Saturday, 27 February 2010

Food For Flatters ...

Back in the dim distant past, when I acquired what I now refer to as an "education" (and, incidentally, taking seven years to complete a three-year degree, but that's another story) it was more or less traditional to spend the first year in the university hostels before moving out to go flatting. The university always tried to keep some second- and third-year students on in the hostels, probably under the impression that they would provide a rôle model of some sort to the impressionable fresh-faced first-years: I'm not convinced that this always worked quite as they expected.

Anyway, the first year was thus exposure to industrial food. Bit like a piggery, only perhaps not as clean. It was where I learnt that it was physically possible to keep toast warm in steamers, although that does rather negate the basic purpose of toast, which is to be crisp. I also learnt that baked beans on rubbery toast with "bacon" that may once have dreamt of being part of a pig can in fact be eaten and even held down, especially if weighted with enough "scrambled eggs" (which I now suspect to have been slices cut from a foam rubber mattress). And that was just breakfast. Dinner could be even more inventively horrible.

After that I, like most of my fellows, moved out and went flatting, which was also pretty much a dog's breakfast. My first flatmate (who also happened to own the flat) had spent a lot of time in Indonesia, I think, and his idea of a good meal was a curry. Now, I can agree: I still think that his habit of crumbling one or two dried, extremely hot chilis onto it because it was a bit dull was somewhat excessive.

In any case, the first book that was tremblingly thrust into the outstretched hands of spotty youths such as myself heading for the adventure of life was, 90% probable, a slim volume entitled "Food For Flatters". It still exists, having gone through a number of editions, and contained nutritional advice, hints on useful cooking utensils, and some actually rather reasonable recipes. Like, "Things to do with Mince", and "Semi-Hungarian Goulash". It unfortunately had a number of typos: one of which, calling for 4 tbsp of baking powder rather than 4 tsp, led to Julianne's Browneye Pudding. Which I'm ashamed to say I've never let her forget. Mind you, I've never forgotten it either, so I don't see why she should.

Personally, once I'd got a job (although still, technically, a student at the time) I went out and bought a couple of French cookbooks and started working my way through them. (I still have them, by the way, and still use them. Bloody good investment.) This was partly because I'd discovered that I actually liked food, and that cooking wasn't in fact all that difficult, partly because I thought I'd commit suicide if I had to face too many of Rodney's Rancid Roasts or Boil-Inna-Bag Ready-Made Rice Dinners, but mainly because it was an immutable law at our flat that the cook didn't have to do the washing-up. And as Julianne was capable of using every pot in the house just to cook some porridge, it was a pretty easy call to volunteer for the cooking ...

Today's meal then, as a tribute to past glories and the first cookbook I ever owned, is Imperial Meatloaf. Not, rest assured, that dry gray bootleather that I'm sure you've eaten: this is - if you do it properly, anyway - succulent and tasty, and damn good cold too.

You should really start by putting half a cup of breadcrumbs in a bowl along with a decent amount of whatever dried (or fresh) herbs take your fancy; I'd recommend something relatively assertive, like herbes de provence, considering what they'll be smothered under. Then add a quarter-cup of milk, and let that sit for a few minutes until it's all absorbed, at which point add an egg and beat it all up until you have a thick, smooth paste.

The next thing to do, whilst your hands are still relatively clean, is open a bottle of wine and fortify yourself with some of it. Exceptionally, none of it goes into the cooking so you don't have to be too light-handed: unless of course you have kitchen help that also requires lubrication. (Confession - I didn't do this for Sophie, so no-one was standing around in the kitchen looking thirsty. An advantage that small kitchens have over open-plan living spaces. Whatever, I did not have to share the bottle.)

In any case, finely chop a smallish onion and cut a carrot into thin rounds: put them in to stew in some butter whilst you slice up some red and green pepper. When the onion's golden and the carrot's started to soften add the sliced pepper, and after a couple more minutes dump two tsp of decent curry powder into the pot and stir it all around. (Or add more, if you like. Just make sure it's good stuff. Most commercial curry powders available here are kind of like hot tasteless dust, which rather misses the point.) If, like us, you always seem to have a half-tin of sweetcorn in the fridge which hasn't quite gone furry, fling that in too.

