Sunday, 10 November 2013

An introduction to quacking: duck three ways (ish)

Having recently moved house with myself and the other half, a certain little giraffe was slightly bemused to find not just one but two new inhabitants of his kitchen: the sister, which he's quite happy with, and something else ginger, which he's not quite so happy with. Yes, we are now owned by a big ginger tom cat called Charlie. George has been sulking for about two months now, which is why we haven't been able to post much on here. 

However, he then decided to come out of hiding last week (he's discovered that the other ginger thing is more interested in chasing his own tail than that of a small giraffe), so we decided for his first foray into the kitchen for a while we'd go for it and cook something a bit special. We also found out that my sister had never eaten this bird before, which we thought we must put right, so off to the supermarket we trotted and found a big whole Gressingham duck on special offer. Oh, and the 'ish'? Well, the other half wasn't sure that the giblet gravy really counts as a 'third' way to cook duck. I'd like to see him try (sniffs). My turn to go and sulk...

Duck three ways (ish) - smoked breast, confit pie and giblet gravy

Note: the first stage in this is to marinate, so you need to do this the night before or the morning on the day you're going to cook. 

Firstly, break down the duck. It's pretty much like a chicken but the legs are a slightly different shape - you'll find the start of the leg a lot lower down the body of the duck. It's fairly easy to find - slip a knife through and twist to remove. Also remove the wings, then fillet the breasts off the crown. 

Next make the dry marinade. Lightly toast 2 tablespoons each of cumin seeds and coriander seeds before pounding in a pestle and mortar with a big glug of olive oil, and a tablespoon each of white wine vinegar, black peppercorns, chili flakes and smoke paprika. Rub the mixture all over the duck pieces. Add a few sprigs of rosemary and put in the fridge overnight or for at least 6 hours.

The next day...
For the confit, take the legs and wings out of the mixture and brush off any remaining marinade. In a dish, cover them with duck or goose fat (you'll need about two jars of goose fat in a small casserole dish) and put into the oven at 150 degrees for at least three hours. When you take them out of the fat the meat should be very tender and falling off the bone. Leave in a sieve or on a wire rack so that the fat drains off for 20 minutes or so. Pour the fat into a jar (or jars) and save. Remove the meat from the bones, and leave aside for using later. 

Make a stock with the giblets and crown (that you've taken the breast fillets off). Put four onion quarters, some carrot, celery and rosemary into a pan with the giblets and crown, pour over water, and simmer for at least an hour. When done, sieve the stock out. 

For the confit pies, mix the confit duck meat with some cannelini or white kidney beans, pour over the stock, and top with a couple of thinly slides potatoes before baking for 40 minutes at around 200 degrees. 

For the gravy, make a roux before slowly stirring in the stock and leaving to simmer and thicken up for 15 mins. 

For the smoked breast, lay a double layer of foil in a wok and pour over equal measures (about a handful) of black tea leaves, brown sugar and rice. Heat on high until the mixture is smoking. Put the duck either on a wire rack on top or in a bamboo steamer and cover again with foil. Smoke for 10-15 minutes depending on how smoky you want the flavour. Finish off by crisping up the skin in a pan before roasting in the oven for 5 minutes. 

I served mine with roast potatoes (using some of the fat from the duck confit - save the rest for future roasties!) and steamed beans, peas and carrots. I reckon that's three ways... and luckily, the sister loved it. 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Chuck-it-in-a-wok-and-see (my way): Roast duck with summer vegetables

Earlier this year, just in case you were on the opposite side of the world and didn't hear, a certain giraffe-loving cook was on an episode of MasterChef. I'm not mentioning this yet again just for the praise, plaudits and general admiration from my loyal fans (eh hem) - but actually because the dish I cooked a few nights ago reminded me of one of the audition rounds. 

The audition included a very long interview with the show's producers, in which they asked me how I learnt to cook. My reply was something along the lines of the following:

"Well, I think it's a bit of both my Mum and my Dad. My style tends to range from Mum's 'chuck it in a wok and hope' to Dad's more precise approach to making bread and baking."

This was one of the answers which was actually true. My relief when they didn't show the bit where I said that I'd just learnt how to cook soda bread in Ireland with my mother-in-law was palpable. 

Anyway, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you've probably picked up that I rather enjoy the 'chuck it in a stew / casserole / pan / oven and hope' approach to feeding the small giraffe that is the light of my life. And the other half, of course. It's a great system for end-of-the-day-after-work when all you want to do is sit in front of the TV and eat a takeaway, because you don't have to do much with it. 

This particular one was a surprise success. I picked up three duck legs for £3 in our local Co-op and used whatever else I had in the fridge / cupboard. It was so light and summery, even though potatoes and carrots aren't exactly renowned as summer food, and the addition of fresh basil from our Riverford veg box and grated parmesan gave it an Italian twist. 

Roast duck with summer vegetables

George learnt to quack, just for the occasion
Saute a large chopped onion with two cloves of  garlic, some cumin and paprika, a pinch of dried chili and a couple of rashers of chopped smoked bacon - and season. In the meantime, chop up some floury potatoes and carrots in to bite-sized chunks and parboil them - about 5 minutes or so.

Add a tin of butterbeans to the onion mixture, a vegetable stock cube (shhhh!), the potatoes and carrots and half a pint of the water you've just parboiled them in. I love black pepper so I add loads at this point. Leave to bubble away for about 10 minutes until some of the liquid has reduced. 

Season the duck legs generously, and render down the fat by dry-frying them for at least 15 minutes, mostly on the top side - there's a lot of fat on there which you don't particularly want to be chewing on. Also, you can pour it into a jar and save it in the fridge for your next roast potatoes. Yum.

