If you’re anything like me, you’ll be feeling somewhat bloated and liverish after Christmas and New Year, so I’ll hold the roast goose recipe back until later in the week when our gall bladders have all recovered. I was racking my brains for a nice easy recipe to start the year with – something that’s simple to prepare, and has few ingredients, but that tastes great and will impress guests or a picky family. How about labneh, a soft “cheese” from the middle east, made in your fridge from thick Greek-style yoghurt?
Greek yoghurt is thicker than the sloppy variety by virtue of having been strained until much of the whey drains out, leaving you with a richer, thicker product. Labneh takes the process further, continuing to drain until almost all of the whey has gone, and you are left with a thick, sharp-tasting ball that looks like soft cream cheese. It’s not a true cheese because rennet is not used in making it, but I like to use it where you might use something like Philadelphia – and when it’s made by the method below, with fresh garlic, you’ll find that it’s a mighty fine substitute for Boursin, richer, denser and without the dusty dried garlic taste you get in the packaged stuff from the supermarket. Labneh is a great addition to a cheeseboard, either in a chunk on its own or in a bowl, splashed with olive oil. Experiment by adding herbs to the garlic: for a Turkish flavour, try some dill and chillies; chop in some mint with the garlic for a Greek platter.
My Mum made the labneh in the pictures at Christmas as part of a cold supper. It’s fantastic wherever you’d use cream cheese or with crudites, and great crumbled over rich middle-eastern dishes, especially those containing lamb; I’ve got a cheesecloth full going in the fridge at the moment which is destined to be spread on crusty bread and served with a Greek-style lamb shoulder.
400g Greek yoghurt (make sure that you choose a version without emulsifiers or thickeners; I like Total)
1 large pinch salt
2 cloves garlic, chopped as finely as possible
Line a sieve with a boiled cheesecloth, and put it over a bowl to catch drips. You can also use a boiled kitchen towel if you don’t have a cheesecloth – an old linen one which has been washed many times will be softer and easier to work with.
Stir the yoghurt, salt and garlic well in a bowl to make sure everything is well combined. You can leave the garlic out if you want a plain labneh; the garlic gives a lovely fiery kick to the finished cheese. Pour the yoghurt mixture into the lined sieve, bring the corners and edges up to form a bag around the labneh and twist together. You can secure the twist with string if you like, but it’s not really necessary.
Put the bowl and sieve into the fridge and leave the labneh to drain for between 24 and 48 hours, squeezing the bag every now and then. The cheese will be a pleasant, creamy texture after 24 hours, and leaving it for longer will make it even stiffer, and harder to spread.
To keep your labneh in the fridge, cover it completely with olive oil in a bowl. It will keep for two weeks, but I bet you won’t be able to stop yourself finishing it much sooner than that.
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.
A discussion about the Elizabeth David books that inspired last week’s Poulet Antiboise got me thinking about Christmas presents. I love a food book that’s capable of making me salivate at the writing as well as over the recipes, and there’s nothing better than a book that rewards dipping in and out as much as it does reading from cover to cover. (B, K and L, look away now – you may be receiving presents from this list this year.)
So I’ve made a short list below of some of my very favourite books in this genre. Most aren’t the Jamie-Gordon-Nigella sort that you’ll find displayed in your local bookshop for Christmas; those folk get enough marketing help as it is. Each of these books has something out of the ordinary about it; I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
The Art of Eating M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) was an American gastronome and prolific author absolutely preoccupied with food; she’s considered the creator of food writing as a specific genre. Her writing is full of an immense love of life, art and the joy of food; eating it, preparing it, growing it, travelling vast distances to find it, and sharing it; all without a trace of the food snobbism that infuses such a lot of later writing on the subject. Her style is so conversational and so engaging that to read her can feel like sitting over a pot of tea and gingerbread (or a bottle of champagne and some oysters), nattering away as you chew. Five of her very best books of essays: Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets, are collected in this fat 50th anniversary edition. Unfortunately, and unconscionably, the book is out of print in the UK, but second-hand copies are still to be had for a sensible price on Amazon Marketplace in hard- and soft-back editions. If the book-lover in your life cares more about what’s inside the covers (as she should) than whether the corners are a bit bent, she’ll thank you for this. It’s a book to be dipped into – a wonderful bedside companion, with occasional trips down to the kitchen to try out some of the recipes scattered through it.
