Wednesday, February 9, 2011

a rustic loaf

Most days during the week, my alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and I lurch into three layers of clothing (in this freezing weather at any rate) and go for a run. But today my running partner cancelled, so there I was, basking under the duvet at 8 a.m., reminiscing about running along the white-hot sand in Western Australia - young and tanned and lissom of limb - when into this reverie burst BB with: "Get up. There's a sale on. We're going shopping for cupboard doors."

Cupboard. Doors. Can you imagine anything less tempting, anything less likely to lure you away from the kaleidoscope of memories of your 22-year old self under a relentless antipodean blue sky - terraced pub lawns overlooking the Indian Ocean, sun cream and salt, the pounding of the surf, jazz notes, the clinking of cold beer glasses?

So I rolled over and continued daydreaming and playing with my cat's ears, making them point sideyways like a gremlin, until BB reappeared and said: "If you don't get up now, I'll go on my own - and buy formica doors."

Eek! The "f" word. That got me up sharpish.


Bread. For years I've been making it in a machine, with dramatically bad results, until I tried making it by hand. Well, what a success. It's a completely different beast to that flat brick that emerges from the bread machine, looking like an offensive weapon and requiring one to cut it with. Ebay for the machine.

Rustic loaf
650 g bread flour (I use a mix of plain and cereal)
2 generous tsp salt
1 x 8 g sachet dried yeast
1 tsp sugar

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in a cup of warm water. Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour the dissolved yeast mixture into the centre and using a knife, bring in the dry ingredients until the yeast mixture is all soaked up. Then add warm water a little at a time and keep mixing until all the flour has been incorporated and you have a moist dough.

2. Knead the dough for 5 minutes, folding and pushing, then place the dough in a clean bowl with a little flour sprinkled in the bottom, cover with greased clingfilm and leave in a warm place to prove.

3. When the dough has doubled in size, knock it back by punching it to knock all the air out for about a minute then shape the dough to whatever you like, sprinkle the top with a little flour and re-cover with clingfilm. Leave in a warm place to double in size again. Preheat the oven to 425°F/225°C.

4. When the dough has doubled in size again, gently place it in the oven and leave for about 25 - 30 minutes until cooked (if it sounds hollow when you tap the bottom it's cooked). Leave to cool on a wire rack.

♫ Cook along to: Bread Guitar Man

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

pickled walnuts

Have you noticed how the French have a tendency to make exaggerated Stan Laurel expressions of disgust at the mention of British food? They must imagine we eat unspeakably vile things, for they aren't able to articulate what they are when challenged.

Which is a bit rich considering they eat  tête de veau and rognons blancs and where all manner of things that could have been pulled from a vet's bucket are on display in supermarkets and boucheries. 

Back by popular demand

But I have to admit, even I was reluctant to try these pickled walnuts, a traditional English accompaniment to strong cheese and cold meat, especially after seeing them at the drying-out stage, when they resembled cremated golf balls. But once they're placed in spice-infused vinegar and left to mature for a bit, they wheeze back into life.

These are last year's vintage, so the harsh vinegary taste has been replaced with a top note of oriental spices. Even my French amis enjoyed them - begrudgingly.

2 kg young green walnuts (you should be able to slice through them easily with a knife)
brine to cover (150 g of salt per litre of water)
1 litre malt vinegar
400 g brown sugar
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp cloves
2 whole cinnamon sticks
1 tsp coriander seeds

1. Prick the green walnuts a few times with a fork. (Be careful: the juice stains any porous surface dark brown and you may want to wear rubber gloves.) Place the walnuts in a bucket and fill with enough water to cover. Stir in the salt. Soak for 1 week, then drain and make the brine again. Soak for 1 more week.

2. After the second week, drain the walnuts and lay them out on trays to dry in an airy place. In 3-5 days they will turn black. Once they have all turned black, they are ready to pickle.

3. In a large pot, stir together the malt vinegar, brown sugar, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. Bring to the boil and then add the walnuts. Simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

4. Spoon the walnuts into sterile jars and fill with the syrup to within 1 cm of the top. Seal with lids and rings. Store in the refrigerator or sterilise in a hot water bath for 10 minutes before cooling to room temperature and storing in a cool dark cupboard.

