Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Padrón Peppers

Had lunch with my brother and the man a few weeks ago at the new Brindisa in Soho and the man, being an adventurous sort, ordered a plate of padrón peppers as one of the starter nibbles to go with a chilled glass of fino. I was expecting them to be roasted red piquillo but what turned up was a plate of little sweet chilli size green things, flecked with gold from a hot pan and dusted with flakes of salt. And they were amazing.

Horned shaped and about the size of a habanero pepper they are an heirloom pepper of Galicia in Spain and are very relished there as a tapas plate. Intending to go the tapas route for xmas eve supper I sought them out. Brindisa in Exmouth Market had sold out and - worse - were not expecting any till the New Year. I rushed back to the office and called Brindisa at Borough where a nice woman told me she had four packs left. She kindly put one of them aside for me and so I sent the man to collect them that very afternoon.

They were yummy - like a slightly sour sweet pepper, juicy and well matched with the salt. One in every ten peppers will be hot - not sure why - but it makes for a fun kind of culinary roulette. That first time in the restaurant we had nearly finished that shiny pile before I bit into one that was spectacularly hot. Wah! So far we've eaten about 20 of the xmas ones without incident. I'm thinking that means at least three of the last 10 are bound to be scorchers!

If you can find some do try this quick and easy treat - with a lightly chilled fino should you be so lucky.

Padrón Peppers

A dozen or so fresh padrón peppers
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt crystals

Wash the peppers and dry them on kitchen paper but otherwise leave them whole, stems attached.

In a heavy pan heat the oil over a medium heat - too hot and the flesh of the peppers will scorch. Add the peppers in a single layer and cook for a couple of minutes till very lightly blistered on one side then turn them over and do the other side.

Scoop them out onto a serving plate and sprinkle with salt.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Triple Cooked Chips

I know Heston Blumenthal thought of it first - but there is no harm in homage. Over xmas we had a couple of tapas style meals as I am currently enamoured of all things Brindisa. I bought some padrón peppers and fabulous chorizo and we had olives and cheeses and some fairly spectacular iberico ham for xmas eve. Boxing Day we had the same kind of thing but no ham. What we did have was a small bowl of potatoes from the chrissy feast which I had first cooked in boiling salted water and then, after fluffing them against the edge of the colander I roasted them in duck fat. They were wonderful.

As I made ready the platter for the following evening my eye caught the leftovers in the fridge. I had just fried off the thick sliced chorizo and I had a lovely slick of thick red oil in the bottom of a pan. Quick as a flash I sliced my potatoes into slightly smaller pieces and then gently fried them till they were hot and red and crisp. So amazing. Should you ever have that particular set of coincidences go for it!

Monday, December 22, 2008


When I left home to be a student - and ostensibly a grown up - I lived in Sydney, sharing a house with some fellow students who, being a bit older than me, seemed decidedly more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the gauche thing I was. They certainly liked good food and knew lots of restaurants across a whole spectrum. One night a carload of us went to eat at their latest discovery, a place on George Street called The Malaya that had a menu full of food of which I'd never heard, let alone tasted. Indeed at that point I didn't even know I liked spicy food - garlic I loved but chilli was entirely unexplored territory. Lacking brazen courage I plumped for beef rendang - in part because it was beef, in part because it came with rice but mostly because it said on the menu it was mild. I was expecting stew and what I got was extraordinarily tender hunks of beef coated with a dry spiced coconut sauce clinging to the meat. I was seduced. I love a good rendang to this day.

But the beef/rice combo wasn't entirely beyond the bounds of my experience. Most of my fellow diners ordered laksa and were presented with a dish that really was outside my envelope. Huge bowls filled with skinny noodles floating in a pale broth with lots of bits poking through - bean sprouts and king prawns and slices of something. All of it topped with a dollop of terracotta paste that spread in delicate tendrils across the surface as they ate. It looked amazing. I was jealous.

Next time it would be mine.

If laksa is a thing of beauty the first time you see it, it is an unutterable joy when you first taste it. Hot, sweet, sour, fishy, light, dense, ever so slightly grainy and full of slippy splashy noodles. Wow. The Malaya was close to our campus and so I began to frequent it whenever anyone suggested lunch. I tried a lot of the other things on the menu but mostly I had the laksa - king prawn when I was flush, chicken when I wasn't.

