Spanish omelette

No apologies here, but this is not quite a Spanish omelette, or tortilla. It’s Span-ish – Spain filtered through my fridge contents.

There’s only one trick here. It’s all in the onions. You’ll need:

3 red onions, sliced finely
1 chorizo ring, sliced into coins
2 pointed peppers, sliced lengthwise into thin strips
1 large potato, cut into 2cm cubes
8 eggs, beaten gently
1 large knob butter
50g grated parmesan
Salt and pepper

Melt the butter, and put the onions in the frying pan with a large pinch of salt over a medium heat. Now go and do something else, and don’t look at them again for twenty minutes. Give them a stir. Do something else for another twenty minutes; if your house is like mine, something somewhere is crying out for a duster. Stir again, and add the potato cubes. Surf the web for the next twenty minutes (you’ll find some interesting links on the right). Stir again, this time adding the peppers.

Your onions have been sauteeing now for an hour with a little salt, which has driven lots of the liquid out of them. They will have turned soft, brown and caramelised. They will be sweet and buttery. You will have trouble not eating them straight out of the pan; restrain yourself. Better things are on the way.

Continue to saute, stirring now, for five minutes, or until the peppers have become soft. Spread the sliced chorizo evenly over the top of the pepper and onion mixure, and then pour over the beaten eggs, which you’ve grated some pepper into.

Keep the pan on the heat until only the top is wet. Sprinkle over the parmesan, and then put under a medium grill until the egg has set and the cheese is turning brown. Gorgeous red juices will be leaking from the chorizo. Slice and serve with some salad and crusty bread. This tortilla is also absolutely wonderful served cold as part of a picnic.

Mussels with creme fraiche – moules a la creme

There is something horribly primal about cooking mussels. I think it has to do with the elbow-grease you have to put in cleaning them and slaughtering any barnacles they might be hosting, hauling bits of their still-quivering little mussely bodies off, and the suspicion that the dead ones may not be dead, but merely pretending in the hope you’ll throw them back. (Sadly, these fakers are not smart enough to realise they’re 50 miles from the sea.)

I had some very good moules marinere in Wimereux, a town in northern France, in September. Each tiny mussel (smaller than the mussels you might buy to cook at home) had a pea crab living inside its gills (you can see a very graphic video of one found in a mussel here), which, although admittedly mildly creepy on first encounter (Gah! There is a tiny thing in my mussel), made the whole mussel experience about twenty times better, adding flavour and, dare I say it, texture. Lovely, leggy, crispy texture.

The mussels you can find at an English fishmonger will almost certainly be farmed, rope-grown mussels. This means that they’re not as gritty as wild mussels, but they’re also not as flavourful. On the other hand, though, you can really go to town with the flavours you cook them with, so it’s not a total dead loss.

Mussels straight out of the plastic fishmongers’ net are rather unprepossessing. They’re slimy, they have a straw-like, tough ‘beard’ attached (you’re going to have to remove this later, so pay attention), and they offer a home to a myriad of exciting barnacles and other little friends. Some will be open; rap them on the working surface. If they’re alive, they’ll shut. If they’re cracked or dead (or feigning in the hope that you are on a quayside somewhere), they’ll sit there, inert, daring you to look them in the eye. Bin them.

Run a sink of cold water, and drown the sad, live mussels. Give them a good scrub with a little brush, take the beards between your fingers, and yank them off. The larger the mussel, the harder you will have to yank. This beard is not, obviously, a beard, mussels having no weak chins to hide from lady mussels, but is a fibrous mass they grow to attach themselves securely to rocks (or in the case of these guys, ropes). When you pull it off, pull towards the shell’s hinge; you might tear apart the meat of the mussel pulling towards the open end, and this will kill them, prevent you from dealing them the unique, boiling-in-wine death you’re about to offer. The ones in the picture above are cleaned. They look a lot more appetising.

