Thursday, 29 November 2007

Competition! For Chocolate!

After indulging myself at their chocolate tasting the other week, the good people at Hotel Chocolat have offered up a competition to help one of you (yes, you!) indulge themselves in their lovely chocolate as well. It's worth your while entering since one of you is guaranteed to get the goods. Free chocolate! Christmas has really come early. Be sure to enter soon, though, since this closes at 11.59pm on Dec 12.

Win luxury Hotel Chocolat Christmas Prizes - for you or a loved one
Tis’ the season to be chocolaty. As Christmas time approaches, Hotel Chocolat is reaching out to Ambrosia and Nectar readers in search of the finest Yuletide themed chocolate recipes.

Do you have the best Christmas chocolate-chip cookies in town? Is your Christmas chocolate log simply to die for? Then why not put your recipe to the test against the rest of the country.

All you have to do is submit your recipe – the more original the better - and you could win a host of luxury chocolate goodies. The lucky winner of the Ambrosia and Nectar and Hotel Chocolat Christmas competition will also be automatically entered into the Hotel Chocolat Grand Prize recipe competition and could win even more seasonal chocolate goodies!

Do you think you’re the finest chocolate chef in the land? Well there really is only one way to find out …

Click this link here to enter!

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Many Bean Soup

I've been making this soup for years; it's one of the first things as an adult I figured out how to make after tasting it and falling in love with the flavors. It's hearty, it's filling, it's very easy to pull together, and it's wonderfully delicious in a very homey way.

This is an Italian-style soup, discovered when I did a term abroad in Florence during my undergraduate degree. I lived with an Italian woman who was a wonderful cook and who opened my eyes to a whole new way of cooking (and eating - I gained about 6 pounds from living with her for 3 months. Pretty impressive). This soup began making an appearance in my Italian home during the autumn, as the weather grew colder and the daylight shorter, and it's very much linked in my mind to staving off any outdoor chill with a warming bowl of goodness.

It is more than halfway to a stew, it's so thick; adding in some spinach, kale, or chard at the end of the cooking, quickly fried in a bit of garlic, would help tip the balance away from a simple soup. Even without the extra vegetables, though, it's a full meal in one bowl. The beans are nicely soft and should be caught just before they go mushy, and the minimal amount of liquid that remains after all the cooking helps tie the ingredients together and adds to the warming comforting squishiness of eating the dish.

The simple flavors of beans, beef stock, rosemary and garlic are fairly straight-forward, but generous lashings of parmesan cheese at the end really make the difference. The recipe is more of a guide than anything strict to follow; as long as you ge
t the basics correct (the right amount of beans and stock, pasta cooked for the right time, plenty of cheese) you're onto a winner.

Many Bean Soup
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a starter

  • 500 g of mixed dried beans (chickpeas, white beans, and roman beans/borlotti beans are usually my preferred combination)
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
  • 2 litres of beef stock or 2 litres of water and 3 beef stock cubes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 sprigs of rosemary
  • salt (about 1 tsp, depending) and pepper
  • 250 g ditalini pasta
  • (optional: about 300-500 g of spinach or chard and 1 further clove of garlic, well chopped)
  • plenty of parmesan
  1. Soak the beans overnight / during the day to start to soften. Keep the chickpeas separate if using them.
  2. When ready to cook, bring the stock / water and stock cubes to a gentle boil, adding in the onion, garlic, bay leaf and rosemary.
  3. If using chickpeas, add them to the boiling stock first and cook for about 20 minutes, covered.
  4. Add the other beans to the soup, and gently boil, covered, for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
  5. The beans will be ready when they start to shed their shells. Keep in mind that the chickpeas will take the longest to cook, so make sure you check those when testing for doneness.
  6. When the beans are just about done, add the salt to taste - depending on what type of stock you used, you might need 1/2 to 1 tsp of salt. Take care not to over-salt since the paremesan in the bowl will also help keep this salted.
  7. (optional: quickly fry up the chopped glove of garlic and the vegetable in a bit of olive oil, turning off the heat before the leafy greens are wilted. Add the contents to the soup just before you put the pasta in, and stir through)
  8. When the beans are ready, add in the pasta and turn off the heat after 1 further minute of gentle boiling.
  9. Remove bay leaf and rosemary twigs, and spoon into bowls. Add generous amounts of parmesan into each bowl, stirring through.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Daring Bakers: Potato Bread

The gauntlet was thrown down this month for the Daring Bakers: we were to make a bread recipe, but we were all banned from using a bread machine. Well, thought I, this would be more of a hardship for some than others. I own no bread machine, so I couldn't mourn what I didn't have. Any bread I make has to be done the hard way, and though I'm not a bread expert the prospect didn't leave me shivering in yeast-based fear.

