Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Daring Bakers: Perfect Party Cake

The primary rule that all Daring Bakers need to keep in mind is that they may not deviate from the month's chosen recipe. Except, of course, when they're told to do so. Morven of Food, Art, and Random Things gave the gift of creativity when she chose Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake as this month's task. Other than following the basic cake recipe and turning the confection into a layer cake, we were given free reign over how we decorate and flavored our creations.

The main thing that restrains my creativity is my own mind, which is a shame. When trying a new recipe, I like to follow it closely to the suggested recipe so I can form my opinions of it before thinking of ways of improving it, so I knew I'd be sticking to the bulk of what Dorie had written. I did latch on to the idea of cherry jam in my layers and cherries on top, mainly because a cherry on top connotes to me the idea of a special treat, and this being your perfect party cake is a pretty special occasion. I found natura
lly colored cherries from a UK website selling bulk baking goods, which made a nice and comforting change from the uber-red cherries with they're goodness-knows-what-chemicals-in-them that I grew up eating (they also sold green cherries - green cherries? Green??! I'll stick with natural, thanks very much).

Knowing that it wouldn't be a challenge for this house of two people to eat a whole iced cake, simply a Very Bad Idea, I took all my ingredients, measuring bits, tins and hand mixers away with me over the Easter weekend which was spent with Mr A&N's extended family. The only challenge, then, would be in ensuring that the cake had enoug
h slices for the 15 people who would be there, as well as making sure that I didn't produce such a poor product that I didn't just leave my mother-in-law doubting my cooking skills, but left my husband's Aunts, Uncles, siblings, cousins, assorted spouses and friends shaking their heads in sadness at my lack of skills. Just the relaxing baking atmosphere in which I like to cocoon myself.

I found the cake and icing quite straight-forward to make, with my ancient hand blender (inherited from Mr A&N's grandmother) heating up worryingly as it clocked up the 10 minutes the icing demanded of it. The baking cake smelled wonderful, although working with an untested oven meant that I had to reduce the heat halfway through the cooking since the cake was getting a bit too brown too quickly. The cake fell a bit and pulled in from the sides of the tin as a result which made it look small and unlikely to feed 15, but once it was sliced into its layers its height promised better things.

The cake was a talking point as everyone eyed it up through the afternoon, and everyone dipped in for a slice (with 16 cherries dotted around the edges, serving sizes were partitioned nicely). The general reaction was that this was indeed a fine party cake and reminded most people of childhood birthdays. Most were fans of the icing, but would have liked the cake to have been a bit lighter and springier -
the overall effect was more dense than expected. There was one lone slice left which no one felt right claiming, so I was able to get up early and take a photo of the mangled layers before diving in for what was my Easter breakfast, saving that cherry on top for my last bite.

For the recipe, please either have a look on Morven's blog or worship at the altar of Dorie's Baking From My Home to Yours.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Celery and Leek Soup with Truffle Oil

Mr A&N and I found ourselves with a day off together at the end of the Easter break. An extra day off is a prized thing and should be treated differently to your normal weekend day - there should be no cleaning, no grocery shopping, no chores or running about here and there. On my extra days off, I like to behave like I'm a tourist and take my camera and myself out into the city and see what I can find. I've lately been feeling as if I were in a bit of a rut, which isn't uncommon for me at the end of winter (I figure it's better at the end, with spring on its way, than at the beginning). When I'm in this rut, life seems to only move between paid work and house work with no time to do things I enjoy and no sense of taking advantage of the city I live in. Even when I know this isn't actually true, this winter-time fug stays with me. A day out in London, exploring a different area through new eyes, was coming just in time to help me re-charge my dead batteries.

We headed to Notting Hill, a place I've semi-explored a number of times but hadn't been back to in a while. It wasn't until we were there that I remembered a great spice shop in the area, and before I had finished whacking myself in the forehead for being thick and forgetting to copy down its location, we stumbled on the store. Called The Spice Shop (good name, eh?), it's a small but packed space, full of sachets and canisters of all sorts of wonderful things, many of which came home with me.