For this recipe, which serves two people, you will need:

2kg mussels, cleaned
1/2 a bottle white wine (I used a chenin blanc)
4 tablespoons creme fraiche
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 large bunch parsley
1 large bunch chives
5 shallots (or 1 large onion) chopped finely
4 cloves garlic chopped finely
1 large knob butter

Soften the shallots and garlic with the thyme and bay leaves in the melted butter over a medium heat for five minutes. Turn up the heat, then add the wine and creme fraiche. Simmer for five minutes to burn off the alcohol, and, while the wine mixture is bubbling, tip all the cleaned mussels in. Slam the lid on. The mussels, already pretty grumpy that you’ve removed a useful body part, will expire in the steam, giving their salty juices to the sauce – you don’t need to add salt yourself.

(On re-reading this, I realise it sounds positively pornographic. This is half the fun of shellfish.)

Keep the lid on for three minutes, then check the pan. Fish out as many as have opened as you can, and put them in a serving dish (I use large salad bowls – there’s a lot of shell in there). Put the lid back on and steam for three more minutes – they should now all be open. (Discard any closed ones; they were probably dead before you cooked them.) Take the mussels out, leaving the sauce in the pan. Stir the chives and parsley into the hot sauce, leave it for a minute to allow any sand or grit to settle (very unlikely, this, with rope-grown mussels) and spoon it over the open shells.

Make sure you’ve got some good bread to dip in the buttery, juicy sauce, and use your fingers to pull the satiny little mussels from their shells.

I usually end up naming some of my more recognisable mussels. Clint, the very big one with the nigh-unremovable beard, and Fifi, the teeny, beardless one with the barnacle beauty-spot, both died for my supper. It was a worthwhile sacrifice.

Babi chin – Braised pork with soy beans

Tonight, I feel like something Malaysian. Wandering around Tesco, I realise it’s my lucky day; one of my favourite cuts of meat in Chinese and Malaysian terms is pork belly, which is full of flavour (and full of fat – but where do you think that flavour comes from?), and which becomes sticky and rich when braised for a long time. (It also makes a wonderful, crackling roast, which I hope to explore in a later post.) Pork belly is not a remotely popular thing in the UK, and, absurdly, this very tasty cut is only ¬£1.50 for 160 grams. I look around at the grim women pushing joyless trolleys full of chicken nuggets and frozen pizzas, and think unrepeatably uppity thoughts. There is nothing like a Friday evening spent simmering things that smell nice, and feeling smug.

This dish uses cinnamon, which you may think of as a dessert spice. Try it with the meat in this recipe; you’ll add it at the beginning, in a paste with the onions and garlic, where it becomes beautifully aromatic. You’ll also need some black bean and garlic sauce, which is available in Chinese supermarkets, and a good five-spice powder.

Proper five-spice powder contains Szechuan peppercorns (not really a pepper, but a dried berry), star anise, cloves, fennel and more cinnamon. A good source in Cambridge is Daily Bread, a wholefood warehouse where they grind their own spices. They sell spices in containers of different sizes; little plastic bags, jam jars and enormous great sacks. (It’s a pretty inexpensive way to buy spices; if you’re in the area, give them a try. They are Christians of a slightly maniacal bent, but hey; the spices are good.)

Babi chin is another dark and rich recipe, and good for warming you from within. You’ll need the following:

1 medium onion
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon dark soya sauce
1 glass Shaoxing rice wine
3 tablespoons (half a jar) garlic black bean sauce (see photo)
2 teaspoons five spice powder
1 lb pork belly (with skin), sliced into bite-sized cubes
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced into coins
6 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked
5 spring onions, whole
Water (to cover)
1 tablespoon groundnut oil

Chop the onion and garlic as fine as possible in a blender with the cinnamon. Heat the oil and fry the onion, garlic and cinnamon mixture until golden. Add the black bean sauce, the soya sauce, the five spice powder and sugar, and stir fry for two more minutes.

Add the pork and ginger, with a glass of rice wine and enough water to barely cover it with the sauce ingredients. Stir well to mix and increase the heat under the wok to high. Boil the sauce briskly until it is thick and reduced (about fifteen minutes). Add more water (about a pint) and bring to a simmer.

Add the soaked mushrooms and the spring onions. Lower the heat under the wok, cover it and simmer, stirring occasionally until the pork is meltingly tender (aim to be able to cut it without a knife). If you feel the sauce is too thick, add a little more water. Serve with rice.