Before the next glass, slice some bacon into fine strips and strech them out on a sheet of tinfoil; once that's done, we're ready to go. But it will be kind of messy, so drink now.

This is the fun part, where you take the mince (about 300gm should be fine for two), put it in the bowl with the breadcrumb paste, and knead it with your fingers until the two are intimately mixed. But before doing that I would suggest rolling up your sleeves and taking your watch off; probably preemptively scratching your nose would not be a bad idea either.

The breadcrumbs serve to bind and soften the mix, and will help keep it nice and moist during the cooking. I'm not sure if they absorb some of the fat that'd otherwise leak out and be lost or whatever, but it does work. Whatever, spread the mixture out over the bacon strips and, one way or another, try to get a slab about the size of an A4 sheet of paper. If you haven't got enough, just make it smaller - resist the urge to get it too thin.

Now scrape what you can off your hands with the back of a knife or whatever, and have a good wash. There's a fair bit of fat even in 5% mince, and for some reason it always seems to collect around your fingernails and under rings and suchlike. Having someone around to turn the hot tap on for you might be a good idea, otherwise it too will be covered in grease.

Anyway, you could now have yet another glass before spreading a good dose (about a quarter cup, maybe) of plum sauce all over the meat. Not Chinese plum sauce, good antipodean plum sauce made by boiling plums down with onions, cloves, sugar and vinegar. At a pinch I suppose you could use some good ketchup, but I'd be tempted to try some spicy mango chutney if I were going to substitute. Or perhaps some decent salsa.

And once that's done, spread the curried vegetables out over the lot. If you really want to - and I'm not trying to discourage you on this one - crumble some Roquefort over it, or spread out some slices of fresh goat cheese. (I'm not a great fan of Roquefort myself, but I did get some rather nice fresh cendré at the market this moaning, so that's what I used.) Finally, using the tinfoil to help, roll it all up along the long side into a hopefully not too deformed log before tipping it into a loaf tin, preferably without dropping it on the floor or getting the tinfoil hopelessly entangled in the process.

Now at this point it's not going anywhere by itself, so you can just leave it to sit while you consider what you're going to eat with it. (Don't forget that at some point you will actually need to cook it - about 45 minutes in the oven should do the trick.) I think roast potatoes are a good idea, but a slightly liquidy gratin wouldn't be too bad either. Nor, come to that, would nice crisp frites. As for the greenery department, I'd be tempted just to go for a good salad - mind you, I do have vast quantities of magali-dressing in the fridge (got a bit enthusiastic making some up the other day) and that could bias me.

And for dessert, we just had banana cake with crême anglaise (aka custard), but I'll leave that up to you.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Beef stew

It's cold here in February, so to warm up the members of the family, I often make stews. Since all the male members are serious carnivors, stew is an easy way to make them happy & get them to eat their veggies. The secret to a good stew is to let it simmer for hours, which has the added benefit of warming up my rather cold kitchen.
Tips: I buy a boeuf bourguinion cut, which I dice up into about 2cm chunks. The meat cooks better this way & is bite size. If you have any left over broth, substitute it for water. Split peas may be substituted by beans. Without beans, the recipe is the basis for goulash.

Classic beef stew
1 lb or 500g beef
1 large carrot
2 medium onions
1 large potato
Tomato sauce
Peas or split peas

Slice onions& carrots, sauté in oliveoil. 
Add meat& brown. 
Add a glass of wine & paprika. Simmer
When wine cooks down, add cubed potato & tomato sauce. Leave to simmer.
Add peas or split peas (if so, add hot water).
Salt & pepper to tase, simmer untilsplit peas& meat are cooked.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

This little chicken crossed the road ...

And whilst we're still on the subject of leftovers, what's wrong with chicken pie?

Last weekend at Carrefour I thought I'd get a chicken to roast for dinner, which I did - only cost 6 euros but unfortunately it must have been on a body-building course or on steroids because it weighed about 1.5 kg, which is rather more than enough for three. In fact, it kept me in chicken salad sandwiches for the next few days, and then as the Heap of meat showed few signs of diminishing I shamefacedly shovelled the lot into a ziploc bag and flang it (past perfect, you'll get used to grammar) into the freezer.

