New Year Download

It’s been a while.

I think my last post was a lengthy whinge about how I never get to cook on Christmas Day. It’s fair to say I (briefly) took back that sentiment on Day Three (or, rather, Night Three) of the Great Rocky Road Challenge (40 gift bags of Rocky Road?! Why not!). Having only one appropriate tin did not entirely help, when it meant having to chop up another 120 inch-cubes of the stuff before I could start the next batch.

We actually ended up doing loads of lovely cooking over the break, aided by a week in a gorgeous cottage in Donegal. It was sunny, but freezing. Cue fires, Borgen, comfort food and, now, yet another New Year Health Kick. Plus ça change.

We pledged not to cook anything we’d cooked before, resulting in some new winners, and additions to the weeknight rota. This is a brief round up of some of the highlights of the festive period.

Camembert Tourte

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Camembert tourte

This is from The French Market, by novelist Joanne Harris. I think I’d describe it as a baked bubble and squeak – spuds and cabbage roasted with chilli and garlic and an egg, topped with tomatoes and camembert. Perfectly gooey and crispy all at once. I have just bought another camembert for a second go this week.

Hummus, pimped

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Pimp my hummus

Not really a recipe. Supermarket hummus made A-To-The-Mazing with a dollop of warm roast veg, toasted pine nuts, and an excessively generous glug of olive oil. Heaven.

Saffron orzotto

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Saffron farro

This one’s from Nigelissima. Farro,  saffron and loads of parmesan. We ate it on New Year’s Eve with some slightly disappointing lamb shanks.

Garbure

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Garbure

Another delicious beast from Harris’ French Market. A ham and bean soup, served on top of stale bread and blue cheese (in this case a lovely Cashel Blue – not so French, sorry). I can’t say enough about how good this was.

Lebanese flatbreads

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Lebanese flatbreads

This is a variation on a recipe from the massive,amazing Lebanese Kitchen cookbook. My version is basically chicken shawarma on top of fluffy flatbreads, with red onion and pine nuts. This could almost compete with pizza’s place in my heart…

Rocky Road

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Rocky road. Or perhaps rocky motorway?!

We made three of these monsters. Three. That’s 390 squares. 39 gift bags. Blimey. We used Felicity Cloake’s How to make the perfect… recipe from the Guardian, and mixed it up a bit on the flavours. Two were for ‘grown ups’ (dark chocolate, stem ginger, ginger biscuits, almonds, boozy dried fruits) and one for ‘children’ (more milky choc, m&ms, honeycomb, chopped up milkyway).* Insanely rich, and insanely moreish. Dangerously delicious!

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

Oh Lord, I know this is basically diabetes on a plate, but it was bloody lovely. I thought I’d burnt the caramel, but I think I caught it just on the turn, and the slight bitter tang took the edge off the sweetness. I wish I didn’t know how easy this is to make now!

Aubergines

Aubergine Parm

Aubergine Parm

Aubergine parm is the Food Of The Gods. I have nothing more to say on the matter.

* many adults (the husband included), unsurprisingly, appear to prefer the kiddy version.

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Christmas is coming…

…so let the baking commence!

We don’t host Christmas, so there’s not so much of the frantic turkey-basting, sprout-scoring, cake-feeding panic that you read about how to avoid in the colour supplements.  But, for a Very Keen Cook, that’s a touch of a disappointment. I want the chaos, the gravy-splattered recipes, the timetable planned down to the last minute that inevitably goes out the window at 9am.

I have to create opportunities to cook.

That usually works out quite well. In my family, our Christmas Trees buy presents. If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. We all (the whole extended family, all four generations) exchange presents in the normal way (before lunch on Christmas Day, or Boxing Day). Then, after lunch and some games have been played, we crack open the presents from our Christmas Trees. Our trees are prolific shoppers. They also buy for all four generations… Tho they rarely spend more than £4, and tend towards the novelty / functional (shower gel from Grandma’s tree, nose hair clippers from Michael’s tree, pink sparkly Virgin Mary money box from Uncle Paul’s etc).

My tree bakes. Which is pleasing, as I help it (see, this is getting crazier). This year we’re working on getting together 35 gift bags of rocky road. Which I think is about 400 pieces, in a mix of ‘adult’ (boozey with ginger), ‘gluten-free adult’ (see previous) and ‘kiddy friendly’ (milky ways, M&Ms and honeycomb). That’s the mission for the next few nights. Bring it on.

The second excuse for baking is visiting. We’re working on a Sourdough Stollen project (gifts for people we are staying with WHETHER THEY LIKE IT OR NOT). One enormous loaf has been baked as a prototype (it’s currently nestling in my handbag wrapped in foil, for distribution to work colleagues), and I’m hoping to improve on it for the ones that will actually accompany us home for Christmas next week.

