Saturday, 26 December 2009

AGA SAGAS


People who own Agas absolutely ADORE them! They will tell you endlessly how useful an Aga is, as a cooking device, a heater, a place to dry knickers and a nifty means of reviving newborn lambs and kittens. Agas are often described as "the heart of the kitchen/home/family" and seem to elicit a certain reverence in owners and fans for their womb-like qualities. True, they can bring comfort and warmth to an otherwise draughty Dorset farmhouse (I should know; I used to stay in one on a regular basis), but I cannot understand their much-vaunted cooking abilities. To my mind, an Aga is just HOT or NOT HOT. If you boil a kettle for your morning tea, you must then let said device heat up again sufficiently to make toast (which has to be done with a strange wire contraption, to which the toast inevitable sticks and has to be dislodged by hitting it violently with a wooden spoon). You cannot do flash-frying, or indeed any other cooking technique which require anything more than rudimentary finessing. Yes, an Aga makes a great casserole, but it does so without subtlety.

My mother-in-law has always had an Aga, and when she lived in the big draughty Dorset farmhouse, it really was the centre of the house. It was the place you went to warm up after a long walk with the dogs, hitching your buttocks against the rail, and allowing the heat to seep into your cold limbs. It was also the place where announcements were made: engagements, marriages, forthcoming babies, drugs busts by the police.

I never really enjoy cooking on the Aga, because - see above - of its lack of subtlety. My reservations about its capabilities were more than borne out one dread Christmas when the wretched thing broke down. We arrived with our young son to find the Aga belching noxious black fumes around the house. It was quite clear there was something seriously wrong with it, but father-in- law denied that there was and staunchly stuck to his guns, saying it would be fine. In the meantime, I rushed to the nearest M&S to buy ready meals in case Christmas dinner could not be cooked, only to find that there was no microwave as a back up means of cooking. Christmas dinner that year was made in an electric frying pan. That was the same year that I lost a very precious earring between the floorboards, and cursed old country houses and their draughty and gappy floors. After that, it became a condition of our going to stay that the Aga was serviced prior to Christmas.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A MENU FOR CHRISTMAS EVE....

Caipirinha cocktails
Champagne

Manchego & Membrillo
Serrano ham
Cheese crisps

Duck 'Fattee' - layered Lebanese celebration dish
Wine: Rioja reserva

Jacky's surprise pudding

SOUR CHERRY AMARETTI


I have a very sweet tooth: I love good-quality milk chocolate, and I have a penchant for biscuits and cakes made with almonds, especially macaroons and Amaretti biscuits. When I was in northern Italy last summer (Liguria, a region famous for its food), I developed a real passion for soft amaretti biscuits (sometimes called "amaretti morbidi"), and was determined to try and make them. An internet search drew a blank and it was only when I leafed through the Ottolenghi cookbook, that I found a recipe, so easy I can now make these delicious chewy biscuits virtually from memory. They are delicious served with a glass of sweet wine, or Amaretto liqueur, or a cup of good strong coffee at the end of a meal. Actually, they are delicious at any time......

This is the Ottolenghi recipe. The quantities double up easily, and you can experiment with different flavourings, so long as you keep to the basic core ingredients of almonds, sugar and egg whites. I use a very high-quality almond extract: cheap ones just taste of chemicals

180g ground almonds
120g caster sugar
grated zest of 1 lemon
3 drops natural almond essence
pinch of salt
60g dried cherries/cranberries, roughly chopped
2 egg whites
2 tsp honey
plenty of icing sugar for rolling

Oven 170C

Mix all the dry ingredients together. Add the almond essence and cherries. Beat the egg whites with the honey until they reach soft meringue consistency. Gently fold in the dry ingredients. You should have a soft, pliable paste. Form into little balls, roll in plenty of icing sugar, and place on a sheet of baking parchment to cook. Bake for about 12 mins. They should be crisp on the outside and chewy in the centre.

LADUREE!


Who can resist the delicious charms of Laduree macaroons? Certainly not me! It's pure girly heaven in their shop, a tiny rococo gilded grotto at the Piccadilly end of Burlington Arcade. There you can gaze upon the prettiest macaroons known to woman, laid out in serried ranks, in the most gorgeous colours and flavours imaginable: bright yellow lemon, pink raspberry, dark chocolate, violet violet and matt black liquorice. And turquoise! They are crisp on the outside, smooth and soft on the inside, and each season Laduree pays "hommage" to its most famous creation by bringing out a new flavour - rather like a French fashion house (which I suppose is what Laduree is, in some ways).

