Chicken claypot rice

I bit the bullet last weekend and bought a claypot from the Chinese supermarket. These traditional cooking pots are finickity beasts to cook with; a claypot isn’t shatter resistant, so you have to be very, very careful when cooking with it to allow it to heat up very slowly (complete with cold ingredients) and cool down equally slowly, or risk shards of pot and sauce all over the kitchen. Cooking in a claypot gives the dish a very particular texture and a smoky flavour. The rice on the very bottom of the pot will catch and singe into a gorgeous crisp layer, and the meat at the top will steam delicately, giving its juices to the flavourful rice.

I’ve used Chinese sausages here – you will be able to find them at any Chinese supermarket. If you can’t get your hands on any, use lardons of smoked bacon instead. They won’t taste the same, but they’ll give the dish the smoky, porky depth you’re looking for.

If you don’t have access to a claypot, you can cook this dish in a heavy-bottomed (not non-stick) saucepan with a lid. A well-used claypot, however, will give a lovely smoky taste to whatever’s cooked in it.

To serve three hungry people or four less-hungry people, you’ll need:

3 Chinese sausages
4 chicken thighs
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp dark soy
1 tbsp light soy
2 fat garlic cloves, crushed
5 chopped spring onions
1 tsp cornflour
½ glass rice wine
1 inch julienned ginger
1 tablespoon brown sugar
4 baby pak choi
5 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in boiling water for 20 minutes
2 cups rice
3 cups stock

Mix the chicken and sausages in a bowl with all the ingredients except the rice, pak choi, mushrooms and stock. Leave to marinade for at least half an hour.

Put the rice and chicken stock in the cold claypot and place it over a medium heat with the lid on. Bring to the boil and immediately reduce the heat to a low simmer, then leave the rice to steam for 15 minutes. The rice should be nearly cooked, with little holes in the flat surface.

Spread the chicken mixture, the pak choi and the chopped mushrooms all over the top of the rice, and put the lid back on. Continue to steam over a low heat for another 15 minutes, until the chicken is white and cooked through. Serve piping hot.

Flavoured chocolates

I’ve recently started fixating on good, high-cocoa chocolates with unusual flavourings. Forget Terry’s Chocolate Orange – I want a bar full of exotic fruits, flower flavours and exciting spices. They’re increasingly popular at the moment; branches of Hotel du Chocolat are springing up all over the place, and Rococo Chocolates, NewTree and good old Green and Black’s are now supplying supermarkets. (Those after the ultimate posh chocolate experience should put in an order at l’Artisan du Chocolat, where flavours include banana and thyme, tonka bean and tobacco. The chocolates are expensive, but those I’ve had have been absolutely excellent – sadly, though, I have eaten the grand total of two of the things in my entire life. If I can get my hands on a box for Christmas, you’ll see them reviewed here.)

At the supermarket this week, I found myself scooping bars of chocolate into the basket like a woman possessed. Made to put most of them back by Dr Weasel, I held onto an organic bar of dark chocolate and cardamom from Rococo, and a bar of lavender and lime blossom milk chocolate from NewTree.

Rococo are based in Chelsea’s King’s Road, and have been producing organic chocolates of remarkably high quality for nearly 20 years. Luckily for you, they’ve discovered e-commerce and now ship worldwide, and some of their artisan bars and gift collections now appear in Waitrose. Their flower fondants are my very favourites, and have solidly replaced Charbonnel & Walker’s rose and violet creams in my affections. Always a sucker for good packaging design, I’m absolutely enchanted by Rococo’s wrappers, which use images from an 1850s French catalogue of chocolate moulds.

This cardamom artisan bar is, for me, about as good as dark chocolate gets. Cardamom has that same affinity with a bitter chocolate as it does with good, bitter coffee, and the 65% cocoa solids and high percentage of cocoa butter give the bar a beautifully clean snap when broken. The crisp, granular shards of cardamom seeds are glorious against the silky texture of the chocolate. It is unfortunate that these are so darn good; I can quite happily eat one in a single sitting.

