Frozen foods

I was struck full of doubt and uncertainty when sent some vouchers by McCain, the frozen foods people. They wanted me to try their new McCain Gourmet range (I should point out that no money changed hands here, just a small envelope of vouchers), and I will admit that on receiving the first in what became a series of emails, I sat back at my desk and spent a couple of minutes scoffing loudly. After all – what comes to your mind when you think about McCain? Oven chips…OK, I buy oven chips now and then when I’m feeling lazy, and they’re pleasant, but not as good as the chips I make myself. Those grotesque smiley face reformed potato things that, alongside Turkey Twizzlers, formed the core of Jamie Oliver’s recent school dinners crusade are a McCain product. McCain also make those microwave pizzas, the potato croquettes I used to hide in my pockets rather than eat at school, and deep-fried mashed potato numerals for those who are using their supper to teach their children how to add. I marched to the supermarket, vouchers in hand, prepared to heartily dislike everything in the new range and ready to write something blistering after eating it.

But something curious has been happening to frozen foods in the UK recently. There’s much more emphasis in the ads we see on TV about the lack of preservatives and artificial ingredients in frozen products, especially since the fat-tongued one took on school dinners. Giles Coren, a food critic I like and respect, who takes food sourcing and sustainability very seriously, has been popping up advertising Birds Eye. This feels a bit like Sister Wendy advertising Ann Summers. His advertisements are all about freshness, quality and purity of ingredients, and responsible fishing and farming. McCain themselves have recently rolled out a new ad campaign (‘It’s all good‘), emphasising that they use small amounts of healthy fats, remove artificial additives wherever possible and use traffic light symbols to show how much fat, salt and other artery-clogging deliciousness is in each product. They’re also keen to point out that all the potatoes in their British products are British potatoes, so food miles are kept down.

The new McCain Gourmet range exemplifies the new approach. I was amazed on picking up a pack of Cheddar and Mustard Gratin from the freezer cabinet to read the ingredients list. The little metal dish contains potatoes; a mornay sauce made like I’d make it at home from whipping cream, butter, cheddar and wholegrain mustard; a sprinkling of cheese…and nothing else. What’s more, it tasted delicious and did not involve any interaction with my mandoline (a much loved but also much feared kitchen implement).

There followed a frenzied trawl through the whole range. My vouchers ran out after I’d tried the Potato Crumble with Four Cheeses (gorgeous Mascarpone, Danish blue, Cheddar and Grana Padano, topped with crisp breadcrumbs) and the Diced Potato with Leek and Parmesan, but by this point I’d been so thoroughly impressed that I bought the rest of the range as well. The Baby Potatoes with Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic are wonderfully, smokily garlicky; the Diced Potatoes with Tomatoes and Mixed Peppers were probably my least favourite of the lot, but I suspect this is because by this point I’d become addicted to creamy, cheesy sauces. You can buy your own to try at most UK supermarkets. The packs all weigh in at 400g and cost £1.89.

McCain, I’m sorry I imagined you were solely a purveyor of unspeakable fats and starches to schoolchildren. I eat humble (potato) pie. Keep producing stuff like this, and I’ll keep buying it. I’m lucky enough to enjoy cooking, so I don’t really mind spending an hour making a gratin from scratch, but when I can buy something this easy, this quick and this full of good, healthy, delicious things, I will occasionally consider spending that hour lying on my back in the garden with a glass of wine and feeling good about the world.

One-dish roast chicken, potatoes and accompaniments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garlic mashed potatoes

I love mashed potatoes, and I love garlic. Put the two together, and you’ve got the perfect starch to accompany a roast chicken, a steak or – pish! – whatever protein you fancy.

The garlic mash you’ll find in some restaurants is a bit questionable. Some places skimp, and use powdered garlic, which is a total disaster, leaving the dish tasting musty and somehow unpleasantly acidic. Try making it this way at home for a much mellower, smoother taste.

You’ll need:

8 white potatoes (Desiree mash best – Maris Piper are also good)
1 whole head of garlic, peeled
2 oz butter
¼ pint milk
1 large handful freshly chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

Put the peeled potatoes and the peeled garlic in a thick-based saucepan, and cover with water. Bring the water to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain, and return the potatoes and garlic to the pan.

Mash the potatoes and garlic with the butter while you bring the milk to a simmer in a separate pan. Use a wooden spoon to beat the milk into the mashed potatoes, and then stir the finely chopped parsley through the dish with the seasoning. Serve immediately.

Rösti with bacon and onion

You’ll read some tremendously complicated recipes for rosti, involving time-consuming methods like par-boiling and cooling before you grate, quick spells in the freezer, wrapping the grated potato in a tea towel and whirling it around your head in the garden, and so on. There’s none of that in this recipe, which is extremely easy.