This is beautiful, glossy, and syrupy. If I were in Malaysia, I’d have put some sugar cane in there with the pork. Sadly, I’m in Cambridgeshire. Sugar cane is not really considered a commodity over here. I need a holiday somewhere where interesting things grow.

Mushroom risotto

It’s cold. It’s windy. When these conditions prevail, our bodies are programmed to do something rather special. They are programmed to crave stodge.

One organism, the mushroom, does better than we do in the cold, leafy months. The supermarket shelves are overflowing with punnets upon punnets of mushrooms, and they’re quite reasonably priced. On top of this, almost everybody I know seems to have a cold at the moment, and I think some garlic, said to have a mild antibiotic effect, is in order. Stodge, mushrooms and garlic. This is a perfect excuse for some mushroom risotto.

Carnaroli is my favourite risotto rice. It’s a fat, short grain which will absorb more than its own weight in stock, and cooks to a fluffy, swollen, creamy risotto. If you can find carnaroli rice, do try using it instead of arborio, which is more often sold as a risotto rice in supermarkets.

For six people, I use:

500g fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 small handful dried cepes (porcini), soaked, the soaking water reserved
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 large handful parsley, chopped
1/2 a teaspoon cayenne pepper
juice of 1/2 a lemon
2 pints of stock
5 shallots, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
400g carnaroli rice
1 glass marsala
2 tablespoons creme fraiche
4 heaped tablespoons grated parmesan
3 large knobs of butter
Olive oil
Seasoning

I used shitake mushrooms (meaty, robust little beasts which keep a good, toothsome texture; they don’t melt to a slime) and oyster mushrooms (less good, honestly, but still pretty darn nice). I don’t wash them, but wipe them instead with kitchen towel so that they don’t absorb unwanted water. I fried all the mushrooms (including the cepes) with two of the cloves of garlic and half the thyme in a mixture of butter and olive oil, and when they were cooked, stirred in the parsley, squeezed over the lemon and sprinkled over a little salt and some cayenne pepper.

While the mushrooms were frying, I made the risotto base. The celery, shallots, the rest of the garlic and the rest of the thyme were sauteed in oil and butter, and when soft the rice was added, and then fried gently, without changing colour, for a couple of minutes until transluscent.

I added the marsala, and stirred until it was all absorbed. Then I added the soaking liquid from the cepes and stirred until that was all absorbed. The two pints of stock were then added a ladle at a time, each time stirring and stirring until all the liquid had gone before adding another ladle.

After about twenty minutes, the liquid was all absorbed, and the rice creamy and tender. I stirred in the mushrooms, cheese and creme fraiche. Serve this quickly, while it’s still hot and moist. I have managed to convert at least one mushroom-hater with this risotto – try it yourself, and open your arms and welcome winter.

Apple sauce

At the weekend, my Dad cooked some roast pork (roast pork which he did not allow me to photograph, the shy man). Now, clearly, nothing is better with roast pork than a good apple sauce, so I spent twenty minutes the previous evening making some so that it would have a night in the fridge to infuse with quiet background flavours from some spicing and orange peel.

At this time of year the shops are full of handsome, enormous Bramley apples. They’re a cooking apple too tart to eat raw (my Grandma used to grow them, and I learned this to my cost), but when cooked they melt into a beautiful, pale, fruity mush.

I peeled and chopped five apples (leaving the cores and seeds intact – there’s almondy flavour in those little seeds which emphasises the apple-ness of the sauce), and put them in a pan with half a wine glass of water, three whole allspice berries, four cloves, a stick of cinnamon, two and a half tablespoons of caster sugar and some pared orange peel. Fifteen minutes of simmering reduced the chunks to a fluffy mass.

While the mixture was still warm, I beat in a large knob of butter and a pinch of salt. You only need a tiny bit of salt in this, and it doesn’t make the finished sauce at all salty, just underlining the flavour of the sauce.