I was delighted to find a recipe for Laduree-style macaroons in the wonderful Ottolenghi cookbook and intend to try and make them at the earliest opportunity. After my success with soft amaretti biscuits (also from the Ottolenghi book), I am inspired. They can't be that difficult, can they?

In the meantime, I visit the shop whenever I am in that neck of the woods. You can even stop for tea there, if you are lucky to bag one of the three tables outside the shop (they also serve lovely patisserie and chocolates), where you can watch the moneyed world and Japanese tourists pass by on their progress along Burlington Arcade. It's a truly delightful little enclave. And now you can bring a little of that je ne sais quoi scent of Laduree into your home in the shape of their home fragrance and candles.

And the best part is that I found mini macaroons, not unlike Laduree's, in the freezer cabinet of my local Waitrose!

Monday, 21 December 2009

CHRISTMAS COOKING

Christmas for me begins at 3pm on Christmas Eve with the pure sound of a boy tenor singing the opening bars of Once In Royal David's City, which always heralds the start of the service of nine lessons and carols from King's College Chapel, Cambridge. I am usually cooking while listening to the radio, happily chopping things, assembling a meal for Christmas Eve, while singing along to my favourite carols.

Despite being an unashamed foodie, I am not very good with Christmas food. I don't like turkey, finding it too dry and uninteresting a meat, though my mother-in-law does a very good Coronation Turkey, which, when she lived in the farmhouse, was always served on Boxing Day after we'd been out with the hunt. I don't do the rum-soaked cakes and puddings, and have never liked raisins and their cousins, sultanas and currants, nor mixed peel or indeed any other dried fruit to speak of. Thus, Christmas cake, Christmas Pudding and mince pies are all anathema to me. Other people find this bizarre. "But you MUST like mince pies!" they carol with incredulity. To which I'd love to reply "Why must I?" I've never liked mince pies and I never will! (Having said that, I am keen to try Waitrose's old fashioned real mince pie, made with venison.)

Christmas Day is usually spent with my husband's family in Dorset. The day follows a fairly traditional course. We drive down a virtually empty M3 from London, and, more often than not, our car breaks down, or, as happened one year, we are involved in an ugly road rage incident with some yokel oik in a Metro. Last year, the power steering failed on the van, and we had to go back to London on an AA low loader in order to pick up our car to finish off the journey....

After the Queen, and Christmas specials of Dr Who and Strictly Come Dancing, we gather at the groaning board for roast rib of beef and all the trimmings. And my pudding. Because I don't eat Christmas Pudding, I always bring my own. This year it's Greek Walnut Cake, a delicious meringuey confection drenched in cinnamon syrup. We eat and drink too much and then collapse in front of the telly for some more festive garbage before retiring to bed. On Boxing Day, we go out with the hunt and come back for cold cuts before embarking on another huge meal in the evening.

Until two years ago, friends from New York would fly in on Christmas Eve and come for dinner, where we would always have lots of Cava and smoked salmon and blinis, and then a huge meal ending with one of my signature chocolate cakes. This year it's local foodie friends for supper, people who know me and my food well and who love eating at my table. I am cooking Duck Fattee, a Lebanese layered dish with rice, fried aubergine and a piquant tomato sauce, and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's chocolate chestnut cake.

ALE & PIE

To Mayfair to shop at my favourite jeweller, Wright & Teague, and then onto The Guinea on Bruton Lane for lunch. The Guinea is one of those staunchly old-fashioned pubs, probably Victorian, very small with the bar in the middle, and little benches all around the walls. It has tartan carpet and woodwork with treacly varnish. It hasn't been gastro-pubbed, and its clientele is still largely male, old buffers in Crombie overcoats (at the back of the pub is the Guinea Grill, serving meat) and young Tory boys with signet rings and striped shirts. It also boasts the Mirabeau, an amazing steak sandwich. I was wary of eating said sandwich because I was wearing a red silk crepe blouse and whenever I wear a garment like that, I tend to spill something oily on it. As it was, the Mirabeau was "off", but - joy of joys! - the steak & kidney pie was ON.

Pies done well are delicious. Pies down well washed down with a pint of Guinness are even better. The Guinea's steak & kidney pie had a crisp crust, the pastry flavoured with herbs and brushed with butter. Underneath its lid was tender steak and juicy kidneys in a rich gravy. It was peppery and comforting, just to the thing for a cold day in December. The pub filled up and more pies were served, but there was shopping to be done, a trip to Fenwick's and a duck to buy for Christmas Eve. I left reluctantly: it's ages since I've been to a proper pub.

