Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Mince Pies At Last

This post is a little late since I’ve missed the real mince pie season, but it’s the end of a long journey for me so I think I should record it. I admit to not being a huge fan of mince pies, and I probably wouldn’t bother with them at all if it weren’t for the fact that my wife really likes them. So it’s been a challenge for some time to produce one which I could honestly say that I liked.

Mince Pies

The first hurdle was the mincemeat itself which often feels to me like wading through fat – I don’t really get the point of suet at all. Last year I found Pam Corbin's recipe for suet-free mincemeat, based on cooking down plums before adding the more usual bits together with a drop of sloe gin. It’s healthier but, more importantly, tastes fresh and fruity.

But last year’s mince pies still didn’t really work for me because the pastry just didn’t seem right. This year we tried Orlando Murrin's pastry from the recipe Unbelievably Easy Mince Pies on the BBC site, which gives a crumbly pastry that I think is exactly what’s needed.

Finally, I read Richard Bertinet in the Times a few weeks ago saying that he felt that the ratio of pastry to filling was wrong in a conventional mince pie and that he topped his with frangipane with a drop of brandy included.

Combine those three elements and much to my surprise there was finally a mince pie about which I felt genuinely enthusiastic. Perhaps I wasn’t quite as surprised as the Frenchman I saw biting into a mince pie in a café in Devon one summer. Despite the sterling efforts of the waitress I don’t think that he’d quite grasped the strange English concept of mincemeat.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Chicken Noodle Salad

This salad could be made with leftover chicken, or, given the time of year, even leftover turkey. I try not to have too much to do with turkeys - we've always had a strained relationship. It's some years since I cooked a Christmas turkey and on that occasion the bird was still in a garage in Widnes on Christmas morning and nobody could quite remember which garage.

This recipe will serve 2 people.

A few chicken thighs with skin on and bone in; 4 maybe, but as many as you feel like eating
2 portions of medium egg noodles (around 125 g altogether, uncooked)
A good handful of green beans
6 smallish or 4 large spring onions

For cooking the chicken:
     1 scant tsp 5-spice powder
     3 tbsp dark soy sauce
     1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
     2 tsp sesame oil

For the dressing:
     2 tbsp dark soy sauce
     2 tbsp light soy sauce
     1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
     2 tsp sesame oil
     1 tbsp sherry vinegar
     2 heaped tsp soft, brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 170°C (for a fan oven, a little hotter, otherwise). Place the chicken thighs in a roasting tin, sprinkle them with the 5-spice powder and pour over the dark soy, the balsamic vinegar and the sesame oil. Cover the tin with foil and roast in the oven for 45 minutes.

When the time is up, remove the foil and continue roasting uncovered for another 15 minutes. After this time, the chicken should be very tender without being too dry. As soon as it has cooled enough to handle, remove the skin (we’re trying to be a bit healthy here) and turn the chicken in the juices left in the roasting tin. Leave to cool completely.

Top and tail the green beans and steam for 5 minutes or so. They should retain a little bite, but not too much. Leave to cool. Chop the spring onions very finely.

Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions. They shouldn’t be allowed to remain too al dente or you’ll lose out on some of the silky texture of the salad. Once cooked, refresh the noodles in cold water and leave to drain.

Make the dressing by combining all the ingredients thoroughly. I find that pouring them into an old jam jar and shaking vigorously is easiest. (This is quite a lot of dressing for two people but I like lots.)

Tear the cooled chicken flesh into bite-sized pieces – it should certainly be tender enough to come apart easily. Cut the cooled beans into lengths of random size. Place the chicken and beans in a large bowl, add the noodles and spring onions, pour over the dressing and toss well to combine everything thoroughly. This salad can sit around for a short while without coming to harm, but don’t leave it for more than about 15 – 20 minutes.

This basic recipe can be varied in many ways. For instance, substituting mangetout or sugar snaps for the beans or adding some sweet chilli sauce to the dressing.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Sweet Potato and Cranberry Salad

I put this dish together as my effort to meet the Real Epicurean In the Bag challenge for December. The challenge is to create a dish using cranberries, clementines or mandarins and nuts. To be honest that sounded a bit too Christmassy for me - Christmas doesn’t come very high on my list of favourite times of the year. But then I thought why shouldn’t I be using these really good ingredients when they’re at their best? It’s not their fault that they get slopped on to turkey or turn up at the bottom of Santa’s sack. So I've had a go.

