Monday, 23 September 2019

Hake with Cider and Apples

This dish might sound a little eccentric - fish, cider and apples aren't usually best friends - but somehow it works. The sauce adds a savoury depth of flavour and the apples provide a contrasting acidity. Although it's more typical of Normandy, the last time I came across this kind of combination was on the Île d'Oléron. And that's entirely appropriate because I find the Île d'Oléron pleasingly eccentric too.
L'île d'Oléron
To be honest, this dish isn't usually made with hake - cod or pollock would be more likely - but I'm very fond of hake so that's what I'm using. You could use pretty much any white fish you fancy. This is a little lighter than some similar northern French recipes but it's definitely not free from calories. Well, we are in Normandy after all. Or we might be on the Île d'Oléron for all I know.
Hake with Cider and Apples

This will serve 2.

1 large shallot, finely chopped
300 ml cider (a light, dry cider would be best)
2 apples (ideally a firm variety with a little acidity)
2 hake fillets
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1½ tbsp crème fraîche
Butter for frying

Fry the shallot gently in a little butter until softened. Pour in the cider, increase the heat and allow it to reduce by roughly two thirds. Pour through a fine sieve into a suitable container and discard the shallot. Set aside.

Peel, core and cut the apples into thick slices. Season the slices and fry them in a little butter until browned. Keep warm.

Fry the hake in a little butter. It's difficult to be precise about how long it will take to cook the hake - it will depend upon thickness - but 6 or 7 minutes will usually be enough. While the hake is frying reheat the cider sauce and gently whisk in the crème fraîche and mustard. Taste and correct the seasoning.

It's just an assembly job to serve. Arrange the apple slices on warmed plates, add the hake and pour on some of the sauce. Simply steamed or boiled potatoes and some green veg would complete the dish nicely.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Macarons d'Amiens

It's more than six years since I bothered you with my general-purpose “traditional” French macaron recipe and at the time I promised to irritate you still further with my recreation of the macaron from the Picardy town of Amiens. Well, I may be slow but sometimes I do get there in the end.

I have a fascination for the traditional food of Picardy not only because it's just across the channel but also because it's so often neglected, even by the French. This particular example of the macaron is said to date back to the sixteenth century, although I'm not pretending that my version is truly authentic. In fact, I've been told that if you make the Amiens macaron in less than three days, then you're not really trying. This type of macaron is sometimes baked in small cake tins, which will give you a more regular shape but I'm pretty confident that the more traditional bakers of Amiens don't do it that way. This version tends to be chunkier than most other types of macaron, giving you more of a contrast between the soft insides and the crisper outside. They're excellent with strong coffee and they keep pretty well in an airtight container.
Macarons d'Amiens
For best results, begin this recipe the day before you want to bake it – it's quick to put together before you go to bed. In fact, the whole recipe requires very little effort, just a little bit of planning.

I've found that different types of almond extract tend to vary quite a bit in strength, so adapt the amount given here to suit your personal taste.

125 g ground almonds
50 g light brown soft sugar
50 g caster sugar
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp apricot jam
½ tsp vanilla paste or extract
¼ tsp almond extract (see the note above)
1 medium egg white

Mix the ground almonds and both of the sugars together in a bowl. In a jug, stir together the honey, jam, vanilla paste or extract, almond extract and the egg white until thoroughly combined. Add around a third of the liquid to the ground almond and sugar mixture and stir in thoroughly. Repeat until all the liquid has been combined and the mixture has turned into a paste. Cover tightly with cling film and chill in the fridge overnight (or, at least, for several hours).

The next day, preheat the oven to 170°C. Spread a layer of cling film on the work surface and spread the mixture out in a line on the film. Roll up the cling film and twist the ends to form the macaron mixture into a sausage. You need a sausage of between 3 and 4 cm thick. (You don't have to use cling film to roll the mixture, but I think it makes the job a lot easier). Carefully unwrap and cut the mixture into slices of around 1.5 or 2 cm long. You should get around 10 or 11 macarons.