NewTree (beware – very busy Flash site with music) a Belgian chocolate makers, are a brand I’d not come across before, but once I saw the label on their Tranquility milk chocolate, boasting lime blossom extract and lavender, I was sold. A single bar is said to have the same relaxing properties as three cups of lime blossom tisane. The milk chocolate was slightly granular, but delicately fragranced and delicious. If in quibblesome mood, I might complain that the chocolate was a little sweeter than the ideal, but this seems almost churlish given how well blended the unusual flower flavours were. I don’t really feel qualified to comment on whether or not I was left tranquil; any calming effect may have come from the glass of violet liqueur I was drinking on the side.

NewTree’s schtick is an appealing one; they flavour their chocolate bars with spices and herbs used not only for their flavour, but also for their health applications. With names like Pleasure, Eternity, Young, Digest, Vivacity, Sexy, Tranquility, Serenity and Cocoon, NewTree seem to have hit on something the rest of us have suspected for years – chocolate really is a universal panacea. Grab a bar if you see one, and please report back in the comments section and let me know whether you really did feel serene and cocooned.

Char siu bao – Chinese steamed pork buns

Char sui baoChar siu (see my recipe from last week) on its own is wonderful stuff. Chopped, cooked into a sticky, savoury, meaty mixture and sealed inside a light steamed bun, it becomes something really, really special. It’s a dim sum staple; a filling, moreish little bun of scrumptiousness.

When we’re in Malaysia, my very favourite breakfast is one of these buns. It makes a splendidly fattening change from muesli. Once you have a strip of char siu in the house, the buns are very simple to assemble. They’re also a doddle to reheat – just steam for ten minutes – and they freeze like a dream.

If you made the braised pork with accompanying buns, you’ll recognise the dough recipe here. The method is slightly different, in that you’ll be stuffing your buns before steaming. To make about twenty buns you’ll need:

1 fillet of char siu (about 10 oz)
2 tablespoons lard
4 fat cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
5 teaspoons caster sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon dark soya sauce
2 teaspoons light soya sauce
4 fl oz water
1 tablespoon plain flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

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

Filling method
Cut the char siu strip into tiny cubes with a knife and fork, and blend the vegetable oil and flour in a cup. Fry the garlic in the lard until it starts to turn colour, add the onions and cook until they are translucent. Pour in the sugar, sesame oil, soya sauces and water and bring up to a simmer. Add the chopped meat, stir until well-coated, then add the oil and flour. Continue to simmer for 30 seconds, then transfer to a bowl and chill.

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 down again, and take an egg-sized piece in the palm of your left hand. Stretch it and squash it on your palm until you have a disc about the size of your hand. Still holding the disc of dough, put a teaspoon and a half of the chilled filling in the centre of the disc, then gather the edges to the centre and pinch closed. Put the pinched side of the bun on a square of greaseproof paper. Leave the filled buns in a warm place until doubled in size.

Steam the buns over boiling water for ten minutes to cook. Once cooked, the buns can be eaten hot (or cold in a packed lunch) – just steam again to reheat. The cooked buns will freeze well; they’ll also keep in the fridge for a few days.

Char siu – Chinese barbecued pork

char siuChar siu is a brilliantly versatile thing. Even if you’re not familiar with it by name, you’ve almost certainly tasted it before; it’s the reddish pork that appears in little pieces in every Special Fried Rice in every Chinese restaurant and takeaway in the country, in those wonderful fluffy buns you get as dim sum (my recipe for those buns is here), on its own over rice as a roast meat, and sliced thickly in a million different noodle dishes. It’s a sweetly glazed, aromatically spiced, perfectly delicious piece of meat, and one of my very favourite things to do with pork.

This recipe makes a single fillet of char siu. I’d recommend you at least double it – you’re going to need a whole fillet of the stuff for Monday’s recipe, and you’ll probably want to eat at least some as soon as it comes out of the oven. Char siu freezes well too, so you don’t need to worry about cooking too much.

