Friday, March 27, 2015

Tomato and Carrot Soup – bloomin’ luverly!

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As a small child, himself knew his great grandmother, a Victorian lady who apparently had a habit of going around with her skirt tucked into her bloomers. Her great grandson remembers that she adored tomato soup, which she would sop up with chunks of bread. I never met her, but I have a vision of a Queen Victoria-like figure schlurping up her soup, then wiping her tomato-stained gob with a lace-cuffed sleeve – a sort of Eliza Doolittle character.

I asked if the Victorian’s soup was likely to have been homemade. Himself is inclined to believe that it was tinned.

Tastes like this!

Today’s recipe is homemade… from a tin - or rather a carton. That might seem a contradiction in terms however, unless you have a fantastic supply of sun-ripened San Marzano tomatoes, you’re much more likely to get the best flavour for soups and sauces from pasata (sieved tomato pulp) or tinned tomatoes. Look for brands with a conscience and go for products with nothing added. There should only be one ingredient on the label. Tomatoes!

For 6 – 8 portions of bloomin’ luverly tomato soup you will need…
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 carrots, finely sliced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and finely diced (approximately 250g prepared weight)
1 fat clove of garlic, chopped
750ml pasata (or 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes)
750mls chicken stock or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme (or ½ teaspoon of dried thyme)
½ teaspoon sugar

salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the carrot and onion. Give them a quick stir to coat them with the hot oil then turn down the heat, cover and allow to cook gently without colouring for about 8 minutes. Next, add the diced potato and chopped garlic, stir and once again, cover and this time allow them to cook for about 4 minutes.

Next add the pasata, stock, thyme and sugar. Turn up the heat until the liquid comes to simmering. Lower the heat, cover and allow to simmer gently for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Blend the contents of the saucepan to a smooth cream – a stick blender is perfect. Taste and add salt and pepper to suit your palate.

Serve with crusty bread.

I scattered the top of the soup with a little proscuitto and some finely chopped fresh celery leaves. 

Other toppings I like for this soup are shredded fresh basil; Parmesan croutons with fried bacon bits; or a simple swirl of crème fraiche, though I'm not beyond following the Victorian's example!

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Boeuf en Daube - that's French for 'Boozy Beef Stew'!

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Daube ... French for 'boozy stew'

In a restaurant one lazy Sunday lunchtime, I witnessed a completely unguarded moment. At another table, a man speared a piece of meat and brought it absently to his mouth – a mouth that was more interested in the conversation it was having, than the food it was about to taste. As the forkful disappeared into that disinterested mouth, there was an instant of stunned stillness on the guy’s face, a tentative chewing, a look of disbelief. There followed in quick succession: a roll of the eyes, a deep sigh of satisfaction, and an ecstatic flinging back of his head. I could almost hear the man’s taste buds shout “Yes! Yes! Oh, Yes!”
Who could resist? So, of course I said to the waiter “I’ll have what he’s having.”  It turned out to be beef cheeks in red wine.  Errrr… yum… Actually, while it was good, it wasn’t (in my view) worthy of a food orgasm. Stew rarely is. It’s more of a platonic sort of dish that hits you with a big warm friendly hug - even more so, if it has been simmered in red wine.
While hugs should always be served up fresh the moment they are ready, stew is often even better the next day - the flavours melding in a delicious alchemy.
I'll have what he's having...

For 4 – 6 people, you will need…
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1.25kg braising/stewing beef cut into thick chunks (I had 10 pieces in total, serving one or two per person depending on appetite)
5 fat cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
2 onions, peeled and cut into wedges – leave the root intact so that the pieces hold together
4 carrots, peeled and cut into sizeable chunks
2 sticks of celery, peeled to removed stringy bits, then finely chopped
250g smoked bacon lardons
750ml red wine
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
3 bay leaves
a small bundle of thyme
the zest of half a lemon (yellow layer only) cut into thick ribbons using a potato peeler (tie the bay leaves, thyme and lemon zest into a little bundle with food grade cotton string to make retrieval easier)
2 handfuls of black olives, stones removed (from Provence if you can get them)
a pinch of sugar

a little finely chopped parsley to scatter over the top of the finished dish

Heat the olive oil in a large flame proof casserole dish or a large saucepan and brown the chunks of beef all over, being careful to give them enough space otherwise they will steam rather than fry and you’ll lose out on quite a bit of flavour. Do this in batches if necessary. When the beef is browned, remove from the pan and set aside. Reduce the heat and add the garlic, onions, carrots, celery and lardons. Fry gently for about 5 minutes.
Now, add the rest of the ingredients (except the parsley). Turn up the heat until the liquid begins to bubble. Immediately lower the heat, cover and cook at a very gentle simmer for 3-and-a-half hours (remove the lid for the last half hour so that the sauce reduces a little). The meat, when finished, should be almost tender enough to cut with a spoon.
Taste and add salt and black pepper only if necessary.
Serve piping hot with the parsley scattered over.
For me, this stew is hearty enough to serve on its own with nothing more than decent bread to mop up the sauce. It is also really good with celeriac mash.