From whence, requiring nourishment for two tonight, I extricated it, thinking that perhaps I could pair it up with the chicken breast that's been sitting forlornly in the fridge for the past two days. So I thought, why not a chicken pie? And as Margo's up in Paris and I am thus allowed to cook things that only I like, why not dumplings? Come to that, why not the two together?

So it was chicken dumpling pie which was, let's face it, well suited to the weather - which is, in case you're interested, frikkin' frigid around here. Godnose why the bloody Parisians want to come - maybe they enjoy freezing their arses off on the chairlifts and paying ten euros for a three-euro sandwich. Can't think of any other rational explanation.

(Please note. if you don't have leftover chicken - you're doing well - use four chicken breasts. Whatever, you need enough chicken to feed however many people you have at the table.)

Whatever, you will need some white wine for this one. So open it now. Then gently stew a shallot (on an onion) in butter until soft, sprinkle with some good chicken or veal stock powder (or, if you're a little goody-two-shoes, use some of the stock you've made yourself) and add some wine - not too much, remembering that you should leave some for yourself. Once that's simmering, stick the chicken breast(s) in and let them simmer for twenty minutes or so.

During this frenzy of activity, you could usefully make up some lardy pastry. Which is no more than a short pastry made with lard instead of butter. Do remember not to work it too much so that you still have lumps of lard in it when you roll it out: like that it should puff up as it cooks. You could also boil some potatos, for the dumplings.

Once the chicken breast is done, fish it out and slice it, then fling it back in together with the (defrosted) leftover chicken and bring it to a simmer. Add some sour cream (just for fun) and let it simmer some more: if it looks a bit runny add some beurre manié (we discussed that last time round) and then let it cool for ten minutes. Which I do by sticking it out on the balcony: at -10° it chills out quite quickly. So would you.

Now would be a good time to roll out the lardy pastry and line a pie dish with it. Do not slice off the overhanging edges, it's much more fun to fold them over onto the filling. But we'll get to that later.

At this point, if I may recapitulate, we have
  • pie dish lined with pastry
  • tasty chicken filling slowly freezing out there
  • some boiled potatoes
So, take the boiled potatoes and mash them well, add two or three tbsp of lard, some salt and some fines herbes. At a minimum, thyme and chives (or ciboulette, if you're Frog), whatever takes your fancy. And a good tsp or two of baking powder. Beat the whole lot together, adding milk (or fresh goat cheese, if you happen to have that handy) as required until you get a soft dough.

Proceeding to the assemblage, just stick the chicken filling into the lined pie dish, spread the dumpling mixture out over the top, and fold any pastry edges over and onto the top. Then stick the whole damn lot into a hot oven and let it cook, until done. About thirty minutes, I reckon.

Easy as that, really. You could sprinkle the dumpling with grated cheese, or paprika, or whatever - the recipe is not patented. In fact, I hereby place it in the public domain, and renounce my rights to sue anyone.

Bon appetit, les enfants.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Tortellini al brodo

February in the French Alps means snow. Lots of snow. A week of continuous snowfall. Snow means chilly weather. The best remedy for chills is my Northern Italian grandmother's: soup! Many people find soup boring, but in our household we love soup, or zuppa or minestrone or minestra... but then Italian soups are full of yummy things, like pasta!
Tortellini are always a treat, so put them in soup and it's a sure to be a success. It's also a very simple & quick recipe.
Usually I make my own broth from a chicken carcass (or beef, lamb, fish), celery, carrots, onion, garlic & laurel (add whatever other vegetables are in the fridge) and I do occasionally add homemade tortellini (on the rare occasions that there are leftovers). Broth keeps 5 days in the fridge & freezes well, so I automatically make some when I have the ingredients. However, commercially available broths can be substituted when in a rush, as well as the tortellini.
Just bring the broth to a boil, add the tortellini, simmer until cooked (al dente). Serve with grated parmesan.

