Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Lamb tagine with apricots and chickpeas

I always struggle to answer when people ask me what my favourite food is, there are just so many delicious things out there that I couldn't possibly narrow it down to one. If I had to pick my top ten I think I could just about do it, although even then my list would probably have changed by the next week. There are a few things I just couldn't be without and they would definitely be on the list, pasta, cake, bread and tagine.Tagine is probably Morocco's best known dish and most famous export, it is a combination of meat (usually lamb but sometimes chicken), fruit, sweet spices, hot spices and often aromatic flavours like rose petals. I can't remember exactly when I first tried tagine but I do vividly remember how the melt in the mouth tender meat, sweet and spicy flavour and the amazing smell simply blew me away, it was as they say love at first bite and I've been hooked ever since.If you're going to make tagine yourself it well worth trying to get hold of a spice blend called ras-el-hanout (I really like this one). Ras-el-hanout roughly translates as top of the shop, so called because the spice sellers in the souks of Morocco blend their very best spices to make it. There are no rules as to what goes in to ras-el-hanout, it can contain up to and over twenty ingredients but there is almost always cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and chili, the blend I'm using contains all manner of good things including rose petals, lavender, cloves and ginger, it smells amazing!

This is my recipe for tagine, it is highly adaptable and I change it depending on what I have in the cupboard, you could add black olives, preserved lemon and you just have to have some kind of dried fruit, I really like dried apricots in this but prunes are delicious too.
Lamb Tagine (Serves 4)
  • Olive oil
  • 2-3 medium onions roughly chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic peeled and crushed to a paste
  • 3 tsp Ras-el-hanout or 1 tsp each of ground cinnamon, cumin and coriander
  • 1 small red chilli chopped (add more or less depending on how hot you want it)
  • 1 tin (400g) of chickpeas drained
  • 1 pint of stock (any kind)
  • 1 tin (400g) of chopped tomatoes
  • Half a shoulder of lamb on the bone
  • 3 medium carrots peeled and chopped into large chunks (you could use squash or sweet potato)
  • A good handful of dried apricots
  • Salt and pepper
  • A large handful of chopped fresh coriander
  • In a large pan over a gentle heat soften the onions in a little olive oil.
  • Add the garlic, chilli and spices to the pan and cook for a minute more.
  • Add the chickpeas, stock and tomatoes, mix well and bring to a simmer.
  • Add the lamb, carrots and apricots, season to taste and put in a low oven for 3-4 hours until the lamb falls off the bone.
  • Stir in the coriander just before serving and serve with cous cous or flatbread.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Pumpkin and spice cake

A few weeks ago the people at Silver Spoon sent me some of their decorations to make something for Halloween. I had no idea what to make but eventually decided I'd make a pumpkin cake, after all when most people think of Halloween they think of pumpkins...
Halloween is almost upon us and while I don't really celebrate it myself I do take full advantage of the piles of the bright orange Halloween pumpkins that are being sold everywhere right now.

Pumpkin can be a delicious vegetable simply roasted with butter and a few herbs or stirred into a rich and creamy risotto. Unfortunately the pumpkins sold for carving are normally grown for size rather than flavour and can be a bit bland and watery, but don't be put off, they still have there uses such as in this pumpkin cake.The recipe I used is adapted from a bundt cake recipe I found at Pinch My Salt. I've converted it to a sandwich cake and used yoghurt rather than sour cream for the batter, I don't know how but yoghurt seems to give cakes softer, lighter texture, I use yoghurt in scones too for the same reason. I've also added walnuts to the cake because they just taste so good in this kind of cake.Pumpkin and spices belong together so I've used cream cheese cinnamon icing for this cake topped with candied orange peel and some fruit jellies kindly sent to me by Silver Spoon. The finished cake is very similar in texture to carrot cake but it has a distinctive pumpkin flavour, think of pumpkin pie in cake form and you'll have some idea of what it's like.

