JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Birthday celebrations

A gathering of some of Lucius's longest-standing and closest friends demands something good to eat, something a little more than the everyday. On the other hand, Lucius likes best the food he always eats, so it's a dilemma. Or, perhaps, a compromise. Mostly it was good things we occasionally eat, plus one or two new ideas.

So, with our drinks we ate smoked salmon on brown bread, dusted with a little grated lemon zest as well as juice. We sat down to Elizabeth David's Prawn Paste, which sounds unappetizing but is a lovely delicately-flavoured light starter to eat with toast. Then we had fillet of beef, adapted from Nigella in How to Eat, which is a forgiving dish in terms of timing, and therefore worth knowing about - you get lovely rare beef even if you sit down half an hour later than planned. This we ate with little boiled potatoes and a huge green salad from the greenhouse. Then a very runny, not entirely successful but tasty Tiramisu from the Prue Leith Bible, because Lucius amazed us all by announcing that it was his favourite pudding. And good English cheeses from Riverford - Green's cheddar, double gloucester, and stilton. Followed by coffee with chocolates from Gorvett & Stone - a choice of either chilli (REALLY good, and with a serious kick) or mint.

Next morning, hot home-made bread with honeycomb given to Lucius by Andrew Ritchie, and this year's marmalade. Also lots of coffee.

Lunch was mass catering, with the arrival of lots more people, mostly family. We were 34 in the end (we'd been 14 for dinner). But all home-cooked - it's what we do to look after ourselves, so it's the least we can do when we invite people over. Chicken pieces, some cooked in honey and mustard (a huge favourite with the children), some in lemon juice and honey. Sausages (I didn't come over all Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, I bought them in Waitrose, so ignore the boast above). Vicky made a salad with the leftover potatoes and some leaves from the greenhouse as there was no parsley in the house. I cooked carrot slices in orange juice, which sounds horrid but is a revelation once you've boiled the orange juice down to a sticky clinging sauce. There was another green salad (which I forgot to put the avocado into, so that we've got an avo mountain to get through this week!). Also boiled potatoes, because Lucius likes them hot at every opportunity. Puy lentils dressed in vinaigrette. Bread, cheeses.

Puddings were Pavlova dressed with very runny strawberry jam and yoghurt, pears in red wine, Claudia Roden's orange cake - and the blood orange jelly which I forgot and which is still sitting in my fridge! And then Huntswood birthday cake - three times the size of last week's, and with a lot more candles.

Fillet of beef

This is a wonderful recipe for a special evening - not least because you don't have to worry if things are running a little late. I'm posting it because two or three people asked me for the method on Saturday evening.

I've adapted this over the years, but the basic recipe and most of the method comes from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat. (The amounts given here are to serve eight; I doubled it for 14, and had plenty left over to add to Sunday's buffet lunch.)

You need a heavy pan that will fit two fillets without touching each other. I use a heavy roasting pan, but would like, one day, to buy a rectangular Le Creuset dish which would be the ideal.

Olive oil
Finely chopped shallots (or onions)
a good sprig of thyme
one head of garlic
one tin of anchovy fillets
two 750g fillets of beef
4 tbsp brandy (Marsala would do)
300ml good red wine

Slowly cook the onions. Just before they start to brown, add the chopped thyme and garlic, and, after a minute or two, the anchovies (and their oil). Once this is all amalgamated, push it to the ends of the tins, to make a space for the meat. Sear the fillets on all sides until they're brown. Add the brandy, bubble it up, then add the wine. Cover with a loose tent of tinfoil.

At this point, Nigella cooks the meat for 10 minutes on the hob, turns it over and cooks for a further five or ten minutes. She then rests the meat while she tidies up the sauce. She says you can get this far BEFORE THE FIRST COURSE.

On the other hand, I have an Aga, so after browning (and I do that very thoroughly) I put the meat in the "bottom oven" (85-100C) for at least half an hour. I have once or twice left it for an hour and it was still rare.

Cut into thick slices, lay in a heated serving dish, and spoon over some of the juice. Serve the rest in a jug.

Either way, it's a good-tempered dish.

Prawn paste

This comes from Elizabeth David's Christmas, an excellent little book I bought when it came out in 2003 (it was put together posthumously from pieces found amongst her papers). She was a little bah humbug about Christmas, so it's not a Delia style instruction manual for getting you through the big day with a huge turkey, all the trimmings and timings spelt out for you. It's more of a winter cookbook, although I use it all year round (and curse the binder every time I pull it off the shelf: the glue gave way the very first time I read it, and the pages are now coming out by the handful).