Across the road from The Spice Shop is another fantastic store, Books for Cooks. Just like the Spice Shop, it's a place that will make anyone cooking-inclined be beside themselves with possibilities. I had wanted some books about the science of baking and cooking, and I was able to scan through a few titles and chat to the staff about what they'd recommend. I also had my eye caught by a cookbook that I've been flipping through without purchase for ages. A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell was the Cookery Book of the Year winner last year and is another contribution to the seasonal and non-fussy cooking genre. The spirit and place moved me, and into my bag it went.

I pawed through the cookbook over lunch and one of the first recipes to make me go 'Oooh' was a celery and leek soup, topped off with truffle oil (which I had, conveniently, just picked up from the Spice Shop). We already had a large celeriac from the previous week's vegetable box and had more celery arriving that day, so any plan to get rid of it all was a good one. Potatoes and cream helped thicken it out, and it tasted like a deeply flavored, grown-up leek and potato soup, particularly with the touch of truffle oil. I'll be looking through the cookbook more this weekend, since I'm already enticed and want to find out what else is possible.

Celery and Leek Soup with Truffle Oil, from Skye Gyngell
serves 4

  • 400 g celery (or celeriac - we used a combination of the two)
  • 2 leeks, mostly white parts
  • 50 g unsalted butter
  • 2 medium or 1 large potato, peeled and chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 thyme sprigs
  • a couple of flat leaf parsley stems
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 liter chicken or vegetable stock
  • 150 ml double cream
  • truffle oil, to drizzle
  1. Separate the celery stalks and peel them finely, then chop roughly. If using celeriac, skin and chop into small cubes.
  2. Melt the butter in a large pot over a low heat. Add the celery and leeks and cook gently for 15 minutes or so, until the celery is soft but not colored.
  3. Add the potato, bay leaves, thyme and parsely and season with a bit of the salt and pepper.
  4. Pour in the stock and bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes.
  5. remove from the heat and discard herb.
  6. Puree the soup in small batches in a blender so it is quite smooth. Pass through a chinois before returning it to the pot so that the soup is very smooth.
  7. Pour in the cream and reheat gently.
  8. Check the seasoning and serve with a small drizzle of truffle oil.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Veggie Burgers

I've been enjoying the long Easter weekend in the UK, topped up by me with another couple of days off to detox from work. Part of my relaxation regime was to spend the weekend with Mr A&N's immediate and extended family at a house in the middle of the countryside.

The weekend was put together by Mr A&N's mother in order to draw the scattered strands of the family together at a central point to everyone. "There's going to be walking involved" Mr A&N complained before we even got there. "Why does everyone in my family seem obsessed with walking?". Perhaps because it's an enjoyable and healthy alternative to sitting around on your ass all day, I suggested. "Bah" he replied.

To organize the weekend, Mr A&N's mother wrote letters to everyone e
xplaining what foodstuffs they should bring and when their cooking duties would be. We were assigned Saturday lunch (soup) and Saturday dinner (roast night), and were instructed to aim to feed six. With 15 of us gathering, though, we felt that we should cater for more than six people so that no one was left with an empty plate and a half-filled stomach. We weren't the only ones pondering how to locate and fit half a side of a cow into the oven; Mr A&N's lovely-but-slightly-nervy Aunt sent a message to all declaring she was 'v v stressed figuring out the menu' and wondered if others felt the same.

We decided to take artistic license with our instructions and bought supplies for hamburgers for all. Except that among the 'all' were a few vegetarians, and though we knew that we would probably not be expected to put food together for them, we also didn't want to leave them out. Luckily, veggie burgers slotted into the theme quite easily.

The burgers were a huge success, although it did mean that Mr A&N had to stand over the small frying pan cooking the burgers in batches and queuing up hungry hordes until the next burger was cooked. The meat version was made with beef (thoug
h lamb would have been even tastier), chopped chili, coriander, and a bit of lime juice, while the veggie version was a bean and vegetable medley. The veggie burger had the same warm, comforting, soft and squidgy qualities that make a normal hamburger so luscious, but it was simply minus the meat. The recipe Mr A&N found for Mexican veggie burgers included chopped almonds which came through a surprising amount in both taste and texture, and had the added bonus of using up the fennel from our veg box.

It has only been at weddings that we've been able to see all the cousins and aunts and uncles, and with no more of those on the horizon it's only weekends like this past one that bring us all together. Understandably for a family who genuinely enjoys each other's company, there is talk of making our group weekend a yearly thing. Of course, Mr A&N would have to keep his hiking boots in a polished state - as he feared, there were daily 3-hour treks through fields and forests, despite driving winds and blizzard-like snow. He did have my sympathy, really, as we were at one stage blinded by horizontal snow and almost couldn't move forward, but as his mother would say: it's character forming.

