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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Here's a great idea ...

I've been thinking ... this sounds great .... it's Gennaro Contaldo's Italian porchetta - 5kg of belly pork should be enough to feed everyone at dinner, and you make your main preparations well ahead, give it a quick blast on the highest setting, then cook it slowly with fennel for hours and hours. I vaguely remember Jamie Oliver doing something like this in his Italy series, so I'll have to look that up. Or I could make it ahead - double quantities - and serve it cold for lunch, with herby boiled potatoes and one of Skye's beautiful salads. I think I feel a decision coming on, but I'll have to consult the butcher first ...

PS there's nothing new in the blogosphere ... I've just - belatedly - been doing an internet search for porchetta (somehow, for me, it feels more natural to go to the recipe books first, but I think I may be going to get out of this 20th century habit fairly soon!) .. and found this wonderful post, covering both Contaldo and Oliver. Thanks, Keiko!

Birthday planning - and an orange cake

Here, never mind Valentine's Day, we are planning for Lucius's 60th birthday, which falls on February 15th. Thank heavens he wasn't born a few hours earlier, or he would have been called Valentine, so his mother used to tell me. So this year's not the year for little heart-shaped amuse bouches, or relentlessly pink puddings (not that I've ever gone in for that sort of cooking, in truth).

On the great day itself, I am organising a magical mystery tour (he wanted it to start at 2pm, after he'd had a meeting, but I told him to rearrange it - it's not every day you have your sixtieth birthday during half term, so that the children can join in too). Then on Saturday 17th, some of his closest friends are coming to dinner - we'll be 10 or 12 round the table. The following day, his family are coming for lunch, and then we'll be 35-40, everyone helping themselves. That's a lot of cooking in a short space of time (& I forgot to mention breakfast on Sunday morning for the friends staying the night), so it has to be carefully planned.

Careful planning means, of course, getting out the recipe books. You can't really follow a recipe for a large party, because, in general, they are for 4-6 people, and not conducive to multiplication. So when there's a crowd, it's easy to get stuck in the cold-ham-baked-potatoes-and-a-salad rut (or in summer cold salmon, boiled potatoes and a salad - you get the idea). On the other hand, it's got to be easy enough to serve without fuss, and so that I am at the party, rather than stuck in kitchen maid mode: red-faced, cross, & missing all the fun.

So, for inspiration, I've been reading Skye Gyngell's lovely book A Year in my Kitchen, as well as Diva Cooking by Victoria Blashford-Snell and Jennifer Joyce. And then, to keep my feet firmly on the ground, Cook Now, Eat Later by Mary Berry, whose work is a little like Delia's. Nigel Slater's no good for this sort of thing, because he only ever seems to cook for two or three, and for him a crowd is six, whereas, with four children, that's my starting point; Nigella doesn't like crowds, either, although I think that's because all her crowd-pleasing recipes seem to involve so much last-minute work.

Here, we want special, celebratory food. I've got plenty of time to prepare ahead, and don't want too much last-minute fuss to spoil the party for me. I also don't want to veer too far from our usual path of avoiding saturated fat, eating plenty of seasonal fruit and veg. However, it is a party, a special party, and rules are made to be broken. And there's another thing: potatoes are Lucius's favourite food, in fact, he doesn't really consider it a meal unless there are hot potatoes.

At the moment, I'm thinking Skye's cauliflower and Gorgonzola soup with pickled pear relish - the relish can be made several days in advance, and will probably be all the better for it; the soup can be made a day or two ahead, and will be easy to reheat and serve. Also, I'm still getting terrific pears and cauliflowers in my veg box. A little cheese in the soup will be a real treat for us. This agra dolce combination, so typical of Skye's food, will be wonderful with home-made white bread, the NY Times recipe that so many bloggers have just discovered.

Skye also has lots of tempting salads, particularly one made with sprouting broccoli, radicchio and frisee dressed with chilli and garlic oil. That sounds as if it would be good with lamb, but I haven't yet decided - I need to talk to the butcher.

