Monthly Archives: November 2009

Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto

An impromptu dinner party this evening, and not a lot on hand. But, as Jill Dupleix says, “having stock in your freezer is the very definition of social security,” and there is some vegetable stock in the freezer, and a butternut squash in the cupboard. Since it’s unlikely that I’ll need to turn the squash into a coach for an incognito appearance at the Prince’s Ball, I decided to make risotto instead.

Firstly, the squash gets cut in half, seeds scooped out, and then scored deeply, but not so deeply as to break the skin. Some salt, pepper and a few pieces of butter, and into the oven at 180C for an hour.

Now, after half an hour, I checked and ooops, I’d put too much butter on, and it was starting to escape the baking tray. I poured some off, but since there was still plenty in the hollows, so I popped a gently squished clove of garlic in each, and returned to the oven.

Check whether it’s done by prodding with a skewer and making sure all the bits are soft. Don’t worry if there are a few burnt bits. Place the squash to one side, and allow to cool. This can be done earlier in the day, if convenient.

The risotto is a standard, by-the-numbers affair. One onion, 250g Arborio rice, butter, olive oil, stock, yada yada yada. I’ll write detailed instructions later on, if only to assuage the anxieties of Julian Barnes.

Whilst you’re doing the risotto, peel the cold roasted squash, and cut into half inch chunks. It will practically fall to pieces anyway, along the lines you scored earlier. The skin should slip off, but might need coaxing here and there. You can do this earlier if you don’t believe you can leave a risotto unattended for more than thirty seconds. (You can, but never leave the room.)

Once the risotto is at the resting phase, pop the squash in, pop the lid back on and leave for five minutes. Then stir very gently, so as not to break up the squash. There will inevitably be a few casualties, but they’ll just ooze some orange juice into the dish, which looks nice.

Pass the Parmesan.

The profiterôles afterwards were bought from the shop, but the chocolate and Armagnac sauce was homemade. No, I can’t remember precisely how I did it; I was drunk at the time. (Don’t try that yourself.)

Garlic Crusher

Garlic is divine. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago, garlic that has been smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting. Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas. Smash it with the flat of your knife blade. And try roasting garlic. It gets mellow and sweeter if you roast it whole, to be squeezed out later when it’s soft and brown.

– Anthony Bourdain

He’s right. Most of the time, anyway. When you put garlic through a garlic crusher, you end up separating the flesh and the juices, those essential oils which add all the sweetness. Much better to thinly slice it, squish it with a knife blade, or even put it in the mortar. (Use a bit of salt to pin it down and make it harder to escape your ruthless pestle.)

Two exceptions come to mind. Aïoli, or garlic mayonnaise, and when you’re using garlic as part of a marinade. Here, I think a garlic crusher is fine. But make sure that you hold the crusher over where the garlic is going to go, so that flesh and juices all end up there.

I use a Zyliss crusher, slightly more expensive, but engineered just right, and you don’t even need to peel the garlic in advance.

Chilli Prawn Pasta

As is usual in London at the moment, the public transport system has been partially shut down for weekend maintenance works, and today most of my avenues for escape from the parish are shut, unless I want to spend an hour on an omnibus.

So, it’s off to the Very Expensive Supermarket on the corner. These aren’t just prawns, they’re packed in vast amounts of plastic in a special luxury protective atmosphere prawns. This isn’t just basil, this is basil whose plastic wrapping weighs more than the contents. You know the drill.

That said, the basil is decent. Too much supermarket basil is either tasteless, or tasteless and bitter. This stuff, unwrapped and washed, is already smelling pretty darned fine. And the prawns are alright, too. However, if you can get fresh whole prawns, with their shells and legs and feelers and heads and guts, then there’s more interesting things you can do. (You can do this recipe with frozen raw prawns, but not dried basil.)

To serve two, I’m using:

  • 300g prawns
  • 4 fat cloves of garlic (but you could use more)
  • a teaspoon of minced chillis from the jar (substitute fresh, but not dried)
  • a bunch of fresh basil
  • a 450g tin of chopped tomatoes, drained (or two small fresh tomatoes, chopped and gutted, no need to peel)

Firstly, crush the garlic, and mix with the prawns and chilli in a bowl. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil, and mix well. I happened to have half a lemon in the fridge (looking a bit mummified) so put about a tablespoon of lemon juice into the mix as well, but only ‘cos it happened to be there. Let that sit at room temperature whilst you do the washing up, read the paper, and have a cup of tea. You could also cover the bowl, and leave in the fridge for half a day. Always remember, that if you’re marinating in the fridge, it will take longer, ‘cos it’s cold.

Once you start cooking, this is very quick, so be prepared. Get the pasta started in one pot, and then, when the pasta has about five minutes to go, get a frypan very hot indeed, and add the prawns.

