Monday, 16 July 2012

And…. I’m back in the room; or Black Pudding Bread and other stories

Whew, well that’s over. One project and a short break finished and I’m back to the world of blogging. Sorry little blog, how have you been? Everything ok? How’s the world out there? Apocalyptic as far as I can work out. Dear oh dear, what a mess.

Let me fatten up the blog with a few recipes, to start with. It’s been fairly meagre times so shall we begin with a nod to the Star Inn’s black pudding bread? Revolting, you may think, but really, give it a go. All you need is a breadmaker. If you make your bread by hand, really well done (clap clap), but you’ll have to do your own experimenting on the recipe.

Place ingredients for a standard size loaf – white or brown, though I prefer white for this – in your breadmaker. Take the skin off your black pudding – a loop of it is just enough for this size loaf. Chop into small pieces and add to the other ingredients. Close the lid and set as for a standard white loaf. Leave to cook. Remove from pan to rack and leave to cool. Slice and serve with an excellent fried breakfast. Complicated, no? But seriously good and very filling, as you might expect.

What else….? Hmmm there was that 3 hours of summer in the middle of June when I made bbq ribs according to John Critchley, King of BBQ. They were A-mazing. I simply followed his recipe, substituting very slightly as I went along with smoked chipotle sauce rather than dried chillies and so on. We had them with cornbread and coleslaw and a pert little green salad and as summer goes, it was brilliant. We’re back on recipes for cauliflower soup now.

I’ve been experimenting with the whole food ‘thing’ with MCD Jr. Although he (objectively speaking) eats very well, we’re coming up to the famous neophobia phase and I wanted as much as possible to circumvent it, so went out and bought every book on the eating habits of French children (and you may have seen them around) that I could buy, read them obsessively and developed a plan. No, I’m not paranoid, just prepared. The most important lesson I have learned over the last few months is DO NOT MAKE A FUSS. I can’t say that enough. I might even say it again. DO NOT MAKE A FUSS. Oh and HUNGER IS YOUR BEST FRIEND. No substitutes, no snacking, lots of praise. Actually I might pass on this gem, in the hope of some other new-ish mother noting it: lack of familiarity and reference is what causes your child to be cautious. For example, you can serve mashed potato 100 times, but the first time you serve it adorned with a sprig of parsley, they’ll no doubt reject it because it comes to them as a completely new dish. You have to be prepared to serve the same dish a few times the same way for it to be assimilated and overcome any potential hesitancy. That’s all I know.

I suppose I have to mention the rain. In fact I am going to mention it because thanks to it, and the consequent proliferation of slugs and snails (and a family of ducks that now sail straight from pond to garden), not a vegetable has made it past puberty up here. We have high (well, medium) hopes for the tomatoes, in that there are flowers, but no fruit yet. I have one teeny-weeny courgette on one plant (I planted 12) that I expect to not see the end of the week. Even my fennel and oregano have been got at. It’s been more Margo and Jerry than Tom and Barbara and that’s been very disappointing.

On the food news front, Tarporley is now in possession of a farm shop, Blythings. If I can make a swim for it, I am off to explore it later today and will report back. Of course, if it’s rubbish I won’t but Tarporley’s not known for the rubbishness of its retail outlets.

Oh and if anyone needs a friendly, helpful, professional food or recipe writer in any way, just let me know. I’m available for the summer and it’s not like we’re going anywhere because we don’t have a boat.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Hunting and gathering

The weather cannot have been more dreich, no? Today we had a brave morning of sunshine, a caesura crammed full of hope, only to relapse to yet more woeful rain. And I left the washing out, so my mood wasn’t the best.

But quick, there are always little food-encrusted jewels (slightly revolting) glimmering away and I think I might start listing some of them. It seems Cheshire’s golden triangle, away north of here, gets some press, but we east of Chester are without victuals and it’s not true.

First up, the new shining star in our firmament: Gastronomy Deli in Tarporley. Finally breathing vigorous, sustained life into a bit of a Bermuda hole of a retail spot, they are the bees’. Excellent cheese, even more excellent meats, imaginative and tempting menu, good deli sides to explore and a nice way with children. If I had one minor criticism, it’s to up their bread game a bit, but the stuff they sell is still miles above anything else in the village.