The mixture, still a bit rough and lumpy (and still full of spice and peel) sat on the side until cool, and then went into the fridge to develop overnight. The next morning, I pushed it through a sieve, making the texture silky and smooth, and getting rid of the spices (nothing is quite as surprising as an unexpected allspice berry cracked between your wisdom teeth). Allspice is a curiously English spice, popping up in all kinds of recipes from cake batters to treatments for game. It’s the dried berry of a variety of Jamaican myrtle, and was given its name by English explorers who believed that it combined the flavour of cloves, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon. It doesn’t really; its flavour is very much its own, but in the UK a mixed, ground spice blend is sometimes used as a substitute.

The finished sauce is not a thing of beauty, but it tasted extremely good; fruity with a glossy depth from the butter and spiced in a way that didn’t shout at you. Perhaps next time I’ll add a little dried chili and some grated fresh ginger. We glopped it all over my Dad’s excellent roast pork, and were happy.

Hainanese chicken rice

Mr Weasel and I are still feeling rather jet-lagged and delicate. It’s also the cold season, and my office, which I share with six people, has a horrible miasma of runny nose.

If I were a New York grandmother, I might have prescribed chicken soup with matzoh balls for what ails us. As it is, I’m the product of Malaysian Chinese and British families. As we all know that the English are bred to maximise upper lips and minimise tastebuds, I decided that what we needed was a nice bit of soothing Malaysian cookery – Hainanese chicken rice.

Hainan is a southern island province of China. Many of the Chinese living in Malaysia and Singapore originated in Hainan, and they brought their recipes with them. This chicken rice is probably the best known of these recipes, and it’s a wonderfully soothing, clean-tasting dish. The chicken in this dish is poached, and its cooking liquid is used to cook the rice, flavour the chili sauce that accompanies the meat, and to make a clear broth.

Chicken and broth
One chicken, without giblets
Four pints water
Chicken stock cube
One teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon MSG (go on – you can leave it out if you absolutely must, but it won’t kill you)
Wine glass of Shaoxing rice wine
Two tablespoons of light soya sauce
Thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
Ten cloves of garlic, squashed lightly with a knife blade
Two large spring onions (scallions)

Chili sauce
Two limes, peeled and segmented
Thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
Two cloves of garlic
Two red chilis
Tablespoon of caster sugar
Half a wine glass of the chicken broth

Rice
One tablespoon rendered chicken fat (see below)
Rice
Chicken broth (adjust amounts according to how many people are eating)

Begin by bringing the water, stock, salt, msg, rice wine and soya sauce to a rolling boil. Pull out any poultry fat from the inside of the chicken, and put it in a dry frying pan on a medium heat to render out the fat. Stuff the chicken with the ginger, garlic and spring onions, and place it in the boiling water. Bring back to the boil for two minutes uncovered, then put the lid on and simmer for 40 minutes. It’s helpful if you use a heavy, thick-bottomed pan like one by Le Creuset, as the heat will disperse better and you will avoid catching the bottom of your chicken.

Meanwhile, place all the ingredients for the sauce except the chicken stock in a blender (or you could use a pestle and mortar. I’m lazy and use the Magimix). Lime doesn’t give up its juice readily like a lemon, so the best way to get all of the juice out is to quarter and peel the lime by hand as in the picture, then process in the Magimix.

I don’t want to make the sauce too spicy here, so I’ve removed the seeds and the white ribs from these chilis. The hottest part of the chili is these ribs, and then the seeds. Removing them still leaves this sauce very hot indeed; use more or less chili as you wish.

When the chicken has been poaching for forty minutes, remove it from the cooking liquid and put aside. Add half a wine glass of the stock to the pureed sauce ingredients, and mix well. (This isn’t a great photo – I’ve sloshed the sauce about a bit here. It tastes fantastic, though.)

I had run out of Thai fragrant rice, so used basmati for this; you may prefer a stickier rice. I always use a rice cooker, so I put my rendered fat in with enough rice for two, stir well to make sure all the grains are coated, and fill the rice cooker with the chicken broth up to the two-portion line, as I usually would with water.