Veggie Burgers, adapted from The Veggie Table
makes 6-8 burgers

  • ½ C almonds, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 bulb fennel
  • ¾ C coriander/cilantro
  • 1½ C black beans or black-eyed peas, cooked or canned
  • 1 C bread crumbs
  • ½ red bell pepper, seeded and minced
  • 2 Tbs toasted wheat germ or untoasted rolled oats
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves,
  • ½ tsp salt
  • black pepper
  • 1½ t olive oil
  • flour for coating
  1. Heat almonds and ground coriander in dry frying pan over medium-high heat, stirring or shaking constantly, until almonds are lightly toasted, about 1 minute.
  2. Food process garlic, fennel, and coriander/cilantro until finely chopped.
  3. Add beans, and pulse repeatedly until chopped but not liquidized.
  4. Transfer to bowl and mix in almond mixture, bread crumbs, bell pepper, wheat germ, and spices.
  5. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  6. Shape into six -eight patties with floured hands, adding more bread crumbs if necessary.
  7. Lightly sprinkle flour onto a plate, and gently press each side of the burgers onto the flour.
  8. Fry the burgers in the 1½ Tbsp oil (topping up if needed) over medium-high heat until crust forms, about 3 minutes per side.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Blood Orange and Rosewater Sorbet

One of my more trusty restaurant companions, Amanda, has had to step down from her dining-out duties temporarily since she has more important matters to look after in the shape of her 3 month old son. Any time out together is precious, and in order to make things easier I travel across town to see her. It's hardly a chore to see a good friend, but in London traveling to different parts of town can be seen as a feat akin to traveling across the arctic with nothing but a chocolate bar and one spare pair of dry socks to keep you going.

"I'm going down to Hammersmith to see Amanda" I told one frie
"What, tonight? You have to go to work tomorrow - are you going to stay overnight?"
Bravely, I would be returning home the same night. From east to west London and back east again, all within 24 hours. Amazing.

Matters are made more difficult by where I live, since Lond
on Transport has decided to exercise their right to disrupt your travel plans and is closing the tube line I need to get home by 10pm. Each night. Until November. Hooray.

Knowing that I was spending the evening out across town and had t
o get on the tube by a given time meant that we had to be efficient with our fun. We tried, and despite the two of us being the fastest takers that Mr A&N knows, fun took precedence and it was a rush to the tube. And so, with this evident pressure to get on the train and get home, what do I do? Why, my eye catches site of a small grocery store and I wander in like a loved-up fool, just to browse the shelves in case there's something marvelous in there.

And what happens but I do find a wonderful thing: essence of rose water and orange blossom water. I've had some wonderful cakes and desserts flavored with each of these things, and had intermittently tried to track some down for myself. They're both regular features of middle eastern cuisine, but cooking with floral essences was also used quite a lot in medieval european cooking. I'm intrigued by why once-common
flavors fall out of fashion, and am looking forward to experimenting with them in my cooking.

One of Mr A&N's most memorable desserts was eaten at Moro, and combined rosewater and cardamom in an ice cream. Although it would be difficult to make ice cream without an ice cream maker, I turned to the Moro cookbook to see if there was any inspiration or guidance for how to use my prized flower waters. In there, I found a recipe for blood orange and rosewater sorbet, which appealed for it beautiful pink color and u
se of the short-seasoned blood oranges. It was a beautiful palate cleanser, hinting at spring things to come with the tang of citrus and the hint of the rose garden.

And the tube on that night? I leaped on the last train home, feeling ever so triumphant - until that tube stopped two stations away from home and declared it was going no further and we'd all have to find other ways home. Nuts.

