Thursday, November 30, 2006

Chicken with Cinnamon and Lemon

Oh oh oh - this is blissful. Sometimes a dish is so much better than expected the first time you try it that it is quite astonishing. It is how I feel about this one. I found the recipe on line a little while ago and copied it because it sounded interesting and because it came with a good pedigree. There is a small Italian restaurant in central London called Caldesi where I have eaten a few times and always extremely well. I first came across it in connection with Slow Food and have been interested ever since. The BBC recently produced 'Return to Tuscany' about the Caldesi's travails and successes setting up a food school in Italy and some of their recipes are on the bbc site, my source for this one. Looked promising.

While we were in Bali we went to some local markets and one of the spices they sell is what they call cinnamon, though in fact it is 'bastard cinnamon' or cassia. It has much thicker bark and is rougher in texture and less delicate in fragrance. Cassia sticks can be distinguished from true cinnamon sticks fairly easily - cinnamon sticks have many thin layers and can easily be made into powder using a coffee or spice grinder, whereas cassia sticks are extremely hard, are usually made up of one thick layer and can break an electric spice or coffee grinder if you attempt to grind them without first breaking them into very small pieces. So, be warned!

What the cinnamon adds here, along with the subtle flavours of the bay and lemon and the soffritto is a kind of delicate complexity that takes this dish into territory I didn't know. It was something about scent and depth of flavour as well as the juicy chicken and the unctuousness of the sauce.

Chicken with Cinnamon & Lemon

For the soffritto
8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 celery sticks, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 sprig rosemary
4 bay leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, zest only

For the chicken
flour, for coating
salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 chicken pieces
olive oil, for frying
100ml/3½fl oz white wine
1 lemon, juice only
4 cinnamon sticks
200ml/7fl oz chicken stock

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and gently fry the celery, carrot, onion, garlic, rosemary and bay leaves until golden, about 15 minutes. Remove the rosemary sprig and bay leaves and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the grated lemon zest. Set to one side.
Meanwhile, for the chicken, mix the flour with the salt and freshly ground black pepper and coat the chicken pieces in this mixture. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and fry the chicken until golden brown. Add the wine and cook for five minutes. Add the chicken and wine reduction to the soffritto, then add the lemon juice and cinnamon. Stir well. Add the stock and cook on a low heat, covered, for about 30 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and the chicken is completely cooked through. Take off the lid and cook gently for another 15-20 minutes till the sauce has thickened slightly. Remove the cinnamon sticks and serve immediately with white rice.

Absolutely amazing.

Monday, November 27, 2006

I Bought

Dull and wet, Borough is not an attractive place to be in the rain with puddles everywhere, unexpected drips dropping down the back of your neck from the rafters high above and occasional bits of slippery leaves that need dodging as you wander about in the half light. The upside is it was a little quieter than it's been of late so it was easy to get around.

Bought a couple of chicken legs from Wyndhams but they didn't yet have any carcasses for the day so stock making will have to be done another weekend - so much for that plan - £3.80

A lovely piece of boned pork shoulder from Ginger Pig - £8.70 - it was too busy in there to make enquiries about the butchering courses they were advertising but the lovely boyfriend and I are definitely curious

Carrot apple and ginger juice - a classic combination to provide a little cheer - from Total Organics - £3

Thought we might like a little cheese from Gastronomica - we were offered a richly flavoured piece of mature pecorino to try so we bought a slab of that, then my eagle eyed sweetheart noticed a new cheese with truffle but soft so we had a half of one of those and to round it off we tried some goats curd that had been left to separate, the whey given back to the goats then a little salt was added to the curd and it was so good we had a tub of that too - all this for £10

Some rough skinned russets from Chegworth Farm - £1

Lots of winter veg from Booths - red skinned potatoes, parsnips, turnips and swede for a seasonal melange to go with the pork roast, as well as brussel sprouts and beans and a butternut squash - £8.60

Hankering after a final taste of sunnier climes we bought a dressed crab and fresh prawns from Shellseekers for a simple supper - £11.80

