possibly eat, but that family of four would inevitably eat it all! (I don’t know what it is about couscous, but I just seem to be able to fit an inordinate amount of the stuff in my belly.) I can still remember the first time I cooked it myself, as a student in London, after phoning Mum for her recipe – and the friends I have since cooked it for have, without fail, loved it as much as I do.

I still cook it fairly regularly, and every now and then, I have such an urge for those familiar flavours, that really nothing else will do. Which is what happened last night. The only thing was, I had taken a mackerel out of the freezer, and I really needed to eat it, or it would have to be chucked.

Now, I know that there are fish couscous recipes, but I have to admit, I’ve never made one. So, turning to my trusty copy of A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden, I found just what I was looking for.

The recipe I used was described by Claudia as Tunisian in origin, and she said that any kind of fish could be used. I’m not entirely sure that mackerel was the best thing for it, but it worked well enough for me.

Once again, I incorporated a couple of variations on the recipe – but just the replacement of green pepper, which I didn’t have, with some frozen peas, because I always feel like a meal isn’t complete without some green stuff in it! She also said to include quince in the broth, but I certainly didn’t have any of that lying around, so I just left it out. (Although, I’ll definitely give it a shot the next time I see some at the market.)

I’ve become a bit lazy when it comes to cooking couscous these days, and usually just steep the grains in boiling water until they are soft. But I decided to make a bit of an effort with this dish, and cook it properly. Which is why you see the sieve sitting atop the fish and broth in the picture above.

This is a dish that is quite hard to make in small quantities, so I made a pretty large pot, intending to finish it off today. However, that plan somewhat fell by the wayside once I’d started digging in. And, reader, I ate the lot!

Not sure why I’m craving hearty soups now the weather is actually getting better. But hey-ho.

I spotted a recipe for fennel soup on another blog recently, and as it is most definitely one of my favourite vegetables, I knew I’d be making my own version of it before long. (Apologies for not posting the link, but I can’t for the life of me remember exactly which blog it was on.)

I simmered some chopped fresh fennel in stock, along with some tinned tomatoes, a pinch of ground fennel seeds, a spoonful of pul biber paste and lots of garlic, until it was all really soft. Fennel can be a bit stringy, so I left it for a good half an hour.

Then I liquidised the broth, added plenty of finely shredded cabbage, and simmered again for a few minutes, until the cabbage was cooked. A final handful of chopped parsley, and supper was on the table.

What’s nice about this soup is that the liquidised fennel gives it a comforting creaminess, while the cabbage adds a fresh, crunchy bite. Perfection in a soup bowl, in my humble opinion.

Not-so-dear deer

March 16, 2010

The Shellseekers stall in Borough Market may sell the best in hand-dived scallops, but the section of the shop I always look at first is its fridge full of game. Previous purchases from there have included wild duck, pheasant and partridge, but this week my eye was caught by some very reasonably priced venison fillets.

The guy behind the counter said that, in his opinion, they were better than the venison steaks, which he was also selling. And, as pack of four small fillets was priced at just £4, I thought I’d give it a go.

Now, the generally accepted way of cooking venison is to marinade then roast it for hours. Remembering that I’d made venison carpaccio for a Christmas meal a few years ago that involved a very brief meeting of meat and frying pan, I decided to give the fillets a bit of a bashing with my rolling pin to flatten them, and sear them in my lovely Le Creuset griddle pan.

But what to have with them? I thought perhaps something that would usually go with lamb might work, so I looked through a few cookery books for something that took my fancy.

I found just the thing in Breakfast, Lunch, Tea – the book from the Rose Bakery. In it was a recipe for lemony artichokes with lamb chops, so I simply followed the instructions for the artichokes, and replaced the lamb with my venison fillets.

The venison was absolutely delicious – full-flavoured, succulent and oh-so tender. And the sweet fresh taste of the lemony artichokes went with it perfectly. In fact, I’d say it’s the ultimate spring dish, with some heartiness to combat the still-chilly weather outside, but a zingy aroma of the (hopefully!) warmer temperatures to come.

Last September, for my birthday, a friend gave me a little tin of that delicious French chestnut purée. I’m not usually one for leaving delights like that in the cupboard, but for some reason I hadn’t got round to using it.

So, this weekend, I was determined to come up with something chestnutty. Obviously, the perfect accompaniment to chestnuts is chocolate (well, it’s obvious to me), and, as I also had a bar of 100% pure cacao sitting around, I started searching my recipes for something that combined the two.

When it comes to baking, my first port of call is always Leith’s Baking Bible, and once again, it didn’t let me down. The recipe I actually found was for chocolate peanut butter brownies, but I thought the chestnut purée would be a perfectly workable substitute for the peanut butter.

Brownies always work best when they’re slightly undercooked, so they stay good and moist in the middle. If anything, the purée added to that moistness, and the resulting squares of chocolatey unctuousness really stick to the roof of your mouth – a surefire sign of a good brownie, in my books!