Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tapenade – perfect for a forbidden picnic

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Following a few relaxing days in Montpellier visiting my brother and his lovely lass, I was about to take my leave when we passed the bank of signs in front of the fabulous Jardin des Plantes – France’s oldest botanical garden. The stern lettering said something along the lines of “Pique-niques - strictement interdit”. 
What’s that mean?” I asked.
“It means that picnics are mandatory in this area,” My brother said, “We must acquire a picnic immediatement –on pain of death!” I hardly needed encouragement. You know I love picnics, but I looked to his long-suffering beloved for confirmation. She shrugged and raised her eyes to heaven.

Conspiring to become tapenade...

Acquiring an instant pique-nique entailed an impromptu stop at the impressive organic market beneath the roman aqueduct of Les Arceaux: artisan breads, a paper bag of plump cerises, some fragrant fraises, and a quartet of punchy organic tapenades – black olive, green olive, white garlic, and sun-dried tomato. We smuggled our picnic into the 16th century garden and found a dappled glade in which to eat. I’d like to say it was the interesting conversation, the time spent with loved ones in such incredible surroundings, the cool relief of the shady trees in an almost 40°C heat that was the best part, but I’d be lying. That was all well worth living for, but in the end it was the black olive tapenade that made the day truly pop.

Some good reasons to visit gardens in the South of France

To take your taste buds to the South of France you will need...
150g black olives (de-stoned weight)
1½ tablespoons capers, well rinsed and patted dry with kitchen paper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 fat clove of garlic, finely grated or crushed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1                    Place the first 6 ingredients in a food processor and pulse until roughly chopped. If you are a sucker for punishment you can pound these ingredients together using a pestle and mortar.
2                    Add the lemon juice and olive oil and pulse until just combined. This is crucial. The finished product should have texture. Over-process to a smooth paste and you’ll end up with a bitter unpleasant oily yuk.

The tapenade is ready to eat right away, however if you have the patience to cover it and place it in a cool spot overnight you will be rewarded with a little alchemy.  The flavours meld and become even richer and punchier.

If you make tapenade regularly, you’ll develop your own flavour preferences. Ring the changes by trying different varieties of black olives (my preference is for the Greek Kalamata), using finely chopped fresh rosemary instead of thyme and swapping out the lemon juice for cognac. Great spread on good bread, it can also make a fantastic and lively topping for fish.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Carrot, Cinnamon and Coconut Scones – a vanishing act!

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For years, I thought children’s writer Enid Blyton was actually called ‘Gnid’ because of the swirly font used for her name. I blame ‘Gnid’ for my obsession with food. I wasn’t half as interested in the shenanigans of her adventure-prone child heroes and heroines as I was in the food they ate. There always seemed to be a farmhouse table somewhere in the story, groaning under the weight of glazed ham, cold chicken, thick wedges of fruitcake, bowls of cherries, warm scones with clotted cream, and of course lashings of ginger beer cooling somewhere nearby in an icy stream.

I had planned two separate recipes today – one a carrot soup with the fragrant bouquet of carrots I found in the market, and the other, scones for tomorrow’s breakfast, when I started musing on the topic of ‘Gnid’. While I daydreamed, the boundaries between the two recipes became blurred and I found myself mixing grated carrot into my scone mixture, then coconut and cinnamon joined the party.

These are so quick and easy to magic up and they have a habit of vanishing just as quickly so I’ve nicknamed them the sorcerer’s scone – groan!

For 8 scones you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 180°C
250g plain flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon fine table salt
60g butter, cut into small pieces
125g carrots, finely grated
50g dark brown sugar
25g desiccated coconut
1 medium egg, beaten
110mls fresh milk

You’ll also need a little extra flour for sprinkling on your work surface and an extra tablespoon of dark brown sugar to sprinkle over the scone before baking.

Carrots, Cinnamon, Coconut... magic!
1.                  Place the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and butter in a mixing bowl and rub the butter into the flour, lifting and crumbling the mixture between your index and middle fingers and your thumbs, until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
2.                  Add the grated carrots, dark brown sugar and desiccated coconut, mixing until well distributed throughout the mixture.
3.                  Add the beaten egg and just enough of the milk to bring the mixture together in a soft dough, with no dry flour remaining. (Some days, the flour is thirsty and you’ll need a drop more milk; other days, you’ll have a little milk left over).
4.                  Turn the mixture out onto a lightly-floured work surface and form into a smooth ball. Transfer to a non-stick baking sheet and using your hands, pat the ball of dough into a disc about 2.5cm (1 inch) thick.  Using a sharp knife, mark the disc into 8 wedges, sinking the knife about a third of the way into the dough. Sprinkle with a tablespoon of dark brown sugar.
5.                  Transfer to the pre-heated oven and bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until well risen and golden brown. A cocktail stick inserted in the centre should come out clean. If there is still dough clinging to it, pop the scone back into the oven for a further 5 minutes then test again. Transfer to a cooling rack. These scones are best eaten slightly warm, but will keep for a few days in sealed in an airtight container.


It's called the fastest bread in the West because one moment it's there and next it's scone ...

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Pear, Apple and Muesli Crumble – how to banish Winter!

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You’ll probably remember a time when, as a child, you ate an ice cream too fast and your mouth froze and the cold sensation spread to give you an almighty headache. If a city could have that sensation, my home town would have it now. Brrrrrr! There is only one remedy. This place needs crumble. Now!
For 4 servings you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 170°C
Crumble mix
100g plain flour
75g butter, cut into small cubes
¼ teaspoon fine table salt
65g caster sugar (or brown sugar)
1 teaspoon grated orange zest (I used mandarin)
100g of your favourite unsweetened muesli

1                    Place the flour and butter in a mixing bowl and rub the butter into the flour, lifting and crumbling the mixture between your index and middle fingers and your thumbs, until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. There’ll be some larger pea-sized lumps but don’t worry. These help make for a good texture in the crumble.
2                    Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. You can pop the mixture into the freezer at this stage for later use if you wish.

Magic ingredient: Don't forget a touch of salt to bring out the sweetness

200g apple, sliced or chopped
200g of hard pears (such as Conference)
35g sugar or honey
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

3                    Mix together the filling ingredients and transfer to a square pie dish approximately 21cm x 21cm (8½” x 8½”) and 6cm (2½”) deep. Alternatively, I’ve used 4 individual round pie dishes 11cm (4½”)  diameter and 4.5cm (about 2”) deep.
4                    Cover the fruit mixture with a layer of crumble approximately 1cm thick (½ inch), patting it into place but taking care not to pack it too tightly. Transfer to the pre-heated oven and bake for 30 – 40 mins or until golden brown. Serve with custard or cream and a big fat warm smile because Winter has been banished – from the table at least!
Later that evening...

Variations: Crumble is a great dish to reflect the seasons – rhubarb and strawberry in late Spring, cherry in the Summer, and apple, pear, and blackberry in the Autumn. Vary the flavouring in both the topping and the filling – almond extract is good with a cherry filling, clove loves apple. It’s a dish to be played with and experimented with.
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