Back past Ginger Pig and the glistening pile of sausage rolls was irresisible - so one of those and a scotch egg - £6

Dark roast New Guinea coffee beans as a change from my usual South American favourites - it comes highly recommended by the woman who served me and who could know better? - £9

Bread and milk from Neals Yard where the price of Hoxton Rye has gone up to £2.45 a quarter making it more expensive than poilane - but then we like it more than poilane so I bought a piece - £6.50

Needed olive oil which we buy from Borough Olives - had hoped for a catch up chat with Marie at the same time but she was nowhere to be seen - £22.50

All in all not a cheap week but the oil will do us for a couple of months - £90.90

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Cauliflower & Stilton Soup

Though most strongly associated with Christmas - because it is so special perhaps? - Stilton is one of my favourite cheeses all year round. In 1996 it was granted Protection Designation Origin status by the European Commission and there are only 6 dairies anywhere licensed to make Stilton - only using pasteurised milk from local cows in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

Its name comes from the town where it was famous as long ago as the early 1700's - Stilton - but because it is located in Cambridgeshire they can't actually make Stilton themselves. Indeed, they never have. Frances Pawlett, the wife of a Melton Mowbray dairy farmer, is the first to be credited with making this fine blue cheese and it was sold to travellers who stopped at the Bell Inn in Stilton on journeying between London and the north. In 1727 Daniel Defoe remarked on passing through Stilton, a town famous for cheese in his Tour Through England and Wales.

As with many of the finer things in life this cheese is made slowly and with great care - to be sold as Stilton it must be cylindrical in shape, form its own crust, be unpressed and have delicate blue veins radiating out from the centre. Most of all it must have that creamy crumbly richness, its mellowness giving way to a piquant aftertaste. It is a delight on any cheeseboard with crisp celery or oatcakes and is the perfect accompaniment to a glass of fine port.

Sometimes - though in my case rarely - there is a little left over that needs to be used up. It was a situation I found myself in this week and rather than waste it I set my heart on making steaming bowls of cauliflower soup, made unctuously rich with my little treasure trove of cheese. And this is how I did it.

Cauliflower & Stilton Soup

1 cauliflower, broken into florets
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbspn butter
1 tbspn olive oil
bouquet garni of bay leaf, parsley and thyme
650 ml/ 1 pint stock
325ml/1/2 pint whole milk
1 tbspn cornflour mixed with a little water
150g/4oz stilton, crumbled
salt and ground black pepper

Fry the onion in melted butter and olive oil in a large pan till translucent - about 10 minutes. Add the cauliflower and toss till the little curly heads shine then add the bouquet garni and the stock. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for about 20 minutes.

Remove the bouquet garni and liquidise till smooth - for ultra silky pass through a fine mesh sieve at this point. Return the pan to the heat, stir through the cornflour paste and then the whole milk. Cook gently for 10 minutes then stir through the cheese, adjust the seasoning and serve with thick slices of rye bread.

Good enough for Santa.

Friday, November 24, 2006

This Week

An exotic start to the week with dim sum for lunch and 'meat on sticks' for dinner after seeing the new James Bond - all wrapped in the heat of our last full day in Singapore. I do hate it when holidays end. We flew back Sunday but were too tired Sunday night for anything more than a cup of tea before bed and the never ending black hole that is sleep for the jet lagged.

Coffee and cereals Monday for breakfast, a tasty lasagne fromBarbican Grill for me for lunch and steak sandwich with wild beef from the freezer and marinated beetroot and a grilled onion salad on the side for dinner. Perfectly rich and light with various textures to cheer up our first day back.