Monday, November 8, 2010

chou-rave gratin

This is not Ann Widdecombe. I lied. It's a chou-rave (kohlrabi or cabbage turnip in English) and I'd never seen one until Nainbo gave me some from his garden last week. The bulbous part looks like a small white cabbage, but it peels like a turnip and has the same texture and firmness; and it tastes like cabbage and turnip but slightly sweeter and milder than both. The leaves can also be eaten -raw in salad or cooked in the same way as spinach.

You're supposed to pick them when they're golf ball-sized or they can be woody, but here in the mountains they like to wait until their vegetables are growing bark, so this one was a little past its prime.

But like the plucky Ann, I set about making a meal of it - and made a potato and chou-rave gratin.

You want equal quantities of chou-rave and potato. Peel and thinly slice the veg and cook in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Drain and place the veg in a shallow ovenproof dish and cover with single cream, a couple of handfuls of grated cheese and top with seasoned breadcrumbs. Place in the oven on a medium heat for about 25 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are crispy and the veg is cooked.

♫ Cook along to: The Troggs Wild Thing

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ann Widdecombe and Anton Chou-Rave Gratin

Is it a vegetable - or Ann Widdecombe doing the paso doble? That's what I wondered when I saw this:


Funny looking thing, isn't it?

For those of you not in the know, Ann Widdecombe is a former British cabinet minister (shadow home secretary) who's currently appearing on Strictly Come Dancing - the UK version of Dancing with the Stars. And what a star she is!

I'm sure it's Ann in that photo. The fabulous fiery silk confection she wore may have been toned down using Photoshop, but there's no mistaking that thin desperate arm (on the right) hanging on to Anton Du Beke as he drags her round the dance floor like the Statue of Liberty.

It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen on telly.

To be continued ...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

fennel remoulade

My copy of Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook finally arrived today. I've been on postie alert for days now because the book doesn't have a hard cover and I feared the post lady might try to wrestle it into the mailbox in the manner of my monthly magazine and other bulky items, rather than exerting herself by getting out of the post van and taking a couple of steps to our front door.

As it turned out, it arrived by courier (DHL), but they seem to have the same attitude to customer service. At least the postie comes to within a few feet of the door; when the DHL guy phoned up, he said our little village was too far out of his way (read: wanted to slope off work early) and that he'd leave my package in the newsagents 12 km away.

The joys of living in the mountains!

This is where I should segue into a recipe from the book (which is full of anecdotes accompanying great recipes from around the world - she said, shamelessly promoting it), but I'm not going to because this week I've been in a remoulade groove.

Remoulade is a mayonnaise-based sauce flavoured with mustard and lemon juice generally, but it can also include capers, anchovies, herbs etc. Here in France it's commonly used in céleri rémoulade - grated celeriac in a mustard-flavored remoulade - which we had at the beginning of the week, but today I made it with two fennel bulbs I found lurking in the bottom of the fridge. It's a great way to eat raw veg - as a starter or with fish.

Fennel remoulade

Serves 2
2 fennel bulbs
lemon juice
grain mustard

1. Remove the outer leaves of the fennel and thinly slice the remaining leaves.

2. Combine the lemon juice with the mayonnaise, mustard and salt and adjust to your taste (I used 1 dsp mayo, the juice of half a lemon and a tsp of mustard).

3. Add the sauce to the sliced fennel a little at a time and toss until the fennel is lightly coated.

♫ Cook along to: Ben Folds Gracie

Sunday, October 31, 2010

wild mushroom, hazelnut and parmesan tarts

I'm having a freezer clear-out at the moment and what do you imagine I should find in the bottom drawer? Yep - those PC dinners I made for BB before I left for Paris. One even has a note on it saying: I bet this is still here when I get back - next to the one that says: Don't forget to feed Flippo.

They all happen to be fish pie, so I'm not sure whether it was due to BB's aversion to bending down or the fact that he'd gone off fish pie for some reason. Guilty associations with Flippo (deceased), perhaps!

I thought it best not to ask.

