Easy recipes for the newbie cook, the beginner in the kitchen, the nervous novice: we all had to start somewhere, and you can start right here.

Friday, 31 December 2010

Hot Spicy Nuts - Party Nibbles or Snack

A tasty little snack for New Years Eve, or at any time when you have friends, family and a few drinks around. It also serves my mania for using up leftovers, as most of us have a bowl or two of nuts hanging around for the festive season that never get finished.

You can use any kind of nuts for this, best of all a mixture. If they are still in their shells, get out the nutcrackers, otherwise proceed whenever you have a spare ten minutes.

You will need:

A quantity of nuts suitable for your appetite, or whatever you have leftover.
Some sea salt – Maldon salt is ideal.
Fresh ground black pepper
Cayenne pepper (optional)
The tiniest quantity of oil to get things going

A large, heavy frying pan.
Some kitchen paper, a cloth or a towel that you don’t mind getting oily.
A large mixing bowl
Several serving bowls, plates or dishes


Put the pan onto a medium heat, and let warm through. Drizzle a very small quantity of oil into the pan, then add the nuts. Keep shaking, stirring and agitating, and watch them like a hawk; some nuts can burn in an instant. You may need to turn down the heat under the pan once everything is heating up nicely. Depending on the variety, some of the nuts will begin to exude their own oils.

The nuts will have taken on a little colour, and be giving off a wonderful toasty aroma within minutes. That’s all the cooking they need: tip out onto your absorbent paper or cloth to get rid of any excess oil. Put into the large bowl, sprinkle with the sea salt, the pepper, and the cayenne if using. Shake them well to distribute the seasonings.

Serve while still warm and put them in bowls, plates or dishes where your guests can reach them; they will be consumed within minutes.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

How to Cook Perfect Scrambled Eggs and Omelettes

These should be some of the easiest and quickest dishes any cook can create, but going by the instructions that some writers give, you would be forgiven for thinking that scrambled eggs and omelettes are mysterious creations beyond the reach of mere mortals.

There are a few basic rules to follow: get these right and the rest is easy.  I’ll start you gently with the recipes and method for scrambled eggs and simple omelettes, then take you further with a Spanish omelette and soufflé omelette recipe.

The two most vital rules are: use good eggs, and use a good pan.  The best pan in the world will not help you if you use lousy eggs, and the loveliest eggs you can find are easily ruined in a cheap and nasty pan.

Eggs: you will surely only be using free-range eggs, as fresh as they can be.  Please do not bring the misery of battery farmed eggs to your plate; even if you could live with the moral dimension (you’re broke, and it’s you and your family vs. a chicken), don’t live with the taste.  Battery eggs are often of poor quality; they may not whip up properly or “hold” a decent texture.  They will also either taste of nothing very much, or worse, of the cheap feeds given to the poor birds.  In my younger, ignorant days, I once bought some “bargain” eggs which tasted distinctly of fish – they weren’t off, but the chickens had been fed on fishmeal.  I have bought free-range eggs ever since, and when really, really broke (and I have been) I did without.

I haven’t specified the size of the eggs in these recipes: I use large eggs, but my large may be your extra large, or medium.  It isn’t really crucial, just follow your appetite.

The pan: use a heavy-based non-stick pan.  I use an eight inch/20 cm frying pan for both omelettes and scrambled eggs – this is big enough for two or three eggs.  If you are serving more than one person, you could go a little bigger, but better to do the eggs in batches: it takes seconds, as you will see.  A thin pan will not conduct the heat properly, and you will end up with eggs scorched on the bottom before the rest is properly set.

So, you have a good pan, and some good eggs.  What else?  Simply, some good butter, and some salt and pepper.  No splash of water added to the whipped eggs (I really have never seen the point in this – the theory I think is that the water creates a blast of steam that helps cook the eggs and makes them lighter.  No, it makes for spongy or soggy eggs).  No cream, no milk.

Break the eggs, with a pinch of sea salt and a grind of fresh pepper, into a bowl, jug or mug and whisk with a fork, or, indeed, a whisk, until the eggs are just, and only just, amalgamated.  The less whipping the better, but, like me, you probably want to make sure that the whites are well mixed in, and won’t leave little white blobs in the finished result.  You are trying to get some air into the mix, but not smash the proteins to smithereens.