Friday, 4 December 2009

BABY, IT'S COLD OUTSIDE


I've had to scrape a thin dusting of ice off the car twice this week, and I've got the heating on all day, which means winter is finally here. Plus, I've got my annual head-cold, and for the past twenty-four hours have been dreading losing my sense of taste.

The colder weather has brought with it thoughts of warming, homely meals: bangers and mash with onion gravy, slow-cooked casseroles, and tonight's Friday Night Supper - slow-roasted loin of pork with gratin dauphinois and braised red cabbage.

Friday Night Supper is usually an occasion, of a sort, in my house. It has been designated "gastropub night" because I cook a gastropub type meal for a friend who for the past two years has been living on his own and subsists on pasta for the intervening days. He is one of my favourite dinner guests because he loves food, so cooking for him is always a pleasure. I try to make something different each week, but more often than not, we end up having some variant on the slow-cooked lamb tagine number. I don't do elegant cuisine minceur for this friend: he likes big, robust meals with lots of home-made bread, and plenty of Leffe beer.

Tonight's menu is adapted from a recipe in Nigella Lawson's Nigella Bites book, which is full of quick to make, delicious food. Officially, the pork should be roasted for about 24 hours, but her recipe is for 12, while mine is for 3. I tend to roast the meat for a minimum of three hours, by which time my house is full of wonderful, comforting, roasty smells, and the pork is tender, succulent and melt in the mouth. I still can't get the hang of crackling, though. My oven is quirky and has a rather annoying habit of cutting-out (and tripping the electricity in the house) if it gets too hot, so proper crackling is not always possible. But even without 'proper' crackling, this is a lovely dish.

Gratin Dauphinoise rates very high up on my list of comfort foods. I love the softness of it, the way the cream and potatoes meld together, the whisper of garlic and nutmeg. I know it's full of double-cream, but sometimes we need naughty but nice food. It's always greeted with sighs of pleasure when I serve it.

Red cabbage always reminds me of my student days. When I was in my final year, I moved in with my friend, Lucy, and a bunch of her friends (my friends were linguists and had all buggered off to do their year out in France or Germany). We shared a big, draughty Victorian house on the edge of Exeter city centre, 5 minutes from The Black Horse pub and Carlo's Chippy. We were quite a mixed bag of people (there were 7 of us) but we were all rather swotty, which helped because I really needed some focus to finish my degree. We rarely ate together, unless it was someone's birthday, in which case us girls would make curries, or at Christmas, when we managed to produce a very fine Christmas dinner on the meagre remains of our termly allowances. Otherwise, it was the usual young-people-living-together-scenario of named milk cartons in the fridge and cupboard boundaries very clearly drawn. One young man had a cupboard full of Fray Bentos pies, and would go home on a regular basis and return on Sunday evening with a rucksack full of M&S ready meals his mum had bought him. I flirted with vegetarianism, figuring it was cheaper, but then ended up having to eat my own weird stews. This is where the red cabbage comes in......

At that time, I did not realise that red cabbage needs a dash of vinegar or lemon juice to stop it going blue. My mother used to cook red cabbage a lot and I loved the deep wine colour of it, speckled with cloves. Of course, I couldn't be bothered to ring her to ask her how to cook it, so I learnt by trial and error instead.

I like to cook red cabbage very slowly, with aromatics such as cloves, ginger and cinnamon, and some brown sugar to sweeten it. Sometimes I add apple slices or baby carrots. It's definitely a vegetable that benefits from slow cooking, and when I serve it it is often slightly caramalised. It goes well with the gratin dauphinois - the spiciness cuts into the creaminess of the potatoes.

Attempting to "crack the crackling", so to speak, today, I scored the skin of the pork deeply with my sharpest knife, and then rubbed in a marinade of sea salt, garlic, sherry vinegar and crushed fennel seeds. I'll probably put the meat in around 3pm. While it's cooking, I'll be making soft amaretti biscuits to have for pudding.

Monday, 30 November 2009

MONDAY SUPPER

Lamb chops Mechoui-style

I bought a pack of nice fat juicy lamb cutlets in M&S and decided to Moroccan-ise them for supper. Mechoui is a north-African way of cooking over an open fire, with a special spice mix. The spice mix I use is:
  • 1 tbsp groun coriander seeds
  • 11/2 tsp groun cumin seeds
  • 3/4 tsp sweet paprika
  • 11/2 tbsp olive oil
  • For the roasted cumin salt
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 11/2 tsp sea salt flakes
Mix the dry ingredients (not the Cumin salt ingredients), put in a plastic bag, throw in the chops and give it all a good shake to coat the chops. Leave to marinade for a while. In the meantime, put the cumin seeds in a dry frying pan and roast over a flame until them begin to release their aroma. Pound to a powder in a pestle and mortar with Maldon sea salt.