The bread was a potato bread, chosen by Tanna at My Kitchen in Half Cups (where you can find the recipe). The bread could be formed into humble loaves, shaped into dainty rolls, or laid out as a lovely focaccia. It didn't take long for me to decide on the focaccia; I had never made one before, and I love drizzling that bread with olive oil and different Italian toppings.

The recipe was mildly confusing in that we could use two different quantities of potatoes, depending on our confidence levels. Or, in my case, general foolishness: I has happy to wade in to the deep end despite not being familiar with the recipe. I was also, as is becoming typical for me, facing a few obstacles: we are at the tail end of house construction (namely, creating a new kitchen) so each day that goes by sees more dust and less counter-top space in my already small kitchen; our weekends are taken up by renovation work so finding a window for baking is getting more difficult; taking pictures is nearly impossible since there are no un-cluttered surfaces and the only natural light I can grab demands me waking up early and sneaking into the extension before the builders arrive; and on the only day I could take on the recipe I had a friend's (important) concert to attend in the evening, so I had to finish everything by a given time. Better get cracking.

I started the potatoes boiling around noon, giving me plenty of time to be dressed and out of the house by 6pm. And then friends dropped in for a visit. Despite the place being chaotic and there not being a dusty-free chair to offer them to sit on, they stayed and chatted and I even mustered up a cup of coffee. What was that you said? Oh yes, the potatoes - thanks for reminding me. They boiled for the allotted time but then sat in the water for quite some time more, slowly getting a bit mushier and taking on quite some water.

But these were my only potatoes and my windows were closing fast, so these would have to make do. The mixture was very, very wet even after using all 8 cups of flour. Since I had whittled down my time by chatting with my friends, I calculated that I could only let the dough rise for 1 hour rather than the suggested 2 hours. This rushing was in some ways fortuitous, since even after one hour the dough had risen a good deal - or, more accurately, the very wet dough had made an attempt to rise and was drooling itself over the sides of the bowl.

Kneading the bread was a problem because it was so wet. On the counter-top, it looked more like The Blob than a bread, spilling its way around and trying to absorb the utensils and microwave on the edge of the counter. I added more flour - another 3 cups or so - in order to make it marginally less tacky. This meant that I had a huge amount of dough on hand, so I divided it in two at this point and froze half.

The focaccia would take about 30 minutes to bake, and I had 35 minutes before I had to leave the house (honestly, where had the time gone?!). The bread went in the oven, I got changed (the kitchen and I were covered in flour, but luckily the kitchen didn't have to head out to the concert), I readied all my things and was set to sprint out the door after making sure the oven was off. After the 30 minutes, the bread looked like it could use a bit more time to come to a golden color, but time was the one thing I didn't have. The bread would have to settle for sitting in a still-hot-but-turned-off oven to finish cooking.

The bread was very good despite the compromises I forced upon it. I will make it again, and next time make sure that I take the potatoes out of the water promptly and give the dough the full time to rise. I would also resist adding any extra flour, since my bread was slightly on the dense side, and I felt it could be lighter. And me? I made the concert on time, though I did have to sit there, quietly picking off the dried dough from my wrists and arms which hadn't quite washed off. It's no wonder my friends want a classy person like me to give them moral support.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Hotel Chocolat

I will confess, I had never heard of Hotel Chocolat before I saw their name popping up on UK food blogs, sponsoring competitions to win chocolates and champagne. I was intrigued, I entered, I won (hooray!) and though I ostensibly campaigned on the grounds that Mr A&N is a greedy chocolate fiend (which, he is - oh boy, is he), I have been dipping into these chocolates as quickly as he is and enjoying myself thoroughly. It's a seasonal box of chocolates, and there are some unexpected flavors in there - a blackcurrant truffle, a Cointreau ganache and (my favorite to look at) a praline filled acorn.

Through this here blog, I also had a chance to attend a Hotel Chocolat evening of chocolates and champagne in order to taste some of their winter chocolate range (honestly, it's a hard hard life). Hotel Chocolat has stores dotted around the UK as well as an internet service, and their chocolates (and their stores, by extension) definitely seem positioned to be the posh alternative to Thorntons. From what I've seen at their High Street Kensington store, their shops are well designed and laid out to make you feel like you're shopping for pretty things as much as you are indulging chocolate, with extra information on their lovely packaging letting you become closer to the products (details on Hotel Chocolat's own cocoa plantation; tasting hints and flavors you should pick up on when eating the chocolates, as if you are sampling a wine).

