Friday, February 29, 2008

Spinach and Mushroom Pasta Bake

I wanted to make a really luxurious dinner. I am in general a fan of baked pasta dishes - they are somehow rustic and elegant at the same time - think of a good lasagne or a fine crespelli. They generate pleasure. I believe the secret is to do with the quality of the cheese sauce. This one is particularly fine, binding together a gentle melange of textures and flavours to create a really superlative dish. It is important to use a cheese like Gruyere or a hard sheep cheese like Pecorino for the delicacy - it makes for a subtle sauce with a lovely long finish. Something like Cheddar is simply too strong, too brash. All it would do is overpower the whole dish, wiping out the pleasure of all the other elements, and all your hard work.

Spinach and Mushroom Pasta Bake

This is a perfect winter supper.

200g pasta shells
500g mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced
1 tbspn olive oil
500g spinach
1tbspn chopped tarragon
1 onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
100g butter
65g plain flour
fresh grated nutmeg
800ml milk
300g gruyere, grated
Salt and pepper

I decided to try and cut down on the washing up and use the same pan to prepare each step of this dish. It worked but took about an hour all told before it went in to the oven, so 90 minutes altogether. If you're a bit more pressed for time you could use multiple pans and hope the washing up fairy visits later.

In a large pan cook the pasta shells in salted water till just al dente. Drain, rinse and put in to the bottom of a large casserole dish.Heat the oil in the rinsed out pan then add the washed spinach, cover with a lid and cook for a few minutes over a low heat till the spinach collapses. Drain in a colander.

Rinse the pan again and heat a tablespoon of the butter and add the sliced mushrooms. Stir till they are nicely coated in melted butter then cover and cook over a low heat for three or four minutes. Take the lid off and allow about half the accumulated liquid to evaporate. Tip the contents over the pasta in the casserole dish. Squeeze out the excess water from the cooked spinach and add it to the casserole along with the chopped tarragon and mix it altogether evenly.

Rinse the pan again!

Make a cheese sauce - melt the remaining butter and add the chopped onion and crushed garlic. Cook over a gentle heat for about five minutes till the onion is translucent and it all smells lovely. Turn the heat very low then add the plain flour and stir to make a thick paste. Keep stirring till the only lumps are onion bits and the mix has become a golden biscuit colour. This takes 7 or 8 minutes - if you stop too soon the flour stays raw and the final sauce will be horrible. You don't want that.
Still on a low heat start adding the milk and stirring it in. Incorporate the milk smoothly before adding the next bit and keep going till all the milk is used. By this point it should be about the consistency of single cream - add more milk if you need to. Raise the heat to medium and tip in all but a tablespoon of the grated cheese and stir till it melts into the sauce. It should now be about the consistency of double cream. Grate in a generous amount of nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Have a little taste to check the sauce tastes great.

Pour the sauce over the pasta/vegetable mix then sprinkle over the last of the cheese and a tablespoon of fresh breadcrumbs. Bake in a moderate/gas mark 4 oven for 30 minutes till the top is crusted and golden. Allow it to cool for a few minutes before serving with a green salad and some crusty bread.


Monday, February 25, 2008

And this week ... I bought

The man has had a fraught week or two at the office. I asked him what he'd like for dinner Saturday and he said ham, egg and chips. And for lunch? Ham sandwich. There's a great deal of pleasure as well as comfort in eating the familiar.
So at Ginger Pig we bought a big piece of smoked gammon for dinner Saturday night as requested and then with coleslaw and bean salad for lunches. I fancied sausages and salad for Sunday night so asked the butcher for some of the lamb sausages - he looked a little puzzled. Those, I said as I pointed to the ones labelled Black Sheep. He laughed and said no, they're pork but they've got added ale. Preferring my beer separate to my sausage I bought half a dozen cumberlands instead - and he gave me an ale one to try. With the addition of a couple of remarkably lean pork chops with mash and zucchinis Friday night it was £28 all together.