I cook meat like this on my trusty Breville electric grill. This was a kitchen gadget I resisted buying for a long time; then one day last year, I was in John Lewis, buying a large plasma screen tv, and thought, what the hell, I'll buy a grill as well. For a month, I made nothing but paninis on it (it's marketed as a 'panini maker'). Then I discovered it could do meat, and fish, and veg, and lovely toasted sourdough. It's jolly useful, though a bit of a pain to clean, despite it's so-called non-stick surface. You can also griddle the chops on one of those hob-top ridged cast iron griddle pan. The great thing about the Breville is that it negates the need to turn the meat (or the veg, or the fish.....)

When the chops are done - and "done-ness" is an entirely personal thing, in my experience. Since I like my red meat still twitching (just), I would never presume done-ness to others, so it's up to you..... Anyway, when the chops are done to your liking, you're supposed to brush them with melted butter, but, hey, life's too short to brush chops with butter, ain't it? and besides I was deeply into winning at University Challenge, having correctly identified piano concertos by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Gershwin and Rachmaninov.... So I just brushed the chops with the cumin salt, and then served them with griddled aubergine slices with feta, sumac and dill, couscous and a harissa dressing made from a teaspoon of harissa stirred into about two tablespoons of creme fraiche. Greenness was provided by stir-fried Padron peppers and a £2 bottle of wine from Bottoms Up, which has now gone Tits Up.

FOODIE THOUGHT No. 1


It was raining when I got to the station, hard and cold, the sort of rain that looks like it will never stop. And an icy wind was blowing. I was hunkered down in my deeply inelegant ski jacket, but at least I was warm - that is, until I got to Wimbledon and had to change onto the District Line. The District Line always seems to be unheated in the winter, and over-heated in the summer. As I froze between Wimbledon and Notting Hill Gate, my thoughts turned, as they often do, to food, and I had a sudden yen for mussels, steamed in the classic way with white wine and garlic. I've always liked seafood, and have never been squeamish about eating it (though I do draw a line at oysters, because I really can't see the point of them). I wasn't allowed to eat seafood as a child because my mother thought it would poison me; as a consequence, I love it and sometimes buy a whole dressed crab at the fishmonger for my lunch.

As the train rattled on through Fulham Broadway and Parsons Green, and harassed people pushed onto the already crowded train, instead of counting how many people in the carriage had iPhones, as I sometimes do to pass the time if I've forgotten my book, I thought about lifting the lid of the cooking pot and imbibing that wonderful briny aroma of the sea, of eating the plump, orange mussels with hunks of good bread, and mopping up the cooking liquor afterwards. This thought sustained me as I walked through the ticket barrier at Notting Hill Gate. The muddy, wet floor of the station was enough to tell me that it was still raining above ground; cross-looking, wet people were hurrying up and down the station steps, shaking out their umbrellas. But the rain had stopped, and a number 52 was waiting for me at the bus stop on Kensington Park Road. And when I arrived at the house on Ladbroke Grove, my old man in Kensington said, "Oh it's lovely to see you. You always cheer me up!". I thought about the mussels one last time before I sat down to take a morning's dictation.

I might cook mussels for Friday's supper.

'FAVOURITE SALAD'

A select few, who are regulars at my dinner table (you know who you are), know this salad very well. It has earned the nickname "favourite salad" because that's just what it is! It comes from the first Moro cookbook.

Spinach and Feta Salad with sumac dressing
Sumac is a tree with red berries. The dried berries are ground to produce a dark purple spice with a sharp, citrussy flavour. It is one of my favourite ingredients, and is used a lot in Turkish cooking (a friend who has a holiday apartment in Turkey brought me a huge bag of Sumac last summer; it should keep me going until her next visit!).

Half a bag of baby spinach leaves
Half a block of feta cheese
1 garlic clove ground to a paste with salt in a pestle & mortar
Extra virgin olive oil
Good quality red wine vinegar
Toasted pine nuts
About a tsp of Sumac

Make the dressing first. Pound the garlic to a paste with a generous pinch of Maldon sea salt. Add about a tbsp of olive oil and then the red wine vinegar and keep stirring until the dressing begins to emulsify. Check for balance of flavours and add some more vinegar if necessary. The dressing should be piquant but not overpoweringly vinegary. Then add the sumac. Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts (Demon Cook's tip: NEVER turn your back on the hob when toasting pinenuts! They have a habit of suddenly burning without warning!).

