Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Moros y Cristianos (in a hurry) – good luck to you !

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Simple ingredients, magical food !

I learned to tango in the basement of a Dublin pub some years ago. When I say “learned” I mean my head learned quite a bunch of fancy steps but failed to pass this new knowledge on to the rest of me.

However, I quickly came to understand that if you learn the general shape of the dance and can follow a lead AND you have the great fortune to be landed with a good dance partner, you’re laughing. If not, lean down and whisper this excellent piece of advice to your tender little toes: “Rrrrruuuuuunnnnnnnnnn!”

Some of the great partnerships that come to mind are: Fred ‘n’ Ginger, Travolta ‘n’ Newton-John, Swayze ‘n’ Grey, Bacon ‘n’ Eggs, Fish ‘n’ Chips, and - the non-pc - Moros y Cristianos, aka black beans and rice.

This dish has been around in some form or other for so long that its origins are hazy, but it widely agreed that it acquired the name sometime during the complicated history that saw Spain conquered by the Moors, then reconquered by the Christians. It is a popular Cuban dish and variations are enjoyed all over South America – as well as in the US.

It is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day - for good luck (although probably more in the sense that “If you think you can find something else in the cupboard at this time of year other than black beans and rice, then good luck to you.”) 

This is my quick version. It is humble fare but a welcome break from all the recent feasting!

For approximately 6 servings as a main, or 10 as a side, you will need…

300g basmati rice
1 x 400g can of black beans (turtle beans)
approximately 700mls* chicken stock
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
200g pancetta or bacon, diced
I stick celery, peeled of stringy bits and finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 red pepper, finely diced
I green pepper, finely diced
3 fat cloves of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cumin

2 bay leaves

a little salt to taste, if necessary

a little chopped coriander (optional)

First, rinse the rice in plenty of cold water and leave to soak while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Drain the water from the beans into a measuring jug and make up this muddy-looking liquid to 800mls in total with chicken stock. (You may need a little more or a little less depending on how much liquid you get from the beans.) Leave to one side while you prepare the vegetables.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the pancetta or bacon. Fry gently until cooked, then add the celery, onion and peppers. Continue to cook gently for about 5 minutes or until any excess liquid - released by the peppers - has evaporated.

Add the garlic, cumin and paprika and continue to cook for a further minute before adding the bean liquid and stock mixture. Bring to simmering and add the soaked, drained rice along with the beans and bay leaves.

Simmer, uncovered for 10 minutes or until all the rice is cooked and the liquid has evaporated. Taste and add salt only if necessary. Turn off the heat. Cover with a clean teacloth and allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving with a sprinkling of coriander if desired.

Wishing you a delicious 2014 !
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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pecan and Sour Cherry Mincemeat (and pies) - so good they ought to be banned !

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So delicious it ought to be banned!

More than a Ho Ho Ho! from a fat man in a red suit… more than a chorus of The Holly and The Ivy… Mince Pies shout “Hey everyone, Christmas is here. Par-ty!” I love them.

These little pies-with-personality have evolved a bit since they first arrived in England, brought back by returning Crusaders. Originally they contained meat, along with the dried fruits and spices we still use today.

The first written record appears in 1557 – the same year they became an endangered species. The puritan, Oliver Cromwell, decided at this point to put a damper on Christmas  - which he felt had become associated with drunkeness and gluttony. He abolished all fun and feasting associated with the event, outlawing (so legend has it) the mince pie. Christmas festivity was restored with return of the monarchy in 1660. Phew!

By Victorian times, meat had more or less vanished from the pie (although some still include beef suet to this day).

Santa is rather partial to a mince pie or two, and you are supposed to make a wish on biting into your first. Also, apparently it is bad luck to refuse the first offered to you – but I don’t think I’ve ever refused a (homemade) mince pie so that’s not something I need to fret about.

This year, the recipe is a little different to my usual one. I was in my mother’s house when a mince pie craving struck and there were a couple of interesting substitutions as she didn’t have all the ingredients. I think I like this mixture even better.

Add some zest...

For about 4 jars of Pecan and Sour Cherry mincemeat (1.5kg in total) you will need...

... to pre-heat the oven to 100°C

300g sultanas, raisins or currents (or a mixture of all 3)
300g ready-to-eat dried apricots, finely diced
100g dried sour cherries
220g honey
100g mixed peel
50g pecans, finely chopped
50g slivered almonds
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 whole cloves – crushed to a powder
200g apple, grated
125g butter, cut into cubes
grated peel and juice of 1 large orange
grated peel and juice of 1 lemon
6 tablespoons Metaxa (or Brandy, or Whiskey)

an additional 2 tablespoons of Metaxa (or whatever alcohol you choose), to stir in at the end

Measure. Mix. Mmmmm...

