Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Chicken and Lentil One-Pot Stew

It doesn’t sound terribly exciting does it? I suspect that the mention of lentils is never going to set the culinary world on fire and have you racing to recreate this in the kitchen. I might add it’s a very brown sort of a dish. But cast those prejudices out the window - this is the kind of adaptable one-pot cooking that’s quite useful when you’ve got a couple of pieces of chicken and you want something soothing rather than the razzle dazzle.

So, chop up some base vegetables. By this I refer to the Italian concept of ‘soffrito’; think carrot, celery and onion. Perversely I used celery, leek and garlic instead but any and all combinations of the above will work. Sweat them in a casserole in some olive oil until softened. At this point, you may or may not want to add some pancetta or streaky bacon – it depends on whether you want the final dish to have that bacon hit of smokiness or something altogether gentler; anyway, it’s up to you.

Once the vegetables have softened, add (for two people) around 150g Puy lentils and a good handful of potatoes, chopped up. Again it doesn’t matter if you use waxy or floury potatoes, but the end result will differ quite a bit: waxy potatoes will keep their shape; floury ones will disintegrate into the sauce and make it a bit creamier. If you’re using floury potatoes, peel them before chopping. If waxy, simply halve or quarter them, according to size. Pour in about 500ml water or even chicken or vegetable stock (I might favour stock if there was no bacon), season and then place on top the chicken pieces you have and place the lid on.

If you’re using chicken thighs, this will take maybe 50 minutes to cook; if using chicken breast, check after 30 minutes. If you’ve left the skin on (and no reason why not, it’ll just add to the moistness of the chicken) don’t expect it to crisp up. In fact, if you’re averse to flobby skin, it’s best discarded once the chicken has cooked.

Once the chicken is cooked through and the lentils are tender, remove the chicken and set to one side. This is where you start punching up the flavour. Don’t get me wrong: check the seasoning and you might find that you like it just the way it is. But you might want to throw in a few things to freshen it up – try a good squeeze of lemon juice, a tbsp of English or Dijon mustard, a handful of chopped parsley or even chilli sauce if you really want the razzle dazzle. Stir in your chosen flavourings, pop the chicken into warmed deep dishes and ladle the soupy lentil stew around, finishing with perhaps more parsley and a drizzle of extra virgin. It ain’t pretty but it sure is good.


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Monday, 14 February 2011

Entirely non-food-related…

Right now the tidal wave of revolution and reform has reached Tehran and the citizens of Iran are endeavouring to create their own political change; the government appear to be adding to unemployment by making all pilots entirely jobless (you must forgive me if these news snapshots are inaccurate; MCD Jr is a bit distracting) but David Cameron is shopping at The People’s Supermarket so that’s ok and 118 dogs have been found near rotting to death in just one house (– how has gone unnoticed?) In other news I am loving:

The Killing: watching it on iPlayer bit by painfully slow bit as MCD Jr’s naps are generally only about 45 minutes and so the last 15 minutes are spent distracting him with the spare socks on the bed.

James Lee Burke: I have completely and utterly fallen in love. Every sentence is perfectly and divinely crafted and the descriptions of Louisiana and the Bayou are haunting. I have been borrowing them from the library but I shall have to buy his entire oeuvre at some point.

MCD Jr’s latest trick: at the moment he has discovered two - count them, two – different ways of blowing raspberries. I said to him ‘at very nearly 20 weeks, that’s quite impressive.’ Less impressive is his immediate desire once picked up to vacuum his open mouth to your shoulder and blow a dribbly raspberry on it. My clothes are either damp or crusty.

Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: Diana Henry’s book on winter cooking. I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve been reading and cooking from it slightly obsessively. Watch out for recipes on sour cream, apple and pecan muffins; a whisky and marmalade sauce to go with grouse and Danish roast pork belly with pickled prunes and cucumbers. (Yes that was food-related. Tough)

Ngaio Marsh: A New Zealand crime writer whose books are a little curious and even old-fashioned but kind of fun and whimsical. I like very much.

Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals: Oh my god. I know, I know, I wrote an entire post on how he’s missed his market, and I still think he has –in point of fact I’m taking the recipes off the Channel 4 website and just making the dishes to my own pace and rhythm. They’re  good recipes and very cleverly done, but I still wonder at the will and burn of ambition to follow him to the letter and cook it in 28 minutes. I’m even more curious about his dream school. Is he actually angling for world domination?

The Bishop: pub in East Dulwich with 25% off for mums in the week. Really great food, nice cider and lots of space for prams and tipsy lunchtime weaving. Nothing more is necessary.

I now realise that was mostly food-dominated. Never mind, what else do you come here for?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Bringing home the bacon…

I very rarely cook a ham. It’s not something that immediately springs to mind when I’m perusing the meat counter or stall, although I dearly love all things porcine. Having picked up, then, a piece of bacon collar in Waitrose a couple of weeks ago and stashed it in the freezer quite literally ‘for a rainy day’, I thought on Sunday it might be rather fine thing to have for dinner.

