Saturday, January 30, 2010

red pepper pilaf and postie problems

My first subscription copy of Country Living arrived this week (a Christmas present from Mum and Dad) miraculously intact - by which I mean, still in some form you could physically read, i.e. turn the pages, even if you didn't have opposable thumbs. If you can imagine the trajectory of my magazine from the printers in West Yorkshire in the UK to our little Alpine village 1500 km away, that's a lot of handling and you could forgive the odd torn or punctured packaging or dog-eared page. But the most dangerous leg of its journey, the critical stage which determines whether it arrives flat, as the publishers intended, or geometrically folded and creased like some origami composition, is the final two feet, the arm's length between the yellow Postman Pat van and our mail box.

The posties here in the country don't like to get out of the car (it's against their human rights or something), so rather than knock on your door and hand larger items to you, they bend and fold and wrestle them into the mail box. Two Christmases ago, a calendar measuring a square foot and featuring beautiful photographs of Scotland - clearly identifiable as a gift - was manhandled into a quarter of its size and forced so tightly into the mail box that it required a screwdriver to prise it out. It means having to be on postie alert on magazine days - and especially over the Christmas period.

This recipe for red pepper pilaf with chilli and cashews, featured in said mag, is a one-pot rice dish made with sweet red peppers and fiery chillis. I didn't have cashews to hand so I used peanuts (any nuts would work well I think) and I used a good squirt of Sriracha chilli sauce instead of paprika. Great as a starter or as a vegetable side dish with a main.


Serves 4-6
4-5 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 red peppers, seeded and cut into strips
12 oz/350 g long grain rice
handful of fine spaghetti, broken into small pieces
1 tbsp smoked hot pimentón or sweet hot paprika or chilli flakes
2 hot green chillies, seeded and diced
4 oz/100 g cashew nuts, toasted
3-4 large red peppers, halved lengthwise and seeded

Heat the oil in a heavy pan and fry the onion gently until caramelized and very dark. Push aside and add the pepper strips and fry until soft. Sir in the rice and pasta and turn in the oil.

Add enough water to cover to the depth of two fingers, salt, stir in the pimentón or paprika, turn down the heat and leave to simmer for about 15 minutes until the water has been absorbed and the rice is nearly tender. Stir in the diced green chilli and sprinkle with the roasted nuts. Cover with a cloth and leave for 10 minutes to settle and swell.

Arrange the pepper halves on a baking try and roast in the oven at a high heat until the flesh softens but hasn't yet collapsed. Heap the rice into the shells and place in the oven for another 5 minutes to heat through.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I don't understand why cabbage has such a bad reputation. Granted, it has a strong cooking odour, but there are many wonderful things you can do with it: raw in coleslaw, or wrapped around creamy minced chicken in Asian cabbage parcels,

braised with bacon and peas, or added to a simple bacon and egg quiche.

But the following recipe, which I saw being made on a cookery programme on the telly round at the Sunday Club last weekend, transcends all of the above and is now my recipe du jour.

Chou farci au fromage - cabbage stuffed with cheese - uses three ingredients and all it involves is: blanching some savoy cabbage, placing a slice of bacon in a ramekin (so the ends fall over the sides), then a small cabbage leaf and a cube of cheese, then repeating the layers, finishing off by folding the bacon over to make a parcel and cooking in the oven for 20 minutes at 180°C/350°F.

I had a good hunch that that combination of flavours and textures would be sensational and as soon as I got home, I recreated it using serrano ham which I had in the fridge, and it was utterly, utterly delicious - the loud salty flavours of the ham off-setting the subtle earthy flavour of the cabbage and the savoury goo of the melted cheese. Fantastic.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

an alternative Burns Supper and spiced poached pears

BB and some other friends were helping Mini-B vaccinate his cows yesterday (new readers of this blog could be forgiven for thinking that BB's profession involves working with animals!) after which we received an impromptu invitation to lunch chez le berger (the shepherd) and his wife, who recently moved to our village. It's such a comforting word, "shepherd", don't you think? -  like a pair of elasticated-waisted trousers or a soft baby blanket with a rolled-over satin edge for drooling on.

