Sunday, December 31, 2006

Grandad Ken's crispy grilled trout with parsley and lemon

It is New Year's Eve - the end of another calendar year, which as usual means little to me because I've always lived by the academic year rather than the calendar year, so that the year seems to end in July rather than December. Last year we spent a few days over the New Year period with my parents-in-law in Devon and saw the new year in with champagne and a trio of fish that apparently constitute Prince Charles's breakfast; what I remember most is that on New Year's morning, foggy from the late night and still tasting mackerel, I was absorbed in a gripping thriller and found it almost impossible to wrench myself away and make polite conversation. Memo to self: do not go to visit relatives with a good book - always take a boring, worthy tome that will a) make me look erudite and b) not distract me from the duty of socializing. Ulysses is clearly next time's book of choice, since I have never managed to get past page one. This year, though, we are at home over the New Year period and I have a reassuring stack of novels to usher me into 2007, not to mention the pile of cookbooks I've already mentioned.

A hideous cliche, but New Year's Eve is a time to remember as well as to anticipate and it is only too fitting that I should find myself blogging this particular dish (which we ate yesterday) at this moment in time. Jamie calls it Granddad Ken's crispy grilled trout with parsley and lemon and affectionately recalls going fishing with his granddad as a small child. I associate whole fish with my grandma, who died a few years ago and who was an inspiration in many ways. Grandma had eclectic tastes; she liked Chinese takeaway and lasagne as well as roast dinners and fish. When my brother and I were little, we used to go on holiday to France every summer with our parents and grandparents; after my grandpa died when I was nine, Grandma kept coming, even when confined to a wheelchair, and even though she couldn't speak French. For reasons I can't recall, my parents always seemed to befriend people who went fishing and would bring live fish to our caravan for our dinner. Stuart and I naturally behaved the way two picky English children would when faced with live fish as a prospect for dinner: we squeaked and squawked and refused to go near it, and exclaimed in disgust when the others tried to. Grandma was the only one who wasn't honestly freaked out by the fish and so she was in charge of gutting them and preparing them to be eaten, which she did stoically, ignoring the high-pitched protests coming from the direction of my brother and me and the more muted but equally intense revulsion coming from my parents, who didn't really want the fish either. Once, my parents put a fish back in the water; we never knew if it survived. I tell all this because whole fish still makes me think of Grandma, who, before she died, suffered a lot of pain and never, ever complained; the stoic expression she wore as she gutted fish was emblematic of her attitude to life. It wasn't just that she never complained: she was a naturally optimistic and happy person who saw the best in everything, not in an infuriating Pollyanna way, but in a funny way. I wish she was still here and I could have given her some of Granddad Ken's crispy grilled trout: my parents wouldn't thank you for it, but Grandma would have loved seeing me eat it.

Anyway, back to Jamie's recipe: first, you slash each trout about ten times on each side with a sharp knife, which should be simple but in fact wasn't, for me. My knife skills are on a par with those of a clumsy ten year old; either that or we have blunt knives, which seemed to be confirmed by the fact that the sous-chef also struggled when drafted in to help. That done, I rubbed the fish in olive oil, seasoned them, and stuffed them with chopped parsley and lemon slices, before placing them on a baking tray and scattering lemon zest over. I halved another lemon and put the two halves on the baking tray, dabbed the fish with butter, and then grilled, 6 minutes each side, until crispy and golden.

It was okay. I don't hate whole fish anymore, in fact I'd love a nice seabass, but I remain unconvinced by the merits of trout, which seems to me to be a pretty boring fish. The lemon and parsley gave it a good flavour, but it just didn't blow me away. I suppose it is a decent midweek meal, a nice midweek meal even, but nothing special. I ate it with Jamie's simple crunchy side salad which was, however, absolutely fantastic. It doesn't need its own post, I don't think: it is just torn little gem and cos lettuce, with thinly sliced carrot and cucumber, celery heart, and a handful of blanched fine green beans, plus flat leaf parsley and a choice of dressing (balsamic, lemon or creamy French). I went for balsamic, which is simply balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil in a ratio of 1:3. It was delicious.

Finally, I was given a silicone loaf tin for Christmas, cunningly in the same pale blue as all my Nigella Living Kitchen accessories, and I made Bill Granger's coconut bread for breakfast today. It was very good and incredibly easy for something so lovely - you slice and toast it with icing sugar drizzled over, and slices will freeze easily too - definitely worth a try.

Anyway the Old Year is drawing to a close, and I need to get on with preparing dinner (and my last 'Jamie project' recipe for 2006!). I'll be back next year.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Stained-glass butternut squash lasagne

Before I start recounting this dish, I promised - or threatened, depending on one's viewpoint - to write a bit about what I've been reading. In real life I have much less time to read for pleasure but it has never stopped me - reading is a way of life and not a hobby for me. The festive period is giving me lots of reading time and I have happily accumulated a pile of books, novels and food-themed books of various kinds, to gorge on during my holiday from work.

The biggest of these books by far is the Larousse Gastronomique, which is - literally - an enormous and weighty tome and lends to me - I think - some culinary gravitas as a foodie. My brother and sister-in-law gave it to me for Christmas and it is tremendously useful for me because I'm not a proper foodie: that is, there are lots of things I don't know and there are lots of things I haven't tried and need to learn. I haven't, for example: killed a crab or lobster/made meringues or pavlova (I know how sad that sounds)/made Christmas pudding/made any pudding that involved muslin and waterbaths, though I have managed cheesecakes in waterbaths/gutted a fish. There will be more to add to the list, but I can't quite remember what right now. The Larousse is thus going to be an indispensable kitchen companion that will allow me to bluff my way through the kind of recipes that assume a cook more steeped in innate culinary knowhow than me; it is also long enough to ensure that even I won't try to read it from cover to cover.

Other cookbooks look gauche and immature next to the Larousse, but I have stockpiled some anyway, mainly through a combination of Amazon offers and the Borders post-Christmas sale. Before Christmas I bought myself Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham, The Prawn Cocktail Years, which is a witty account of favourite British restaurant dishes from the fifties, sixties and seventies. I wasn't born until the seventies, but still I recall many of the dishes evoked with a smidgeon of nostalgia because in my world they were still circulating in the eighties (at which point trendy Britain had moved on to other kinds of embarrassing foodie fashion): I remember prawn cocktail, coq au vin, beef bourgignon, peach melba, and so on. Actually I still eat prawn cocktail and I wouldn't honestly object to coq au vin or steak garni, though I recoil at the thought of chicken kiev or duck a l'orange (I didn't like that first time round, even). Anyway The Prawn Cocktail Years is fascinating, funny and the fact that it gives recipes for all these dishes we remember and purport to despise serves to remind us of the inexorable pull our food memories have on what we really want to eat (as opposed to what we think we should want to eat). As an aside, I bought Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories in Oxfam yesterday for almost nothing; I have yet to take it from the bag so will report later.

Before Christmas I also bought Sophie Conran's Pies, mainly because I saw a delicious-looking photo of a Spanish chicken pie from that book but also because I was seduced by the pink cover (I know...) and the incredible Amazon price. In the Borders sale I bought Angela Boggiano's Pie, again attracted by the (wittier) cover and because this book had more to read, about the history and traditions of different sorts of pie. It was only once I realized that I had acquired two new pie books that it struck me that I hardly ever want to eat pie. That notwithstanding, both of these books are fun to flick through and imagine making pies; I am determined to set to making one sometime soon.

In the Borders sale I also snapped up Skye Gyngell's A Year in My Kitchen, which is a beautiful book, written by the Australian-born but now UK-dwelling Vogue food writer. I own a few Australian cookbooks and I like their breezy, relaxed, often Asian-influenced food, but they seem to work better here in the summer than in the winter, when their recipes seem too light to hit the spot. A Year in my Kitchen is based on the seasons and the recipes all look incredibly delicious, stylish, and best of all, easy - none of that pretentious food styling where you arrange slices of food in precarious towers in the middle of a huge white plate and call it food art. Is it me or does that kind of food not really call out for you to eat it? Skye's does, though, which raises it a notch.

Finally in the Borders sale I bought Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook; I love his style, because he can write as powerfully as (I presume) he can cook, and his book definitely makes me hungry, for steak and chips and proper rustic hearty fare. Mmm. This is a book to read but also to cook from; it appeals to the belly as to the mind.