Some chocolates as a thank you for a colleague - £2

For the sandwich ham bought some parma and some mozzarella for Saturday lunch from the stall that sells only that - £9.20

Apple juice from Chegworth - £1.50

Wandered round the stalls on the far side and bought a lovely piece of cow's milk toma for snacking from the french stall - small compensation for not being in France ourselves - £5.50

Booths for potatoes, rocket, lettuce, cucumber, carrots, bananas - £4.90

Neals Yard for bread and yoghurt - £8.20

A baguette from the french grocers - £1

Fancied an almond croissant so went to Flour Power to discover they had hot cross buns - sheer indulgence - plus a cottage loaf and a chocolate brownie - £5

Altogether - £65.30 - not bad at all.

This time last year we were mostly eating rich braised beef - something I had vaguely wondered about having again this week.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Apple Crumble

I don't think I have ever knowingly made a crumble before even though they are one of my favourite desserts. My mother made them frequently when we were kids - not just with apples but with rhubarb and strawberries and blackberries and various combinations thereof. Just thinking about them makes my mouth water.

I have always thought of crumble as a quintessentially english dessert, its origins lost in the mists of time, the precursor perhaps to the first pie. Turns out there actually is no long history to this lovely dish - no mention of it in ancient recipes or delirious records of it rounding out decadent feasts. Nothing at all in fact before the 20th century - and in all probability it came in to existence during the second world war. Which makes a certain kind of sense - frugal, quick, simple and deeply comforting, it is a perfect kind of wartime treat.

I made my topping with dark brown sugar - I wanted a sort of treacly element to the chewiness of the crumble. It was very good but different to the one my mother makes - I'm fairly sure she uses coconut for a whole other kind of texture, which has got to be worth a try. Having waited this long to attempt my first one, and finding it turned out very well indeed, might just have to have another go.

Apple Crumble

4 bramley - or other cooking - apples
2-3 tbsp brown sugar (depending on sweetness of apples and balance with the lemon juice)
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tspn ground cinnamon

For the topping:

100g plain flour
1 tbsp caster sugar
4 tbsp brown sugar
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
A pinch of salt
65g cold butter

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel and core the apples and chop into 2cm chunks. Place in a small gratin dish and sprinkle with sugar. Sprinkle the apples with water and lemon juice.

To make the topping, measure the flour, sugars, salt and cinnamon into a mixing bowl. Cut the cold butter into the dry ingredients and mix it with your fingertips to the consistency of breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the topping over the apples - this should easily cover all the fruit like a lid.

Put the crumble into the centre of the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes. Using a small knife, pierce the crisp top to check for doneness. The apples should be fluffy and the topping should be nice and brown with thick bubbles of filling erupting at the edges.

Let the crumble cool for at least 10 minutes then serve with lashings of clotted cream. For the english touch.

Monday, February 18, 2008

And this week ... I bought

We arrived at Borough in good time on Saturday rugged up like the michelin man - if it's cold enough outside for frost then you can be guaranteed that inside the market it will be close to bitter. All the stallholders were well insulated with a variety of woolly hats and fingerless gloves which added a kind of gaiety all around. Though it didn't feel busy I seemed to have to queue nearly everywhere I shopped so I guess it must have been.

Started at Ginger Pig with the need for nothing more than some smoked oyster bacon for a charcuterie loaf for lunches - £3 is probably the least I have ever spent. Am on a bit of a mission to clear some space in the freezer.

Went to Furness for some sea bream made slashes in the sides, stuffed them with rosemary then chargrilled them Saturday night - as our fish of the week - £7

Then to Wild Beef for some eggs and a couple of packs of coarse ground beef for the freezer because though I am trying to make a space in there I still want it to be the source of good things and I'd used the last of the mince in spaghetti bolognese Friday night - £9.50

Went to the Gastronomica shop for a packet of pasta shells thought I needed some to make my mushroom and spinach bake but had enough in the cupboard so they will do another time - as the stalls don't sell it - £1.20

Fancied some cheese - asked Gianni for whatever was amazing this week - and ended up with a soft sheeps cheese snacks, a hard sheeps cheese for my pasta bake and a little goats cheese yet to be consumed - great combo for £10

Then went to the other Gastronomica stall to buy a heel of parma ham - more for my charcuterie - £5

