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

Monday, December 31, 2007

Blowing my own trumpet

The opportunity to blow my own trumpet today is too good to miss: my pasta with braised lentils - the one my lentil-hating husband liked - has been voted one of the best of 2007 ... it's a wonderful site, links to dozens of really good recipes from all over the world, and to lots of blogs both familiar and unfamiliar. I'm honoured - and proud - to find myself amongst them ... so THANK YOU Zorra, for all the work involved in hosting, and thank you, too, to whoever nominated me.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Brussels sprout puree

You have no idea how delicious this is - essence of sprout. (I'm assuming, of course, that you like Brussels in the first place.)

Whizz your cooked sprouts to a pulp. Jane Grigson says sternly that you should cook the sprouts specially, because their flavour coarsens as they cool. Notwithstanding this advice, I used three-day-old sprouts that had been cluttering up the fridge. Tip the very stiff puree into a saucepan, grate a lot of nutmeg onto it, and add enough 0% fromage frais to loosen the mixture. Heat gently and serve hot.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas everybody ... it's five past midnight, we've just had a very happy evening with my sister's friend Elizabeth and her family visiting from California, and my parents. Roast sirloin, lots of vegetables, good cheese, fruit (lovely sticky dates), some nice Beaujolais, and a great after-dinner game of Mafia .... some hitherto unsuspected brilliant liars amongst us.

Our guests have gone off to the midnight service at Henley parish church (where we were married), so now it's just us: all six of us under one roof, something which doesn't happen very often these days ... and a phrase which I'm always teased about, whether or not I actually say it. Now everyone has disappeared to wrap presents, I've just put on the washing machine, and I'm waiting to fill the dishwasher one last time before I go to bed. A little time to reflect ... and to wish all my cyberfriends A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS, and many more to come. See you on Boxing Day!


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Ham in Coca-Cola

Lettice loves that slimy thin-cut so-called ham you can buy in supermarkets, but says she hates home-cooked ham off the bone. On the other hand, she loves Coca-Cola. So I thought I'd do Nigella Lawson's ham in Coca-Cola. And she liked it.

I'm not sure how much the taste of Coke comes through, but the topping is lovely, provided you cover it with greaseproof paper, because it burns in seconds ... and that's the second time I've done that.

This is a two-step recipe, boiling first, then baking in a hot oven. You can either do this all in one, in which case allow about 3 1/2 hours. Or you can boil it the day before, then finish it a little under an hour before you are ready to eat.

Ham in Coca-Cola

2kg gammon piece
2l Coco-Cola
one onion
100g fresh breadcrumbs (4 slices)
100g soft brown sugar
3 tsp mustard powder
3 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbs Coke

Just use a piece of supermarket ham/gammon for this. You don't need to soak it. Put it in a large pan with an onion cut into two (no need to peel), and a couple of cloves if you've got them. Cover with Coke, the sugary sort, DO NOT think of using any form of diet cola. Bring it to the boil, and simmer it at the rate of 30 minutes per 500g plus 30 minutes. In other words, a 2kg piece needs 2 1/2 hours.

Mix the breadcrumbs with the sugar and mustard, and a little Coca-Cola - go carefully, because you want a paste, not a sauce.

Then, when it's cool enough to handle, remove the ham from the liquid, cut off the skin, and smear it with the crumb mixture. Cover with a little greaseproof paper, and bake in a hot oven, 200C, for about 30 minutes. Or, if it was completely cold to begin with, for about 45 minutes (an hour if it's come straight out of the fridge).

Baked potatoes, broad beans, roasted onions, parsley sauce. Lots cold for supper. Mmm.

Spiced Christmas clementines, part 2

These clementines filled the house with their spicy scent this morning when I came down to let the dogs out, make tea, and fetch the newspapers in from the bottom of the drive. Just as Giorgio Novelli remembers from his childhood Christmasses.

They took moments to prepare yesterday before we went to the cinema. I put them in the oven when I took out dinner, then switched it straight off. The morning, I only needed to put a little quince liqueur into them before putting them into the oven as it heated up for lunch. I took them out before it got up to temperature, and let them rest at room temperature until we were ready to eat them.

Delicious. Full instructions in yesterday's post. Just two things: if you use clementines rather than oranges, you won't be able to put in as much as a tablespoonful of liqueur; and put the liqueur in over the dish you're going to use to bake and serve the fruit, because then you won't waste any of it, and there might be a little to spoon over (as you can see, I used a tiny funnel, but only because I have it). Also, if you've got a sweet tooth, you might want to put a grain or two of sugar in at the same time (or use a sticky liqueur).

PS St Trinian's may be the best film I've ever seen ... it's a very silly, highly enjoyable, very English romp, a sort of pantomime on film, complete with Rupert Everett as both pantomime dame and baddy. It was filmed about a mile from here, as the crow flies. Then again, there are plenty of serious candidates for best film ...

Friday, December 21, 2007

Spiced Christmas clementines

As you know, I'm always on the lookout for puddings which are predominantly fruit, but a little more exciting than just eating the fruit. It's not that we eat much pudding, just that I like to know that when we do, it's delicious and as healthy as a pudding can be. So when I saw this recipe in the paper last weekend, I knew I'd have to try it. This is a recipe from Giorgio Novelli's mother, one which she made each Christmas: She put the spices and fruit into a very hot oven and then just turned off the heat. You'd wake up to this amazing smell and you knew at once which day it was.

This is a kind of Christmas cake without the cake, a Christmas pudding without all that steaming. Or suet.

I'm making this tonight, for lunch tomorrow, when my parents are coming. I've prepared the fruit, we're just off to the cinema to see St Trinian's (how can you resist Rupert Everett in drag??), and I'll put it in the oven after I've finished cooking supper when we get back.

Mama Novelli's spiced clementines

whole clementines
vanilla pods
star anise
cinnamon sticks
Kirsch, or whisky, or Cointreau - or quince vodka

Blanch the clementines in boiling water for 30 seconds, to soften the skins, and to melt away any wax used for preservation (you'll avoid this if you buy organic, although I know it's not always easy or possible). If your fruit is waxed, you'll get a whitish bloom which you can gently rub off with kitchen paper while it's still warm.

Pierce each clementine at the top, and stick with spices. Put on a baking tray.

Put the fruit into a very hot oven, and switch it off straightaway. Leave them overnight. It really is best to do this overnight, because the oven takes a very long time to cool right down (I know this from making moonblush tomatoes, another overnight-in-a-cooling oven process).

In the morning, the fruit should be dry to the touch. Pull out the spices, and spoon a tablespoonful or so of your chosen alcohol into the fruit. Put them back onto the baking tray, and then put them into a warm oven, 150C, for 15-20 minutes to absorb the alcohol. Leave to cool.

To serve, cut in two, and scoop over vanilla ice cream / whipped cream / creme fraiche.

