Friday, 29 February 2008

Daring Bakers: French Bread

"Sacre bleu, we have to make French Bread!" I declared on seeing February's Daring Baker challenge.
"Sacre bleu!" echoed Mr A&N.
(Now if I'm honest, we didn't so much utter 'sacre bleu' as have another form of French escape our lips, but this is a family-friendly blog and I've given up bad language for Lent.)

The French bread recipe wasn't for the feint of heart or fle
et of food - or those with a short attention span. At 15 pages, this was a recipe to either break you or make you respect Julia Child for her commitment to helping you create France's food classics. With 3 risings taking at least an hour each, and kneadings and shapings in between, this was also a commitment to spending the best part of your day elbow-deep in yeast.

And so the work began. I always struggle when kneading dough, fighting against adding more flour to keep the dough from sticking to my hands or the work top. I fought that instinct and respected Julia, and despite some profound stickiness saw through
the tactile stages just with the amounts proscribed.

My dough rose beautifully. It had achieved its first rise in about 2 hours but due to one thing and another I didn't get to take it out and knead it again until almost the 3 hour mark. It rose beautifully again in the second rise, and again I had to leave it for the outer-edge of the suggested rise-time since I was busy with other things.The shaping stage was now upon me, and though I had to read the directions several times through and practice my hand formations before bringing out the dough, this also proved fairly easy and I emerged with 6 loaves of batons, waiting for their final rise before they could become real French bread.

And this was when my flawless Daring Bakers experience caved in on me. Or, more punningly, failed to rise to the occasion. On the third rise, nothing happened. The first hour passed, and they hadn't budged from their thin cigar shapes. Thinking that perhaps the kitchen temperature had gone down from earlier in the day (it was 8pm by this stage), I popped the dough in a barely-heated oven to encourage any yeast that was getting the shivers. I can't tell if it was my imagination or that the dough did make a feeble stab at rising, but come 9pm and still not being in possession of puffy baguettes, I baked them anyway.

The bread was beautiful in flavor, well crusted and had been the best dough I've yet worked with, so emerging from 9 hours of heavy flour and wrist action with only 6 flat breads to show for it was disappointing. The charcouterie and pate I bought in anticipation of stuffing them into my own French bread had to instead by eaten either on these bread-crackers or just eaten plain (gosh life's difficult). I asked other DB'ers for advice about what may have gone wrong, and the popular suggestion was that my poor yeast simply ran out of food.

On the bright side, I defrosted the potato bread dough I had rushed into the freezer during our November challenge. It seemed to somehow be more glutinous and yeasty than what I remember the fresh dough to be, and it baked into an absolutely fantastic loaf. Hooray for Daring Bakers bread making.

Please do visit our valiant hosts for the month - Mary/BreadChick from The Sour Dough and Sara of I Like to Cook.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Stem Ginger Cookies

We spent this Saturday doing one of the most indulgent and relaxing things we all-too-infrequently do: we spent the day (and night) playing board games with friends. It feels like a very simple - even childish - pleasure, but I get Christmas-like excited whenever these days crop up. There's one game in particular our group has become besotted with, and we managed to squeeze in two rounds of play. A wee bit competitive in nature, I won the first game and graciously declared myself the best player in the room for then and evermore. For the second round of the game, I was within grasping distance of victory when I allowed myself to become weak, and watched as Mr A&N stole victory from me. I congratulated him by throwing my cards down and reminding him the whole way home that, really, I was the real winner, he just happened to finish first.

Since my competitive side can't be soothed with sleep, I woke up early on the Sunday again turning over his victory/my loss in my head. Finding yourself awake at 7am on a Sunday morning is a pretty poor showing for your two-day weekend, so I put my over-active mind (But WHY didn't I just stop him??!) to better use by thinking of something to bake that day.

Oatmeal. That was my first non-board game thought. Oatmeal cookies comfort me, with their moist and slightly chewiness and the outside chance of health benefits (if you can ignore the two sticks of butter). Oatmeal raisin cookies should have their own place in heaven, but I did want to try something different. My mind rummaged through the cupboards and found an un-opened bag of crystallized stem ginger. Stem ginger is almost peppery in its sharpness, which on its own can be a bit firey and should only be eaten by those prepared for the experience. The sharpness is a good combination with the buttery and slightly nutty dough of an oatmeal cookie.

For those without a mixer (like me) the dough does get very stiff once the oatmeal and flour are stirred in, so do either make sure you have the balance of spices right before adding in all the flour, or ask a big, strong man with a rather large mixing spoon to help you stir. Enjoy with a large glass of milk and leave any obsessive thoughts behind you.

