I’m off doing a festive round of family visits until the New Year. Deliveries in the snow allowing, we’re feasting on foie gras and smoked eel with Mum and Dad on Christmas Eve, roasting a goose on the day itself, and plan on making a trip to the Freemason’s Country Inn in Wiswell, one of my favourite new-to-me restaurants from 2010, with my splendid in-laws. I expect to return in 2011 several pounds heavier.
If you’re after last-minute Christmas recipes, check out the posts tagged with Christmas in these parts. Have a splendid Kwanzaa, Christmas, Hannukah or Winterval – see you next year.
That Béchamel from Tuesday’s post was made with this sandwich in mind. The Croque Madame (literally “Mrs Crunch”, but that sounds considerably less elegant than the French) is one of the world’s great sandwiches, up there with the banh mi, the burger and the pan bagna. The best I’ve ever eaten wasn’t actually in France, but at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Las Vegas, where it was made with brioche and served with french fries to mop up the dreamy clouds of Béchamel and egg yolk. This one’s a little different, and makes up for the lack of decent brioche in rural Cambridgeshire by dipping the sandwich in an egg and cheese mixture before frying. Dreadful for the arteries, fantastic in the mouth. Gilding the lily, I served this with sauteed potatoes dressed with truffle oil and Parmesan cheese, and a very sharply dressed salad.
There is more effort involved in this sandwich than there is in slapping together your lunchtime BLT, but it’s absolutely worth it. This is a dish best eaten as part of a lazy Sunday brunch with somebody you love. It’s extremely rich, so that salad’s well worth having on hand to cut through the buttery, cheesy density of flavour. This is, to put it mildly, a bloody marvellous sandwich. Do try making one yourself.
To serve two, you’ll need:
4 thick slices good white bread
4 large eggs
100g Parmesan cheese
200g Gruyere cheese
200g cooked ham, sliced thinly (I like a ham I’ve cooked myself, but a good deli ham is fine here)
2 teaspoons smooth Dijon mustard
2 large knobs butter
50ml (or more, if, like me, you’re greedy) Béchamel sauce
Preheat the oven to 170ºC (340ºF), with a metal pan ready for your sandwiches on a high shelf. Have a pan of warm Béchamel sauce standing by.
Build the sandwiches by spreading the bottom slice with Dijon mustard, layering on the ham, and topping with the grated Gruyere. Put the lid on and give the sandwich a firm squash with the flat of your hand to pack it down a bit.
In a flat dish large enough to take a sandwich, beat two of the eggs with the finely grated Parmesan. Heat one knob of butter in a frying pan big enough to take both sandwiches until it starts to bubble.
Dunk each sandwich in the egg mixture, making sure both sides soak up some of the egg. Slide the sandwiches into the butter and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, until golden. Use a stiff spatula to remove the sandwiches to the heated tray in the oven, and cook for ten minutes to ensure all the cheese is melted.
While the cheese is melting, melt more butter in the pan you fried the sandwiches in, and allow it to bubble away until it is a nutty brown colour (beurre noisette, if we’re being precise here). Fry two eggs in the nutty butter so the white is just set and the yolks runny. Remove the sandwiches to warmed plates, spoon over a few tablespoons of Béchamel, and top each one off with a fried egg.
Widdling around with a shallot stuck with cloves earlier today, it occurred to me that this blog could do with a few very basic recipes; the sort that can form the underpinnings of a million different dishes, but which tend to get overlooked in favour of more complicated recipes. I’m guilty of occasionally writing unhelpful things like “make some gravy according to your usual method”, or “make a white sauce” here, which sort of instructions are absolutely no use at all if you’re not already a confident cook. So here, as the start of what I hope will be a semi-regular series of fundamental recipes, is a recipe for white sauce, classically called Béchamel.