Pasta with braised lentils

This earthy pulse dish, just made for winter, had my lentil-hating husband reaching for more. It's richly flavoured, easy, fairly quick (no soaking involved), cheap - a dish you can make with tinned tomatoes, or, if you roasted some tomatoes in the glut months, this is the perfect use for them. It uses two of the few herbs which thrive at this time of year - rosemary and sage. And it's the very first lentil dish Lucius really likes.

Your kitchen will fill with the heady scent of rosemary as this cooks. And the water will turn black as squid ink - which, in turn, will colour the pasta brown as wholemeal.

It's based on a recipe by Antonio Carlucci, although I think it is Umbrian cucina povera. This may seem like a small amount for three, but the lentils are filling, and you could feed four with this much, providing you had a salad, or perhaps a pud.

Braised lentils and pasta
for 2 or 3

150g Puy lentils (or ones which hold their shape when cooked)
1 medium onion, cut in half
6 fresh sage leaves
a sprig of rosemary
250g pasta
2 tomatoes, either tinned or slow-roasted (from the summer)
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
4 tbsp olive oil

Put the lentils into a large pan with the onion and herbs. Cover with two litres of cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently until the lentils are just done, which will take around 15-20 minutes. Add the pasta and cook until done.

Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes and garlic, and heat in olive oil until they are soft. (You need to use a pan which is big enough to take all the pasta and lentils.) It won't take more than a couple of minutes: whichever type of tomato you choose, they are essentially already cooked, and you don't want to burn the garlic otherwise the dish will taste acrid, when what you're looking for is the soft sweetness of gently melted garlic.

Drain the pasta, fish out the onion and the bare stick of rosemary (the needles will have melted into the dish). Add this to the tomato mess, toss, and serve with a little grated parmesan.

The whole world's sap is sunk

The shortest day. Not even eight hours of light here - sunrise (not that you could see it through this morning's blanket of cloud) was just after eight o'clock, and the sun will set at 10 to four. The world turns today ... and tomorrow there will be a little little more light, perhaps only a minute - even that is something to celebrate.

This poem by Donne catches the mood exactly ... if you don't like poetry, just read the first five lines, which describe so precisely the state of nature at this time of year. Just one thing, though: it's not Lucie's day any more, the calendar was reformed (Give us back our eleven days) in 1752 (in England & the eastern seaboard of America). I've just looked up the details of the switch from the muddles of the Julian calendar to the modernity of the Gregorian calendar which we all now use, and it's fascinating how long it took some countries to make the change ... Russian atheletes arrived two weeks late for the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, for instance. Don't you just LOVE Wikipaedia?

I'm going to cook spiced clementines according to Giorgio Novelli's mother's recipe, to bring a bit of sunshine into the house. Recipe and photos later.

A Nocture upon St Lucie's Day, being the shortest day

by John Donne

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucie's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death — which word wrongs her —
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pea and avocado puree / dip

Here's something quick and simple for the party season, healthy too. It's two recipes in one: either a puree to spread on little toasts, or, with the addition of a spoonful of low/no-fat cream cheese, a dip. Either way, two minutes max. The flavour is creamy and sweet ... and it's a splendid shade of green.

Pea and avocado puree / dip

1 avocado pear
a couple of handfuls of frozen peas, cooked
lemon juice

& if you're making the dip:
a spoonful of light cream cheese

Blitz the peas with the avo (and cheese if you're making dip). Stir in the lemon juice and pepper. Dollop into a bowl and serve with vegetable crudites. Or spread on little toasts.

Everyone in my family liked this ... although one or two thought it could do with a little more texture: in which case, blitz the peas (and cheese) to a puree first, then add the avocado and pulse gently.

I'm sending this to Ilva at Lucullian Delights to include in this month's Heart of the Matter - the theme this month is quick and easy for the holiday season. Quick, easy, no saturated fat, good fat in the avo, and a good proportion of lovely legume (I can't get any members of my family to eat pulses apart from peas).

Baked scallops

Lettice and I were on our own for lunch - Lucius was playing in a real tennis tournament, the boys ate early before rushing off to play hockey. So we treated ourselves ... just how much, we realised when we started to eat: this is a simple dish which transcends its ingredients.

We used a small bag of frozen scallops which have been sitting in the freezer for a couple of months since I impulse-bought them. And we used crumbs made from the last of the bread I brought home yesterday from my day's baking with Richard Bertinet. The crumbs on the top make a pastry-ish lid; the ones on the edge crisp up and provide contrast to the creamy texture of the lemony sauce in the centre. I don't think this would work with Mother's Pride.

Baked scallops
for 2

6 scallops with their coral
20-30g fine fresh breadcrumbs
lemon zest and juice
coarsely ground black pepper
olive oil

Heat the oven to 250C. Grease a couple of small shallow dishes. Put the crumbs into a bowl, mix in lemon zest and pepper. Add the scallops and toss them until they are completely coated with crumbs. Arrange carefully on the dishes, making sure that the fish is completely covered with crumbs, and that there are a few round the edges. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the two dishes, then drizzle with oil.

Bake for 15 minutes. Leave to settle for a couple of minutes before eating.

This could be a starter or a light lunch (we ate it with raw beetroot salad). Next time, we're going to make it with mussels.

There's something pretty similar in Nigella Lawson's new book, Nigella Express ... but her version is heavier, less heart-healthy, using butter, and there's no zest, which seems a wasted opportunity.

Related link

Scallop and chorizo salad


Wonderful to wake to the news that some sort of agreement has been reached in Bali, after days of fearing that it would be just another Kyoto.

On the other hand, here, it's clear that my family would rather carry on eating industrialised food, don't really care if it arrives in an aeroplane, don't really think that meals are for a family to sit down together and eat the same thing. And we heat half the house using electricity (and even so we can see our breath as we come down the stairs on a cold and frosty morning).

I'll post about the bread when I'm feeling less grumpy ;)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Breadmaking course in Bath

I've just come back from a very inspiring day in Bath, learning how to make bread the Richard Bertinet way. Lovely light bread, full of life, full of air, full of taste. Tactile to make, delicious to eat. I'll post properly tomorrow - how we made fougasse, focaccia, olive breadsticks.

In the meantime, here's a tip for UK readers .... Richard Bertinet told us you can get fresh yeast from Sainsbury's and Tesco. So on the way back from Reading station, I stopped off at Tesco. And you know what? They GIVE AWAY their fresh yeast. Yes, really ... they gave me enough for three kilos of flour, maybe four. You should have seen the grin on my face as I waltzed out of the door.

PS I got into trouble from Richard for taking this photograph - it seems the bread needs to be arranged, to show it off at its best. I just wanted to show you how much we made ... this isn't all of it by any means; tomorrow I'll post a picture of the basket Richard artfully arranged.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Chairman Mao's red braised pork revisited

When I made Chairman Mao's red braised pork a couple of weeks ago, none of the children was at home. When Lucius came home that evening, he went straight to bed with a temperature. So I ate it alone, two nights in a row. I thought it good enough to do again. I thought they'd all like it. So I made it last night. You should have heard the whingeing.