Brindisa for some spicy chorizo - one in the charcuterie loaf and the rest split into pairs for the freezer and then couldn't resist a small tub of pancetta which in the end went in to the freezer as well (so much for making space in the freezer) - £9.80

Booths for veg - potatoes, carrots, swede, turnip, celeriac, brussel sprouts with roast lamb Sunday night, mushrooms pasta bake, lettuce salad Thursday, bananas, sugarsnap peas lunches and a big red pepper still there - £11.90

On the way past could not resist a tub of smoked salmon - for supper Tuesday night - £5

Went to Tony's for some spinach - pasta bake Wednesday night - then couldn't resist a huge bunch of parsley half in bean and celery salad and half still just about usable in the fridge -and a small head of chicory bought it with the idea of using it with the other half of the celeriac in a salad but haven't - £3

Neals Yard for milk, yoghurt, cream, bread and pasta - £12.80

A grand total of £78.20

This time last year we were mostly eating pork rissoles with apples and prunes - and loving it!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I wanted to celebrate Chinese new year. London's Chinatown is hugely busy for the week but perhaps a little too crowded for the likes of me. I wanted to cook at home but it really had to be special. I searched and searched for just the right thing. I have a couple of serious hunanese/szechwan cookbooks that I use a lot and from which I learn a lot too as I get better at this kind of food though both look largely at the domestic cuisine rather than more 'public' foods. Szechwan dishes contain many flavors - sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, aromatic, fragrant but the defining characteristic of most of the dishes I have come across is a serious chilli heat. As with all things in traditional chinese cuisine there is a reason for this. Red chili stimulate the palate, making it more sensitive to all these flavors, increasing the pleasure of eating.

My search paid off in Mrs Chiangs Szechwan Cookbook with one of the few grand dishes she writes about. Tipan is a centre piece dish for a szechwan feast. It's a magnificent thing fit for a star. A piece of gammon is simmered with ginger and spices till the flesh is succulent with the subtle flavours of the aromatics. The real transformation is in the flavour and texture of the fat. Mrs Chiang recalls the excitement of it in her Szechwan cookbook.

The best part of the tipan was the fat that covered the meat in a thick, translucent layer, so soft and luscious that it literally melted in the mouth. Perhaps the reason why Western gourmets do not prize fat the way Chinese ones do is simply that Western cooking does not produce anything that is as pure, sweet, and fragrant as the succulent layer of fat on a tipan.

The absolute truth of this cannot be appreciated until you have sampled this delight. Fortunately, it is a very simple dish to make requiring no more than a few minutes to prepare the ingredients and then it simmers till it's done. Though there are dried chillies and peppers in the simmering broth this is not a hot dish at all. Mostly highly seasoned foods are home cooking and would not be the centre piece of any kind of formal feast.


Piece of fresh unsmoked gammon, about 2kg in weight
4 scallions
5 inch piece of fresh ginger
10 large or 1/2 cup smaller dried mushrooms
3 whole star anise or equivalent in bits
4 dried chilli
1 tbspn szechwan peppercorns
1 cup light soy sauce
1/2 cup chinese rice wine or sherry
3 tbspns granulated sugar
1 tbspn sesame oil

Clean the scallions and cut them in half lenghtways, using both green and white parts. Smash the ginger with the side of a cleaver or heavy knife but don't peel it. Wash the dried mushrooms carefully. They do not need to be soaked.

Put the ham in a very large pot and cover it with water. Bring the water to the boil, skim any foam from the top then add the scallions, ginger, dried mushrooms, star anise, dried chillies and peppercorns. Simmer rapidly for about 60 to 90 minutes until the liquid in the pot is reduced by half.

Add the soy sauce, wine and sugar and reduce the heat and let the ham simmer for another hour. Add the sesame oil and continue to cook for another half an hour or so.

Remove the ham from the pan and put onto a plate and cover with foil. Continue to boil the remaining liquid till it is about a quarter of the original volume.

At this point the recipe suggests steaming some spinach then serving hot slices of ham and the reduced sauce which I am sure would be fabulous. But I wanted it for lunches so I strained the sauce and put it in the freezer. I plan to use it for some noodles and greens another day -when all the time that has already gone in to it will make for a fast and deeply flavoured soup.