Tuesday there was goat's milk yoghurt to go with coffee and cereals for breakfasts for the rest of the week, lunch was ham hock from the freezer cooked Monday night with white bean salad and baby carrots from Waitrose 'grown for flavour' as the label proudly announced just to make my head hurt wondering what on earth else you grow vegetables for and then we had steaming big bowls of spaghetti with a beef and tomato sauce known as spag bol in our house even though it is not a classic bolognese sauce by any stretch of the imagination but it is very very good

Wednesday more ham and beans for lunch then roasted butternut risotto for dinner with the stock from the hock as the liquid

Thursday creamy sweet leftover risotto for lunch and the other half of the spaghetti from Tuesday for dinner after I struggled through my French class - will need to do extra homework to catch up

Friday is the last of the ham for lunch and dinner will be cauliflower and stilton soup - it's a nasty kind of day and we have some cheese from before we went away which, though past its best it would be a shame to bin when it could be the perfect finish to an elegant tea

Borough Market tomorrow!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Roasted Butternut Risotto

After a few weeks of holidays and no cooking it's back to real life and not an awful lot in the house. Risotto is always a good standby - a little stock from the freezer, some rice from the cupboard, something interesting to focus the attention and the 'usually I've got some inthe fridge' combination of butter and Parmesan. I'd bought a butternut squash with not very clear intentions of what to do with it then decided I'd try roasting it with some whole cloves of garlic to make a properly autumnal dish. The result was a pan of rice the colour of a glorious tropical sunset flecked with deep green basil, its peppery tang offsetting the sweetness of the rest.

Roasted Butternut Risotto

1kg butternut squash, peeled and cut into small pieces
2 tbspns olive oil
6 unpeeled cloves garlic
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
200g/6oz arborio rice
2 tbspns butter
1 cup vermouth
1 l/1 1/2 pints stock
Freshly grated nutmeg
50g/2oz grated Parmesan
Good handful fresh basil, chopped

Put one tablespoon of olive oil in a baking dish and add the butternut. Season and roast for 50 mins - 1 hour till tender, turning occasionally. At the same time wrap the unpeeled garlic cloves in aluminium foil with a little drizzle of olive oil and roast alongside the squash.

Bring the stock to a slow simmer in a pan on top of the hob. In a large flat pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and one tablespoon of butter. Gently fry the celery for a few minutes, then add the rice and stir till it glistens. Add the vermouth and stir till it is absorbed then squeeze the softened hearts of the garlic cloves into the pan. Add the stock a ladle at a time, stirring till it is absorbed before adding more. When half the stock is used generously grate in some nutmeg then continue adding stock till it is all used and the rice is creamy with just a hint of 'bite' in the centre.

Mash the softened butternut and stir through till it is incorporated into the rice. Season with salt and black pepper. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the Parmesan, cover and turn off the heat. Leave to sit for a couple of minutes then stir through the basil and serve in large bowls.

Monday, November 20, 2006

This Week

I'm back!

It was lovely to go away - very hot, lots of sunshine and the chance to play in the surf in Bali and splash about in the pool in Singapore. The only cooking I did was a bit of chopping and stirring in Bali when we attended Bumbu cooking school. The day started early - 6am - but we were making the most of the jetlag. The sun was already hot for the visit to Jimbaran market to learn about the spices and different fruits and vegetables. Some of them I knew not, like the very beautiful snake fruit with delicately carved skin and a sharpish fruit inside and the sublime mangosteen which I had heard of but never eaten. I will search them out here. We got a very skilful demonstration of how to weave little packages to steam rice - not something I feel confident I could repeat!

The rest of the morning was spent in an outdoor kitchen under an awning making, firstly spice pastes and peanut sauce and then using them to make curries and satè and yellow rice and fried rice. Rice is integral to the Balinese diet - it is the pivot around which the rest of the meal is based. The food is highly spiced and everything that is served with the rice is in very small quantities to give flavour rather than to be a dish on its own. Very different to western eating patterns. The lunch we all sat down to after the class was very generous and extremely tasty. It was a fascinating day.

While we were there we stayed with friends in a sort of paradise house. Their housekeeper is a local woman, Desak, who cooked for us a few nights. She is quite a skilled cook but making meals for us was a different experience for her to her own domestic catering - she is never likely to cook a whole chicken, fish, tofu, vegetables and rice for a mid week supper for four. So judging quantities is not something that came automatically. When we asked for a number of dishes to be served at the same meal what she laid before us was each dish generous enough for a meal on its own - it made me realise the extent to which that judgement is a learned skill for different cuisines and an integral part of the whole process of cooking.