So when Halloween is over and your jack o' lanterns are finished with maybe you could give them a second life as a delicious pumpkin cake.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Caramelised mango with coconut panna cotta

Having an organic veg box delivered is a great way to get your hands on a regular supply of top quality, super-fresh fruit and vegetables direct to your door. It's brilliant for those times when there's just too much going on and you're just too busy to get to a market or a good greengrocers. I love my veg box and wouldn't be without it.

Of course there are times when the veg box presents challenges, sometimes I get vegetables or fruit that I'm not used to cooking or on rare occasions something that I just don't like that much. The last two weeks have been like that, It's obviously the time for mangoes because they've been in my box two weeks in a row.I've used mango a few times before but it's not something I often buy. I've made mango cheesecake before and a really fantastic spicy mango salsa, this time however I chose to chop it into chunks and caramelise it to make a sweet, golden mango compote. It would have made a great topping for ice cream or paired with a dollop of Greek yogurt, I chose to serve mine with a silky smooth coconut panna cotta.Panna cotta is a classic Italian dessert that's incredibly easy to make having just four ingredients, cream, sugar, gelatine and vanilla. To make a coconut panna cotta I left out the vanilla and substituted some of the cream for coconut milk, the flavour of coconut isn't strong but the cream does have a light, delicate, tropical coconut flavour, the perfect partner to sweet sticky caramelised mango.
Coconut panna cotta with caramelised mango (Serves 6-8)
For the caramelised mango:
  • 1 Large mango, peeled, stoned and diced
  • 5 Tablespoons white sugar
  • Water
For the panna cotta:
  • 600ml/1 Pint double/heavy cream
  • 400ml Coconut milk
  • 75g White sugar
  • Gelatine leaves, enough to set 1 litre of liquid (Every brand of gelatine is different, I used 7 leaves of supercook gelatine but check your packet)
For the mango:
  • Put the sugar in a pan with a few spoonfuls of water, put it on the heat and bring to a boil. Keep boiling until it has turned a golden caramel colour.
  • When your sugar has caramelised add all the mango to pan, the sugar will seize but keep cooking and it will soften again.
  • Cook until the mango is soft and coated with a sticky syrup.
  • Set aside to cool for a few minutes then store in the fridge.
For the panna cotta:
  • First off put your gelatine leaves into a bowl of water to soften.
  • Place the cream, coconut milk and sugar into a saucepan and place on a gentle heat until it just begins to simmer, don't let the mixture boil.
  • When the cream mixture is just beginning to bubble around the edges take it of the heat and add the gelatine one sheet at a time whisking the mixture after each sheet has been added.
  • Once all the gelatine had been dissolved pour the mixture into molds or glasses and place in the fridge to set.
  • Serve with a spoonful of caramelised mango on top.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

In The Bag - Chicken and Chestnut Pie with Leeks, Mushrooms and Tarragon

This October sees the return of 'In The Bag' the seasonal food blogging event run by Julia from A Slice of Cherry Pie and Scott from The Real Epicurean. The challenge is to cook a dish which includes three seasonal ingredients which are chosen for us. The ingredients this month were mushrooms, herbs and nuts, I couldn't have been happier with that selection, it's almost as if they were chosen just for me.Aside from any Blumenthalesque concoctions sweet dishes were obviously out of the question, on the savoury side however the possibilities were almost endless. October really is a great month to be in the kitchen, the sheer vastness of the fresh, seasonal food available to me right now meant I really was spoilt for choice. I toyed with idea of doing a pasta dish -pine nuts, wild mushrooms, mixed herbs and maybe a creamy sauce- or maybe making a stuffing with the nuts and the herbs to fill some chicken breasts. In the end it was the weather that decided it for me, it's got quite a bit colder here in the past week and what I needed, what I really wanted, was pie.
The inspiration for my pie came from a recipe I saw a while back for a beef and chestnut pie, I thought that while the beef pie sounded really good chestnuts would probably go better with chicken, so that's what I did.