(It's also the protagonist of one of my favourite books The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho which I've just retrieved from my bookshelves and on the back cover the publicity spiel says: "Every few decades a book is published that changes the lives of its readers forever" - and as implausible and Disneyesque as that sounds, it did for me. It was after reading this book that I sat down and revisited my Great Ambitions and directly ended up living in a foreign country, doing up an old watermill with BB.)

BB called and gave me two minutes' warning before coming to pick me up - enough time to apply a slick of SPF 20 Piz Buin and pull on my wellies and a ski hat - and we were off, bottle of wine and a saucisson (won in the belote competition on Saturday night) in hand. When we got to the little wooden chalet, down a deep-rutted goat track rendered almost impassable by snow, eight of us sat down in the cosy kitchen at the ancient pine table - nicked and scarred like a thousand criss-crossing railway tracks - and mucked in peeling apples, chopping vegetables, slicing sausage, jiggling their cute seven month-old baby and keeping the tiny Border Collie pups away from the food.

While we were peeling chopping and jiggling we nibbled on thin slices of locally-made spicy saucisson flavoured with beetroot with our apéros - that cured, often horse-shoe-shaped sausage much beloved of the French. Then lunch began with a homemade pâté de campagne with big hunks of rustic bread and cornichons, followed by aromatic vegetable lasagne spiced with turmeric, cardamom, fresh ginger and garlic and then in an inadvertent (and  for me nostalgic) nod to the fact it was Burns Night, boudin noir aux pommes - black pudding served with caramelized apple wedges.

After cheese, coffee and digestives, we waddled off home, our cheeks suffused with the warm rosy glow of contentment.

I made these spiced poached pears the other day with some pears I found lurking at the bottom of the fridge, which BB said tasted "just as good, if not better, than tinned pears" - which I think was a complement.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

smoked mackerel rillettes

Our skis are in for a service otherwise we would have hit the slopes again today, being another perfect blue sky day, so we took ourselves off for a walk instead and who should we meet but our little homunculus friend, Mini-B, coming panting towards us through the meadow. He's reduced to running everywhere now since the ice-cream van broke down at the weekend, when the side door fell off in the middle of the road in spectacular cartoonish fashion and the engine spluttered to a very full stop in a cloud of black noxious smoke. He had to order a taxi yesterday - one of those minibus things with a roof rack for skis - to deliver hay to his animals!

He was in a bit of a state because one of his calves had got her leg stuck in a hole in the cow shed and he needed a hand lifting her out. There was a suggestion that she may have broken her leg, so I declined to go along. I can't bear to see animals suffering, it makes me too sad - as if  someone's dropped a bag of marbles in my heart - but BB reported back that they had successfully lifted her out and put a cast on her leg and she was happily laying back in the hay watching repeats of Emmerdale.

It's quite hard to sex up pulverized soft tissue of mackerel for the camera - but what it lacks in the Top Modèl stakes, this pâté makes up for in robustness. A quick, no-nonsense, Hattie Jacques kind of pâté - and another one from Homes and Gardens.

Serves 6
5-6 smoked, peppered mackerel fillets
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
4 tbsp horseradish sauce
2 tbsp sweet chilli sauce
handful of fresh parsley, scissor-snipped