And also that we are, relatively and literally, quite greedy in our consumption. Wanting multiple dishes was a means of tasting many things, giving us as much experience of the food as we could pack into a short time but in fact it doesn't match the experience of local people. We remain as tourists, learning at one remove from reality.

There is probably little that is useful to her that I could teach Desak about european food but her fabulous lemon grass sambal was a revelation to me - a tiny amount of intense spice to transform plain steamed rice. I have no equivalent to offer. But I will make the sambal and think of her long after she has forgotten us.

Singapore is a whole other world - urban and bustling and very shiny clean. Again we had the good fortune to stay in a private home, this time with the delightful Vicki. There is less that is startlingly new here but she guided us to different places for lunch and dinner every day with the effortless ease that comes from serious planning. We had delicate steamed dumplings, amazing fried rice, crunchy stirfried greens one day, richly flavoured indian served on banana leaves another and revisited two favourites from the last trip for perfect rendang and opor ayam one night and the spectacularly fabulous black pepper crab down by the waterfront that is hot and juicy and completely messy. You cannot eat them any way but using your hands - had hot butter juices running up my arms and globs of spice all over me by the end.


Monday, November 06, 2006

I Bought

Easy peasy this week because we are going away on Wednesday to hotter climes in Bali and Singapore for a couple of weeks combined with the fact that the lovely boyfriend had visited Borough Market Friday afternoon and bought masses of treats for us to celebrate my birthday including fillet steak and wild mushrooms for dinner Saturday night which he made all by himself and it was wonderful.

So, after a splendid breakfast at Brindisa we ambled into Ginger Pig where someone had parked a stroller with two caterwauling toddlers who were were bawling at such a pitch it was like physical pain. The butcher and I discussed the best way to put them out of their misery - sadly none of them legal. I bought 2 chicken breasts and two pork chops for £8.34 and left.

Haven't had one for a while so I bought a pork pie - £4.50

Asked for a piece of Parmesan at Gastronomica and was offered a sheep's milk version to try that was sweet and crumbly and I bought a piece for £8 and tried a piece of aged ricotta just to taste it and very good it was too

Kisses and birthday wishes from Marie which was made me smile

Barley from Total Organics because we're running out - £1.29

Parsley and shallots and some horse mushrooms at Booths - £1

Disaster - the Irish smoked salmon people are nowhere to be found and my sweetheart had wanted it for a starter for supper but I had a brainwave and we backtracked to Shellseekers and bought a dressed crab and some sweet shelled prawns that were a treat - £7.75

Bread and milk from Neal's Yard - £4.50

No need for brownies as I brought a slice of chocolate cake home for my lovely one from work

Total £35.38 - cheap!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Chocolate Truffle Cake

In my mind I think I don't make much sweet stuff - and yet here's another one so I have more sweet things than soups on this site at the moment. This cake is a decadent confection of whipped chocolate on a thin rum soaked sponge base that I have been making for years. It used to be my party piece - any time I was doing a dinner party or someone was having a birthday I would whip one of these up and it would be unfailingly good.

The recipe comes from Raymond Blanc's Cooking for Friends, given to me for Christmas many years ago by my friend Andrea. Indeed she was probably there when I first made this. If not she's been present for quite a few of the subsequent ones. Raymond Blanc describes it along the lines of it being a simple and impressive dessert for chocolate lovers which is true but it is much more than that - it's brilliant too for sharing out mid afternoon. I have made this current one for the office - it is my birthday tomorrow and it is a tradition here that you must supply cake for all so they can celebrate. I don't quite know why - in Oz when it is your birthday someone else takes you out for lunch or drinks or cake and generally makes you feel special. I guess it's a cultural thing.

It turns out that it is actually many years since I have made this particular chocolate truffle cake - the lovely boyfriend was intrigued as I whipped it up because he's never had one. He's such a chocoholic cakey pig I'm surprised it's never been on the menu for him because he would love it. I'll save him a slice.