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Chocolate-pecan-cinnamon cookies

One extra baking opportunity fell into our laps this year – the ‘pop-up cafe’ at Oliver’s church’s Christmas Play. #win, as the young people say. We didn’t do anything fancy – this was an 8am-on-the-day-with-a-hangover job. We made an Ottolenghi recipe from the Guardian last week – Chocolate-pecan-cinnamon cookies.

Dead easy, dead quick, dead tasty. They make an incredibly chewy biscuit (they only bake for 6 minutes!), with a lovely cracked sugary top. and have a nice spicy and chocolate flavour. I have to say I’m not overly enamoured with the slight whiff of banana – I didn’t expect to be able to taste it. I don’t know if it was essential to get the cookies to hold together (I doubt it), but I’d probably leave it out next time.

Invention Test Tea

Our oven is broken.

I put it on to roast some spuds, and the power in the flat tripped out. Once the power was restored, the oven would not heat. Nada.

The hobs are fine, but for the time being anything baked is off the menu.

I would give (almost) anything for bread, pizza, or anything crusty with cheese right now.

But nothing is doing for the next three weeks. An engineer has visited, parts have been ordered, and a horrendously expensive, unexpected bill has been paid. But until parts have arrived there will be no pizza, no crusty cheese, and bread will cost us £4 a pop.

So, not only are we ovenless, we are also on a budget. Proper, like.

That’s why, on Friday, we found ourselves doing an inventory of the fridge, freezer and cupboard to try to eek out three extra meals before we next head to the shops.

We seem to have got lucky on the store front. Sausages and lardons on the freezer, celery and carrot in the fridge, butter beans in the cupboard. So tonight was Invention Test Tea #1 – soup!

I think it’s basically some class of a minestrone. Nothing fancy – just bacon and vegetable sofrito, thickened with pulses. But filling, and tasty as anything. And we’re having it again in a couple of nights!

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Soup- farro, butter bean and bacon

Bacon, vegetable, farro and bean minestrone.

Serves 4.

120g diced pancetta or bacon
4 carrots, 4 sticks of celery and 2 white onions, all diced
2 tomatoes, diced
100g dried butter beans, or other white beans (soaked in cold water overnight)
100g farro or pearl barley
2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
Old parmesan rinds
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley
Grated parmesan

1. Drain the soaked beans, put in a pan with bay leaves, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 30 minutes, spooning off any scum that floats to the surface.

2. Gently fry the bacon in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until crispy and the fat is mostly melted out.

3. Add the celery, onion and carrot to the pan, with a sprinkling of salt, and stir to coat it in the bacon fat. Cook gently for at least 10 minutes until all the vegetables are soft and glossy.

4. Add the diced tomatoes and old parmesan rind, and a good grinding of salt and pepper, and cook for another 5 minutes.

5. Drain the beans. Add them, together with the bay leaves and the farro, to the bacon and vegetables and stir to mix.

6. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer gently for an hour until the pulses and grains are cooked and have thickened the soup. Top up with a little hot water if over-reducing.

7. Serve with a sprinkling of grated parmesan and chopped parsley. More black pepper essential.

Lamb + cheese + potatoes = Easter delight

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This Easter, we stayed at home. Well, once the many & varied Church services were over, that is.

Normally, Easter means lunch with one set of family or another, but this year – with the boy jetting off for work on the Tuesday – we decided to stay put for once.

So this, then, was the first opportunity I have had to cook an Easter lamb recipe I have been saving up for years… It’s in Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escape, and it’s a layered dish of (wait for it) potatoes, lamb, garlic, tomatoes, pecorino, parmesan, and lashings of olive oil. Yes, all those things IN THE SAME POT. Glory be. (And it’s only one pot, so it’s virtually washing up free!)

I faffed with the recipe a bit, to make it for two, not six. Though I think I kept the potato quantities more or less the same – seriously, 800g spuds for six people?!

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I won’t go into the method in any great detail, as it’s basically a layering job.

Glug of olive oil, third of potatoes (peeled, thickly sliced), half the lamb (lean leg, cubed), handful of cherry tomatoes (halved, seeds squeezed out), thyme, loads of garlic, handful of pecorino and parmesan. Repeat. Finally, top with remaining spuds and a handful more cheese. Season and glug oil liberally as you go.

I also poured a cup of water down the side to help it all steam – I would definitely recommend this

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Cover, and bake on about 150 for an hour or so. Uncover, and bake for another half hour (to an hour) until golden and oozing on the top. The spuds should be soft all the way through, but crispy on top.

Oh my, it was a revelation. All my favourite flavours, soft and crunchy, rich with cheese and olive oil….. Apparently the recipe’s originally from Puglia – where we’re heading for our honeymoon this Summer. SO EXCITED NOW!

