Wednesday, 26 January 2011

It was my youngest son Albie who alerted me to Jamie Oliver. Of course I knew all about him, this Essex boy made good who was all over the telly with his fruity language, but I'd never given him much thought. He was too ubiquitous to be interesting (ooh, I am a terrible snob, I confess).

But Albie, who is nine and keen on the kitchen arts, had taken to watching Jamie's 30 Minute Dinners every day with an obsessiveness that he had hitherto reserved for The Simpsons and Top Gear. One day he literally hauled me in front of the television and told me to sit down and watch. And my goodness but I was really impressed.

He's the most personable, least pretentious TV chef I've seen, but - and of course this is the important part - his recipes really work. Albie asked for the book for Chanukah, of course I got it and of course it's really mine. It's a complete fancy that any of these meals would actually take 30 minutes to prepare - maybe perhaps if you have a very decent sous-chef (Albie's learning but he's not there yet), live very near a posh supermarket that sells stuff like prewashed fancy salad and handily sliced Spanish Iberico ham and flaked parmesan, so you don't have to do that yourself. But the 30 minute thing doesn't really do it for me - if I want to make a nice dinner I'm not going to stint on the time it takes any more than on the ingredients I need.

But I do appreciate delicious, relatively easy to cook meals. And Jamie is nothing short of a genius when it comes to that. Albie can knock out his smoked haddock chowder with no help at all and it's terrifically good. You just fry up some chopped bacon and sliced spring onions, add some chopped floury potato, give it all a good stir, then pour in some boiling water, add a stock cube and cook till the potatoes are almost done. Add a can of sweetcorn and a nice piece of smoked haddock, cook till the haddock flakes, stir in some cream, bring back to just under the boil and serve with matzo crackers.

We were in London over the weekend and of course on our way back home we stocked up in M&S on some staples - crunchy peanut butter, which I've never found in France, Chinese crispy duck (it comes with cucumber, spring onions, plum sauce and pancakes and is just as good as your average Chinatown joint) and some spare ribs.

The duck was polished off last night But when I opened the spare ribs tonight I realised that they would never feed five greedy people. And thus came Jamie to the rescue with his Dan Dan noodles!

5 spring onions
clove of garlic
tbs chopped chili pepper sauce
tbs chopped ginger
soy sauce
olive/sesame oil
one lime
beef stock cube
sugar snap peas
packet of Chinese egg noodles

Chop the spring onions and garlic and divide between five soup plates. Divide the ginger and chili pepper sauce (or fresh chopped chilis if you prefer) between the soup plates, then spoon over about a tablespoon of soy sauce and oil, a squeeze of lime and a drizzle of honey into each bowl. Cook the sugar snaps for a minute or so so that they still have some crunch. Add the stock cube to a large pan of boiling water, then add the noodles and cook for about 4 minutes until they are done - but don't let them get too soft. Scoop the noodles out of the stock and divide between the soup plates, then pour the stock over the noodles and top with the sugar snaps. Remind everyone to mix their noodles with the flavourings at the bottom of the bowl.

We topped these with the spare ribs and it was absolutely delicious. Jamie says to top it with slices of rare steak, which I have no doubt would be just as good. Probably you should add chopped coriander but we hate the stuff.

Friday, 24 December 2010


Just a quickie before I head off into the Wild West for a week of he-man, self-deprivation, eating-sticks-and-rocks in the frozen highlands of New Mexico, our most beautiful state. I've pretty much cleaned out the fridge of perishables, but there was this perfect potato in the fruit bowl—welll, not quite too perfect as it was turning green and starting to sprout. As my German grandma would say, "Diese Kartoffel ist noch essbar," and remembering Granny's frugality I decided to have it for dinner instead of throwing it out.

No, I really don't have a German granny. But Karen doesn't have a Jewish one either, and she has Hannukah parties all the same. This is going to be my tribute to both of our imaginary ancestors, with a froggy spin. Pommes Annette is a single-serving variant (okay, I just made this up now) on the classic Pommes Anna—made with one potato, salt, and olive oil. Yeah, I know butter is traditional, but I think olive oil tastes better, and you can throw in a wad of butter at the end for flavor if you absolutely must.