I did receive two other foodie books for Christmas: one is Jeffrey Steingarten, It Must've Been Something I Ate, which I have dipped into - he writes well too, and very wittily, and the chapter on salt that I have read should be required reading for the Food Police - and the other is Julia and Julie, Julie Powell's tale of her project to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year. I read this in one go on Boxing Day, shamelessly gorging myself on it (I do that with books, more than with food) and I found it intensely powerful, not because Julie set herself the mad task of 524 recipes in 365 days, but because she writes so honestly about herself and her life and how the project affected her. In truth, the project seemed to take over her life and sometimes it literally appeared to drive her crazy; I caught myself thinking that her husband must be a saint, not least because they never ate before 9 pm and often nearer midnight. I couldn't do what she did: all that French food would definitely leave me feeling like a stuffed goose myself, for one thing, and then there are the complicated techniques that took her and would take me a while to get to grips with. Jamie's book is far more accessible; we always eat before 9 pm; it isn't full of butter and cream; I haven't set a time limit. Nonetheless, I understand why Julie gets so frustrated when things don't work out - so do I, albeit at a lower level. My madness when the one-egg mayonnaise failed led me to cut my thumb on the Magimix was only rivalled by Tesco selling me the second off butternut squash in a row this week - did you know squash went off? I have always found them spookily long-lasting, but clearly not, or else I am the only one buying Tesco organic squash. What I am saying is that the Jamie project isn't all Happy Families either - and Simon is threatening to tell some of the stories from the Other Side, that is, the side of the husband who sees my wild-eyed frustration in the supermarket when they don't have the ingredients I need, or who calls impatiently on the sous-chef because I am too weak or the knife is too blunt to effect the perfect incision into a piece of fish or meat. It isn't as bad as Julie and Julia, though; I can't sustain that level of drama, and this book is way more reassuringly on my side, or so it feels.

Anyway the second squash to turn out to be off two hours after purchase was for dinner on Thursday evening, and we had to buy another in M and S. This was for stained glass lasagne with butternut squash, which is an interesting dish and not comparable to any pasta dish I've made before - I suppose it is an open lasagne, but with a twist. To make it, we made pasta as usual (we have recently been using OO flour where before we had O pasta flour, and it makes a world of difference) and after turning it into sheets in the machine, scattered herbs (parsley, sage and fennel tops) over one half, folded it up and rolled it back through the machine. You can see the herbs inside the pasta sheet so it looks like a stained glass window, sort of, hence the title. Meanwhile I had roasted the squash with bashed up fennel seeds, dried chilli and coriander seeds and then mashed it up to make baby food. I cooked the pasta and tossed it in butter and Parmesan. To serve, I smeared a layer of squash, a layer of pasta, another layer of squash, a top layer of pasta, plus a scattering of chopped fresh red chilli and then Parmesan for the table.

I loved the squash here, really flavoursome, and I liked the pasta but it felt like a lot of pasta. This may just have been because I was a bit overfed from Christmas or I might have been stingy with the butter that I tossed the pasta in and so it went down less quickly than usual (which inevitably means that despite using warmed plates, the pasta began to cool down a bit). I love the idea, though, and the combination of flavours went really well. Next time I would use less pasta - there will be a next time, because it was a fun dish to create and assemble and it tasted good, an antidote to the meaty Christmas fare we'd had hitherto, as the Jamie project began again.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The best roast turkey

The first post after Christmas is proving difficult to write - or, more honestly, I have been lacking the impetus to write it, feeling over-sated with food and wine and conversation, and just wanting to loll around reading, which is anyhow what I do best. I took a mini-break from my project over Christmas mainly because Christmas cooking is steeped in traditions, both familial and (inter)national, that the wannabe foodie messes with at her peril. More than that, Christmas foods seem to be designed to stuff you so full that you don't ever feel hungry, or not really, and you certainly don't crave more food, which makes me wonder how these edible traditions came about and how they have lingered for so long. It would seem, for example, that tradition dictates a starter before roast turkey and Christmas pudding - but how many people ever make it to the pudding stage? Our family habits involve no starter, a roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings, including Yorkshire puddings, because my nana is from Yorkshire and expects it, and then a dessert, be it Christmas pudding or cake, ice cream, or, on occasions in the past, a half-coated chocolate digestive biscuit for me, which in the Picky Years was my all-time favourite dessert. I am not sure anyone really wants dessert after roast turkey with its trimmings; I don't, but I did have one this year - part of the (Nigella) buche de Noel that I made and forgot to take a picture of until it had been eaten down to a Yule stump. Our Christmas was muddled for reasons too complicated to explain here, so we had Christmas dinner (turkey...) on Christmas Eve, and then beef on Christmas Day: the roast rib of beef with beetroot from Jamie's book, that I have made and blogged before. My dad hates any form of roast dinner, eats it under duress and sometimes, often, even, slathers it with vinegar rather than gravy, but he loves beetroot and cauliflower cheese and the roast rib of beef with beets and cauliflower cheese won him over on Christmas Day. Another Jamie result. Before I get onto Christmas dinner, other culinary anecdotes from the holiday weekend: we made tapas for Saturday evening, including yummy patatas a lo pobre and my mother's fantastic tortilla; my sister-in-law made a yummy chocolate and cranberry roulade. The kitchen was almost permanently occupied by one person or another and by my brother's dog, who was lured in by the attractive smells and scored a few illicit treats as a result.

The major meal was, of course, the roast turkey dinner. I seized the chance to try Jamie's roast turkey recipe from Cook with Jamie, because we don't have a particular family tradition for turkey-cooking - last year I followed Jamie too, but a different recipe - and because although Jamie suggests that you can eat this at any time of year, I don't know many people who roast huge turkeys in July. To prepare the turkey, I boiled the giblets to make the gravy; meanwhile, I made Jamie's stuffing by throwing pancetta strips, sage leaves and butter into a hot pan, adding chopped garlic cloves, celery and onion and cooking until golden brown. I then removed the pan from the heat, added breadcrumbs and chopped apricots and, once cool, added minced pork, lemon zest, nutmeg, egg and seasoning.

I sliced more strips of pancetta in half and wrapped each around a rosemary sprig and a garlic sliver. Except I missed the garlic out this time because my nana finds garlic difficult to digest. I rolled each strip up and my brother made slits in the turkey's thighs and drumsticks into which I inserted these little rolls. The point of this is to give the legs flavour and keep them moist.

At this point I felt as though I was getting too close to the turkey for comfort. We had -well, my sister-in-law did, and it stuck - named the turkey and it began to feel uncomfortably human as I massaged stuffing under the skin and spread it carefully, and then plonked an orange that had briefly been microwaved into its cavity, before rubbing it with oil, seasoning it and placing it in the hot oven. It is strange how knowing that you have bought a turkey which had a nice life somehow makes you more aware that it was once alive than buying a cardboardy supermarket one does; that is probably a good thing.

Here is our turkey before:

And after:

I don't really need to say that the turkey was delicious - even cardboard turkey would taste good smothered in gravy. And this gravy was pretty good because it came from the giblets and from the water my mother used for her yummy sausage and sage stuffing. I have, however, been eating this turkey on and off ever since (with salad; with cranberry sauce in a sandwich; with bacon for a variant on a club sandwich, and in curry) and I can therefore confidently say that the turkey was moist and delicious, frankly. It looks a tad burnt in the above pic; that is just where the stuffing was thickest under the skin. This stuffing was amazing - I used what was left over to make little stuffing balls and they were all quickly eaten up. I will use this again when we next have roast chicken, because you can taste the apricot and lemon and it works really well, somehow. And who knows - maybe I'll try a turkey again before next Christmas? Then again, we've been eating leftovers for days and I've kind of had my fill of turkey now, so probably not.

Christmas food may be very much the same thing every year but that in itself is comforting, warming, part of the whole return-t0-childhood that marks this time of year. I am happy to say that leftovers are now finished and we can turn back to the Jamie project with renewed vigour, even if it does get in the way of reading my new books.... about which more, shortly...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy Christmas!

It seems that Christmas is upon us - for such a long time I felt it was too early to think about and then suddenly it was almost too late. Not quite, luckily. I will be having a mini blogging break because we are going away today, to my parents, for a few days. Cooking-wise, I will be cooking the turkey from the recipe in Cook with Jamie and will also make again the roast rib of beef with beets; I got up unseasonably early this morning to make shortbread from the book for my grandmother. Otherwise I will resume working through the book after the festivities. It all feels a bit manic today, so obviously I am procrastinating by blogging instead of working my way through the impressive list of tasks I have assigned to myself, not least of which is finishing wrapping presents (is it just me or is wrapping highly tedious, after the first couple of parcels?).

Yesterday, I marzipanned and iced the Christmas cake, which looks quite cute (I added one Christmas tree and lots of holly leaves made of leftover scraps of white icing) - I hope it tastes okay. Usually I make a cake that lies somewhere between Nigella's from How to Be a Domestic Goddess and my nana's old recipe, but this time I was seduced by Nigella's Christmas Kitchen and made the cake from the show. My nana will definitely tell me if it isn't any good, so I will find out soon enough.

My brother and sister-in-law and their dog are coming north today; we have family over at my parents' later for tapas; Christmas is here. Oh, and yesterday we went to an out-of-town Borders, which has Starbucks in it - and Simon found some gingerbread syrup (the syrup he ordered is somewhere in the post, but don't get me back on my high horse again...). So last night we had some of what Nigella calls Christmas in a glass - gingerbread syrup and prosecco. It really honestly does taste like Christmas in a glass - it is delicious. Thank you again, Nigella; I'm looking forward to more liquid Christmas later.