To be honest, it wasn't what I was expecting. What were you expecting? Well, something with a bright red thick sauce, and chunks of raw peppers and onions. You mean takeaway? Yeah, let's order. & so on & so on & so on.

It was quite hot, even though I doubled the quantities but halved the chilli. So next time I make this - and I will, later this week - I'm going to leave out the chilli altogether, thicken the sauce with a little cornflour, add a few vegetables a la Chinese takeaway. And make an egg fried rice to go with it.

PS if you make this, don't panic when you add the pork - it seems as if there's no sauce at all, but there is, as the sugar melts down. It's delicious. Just don't be tempted to add red food colouring.

PPS I made it with lean pork, much nicer. And I left out the boiling stage, with no discernable difference to the finished dish.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Parsnip puree

Yesterday, just as Alfred's match was ending (very exciting, 22-26, in the dying minutes of the game they scored two tries and converted one to win), Eleanor telephoned from a supermarket. Just a quick call. How do you make those creamed parsnips? Eleanor. The daughter with no interest in food, who hasn't cooked anything to speak of since she stopped baking (very good) cakes aged about 10.

Even better, the first time she asks me for a recipe, it's in season - she may have no interest in food, but she knows what to eat when: how could she not? that's how we eat here. So gladdening to a mother's heart that early training is beginning to pay off!

As the jubilant applause died down, I gave her the full-fat Jane Grigson version, not the equally delicious low-fat adaptation, which is more properly called a parsnip puree. I thought we should celebrate this milestone in style.

Speaking of milestones, my very feeble photograph shows Eleanor at her graduation ceremony earlier this week. Now she's applying for a Master's - I am SO proud of her.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Very low fat Christmas pudding

I've made a version of this Christmas pudding once or twice in the past - one without suet (rock solid saturated animal fat), butter, or oils, just held softly together with eggs. I should think you could take out one or two of the egg yolks if you really wanted to reduce the saturated fat content - only then I think you'd need a little more spice, because the taste of an egg is in the yolk. No pictures, because I'm not making a pudding this year.

This is quick and easy. Worth making. Easy, because all you have to do is assemble, weigh and mix the ingredients. Quick, because that's it. Except that you have to make it ahead (which is a plus), although not weeks and weeks unless that's what suits. And except that you need to cook it twice for several hours. But you don't have to stand over it while it's cooking. So, as I said quick and easy. Wholesome ingredients and not a trace of an e-number. The only fat is in the three egg yolks, so it's ideal for those watching their cholesterol, as this will feed a lot of people.

Very low fat Christmas pudding

for up to 10

650g mixed dried fruit
200g fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs
100g soft brown sugar
50g ground almonds
finely grated zest of 2 oranges
1 1/2 tsp mixed spice
3 large eggs
150 ml brandy

Measure everything into a large bowl. Stir well. Oil a large pudding basin, pour in the mixture. Cover with foil. You need to put a little pleat in the centre to give the pudding room to rise, and fix it tight (you can use string; these days I have some special cookery elastic bands which I got from Lakeland). Put this into a large saucepan, add enough cold water to come 2/3rds of the way up the bowl. Cover, bring to the boil, then simmer for 3 hours. You don't need to do anything apart from check the water level after a couple of hours. If it's low, add a little boiling water from a kettle.

The pudding needs to steam again in the same way for two hours before eating. OR, if you make the pudding in a plastic bowl, you could microwave it, because a microwave oven is basically a steamer, and therefore cooks steamed puddings to perfection in very little time. (As to timings, you'll have to consult your oven manual.)


After the first cooking I nearly always let this cool in the water, because it's less of a palaver. It's quite a good idea to change the foil before storing this somewhere cool, but I don't always bother. But the second time you cook it, you're really only heating it up, and you will need to get it out of the pan without burning yourself. One way to do this is to pull a long sheet of foil, long enough to cover the bottom of the saucepan and hang out on both sides. Fold this into three lengthwise, for strength, then drape it over the pan. Put your pudding basin onto it, and then, later, you can lift out the pudding using the foil cradle. Or you could use an old (clean) tea towel.

You can choose whatever fruit you like: figs are traditional (that's why the Victorians called it figgy pudding); I think candied peel is disgusting, even when I've bought the best and cut it myself; I'd rather have sultanas than raisins; if you're going to use cherries, the half-dried ones you can buy these days are nicer here than glace cherries.

Spice: either use mixed spice, or make your own mixture of cinnamon and nutmeg, perhaps a cloves.

If you want to add coins to your pudding, don't bother wrapping them up. Much better clean them - effortlessly, by soaking them overnight in Coca-cola. They'll turn out sparkling mint-clean - and you'll never again drink any cola drink.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Onion, bacon and potato hotpot

The first cookery book I ever bought was called The Pauper's Cookbook, by Jocasta Innes, who later went on to become an expert in the sort of paint effects that everyone except idle me put on their walls in the 1980s - you remember, all that rag-rolling and dragging and stencilling. I've still got my copy, an old, browning food-stained Penguin, the front cover falling off. I've always loved it, and this is one of my favourites from it ... easy to make, although it needs a long time in the oven too cook through. A good dish for supper when you've been out Christmas shopping - cheap winter comfort food.

Onion, bacon and potato hotpot

for 4

4 large onions
4 large potatoes
100-200g bacon
one pint of white sauce

Make the white sauce with oil and skimmed milk. Season with pepper and nutmeg. Peel and slice the vegetables (bear in mind that the onions take a little longer to cook so need to be sliced a little more finely than the potatoes). Chop the bacon (I used largish pieces, but you can use chopped rashers, or those little bits you can buy ready-cut in the supermarket). Grease a casserole (one with a lid). Layer the potatoes, onion and bacon, ending with potatoes. Pour on the white sauce. Cover. Bake in a hot oven, 200C, for an hour. Uncover, then bake at 150C for a further hour.

This is good with cabbage or sprouts.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Extra-fruity golden Christmas cake

It's rather a long time since I put the dried fruit into a plastic box with vanilla vodka and citrus zest. All the recipes say you should soak it for a short time, ranging from about two hours to perhaps a couple of days. I nearly always end up coming back to my fruit after a week or two has elapsed. No problem .... just as well, because this year's cake has twice as much dried fruit in it as usual, to make it more heart-healthy. The aim was to have a slice of fruit glued together with a little cake. And that's what I've got. (Photograph to follow - it's dark, but I've GOT to get this post out now or it will never happen.)

Luckily, as this year's cake is highly experimental, I'd written down notes about what I'd done two weeks ago, and what needed doing next. Otherwise, well - I'd have had to spend another few hours working it all out again.

The biggest problem with reworking a fruit cake recipe is that you don't know exactly how much mixture you'll end up with, or what size tin you'll need. So I decided from the outset that I would make one biggish cake and as many "cupcakes" and teeny cakes as possible. The mix that follows made one 6" cake, and a baker's dozen of variously-shaped little ones.