Stem Ginger Cookies
Makes around 3 dozen cookies

  • 1 C / 225 g unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 C firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 C oats
  • 2 1/4 C all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp all-spice
  • 4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 C / 100 g stem ginger, roughly chopped
  1. Cream together the butter and sugar until smooth
  2. Add the eggs and the vanilla and stir well
  3. Sift together the flour, salt, soda and spices
  4. Stir the oats into the butter and sugar mixture
  5. Add the flour mixture in batches into the oats and butter, stirring thoroughly throughout
  6. Stir in the chopped stem ginger
  7. Heat the oven to 325 F / 170 C
  8. Chill the mixture for 30 minutes
  9. Drop by teaspoonful onto a cookie tray and cook for around 15 minutes until brown
  10. Let cool for the first minute on the tray, and then move to a rack to cool completely

Sunday, 24 February 2008


I'm a little bit in love with chorizo. No, sorry, scratch that - I'm a lotta bit in love with chorizo. I have easy access to a fabulous Spanish food shop (Brindisa - if you ever have the chance to go there, go and spend your money), and I come home with their fresh chorizo more often than doctors would probably advise. But it is Just. So. Delicious. The only difficulty I have with chorizo is figuring out what not to add it to (other than my mouth).

I have become a bit of an expert at rattling off paella recipes after putting together the paella kit I auctioned for Chez Pim's Menu for Hope. Pae
llas are excellent all-in-one meals that are expandable enough to welcome in any number of ingredients as long as you get the basics correct: lightly fry up onions, garlic, and any other items that needed softening or cooking; prepare some good stock with saffron soaking in it; add some paprika and rice to the fried things and let it all cook in the stock without disturbing anything until the cooking is done. Some of my favorite sounding paella recipes are from Sam and Sam Clarke at Moro; their rabbit paella with rosemary and almonds tempts me mightily.

We decided to make this paella with some of the cherished chorizo, as well as mussels, prawns, and peas. Mr A&N tried to make the dish together but that's not without its hiccups - Mr A&N sees recipes as more of a suggestion than a direction whereas if I've decided to stick with the recipes rules for the evening, I would rather stick with it. There were a few silences (mine) and suggestions that maybe he should leave the kitchen (his) but we got there in the end with no ill effects to the dish. Which was a good thing, because if anything bad had happened to that chorizo I would have really lost it.

Chorizo, Mussel, and Prawn Paella
serves 6

  • 1 bag fresh mussels
  • 250 g / 1/2 lb cooked prawns, preferable still in their shells
  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • a small pinch of saffron (about 20 strands)
  • 6 Tbs olive oil
  • 250 g / 1/2 lb good quality fresh chorizo, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 ½ large Spanish onion, finely chopped
  • 1 green pepper, halved, seeded, and finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 dried noras peppers (seeds and stalks removed, broken into small pieces and covered with boiling water) or 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 250g calasparra (paella) rice
  • 75ml white wine
  • 150g frozen peas
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • lemon wedges
  1. Peel the prawns and put into the fridge until ready to use.
  2. Add the prawn shells to a large saucepan, cover with the chicken stock, and simmer gently for 15 minutes so the shells can infuse the stock.
  3. Remove from heat, remove the shells, add the saffron, and set aside.
  4. Clean the mussels of any beards or barnacles, discarding any that aren't closed or don't close immediately after tapping them.
  5. Boil about 1/2 liter of water (or however much is needed to cover the mussels) and add the mussels once boiling.
  6. Cook for about 3 minutes.
  7. Remove the mussels, discarding any that aren't closed and removing the meat from most of the mussels (leave a few in their shells for decoration). Add a few ladle-fuls of the cooking liquid to the stock and set aside.
  8. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in a 30-40 cm paella dish or frying pan using a medium to high heat
  9. When oil is just beginning to smoke, add the chorizo pieces and stir fry for 3 minutes. The chorizo should be mostly cooked through.
  10. Remove the sausage (using a slotted spook) and put aside.
  11. Add the rest of the olive oil to the pan and when it is hot, add the onion and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, then lower heat to medium and cook for a further 10-15, stirring occasionally.
  12. Add the chopped garlic and noras peppers/paprika and cook for a further 5 minutes or until the onion and garlic are slightly colored and sweet.
  13. Add the rice and stir for 1 minute in order to coat it in both the vegetables and oil.
  14. (Up to this point everything can be cooked in advance. The next stage should be started about 20 minutes before you would like to eat).
  15. Bring the stock to the boil. Once boiled, remove and keep aside.
  16. Place the paella pan with rice and vegetables over a medium-high heat and add the wine, followed by the hot stock, and season with salt and pepper. DO NOT stir the rice after this point.
  17. Simmer gently for 10 minutes or until there is just a little liquid above the rice.
  18. Spread the chorizo pieces and peas out over the rice and push down gently so the pieces go under the stock.
  19. Gently shake the pan to prevent sticking and turn the heat to low.
  20. Cook for 5 more minutes or until there is just a little liquid left at the bottom of the rice.
  21. Sprinkle the mussels and prawns on top, turn off the heat, and cover the pan lightly with a tea towel or foil. Let sit for 3-5 minutes.
  22. Remove the cover and scatter the chopped parsley over the top.
  23. Serve with a wedge of lemon on the side.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Rhubarb Crumble Cake

Until a few years ago, rhubarb was a stranger to me. The word, the sight of the plant, the tang of the taste, were all unfamiliar. I blame my culinarily sheltered childhood. Mr A&N, on the other hand, having grown up in God's own rhubarb triangle, can't hear the rumblings of the syllable 'rhuuuu' without getting a tear in his eye.