Pudding - Skye has a lovely blood orange jelly, which I thought I'd make for dinner, and serve with sliced blood oranges. I love them, always have, that little bit of Sicilian sunshine which brightens up the dark months of northern Europe. There are plenty of them in the market at the moment, although I have noticed that Waitrose has started to call them blush oranges. What's wrong with traditional names, particularly when they are more descriptive than the new, mealy-mouthed marketing department's apology for a name?

So dinner's getting sorted - I just have to decide on a main course, and something to hand round with drinks.

Buffet lunch - the only thing I have so far decided is that for pudding we'll have meringues and some sort of fruit compote, together with an orange cake, the lovely Claudia Roden cake from her Book of Jewish Food, which is one of my all-time favourite winter puddings. It looks like the summer sun, vibrant with colour, it tastes of the southern Mediterranean - sweet with almonds, bitter with orange. It is a recipe redolent with history, a Sephardic recipe which has been made for centuries to celebrate the winter months. Our chickens have come into full lay, so it's a useful way to use their eggs to good effect - cakes are definitely better made with the best eggs, and our Buff Orpington chickens scratch around the garden most days, finding whatever they like to eat (and last weekend that was the young shoots of the kale I've been anticipating for the kitchen!).

So ... lots more decisions, any suggestions welcomed.

Claudia Roden's orange cake

2 oranges
6 eggs
250g sugar
2 tbsp orange blossom water
1 tsp baking powder
250g ground almonds

Boil the oranges in water until they are soft. This will take about an hour, perhaps a little more. Carefully drain them in a colander, and, when they are cool, split them open with your hands and take out the pips. Put them into the Magimix with all the other ingredients, and whizz until everything is smooth (the oranges will disintegrate in moments, which makes me think you could probably mix this by hand without any real difficulty, although I have never tried this).

It would be better if you beat the eggs and sugar together first, but I never do. It would be better if you ground your own lightly toasted almonds, but I seldom do. It does not much matter if you leave out the orange blossom water, which I sometimes do. Last time I made it I forgot to put in the baking powder, and the result was a little less light than usual, but it did not spoil the cake. This is a very forgiving recipe (and you can make it with any sort of orange citrus - clementines are good).

Pour into a 26cm tin which you have greased (I always use olive oil for this). CR says you should dust it with flour or Matzo meal; I never have, because I use a clip tin with a removable base. Bake for one hour at 190C, and leave to cool in the tin before turning out.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Three root mash, for Lettice

On Saturday, we went temporarily mad, and drove for a couple of hours to watch Alfred play hockey in Cheltenham. Lettice was very keen to see him play, and this was the only opportunity she would have this term. So off we went, leaving the house straight after a late breakfast (kippers, great start to the weekend). On the way, we stopped at the Kilkenny Inn*, which is just outside Cheltenham, where we had a good, home-cooked lunch (soup for Lucius, steak sandwich for Lettice, chicken Caesar for me) whilst reading the papers.

Lettice found a recipe for three root mash. "Let's have that for lunch tomorrow." "Well, we're having mashed potato tonight." "Please, please, PLEASE." And so we did. With game stew, made with a mix of venison, pheasant and partridge bought from my wonderful butcher Gabriel Machin* in Henley.

We didn't read the recipe properly, I don't even know which paper it was in. We just made it up as we went along: I peeled and chunked equal quantities of carrot and parsnip, then boiled them until they were tender. Meanwhile, I peeled some potatoes, roughly the same amount as the combined carrot and parsnip. These I cooked separately. When I drained the carrot and parsnip, I kept the cooking water. Then I blitzed them in the Magimix, adding a little cooking water. Meanwhile, I drained and mashed the potatoes, again using some of the saved cooked water to loosen the mixture(I didn't keep the potato water because it's so starchy). And then I combined them. The result was a beautiful orangey-mash, sweet to taste, and particularly good with the venison.

We also ate a cauliflower gratin (steamed cauli, bathed in a bechamel made with olive oil and skimmed milk), and topped with rosemary citrus salt (I thought I'd posted this before, but I haven't, so the "recipe" follows), braised leeks (chopped into rings, and gently stewed in olive oil), and red cabbage from the night before.