Assemble the salad by crumbling feta over the spinach, scatter with pine nuts, and pour over the dressing. You can also add toasted pitta bread or flatbread, but I always forget this, and anyway, the salad is delicious as it is.....

TAGINES & TAJINES


A tagine is a clay cooking vessel with a conical lid. The shape ensures all the condensation from the cooking food returns to the pot, keeping the ingredients moist. A dish cooked in a tagine, is also called a tagine (or tajine).

It really is a wonderful thing, and with very few ingredients, a delicious slow-cooked meal can be made very easily. A tagine can be a celebratory feast or a homely supper. The simplest one I make consists of only half a dozen ingredients. I chuck all the ingredients in the pot, stick the lid on, bung it in the oven for an hour or so, and voilĂ , the meal is made. No need to brown meat or any of that fiddling about: a tagine quite simply makes itself.

I was given one as a Christmas gift some years ago and use it regularly. It is one of my favourite pieces of kitchen kit, and it's elegant enough to bring to the table, where I fling off the lid with a flourish, allowing the lovely aromas of the pot to waft around the table. The food is comforting and warming, just the thing for a cold winter evening.


Simple chicken tagine
1 chicken thigh (bone in) per person
1 large onion, finely sliced
About 1 tsp chopped fresh ginger, or bottled ginger. Or failing both, ground ginger
1 tsp cumin seeds or ground cumin
1 tsp chilli flakes or harissa paste
A couple of garlic cloves, chopped
A couple of carrots, cut into batons
A tin of chickpeas
Salt & pepper

Optional extras:
Half a preserved lemon, flesh removed and finely chopped
A handful of dried apricots or dates, chopped
A handful of olives
Chopped, fresh coriander

Put everything in the tagine (or Le Creuset type casserole dish), splash on some olive oil and some water. Season with salt and pepper. Put in a hot oven (200C) and cook for about an hour. About 10 mins before serving, I like to add couscous to the dish (quantity per person according to packet), put the lid back on and leave to steam on the stovepot before serving. Remove the lid and you will find a whole meal in a pot.

I like to serve this with a generous dollop of Bezalu Rose Harissa paste.

Djej Makali
Tagine of Chicken, Preserved Lemons, Saffron and Olives

Serves 4

This tagine is delicious, full of interesting flavours, and dead easy to make. It can be made in advance. Any leftover sauce can be frozen.

1 chicken thigh or leg portion per person (bone in). Or joint a whole chicken into 4 pieces
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 onion, grated
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
pinch of saffron threads
1 preserved lemon prepared (see separate recipe)
110g (4 oz) Moroccan pinky red and green olives, boiled in water for 5 mins and drained
salt and pepper

Trim any excess fat off the chicken pieces and then dust with the dry ingredients and half the garlic and leave to marinade for up to 12 hours (covered and in the fridge).

Grate the onion into the bottom of tagine (or Le Creuset-style casserole dish), add the rest of the garlic, the preserved lemon, the saffron and the chicken pieces. Any spice/garlic mix left in the marinading dish should be scraped into the tagine. Pour over olive oil. Season. Put in the oven and cook for a good hour, or longer, to allow the sauce to make itself. If it looks a little dry, add some water, but not too much. You are after a thickish sauce which coats the meat. Towards the end of cooking, add the olives.

Serve with steamed couscous, or mashed potato, or flatbreads. Or indeed, just a green salad.

I like to serve this with 'Favourite Salad' (see separate entry).


Lamb and Date Tagine with Onion & Pomegranate relish
This is taken from 'Nigella Christmas' (2008), and is easy to make and absolutely gorgeous. The onion relish, flecked with jewel-like pomegranate seeds, makes a fine and festive accompaniment. I often serve this for dinner parties as it is delicious and impressive. And, as Nigella says, "the dates make this tagine rich and sweet". The resulting sauce is dark and aromatic. I will be making this for my pre-Christmas dinner.

Serves 6-8
2 onions, chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground allspice
1 kg diced leg of lamb OR whole shoulder of lamb to same weight, trimmed of fat
250 soft dried pitted dates
250ml pomegranate juice (from a bottle)
250ml water
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp Maldon salt

This method is for making this dish in a tagine. Refer to Nigella's original for the casserole method.

Put all the ingredients in the tagine, pour over the pomegranate juice and water, and put in a hot oven. I like to cook this for about 3 hours, by which time my house smells lovely and my mouth is watering. Serve with steamed couscous and onion relish. And a good Rioja.