For now, though, the farm shop awaits us for the turkey and beef and for some vegetables. When we get back I have to wrap the edible goodies, pack and go. Happy Christmas to anyone still reading me (Christmas is too busy for blogs..!) and I will be back before the New Year, probably via the sales (I never said I was one of those pure, walk-in-the-country types, who celebrates Christmas as a chance to avoid the shops). Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Spinach and goat's cheese risotto

Risotto is the ideal food for toothache, not only because its oozy texture makes it easy to eat, but also because it is bowl-food, comfort food like soup or mashed potato, that warms you up from the inside. It is the kind of food you can eat when you are too tired to bother and when your mouth has been aching for days. I should say at this point that my mouth is much better; the ache hasn't gone completely but it has waned considerably and I feel much more human. This is helped by the fact that I have stopped work for at least 10 days, which has probably kicked my spirits up a few notches and filled me with an extra surge of festive cheer. The gingerbread syrup hasn't arrived by the way - the company Simon used seems to have a particularly unhelpful notion of customer service. When an email is sent informing you that your order has dispatched, you assume it has, well, dispatched, but in the crazy world of British customer service, it could mean anything at all, really. Simon rang to complain and a zombified voice informed him that he couldn't be sure when it dispatched, except that it certainly wasn't on the date that the email had been sent to tell us that it had. Anyway we bought some creme de peche as a substitute and had some with sparkling Pinot Grigio last night, and I can hardly believe that gingerbread syrup could be as good (although I am still furious that we pay for the kind of service that we so frequently get).

Another bete noire of mine is the Royal Mail. I know they are incredibly busy at this time of year but why can't they plan ahead and employ temps? Students on holiday from university need something to pay their drinks bills, after all, although I appreciate that the early mornings might cramp their style. It isn't just the erratic service (some parcels arrive spookily quickly, others outrageously slowly) but also the bizarre behaviour of my postman that makes me turn into Victor Meldrew. Just now, I was talking on-line to my brother (who is at work, poor soul), sat at the computer in my pyjamas, and the doorbell rang. I ran downstairs as fast as I can at 8 am and opened the door, by which time the postman had fled. Again. He saw me and came back with an air of resigned grumpiness. I am convinced that he knocks and runs, in the manner of a small child playing a trick; he seems to move with lightning speed. In any case, he delivered a lovely box from the US, which is exciting - and which arrived pretty fast, having been posted on 12th December. 10 days seems really fast from the States, as opposed to 10 days for a package I just received from another part of England. I will stop ranting, though, because I am on holiday and therefore not allowed to complain.

Spinach and goat's cheese risotto.... I made the usual risotto base and then wilted the spinach in melted butter, garlic and nutmeg, before chopping it very finely and stirring it into the risotto with Parmesan, butter and a squeeze of lemon. I rested the risotto with a lid on briefly, folded in some goat's cheese, sprinkled with lemon zest and more crumbled goats cheese and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, and served.

In the book, this risotto is entirely green, rather than lightly shaded and flecked, like mine. I have no idea where I went wrong, but the flecked effect is quite pretty anyway, and it certainly didn't hurt the flavour. I love goat's cheese, but I am aware that it is not a taste universally shared (like fennel...); for people who do like goat's cheese, this is a tasty risotto which is incredibly easy to eat, even for a person with toothache.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Braised peas with spring onions and lettuce

Yesterday was definitely not a day filled with festive cheer - for me, at any rate. I had a dental appointment that managed to last 2 hours, as the dentist filled a hideously deep crack in my tooth; it involved several injections and a lot of imagination to get past it. After the swelling came down, the pain kicked in and I have been battling with toothache ever since. I had forgotten how debilitating toothache is: it literally wore me down, so I just wanted to curl up in bed and lock out the world. I skipped lunch and by dinner time I was as hungry as I was achey, but couldn't face much, so I made fishcakes with mashed potato, flaked poached haddock, chopped parsley and cayenne, and I also made Jamie's braised peas with spring onion and lettuce. Oh and I felt sorry for myself - I suppose that goes without saying.

These peas are a variant of a classic French dish, which I have eaten quite a lot in the form of the French jarred peas you can buy over here (they are extraordinarily expensive in Tesco). I like them a lot but had never attempted to emulate them, mainly because it wasn't until last year that I realized that peas can be more than a rushed accompaniment (pea puree, made with basil and olive oil, taught me that) but also because I had never seen a recipe. It is so easy that you barely need one, which worked for me because I was achey, exhausted and crabby (the dentist, nice man that he is, has that effect). Anyway to make it, you simply heat butter and olive oil in a pan, add plain flour and stir, then pour in chicken or vegetable stock; turn up the heat, add chopped spring onions and lettuce with seasoning, and simmer with the lid on for 5 minutes until tender. Squeeze in lemon juice and serve drizzled with a splash of oil.

I should admit that my taste buds probably weren't at their peak but I really liked these peas. The stock/lemon juice combo is always a winner, and the lettuce and spring onion work so well. It is simple but delicious, which is what side dishes should be, probably. Even in my over-tired, under-tasting state, I found these peas very tasty indeed and I would certainly do them again.

Tonight, as an aside, I made a gingerbread house.
It was fun, trying not to be too tacky, though there is no place at Christmas for a tasteful gingerbread house. Meanwhile, fingers crossed that my toothache vanishes tomorrow and that I can eat crunchy food again, as soft, nursery food (we had risotto tonight, which was delicious, but still...) will begin to get on my nerves. Fingers crossed that my toothache dissipates anyway because it is tiresome to live with and at the moment I can't drink the usual cold water because it hurts - and tepid water really isn't very nice. Otherwise from tomorrow afternoon I have a pretty long holiday - which is kind of exciting. Watch this space as (tooth ache permitting), I cook up a storm!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Whilst I remember eating many types of seafood in France - particularly scallops and sea-snails, which I preferred to their chewier land cousins - I don't recall eating much squid. Deep-fried squid simply has to be ordered as part of a tapas selection, but I don't really cook it; the result is that I don't eat much squid despite liking it. I wasn't sure where Simon stood on squid, but it seems he too has always been partial to those deep fried rubbery rings in our favouite tapas restaurant and he certainly didn't object to trying Jamie's pasta with squid.

I bought the squid not at a friendly local fishmonger, because those are nigh-impossible to locate within a working day, but at Sainsburys. I then cleaned the squid up, followed Jamie's instructions, scored it and then sliced it, which wasn't particularly pleasant (the initial parts, not the slicing). I am working on my tendency towards squeamishness but I haven't conquered it yet - in Biology at school, I was one of the girls who squealed and ran when a rat's head was placed unceremoniously on the lab bench for our perusal. It was always going to take me longer than those kids who poked and prodded it with curiosity, rather than fear. I suppose that sums me up: I veer towards being afraid of the visceral rather than wanting to explore it further, and it takes a lot for me to tip the balance the other way. I am trying, though. Anyway having sorted out the squid, I marinaded it briefly in lemon zest and juice, chopped red chilli, parsley, garlic, and olive oil. I cooked the linguine until al dente; while it was cooking, I tossed the squid and marinade into a hot pan and stirred before adding white wine and frozen peas and cooking until the peas were tender. After draining the pasta, I stirred it into the squid and sauce and added more olive oil, lemon juice and zest, and chopped mint.

Jamie says this is a summer dish - typical of me to make it on the second really cold day of the year so far. I can imagine how great it would be in the summer with a cold glass of white, but to be honest it was pretty good in December already! I found this dish intensely and vibrantly flavourful and I gobbled it down with shameless lack of restraint. I know squid isn't everyone's cup of tea and I can see why, but I love it - and the sous chef seemed to enjoy it a lot too. There was a time when I wouldn't have touched squid with a barge pole, but I did and it was definitely worth the effort and squeamishness. Another recipe to make again - probably not for visitors, because squid is controversial, but as a speedy and incredibly tasty week night dinner for us, I can see this being made again even before the sun threatens to shine again - which, to my frozen bones, seems a long, long way ahead.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Lovely lamb shank pie

Yesterday it finally began to feel cold, properly cold, the kind of cold that makes your toes hurt just walking from the front door to the car parked almost outside. I am not good at cold and I had forgotten what it felt like; I really was born in the wrong place. To be honest I have been hankering after wintry comfort food not because it was freezing outside but because I fully subscribe to the illusion that December warrants comforting stodge: mash, pies, puddings. In my defence I should say that I have been cold for weeks, but I had forgotten that it can get much, much colder. Two years ago Simon and I went to Berlin in December and I experienced real cold, and even with 2 pairs of tights under my jeans I was still a walking icicle (although less so than my dad). When I was a teenager, I used to put the fan heater in my bedroom on in the summer, because moving from the hot sun into the temperate house always made me cold, and because huddling in front of heat with a novel is my idea of heaven. I also unsurprisingly like hovering by a warm stove - I definitely deserve an Aga, but obviously I don't have one. Anyway yesterday it began to be December cold and we went to a party for most of the afternoon and had snacky party food for lunch. The invitation said 'please bring an exotic dish'; I brought brownies (well they are American, aren't they? exotic, ish?) because I can make them almost blindfolded and they always work (I went for Nigella's divinely seasonal snow-flecked ones, which are fantastic) and a bottle of M and S cava. I noticed that the 'exotic' dishes looked decidedly dodgy and several people had brought shop-made sausage rolls, which hardly qualify as exotic either; there were also far too many dishes swimming in mayo, but there was a lovely bean salad and some delectable vegetable pancakes.