The Jewish angle is that this could be considered a version of Latke—eat it with applesauce if you like—in fact the potato I cooked was a remnant of those I had gotten for latkes during Hannukah. It's also super simple, fun to make, and it's very elegant to look at—just like Pommes Anna.

While the oil is heating in a skillet (preferably cast iron), cut the ends off the potato, peel and slice (a Benriner mandoline is great for this!). Spread out the slices on the cutting board and sprinkle with salt—just one side is fine. After making sure that the oil is sloshed all around the skillet, arrange the slices artfully. I like to start around the outside with the larger pieces, overlapping somewhat—the result is kind of chrysanthemum-like. It's got to be thin, because we're not going to turn it—it's going to cook through just from one side.

That's pretty much it. By the time the tater is fully cooked, there will be a very nice crust on the side that's down. If you're using cast iron, you may need to coax the browned slices off of the metal. [And if the skillet is not properly seasoned, you'll end up with crunchy mashed potatoes!] Flip it over onto a plate and eat.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Zabaglione-Persimmon Bread Pudding

Actually it's challah pudding, because the eggy loaf is one of the few things we ever have on hand to make bread pudding. I'll admit to not being a huge fan of challah—the word itself is Hebrew for "good to dry cars with"—and I am guessing it's one of those things you need to grow up with in order to actually like. Consumed within hours of emerging from the oven, a challah has the redeeming quality of being fresh. After that, well…it does make good bread pudding.

We're up to our earballs in persimmons, too. Dad has a tree. Mom's friends have trees, and drive-by persimmon donations are daily occurrences this time of year. Unfortunately, the ripening gets ahead the consumption, and through the magic of ethylene one overly-soft persimmon will turn a whole fruit bowl in a flash. Faced with one mostly neglected challah and a brace of ripe persimmons that had been isolated from the rest, a bread-persimmon pudding seemed like just the logical thing to do.

In place of a typical binder, I substituted zabaglione: four eggs, about a cup of sugar, half a cup of marsala are mixed continuously in a double boiler until thoroughly warm and frothy. The pulp of three very ripe persimmons (no seeds!) are blended in.

Meanwhile, in bowl number two, a torn-to-shreds most-of-a-challah is doused with milk and the persimmon/zabaglione mixture is added. The whole mess then gets put into a parchment-lined loaf pan, and then into the oven at 120°C (350°F) until cooked, which depends on the size of your loaf pan.

Served warm, it's actually pretty light.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Lemony Snickett/Chicken ...

For the life of me, I cannot remember if I've posted this one before. If I have, please excuse me. If not, excuse me for not doing so earlier. It is, apparently, Italian in origin: what would I know?

The good thing is that it requires a bit of white wine, which means that you really have to open that bottle in the downstairs fridge and check it out. It will be fine, but you can never be too careful.

Anyway, you should start with some chicken: leg + thigh, which you need to cut into two bits: at the joint, please, or you'll bugger your knife for no good reason. If you really wish you can remove the skin: personally I have no problems with cholesterol so I leave it on, but if you're paranoid feel free to remove it.

Next step is to brown those bits all over: don't use a non-stick pan if you can help it, because the brown burnt-on bits are your friends, and don't use a cast-iron pan because lemon juice is not good for it. Whatever, brown them nicely: if they have their skins on you won't need to add any fat (see? remove the skins, need to add fat when cooking: leave skins on, don't. It all balances out, somewhere along the line. Karma, or something like that.)

That will take about 10 minutes, turning occasionally. Ensuring that there is some left, have some more wine at this point. When finally everything's nicely browned, turn the burner down low and chuck in a couple of chopped onions and some garlic and let them sweat in the fat until they soften and start to turn golden. At which point you need to fling in a good heaping tbsp of chopped fresh rosemary, and let it cook a little more.