TIPS: Use dried tortellini (as they tend to absorb liquid so will over cook), preferably with a meat filling.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

This little piggy stayed home ...

One of the things that you have to learn when your household down-sizes is creative ways to deal with leftovers. Case in point - Malyon ran off to Glasgow a few years ago, which left three of us, and now that Jeremy's boarding at the lycée technique hotelière (where you'd have thought he'd have learnt enough to help out with the cooking around here, but that's another story) there's just the pair of us for most of the week. And as I've still not quite come to grips with little things like quantities for two, that usually means there's more than enough food, even after we've both pigged out.

Like the other weekend, when I did a rather nice pork roast. A bit of rolled shoulder so it was just nicely marbled with fat which melted into the flesh as it cooked, and on top of that cooked just right so it was still pink inside. (No, I'm not advocating eating your pig all wobbly, but as sanitary controls are so strict these days that you're far likelier to have a grand piano fall on you in the bath than you are to catch trichinosis,  there's no need to cremate the joint until it becomes gray tasteless cardboard. Unless, of course, you actually like it that way, in which case you probably shouldn't be reading this. Just saying.)

So, what to do with it? Honestly, what I often do is grind the rest up in the whizz and stick it in the freezer in ziplock bags ready for making steamed pork buns, but this time (as the freezer's full anyway) I thought I'd go for a little gratin, sauce piquante. (Which, incidentally, is rather nice done with left-over tongue, if that's what you happen to have.)

First of all, make yer sauce piquante. Start by finely chopping an onion and stewing it gently for ten minutes or so in butter so it goes all soft and lightly golden (I said, "gently"), at which point you could usefully sprinkle over a teaspoon of sugar and carry on cooking for another few minutes until that caramelises. Then sprinkle with a tbsp or so of flour (you will probably have to add more butter) and stir that around, and add a tsp or so of instant beef stock (good stuff, please), and stir some more.

Add some water (not too much just yet) and whisk it round to incorporate, and then add 2 tbsp of vinegar (I like to use my vinaigre aux piments for a bit of added excitement, but cider vinegar's fine if that's all you have) or more if you really like piquante qui pique, and whisk that in too. Some would add a bit of mustard powder: I leave that to your discretion. Add more water if required to get a nice thick sauce, add some finely chopped gherkins and/or capers, and leave that to cook very gently (off to one side on top of the wood-burner is good) for ten minutes so that it doesn't have that faint whiff of wallpaper paste about it.

While that's going on, pour yourself a glass of white (you could use that instead of water for the sauce, which gives you a good reason to open the bottle, should you need one), butter a gratin dish, and slice the meat into thickish slices. This should only take five minutes, which leaves you five minutes for another glass before putting the dish together.

Which involves nothing more complicated than spreading a layer of sauce in  the gratin dish, arranging the slices of meat on top of that, covering them with the rest of the sauce and then sprinkling the whole lot with breadcrumbs and grated cheese. Into a hot oven with it until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs have formed a nice crust (another ten minutes or so, I reckon) and it's fit for purpose.

Were it summer I'd serve it accompanied with a decent salad and lots of bread for lunch: as it's not, I found buttery mashed potatoes and petits pois à la française went pretty well.

The latter, by the way, provide an excellent way of cooking frozen peas. Put as many of these as you think you're likely to need into a saucepan with a lump of sugar, a 1/2tsp salt and the bare minimum of water: bring to the boil. When that comes to pass add five or six lettuce leaves (I use my old favourite, rougette, but you may have to make do with feuille de chêne) either ripped into pieces or sliced into strips (some hold that slicing lettuce leaves makes them bitter. This is utter crap.) and a sliced spring onion or a shallot or heaps of chives, and turn the heat right down whilst the lettuce wilts and you stir in a bit of beurre manié to thicken it up.

This is no more than a heaped tsp of softened butter into which you've incorporated a tsp or two of flour to get a smooth paste. It means you'll have no nasty floury lumps appear when you stir it into the peas. With any luck the mixture will be quite (very) thick: stir in cream (personally, I like to use crême fraîche, aka sour cream, but ordinary pouring cream is fine) until it's the consistency you like, and cook gently for another five minutes or so before serving.