Truffière de Chocolat

50g/2oz caster sugar
50ml/2oz water
50ml/20z dark rum
2 egg whites
60g/2 1/4oz caster sugar
2 egg yolks
10g/1/4oz unsweetened cocoa powder
50g/2oz plain flour, sieved
10g/1/4oz unsalted butter, melted
100g/4oz maya spiced green & black chocolate - or use plain if you can't find it
250g/10 oz bitter chocolate
500ml/18fl oz whipping cream

Make a stock syrup by putting the water into a samll pan then add 50g caster sugar. Bring to the boil, skim off any impurities, then simmer till the sugar has dissolved. Measure 50ml then add the rum. Reserve.

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas4. To make the sponge base, beat the egg whites until they reach soft peaks, then add the sugar gradually, continuously beating. When all the sugar is beaten in, whisk in the egg yolks. Finally fold in the flour and cocoa delicately, followed by the melted butter. Pour into a lined 25cm/10" spring form pan, spread evenly to a 1cm/ 1/2" thickness. Cook in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Put the sponge base back into the springform pan and, with a pastry brush, dampen it with the sugar/rum mix.

Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a bowl placed over a bain-marie. Keep the water temperature low or the chocolate will granulate. Stir and make sure allo f the chocolate has melted. Cool slightly.

Separately in a large bowl, whip the cream. Briskly mix one quarter of the whipped cream into the cooled chocolate, then pour the mixture into the bulk of the whipped cream. Fold in gently with a spatula until just homogenised.

Pour the chocolate cream on to the rum soaked sponge base. Smooth the top. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

Before you unmould it run a hot cloth around the outside of the pan. Undo the pan, lift off gently, slice and serve.

Good enough to party.

This Week

We lunched on sausage roll and scotch egg and then Saturday night we were out at the Tate sliding down Carsten Holler's slide before going for drinks with David. Don't know if it's art but it certainly is fun.

Sunday started gently with coffee and toast in the sun in the garden. Not hot but really pleasant till the neighbours started up the battle of the bands with Whitney belting out 'I will always love you' top volume to beat gospel from Mahalia Jackson and it was time for us to go out. Following what is becoming a habit we retreated to the Wheatsheaf for Sunday lunch. Word is spreading about how good it is - they were actually turning people away by about 2.30. Dinner was hot roast beef sandwiches - not hungry enough for more roast potatoes.

Monday - and all week again - cereals, yoghurt and coffee. Lunch was roast beef and potato salad and skinny crisp french beans till Wednesday then we were out again Monday night to see Kevin Spacey in Moon for the Misbegotten at the Old Vic - an excellent production but a little overwrought at the end.

Tuesday I'd been hankering for a little Chinese so we had Ma Po and sea spice aubergine and rice which serviced my desire - and the leftovers with roast beef next day for lunch was lovely

Wednesday was perfect penne with tomato, aubergine and mozzarella

Thursday we had leftover pasta for lunch and it was good cold as well as hot then Thursday night I had to finish making the choclate cake after I came in from French class so it was 9 pm when we sat down for sandwiches made with sesame flute from Paul with the last of the roast beef and some ripe, runny cheese and it was very good indeed

Friday lunch will have to be bought and there's fireworks on Clapham Common tonight - I love fireworks and all the attendant oohs and aaahs - and dinner might be pasta at home but only if we can't get into the Sea Cow for fish and chips

Had leftover veg this week with the leeks and broccoli and roasting potatoes not eaten but we may well have the leeks tonight, the potatoes should be okay and it's only the broccoli that will find its way into the bin

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Penne with Aubergine, Tomato and Mozzarella

The River Cafe in west London is something of an institution these days having produced some of the best Italian food in the land as well as providing work experience to the likes Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Their guiding principle of sourcing the very best to produce the very best and putting in vast amounts of energy and ingenuity to ensure an endlessly evolving process was unusual when they started out. Their unflagging commitment to this same principle twenty years on is a joy to witness.

As well as running the restaurant Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray have written six cook books and contribute generously to other magazines and newspapers so that we can all eat well and learn new techniques and combinations. In the last month's Observer Food Magazine the theme was making perfect versions of various things like roast chicken and beef stew. The recipes for the various perfect pastas on offer were written by these two amazing women and so came with a gold plated guarantee. The first one I have made is perfect penne.