My father worked in the city commuting from the coast, and we would often meet for lunch usually at the canteen in his office. I liked to see him and he liked to know I had eaten well at least once that week. Soon as I could I suggested we go to the Malaya. He turned up and perused the menu and I bubbled over about the delights of laksa. I was so excited that I finally had something amazing I could share with him, to introduce him to a new delight. But no - he would not be led. When he ordered the sambal I told him it was VERY hot, but he assured me he ate hot food. Not that hot, I thought. Our steaming bowls arrived and he took a big spoonful of his prawns and the juice they came in that was redder than they were and oooh...! His face registered a kind of shocked surprise as he gulped his glass of wine. 'Hot'. To give him his due he did manage to eat most of that bowl of fire but he also aplogised for drinking most of the wine.

Next time we went he ordered the laksa.

I have eaten hundreds more since my student days, forging some lasting friendships with them along the way. When I first knew Vicki I suggested the Malaya one night for dinner when we were working late. When she professed ignorance of such a place I promised her an amazing treat. She habitually looked glamorous in a big white shirt and that day was no exception. By the end of dinner it was covered in a fine spray of chilli red spots. Even that couldn't wipe the delighted grin from her face after eating her first laksa. We have had countless bowls since - usually making a fair amount of mess because they are impossible to eat neatly. My first night in London, fighting off jet lag and drinking in the excitement of Soho we eventually went for laksa. Having arrived a few months ahead of me she had been on a mission to find a source. All things were possible in this city. I felt truly welcomed.

Decidedly under the weather last Friday and miserable with flu I really really really wanted laksa. I wanted that spicy liquid snaking down my throat, warming me through and clearing my head. I wanted the wrapped up and cared for sensation you get from good laksa - to taste the full spectrum of flavour, rich and complex, to be lulled to sleep with its familiarity. But even if I had been up to the bus ride to Soho, the last Friday before xmas is not the time for a sick person to be seeking comfort.

I dragged myself as far as Loon Moon on Electric Avenue in Brixton and stocked up on noodles and beansprouts and a couple of tins of coconut milk. I defrosted some of the chicken stock I made last weekend and I set about making my own. By the end it was amazing - as close as I've ever come to making the real thing. This is what I did.

8-9 large dried red chillies
2 tablespoons dried prawns or 2 teaspoons dried shrimp paste - from Asian foodstores
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
6 macadamia or brazil nuts, roughly chopped
2 stems lemon grass, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 litre chicken stock
2 cans coconut milk
250g pack fresh egg noodles
100g fresh bean sprouts, rinsed and the straggly bits pinched off
1 cup shredded cooked chicken
50g sugarsnap peas, sliced
small bunch coriander, chopped

Break off the stems of the dry chilies and then soak them with the dried prawns in hot water for about 15 minutes. Put the chillies, prawns, onions, ginger, nuts, garlic and lemon grass with a littel bit of the soaking water into the container of a blender or in a bowl and use a stick blender to make a rough paste.
Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the paste, stirring occasionally, till it is darkly golden and smells fragrant. This takes about 20 minutes and the volume of the paste will decrease as it cooks.

Add the turmeric and coriander and stir fry for another minute. Add the stock, stir to mix well while it comes to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about half an hour.

Add the coconut milk and the shredded chicken and warm through. Check the seasoning.

Meanwhile, put the egg noodles in a colander and rinse with hot water till they separate.

Put a generous pile of noodles into deep bowls and cover with the laksa soup. Top each bowl with beansprouts and sugarsnaps and a sprinkle of chopped coriander.

Serve a chilli sauce like sambal ulek on the side for those who want more spice.

Guaranteed effective in the treatment of flu, colds and general cheerlessness. Perfect for now.

Garlic Mushrooms

Some things are so easy and so perfect. Able & Cole very kindly gave me a box of their organic produce to sample and the first thing that I absolutely had to eat was a bag of lovely mushrooms. I eat them many ways but the desire that sprang unbidden was mushroom sauce atop a steak. Not of the Diane variety with its creamy wiles - I wanted simpler even than that to test my lovely fungus.

I just peeled a fat clove of garlic and chopped it finely, warmed a generous nob of butter wit half a tablespoon of olive oil then fried my thinly sliced beauties till they gave up their juices and simmered prettily in the pan. The room filled with that lovely smell. A good grinding of black pepper and perfection was reached.

