Parmigiana di Melanzane

This is probably Dr Weasel’s favourite supper dish. Parmigiana di melanzane is a layered, baked dish of aubergines (eggplants for all the Americans out there), rich tomato sauce, parmesan and mozzarella. It’s a wonderfully savoury meal to brighten up an autumn evening.

This tomato sauce, simmered for ages until thick and unctuous, is unbelievably good – it’s also very simple, containing very few ingredients. It freezes well, so if you can face seeding and peeling even more tomatoes, make some extra and save it for the sort of snowy day when you need to eat something red. Try it with pasta, or over meatballs.

To serve four with some left over for lunch you’ll need:

2kg ripe tomatoes
4 medium aubergines
3 large onions
4 cloves of garlic
1 handful fresh basil
1 handful fresh oregano
1 mild red chilli
1 ½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 large knob butter, plus extra to taste
250 g mozzarella
Salt and pepper
Grated parmesan
Olive oil to fry

Begin by peeling and seeding the tomatoes. (Cut a shallow cross at the bottom of the tomatoes and pour over boiling water. Fish the tomatoes straight out of the water, which will have loosened their skin, and peel it off. Cut open and discard the seeds.) Cut into small dice.

Dice the onions and chop the garlic finely, and fry in a large knob of butter until translucent and fragrant. Add the tomatoes and finely chopped chilli to the saucepan and stir to combine everything. Bring to a very low simmer, and reduce (this will take more than an hour) to half its original volume or a little less. Bring the vinegar and sugar to the boil in a small pan and stir it into the sauce. Add the oregano and season with salt and pepper. Taste to check whether you need more salt or sugar. Add another knob of butter for a more mellow flavour if you like. Set the finished sauce aside.

While the sauce is reducing, prepare the aubergine. Slice it into rounds about 1 cm thick (salt to remove the juices if you like; with modern aubergines the bitter juices have been bred out, and you’ll probably find you don’t need to salt at all) and fry each round in very hot olive oil (the aubergine slices are like little sponges, so you’ll need plenty), until brown on each side. Drain on kitchen paper and season with salt and pepper.

Set out a layer of aubergine slices in the bottom of a baking dish. Place some basil leaves on top. Pour over a layer of sauce, layer over some mozzarella, then more aubergine, more basil, more sauce and so on. When you’ve used everything up, sprinkle over the parmesan and bake for 45 minutes at 180° C, until brown on top. Scatter over some fresh basil.

Serve with crusty bread to mop up the rich juices.

Curry puffs

I’m having a bit of a Malaysian food binge at the moment, and the beef curry puff is about as Malaysian as you can get. These little pasties are made from a mouth-meltingly short, flaky pastry, and are filled with a rich beef, onion and potato curry.

There are as many variations on the curry puff as there are cooks. Some prefer a shortcrust pastry, some like a chicken or vegetable filling – I’ve also seen sardine in Malaysia. Some are so fiercely spiced you need to cool your tongue between bites, some so subtle that they come across…well…a bit Cornish pasty. This recipe is just gorgeous – serve some curry puffs next time you have some friends round and just watch how fast they vanish. Try to use beef dripping to fry the filling if you can find it; it gives the curry puffs a delicious beefy depth. (Use vegetable oil if you can’t find any.)

To make about 30 you’ll need:

Beef dripping to fry
12 oz onions, diced
12 oz waxy potato, cut into 1cm cubes
1 teaspoon ginger, diced very fine
5 cloves garlic, diced very fine
8 shallots, sliced thinly
1 lb minced beef
4 tablespoons Madras curry powder
1 can coconut milk
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons caster sugar
3 teaspoons salt

1 lb flour
4 oz butter
8 oz lard
1 egg, and another to glaze
2 tablespoons sugar
Juice of ½ a lemon
6 fl oz water

Start by cooking the filling. Stir fry the onions in a tablespoon of beef dripping until they are soft and translucent. Remove them to a bowl and set aside. Add another tablespoon of dripping to the pan and fry the potato cubes in the same wok with a pinch of salt until they begin to take on a little colour, then pour over 4 fl oz of water and put the lid on, reducing the heat to a simmer. Cook for between five and ten minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through. Put them in the bowl with the onions.