The broth is served alongside the chicken and its flavoured rice as a soup. It’s got a tiny amount of glossy fat from the chicken floating on it, and it’s clean-tasting, clear and delicious. We prefer to eat it as a starter before serving the chicken and the rice, which isn’t traditional (but I defy you to have a kitchen smelling of this stuff and not eat it at the first opportunity). Any broth you have left over can be frozen and used as chicken stock. It’s surprisingly successful used as a base in Western dishes – try it in gravy and soups.

This dish would usually be served with some sliced cucumber. I don’t have any in the fridge, so we’re just eating the chicken and the rice on its own. I’m rubbish at carving, but thankfully Mr Weasel, a butcher’s grandson, has meat-chopping in his blood, and sets about the chicken (in Malaysia it’s always eaten at room temperature, which I prefer – the chicken is somehow much juicier this way, and the muscle tissue relaxes and makes the meat tender and toothsome) with abandon. And a very sharp knife.

The hot rice has taken on all the flavour from the broth, and a gorgeous sheen from the fat. It’s a glorious contrast with the, moist, tender chicken. The meat is served with the dipping sauce and a bowl of soya sauce. Any cold bug that might have been thinking of settling has given up in the face of all this nutrition and gone to pester the neighbours.

Weeping Tiger

It’s a chromosomal abnormality passed on by my father (Chinese by way of Malaysia); every week or so I find myself subject to an overwhelming craving for oriental food. One kitchen cupboard is kept full of Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian and Japanese condiments, including seven kinds of soy sauce, numerous sticky brown things in jars, hermetically sealed packets of blachan (the stinkiest thing in the house, but completely necessary in a lot of Malaysian and Thai dishes), dried fungus, four different kinds of dried noodle, four kinds of rice (not including the two risotto rices in the other cupboard), lye water, pork floss, fish floss, rice wines, black and red vinegars and some mysterious tins which have lost their labels. This is all in order that this craving can be assuaged any time it hits, as long as I’m in the house.

The craving thumped me between the eyes this time when we were expecting some friends. Weeping Tiger, a Thai beef dish, would hit the spot, with some Chinese noodles for some stodge. I took a good-sized piece of sirloin steak per person, and rubbed each well with kejap manis, an Indonesian sweet soy sauce.

I made some Nuoc Mam Gung – a sweet, salty, strong sauce made from raw ingredients. I put a peeled piece of ginger the length of my forefinger, two peeled limes, four cloves of garlic, half a stalk of peeled lemongrass, two birds eye chilis, four tablespoons of Nam Pla (Thai fermented fish sauce – I use Squid Brand, a Thai premium brand, because it has a fabulous label) and four tablespoons of caster sugar into the Magimix, and whizzed the lot until I had a sauce. If you follow this recipe, you may prefer to use less chili; taste the sauce when it’s out of the blender and see whether you think it needs more lime juice or fish sauce. You may want to add a little water if you find it too strong.

After the sirloins had marinated for half an hour, I grilled them in a very hot, stovetop grill-pan, keeping the middles pink (about two minutes per side). The steaks were then sliced very thin and placed, still warm, on top of a crisp salad with grated carrot, Chinese leaves, cabbage, shallot, mint leaves and coriander leaves. The nuoc mam gung I’d made earlier was drizzled on top – delicious.

This dish is notably lacking in carbohydrate. To remedy this, I made a very simple garlic cauliflower noodle stir fry which my Dad used to make regularly when my brother and I were little; real childhood comfort food.

This dish needs pea thread noodles – a very thin noodle made from mung beans. These noodles are one of my favourite kinds; they’re thread-thing, transluscent and glassy, and they don’t go slimy in sauces. I broke off half a packet and made them soft in boiling water, then drained them and rinsed them under the tap in a sieve. At the same time, I took eight dried shitake mushrooms and put them in boiling water to rehydrate. When they were soft I sliced them thinly.

To serve four people, I broke up a large cauliflower into bite-sized florets. I stir-fried six roughly chopped cloves of garlic in very hot groundnut oil, added the cauliflower and mushrooms after about a minute and stir-fried that for another three minutes. I then added a pint of chicken stock (I usually keep home-made stock in the freezer, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a stock cube if you don’t have the time), half a glass of Shaosing rice wine, about three tablespoons of mushroom soy and the same amount of light soy. I then put the lid on the wok for four minutes. Lid off, noodles in, taste, add more soy sauce. (I also add half a teaspoon of MSG at this point, which will doubtless cause gasps of horror from my Mum when she reads this; sorry Mummy.)