Chicken thighs are much more succulent and flavoursome than chicken breast which can easily dry out and can taste a bit bland. For the meat in my pie I first roasted chicken thighs on the bone until they were golden brown then shredded the meat off the bone ready to add to the filling. For the base of the pie I gently softened sweet young leeks and mild onions in butter so they cooked without colour, they add a sweetness and a delicious background flavour to the pie that perfectly compliments the chicken.To the base I added chopped chestnut mushrooms which are a bit chunkier and meatier than the usual white ones, I would have loved to use wild mushrooms if only I had had some. For the herbs I used a mixture of parsley and chickens best friend, tarragon. The parsley was more for colour than flavour but the tarragon has an amazing aniseed flavour that I just love and works fantastically well with chicken.

The final ingredient was the chestnuts, I used ready cooked and peeled chestnuts, the ready prepared are usually excellent quality but you could use fresh ones if you can get them. The chestnuts added a much needed texture contrast, without them it would all have been a bit too soft, they also add a wonderfully autumny nuttiness to the whole dish. I'm always sad to see the summer slipping away but it's delicious treats like chestnuts that remind me that there are still good things to look forward to, it won't be long before I'm drinking mulled wine and roasting fresh chestnuts over the fire.....

Chicken and chestnut pie (serves 6-8)

For the pastry:
  • 125g cold butter, diced
  • 250g plain white flour
  • Salt
  • Water
For the filling:
  • 6 Large chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on
  • Butter
  • Olive oil
  • 2-3 Leeks
  • 3 Medium white onions
  • 250g Chestnut mushrooms
  • 2 Handfuls of finely chopped parsley
  • The leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs of tarragon
  • 200g cooked and peeled chestnuts
  • 6 large heaped spoonfuls of creme fraiche
  • Salt and black pepper
  • An egg for glazing the pastry
For the pastry:
  • First make the pastry. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl with a pinch of salt, rub in the butter cubes using your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Add a couple of tablespoons of water and bring the mixture together with your hands. If it doesn't form into a ball add a little more water.
  • Once you have a smooth ball of dough place it back in the bowl, cover it and leave it in the fridge while you start on the filling.
For the filling:
  • First you need to cook the chicken thighs, season them well with salt then place them in a roasting tin and cook in a medium oven until golden brown. Once cooked leave them to cool then remove the skin and tear the meat from the bones. Set the meat aside and discard the skin and bones. (or do as I did and feed the skin to your cat).
  • Now clean the leeks by slicing them lengthwise from the base leaving the root intact, wash them well to remove any grit or soil them slice into smallish pieces along with the onions.
  • In a large heavy frying pan melt a good chunk of butter and a splash of olive oil, add the leeks and onions and cook slowly and gently so they are soft but not coloured.
  • Slice the chestnut mushrooms leaving them quite chunky and add them to the leeks and onions, stir them well in and leave them to cook.
  • Finely chop the parsley and tarragon and add it to the pan, tarragon is quite strong so you won't need a lot, taste the mixture and add more tarragon if it needs it.
  • As soon as the mushrooms have cooked stir in the shredded chicken, chestnuts and creme fraiche, season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper. taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning to taste.
  • Spoon the mixture into an oven proof pie dish then roll our your pastry.
  • Lay the pastry over the top of the pie filling, pushing it well down onto the edge of the dish so it has sealed. Trim off any excess pastry and brush the top with a little beaten egg, cut a few holes in the top to allow steam to escape the bake at about gas 5/190c/375f for 30-45 minutes or until the pastry is cooked and golden brown.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Rillons - Confit pork belly