In the same wok, stir fry the ginger, garlic and shallots in a little more dripping. When the spices are giving off their scent, add the beef and stir-fry for five minutes until well mixed. Add the curry powder and continue to stir-fry until all the beef is coloured. Add the onion and potato, stir thoroughly, then add the coconut milk, sugar, salt and lemon juice.

Reduce the heat to a low simmer, and reduce the mixture until it’s thick and glistening. Taste, adding more lemon juice and salt if you think it needs it. Cool and refrigerate. (This is important – you’ll find the puffs much easier to fill if the curry is cold. A warm filling will be slightly runny.)
You can make the pastry and fill the puffs on the same day you prepare the filling, but the filling is one of these things that really improves by being kept in the fridge for a day – the flavours deepen and meld.

To make the pastry, mix the egg, sugar, salt, water and lemon in a measuring jug and refrigerate until it’s nice and cold. Sieve the flour into a bowl, and rub in the butter until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Cut the lard into little cubes (about the same size as you cut the potato) and blend it well with the flour/butter mixture. Add the contents of the measuring jug and bring everything together gently with your hands. Rest the pastry in the fridge, wrapped in clingfilm, for an hour.

Slice the pastry in two and roll out half into a thin rectangle. Fold the rectangle into three (as if you were folding an A4 sheet to fit in an envelope) and roll it out again. Repeat the folding and rolling four times. Cut out rounds about ½ cm thick with a large fluted pastry cutter and repeat the process with the other piece of pastry. (If you’ve scraps left over, just roll them out and use the cutter on them.)

Beat an egg and put it in a cup where you can reach it easily as you work.

Put a tablespoon of filling in the middle of each pastry circle, and wipe some beaten egg around half the edge. Press each edge together to seal and crimp the curry puff. Arrange the puffs on a baking tray and brush each with the beaten egg to glaze.

Bake at 230° C for the first 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 200° for 20 minutes. Cool (if you can bear to – ours usually go straight from the oven into slobbering mouths) on a cake rack.

Malaysian braised pork with steamed buns

My Dad, like dads the world over, has a particular love for fatty foods from his childhood. (Here he is on the left of the picture, with my Mum and Dr Weasel.) He’s not allowed them very often, largely because Mummy has very sensible intimations of mortality when looking at chunks of lard. Of course, the fact that he grew up in rural China and Malaysia makes that bit harder to find the things he remembers fondly in the UK. These foods are things like sweetened olives; Kong Piang (a special kind of Foochow biscuit you can only find in two towns in Malaysia); good Bak Kwa (flattened, sweetened, spicy barbecued pork); real satay, cooked ourdoors over fanned charcoal with the bites of meat separated by tiny nuggets of pork fat; and a million things made out of the obnoxious parts of a pig.

Mummy, the family cholesterol-conscience, went to Bordeaux last week to visit my increasingly famous brother and to add to her own high-powered wine-tasting qualifications. I was concerned that Daddy, left on his own unsupervised, would just eat congee (rice porridge) all week straight from the rice cooker, so I cooked one of those childhood-in-paradise dishes and we drove it over as a surprise. This recipe is adapted from Mrs Leong Yee Soo’s The Best of Malaysian Cooking, my favourite Malaysian cookery book. The dish is a family must-eat whenever we visit Malaysia.

If you cook this, you don’t strictly need the steamed buns to accompany the meat; having said that, you’ll really be missing out if you don’t make them. This is the same dough you’ll find in char siu buns. It’s the perfect foil to the salty, aromatic pork, and the dough itself is just gorgeous to work with. It’s sugary, so the yeast works hard, and you’ll find it beautifully soft and puffy, like a baby’s cheek. The traditional technique will have you fold the oiled bun in half before steaming, so it opens when finished like a pristine sandwich bun for you to pack with meat and juices. To serve four with some left over for lunch, you’ll need:

Braised pork
2lb fat pork with some skin (I used a piece of shoulder – you can use whatever cut you like.)
3 tablespoons dark soy
4 teaspoons runny honey
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
5 cloves garlic
4 shallots
2 ½ stars of star anise
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt
8fl oz water
2 tablespoons lard

1 pack instant yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons lukewarm water
½ tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
8 tablespoons sugar
8 fl oz lukewarm water
20 oz white flour

Pork method
Start by rubbing the pork with a tablespoon of soya sauce, a teaspoon of the honey and the five spice powder, and set it aside to marinade for at least half an hour while you prepare the other pork ingredients. Place the garlic, shallots, half a piece of star anise and a tablespoon of sugar in the food processor, and whizz until they’re very finely blended. Heat the lard in a wok and fry the blended ingredients until they’ve turned golden.