(Victory from Jaws of Defeat: Now at this point, I had forgotten how wet cryogenic prawns are, and stared aghast as they oozed water into the pan. Dang. They weren’t gonna fry, they were gonna boil. If this happens to you, don’t panic, just grab the slotted spoon rescue the prawns and park them in a bowl, whilst the liquid in the pan reduces. Once that happened, I returned the prawns, and carried on.)

Once the prawns have gone pink, add the tomatoes and basil, and turn off the heat. I had some cream handy, so added about 50mL. You don’t want to overcook the prawns, or they’ll turn into little rubbery things that are only good as tap washers.

By this time the pasta will be done, so drain it and add it to the prawns, stir, season, and serve.

Pass the Parmesan.

Variations

  • I had a lemon handy, so I added some lemon juice to the marinade
  • if you have some cream handy, then add a good glug of the stuff just after the toms, crème fraîche even better
  • some whole black olives would be good, add these with the prawns
  • a glug of nice white wine will improve things, and you may even want to put a splash in the dish after the prawns are done
  • instead of basil, you could use oregano, or coriander leaves, assuming your guests don’t think coriander is the Devil’s pubic hair
  • you could replace the prawns with a skinned, and chopped chicken breast or two

Puttanesca

I’ll leave other people to discuss the origins of this sauce, but it’s a good bold in-yer-face dish, for a cold damp evening.

The olives should be whole when you buy them, as they start to lose flavour the minute you stone them. The tomatoes need to be drained of their juice so the whole thing doesn’t taste like ketchup: empty the tin into a sieve and give it a shake or two. As always, used dried oregano, and the poshest anchovy fillets you can find.

Per person:

  • half an onion
  • four anchovy fillets (more if you dare)
  • two cloves garlic
  • a pinch of dried chilli
  • half a dozen Kalamata olives, stoned and chopped roughly
  • half a 450g tin of chopped tomatoes, drained
  • salt, pepper, oregano, olive oil

Dice and fry the onion and chilli (with a pinch of salt) in the olive oil until the onion is pale gold.

Meanwhile, slice up the garlic finely, and when the onion is done, push the onion mix to the edge of the pan and fry the garlic ’til it’s translucent in the middle and gold on the edges.

Add the olive, anchovies, tomato and oregano, grind over some black pepper, and simmer on a very low heat for about ten minutes; as long as it takes you to do the pasta.

Serve on pasta with plenty of grana and more pepper.

Variations

Whilst frying the onion, garlic and chilli, you could also add some finely chopped chicken breast. I’d suggest not draining the tomatoes in this case.

Alternatively, you could slice up a fresh tuna steak (don’t bother with tinned) and slip it on top for the simmering phase.

Some people like to add capers, if you do, add them at the last minute, as cooked capers are even more horrid.

Appetite

Nigel Slater, Fourth Estate, 2000

Previously known for his short, fun books, Mr Slater then published this 450 page whopper, which he refers to as his magnum opus. It is. He sets forth his stall, arguing that recipes get in the way of cooking, and that a cook should learn to trust his or her nose, fingers and taste buds far more than scales, clocks or thermometers.

In the opening chapters, Slater asks us why do we cook in the first place, makes us consider who we’re cooking for and where we’ll be eating it, and how these shape what we do. He covers some basic hints for the new cook: how to cut down the work, what equipment is most useful, and general survival tips.

Two important sections follow: A Cook’s Guide to Shopping covers all the basic meats, veg, fruit, herbs and spices, and more significantly, what combinations work with what. Equally useful is a section entitled Eating for the Season where he gives us a quick run through of what times of year will find particular foods at their best. Slater is well known for his seasonal approach: he delves further on this in Real Fast Puddings and The Kitchen Diaries.

At last, after 200 pages, some recipes. The chapter Some Really Useful Stuff is exactly that: gravy, tomato sauce, salsa verde, mayonnaise, bread, pâté, stock, and shortcrust pastry. Learn to cook every single one of the recipes in this chapter, and you will be a better, happier person. Seriously. I’m not joking. These are elemental things, that you can incorporate into other dishes, and transform meals with. They also give you an insight into some fundamental techniques and how certain ingredients work.

The remainder of the book is more conventionally divided into sections on Fish, Meat, Veg, Noodles, Pudding, etc., but even so, the recipes are more about a particular technique (e.g. how to roast a chicken) and then all the variations.

This isn’t the easiest book, and one I think novice cooks would find a bit on the scary side. If you want precise instructions, then Delia is your bet. If you want to enjoy cooking and eating, then stick with this one.

Akoori

The breakfast of champions and the supper of the downtrodden. Gadget Boy could never stand the smell: “Urk! You’re making those eggs!”