I was skeptical about its worth. It's a strange looking character, growing like giant fronds of swiss chard and thriving in the winter. "But what does it taste like?" I curiously asked the Yorkshire-based A&N clan. "Oh, awful in its natural state" was the universal response. Bitter. Stringy. The leaves are poisonous. This was sounding like one of Those Very British (quirky) Things. "So how do you eat it?" I wondered, skeptical facade uncracked. Boiled in tons and tons of sugar, I was told, which makes it taste "wonderful". It seemed an obvious truth to me that anything boiled in its own weight of sugar would wind up tasting pretty good, but they were adamant I needed to allow rhubarb into my life.

With the steady drip-drip of rhubarb each winter, it turns out I was wrong to doubt the goodness of rhubarb. It is tangy (to put it mildly) but part of the joy comes with balancing that with other flavors, either sweet or savory like Freddie just tried in The Great Big Vegetable Challenge. With its improbable pink color and its love of frost, it is a ray of brightness in the winter gloom. Forced rhubarb in particular is a funny creature, grown and picked in dim candle light since anything brighter would stop its growth. It's also very healthy, having only 7 calories per 100 grams and is full of vitamin C and calcium. I'm such a convert that I'm being tempted by the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival from the March 7 - 8.

I knew I'd find some forced rhubarb at my favorite British produce stand at my local market, and so I tried to think of the best use for it. My friend Lorraine who lives in Oman very generously mailed me some Madagascan vanilla pods she picked up cheaply in her market (markets are wonderful things) so I was eager to use those at the same time. Rhubarb with vanilla custard is an obvious combination, but I felt more in a cakey mood. Cue the rhubarb cake, with a light vanilla bod, mushy tart middle layer of rhubarb, and a crunchy nutty crumble. It was, in a word, wonderful, just as I was promised rhubarb would to be.

Rhubarb Crumble Cake (lightly adapted from the National Trust recipe)
Makes an 8 inch cake

  • 3 oz butter
  • 3 oz caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 oz self-raising flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla essences
  • 2-3 Tbs milk
  • 1lb rhubarb
  • 1 Tbsp demerara sugar

For the topping:

  • 2 oz butter
  • 3 oz plain flour
  • 1 oz caster sugar
  • handful of walnuts, roughly chopped
  1. Heat the oven to GM5/190’C/375’F. Grease and line an 8’’ round cake tin.
  2. Cream together the butter and the sugar, beat in the eggs and vanilla (either the essence or, if using a pod, split it open and scrape out the sticky bean goo inside and add it to the sugar mixture).
  3. Fold in the flour and salt.
  4. Add enough milk to give a dropping consistency(about 2-3 Tbs).
  5. Slice the rhubarb into 1’’ pieces and toss with the demerara sugar.
  6. Pour the cake base into the tin, and cover it in the rhubarb-sugar mixture.
  7. Make the topping by rubbing the butter into the flour and then stirring in the sugar and. Follow by tossing in the chopped walnuts
  8. Sprinkle the crumble topping evenly over the rhubarb, pressing down lightly.
  9. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the cake feels firm on top.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Wilted Kale with Garlic, Puy Lentils and Thyme

One of the 2008 new year's resolutions in the A&N household was to eat less meat. Frankly, I don't subscribe to new year's resolutions so I wonder in what moment of mental unclarity this declaration came about, but it's firmly out there and we're trying to heed it. We've set ourselves the goal of eating 3 vegetarian dinners a week, which has been more successful some weeks and less so others. Since we are so used to being raging carnivores, I'm finding it's taking me much more time to plan recipes and stock up on ingredients, rather than just defaulting to a meat-and-two-veg position.

A birthday or two ago I received Dennis Cotter's Paradiso Seasons, a great veggie cook book from a well-respected vegetarian chef. His recipes are grouped
seasonally so you can get the best of what's currently on offer, and I've been referring to him a lot lately. Granted, this isn't the sexiest season to be vegetarian ('OOoh, cabbage AGAIN!') and since neither of us eat heavy cheeses or creams our choices are limited to an almost vegan diet. Meaning that if we are going to stick to this 3/7ths vegetarianism, we'd better get used to proclaiming "OOoh, cabbage!'.

