Stuffed focaccia with mozzarella, artichokes and smoked ham

Oozy, garlicky, herby, smoky and greasy. What’s not to like? Focaccia is the ideal bread to make this sort of baked sandwich from. It’s oily, so it bakes to a gorgeous crisp, and it’s a relatively flat bread, so works well sliced in two horizontally. I like to make my own focaccia (the feeling of an oil-enriched dough, stretchy, silky and puffy with yeast is obscenely – there’s no other word for it – tactile against your palms), but this should work very well with a bought one.

To serve four at an al-fresco lunch (with other nibbles) you’ll need:

1 focaccia
2 balls mozzarella di bufala
150g char-grilled artichoke hearts in olive oil
½ jar sun-dried red peppers in olive oil
12 slices raw smoked ham (I like Waitrose’s prosciutto affumato)
1 fat clove garlic
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 handful oregano, chopped
1 handful tarragon, chopped
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Slice the mozzarella and the artichoke hearts into pieces about ½ cm thick, and put in a mixing bowl. Add the sun-dried peppers, the ham, the garlic, crushed, the herbs, the zest and juice of the lemon and the olive oil with a good grating of pepper (no salt), and mix well so everything is coated with the oil and lemon juice. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour (or up to overnight).

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F). Use a bread knife to cut the focaccia in half carefully along its equator, creating a top and a bottom for your sandwich. Layer the ingredients on the bottom half of the bread, starting with the mozzarella, then making a layer of the artichokes, peppers and ham, which you can tear into pieces before adding to the sandwich, if you like. Pour the marinade over the ingredients in the sandwich, sprinkle with salt to taste, and put the lid on, pressing down firmly.

Put the stuffed focaccia on a baking tray and bake for 25-30 minutes until the focaccia is golden and crusty on top, and the melting mozarella is oozing out of the sides of the sandwich. Slice and eat immediately.

Italian tuna dip

This is a lovely starter for lazy days when you’re eating outdoors. I like to dibble crudités (especially sweet batons of carrot) and good bread in this tuna dip. It’s also very good spread on toast or crostini, and, cold or warmed through, makes a good strong sauce to dollop on bland cooked fish.

Apologies for the horrendous photo – by the time I realised how rubbish this looked, the bowl had been licked clean, so there was nothing to photograph.

To serve two as a starter with crudités and bread, you’ll need:

1 small can tuna (in oil, brine or spring water), drained
2 anchovies
2 teaspoons Marsala
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 heaped teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon fennel seed
1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano
½ teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon finely chopped sage
1 teaspoon thyme
1 tablespoon finely chopped basil
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped mint
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon honey

Bash the fennel seed lightly in a pestle and mortar, and chop the herbs. Chop the anchovies very finely. Put all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix well until the dip ingredients all come together to form a rough paste. Add a little more olive oil if you prefer a looser texture, and taste for seasoning. Serve chilled as a dip or crostini topping, or warm through in a small saucepan to use as a sauce.

Roast garlic

I noticed last week that although I’ve included roast garlic as an ingredient in a few recipes here (use the search tool at the top right of the page if you want to try some when you’ve made this), I’ve never dedicated a post to it. This needs to be addressed, because roast garlic, slipped out of its skins onto crusty bread and popped straight into the mouth, still warm, is one of those things that tastebuds were invented for.

Roast garlic is at its best when you use a bulb of fresh (or ‘green’) garlic – not dried, like the papery garlic you usually buy in the supermarket, but still cream, green and pink, with flexible, cool-feeling skin. Some markets and supermarkets carry it at this time of year and also around October. I’ve seen it in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and the main market in Cambridge, so with a bit of sniffing around (it is very pungent) you should be able to find some. If it’s out of season, never fear; you can also use a dried bulb, and it will still be very good indeed. If you do use dried garlic, try to find a variety that has big, fat cloves. The Really Garlicky Company do a fantastic product, and you can sometimes order fresh garlic from them as well (currently their website says it should be ready in July). As well as mail order, they have a stockists list on the page. Their Patagonian garlic is available in my local Waitrose, and it’s a very superior bulb with huge, juicy cloves which are fragrant and easy to peel.

Picking out herbs to cook with the garlic is fun. I’ve used thyme, oregano, parsley, rosemary and bay from the garden, but you’re not limited to these. Sage is also good, and it’s worth experimenting with whatever green herbs you have to hand. The odd chilli tucked between the cloves can also be good. I’ve used butter to lubricate here, but goose or duck fat is also glorious in this dish. If you decide to use some, use 200g duck fat and 200g butter.

