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.