I pounced on this recipe as an alternative to potted shrimps, which Lucius loves, but no longer eats because of all that butter. I think this is much nicer, and certainly much more in tune with modern ideas on nutrition.

Blitz 250g cooked prawns, with some basil leaves (ED specifies dried; I use fresh whenever I can) and the juice of a lemon (I often put in the grated zest, too). Pepper, cayenne if you like, perhaps a little coriander seed. When it's smooth, slowly add olive oil - four two six tablespoons. Serve with toast.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Huntswood Birthday Cake

Yesterday, Lucius was 60. We had a very good time, as we persuaded him to take the day off, since Lettice and Alfred were both on half term. After breakfast we jumped into the car and went go-karting, which seemed a suitably silly thing to be doing on your 60th birthday. Very good fun - Alfred was instantly turned into Mr Toad, poop-pooping his way round the tortuous track, and Lettice flew past me several times, her golden hair flowing out from under the back of her helmet. I pootled round rather in the manner of Miss Marple driving a Morris Minor, and letting all the faster drivers (ie everyone else on the circuit) overtake me at the bends. Then a pub lunch, and home to plant the quince tree which the children gave Lucius.

We already have a quince tree in the garden, planted by my mother-in-law about 25 years ago. I don't know much about the lifespan of quince trees, but it's definitely looking its age, it no longer fruits reliably, and last month Lucius hacked away at in, calling it pruning, and I think that may have done for it. We'll leave it there, because it is beautiful, the lovely scented pale pink flowers in spring, the downy leaves, the golden apples. The new tree is nearby. We chose carefully, after much poring over books, and the variety is Vranja. Clever Eleanor for organising it (and getting all her siblings to agree to the plan). When it arrived, it turns out to have an award of garden merit from the Royal Horticultural Society, so I think we have chosen wisely.

Then Lucius and Alfred played snooker, Alfred beat Lucius at chess in pretty short order, and we went out to dinner with Dick and DD. This was, as always, terrific; DD is brilliant at the details which make an evening memorable. Dick opened a bottle of 1949 Medoc, an extraordinary treat. DD gave Lucius several of his favourites: roast lamb, two types of potatoes (soup first, then dauphinois), and, right at the end, after birthday cake, a supplementary birthday treat of violet creams - improbably Lucius's favourite, known in this house as violent creams. Wonderful.

I took the birthday cake - my mother-in-law's recipe, and which I have always used for birthday celebrations. Delicious (it always disappears in moments), and very easy to make (five minutes max, no need to turn on the oven). Indulgent,too - but of course that's the point of birthday celebrations.

250g digestive biscuits
125g butter
125g dark chocolate
65g sultanas
3 dessertspoons cocoa
3 dessertspoons golden syrup

Bash up the biscuits. It's better if they're not reduced to a fine tilth, the cake has a better texture if the biscuits are lumpy. But I've made it with crumbs from the food processor too. Use the end of a rolling pin.

In a large saucepan, melt all the other ingredients. The chocolate has a tendency to catch on the bottom, unless there's a film of butter underneath. When everything is melted, take it off the heat and stir in the biscuit crumbs. Then spread them out onto tinfoil. If I want it to look neat, I put the tinfoil onto a plate, and use that as a guide, but I don't always bother. Wrap in tinfoil (the easiest is to use a piece of foil twice the size of the cake, spread it in the middle, and then pull up the sides), and put in a cool place for an hour or two. Or make a day or two ahead.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Pizza dough

Pizza dough is one of those things that always cause me to get out dozens of recipe books, and, even then, I'm not satisfied. Last night, I made the best pizza dough ever, so I need to write it down. It came from the green River Cafe book, and, as so often with the River Cafe recipes, it didn't work as instructed, but, luckily, I was able to rescue it. This is a more sophisticated recipe than most, and has a little rye flour in it, to give it an edge.

Step 1: Mix four teaspoons of dried yeast (the sort that comes in a tin, not an instant sachet) with 125ml warm water (as a rough guide, two thirds from the cold tap, one third from the kettle, don't obsess). When the yeast has dissolved, add 150g rye flour. The instructions say to leave this for half an hour to form a sponge, but there's no chance of that with so little water, all you'll get is a hard ball. So I added more water, probably about the same amount again. Basically, you want the mixture to be loose. It will grow, so make sure you're doing this in a big bowl or mixing jug.