One of the first things that caught my eye were giant slabs of chocolate in different flavors, packaged minimally but gleaming through their see-through wrapping like a chocolate temptress calling you over. The back 1/3 of the shop was taken up by row upon row or chocolate concoctions, coming in small-slab sizes or in 6 to a box, and divided into white, milk, and dark chocolates to make it easy to find your poison. Cook's ingredients include things like chocolate pasta, chili olive oil with cocoa beans (which turned out to be surprisingly nutty), and 100% cocoa chocolate (perhaps not something to be munched on without explicit commitment to that cause).

It won't come as a surprise that Deirdre and I (my faithful companion for the evening) had a lovely time eating and drinking bubbly. I had wondered ahead of time if I should have a game plan for eating the chocolates - dinner first? gorge myself early? chocolate-graze throughout the night? - but discovered when there that I do actually have a chocolate-eating limit. Their chocolates are quite rich without being sickly, and I fo
und that after a few I was happily satisfied. Of course, we weren't so full that we felt we could escape the evening without buying extra chocolates to take home and share. Spread the chocolate, spread the love.

Monday, 19 November 2007

A Quick Sabzi

Some days, I am overtaken by pangs of healthy thoughts. I wonder how I can work more bran into my diet. I begin craving broccoli. I contemplate going for a jog. With the cold weather and the holidays hurtling toward me at speed, my mind is telling me to be good before it all falls apart in a tumult of turkey and oh-alright-just-another-slice-of pie.

One rather tasty way of eating healthy vegetables is to make them into a sabzi. Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian chef and cookbook writer, tells that 'sabzi' is a word that came into northern India from Persian invaders. In Persia, sabzi simply means 'green'; in India, it's transmogrified to mean vegetables, or a vegetable dish prepared without meat added in.

Because of that broad definition of what sabzi means, you'll find many sabzi recipes about. I like one of the recipes Madhur gives, mainly for its simplicity in preparation but the flavor it can deliver. I also like the fact that you can change around some of the ingredients and still come away with a tasty side dish - I often make it with carrots rather than the suggested courgettes, and have scaled back the list of the ingredients until it was only cumin, coriander, and mustard I was working with, and still I've chased all the last bits around the plate. I've copied out Madhur's recipe as written, but I do feel it's
a forgiving one if you can't match every ingredient, especially asafetida, which might be the most difficult to find (and perhaps even commit to, since it's translation in English is 'devil's dung' due to its...rather strong odor).

For the lovely combination of Indian spices and vegetables, I'm submitting this to Truffle from What's On My Plate for this week's Weekend Herb Blogging.

Courgette and Green Pepper Sabzi, from Madhur Jaffrey
Serves 3-4 as a side

  • 3 Tbs olive or corn oil
  • Generous pinch of asafetida
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/4 tsp whole brown mustard seed
  • 1 1/4 Lb / 560g courgettes sliced into 1 1/2 in long and 1/2 thick fingers
  • 1 large green pepper, cut into 1/2 in wide slices
  • 2 Tbs yogurt
  • 1 Tbs ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp chaat masala (or pinch of cayenne pepper and squeeze of lemon)
  1. Heat a large pan or wok over medium-high heat, and add the oil
  2. When the oil is hot, first add the asafetida, and quickly follow it with the cumin and mustard seed
  3. The mustard will begin popping within a few seconds; when it does, add the vegetables
  4. Stir and fry for 5 minutes
  5. Add the yogurt, and stir until it's absorbed
  6. Reduce heat to low, and stir in the coriander and salt, continuing to stir for a minute
  7. Add the chaat masala / cayenne pepper and lemon, and quickly toss all together
  8. Taste, and add more salt if needed.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

A Sad Tale of Some Frozen Cheese

Sit back to hear the little tale I have to tell you. There once was a (not quite so) young woman who adored cheese. She often spoke of it, she more than often ate it, and thoughts of cheese took up both her waking and sleeping moments. She loved it quite like nothing else.

One day, this woman found a new cheese she hadn't yet tried but liked the sound of. A goat's camembert, it had traveled from a small producer called Wobbly Bottom Farm; the name made her giggle, the pongy cheese smell was enticing, and the sample offered had her hooked. She decided to give the cheese a good home with her. And her tummy.