After the party, I made Jamie's lamb shank pie. I love lamb shanks - that doesn't need saying again. I seasoned the shanks and browned them briefly, before replacing them in the heavy based saucepan with chopped leeks, onion, carrots, turnip (not swede!), and celery, which I cooked for 15 minutes until softened, adding rosemary and thyme plus a little flour. I whizzed red wine, flour and tomato puree in the food processor and added this to the pan with the lamb shanks, brought it to the boil and simmered for 90 minutes with the lid on.

Meanwhile I rolled out bought puff pastry and cut it into strips. When the lamb had simmered for 90 minutes, I transferred it and its sauce to an ovenproof dish (the only suitably sized dish I had was, embarrassingly, a Le Creuset saucepan) , layered the strips of pastry over in an uneven rustic way, brushed with beaten egg and milk and baked for 20 minutes.

I have already admitted how much I love lamb shanks... and slow-cooked meat in red wine is simply wintery heaven for me. I don't eat pies very often but this one was thoroughly worth it - it was absolutely fantastic. I could have eaten the lamb and sauce without the pastry too - it had such a depth of flavour. One question I would have is how to serve it neatly - I couldn't figure it out, but decided it didn't matter since I don't go in that much for poncey presentation. Speaking of which I saw Gary Rhodes in his spiky haired days making prawn cocktail earlier - he made a prawn cocktail cake which was so faffy and cheffy and looked so ridiculous that it made me want to shout at the television. Who wants prawn cocktail cake when they can have lamb shank pie? Not me, at any rate.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Roasted chicken breast with cherry tomatoes and asparagus

This weekend has been pretty hectic, mainly because as usual I am behind with Christmas shopping and take forever to do it. Yesterday I spent most of the day trying to catch up and was thwarted on some of my missions. We have also been out: today we spent the afternoon at a party and Friday night we went to some friends' for dinner. Going out for dinner at other people's houses is such a variable experience, depending on a) whether you like the people or not and b) what they cook. A) is less self-evident than it might seem: I can't be the only person who sometimes goes out wishing she was somewhere - anywhere - else. I hate duty socializing but it seems to be part of the modern day. B) is not what you might expect: that is, I am perfectly happy going to see people who can cook, can't cook, whatever; the issue is mainly about whether I am likely to be poisoned. I have been poisoned quite a few times; I must have a delicate stomach. When I was a student, I had a friend whose brave culinary concoctions challenged my constitution considerably. She once served a frittata that had sat in the sunshine all day; that frittata came back to haunt me - literally. She also used to collect the dregs of people's glasses and freeze it to use in cooking, which made me worry, when offered risotto, if I was tasting alcohol or saliva. I also suffered after someone served me frozen beef (don't ask) and after someone gave me Economy supermarket pork swimming in a tin of sweet peaches in a rewrite of a Jamie Oliver dish. I wish that people who don't know how to cook would start using the local deli and buy dinner in - they tend to flap madly when faced with making a meal and then risk poisoning all their guests - good shopping is an art in food terms, and you don't need to know how to cook to know how to shop. All that said, I was looking forward to Friday night's dinner with complete confidence, knowing a) I can relax and laugh with the hosts and b) they can cook. We had a lovely chicken casserole for the main course, followed by a to-die-for chocolate tart with icecream laced with brandy. Wow. And we had a really nice time, too.

Yesterday evening we came back late from shopping all day, exhausted and fractious because the December Saturday shopping experience has that effect, and so we decided on an easy dinner - Jamie's roast chicken breast with cherry tomatoes and asparagus. Its method is straightforward: for one person (I doubled amounts for the two of us), toss a chicken breast (skin-on) in a bowl with trimmed asparagus, cherry tomatoes, olive oil and rosemary leaves, then season. Put everything but the chicken in a tray and place the chicken breast on top; add an extra sprig of rosemary, then some white wine, and place in the oven for 23-25 minutes (200 C).

Serve drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The picture shows how simple this is; it doesn't show how delicious. I was worried it would be dry but it wasn't at all; it was very good indeed. All of these chicken breast recipes have been fantastic and really easy - anyone feeling tired, unsure what to cook, in the mood for chicken should invest in this book. Having said that, I would also cook these for friends because they require no last-minute frenzy, no anxious prodding when you'd rather be drinking an aperitif. Mmm.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Potato rosti

I have made potato rosti before, sort of. I say sort of because it failed miserably: the grated potato was just a gluey mess. We didn't even try to eat it. It must have been two or three years ago and I made it to go with a stuffed pork tenderloin; the pork worked magically despite the faff it required to stuff it but the potatoes were definitely one of my worst culinary efforts. (I have had a few culinary creations go wrong: Delia's shortbread, which fell apart; mayonnaise, whenever I've not used the Magimix; pastry, the first time I tried - it works now; there will be more, but I have forgotten them, which is presumably how my brain copes with cooking disasters so as to deny the possibility that anything can go wrong and to allow me to carry on in the kitchen). For some reason I cook best when I have a degree of (probably misplaced) confidence; if I don't imagine recipes will fail, they tend not to. Anyway cooking isn't rocket science; anyone can do it, which makes it a levelling experience. I was wondering the other day why I like it: I hated cookery at school, which was taught by a woman we all called the Poison Dwarf (because she was small and, well, poisonous), and the Poison Dwarf never quite gave you all the information you needed to make a dish, and then would yell at you or put you on lunchtime litter picking duty if you tried to make a cake in the wrong sized tin, or burnt your fingers on the cooker. She never liked me much anyway (mainly because I was useless!) but then my mother who was also a teacher, albeit not of cookery and in a different school, met her on some training course and let slip that we called her the Poison Dwarf. That didn't really help our relationship to develop in a positive way. I learnt to cook when I left school and could mess things up without danger of having to pick up crisp packets and sweet wrappers all the way around a wet playground. I think I like cooking partly because for me it tends to involve reading, and recipes are very readable (unlike technical instructions, say); when you read a recipe you immediately begin to imagine what the end product will look and taste like, so it is an intensely bodily experience. I didn't salivate on reading Jamie's rosti recipe - it wasn't one of the ones that made me desperately eager to try it - but it definitely looked nice.

I made the rosti to go with salmon marinaded in pomegranate molasses, honey and soy (a Nigella recipe) at least partly because I remembered that pomegranate molasses in the back of the cupboard. To cook the rosti, I peeled the potatoes and sliced them into matchsticks - this, Jamie says, makes the dish less gluey than grating them would. I heated olive oil and a knob of butter in a small oven proof frying pan and then tossed the potatoes, garlic cloves and rosemary leaves in the oil and butter and cooked them in the frying pan, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes until softened slightly. The garlic posed a dilemma: the recipe instructed me to keep the cloves whole but peel them, whereas the picture quite clearly showed unpeeled cloves, so I went for personal preference and kept the cloves unpeeled as I think it makes them nicer after roasting. After the ten minutes, I transferred the pan to the preheated oven and cooked for 25 minutes, after which I removed the pan from the oven and pressed the rosti down with dampened greaseproof to compact it. At this point, the greaseproof began to stick to the rosti. This was the same greaseproof that I used for the swiss roll - it is obviously completely useless. I have never had problems with greaseproof before, but previously I was using a Lakeland version and before that an M and S version; rest assured I am going to buy a different brand before I need to use it again. Anyway I managed to peel the greaseproof off eventually and put the pan back in the oven for another 25 minutes.

While I was making the rosti, I was also decorating the Christmas tree, which we finally got round to putting up. I wasn't concentrating on the rosti - I was more interested in choosing which bauble to put where. This might explain how it is that I managed to burn it, slightly.

In the end the burnt bits weren't at all horrible - the whole dish was very nice. It didn't stick to the pan at all and it was easy enough to cut. This is an easy potato dish which I will make again (and try not to burn it next time!).

The other reason I was a bit distracted while making the rosti was that I have bought a Kitchenaid artisan mixer. I became obsessed with them and desperately wanted one; in a fit of greedy naughtiness I went and bought myself one. I haven't had time even to take it out of the box yet, but as soon as I do, I will be trying out one of those recipes that take an eternity with a bogstandard hand held electric mixer and getting a bit over excited.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Blackened barbecued pork fillets

On an ill-advised leaving do at work some years ago held in the Newcastle branch of Old Orleans, I ordered blackened chicken; it arrived cremated. I sent it back; they returned another burnt offering; I gave up, and had toast when I got home. So many collective work dinners turn out that way; the thought of going out, paying a lot of money, eating burnt food and talking about work can be decidedly unappealing. Anyway I now avoid ordering 'blackened' anything like the plague, for fear of more inedible dinners. That embargo does not extend to home cooking, and my friend Kirsten had already tried Jamie's blackened pork fillets and praised them, so I was not particularly anxious about creating a home-made version of blackened food.