This week's cabbage moment comes in the form of wilted kale with puy lentils, thyme, and tomatoes. It's a very easy recipe to make, and with parmegian c
heese grated on top, it edged its way to being a stew with lovely salty tomatoey stock. We plumped up the quantities of everything listed so that we could have this as a main course with enough for leftovers (though I've listed the original recipe, below). The problem, in Mr A&N's eyes, was that this was a vegetarian meal that smacked of old-school, sandal-wearing, dubiously-cleansed vegetarians. So we cracked and added some bacon to the mix. We're still getting the hang of this thing.

Wilted kale with garlic, puy lentils, and thyme
From Dennis Cotter's Paradiso Seasons

2 Tbs puy lentils
2 Tbs olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 large handfuls kale, roughly chopped
2 tomatoes, diced (note: we used a tin of tomatoes)
2 small sprigs of thyme, leaves only
salt and pepper to season

  1. Boil the lentils in plenty of boiled water until just tender (about 12 minutes)
  2. heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a wide pan and cook the onion for one minute over medium heat.
  3. Add the garlic and kale, increase the heat and cook for two minutes until the kale hs wilted and turned a dark glossy green.
  4. Add the tomatoes to the pan with the cooked lentils and the thyme.
  5. Continue cooking, stirring often and adding a splash of water occasionally, until the tomatoes are soft and the kale is tender.
  6. Add another tablespoon of olive oil at the end, along with salt and pepper to season.

Friday, 15 February 2008

(Betty's) Carrot Cake

This post was meant to be a tribute to my friend Betty and her wonderful carrot cake. She's a Canadian transplant to the UK and like all good North Americans she understands the importance of baking a good cake. Betty took the time to write out her time-honored recipe for carrot cake after Mr A&N came away from his first slice declaring he had been to the promised land and it had had a cream cheese frosting.

With my two bags of carrots bought and aching to be shredded, though, I found that Betty's recipe had disappeared. This lone piece of paper had been tucked into my own trusty book of recipes but I can only presume it feel out during the kitchen building chaos. There was no Betty available to give me the recipe again, and with friends coming around in a few hours I felt I had to stick to the plan.

I instead turned to the internet and found something on All Recipes that seemed to fit the bill, and was highly rated by other users. Losing
my intended recipe set the tone for the experience - I suffered from exploding butter left in the microwave too long, me having eaten one of the 4 eggs needed for breakfast, and accidentally popping the cake out of the spring-bottom dish so that it flipped onto the counter top. I had to substitute hazelnuts for walnuts which turned out to be a good swap, but it seemed as if each step of the recipe was a reminder of how this wasn't meant to be.

I wasn't over-awed by the results. The cake itself was moist and warmingly spicy but a bit too sweet, and the cream cheese frosting didn't have as much of a tang as I would have liked it to. I cut back on the sugar in the frosting since I already knew the cake was sweet, but it still wasn't cream cheese-y enough and slightly too runny. People did ask for seconds so the recipe certainly wasn't a failure, but Betty will be getting a phone call from me soon, as our much-overdue catch up has suddenly become more urgent.

Carrot Cake (from Tammy Elliott on All Recipes website, printed with the changes I made)
makes one 9 x 13 inch tray or two 8 inch circular tins

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
  • 2 cups white sugar (some comments on the recipe suggest using half brown and half white sugar)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp allspice or nutmeg
  • 3 cups grated carrots
  • 1 cup chopped hazelnuts
For the frosting:
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 3 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • about 1 C of hazelnuts, chopped
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Grease and flour your cake pan(s).
  3. In a large bowl, beat together eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla.
  4. Mix in flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.
  5. Stir in carrots, and then fold in the nuts.
  6. Pour into prepared pan.
  7. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
  8. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely.
  9. To Make Frosting: In a medium bowl, combine butter, cream cheese, confectioners' sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Beat until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Stir in chopped pecans. Frost the cooled cake.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

7 Random Things Meme

I had been kindly tagged for this meme by both Tanna at My Kitchen in Half Cups and Naomi at Straight Into Bed Cakefree and Dried. I love their blogs and really liked reading their 7 things, but wasn't convinced I should put myself out there as well. But I'm tired tonight after two nights out (in a row! and I didn't get home until after 10pm!!) and I can no longer think of any excuses not to list those 7 things. So without further ado...

1. I'm a New Yorker by birth and a Londoner by transplant, but my surname and origins are from Louisiana. My last name is an entirely made up one, and can be traced back to one Italian gentleman who married a French-Acadian woman, moved to Louisiana, and changed the spelling of his name so it could appear more French. My grandfather was the first of his generation to leave Louisiana and move north, and I've continued that wanderlust tradition by being the only person with my last name living in the UK (as far as I can tell). And my husband wonders why I wouldn't take his name at marriage.