The cheese came home with her, but it then tragically disappeared. She looked in the fridge, but there was no cheese. She checked in the shopping bags, but there was no cheese. She kept her nose out for funny smells in case the cheese was festering in an unseen corner of a kitchen somewhere, but a month on and there was still no cheese. The (not quite so) young woman was beginning to think she had imagined this cheese in some beautiful yet ultimately sad dream.

And then, when searching through her freezer for some fish fingers, she found a familiar oval. Could it be...? was the cheese! In the freezer. Frozen. Oh dear.

I don't know many people who have experience with frozen cheese, and I certainly didn't know how it would turn out when I de-frosted it. I turned to the best source I could think of: Jamie at Being a cheese addict, this is a website I had been familiar with for some time, but I only recently discovered that it is run by a high school friend of mine. Fancy that. I asked Jamie what I ought to do and expect from the de-frosting, and I had this response in return:

I wouldn't nuke the Camembert. You don't want to end up cooking it. I would just let it defrost in the open air, but you very likely might end up with a mess. The ice crystals that form from the water content of the cheese will act like little razors and cut the tiny fat globules in the paste. And when fat globules lose their "skin," they become runny milk fat. You might end up with something that's sort of de-emulsified. But I've never done it myself, so I'm very curious to hear what actually happens!

I thawed out the cheese this morning, and had my first pieces a short while ago. It didn't de-frost as badly as feared - the cheese stayed whole, slightly runny but no more than would be expected of a camembert. The exposed edges were rubbery looking, like cheese left in the refrigerator uncovered. I'm not at all sure how the taste was effected, though, since the memory of having sampled the cheese is long gone and I can't tell how this slice compared to the original. I may need to head up to the farmer's market tomorrow and buy a fresh chunk in order to perform a more accurate comparison.

So all was not lost, my fair cheese, but I promise to you I will never do that again.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Chorizo and Squash Soup

This week, I once again found myself with a couple of unused squashes on hand (and phwoar, how often does that happen to the best of us?). I do very much like my squashes and my veggies in general, but I suppose when I buy my groceries I sometimes get over zealous and get more than we can eat; the spirit is willing but we're just unable to live up to my ideals of vegetable eating. I also found myself a bit stumped as to what to make with these two butternut and acorn squashes. I've done a squash bake, squash risotto, and sweet squash desserts all in the past few weeks, and I was somewhat flummoxed as to what to do now.

And then it came to me: chorizo. A nice sausage is often the answer to many of life's troubles (as a nice cheese can be as well) and chorizo was the answer to this problem. It's a rich sausage with some fantastic flavors to it, which I thought would complement the healthy squashes quite nicely. I'm very lucky with where I work that I have a brilliant Spanish food shop near me (Brindisa, whose tapas restaurant is the favorite I've found in London), and my choice of chorizo was vast. More than other sausages, I believe it's important to get a good quality chorizo since it's such a fatty sausage, and a poorer chorizo tends to be filled with gristle and give off even higher-than-normal amounts of fat when cooked. I opted to get a slightly sweet fresh chorizo, and a spicy cured chorizo, and to use both in the soup.

Aside from just having a craving for it, chorizo also made sense because of the herb I knew I'd be using with this soup. For the past 3 months our house has been under construction, and our entire garden has been an inaccessible write-off. I would worry about the herb plants occasionally, but knew there wasn't much point in worrying since there was absolutely nothing I could do. The construction will be finished next week (so they tell me - please be true, pleasebetrue) and slowly we're beginning to see the garden again. With it, I could tell that everything had died except for our impossible-to-kill lemon geranium and our doesn't-quite-thrive-but-doesn't-quite-die rosemary. As much as I love the wonderfully citrusy and almost astringent taste and smell of the geranium, it would be the evergreen-like rosemary that would be the natural compliment to my chorizo and squash in this soup.

I roasted the vegetables together (with garlic and rosemary) to bring out a bit more of their flavor before throwing them in the pot with the already-cooked chorizo. I also found some sweet paprika at the back of our cupboard, and though I have no idea how it got there it found its way into the pot to some very pleasing results. I loved how this all came together, with the squashes being softened but not mushy, and absorbing the rosemary, chorizo, and paprika flavors in equal measure. It was a great way to send off these squashes that were moping around my vegetable rack, and to welcome the rosemary back from the confines of my off-limits garden.

And for rosemary's proud return to my table (as well as, may I say, my inspired use of sweet paprika and two types of squash), I'm submitting this to Vanessa at What Geeks Eat for a bit of weekend herb blogging fun.