Add a bag of fresh spinach and a big handful of chopped basil to the vegetables and pour into a roasting tin. Place the duck legs on top and sprinkle with finely grated parmesan and plenty of salt & pepper. Roast for 40 minutes on around 200c on the top shelf.

Take out of the oven and stand for 5 minutes before serving. Eat whilst enjoying the fact you've just saved yourself £25 and a disappointing takeaway experience. Oh, and that up until this point, no-one knew you'd been telling porkies on national TV...

Monday, 5 August 2013

Revenge of the courgette: Potato summer green salad

I wouldn't usually post such a simple recipe on here (I know you lot, you're already rather awesome cooks), but it was soooo good that I felt I had to. You can use this as an accompaniment to a BBQ, or as a holiday time lunch - let's face it, when there's holibob vino around, a lettuce leaf and a few croutons just ain't gonna do it. Potatoes, however, are a lovely accompaniment to a sneaky lunchtime glass of sparkly, and you won't fall asleep half way through the afternoon either. 

I was inspired by my friend Simone's amazing monster courgettes, which quite seriously could take over the world. In fact I only saw her yesterday, so perhaps I'd better ring and check on her. They are bigger than your average-sized marrow, and I swear I heard them growl at me when I bent over to have a look. Or maybe that was the dog. Well, you never know. 


I do love a summer fridge - you open the door and it's all green. I could go all Nigel Slater-esque and reminisce about the 'beautiful, freshly popped peas exuding the essence of summer flavour' or something but I won't. Instead, I'll give you the recipe for a stonking good (and simple) salad. 

Oh, and serve warm or cold... it was yummy both ways.

Potato summer green salad
(Serves 2)

Boil up 6 or 7 Jersey Royals or whatever other potatoes you have, and when they are done, drain, cut in half and leave to cool a little.

In the meantime, blanch a bowlful of broad beans in water for 1 minute. Drain and drop into iced water (this keeps the green colour) before slitting the skins and popping each bean out. 

Saute 4 salad or spring onions in a knob of butter with a normal sized diced courgette - or a tenth of a teeth-baring, savage-looking monster one. After a couple of minutes, add in the broad beans, plus 1/2 tsp of dried chili flakes and season generously with black pepper.

Heat through until the broad beans  are soft (should be around 3 minutes) before pouring the mixture over the potatoes (including the butter!) Add a handful of salad leaves, some chopped parsley and stir through before serving. 

The courgette didn't bite back.

If you're being calorie conscious and want to get into that bikini, swap the butter for low-fat spray wotsit stuff. It won't taste as good, but you'll feel nice and smug. If you're like me and haven't got a hope of even purchasing a bikini for fear of sending the majority of the human race running for the hills (ok, slight exaggeration), pour yourself a G&T and settle down with a book whilst munching. Lovely. 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

George wants to be a piggy farmer: Roast pork belly and perfect crackling

For many years I have joined the thousands of cooks up and down the country in the search for the holy grail of a Sunday roast: the perfect pork crackling.

When raising this topic of conversation at a dinner table, you know that everyone's going to have their own way of doing it - favourite techniques include salting overnight, different methods of scoring the skin, blow-drying the skin before cooking, separating it off and grilling at the end, putting it between two baking trays... and trust, me I've tried them all.

I've had varied results - some burnt-to-a-crisp, some still-a-bit-soggy, some is-this-crackling-or-a-caramelised-bit-of-volcanic-rock, but our recent trip to a rare breed piggy farm near us - Wildcroft Rare Breeds - and the resulting pork belly roast confirmed to me exactly why we can never seem to get it quite right.

The trick is, simply, really really good pork. I kid you not, this piece of piggy actually GREW in the oven. Not shrunk, grew. Ok, so if you count the petrol it definitely cost me more than going to Tesco's. But if you don't count the petrol, it definitely didn't...

So, here's a little recipe for the best pork belly I've ever managed to cook - and we can't WAIT to go on one of Wildcroft's looking-after-piggy courses. 

Roast pork belly and perfect crackling

Take one piece of really really good pork belly from a rare breed or organic farm, remove any packaging, and generously sprinkle with sea salt so that it is scattered over the top of the skin. This draws any extra moisture out of the skin, which enables it to 'crackle'.

Leave for a couple of hours at room temperature before brushing off the skin with some kitchen towel to get rid of excess salt and water. Generously season the whole thing and brush the bottom with a little olive oil to stop it sticking to the roasting rack. 

I like to cook my pork on a roasting rack above an inch of water on a low heat, because I find that this helps the meat to steam-cook whilst allowing the crackling to develop, and keeps it really lovely and juicy. This small-ish piece of belly (it fed two hungry people and a small giraffe) took an hour and a half on 150 degrees, plus 15 minutes on top whack at the very end to make the crackling extra... well, crackling. 

I served mine with roasty spuds, green beans sauteed in butter with leeks and wilted baby gems, and homemade tomato salsa. 

Piggy heaven. 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

What do you mean you don't eat that bit?!: Crispy sea trout with crushed new potatoes and fresh salsa

I cooked to order tonight. Ok, so I'm boasting a little, but there was a certain little giraffe who insisted on fresh salsa tonight, and a certain other half who fancied pan-fried fish. So who was I to argue?

There's something that always disappoints me about people who won't eat crispy skin. Seriously my lovelies, it's the best part - on fish, on chicken, on potato... that lovely crunch against the soft flesh of the meat / fish / vegetable - just like battered fish or deep fried chips. Ok, so you might be a quasi-vegetarian like my Mum, but even that's not an excuse.