To serve? Good thick rump steak grilled to bloody rare under a small ridge of crisp fat. Then nothing more than a crisp green salad on the side dressed with a little spiced oil.
Mushrooms cooked like this are also brilliant tossed with pasta shells, over plain rice or served with grilled chicken.

The very essence of Saturday special.

Happy Xmas!

And a yummy year ahead.

The odd thing about always shopping at Borough Market is knowing that, on the Saturday before xmas and the last full work day before xmas, it is no place for the market regular. Too busy, too manic, too fraught. With the strong possibility that next year will be bad the traders are hoping for a busy time, but even they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.

So this year I had no intention of going to the market on Saturday. Instead, on Thursday I went to Brindisa in Exmouth Market for chorizo and padrone peppers for xmas eve. Saturday - after sleeping in till 10 o'clock! - we went down to Lower Marsh to the new, almost empty, Ginger Pig and bought some steak for dinner and some pork mince for stuffing our xmas chicken which we will collect on xmas eve from Borough. From the other traders in Lower Marsh I got some milk and fresh rocket. Later that afternoon we were on the South Bank where there was a slow food market - and joy oh joy both Neals Yard and Gastronomica had stalls, so we bought our stilton and a lovely chunk of pecorino.

Able & Cole, the vegetable delivery company, very kindly offered food bloggers a free organic box last week so most of my veg shopping is done. It was full of really beautiful produce, including lots of lovely clementines for the xmas feast. I heartily recommend them if you have no access to fresh produce - they deliver to your door. My only real lack was brussel sprouts, but we shall find some of them no doubt.

We did venture briefly to the market on Sunday - it was pretty busy, largely with tourists though plenty were buying at least one special thing. The traders looked almost haunted - then you get a sudden smile when they realise you are someone they know. Mostly they will sleep when this is done. I bought coffee, and a piece of venison fillet vacuum packed, bread, marcona almonds, more milk and yoghurt, and a small side of smoked salmon from Furness as the Irish salmon man has not been round for weeks. Had a nice chat at the Taste of Turkey stall and sampled a new dried olive they are planning to sell in the summer that was utterly sublime - the flesh melts onto your tongue and is gone in a flash. Seriously good.

The last bits will be gathered Wednesday morning - and then let feasting begin!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

WinterFruit Compote

This compote seems like a wonderfully wintery bowl full to me. Dried fuits, which I am often more inclined to eat than fresh particularly in winter, are spiced, scented and soaked in fresh juice to be served up after a suitable time marinating with a sharpish dairy accompaniment - yoghurt at breakfast is my preferred treat or with creme fraiche for a sublime dessert. The fresh juice replenishes any vitamin C that has been lost in the drying process while the fruit retains the more concentrated levels of iron and other minerals.

Compotes are apparently a speciality of Russia and Eastern Europe, a region where good desserts may be rare, distinguished by being almost invariably wholesome and palatable. This version is much better than that, coming as it does from Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Bottled in sterilised jars it would make a lovely gift to someone you love at Christmas. It has the added bonus of being very quick to make and very beautiful to look at when it's done.

Winter Fruit Compote

65g golden raisins
30g currants
30g dried cherries
90g dried apricots, diced
90g dried apples, diced
400ml fresh orange juice
3 strips orange zest
40g brown sugar
2.5cm piece of vanilla pod
1 star anise

In a medium-size saucepan, combine the fruit, orange juice, zest and sugar. Split the vanilla pod in half lengthwise. Use the tip of a sharp knife to scrape the black seeds from the inside of the pod directly into the saucepan; then add the pod, along with the star anise.

Cook over medium heat until the dried fruits have plumped and the juice has slightly thickened (about three to five minutes).

Let cool slightly, then discard the vanilla pod, orange zest and star anise.

The only thing with the star anise is to use a whole one. Not thinking, I added a few little bits of broken ones into my pan and then, once that luscious dark pool was done, couldn't remember how many bits I was trying to fish out...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Basil Oil

What with it being almost Christmas and the credit crunch doing it's thing I thought I'd add a couple of seasonal treats to the blog. I have previously made some basil oil for myself because I really love the stuff. It is such a superbly flavoured herb but sadly doesn't last long once picked, so preserving it this way is fabulous. And frugal.