Here are Mary Frances’ opening paragraphs on snails. How could you not want to spend 750 pages in this lady’s company?
I have eaten several strange things since I was twelve, and I shall be glad to taste broiled locusts and swallow a live fish. But unless I change very much, I shall never be able to eat a slug. My stomach jumps alarmingly at the thought of it.
I have tried to be callous about slugs. I have tried to picture the beauty of their primeval movements before a fast camera, and I have forced myself to read in the Encyclopaedia Britannica the harmless ingredients of their oozy bodies. Nothing helps. I have a horror, deep in my marrow, of everything about them. Slugs are awful, slugs are things from the edges of insanity, and I am afraid of slugs and all their attributes.
But I like snails. Most people like snails.
Forgotten Skills of Cooking I bought Darina Allen’s latest book after spending the afternoon with her back in October; it’s the only book in this list to be published this year. Your gift recipient probably has a few shelves groaning under the weight of cookery books, many of them full of broadly similar recipes and techniques. He is very unlikely to have anything like this one. Forgotten Skills is full of the recipes your great-grandmother was making before mechanisation and processing; here, you’ll learn to make your own butter, yoghurt, black pudding, gorse wine, preserved meats, smoked fish, cheeses – it’s by far the most exciting cookery book I’ve seen this year, and deservedly won 2010’s André Simon prize. There’s more to this book than recipes; you’ll learn about raising chickens; building smokers; judging the tenderness of a freshly shot bunny; and jointing, trussing, boning and plenty of other butchery and husbandry skills.
The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate Jeffrey Steingarten’s writing was, back in 2005, one of the things that encouraged me to move away from educational publishing and start writing about food instead; here was someone treating food writing in a way which somehow achieved the magic combination of being blithe and hilariously funny at the same time as being considered and near-scholarly. He was American Vogue’s food correspondent, and his lucid, witty and punctilious approach to eating is a joy. “I like salad, eaten in moderation like bacon or chocolate, about twice a week.” Here, you’ll inhale the fumes of carbonised pizza through Steingarten’s pages as he tries to hack his home oven to reach the temperatures of a commercial pizza oven; learn that the air in Alsace is “as crisp as bacon and as sweet as liver sausage”; discover exactly what Joël Robuchon’s recipe for chips is; and find yourself in possession of useful photocopiable pages on Venetian seafood vocabulary for your next holiday. These books are cheering, life-enhancing and, for the committed foodie, almost as much fun as eating. Buy yourself a copy too.
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking Michael Ruhlman’s little book is based on a very simple premise: that of the chef’s database. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant kitchen you’ll probably be familiar with the giant spreadsheet which tots up food costs, helps with menu planning, sub-dishes and aids in ordering. The useful part of such a database for the home cook, and the part that Ruhlman is concerned with here, is the breakdown of basic recipes – cake batters, bread doughs, all kinds of pastry, cookie and biscuit and so forth – into the ratios of ingredients that go to make them up. Adjust the ratios, and your bread dough becomes a pasta dough; your set custard a crème Anglaise. Alongside the elemental recipes you’ll find examples of ways to expand them (so that set custard and a pastry dough become a fine asparagus quiche), with encouragement to expand on these ideas and experiment yourself. It’s a very useful little book that lives on my desk rather than in the kitchen.
Ruhlman’s webpage points you at the inevitable iPhone app associated with the book. I haven’t played with it yet, but it looks jolly if you are not the sort to get upset about a phone caked in batter.