The recipe was easy: marinade one pork fillet per two people in a mixture of crushed cloves, cumin and fennel seeds, paprika, orange zest and juice, thyme, garlic, ketchup and balsamic vinegar for at least an hour but up to half a day. When you're ready, barbecue or grill them until nicely charred.

I should say at this point that our grill is ridiculously feeble; it char-grills only in the loosest possible sense, but it did eventually succeed. I served this with sweet potato and carrot mash, and sprouts (okay the sprouts don't particularly go, but I had some to use up... and they tasted good!).

I enjoyed this dinner, but not as much as I would have had it been barbecued on a proper hot flame. Similarly I think the whole vibe of the barbecued dish would be better in July than in deepest darkest December; it worked, but it didn't make my taste buds sing. That will teach me to try dishes that would, I could tell as I ate it, be fabulous in the summer, in December.

Reading this back, I don't at all want to imply that I didn't like this - we both liked it a lot. I do feel, though, that food tastes differently according to the climate, and I could imagine this on a hot summer's day with a cold beer, as Matt Skinner suggests, more than on a windy December dark night with a glass of red. I will make it again, but I'll wait until the seasons change.

On another note, my lovely husband has ordered me some gingerbread syrup as I have been wanting it since I read Nigella's 'Christmas in a glass' recipe in the Radio Times. How lucky am I? We have also, finally. put up the tree, and the house feels gloriously Christmassy and I predictably feel that the holidays have begun, which obviously they have not. I had better wait for that gingerbread syrup to arrive.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ravioli with pecorino, potato and mint

I realize that I have arguably been over-generous to France as the country that introduced me to proper food and that I might need to redress the balance somewhat by presenting an alternative image of eating habits in France that go far beyond all the anecdotes about red wine, garlic and longevity. I could point out that France is currently nearly as preoccupied as we are with childhood obesity, although their school dinners, in my experience, were immeasurably better. I won't, though, because I marked a whole pile of essays on 'l'effet Jamie Oliver en France' last year on that very subject and it has bored me somewhat of the whole topic (no offence to the worthy campaigns about children's eating habits - just that they don't need my input). Instead, I would rather talk about a little 'departement' in northern France, Picardie, that happened to be twinned with County Durham where I grew up, and where we were inevitably sent on school trips. I went there aged 12 for a week-long school trip staying in a scary centre for school children, with apparently minimal security and the kind of food that 12 year old picky British kids will not eat. I returned aged 13 for an exchange visit and stayed in my penpal's house; I can't remember anything I ate except banana cereal, which made me gag, so I had to pretend to be someone who couldn't eat breakfast and then go hungry until lunchtime. The reason I mention all this now, though, is the third trip, when I was 16, again with the school but this time for work experience, although younger kids on the trip were there to do an exchange (my brother, for example). This time I was accommodated in a very odd household for which I was totally unprepared. I had begun A-level French and we had been taught to converse on various topics that would, we were told, come in useful at the dinner table in France - that is, the recent regional elections; the position of France in the Common Market; Maastricht, and whether or not Eurodisney would work longterm. Fab topics, obviously, just the sort of thing we all like to pontificate on at the end of a day's work. Not. Anyway, I arrived primed and ready to spout forth my second hand opinions, and found myself in a household where no one knew there had been elections in France or what the Maastricht treaty was. They were obviously very poor: there was no furniture apart from a dining table and a television; beyond the dining area we all sat on the floor. There were 5 children but only 3 bedrooms; a bathroom with a door that wouldn't close (which led me to shower in a dressing gown...) - and at night they would creep into my room and stare at me so I was too unnerved to go to sleep. Furthermore, the food was awful. Every night, they opened a catering sized tin of ravioli in tomato sauce and fed me that with stale bread; I ate before them, for no apparent reason, while they stood in a line and watched me and I tried bravely to talk, but they just flinched at all my conversational gambits. I couldn't bear it: I bought a book of Maupassant's short stories and read them unhappily, and listened to my Walkman. I gave up trying to speak and just read, and wrote letters, until the school registered just how dire it was and moved me, whereupon the family all cried, feeling I had let them down - it seemed that they had liked having me, and it turned out I was their first ever guest. Probably their last, too. I was moved into a teacher's house, where the teacher had a huge party with caviar and an ice sculpture and a friend and I were bored waitresses, but it was a ridiculous jump from the tinned ravioli. The point of this story was simply to show that I do know that not everyone in France eats fantastically well all the time and that ravioli is not always a good thing.

This latter point was picked up by my brother who asked what I was having for dinner, and, when told, commented that he didn't like the sound of cheese with mint and made silly remarks about whether the next thing would be Polo mints with feta cheese. When he says things like this, I remember what he was like when he was a kid. I ignored him, obviously, and went on to make Jamie's ravioli anyway. We have made fresh pasta quite a few times now but this was only our third go at ravioli, which is by far the most fun part of making pasta because the little parcels (flying saucers as Freya called them...) are so amazing.

I won't go through how to make pasta, but we (making pasta involves 2 chefs rather than me and a sous-chef in our house...) made the pasta dough and chilled it while I made the filling: potatoes, baked for an hour in a hot oven, cooled slightly, flesh scooped out and mixed with lemon zest, pecorino, mint, butter and nutmeg. We used a ravioli tray to make up the ravioli and it worked perfectly - in fact the whole experience was easier than usual, which I ascribe to the fact that I used OO flour instead of 0 'pasta flour' which is all Tesco sell, and I kneaded more than usual. There was no dangerous moment where the pasta almost tore; no possibility that it might fail. It just worked.

Making ravioli is such an easy and pleasurable way of feeling domestic goddessy. Having made the little ravioli, I boiled them for 3 and a half minutes, while heating butter in a frying pan. I drained the ravioli (or rather the sous-chef did) and I then added the ravioli to the frying pan with a little of its cooking water and simmered a bit until the water and butter coated the ravioli like a light sauce. I sprinkled with whole mint leaves and shaved pecorino.

This ravioli was utterly delicious - for me, the best fresh pasta dish I have ever had, let alone made. I loved the combination of flavours, as I told my brother this morning; no one should scoff at this delectable dinner, let alone brothers who want a Christmas present. This is right up there for me in the super league of the best dishes out of this book, and it fits the book's ethos perfectly - fun to make, simple, classic, and indescribably better than any ready made version of the same.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Nigella's aromatic ham

Like so many other people, I watched Nigella last week and thought how beautifully wintry she looked: her dark hair and eyes; her white and red and black clothes; her festive food and house. She wrote a book called Forever Summer but she herself suits winter far better and in fact her food seems to appeal more to me in the cold weather - even the summery foods that she concocts in Forever Summer. In a way, Feast, the book that followed Forever Summer, might be called Forever Festivals (OK so it might if Nigella had as bad a taste in titles as me...); most of the recipes seem suited to implicitly autumnal or winter occasions - Halloween, Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, as well as Christmas. Anyway last Wednesday I curled up with Nigella in festive mode, and as always, she infected me with Yuletide spirit - me, who hasn't even taken the tree out of its box yet. Food is always guaranteed to draw me to occasions more than anything else and so it proved; I spent a good part of Saturday seeking gingerbread syrup to make Nigella's 'Christmas in a glass', but I didn't actually find any, despite trying three overcrowded branches of Starbucks, a shop I never, ever enter. See - even Scrooge wouldn't have resisted Nigella.

On Sunday I decided to try Nigella's aromatic spiced ham, the new version of the fully festive ham that appears in Feast and a relative of the ham in Coca Cola and ham in Cherry Coke that Nigella has become known for. I intended to try it with Jamie's creamy butternut squash, following the example of the lovely Gravy Queen who pops up here occasionally, but my newly bought squash was off and I had to abandon it. Instead I did mustard mash (with lovely lovely Yukon Gold potatoes), roast sweet potato and carrot, and sprouts to accompany the ham, letting loose my inner huffy child to mutter darkly about Tesco's shortcomings and wishing our farm shop had had some butternut squash to prevent me having to fall back on Tesco's over-travelled produce. Cooking the ham was delightfully simple: I boiled it in a mix of water, red wine, fennel, onion, star anise, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, and garlic, until cooked. Then I peeled off the rind and some of the fat, cut a diamond pattern into the remaining fat and studded each intersection of the diamonds with a clove. Meanwhile I simmered redcurrant jelly, cinnamon, paprika and red wine vinegar until it became a syrup and then glazed the ham with it, before replacing the ham (sitting on foil on a baking tray to avoid mess) in the oven at 230 degrees for 15 minutes.