We had it with a crisp salad of fennel, celery and carrot in lunches - like all good parties it lasted the week and simply got better and better.

Monday, February 11, 2008

And this week ... I bought

It was just like spring in London on the weekend - what joy to have endless blue skies and warm air. The sun shone - just wonderful. Seemed to have prompted many to decide they'd like to do Borough Market early - there were queues everywhere even at 9am. Slowed us down a little but didn't put us off.

As ever we started at Ginger Pig - bought a serious piece of unsmoked gammon to cook made tipan to celebrate Chinese New Year and it was magnificent for lunches and some pork steak to make stir fry to also to celebrate chinese new year on Sunday night. I bought some lamb chops - had planned to be greedy on my own on Thursday night while the man was at college but I relented and got enough for us to have a really special dinner Saturday and some sausages in the freezer as well as some unsmoked bacon oysters some used in spaghetti sauce for Friday night and some in the freezer - £40 for cash.

Then eggs from Wild Beef a couple into a fruitcake for my friend David - £1.50

Coffee from Indonesia for a change - the guy who served me at Monmouth was very taken with it so I thought it was worth a try - £8

Then juice from Chegworth as it is always really good - £1.50

Smoked salmon for lunch Saturday - £5

Tuna from Brindisa for the cupboard - £3.20
They had rhubarb at Booths and I had to have some cooked it with a little sugar and had some spooned over yoghurt for really decadent breakfast all week, the rest is in the freezer so I can repeat the pleasure next weekl - bought masses, also pink fir potatoes hot with lamb chops Saturday night and then in salad Thursday night with grilled sausages, peppers, sugarsnaps, celery, fennel, rocket, various salads and lunches bananas, cucumber, spring onions stirfry and tipan- £13.20

Spinach from Tony to complete dinner Saturday night - £1.50

Milk, yoghurt and bread from Neals Yard - £9.20

More bread and a chocolate brownie but no almond croissant because they had none at Flour Power - £3.50

A big £86.60 for the week
This time last year we were mostly eating roasted vegetable pasta and also about this time winter salad came in to existence and it is still a frequent one, indeed because it is such a robust salad we had it in lunchboxes for a couple of days this week as a perfect compliment to the ham

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ginger Parkin

Ginger parkin is yorkshire comfort food - and when you try it it's easy to see why. Made with oatmeal, syrup and treacle it cooks to a chewy sticky slab that matures over a few days - if you can resist the temptation. Seems to get more moist as the week wears on rather than stale. Because it is eggless it has a good body to it - seems like a substantial treat mid morning. It makes a good dessert too, with a little custard or clotted cream. Sometimes the old recipes are the best.

I suspect there are probably hundreds of variations on this particular cake. This is one I ripped out of The Guardian.

Ginger Parkin
225g plain flour
3½ tsp ground ginger
¾ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt
125g medium oatmeal
100g unsalted butter, softened
125g light soft brown sugar
Zest of ½ lemon
100g treacle
75g golden syrup
50ml milk
50g mixed peel, finely chopped

Butter a deep, 20cm square cake tin and line the base with nonstick baking parchment. Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan-assisted)/350F/gas mark 4. Sift the flour, spices, soda and salt into a bowl, then stir in the oatmeal. In another bowl beat the butter, sugar and zest until light and fluffy. Add the treacle and syrup, beat again until creamy and smooth, then add the milk and the dry ingredients, and beat quickly until smooth once more. Fold in the mixed peel, then spoon the mixture into the tin. Cover the top with foil, bake for 40 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for a further 20 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.

Tofu Omelette with Ostrich Sauce

Technically speaking this is not a sauce made with ostrich so perhaps the title of this post is a tiny bit misleading. It is rather a sauce I made a little while ago to go with some spiced ostrich fillets. The remainder of it has been in the fridge ever since, used occasionally to add exotica to grilled sausages or pork chops, but always called, in my mind at least, ostrich sauce.
It is an utterly seductive thing - a rich deep shiny sticky sweet spicy brown sauce. It is essentially a reduction of sweet soy and coconut milk perfumed with spices. And it is amazing. Consider it my addition to your seductive repertoire for Valentines Day next week.
I learned the very simple trick of making it at a cooking class at the wonderful London restaurant Champor Champor.