We are greedy when faced with roast garlic, and can get through three bulbs each with some good bread. You may find that six bulbs will happily serve three, or want to keep a couple back as an ingredient for a later recipe. To roast six bulbs you’ll need:

Six bulbs green garlic
3 bay leaves
1 small handful each fresh thyme, oregano and parsley (reserve a little parsley to garnish at the end)
3 large sprigs rosemary
250g butter
Olive oil to drizzle
Salt and pepper

Slice each bulb of garlic in half across its equator and arrange in a heavy-bottomed roasting tin, tucking the clean spices all around the garlic. Make sure some of the pieces of garlic have their cut sides in the air, and some against the roasting tin, for a lovely variation in texture and stickiness. Dot the butter all over them (I know this is a lot of fat, but you’ll thank me when you taste what’s at the bottom of the dish when you’re done cooking) and drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over to moisten any non-buttery bits. Sprinkle over salt and pepper.

Roast for 40 minutes at 180° C, opening the oven to baste the garlic with the juices three or four times. The house will smell strongly, so open a window. When the garlic is done, the ends of the cloves should be a gorgeous caramel brown. Serve the bulbs up immediately with some really good bread and a little salt for everyone to spike their own garlic with, keeping the cooking dish on the table for dipping in the juices (possibly the most delicious cooking liquid ever). You should be able to pop each clove out of its skin easily, and mash it onto the bread with the ends of a fork.

Chicken with cardamom and preserved lemons

Chicken with cardamom and preserved lemonsRemember those Moroccan preserved lemons from a few months back? They turned out very nicely indeed – salty, zingy skins infused with the scents of the spices in the jar. One of the spices I used in the preserved lemons was cardamom, and I’ve used more in this dish; along with the lemons and some flowery olive oil, it lifts and brightens the flavour of this chicken dish. Pure sunshine in a bowl – and that’s just what I feel like in dismal October. Be sure when choosing your ingredients that you use an olive oil with a good flavour.

I’ve used a box of the tiny fillets (sometimes called chicken tenders) you’ll find to one side of a chicken breast here. They’re a very easy piece of meat to work with if you’re in a hurry – no skinning or chopping necessary. To serve two, you’ll need:

450g chicken fillet pieces
3 shallots
3 tablespoons polenta or cornmeal
8 cardamom pods
1 preserved lemon
4 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil
1 handful parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper

Preserved lemonStart by scraping the pulp out of the inside of the preserved lemon (the pulp of these is too salty to eat). Dice the skin and pour over three tablespoons of the olive oil, then set aside while you prepare the rest of the meal.

Slice the shallots very finely and put them in a large bowl with the chicken. Bash the cardamom pods lightly in a mortar and pestle to crack their tough skins, then use the back of a teaspoon or a fingernail to get all the seeds out. Discard the empty pods and crush the seeds in the mortar and pestle. Mix the cardamom seeds, polenta and some salt and pepper, then sprinkle evenly over the chicken and shallots and mix well.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large sauté pan over a high flame. Tip in all the chicken mixture and sauté until crisp and brown. Remove the chicken and crispy shallots to a clean bowl and pour over the lemon and oil mixture and some parsley, tossing like a salad to mix. Serve immediately.

Tarragon cream chicken

This recipe is absurdly quick and simple – it’s good for unexpected guests because you’re likely to have most of the ingredients in the house already (and may well already find them all lurking in your fridge). It’s rich and delicious, and it only needs a salad and some crusty bread to accompany it and soak up the creamy juices.

If you can get your hands on some fresh tarragon, use that. Dried tarragon, however, is surprisingly good here. There are no similar short-cuts you can take with the parsley, though; dried parsley is useless and revolting, so you’ll have to find some fresh.

To serve three, you’ll need:

Three chicken breast fillets
3 tablespoons flour
400ml crème fraîche
3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon (or 3 teaspoons dried)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Half a lemon
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper

Chop the chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces and dust them with the flour and a little salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a sauté pan and heat it until it starts to bubble. Add the chicken to the pan and sauté until it is cooked through and starting to brown at the edges. Turn the heat down low.

Tip the crème fraîche, herbs and mustard into the pan and stir well. Bring up to a simmer and add the lemon juice and some salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning, adding a little more lemon juice if you like, and serve immediately.