We didn’t make pudding. Instead, I ate a very lot of these beauties:

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Mmmmmmm.

A year in bread #23: shawarma and pita!

There’s been a fair bit of middle eastern food this week. On Wednesday, we went to eat at Honey & Co, a new-ish middle eastern cafe/restaurant on Warren Street. We could only get a table at 6.30pm, which actually turned out to be a blessing as I think we’re both just shattered at the moment.

Inside, it’s cosy, with the most beautiful blue and white tiles on the floor (I have tile envy). The whole meal was beautiful: crispy falafal, aubergine with a runny-lovely poached egg, and chicken cooked in pomegranate molasses, on a bed of wheat, pistachios, barberries and other yummy things. But the reason we (well, I) really wanted to go in the first place was the description of the cheesecake in the Guardian review we had read. I was quite worried when they brought the dessert menu that it wouldn’t be on there – I would have been at risk of a teenage-style strop…. But there was no need to panic.

The crunchiest pastry (something like that little vermicelli stuff), topped with a huge dollop of not-to-sweet tangy cheese, drizzled with honey. Mmmmmmmmmm – heaven for a cheesecake lover. The boy ordered the white chocolate and olive oil pud – I think it might be some kind of emulsion / mousse thing? – not sure, but it just tasted like pure white chocolate, which was probably heaven for the boy too. Though I do regret going half-and-half on the puds, I wish I could have scoffed the rest of the cheesecake myself.

We’ve also been trying out some more Lebanese recipes from the AMAZING Lebanese Kitchen. We’ve cooked more from it than we do from most books…. koftas, vegetarian moussaka, chocolate mousse…. and now chicken shawarma and pita bread. The recipes are simple to follow, and the flavours seem authentic (but also deliverable in my kitchen!).

I’ve tried a few recipes for pita / flatbreads before, and I’ve never successfully got them to bubble up in the oven to give that pocket effect, that you can either fill, or that just gives lovely layers of bread when wrapped around tasty stuff. These ones worked like a dream. I just flung them in a hot oven on a pizza stone, and after 2-3 minutes they were mottled brown, had puffed right up, but were still soft enough to wrap.

Pita (makes 6) – recipe adapted slightly from the Lebanese Kitchen

450g strong bread flour, plus more for rolling
7g fast action yeast
200ml tepid water, with 1 tablespoon of honey dissolved in it
100ml milk
1 teaspoon of salt

Mix the yeast into the tepid water, and stir well. Leave to bubble for 5 minutes or so, then add the milk.

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl, then pour in the yeasty liquid. Combine, then knead by hand until pliable and stretchy (I cheated, as always, in the stand mixer with the dough hook attachment). You might need to add a touch extra water if it’s not coming together.

Cover the bowl with clingfilm, and leave somewhere warm to rise for an hour or so. (Mine rose very little, which surprised me and worried me a bit, but it didn’t seem to matter!).

Pre-heat the oven to its highest setting, leaving a pizza stone in while it heats.

Divide the dough into 6 balls – about the size of a tennis ball. Roll the first one out on a lightly floured surface, to about a 30cm round.

Sprinkle the first rolled-out dough round with water, then fling it on the pizza stone as quickly as possible. Close the oven door quickly, and get on with rolling out the next ball.

Check the oven after 2-3 minutes. The Pita should be puffed up, with the top about 4-6 inches higher than the bottom layer. Take it out before it cooks hard – you want it to be soft and pliable. Wrap the cooked pita in a clean, damp teatowel while you cook the next one.

We stuffed the flatbreads with hummus, salad and chicken shawarma (also from the Lebanese Kitchen).

Shawarma

Chicken breast strips are marinaded with olive oil. the juice of a lemon, Lebanese seven spice mix, chilli flakes and salt, then fried off till crispy and caramelised on the outside, and still moist in the middle.

Ace. And dead easy.

Koftas with aubergines and tomato sauce

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Oli travels to the Middle East a lot with work, and we both love Eastern Mediterranean flavours, so for Christmas I got him (…err, honest it was for him) a beautiful book called The Lebanese Kitchen.

It is huge, and comprehensive, and the pages are beautifully edged as of they’ve been cut with pinking shears. In terms of breadth of content, it feels a lot like the Silver Spoon.

We’ve had a rare restful weekend, so decided to try a new recipe last night – koftas, baked on top of griddled aubergines, in a rich and fragrant tomato sauce, topped with toasted pine nuts.

Mmmmmmm! The koftas were beautifully tender, and flecked with lovely green parsley. They’re slowly baked in the oven so all the flavours melt together. The koftas and the sauce are both flavoured with Lebanese seven spice mix (can’t remember what they are!), and they all blend beautifully.

We had it with cumin mashed potato and salad.

Definitely a keeper!