Step 2: When the mixture has frothed, which will take at least half an hour, and maybe more if there's a draft, or it's not very warm, you make the dough. In your mixer bowl, measure 500g plain flour (I used soft pasta flour for this, you really don't have to use hard bread flour), one tablespoon of salt (I use Maldon salt for everything), four tablespoons of olive oil, two tablespoons of milk, and 250g warm water (same rough guide as in step one). Then add your sponge, and mix with a dough hook. When it's kneaded, remove the hook and leave in a warm place to rise. It will need at least two hours. We went to the cinema at this point (Music and Lyrics, very funny), and came back three hours later.

Step 3: Knock back the dough, and leave to rise for another 40 minutes. (We did not do this, because we were hungry. The dough was good, two rises is counsel of perfection, and not always possible; bread dough is very accommodating).

Step 4: Divide the dough into four, roll into balls (flour the worktops an your hands), they will be about the size of cricket balls. Then roll these out using a rolling pin (although, actually, the pizza chef at Pizzeria Mama Mia in South Parade, Oxford, spins them on his fingers, then pinches out little bits to fill in any holes - fascinating watching him, if you sit at the small table by the kitchen window, Alfred, then aged about eight, and I were mesmerised).

Add your toppings, then put in a hot oven.

Lucius, Lettice and Alfred all swirled theirs with tomato sauce, then added a variety of delicacies - Parma ham, mushrooms, cheeses, etc. I had pizza bianca, with a scraping of onion which had been slowly stewed in olive oil, topped with a few pine nuts, some capers, and sultanas soaked in hot saffron water. Then I topped the lot with a pile of peppery winter salad leaves from the greenhouse (lots of rocket, a little mizuna, that sort of thing). Fantastic. And it was good fun, too.

Red cabbage

Red cabbage seems to be one of those things you either love or hate. My father always has to go out of the house if it's cooking, because he says he can't bear the smell of vinegar (although he likes pickled onions, salt and vinegar crisps - it's funny how particular and precise our palates are). Lucius says it's wasted on him, which is as close as he gets to saying yuck (kind man). Lettice and I both love it. But I often find that I don't get it quite right, particularly if I just do it from memory. This recipe, from Mary Berry's Aga cookbook, is the best, and I thought I would note it down as the cabbage cooks. I always do lots, because it freezes well, and is good when there's a crowd.

Shred one medium red cabbage. Peel, core and chop 6 or 7 eating apples. Put them into a big pan with six tablespoons of water, 40g sugar, and some salt. Stir. Bring to the boil (a matter of seconds), cover, and put in the bottom oven for one hour (ie cook very slowly, on a low flame). When it's cooked, add six tablespoons of vinegar (red wine vinegar is what I usually use), one tablespoon of redcurrant jelly, and a slug of olive oil (MB uses 50g of butter, but I don't, for obvious reasons).

You can eat this straight away, but I find it has a better flavour if you make it ahead and reheat it - I do this slowly in the bottom oven for half an hour or so, but you can do it over a low flame, in which case it needs to be stirred every so often. If you are going to freeze it, then make sure it's completely unfrozen before starting to reheat, otherwise it goes all mushy, and then it's not very good to eat.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Anchovy dressing for broccoli

Last week the recipe that came with my veg box was for a broccoli salad dressed in anchovy sauce. I liked the idea of it, but never got round to making it. In fact, I never actually read the instructions, just thought that an anchovy sauce would be good with broccoli. So last night, when I was cooking this week's veg box broccoli, I dug out the recipe. I don't know about you, but I don't like cold broccoli. So that was the end of that.

Instead, I dressed the hot broccoli in a sauce I whizzed up from six anchovies (I keep a jar of them in the fridge), one tablespoon of red wine vinegar, and two tablespoons of 0% fat fromage frais. Good strong flavour. One to remember. And a definite improvement on cold broccoli salad.

It also happened that we finished up some carrots from the weekend, sliced and cooked in freshly squeezed orange juice. On Sunday, I didn't reduce the juice, and they were okay. Last night I reduced the juice down to a sticky nothing, and they were fabulous. Also unexpectedly good beside the broccoli.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dhal for lunch

Stefan the plumber who is here re-doing our bathrooms remarked last week that dhal was the best meal ever. So when I picked up the Waitrose freebie magazine Seasons and there was a recipe for spiced dhal, I decided to make some for my lunch. I didn't quite follow the recipe, and this is what I did:

Peel and chop one onion, sweat in some oil. Add a little curry powder, stir for a moment or two, then add a tin of tomatoes. When it's bubbling, add 120g red lentils and a canful of water. Bring back to the boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes until the lentils are tender.