The picture should speak for itself - this ham is sublime. I love Nigella's ham in cherry Coke but this is just as good, definitely. I haven't tried the fully festive ham from Feast, so I can't compare it, but this was absolutely delicious. And it worked well with my improvised veggie side dishes.

Mmm - this was a very nice dinner, and very easy. I am sure my squash recipe would have gone well with it to, but it wasn't to be (see how calm I can be when I want to be). I can vouch for the deliciousness of the ham as leftovers in sandwiches too, with some lovely red onion confit from Rick Stein's that my brother and sister-in-law brought us for our wedding. Gourmet sandwiches indeed - and barely any effort, which is a bonus.

Monday, December 11, 2006

1980s style Black Forest Swiss Roll

When we started German at school, for some reason one of the first things we learnt was 'Schwarzwalderkirschtorte', Black Forest cherry gateau. I think we probably thought that all Germans ate that every day, in the same way that we had a hazy notion that French people lived on croissants for breakfast and then baguette for lunch before snails and frogs' legs for dinner (I didn't - I spent enough time in France to know better - but those language textbooks were really peddling a certain culinary image of the countries whose languages they were teaching - and that image was really quite convincing). To be honest, 80s Black Forest cherry gateau stands as an emblem of all the desserts I used to hate - oozy, creamy, fruit in it, all in all a bit messy, really. I always liked cake and flapjack, but not the oozy icing in a Victoria sponge, or anything squidgy, in terms of dessert; I would never have eaten this dish, in times gone by. I am, however, a reformed character prepared to boldly go where never I went before, and thus I set to making this swiss roll version of a Black Forest cherry cake, cheerfully dismissing any lurking phobias that might have raised their ugly heads in the process.

My cooking began badly - I lost the cocoa powder. Our kitchen is small - large enough for a table and four chairs, but hardly enormous - and I have a lot of kitchen equipment and even more food and baking ingredients. I still haven't found the cocoa powder that I am sure is there (unless the kitchen gremlins got it - they seem to haunt my kitchen) but Simon graciously, or rather a tad grumpily, went off to Tesco and replenished my supply. I then set to whisking together eggs and caster sugar with my little hand held electric whisk. Jamie said that after 2-3 minutes the mixture would have tripled in size and a dripping beater would leave ribbons of eggy foam visible on the surface after 10 seconds. Hmm. Mine had expanded but not to triple its size and drips from the beater disappeared instantly into the mix, after 3 minutes. I continued until mine did what it was supposed to, but it took time. Then I whisked in melted butter and folded in sifted plain flour and cocoa before scooping it onto a swiss roll tin lined with greaseproof paper. I baked for 15 minutes until the sponge sprang back and then removed it from the oven and tin but, keeping it on the greaseproof, put it on a rack to cool.

To make the filling, I heated orange zest and juice with caster sugar in a saucepan until the sugar had dissolved. I added cherries and cooked until softened. (I used cherries in Kirsch, and then used the Kirsch later). I turned off the heat and added 2 'good splashes' of Kirsch from the cherry jar, cooled, then strained through a sieve, reserving cherries and syrup.

To make the chocolate cream, I heated 1/4 of the total amount of double cream until it bubbled then removed from the heat and mixed in Green and Blacks sour cherry chocolate. I whipped the rest of the cream until it formed stuff peaks.

Finally - assembly time! Keeping the cake on the greaseproof paper, I brushed the cake with cherry syrup and then spread it with chocolate cream, then the whipped cream, then the cherries. At this point I had to roll it up but as I tried, the cake stuck scarily to the greaseproof paper and I panicked - I have always used greaseproof from Lakeland, but it had run out and this was from Tesco, which led me to start blaming Tesco for my failing dessert. (I like to blame Tesco. They can cope with a bit of bashing from me, since their profits are phenomenal and they are known for ruthless trading. Heaven forbid a mistake should come from me, when there is Tesco around as a useful scape goat). The sous-chef, however, managed to roll the cake while prising it awkwardly from its greaseproof coating and it worked, to my complete amazement. We wrapped it not in the over-sticky greaseproof but in cling film and stuck it in the fridge to set.

I forgot to trim the ends and scatter chocolate shavings over, or to dust it with icing sugar. I think that was because by then I had more reason to curse Tesco - the butternut squash I bought there yesterday was off when I cut into it, and by then all the shops were closed. The air was turning slowly blue. Anyway I think the roll looks okay despite my failure to dress it up suitably.

This dessert was much harder for me than the chocolate tart, which was actually quite easy once you got past the idea that you were making chocolate pastry. I'd never made a swiss roll before and the rolling part spooked me a bit, not to mention my eggs and sugar taking forever to whisk together properly. That all said, this is really nice - not too claggy, not too heavy, not any of those things I have always associated with Black Forest cherry gateau. In fact, it is quite delicate somehow - and thoroughly delicious.

Somehow I don't think I'd win a talent contest with the appearance of my roll - which is more flat than roll-like - but I really don't care about that. I am really proud that we managed to make this work and it tastes really good; it's the sort of thing you actually want to eat. Cherries, chocolate, sponge and booze- as Jamie says, a match made in heaven - even if it does make you feel like you've returned to what Lindsay Bareham and Simon Hopkinson are calling 'the prawn cocktail years'. What was wrong with the prawn cocktail years, anyway?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Indian-style broccoli with spiced yoghurt

Some people, my father-in-law included, think broccoli is almost too boring to eat. I happen to like broccoli, as long as it isn't overcooked and mushy, which sadly it so often is; I admit that I have been known to overcook my own broccoli, but in general I manage not to. Anyway I like broccoli, I love spices and I like natural yoghurt (I have trouble with flavoured yoghurts, but I love Greek yoghurt and bio-active plain stuff; it's when it is oddly flavoured or has fruity bits in that it makes me gag) so this recipe was an obvious choice to accompany a curry.

The curry I made was from this month's Delicious magazine, courtesy of Atul Kochnar who we saw on the Great British Menu in the spring. It is a lamb curry and simple enough to make: just onions, garlic, spices, lamb, tomatoes and water, plus coriander to garnish. No cream, no nuts, no yoghurt. I thought this would work well with Jamie's broccoli so it seemed like an ideal moment to try the spiced broccoli. To make the broccoli dish, I boiled the broccoli for about 4 minutes, drained and tossed in a little oil before grilling it briefly. Meanwhile I toasted cumin and fennel seeds and cardomom seeds before bashing them in my pestle and mortar; I then stirred most of them into the yoghurt with lemon zest and juice and some seasoning. I served the broccoli with the spiced yoghurt spooned over and sprinkled with the remaining spice mix.

The broccoli was very nice indeed - and it looked kind of pretty, which (to my shallow mind) helps to lift it from the status of Boring Vegetable. It went very well with the lamb and simple steamed Basmati rice.

Very nice! In fact the curry was a bit hot for us so the broccoli (while not bland) worked really well with it, calming it down and giving a different depth of flavour. I loved the spiced yoghurt and would make that for all sorts of green veg as well as broccoli (green beans, I could imagine it with, for instance...). Here, broccoli is more than a boring nutritional powerhouse - it actually has taste and texture, for which Jamie (or Amaya, where he says he tasted this dish first) deserves some credit. Curry night can easily be unhealthy, or at best nutritionally neutral - the solution is clearly to add broccoli and some spicy yoghurt!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Jesmond Dene House

Everyone knows that you can tell a lot about a person from the newspaper he or she buys. You can also, I would suggest, tell a lot about people from the sections of the newspaper that they choose to read - and if so, my newspaper-reading habits probably show me in a less than favourable light. I read the food pages, the restaurant reviews, the book reviews (and even then I skip much of the non-fiction), the fashion pages that feature real clothes and not the incomprehensible rags that the fashion industry puts forward for its stick insect models, and Barbara Ellen. That is it, basically. I tend to skip the news (this probably makes me a Very Bad Person), finance, sport (unless Wimbledon is on, when I read the tennis pages vaguely obsessively), travel (is it me or do the travel supplements always feature beautiful remote islands that would cost a year's salary to get to, whilst criticising the only holiday destinations I am likely to be able to afford?), and the celebrity gossip. What this says about me is probably as follows: greedy dreamer who prefers to wallow in fiction rather than reality, and who hasn't learnt to aspire. I think that may be true - I really don't care that some people can afford to travel more than me, or wear dresses that cost £1000. What does all that matter?

I do, however, get irritated by the sorts of people who can afford to eat in posh restaurants but don't really like food. We can all remember Hell's Kitchen when Gordon spotted two stick insects asking for undressed lettuce for dinner. What kind of restaurant can cater for a supermodel, or even a wannabe model? I like to think I could be a reasonably discerning eater, but I definitely couldn't be a restaurant critic - they are a species apart from us mere mortals, not least because someone pays for their dinner. Why should I trust the opinion of someone whose dinner came on expenses and who eats that kind of meal once a week? Those bloggers who review restaurants have democratized the art of restaurant reviews and the real, paid-for, brigade are effectively, arguably, redundant - in the sense that we read them, avidly, but we tend to seek opinions via Google before looking through newspaper archives. And Google tends to lead us to what the common people think.