So, here's tonight's dinner - fresh, quick and perfect for a summer night.

Crispy sea trout with crushed new potatoes and fresh salsa

For the crushed new potatoes...
If you can, get those baby mini potatoes (£1 a packet from Sainsbury's - bargain), and boil them until just about cooked. Always cook root vegetables in water that's cold first - they are harder than vegetables grown above ground, and cooking in water that's cold at first means they cook all the way through as the water heats up. Drain the potatoes and place in a baking dish with a big generous glug of olive oil, a little fresh rosemary, a sprinkle of paprika and loads of salt and pepper. With a potato masher, gently crush the tops of the potatoes so that they split but don't mash, and stir around a bit in the dish. Stick in the oven on high for 20 minutes, until they are browning on the top.

For the fresh salsa...
Finely chop half an echalion shallot, half a red chili, a clove of garlic and a handful of parsley. Mix with four chopped fresh tomatoes, a very generous glug of extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, some salt, black pepper and a teaspoon of sugar, and leave for half an hour at room temperature to mulch together. You'll have enough for four sides, so if you're only feeding two plus a small giraffe like I was, use the rest tomorrow as it is or for the base of a tomato sauce. All the ingredients are raw so this really does give a real punch - if you like your salsa more like out-of-a-jar-doritos-style I recommend cooking it down for 15 minutes and then sticking in the fridge. (Still nicer than out-of-a-jar-doritos-style though).

For the crispy sea trout...
It's really important to make sure the fish is at room temperature before you cook it - if it's just out of the fridge it will just curl straight up in the pan and will cook too quickly on the outside. Heat a frying pan on a medium heat and throw in a big knob of butter and a little oil (which stops the butter burning). When the butter has melted quickly season two sea trout fillets and pop flesh side down into the pan. Cook for one minute before seasoning the skin side and flipping over. Press down with a fish slice for 15 seconds so that the skin gets the heat of the pan, and cook for three minutes, basting the top (flesh) side with the butter as you go.

with some green salad and a spoonful of the butter over the fish and potatoes, and ideally with a nice cold glass of sauvingnon blanc. Ahhhh....

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Pataks? Huh! Easy and from scratch: Tandoori chicken with vegetable curry and tomato pilau rice

Last Saturday morning I indulged in one of my favourite pastimes - catching up with cookery TV in my pajamas. I have to admit though, it never fails to take long for me to throw on some real clothes and head off to the butchers and greengrocers opposite our flat. This time I was inspired by two Indian chefs - Anjum Amand and Jimmy Seervai. Anjum you can see on various TV series in the UK, but Jimmy is slightly less well-known - he came fourth in Masterchef Australia in 2010. Well, me and George identify with people who don't win Masterchef... 

Anyway, I don't know about you but I'm always suspicious of TV chefs who seem to make everything look SO EASY - you know full well that 10 minutes into cooking, your beautifully organised spice shelf with all the labels turned the right way round will look like two mice have been boxing in a sandpit, and you will be so wracked by sneezes you will spend more time in the bathroom splashing water over your eyes than in the kitchen. And after battling with the flour bomb you've created to make your own parathas, do you really think you're going to be walking out in your perfect spotless white apron whilst flicking your hair sensually over your shoulders to deliver your fragrant and beautifully arranged food to your guests? Forget it!

However, inspired I was... and actually, it really wasn't that difficult - in fact, I am determined to carry on and do this again rather than resorting to ready-made curry pastes, because it tastes so much fresher and you can really taste the differences between the various dishes, unlike a lot of cheap curry house takeaways. Although I still haven't quite been able to make my favourite lamb korai like they do at Monaf's. Ah well...

Tandoori chicken, vegetable curry and tomato pilau rice

Next time we're buying Kashmiri chili powder to make the chicken go red. Yum.
For the tandoori chicken...
I used a whole chicken, quartered, which would feed four people, but I have to admit I'd rather use four chicken legs than the breast. However, cooking the breast on the crown still make the meat nice an juicy.

In a large bowl mix together half a pot of natural plain yoghurt, 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil, half the juice of a satsuma (ok, you're supposed to use lime but I had satsumas!), and 1 teaspoon each of chopped garlic, chopped ginger or ginger paste, and garam masala. Finish with 1 tablespoon of red chili powder - Kashmiri if you have it because it makes everything go that lovely red colour that's associated with tandoori. Lots of curry houses use red food colouring instead, but I'd rather not.

Add the chicken and make sure it's all mixed in and covered in the marinade, and leave. Technically you're supposed to do this overnight - but mine was left for 6 hours and it was still lovely.

When you're ready to eat, take the chicken out and bake in the oven for 40 minutes at around 180 degrees. 

For the vegetable curry...
I spotted some lovely small and sweet turnips in my greengrocers, so I used these rather than potatoes, but you can use pretty much any hard root vegetable here - squash, swede, potato, etc. I also used borlotti beans to bulk it out because that's what was in the cupboard, but you could use chickpeas which are slightly more authentic!

1. Heat some groundnut or sunflower oil in a thick-bottomed pan and add a tablespoon each of mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds (and panch phoran if you have it but it's hard to get hold of and I've recently run out). Also add a whole dried chili and a bay leaf. 
2. When the mustard seeds start popping, turn down to a medium heat and add a chopped onion and a chopped garlic clove. 
3. When the onions have softened, add a teaspoon each of turmeric, coriander powder, cumin, ginger paste, sugar and salt. 
4. Add half a glass of water (so that the onions are just about covered) and cook for two minutes.
5. Throw in two chopped turnips or veg of your choice (about half a chopped squash or three baking potatoes), add another glass of water, and cover.
6. After around 20 minutes the veg should have almost cooked through. Stir in half a chopped aubergine, two chopped tomatoes and a tin of beans (anything but the baked variety...) or chickpeas. 
7. Cover again for 10 minutes, giving it a good stir half way through. 
8. Add a teaspoon of garam masala and some chopped fresh coriander to finish off.