Sweet Potato and Cranberry Salad

This salad will serve 4 as part of a mezze or 2 as a light lunch with some flatbreads or something of that kind.

1 green pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
3 medium orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, around 600 – 650 g unpeeled weight
1 tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp chilli powder
350 ml vegetable stock
2 tsp lemon juice
3 tsp clementine juice
2 tsp maple syrup
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
2 clementines, divided into segments
A generous handful of cranberries
A generous handful of shelled pistachios
A sprig or two of chervil or parsley

Skin the pepper: grill it until blackened, place in a sealed plastic bag while it cools and the skin should come off easily. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into slices of around 1.5 cm thick.

In a pan which will be large enough to hold the sweet potato slices in one layer, soften the onion in around 1 tablespoon of olive oil for 5 to 10 minutes without colouring. Add the sweet potato slices, stir in the cumin and chilli powder and pour over the stock. Add the lemon and clementine juices, the maple syrup and pomegranate molasses. Even out the sweet potatoes in the pan, bring to the boil and simmer gently without covering  for around 20 minutes – the sweet potatoes should have begun to soften but not fall apart.

Add the cranberries and continue simmering until the sweet potatoes are completely tender and the cranberries are collapsing. By this time the liquid should have reduced to a thick dressing. (If it dries out too much during the cooking, it may be necessary to add a little water).

Lightly toast the pistachios in an oven at 180°C for 5 minutes. Slice the flesh of the green pepper. Put the sweet potatoes in a serving dish, stir in the pistachios and green pepper. Place the clementine segments on top and decorate with a sprinkling of chervil or parsley.

Eat at room temperature while pretending it’s still summer.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Pepper Soup with Almond Butter

You can use red, yellow or orange peppers for this soup or a mix of colours depending on what’s available and the colour that you want to end up with. Don’t use green – or purple or black for that matter, which I think are just green peppers disguising themselves. The idea of this soup is to have some background spice with a hint of heat but without overwhelming the taste of the peppers and almonds.  To provide the spice this recipe uses ras el hanout, which varies a lot from one spice seller to the next so it may be necessary vary the amount. If the blend is already hot, then leave out the chilli flakes.

I used a jar of almond butter but you can make your own purée from roasted almonds and possibly a little salt – it’s not difficult, it’s just a bit of a faff. There’s plenty of guidance around if you want to try – on C'est moi qui l'ai fait ! for instance.

Pepper and Almond Soup 1a

This recipe makes around 4 bowlfuls.

4 peppers (red, yellow or orange)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 potato (around 250 g is about right)
A pinch of dried chilli
½ tsp ras el hanout
1 litre vegetable stock
2 generous tsp almond “butter” or purée

Skin the peppers: I grill them until blackened, place in a sealed plastic bag while they cool and the skin comes off easily. The advice is often given to carry out this last stage under running water to make the job easier but that method wastes the lovely pepper juice. If you want to retain the pure colour of the peppers, try steaming them for 5 –10 minutes instead of grilling – I don’t think the flavour will be as good, though.

Soften the onion in a fairly big frying pan with a spray of oil, adding a splash of water to prevent it burning, if necessary. Peel and chop the potato into small chunks. When the onion has softened a little (but not coloured) add the potato, chilli flakes and ras el hanout. Stir it all together and pour over the stock. Bring to a simmer, cover the pan and let it bubble away very gently for 25 minutes or so until the potato is very tender.

Let the potato mixture cool a little and then liquidise it together with the pepper flesh. Stir in the almond butter and adjust the seasoning. Make sure that you add the almond butter before seasoning since it can be a little salty.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Toulouse Pork and Beans

I like to use Toulouse sausages for this recipe (or at least English versions of Toulouse sausage) but I wish to make it very clear that this is dish has no connection with cassoulet. I went to Castelnaudary fairly recently and I now realise just how seriously that dish is taken. My internal picture of Castelnaudary is a little like this:

Internal Castelnaudary

Unfair, of course, and I'm sure that  La Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary would see it differently.