Put your pan onto a just-above-medium heat, and leave for a minute or so.  Put in a knob of butter, which, if you’ve got the heat right, will immediately begin to melt and run: after a few seconds, it will froth – now is the time to tip in the eggs.  Don’t let the butter begin to brown.

For scrambled eggs, stir, and keep stirring, using a wooden spoon.  The eggs should immediately begin to set and form curds.  Keep stirring, stirring and stirring.  The real trick is to tip them out of the pan just before they are quite done: the residual heat will keep them cooking.  Have a warmed plate, and/or your hot buttered toast ready, and spoon on the eggs while they are still a little moist.  You can stir in another knob of butter just before you turn the eggs out.

If you want to be really fastidious, turn them first into another warmed bowl, and stir and stir until the residual heat has done its job, before putting them on your plate.

The whole process will, for two or three eggs, take not much more than one to two minutes.

For omelettes, proceed as for scrambled eggs, but this time stir with a fork: you are trying to get some light fluffiness going here.  Drag the curds about, letting the uncooked egg reach the bottom of the pan.  When you have a nice balance between set and unset egg, you can let the “base” of the omelette begin to form.  Lift the edges here and there, and tip and swirl the pan so that the uncooked egg can run underneath.  Give the pan a good couple of shakes, and, provided that your non-stick pan is, er, non-sticky, the omelette should “come loose” in the pan.

Now fold the omelette.  You can simply fold it in half, so it forms a “half-moon” shape, or by a bit of judicious fiddling, pan-shaking, and fork wielding, you can form the traditional “three-fold” version by bringing both sides into the middle, so it looks more like a flat croissant.

There is great debate as to whether you let the omelette take on colour or not: many say it shouldn’t, many say it should.  Surely, the only really important thing here is to do it how you like it: for the record, I like a few golden tinges on mine.  The crucial thing, though, is to keep the omelette moist in the middle – as with the scrambled eggs, it will keep cooking through residual heat, so get it out of the pan before you think it is quite ready.

Again, total cooking time is somewhere between one to two minutes, and nearer one minute means that you’ve got the heat just right.

Nice things to add to scrambled eggs are perhaps some shreds of smoked salmon, some pre-cooked diced spring onions/scallions, or just a pinch or two of fresh herbs, chopped fine, such as parsley, chervil or tarragon.  Add any of these in the last few seconds of cooking.

Filled omelettes: well, where to start?  The suggestions above for scrambled eggs would be nice, but we can get a bit bolder here.  Most fillings, except, say, a little grated cheese, will need pre-cooking, or at least a little bit of pre-heating; mushrooms, garlic, bacon, ham, potatoes, tomatoes, onion, prawns, flaked smoked haddock etc etc. 

You can either add the eggs to the fillings in the pan for a kind of “mixed omelette finish” or put the fillings to one side, kept warm, and add them just before you fold.  The latter is a bit prettier, easier to control, and less likely to fall apart.

Which brings us to the Spanish Omelette, or Tortilla Espanola, which has nothing to do with the Mexican-style flatbread tortillas.  This is a thick omelette, slow cooked, and often served in wedges as tapas.  The classic, indeed, pretty much compulsory, filling is potato (pre-cooked, boiled spuds, cut into chunks – new potatoes, complete with their papery skins, although non-traditional, are good here too).  You will certainly want some onions, and probably a bit of garlic too – any additional ingredients are up to you.

You can continue to use the small pan as above, or use a bigger one here.  Gently sweat the onion and garlic in a little oil, and remove from the pan once they have softened and taken a little colour.  Raise the heat a little, and if necessary, add a little more oil.  Gently fry the potato pieces until they too have taken on a little golden brown colouring.  Take the pan off the heat, let it cool somewhat, and lower the heat on your hob.  Return the onion and garlic to the pan (and any other fillings you have prepared) and tip in the eggs, mixing well.  You could use six eggs or more, depending on the size of your pan: you are making a thick, cake like creation here.