Blood Orange and Rosewater Sorbet, from the Moro Cookbook

  • 200g/7oz caster sugar
  • 100-150ml/3½-5fl oz rosewater, to taste (I would tend toward the higher amount of rosewater, just so you can be sure to taste it)
  • 600ml/1 pint blood orange juice
  • ½ blood orange, zest only
  • squeeze of lemon
  1. Place the sugar and rosewater in a small saucepan over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Simmer for a couple of minutes until a thin syrup has formed. Allow to cool.
  2. Add the syrup to the orange juice along with the zest and a squeeze of lemon, to taste.
  3. Churn in an ice-cream machine, or place in the freezer, stirring the sorbet by hand every half-hour for the first two hours to prevent crystallisation.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Caldo Verde

We've recently (finally) signed up for a vegetable box delivery - once a week we have an assortment of organic vegetables delivered to our door. We went with Abel and Cole after they were recommended by several friends, and are very pleased with them so far. Aside from the fruit and vegetables the specialize in, Abel and Cole also act like a small online grocery store, and we're enjoying batches of fruity soy yogurt as well as some incredible fresh fish and meat. What having a veg box also means is that we're landed with plenty of vegetables (a good thing, don't get me wrong) and have to think of ways of using them before they go off. It's helping us increase our vegetable intake while cutting down on the meat a bit, and whenever we're stuck with how to pull of the trick of cooking armfuls of vegetables at once, we revert to soup.

I found this recipe for a Portuguese soup on the BBC website, originating from the Hairy Bikers (for anyone not familiar with their show, they are what they say they are: two large, bearded bikers who ride around different continents and sample and cook local food. Great job if you can get it, I say). I was interested in the soup not ju
st because it used the vegetables we needed to cook with, but because I don't have a huge amount of knowledge of Portuguese cuisine.

What I do know about Portuguese food, in fact, could be written on the back of a matchstick. I know that they love pork, as a lot of continental Europe does. I know that they were a great sea-faring country and so brought touches of their cuisine around the world (for example, firey-hot Indian Vindaloo is a corruption of the Portuguese te
rm 'vinho de alho' or 'vinegar and garlic' which is what the meat is prepared with). I also know of their reliance on cod and salt cod in particular, illustrated by the story a friend told me about how a power outage when she was a child forced her family to get a take out meal since her mother couldn't cook that night's cod, and it lives in her memory as one of the more exciting nights of her childhood.

So the Portuguese soup? It was very tasty but I felt it could have been better with a slight tweak of both the recipe and my behavior. The recipe only calls for 1 chorizo sausage but I would be inclined to add 2-3 (Mr A&N pouted that I was making h
im eat peasant food when, the last time he checked, he hadn't been a peasant for at least 2 generations). I also always suffer from adding too much liquid to my soup stock since I make the stock in my large pot and always feel the chicken looks so lonely without more water around it. I would next time follow what's said and only add the amount called for. It was still a very good and hearty soup, and nicely livened up by the swirl of spicy oil added on the top. I'm intrigued to find out what else Portuguese food has to offer me.

Caldo Verde, from the Hairy Bikers
makes 1 large pot

  • 2 nice fat onions, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 60ml/2¼fl oz olive oil
  • 1 chorizo sausage
  • 6 large potatoes
  • 1.5 litres/2 pints 13fl oz good vegetable or chicken stock
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 bay leaves
  • large bunch of greens or cabbage
  • smoked paprika and olive oil, for dressing
  1. In a frying pan, sweat the onions and garlic in the olive oil until translucent.
  2. Chop the sausage into small chunks and add to the onion.
  3. Sweat the onions and sausage for a few more minutes and then add the diced potatoes. They will absorb all the flavour from the sausage.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a large pan, add the stock, seasoning and bay leaves, and cook until the potatoes are soft.
  5. Meanwhile, very finely chop the cabbage.
  6. When the potatoes are ready, mash them into the broth to make a thick base.
  7. Blanch the greens in boiling water for one minute to take off any bitterness, drain, then add to the simmering broth.
  8. Add as much cabbage as the broth will support - if you want heavy soup add loads of greens, if lighter, add less, and simmer for a few minutes.
  9. Mix the smoked paprika with some olive oil to make a dressing, and drizzle this on top of the individual bowls of soup.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Chicken with White Wine, Saffron, Pine Nuts and Raisins

We don't eat much chicken in our house, unless it's a whole roast that gets slowly worked down into left-over pieces and soup stock. Chicken parts just seem so expensive compared to buying the whole thing, and when the cost is taken into account we just gravitate to other meats like lamb or pork. A good chicken recipe does turn the head, though, and this one from the Borough Market Cookbook was the equivalent of a lithe, buxom blonde in a bikini (or, more to my liking, George Clooney taking one of his pot bellied pigs for a walk).