For the tomato pilau rice...

1. Heat some groundnut or sunflower oil in a pan and add a cardomom pod, a small piece of cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves and a teaspoon of mustard seeds. 
2. When the mustard seeds pop, add a chopped onion, 3 chopped cloves of garlic and a birds eye chili (whole).
3. When the onions have softened, add a teaspoon of garam masala, 1/2 a teaspoon of turmeric and 2 chopped tomatoes.
4. Stir until the tomatoes are soft (about 2 mins) and then add your basmati rice - around 250g. Add salt and enough water to cover the rice plus an inch on top, turn the heat down really really low, put on a lid and leave for 15-20 minutes or until the rice is cooked. 
5. If you're feeling posh, rescue the whole chili, cloves and cardomom pod out of the rice... or just warn people not to eat 'em.

Serve and eat by the window, looking out at people struggling home through the wind and rain with soggy takeaway bags, and feel smug. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

George is famous (for a week, anyway): Dodgy pheasant, and seafood chowder

We (this is George and I) were very excited to be joined by lots of friends for the inaugural viewing of yours truly on Masterchef last night. Ok, so we don't last very long, but we are proud anyway!

We tried to steal the apron but apparently BBC budgets won't allow it. Grrr.

We'd also like to give a few excuses for our early exit. Ok, so we know this is probably just bad losing but we're going to do it anyway...

a) We had a stinking cold and couldn't breathe.
b) A dry pheasant with tortilla wasn't our greatest move, we agree. However, we would also like to point out that we wanted to do something that wasn't meat, potatoes and sauce. And failed. Ah well.
c) Our Irish other half shouted profanities at the TV when John Torode was making his 'soda bread'. Our Irish friends say that it sounded more like wheaten bread to them. So there. Egg in soda bread... Humph.

Sulk over - enjoy the show, and just to show that we are nice really, we are now TEAM LARKIN all the way!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Quick, before I forget... Sticky BBQ ribs with butterbeans and baked spinach rice

I wouldn't normally write a blog post literally 10 minutes after I had finished eating, but George is sitting on my head and won't get off until I do. According to the other half, I am incapable of making exactly the same thing twice, finding the temptation to play around with things irresistible. So I have been told to sit here and write this recipe down, as the giraffe, the other half and my long-suffering sister would rather like to eat the same thing again.

Well, I guess that's a compliment, so thanks chaps. Never mind that they are cooing over the final of Crufts whilst stuffing their faces with icecream, or that the washing up needs doing... However, I have to admit to being a little excited at having achieved a bit of a culinary goal and managing to make a bleedin' good BBQ sauce over meat-falling-off-the-bone ribs. So, here goes!

BBQ ribs with butter beans and baked spinach rice

This recipe was made with ribs that had already been cut, so I'm guessing that for a rack of ribs you'd probably need an extra 1/2 hour cooking time. This recipe served three of us, with two large juicy ribs each and an extra little one for the little ginger animal in the corner. That's the giraffe, not the other half...

For the ribs...
Brush a wire rack with a little oil and suspend over an oven dish with an inch of water in the bottom of it. Rub the ribs with a small amount of harissa paste or similar dry spice mix, pop them on top of the wire rack and cook in the oven on a low heat (around 150 degrees) for 40 minutes. Cooking them to start with over water means that they retain tenderness. In the meantime, get on with the sauce.

For the sauce...
Roast four large tomatoes and two cloves of garlic, whole, with some olive oil and a tablespoon each of ground cumin and smoked paprika, for 20 minutes. When they come out, let them cool for a bit before whizzing up in a food processor with a generous splash of soy sauce (about a tablespoon), a generous splash of worcestershire sauce, lots of black pepper, and 50g brown sugar.

Take the ribs out of the oven and get rid of the water and wire rack. Combine the ribs with the sauce and put back in the oven for an hour and a half, turning and basting half way. When you get them out of the oven at the end the sauce should be sticking to the meat and the meat falling off the bone.

Serve with...
Butter beans - saute a little bit of chopped chorizo with half a chopped onion before adding a can of butter beans (including the water they are in) and cooking on the hob on a low heat for 15 minutes. Season generously.

Baked spinach rice - steam some spinach until just soft, then lay out a square of spinach leaves on a piece of clingfilm. Place a layer of pre-cooked rice (mine was from yesterday and had lots of lovely leeks in it) in a line across the middle of the square, and roll using the clingfilm so that it resembles a big sushi roll wrapped in clingfilm. Pop in the freezer for 10 minutes to set the shape before removing the clingfilm and baking for 15 minutes in the oven.

Sit back and enjoy...
Finger-bowl and wet wipe alert!

George wasn't sure how to avoid getting sauce all over his hooves.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

A late Valentine's treat: Lamb shanks and next-day risotto

I was at the theatre on Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, it wasn't in the West End as a romantic treat with the other half, but at my local amateur theatre, stage managing a youth theatre performance. I thoroughly enjoyed it mind you, and it gave me a fab excuse to celebrate Valentine's Day another time.

Therefore, a week or so later I found myself salivating at the fresh meat counter in Sainsburys and picking up some massive lamb shanks. I don't think I've ever cooked lamb shanks before, or at least not for a long time, so I thought I'd better give the brother a call. He's a bit of a cheffy chap himself and is rather good at French-style meaty cooking. He told me how he'd cook it, which is exactly what I did. Thank you, Brother.