Chicken Kiev

Chicken KievThis is a rather special Chicken Kiev. It has a super-crisp coating and is bursting with a garlic butter full of extra flavours. (You will notice that I am overdosing a little on saffron rice at the moment. It’s lovely with chicken dishes – just cook your rice as usual, but add a large pinch of saffron, which you’ve soaked in an eggcup of water from the kettle for twenty minutes, with the rest of the cooking water.)

The flavoured butter carefully packed inside this chicken (and balancing cheekily on top of that lovely saffron rice) is worth making in bulk and keeping in the freezer. You can slice it direct from the frozen roll and use it to melt over steaks, to baste roast chickens, to flavour couscous, to fill a baked potato, and anywhere you need rich flavour and lovely moist butteryness. If roasting the garlic for the butter is just too much faff for you, use an extra three cloves of raw garlic instead.

Use the largest chicken breasts you can find for this recipe; this will make it much easier to keep the pool of butter inside the bird until you cut it on your plate. Waitrose is currently selling a chicken called the Poulet d’Or – a massive and delicious behemoth of a bird which grows slowly (and ethically, at Leckford Farm, an enterprise owned by Waitrose’s parent company) – it’s fed an organic, corn-rich diet, allowed to forage and roam free, and is slaughtered at around 90 days rather than the usual four weeks. It’s a big bird, but it’s tender and extremely flavourful – I’ve read comparisons to Poulet de Bresse, and for special occasions I will be very happy to spend the £12 again on two breasts. (A whole bird comes in at about twice that price, but I’d estimate that it would very happily feed six people, so the effective price is high but not unreasonable.)

To make half a pound of garlic and herb butter, and two Chicken Kievs, you’ll need:

Garlic and herb butter
1 pat of good, salted butter (2 sticks in America), plus a tablespoon of butter to roast the garlic
1 head of garlic (to roast)
3 cloves of garlic (to be kept raw)
2 bay leaves
1 large sprig thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil (leave this out if you can’t find any)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 fresh red chilli
½ teaspoon paprika
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon light soya sauce
Large pinch of salt

2 large chicken breasts, skinned and boned
Crumbs from two slices of white bread (blend in a food processor to make crumbs)
An equal volume of polenta or cornmeal
5 tablespoons grated parmesan
4 extra tablespoons polenta or cornmeal
2 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon chilli flakes

Start by roasting the garlic for the butter. Slice the bulb of garlic in half across its equator and put the tablespoon of butter, the bay leaves and the thyme on the cut side of the bottom half, seasoning generously. Place the top half of the garlic bulb on top, making a herby sandwich. Roast at 180° C for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

Pop the soft, roast cloves of garlic out into the food processor, and add the raw garlic; the tarragon, parsley, chervil and basil; the chilli and paprika; the lemon zest and juice; and the soya sauce. Drop in the half pound of butter and blend until everything is amalgamated and finely chopped into the butter.

Make a long sausage of the flavoured butter on a piece of tin foil. Wrap tightly and place in the freezer for at least an hour.

Breading mixtureWhen the butter has chilled, start on the chicken. Begin by combining the breadcrumbs and an equal volume of polenta in one bowl with the parmesan and chilli flakes. Put the four tablespoons of polenta in a separate bowl, and beat the eggs in a final bowl.

Take your smallest knife. Sharpen it vigorously. Use it to make a slit down the side of one chicken breast, creating a pocket inside the muscle. Be very careful not to cut all the way through. Remove the little fillet strip from underneath the breast and set it to one side.

Slice a disc of butter from the frozen butter sausage and tuck it inside the pocket. You may be able to fit more than one disc in, but be careful not to overstuff the breast, or the butter will leak out in cooking. If the butter sticks out at all, just trim it carefully so it’s firmly inside the meaty pocket.

Dip the fillet strip in the polenta, then back in the egg. Dip the chicken breast in the polenta, then the egg, and sprinkle the area where the slit is with a bit of extra polenta. Use the polenta and egg to glue the fillet strip around the slit. Roll the whole sticky assembly in the breadcrumbs mixture, patting plenty on around the slit/fillet area to make a good seal and ensuring everything is covered well. Repeat the process with the other breast.