The rosemary citrus salt is one of a number of useful things to keep in the fridge and use where you might once have used cheese. It takes moments to prepare, and keeps forever in a little plastic box in the fridge. Put 100g Maldon sea crystals in a mortar, add the finely grated zest of a lemon and an orange (at this time of year a Seville orange might by extra tang-y), and the chopped leaves of a couple of twigs of rosemary. Bash it all up until you get a sticky mess, then spread it out thinly onto a baking tray. It needs to dry out before you can store it, so I put it on top of my Aga for a few hours, but anywhere warm and dry would do. It goes on lots of things, to make them a little more exciting - fish, lamb, gratins - and makes a change from anchovy breadcrumbs, another stalwart of this kitchen.

*Neither of these excellent establishments has a website, although they both appear in various listing sites

PS Alfred won't thank me for telling you, but his team lost

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Retro fish mousse

There's something rather 70s about using gelatine, and it's probably 30 years since I last did. This was a way to use up the end of the Christmas smoked salmon, although I think it would work with any kind of fish, fresh or smoked. (Actually, I don't yet know if it's "worked" because I haven't turned out the mould, but it looks and tastes good.) We've got some neighbours coming for supper in the kitchen tomorrow, and this seemed an elegant but not over-the-top way to begin.

Blitz 700g smoked salmon trimmings with a 500g tub of 0% fromage frais, and the juice & finely grated rind of a lemon. Meanwhile, soak in water two small sheets of gelatine (I used Costa fine leaf, bought in Waitrose), and heat 250ml fish stock. Take the stock off the heat, squeeze the gelatine and drop it into the stock. Stir to dissolve, then leave to cool. When it's cold but not set, mix it into the fish. This is enough for about eight people, so I put some into four little ramekins, the rest into a terrine mould lined with cling film. I'll freeze this and use it next week when we've got a few more people coming round.

I bought the fish stock, even though I normally try not to use industrially processed food. It was Waitrose Cooks' Ingredients, the sort that comes in a plastic bag. I read the ingredients list carefully, and decided to buy it because it had no salt, and contained only things that I use in my kitchen - white fish, lobster, langoustine, carrot, onion, white wine, tomato puree, celery, lemon juice, tarragon, bay leaf, white pepper. It doesn't say how much water there is - my guess is lots, because you would have been hard pressed to taste many if any of those flavours. Next time I'm at the fishmonger, I think I'll get some trimmings and make my own, so that I can freeze it in very small amounts.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Beetroot salad

We've been eating seasonally for over a year now - easy in the summer, but it needs careful thought at this time of year. As we've got better at it, we've added more rules: positively no vegetables with jet lag, preferably raised in the UK, although trucked in from Spain at a pinch. We're not sure what to think about British veg raised under heated glass (this week's lettuce, after weeks without), or frozen veg (all that electricity), or cans, or commercially bottled produce. We're not yet ready to say that everything should be raised in the garden, but I am certainly planning a more elaborate veg patch this year. I am already more concerned with late summer and autumn plantings than spring sowings, because if you get the early sowings wrong, there's plenty of choice in the market. If you plant late in the autumn, then the winter salads aren't growing well enough to sustain the kitchen through the dark months - and that's what happened to us this year. My lovely saladisi, a mix of cut-and-come-again leaves, have not been strong enough to stand repeated pickings, and they would have been if I had sown them three weeks earlier. The kale, too, which stands outside the kitchen window, should have been in the ground a month earlier to make strong growth before the light faded - we won't be able to start eating them until late February. It's been a steep learning curve, and we're all fed up with squash and turnips.

So last night, I tried something different - a salad made from one of those vacuum packs of beetroot. The dressing was unusual, and suggested by a half-remembered recipe written by Angelika, who writes a blog called The Flying Apple from Vienna. Vacuum-packed beetroot are normally fairly bland, but this easy salad is bursting with flavour.

I LOVE beetroot - we used to have it every Wednesday at school, pickled in harsh malt vinegar, with a slice of corned beef and a dollop of lumpy mash. For years it was my favourite comfort food, although corned beef is now firmly off our menu (it doesn't actually say on the tin how much saturated fat there is, but when you look at it you see that it must be getting on for 50%). I know that beetroot is, for many, a horror food: at school the nuns used to keep us in until we had finished everything our plates - I never went to school on a Friday afternoon, because I couldn't, just couldn't, eat the slice of Edam. Elsie McArthur never went to school at all in the afternoons, because there were all sorts of things she couldn't eat. My friend DD was a picky eater, but managed to gain her freedom most afternoons by hiding the remains in her napkin or pocket. For obvious reasons she couldn't do this on beetroot day.