Assuming there's still some white wine left (if not, open another bottle and hide the empty one somewhere no-one will find it for a while), slosh in a glass of that and the juice of a lemon and stir in all those lovely brown crispy bits.  Bring to a simmer, then cover and let it cook for about 40 minutes.

Which gives you forty minutes to drink, chat, and think about what goes with it. Personally I'd go (do, in fact, go) with buttered tagliatelle and a green salad, all of which are last-minute jobs and so need not concern us at this time.

Should, at any point during the cooking, the pan start to look a bit dry, just add a bit more wine. Or water, if you're that sort.

When the chicken is definitely cooked it's time to add a bit more lemon juice and white wine and get it seriously bubbling to reduce: then turn the heat right down, add 20cl of cream (I never promised this was lo-cal) , stir it in and keep on stirring until the whole lot thickens nicely.

At which point you may congratulate yourself on a job well done, serve it on top of the buttered pasta, and hit the bottle. Sophie's not keen on white, had to open some rosé. What a shame.

Credit for this one to Julie Biuso, whose book "Viva Italia" came into my sweaty hands at some point.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Baccalata: Glory to Cod in the Highest

For our little group’s most recent soiree gastronomique I proposed the theme of baccalà, or cod that has been transformed by the process of salting, storage, and desalting into something different and distinctly better than the rather bland, white protein favored for fish and chips (and rather little else). I also volunteered to procure the main ingredient for whomever wanted, and that turned out to be the event’s biggest challenge. It may be easy over there in Europe—just toodle on in to your local epicerie—but here in land of sliced bread it ain’t so easy. After a couple of chowhound inquiries, a few phone calls, and a mad rush-hour dash from San Diego to Harbor City I finally got some from a Spanish sausage company (where I couldn’t resist also buying some chorizo and pricey-but-worth-it Bellota ham).

For a Saturday night dinner party, I started soaking the fish in fresh, cold water on Tuesday evening, keeping things in the fridge and changing the water once every 24 hours or so. Tasting the water when you change is a good way of telling how much more you need to desalt—when the water is just mildly saline after the baccalà has been soaking in it for a day then the fish is about ready to use. I have overdone it with the desalting before, and the results are not so good. Friday morning I divided the fish three ways: Giusy needed quite a bit for her baccalà alla vicentina, Veronique needed less for a brandade, and I needed even less for either the quenelles or the salgadinhas, but since I was making two dishes I made sure to keep enough.

Here are the four baccalà dishes.

Quenelles: This is basically a classic fish dumpling usually made with pike. I substituted cod, of course, and ground about 300 grams of uncooked baccalà (desalted) into a pasty mass, then ran the paste through a food mill to remove any stringy matter. Added a pinch of white pepper and put this away for later.

The other part of these quenelles was a choux dough: 1 stick (½ cup) butter and 1 cup water, brought to a boil and to which I added 1 cup of flour. Stirring continuously the dough gets very solid and greasy and pulls nicely away from the side of the saucepan. Transferring that to a glass bowl, I then added three eggs, one at a time. This part is kinda fun. The mixture gets all slimy and lumpy after each egg is added but it soon turns smooth and the dough gets stickier with each egg. I let this cool to room temp until it was time to add the fish. [But see Karen's recipe on this blog if you want to make cream puffs.]

My take on quenelles is to mix the fish paste with the non-sweet pate choux in about a 40-60 mix (40% fish)—no need to be too precise. The fully mixed fishy choux dough then gets formed into the quenelle shape (do this with two tablespoons as you drop them into the simmering liquid--I used a court bouillon with chinese chives, parsley and oregano) and poached until they puff and float for a minute or so. I like to transfer the poached quenelles into a baking dish with a light tomato sauce on the bottom, and bake them for a bit longer—they get even puffier and lighter and develop a more interesting texture than only-poached quenelles.

So anyways, I thought the cod quenelles were pretty good, though I think they come out better with fresh fish. I also overbaked them a bit, hoping that they would puff out more. Oh well, they got eaten.