This was also perfect for having guests around - fairly simple to prepare and it could just bubble away in the background without you worrying how your level of drinking might impair the final outcome. I wasn't entirely convinced by the dish as it did cook away; the saffron with the wine gave off a slightly acidic smell that I didn't think promised good things. Everyone, though, loved it, with the chicken coming out tender and the raisins adding a nice
touch of sweet to the dry wine and the exotic saffron. A bit of cous cous on the side helped lap up the sauces and went with the vaguely North African aura of the dish. And, ideally for my thrifty mind, you can make it by jointing the chicken into 8 pieces, leaving the chance for you to make stock from the carcass. It's firmly entered the Must Make Again list, and fairly near the top, too.

For the one-pot-wonder that this is, I'm submitting this to Lis at La Mia Cucina for this month's Weekend Cookbok Challenge.

Chicken with White Wine, Saffron and Raisins, From Borough Market Cookbook (Meat and Fish)
serves 4

  • 1 medium chicken, jointed into 8
  • 1 Tbs flour
  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 large onions, cut into half-moon slivers
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 600ml dry white wine
  • 1 pinch saffron threads
  • 75 g raisins (the original recipe calls for currants)
  • 60g pine nuts
  • 10g fresh parsely

  1. Dust the chicken pieces with flour
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed casserole dish and begin browning the chicken on all sides. Make sure there's enough room for the pieces (you may need to do it in batches) since you want the chicken to brown nicely and not be crowded in to the pot. Remove chicken as it crisps and set aside, and keep the oil in the casserole.
  3. Crush the garlic with a pinch of sea salt in a mortar and pestle.
  4. Saute the onion in the casserole dish that cooked the chicken, stirring and loosening any brown bits left behind from the chicken.
  5. When the onion is turning lightly golden, add the garlic paste and stir, cooking for about 30 seconds.
  6. Put the chicken back in the dish, placed together snugly and with the skin side up.
  7. Stick in the 2 bay leaves, tucked underneath the chicken pieces.
  8. Season with salt and pepper, and add in the wine and saffron. Make sure the saffron is submerged in the liquid.
  9. Bring to a simmer and cook for 40-45 minutes, or transfer to an oven at 180C / 350 F and cook for the same amount of time in there
  10. After 20 minutes of the cooking, sprinkly the rasisns (or currants) and pine nuts over the chicken.
  11. Check the level of the liquid - there should be at least 240ml / 1 C of liquid in the dish so top up with water or chicken stock if needed.
  12. Serve with parsely scattered over the top.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Chocolate Cocount Tarts

I have been out of commission the last several days with what would politely be called a stomach bug but was most probably some form of particularly nasty food poisoning. I have very bad luck with getting sick - I'd point out at this stage that it has never before been from my own doing - and am usually the one in the group who gets served the bad oyster or the contaminated sandwich. This latest round might or might not have been my doing, having tasted some uncooked batter in which I'd used eggs from chickens that hadn't been salmonella-protected. After that lick I realized it was risky, now I think it was plain stupid.

So woe is me, but now that I can look at food again, let's get back to the cooking (presuming you all still trust me around food).

The chocolate coconut tarts Marita Says chose for the last round of Hay Hay It's Donna Day made me sit up and say yes please. These seemed like a ma
ture sort of coconut macaroon with the clever twist of turning the macaroon into the shell of the tart. I can never turn down, and often deliberately turn to, coconut macaroons, probably since it's one of the few things I remember my grandmother making for me. My mother spoke of her mother's macaroons in awe, telling me how my grandmother had learned the recipe in cooking school and that my mother was too intimidated to attempt them herself. It wasn't until I was older and thought of rectifying years of home-made macaroon deprivation that I realized how easy macaroons were to make and wondered why I had done without them for so long.

I made these as the dessert to please the kiddies when we played host to some toddlers a couple weeks back. The children absolutely loved them and
did their best to consume the generous 5 mini-tarts I had placed on each of their plates (ignorant non-parent thinks: They'll never finish them all but let's give them some fun; in-the-know parents in the room think: Good god, this woman isn't fit to feed children).