Bend the mackerel fillets in half lengthways, skin sides in, bringing the ends together so that the flesh (on the outside) comes away easily from the skin. Discard all skin and pull the fish into chunks. Combine the fish, lemon juice, sauces and snipped parsley in a bowl. Mix, mash and blend roughly, using a fork. Smooth into a 600ml serving dish or 6 individual 100ml dishes. Smooth the top flat and chill for at least 2 hours or up to 4 days. Serve with buttered baguette slices or toasts.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

egg mayo

I think I may have found a little studio to rent in Paris - "little" being the operative word - in the 8th arrondissement, on the same Metro line as Le Cordon Bleu. At the moment it's a toss-up between this apartment or sharing with a French artist and his 10-year old twins. I have this whimsical notion of lolling around an artist's studio in Montmartre wearing flouncy skirts and discussing existentialism whilst sucking on a Gauloises - but the bohemian won't allow me to have guests and since most of my family and quite a few friends are lining up to come and visit, I'm going to have to pass on the boho lifestyle.

Every Sunday we get a dozen eggs from Roquin, usually still warm and flecked with little bits of straw and other detritus. I could quite happily eat an egg, in some form, every day and egg mayo is one of our favourites. I like to add some snipped chives or spring onions or serve it in the shell with a sprig of dill and some lumpfish roe.

Egg mayo
Serves 2
2 fresh eggs
1 heaped dessert spoon of mayonnaise
2 tsp lumpfish roe (or caviar if you want to push the boat out)
Sprigs of dill
Toast to serve

Place the eggs in a pan and cover completely with cold water. Heat over a high heat until boiling then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool in cold water, then slice off the top of the egg, being careful not to break the shell. Scoop out the egg, mash with a fork and mix with the mayonnaise. Fill the empty shell with the egg mixture and top with a tsp of lumpfish roe and a sprig of dill. Cut out rounds of toast using a pastry cutter, making a smaller hole in the centre for the egg to sit in.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

help Haiti

It feels frivolous blogging about food when there's so much death and destruction in Haiti - but then, is not all blogging frivolous, unless it raises awareness or money for worthy causes? Every comment left on this blog raises $10 for the Haitian relief effort - so I urge you all to visit.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

churros and hot chocolate

To escape the tedium of wading through crime scene-like photographs in Craigslist, we took ourselves off skiing yesterday for the first time this season. It was one of those perfect Christmas card days when everything's covered in a quilt of snow and white-embroidered trees dazzle under skies the colour of melted cornflowers, when the beauty of nature overwhelms and crushes your heart. There is no place I would rather be than on the ski slopes on such days.

After a few runs we stopped for hot chocolate. What could be more redolent of snowy mountain climes than hot chocolate moustaches? Unfortunately, what you get in mountain restaurants is an insipid watery brew made with cocoa powder, disguised with swags of canned whipped cream. So when we got home - tired and cold but euphoric - I set about making the real deal, with melted chocolate, and Spanish-style doughnuts for dipping.

This recipe comes from the February 2009 issue of Homes and Gardens and uses virgin olive oil for frying, but I found sunflower oil worked much better and I only used 2 or 3 cm in a frying pan. When the churros start to brown too quickly, turn the heat off and let the oil cool down a little so that the churros turn a lovely golden colour. I also added more chocolate to the hot chocolate to make it wickedly thick.


Serves 6-8
125 g salted butter in cubes
150 g plain white flour, sifted
15 g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
6 medium eggs, beaten
Virgin olive oil, for frying
Sieved icing sugar and a little cinnamon (optional) to decorate

Heat 250 ml boiling water with the butter in a deep, heavy-based saucepan for 2 minutes, uncovered, until the mixture boils, then tip in the sifted flour and sugar and beat hard over the heat for 30 seconds until it clumps together. Remove and cool for 2 minutes in a sink of cold water. Remove. With an electric, hand-held whisk, whisk in the eggs one at a time; the mixture thins, then gets thick again. Once all 6 eggs are added, spoon the mix into a piping bag with a rosette nozzle and chill for 30 minutes.