I thought my Chinese food craving had been squashed for the week. Unfortunately, writing this meal up has made it come back again. Time for a pork floss sandwich.

Lunchtime update:
Emails and comments have been arriving asking what the hell pork floss is. It’s not something I shall be cooking for you, since I don’t want another bout of RSI (this is a dish which needs several hours’ constant stirring); besides, it’s one of those things I always fill suitcases with when returning from Malaysia. There’s an excellent post at Umami on pork floss, which I commend to you.

Pork floss is, simply, lean, lean pork cooked with spices, sugar and sauces until the muscle fibres come apart in a dry, flossy mass; it melts in the mouth and tastes beautiful. It’s a gorgeous garnish, a delicious snack and one of my favourite things.

Spices and niceness

I don’t know how authentic any of the Moroccan food I’ve eaten is. Certainly, none of it has been consumed in Morocco – I’ve eaten in plenty of cous-cous restaurants in France, though. There’s an undercurrent of very particular, seductive spicing that runs through all of the tagines and cous-cous dishes I’ve had there.

That undercurrent is Ras al-Hanout, which is Moroccan for Top of the Shop. It’s a blend of spices which varies from maker to maker, but which usually contains about twenty different ingredients, including nutmeg, lavender, nigella, cardamom and other good things. A pre-blended Ras al-Hanout is available in the UK from Seasoned Pioneers (Sainsbury’s carry their dear little foil packets in its exotic foods aisle), and it’s extremely good; the list of ingredients on the packet includes lavender buds and the rose petals you can see in the picture.

I’ve got some friends coming round for dinner, and they love complex, spicy foods. I rub the Ras al-Hanout (with some extra coriander, cumin and nutmeg which I’ve ground in the mortar and pestle) into some lamb neck fillets, brown them, add some diced aubergine, garlic and tomatoes.

If they want spicy, they’re going to get spicy. I’ve got my hands on some Scotch Bonnet chili peppers, which are among the hottest chilis you can buy in the UK. (They get 100,000 – 350,000 points on the Scoville scale; this is obscenely hot.)

I’m not going to slice one of these chaps open, because it’ll kill everybody who tries to eat my lamb. I drop one, whole, in with the tomatoes; it should infuse the dish with its heat in a more gentle way than it would have if I’d cut it open and unleashed its seeds. Much of the heat of a chili pepper is in its seeds and in the white ribs which support them inside the fruit. These are delicious little peppers, but they need treating with a great deal of respect if you don’t want chemical burns.

While the lamb simmers, I roast some Borretane onions, which Sainsburys are doing at the moment in their Taste the Difference range. These are tiny little onions, about the size of a ping-pong ball, which roast to a beautiful, caramel sweetness. I put them in an enamelled, cast-iron baking dish, tuck thyme, oregano and bay leaves from the garden in among them (I nearly tuck in a nicely washed snail, too, but that’s another story), and slather them with literally heart-stopping quantities of butter and fat from a duck I roasted a couple of weeks ago. (This is not Moroccan. This is just tasty.)

After an hour at 180c, the onions are sizzling in their papery skins, ready to be popped out and smeared on some bread, along with their buttery juices. The aubergine and tomato have melted into a spiced sauce for the lamb, which is tender and fragrant (and not very photogenic).

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.

Spanish, no flies

chorizoWe had two sets of friends round for lunch today. This presented a bit of a problem; first off, they’ve both got very small children I like spending time with, and the children create problems with punctuality. It is remarkable, according to parents I know, how nappies are filled, vomit is produced and knees grazed the very minute you want to leave the house. I needed to cook something I could leave on the stove for an hour or so, in case of lateness, and which would also need little attention if I wanted to play with the kids.

I ended up with a weasely interpretation of a Gordon Ramsay chorizo casserole, first introduced to me by my teetotal mother-in-law. I am not, of course, worthy to make changes to recipes by the divine Gordon, but I am also considerably too big for my boots, so I have made changes with gay abandon.