Onion and Pomegranate Relish
1 red onion, finely sliced
60 ml lime juice
juice & 40g seeds from 1 large pomegranate, or 60 ml pure pomegranate juice from a bottle
2 tbsps chopped fresh coriander

Steep the sliced onion in the lime juice and pomegranate juice for at least half. Drain and scatter with pomegranate seeds (tip: slice pomegranate in half and bash skin with a wooden spoon to release the seeds). Toss with fresh coriander and season with a little salt.

SANDWICH VS STEAKWICH

I'm not afraid to admit that I love Pret a Manger sandwiches. In the old days, when I worked in a rather fusty publishing house opposite the British Museum, Pret was the exciting newbie of the High Street sandwich shops. The only other ones were the little continental delis and cafes where sandwiches were made to order, or rather uninspiring places like Benjie's or Greggs. Pret had interesting fillings, "secret sauce", friendly staff, and great combos like Brie, tomato & fresh basil, or their famous - and still excellent - avocado salad wrap (also with secret sauce!). When I was pregnant I craved, and regularly succumbed to, the All Day Breakfast: sausage, bacon, egg & tomato wedged between two slices of chewy multigrain bread. It assuaged my dreadful cravings for carbs, but was notoriously difficult to eat tidily, and more often than not, I would be disturbed, mouth full of messy sandwich, by my boss who would hurriedly and apologetically back out of the corridor which passed for my "office" while I finished my lunch.

Pret's sarnies remain delicious. My current favourite is Italian prosciutto, with tomato, basil and cheese on "Artisan baguette", which is just posh Pret-speak for a multi-seed wholemeal baguette. Like the All Day Breakfast, this is not an easy sandwich to eat, especially on the District Line on my way home from my weekly stint keeping an old man happy in Kensington. I quite often find myself tugging at stringy ropes of fat from the ham, and today an enormous slice of cheese fell out onto my silk blouse. I tried to hide behind my book but then the secret sauce threatened to slip out too, taking a slice of tomato with it....

Munching valiantly, I remembered a story my friend Helen told me about the infamous 'Steakwich' at the King's Head pub. She had been invited out by some rather serious neighbours, to thank her for offering various advice and support to them as new parents (she did not, however, advise them to read The Contented Little Baby Book - they brought that, and all the attendant horror of it, upon themselves). While they ordered sensible things like lasagne, she could not resist the Steakwich, a fat slice of grilled sirloin steak, with trimmings, inside a crispy baguette. While the neighbours talked, Helen tackled the sandwich. One bite and she found herself with a huge flap of steak hanging from her lips like a large, brown tongue. It seemed impossible to eat this overblown sandwich politely, and in the end, with horseradish and mustard dripping down her chin, she just launched into it with gusto.

It's all right when this sort of thing happens in the privacy of your own home because you can happily tear hunks of meat off with all the abandon of a hungry wolf, but in public....? It makes you realise that some food just shouldn't be eaten in public, or, indeed, in polite company. Helen warned me off serving any kind of spaghetti with sauce to a man I was trying to seduce, because it would just be too messy and unromantic, so he got fish paella instead, which could be niftily forked off the plate one-handed (he had seconds AND thirds, which endeared him to me even more because he clearly enjoyed food, more importantly, MY food!). But I regret never cooking him my lemon linguine: he looked like the kind of person who could eat spaghetti expertly, and, more importantly, neatly.... And lemon linguine is sexy and romantic, and just the kind of simple-yet-sophisticated food to serve to a lover.

WASHING UP


It's like piano practice: you just gotta do it!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

WEDNESDAY SUPPER

Wednesday supper is always tricky. I teach piano for three hours continuously in the afternoon and by the time I finish, I am too tired to do little more than loll on the sofa, not speaking, and raise a glass of chilled Chat-en-Oeuf to my lips. Wednesday Supper has to be quick, requiring little thought, and even less preparation.

In anticipation of this, I took a couple of salmon steaks out of the freezer earlier in the day and left them on the chopping board, hoping inspiration might strike. I planned something simple - pan-fried salmon with new potatoes and avocado sauce, but the naughty-but-nice smell of the deep-fat fryer, in which I'd made my son's fish 'n' chip supper was all-pervading, and my thoughts turned to tempura (salmon, aubergine, courgette and sweet potato), which I ate off my knees while watching 'The Thick of It'.