They tasted incredible, (even if our Valentine's meal kind of turned into a meal with friends - I'm not very good at just cooking for two...) and there's a recipe for you below. Unfortunately our bank balance looked like it had just suffered from an earthquake, so I decided to try to make something out of the juice I cooked the lamb in the next day. Say hello to the new saviour of risotto - an amazing stock. I know everyone always says the taste of a risotto is in a good stock, but now I've actually tried it... the taste of a risotto is definitely in a good stock. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a cheap meal - it's that tasty, you don't need to buy any extra meat, even for the most dedicated carnivore...

Lamb stock risotto with broccoli and mushrooms - it's all in the juice
(and the organic broccoli from the veg box - yum)

Pot-roasted lamb shanks with duck fat roasted potatoes, greens, buttered carrots and gravy

The fairly simple greens and sweet carrots really compliment the richness of the lamb, potatoes and gravy. Well, George thought so, anyway.

1. In a big casserole pot, sweat down a large roughly chopped onion and a leek with a couple of chunky-chopped carrots, some cumin and a few whole peeled cloves of garlic. Add the lamb and brown on both sides before adding a glass of white wine.

2. Let the wine boil down for a couple of minutes then add enough water to just about cover the lamb.

3. Cover, bring to boil, and then simmer on a low heat for 4 hours.

4. In the meantime, prepare some potatoes for roasting by par-boiling for five minutes. Warm duck fat in a roasting pan and throw in the potatoes with some fresh rosemary and plenty of sea salt. They will need an hour in the oven on a high heat if you've got an electric oven like mine - but if you have something that goes really hot, they'll need less time.

5. After 4 hours, take the lamb shanks out of the stock, cover with foil and put in the bottom of the oven to crisp up for about half an hour. Take the foil off for the last 10 minutes.

6. Take the bay leaf out of the stock and whizz it up in a food processor (alternatively strain the stock through a fine sieve). Make a gravy by heating a big chunk of butter in a pan, cooking in two tablespoons of flour, and then mixing in the stock gradually. It will thicken but you need a good 15 minutes of cooking. Oh, and you'll only need to use about a third of the stock - loads left for tomorrow's risotto!

7. Steam some carrots before tossing in butter - should take around 20-25 minutes.

8. Prepare some greens - I used leeks, broccoli, savoy cabbage and spinach - and pan fry. This should take around 15 minutes if you're using broccoli, with the broccoli and leeks going in first, the cabbage with 7 minutes to go and the spinach at the last minute.

The whole spread. For four people and a giraffe, I hasten to add...

Lamb and potato heaven

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

"Cheap! Cheap!": Spanish chicken with peppers and butterbeans

In one of Adrian Plass's brilliant satirical books (I think it's The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn - if you're a churchy type with a penchant for amdram it's a MUST READ), there's an account of how the Church Treasurer stamps his authority on every flamboyant idea with his cry of 'cheap! cheap! it must be cheap!', with Adrian replying, 'Oh do shut up Richard, you're beginning to sound like a chicken.' This ridiculously silly sense of humour appeals to me and usually makes me giggle when standing in the supermarket aisle, faced with the choice between organic (pricey but moral) and standard (cheap but immoral) chicken.

I think the poor boy stacking the shelves at Sainsburys yesterday probably needed counselling after watching a woman looking intently at various poultry products, shoulders gently shaking and various snorting noises emerging from her direction. Ok, so maybe I'm the one with the problem... but after consulting my worried-looking wallet and the veg already in the fridge, here's what we cooked in George's little kitchen last night.

Spanish chicken with peppers and butterbeans

I always worry when attributing a name of a country to a dish, but as this contains chorizo, peppers and a lot of pimenton, I'm hoping I'm not too far off the mark. There's no chili in this recipe because I used my own homemade chili oil (see this blog for the story) but I think it works with a bit of a bite, so add one finely chopped chili if using normal olive oil.

1. In a nice big saucepan fry up two medium-sized chopped onions, four crushed cloves of garlic and some chopped chorizo in a generous glug of chili oil. 
2. Add two sliced peppers - I used a red and a yellow, with a heaped teaspoon of sweet pimenton, half a tsp cumin seeds and lots of seasoning, and continue cooking for a couple of minutes.
3. Add six filleted chicken thighs. When they are browned and covered in the spices, throw in 8 chopped tomatoes and a can of butter beans. Season with a pinch of sugar - I prefer using fresh tomatoes so always add a bit of sugar - but you could use a tin of tomatoes instead. 
4. Top up with some boiling water so that everything is covered, add in a bay leaf, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
5. 5 minutes before serving, add some chopped greens and herbs - I used broccoli, savoy cabbage and parsley because it's what I had - and season to taste. 

There's another version of this dish which I make if I have more time and people over, which uses bone-in chicken thighs, pre-roasted peppers and cooking in the oven rather than on the hob. This does give more flavour to the entire dish and feeds six people, so I would recommend doing that if you can - but it needs cooking for an hour and a half in the oven, and the greens served on the side. 

However, this made a really tasty mid-week dinner for two people and a hungry giraffe with leftovers for lunch, which I've just scoffed at my desk. All I need now is a large glug of Pacharan to finish it off...

