Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Apricot Conserve – an excellent career choice !

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Apricots just need a little career guidance to live up to their potential...
If I was writing a school report for the average apricot, I would probably give it a B+ for effort but I’d scribble “must try harder - fails to live up to potential” in the margin. You know what I mean. How often have you bitten into a fragrant golden apricot expecting a flood of heavenly juice - only to get a mouthful of apricot-flavoured cotton wool?

Raw talent is not enough. Apricots need proper career guidance and the right environment to fulfil their potential. In most cases, this needs to involve a little sweetness and a lot of heat.

My favourite way of helping this lovely fruit fulfil its potential is Apricot Conserve – not only does it bring a concentrated mouthful of summer to the breakfast table, it is also wonderful in baking. In olfactory terms, it is the equivalent of a hug from your favourite person.

For this recipe, I have included some apricot kernels for their intense almond flavour which marries so well with apricots. The kernels are widely used in food and drink products – it’s what gives amaretto its distinctive almond flavour. However, apricot kernels contain a minuscule amount of cyanide so you may prefer to leave them out. In any case, I discard them when they turn up on the spoon.

For approximately 3 x 370g pots of Apricot Conserve you will need…
… 3 sterilised jam jars

1kg firm ripe apricots
750g caster sugar
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 or 6 apricot stones, depending on how strong an almond flavour you want to impart to the jam (optional)

1.         Cut the apricot into quarters, discarding all but 3 of the stones. Place the apricot quarters in a glass bowl. Sprinkle with the sugar. Cover and leave to macerate for 8 hours or overnight. This ensures that the fruit stays reasonably whole during the cooking process and helps concentrate the flavour.  Put 3 saucers in the freezer – not your best china obviously - you’ll need them for ‘the wrinkle test’ to see whether the jam has set or not.
2.         When ready to make the jam, transfer the macerated fruit mixture to a large heavy-based saucepan – the mixture will bubble up about 4 times its volume during the cooking. Place the saucepan on a low heat until all the sugar has entirely dissolved, then turn up the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. During cooking, some of the juice will evaporate and the golden colour will become deeper.
3.         If you have a sugar thermometer, bring the temperature up to ‘Jam’ and keep it there for 8 minutes. If you don’t have a sugar thermometer, simply boil the jam vigorously for 8 minutes.

Hubble, bubble, no toil, no trouble...
4.         In either case, I use the wrinkle test. Remove one of the saucers from the freezer and place a spoonful of the hot liquid on the cold surface. Leave it to cool for about 30 seconds then push your finger gently through it. If the jam has reached setting point, the surface of the liquid will wrinkle. If not, let the jam bubble for a further 2 minutes and test again, using the next cold saucer. If necessary, continue testing until wrinkles appear J.
5.         Once you have achieved wrinkles, remove the jam from the heat and leave to cool for 15 minutes. This helps ensure that the fruit is evenly distributed when you put it in the jars.
6.         If you are including the almond kernels, give the stones a sharp tap with a kitchen mallet or a heavy based saucepan to reveal the kernel. Put the kernels in boiling water for about 2 minutes. Cool them quickly in cold water and squeeze gently. They should slip easily out of their brown overcoats.
7.         Place 1 or 2 kernels in each jam jar before carefully filling with the apricot conserve. Seal and keep in a cool dark place.

Note: To sterilise the jars, I put them through the dishwasher, or wash them in hot soapy water and dry them in the oven at 100˚C.
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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Horiatiki with Watermelon and Cucumber Pickle – Food of the Gods!

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A Greek holiday for your tastebuds...

I tend not to make too many Greek dishes – Greek food reminds me of the unfortunate incident with my landlord’s grandmother... However I’ve taken inspiration from all the gorgeous watermelon pickles I’ve seen on the blogosphere over the past few weeks and ringed the changes on a Greek favourite – Horiatiki – or Greek Salad.

The sweet-salty Watermelon and Cucumber Pickle is ready in an hour. It concentrates the flavour of the watermelon and the cucumber, makes the onion into a mild mannered creature and marries wonderfully with salty Feta and olives.

Taste-tester said: Opa! Food of the Gods!

For 4 servings you will need…

250g watermelon, deseeded and cut into bite-sized chunks
250g cucumber, skin on, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 small onion, red or white (about 100g) cut in half then shredded
1 tablespoon of caster sugar

1 teaspoon of fine table salt
2 large tomatoes, cut into bite-sized chunks, or 20 cherry tomatoes
12 fat Kalamata olives (or other decent black olives)
200g Feta cheese, cut into bite-sized cubes
1 tablespoon finely shredded fresh mint
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1.                  Place the watermelon, cucumber and onion in a glass bowl. Sprinkle with the sugar and salt. Mix gently and cover before refrigerating for an hour.
2.                  When you are ready to eat, remove the pickle from the fridge, drain off the liquid and pat dry using kitchen paper. Place in a serving dish.
3.                  Add the salad ingredients, finishing with the Feta, sprinkled with mint and oregano. Drizzle with the olive oil just before serving. Marvel that something so simple can be so magical.