Extra-fruity golden Christmas cake

When you've got a little time, soak:

1 kilo mixed fruit
18 tablespoons liquor - I used vanilla vodka because that's what I had, but normally I use cheap brandy
zest of two oranges, finely grated

Normally, I put this into a mixing bowl, cover it with a teatowel, and leave it somewhere out of the way, which might or might not be a cool place. This has always worked fine. This year, because there was so much more fruit, none of my bowls was big enough, so I put it into a big plastic box with a lid which I use for picnics. I left it littering the kitchen, which is often very hot. No problem. And the smell was knock-out when I opened the box. Oh and one more thing - you don't need to believe cookery writers who tell you to keep stirring the mixture, there's absolutely no need to do this until you are ready to use it.

When you're ready to bake, assemble these ingredients:

200g Flora
225g caster sugar (less would be good, as there's so much sweet fruit)
4 eggs
100g ground almonds
200g plain flour

Beat the margarine and sugar until the mixture turns pale. Add the eggs one by one so that they don't curdle the mix (but, if they do, start adding the flour). Add the flour and almonds, and stir everything well. Add a teaspoon or two of mixed spice if you'd like. I didn't, because I wanted this cake to taste of the fruit itself (lots of sultanas, dried cherries and glace cherries).

Mix in the fruit, and turn into a prepared cake tin. You can fill this right to the top, because it won't rise much.

Smaller cakes were baked in various ways: I used heart-shaped tin moulds, stainless steel cooking rings (both very successful), and cupcake cases which were less successful because this mixture is lumpy with fruit (it's got twice as much as most "normal" recipes) ... but cupcake cases would be very good with a traditional cake mix.

I baked these at 170C. Start testing the smaller cakes after 30 minutes - if they're near the top of the oven, that's all they'll take. The cupcakes only took longer because they were right at the bottom of my oven in a cold spot - once they'd moved up a rack, they finished cooking in moments. The big cake took about two hours.

Next I'm going to make some marzipan, and then I've got to decide how to decorate. I've never had much success with icing a Christmas cake, so I'd appreciate all the help I can get from experienced cake decorators.

Last, but not least, I'd like to say a huge thank you to so many people who took the trouble to cheer me on and give me advice and help over this .... there are some really good ideas there - pureeing some of the fruit to replace a little of the Flora (I put less marge more almonds for the same sort of result, but only because I was too idle to puree the fruit ... also, since the party a couple of weeks ago, I can't find key parts of my Kenwood mixer) ... I'm going to make the summer solstice cake in a while, I'm toying with the idea of a chocolate fruit cake ... thank you BMP for that very sensible blokey suggestion of just getting on with it ... Steph, I hope you made your stollen ... and, yes, Shreya, you just double the fruit and leave everything else the same - it really works, amazing but true!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Quaking pudding

On Friday we went out for Lucius's office dinner in this lovely upstairs dining room at the Hind's Head at Bray, Heston Blumenthal's pub (not to be confused with his restaurant, the Fat Duck, a couple of doors down the High Street). Good food - thrice-cooked chips, that sort of thing.

I had a dandelion salad, bitter and wintery, with a little bacon and a quail's egg. Moules to follow, and then, for pudding (something I don't often eat), quaking pudding - a delicious modern take on a 17th century English baked cream which is turned out of a mould like a jelly ... and quakes just like a jelly shakes. Blumenthal's version is flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg - masses of it - rather than the traditional English custard flavourings which would be more likely saffron or lemon zest, perhaps orange blossom water.

Elizabeth Raffald gives two versions in her book, The Experienced English Housekeeper for the use and ease of Ladies, Housekeepers, Cooks, &c, written purely from practice published in 1814:

To make a Quaking Pudding.

Boil a quart of cream, and let it stand till almost cold, then beat four eggs a full quarter of an hour, with a spoonful and a half of flour, then mix them with your cream, add sugar and nutmeg to your palate, tie it close up in a cloth well buttered, and let it boil an hour, and turn it carefully out.

To make a Quaking Pudding a second way.

Take a pint of good cream, the yolks of ten eggs and six whites, beat them very well, and run them through a fine sieve; then take two heaped spoonfuls of flour, and a spoonful or two of cream, beat it with the flour till it is smooth, and mix all together, and tie it close up in a dish or bason
(sic) well rubbed with butter and dredged with flour; the water must boil when you put in the pudding. One hour will boil it; serve it up with wine sauce in a boat.

Pretty tricky in a modern kitchen, whichever recipe you go for. Heston Blumenthal, that extraordinary perfectionist, says he tried 50 versions before getting it right - part of that must have been playing with the flavourings, but I dare say it took quite a few goes to get the texture right, too.

Heston Blumenthal's definitive Quaking Pudding

100ml whole milk
400ml whipping cream
65g caster sugar
4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
35g brioche crumbs
a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg (1g of each, if you want to be particular)
butter and flour to line the moulds.

Using your fingers, rub the moulds with softened butter. Place a coffee spoon of flour in each, then tap the mould, rotating it as you go. Once lined with flour, tip out the excess. Repeat with the other moulds. The butter and flour lining stops them sticking.

Preheat the oven to 100C. Warm the milk and cream with the nutmeg and cinnamon. Whisk together the egg yolks, whole egg and sugar for about five minutes. Pour the warm milk over the egg/sugar mix, tip into the moulds and cook in a bain marie until 90C — this should take about 45 minutes.

When you're served this delicious concoction at the Hind's Head, it comes with a little card giving an explanation of the dish:

The word pudding historically refers to a food that is contained in animal gut to hold it when cooking, like "Black Pudding" of sausages. In the 17th Century, cooks realised that they could make puddings by containing food in cloth bags or bowls; this meant that more sweet puddings could be made than before. One of the sweet puddings that was invented then was the "Quaking Pudding"; a light sweet, gently flavoured dish that gained its name due to the fact that it quakes and shakes like a jelly when it is served. Quaking Pudding was a staple in recipe books throughout the 17th, 18th and early 19th Centuries when it began to disappear from recipe collections.

It deserves to be better known.

Friday, November 30, 2007

7-day diet with fat-burning soup

I've recently had a spike of searches for this seven-day-eat-all-you-like diet (not sure how they end up on my blog, but they do) ... it's not something I've ever done myself, and I'm not sure I'd want to. But I'd be interested to know what you all think about it ...

I'm a little wary of this claim: This diet is given to people who need to lose weight rapidly before undergoing surgery. And there's something not good about the idea of a fat-burning soup, but here's the recipe:


1 large bunch green onions
2 green peppers
28oz can tomatoes
6 beef bouillon cubes (optional)
several cloves garlic
1 bunch celery
1 large head cabbage
1 package onion soup mix
several bay leaves
herbs or spices

Cut vegetables into small bite-sized pieces and put all except tomatoes into pot. Cover with water and and boil fast for 10 minutes. Let simmer for approximately 30 minutes until vegetables are tender. Add tomatoes, bring back to boil and heat through. Add soup mix and simmer for 10 mins. May be seasoned with salt, pepper, parsley, curry etc to taste. Add extra tomatoes or cabbage if desired.