I took a ride up to Davenport’s Farm Shop today, away up the A49. We are a bit overrun with farm shops round here and the good ones are very good indeed – if a little pricey. This one was notable for selling Jane’s Handmade Bread, some very fine dry good, own-grown fruit and veg and a bit of everything you might need in a hurry. More wonderful than all of that though, were the donkeys, the rhea (pretty sure it wasn’t an emu), the enormous Dorking chickens and the black ducks. MCD Jr thought it very heaven.

This one is a bit of a cheat, I can’t help feeling. I’m on a bit of a mission about good bread at the moment; can’t help feeling I’m missing out on something. Popped into Waitrose in Chester and tried one of their own-baked artisan ficelles – and actually it really was pretty good. They use French flour, so the crumb is that lovely creamy colour and warmed for breakfast, with some French jam, it was actually very lovely. I’ve yet to find a baguette to match it. The hunt is on.

To eat, we finally tried The Fox and Barrel up the road on the A49. A very upmarket pub, it serves slightly cheffy restaurant food in hearty portions. It has a roaring fire which, you know, in May is all you want and the pub bit at the front is just lovely to sit in with a pint and which, in fact, is all I wanted to do.

More to follow. I like the idea of popping into the blog to tell about the latest place to eat or buy. I shall keep it up.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

DIY Pasties

So, ho-hum, looks like that was Spring. Spiffing. What a tease March is. So bracing is it in fact that for tonight I have dug some oxtail from the deeper reaches of the freezer to make a stew with spinach dumplings – in a way, something of a relief, otherwise I would have found a frozen lump of bone come November and thrown it in the bin.

Anyway, pasties. Yum. Depending on your preference of course. And so topical right now. However, I’m not really talking about proper Cornish pasties and the like; gorgeous though they are (and for the record I’m a West Cornwall Pasty Co girl), there are trillions of recipes out there for the real deal. I’m talking pastry and filling and lots of both.

You will need 2 sheets ready rolled puff pastry and a beaten egg. This will feed 4-8 people, depending on how much restraint you can show after they come out the oven. I got carried away because the first one looked so good, I had to make another because I didn’t think there could possibly be enough to satiate. I might have been a tad ambitious in my thinking, but they reheat well enough for lunch the next day.

Lay out your puff pastry sheets and slice each rectangle in half to make 2 squares-ish. Place one half on a sheet of baking paper on a baking sheet, then top with one of the following fillings, leaving a small margin round the edge with which to seal it.

Filling no 1: Slice a large handful waxy potatoes the width of a pound coin. (NB I was using Sainsbury’s Vivaldi potatoes, which are actually incredibly delicious – much recommended here and baked with herbs and olive oil). Boil in salted water until tender, then drain and dry thoroughly.

Meanwhile sweat 2 finely sliced leeks in an indecent amount of butter with a touch of salt until slippery and soft and sweet. Add to the potatoes, along with 2-3 tbsp crème fraiche, a tbsp wholegrain mustard and a good 2 handfuls grated Cheddar or other similar cheese. Stir gently to combine.

Filling no 2: In plenty of olive oil, cook a chopped onion, a finely chopped aubergine, 1 large chopped field mushroom and some garlic until tender. Drain off any excess oil, then add a good handful sliced salami and sprinkle in some dried chilli if desired. Check seasoning then stir in  some cubed mozzarella – you may not need the whole ball.

Back to the pasties. Top with the remaining pastry half, squidge firmly round the edges to seal, brush with the egg and make a couple of slits in the top. Bake at 200C for 40 minutes until golden brown and cooked underneath. Leave to cool for ooh, 30 seconds, before picking at the corners then slicing off thinly, then again, and again….

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Cooking–The good bits and the bad bits…

I fear this blog is getting rather patchy, which is not the point at all. I get all gung-ho and blog properly, then get caught up in life and time drifts by and shyness sets in and no matter how many times I think I should put so-and-so on the blog, I never do. Madness.