Salgadinhas de bacalhau e ervilhas: This is my take on a standard croquette made throughout Spain and Portugal--my brilliant innovation is the addition of peas, which was inspired by a conversation with my distant Brazilian cousin Pamela.

After prepping some of my aliquot of fish for quenelles, I poached the rest and flaked it (getting rid of the darker parts) and added a nice handful of frozen peas. Boiled some potatoes, ran them through a ricer, added a splash of heavy cream. I also had a sofrito with onions and garlic cooked down in some bacon fat, and I added that to the potatoes. When the potato/sofrito mixture was cool, I adjusted salt to taste and then added two eggs, the cod/pea mixture. The breading was good ol' Japanese panko crumbs.

You can form and bread these guys a couple of hours ahead of time, but make sure to fry them shortly before serving. I have the oil heating at around the time guests arrive and fry them (not too awkward in this group) while we drink. Put the quenelles in one oven while the other cooks warm their dishes in the other oven. More drinks (and I'm starting to sound like Trevor). It's terribly nice to hang with cooks. Anyways, the salgadinhas were good, though I do think that croquettes are generally neither horrifically bad nor insanely good. Being fried and crunchy and potato-ey, they were the preferred cod dish among the F1, who were all in my son's room playing Wii games while the rest of us blasphemed away (yes, lots of Cod jokes) in the kitchen.

Brandade de morue: Veronique (yes, a real French person) made this lovely dish, also based on baccalà and potatoes but working very nicely as a spread on crusty bread. Here's her recipe:

1 lb of baccalà, 1 lb of potatoes, sage, laurel leaves, thyme, warm milk, olive oil, garlic, black pepper

Poach the fish with the thyme, laurel and sage for about 10 min. Boil or steam the potatoes and cut them in pieces. Put in a blender with 2 cloves of garlic, and pepper. Blend well and add warm milk (about ¼ cups and olive oil until you get a smooth puree but not liquid; taste it as you go as you do not want the olive oil to dominate. You can also add a little bit of heavy cream if you want. Top with grated Swiss cheese and put in the oven to warm up and broil. Enjoy!

Baccalà alla vicentina con polenta: Giusy (yes, a real Italian person) made this, and it was excellent.

Cut the desalted baccalà into smallish pieces. Thinly slice up some onion (however much you want) and cook it down with some good olive oil until it's transparent. Add a couple of desalted anchovy fillets to the onion and keep it going on for about five more minutes, then turn off the fire and add some chopped parsley. Coat the baccalà with flour and spread them out in a glass baking dish. Spread out the sofrito over the fish pieces and pour in some whole milk, just enough to cover the fish. Top with grated parmigiano reggiano, salt and pepper (don't go crazy with the salt). Drizzle on a nice dose of olive oil, and cook this all in the oven (covered with foil presumably), at 250°F (125°C) for 3-4 hours. This dish is best if prepared a day in advance.

For the polenta, heat up a stick of butter (½ cup) with ¼ cup of olive oil in an amply-sized pot, and add three cloves of garlic (minced), salt, pepper and a healthy pinch of Italian seasoning (which here means a mix of dried basil, oregano, marjoram, and sage). After the garlic has cooked a bit add 2 cups of milk and 3 cups of chicken stock, and just when it come to a boil (i.e. before the milk curdles), add 2 cups of corn meal in a thin stream, stirring continuously and taking care not to get burned by the splashy bubbles of hot polenta. This will get pretty thick by the time the cornmeal is fully cooked, and that's the time to add ½ cup of grated parmigiano. Buon appetito. [translation by Jeff]

Giusy's take on polenta is quite different from mine—where I use salted water she uses an elaborate mixture of milk and chicken broth, butter and olive oil and dried herbs. This adds considerable flavor and makes a polenta that is lighter and better able to keep a nice texture for some time after being made and transported—an important consideration when you're taking polenta to someone else's house. She also insists that her dish is not a brasato, although I really like the thought that this is an example of how one can be perfectly secular while still braising Cod.