Place the macarons on a lined baking tray, reshaping them a little if they get knocked out of shape in the process. Bake in the oven for around 15 – 20 minutes. It can be a little tricky to judge when the macarons are ready, but they should have an even light brown colour. (Be careful, they can start to burn quickly if left too long.) Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container once cold.
Macarons d'Amiens Henge

Monday, 29 July 2019

Samfaina or Something Like It

Please don't imagine that this dish is authentic. Let's just say that it's inspired by the Catalan dish ‘samfaina’, which is itself a cousin of ratatouille and caponata. Over the years I've heard many chefs insisting that the flavours and textures of the vegetables in ratatouille should always be kept distinct from one another but for this slow-cooked style of samfaina please forget about that. This dish is all about blending the flavours and textures into something closer to a jammy dip. That may sound odd but, believe me, it works.

I have it on good authority that courgettes aren't normally used in the classic Catalonian samfaina but I like what they bring to the dish. (I warned you that this wasn't authentic.) The addition of smoked paprika to the dish at the end isn't really authentic either but I came across a restaurant doing something similar and so I've copied the idea. It makes a subtle but very real difference to the flavour. (A little warning from someone who should know better - I tried a cheap supermarket brand of smoked paprika recently and it tasted very nasty indeed compared to the imported Spanish product. It seems that you get what you pay for).

This version of  samfaina makes a fine sauce alongside fish, chicken or pork and, although it's commonly served hot (or at least warm), it also makes a very pleasing condiment or dip at room temperature. It's not half bad as a sauce for pasta or rice too. It can be prepared well in advance and freezes very well. In short, it's just ridiculously useful.
Samfaina
Once the vegetables have been chopped, there's not a lot of work involved in this dish but it does take a while to cook and it's best made when you're not due somewhere else for a while. Don't worry about being too precise with the veg chopping; it's a rustic dish. This will serve at least 4 or 5 people but more if you use it as a dip or a smaller side dish.

2 onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 medium or 1 large aubergine, cut into roughly 2 cm chunks
2 courgettes, cut into roughly 2 cm chunks
2 red peppers, stem and seeds removed and flesh cut into roughly 1 - 2 cm chunks
1 green pepper, stem and seeds removed and flesh cut into roughly 1 - 2 cm chunks
1 glass dry white wine
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
½ tsp sweet smoked paprika

I wouldn't normally bother to salt aubergines before cooking them but if they're prone to being bitter and watery in your neighbourhood then it might be a good idea. So, if you think you've got watery aubergines, sprinkle salt on the aubergine chunks in a colander and leave them to drain for 30 - 60 minutes. Wash the salt off and dry the aubergine chunks before using.

Using a pan that will be big enough to hold all the vegetables eventually, fry the onion very slowly in a few tablespoons of olive oil until they're very soft and taking on a little colour. That should take around 30 or 40 minutes if you're being thorough.

While that's happening, coat the chunks of aubergine with another tablespoon or two of olive oil and roast in the oven at 180⁰C for about 20 minutes until softened and lightly coloured. (It's more usual to fry the aubergines but I prefer to roast them initially because they soak up far less oil). Do the same with the courgette chunks but roast for a slightly shorter time: 10 - 15 minutes should be enough.

Once the onion is truly soft, add the garlic and peppers and continue frying gently for 5 minutes. Add the roasted aubergine and courgette chunks to the pan, stir in the white wine followed by the tin of tomatoes and the tomato purée. Season generously, stir well and bring to a simmer. Cover the pan and allow the mixture to simmer gently for an hour. Stir the pan every now and then and make sure the contents don't dry out (add a little water if it seems to need it).

After an hour or so the vegetables should all be very tender and almost falling apart. Uncover the pan, increase the heat and stir until the contents of the pan are thick and almost jammy. Take the pan off the heat and check the seasoning - the dish will be all the better for quite a lot of seasoning. Finally, stir in the sweet smoked paprika.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Lamb Bhuna (The South London 1980s Version)

I'm told that ‘bhuna’ means ‘brown’ and refers to the way that this curry is cooked until the colour darkens. In yet another of my shameful fits of nostalgia I'm attempting to recreate a curry that used to turn up on the menus of some of the nicest South London Indian restaurants back in the 1980s when I just happened to be living there. I've come across many bhunas that look and taste nothing like this in the intervening years. To be honest, this is close to the original but not entirely faithful. I think I've toned down my spice craving a bit since the 1980s and I definitely use less oil these days.