Supper for one, but just multiply the quantities.

  • three eggs
  • a small tomato, chopped and deseeded; don’t worry about skinning it!
  • half a small onion
  • one clove garlic
  • quarter teaspoon cumin seeds, ground or whole
  • quarter teaspoon turmeric
  • quarter teaspoon chilli (depending on how potent you like it: I’m only using half a dozen dried chilli flakes)
  • chopped coriander leaves (I freeze mine)
  • salt, pepper

Finely dice the onion and fry in a small amount of oil and butter, no need to drown it, until soft. Add a pinch of salt. While that’s happening chop the garlic finely.

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Move the onion to the edges and add the chilli and cumin, and fry for a minute.

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Add the garlic and fry for another minute. At this point, beat the eggs lightly, and add about a tablespoon of milk.

Add the turmeric and stir for a few moments, and then add the tomato, and fry for a minute.

Now add the eggs and coriander, and leave for a slow count of five.

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Then stir gently, and gradually, after a couple of minutes, the mixture will come together.

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And then you can serve, with a grind of pepper to taste.

As with any member of the scrambled egg family, they will carry on cooking, so you can serve when they’re still a bit gooey. Mine just went on a section of baguette, as that was what happened to be handy.

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Variations

When it’s still fairly runny, put it into flatbread, roll up, and crisp under a preheated grill.

Lots more ingredients, e.g. courgettes, peppers, etc, but cook it like a frittata.

Duck Liver Pate

Just when I think all the washing up is done, and the kitchen’s looking clean, I get the urge to do this. Oh, well.

This is fairly close to the procedure described in Appetite, plus some notes of my own. I used…

  • 400g duck livers (there were no chicken livers today due to a “supplier problem”, but then, then they had duck livers, and I couldn’t resist)
  • 120g butter (40g for frying, the rest chopped into slices)
  • 100mL single cream
  • salt, pepper, Armagnac

The livers need to be soaked in enough milk to cover them for about half an hour. They will be fried after this, so it’s worth draining them quite thoroughly. I have been warned to cut out any green bits and dark spots, but never noticed any.

Getting ready

The livers get fried in 40g of the butter, as hot as it will go without turning the butter brown.

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The livers, plus cream and the rest of the butter get hurled into the blender, with salt and pepper and zapped into mush. Slater mentions getting the butter soft first, I just slice it up, and figure that nestling against hot livers for a few seconds will do any softening required.

When deglazing the pan I slipped with the Armagnac. Then I slipped again; just to make sure. No point in flambé – just whack in the blender and zap again. This way, we hope some alcohol makes it into the pâté.

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The next phase is vital: push the mixture through a sieve. It only needs to be a coarse sieve, so will only take about a minute or two of pushing it through with the same rubber spatula with which you emptied the blender. Several lifetimes can go by if you use a fine sieve, and I’m not sure I notice the benefit. What you will notice after is lots of fibrous chewy stuff trapped in the sieve, as opposed to being in the pâté.

Once you get to this stage, you could whack the whole lot into a terrine, let it cool, and seal with some melted butter about half an hour later. This looks very pretty. My more prosaic approach is to line a tupper with cling film, pour the mix into that, fold the edges over, and put the lid on. This way the whole lot comes out in one easy block.

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Either way, the results should go in the fridge for a few hours to set.

(Note from 2013: not sure there’s enough information here to cook this: so pick up a copy of Appetite.)

Rillettes de Porc

This is somewhat of a cautionary tale, where victory has been snatched from the jaws of defeat. I’ve decided to make rillettes, using pork belly, since, with the exception of leg that’s been turned into Parma ham, it is the tastiest bit of the pig, and bloody cheap, too.

Today I’m using…

  • pork belly (I’m using an 800g piece from the posh supermarket, which was just under a fiver)
  • a bunch of fresh woody herbs – I’m using thyme, sage might be nice, but rosemary or tarragon probably a little overpowering – check with your guests
  • bay leaves
  • salt, pepper
  • as many peeled and squished garlic cloves as you like (I’m using four)

Get the butcher to bone and skin the meat, as you will not enjoy trying to do it at home. Remember, he has better knives than you will ever have, and you’re paying him to risk his fingers. Rub it down with plenty of salt, about a tablespoon, and maybe some pepper as well if you fancy.

Now, I’ve put the herbs, garlic, bay leaves, etc on the bottom of a roasting dish…

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…and laid the meat on top…

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…so you can probably anticipate what’s about to go wrong.

For each 100g of meat, you’ll need to add 25mL of water. Cover the dish with foil, or if you’re using a casserole (probably more sensible) just pop the lid on.