As a foodie commoner, I am incredibly proud to announce that my lovely husband took me to a beautiful restaurant last night: Jesmond Dene House. This is owned and run by Terry Laybourne, who set up what was 21 Queen Street (and is now Cafe 21) in Newcastle, won a Michelin star (a first for Newcastle!) and champions local produce. I bought his book last weekend and have been reading eagerly about our local food heroes; Simon knew that, and booked us a table at Jesmond Dene House. What a star! Before we went, I inevitably googled reviews of the restaurant, which were reassuringly glowing - the risk of the internet is finding out the weaknesses in something you are about to do just before you do it, but in this case it was all good.

I am not a restaurant reviewer; I am definitely one of the common people who pays for her own dinner (ahem, actually Simon paid, but still...), and I lack those tortuous turns of phrase that clog up many a newspaper professional restaurant review. From my point of view, then: I started my dnner with a hot potato waffle with local smoked salmon, avruga caviar and cream. I think this was the nicest dish I have ever eaten: it all seemed to melt into my mouth, like dream-food, almost. Simon had langoustine fritters with shaved fennel salad and lemon mayo, which looked more of this world but were, to his mind, equally mind-blowing. My main was roast monkfish fillet with savoy cabbage 'a la creme', mushrooms, onion, bacon and red wine sauce; again it was delicious, but perhaps less out of this world than Simon's Organic Aberdeen Angus plate with 2 celeries (I think he will continue to rave about the slow-cooked beef shoulder for some time). To finish, I had chocolate fondant with white choc sorbet and Simon had pernod mousse with blackcurrant sorbet; I can't speak for his (he seemed to love it), but mine was to die for. In fact, the whole meal (starting with Kir Royale, for me, and ending with espresso and petits fours) was so far removed from anything that I have eaten before that I am struggling to describe how amazing it was. It's easy for the professionals; they can compare. For me, it felt as though eating had turned into a whole new, dreamier, smoother experience; it was as though my palate was readjusting to a magical new world of tastes.

I hope I will eventually go back there. I love cooking, and I love discovering new recipes, but eating out can be such a fabulous experience, and it can be miserably disappointing. This time it was incredible. I might read the professionals' opinion in the Sunday supplements and see if they agree, but if they don't, tough - they are, presumably, looking for the foodie equivalent of a £6000 holiday in a remote corner of an unheard of Greek island or a 'dress' for the modern stick insect, and as such, their opinions are to be read but not taken as gospel. Food, like everything else, is both hierarchical and democratic, and I am profoundly grateful that I had the chance to experience last night's amazing dinner.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Pan-fried scallops with lentils, crispy pancetta and lemon creme fraiche

I can still remember my first scallop - I was twenty, teaching in the south of France, and at a dinner party was given foie gras and coquilles St-Jacques - as a taste of heaven. I had written sanctimonious A-level French essays on the evils of foie gras and I was torn between eating it to be polite and refusing it to be ethical; I did eat some, but I don't remember how it tasted - I must have been feeling too guilty to taste it properly. I do remember the scallops though - it was one of my defining moments in the road to taking food seriously. I haven't eaten that many scallops since - the rubbery variety in so many Chinese restaurants hardly inspire me - but I have continued to put them high on my food pedestal. Since Simon now likes scallops too, I was longing to try this scallops dish with Puy lentils, pancetta and creme fraiche, partly because it looks fabby in Jamie's picture but partly because, let's face it, it sounds droolsomely like the sort of dish I would order, salivating, in a nice restaurant. Which isn't so off the mark since Jamie's blurb says that this is served in Fifteen.

This was a fun dish to make. I cooked the lentils in water with a bay leaf, tomato, potato, and 2 unpeeled garlic cloves, simmering for 20-25 minutes until soft (but not mushy). Then I drained off most of the water, got rid of the bay leaf and the tomato and garlic skins, and mashed the potato and tomato into the lentils. Well I would have, only my waxy potato remained resolutely solid and resisted my mashing, so I mashed some of it and discarded the rest.

To make the lemon creme fraiche I simply mixed half fat creme fraiche with the juice of a lemon, salt and pepper (measuring the lemon juice by tasting it until it had a twang - cook's privilege...).

Meanwhile, I fried the rashers of pancetta in a hot pan until golden and crisp, removing them and placing asparagus spears and scallops in the pan in their place, so that they cooked in the bacon fat until golden. I removed these, added olive oil to the pan and fried some sage leaves until crisp.

To serve, I divided the lentils between the plates and put the scallops on top, scattering the pancetta, asparagus and sage over them and finishing off with a generous dollop of lemony creme fraiche.

The picture doesn't at all convey quite how divine this dinner was. I have a new favourite! I loved the contrasting flavours and textures; I loved how the scallops and asparagus had inhaled the bacon fat; I loved the whole thing. A really fun dish to cook and eat and absolutely delicious - another little taste of heaven.

I was thinking earlier about what this project has done for me. Some people have asked fairly bluntly what the point is. I am sure the point is not to be able to say I have cooked every recipe in Jamie's latest book - that would be incredibly sad, in every sense of the word. To me, the point is mainly cooking different things, trying the recipes that I would typically ignore. Apparently most people don't try more than 3 recipes from any one cookbook; many try none. That means that we might never leave our comfort zone - might never learn to be challenged by different techniques or flavours. I feel I have left my comfort zone, and Simon has certainly left his, and that is incredibly exciting because the dishes you might never have given a second glance at sometimes can really surprise you and you open yourself up to a whole world of new tastes, which is intimidating as well as fun. Scallops, for anyone who hasn't tried them, are a fantastic place to start, as long as you don't start with the rubbery supermarket ones, because, I promise you, they really are the angels of the food world.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Spicy pangrattato risotto

Yesterday was an exceedingly long and tiring day for me - I travelled to Liverpool for a work trip, and back, in one day. The train journey varies between three and a half and nearly four hours, plus travel to and from the station here and car ride at the other end. I had to get up insanely early and worrying about the alarm not going off kept me awake most of Tuesday night, which was a predictable start to the day. The journey there and back in itself was quite pleasant, if that isn't an odd thing to say about a train ride; the trains were busy but only the last leg between York and Newcastle was noisy, thanks to drunk Scottish men (who always seem to be on trains with me...). Otherwise, it was relatively quiet and I managed to read two admittedly slim but thoroughly depressing recent French novels - as well as having a Nigella gingerbread muffin for breakfast, which was a self-awarded treat. The whole day went well, but it felt long, and I was exhausted when I staggered into the house. I had known I would be and in a Blue Peter moment, I had managed to make risotto base on Tuesday evening and refrigerate it to finish off quickly on Wednesday night. I am very proud of that Blue Peter moment because it is uncharacteristic, but I was determined not to end up with rehashed student food. I wanted gently warming comfort food to eat out of a bowl, and risotto, now it has become a fast food thanks to Jamie's cunning system of pre-cooking the base, is perfect.

I say perfect. Sadly, and predictably given how tired I was, I managed to burn the pangrattato - the spicy breadcrumbs to go on top of the risotto. Basically, I had to whiz lemon zest, dried red chillies, garlic, anchovies and bread pieces in a food processor with some oil from the anchovies and then fry in a little oil until darkened and crisp. Sounds easy - is easy - but I was too tired to concentrate and also I was a little hasty in assuming that my blitzing had finished, so my breadcrumbs weren't very uniform, which also contributed to the overall effect: some crumbs darkened, some burnt, some not very dark. I sampled it and decided it was fine - the un-darkened crumbs had gone crispy and the burnt ones tasted okay, so I went for it, finishing off the risotto and sprinkling the crumbs over.

This was really nice. It would have been better if I hadn't messed up the pangrattato, but I am sure I did so mainly because I was so tired. I was also in a hurry because I wanted to see Nigella's Christmas Kitchen, which I really enjoyed. I know Nigella is incredibly kitsch at Christmas and does a lot of pouting into the camera, but that programme yesterday conveyed Christmas festive cheer amazingly well. Watching it, I felt Christmas had come already - and certainly I'd love to have Nigella feed me at Christmas. My main preparation so far has been to order the turkey - a Bronze - from a local farm shop, plus a couple of ribs of beef to roast. I know my turkey is still enjoying a happy life - although it might not be looking forward to Christmas as much as I am. I am also looking forward to Nigella's 'Christmas in a glass' (gingerbread syrup and prosecco...) and some festive ham, and a Yule log which I think I want to make this year. But if anyone fancies writing some Christmas cards for me, I will be very grateful.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Baked potatoes stuffed with bacon, anchovies and sage

Baked potatoes are real autumn/winter food, comfort food of the highest order, unless they are prepared by the cafe five floors below my office, where potatoes appear to be baked early in the morning and then left to harden on a warmish plate for hours on end until they are requested, when they are stuffed with over-salted fillings and sold at an exorbitant price. Those baked potatoes would be enough to turn me off potatoes for life, except that proper baked potatoes can be so good (for anyone who hasn't tried them, Delia's baked potatoes with leek and Boursin are utterly delicious...).