I imagine that you can still find something like this dish in restaurants somewhere in the country, but it's probably not fancy enough for many London establishments these days. I've checked Google and the place where I first ate this bhuna is now an estate agents. That sums up the recent history of South London rather well I think. 
Lamb Bhuna
The number of spices here might seem like a bit of a faff but the cooking process itself is very straightforward as long as you keep a close eye on it towards the end. This will serve 2 people quite generously as a main course or a few more as part of a shared set of dishes, which is just how we liked it back in the 1980s.

I thought I'd add a few short notes on some of the ingredients that I use in this curry, just in case they're useful to someone or other.

The Oil - I've been told by people who understand these things far better than I that olive oil is alien to this kind of cooking and should never be used. Then I came across a Nepalese chef who always uses olive oil and seemed to find the 'alien' idea hilarious. As a result, I tend to use a light olive oil in this kind of dish these days. 

The Chillies - Dried Kashmiri chillies are fragrant, delicious and relatively mild but you can substitute any dried chilli or chilli powder you like. Don't use too much, though, because this curry should be aromatic rather than really hot.
Kashmiri Chillies
Fenugreek seeds add a distinctive and satisfying flavour to this dish but it seems that some people with peanut allergies can also have problems with fenugreek, so please be cautious if you or your fellow eaters react that way.

Anardana powder is made from dried pomegranate seeds and it adds a sweet and sour touch to dishes. It seems to divide opinion: some people don't really see the point of it while others find it almost addictive. 

450 g lamb neck fillet, cut into chunks of about 2 cm
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and very finely chopped
2 cm ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 dried Kashmiri chilli, crushed or chopped
400 g tin of peeled tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée

The spices:
    4 cardamom pods, seeds only
    1 tsp cumin seeds
    1 tsp coriander seeds
    ½ tsp fenugreek seeds
    ½ tsp black peppercorns
    ½ tsp fennel seeds

To serve (you can treat these as optional, but they are good):
    A sprinkling of anardana powder
    A squeeze of lemon juice
    A sprinkling of chopped coriander and mint leaves


Briefly toast the spices in a dry frying pan over a medium heat to get the flavours going, then crush them in a pestle and mortar. 

Fry the onion quite gently in 1 or 2 tablespoon of oil until it softens and starts to take on some colour. Add the garlic and ginger and continue frying for 2 or 3 minutes. Increase the heat a little and add the chunks of lamb. Continue frying for around 5 minutes until the lamb has taken on an even, light colour. Add the crushed spices and the dried chilli and fry for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring all the time.

Stir in the tomatoes and the tomato purée and season with a little salt. Bring to a simmer, turn down the heat, cover the pan and let it simmer gently for 45 minutes. (Make sure the pan is covered well enough and don't allow it to dry out). 

Uncover the pan, increase the heat and, stirring frequently, reduce the sauce until it becomes quite thick and coats the meat. Continue frying the meat in the reduced sauce for around 5 minutes, stirring all the time. (Please don't walk away and leave it at this stage or it will burn and taste bitter). 

Pour in about 1 cup of water and bring back to a simmer. (The amount of water you add is up to you. I prefer it fairly dry but add more or less according to your personal taste.) If you're adding anardana powder then sprinkle a little on now, together with a squeeze of lemon (this helps to freshen the taste). Sprinkle on the chopped mint and coriander immediately before serving.

Rice and a flatbread of some kind would be good with this curry. A pickle with a touch of sharpness (such as lemon pickle) would provide a nice contrast.


Thursday, 23 May 2019

Nonnettes for Early Summer

If you've had the misfortune of following this blog for some time, then it's just about possible you may remember that I've wittered on about nonnettes before. But it's nearly 5 years since I last featured them and, since they're one of my favourite cakes, I don't feel too guilty about wittering on again. After all, imagine how bad you'd feel if you went to see a band and they only played new songs and none of their hits. (It felt pretty bad, actually, but let's not go there).

This version started when my wife was given a jar of local honey produced in the spring. (I admit that my knowledge of honey is minimal at best). This honey is light in colour, less intense than a high summer honey but with some lovely, subtle flavours and I wanted to use it to produce a lighter and fragrant nonnette with some of the flavours of early summer.