So, to recap I have been cooking from Heston Blumenthal at Home. And actually I still am. I’m not going to reprint recipes, unless you specifically want them, but I would urge you to buy the damn book. I think, if I’m being honest, it has made me change the way I think about cooking meat. Heston’s method of cooking low and slow is not without merit, despite it being a bit of a lengthy kitchen job at times. However, having sounded that cautionary note, I used his method of cooking a leg of lamb (studded with blanched garlic, rosemary and anchovy) in a 100C oven for about 4 hours and not only was the cooking time very hands-off, the meat tasted extraordinary. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

On the other hand, not so much with the Pommes Boulangère. Now, this may be something to do with me and my ovens, but I have never had any kind of potato gratin, be it cream or stock based, cook in less than an hour and a half. In fact, I’ve gone with Jeffrey Steingarten’s method after much experimentation and found his slightly fiddly method the most successful – recipe reprint on request. So when Heston tells me my mandolin-sliced potatoes will cook in 50 minutes in a 150C oven, forgive if I am sceptical. TWO AND A HALF HOURS LATER, having turned the oven up to 180C, we had a gratin. Luckily the lamb is very forgiving… Again, the taste was extraordinary, the cooking stock comprising reduced white wine and lamb stock infused with rosemary, but I would love to know – if anyone has any tips on this – how you do cook a gratin in less than an hour.

Last night, just to throw it into the mix, I made his cauliflower macaroni cheese, albeit with penne. Although I didn’t add the deep-fried florets, the dish was a hit. To prècis – because it’s not complicated – you simmer most of the cauliflower head florets in around 400ml milk until tender, then blitz until smooth. Cook the pasta. Add 240g of grated Gruyère and half as much Parmesan to the cauliflower sauce, then cook until melted. Add a good 1/2 tbsp wholegrain mustard, then toss with the pasta and the reserved raw cauliflower florets. Scatter with more grated cheese and bake until bubbling. You could add ham or cooked pancetta if you were being cavalier about your red meat intake, but both my boys wolfed it down, despite allegedly not liking cauliflower.

Cauliflower – it’s a man’s food

Thursday, 9 February 2012

In which I roast a chicken (no, really)

I have not gone mad. Of course I roast chickens all the time. Of course you know how to roast a bloody chicken. The last thing we need is yet another way to roast a chicken. And yet, and yet, there might be something else to try.

Last Sunday was a bit of a shocker. Still limping through the after-effects of flu, iced in (because of course we move to the North and become the only place in Britain not to get beautiful dreamy drifts of snow but blanket sheet ice literally falling in lethal lumps from a dour sky) with nowhere to go and dying of boredom, I decided I would cook the roast chicken I had planned for dinner The Heston Way (cue ‘dah-dah-DAH!’). This involved brining, a slow cook, a long rest and a final blasting roast. It looked to be a bit of a haul and I was sceptical as to how worth it it would be.

I had to cut corners not least because I decided to embark upon it at 10.30am, a good 14 hours later than Heston would have you start. First you theoretically brine your chicken in a 6% salt solution overnight. Do not panic: I too have no idea what that means so I followed his instructions of 300g salt to 5 litres water in a stockpot and plop in the untrussed chicken. I left it for 3 1/2 hours; this was all I could leave it for as I have a rule on Sundays we all eat together and that means dinner about 5.30 and this sucker had to cook for at least three of those hours left. I drained it, dried it off, smeared it with butter and shoved a lemon up its bum then stuck it in the oven at about 110C. Now, he stipulates 90C but my oven doesn’t have such a low temperature on the dial and I wasn’t even sure it would come on, so I upped it to visible temperature.

After 3 hours (about 4.30pm) I took the chicken out of the oven. It did not look promising. Pallid, flobby, and practically swimming in its own juices. Blee. There is a reason Heston tells you to put it on a rack. Do it. However I gamely stuck my thermometer into the thickest part and checked the temperature. He wanted it to be about 65C; mine read just over 70C. ‘That’s cooked enough for me’ I thought as I poured off the juices into a measuring jug and left it to rest sweatily on the side. I mean, roast chicken looks great, no? This really doesn’t. You have to keep the faith a bit at this point. Heston rests his chicken for 45 minutes before a final basted roasting for 10-15 minutes to crisp up the skin – but he forgot about the roast potatoes. This is where timing goes out the window but I don’t think it matters a jot.