The website says it's giving away the diet free as a favour to mankind (womankind??), but it's also trying to get you to spend $18 on a CD.

So I'm confused, and I'd really like your views.

Best blogs of the year

It's nomination time ... and there aren't enough categories, a clutch of my favourite blogs just couldn't be squeezed in to the 2007 Food Blog Awards

Here's a list of blogs that make my day ...

Tanna, Hannah, Sophie, Pomiane, Sue, Celia, Fiona

And here are my nominations:

Best food blog, chef: The Slow Cook
Best food blog, city: Figs Olive Wine
Best food blog, family: Little Foodies
Best food blog, photography: Lucullian Delights
Best food blog, rural: Kate Hill's French Adventure
Best food blog, theme: Garlic Breath
Best food blog, writing: Bread Water Salt Oil
Best new food blog: Book the Cook
Food blog of the year: A Year in Bread

All of these are worth putting in your feed reader, worth exploring. Some of these bloggers I'm proud to call my friends.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Book quiz

Here, for anyone wanting a distraction from whatever it is they are supposed to be doing today, is an amazing quiz. It asks you six questions and then comes up with a book which describes you. Astonishingly perceptive. Too embarrassing to confess.

Besides the Book Quiz, there's a whole website of quizzes, booklists - you can send your 25 best books, in order, and add them to a definitive list of the best books ever written ... how's that for displacement activity?

I've just done it again, got a different path, a different answer, also pretty accurate, one I'll put my hands up to:

You're The Guns of August!

by Barbara Tuchman

Though you're interested in war, what you really want to know is what
causes war. You're out to expose imperialism, militarism, and nationalism for what they
really are. Nevertheless, you're always living in the past and have a hard time dealing
with what's going on today. You're also far more focused on Europe than anywhere else in
the world. A fitting motto for you might be "Guns do kill, but so can

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Pink fish

Jean's Pink Fish is the most wonderful retro recipe, a real throwback to the 1950s and 1960s ... we may think it old-fashioned, but everyone fell on it at lunch on Sunday, even those who, like me, had never eaten Jean's version. Anna was amazed, it's not her normal thing at all - she made it to honour her grandmother, and was slightly embarrassed that it didn't go with the rest of lunch.

It's a tinned salmon mousse, with rice.
I've had plenty of salmon mousse, but never with rice - surprisingly, a good addition; thrifty, too.

In the '60s, everyone used to have a ring mould; setting sweet and savoury dishes with gelatine was all the rage. By the 1980s, it was a forgotten art, and, soon after I married, both my mother-in-law and my stepmother passed me on their no-longer-needed ring moulds. I've used them intermittently, mostly for cakes .... but so intermittently that yesterday, where was the small one when I needed it??? I just hope I haven't given it to Sue Ryder or Oxfam! So I made my pink fish in a small loaf tin instead - not so pretty, but just as effective. I used to have a fish mould, but I can't find that, either - and you try buying one of those now: teddy bears, numbers, stars, hearts - but no fish!

Fish mousse became fish pate (I remember making one with a lot of lemon, and stuffing it back into the hollowed-out lemons), as we all discovered how fiddly it was to use powdered gelatine. These days you can buy sheet gelatine in just about every supermarket, so suddenly it's got easy again ... you just soak the leaves in cold water for a few minutes, and then, when you're ready, squeeze out the water, and slide them into your warm ingredients, whereupon they dissolve instantly.

Pink fish is a very useful starter, because you can make it a couple of days ahead, and it's a doddle, too (I did most of it one-handed while chatting to Menna on the phone). The basic ingredients are likely to be in your kitchen - tinned salmon, rice, yoghurt, tomato ketchup, Worcester sauce, tabasco. You use the tin to measure all the other ingredients, another plus.

Jean's version is delicious, and very much of its time - lashings of cream, mayo from a bottle (it had just been invented). I've updated it to make it lighter, and find that the finished dish tastes sharper, not so sickly sweet (all that cream). Next time I make it, I'll update it again, using fresh salmon rather than tinned, and fresh chilli rather than tabasco. It could also be made with lemony-herby flavourings rather than the chilli.

Jean's Pink Fish

1 tin red salmon
1 tin cooked rice
1/2 tin mayo
1/2 tin double cream
1/2 tin milk
enough gelatine to make it set (2 leaves for a small tin, 4 for a big tin)
tomato ketchup
Worcester sauce
salt and pepper

Soak the gelatine in a little cold water. Meanwhile, drain the salmon and mash it in a little bowl. Put cooked rice into the tin and add it to the salmon. Pour the cream and mayo into the tin, then add this to the bowl. Mix well. Season with sauces. The tk will make it pink which is good, but will also add sweetness, which may become too much in this creamy version, so go carefully.

Now measure half a tin of milk, and heat this gently in a small pan (don't let it boil). When it's a little more than blood temperature, take it off the heat, squeeze out the gelantine leaves and add them. Stir, and when you're sure they're dissolved, add them to your paste. Pour it into your prepared mould (either grease it, or line it with clingfilm). This will take a couple of hours in the fridge to set, and will keep, well wrapped, for at least a couple of days.

You get the full '60s flavour of the thing if you make it in a fish mould, and decorate the resulting mousse with overlapping scales made from finely sliced cucumber. But you may be saved from yourself by the lack of a fish mould. In Anna's case it was a tribute to her grandmother.

Joanna's pink fish

1 tin red salmon
1 tin cooked rice
1 tin 0% Greek yoghurt
1/2 tin skimmed milk
gelatine (see above for quantities)
tomato ketchup
Worcester sauce
salt and pepper

Follow the method above. I used a mixture of white rice and wild rice, because that's what there was, but I think that white rice alone would be a better bet, as the wild rice was quite assertive. Brown rice would be worth trying.

I definitely preferred the taste of this one - sharper, tangy-er. I suspect it would be really good made with fresh salmon, and I know that you could have fun changing the flavourings.

A small tin of salmon made enough mousse to fill a small loaf tin, which would cut into eight slices.

Last week Anna made Jean's original sauce for this, but she said it was too disgusting to eat: cream, tk, tabasco ... more of the same, in other words. I think it would be worth trying a green sauce of some sort - capers, vinegar, herbs. That's what I'll do this evening, anyway.

PS if you're one of the many people who have asked for Anna's passionfruit tart recipe - I'm going to phone her tonight to get instructions - they'll be here before the weekend, fingers crossed

Monday, November 26, 2007

Lunch for Jean

We had a lovely lunch for about 60 friends and family yesterday as a memorial for Lucius's aunt, who died last month at a great age at her home in South Africa. The party was given by Lucius's cousin Bruce and his wife Menna, and the cooking was by their younger daughter Anna, who used to be a party designer (I think that's the right word) at the Admirable Crichton, and is now a freelance cook and party organiser.

We spent a merry morning preparing .... tidying, moving furniture, moving cars to make it easier for guests to park, cooking under instruction from Anna - and endlessly discussing how many potatoes and green beans would be required.