I'm not a vegetarian but I'm no blood-thirsty carnivore either. I'll happily much my way through meat-free meals without so much as thinking about the big hunk of chicken or piece of steak that I could have been eating. To me a well made vegetarian dish can be every bit as good as -if not better than- its meaty counterpart. That said, there are those times when I get an itch that only something rich, unctuous, succulent and meaty can scratch, it's times like these that rillons were invented for...Rillons -a French speciality from the Loire Valley- are a kind of confit pork belly. Chunks of fatty belly pork slowly cooked in there own fat with a splash of wine, lots of garlic and thyme until they they become succulent, soft and melt in the mouth tender. After 3-4 hours of slow cooking they are very hard to resist but the French way is to eat them cold, I ate mine with homemade bread and Dijon mustard. Left preserved in their fat they should keep for a good few days in the fridge and make a great snack to take away hose carnivorous hunger pangs.I used Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe as a guide adapting it to my taste. This kind of food is hugely adaptable, there's no reason why you couldn't use all manner of different herbs and seasonings, although being French I would say garlic was essential.

  • 1 pork belly weighing around 1kg or bigger diced into 1 1/2 inch squares
  • Sea salt
  • Lard
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic
  • A glass of red wine
  • Sprigs of fresh thyme
  • Melt about a tablespoon of lard in a very hot pan and brown the cubes of pork until they are golden all over.
  • Season the pork with the salt and put all the pieces into a roasting dish along with the garlic, red wine, thyme and the fat from the frying pan.
  • cook in a low oven for anywhere from 2-4 hours until the meat is very tender.
  • Leave the meat in the roasting dish until cold and eat with good bread.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Adventures in bread

When I was in year 7 (age 12) my class at school were given few 'cooking lessons' as part of our design classes. I don't remember everything we cooked but I do remember the first lesson making toasted cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate, I don't know how we did it but somehow we managed to make that class last two hours.

As the class went by things got a little more taxing, I remember doing flapjack one week and I can distinctly remember the pizza with the pre-made frozen pizza base, you wouldn't have gone back for a second slice, that's for sure.My last class was right before we split up for the Christmas holidays, and this time there was actually some cooking involved, we were going to make stollen. As you'd expect the marzipan was ready made and the dough was leavened with bicarb not yeast but still, it was cooking and I loved it!

My stollen was a disaster, the bread split as soon as I took it out of the oven, searing hot liquid marzipan gushed out across the worktop and on to the floor and I was lucky not to have been burnt! But that's not the point, I learned to love food and cooking and I've never stopped since.I'm not really going anywhere with this other than to show how far my baking has come along, I've made cakes, buns, scones, puddings and breads and more besides.
From top left clockwise: Chocolate Guinness cake, Sticky Chelsea buns, Clotted cream scones, Christmas pudding, Pumpkin bread

Although I am quite good at making simple breads I know that with a little work I could be a lot better. So I've set myself a challenge to improve my bread making as much as possible, I want to be able to make bread that's crisp on the outside but soft and chewy in the middle, the kind of bread you can buy in French bakeries that has great big air holes in it and bags of flavour. It's no easy task but I'm off to a good start, I've got myself a copy of Daniel Stevens River Cottage Bread Handbook and It's fantastic. I've already got books of bread recipes but where this one differs is that it explains why bread is made the way it is rather than just telling me to do it. No book I've had before has been so clear on what the consistency of the dough should be or how I should fold it, but those little points make the difference between good bread and great bread.These two loaves are my first attempt at making bread using the pre-ferment method, this involves making a small amount of very wet dough at least a day before the make the main batch. The pre-fermented dough is then added to the new dough giving it an amazing boost in flavour and vastly improving the texture. I actually couldn't believe how much difference such a simple technique could make until I tried it. I'll posting about my bread making every couple of weeks or whenever I discover anything new, hopefully by this time next year I'll have successfully baked sourdough and if things go really well croissants...Some other tips I picked up from the book were: -
  • Use Canadian bread flour if you can get it, it has the highest gluten content that results in the best bread.
  • The dough should be relatively sticky before you begin kneading it will begin to feel dryer and more elastic the longer you knead it.
  • Placing a tray of hot water in the oven prior to baking creates steam which keeps the crust softer for longer and allows your bread to rise higher during baking.
  • Most importantly of all, good bread takes time. Be patient!
Does anyone have any tips for making really good bread?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Spelt, walnut and plum cake

We have a farmers market once a month here in Leicester, it has a small but growing range of stalls some good, some not so good and some fantastic. My favourite stall undoubtedly is Woodhouse Farm, they raise all their own animals and produce the most amazing meat, the pork is possibly the most flavourful and succulent I have ever tried and the bacon is to die for.