Cook on the very lowest heat, using a heat diffusing mat if you have one.  You want the omelette to set, but the base to take on no more than a light golden brown colour.  After ten to twenty minutes (depending on your quantities) you need to cook the top.  Either: tip the omelette carefully onto a plate, then slide it back into the pan with what was the top side now at the bottom, or leave the omelette in the pan and place under a gentle grill, until the top has set and taken on a little colour.

You can serve this immediately, or just warm, or even cold.  Depending on your ingredients, this is almost like a quiche, but without the pastry: ideal for those of you who are on low-carb diets – well, except for the potatoes, of course.

Soufflé omelette: three eggs, with one white separated and reserved.  Beat the two whole eggs and extra yolk as for a regular omelette or scrambled egg, with salt and pepper.  Whisk the reserved egg white until light and fluffy, and holding in peaks; use an electric whisk.  Carefully fold this into the other eggs, retaining as much of the air as possible.

Cook over a very gentle heat (no folding or forking in the pan here) until beginning to set, then either turn or finish under the grill as for the Spanish Omelette.  You could sprinkle some toppings of your choice just before grilling: don’t worry if it falls a little, it will expand again under the grill.

Whisking just one of the egg whites gives you a light but fairly stable souffle omelette: if you are brave, you could whisk two or even all of the whites, but you are more likely to get that dreaded souffle-deflation.  It’ll still taste good, though.

A note about pepper.  I prefer to use freshly ground black pepper in omelettes and scrambled eggs, and am not bothered about the black specks.  You could use white pepper instead, if that kind of thing bothers you, but you get more heat and less spiciness.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Arrabbiata Sauce, or Tomato and Chilli Sauce, for Pasta etc

This is a great sauce, very quick to prepare,  and completely vegetarian, therefore a good antidote to all the meat guzzling that’s been going on at this time of year.  The blast of chilli will warm you up on a winter's day, too.

I add basil almost as a default to tomato-based sauces, but traditionally parsley is used here.  As always, juggle the quantities to suit.  Only use fresh tomatoes if you have the really flavoursome ripe ones available – don’t even think of making this with the awful supermarket hothouse variety; they will turn into a pallid, tasteless mush.  Use canned ones instead.

Arrabbiata Sauce, or Tomato and Chilli Sauce recipe:

Ingredients for around 4 servings:

1 pound/450grams good tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 small onion, peeled and diced finely
2 or more cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed or diced finely (this sauce should be good and garlicky, so use as much as you dare)
1 or more chillies, depending on the heat you like, chopped fine.  You can also use dried chilli flakes, or even a good slug of chilli sauce, homemade or bought.
A splash or two of red wine
A pinch or two of sugar, any kind: you don’t want to make the sauce too sweet, but it does mellow both the acidity of the tomatoes and the chilli heat
A little salt and some freshly ground black pepper
The grated zest and juice of a small lemon
A little olive oil for frying

To garnish:
Fresh parsley, chopped finely (isn’t it about time you got yourself a good chef’s knife?) – a good handful


Gently sweat the onion and garlic in the olive oil over a fairly gentle heat for about five minutes – it should soften, and maybe take on a little golden colour, but not brown.  As mentioned in previous recipes, garlic takes on a very unpleasant bitter taste if it’s over-fried.

Add all the other ingredients except the parsley, bring to the boil, then immediately reduce to a slow simmer, stirring occasionally – it is ready in about fifteen minutes.

Sprinkle the chopped parsley onto each serving as it goes to the table.

Serve over any kind of pasta, or a jacket potato, or even on its own to be mopped up with bread.  If you serve it in those big, white pasta plates, it’ll look like something that has come out of a restaurant kitchen, especially once the parsley is sprinkled on top.  Not bad for five minutes prep and twenty minutes cooking.

Note: Chilli, chili, chilie, chillie etc are all variant spellings, and there is no real international consensus as to which is correct.  I tend to use the first, but I reserve the right to change my mind at will.

Further note: all'arrabbiata translates roughly as “angry style” due to the heat from the chillies – so be brave, and make the angriest sauce you dare!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Leftover Turkey Recipes – Episode Two

If you cooked your turkey on Christmas Day, you are now reaching the limits of it being safe to use: three days or so is about the rule for cooked meats, although bigger pieces last longer than slices.  Hopefully, you were well prepared and have already stripped the carcass, made a stock, and got the portions of meat into the freezer.