Heat two tablespoons of butter and two of olive oil in a heavy, large frying pan. Bring the pan to a high temperature and carefully slide the chicken pieces in, slit/fillet area facing down. Turn the heat down to just below medium and leave the chicken breasts for 15 minutes, without poking or moving. After 15 minutes, flip them over (the bottoms will have turned an amazing golden crisp) and leave for another 15 minutes. Serve immediately. The melted butter will have formed a delicious pool inside the chicken breasts, and will pool out when you slice into the meat with your knife. Make sure you have plenty of rice to soak it all up.

Pasta with anchovy crumbs and gremolata

A great no-money recipe for the end of the month, when all the money has gone on beer and skittles. You probably have all these ingredients in the storecupboard already. This is a fiercely savoury dish, where the contrasting textures of crisply fried anchovy breadcrumbs and the soft pasta come together to make something really special.

Gremolata is a bit like a salsa verde – a finely-chopped Italian mixture of herbs, lemon zest and something sharp like capers. It’s delicious with meats, and I love it with this pasta, where its freshness lifts the richness of the crumbs and infused oil.

It’s important that you choose a good, well-flavoured olive oil for this recipe. Although it is tempting to use the oil you fried the crumbs in for infusing the garlic and chilli, it’s best to use fresh extra-virgin olive oil instead. The heat that the breadcrumbs oil is subject to over the cooking period will change its flavour slightly, and you’ll find you achieve a much fresher, more aromatic flavour from the infusing oil if you use a fresh batch and only allow it to warm gently.

To serve two you’ll need:

2 slices white bread
8 anchovy fillets
4 fat cloves garlic
4 dried chillies
1 small handful parsley
1 small handful basil
Zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons capers
2 servings of your favourite pasta
Parmesan cheese to taste
Salt and pepper
Plenty of olive oil

Put the bread in the food processor and whizz until you’ve got coarse breadcrumbs. In a large frying pan, fry the anchovies in about half a centimetre of olive oil until they ‘melt’ and come to pieces. Add the breadcrumbs to the pan, stir them well to combine them with the anchovies, and add more olive oil to the pan until the breadcrumbs are just covered. (Don’t worry; we’ll be draining this oil later.) At this point, the contents of the pan will look like a wet mess. Turn the heat to medium and leave, stirring every minute or so: gradually the wet mess will turn into golden, crisp, anchovy flavoured crumbs (10-15 minutes). Turn the oil and breadcrumbs into a sieve and leave the sieve over a bowl for ten minutes for as much oil to drain out as possible.

While the crumbs are cooking, prepare the infused oil by crushing the garlic and frying it gently in a little olive oil until it releases its scent (about thirty seconds). Remove from the heat and add half a wine glass of extra-virgin olive oil to the pan. Bash the chillies in a mortar and pestle until they are flaked and add them to the oil. Return the pan to the heat and warm the oil gently, then leave it in a warm place to infuse until the pasta is ready to be served.

To prepare the gremolata, chop the herbs finely, and mix with the lemon zest and chopped capers in a small bowl. This is one of the rare occasions where I prefer capers preserved in a briny vinegar to the salted kind – use whatever you have to hand.

Cook the pasta as usual, drain and return to the pan you cooked it in. Pour over the garlic and chilli oil, then spoon into serving bowls. Dress generously with the crumbs and gremolata, check for seasoning, and serve with lots of parmesan cheese to grate over.

Minted chicken stir-fry

Summer’s here, and my herb garden’s doing really well. When we moved here a couple of years ago, we found an abandoned butler sink in the garden. While they look lovely in the kitchen, I wouldn’t want one in the house; they’re much less practical than a double sink with a waste disposal unit, and it’s surprisingly easy to drop and break crockery in an something as deep as a butler sink. We used it as a herb trough instead – it’s just the right size, comes with instant drainage (the plug hole), fits nicely into the space by the back door, and you can get a good depth of compost in there.

Mint (back left in the photo) is a herb that I only ever plant in containers, because if it gets going in the garden it spreads and spreads and spreads until you’ve not got a garden any more, just a minty carpet. This recipe uses the fresh leaves in an unusual non-lamb application – it’s fresh, clean-tasting and an excellent hayfever season dish – the curry clears your nose out and the mint gives you something to smell. To serve four, you’ll need:

450g (1 lb) chicken breasts, cut into cubes
1 egg white
1 tablespoon cornflour
2 red peppers, cut into large dice
1 handful mange tout peas
4 cloves crushed garlic
150 ml chicken stock (a stock cube is fine here)
1 tablespoon curry paste
2 teaspoons Chinese black bean sauce
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar
1 glass Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons light soya sauce
1 small handful fresh mint leaves
Flavourless oil for stir-frying

Put the chicken pieces in a bowl with the egg white and cornflour, and leave aside for half an hour. Stir-frying chicken marinaded in this way is called velveting, and makes the meat very succulent, but if you’re in a dreadful hurry or simply out of eggs, you can leave this stage out.