2. Still on family history, I'm a bit lucky to be here: I'm the child of a (former) Catholic priest and (former) nun. It isn't how they met, though - they were set up on a blind date by friends who thought they'd 'have a lot in common'. They did, and got married at Kennedy Airport and danced their first dance to the theme from The Godfather. Horse's hea
d, anyone?

3. My own wedding was marginally less unique, though I did wear a vintage pink cocktail dress I bought off ebay for $80. And I found shoes to match - hooray!

4. I'm allergic to avocados.

5. My high school was (supposedly) one of only two in the U.S to put on a full-scale opera each year, and so I appeared in The Magic Flute during my final year of school. It doesn't mean I was any good, mind you.

6. Mr A&N's real name is Tom, and aside from being a very good cook himself, he's a film editor by day and a writer by night. We spend our evenings alternating who is cooking and who is writing.

7. Aside from cooking and eating, and possibly sleeping, my favorite thing in the world to do is to laugh.

I would like to tag the following people to take on this meme:
Wendy from A Wee Bit of Cooking since I always love reading her posts and find myself giggling at them more often than not.
Brilynn from Jumbo Empanadas, not least because she's working under adverse kitchen conditions.
Kate from Aaplemint, since she's a stellar blogger, photographer, and commenter and seems to have some very interesting adventures.
Emiline from Sugar Plum since I'd love to find out more about her plans for herself.
Jasmine from Confessions of a Cardamom Addict, since I've recently found her to be something of a literary kindred spirit and am so pleased she's back sharing her blog with us all again.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Truffle

When we received a gift of a black and white truffle from Mr A&N's brother, the four of us present began debating what to do with them. There were many tantalizing and outlandish options, but my brother-in-law was adamant about what we needed to do with the white truffle: we were to have an egg breakfast the next weekend, and shave the entire truffle over the eggs. I was surprised he didn't suggest coating our toast in gold leaf first to ensure we didn't lose sight of the decadence of the occasion.

Truffles are one of those food stuffs that make me wonder what mad demon possessed the first person who suggested this thing would make good eating. They look like the sort of thing that would be removed from the body with a proclamation of "Ooh, that's a nasty looking fellow". Their smell is one produced from a pair of socks worn by an un-washed teenage boy and left festering under a bed, being cooked in sunshine, and with a generous nugget of Camembert ripening in each toe. To be fair, that first truffle-finder probably had a long career ahead of him in creating a range of French cheeses.

And so we've lived as I'd imagine the Sun King would have lived (minus the profusion of cherubs and gilt-edging), with a breakfast of white truffled eggs and an evening snack of black truffles on bruschetta. I made sure to have some good-quality crusty bread on hand since I figured your average loaf of white wouldn't really do. The truffles taste much better than they smell (again, like many a French cheese) - a beguiling musky, woodsy, and ultimately mushroomy flavor that would sometimes chase itself away from you, only for it to sneak back in and fill you with its fungal essence. It's not a treat we will have a chance to repeat often (until that magical ship comes in - you know the one) but it was lovely while it lasted.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Pork Loin in a White Wine and Mushroom Sauce

Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you're never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal!

Homer: [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

The wonderful, magical pig: it bequeaths us luscious sausages, the tantalizing smell of bacon, the versatility of ham. And yet - and yet pork in its natural state can be a difficult thing to cook well. I've had more tough pork chops than I've had tender ones, and there's not much that's appetizing about a square of gray, dry meat on the plate. A lot of it comes down the the quality of the meat, which is the result of the pigs that are being bred and farmed (there's a very interestin
g article about this amusingly called 'The Swine of Our Times'). It also comes down to the cut of the meat, with some pork being more easy to work with, and for this reason my favorite cut is the loin.

Mr A&N had a flash of inspiration when we last had pork loin, and so I left him to it. Or, I tried to leave him to it as best I could. I asked questions ("What are you making it with?" "How are you going to cook it?" "Are you sure you want to add *that* to it?"), made noises ("You are? ...Oh." " you think...eer...never mind"), and trie
d to pretend I didn't want to interfere in the process at all. Finally, I had to leave the kitchen and just enjoy the results - which I enjoyed immensely since Mr A&N is a very good cook even despite my meddling. The accompanying sauce was so flavorful in its own right that I was torn as to whether to award the pork or the sauce as the star of the show. This should produce enough sauce so that you can be greedy with.