Friday, 1 February 2013

A stew in 30 minutes: Celeriac, bacon and beans with pork

I struggled with what I should call this dish. The word 'stew' usually brings up memories of Mum sticking something in the oven before church, and getting it out when arriving home (cue chorus of "oh no, not STEW again..." - we were ungrateful little sods.) I also think it's one of those things you 'grow into', like eating olives, drinking red wine and liking blue cheese. Now I'm old and boring, I actually find a stew rather comforting and filling in these wintery times, but not so easy to achieve on a work night if one wants to eat before bedtime, especially when you're not home until 7pm...

Until now. Excitingly, I have discovered a way of making a stew which only taken 30 minutes. And, unlike Jamie Oliver's '30 minute meals', where you need a sous chef to have prepared and chopped everything beforehand plus a shiny TV kitchen and cameras to make it look amazing, this actually only did take 30 minutes, from start to finish. So there.

Ok, so it's slightly cheating to pan-fry the pork at the end, but to be honest you don't even need it - it's only because George gets dead grumpy if he doesn't have a nice bit of meat in his dinner. The real trick here is to replace potatoes with celeriac (which cooks quickly), fry everything with bacon to give the stew the earthy taste associated with slow-cooked meat, and use the water from the tinned kidney beans plus chopped fresh tomatoes to thicken the sauce. So, here goes:

Celeriac, bacon and bean stew with pan-fried pork

Pig vs Savoy Cabbage... The pig won the fight

This recipe will serve 4 people, or 2 hungry people with leftovers for lunch. It's got quite a chili kick to it so if you would rather, leave the chili out!

1. Roughly chop 1 onion, 4 rashers of bacon, 2 cloves of garlic and a chili, and saute in olive oil for 3 minutes with a tsp each of cumin, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper. 
2. Chop a celeriac into bite-sized pieces. Add to the mixture and cook for another 3 minutes.
3. Chop 3 big tomatoes and add to the mixture. Give them a minute to warm up, and then add a tin of kidney beans plus the water they are in.
4. Add 1/2 a litre of hot water, season generously and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Don't worry if it looks a bit too watery, you'll need it for the cabbage at the end.
5. Pan-fry (or grill if you're being healthy) 1 pork chop per person - it should take around 5 minutes on each side. Pork is cooked when it's white and the juice runs clear. I wasn't being healthy so seasoned liberally and pan-fried mine in butter on a medium heat, with a stick of fresh rosemary thrown in. The rosemary infuses into the butter so that when you turn the chops over, they are cooking in herby butter. YUM.
6. Chop half a savoy cabbage into thin strips and add to the stew for the final 5 minutes.

I served mine with the pork cut into strips and piled on top - at 7.30pm, which meant time to watch a whole episode of Midsomer Murders before going to bed with a cup of tea. Old and boring? Never...

Friday, 25 January 2013

Inspiration from childhood winters: Chicken and bechamel pot pie

Whilst travelling home on a very windy, cold and snowy evening last week, my thoughts inevitably turned to what I should cook for dinner. I was cold, wet, miserable and desperate for a glass of red, a few episodes of Lovejoy and something warming, comforting and tummy-fulfilling. Gazing out of the window on the train at the dark misery outside, I had a flashback to being in the same position on the way home from school in the winter, and if we needed any further proof that my stomach has always been number one in my mind, wondering what Mum (or Dad) was making for dinner.

One of my favourite ever comfort-food meals was Mum's chicken in white sauce with a baked potato. It's the fact you get creamy sauce, chicken and potato all in one meal - I reckon it's like regressing back to baby food but in a good way. So, here's my slightly updated take on it - gluten free, of course... 

Chicken and bechamel pot pie (serves 4 hungry people)

George wondered whether there were
enough potatoes.
I LOVE how Sainsbury's sell six filleted chicken thighs in a pack now - cheaper than chicken breast, loads more of it for your money and far juicier. Yum.

1. Saute 250g chopped pancetta, 2 chopped leeks, 2 chopped cloves of garlic, 3 diced carrots and a diced courgette in a big knob of butter on a medium heat. After 5 minutes add a packet (usually around 6 small or 4 large) filleted chicken thighs chopped into big chunks. Season generously. When the chicken is browned, add two big ladlefuls of frozen peas and a handful of chopped fresh parsley, and set aside.

2. In the meantime, make a large batch of bechamel sauce - I have discovered that using gram flour makes it lovely and thick, but rice flour makes it lighter, so if you're using gluten-free ingredients this really depends on what you fancy. I think I'd prefer rice flour for something like lasagne but because you want this to be nice and thick and wintery, gram flour is great. 

Bechamel sauce is dead easy - 50g butter melted in a pan, add 5 tablespoons (or a generous packet-shake) of flour and stir in for a minute on the heat. Take off the heat and gradually add a pint of milk, stirring all the time. Pop back on the heat and wait until it thickens, stirring occasionally - should take about 10 minutes. If you want it cheesy, add whatever cheese you fancy at the end and stir in. I love using a bit of cream cheese for some things but probably not for this recipe as you'd lose the chicken flavour. 

3. Slice up three big baking potatoes into thin (3mm or so) slices.

4. Mix the chicken and sauce together, pour into a casserole dish and layer the potatoes on top - mine made two layers but one is fine if you fancy less carbs. Season the potatoes and spread with a few dried herbs. 

5. Bake at 200 degrees for 40 minutes or until the potatoes are going brown and crispy on the top.

I served mine with some steamed mange tout just to give a bit of extra green-ness. It definitely 'filled a hole' as my Dad would say.

Not to be eaten if you want to be able to stand within half an hour of finishing.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

George goes to Japan (in Ashford): Chicken Katsu

Last night George, the other half and I were invited round to my sister's house, which luckily is only about 5 minutes down the road from us. My sister is Cabin Crew with British Airways and speaks fluent Japanese. We found out last night that she cooks fluent Japanese too. 