They Can’t Ration These This book is for the forager in your life, who should already own Richard Mabey’s little pocket-sized Collins Gem edition of Food for Free (only £2.50 on Amazon at the time of writing – go and grab a copy). The Vicomte de Mauduit was writing in the Second World War, when foraging had become something of a necessity rather than the jolly middle-class weekend yomping exercise it is these days. (And no bad thing, that; as the Vicomte says, “And when Peace will again come on Earth, the people of Britain, already made conscious through food rationing that meals no longer consist of a hot and then cold “joint with two veg”, will find this book a practical and valuable guide to better things”.) The recipes and foraging tips are alternately delicate and delicious-sounding – faux-capers made from nasturtium buds, beechnut butter, the tips of hops treated like asparagus – and the sort of thing that you would only go near in extremis; the starling, frog and hedgehog recipes can probably be left well alone in these fat years of the 21st century. I am depressed to learn that Mauduit was captured by the Nazis after the fall of France, and disappeared in Germany; I hope he’s looking down on us from whatever cloud Sydney Smith and his trumpets are parked on, stuffing his face with foie gras accompanied by those lovely-sounding nasturtium buds and some rowan jelly.
This is a simply beautiful edition from the Persephone Press, whose output is really worth getting to know if you love books. It’s one of those books as lovely to look at and handle as it is to read. I was particularly taken with the endpapers (when do you ever have occasion to say that?), which are absolutely in the spirit of the rest of the book, taken from a fabric design in potato-print made on sugar paper in paint from 1940.
The Oxford Companion to Food My lovely mother-in-law gave me a copy of this hefty encyclopaedia of food earlier this year, and I’ve been dibbling in and out of it ever since. Unusually for a reference book, this is an occasionally opinionated and often very funny treatment of its subject; it’s also exhaustive and enjoyably comprehensive. Did you know that the long bones of the giraffe do not yield good marrow, or that its tongue is the only eatable part of the beast? That the mahseer is the most famous angling fish of India? That if you buy fish in a Finnish market, you’ll be given a free bunch of dill?
There’s something on nearly every page here which is new to me, or which I only know the barest outlines about: Babylonian cookery, an 18th century portable soup for travellers (a sort of precursor of the stock cube for the upper sets), the brief Victorian fashion for something called paper bag cookery. There’s room on everyone’s shelf for a book like this, which has the potential to entertain you just as much as it educates.
I’m back from a week at Disneyworld, where I actually lost weight, which should tell you all you need to know about the food there. Shouldn’t complain; it’s not every week you get to accompany your husband on a work trip to somewhere with rollercoasters, but there is only so much deep-fried food a girl can take. I ended up subsisting on toffee apples; a surprisingly effective weight-loss regime. More on all that in a later post; it was, after all, the Epcot Food and Wine Festival while we were there, so I do have something besides churros and overcooked steaks to write about.
Back to the matter at hand. The only recipe I’ve ever seen for Poulet Antiboise comes from Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food. In that desert-island situation that never actually happens, but that we all like to fantasise about, Elizabeth David’s are the cookery books I’d rescue from the hold of my sinking ship – and I wouldn’t use them to make fires with. That fate is reserved strictly for that useless brick of a book from Prue Leith’s cookery school.
A Book of Mediterranean Food is David’s first book, and is now available (in the link above) in a hardback edition with her next two, French Country Cooking and Summer Cooking – well worth buying rather than the paperbacks, which tend to fall to bits if you use them much in the kitchen. These books were the fruits of her period living in France, Italy and Greece, and they ooze sunshine and good times. David’s style is unlike the very didactic recipe writing, full of precise times and measurements, that everybody uses these days (usually at the insistence of those reading and cooking from the recipes – a few years ago I decided to start specifying amounts of herbs in grammes rather than handfuls or sprigs, for example, after one too many worried emails asking me precisely how much basil you can fit in a fist). Her recipes are descriptive and give a clear idea of flavour and method, but without always giving particularly precise measurements, timings or even ingredient lists; all of which should leave you, the creative cook, with a world of experimentation and enthusiastic improvisation to enjoy over each dish.
This is a gorgeous recipe, where a chicken is buried in a giant heap of softened onions in a big casserole dish, then roasted until the onions collapse and make their own sauce with the chicken’s savoury juices, and served with typically Provençal flavourings. Rather than stirring olives into the sauce and serving the lot with fried bread triangles as in David’s original recipe, I’ve made a sort of deconstructed tapenade to spread on grilled crostini, which works a treat alongside the chicken’s richness. I’ve decreased the battleship-floating amount of olive oil that you’ll find in the original, added some shallots to the mix and added cooking times, temperature and a weight for your chicken below. I followed David’s original instruction to add a tablespoon or so of cream to the sauce at the end of cooking, but I’d encourage you to taste it first and decide whether or not you think it needs it; it’s just as good if you leave it out, so it’s not made it into the ingredient list below. Some French sautéed potatoes are a great accompaniment to this dish.