Here are my sons preparing smoked salmon which was sent down by courier from Uig Lodge on the west coast of Lewis in the Hebrides. It was, quite simply, the best smoked salmon I've ever tasted - smokey, and not a trace of the oil which often swamps even some of the better smoked salmon I've bought in the past.

We had a number of very delicious salads ... here's finely-sliced celeriac sitting in a bath of orange juice to stop it browning. Anna used orange juice because the salad had oranges in it - useful to know that it works just as well as lemon juice.

One of the most popular dishes was Jean's famous pink fish ... which will be the subject of a separate post later in the week.

I failed to take a photograph of the main dish, a South African lamb and potato stew, or of the green bean salad which we dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and a huge quantity of toasted almond slivers - a delicious combination. This is my favourite photograph of the day: Robbie Honey, the florist, ladling stew from the pot into a dish, using a saucepan as the ladle:

And here are Robbie's beautiful flowers gracing the dining room table, surrounded by a sea of grey-green leaves:

This is Anna's passionfruit tart ... fabulous, isn't it? Also very delicious ... and she rustled up the last one in moments between sorting out salads, chopping vegetables and cheerfully (& with great charm) telling us all what to do next.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lemony chicken nosh

Useful variation on the normal, what to do with a little bit of leftover chicken?

Lemony chicken nosh

I'm not giving amounts because you need to be guided by how much chicken you have and how many people you need to feed.

Cooked chicken, chopped
0% Greek yoghurt
Lemon zest and juice

Chop the onions and sweat them slowly in oil. When they are soft, add the chicken, stir it about so that it doesn't stick. Add a little stock, enough to make a sauce (if you like a thick sauce, then you could add a little flour to the onions before adding the chicken). Simmer gently until you are sure the chicken is heated through. Add the zest of a lemon, and a little of the juice. Take off the heat and stir in a dollop of yoghurt. Lots of pepper is good, too.

Quick, easy, delicious.

This would work well with turkey, too, so it's my first entry for this month's Heart of the Matter, hosted by Ilva at Lucullian Delights, the theme this month is Quick and Easy ... especially to help with the December madness.

Chickpea mash

Last night, I was going to have a quiet night in on my own ... useful, as we are having 60 people to lunch tomorrow, and, although I'm not cooking, there's a lot to be done. At about 6 o'clock Lucius phoned to say he'd be home for dinner after all. I didn't feel like cooking, and I hadn't made any plans. So ... something quick and easy.

Lucius really doesn't count it as a meal unless there are hot potatoes. I just didn't feel like scrubbing off the Hampshire dirt, peeling, cutting, etc etc. Quick and easy. So I opened a tin of chickpeas. He doesn't like chickpeas at the best of times ... It's mash. His face lit up. I felt a little mean. What sort of mash? he said suspiciously. Oh. He took a little ... and left a lot of it. But he ate up all the chicken nosh that went with it, and even one or two slices of roasted squash.

Chickpea mash

One can of chickpeas
One small onion
Olive oil
perhaps a little cumin or chilli to flavour it. Or not

Chop the onion and sweat it in a little oil. If you are using cumin, add it now. Drain and rinse the chickpeas, then heat them through in fresh water. When the onions are soft, mix them with the drained chickpeas. Mash - either by hand, or with an electric "wand", or whizz them in a food processor. They're just as good lumpy as smooth.

Delicious - ignore my husband!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chairman Mao's red braised pork

I had a lovely day yesterday watching my younger daughter and her school team (representing Oxfordshire) play fantastic hockey - and win the regional tournament. So now, for the second year running, they go forward to represent the South of England at the National Finals of the U18 schools tournament in March next year. WELL DONE St Edwards! And GOOD LUCK in the nationals!

I read this recipe in a colour supplement a couple of weekends ago, and I've been wanting to make it ever since. Quick to make, so that's a plus, but not very red, and not as good as its name, although I liked it. Lovely Chinese flavours, much nicer than takeaway.

This recipe is - I'm told - from the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop - great name, or what? WHY didn't I call one of my children Fuchsia? Or, even better, Dahlia? No, I know the answer to that, so please don't tell me, especially if you ARE one of my children (!).

Chairman Mao's red braised pork

500g belly pork (I think it would be better with a leaner cut)
2 tbsp oil
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp shaoxing wine
20g sliced fresh ginger (don't bother to peel it)
1 star anise
1 dried chilli
1 stick of cinnamon

Boil the pork in water for four minutes. I don't know why you do this, and I'm not sure that I'd bother again, because in the end, you couldn't tell the difference between the bits that had boiled edges and the bits that didn't. Drain, cool, and cut into bite-sized pieces.

Heat the oil and sugar in a wok (mine is non-stick). When the sugar has melted, turn up the heat and brown it. Then add the pork. Toss until each piece of meat has been coated in the sugary oil. It will spit at you, and the sugar will stick like superglue to your spoon. You can rectify this by burying the spoon under the meat as it cooks, and the sugar will gradually melt.

Add the wine and the spices. Simmer for 45-60 minutes (it will depend on the size of your chunks of meat). I half-covered my wok with its lid, because I couldn't quite believe that the meat would cook in that time. Which meant I had to reduce the sauce a little at the end, but the original instructions say you should do that anyway (I'm not sure you'd need to if you left off the lid ... there wasn't a huge quantity of sauce). I left it to cook by itself, although I turned it over a couple of times during cooking.

Serve with noodles and stir-fried vegetables. You might want some soy sauce, because it's a bit bland, despite the spices. Perhaps a little more chilli.

Worth a try, even though it's not very healthy.

Beyond behind

Sorry for the absence of posts for the past few days - I've been busy busy, Lucius has been ill, and I've been sorting out a new computer for my 86-year-old father. This last work is not yet complete, and may well affect future posts. Yesterday, I went with Lettice to Birmingham University for an open day at the School of Sport and Exercise Science (FAB new building), where they've offered her a place to study next year, so that she could see if she likes it. She does, but not as much as Edinburgh and Leeds.

The fruit for the cake is still soaking ... it's fine, no need to listen to organised cookery writers who tell you to soak the fruit for 24 hours. Weigh it and forget it until you find time again, that works for me. It means you can do the cake in any little moment of time. I am hoping that moment will come this evening, when I'm on my own in the house.

That's if I can tear myself away from the tidying that needs doing (very easily, actually!), because the house is in chaos, and we have 50 people coming for lunch on Sunday (luckily I'm not cooking - but I need to get rid of the fruit cake ingredients littering the worktops, not to mention the piles of newspapers and folded laundry which seem to have come to rest in the kitchen). The lunch is to celebrate the life of Lucius's very dear aunt, who died in South Africa a few weeks ago. We thought there'd be around 25 people coming ... but everyone said yes please, which shows you how much we all loved her.

But first, I'm off to spend the day watching Lettice play hockey, representing Oxfordshire in the South of England schools tournament, and hoping to earn a place for the second year running in the national finals of the schools under-18 competition. Keep your fingers crossed: for success - and for a sunny day!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Christmas cake ... help!!!