ICE CREAM FOR ANNE



Anne, one of my oldest and dearest friends, reminded me recently that I used to make fantastic brown-bread ice-cream. To be honest, I don't actually remember making it, but she assures me that I did. We used to eat it together at The Double Locks, a wonderful pub by the river in Exeter where we were students. We also used to enjoy the garlic mushrooms topped with Stilton and a pint of Exmoor. When our exams were over, we would walk along the river to the pub and have brunch at 11 when the pub opened: the full English fry up with a pint of Wadworth's 6X on the side. Looking back, The Double Locks was probably my first introduction to the gastropub - but this was nearly 25 years ago, before the idea of a "dining pub" became fashionable, and all sorts of perfectly good, old-fashioned pubs started being tarted up and morphing into 'gastropubs'. The Double Locks served good food and good beer; it was as simple as that.

Back to that ice-cream....

It seems a bizarre idea, and smacks faintly of healthy eating (that's the brown bread part). It is in fact a Victorian concoction, and recreates, in ice-cream form, all that is good about toasted brown bread slathered in creamy butter. A vanilla base, flecked with crunchy sweet nuggets, it really is a wonderful thing.

You don't need an ice-cream maker to make this ice-cream: with the high cream content it really makes itself.


Brown Bread Ice-cream
3 oz (85g) wholemeal breadcrumbs
3 oz (85g) granulated sugar
4 tablespoons water
3/4 pint (420ml) double cream

2 oz (50g) icing sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons rum
real vanilla extract

Spread the crumbs on a baking tray and toast under a grill, string from time to time, until golden brown - be careful not to burn them. Set aside to cool. Put the sugar and water into a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved completely. Boil the syrup to a rich brown caramel, but don't allow the caramel to darken too much or it will be bitter. Take it off the heat and stir in the breadcrumbs.

Immediately turn the mixture out onto a buttered baking tray. It will harden quickly to a kind of ersatz praline. Grind it finely in a coffee grinder or with a pestle and mortar. Don't grind this very hard mixture in a food processor or blender as it may damage the blades. Meanwhile, whip the cream until it holds soft peaks, then beat in the icing sugar, rum and a little vanilla extract. Fold in the breadcrumb praline and freeze without stirring. Serve with some fresh raspberries.


TUESDAY SUPPER

RISOTTO


There's something very therapeutic about making risotto, all that gentle stirring, gradually adding liquid, watching it all begin to soften and meld together. And then there's the eating. It's the ultimate comfort food: warming and soft in the mouth. It can be stylish and sophisticated or robust and homely, depending on what's in it.


I don't believe making risotto is a mystic art. The correct rice (though I sometimes use Spanish paella rice), and little patience is all that is required. It needs some attention towards the end to ensure the rice doesn't overcook, but otherwise it can be left to simmer away happily on its own while I watch 'Location Location Location' or 'How to Look Good Naked'. Just make sure it doesn't dry out. My favourite risottos are mushroom, roast squash with gorgonzola, and chicken.


Tuesday's supper risotto was made with the leftovers from a whole chicken I pot-roasted for supper on Sunday. I kept all the remaining sauce, vegetables and herbs that went in the pot with the chicken, and tossed all this into the rice, with the heel of the parmesan brought back from Liguria in September. During the course of the cooking, the cheese rind began to melt, enriching the sauce with a lovely creaminess. Except that I forgot to fish out the cheese rinds before serving....


Delicious with some steamed asparagus on the side and a glass of Pinot Grigio,

PESTO


Pesto is sexy. A slick of fragrant greenness coating strands of spaghetti, a generous smearing over toasted sourdough for a quick snack, a delicious topping to baked salmon steaks....

I make my own. It's dead easy, and far more delicious than even the most superior bought Pesto. In the summer, I even managed to grow my own basil to make Pesto.

IF I KNEW YOU WERE COMING, I'D HAVE BAKED A CAKE....


A good friend asks me to provide a pudding for her dinner party which I'm also attending, and requests Torta de Naranja, a deliciously moist almond and orange cake drenched in syrup.

I buy the ingredients, but when I go to the fridge I find Someone Else has used some of the eggs for breakfast omelettes. I don't want to go to the supermarket again because I've got a headache and the beginnings of a rough throat, so I begin a fruitless search through other favourite recipe books for something baroque and chocolatey. But every recipe calls for 8 eggs (I have 7), and copious amounts of double cream, alcohol and other ingredients I don't have. In the end, I decide to wing it with 7 eggs and make 2 rather thin, sad-looking cakes. I pour the orange syrup over both cakes with my fingers crossed behind my back.