Dig in!
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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lemon, Rosemary and Almond Curd - Here comes the sun!

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There’s nothing like a wet Sunday is there? It is such a contradiction in terms. Hey weather, pin back your ears. Sunday … SUN Day … geddit? Nope, obviously not listening.

Well, I can’t go for my walk, I’ve finished my book; there’s nothing to my liking on the telly. A wet Sunday is a day for pottering; for tidying; for doing things that have been put on the long finger; for remembering things I’ve promised to do but never quite gotten around to doing. I’ve just remembered I promised my sister-in-law my lemon curd recipe – eeek more than two years ago! Now would be a good time to cough up the goods.

Lemon curd is not difficult - it just needs about half an hour of your time and patience to magic a few simple ingredients into a puddle of liquid sunshine that you can turn into all sorts of deliciousness once it has cooled and set. 

Ok, you've captured a jar or two of sunshine. So now what? Well, I love it spooned into Greek yoghurt for breakfast; spread on toast; swirled through whipped cream and used to fill a meringue case, then topped with strawberries or blueberries or both, and applied to mouth. Swap it for jam... particularly in a Bakewell Tart – lemon and almond are best buddies. Use it to fill a sponge or to top a cheesecake. Make it now and you'll have it ready to take out of the fridge to spread on the crepes you’ve planned to make on Pancake Tuesday, just around the corner.  Or simply pop a spoonful in your mouth at any time for an instant good mood.
(Use unwaxed lemons or give the skins a good scrub under hot water before using.)
For approximately 500ml sunny lemon curd you will need…
250g caster sugar
75g butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
6 eggs (at room temperature), beaten
the finely grated zest and juice of 3 of the best lemons you can get your hands on (you should have 150ml juice in total)
¼ teaspoon almond extract
a sprig of rosemary, lightly bruised
a pinch of salt

Put everything in a medium saucepan over a low heat. Stir gently and constantly for about 15-20 minutes or so until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of pourable custard. At no point should the mixture boil so don't be tempted to turn up the heat to hurry the process or you'll have lemony scrambled eggs. (You could also cook the mixture in a heatproof glass bowl over - but not touching - simmering water).
Once the mixture has thickened, pass it through a sieve to remove the rosemary and the grated lemon zest. Pour into sterilized jars. It will thicken up further on cooling. Seal and refrigerate for up to a month. 
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Monday, January 12, 2015

Carrot, Coconut & Cardamom Soup... conspiring to comfort !

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I am studiously avoiding the bathroom scales because I know that after a Christmas of feasting it will more than likely say: “Gerroff, ya great lump!”
I got brilliant advice from a friend on how to lose weight instantly: “Turn the scales back 5kg on the 1st of January!” Unfortunately my bathroom scales are digital and they refuse to tell even the whitest of white lies. L If I’m to swap the slightly cuddlier post-Christmas me for a healthier lower-fat me ‘lite’, then it will be down to diet and exercise.

Luckily, with the turn of the year (and following multiple overdoses of chocolate truffles, mince pies, Christmas cake ...) I am craving healthy stuff – winter salads, green vegetables al dente, and soup, lots of lovely warming soup.
Today it is bitterly cold so I’m thinking... the sweetness of carrots, I’m thinking ... the warmth of cardamom ... the fresh zing of orange zest. So far, so good (tasty and reasonably healthy). However... I can’t quite leave behind the craving for richness against the harshness of winter, so I’m thinking a great big comforting swirl of nutty, creamy coconut milk.

The response from my coconut-detesting taste-tester?  “Oh ! That’s good !”
Healthy stuff...
For 6 - 8 portions of sunny soup that will surprise even a coconut-hater you will need...
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive (or 15g butter)
3 pods of cardamom, seeds only, crushed
½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest (orange part only)
500g carrots, (prepared weight), peeled and sliced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
750ml good quality chicken stock
1 x 400ml tin of unsweetened coconut milk
Salt and white pepper to taste 

Finely chopped coriander leaf or parsley to serve, and some crusty white bread or a delicious nutty wholemeal bread won't hurt