I wanted to use the last of it to make another dish something special. Using my South East Asian cookbook for something else my eye was caught by an Indonesian recipe for tofu omelette with special sauce. I liked the idea of the omelette figuring it would be a delicate thing and I already had my very own special sauce so I bought a block of silken tofu to give it a go.

Ostrich Sauce

400ml coconut cream
400ml sweet soy sauce - Kicap Lemak Manis - buy it in Asain food shops
1 fresh red chilli - small and hot
3 star anise

Put all the ingredients into a small pan and bring to a simmer. Cook till reduced by about half.

Tofu Omelette

200g tofu - silken or firm
3 eggs
4 spring onions, cut into 2cm lengths, green and white parts
Salt and pepper
Peanut oil

Mash the tofu in a bowl to a rough consistency then beat in the eggs. Stir through the spring onions and season.

Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a medium frying pan and add half the mix when the oil starts to bubble. Spread the omelette and cook till the underside is golden. Turn - I made a bit of a mess of the turning but it doesn't affect the taste - and cook the other side till golden. Serve immediately onto a large plate with salad and special sauce.

Repeat for the second omelette.

Thought about serving the meal with rice but that seemed slightly wrong to me so went instead for the classic french omelette service - with salad. Only needed to translate the form to something more Asian. I had some tamarind water in the fridge - what a treasure trove my fridge is at times - from making a rendang a couple of weeks ago so thought the sourness of that with spiced orange oil mixed in the same proportions as lemon/oil in vinaigrette would make a very good dressing for finely shredded cabbage and thin raw beans. I was right. Added the other half of a bunch of coriander that was also in the fridge from a previous dinner for a herb edge and tossed the lot.
Altogether a quite wonderful Monday night supper. Frugal because it was mostly about using things left from the creation of other meals yet utterly new. And the whole lot ready in 15 minutes.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

And this week ... I bought

The weekend seems so long ago I can hardly remember. It was a bit of a truncated shop at Borough Market as I am back doing my french classes on Tuesday nights and the man is doing a course at LSE on Thursdays and we have tickets tonight for the new production at the National of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other - what a well rounded pair we are... So my food thoughts concentrated mostly on weekend meals and lunches.

Found Marie on the way in to the market which was a joy - she was there as a punter rather than working on the olive stall so she came with us to Ginger Pig where I bought a quite magnificent piece topside to roast for Sunday and eat cold in lunches as well as a couple of pork chops dinner Thursday and a thick slice of rump steak for a fab grill Saturday night and a cold sandwich for lunch on Sunday - a grand total of £38 - which is a lot but I have the same budget whether we are home every night or not so it is an opportunity to be a little bit decadent - it is February after all. Marie was so smitten by the topside she bought the other half of the same piece - we had the same Sunday roast at two different addresses.

Then it was run, run, run - pork pie from Mrs Elizabeth King - Saturday lunch - £4.90

And juice from Chegworth for sustenance - £1.50

Next Booths for veg - cabbage, potatoes, carrots roast dinner and half the cabbage in a salad Monday night, peppers rice salad for lunch boxes, rocket with steak, beans Monday salad, sugarsnaps lunch box crunch, turnip mashed Thursday with grilled pork, tried for sprouts but there were none, apples lunches, a grapefruit because the man bought a grapefruit knife and needs to use it, fennel, oak leaf lettuce to be part of salad nicoise Friday night - a grand total of £11.20

Quick - Scotch egg from the Ginger Pig - £3

Slowed momentarily for milk from Neals Yard where you still have to avoid the massive hole in the footpath to get into the shop - £2.80

On the road out - bread and a croissant from Flour Power - £3.20

So still managed to spend £64.60 for the week and yet back on the bus by 10
This time last year we were mostly eating peppers stir fried with black beans and one of my favourite things, lamb stuffed with spinach and mushrooms.