I made 11 relatively large cakes with this mix using friand and medium-sized muffin tins. If you choose a small muffin tin, you'll get 15 or more cakes but remember to reduce the amount of jam per cake as well as the cooking time. Whatever tin you use, though, make sure that you butter it carefully because the honey makes these cakes very sticky as they bake.
Early Summer Nonnettes

200 g honey, a light and fragrant type 
100 ml water
100 ml milk (semi-skimmed will do)
100 g golden caster sugar
80 g unsalted butter
Zest of 1 lime (or lemon if you prefer)
200 g plain flour
100 g wholemeal spelt flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp gooseberry jam for every nonnette (cut down the amount for smaller nonnettes)

And for the glaze:
4 or 5 tbsp icing sugar
Elderflower syrup or cordial and lemon (or lime) juice


Put the honey, water, milk, sugar and butter into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring frequently, until the butter has melted, the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth and uniform. Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix together the flours, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and the lime (or lemon) zest. While the honey mixture is still warm, sieve the flour mixture onto it and whisk the two together until smooth. Put the mixture into the fridge and leave it there for at least an hour until thoroughly chilled.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Spoon the mixture into thoroughly buttered tins until they're somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters full. Place a teaspoon of gooseberry jam on top of each nonnette. Bake for 15 – 17 minutes until they're golden brown and spring back when pressed gently. 

While the nonnettes are still warm and in the tin, combine the icing sugar with a mixture of a little elderflower syrup (or cordial) and lemon juice to create a thin icing. Pour the icing over the nonnettes or, better still, spread it on with a pastry brush. The idea is to create something resembling a thin sugar glaze rather than an iced cake. Allow the nonnettes to cool before removing them from the tin.

Nonnettes keep well in an airtight tin but will also freeze very nicely.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Hazelnut Ice Cream

I've made some very pleasant ice creams over the years but I wanted to write down this particular recipe because quite simply it's the one that I like best (at least, it is this week). On the whole, there's nothing revolutionary or unusual about this recipe. It's essentially a classic, creamy, custard-based ice cream but there are two ingredients that give it the edge: the hazelnut paste and the ice cream stabiliser.

You could use a supermarket hazelnut butter or a hazelnut spread of some kind for this ice cream and it would work very well but using a smooth paste made solely from hazelnuts gives a much better result in my opinion. You can make your own paste if you have a tough blender and a fair bit of patience or you can buy a pure paste that's intended for baking and desserts. Good quality, pure hazelnut paste isn't cheap but it really is worth it for the ultimate flavour. (If you do use a hazelnut butter or spread for this recipe then you may also need to reduce the amount of sugar in the ice cream because they're often sweetened).

The ice cream stabiliser might be a bit more controversial and there are some products available that use a very strange combination of artificial ingredients that I wouldn't touch with a very long barge pole. The product that I use is based on natural extracts that thicken the ice cream a little and prevent the formation of ice crystals. The effect of a small amount of stabiliser is to produce an ice cream that feels silkier and smoother when you eat it. Please treat the instructions on the use of stabiliser here with great caution, though, since all such products seem to have different characteristics and recommendations for use. Always follow the instructions for your particular product. (Of course, if you'd rather not trust any such product, even one based on natural plant extracts, then this recipe will still produce fine ice cream without it).

I've used this ice cream to fill a hollowed out pandoro as well as enjoying it as an affogato or just on its own. As usual with this type of ice cream it's advisable to allow it to soften in the fridge for a while before serving.
Hazelnut Ice Cream
A really cheap and simple ice cream machine, such as one with a freeze-ahead bowl, will be fine for this recipe - that's what I've got - and the amounts given here should fit comfortably into most of the simple machines that I've come across.

4 egg yolks
A generous pinch of vanilla powder or a drop or two of vanilla extract
80 g golden caster sugar
60 g pure hazelnut paste
540 ml whole milk
4 tbsp double cream
50 g skimmed milk powder
(optional) 1 tsp ice cream stabiliser (or the amount recommended on your chosen product)

Put the egg yolks into the bowl of a food mixer with the vanilla powder or extract. Add the sugar and whisk on a high speed until the mixture is pale and increased significantly in volume. Don't rush this stage: you'll probably need to whisk for somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes.

Pour the milk and cream into a saucepan and add the skimmed milk powder and ice cream stabiliser, if you're using it. (Some stabilisers may need to be added to the mix at different times, so check the instructions for your chosen product carefully). Stir thoroughly and bring to a simmer before pouring it into the egg mixture while beating with a wooden or silicone spoon. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, and place on a low heat, stirring continuously, until the custard has thickened slightly. The old test of running a finger along the back of a spoon is still the best. If the line drawn on the spoon stays there rather than closing up, then it's ready. 