To roast one chicken, you’ll need:
1 roasting chicken, about 1.5kg
6 large onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 heaped teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
10 slices from a ciabatta
5 anchovy fillets
2 heaped tablespoons capers, drained
15 black olives, stoned (I like Greek dry roasted olives that come in a jar, like Crespo, for this recipe – additionally, they’re wonderfully cheap)
100g stupendous tomato sauce or sundried tomato paste
A handful of parsley. Ha. Take that, measurement emailers.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (370ºF). Ferret around inside your chicken and remove any lumps of poultry fat, seasoning it inside with plenty of salt and pepper. Leave it to come to room temperature while you prepare the onions.
Slice the onions and shallots thinly, and sauté them with the cayenne pepper in the oil until soft but not coloured in a heavy-based pan large enough to take the chicken. I use a 29cm oval Le Creuset number which is perfect for pot-roasting a chicken. They’re pricey, but well worth asking for as a Christmas present; mine gets an awful lot of use.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the chicken, burying it upside-down in the onions, which should smother it completely. Put the lid on and roast for 90 minutes (you don’t need to check or baste the chicken while it’s cooking), by which time the chicken will be cooked through and tender, and the onions will have collapsed.
While the chicken is cooking, prepare your tapenade. Chop the capers and olives roughly. In a small frying pan, fry the anchovies with a teaspoon of olive oil, poking occasionally with a wooden spoon until they have “melted”. Add the capers and olives to the pan and sauté for a few minutes to meld the flavours. Remove to a bowl.
Grill the slices of ciabatta and shortly before serving, spread each slice with a teaspoon of tomato sauce and a teaspoon of the tapenade. Sprinkle with parsley and serve alongside the chicken.
The recipe below is one I was walked through by Paul Flynn during our food bloggers’ weekend in Ireland. Paul has been called Ireland’s greatest living chef (“I don’t know who the dead ones are,” he says). As Nico Ladenis’ head chef back in London, he collected a positive galaxy of Michelin stars; and it was a surprise to everybody when he upped sticks and returned to Ireland, eventually settling back in his quiet hometown of Dungarvan to open his own restaurant with his wife Maire.
That restaurant, the Tannery, has been running for ten years now, and these days also supports a cookery school bristling with technology (Paul says that shortly, you’ll be able to stream video of lessons you’ve participated in over the internet), a rambling kitchen garden, supplying all the restaurant’s vegetables and herbs, that overlooks Paul’s old primary school (coincidentally, also the primary school of Niamh from Eat Like a Girl – there must be something in the water), and the Tannery Townhouse, a pretty little boutique hotel around the corner from the restaurant. We visited the cookery school for a lunch demonstration – there’s nothing like watching a chef like Paul Flynn prepare your dinner to work up the old appetite – the fruits of which we later got to empty down our throats like starving baby birds.
I don’t usually get a lot out of cookery lessons; it is annoying to be taught not just how to suck eggs but also how to separate and whisk them when you’ve been doing it for years. Paul’s great, though, tailoring classes to the skills level of his students without an iota of condescension, and I really enjoyed our few hours in the kitchen. Classes vary in length from the five-day, hands-on courses to evening demonstrations where a group can watch as Paul talks them through a three-course meal.
The recipe below is for oatcakes with spiced plums, and despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of its four elements, it absolutely blew me away on the day. You know those Prince Charles oatcakes from Dutchy Originals? The ones that taste a bit like salty cardboard? These are absolutely nothing like that. Creaming the butter and sugar together until the mixture is white and fluffy, then resting the dough (this is important – it needs to be very firmly chilled) in the fridge for several hours results in an almost shortbread-like texture, with a gloriously nutty flavour from the oats. These little oatcakes are very easy to put together, and the dough, uncooked, freezes very well, so it’s worth making a large batch and taking sticks of the dough out so you can cook some oatcakes fresh whenever you want some. As well as matching effortlessly with these plums, the oatcakes are beyond fabulous with a nice salty cheese. Over to Paul for the recipe (and thanks to Tourism Ireland for the two group photos):
Cream the butter and sugar together, then add the flour and oatflakes. Roll into sausage shapes, wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge. Cut into 1cm thick discs and place on a baking tray. Bake in 150ºC oven for 15 minutes.