Turn the heat down and add the pork to the pan along with any juices. Brown it all over, then add two tablespoons of dark soya sauce, two teaspoons of salt and three teaspoons of honey. Pour over half the water, and cook, covered for ten minutes. After ten minutes remove the lid and simmer gently until the sauce is thick and reduced.

Add the rest of the water, and bring to a brisk boil, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and cover again. Simmer, covered, for 2 hours until the meat is tender, turning the meat in the sauce occasionally. Add a little water if you feel the sauce is becoming dry.

Buns method
Mix the yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, two tablespoons of lukewarm water, half a tablespoon of salt and three tablespoons of vegetable oil in a teacup, and let it stand for five minutes.

Place the flour in a bowl and pour the yeast mixture into a depression in the centre of the flour. Add 8 tablespoons of castor sugar and 8 fl oz lukewarm water to the mixture and stir the flour with your hand until everything is brought together.

At this point the dough will be very sticky. Don’t worry – just knead for ten minutes or so, and it will turn smooth and glossy. Don’t add extra flour to get rid of the stickiness. The action of kneading will make the protein strands in the dough develop, and the stickiness will vanish on its own. You’ll know that your dough is ready when it has become smooth, and does not stick to the bowl. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size.

Knock the dough back down and separate it into pieces the size of an egg. Roll each piece into a ball in your hands and flatten it with a rolling pin, then brush the top with oil and fold the bun in half. Place it on a square of greaseproof paper.

Arrange the folded buns on baking sheets, and cover with a dry teatowel. Leave in a warm place for 20 minutes, until they have risen again. Steam the buns for 7-10 minutes to cook. (You can steam the buns again to reheat.)

Anchovy and olive palmiers, tapenade

palmiersThese little party biscuits are incredibly easy to make – they employ what’s fast becoming one of my favourite modern conveniences, the refrigerated roll of puff pastry. There’s a particular charm in the way that no matter how squashed-looking they are when you put them in the oven, the magic in the pastry means that they’ll rearrange themselves into perfect rounded swirls (representing palm trees, hence the name) once the pastry starts to cook, without you having to exercise any particular artistic talent.

I like to make my own tapenade for these (I like it full of zip and garlic), but you can use a good shop-bought one if you like. Try experimenting with other ingredients; these palmiers are really excellent with sun-dried tomato paste, with pesto and with pounded artichoke hearts.

To make enough for nibbles for six, you’ll need:

100g stoned black olives in oil (Try to find something that’s not too salty in a flavourful marinade. I like Waitrose’s Spanish Couchillo olives.)
Zest of 1 lemon
4 fat cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons salted capers, well-rinsed
8 anchovies in olive oil
1 fresh red chilli
2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pack puff pastry

Preheat the oven to 200° C. Put all the tapenade ingredients in a food processor and blitz until smooth enough to spread.

Lay out the rectangle of puff pastry with the long end facing you, and spread the tapenade all over the surface. (If you have any tapenade left over, try it on some toast as a snack – it’s delicious.) Roll up the side nearest you halfway towards the other side, then roll up the other side towards you to meet it. Using a very sharp knife, cut the rolled pastry into slices about half a centimetre thick.

Line a couple of baking sheets with baking paper and lay out the little pastry swirls, leaving enough room for the pastry to rise and puff. Bake for 20 minutes until crisp and golden, swapping the trays over halfway through. Serve warm with cold drinks.

Pork stuffed with an apricot and tarragon butter

Pork fillet is a lovely cut of meat, but it lacks the fat found in other bits of the pig needed to make it really glossy and toothsome when cooked. The easiest and most delicious way to remedy this is to cut channels into the meat and stuff them with a flavoured butter, wrapping the whole fillet in Parma ham to keep things together.