Place the olive oil (or butter) into a medium saucepan over a medium heat and add the crushed cardamom seed. Fry gently for about a minute before adding the orange zest, carrots, onion and garlic. Stir to coat in the oil (or butter), then turn down the heat to low.
Cover and cook gently without colouring for about 15 minutes, stiring every few minutes (if the vegetables appear to be sticking, add a little more oil or butter and make sure the heat is low enough – if the vegetables are sizzling, the heat is too high).
Next, add the chicken stock and unsweetened coconut milk. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover, and leave to cook gently for a further 15 minutes.
Finally, puree the soup – a stick blender is the perfect tool for this job. Taste and add salt and a little white pepper if necessary.
Serve with a sprinkling of finely chopped parsley or corriander leaf, or get posh and instead serve with parsley or corriander leaf oil artfully dotted on top.
Tuck in!
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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Chocolate Orange Mincemeat – shouts Christmas louder than a chorus of drunken carollers

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For me, chocolate and orange are the two flavours that sing out louder than a chorus of drunken carollers “Christmas is Here! Christmas is Here! “ And guess what? They absolutely love each other’s company.
This year I went through my (now dog-earred) copy of The Flavour Thesaurus and picked out other flavours that adore chocolate and like to hang out with each other as well.  

Don't be put off by the list of ingredients - it's mostly an assembly job.
See? Assembly job!

For approximately 4 jars of mincemeat, you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 180°C   
300g sultanas
100g ready-to-eat prunes (e.g. no stone), finely chopped
100g dried sour cherries (or dried cranberries), finely chopped
300g ready-to-eat dried apricots, finely chopped
100g mixed peel (this is finely chopped candied peel of oranges and lemons)
100g walnuts, finely chopped
220g dark brown sugar
200g grated apple (I used Granny Smiths)
125g butter, cut into cubes
finely grated zest and juice of 1 large orange
finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or ground nutmeg)
5 coriander seeds, crushed (or ¼ teaspoon ground coriander)
3 allspice berries, crushed (or ground allspice, but not mixed spice)
2 whole cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons cocoa powder, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons Cointreau (or other orange liqueur) + an additional 2 tablespoons to stir in at the end 

Mix all the ingredients together in a large oven-proof dish with a lid. Cover and place in the preheated oven and cook gently for 3 hours, stirring every half hour or so (set a timer... )

When the cooking time has elapsed, remove from the oven and allow to cool, stirring briefly every half hour until cold. This keeps the butter evenly distributed throughout the mixture.

Finally, stir the remaining 2 tablespoons of Cointreau (or other orange liqueur) into the cooled mixture before sealing in clean, dry jars.

It will keep well for up to a year in a cool dark place or in the fridge - but I can’t really see the point in that!

With these fairy-size piece, you can eat three without a hint of guilt!
For the fairy-sized mince pies in the photos, stamp out rounds of short crust pastry using a 5cm (2 inch) scone cutter and use them to line a mini-muffin tin. Fill them to the top with the cooked, cooled mixture. Bake for about 10 minutes at 180°C. 

For regular-sized mince pies, use a 7.5cm cutter (2½ inch) for the base and a 6cm cutter (2¼ inch) for the lids. Fill, seal and bake for 20 – 25 minutes at 165°C or until a pale golden brown. Remember to poke two holes in the top of each with a sharp knife to let the steam out and stop them bursting open.

I prefer my mince pies warm from the oven (the microwave is death to pastry) with a swirl of fresh cream. A touch of Cointreau in the cream is optional.

It's snowing!
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Friday, November 21, 2014

Quesadillas – hot as a temper tantrum, cheesy as furry dice

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One of my in-laws often transports horses and is used to dealing with shockingly impatient road behaviour and aggression as she carts her vulnerable cargo around. Over the years, she has developed a weapon which she fires at the offending driver. It envelopes them and their vehicle in a cloud of bright pink fluff, rendering them as harmless as a giant marshmallow. This all happens in her imagination but it makes her feel much better and allows her to continue on her way calmly and serenely.
I should have thought of that when a bloke in a beat up land rover approached at speed in a 30km zone and glued himself to my tail. There was so little room between our vehicles that I could practically count the spots on his furry dice. He started a hooting and a hollering and a shaking his fist.
Was there bright pink fluff? Was there calmness and serenity? Nope, I raised a very unladylike middle finger. For some strange reason that did nothing to calm him whatsoever! Though we were soon on a dual carriageway, where he could easily overtake, he stayed with me for miles, red as a beetroot (with embarrassment no doubt), bellowing out the window (what I can only assume were profuse apologies).
I had quesadillas for lunch. They were as cheesy as furry dice, laced with chilli as fiery as a temper tantrum, with a few other bits and pieces thrown like insults into the mix. I felt much better after demolishing two.
For each quesadilla, you will need…
1 corn tortilla
35g cheese – I used half mature cheddar, half mozzarella, grated
approximately 1 heaped tablespoon of filling, prepared before you start cooking.
Today’s filling was …
a little finely chopped spring onion
very finely sliced red pepper
finely sliced mushrooms
½ teaspoon of red chilli
You are only ever 5 minutes away from cheesy deliciousness.