A note on the glaze and colour. The strips of char siu you’ll see in Chinese shops are usually glazed with maltose, a sugary by-product of the brewing industry. It does achieve a really gorgeous, crackly sheen, but it’s not got a lot of flavour or sweetness, and I find it’s not as tasty as glazing with a honey/soy mixture, thinned with a little vegetable oil to help the sugar catch and caramelise. Shop-bought char siu is normally very red, because a little food colouring is used in the marinade. Feel free to add half a teaspoon to yours if you like – I find I’m happy with the less shocking colour the meat gets from the hoi sin sauce in its marinade.

To make one strip of char siu (enough for three as a roast meat on rice) you’ll need:

1 pork fillet

5 tablespoons light soya sauce
3 tablespoons dark soya sauce
5 tablespoons runny honey
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon five spice powder
½ glass Chinese rice wine (sherry will do if you can’t find any)
3 tablespoons Hoisin sauce (I like Lee Kum Kee)
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, crushed
4 fat cloves of garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons runny honey
1 tablespoon dark soya sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Mix all the marinade ingredients together and warm through in a saucepan until the sugar has all dissolved. Pour the warm marinade over the pork, and leave for at least eight hours in the fridge.

To cook the char siu, heat the oven to 210° C and place the meat, basted with some of its marinade, on a rack over a roasting tin with a couple of centimetres of water in it. Roast for 20 minutes, then baste again on both sides, turn the meat over and reduce the heat to 180° C. Roast for another ten minutes, then baste and turn again, and roast for a final ten minutes.

Transfer the meat to a plate, empty the tin of water and line it with foil. Place the meat and rack back on the tin, then brush it liberally with the glaze and put it under the grill for about five minutes, until the glaze is glossy and starting to catch at the edges. Turn the meat, glaze again and put back under the grill until the other side is also glossy and starting to caramelise.

Steak and wild mushroom pie

pieAstute readers will notice that recently I’ve been obsessing somewhat about puff pastry. This should be your last puff pastry recipe for a bit – use a roll from the supermarket chiller cabinet or make your own using the recipe for curry puffs.

Dried wild mushrooms are great. A small handful, especially when simmered for a long time with the meat as in this dish, will infuse the whole pie with a wonderful rich, earthy fragrance. I’ve also used some fresh mushrooms here to bulk out the pie and to add some texture. Try different kinds of mushroom when you make this – my dried mushrooms were cepes, summer boletes and girolles, while I chose lovely firm little Crimini mushrooms (a bit like button mushrooms, but a darker chestnut colour) to add at the end.

pie crustA note on the pastry decoration – a pastry rose on top of a pie is, in Lincolnshire, where my Great Grandma lived, a visual cue to remind you in the larder that it’s a meat pie, and not a fruit pie. Just make a small pastry spiral for the centre and glue on some petals around the outside with some beaten egg.

To serve two (heartily) you’ll need:

1 lb stewing steak, diced
8 shallots, quartered
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon flour
1 small handful dried mushrooms
1 punnet fresh mushrooms
Juice of ½ a lemon
1 wine glass vermouth
½ pint good stock
Salt and pepper
Olive oil and butter to fry
Puff pastry
1 egg, beaten

Set the dried mushrooms to soak in ½ a pint of freshly boiled water.

Brown the steak in batches in the olive oil, and remove to a plate. Set aside. Sauté the shallots in the same oil with two cloves of sliced garlic until they are soft, with brown edges. Return the meat to the pan with a tablespoon of flour and stir well. Add the mushrooms and their soaking liquid. Pour over the vermouth and the stock, and simmer with no lid on a low heat for an hour or so, until the sauce is thick and reduced.

Sauté the chopped fresh mushrooms in butter with another clove of garlic in a separate pan. When they give up their juices, add the lemon juice, and continue to cook until nearly all the liquid is gone. Stir into the reduced meat and mushroom pan, and season the whole mixture to taste.

Transfer the mixture to a pie dish and top with pastry. Cut a hole in the centre to allow the steam to escape, and decorate with a rose, glazing with the beaten egg. Bake the pie at 200° C for 25 minutes, until brown and glossy.