Anyway - the day before yesterday I took out a piece of venison (shot by Roquin last month) and a bag of chanterelles (picked by me in July) and left the meat to marinade overnight in a little white wine with some chopped carrot, onion and a couple of bay leaves. Normally at this point I would reach for Anthony Bourdain or Elizabeth David for ideas on what to do next - which would invariably involve straining and browning and caramelizing - but this time I simply heated the whole lot up on the stove, added a little of my precious veal stock, a heaped tsp of tomato paste, some seasoning and placed in the oven on a very low heat for 3 hours.

Meanwhile, I made the pastry for the wild mushroom tarts and sautéed the chanterelles in butter, before adding some chopped hazelnuts and a generous handful of grated parmesan. Then baked in the oven for 15 minutes - voilà.

Well, at lunch yesterday, we ate in a pocket of silence, save for the odd small animal noise of contentment. It was the best meal I've cooked this year - and the most simple.

And now I'm having to justify three side-cars' worth of cookery lessons!

♫ Cook along to: Brian Wilson Heroes And Villains

Monday, October 25, 2010

the American dream and sweet & sour pork

Many of my childhood summer holidays were spent on the west coast of Scotland, in a place called Kilchoan in Ardnamurchan - the most westerly point of mainland Great Britain - where every day for a week, the six of us would squish into our little yellow Mini and bump six miles down a single track road until we hit the deserted beach at Sanna.

Here, we kids would leap into the dunes and race towards the sea while Mum settled in the soft white sand with Woman's Weekly and Dad rolled up his shirt sleeves and went to work under the bonnet of the car.

I'm thinking about the summer of 1976 in particular, when Candi Staton was singing about young hearts running free and the Bee Gees were telling us we should be dancing (yeah!) - when we had a heatwave in Scotland.

Imagine! Heatwave and Scotland co-existing in the same sentence!

When we weren't racing around under those high blue skies, panting in the heat, we were swimming in the sea or poking around in rock pools, collecting shells and dead sea urchins and writing messages in the sand - or just marvelling at our nut brown toes, thanks to Mum's liberal application of Ambre Solaire SPF1. The only time Dad ever ventured onto the beach, in his socks and shoes, was to help with the construction of our dam, which had to slope at a 30 degree angel and have a stone-lined slipway for controlled overspill. On one of these rare forays onto the sand, Dad pointed out over the turquoise sea and said: America is straight over there.

I dropped my bucket and spade and followed his gaze, open-mouthed, hoping to catch a glimpse of America, an alien land I'd learned all about from watching Starsky and Hutch, where they spoke with funny accents and called "chips" "fries" and the women had hair like an Alpine ski chalet.

That night when I flopped into bed and pulled the thin cotton sheet over my sunburnt body (thanks to Mum's liberal application of Ambre Solaire SPF1), I dreamed of going to America - and did so for many years to come.

Years later I did go to America - many times - and on the last occasion I had the best pork dumplings I've ever tasted, at Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown, New York. This restaurant is famous for them and as soon as you're seated, the waiter asks: do you want regular dumplings or crab? We ordered regular (pork) and a bamboo steamer arrived nestling eight plump pagoda-shaped buns containing little pork meatballs surrounded by a scalding meaty broth. They were utterly delicious.

I've never made pork dumplings, but the other day I made the next best thing: sweet and sour pork balls. This is based on a Ken Hom recipe.

Serves 4
450 g /1 lb fatty minced pork
1 egg white
4 tbsp water
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp rice wine
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal
½ green pepper, cut into squares
½ red pepper, cut into squares
4 spring onions, sliced on the diagonal
cornflour for dusting
groundnut oil for frying

For the sauce
150 ml / 5 fl oz home-made chicken stock
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp salt
½ white pepper
1½  tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tsp cornflour, blended with 1 tbsp water
fresh coriander leaves to garnish

1. Mix the pork with the egg white and water using your hands then add the soy sauces, rice wine, sugar and salt and pepper. Shape into balls and dust with cornflour.

2. In a pan of boiling water, blanch the carrots and pepper until nearly tender (about 3 minutes). Drain and set aside.

3. Heat the oil in a wok and fry the pork balls until crisp and golden (3-4 minutes). Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

4. Combine all the sauce ingredients except the cornflour mixture in a large pan and bring to the boil. Add the carrots, pepper and spring onions, then stir in the cornflour mixture and simmer gently for 2 minutes. Add the pork balls and warm through and serve with chopped corander leaves.

♫ Cook along to: Rogue Wave California