Heat 10cm oil in a medium heavy-based pan until a cube of stale bread browns in 20 seconds. Pipe straight or curly shapes of paste into the oil with one hand and chop off the paste using scissors with the other. Cook for 1 minute, then turn with tongs, cook for 1 minute more and drain. Serve, dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon if liked, with hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate

Serves 6-8
250 g dark chocolate, chopped (ideally 70 per cent cocoa solids or higher)
300 ml milk
1 tsp ground cinnamon, optional

Combine the chopped chocolate, milk and cinnamon, if liked, in a large heavy-based saucepan and stir over moderate heat until the chocolate has melted. Whisk the mixture till frothy and keep hot chocolate on a low heat or set over boiling water before serving.

Monday, January 11, 2010

highs and lows and chicken caesar salad

Yesterday morning began on a high when I received an email with some photos of a beautiful bijou apartment in the 1st arrondissement attached. This was in reply to an ad I'd placed in Craigslist Paris looking for somewhere to rent when I go to Le Cordon Bleu. The super-tasteful one-bedroom apartment next to the Louvre had stripped wooden floors, a marble tiled bathroom, galley kitchen with cherry wood units and granite worktops, and a beautiful arched window in the living room with French doors opening out to a wrought iron balcony with views across the Paris rooftops. All for €600 a month. I know what you're thinking - scam - and I came to the same conclusion myself pretty quickly, but I was smitten and the optimist in me said to BB: "not everyone's driven by money you know" - to which he snorted in response.

To cut a long story short, the guy couldn't provide a utility bill and the name of his (alleged) employer in London wasn't listed in the Yellow Pages, so I didn't part with any cash. No harm done you might think, but the images of that apartment were tattooed on my retina and I spent a miserable afternoon trawling through Craigslist looking at ghastly "cozy studios" with vertiginous swirly carpets, puce-coloured walls and lumpy linoleum floors. In one, you had to leap-frog over the loo to get in the shower and in another, the loo was in the kitchenette - I don't mean in a cubicle in the kitchenette, I mean the actual loo was in the kitchenette, right next to the electric plates. I've never seen anything like that before and it made me feel quite queasy. That's just a tad too "cozy" for my liking. And the starting price for these little gems: €750 a month!

I felt so deflated and unsociable that when someone came to the door, I hid by lying down on the kitchen floor so I wouldn't be spotted through the window.

It's minus 11 degrees C outside and we have snow (finally) - not exactly salad weather, but we try to eat salad every day and chicken caesar salad is BB's favourite: succulent breast of chicken atop snappy salad leaves with a snip of anchovies, slivers of parmesan and homemade crispy croutons. It always astounds me when I'm served packaged croutons in restaurants - those vile perfectly-formed cuboids flecked with bits that look like they've been picked from between someone's teeth. I mean how difficult is it to cut up some bread, toss it in olive oil and place in the oven for 10 minutes?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

vegetarian Scotch eggs

All the windows and doors for the new house have been installed. The fitter arrived for the last time yesterday with his frisky young bloodhound in tow and every time I looked out, the dog was gambolling past with some essential fixing in its mouth, closely followed by a screeching fitter guy waving a big stick. All this hollering and barking fairly set my cats a dither, who all remained inside observing the antics from the safety of the kitchen windowsill, leaving a line of tiny smudges across the window at cat nose level.

Later in the afternoon I went out to play fetch with the dog. Now, I used to have a pretty good throwing arm. In fact, I was the champion discus, javelin and shot put thrower of my year for three years at secondary school and I could throw a lamb chop past a hungry wolf. But these days it needs some work because when I tried to chuck an empty mastic cartridge into the garden it spun 90 degrees towards the house. It reminded me of the time I went bowling with some lawyer friends and one of them, a mighty fine lawyer but a rubbish bowler, forgot to let go of the ball which went whizzing right over his head, wheeeee, and landed on someone's foot behind him. How we laughed!

But no-one was laughing this time because the mastic tube hit the newly-installed window with a loud thoink and I held my breath as angry fitter guy checked it for damage.

Thankfully there was none - but the dog and I were banished to the truck and the house respectively.