There's not a great deal of enthusiasm in this house for Christmas cake, the traditional dark brown sort ... I make it every year, in quantity too, because I make one for my neighbour, another for my father, plus ... well, you know how it can be. But last year, I gave my neighbour the recipe, and said that from now on she'd probably have to make it herself, because I didn't want to be tied to making it every year, since no-one in the house wants Christmas cake (I made four last year, none of them for us).

My plan this year is to make a golden cake, in the hope that it will have more appeal for my family. And to make it even more tempting, I want it to have much much more fruit than is normal, so that it's really fruit glued together with a smidgeon of cake. This will make it heart-friendly, and generally more healthful, since dried fruit counts towards your five-a-day.

And I was wondering, does anyone have any experience of tampering with Christmas cake recipes?
I'm usually not afraid to mess with recipes, but baking - well, it requires precision.

My plan is to double the fruit for the recipe I'm using. I'd really like to triple it, but I think I'm chicken. I'm going to get round the cake tin / quantity problem by using the leftover mixture to make Christmas cup cakes (an idea shamelessly pinched from Nigella's Feast).

All suggestions will be seriously considered ... and, if useful, I'll send you one of the cupcakes, decorated as well as I can manage. As you see, I've started soaking the fruit - this year I'm using my homemade vanilla essence, and it smells absolutely wonderful. Most recipes tell you to soak the fruit for anything from one to three days. Let me tell you, you can leave it soaking for a week or more without any problem at all!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Frying pan bread

or ... A quick-fix breakfast bread for the disorganised

Sooner or later, if you're making all your own bread, you're likely to arrive at that moment, immediately before a meal, when there's NO BREAD and NO TIME. Unless you are super-organised. Which I'm not.

Yesterday, I was out at an all-day course. In the train on the way back from Oxford, I planned the cooking which needed to be sorted before we went out to a community party. Get supper started, make a dozen canapes to take to the party, organise the bread to be made on return from party.

Supper, easy. Canapes, less easy: returned to find Lucius had eaten the last of the bread which was to be the toasted basis of my cheesy morsels. More time than planned therefore spent on canapes. No bread prep. Never mind, I'll make a quick loaf when we get back. Party. Dinner. Collapse of cook, no thought of bread.

Fast forward to this morning, Saturday breakfast, the culinary highlight of Lucius's week (seriously). No bread.

This is what you do:

Mix equal quantities of interesting flour of your choice with white self-raising flour. Add a little salt. Perhaps baking powder, only be careful, because you don't want that slightly acrid taste of too much bp, so I don't bother, less light aka leaden is fine here, because this whole method is a compromise. Add enough water to make a soft dough (if you add too much, chuck in a bit more flour). As there's no yeast here, you can add it straight from the cold tap. Knead lightly and form into a round, rolling or pressing it as thin as you can. Fry gently in a little olive oil, the less the better ... but dry frying isn't a good idea here, as it burns. It needs at least five minutes on each side for the flour to cook through, so if it starts to catch, flip it over and turn down the heat.

It's good with an egg on top, not bad with marmalade. If you use decent flour (and if you're making your own bread, you're more or less bound to have interesting flour in your larder), it's better than bought. And I suppose you could also use this to accompany a curry, a quick naan-ish bread, although I've never done that.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Lazy beef stew

I thought I'd posted this weeks ago, but found it lurking on the dashboard, marked as a draft ...

Okay, this dark beef stew, rich in taste and soft as butter .... contains only beef and onions, took less than a minute to put together, and cooked very slowly for nearly four hours. I wouldn't pass it on if it wasn't good.

Very lazily, I opened a can of Eazy onions, tipped them into a heavy casserole, added 750g Hereford beef stewing cubes from Waitrose, clamped on the lid and put them in a slow oven (150C). I had a mild panic after a couple of hours, thinking that the meat would have dried out ... but when I peeked, I found a lovely juicy half-cooked stew. Unbelieveably tasty and tender after nearly four hours. The key is to make sure the lid fits well; if you're unsure, put some greaseproof paper over the top of the pot and then clamp on the lid.

If you don't have Eazy onions (they're worth looking out for, a good shortcut when you're in a hurry), or aren't quite that lazy, then you could add a little effort to this by chopping and slowly sweating a couple of onions. You could also flavour this stew any way you wanted ... a little thyme, perhaps, or some chili, or orange peel and anchovy with a garnish of olives, or ... well, you get the idea.

Just don't think you've got to dredge the meat with flour and spend hours frying it if you want a delicious casserole.

Night falls on Ardnamurchan

Night falls on Ardnamurchan, The Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean describes a way of life that has died out completely in my lifetime on the West coast of Scotland, in a place very close to where we often go on holiday. I'd never heard of Alasdair Maclean (no, not the thriller writer) before I picked it up in the Oxfam shop, but, within moments of starting to read this lovely book, it was clear that he is a poet.

I want to share this sketch of his father: it seems to me the essence of love.

Normally timid and unassertive outside the house (unless roused), he was very much the master within. I remember him, during my childhood, as being someone whom one approached on tiptoe. He was thin-skinned in the extreme, lightning-quick to feel hurt and to take offence and much given to monumental huffs. These almost always lasted a day or two and sometimes a good bit longer than that. Though he often, and violently, lost his temper and at least once, to my knowledge, fetched my mother a good thump (to be fair, it was a quarrel and she had thrown a shoe at him first; the only such physical occasion that I recall), he never raised his hand to the children. His outbursts of temper, unlike his huffs, were soon over and he was quick to seek reconciliation. I suspect his anger may have frightened him a little. I know that it frightened me a lot. Indeed such a marked effect did it have on me that I have retained a great fear of angry people to this day. I am sure, however, that he was all too aware of his faults, even if, like most of us, unable to do much about them.

I have often wondered since, quite unresentfully, what the effect is of such a moody and unpredictable father on a sensitive young child (for I must suppose myself to have been one). I should imagine the consequences to be incalculable. Still I would not change my upbringing. For I think, too, that a happy, well-adjusted father would have his own effect, equal if different, and who could be sure of his proving to be in every way a greater good?

The top photograph looks over the Sound of Mull towards Ardnamurchan, with Sanna hidden in the mists on the point.

The lower photograph is of Corran Narrows looking towards Loch Linnhe. Here, you catch the ferry for Ardgour, Sunart and Ardnamurchan: Once across one was in the echt Highlands. The road turns west ... or the best part of it does; if not yet within sight of the Hebrides, the heart of Gaeldom on earth, one is at least within reach of their spell. To go on is to be protected and fed; if one is lucky enough and receptive enough, touched with goodness.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

David's rant about fat and cornstarch

Reading the labels on industrially processed "food" is the most powerful thing you can do for a healthier life. It's something I often rant about. Here's part of someone else's rant on the same themes ... step forward David Lebovitz!