I was talking to a few others recently, amongst them Lizzie from Hollowlegs, about this thing about xmas - the endless pressure to be giving gifts to all and sundry feels unceasing from about September but the reality is it's unlikely most adults need or even want anything that they haven't already bought or planned to buy for themselves. It's why most people go out to earn a wage. So you are most likely to both give and receive something for the sake of it. But if you give consumables all that will be left is the bottle and the pleasant sensation of being replete.

A few weeks ago I had a big bunch of basil left from another dish, so decided I'd make some oil with it rather than have it go to waste. I put the picked leaves into my pan, added two 500ml bottles of olive oil, infused it gently then let it cool. I stuffed the leaves through the skinny neck of each bottle then filled them with oil and sealed the tops. Obviously the outside of the bottles were still a little oily. Picked one up to clean it, had it slip then in what seemed like slow motion I watched it fall to the floor and smash. Oil, leaves, glass for miles - all over the floor, up the walls, down the cupboards, everywhere. If you've never had to clean up that much olive oil you are very lucky. It's a nightmare, it seems to multiply every time you peep out from behind your hands. Took me an hour or more. The only good thing was still having one bottle left. Which I cleaned very very carefully before I put it away.

Basil Oil

2 x 500ml olive oil in glass bottles
1 large bunch basil, leaves picked from the stems
2 dried red chillies
Put the leaves and chillies into a large pan and add the olive oil. Very very gently bring it to a point where there are just bubbles forming. Keep it at that temperature for about ten minutes to infuse. Turn off the heat, cover and allow the oil to return to room temperature.

If you're feeling brave gently push the leaves into the empty bottles after discarding the chillies. There will be oil that runs down the outside of the bottle making them slick. Then with a funnel pour the infused oil into the bottles and seal.

Make a label and decorate with a little festive ribbon.

And that's it - a lovely present that is a joy to receive as well as to give. It is great on hot pasta with nothing more than a sprinkle of Parmesan, it makes a fabuolous salad dressing, particularly for peppers and you can roast tomatoes and garlic in it to make a wonderful dish eaten hot or cold. Or indeed to put into sterilised jars and given as presents.

If you're lucky enough to have a basil plant in the summer you can make more of this lovely oil before the plant dies off in the autumn.

Friday, December 12, 2008

And this week I wanted...I bought...I made

The next week being pre xmas is busy even for us. The world has gone mad. So for the weekend I'm planning some new dishes from my new Fuchsia Dunlop cookbook as a Saturday night special. Sunday roast perhaps pork again as the pork last week was particularly fine. Monday I am out with the ladies from my former french class, so the man will fend for himself. Tuesday we are singing carols with Food Chain and Jaey and Marie in Soho and will eat at the new Brindisa after. Wednesday is the xmas party for the man's office. Thursday perhaps some lentils. Friday I think sausage sandwiches.

Then Saturday when we got up it was pouring with rain, just massively depressingly wet and windy. So decided to use some daube and some cheese sauce from the freezer to make a lasagne for Saturday supper then the man can have leftovers Monday when I'm out.

Felt thoroughly bedraggled by the time I got to the market - the only good thing about the rain being the lack of queues. At Ginger Pig I ordered a chicken for xmas and bought another piece of pork shoulder same as last week because it really was so good, and half a kilo of braising steak as well as a big bag of pork bones - £17.30

Then to Booths for potatoes, sweet potatoes, sprouts, clementines, a huge bunch of basil and a big butternut whilst running in and out of the rain, the occasional drip down the back of my neck for £8.20

Eggs - look at the difference between the dark gold yolks of Wild Beef eggs and the last of a free range pack I bought locally - and a couple of packs of coarse mince from Wild Beef plus a packet of porridge oats to get us through to the New Year - £11.70

Then to the Taste of Turkey olive stand where we had a lovely chat about the finer points of dried olives which I adore and after sampling a few bought a tub of particularly fine black ones and a bar of olive oil soap for the man - £6.60

Walking back into the main hall there was a choir singing carols and they were beautiful

Then went to Neals Yard for milk and bread - £5.60

And a cottage loaf from Flour Power - £1

Tried for chicken carcasses at Wyndhams but, like Ginger Pig, they had none. Something of a disaster as we have fully run out of stock