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.

When the cooking time has elapsed, remove from the oven and allow to cool, stirring briefly every half hour until cold.

Finally, stir the remaining 2 tablespoons of Metaxa (or Brandy, or Whiskey) into the cold mixture before sealing in clean, dry jars.

I usually have a jar or so left over (for non-seasonal mince pie cravings). I find it keeps well for up to a year in a cool dark place or in the fridge (if my sisters don't discover it).

Merry Mincepies Everyone!

To make the pies, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Line a bun tin with shortcrust pastry. Fill with mincemeat. Cover with a pastry lid and seal the edges before punturing to allow steam to escape while cooking. My sister skips the top layer of pastry, preferring to bury the mincemeat in a layer of chopped almonds. Delicious!

(For filo pastry pies, cut into squares a little larger than the hollows of the bun tin. Brush with melted butter and add another layer, slightly off-set. Repeat with a third layer to form a rough star shape. Press into the hollows of the bun tin and fill with Christmas mincemeat. Leave the pies open or twist the edges together to make little purses.

For puff pastry pies, I cut squares, leaving enough overhang to draw the corners together in the middle before sealing the edges.)

Bake for about 20 - 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before serving with a dusting of snowy icing sugar and a swirl of whipped cream. 


Wishing you a delicious Christmas and a tasty 2014 !

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Good Elf – a hot cocktail to help Santa on his way

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To: Santa Claus
c/o The North Pole

Dear Santa,
Long after I stopped believing in you - and no matter how naughty I’d been - I’d wake up on Christmas morning, to find a treat-filled stocking with a Mandarin or a Satsuma hiding in the toe. I must either have (accidentally) notched up a few brownie points during the year or perhaps you continued to believe in me.
On Christmas morning the scents of orange, the log fire, and pine from the Christmas tree would intermingle to form a signature Christmas scent as I and my siblings opened our gifts, swapped our gifts, fought over our gifts, broke our gifts, and played with the packaging.
Dear Santa, I do try to be good... but I deserve to be on your naughty list this year. I made you some cupcakes in case you got a little peckish on your way around the world. However 48 fondant eyeballs, 12 fondant moustaches, 12 fondant noses, 12 fondant carrots and 24 woolly fondant bobbles later, I’m afraid all that sugar got the better of me, and  I ate your share. (Burp!)
48 eyeballs, 12 moustaches, 12 noses, 12 carrots, 24 woolly bobbles, 1 tantrum, and 1 Good Elf later...
Dear Santa, I happen to know you are partial to orange liqueur so I have created this cocktail as a little Thank You. It's an excellent and warming alternative to mulled wine, but don’t take too long in getting here though. It smells rather tempting... (Hic!)

Dear Santa, if you like this little tipple and want to recreate it at home then you will need...
Coriander simple syrup
100g runny honey (or sugar)
100ml water
3 tablespoons coriander seed, roughly crushed 

Place the honey (or sugar) and water in a small saucepan and bring to the simmering until the honey (or sugar) is completely dissolved in the water. Now add the crushed coriander seed and leave to steep overnight. Strain to remove the seeds and keep in a screw top jar or bottle. (This will keep for at least a month in the fridge). 

Santa’s Little Helper
40mls Cointreau (or other triple sec-style orange liqueur)
1 – 2 teaspoons coriander simple syrup (see recipe above)
80mls fresh Mandarin or Satsuma juice
80mls fresh water
1 slice of orange stuck with 5 cloves 

In a tall (preferably heat proof*) glass, mix the Cointreau and the simple syrup. Put the orange juice and water in a small saucepan and bring to simmering. Add to the glass and float the slice of orange with cloves on top. 

*Santa, if your glass is not heat proof, place a metal spoon in the glass before adding the hot liquid. 

Your Good Health (or Good Elf!) and a Merry Christmas!
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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Butternut Squash Soup with Sumac and Coriander Seed – good thinking, sunshine!

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I had been looking to try out the jar of sumac that I’d found recently. While I searched for divine inspiration, a ray of sunshine obligingly blazed through the window and lit up a butternut squash that had been lingering in the vegetable basket for the past few weeks. Good thinking, sunshine! This creamy, filling and surprisingly healthy soup is the result. It tastes even better the next day. Alchemy at work!