There’s some dispute surrounding the boiling issue – it’s true that a par-boiled potato will make your rösti absorb sauces a little better. I’ve tried both methods and have found the difference to be minute. The raw potato method is faster and results in a deliciously crisp surface, giving to the pressure of your teeth like a thin layer of ice. The potato inside is soft and yielding – delicious.

Ashkenazi Jewish latkes are a similar kind of potato cake (without bacon, for obvious reasons). Recipes for latkes and other Hannukah foods abound in Evelyn Rose’s books – I’ve just managed to find a second-hand copy of the Entertaining Cookbook at an online bookstore for a quarter of the shudder-inducing price I’d been quoted elsewhere, so look forward to some recipes from it when it finally makes its tortured way through the Royal Mail.

I used Kestrel potatoes for these rösti. Kestrel are easy to grow in the garden, and have an excellent flavour. Be careful that whichever variety of potato you choose is a waxy-fleshed one. Don’t be alarmed by the amount of starchy liquid that comes out of your squeezed potato – you will get more than a mugful from 500g.

To serve four as an accompaniment, you’ll need:

500g Kestrel potatoes, peeled
4 rashers of bacon, chopped finely
1 small onion
3 tablespoons goose or duck fat (you can use any cooking fat with a good flavour, but goose or duck fat does create a particularly crisp surface. Bacon fat would be excellent in this, as would schmaltz.)
Salt and pepper

Grate the potatoes and onion finely. You can do this by hand, or in a food processor with a grating blade. Squeeze the grated potato and onion out, handful by handful, into a bowl and discard the juices. Mix in a large bowl with the bacon, and season.

Melt half the goose fat in a large, non-stick frying pan over a high flame, and add the grated mixture when the fat is sizzling hot. Pack the potatoes down into the pan firmly to create a dense cake, and turn the hob down to a medium heat for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, you’ll notice a change in the shreds of potato on the surface, which will now be transluscent and glossy. Take a large dinner plate and, using oven gloves, place it upside down on top of the frying pan. Turn the pan and plate arrangement upside down, so the rösti is neatly turned out onto the plate. Melt the rest of the fat in the pan, slide the rösti back in (the cooked side will be facing you) and leave for another 20 minutes.

This was delicious with a roast chicken, soaking up the buttery juices beautifully. Experiment with your rösti – try adding a grated apple, cheese, or fresh herbs. If there are only two of you, try making this larger amount and eat the remainder cold for lunch the next day.

Perfect mashed potatoes

Update, Feb 2008: Lots of people have asked me if you can freeze mashed potatoes. The answer’s complicated – mash will freeze, but it won’t be as good as it was fresh (it tends to change texture in a watery direction and lose some of its flavour). However (there’s always a however), if you want to have some spare mash kicking around to top shepherd’s pie, thicken soups or use as a base for fishcakes, it’s worth freezing individual portions to use in these recipes if you have some left over. Heat the portions for a while in a saucepan once defrosted to evaporate out some of the water before using.

Mashed potatoes are probably my favourite comfort food. One of my earliest memories is that of my mother coaxing me away from the brink of death by measles with plain mashed potatoes and a little gravy. The mashed potatoes I dream about are not mashed potatoes spiked with mustard or garlic; no pesto colours them bright green for me. I like my mashed potatoes spiced gently with black pepper and nutmeg, and with plenty of salt. Some cooks will tell you to use white pepper for aesthetic reasons; I see nothing wrong with a few black specks in my mash, especially given that freshly ground black pepper tastes so much better in this dish than white does.

The potato you choose is important. Potato varieties can be split into two groups – waxy and floury. Waxy potatoes keep their shape well when cooked and are excellent in gratins – they remain quite moist when cooked. A floury potato cooks to a drier, more fluffy finish, doesn’t hold its shape well, and should be your potato of choice for mashing.

My great-grandma used to mash potatoes to lump-free perfection with a fork. God knows how. I use a bog-standard potato masher. Excellent results can be reliably achieved with a potato ricer, which sort of extrudes the cooked potato through tiny holes. Regular readers will know that I’m always chary about buying single-use devices, so I stick to my masher, which also gets used for other generalised vegetable-squashing tasks.

Whatever you do, don’t use a food processor. I am not quite sure about the physics behind this, but any high-intensity processing of the sort you get with a Magimix makes the potatoes very slimy and not very appetising.

King Edwards, Saxon, Estime or Nadine potatoes all mash well; they’re floury and flavourful. The technique is all-important; whipping scalding hot milk into your dry mash will make the mixture silky and fluffy, and a large knob of butter adds richness. To serve four, you’ll need:

700g potatoes, peeled and cut into evenly sized chunks
¼ pint full cream milk
1 large knob butter
Salt and pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Simmer the potatoes in boiling water with the lid on for about 20 minutes, until you can easily push a knife through the centre of one. Drain and return to the pan, and put down somewhere warm with the lid on for five minutes while you bring the milk up to a gentle simmer. Drop the butter into the middle of the pan with the salt, generous grindings of pepper and some freshly ground nutmeg, and mash vigorously until there are no lumps. (You’ll find the potatoes are best with a surprisingly large amount of salt, but I like potatoes better than my arteries.)