Three hours in the oven on about 150C should have reduced it to a quivering mush of piggy, garlicky goodness. But not in this case. There was enough thyme to keep the pork well clear of the bottom of the dish, and the dish was too wide, so the pork drained its fat, and started to dry out. In fact, it would have made excellent roast pork, had I been doing that instead. So, with a bit of cursing, everything was transferred to a smaller dish, with the meat on the bottom, a little bit more water, and left for another two hours. Piggy mush ensued.

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Once you’ve gotten this far, you need to shred the meat. Do this with a pair of forks, using one fork to hold each large lump, and the other to stroke the meat off. Since the meat has collapsed by this point, it’s very easy. There will be a few tougher bits of meat, usually from the edges, where they’ve become sticky and caramelised. These can be set aside for sandwiches, or just go straight into the cook without any further comment.

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Finally, squish, squeeze and shove this meat into the terrine, ramekins etc. You want to pack it down as tightly as you can. Use a small tumbler or something to tamp it in. Finally, pour enough of the juices from the pan into the terrines, to cover the meat, and refrigerate or freeze, depending upon when you’re going to use it.

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Crusty bread and cornichons all round.


June 2011 addendum. I forgot to mention that you can also salt the meat first: hack the meat up into large chunks, add about a tablespoon of salt, and seal in a plastic bag at the bottom of the fridge overnight. Discard the liquid and rinse the meat before proceeding as above. You can get fancy and add any of the following to the cure: pepper, crushed juniper berries, hacked up thyme, sugar, honey, and so on.

Oh, and you can use pork shoulder as well. Or a mix of shoulder and belly.


Leek and (Sweet) Potato Soup

I tend to think of my freezer as a savings account. When times are good, you deposit your loot, and when times are bad, or it’s simply A Monday, you make a withdrawal.

Lurking in the back is some frozen sweet potato mash. I’m a big fan of freezing leftover mash, as it can be used for all sorts of things later. There is a trick, though. If you put your mash in the freezer in a block, it will take about six weeks (or a blowtorch) to thaw it. Better than that, push it into square sandwich bags, and once the bag is sealed (or almost) squish the contents, ’til you end up with a flattish slab of the stuff. If the flattish slab happens to accidentally be the size and shape of the top of the dish in which you habitually make Shepherds’ Pie, then I won’t tell anyone.

So, one leek, peeled and finely chopped, and fried in olive oil for about 20 minutes; long enough to colour. The mash and some water goes on top and gets stirred. The starch in the mash will thicken the mix almost immediately, so have a freshly boiled kettle on hand, and keep adding water and stirring, until the desired consistency is reached. Simmer for about 20 minutes and you’re ready to go.

Variations

You could content yourself with just checking the seasoning. Or…

  • you could whip up some chilli, garlic, cumin and turmeric first, fry it, and add the other ingredients (garnishing with coriander not a bad idea after this)
  • be subtle, and just add a bay leaf and grate a small amount of nutmeg over the top before simmering

Julie/Julia?

Someone asked me the other day if I’d seen the Julie/Julia blog. I’ll have to confess to only having been dimly aware of it. So I’ve now had a good read of the original, and was suitably impressed and awed. I’m also relieved that my blog is nothing like it, and has some very different aims.

Here’s the story. In 2003, Julie Powell completed a Herculanean labour: cooking all of the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, during the course of a single year. Whether it was bisecting lobsters, braising sweetbreads, learning to eat vegetables, or making her way through an estimated thirty kilograms of butter in twelve months, she blogged about it. Every single recipe.

It can be a sweary potty-mouthed rantfest at times, especially when she goes anywhere near the subway. Vulgarity is an excellent literary technique but, like wild rocket, one wants to find a leaf here and there, rather than in every morsel of every course.

It’s lighter on the information side. One of the great things that can happen when a non-professional cook writes about cooking, is that we get to see how a mere mortal, with normal equipment and basic training, manages to negotiate these things. Tricks that would be second nature for a pro (and often omitted) are brought forth as useful revelations. Recipes that dirty every pot and surface on the premises are named and shamed. Here, we get a fair amount of moaning when things go wrong, but very little enlightenment. (Although I too have flipped an omelette onto the adjacent gas burner; I laughed rather than cried.)

I’ve already said I’m impressed by her dedication, and in awe of the sheer skill and effort of her accomplishment, but I’m not convinced she actually enjoyed very much of it. I need to enjoy it. There is nothing worse than cooking a meal and being so traumatised or tired that I can’t appreciate it, especially if there are guests.

This blog isn’t meant to be a life changing thing. There will be no book deal. There will be no movie. Your televisions are not ready for my face. I am not going to indulge in the relentless self promotion that characterises most of the blogosphere, because, frankly, there are better things to do. Like cooking and eating, and writing about it when I think you might find it interesting or useful.