I chose an apricot and tarragon butter here; the two flavours are great together and complement the pork beautifully. I used the Magimix to make the butter, but if you don’t have a food processor, just chop all the solid ingredients finely and blend with the butter in a mortar and pestle. To serve four, you’ll need:

1 pork fillet (tenderloin)
4 oz salted butter
8 semi-dried apricots
1 fresh chilli, deseeded
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 large handful fresh tarragon
1 large handful fresh parsley
4 shallots
Juice of half a lemon
2 teaspoons soya sauce
8 slices Parma ham

Put the butter, lemon juice, soya sauce, apricots, herbs, spices and shallots into the bowl of a food processor and whizz until finely blended. Cut channels into the meat by pushing a knife straight into it at 5 cm intervals, and stuff the butter into them, smearing any extra over the surface of the joint. Wrap the joint tightly in Parma ham and secure with string.

Roast the fillet at 200° C for 40 minutes, and rest for five minutes before serving with potatoes and a green vegetable, the pan juices poured over the meat.

Foie gras

Lunch never managed to make itself a very complicated affair on our holiday in Provence. Enid Blyton used Famous Five propaganda to imbue my childhood with the notion that food eaten outdoors always tastes best, and I’ve still not quite got over the conviction that she’s right. Happily, we were well equipped for outdoor eating, with a gorgeous terrace with parasols, two large tables and plenty of comfy chairs. Just down the hill was a shop specialising in foie gras. I think you can probably see where this is going.

The foie gras in the top picture is a mi-cuit bloc. This means the liver has been minced and seasoned, before being gently cooked. (I wasn’t able to find a whole mi-cuit liver to show you, unfortunately.) Mi-cuit foie gras is a very different product from the foie gras you can buy in jars; it’s cooked very briefly (unlike a jar, which will get a couple of hours’ cooking time) and needs to be kept in the fridge and eaten quickly. Its texture is almost buttery, and the taste is sublime, and not in the least livery. Don’t be put off by the cheaper bloc – it’s often just as good as a whole liver, especially if you’re lucky enough to find one made by one of France’s many proud, small producers. Goose foie gras is more expensive than duck, but try both – you may, like me, find that you prefer the delicate flavour of the smaller duck liver. Try drinking a good dessert wine alongside the liver.

foie grasWe ate this foie gras terrine at Bistrot Découverte in St Remy de Provence (mi-cuit again, made from small pieces of liver pressed in the restaurant’s kitchen). It was served with a sourdough bread and a dried fruit compote. You can make out the duck’s yellow fat and the fleur de sel that the chef seasoned the liver with.

When eating foie gras back at the house, we accompanied it with fresh fruit (figs and wetly ripe white peaches are fantastic with a good foie gras) and slices of toasted brioche. Be careful buying brioche for foie gras outside France – unaccountably, most of the brioche you can buy in the UK is packed with vanilla flavouring, which is just downright wrong with a delicately flavoured liver. I also enjoy foie gras with a good fruit jelly – a sharp crab apple or fragrant quince jelly work very well against the smooth creaminess of the liver.

pink peppercornsMy brother, who lives in Bordeaux, sent a foie gras to us last Christmas, accompanied by a jar of pink peppercorns (a berry, not a true pepper), which he insisted we try with the foie gras. I ground them up in my mortar and pestle and (as usual), he was right; they were brilliant with it. Pink peppercorns are hard to find in the UK outside those mixtures of white, green, black and pink pepper for transparent grinders, so I was delighted to discover a tree heavy with them in the garden we rented. We picked a few bunches and set to them with mortar and pestle. Delicious.

One-dish roast chicken, potatoes and accompaniments

Certain groceries were absurdly cheap in the markets we used in the Cote d’Azur. These two chickens, though, beautifully dressed and trimmed, with Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée labels and a lovely succulent plumpness, took the parsimonious biscuit. Each was large enough to serve four, and the special offer which gave me one free (in a lovely cardboard box) when I bought the other meant that the pair only cost €4. That’s €4 for more protein than my cats get in a week.