Hold the milk pan in your left hand and a wooden spoon in your right, and pour the milk into the mashed potatoes in a thin stream, beating it in with the wooden spoon. Serve immediately – these will be the creamiest, most delicate mashed potatoes you’ve ever eaten. If you’ve any left over, keep them in the fridge and make fishcakes tomorrow.

Roast new potatoes with sweet onion

A comment the other day complained that English potatoes are sweet and powdery things, not worth cooking with. I beg to differ; six months of living and cooking in Paris convinced me that the English potato is a glorious beast, not bettered anywhere in the world. No American or Asian potato has yet made me think otherwise.

Tiny, young new potatoes are just appearing in the shops now; they’re dense, they’re waxy and there’s nothing sweet or powdery about them. They’ve a delicate and delicious taste. When the Jersey Royals appear in April, I’ll be steaming them in their papery skins with a little tarragon, and dipping them in home-made Hollandaise. The new potatoes in shops at the moment also steam deliciously, but it’s worth trying this recipe to bathe them with the sweet, sticky roasting juices from a couple of onions. No garlic in this one; you want the flavour of the onions to sing on its own. Anchovies give this side dish a deep and remarkably non-fishy background which complements the onion flavour; if you are an anchovy-hater (shame on you), leave them out. You’ll need:

500g new potatoes
2 large onions
Salt (I used Steenbergs’ Perfect Salt, which also contains some dried herbs)
3 anchovies
2 tablespoons olive oil or duck/goose fat

Halve the potatoes and drop them into boiling water for eight minutes. Drain and transfer to a baking tray. Quarter the onions and separate each quarter into layers. Mix the potatoes, onions, anchovies, salt, pepper and fat well and put in an oven at 180°C for 45 minutes, or until everything is golden and fragrant.

Crisp sauteed potatoes with speck

King Edward potatoes are in the shops at the moment; they’re my very favourite potato for frying and roasting flavour and texture. Extremely floury, they roast and saute to a beautiful crisp, and they also mash beautifully.

Speck is a smoked, raw ham from northern Italy. It can be eaten raw like prosciutto, but it also cooks to a glassy crispiness like a very superior bacon. It’s usually in the delicatessen section of the supermarket; one small pack is plenty in this dish.

To serve two, you’ll need:

6 King Edward potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
6 slices Speck
2 tablespoons duck or goose fat
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

Simmer the potatoes for ten minutes, until they are soft enough to push a knife through. Melt the fat in a large saute pan, and throw in the potatoes and Speck. Saute over a medium heat for twenty minutes, turning regularly until the potatoes are crusty and brown and the Speck is frizzled and crisp.

Stir in the parsley, salt and pepper away from the heat and serve immediately.

The duck or goose fat is important here. No other fat I’ve tried (it should be noted that Jeffrey Steingarten has a soft spot for horse fat – sadly unavailable in the UK) will result in the friable golden crisp that duck or goose fat gives. If you’ve made your own by roasting a duck and draining the tray, so much the better; the fat will be flavourful and will carry the scent of all the herbs and garlic you cooked the duck with.


Please do not serve this to people on diets.

Tartiflette is a dish from the Savoy region of France, where they take their dairy products very, very seriously. Despite its extreme good looks and fantastic taste, it’s not actually a traditional recipe – it was invented in the 1980s by the union of Reblochon cheesemakers as a way to popularise the cheese. Since then, it’s become popular throughout the region, and different recipes have proliferated. This is my take on it.

At heart, and as the Reblochon cheesemakers intended, this is an absurdly creamy potato gratin with a whole cheese sitting on top of it. The nutmeg and thyme in here make the cheese sing, the rich Marsala makes the cream a velvety thing of beauty, and the sweet shallots and salty, smoked bacon infuse the whole dish. Serve with a salad and some crusty bread. (The salad is there so you can pretend you’re eating healthily.)

Reblochon is hard to come by here, so I have used a Camembert. You can use any soft, washed-rinded, reasonably stinky cheese (an Epoisse would work equally well). To serve two for supper, with enough for lunch tomorrow, you’ll need:

8 potatoes (I used Vivaldi, which are firm and creamy when cooked)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 pint crème fraîche
12 rashers smoked streaky bacon
6 shallots
½ wine glass Marsala
1 Camembert
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Chop the shallots into small dice, and cut the bacon into dice the same size. Saute in a little butter until the shallots are sweet and the bacon browning at the edges. Set aside. Peel the potatoes and slice them as thin as you can. (My new mandoline has made this the work of a couple of minutes, and I’m yet to injure myself on it, so I’m still recommending you go straight to the cookware shop and buy one. A plastic Japanese one is very inexpensive – mine was £5 – and works splendidly.) Arrange one overlapping layer of potato slices in the bottom of a heavy baking dish which you have buttered generously, then sprinkle over the thyme, a grating of nutmeg and half of the crushed garlic. Scatter over half of the bacon and shallot mixture, then spread half the crème fraîche over the top. Repeat with another layer, then put a final potato lid on the top.