It was, of course, wonderful to have the children be such eager consumers, particularly because these tarts were little buggers to make. The tip to wet your fingers with water in-between pressing the coconut into the muffin tins was essential: the egg-white coated coconut bits were indescribably sticky and the two doze
n tarts took me the best part of an hour to make and did not leave me in a pleasant mood at the end. The threat of bad language continued once the baking of the tarts was done and I was supposed to remove the casing from them. All the extra moisture from pressing the coconut into the muffin paper sealed the paper layer and edible layer together in a horrible, anger-inducing immutable bond. After letting them set in the freezer and then relax in the fridge for several hours, the paper gave up its death grip on the tart and I was able to peel most of the casings away and feed it to small children without them accusing me of trying to poison them.

Once the agony was put aside, the tarts were excellent
and an excellent new way to enjoy the simple pleasures of coconut and chocolate together - even if I did miss the submission date for the Donna Day event. For all the effort they took, though, I would be more tempted to enjoy some chocolate-dipped macaroons next time, and in fact plan on making some of those later this week.

Donna Hay Coconut Chocolate Tarts

For the shell:

  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 cups dessicated coconut

For the filling:

  • 1 and 1/4 cups cream (or soya cream)
  • 300g dark chocolate, chopped
  • (optional: 1 Tbs seedless raspberry jam)

  1. Preheat your oven to 180C /350F.
  2. Mix the egg whites, coconut and sugar well.
  3. Scoop the mixture into muffin tins and with wetted hands (works best this way) press it out to create a base and sides for a cup.
  4. Put into the oven at bake for about 8-10 minutes, or until it begins to lightly brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for one minute.
  5. Gently remove the cups from muffin tins and let it cool more.
  6. While this is happening, heat the cream in a saucepan until almost boiling.
  7. Remove from heat and throw in the chopped chocolate. Stir until the chocolate has melted into the cream and you have a decadent and rich looking chocolate liquid. If using jam, stir in at this point.
  8. Carefully, fill each cup with the liquid.
  9. Put the cups on a plate or tray in the freezer and leave it for 10 minutes or until set.
  10. When set, remove from the freezer.
  11. (If, as I did, you use paper muffin cups rather than tins and have trouble removing the paper from the shells, allow to sit in the freezer for longer and try to remove it after that)

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Spicy Roast Quail

I ride my bike to work once or twice a week during the months that allow it; it’s a 15 mile round-trip journey and is what keeps me bathed in burritos. Part of my journey takes me through marshland then under a railroad bridge, which during lighter months is fine but in the dark sets my nerves on edge. I’ve tried to ignore this and cycle during the winter anyway, but my common sense tells me it’s best to play it safe and leave it until the days are bright again.

With there now enough light in the sky, I came out of my bicycling hibernation yesterday, complete with my winter coat of fat to keep me warm in the cold. And my months of non-activity showed. On the hill not a half-mile away from the start of my journey, women in Zimmer frames out-sped me. On the ride home, I was sometimes pedalling so slow I went backwards. Throughout both the rides there and back, every other cyclist on the road was alerted that I was struggling along, and instructed to ride past me at speeds designed to mock me. I’ll be repeating this humiliation again next week, after I’ve cobbled together the remaining scraps of my ego.

And so when I arrived home and found nothing in the fridge to cook, I felt it was beyond me to hop back on the bike and head to the supermarket. A rummage through the freezer turned up 2 quail that had been sitting there since a trip to a farmer’s market months ago. I bought them in a flush of farmer’s market idealism (“A farmer’s market! How wonderful! Oh look, quail!”) and immediately put them in the freezer hoping the magic of that act would make me think of something to do with them.

Perhaps the impetus was to prove that I was skillful at something or perhaps it was that I was so downtrodden that I wanted to tread on a lesser creature, but last night the quail were on the dinner menu. A hunt around for recipes turned up spicy quail from the ever-reliable Nigel Slater. Unlike some other cookbook writers, such as Delia or Nigella, I haven’t come across a bad Nigel Slater recipe. In both explanation and execution, his recipes are usually straight-forward and practical and produce reliable results. These quail were as Nigel promised they’d be – tender, succulent, and all the strong ingredients a good balance to the gamey quail meat. He suggests you can do the same thing to chicken thighs or other such meat, and since it’s Nigel speaking, I’ll believe him.