I ate this with beautiful golden and scented saffron rice, which I cooked with a little of the onion and some pine nuts. (One cupful of rice, added to some chopped sweated onion and pine nuts, stirred about for a few moments, then cooked with the lid on tight in two cupsful of water until it's all gone and the rice is fluffy; then put aside to steam for a couple of minutes, or until everything else is ready. You add the saffron to a little hot water taken from one of the cups, soak it for a while before pouring it all into the pan.)

Quick, cheap, healthy heart food - Stefan was right!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lentil salad with home-made cheese

At last, I've managed to take some photographs whilst preparing lunch! Johanna the passionate cook once took me to task (in a friendly way) for the lack of photos on my blog, and I've felt vaguely guilty about this ever since, even though my blog has always been mostly about helping me to remember what I've been cooking, and making it easy for friends to access specific recipes of things they've eaten here and liked.

I love lentils, all pulses really, but no-one else in the family shares this passion, so I have to choose lentil recipes with great care. Pulses are, of course, a particularly healthy heart food, the fibre helping to reduce cholesterol levels (that sounds SO like new age mumbo jumbo that I'm almost embarrassed to have written it - at the very least, the more beans you eat, the less room there is for meat, with its attendant dollops of saturated fat).

Lucius always looks vaguely disappointed whenever pulses are on the menu: not this time, though. And I know that cheese-making sounds like a time-consuming activity, but it's not, it's just one of those recipes you have to start early so that they can get on and do their thing all by themselves. This was a couple of minute's fiddling just after breakfast. Cooking the lentils was the most time-consuming (a minute or two for prep, then keeping an eye on them for the 20 minutes they took to cook). Out to the greenhouse for some salad leaves, and then a quick assembly job just before we ate. The result was lemon-scented salty lentils dressed in olive oil, their sharp savoury flavour set off by the soft sweetness of the barely-set curd cheese. One to make again and again.

First, the cheese. Put one litre of milk in a stainless steel saucepan and heat to blood temperature. In other words, put your finger in - if it feels hot, it's higher than blood temperature, if it feels cold, it's lower. The exact temperature is not critical, but it is important not to let it boil. Take it off the heat and put in two teaspoons of rennet. You may think rennet is impossible find, but it's not - I bought it (99p for a bottle which will last ages) in a medium-sized Waitrose, on the baking section. Leave this for fifteen minutes, at which point you will have what my grandmother called junket (and which we ate loads of during my childhood, those unimaginable days before yoghurt came in highly flavoured little pots). This is what Little Miss Muffet was eating - curds and whey.
To make the cheese, you need to drain off all the whey. You are supposed to do this by putting the curds into a muslin square which you then hang up. I had started before I realised there was no muslin in the house, and I didn't think a tea towel would do the trick. So I put some of the curds into my four little coeur a la creme pots, which have drain holes in the bottom, and the rest into a conical sieve. Drip drip drip until lunchtime. I'm afraid I let the whey go down the drain - the very particular flavour of Parma ham results from the pigs being fed on the whey made by makers of Parmesan cheese. But we don't have any pigs, and I didn't think the cats would like whey as much as the whole milk they normally drink.

Next, the lentils. 100g of Puy lentils will be enough for four people as a starter or side dish. Cook them in plenty of water with a sliced onion and some bay leaves. They'll be soft but not mushy within 20 minutes. Drain them, discard the bay, and dress them while they are still warm. I used the zest and juice of a lemon, lots of olive oil, with a little Maldon salt. When they were cool, I added half a tin of chopped anchovy fillets.

The rest was just an assembly job, using the strong flavours of the oriental mix salad leaves that are now growing strongly in the (unheated) greenhouse. It's a pity I didn't sow them in October rather than November, and then we would have had salad leaves all through the dark days of December and January.

My friend Susan, a very good cook, arrived for lunch towards the end of this process, and remarked that "real cooking" was in progress. True, but the sort that requires you to be a tiny bit organised (ie have decided what's for lunch three hours beforehand), rather than energetic. We ate it with home-made slow white bread, another recipe where time does all the work for you. Susan thought the blog should be decorated with me posing, chef-like, in front of my artfully arranged food. She took a couple of shots, but I'm not posting them because - as always - I look attrocious, laughing in one, talking in the other.