Slice the cheese in half along its equator, and cut each half into quarters. Arrange the pieces on top of the dish. Pour the Marsala over the dish, dot with butter, season (don’t use too much salt – you’ll get plenty from the bacon and the salty cheese) and bake in the hot oven for an hour, or a little longer – test to make sure that the potatoes are tender. It’s advisable to put a tray under the dish to catch any drips.

This is very rich. Make sure your salad has a tart dressing to offset the extreme creaminess of it all, and dig in.

Smoked mackerel gratin

At work, my lunchtimes are regularly spent gossiping with friends over a pub baked potato. There is nothing wrong with baked potatoes; indeed, a baked potato can be a thing of wonder (something I hope to demonstrate in the coming weeks). The pub baked potato, however, is a sad, microwaved thing, whose cheese has been melted under heat-lamps as it waits to be served. More often than not, this means that the salad which has been shoved on the side of the plate is melting too.

Salads shouldn’t melt.

So. It’s time to rehabilitate the potato.

I love gratins; especially at this time of the year, when it’s getting cold, there is nothing nicer than lovely, starchy potato which has absorbed its own weight in scented milk and cream. You can make a whole meal of a gratin by adding extras – I had some smoked mackerel from Spinks in the fridge. A mackerel gratin is just the thing to start me feeling good about potatoes again.

I start out by infusing 240ml of milk with some thyme, a bay leaf and some parsley from the garden. This is a great application for the woody flowering tops of the parsley I can’t use to garnish (and which I should remove to make the leafy part of the plant more bushy). They’re very fragrant, and are perfect for this. I also add some celery leaves from the centre of a bundle in the fridge, a crushed clove of garlic, a clove, three peppercorns, a quartered shallot and some salt. The milk comes to a simmer and is taken off the heat while I slice the potatoes.

It’s important to slice the potatoes very thin. I wish I had a mandoline – a device to slice vegetables very evenly, and very thin. I make a mental note to go to the kitchen shop soon.

Slicing the potatoes thinly increases the surface area that’ll be exposed to the wet ingredients, and so increases the starchyness of your finished gratin (your sauce will be thicker); it’ll also result in a crisper finish. I layer them in a thick-bottomed, enamel dish, which has been buttered to within an inch of its life. One fillet of smoked mackerel goes on top of this, flaked, and then a final layer of potato goes on top.

I strain the infused milk through a sieve, then add 350ml of double cream to the herbs and spices that are left in the sieve, and simmer that on the stove too. The potatoes, fish and fragrant milk are covered with tin foil and put in an oven preheated to 220c. (Yes, I know I have sloshed milk all over the counter. And everything looks strangely glaucous because the light in my kitchen is atrocious and I have to use the flash.)

The house begins to smell very, very good.

Once the cream has come to a simmer, I remove it from the heat, and strain it into a jug with a tablespoon of grainy Dijon mustard. Twenty minutes later, most of the milk has been absorbed into the potatoes. I pour over the cream, sprinkle a little finely grated parmesan over the top, dot with butter and return the dish to the oven, without the tin foil. (I love my Microplane grater; I spent years sweating over grating solid chunks of parmesan, but I got a Microplane after I saw one being used in an Italian restaurant and asked what it was. It also does a beautiful job of pulping garlic and ginger.) I’m careful not to add too much parmesan; it’s there to flavour, not smother.

The gratin sits in the oven for another 25 minutes. When it comes out it is crisp and golden, and the creamy sauce is bubbling gently between the slices; the underside is golden too, and there is a soft, smoky layer of unctuous, creamy potato and mackerel in the middle.

This is how autumn food is meant to be.

Thankfully, I do not own a heat lamp, so the (bagged) salad is crisp and does not go wet and stinky on me.

Those particularly interested in the lore of the gratin, and the reasons for the wonderful, lactic taste that all of this messing around with potatoes and cream produces, should go directly to Amazon and buy everything Jeffrey Steingarten has ever written. This will not only inform you in wonderful, systematising detail about the miracle that occurs in your gratin dish, but will keep you implausibly happy in the bath for as long as it takes you to read it all, and then for the half hour (turn the hot tap on at this point; things will be getting a little clammy) it takes you to bemoan the fact that there isn’t a third volume.