Jamie's baked potatoes are slightly different - not the huge meal-in-themselves that the term 'baked potato' probably conjures up, although they could be if you used large potatoes. He suggests medium waxy potatoes; mine were pretty small, so I did two each. It couldn't be easier: preheat the oven to 200C, and stick the end of either an apple corer or a conventional (not speed) peeler into the potato and twist it round as you cut right through it, as though you are coring it. Prick each potato with a fork a few times and rub in olive oil and sea salt. For each potato take a rasher of bacon and top it with 2 sage leaves, an anchovy fillet, a sliver of garlic and lemon zest. Wrap it into a sort of sausage shape and stuff the potato with it; you can use the cores of the potatoes, halved, to plug the ends of each potato. Bake the potatoes for an hour or so, turning every so often, until nicely cooked.

I served the potatoes with lamb leg steaks and peas cooked in a mix of stock and water. I will admit that the picture (above) doesn't give much insight into the potatoes; the stuffing is invisible once the potatoes are cooked. These potatoes were, however, utterly scrumptious. Anchovy-haters need not worry; the anchovies lend a depth of flavour that is not particularly anchovy-like. The potatoes were crunchy on the outside and tender inside; the stuffing made them particularly good to eat and I will definitely try this again, because it was easy but really tasty, which is ideal for a mid-week supper, or even for a side-dish in a dinner-party context (you may gather that I don't do 'dinner parties' as such, just friends round for dinner...). You could easily vary the stuffing ingredients - I am imagining the bacon rasher with sundried tomatoes and basil and even cheese. Jamie's vegetable dishes are unbelievably good - so good that my mother, who was brought up on home-cooked everything and yearned for shop-bought cake as a child, then grew up to become a working mum with little time to spend in the kitchen, and now loves to read cookbooks but rarely actually cooks from them - actually asked me to give her a copy of the book and has tried quite a few of these vegetable dishes to great result. Honestly - Jamie has converted Simon to mussels and scallops and my mother to cooking out of a cook book - whatever will happen next? Maybe I will start eating raw tomatoes...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pan-fried lemon sole fillets with salsa verde

There was a time, somewhere in between the Picky Years and the Adventurous Years (i.e. the last few years), when I was neither picky nor particularly adventurous: during that time I was a student. I was a student for a long time - a four year BA, a one year Masters and a three year PhD. I got used to living on a tiny stipend and eating within a budget; I got used to pooling resources and concocting weird combinations of food with similarly economically-challenged friends. I ate a lot of stirfry, with a lot of cheap veggies (courgettes, onions, carrots) and not a lot of meat; I ate masses of bacon, chopped into pasta sauces or into stirfries, or on top of an array of steamed vegetables, and I ate tinned tuna. Wine tended to cost 2.99 a bottle, 3.99 if I was pushing the boat out or had been invited out for dinner (I had some standards). Anyway during those times I mainly ate spicy food -stirfries, curries, pasta with chilli-style sauces - and I forgot that somewhere out there people still ate meat or fish and two veg. I hardly ever, ever ate a potato - I thought that was what cavemen ate. When I went out for dinner, it was often pizza, curry or Thai; sometimes we went to Cafe rouge and very very occasionally we went to Brown's for steak. Then I moved and started work and work-life is different from student-life, and I got more interested in food because I wasn't perpetually skint/rushing out to the pub/eating Marmite on toast with my neighbours, and I could finally afford fresh fish.

All this comes as a preamble mainly because I realized yesterday while cooking that I would have despised what I was cooking in times gone by. Fillets of fish, potatoes, broccoli. How boring can you get? And yet now I find this sort of food immensely soothing (I still eat a lot of spicy food too - or I did before I started this project!). A couple of caveats: I used plaice not lemon sole as I had plaice and not lemon sole. I also hate the term pan-fried (it goes with oven-roasted as utterly pointless) but I can see its relevance: plain 'fried fish' sounds like the battered deep fried chip shop special, and probably puts the home cook off. Finally I have never made salsa verde before although I have eaten it a few times- my parents brought me some back from Spain and I liked it a lot. It is always good to learn how to cook something you've only ever eaten out of a jar.

Jamie said this was incredibly speedy. I was not incredible speedy, mainly because all the chopping required for the salsa verde took me an eternity (and in fact my lovely sous-chef took over!). Anyway to make salsa verde, you chop garlic and add capers, chopped gherkins, anchovies, parsley, basil and mint, then Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil, plus pepper. It sounds very easy and it was easy, but I am not a particularly speedy chopper.

I boiled some salad potatoes and steamed broccoli (Jamie suggested purple sprouting - I only had calabrese). Meanwhile, I tossed the plaice fillets in salt, pepper and flour and then fried in olive oil and a little butter. Jamie instructs to then wait 20 seconds before squeezing in lemon juice, which I did.

I served with pan juices drizzled over and salsa verde spooned over fish and vegetables.

This was really nice, despite my little changes to the recipe. Salsa verde is really, really good - though anchovy-haters beware; the anchovies in it don't melt away as they do when cooked into sauces. I know the pic makes the meal look a bit white and green but it was very nice, honestly! Salsa verde is tasty and fresh; it has a kind of zing that makes you feel alive when you eat it (as opposed to say, risotto, which makes you feel cocooned). If only I were a better chopper, this would be a very speedy dinner. I need to improve my knife skills! Thank goodness for the sous-chef, who has infinitely better knife skills than me and a lot more patience - and who eats, appreciates and supports this project on a near-daily basis. Mmm - another recipe that I look forward to repeating.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The best onion gratin

I have always been a fan of onions, cheese and cream. I first discovered this combination thanks to Jamie's stunning baked onions from Happy Days - onions boiled till tender then stuffed with a creamy cheesey mixture, and wrapped in pancetta or bacon, for anyone who hasn't yet tasted this unbelievably good onion recipe. The recipe for onion gratin in Cook with Jamie looks equally divine and I was sure it would go well with the braised red cabbage described below and with roast pork. To be honest the photo of these onions alone is enough to make anyone go weak at the knees; I have been eagerly anticipating them, but I wanted to cook them with something that they wouldn't overpower and that would allow them to be celebrated in their own right. Roast pork seemed ideal.

The method is easy but the cooking time is quite long. First, quarter 1 red onion per person and then break the quarters into 'petals'. Place in an oven dish and drizzle with olive oil and seasoning, before adding thyme leaves and sliced garlic. Mix, add white wine and cover with a double thickness of foil before baking for 45 minutes in an oven preheated to 200C. Remove the foil and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Lower the oven to 180 , stir creme fraiche into the onions and sprinkle with grated Gruyere and parmesan, before baking for another 15 mins or so until golden.
These onions are, as I anticipated, heavenly. They have masses of flavour and taste fantastic. They also went really well with the roast loin of pork and red cabbage. My plateful, below, was a little piece of heaven in itself. Roast meat is sometimes seen as a bit boring, and meat and two veg probably sounds very oldfashioned - but this was all absolutely delicious and a delight to eat.

Must-try red cabbage braised with apple, bacon and balsamic vinegar

Red cabbage, to me, always feels gloriously Christmassy and festive; this is probably due to its colour as much as its flavour. Cabbage is a much underrated vegetable - I am as guilty as the next person of despising it, not least because the building I work in has, shall we say, ventilation problems, so sometimes my office smells of boiled cabbage despite being five floors above the canteen. This said, cabbage can be really good if it is cooked well and red cabbage in apple and bacon is always welcome. I particularly like Jamie's version thanks to the balsamic vinegar he puts in (I have a bit of a thing about balsamic vinegar) - I have made this dish before, a couple of months ago, but didn't include it in the blog because we had friends around and I didn't want to start taking photos of the food. (Since then, I have given up worrying and just go ahead and take pictures regardless - people don't seem to mind)

It is simple: for a whole red cabbage, heat olive oil in a saucepan, add finely sliced smoked streaky bacon and a tablespoon of bashed fennel seeds and cook until golden, before adding a peeled and sliced onion and cooking with the lid on for a couple more minutes until golden and sticky. Add 2 peeled and chopped apples (use eating apples, not cooking ones), then the red cabbage, cut into chunks, seasoning and 150ml balsamic vinegar and stir together. Cook with a lid on on a low heat for an hour, pop a knob of butter on top and sprinkle over chopped flat leaf parsley.
The photo colour makes this look horribly lurid - I promise that this was the light. This is a very nice dish indeed and it went extremely well as Jamie promised with roast pork. I also served it with onion gratin, which I will blog next. This is definitely a dish to repeat in the festive season - and in fact I think it will become my new favourite way of serving red cabbage.

In order to show that I haven't cooked nothing but vegetables recently, I also made Nigella's gingerbread muffins which are delicious indeed - they taste and smell really Christmassy and are a perfect (and simple) December treat.