The first recipe is, in fact, several recipes in one.  Once again, quantities are not given: it’s down to what you have left, and who you’re feeding.  And you can adapt the recipes to any leftover meat.

Leftover Turkey Meatballs and Burgers

Leftover turkey meat, minced in a food processor or shredded very finely with a knife.
Breadcrumbs – roughly a quarter of the quantity of turkey
Small onion, diced very fine
Garlic clove, diced very fine (optional)
A dash of worcestershire sauce
A dash of tomato ketchup/catsup or tomato puree
A dash of mustard, any kind that you like
A couple of pinches of finely chopped herbs of your preference
Plenty of salt and pepper
One or two eggs, beaten


Mix all the ingredients except the egg together until well-amalgamated.  Add just enough of the egg so the mixture holds together.  Form the mixture into patties for burgers, or into balls.

Treat the patties as you would any burger, fried or grilled, and perhaps served on a floury bun with a little salad, mayonnaise and mustard.  Fry the meatballs gently in a little oil until browned, then serve with fresh vegetables,  salad, or add to a pasta sauce.

Turkey Tortillas

As turkey originates from Central America, it seems appropriate to end with a Mexican-style dish.  You don’t have to use all the ingredients, and it’s often best to put them out in little dishes and let your diners make their own custom-made fillings.

Leftover turkey meat, shredded, diced, or even long slices from the breast
Tortilla wraps
Whatever salad ingredients you like
Some sour cream, crème fraiche, or greek-style yoghurt
Chilli sauce, homemade or bought
Guacamole – home-made or bought
Grated cheese
Refried beans (frijoles refritos) – you can make your own with previously cooked beans, which you reheat in a frying pan with a little oil, onion and chilli.  Or you can use them from a tin.


Reheat the turkey, the beans and warm the tortillas.

To assemble:

On each tortilla, put a smear of sour cream, guacamole and chilli to your preference
Add a little salad, refried beans and turkey meat.  Sprinkle with grated cheese.  Roll up and eat.

Hopefully, as mentioned above, you will have frozen down your leftover turkey in suitable portions for future use.  Even the greatest turkey lover will be pretty fed up with it by now – bookmark these recipes, and come back to them at a later date.

There are still lots of potential recipes for leftover turkey that I haven’t even mentioned: the ever popular (or should I say clichéd) turkey curry, creamy turkey soup, turkey casserole etc etc.  The possibilities are endless…

Monday, 27 December 2010

Leftover Turkey Recipes - Episode One

As I promised in the run-up to Christmas, here’s some easy recipes for using up the leftover turkey.  They’d work perfectly well with leftover chicken, leftover beef, leftover pork or any leftover cooked meat you have.  They’re also good recipes in their own right for use at any time.

These are quick and simple recipes, and I deliberately don’t give quantities: as ever, I don’t know how many you’re feeding or what leftovers you have exactly.  If you don’t have all the ingredients to hand, or have other bits and pieces you want to use up, feel free to adapt, and improvise.

Leftover Turkey Asian-Style Soup.  This Thai or Vietnamese influenced broth can be put together in minutes, and is fresh and zingy, and will even put a dent in the worst festive hangover!


Leftover Turkey, shredded.
Onion, shallot or spring onion/shallot, diced very fine
Garlic, peeled and crushed, or diced very fine.
Chillies, sliced very fine
Root ginger or galangal, peeled and sliced very fine
Zest and juice of a lime or lemon
Fish sauce (Nam Pla etc) – a dash or more
Light soy sauce – a dash or more
A little palm sugar, or any type of sugar, or even a little honey
Pak choi, chinese leaves, or any kind of suitable crunchy greens, shredded – you could even use some raw, shredded brussels sprouts if you have any left over.
Noodles, about a handful per person, pre-cooked.
Fresh ground pepper, and salt if necessary

Method.  Bring the stock to the boil, add all the other ingredients except the turkey, the seasonings, the  noodles and the greens.  Bring back to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for a few minutes only: just long enough for the onion to soften a little and for the flavours to blend.  Add the turkey and the shredded greens, and cook for just a few moments more, until thoroughly heated through.