Chorizo and Squash Soup
Serves 4 as a main course

  • 1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1 inch squares (although any squash will do)
  • 1 acorn squash, peeled and chopped into 1 inch squares (again, any squash will do)
  • 1 tin tomatoes
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4-5 stalks of rosemary
  • 2 Tbs sherry vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion, well chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 400-500 g fresh chorizo (I used regular/sweet chorizo)
  • 80-100 g cured chorizo (I used spicy, to add a bit of variety)
  • 1 liter water, boiled
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp chili (more or less depending on what level of spiciness you like things)
  • salt and pepper
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 190 degrees
  2. Throw the chopped squashes into an oven-proof dish, along with all but 1 sprig of the rosemary and 1/3 of the chopped garlic. Pour a bit of olive oil in and stir until it's all coated with a bit of oil and the garlic is mixed.
  3. Empty the tin of tomatoes into another, smaller, oven-proof dish. Stir in the other sprig of rosemary, another 1/3 of the garlic, and the sherry vinegar.
  4. Place both dishes in the oven and cook for 20 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, saute the onions, celery, carrots, and remaining garlic with a bit of olive oil in a large pot over a medium heat until they all begin to soften.
  6. Slice both types of chorizo; the fresh chorizo should be in hearty but still bite-sized chunks, the cured should be thinner (but not wafer-thin).
  7. Add in both chorizos and cook until the chorizo is cooked through, stirring often. (If you need to de-glaze your pot a bit, use another glug of the sherry vinegar.)
  8. This step should (hopefully) be happening just as your vegetables are coming out of the oven: pour the water into the pot with the sausages, and bring to a low boil. Skim off any scum or excess fat (you'll get quite a bit from the chorizo but you might want to leave some since it is tasty)
  9. Test to make sure the squashes are just soft enough to eat; if done, remove both the tomatoes and the squashes from the oven.
  10. Take out all but one or two of the rosemary sprigs, and then add everything into the soup pot.
  11. Add the paprika and the chili to the soup and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  12. Cook the soup for another 5 or so minutes at a low boil, until the flavors come together. Remove the rosemary sprigs before serving.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Pumpkin Bread

I was recently asked a question by a fellow American-in-London which resonated deeply with me: did I know a good recipe for pumpkin bread, because the last several she tried out all smelled and tasted like very bad things. Sweet pumpkin things are much more an American affair than a British, and even just finding tins of pumpkin in the UK can be very difficult (or, when you find them, they're two to three times as expensive as you'd expect back home). Messing about with substandard recipes is a hazard on both the wallet and the stomach. No pressure on me to come up with the goods, then.

Pumpkin pie I'm very familiar with making, but I've only made pumpkin bread once in my memory. I was 14 and was in a flush of post-Thanksgiving turkey eating, and wanted to carry on the Thanksgiving spirit through seasonal baked products. At 14 I was comfortable with baking, but my mother's cooking repertoire had changed in the preceding years to shun any use of an oven or stove top in lieu of the microwave. Although I grew up with her baking for us (granted, from packets), once she returned to work it was microwaves a go-go. I would occasionally be allowed to make a banana bread when we had bananas half a step away from being thrown in the bin, but otherwise the oven was cast suspicious glances and only used at holiday times
and discouraged at all others.

Just before my foray into making pumpkin bread, my family got a counter-top convection microwave oven - essentially a microwave with a bit more excitement thrown in. The convection microwave came with a recipe book, and within that book was - behold! - a recipe for pumpkin bread. This was akin to divine intervention for my
mother: she hadn't wanted me to use the normal oven to bake, so this opportunity to make a convection microwaved-approved baked good meant that my fate was sown. I was young enough then to still listen to my mother, but I now would know better. My overriding memory of that pumpkin bread was that it was rubbery, slightly flat and sunken, fairly tasteless, and shockingly orange.

This would not be the recipe I would suggest to an American looking for a good pumpkin bread, then. So while I didn't have a known pumpkin bread on hand, I did have a favorite recipe for zucchini bread which I figured I could tweak a bit. Zucchini was swapped for pumpkin, cinnamon found itself accompanied by nutmeg and allspice, and I made a simple crumb topping which made me question whether or not it would be gastronomically acceptable to just eat a tray-full of crumb topping.

I made both a loaf as well as half a dozen extra-large muffins, all of which looked and came out beautifully. The bread stayed moist and all the spices come together in a lovely warming medley. The pumpkin, as it often is, was so subtle it threatened to disappear if you didn't concentrate on it; I would try making the recipe with more pumpkin next time to see how that worked out, although I've written the recipe out as I made it. But I will most certainly be making this again, and forwarding it on to any Americans-in-London yearning for pumpkin bread as well.