My education in food started at a girls’ boarding school of the sort where we were taught all the skills needed to be a good little wife and housewife (and none of the skills necessary to operate in an environment where things like physics or grammar were necessary; happily, I overcame that hump when the school went bankrupt just in time for me to go to a proper school to learn how to punctuate, titrate and calculate vectors). The teaching in home economics, however, was second to none. We were led from boiling eggs (which we then devilled and made into salads for which we learned to make mayonnaise) through the various doughs and batters for scones, breads and cakes, via the flour-based sauces and stocks, soups and stews, to roasting and finally that most exciting of lessons where we learned how to fillet a fish. All pretty fundamental stuff, the sort of foundations on which the rest of home cooking stands – although entirely without the use of any garlic or herbs, because this was the 1980s and apparently potential husbands back then didn’t go for pesto.
The white sauce we learned was, in retrospect, a bland and awful thing; I seem to remember that it may even have employed margarine, but it’s retained a very important place in my memory because it was the first of these multi-use sauces we were taught. We used it in lasagnes and as a base for cheese sauces and other sauces for fish and meats. I discovered in the school’s copy of Ambrose Heath’s Book of Sauces that the same (or a very similar) sauce was the basis for all kinds of wonderful stuff: Mornay (cheese) sauce; the parsley sauce for a ham; old-fashioned English caper sauce; mustard sauce; Portuguese cockle sauce; onion Soubise; and sauce Nantua, a lovely thing which is flavoured with crayfish and brandy. I have my own copy of Heath’s Book of Sauces (first published in 1943 and now out of print, but it’s a book I see quite regularly in second-hand bookshops), and opened it when I was writing this post to a page which said proudly that “the sauce-maker [is] at the very head of his profession; these sauces will improve the best food and make the dullest dish tempting.”
Béchamel is, according to my copy of Larousse, an ancient thing, named after the 17th century Marquis de Béchamel, but predating him in the form of a velouté (similar to a white sauce but made with stock rather than infused milk) by some considerable time; in the 19th century Carême called it one of the four “mother” sauces which form the foundations of French cuisine. It still, says Heath, contained veal alongside the milk well into the 20th century, at least until the early 40s when he was writing, and the standard recipe noted it although most chefs would already eschew the veal; but today the sauce is classically made with a roux or paste of butter and flour, which goes to thicken up a body of milk.
A Béchamel should always be made with milk which is infused with aromatics – otherwise, you’ll find yourself with an uninspiring sauce which reminds vaguely of glue. The herbs and spices here work well in almost any dish where a white sauce is called for; experiment depending on what you plan to do with your own. Chives, blades of mace and whole garlic cloves are good ingredients to play with. Infused milk freezes well, as does the finished Béchamel itself, so you can infuse extra milk and set some by for the next time you want to make something like bread sauce. Some extra infused milk in the freezer is also beyond useful for those days when you want to make a white sauce quickly but don’t have time to faff around with a shallot.
To make about half a litre of Béchamel, you’ll need:
A bunch of parsley, including the stalks
3 bay leaves
2 small shallots
50g plain flour
Start a few hours before you mean to make up the sauce by infusing the milk. Pour the milk into a saucepan and add the cleaned parsley; bay; peeled and halved shallots, studded with the cloves; and whole peppercorns to the pan. Bring the pan to a gentle simmer, turn the heat off, put the lid on and leave in a warm place for at least two hours.
When you are ready to make the sauce, strain the milk into a jug and discard the bits of herb and shallot. Melt the butter over a low heat in a clean, dry saucepan, and sprinkle over the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon until the flour and melted butter are combined smoothly in a glossy paste – this is your roux. Be careful not to allow the butter or flour to colour.
Stirring all the time, add a small amount (about 25ml) of milk to the roux, continuing to stir until the milk is absorbed into the roux and you have a thick, uniform mixture. Add another small amount of milk, and repeat until about half the milk is incorporated. You might want to switch to stirring with a whisk at this point. Add the rest of the milk in larger amounts, whisking as you go, and continue to cook very gently until you have a thick and glossy sauce. When all the milk is incorporated, keep cooking for about five minutes to cook out any raw flour taste. Take a teaspoon of the sauce and taste it to adjust for the amount of salt you want.