So I spent £50.40

There is a small branch of Ginger Pig just opened in Lower Marsh where there is also a café so I was hoping for what could possibly be the best fry up in London only to find the café was not yet operational - too sad - but they did have chicken carcasses and wings at the Ginger Pig - so all was not lost

And we had a pretty fab fry up at the Chunnel Bar across the road so the morning could reasonably be judged a success!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pasta with Purple Broccoli, Olives and Pine Nuts

For years and years I thought broccoli was the stuff with the tight green heads of teeeny tiny flowery bits atop muscular green stalks. I loved it in stirfries and was less certain about it steamed for a side dish as it takes only a nanosecond to go from cooked to disintegrated grainy puddle. One day my friend Andrea cooked me a fabulous dinner from Moosewood Cookbook and she told me she wanted another of their books called The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I sought it out and discovered that it really did include a recipe that involved standing broccoli in some kind of base and cooking it to be an enchanted forest. Worked for me - it's such a great way to play with your food.
Then a couple of years ago along came a new broccoli, strange and different. A wild and woolly thing with small purple heads on long stalks with grey green leaves. More scary fairy forest. I was uncertain about it for a while, but saw it through the winter at the market and read about it in occasional recipes. Before I bought some I wasn't sure I needed another kind of broccoli. More fool me. For the scruffy cousin of the tight green variety is a lovely thing, delicate and slightly nutty. Definitely good to eat.

This recipe, from the endlessly used River Cafe Pasta Book, uses the fact that the heads disintegrate to make a textured sauce that is enriched with olives and pine nuts and tiny spikes of chilli and given depth with freshly ground fennel. A real treat.

Pasta with Broccoli & Olives

350g dried small pasta shells
1kg purple sprouting broccoli
100g black olives, stoned
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 dried red chillies, crumbled
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed in a pestle and mortar
3 tablespoons roughly chopped flat leaf parsley
60g pine nuts
100g pecorino, freshly grated
Olive oil

Cut the larger broccoli heads into smaller pieces then cook in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Drain, reserving 100ml of the cooking water, now nicely stained purple.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a thick bottomed pan and gently fry the shallots until golden - maybe ten minutes. Add the garlic, chillies and fennel, fry briefly, then add the parsley. Cook for two minutes, then add the broccoli and the reserved water. Continue to cook tillthe broccoli is broken up into a sauce. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, sseason with balck pepper and stir well.

Separately, fry the olives and pine nuts briefly in 1 tablespoon of olive oil till the nuts just take on a little colour.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water till al dente. Drain, add the broccoli sauce and stir in the olives and pine nuts and half the pecorino. Mix to coat all the shells.

Serve in big bowls with the rest of the cheese and perhaps a salad.

Yum. And very good cold next day for lunch. Four meals.

Monday, December 08, 2008

And this week I bought...and Made

Been very busy of late with family in town and lots of going out and not much cooking at home and then to top it off I was lead cook for food chain Sunday so had to do the prep for that for lunch for 64 lucky souls. So by Saturday morning I had an idea of what the week will be but no time before to be blogging.

I started at Ginger Pig where I bought a piece of pork to roast for Sunday roast and cold in lunches for a few days and a really fine piece of meat it was - £12.70

Then to Booths for veg - butternut, potatoes, fat sprouts roast dinner Sunday, then cold in lunches till Wednesday, courgettes in a chickpea dish Monday night that needs a little work, black kale same chick pea dish, purple broccoli, pine nuts fabulous pasta Wednesday night and clementines - £8.30

From Lizzie at Wild Beef I bought some of her lovely thin beef sausages which we had with english stick and ketchup for a decadent lunch Saturday afternoon, a treat that may need repeating if this winter stays as bleak as it is - £4

Tried for orrechiette at Gastronomica but no joy
So bought penne at Neals Yard as well as milk, bread and yoghurt - £9.40

And that was all - like most people we are set for some treats with others over the next few weeks so time at home will continue to be briefer than usual. Spent a total of £34.60

Also bought butter, brown sugar, hazelnuts and mustard and bread from Comptoir Gascon and a lettuce for salad with omelette Friday night using up the eggs from the week before last. Also had some olives and cheese from the week before that we enjoyed with some of the cheese going into an omelette Friday. Nothing much thrown away.

This time last year we were mostly eating garlic and white bean soup and before that daube of duck and prunes both fine winter dishes.