Pumpkin Bread
Makes 1 large loaf or 18-36 cupcakes, depending on size

  • 3 C all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 Tbs cinnamon
  • 3/4 Tbs allspice
  • 3/4 freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 C vegetable oil
  • 2 1/4 C caster sugar
  • 3 tsp vanilla
  • 1 15 oz tin of pumpkin (or 15 oz of fresh pumpkin, after roasting and draining it of excess water)
  • 1/2 C walnuts, chopped
  • For the topping: (I admit, this is approximate - you may need to even out my measurements, but the consistency when made should by like big grains of sand)
    • 10 g butter
    • 20 g flour
    • 15 g brown sugar
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 165 C / 325 F
  2. Sift together all the dry ingredients - the flour, salt, soda, baking powder, and spices
  3. Beat together the eggs, oil, vanilla and sugar until they're well mixed
  4. Sift dry ingredients into the wet ingredients in batches, mixing thoroughly each time
  5. Stir in the pumpkin and mix thorougly
  6. Stir through the walnuts
  7. To make the topping: combine the butter, flour, and brown sugar in a bowl, and using two forks turned upside-down from normal, cut the three ingredients together until they resemble rough grains of sand
  8. Pour either into a large, greased bread tin, or into cupcake tins
  9. Sprinkle the topping onto the bread/the cupcakes
  10. Bake the bread loaf for 60-70 minutes, the cupcakes for apprx 25 minutes for normal sized cupcakes, 35 minutes for large cupcakes

Saturday, 10 November 2007

A Sort-of Moussaka

Mince is a very fine thing. Whether it be beef or lamb (and to a lesser extent, pork or turkey), something magical happens when you grind up meat and mix it with other things. The only difficulty with mince is finding interesting ways to eat it rather than just placing it over pasta, or digging in deep with a spoon.

Lamb mince always makes me think of middle eastern cooking. The Moro cookbook has a wonderful recipe for a lamb mince, raisin, and pine nut mixture tucked inside a potato cake. When I don't feel like going through all that effort, though, I usually turn lamb mince into a sort-of moussaka. I skip the traditional bechamel sauce since we try to go dairy-light in the A&N household, but equally I like being able to taste the aubergine and the mince together without it being smothered by a white sauce. I do borrow heavily from the Moro recipe for the mince in order to get it tasting nice and exotic - spicy and warming and just tomato-y enough to bring out the natural flavor of the lamb. I make sure to make enough to have leftovers, since the flavors settle together even more nicely the following day. That's when going after the mince with a spoon is absolutely irresistible.

A Sort-Of Moussaka
Serves 2 for a main course, with some leftovers

  • 1 medium red onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, well chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, well chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and well chopped
  • 400 g / 1 lb lamb mince
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 Tbs Charmoula (if you have it - otherwise, 2 tsp cumin)
  • 1 Tbs cinnamon
  • 1 clove, ground
  • few pinches of freshly ground nutmeg
  • Harissa paste or chopped chilis (I like to make mine a bit spicy, but spice-level is up to you)
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 Tbs tomato paste
  • 1/4 C water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 medium aubergine, sliced into thin-ish discs (just less than 1 cm in thickness)
  • Olive oil
  • Parmesean

  1. Finely chop the onion, and gentle fry it in a large, heavy pot with some olive oil
  2. When the onion is getting softened, add the garlic, celery and carrot and stir. Allow to cook gently for a couple of minutes to allow everything to soften slightly
  3. Add the lamb mince, and stir until the mince is mostly cooked
  4. Add the bay leaf and all the spices, and stir until it's well mixed into the lamb
  5. Add the harissa/chilis, chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and water, and stir until well mixed. Add 1/2 tsp of salt to flavor and stir well.
  6. Cover and allow to simmer on the lowest setting for about 30 minutes
  7. After 30 minutes, turn oven on to 180 C / 375 F
  8. Taste the mince for flavoring, and adjust as needed
  9. Test also for liquidity - if it looks to be getting a bit dry, add in a bit more water and stir well. The mixture should be thicker than a typical spaghetti bolognese sauce, but still definitely liquid enough to call it a sauce rather than a paste
  10. Try to find the bay leaf and remove it from the sauce
  11. Slice up the aubergine
  12. Spoon a healthy layer of sauce into a deep, oven-proof 7x7 in dish (or something similarly sized)
  13. Place a layer of aubergine slices on top of the sauce; you may need to cut some of the aubergines in half to gain an even layering
  14. Spoon the rest of the sauce on top of this last layer, and then again layer the rest of the aubergine one top. I tend to fit my aubergines together like puzzle pieces so that they cover the sauce without overlapping each other, but overlapping would be fine too - you may just need to add on another few minutes of cook
  15. Drizzle the aubergines generously with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and cook for 15 minutes (or 20 minutes if your aubergine slices overlap quite a bit)
  16. Remove from the oven, and turn the grill rather than the oven on.
  17. Grate a generous amount of parmesean cheese, and sprinkle over the aubergines so that they're mostly covered by the cheese
  18. Grill for a further 5 minutes or until cheese is slightly browned and bubbly - you can increase the temperature of the grill if these feels like it's taking too long
  19. Remove and serve