We also had the contribution of wine and a cheese platter from Claudia (yes, a real German person) and Mary (yes, a real Scottish person), who normally cooks, though their kitchen was under repair (another good reason for having a basement instead of building your house on a friggin' concrete slab!). Morgane, Veronique's daughter provided a chocolate torte. Giusy also brought a Pugliese dish of mashed fava beans and greens (should be puntarelle, a kind of chicory, but she could only find baby collards). I added a pavlova with zabaglione-tinged whipped cream.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


Me, I love porridge. My children do too. But I am so lousy in the morning. If it's a choice between an extra ten minutes in bed and my kids going hungry, well, I know what I choose. Always, every day, I choose the extra time coasting (I think I first came across the term coasting in Peanuts. Lucy, or Linus perhaps, also made a habit of it).

But yesterday I figured out a way to get warm oatmeal into my children and still not have to get up. Baked oatmeal! And you know what, it's nicer than porridge. It's sweet and buttery, a bit like a hodgepodge of a pancake. And it couldn't be more straightforward to make.

1 1/2 cups oats (any kind will do, I should think, but I used rolled rather than porridge and it did make for a nice texture)
1/4 cup dark soft brown sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt
2 tbs linseeds and/or wheatgerm (both of these are optional but a good way of sneaking nutritious things into your children first thing in the morning)
1/4 melted butter
1/2 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Mix the dry ingredients together. Add the butter, milk, egg and vanilla extract and mix well.

Spread out in a baking dish of appropriate size. It will puff up a bit when it bakes.

Refrigerate overnight.

Choose a helpful child. Explain to him or her how to turn the oven on to 175 C.

The next morning instruct Helpful Child to put the dish of oatmeal in the oven for 25 minutes, by which time you should have got out of bed. Scoop it into bowls and serve adorned with nothing more than a splash of milk.

Leftovers can be reheated in the microwave the next day - and the day after that, if you make enough. Instant goodness!

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Pasta with crab

It's been a while, I confess I've been very busy with the faéily. Had to choose between cooking for them or writing about cooking... But I'm back!
It's late summer now, here in the Alps I can feel autumn in the wind. So I'm cooking in between seasons foods. Which basically means going back to hot dishes instead of cold ones but still employing all the herbs & other goodies fresh from the garden.
Today's Sunday lunch was an example of this. We still eat outside every lunch time, but dinner is not a given, as the wind comes up or the rain comes down.
Last Thurs. there was a special at the supermarket on live crabs. Obviously, we couldn't pass this up. With the exception of my youngest, we all go mad for crab! So we picked them out, with enthusiastic participation of the verry child who refuses to eat them, then went back home in gleeful anticipation (ignoring the scuffling noises from the grocery bag) of a Sunday lunch.
Yes, Sunday, not the day after buying the crabs. Quandry: when to cook them? I consulted the helpful but slightly freaked out lady who sold me the crabs (clearly, alive & kicking seafood was too much, especially since she told us a few of the crabs had made a run for it) who insisted they must be cooked the next day.
So the next day I consulted a fellow foodie, crab expert in my mind, as she is the one who gave me the original crab pasta recipe. The big question was how to kill them with maximum of flavor and minimum guilt. Her suggestion was to freeze them for 30 min then toss the in boiling water for 20 min. This I could do. And did. With minimum discomfort to my conscience ( they slept thru it, I swear!). As always, the real nightmare was cleaning them: that made me swear off fresh crab for ever! Afterwards, I froze the meat until Sunday morning.
Anyway, the following is the pasta sauce recipe, using the precooked crab:
TIP: the crab sauce can be made ahead of time, it allows the flavors to settle.
NEVER serve with parmesan! DOES NOT go with seafood!

3 crabs
1 celery stick
2 shallots
3 mild chilis (optional)
olive oil
white wine
salt & pepper
(I grow all the herbs and chilis myself in pots)

Sauté the celery, onions & chilis in olive oil.
When onions are translucent, add the precooked crab. Stir well, sprinkle with paprika then add the white wine.
After mixing in the pasta ( I do this directly in the pan), sprinkle liberally with fresh basil, chives & parsely.