If you need to keep the finished sauce warm, you can avoid the formation of a skin on top by melting a small amount of butter, floating it on top of the sauce and stirring it in when you come to serve, or by floating a piece of cling film on the sauce. And because you’re bound to want something to do with this sauce, I’ll post a recipe for a world-beating Croque Madame later in the week.
Congee is a Chinese breakfast dish – soothing, savoury, and aromatic with ginger and stock. (You may know it as choke, jook, bobo or cháo; it’s common all over Asia and its name varies as you’d expect with language and dialect.) I find it hard to separate the physiological effects of eating congee from the cultural ones. It’s a favourite dish when I’m ill, cold or miserable, but I couldn’t honestly tell you whether that’s because it makes me think of sharing a bowl in my pyjamas with my Dad; or because of the soothing magic that so many cultures assign to soupy, chickeny mixtures. It’s filling, easy to digest, and wonderfully satisfying. The Chinese say it’s good for an upset stomach, and it’s a standard sickbed dish used to perk up those with little appetite.
For Dad, it’s all about the texture. He’s even fond of plain congee, where water is used instead of stock. As a novice in congee, you’re likely to find the plain version too bland; my (English) mother and husband both say they would sooner eat papier-maché. At a conference in China earlier this year, I filled up happily every morning at the hotel buffet with a couple of small bowls of congee with century eggs, pickled bamboo shoots and catkins, while all my English colleagues looked on in horror over their Danish pastries. So I’ll happily admit that congee is not for everyone, though I can’t for the life of me work out why – you texture-phobes are eating more outlandish things every day. (Sausages, anybody?)
Congee is a base for you to add extra flavours to. There’s no ruleset to follow – top your porridge off with what you fancy. Here, I’ve used canned fried dace, a small oily fish, with black beans (available at all Chinese supermarkets). Try a dollop of Chinese chilli oil, some fresh ginger and spring onions, a splash of sesame oil. Experiment with your toppings, which are best when they’re salty and umami; I love Chinese pork floss (a kind of atomised jerky), Chinese wind-dried ham, century eggs or salted duck eggs, roasted meat, garlicky shitake mushrooms, and, for days when I’m feeling seriously brave, fermented tofu. Crispy dough crullers are a traditional addition, as are pickled mustard greens (zha cai), which you’ll find sold in vacuum-sealed plastic packs. This is a good time to explore the aisles of your local oriental supermarket; you’ll need to visit anyway to pick up the glutinous rice, so go mad and furtle in the darker corners of the shop to see if you can find any gingko nuts or dried scallops to accompany your porridge.
I like my congee relatively loose in texture. For a stiffer porridge, reduce the stock in the recipe by a couple of hundred millilitres. Some rice cookers have a congee setting – follow the instructions on yours if you’re lucky enough to have one. And as always, the stock you use should be as good as you can find; home-made is always best, and if it has a little fat floating on top, all the better.
For a congee base for 2-3 people, you’ll need:
150g glutinous rice
1.2 litres home-made chicken or pork stock
1-inch piece of ginger, cut into coins
1 teaspoon salt
Whatever you choose to top the congee with, you’ll find it much improved by:
Another 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into julienne strips
3-4 spring onions, cut into coins
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Soy sauce to taste
Rinse the rice in a sieve under the cold tap. Combine the stock and rice in a large saucepan with the salt and coins of ginger, and bring to the boil. Turn down to a bare simmer, and put the lid on. Continue to simmer for 1-1½ hours, until the congee has a creamy, porridgy texture. Stir the congee well. Spoon into bowls to serve, and sprinkle over the toppings.
I much prefer the flavour and texture you’ll get with glutinous rice, but if you really can’t find any, you can try the Cantonese style of congee, which is made with regular white rice and liquid in the same proportions as the recipe above, and boiled for about six hours until it breaks down into a mush. You’ll also find congee mixes including other grains, like barley and beans, for sale, particularly in the medicinal foods section.
I’m blogging from my new MacBook Pro, an anniversary present from the inestimable Dr W. I’m still getting used to it; there are all kinds of PC keyboard shortcuts hard-wired into my brain that I’m having to relearn, and I don’t have any photo-editing software on here yet. In short, if anything looks a bit funny in today’s post, please be gentle with me – things should be better next week when I’ve got to grips with the various things the command button does!