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Lime Pie and a Non-Brush With Stardom

I recently had an email from a production company, telling me about a new cooking show they were filming. They were interested in having me on the show, they said; I would prepare a dish ahead of time, bring it with me, and when on the show could have a chance to talk about what I made (and a bit about myself as well) and might help the head chefs out in the kitchen.

Now I was in two minds - clearly I enjoy making my food and sharing it with people and this would be a huge venue for this, but my overriding thought was that this could be absolutely terrifying and, if nothing else, a good chance to appear a bumbling fool and weep abundant tears on television as I was made to chop an onion. Difficult, deciding whether or not to say yes.

But say yes I did, and I began the search for what recipe to make. I reasoned that it had to be something that a) traveled well b) wouldn't go rancid sitting under studio lights and c) would taste alright tepid since I'd have made it the day before. Many friends came up with excellent suggestions, but in the end I decided to make a lime pie with a ginger cookie crust from my Magnolia Bakery cookbook.

I had had it before, and wolfed the thing down in a matter of hours. It's midway between a cheesecake and custard, and the combination of the spicy/peppery ginger crust and the refreshing, cit
rusy lime is absolutely wonderful. It's also very easy to make (as long as your wrists hold out, juicing a dozen limes) and can be made into fun, individual-sized serving or into a large communal pie, depending on your preference.

And so on the appointed day, I showed up to work with my pie (packed in a cool bag to keep it fresh until the afternoon) so that I could take a half day off to go to the filming. I arrived at the studio, I introduced myself to the reception, and...nothing. For over an hour. When someone finally did come to speak to me, it was established that the production team had not only told me the wrong time to arrive, but they had also mixed up what day I would be there and had double booked me with someone else.

I was, to put it mildly, annoyed: to have gone through the time and effort of thinking about what to make, to have taken time off work, and to have been treated shoddily. But I have practiced my best zen breathing and have let it all go. I don't really mind not having had a brush with 15 seconds of cookery show semi-greatness, and the pie was still just as good as I remembered with people in the studio happily hoovering it up when I armed them with spoons and pushed them toward it. At least it saved me from eating the whole thing on my own this time.

Lime Pie with Gingersnap Crust, from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook

  • 1 1/2 C finely crushed ginger biscuits (approx 1 200 g package with 1-2 more ginger biscuits and 1-2 hobnobs crushed in, for good measure or for slightly larger-than-9 inch pie dishes)
  • 1/4 C / 60 g butter, melted
  • 1 C lime juice (approx 12 limes)
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 21 oz / 600 g sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 Tbs freshly grated lime zest
  1. Pre-heat oven to 160 C / 325 F
  2. Combine well the melted butter and the crushed cookies
  3. Press the buttery crumbs into a 9-inch pie dish
  4. Bake the crust for 10 minutes and then allow to rest
  5. Combine the lime juice, egg yolks, and condensed milk, either using an electric mixer on low or mixing well by hand
  6. Stir in the lime zest, and taste for tartness; if too sweet, juice a few more lines and stir in
  7. Pour the lime mixture into the crust and bake 25-30 minutes until the middle is set
  8. Allow to cool for around 20 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving

Monday, 5 November 2007

Buttercup Squash Bake

With the onslaught of autumn vegetables showing no sign of abating, I'm still happily buying up the squashes and cruciferous veg that come my way. With each passing week and each additional bagful of vegetables, though, I'm trying to find more and creative ways of serving them in order to keep myself from feeling vegetable-based boredom. This week's item for the creative treatment was the buttercup squash.

Buttercup squash sounds like butternut squash but is actually quite different; while butternut squash is on the watery, pumpkin-y side of the spectrum, buttercup squash is much more creamy in texture, something like a sweet potato (though more solid). With visions of pumpkins and sweet potatoes floating through my head, nutmeg danced into my thoughts as well.