The original recipe reads:

SPLIT RED LENTIL AND SPICY SAUSAGE STEW
Serves 4

Split red lentils are a real store-cupboard essential, ready to be thrown into a winter soup or stew as a natural thickener. Chorizo is another useful winter standby – it keeps in the fridge indefinitely and will jazz up all manner of dishes.

1 medium chorizo
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp paprika
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
2-3 red peppers, finely chopped
1l brown chicken stock
6 plum tomatoes, skinned and deseeded
250g red lentils
2 tbsp freshly chopped coriander
2 tbsp freshly chopped parsley

1 Cut the chorizo sausage into fairly thick chunks, about 2.5cm long. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan or casserole, add the paprika and garlic, and cook for 30 seconds. Add the sausage, onion, celery and peppers. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until the sausage begins to sizzle. 2 Add chicken stock, tomatoes and lentils, reduce the heat and simmer for 1-2 hours. 3 Sprinkle with the fresh herbs and serve immediately.

I mess with this recipe in a thoroughly disrespectful manner, especially considering that it’s
from the pen of Gordon, Canon of the Casserole; for six people I use two chorizo, a couple of tablespoons of paprika, a teaspoon each of fennel and cumin seeds with the paprika, and four peppers, leaving the amounts of onion, celery, stock and tomato the same. (I cheat and use two tins of plum tomatoes.) Towards the end I add a wine glass of marsala (anathema to my poor mother-in-law, who doesn’t know what she’s missing) and about half a lemon’s worth of juice.

What is it with the British and paprika? Here, it’s sold in pathetic quantities; you buy it in spice jars of the same volume as those they sell star anise, coriander seed and . . . everything else in. For a while now I’ve been buying spices and herbs at Daily Bread, a wholefood warehouse in Cambridge where they sell them by the jam jar or by the enormous plastic bag. They’re mildly barking wholefood Christians, but the spices are great, so I ignore the God stuff and just pillage their shelves, thinking wicked, gluttonous thoughts.

There is no point in buying a pathetic pot of paprika from the supermarket; this recipe (like many Spanish and Hungarian recipes) requires two tablespoons of the stuff, which means a good half-pot in supermarket terms. Paprika is powdered, dried capsicum or red pepper; it isn’t chile-hot like cayenne pepper, but has an almost smoky, deep sweetness. Here is a phenomonal amount of powdery redness with the fennel, cumin and garlic.

I fry all the spices together in olive oil, then add the chopped vegetables, and stir-fry with vigour, dancing all the while in an inappropriate manner to a kid’s album by They Might Be Giants, in an attempt to get in the mood for the four small visitors who are arriving soon. The chorizo rings do contain some chili, but not enough to hurt little mouths.

Once the vegetables are blanched, I add the lentils, stir fry a little longer, and then add the tomatoes and liquids. This will now be perfectly happy sitting on the stove for a few hours, which gives me ample opportunity to do my dinosaur impressions in the living room once my guests arrive.

A word of caution; I am not a parent, and so I’m very prone to over-simplify around child-feeding-philosophy. I do believe that bright colours go down well, though, and that bite-sized bits work well too. The neophobe toddlers I’ve been playing dinosaurs with (I feel that I have done my work for the day in inculcating feelings of omnivorous superiority to the herbivore Brontosaurus. The kids and I have decided that he is beneath contempt, lacking any normal, healthy interest in sausage) are especially interested in eating this once they’ve had a stir and dropped some extra sausage in. (Later, we go into the garden and pick our own apples and pears. A miracle occurs – suddenly the children are interested in eating fruit.)

We serve up lunch with a good splodge of cous-cous, flavoured with shallots, fennel, cumin and coriander. The kids throw a lot of it around, but also ingest a surprising amount. My work here is done.

The children later gravitate to the television, which we have pre-prepared with lots of DVDs of cartoons by Hayao Miyazaki. We grown-ups sit around the kitchen table, drinking a ridiculously potent chestnut liqueur which I bought in France on holiday. One Dad tells me that we must invite them round again soon; he likes the way I cook.