Mix the cream and milk. Bring to the boil with the ginger. Whisk the sugar and egg yolks together. Add the boiling milk and cream to the sugar and egg mixture. Bring back up over a medium heat, stirring all the time until the custard starts to thicken. Strain and allow to cool and when cold, churn in an ice cream machine.
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
1 heaped tablespoon golden caster sugar
Bring apples to the boil with the sugar and stew gently until they start to break down and the juices start to flow. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Spiced roasted plums
Allow 2 per person, cut in half
To make the spiced butter:
100g soft butter
½ tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon golden caster sugar
Combine the butter with the allspice and sugar and roll into a sausage shape and chill. To serve, cut a thin slice of butter and place on the plums, and place under a hot grill until bubbling.
To put the dish together, spoon some of the compote onto the oatcakes, and top with plum halves. Serve with a dollop of ginger ice cream.
I’d been invited back to the Royal Horseguards Hotel (0871 376 9033) in Westminster yesterday to try pastry chef Joanne Todd’s latest bit of afternoon tea whimsy. You might remember the beautiful Wimbledon afternoon tea she confected in the summer, served out on the hotel’s terrace by the Thames. Now the nights are closing in, tea is served by a roaring fire in the hotel lounge, a harpist around the corner belting out oddly incongruous Andrew Lloyd Webber hits.
Joanne’s fast becoming one of my favourite pâtissiers in London. Both of the teas I’ve tried have been well-balanced for sweetness and texture, full of seasonal flavour (elderflower and strawberries in the summer, mulled wine and chestnuts for November), and so full of character, charm and humour that it seems a shame to eat them. Almost. Witness the white chocolate truffles from yesterday’s tea, flavoured with a little chilli and popping candy, and styled to look like a tiny cherry bomb. A shot of hot chocolate, thick with malt, had a couple of marshmallows in it on a stick for toasting – and there was an indoor firework/candle arrangement to toast them on.
“I wanted a really big one that sort of shot flames out of the top,” said Joanne, “but the hotel maintenance people weren’t too happy about the idea.” She looked ruefully at the spotless white ceiling with its architraving, and the handsome soft furnishings and tasselled curtains.
Much as I would have enjoyed a Roman Candle sticking out of my tea, the excellent little sparkling candles more than did the job. Here was a shot of boozy mulled wine jelly with a topping of cinnamon crème pâtissière I could have happily swum in; that most surprising of things, a roast chestnut cupcake where the icing/cake balance was absolutely correct – not too sweet, not too stodgy – with a barking mad but delicious parsnip crisp sticking out of the top; and one of Joanne’s gorgeously toothsome macaroons, this time flavoured with gunpowder tea and decorated with a little nugget of the same.
My favourite were the mini toffee apples. Looking a little like very fat, handsome olives, they were actually a skin of marzipan covered with a sticky, appley glaze. Wrapped up inside was a juicy little spoonful of caramel apple compote – hopelessly good. I could have eaten ten. Lapsang Souchong, being smoked, is the obvious tea to drink with this spread, but you can choose from a large selection of loose teas.
The tea finishes up with a plate of enormous scones (two each), jams and a giant football of clotted cream to anoint them with, and finger sandwiches in good old-fashioned English flavours – cucumber, egg and cress, smoked salmon and ham. If you can’t face the 50-yard waddle to Embankment tube station, they’ll call you a cab. After a tea this size, I don’t think you’re going to be fitting down any Parliamentary tunnels with barrels of gunpowder any time soon.
The Guy Fawkes Afternoon Tea runs until November 7, and costs £28 per person. Joanne has something special up her sleeve for a Christmas tea in December too, and that event will be running all month – book a table while you can!