However, it was with some trepidation that I walked up the path to her front door, and not just because the path was frozen solid with ice. Before the event, she posted the following on Facebook:

今夜初めて料理がシェフみたいに詳しい姉のために日本料理を作るって約束しちゃった。彼女がめっちゃ期待してるらしい。あー、どうしよう ><

I think this was aimed at her Japanese friends, as quite obviously I couldn't make snout or tail of what she was saying. But for us idiots who can speak a tiny bit of school-taught French and just about as much English, Facebook has this clever in-built Bing translation tool, which when I clicked on it, said the following:

"I had for the first time cooking making Japan dishes for more my sister like a chef tonight. His turtle woman really are seems to be excited. Oh, what should I do"


Apparently this had something to do with one word half meaning something else, as my sister valiantly tried to explain, but I was too busy giggling to listen.

Anyway, here's what she cooked, which was (for the record) delicious.

Chicken Katsu

George had only taken a small bite before I whipped the camera out and rearranged the chicken...
And here's how, in her words...

"You make it by dipping the chicken in raw egg and then Panko breadcrumbs, and deep frying for about 5 minutes on each side - the oil has to be on a medium heat so it goes golden-brown but doesn't burn. The rice was just standard Japanese rice and the vegetables [onions and carrots] were literally just fried in veg oil and loads of soy sauce. That's all it was."

Easy, huh? Well, apparently so - but as you can only get Panko breadcrumbs from a special shop in central London maybe not so much. However, I reckon it would work with gram flour mixed with a little bit of ground ginger for a similar effect - the Panko breadcrumbs made the chicken lovely and light and crispy. You can get Japanese rice and gram flour from big supermarkets. 

George says it was just the ticket. Thanks, Anna!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

How to confuse meat-eaters: Chili con beanie

Come on, he's cute. Even
George grudgingly admits it...
Last Sunday was an exciting occasion for the Hill family, as my very cute (but I'm biased) six-month old nephew Elijah was dedicated at church. For those not quite used to the way us happy-clappies operate, it's a bit like a Baptism or Christening, but sans water and a fair amount of liturgy. Anyway, we all trundled off to the church hall afterwards, where my brother had 120 potatoes baking in the oven and three tonnes of chili con carne on the hobs to feed the masses.

Not wanting the veggies to be left out (or in the case of my Mum, people who pretend to be veggies when what's on offer looks nicer than the meaty version), I made a bean chili, or chili con beanie, to give it its official culinary title. 

Interestingly enough, I personally thought it tasted more like a traditional chili con carne than my brother's massive spicy American chili, even though that too was indeed delicious. It's definitely the cumin and paprika that does it, especially if you fry all the spices with the onions before adding anything else - and that goes for the 'normal' version, too. Many recipes call for dry-frying the spices before you add them to the dish, but as this just makes me sneeze like an express train I figured I'd leave it out for the sake of Elijah's guests.

Chili con beanie (or four-bean chili)

See, it almost looks like there's mince in there! Almost...
I used four types of beans for this dish, rather than three or five. Why is it that when I googled it, I could only find recipes for three- or five- bean chili? No idea, but the fact that Sainsburys had a '4 tins for £2' offer may have influenced my choices slightly!

The quantities I've provided below make enough for around 6 people with rice or 8 people with baked potatoes, although I made triple... It's moderately spicy but not raging hot.

1. Fry up 2 large chopped onions, 5 cloves of chopped garlic and 2 fresh sliced chilis in a solid-bottomed pan for a couple of minutes. I leave the seeds in my chilis, but it depends how hot yours are to start with - I'll leave that decision with you!

2. Fry until the onions are nice and soft, before adding 2 tablespoons - yes, tablespoons - of cumin seeds, 1 tablespoon of paprika, 1 tablespoon of chili powder, 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper and 1 teaspoon of mixed spice. Mix together and fry off for a couple of minutes. 

3. Chop 6 tomatoes into fairly chunky pieces and add to the mixture. Cook for 2 minutes before adding 4 tins of beans. I used kidney beans, butter beans, flagolet beans and borlotti beans, but you could probably use just about anything you wanted, as long as you include the kidney beans. 

4. Throw in a good glug of Worcestershire sauce, lots of black pepper, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar before leaving to simmer for 45 minutes, or until 2/3 of the liquid has disappeared. 

5. Right at the end, stir in a big bunch of finely chopped coriander (oh, how I love my food processor for these bits!) and serve with rice and salad. Or 120 baked potatoes.

6. Sit back and watch the carnivores try to find the meat. Mwah ha ha ha ha...  

Monday, 14 January 2013

What happens when you leave the other half at home all day: Proper Irish cottage pie

As regular readers of this little blogette will know, the other half has been suffering from a broken ankle for the past 10 weeks. He's actually managed to get back to work recently, but today had a scan at the hospital and decided to be lazy and stay at home.

I reckon the little giraffe must have given him a kick (either that or I made him feel guilty by doing my 'hard done by woman' act yesterday in the kitchen) because I got home today to find two massive cottage pies in the oven. Excited isn't the word - I almost did a little wee. Not that you wanted to know that.

I'm now sitting on the sofa stuffled to the extremes, and very very nice it was too. However, I'm also giggling quietly to myself having made a mental list as I was carting spadefuls of pie into my mouth of a few things that made it so brilliantly Irish...

1. Potatoes. Not just your ordinary mashed potatoes, no... potatoes on the bottom, sides AND top of the meat. Enough to take over the world. And my tummy.

2. Onions. Not just in the meat... oh no. Onions sauteed in a pound of butter and mixed in with the potatoes. Onions flaked on top of the potatoes. Onions everywhere. 