Your roast potatoes are going to need, say, 45 minutes in a really hot oven, so get them boiled and ready to go in when the chicken comes out. Whack the oven up, get the potatoes in and get on with your gravy (if you make it separately like I do). If you do, spoon off the fat from the top of the juices, then pour those juices into the gravy to really concentrate the flavour. If you make yours in the tin, hold onto them for later.

20 minutes before the chicken is ready, melt a little butter and white wine together in a pan and baste the chicken with it. Perhaps brush it on with a sprig of rosemary. Season. Place the chicken in the oven and cook until the skin is golden and crisp. Mine took 12 minutes. Remove from the oven with the potatoes and foil over to keep warm.Working  quickly, either reheat your gravy or heat the leftover juices in the roasting tin and season.

Finally, carve your chicken. Now, this is the thing. I think this method is really going to show results on a supermarket chicken; I think the better quality the chicken you buy, the less difference you’ll see in the end result. However, the point is the chicken meat is firmer, it tastes amazing and it is of course juicy (although I have never cooked a dry chicken, so I can’t possibly comment. I don’t know how you do cook a dry chicken.) The gravy with all those flavours returned to it is also knock-out. And the leftovers are where it gets really good; as the chicken remains so moist, the leftovers really do stay good for some time.

I have made the monumental decision to buy the book Heston Blumenthal at Home; not because I was so overwhelmed necessarily with the result, but because the method was interesting, easy to follow and methodical (if tiresomely long – my recommendation would be to do it for a Sunday lunch and then your afternoon is free) and, having watched the Channel 4 series, I long to have a go at his cheese sauce and fondue for the same reasons. Not because I can’t cook them, but because I want to know how I can cook them better.

Self-improvement. The name of the game for 2012.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Relocation, Relocation; or, in which I lost my heart

Sometimes the only way you know you’re home is when you return. Sometimes you don’t even know that you have returned and found home in something you didn’t know you wanted in the first place. (Too cryptic? Try me after my next coffee). Sometimes your whole being throws out little anchors you didn’t realise were holding you safely in place until you try to tear away from them.

I’ve always loved moving around, perhaps because we never did as children, so I still love discovering new places. A particular joy of such a big move up to Cheshire is the constant discovery of new roads, new places, new people. It is a buzz. I knew I liked it up here; we’re enjoying ourselves, the slower lifestyle, the new friends and so on. I didn’t know how much till we left.

This sounds terribly melodramatic, so let me clarify. We merely went down to London for 48 hours to see my sister and for MCD to go on some almighty marathon piss-up with his friends under the guide of ‘sorting out a stag do.’ We drove to Bromley via the sat nav’s weirdly circuitous route of the Olympic site (big thrills for MCD there) and, as we drove through E London, as the buildings drew ever inwards, as the skyline grew greyer and contracted to glimpses of blue, I felt my innermost being contract as well. Something inside huddled a bit closer. The traffic got a bit more impatient and aggressive, the high streets looked surly – it all looked, well, unfriendly.

We had a fine weekend. Despite MCD Jr deciding to push his canines through and consequently spending much of it streaming from every orifice and wailing hysterically, it was a good weekend. I saw two of my best friends, I hung out and drank Champagne with my sister, we went to Chapter One where they thought MCD Jr a riot, fed him fishcake and he helped himself to vast quantities of rhubarb sorbet and crème brulée. It was fun.

But. And here’s the thing. As we turned on to the A500 off the M6, a mere 25 minutes from home, I felt my entire soul lift. I felt myself breathe in again; as if all weekend I had been holding my breath in tension. It was a feeling of home, of belonging, of right-ness. ‘This is where we should be, we are fools ever to leave it’, were my persistent thoughts as we came through the final leg and passed the Snugbury’s bear. I felt like I was coming back to my husband after being away, that same sense of slight desperation and excitement to see each other again. Is this love, I wondered?

It is a similar feeling to coming home to my parents’. I still refer to it as ‘home’ which still irritates MCD. ‘We have a home’ he insists, and he’s right, but in my head I had two homes: one where my parents are, and one where we are right now. I suspect it’s not that unusual. But now we are here in Tarporley, and even though we rent, the word ‘home’ has taken on a deeper resonance; as if I have indeed come home. I feel the same sense of security, of familiarity, of contentment as in my childhood. That makes it more ‘home’ than any place we lived in – and loved living in – in London.