When I get to the hostess's beautifully appointed house in Clapham Old Town, I peel off the tin foil, taking the sticky top of one cake with it, like pulling a plaster off a scab before it is fully healed. Leaving the cakes in the kitchen, I join the other guests in the elegant sitting room, and, sitting beneath a faux Rothko picture the hostess's mother painted, I drink three Kir Royales, and discuss quantum physics (about which I know almost nothing - Demon Cook winging it again!) with one of the guests, who later reveals he is a quantum physicist.

Over dinner, we talk about Dorset, Afghanistan, men wearing make up, dogs. I've forgotten all about my scabby cakes, because I'm trying to keep half an eye on my best friend up the other end of the table, who's been set up with the hostess's single man friend. It seems to be going all right - lots of eye contact and laughter.

I dust the sorry-looking cakes with icing sugar and ground cinnamon, and take them to the table. I've drunk so much, I'm past caring about their appearance. And they are so delicious - damp and almondy, scented with orange flower water - that no one cares what they look like, least of all the other diners. There are contented sounds as people tuck in. Seconds are offered, and accepted.

Sometimes cooking is just about having the chutzpah to do it!

TORTA DE NARANJA
Orange & Almond Torta

This recipe comes from the first Moro book by Sam & Sam Clark. Its ingredients are redolent of Moorish Southern Spain.

The quantities double up easily to make a larger cake. I often make this at Christmas as an alternative to Christmas Pudding (which I dislike intensely). This recipe is for 6.

6 large eggs, separated
240g caster sugar
230g ground almonds
finely grated zest of 2 oranges

Syrup
juice of 8 oranges or 8 Seville oranges (for a slightly tarter flavour)
juice of 1 1/2 lemons (if not using Seville oranges)
1 whole cinnamon stick
caster sugar to taste

Oven 180C/Gas 4. Line a 23cm loose bottomed cake tin.

Reserve 1 tbsp of caster sugar, and then beat the egg yolks with the rest of the sugar until pale and creamy. Then add the almonds and orange zest. Meanwhile, beat the egg whites and the remaining sugar until still and carefully fold in the sugar-egg-almond mixture, trying not to knock the air out of the whites. The mixture may seem stiff at first, but it will soon loosen. Gently pour into the prepared cake tin, and bake for about 60 mins until the cake is golden on top and firm to the touch. While the cake is baking, make the syrup by boiling the orange and lemon juice with a handful of sugar and the cinnamon stick. Allow to simmer for 5 mins. When the cake comes out of the oven, pierce the top with a skewer and pour the syrup over. Later, before serving, dust the top of the cake with icing sugar and ground cinnamon.

COOKING AND ME



There are two things I do when I've time on my hands, or I need to de-stress, or if I just fancy a bit of homemade therapy. One is playing my piano and losing myself in some knotty Chopin. The other is COOKING.

"How do you find the time?" people ask. The answer of course is that I MAKE time - for cooking, and piano practice. Bread can be set to rise while I'm studying op 25/7; a cake can bake while I'm wrestling with Brahms's finger exercises.


The other thing about food, and, more specifically, me and food, is that I am very very interested in it - and very, very greedy. I'm an adventurous and curious eater - there's not much I won't eat apart from celery, oysters, raisins and their cousins, and anything that resembles semen - and I'm an adventurous cook too.


I probably did learn to cook with my mother, standing by her side stirring the Christmas cake mix, making choux batter for eclairs or rolling out biscuit dough. She was queen of the 1970s dinner party and could knock out Fanny Craddock cordon bleu confections when required. She also taught me that food is a convivial, sharing experience. My parents entertained a lot: long, relaxed meals with good friends, formal dinner parties, suppers in the garden, long before the barbecue became de rigeur for summer entertaining.


My cookery teacher at school, a large lady with a friendly round face like a Dutch cheese, taught me the rules of pastry (keep it cold!) and how to make Bechamel, and then, when I left home, I started to teach myself.


As a student I lived off strange, sludgy bean and vegetable stews. I had a few disasters, such as red cabbage turning everything an unappetising blue colour because I didn't realise I should add some lemon juice or vinegar to retain its colour. Gradually, I began to formulate some favourite dishes I could cook well and as my confidence grew, so did my repertoire (just like my piano playing).


Now I am not afraid to try new things, though my rule is never to cook something untried for a dinner party. I make my own bread, and have just started experimenting with simple cheese making. It's just about having the will and the interest.


Friends who come for supper know they will be treated to a good meal, and I get a huge amount of pleasure from gathering friends around my dinner table for food. Friendly & convivial, it is the stuff that nourishes us, the staff of life, and the social glue that sticks us together.