3. A burnt oven bottom. Put the overflowing dish on a tray to prevent fall-out? Nah... it'll taste better with a slightly burnt smell. (Actually, it did.)

4. Quantity. I think the other half must be termed as a 'feeder'. Not just one pie. TWO pies. TWO WHOLE PIES. For two whole people (and a small giraffe). Not your little one-person pie dishes or anything poncey like that. Two massive casserole dishes.

I loved it. He can definitely stay...

Two pies. I had a ladylike spoonful. George ate the rest. Honest.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Winter veg panic: Sausage, swede and beetroot roast

I have taken to thanking God every evening for the existence of two things I feel a little guilty for taking for granted: a) the freezer, and b) the veg box.

I am well aware that thinking about what to cook for dinner occupies the majority of my day normally anyway, but in January it seems to be even worse - the pennies are pinching and there's a definite need for something more warming and filling than an iceberg lettuce and a bit of floppy cucumber, and a diet of leaves is apparently not conducive to a happy giraffe in these cold climates.

Having had a prod from the ungrateful little animal, I woke up the other morning and actually managed to have a look in the freezer to see if there was anything in there that might work for dinner. And there they were, my saviours - six gluten-free sweet chili sausages, purchased by my forward-thinking other half from Budgens (almost all their sausages are gluten-free, it's marvellous) and popped into the freezer.

On arrival back home from work, I continued to thank the Lord / my lucky stars / my other half's debit card for the delivery of the winter veg box, not all of which we managed to scoff over Christmas. However, we managed to leave the stuff that one tends to think is a bit boring (swede) or isn't quite sure that everyone likes (beetroot - the other half hates it), or which quite honestly panics me a bit (anything that looks like this celeriac). So, taking the knife firmly between his hooves, here's what George rustled up for us...

Sausage, swede and beetroot roast

Here's a 'before' picture for you, beetroot firmly at the side for the other half...

Peel and chop a swede into nice big chunks, and put in a roasting tray along with a couple of chopped field mushrooms, some whole beetroot, some halved tomatoes and two whole cloves of garlic. Add a big glug of olive oil, some cumin seeds, a shake of paprika and a pinch of dried chilis, and do a little shaky dancy thing around the kitchen to mix it all together.

Lay the sweet chili (or other) sausages on the top, and a nice big sprig of thyme, and cook for about 30-40 minutes in the oven, on about 180c.

Delicious, warming, filling, cheap - and a nice low carb count!

And the 'after' picture, beetroot all for me. Yum Yum.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

An anniversary on a budget: Confit duck with bean and black pudding cassolet

Congratulations were due to the other half yesterday, who had officially put up with me and George for two whole years. (George says will I leave him out of it please, as he's the only reason the other half bothers with us anyway. I am not so sure about this, but sometimes it's just easier to let an annoyed little giraffe have his way. Those hooves may be small but they don't half pack a punch.)

Anyway, as we had just seen off Christmas and its excesses, there was no going out for fancy meals or even to the pub for a pint, due to the severe lack of anything other than coppers in our wallets. So I roped in my long-suffering work colleagues to help me plan a celebration on a budget.

Fabulously, Blythe's cupboard seems to contain the most brilliant selection of stuff, and I ended up with not only the most lurid card with hearts on I've ever seen, but also a big posh tin of two confit duck legs for dinner. Donations of champagne and wine, a branded poncho, a packet of Percy Pigs and a (possibly) broken hanging basket holder from the rest of my superb office and I had very full, if a little eclectic, bag of pressies to take home.

So, with massive amounts of thanks to my brilliant colleagues and a root around in my kitchen cupboards, here's our special anniversary dinner on a budget.

Confit duck with bean and black pudding cassolet

George started quacking at this point.

Saute a chopped leek (or onion) with 4 cloves of garlic and a couple of chopped up slices of black pudding in a saucepan for 5 minutes. Add cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and some thyme before adding 4 chopped tomatoes. Continue cooking until the tomatoes have warmed through (this helps them break down) before throwing in the contents of a tin of butter beans and a tin of flagolet beans, including the water. Season thoroughly (lots of black pepper to cut through the black pudding) and cook for 20-25 minutes until some of the liquid has evaporated and the black pudding has crumbled through the dish.

In the meantime, take two sauteed duck legs (if you want to saute them yourself, it's basically a matter of cooking them very very slowly for 4-6 hours covered in duck fat with some herbs, salt and bay leaves) and pan fry fatty side down for 15 minutes on a low heat. Cover them with foil to ensure the meat on the other side warms through for the last 5 minutes.

Light candles, serve and enjoy with champagne!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

And now for the diet: Monster cake and Monster pig

Well, happy 2013 one and all. I do hope you all had what is generally referred to as 'a good one' over the Christmas period. We certainly did, although George is feeling the effects of trying to eat his weight in cake. He tried his best, but as the monster cake the other half and I made weighed over two stone, he struggled a little.

George decided to wear his reindeer costume for the festivities.
Continuing on the Monster-sized theme, George and I cooked a whole pork belly on Christmas Day for 12 friends (and a dog). Along with the obligatory roasties, veg, gravy and stuffed peppers (for the veggie in the room) it went down a treat, especially with the dog.

Dougal relaxing with a foot massage from his 5-year-old friend Maria, after eating a whole pig.
And lastly with a not-so-Monster-sized but oh so much appreciated theme, we were treated to a lovely Christmas morning breakfast of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and bucks fizz.

Thank you Chef Jose.

So, Happy New Year, and if anyone wants to join me in signing up to WeightWatchers, let me know!