Stir in the hazelnut paste and pour the custard into a clean bowl (thin stainless steel is ideal for this cooling stage) and place the bowl in some ice water. Stir the custard until it's cold, cover the surface of the custard with cling film and place in the fridge. Keep in the fridge until the custard is very cold (2 hours or so should be fine). Once thoroughly cold, churn and freeze in the ice cream machine. 

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Beer Pickled Roscoff Onions

Mention Roscoff Onions to people of advanced age in the UK, such as myself, and there's a good chance that they will start to tell you nostalgic tales of the Onion Johnnies selling their onions door to door throughout England and Wales while dressed in hooped shirts and riding bicycles. This isn't a complete fantasy, there were Onion Johnnies and they did ride bikes and very possibly wore Breton hooped shirts now and then. (In fact, I'm told that there's an Onion Johnny Museum in Roscoff). But the truth is that the heyday of the Onion Johnny was before World War Two and by the 1960s and 70s there were very few about. When I was a young thing in the early 1960s, there was a Breton onion seller who visited our area of London but I'm pretty sure he had an old battered van and not a bike. (I'm not too certain if he wore a striped shirt, but I doubt it). My family didn't buy any onions from him because they considered onions to be too exotic and posh for the likes of us.

Times have changed and, following a long career of onion eating, I recently came across a man from Brittany selling Roscoff onions at a market stall. He was keen to sell off some of the smallest onions cheaply and so that's how this story begins.
Roscoff Onions
Now I'm about as up-to-date and trendy as a hansom cab driver wearing a tattered tweed jacket while singing madrigals but I've noticed that a couple of local, stylish restaurants have added beer pickled onions to some of the dishes on their menus. So I decided to make my own version. Pickled onions in corrosive, dark vinegar and the even more abhorrent pickled egg were very popular in my youth, but not with me. Rest assured that these pickled onions are very different. You don't have to use Roscoff onions and any good, small onions will do but, if you do come across Roscoff onions, then I'd recommend making the most of them.

The beer in the pickling liquid adds colour and a distinct savoury depth without overwhelming the flavour of the onions. Of course, it's not just any old beer: the restaurants use designer craft ales from whichever local microbrewery they favour. Well, why not? I used a wheat beer from Suffolk because I like wheat beer and I think it complements the other flavours. You could use any beer you like, but I'd avoid any very bitter or rich styles of beer in case their flavour becomes too dominant.
Beer Pickled Onions
The pickled onions will sit happily alongside cold meats, smoked fish and cheeses but recently I've seen them used to accompany venison and to add an additional flavour to winter salads made with veg such as carrot and celeriac. They can also be chopped finely and added to your favoured ketchup or chilli sauce to supercharge burgers or sausages.

400 g small onions (Roscoff, ideally), trimmed and peeled
300 ml wheat beer (or whatever beer you fancy - see above)
150 ml cider vinegar (or white wine vinegar if you prefer)
40 g soft, dark brown sugar
20 g granulated sugar
4 tsp runny honey
2 tsp black peppercorns, lightly crushed
6 or 7 juniper berries, very lightly crushed
1 tsp sea salt

You'll need a jar with a vinegar-proof lid that will hold all the onions and the pickling liquid. Sterilise the jar before use. Peeling small onions is a bit of a pain but the old trick of immersing them in boiling water for a minute or so before cooling and peeling works very well.

Really small onions can be kept whole but I prefer to slice most of the onions in half from top to bottom. This will mean that some of them will start to fall apart during the cooking process, which is how I like them. If you prefer crunchier onions, then leave all of them whole.

Put all the ingredients except the onions into a saucepan (not too small because you'll be adding the onions later). Stir thoroughly and bring to the boil. Add the onions and bring back to the boil. Lower the heat and allow the onions to simmer gently in the pickling liquid until they seem as tender as you'd like them to be. Personally I prefer them not too crunchy and simmer them for at least 10 to 15 minutes but, if you like crunch, then cook for less time. Remove from the heat.

Allow the onions and liquid to cool a little, then pour into the sterilised jar. Seal the jar and place in a cool, dark place. Leave the jar alone for at least a week, although two weeks or longer would be better. This will allow the flavours to develop. Although this pickle should keep pretty well, once opened it's advisable to keep the jar in the fridge and use within about 3 months.
Beer Pickled Onions