I decided to roast the chickens like this for a number of reasons. I was on holiday, so wanted a dish that wasn’t too fiddly, which meant I could spend some more time on the terrace drinking. They were good birds whose flavour deserved a chance to sing on its own. And this method meant that I could pile the dish high with Provençal flavours. I found some paste made from sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, capers and a very little anchovy, some roast red peppers marinated in olive oil and herbes de Provence, some nutty-tasting little new potatoes and other good things. To serve six with plenty left over, this is what I did with them :

2 chickens
5 tablespoons sundried tomato paste
8 salted anchovies
100g roast marinated red peppers, cut into strips
1kg new potatoes
750g shallots, peeled
6 bulbs (yes, whole bulbs) garlic
1 lemon
1 bottle rosé wine (I used the local Bandol, which was pretty much the only wine you could buy in the area)
150g butter
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon herbes de Provençe
1 handful fresh chervil
1 handful fresh parsley
1 handful fresh basil
150g crème fraîche
Salt and pepper

Pull any fat out of the inside of the chickens and discard. Zest the lemons, putting the zest to one side. Chop the lemons in half and put one half in the cavity of each chicken with a bay leaf and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper.

Place the chickens in a large roasting dish, and fill the space around them with the potatoes, peeled, whole shallots, garlic bulbs (not peeled, and cut in half across the equator), the remaining bay leaves, the anchovies and peppers. The anchovies will ‘melt’ when cooked and will give a deeply savoury, but not fishy, base to the dish.

Place knobs of butter on the chickens, and scatter over the herbes de Provençe and some more salt. In a jug, whisk together the tomato paste, the lemon zest and the wine, and pour it all into the baking dish. Season and place in the oven at 180° C for two hours, basting frequently with the winey juices.

When the chickens come out of the oven, transfer them and the potatoes, shallots, garlic and peppers to a warm serving dish to rest. Chop the chervil, parsley and basil finely, and whisk them and the crème fraîche into the pan juices. Serve with a green salad and some more of the wine you used in the dish.

Hyères – restaurants and food shopping

Two weeks spent variously floating prone on my back in the Mediterranean, being splendidly cultural and hunting down Provençal recipes have left me tanned, educated, full of the sort of vitamins you only find in absurdly ripe fruit and vegetables, and with a groaning liver. I blame the foie gras and the local rosé wine.

The house we rented (pictured above) was glorious – a heap of palatial decay whose kitchen bristled with good equipment, including a chinois sieve, a mandoline, oyster knives, griddle pans and some of the sharpest knives it’s ever been my pleasure to handle. I do not, however, recommend its horse-hair mattresses, which made sleeping feel a lot like vigorous exercise on sacks full of prickly potatoes.

Hyères itself is a town surrounded by small growers with a daily market and a huge number of small grocers and little independent foodshops. If you visit, walk up to the Place Massillon in the old town and explore the labyrinth of small streets around it. You’ll find little shops selling nothing but dozens of different kinds of goat’s cheese, artisanal bakeries (in season, you can buy lavender bread), greengrocers which only sell local produce and some fantastic ethnic grocers, including a shop devoted to Arabic spices and a really excellent Vietnamese traiteur. Rotisseries punctuate the streets, but you’re not limited to chickens; quails and pork knuckles were on offer too.

If you visit the town, you’ll find plenty of good restaurants. Les Jardins de Bacchus on Av. Gambetta is a modern gastronomic restaurant, where courses were punctuated with Blumenthal-ish little jokes like a capuccino made from langoustines and foie gras. Service was excellent, and the food very good indeed. For a more casual meal, we really liked Le Jardin (19 Av. Joseph-Clotis), where Provençal food is served on a garden patio from noon until midnight. Try the crudites, which are served with a fierce anchoide and a home-made tapenade. Saigon-Hyeres is a beautifully decorated Vietnamese/Thai restaurant on Rue Crivelli, where the Thai fondue was fragrant and delicious – order plenty, though, as the portions are quite small.

My personal favourite was the Bistrot de Marius, a restaurant in Place Massillon specialising in the local fish and seasonal vegetables. (Bistrot de Marius has no website, but you’ll find other reviews of it online.) You can eat on the square in the shadow of the Knights Templar tower, and the food is extremely well-priced, thoughtfully prepared and absolutely delicious. Their soupe de poissons was the best I had on the holiday (and I sampled many), with a dense, heady aroma, served with a glossy, garlic-y rouille. Try the moules au gratin; mussels prepared in the same way you’d eat snails in Burgundy. A hundred times nicer than snails, and the butter was a joy to mop up with your bread. Red mullet was rolled with a fatty ham and pan fried. Iles flottantes were airy, their crème Anglaise dotted with vanilla – and to cap it all, the after-dinner coffee was some of the best I’ve had. Do drop in if you’re in town.