Please stop using that phrase "Fat is flavor"

Espresso, ground cinnamon, marshmallows, red wine, maple syrup, fresh ginger, Ranch Gordo beans, arugula, soy sauce, cranberries, Ch√Ęteau Yquem, Concord grapes and sea salt are delicious and absolutely loaded with flavor. Yet they have zero or just very trace amounts of fat.

Fat is not a hero nor is it a villain.

But if you think fat equals flavor, eat a spatula-full of Crisco vegetable shortening and let me know how it tastes.

If you're worried about eating high-fructose corn syrup, then don't eat it. Simply stop buying processed foods and eating fast-foods

Now...Isn't that easy?

Let's face it; the people making bottled salad dressings with all that junk in it don't really care to change their formula. And if you're interested in healthy eating, don't buy processed foods.

Read the labels. Don't eat items like Hot Pockets, sweetened yogurt and frozen pizzas that contain corn syrup. It's all there on the label.

The big food companies will respond to consumers since their sole goal is to make money: If people stop giving them money and buying that stuff, they will stop making it. If you're worried about corn syrup in foods, read the labels (or visit their website) which list the ingredients. Then put those items back on the shelf if they have products in them that you don't want to eat. Write a letter to the company and let them know why you made that decision.

And yes, no matter what your economic means, you can make your own cornstarch-free foods, like homemade powdered sugar by whizzing regular sugar in a food processor. Or grind it in your mortar and pestle, a tool which the least-affluent people in the world use for cooking.

Creamed parsnip

Years ago, my friend Susan gave us the most delicious parsnip dish to go with a Sunday roast. It's Jane Grigson, she said airily, as good English cooks often do. I went home and consulted JG's Vegetable Book; Susan's creamed parsnip has been a family favourite ever since. And no wonder: parsnips, butter, cream. The parboiled parsnips are turned in butter over a very slow heat, and when they've absorbed the butteriness - in other words cooked down to a mush - you add a little cream, perhaps some nutmeg or a few chopped herbs.

I haven't cooked this for three years, and I still miss it. So yesterday, I thought I'd try a healthy version ... amazingly, I got it right first time: this will be on our table at least once a week this winter.

Creamed parsnips

Olive oil
0% fromage frais or Greek yoghurt

Trim the parsnips, and core them if necessary (the core doesn't normally turn woody until much later in the season). Grate them - I did this instantly in the Magimix, but otherwise a Microplane would make short work of it. Put them in a shallow pan and sprinkle on a little olive oil. Mix it in with your hands. Cook to a mush on a very slow heat - my panful of five parsnips took about 45 minutes. Stir in a little fromage frais or yoghurt.

This is a rare dish I'd need to season with salt - because I've always made it with salted butter.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Braised red cabbage

I'm having a bit of a cook-up this morning, finishing up what's in the fridge, and getting ahead for the busy days to come. One of the things I am making is a good supply of braised red cabbage for the freezer. I'm making it plain, so that I can change the flavourings when I come to reheat it. At that point I might add apples, or redcurrant jelly, or quince jelly, or lots of onions, or spices - say, cloves, star anise, cinnamon.

Braised red cabbage

Shred one red cabbage. I used the slicing blade on my Magimix for an instant result, but I have done it with a knife in the past, it doesn't take long. Put it in a large shallow pan with a close-fitting lid. Add wine vinegar and water in the ratio 1:2, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan - don't go mad here, better to put in too little and have to add to it, otherwise you'll have to boil off the excess liquid. Sprinkle on sugar and salt, in the ratio 2:1. Don't worry too much about the exact amounts, you'll be able to correct the seasonings when you reheat the cabbage. Mix well. Cover, and cook very slowly on a low heat ... start checking after 30-40 minutes, but it might well take over an hour.

When it's cool, decant into freezer containers, label, and freeze. I would aim to put one cabbage into four containers, and mark it accordingly (1/4 large red cabbage, etc). It might mean thawing two at once, but there's more flexibility, and, anyway, smaller containers are easier to thaw.

To use:

Thaw in the fridge, ie slowly. Tip the cabbage into a saucepan or lidded casserole, and add your chosen seasoning - about a tablespoon of jelly or a couple of cloves per quarter of cabbage, but you need to start tasting once it gets warm. You'll almost certainly find there's plenty of liquid in the bottom of the pan, but, if not, add a little water, perhaps some vinegar. Reheat gently, either over a low heat or in the oven with your main course. Either way, it needs about half an hour.

This is a really useful dish to have in the freezer
for the winter holidays - it goes so well with wintery dishes such as roast meat, stews, bean casseroles. We eat red cabbage in quite small quantities, so never manage to eat a whole one in one week, even if it is the smallest one in the shop. The "other half" used to moulder away in the bottom of my fridge, reproaching me, until I realised how well red cabbage freezes. I always do this now.

I'm sending this to Michelle at The Accidental Scientist for this month's Heart of the Matter - holiday food. It's not the most exciting holiday dish, but it is a treat of sorts - a treat for the cook, who knows it's one more chore done, if that doesn't sound too organised.

Heart of the Matter, for those of you that haven't found it yet, is a website for heart-healthy recipes, built up month by month ... the kind of resource I wish had been around after my husband had a heart attack. Anyone can contribute - this month the theme is holiday food.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Roasted red onions

An honest laborious countryman, with good bread, salt, and a little parsley, will make a contented meal with a roasted onion
. John Evelyn 1620-1706

This morning the BBC news website carried a story about the good effects of eating onions, and it reminded me that it's a long time since we've eaten onions as a separate vegetable ... it's not something I think of in the summer. I thought I'd try a new method, using Skye Gingell's book A Year in my Kitchen.

I've read this book, and it's full of original ideas, good ones. Her restaurant at Petersham Nurseries is widely praised. I've been puzzled as to why this book hasn't had much impact, and now I know ... the recipes don't work. Or at least, this one didn't. It's the same old problem of catering cooks not being able to scale down to the domestic kitchen.

I rescued it, and it was delicious, but I'd do it differently next time. Here's the recipe as printed:

Roasted red onions

5 medium red onions, peeled
100g caster sugar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200 ml balsamic vinegar
50 ml extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180C. Slice the onions into pinwheels, about 3mm thick, and spread out on a baking tray. Sprinkle with the sugar and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Pour over the balsamic vinegar and olive oil and mix together lightly with your hands. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes or so, turning them (with tongs or a wooden spoon) and basting half way through cooking. When the onions are ready, they should be deep purple in colour and glistening, tasting sweet and sharp at the same time.

The trouble is that they're not cooked after 30 minutes. And there's too much liquid, which hasn't begun to reduce down. I gave mine nearly an hour, and even then I had to reduce the liquid hard for several minutes. Then it was delicious. Only there was far too much sugar. 50g max next time. Oh yes, and I realised after I'd got past the point of no return that I only had about 60ml balsamic vinegar, so I topped it up with some dry sherry. I can't think how black it would have been if I hadn't cut the vinegar.

Lucius liked this a lot, so I will tinker with it a little. And treat other recipes in Skye Gyngell's book with a great deal of caution.

Friday, November 02, 2007