Heat a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. When the pan is hot add the tortilla and heat it through by giving it about 10 seconds, then flipping it. Do this three more times (so, 40 seconds in total).
Now scatter the filling over half the tortilla, leaving a margin of about 1cm at the edge. Cover the filling with the cheese and fold the unfilled side over to make a half moon. Cook for about 2 minutes or until golden brown, patting gently with a spatula so that both sides of the quesadilla stick together as the cheese melts. Gently turn the quesadilla and continue cooking until the second side is golden brown. Remove from the pan, cut into wedges and serve immediately. I like sour cream or guacamole with mine.
Other favourites are:
  • smoked salmon, dill, capers and cheddar
  • bacon (pre-cooked), camembert and mozzarella
  • chilli con carne, cheddar and mozzarella, and pickled jalapeños
  • prosciutto, fresh basil (or basil pesto), and mozzarella. 
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Monday, October 27, 2014

Mini Orange and Pumpkin Cheesecake with Chocolate Walnut Crust – Trick? Treat!

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 Legend has it that long ago, in the depths of Ireland, there was a farmer named Jack. Jack was notoriously mean and sneaky. Over the years he had peeved heaven and hell so much with his meanness and trickery that when he popped his clogs, he was refused admittance to both. To get rid of him, the Devil sent Jack away with a burning ember to light his way through eternal darkness. Jack hollowed out a turnip in which to carry the ember. To this day, he roams the earth looking for a resting place, with the strange lantern lighting his way. Wooooo-ooooh. The End.

Okay, the legend is a bit longer than that but the essential bit is the lantern. Thankfully, when Irish emigrants brought the legend and the lantern to the other side of the Atlantic, they discovered that pumpkins were a lot easier to carve than turnips and looked much more impressive. I’m glad because Orange and Turnip Cheesecake doesn’t have quite the same ring to it!

For approximately 22 mini cheesecakes you will need…
… to preheat the oven to 160°C while the cheesecake bases are chilling.

500g full fat cream cheese (such as Philadelphia) at room temperature
250g pureed pumpkin pulp (available in a tin)
125g brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1 tablespoon corn flour, sifted
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
a small pinch of ground cloves (go easy, it’s a very strong spice)
finely grated zest of one orange (just the very outer layer)
2 whole eggs + 1 egg yolk 

Biscuit base
225g digestive biscuits (graham crackers)
75g walnuts
75g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
90g butter 

Ready-made spooky chocolate shapes
OR some melted chocolate and an artistic flair

 For the filling
First make the filling. (This allows excess air bubbles incorporated while mixing a chance to escape, reducing cracking in the surface of the cheesecakes.)
Place all the ingredients, except the eggs, in a food processor and pulse until combined into a smooth batter. Now add the eggs and pulse until just combined. Transfer to a large jug and leave to one side while you prepare the base. 

For the base
Line 22 muffin cups with paper liners (I use two 12 cup tins and line 11 cups of each)
Place all the ingredients, except the butter, in a food processor and pulse until the biscuits are reduced to a fine crumb. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the crumb mixture to the melted butter and stir to combine.
Divide the mixture evenly between the muffin papers, about a heaped teaspoon in each and press down lightly and evenly. Place in the fridge until cool. (Preheat the oven now).
Pat the base into an even layer - the back of a teaspoon will do but this little cookie stamp is perfect
When the bases have chilled for about 10 minutes, remove from the fridge and divide the filling between the paper liners, leaving a gap of about 3mm at the top.
Carefully transfer to the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes or until they have risen very slightly and there is no wobble when you shake the tins gently.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the muffin tins. They will collapse a little. This is normal and allows room for the chocolate decorations to go on top.
When cool, cover and place in the fridge for at least 4 hours or overnight if possible.
Cover with white, milk or dark chocolate. Decorate with contrasting spooky chocolate shapes. (You’ll need to work quickly as the chocolate sets almost instantly on the cold cheesecake.
Happy Halloween!!!

(The cheesecakes will freeze, undecorated, in a single layer in a freezer container for up to a month. Thaw before decorating.)

For the chocolate shapes, I copied templates from the internet, making sure to size them a little smaller than the diameter of the cakes. I printed them out and placed them on a baking tray, under a sheet of non-stick baking parchment. I melted chocolate in a ziplock bag then used it as a piping bag by snipping off a tiny corner and drawing over the shapes I could see through the parchment. (I also ate a lot of the ones that didn’t turn out quite right but you could re-melt them if you have stronger willpower than me.)

I placed the finished shapes in the fridge for an hour until solid and then carefully peeled away the paper before transferring them to the chocolate-covered cheesecakes.
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