Pork Loin in a White Wine and Mushroom Sauce

  • 1 - 1 1/2 k pork loin (about 2 - 3 lbs or pork)
  • olive oil for frying
  • 6 - 7 closed cap mushrooms, or 1 1/2 portabello mushrooms, chopped quite finely
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 Tbs wholegrain mustard
  • 1 medium bunch of thyme
  • 1 large glass dry white wine
  • 1/2 Tbs flour
  • splash of cream or milk
  • salt and pepper
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C / 360 F.
  2. In a small saucepan with a splash of olive oil, briefly sautee the mushroom, onion, and garlic until the onion softens slightly.
  3. In an oven-proof dish large enough to hold the pork, pour in the mushroom mixture. Add to this the mustard, thyme, and white wine, and stir.
  4. In a heavy-bottomed pan or pot, heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil over a medium heat.
  5. Brown the pork briefly on all sides.
  6. Pour any pork juices into the mushroom mixture, then place the pork on top of this. Lightly salt and pepper it.
  7. Spoon some of the sauce onto the pork so that it's covered on the top and bottom.
  8. Cover the dish with tin foil, and place in the oven.
  9. Cook for 35-45 minutes or until the pork is done when tested with a meat thermometer.
  10. Pour out the mushroom mixture and all juices into a medium-sized sauce pan. Keep the pork in the oven dish and re-cover to keep warm.
  11. Dissolve the flour in the cream or milk by stirring well, then add this to the saucepan with the mushroom mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste
  12. Heat over a medium heat, stirring, until the sauce has thickened a bit.
  13. Serve the pork in slices, with the sauce poured over it.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Vegetable Dhansak: An Interpretation

I don't have many bad habits (unless you count frequent bouts of bone idleness or the inability not to tell others what to do as bad habits. Fortunately, I don't count those things). There is one indulgence in the A&N household of which we're equally guilty and will inevitably lead the other one astray by saying the words "Shall we be naughty tonight?". For some couples, this statement might trigger the whiff of leather in the air, but for us it means the intoxicating debauchery of a take away curry.

We only turn naughty in this manner once ever couple of weeks, although both of us feel like we're eating our due since we're each making up for lost time. Having only moved to Britain in my 20's, I didn't grow up with the option of an Indian take away for your Friday night meal. Pizza, yes, Mexican, Chinese, even Japanese, but Indian was a very foreign food group. And although Mr A&N is a good Yorkshireman and as Bri
tish as they come, he also spent his first 20-ish years in deprivation since his mother is a bit of a health nut and didn't really approve of such meals (it could explain why she's still running marathons when she's into her 60's and I find it a bit of an effort to go upstairs, brush my teeth, and get myself into bed at the close of each day).

We've tried to make our own curry a few times but the result is never as good as when made by someone who actually knows how to make a good curry. The family in the house two doors down constantly has a pot of something on the go, and the smell will drive you mad with desire; some weekends, stealing sniffs of the heady scent of their spice combinations is the only thing that can get me out and weeding the garden. Why I
thought it would be a good idea to take on another curry, with such disappointments behind me and such perfection just a few doors down (or a phone call away) I don't know, but this last Friday I declared that we would be making our own curry rather than buying it.

We have a trio of dishes we tend to get each time we order our take away, with the dhansak being our favorite. If you're not familiar with a dhansak, it's a slightly sweet, slightly spicy lentil-based curry. It's a Parsee dish, and the sweet-sour flavor show its origins in Persian foods (the Parsees traveled to India from Persia over 1000 years ago and are still a closely-knit although small community). With a touch of coconut milk to it and a smooth but hearty texture, it's curry comfort-food of the highest order.

Mr A&N helped hunt down dhansak recipes, of which it turns out there are many, many variations. He made the base curry sauce (added at the last stage t
o the main pot) and I agreed to make the rest. After deciding on and printing out a recipe, I became panicky-frustrated as I found item after item that we didn't have in our cupboards, despite me already being on the road to making the dish. So, our dhansak recipe will have to be added to the legions of different and inauthentic recipes already out there, mainly due to poor preparation and the need to fudge things. The original, 'authentic' recipe that I riffed on is at the bottom of this page.

Despite those concessions, though, this was our best home made curry yet. It had the right balance of sweet and spicy, creamy and crunchy, comfort and filling, and for the next 2 days every time I walked into the kitchen I'd find Mr A&N cuddling the tupperware container the curry was in, communicating with it via a spoon. We made ours with only vegetables rather than meat, but works equally well with either. Good thing it came out well, since I made
a giant batch of the stuff. I was tempted to take some around to the neighbors to show them what I had accomplished, but my bone-idle laziness kicked and I just ate and enjoyed.

Vegetable Dhansak
Serves 6-8 as a main course, with some leftovers possible.