The last market was two weeks ago, all the usual stalls were there, the pie stall, the organic farm, the chili stall and a new stall that I had never seen or heard of before. Elizabeth's Bakery had a small stand on the end of a row, like all the best bakeries they had a range of cakes that was so beautiful and looked so mouth wateringly delicious I couldn't pull myself away. What I really liked about Elizabeth's was the baker himself (I don't know where Elizabeth was), he was just so enthusiastic about everything he sold, for every cake he would tell me exactly what was in it, how he made and why it was absolutely the best cake ever and I just had to buy some!

There were fruit tarts, meringues, sachertorte, and individual blueberry cheesecakes all of which looked beautiful. I however took home a square of spelt, plum and walnut cake, I'd never seen a cake made with spelt flour before and was really interested to see how it came out, plus I love walnuts and plums so in the end the choice was a no brainer.
I don't know whether it was the spelt flour or the skill of the baker but the cake was unbelievable, it had a soft and tender texture, it was extremely moist and the plums and walnuts added lots of flavour. The cake was so good I had to have a go at making it myself. Unfortunately bakers aren't so enthusiastic about giving away their recipes so I scoured the Internet for ideas and inspiration. As is so often the case the prolific and ever brilliant Nigel Slater came up trumps, he has created a recipe for a spelt cake that used damsons and spelt flour, although his final cake wasn't quite the same as the cake from the market it gave me some idea of where to start.
Ready for the oven

My cake is a combination of Nigel Slater's recipe, the cake from the market and my own ideas. It turned out so much better than I ever thought it would, I'd almost go as far as say it was the perfect cake. I used Victoria plums for my cake, they're coming to the end of the season now but there are still a few around and are well worth buying if you find some otherwise any good plums will be fine. I finished the cake with an apricot glaze and dark chocolate, I wasn't sure about adding the chocolate thinking it might be one ingredient too far but it actually works really well, the bitterness of the chocolate sets off the sweet cake perfectly.
The finished cake

Spelt, walnut and plum cake (makes 9-12 squares)

  • 150g Butter
  • 150g Light soft brown sugar
  • 3 Medium eggs
  • 120g White spelt flour (I used Doves Farm organic flour, available from Sainsbury's and Waitrose in the UK, you can substitute with plain flour if you can't find any spelt although it won't be quite the same)
  • 75g Ground almonds
  • 2tsp Baking powder
  • 9-10 Plums halved and stoned
  • 70g Walnut pieces
  • Apricot baking glaze or smooth apricot jam
  • 30g Dark chocolate (I used Green and Blacks cooks chocolate)

Grease and line a 22cm square cake tin with a removable base and preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180C.

In a mixing bowl or in an electric mixer cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy then one at a time beat in the eggs until everything is smooth and well combined.

Next sift in the flour and baking powder and add the ground almonds and half of the walnuts, fold everything together gently. Pour the mixture into the cake tin and smooth down the surface with a spatula. Lay the plum halves on top, place them close together as they will shrink during cooking and you want to be sure there is plum in every slice, scatter the remaining walnut halves over.

Bake for 45-60 minutes, it's done when it feels firm to the touch. Leave the cake to cool on a rack before removing from the tin. Spread the apricot glaze over the top of the cake, be quite generous with it. Melt the chocolate in a bowl placed over some warm water then drizzle over the top. Once the chocolate has set the cake is ready.