I made these vegetarian Scotch eggs on Sunday. Homemade Scotch eggs are nothing like shop-bought ones which look as though they've been coated in orange sand. The egg is always over-cooked, the white rubbery and grey and the yolk anaemic and dry. This version, which looks as round and plump as a partridge, is a bit like all-in-one egg soldiers (one of my favourite things to eat) - a runny yolk encased in crispy fried fresh breadcrumbs with the addition of some fresh chopped herbs. Delicious for breakfast or brunch.

Vegetarian Scotch eggs

Makes 4
5 medium eggs
Flour for dusting
Fresh breadcrumbs - about 4 handfuls - enough to coat 4 eggs
1 dessert spoon of finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 dessert spoon of finely chopped fresh chives
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for frying

Preheat the oven to 325°F/170°C. Place 4 of the eggs in a pan and cover completely with cold water. Heat over a high heat until boiling then reduce the heat and simmer for 4 minutes. Cool in cold water before peeling.

Whisk the remaining egg. Combine the chopped herbs with the breadcrumbs and season. Gently roll each boiled egg in flour, then the egg mixture then the breadcrumbs.

Put the oil in a pan to a depth of 2 inches/5 cm and heat. Fry the eggs until golden, turning so as not to burn - for about 2-3 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and place in the oven in an ovenproof dish to heat through for about 3-4 minutes.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

raspberry mousse and birthday wishes for a special aunt

That's the Christmas box packed up for another year. Party's over. Back to business. I find it mildly depressing seeing Christmas decorations still up in mid- to late-January. It's the equivalent of a comb-over or wearing white socks with black shoes - it's just a bit sad.

Two hoover bags later, I'm still finding pine needles all over the house. Mini-B (aka Mr Whippy) came round for a game of cards last night and spent a disproportionate amount of time scrabbling around beneath the kitchen table looking for the cards he'd dropped and each time he resurfaced he looked more and more like a porcupine.

After all the rich festive food we've been eating I fancied something lighter, more delicate - something with a little burst of summer. So I made these raspberry mousses topped with wild raspberries and bilberries I picked last summer.

To save my precious supply of little wild raspberry jewels, I used tinned raspberries -  I know, I know - but they work well in this recipe because you have to sieve them to make a purée and you decorate with fresh raspberries at the end. To get the mixture into the moulds I had to pour it from the mixing bowl into a very narrow-necked jug - which resulted in rivers of  mousse flowing like molten lava all over the worktop and down the kitchen cupboards. Oh, the carnage.

My new year's resolution is to think more before acting, especially in the kitchen - otherwise I shall not last five minutes at Le Cordon Bleu.

Bon anniversaire to my wonderful aunt, Hils, with whom I have just shared a glass of champagne on Skype (how great is Skype!) during the course of which she wore three different hats. She received the following missive from my six-year old niece:

Splendifourus birthday Hils.
Hope the day is as good as chocolate ice-cream
with a chocolate flake and chocolate souse and
chocolate chip and chocolate sprinkels.
With love so big it wouldn't fit in the unovers. xxx
PS You are sooo lucky to have a birthday on a Saturday.

That girl's going to go far.

Raspberry mousse and summer berries
15oz / 400 g tin of raspberries
1 packet raspberry jelly
6oz / 175 g double cream
1 tsp lemon juice
Fresh raspberries and bilberries to decorate

Strain the juice from the rasps into a measure jug and make up to ½ pint with water if necessary. Put the juice in a pan and bring to boiling point. Remove from the heat and add the jelly and stir until dissolved.

Leave the jelly to cool until just beginning to set. Sieve the rasps to make a purée. Put the cream and lemon juice in a bowl and whisk until it forms soft peaks. Fold in the purée and cooled jelly and mix well. Decorate with fresh rasps and bilberries.

Friday, January 1, 2010

happy new year

This post was originally shown on my last blog at Le Moulin.