  • Basic curry sauce - the recipe we used can be found at The Curry House website so please follow their instructions, but for ease of collecting ingredients, you'll need:
    • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee (clarified butter)
    • 1 medium onion - finely chopped
    • 4 cloves garlic - peeled and sliced
    • 1.5 inch piece root ginger - peeled and thinly sliced (it should look about the same volume as the garlic)
    • (optional) 2 mild fleshy green chillies - de-seeded and veined then chopped
    • half teaspoon turmeric powder
    • half teaspoon ground cumin seed
    • half teaspoon ground coriander seed
    • 5 tablespoons plain passata (smooth, thick, sieved tomatoes, US = purée) or 1 tablespoon concentrated tomato purée (US = paste) mixed with 4 tablespoons water
  • 300g / 1 1/4 C of mixed, small lentils. I used about half red lentils, and then 1/4 green and 1/4 puy lentils.
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced into half moons.
  • 1 Tbs tamarind powder
  • About 1 1/2 litres of water
  • 1 small squash (like an acorn squash), peeled and cut into 1cm / 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 small handful of fresh coriander leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • nob of fresh ginger, grated or 1 tsp ground ginger
  • about 1 1/2 Tbs dried coconut or 1/4 can of coconut milk
  • 2 Tbs mango (or other sweet Indian) chutney
  • If making vegetarian version: about 2 C of mixed vegetables - fresh or frozen - such as peas, green beans, broad beans/lima beans, courgette, etc
  • If making meat version: about 1/2 lb of meat (lamb or chicken would be best), cubed and browned so that it's mostly cooked.
  1. Start by making the basic curry recipe; set aside.
  2. In a large, heavy saucepan, pour in the lentils, 1 liter of the water, the tamarind powder and the sliced onion.
  3. Partially cover, and boil for about 30-40 minutes over a medium heat or until the lentils are soft. Check periodically that there's still enough water in the pot (the lentils shouldn't be swimming but they shouldn't approach going dry either).
  4. Meanwhile, boil the squash pieces in the other 1/2 liter of water for about 20 minutes or until soft.
  5. Throw the coriander into the pot with the squash just as you are turning off the heat. Drain the water away, and mash the squash and coriander together.
  6. When the lentils are soft enough, mash them a bit with a potato masher (the lentils will probably escape through the slots in the masher, but do your best).
  7. Reduce the heat to low, and stir in the squash and coriander mixture.
  8. In a mortar and pestle, grind up the garlic and the ginger until you have about 1 Tbs of paste (if you need to help the grinding, add a bit of salt for friction). The ginger should be in a 2-to-1 proportion to the garlic.
  9. Add the garlic-ginger to the lentil mixture and stir thoroughly.
  10. Add the basic curry sauce, the coconut, and the chutney and stir well (if making the meat version, add the meat at this point as well). Allow to simmer together for about 20 minutes (if you have the patience!) to enrich the flavors and cook the meat. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
  11. Add the vegetables, and cook for another few minutes.
  12. Serve with rice or naan.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Ravioli, Ravioli Everywhere

A few weeks, back when I first dipped my toe into the beauteous pool of homemade pasta, I commented that we were looking forward to experimenting with ravioli but that we didn't feel prepared to take it on without having ravioli-making equipment. Several of you wrote in to encourage me to make the ravioli by hand and to share the results with you. Thanks everyone for that encouragement because I have listened, and have made not one but two (two!) types of ravioli I can now well you about.

Mr A&N's brother and his wife were off galavanting in New Zealand at Christmas and New Year, so we had them around for a post-holiday dinner and gawp at our kitchen on the first free weekend we all had. Rob and Fay are big food lovers themselves, so we had even more reason to come up with a good menu that validated their journey of an hour and a half around London to come see us. I thought long, I thought hard, and I had a brain wave: we'd have ravioli, both to start and end with. A savory Spanish ravioli with chorizo and manchego cheese for the first course, and a chocolate and hazelnut ravioli for dessert.

Like so many ideas that skirt the boundary between madness and genius, the average person wasn't sure if they were yet ready to embrace the concept of two types of ravioli at dinner. Mr A&N made a variety of faces all which communicated "No" with different levels of repugnance depending on what mood I caught him in. The chorizo ravioli he had little problem embracing, but he thought it would be all too much with the chocolate version. The tide was turned when I showed him a recipe on Epicurious for chocolate pasta and he finally understood that I wasn't just suggesting normal pasta with a chunk of chocolate bar in the center. With the approval of guests Rob and Fay (or was it just resignation...?) and the deliberate lack of any other dessert in the house, chocolate raviolis were on the menu as were the Spanish raviolis.

We first put Rob and Fay to work helping us make t
he meal (we know how to be good hosts). First to prepare would be the Spanish ravioli. The filling came from crumbled fresh chorizo sausages sauteed with chunks of manchego cheese and a bit of finely chopped onion and garlic. The sausages we bought weren't very strong with chorizo flavor, so we topped it up with a bit of saffron and sweet paprika. Trying to stuff the filling into our petite ravioli tray and emerge with lovely little sealed ravioli was a challenge too far, though. The pasta wouldn't seal and wouldn't lift out of the tray, and rather than risk losing more pasta/filling, we went freestyle and instead made large ravioli pressed together by hand. The four of us debated what to top the pasta with (simple tomato sauce and a saffron cream sauce were two leading contenders) but due to the very generous gift from Rob and Fay of both a black and a white truffle, we decided to share the bounty and dress the pasta in olive oil in which some of the black truffle had been sauteed. More on the white truffle another time.