Hot and Sticky Roast Quail
– from Nigel Slater
Serves 2 (if being a bit indulgent, or you could opt for 1 quail per person and serve 4 with this)

  • 4 plump and juicy cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tbsp groundnut oil (I swapped this for olive oil with a dash of sesame oil)
  • 1 tsp ground cayenne pepper (I swapped this for spicy smoked paprika)
  • 1⁄2 lemon, juice only
  • 2 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1⁄2 tsp salt
  • 4 tsp grainy mustard
  • 4 oven-ready quail
  1. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7.
  2. Peel and crush the garlic, then mix with the oil, cayenne, lemon juice, soy, salt and mustard.
  3. Place the quail in a small roasting tin - they should not touch. Pour over the basting mixture so that the birds are soaked in it and some of it drizzles into the pan.
  4. Roast the quail for twenty to twenty-five minutes, basting once. They should go rather sticky. Quail can be served rare/medium rare without too much worry.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Chickpea and Spinach Gratin

We had some very good friends around this weekend who we love to spend time with but who present a bit of a catering conundrum. In the group are 6 adults, 2 toddlers and 1 baby, which can be subdivided into 3 vegetarians (including one of the toddlers), 5 meat eaters and 1 milk drinker (no prizes for guessing who of the group that is), and with the 2 toddlers opting to be fussy eaters if the food isn't right or the play time is too exciting. Our other criteria were that we wanted to spend time with everyone rather than toiling in the kitchen throughout, and we wanted to serve something a bit more exciting than spaghetti bolognese or vegetarian chilli. We don't make it easy on ourselves.

A vegetarian lesson caught my eye in last week's Observer Food Monthly: Nigel Slater's chickpea and spinach gratin. Nigel describes it as a winter warmer for a snowy afternoon, and it looked chock-full of healthy and creamy things. Crucially, it also looked creamy and gentle enough to be happy on 3 year old Freddie's palate. In a recent lunch with him, Freddie rejected his veggie burger with chutney (my recommendation) because it was too salty and too spicy, though to my adult tastes it was just right. I hoped that this gratin would be more his type of meal.

The dish was easy to make, though with 4 large onions in it it did provoke a few tears. I managed to prepare everything ahead of time and finish off the gratin in the oven 45 minutes before eating, which made it socializing-friendly. The dish was all it promised to be: meaty from the chickpeas, leafy from the spinach, and with the wonderful sweet and tangy flavor of the crème fraîche and onions. It was a big hit with all the adults (both carnivores and veggies) with everyone asking for the recipe, though sadly Freddie found more in our wooden train set to sustain him than in his chickpea gratin. Thank goodness I made two desserts.

Chickpea and Spinach Gratin - from Nigel Slater
Serves 4 as a main course

  • 250g dried chickpeas
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 4 red onions peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbs flour
  • 450g / 1 lb spinach
  • 250ml / 8 oz vegetable or chicken stock
  • 300g / 10.5 oz crème fraîche
  • freshly grated Spenwood, Pecorino or Parmesan cheese - 80-90g or a couple of good handfuls
  • breadcrumbs - about 50g, or a handful
  1. Soak the chickpeas overnight in cold water.
  2. Drain and tip them into a deep pan. Cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Scoop off the froth that rises to the surface, then turn the heat down so that the water simmers merrily. Leave them to cook, watching the water level carefully and topping it up from time to time. When they are tender, after about 45-60 minutes cooking, drain.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180 C/375 F.
  4. Warm the olive oil in a roasting tin or large cast-iron casserole over a moderate heat, then add the onion and garlic.
  5. Leave them to cook, with the occasional stir, until the onion and garlic have softened and taken on a little colour. Expect this to take a good 15 minutes.
  6. Stir in the flour.
  7. Meanwhile, wash the spinach thoroughly, then, while it is still wet, steam in a covered pan for 2 or 3 minutes until the leaves have relaxed. Drain and squeeze the moisture out.
  8. Pour the drained chickpeas, stock and crème fraîche into the onions, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, then turn up the heat and bring almost to the boil.
  9. Add the spinach, pulling it into pieces as you go, then stir and tip everything into a large baking dish or roasting tin.
  10. Strew with the grated cheese and breadcrumbs then cook for 45 minutes or so until a golden crust has formed.
  11. Serve in deep bowls to hold the juices.