This should warm up 2 hungry people on a very cold day.

100 g pancetta cubes or lardons (one of the small packs you can get  in the supermarket is just the right size)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ - 1 tsp paprika
½ glass red wine
400 g tin of chopped tomatoes
400 g tin cannellini beans
½ tsp sugar
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 tbsp tomato purée
6 Toulouse sausages (that is English-sized sausages)
1 tbsp freshly grated parmesan
A few chopped leaves of oregano
2 – 3 handfuls of breadcrumbs (any sort will work, but really crisp ones are best – like the ones you can buy rather than make)

Preheat the oven 170°C (for a fan oven).

Add half of the pancetta cubes to a large frying pan and fry until some of the fat is released. Add the onion and allow to soften for a few minutes. Add the garlic and continue fry for another minute or so – be gentle and don’t let the onion or garlic brown. Stir in the paprika and then deglaze with the red wine. When the wine has all but disappeared add the tomatoes, the sugar, sherry vinegar and tomato purée. Drain the beans and add to the pan with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Simmer this mixture very gently for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, get another frying pan and brown the sausages in a little oil. When lightly browned all over, cut each sausage into 3 or 4 pieces. Transfer the bean and tomato mix to a casserole dish and push the sausage pieces down into it. If the mixture seems a little dry at this point, add a dash or two of water.

Now make a topping. Finely chop the rest of the pancetta and put into a bowl. Add the parmesan, breadcrumbs and oregano to the bowl and mix them together thoroughly. Sprinkle the topping over the bean mix as evenly as is reasonable and place the casserole in the oven, uncovered, for about 45 minutes until the sausages are fully cooked, the flavours have mingled thoroughly and the topping is nice and brown.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Jerusalem Artichoke and Carrot Soup

This recipe makes around 6 bowlfuls.Jerusalem Artichoke 3

1 medium onion, finely chopped 
500 g Jerusalem artichokes (unpeeled weight)
1 baking potato (ideally around 300 g in weight – definitely not more than this, anyway)
500 g carrots, peeled and sliced
1 or 2 garlic cloves
A generous splash of marsala
1 litre vegetable stock
A few thyme leaves (don’t overdo it)
A squeeze or two of lemon juice

Take a big pan - one that you have a lid for - and soften the onion in it with a spray of oil. If the onion looks like it might take on some colour add a little water. While that’s happening, peel the Jerusalem artichokes as carefully as you can be bothered (as long as they’re clean a little bit of skin won’t really hurt), cut them into chunks and drop them into water with lemon juice added to prevent them going brown.

Peel and cut the potato into chunks. Crush the garlic, stir it into the onions and continue cooking for a minute or so. Add the Jerusalem artichokes, carrots and potato, then pour over the stock and marsala. Sprinkle the thyme leaves over the vegetables. Bring to a simmer, cover and continue cooking until everything is nicely softened – about 25 minutes or so.

Cool a little and then liquidise the lot. Adjust the seasoning and add as much of the lemon juice as you think it needs. Add a little more stock if the soup seems too thick, though don't add too much – I think this soup is best if left fairly thick and creamy (but without any cream, so nice and low in fat).

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Breadmaker Lemon and Almond Brioche

No doubt I should be far more authentic and homely and do my own proving and kneading without the aid of a machine. Well I do sometimes, but I really like my breadmaker. This recipe is a simple extension of the basic brioche loaf recipe provided with the machine but I’ve added ground almonds and flavoured it with lemon and vanilla in line with some brioche that I’ve seen on sale in France.

I use a Panasonic breadmaker for this recipe, but for most other machines the liquid will need to go in first. I really like vanilla bean paste, but extract will do fine instead.

1 tsp dried, fast action yeast
Brioche400 g strong white bread flour
50 g ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
3 tbsp sugar (golden caster sugar works well)
1 tsp salt
½ tsp (or thereabouts) vanilla bean paste
100 g softened, unsalted butter
3 medium eggs, lightly beaten
150 ml milk

Ideally, the ingredients should be at room temperature. Add the ingredients in the order stated and bake with the following settings:

“Basic” bake
“Medium” size
“Light” crust

Couldn’t be easier, really.