Is there anybody out there who doesn’t love a big chunk of well-aged, grass-fed roast beef? This joint was a present from my in-laws, who have amazing taste in gifts. It’s from Lishman’s butcher’s in Ilkley, and had been sitting in the freezer for a few months, waiting for the weather to turn in a roasty direction.
If you’re not into turkey at Christmas, a beef rib is a fantastic substitution; it’s traditional but rather special, and there are very, very few Brits of a certain age out there who don’t have happy childhood memories of family occasions centred around a pre-BSE joint. To my mind, it’s the best of the roasting joints; the meat is rich and savoury from its proximity to the bone, and there’s a perfect amount of fat for lubrication and flavour in there. As a rule of thumb, you can count on each rib in the joint being sufficient to serve two people, so it’s easy to work out how large a chunk of meat to buy. I like to cook a rib nice and rare; if your uncle Bert likes his meat cooked until there’s not a trace of pink, just give him a slice from one end of the joint.
The gravy I served with this is a bit special; it’s intensely dense and savoury, and rich with the flavour of red wine and caramelised onion. Don’t use one of those undrinkable £3 bottles marketed as cooking wine here; while I don’t want you raiding the cellar for the Burgundy your Dad laid down in the 1980s, you should make this gravy with something you’d be happy to drink. If you can get hold of some real beef or veal stock made with a roasted bone, that’ll be fantastic here. The gravy has so much other flavour supporting it, though, that you can happily use some decent chicken stock instead. (And your freezer is full of home-made chicken stock, right?)
I served this with a huge, rustling pile of roast potatoes and parsnips, and a shredded spring cabbage sauteed in a little butter with some peeled chestnuts; these are all great for soaking up the gorgeous gravy. To roast a rib of beef rare (add five minutes per 500g if you want it medium, and ten if, for some unaccountable reason, you want it well-done), you’ll need:
Beef A rib of beef
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon plain flour
1 red onion
250ml red wine
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
300ml good beef or chicken stock
2 tablespoons plain flour
Juices from the joint
Salt and pepper to taste
Take the beef out of the fridge in plenty of time, so it’s at room temperature when you come to cook it. Preheat the oven to a blistering 240ºC (460ºF). Pat the joint dry with kitchen paper. Mix the salt, flour and mustard in a small bowl, and use your fingers to rub the mixture all over the fatty surface of the joint.
Put the beef in a roasting dish and slide it into the oven for an initial 20 minutes, then bring the temperature down to 180ºC (360ºF) and cook the joint for 15 minutes per 500g. (See timings above for a medium or well-done roast.)
While the rib is cooking, start on the gravy. Slice the onion finely, and fry it in a little beef dripping (goose fat is good if you don’t have any) until it starts to brown. Tip the balsamic vinegar into the pan and cook, stirring, until the onions start caramelising and the mixture becomes sticky.
Pour the red wine over the onions and bring to a simmer. Add the stock, bring back up to a simmer and allow the whole thing to bubble away gently with the lid on for half an hour. Remove from the heat, and strain the contents of the pan through a sieve into a jug. Discard the onions, which will have given up all their flavour, and leave the jug to one side until the beef is finished.
When the beef is ready to come out of the oven, remove it from the roasting pan to a warmed dish in a warm place to rest for 20 minutes, covered loosely with a piece of tin foil. This will give you time to finish up the vegetables and finish the gravy while the muscle fibres in the meat relax and the juices start to flow. Finish the gravy by putting the roasting pan you cooked the meat in on the hob over a medium flame. Sprinkle the flour into the pan and use a whisk to blend it well with any flavour-carrying fat from the joint. Pour a ladle of the stock from the jug into the pan and whisk away until everything is well blended, scraping at the sticky bits on the bottom. Repeat, a ladle at a time, until everything is combined, then return to a saucepan and simmer away without a lid for five minutes, stirring as you go, before tasting to adjust for salt and pepper, and transferring to a gravy boat just in time to serve up the whole roast.