For 6-8 bowls of sunshine, you will need...
1.5kg butternut squash
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sumac*
1 teaspoon coriander seed, finely crushed
½ teaspoon salt 

a further 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, peeled of stringy fibres and finely chopped
1 fat clove of garlic, crushed
1.25 litres chicken stock or vegetable stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley 

I love the aroma released when the coriander seeds are crushed
- definitely worth the slight effort it takes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C

Using a sharp knife cut the butternut squash into quarters. Scoop out and discard the seeds. Rub the quarters with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place in a shallow roasting tray, skin side down. Sprinkle evenly with the sumac, coriander seed and salt. Place in the pre-heated oven and bake for about 50 minutes or until tender. Remove and set aside until cool enough to handle. Then, scoop out the tender flesh. Discard the skin. 

Roasted sunshine!

Meanwhile, heat another 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and cook gently without colouring until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the garlic and cook for a further minute then add the roasted flesh from the butternut squash, followed by the stock. Cover with a lid and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Liquidize the contents of the saucepan – a stick blender is perfect for this. Taste before adding salt and black pepper according to your own taste. 

Sprinkle with the chopped parsley before serving.  

*Used in Middle Eastern and some Mediterranean cuisine, sumac is a berry that is usually sold dried and crushed to a coarse powder. If you can’t find sumac, a ½ teaspoon of grated lemon zest works well as a substitute in this soup.
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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Plaited Porter Bread – a loaf of plain is your only man !

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I felt sorry for the poor chefs each wrestling to turn four obstinate strands of dough into a neatly-plaited loaf, under the watchful eyes of (the acerbic) Monica Galetti and (the wincing) Michel Roux Jnr., in a recent episode of Masterchef - the Professionals.
Herding mice at the crossroads is the expression that came to mind as I watched those seemingly-inanimate strands doggedly resist all attempts to arrange them into neat, braided order.

Although it might seem like it, you don’t need four hands, a degree in juggling, and a black belt in macramé to end up with a rather impressive bread. You just need a little know-how, and to be able to count to 4. (Although, a little practice doesn’t go astray either.)
For a bread with a slightly bitter edge that's perfect with cheese, I used the best part of "a pint of plain", but you could use water instead.

For 1 plaited loaf, you will need...
Bread dough
500g strong white flour
1 x 7g sachet of fast action bread yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon caster sugar
330mls porter (Guinness, Murphy’s, or Beamish)

Egg wash
1 small egg, beaten, mixed with a pinch of salt

(optional) a few oats, or seeds for sprinkling over the top of the loaf (poppy, sunflower, pumpkin or sesame all work for me)

Place the first 5 ingredients in a mixing bowl or stand mixer and mix to combine. Warm the porter to between 27°C–35°C. (If you don’t have a thermometer, this is when a finger dipped in the beer will feel neither hot nor cold. Too hot, it will kill the yeast. Too cold, it will just take longer to activate.)

Add the warm porter to the dry ingredients and mix until combined. If you are using a stand mixer with a dough hook, mix for about 8 minutes. If kneading by hand, knead until the dough is smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes).
Place the dough back in the bowl. Cover with some oiled cling film and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour or until doubled in size.
Next, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead for a minute or so. The dough will collapse alarmingly but don’t worry, the yeast is still working.

Divide the dough into four even pieces and roll each into a sausage shape approximately 30cm long and tapered slightly at each end.
Join the four dough ‘sausages’ at one end, with the other ends fanning out. Number the positions of the fanned ends: 1, 2, 3, 4. The number of the position doesn’t change. Every time you move a strand it takes the number of its new position.

Ok, here goes...

Cross strand 4 over strand 2. Cross 1 over 3. Cross 2 over 3.

From Top Right to Bottom Right (strands shown in their new position) :
 Fan out the dough strands; cross 4 over 2; cross 1 over 3, cross 2 over 3
Repeat the above sequence until you have a tidy plait. Tuck both ends under to neaten the loaf. Place on a lightly floured baking sheet. Cover and leave to rise once more in a warm place for about 30 minutes or until doubled in size. (To check if the dough has proved sufficiently, poke it with a finger. The indent should remain. If it bounces back quickly, let it rise for a little longer before checking again.)

When you are ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 200°C.  While the oven is heating, brush the dough with the beaten egg. Lightly sprinkle with oats or seeds if using. Transfer to the pre-heated over and bake for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180°C and continue baking for a further 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and tap the base of the bread. It should sound hollow. If not, return it to the oven for a further 5 minutes. Cool on a rack.

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