Home is where friends and family are. That is a fundamental truth and not one I shall strive to overturn. However, I would like to make a plaintive plea for Place. Sometimes it’s not where your family is, or where you hang out with your mates, or where you grew up; sometimes it’s just a place that evokes all of those feelings in you, that conjures up that same sense of comfort and holds you tight when you leave.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Famine and feast

As previously mentioned we’re doing a bit of a carb-free push. It got to the point where sadly, I could no longer pretend that I was carrying  Caesarean scar tissue and baby weight (16 months on) alone, and that I was fine with it. So we picked up the Idiot-Proof Diet book again, put ourselves through no-alcohol hell for two weeks and we are slowly losing poundage. Well, I say we. MCD is has lost about 10lbs so far. Every week when I stand on the scales it starts at 0, climbs to 1 or 2 lbs under the weight I started (I’m not telling you) and then wobbles; when I descend the needle is no longer at 0. I think I have lost weight: I have a waist and my jeans are very loose; the scales are against me.

Anyway, it means I’ve been scouring my books for food that is both carb-free and non-diet-y. So far the runaway success has been the onion bhaji recipe in the IPD recipe book which I reproduce here, if only to point out that not only are they still good the next day, but if you lost the spices and the onions and substituted vanilla extract, perhaps cinnamon and blueberries or raspberries, they’d make fantastic pancakes too.

  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 200g ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 fresh green chillies, chopped and seeded
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 100ml double cream
  • 3 onions, finely sliced into half moons
  • Groundnut oil for frying

1. Roast the cumin seeds in a dry hot pan until they darken and start to smell fragrant. Remove from the heat and cool.

2. Mix together the ground almonds, cumin, turmeric, salt, baking powder and chillies, then beat in the egg yolks and cream. The mixture will be quite stiff but never fear.

3. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks, then fold in, a third at a time, into the batter with a metal spoon.

4. Gently fold in the onion slices a few at a time until incorporated.

5. Heat about 0.5cm oil in a large pan and, using a dessert spoon, fry spoonfuls of batter on both sides until crisp and golden.

6. Serve sprinkled with mint and dipped in yoghurt.

Another hit (sort of) was the Highland mussels out of Jamie’s Great Britain. I was really taken with the sound of this recipe – a base of leeks, garlic and smoked haddock and double cream, then throw in 6 shots of whisky and 2kg of mussels and simmer until the mussels open. I thought it sounded smoky and peaty and delicious. We made it and although MCD thought it was fabulous, I was a bit more ‘meh’. Grumbles: there was too much whisky – I would have halved the amount. I’m not sure I like mussels in a cream sauce; my marinière is always cream-less. The smoked haddock was yum but it was overpowered by the whisky. It was all a little sickly.

[Interlude: And while I’m on the Jamie topic, another moan: the serving amounts in this book are way out. Allegedly the above mussels recipe serve 6. We finished it between two of us. I also made the Worcestershire beef brisket sandwiches (I only ate the middle out of the bread… so sad, so very sad) for Sunday lunch the other day. Apparently 1kg of beef brisket will serve 10. My ass. It fed 5-6 and there was enough left over perhaps for 1 very generous sandwich. However, if you should care to restrict your friends, do make it. It is fantastic. If you want the recipe, let me know and I shall publish it up here.]

On the other hand, there’s MCD Jr who is going through his own classic toddler phase of famine and feast. Last night I made him a macaroni cheese with fish and peas. It went down like a train. Here’s the recipe – it makes enough for 3-4 generous portions. It’s good for adults too.

Cook 2 generous handfuls of baby pasta in a pan, adding 2 handfuls of peas 5 minutes from the end of cooking. When all is tender, drain. Meanwhile, heat a good 100ml of full-cream milk and a good splash or two of double cream in a pan and poach the fish fillets (I used pollock) for a few minutes until they flake apart.

Flake the fish into an oven-proof dish, then add as much grated Cheddar as you like into the poaching liquor. Stir until melted. Add the pasta and peas, coating them in the sauce, adding more cream if necessary. Tip into the dish and toss gently, then top with more grated cheese. Grill until bubbling.

This is him licking out the bowl after MCD made carb-free chocolate mousse. I do have my standards, so it was 70% cocoa…

photo (2)