And so I give you buttercup squash bake, with a nutmeg flavored bechamel sauce - very easy to tie together once you have peeled and sliced your squash and made your bechamel. I like Delia Smith's basic bechamel recipe, though I added a clove of garlic and a half a grated fresh nutmeg in lieu of the peppercorns and mace. I also like to stir in a healthy spoonful or two of ricotta cheese at the end of making the bechamel, though I don't always have it on hand or remember to buy it.

A word of warning if anyone happens to use soya milk or lactose free milk: the milk can go funny when it boils (particularly the lactose free version) so do try to keep it just below bowling point if you want to keep it separating and looking as if it's curdled.

I'm submitting this post to Beth at The Expatriate's Kitchen as part of Weekend Herb Blogging.

Buttercup Squash Bake (an approximate recipe)

  • 1 serving of bechamel sauce, a la Delia
  • 1 average-sized butter cup squash, peeled and cut into thin, half-moon slices
  • 2 slices of bread, whizzed through a blender
  • 50-60g parmesan cheese, grated
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180
  2. Layer the slices of the squash in an oven-proof dish so that they are slightly overlapping - most of the dish should be taken up by squash
  3. Pour the bechamel sauce over the squash
  4. Cover with the breacrumbs, lightly patted down
  5. Cover with parmesan cheese (if there isn't enough cheese to cover the whole thing, grate some more)
  6. Place uncovered in the oven and cook for about 25 minutes or until the squash is tender. If the cheese starts to cook too quickly, cover with tin foil and uncover for the last few minutes.

Saturday, 3 November 2007


Some restaurants - for the drama of their food, their ambiance, their service - can be described as transforming food to the level of theater. If anyone would try to marry that description with Hibiscus, they would have to conclude their style of theater is an enigmatic one with subtle dashes of drama (and would most certainly be by a modern French playwright). Hibiscus has recently moved down to London from Shropshire, hoping to take its two Michelin stars with it. It sits in Mayfair, an understated dining room quietly flowing with softly spoken staff (sometimes too much so), belieing the gentle drama of the food that will follow.

I went to Hibisbcus with five other food devotees, including Ben and Howard from Food and Drink in London and Krista from Londonelicious. I knew the danger would be that if there were a tasting menu on offer, everyone but me would be tempted. Indeed there was, and indeed they were. I've gone off tasting menus a bit, seeing them as the culinary equivalent of speed dating - the dish is in front of you, you make a couple of tentative passes at the thing, and it's gone. I like to take in the nuances of wha
t's hitting me, and a 3-minute whizz-through of a dish doesn't always give me the time to savor flavors. Just the same, it was a whole-table decision and with five of the six very keen on the 7-course taster, I wasn't going to be stubborn.

The 7 courses did give us a very good idea of what the kitchen could accomplish. Items were prettily laid out (even alternating a delicious pink beetroot and a purple beetroot dish around the table so the colors were spread out) and each plate had several combinations of flavors to get your head around. We had put in a special request for the suckling pig sausage roll and were treated to both that and the pork belly. The sausage roll was a clever gourmet take on the traditional, with the more-ish brown sauce made from balsamic vinegar, almond oil and black truffles. Even the little dab of dressed lettuce on the side was packed with flavor due to its smoked olive oil and finely shaved crispy ceps. The pork belly was decadently fatty and rich and with a perfect bit of crackling on top. It was served with two sauces which were hard to pick out the flavors from, and an extremely softly spoken waitress didn't help clarify the matter.

The breaded lamb's testicle was quite intellectually clever - served with an oyster and corn tartare on the side, I was amused by the pairing of testicles with the aphrodisiac oysters. I wasn't won over by the flavors, though. The breading around the testicles was very fine and compacted, but gave the sensation that you were eating a frozen chicken nugget, and I found the flavor of the testicles and oysters together to be too heavy on the musky side for me to really enjoy it.

Several of the dishes featured a foam essence - grapefruit foam, hazelnut foam, lemongrass foam - which is a very modern culinary trick to include although some critics have had their fill of it. I myself enjoy texture and substance to my food and certainly don't object to having to chew my calories, so I find the wizardy of foam doesn't add substantially to my enjoying a dish.

At £75 for the tasting menu and £50 for the three course meal (£10 supplement if you would like the pork), you need to be committed to the style of food Hibiscus serves, or at least committed to trying it out. Everyone at the table was impressed, and some even declared Hibiscus stood a good chance of providing them their favorite meal in London. For any future visit to Hibiscus, I would certainly opt for the 3-course meal, to give myself a chance to really savor and pick out the flavors and textures thrown at you.