Stir-fry the chicken in a very hot wok until it’s turned white and has cooked through. Remove the chicken to a plate, put some new oil in the wok and heat it up again. Stir-fry the peppers, peas and garlic for two minutes, then add all the other ingredients except the chicken and mint. Cook for another two minutes, then throw in the chicken, coating it with the sauce. Remove from the heat, add the mint, stir thoroughly to mix and serve immediately with rice.

Aubergine caviar

This eggplant caviar recipe is a great way to squeeze every ounce of flavour out of an aubergine. It’s extremely easy to make if you have a food processor (and only a little more difficult if you don’t; I used to make it when I was a student using a large knife to chop everything very finely instead). Although the amount of garlic in this recipe looks a bit alarming, the garlic in the finished dip is roasted, so it’s very mellow and sweet. You won’t find it overpowering.

Traditionally called ‘caviar’ or ‘poor man’s caviar’, this is not at all fishy, nor very similar to caviar. I think it got the name from the days when aubergines were much seedier; those seeds have a lovely texture a little (if you are imagining hard) like fish roe. Today, aubergines are usually propagated without the seeds, which many people do not enjoy.

This is a particularly good accompaniment for lamb, and it’s really, really good with yesterday’s kofta kebab. The roast aubergine has a wonderful natural sweetness, brought out by the raw parsley, which seems made to be paired with hot lamb. Try it some time.

To serve four as a mezze you’ll need:

2 large purple aubergines (eggplants)
10 fat cloves garlic
1 large bunch parsley
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut both aubergines in half lengthways. Don’t bother salting and disgorging it – the same growing techniques which have made modern aubergines near-seedless have also made sure they aren’t bitter. Peel the garlic, lay the whole cloves on the cut side of the aubergines, and wrap each aubergine half with its garlic tightly in tin foil. Bake on a sheet at 180° C for 45 minutes, until the garlic and aubergines are very soft.

Peel the skin from the aubergines and discard it. Use a food processor or very sharp knife to finely mince the garlic, aubergine flesh and parsley. Stir in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve at room temperature.

Aubergine caviar will keep in the fridge for a few days. Try it on its own on toast for a quick lunch.

Watercress soup

A friend tells me that there’s watercress growing in one of the wet bits of fen round here. I’ve been out combing the countryside and can’t find it – and my friend (who will become an ex-friend if this continues) will not tell me exactly where it is so he can eat all of it.

In the meantime, I’ve been buying my watercress in the shops and at the market. There’s plenty on sale at the moment, so head out and buy some. When you make this soup, try to find watercress with plenty of stalk – there’s a lot of flavour in the parts you wouldn’t necessarily use in a salad.

This soup is simple and delicious; it also freezes well, so you can make it in advance and bring it out when you have guests. When reheating, try not to bring it to a rolling boil – you’ll lose some of the lovely green colour if you overcook the watercress.

For a starter for four, you’ll need:

2 large bunches of watercress (about 150g)
1 large knob of butter
2 medium onions
2 medium-sized potatoes
800 ml chicken stock
150 ml double cream
Salt and pepper

Chop the onions roughly and sweat them in the butter until soft, but not coloured. Add the potatoes, chopped into medium dice and unpeeled, and keep everything moving around in the butter for five minutes until the potatoes are glistening. Pour over the stock, put the lid on the pan and bring to a gentle boil for about twenty minutes, until the potatoes are very soft.

Chop the watercress roughly (if you have any stalks left over from salads you’ve made, you can store these in the freezer until you make this soup and add these too) and add it to the pan, stirring for about a minute until the cress has turned a vivid green. Hold a bit of watercress back to garnish the soup with when you’re finished. Remove the pan from the heat and liquidise the soup in a food processor.

Return the soup to the pan and over a low heat add the cream and seasoning. This soup can be served chilled, like a Vichyssoise, but I prefer it hot from the pan with lots of crusty bread.