Pasta with aubergine, tomato and mozzarella

Serves 4

350g penne
2 aubergines, thinly sliced
500g plum tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped
250g mozzarella, freshly grated
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tbs finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 dried red chillies, crumbled
extra-virgin olive oil

Lay the sliced aubergines on kitchen paper and sprinkle with sea salt. Leave for 20 minutes to allow the bitter juices to drain. Rinse in cold water and pat dry.

Heat 3 tbs of olive oil in a thick-bottomed pan. Add the garlic and parsley and cook until soft. Add the tomatoes and their juices, the chillies and 2 tsp of sea salt, and cook over a medium heat for 20 minutes.

Heat 4 tbs of olive oil in a large, thick-bottomed frying pan. Fry the aubergines in batches until brown and crisp on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper. Cook the penne in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, return to the pan and add the tomato sauce. Stir to coat, then add the aubergine and finally the mozzarella. Serve immediately.

Cold for lunch the next day it was perfection revisited.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Pock-Marked Woman's Bean Curd

Great name for a dish, no? I find it irresistible as apparently did the local Hunanese in whichever of the myriad versions of how the dish acquired its name. A common version is that Ma Pó was a poor woman badly scarred by leprosy who lived on the outskirts of Chengdu at some time between 1800 and last month who survived by hawking this wondrous combination of silky bean curd, minced pork (or in some versions beef or lamb) and vast amounts of chilli and a final spicing of crushed szechuan pepper before serving.

Another version has it created in the first year of the Tongzhi reign (1862) of the Qing Dynasty by Chen Xingsheng Restaurant. The main chef was the wife of Chen Chunfu whose name has been lost in the mists of time, but was known then - and now - for her pockmarked face, a result of small pox, hence the name. She is said to have prepared this spicy, aromatic dish for labourers who laid down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch on their way to the city's markets. Later the restaurant was renamed as the Pockmarked Chen Grandma's Bean Curd Restaurant, which became famous far and wide.

It was one of Mao Zedong's favourite dishes. Mao's successor, Deng Zhou Peng loved it too, preferring it with equal quantities of chilli and pork - he's a braver man than me!

This version comes from Fuchsia Dunlops 'Sichuan Cookery'.

Pock-marked Mother Chen's beancurd 'ma po dou fu'

1 block of beancurd (about 500g)
4 baby leeks or spring onions
100ml groundnut oil
150g minced beef or pork
2½ tablespoons Sichuanese chilli bean paste
1 tablespoon black fermented beans
2 teaspoons ground Sichuanese chillies (only for chilli fiends)
250ml vegetable stock
1 teaspoon white sugar
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
salt to taste
3 tablespoons potato flour mixed with 4 tablespoons cold water
½ teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper

Cut the beancurd into 2cm cubes and leave to steep in very hot or gently simmering water which you have lightly salted. Slice the leeks or spring onions at a steep angle into thin 'horse-ear' slices.

Season the wok, then add the groundnut oil and heat over a high flame until smoking. Add the minced beef and stir-fry until it is crispy and a little brown, but not yet dry.

Turn the heat down to medium, add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the oil is a rich red colour. Add the black fermented beans and ground chillies and stir-fry for another 20-30 seconds until they are both fragrant and the chillies have added their colour to the oil.

Pour in the stock, stir well and add the drained beancurd. Mix it in gently by pushing the back of your ladle or wok scoop gently from the edges to the centre of the wok - do not stir or the beancurd may break up. Season with the sugar, a couple of teaspoons of soy sauce and salt to taste. Simmer for about 5 minutes, until the beancurd has absorbed the flavours of the sauce.

Add the leeks or spring onions and gently stir in. When they are just cooked, add the potato flour mixture in two or three stages, mixing well, until the sauce has thickened enough to cling glossily to the meat and beancurd. Don't add more than you need. Finally, pour everything into a deep bowl, scatter with the ground Sichuan pepper and serve.