All this staring at plates took place in a huge Victorian glasshouse, with a beautiful tiled floor, which was set in the old walled garden of Friar Park, an extraordinary mansion on the edge of Henley on Thames which later became the home of the Beatle George Harrison. My memories of the house are vivid but patchy - try as I may, some parts of it I just can't visualise, although others are as clear in my mind as parts of this house in which I have been living for 20 years. We must have been hanging our heads over the revolting remains, because what I remember best of all about the glasshouse is the lovely floor.

But back to the beetroot:
Slice the roots in a 250g vacuum pack. Make a dressing with a little zest from an orange, a little of the juice, a teaspoon of chilli jam (or use Thai chilli sauce if you don't make this useful and delicious fresh-tasting cross between sauce and jam), and a few drops of chilli oil. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes or so, and strew it with a pinch of Maldon salt before serving.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Aromatic prawns

Horatio and I have just eaten the most delicious Sunday evening supper - I hesitate to call it curry, because that makes you think of chilli peppers, hot hot food, and the need for dahl, iced cold water, and yoghurt. We often eat something light and fishy on a Sunday evening, which generally translates into sardines on toast, with a little yoghurt, lemon juice, and some chopped spring onions (and that's what Lucius will probably make for himself when he gets back from playing real tennis at Merton). But Horatio is the only other person in the house who seeks out curry, and as we were the only two at home this evening, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

This is a kind of korma, but without the coconut, which we don't eat, because it is full of saturated fat (I still find it difficult to understand how a plant can make saturated fat). Instead, there are ground almonds to sweeten the sauce, which has an aromatic depth of flavour from six spices.

First, chop a large onion, and sweat it gently in oil with a couple of sliced cloves of garlic. This should take 20-30 minutes, and you'll need to add a little water from time to time to stop it catching. You want soft onion, not too brown. Put the rice on to cook (one mug of basmati, two of water, cook covered until all the water is absorbed, just under 20 minutes).

While this is going on, organise your spices. In a mortar, put the seeds from two cardamom pods, half a teaspoon of fennel seeds, two cloves, half a teaspoon of cinnamon and of ginger, and some freshly grated nutmeg. Bash it with a pestle until you have a sticky rich mess.

When you are nearly ready to eat (ie, when the rice is all but cooked), add the spices to the onions, give it a good stir, and add 250g prawns. Stir, then add 2 tablespoons of ground almonds, two tablespoons of yoghurt and a glass of water (120-150ml). Simmer for five to ten minutes, until the sauce has thickened to your liking.

Even the most adamant chilli hater couldn't object to this curry. I'll make it later this week with chicken or pork - either would be good.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Onion soup

What is it about soup and the New Year? Something light and cheap after the holidays, I suppose. This was lunch the other day - onions, a little bread, some left over cheese, slowly transformed into something greater than the sum of its parts, the sweetness of the onions complementing the savoury crouton.

Peel one large onion per person, cut it in half and then slice as finely as possible. Fry on the lowest heat in the least possible amount of olive oil, stirring every so often, for half an hour or more, until the onions are melting and beginning to brown. Then add liquid. This can be water or stock. Either will do. If it is water, then a little flavouring wouldn't come amiss - say, a little wine, perhaps there's some brandy left over from the Christmas cake, a little balsamic vinegar, any of those three bubbled up before adding water sparingly. Or stock, but only if you've made it. (I find this takes very little effort: say, two minutes twice, spread over several hours - washing up the pan takes more.) Simmer the soup gently for 20-30 minutes, until the onion is meltingly tender and all the flavours are amalgamated.

When it's ready, toast some bread, add cheese, grill. We used cheddar for the children, stilton for the adults.

Serve in shallow soup plates, and float the rarebit on top.

Variations would include adding thyme, or cinnamon, or nutmeg. But what makes this so delicious is its simplicity (it's hardly a recipe, more a reminder), so probably best not to try too many variations.