But how to cook it? Somewhere in the back of my mind lingered the flavours of vegetables poached in the ham stock and a parsley sauce was probably a must-have as well as a sugar-mustard glazed crust. But I also wanted mustard and the fresh sweetness of apple somewhere along the line, although I had no cider in. So here’s what we ended up with.

The bacon collar was just under a kg in weight. Now I’m not sure of any precise cooking times and I did want to add in a bit of baking time so, after checking with Delia’s similar cooking method, I decided 45 minutes poaching and then I would bake it in the oven for at least 30 minutes and see how the crust was coming along.

So into a deep pot went the bacon, an onion that I tried to stick with cloves (but has anyone done it without really hurting their thumb and breaking the cloves?) so the cloves rather drifted into the stock of their own accord, a couple of pieces of celery, some parsley stalks and 7 peppercorns and covered the whole with water. Bring it up to the boil, stick a lid on, bring it down to a blipping simmer and from time to time skim the stock of the impurities.

Meanwhile, chop into decent chunks swede and 2-3 celery sticks, clean some young carrots, or chop older ones into chunks as well, and perhaps you might like a potato as well, which we did. And it helps to remember it soaks up a little of the salt in the stock, so you might as well. I also sliced the cheeks off an apple.

After the bacon was cooked, I sieved the stock. I took the rind off the bacon, scored the fat into diamond shapes and coated it with a sugar-mustard glaze. This is best made with English mustard for the heat and a darker sugar for the smoky caramel, but use what you have. I then put the chopped vegetables back in the pot, balanced the ham on top and ladled back over the stock just to cover the veg – you will have some left over, but keep it. I added the apple and put it in a 180C oven to bake.

Once the ham looked golden-crusted I took it out and foiled it up to rest. You might find the veg are still a tad al dente, so just put the casserole on the hob and simmer until they’re tender. Fish out the apple skin.

While the vegetables are simmering, you might want to make a parsley sauce. It’s just a simple white sauce (yes you do know it – tbsp each of flour and melted butter to make a paste, stir in around 400ml of the reserved ham stock and 100ml of milk and stir until thickened and smooth.) I whisked in a good tbsp of grain mustard and a handful of chopped parsley just before serving. 

To serve, spoon the vegetables into your dish, top with a couple of slices of the warm ham and spoon over your hopefully velvety parsley sauce. The leftover ham stock and cooking liquor will make a perfect basis for pea soup (later this week) with ham sandwiches, risotto or even as a soup base for some little cheese-stuffed ravioli perhaps…

(I don’t generally do pictures: I’m a rubbish photo taker and I never have a camera on me. But on Sunday’s walk with MCD Sr and Jr, we saw the first signs of spring. Thank god.)


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Two for the price of one: Chicken livers and a root vegetable stove-top bake

I’ve been meaning to pass on this incredible recipe for chicken livers for about two weeks, but have failed to organise my time and MCD Jr efficiently enough to get it done. And then last night I made the most amazing vegetable cheesey bake thing and desperately wanted to share that too, so you get a double-whammy. Just don’t expect it too often.

For the chicken livers, clean and cut them in half if they’re on the large side. Sizzle some butter in a frying pan and toss in the livers. Cook for a couple of minutes until the underside is starting to caramelise then turn each liver over.

While they’re cooking, slice some chicory however you want, but thin strands seem most pleasing and when you turn the livers over, add the chicory. The whole point about chicken livers is that they are gorgeous if you manage to get them pink and moussey, and utterly disgusting if you over-cook them so feel free to slice into one or two to check their done-ness at any point. When they’re cooked to your liking, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the pan. Add a tbsp or so of grain mustard, a tsp or so of honey, a squeeze of lemon and a dollop of crème fraiche or cream – enough to make a sauce. Warm it through then check the seasoning and add a small handful of chopped parsley if you’ve got any. Add the livers back in to warm through then tip onto toast.

Ok – the veg bake: Finely slice an onion and fry gently in butter with some garlic in a deep-sided frying pan. Ideally you want the onion golden and silky. Then finely slice – as thinly as you can – half a peeled celeriac (mine was enormous so I only needed half for the two of us) and a couple of peeled potatoes. If you’ve got a mandoline so much the better.

Now you can either pile all the veg slices into the pan and mix thoroughly with the butter and onions; or you can carefully remove the onions with a slotted spoon and layer alternately celeriac, onions and potato. It doesn’t much matter but the latter makes for more even cooking and a more refined end result. Both taste delicious. Pour over just enough chicken or vegetable stock to cover and half-cover with a lid. Leave to cook gently for about 20-30 minutes depending on how thinly you sliced the vegetables. Test with the point of a knife: ideally the stock should have all but evaporated leaving only sticky juices and the vegetables meltingly tender.

Now, this is the good point. Thinly slice any cheese you fancy, as long as it’s a good melting cheese. I used Taleggio but I have used mozzarella in the past as well as Reblochon and Gruyere with equally good results. Place the cheese slices on the bake, pop the lid back on and leave off the heat for a few minutes while you cook – in this instance – some lamb chops to go with. You might want to drizzle said chops with a little balsamic for extra savour. Serve pink and rosy – both you and the meat – with socking great spoonfuls of the bake. If you’re lucky, there may be some left for tomorrow.