Chop, sprinkle, mix, refrigerate - it's that simple!

By the way, the pickle makes a nice side just as is and the salad is an excellent picnic food that won’t get soggy if it needs to stand by for a few hours.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mushrooms on Toast or Funghi Alla Veronica – what’s in a name?

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"What's in a name? That which we call a mushroom
By any other name would taste as good."
Dear Mr Shakespeare,
Apologies for misquoting your lovely line from Romeo and Juliet but it was an emergency. You see, I just wanted a quick and lazy supper but the lovely rustic artisan bread I bought down the farmers market screamed DON’T so much as THINK about putting a baked bean NEAR me, sunshine!
It got me thinking about a supper dish my mother, Veronica, used to make my father when he came in from gigs late at night. Would this posh bread entertain the idea of being toasted and adorned with a simple mushroom sauce? Probably not... and then I thought of your beautiful “rose by any other name” line.
What if I called it Salsa Di Funghi Alla Veronica (loosely based on Funghi Alla Veronese)?
Mr Shakespeare, you are a genius! You can come to supper any time. 
For a quick and lazy supper for 2 you will need...
25g butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion (about the side of a tennis ball), finely chopped
1 fat clove of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leafed parsley
½ teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 tablespoon plain flour
250g mushrooms (your choice but something with a bit of flavour), sliced
100mls double cream or crème fraîche
60mls good quality stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 
2 slices of good quality bread (toasted just before serving) 
Flat-leafed parsley or basil to garnish 
Simple ingredients, magical mushrooms!
1                    In a medium frying pan over a medium heat, melt the butter and add the olive oil. Add the chopped onion and fry gently until just beginning to turn golden – about 6–8 minutes. Add the crushed garlic, parsley and thyme and cook for a further minute.
2                    Now, sprinkle the flour into the frying pan and stir until it is well mixed with the onions. Add the mushrooms and cook gently for about 5 minutes, gently stirring the contents of the pan occasionally.
3                    Add the cream or crème fraîche and stir into the mushroom mixture before adding the stock. Let the mixture bubble for a minute or two. The mixture should be creamy without being liquid. If there is liquid in the pan continue to let it bubble until the liquid has evaporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
4                    Serve immediately on toast and garnish with fresh parsley or basil – whichever you prefer.
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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dark Chocolate, Orange and Almond Brownies – a foot in both camps !

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In exchange for his killer salsa recipe, I made a homesick Hawaiian short-order chef some chocolate brownies as he had talked about them with almost as much affection as his far-off home. They were deeply disappointing, all gooey and chewy. I handed them over with an apology and a promise to amend the recipe.

 “Chewy? Gooey? That’s what a brownie is supposed to be!” he exclaimed and pronounced them “Pretty! Damn! Good!”
I’ve since discovered that brownie aficionados fall into one of two camps: chewy, gooey; or cakey. My blondie recipe is somewhere in between so I have reworked it into a bitter chocolate brownie that manages to be light without being too cake-y with hits of orange peel and pockets of dark chocolate to satisfy the chewy, gooey camp too.

For approximately 16 foot-in-both-camps brownies you will need...... to base-line a 23cm square cake tin and to pre-heat your oven to 160°C

150g butter
100g muscovado sugar
100g bitter orange marmalade (with peel)
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
2 teaspoons of (good quality) instant coffee dissolved in 2 teaspoons boiling water
3 eggs, beaten
150g plain flour
50g good quality cocoa powder (I used a gorgeous Fair Trade cocoa)
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
100g good quality (70% cocoa solids) dark chocolate
50g toasted almonds, roughly chopped 

Icing sugar to dust 

1                    Place the butter and sugar in a bowl and using an electric mixer, cream together until light and fluffy. Add the marmalade and orange zest mix until combined with the butter mixture.
2                    Mix the coffee in with the beaten eggs and add this mixture to the bowl in three roughly equal amounts, beating until well combined with the butter mixture.
3                    Now, add the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and mix until just combined.
4                    Stir in the chopped chocolate and almonds to distribute them evenly throughout the batter.
5                    Transfer the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for 35-40 minutes until risen and a cocktail stick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
6                    Remove from the oven and leave to cool for about 5 minutes before removing from the tin. Serve warm with good ice cream or cool completely before dusting with icing sugar and cutting into squares.

They’ll keep for up to a week (in someone else’s house maybe!) if sealed in an airtight container or cling wrap.

UPDATE: They get even more chocolatey and orange-y and luscious overnight. Alchemy at work...
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