The chocolate pasta was nowhere near as easy to handle as the normal pasta. It was much moister and less robust, and each time I tried to feed a batch through the thinnest setting on the pasta machine the dough was ripped into ribbons. Fr
ustration levels ran high and I only succeeded in getting one of the six segments as thin as possible; the others stayed on the second-thinnest setting which didn't ruin it, but which did produce slightly more hearty rather than delicate pasta. It was filled with a dollop of nutella and a smattering of chopped hazelnuts, and topped with a chocolate and raspberry sauce.

The two ravioli were obviously very different to each other. The chorizo filling was a big hit and might make an appearance again on top of another pasta or as part of a Spanish lasagna. The pasta in the chocolate ravioli was very subtly chocolatey rather than tasting as if you'd just boiled up a Hershey bar; the sweet nutella filling and chocolate sauce topping balanced this out nicely, then. The main complaint about the chocolate pasta was that we didn't press some of the ravioli closed well enough and so there was at least one water-logged piece per eater. We realized when making them that they would be quite filling so we decided on three large ravioli per person and froze another dozen waiting-to-be-ravioli rectangles which we will happily fill with more sweet goodies the next evening we feel like being just a bit decadent and unpredictable.

As luck would have it, these nutella ravioli coincide with World Nutella Day, an effort by Michelle at Bleeding Espresso and Sarah at Ms Adventures in Italy to remind us all of the importance of this wonderful spread. It being Shrove Tuesday / Pancake day as well, I suggest we do as the French would and make a nice crepe with a smear of nutella to commemorate the occasion.

Chorizo Ravioli Filling
Makes enough for about 2 dozen large ravioli

  • 1 small onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3 fresh chorizo sausages
  • about 120g machego cheese, cubed into 1/2 inch / 1 cm cubes
  • Optional:
  • small serving of saffron (about 10 strands)
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  1. Heat a frying pan over medium heat with a dash of olive oil.
  2. Finely chop the onion and garlic and fry gently until the onions begin to soften.
  3. Add the sausages and immediately start to crumble them with the stirring spoon (you may need to cut into the skins to do this).
  4. Once the sausages are mostly cooked and coloring everything a bit red, add the cheese.
  5. Allow the cheese to begin to soften but not to melt entirely. Taste the mixture and see if you need to add any additional saffron, paprika, salt, or pepper.
Chocolate and Hazelnut Ravioli with a Chocolate Raspberry Sauce
Makes about 2 dozen large ravioli (3 ravioli were plenty per adult, so serves about 8)

The Dough (from Epicurious)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder, plus more for dusting
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 large eggs
The Filling
  • Nutella (you'll use 1/3 - 1/2 the jar if making all the ravioli)
  • 100-125 g hazelnuts, roughly chopped

The Topping
  • 100g of good quality dark, bittersweet chocolate
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 2 tsp seedless raspberry jam

220g / 1C sugar for the boiling the ravioli

  1. Prepare the pasta by sifting together the flour, cocoa powder, sugar and salt (either in a large bowl or on a clean and clear countertop)
  2. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and place the eggs into the center.
  3. Using a fork, slowly incorporate the eggs with the dry ingredients until it is all combined.
  4. Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured work surface (if it's not already on one) and gently knead for 3-4 minutes until the dough lightly springs back at the touch. You may need to add more flour to make less sticky.
  5. Place in a owl with plastic wrap covering it and allow to sit for 30 minutes in the fridge.
  6. When it is done resting, take the dough out and divide it into manageable sections (about 4 or 5) and start feeding it through your pasta machine from thickest to thinnest setting. Keep the rest of the unworked dough covered during this time. (Note: my pasta was still quite sticky and I had to dust it with flour in between each time I fed it through the machine).
  7. Place each sheet of pasta on a lightly floured surface once done.
  8. Cut the pasta into roughly 3 inch segments working lengthwise along the sheet. You should get about 6 segments per sheet.
  9. To fill the pasta, add a small dollop of nutella (about 1/2 a tsp) to each segment, and top with a smattering of chopped hazelnuts.
  10. Fold the pasta over, and seal well on the three open sides.
  11. Bring about 8 cups of water to the boil, and add in the 1 cup of sugar.
  12. Meanwhile, make the chocolate sauce by bringing some water to boil in either a double boiler or a medium sized pot. Place the chocolate and butter inside the top of the double boiler or in a metal bowl sitting on top of the pot with the boiling water.
  13. Stir the chocolate and butter together until they're melted. Add the raspberry jam, stir well, and remove from heat.
  14. In the large pot with the sugared water, add the ravioli once the water is boiling and the sugar dissolved. Cook for about 5 minutes.
  15. Remove the ravioli with a slotted spoon and allow the water to drain from them.
  16. Serve three ravioli per person, with the chocolate sauce drizzled (generously, depending on the sweet tooth) on top.