Check for seasoning – you may not need any salt, as the fish sauce and soy sauce are already fairly salty.

Per person: place some noodles in a bowl, then ladle on the soup.

Note: you could certainly add a handful of prawns or shrimp if you have any: add cooked ones with the turkey, raw ones at the beginning of the cooking – shelled or not, it’s up to you.

Leftover Turkey Kebab


Leftover turkey, or other cooked meat, sliced, cubed or shredded
Sweet onion, sliced fine
Good tomatoes, if available, thinly sliced
Cucumber, thinly sliced
Salad leaves, as available
Pitta bread, or other flat bread – or any bread you have
Chilli sauce, homemade or bought-in (optional) and/or mayonnaise or other dressing as you like

Toast or grill the pitta breads, and split so they form pockets.  Gently reheat the turkey (fry, in the oven, or a few minutes in the microwave) until piping hot throughout.

Combine all the ingredients to your taste in the pitta pockets.  Munch away.  Easy, job done.

Leftover turkey “Shepherds Pie”  - or whatever you would call a turkey “shepherd”.  Although nowadays shepherds pie, or its close relative cottage pie, is often made with raw minced or ground meats, traditionally it was a way of using up the remains of a roast.  Perfect to adapt here.

Turkey, or any leftover meat, shredded, cubed or sliced
Onion, peeled and finely sliced
Carrot, peeled and finely diced
Celery, peeled and finely diced
Mushrooms, wiped and sliced
One or two very ripe tomatoes, or a small can, chopped (optional)
Any herbs that you like, finely chopped
A glug or two of wine
A dash or more of turkey or chicken stock to moisten
A little plain flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Mashed potato, freshly made or leftover
A very small amount (less than a handful) of strong cheese, grated
A few knobs of butter.


Gently sweat the hard vegetables until they begin to soften and take colour.  Add the meat, sprinkle the whole lot with the flour, then add the tomatoes, liquids and herbs, and combine well.  The liquids should be enough to make a thickened gravy with the flour: you want a nice, moist filling that is not too sloppy.

Spoon the whole lot into a suitable tin or oven proof dish, and cover with the mashed potato.  Sprinkle the cheese on top, and dot with the butter.  Put into a medium oven for half an hour to forty five minutes, until thoroughly heated through, the cheese has melted, and the top is golden brown here and there.

Note: do not be tempted to use more cheese.  The point here is that it does not taste of cheese, as such, but just adds a lovely rich, savoury note to the dish.

A meal in its own right, but serve, if you like with some fresh veg of your choice, or a salad.  Certainly, some crusty bread would be good to wipe up every last bit from your plate.

Watch this space: more leftover turkey recipes coming soon.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Easy Home-Made Tomato Soup Recipe

I’m writing this at Christmas time, with a view to a light meal to settle, nourish and refresh the system in this time of excess, but this lovely, home-made tomato soup is good for any time of year.  This is another of those easy recipes that involve little preparation and finishing, but a long, slow cooking.  In other words, you do a few minutes work at the beginning and at the end, and let it cook away and take care of itself for a few hours while you get on with something more interesting.  It is a completely vegetarian recipe.

This tomato soup recipe is very flexible, both in terms or quantity and ingredients; follow the suggestions below, but adapt to whatever you like, and whatever you have around – the whole thing is pretty much made with store-cupboard ingredients. If you want more, increase the ingredients; if you want less, make the quantity below and either use it up over the next few days, or freeze the remainder in suitable portions.

To serve four:

Around a two pounds/one kilo of very flavoursome tomatoes – if they are out of season in your part of the world, tinned plum tomatoes are perfect for this, and what I use most of the time.  One small to medium onion, peeled and cut in half.  Two or three cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole.  One or two celery sticks, broken into chunks.  One or two carrots, scrubbed, and cut or broken into a couple of chunks.  One small orange and one lemon, cut in half across the equator, with most of the obvious pips removed: you don’t have to get them all.  Three or four bay leaves, a good sprig of thyme, a few parsley stalks.  6-10 whole peppercorns.  Water to cover to about twice the depth.  NO SALT at this stage.

To finish: two oz/50 grams plain flour and a little more water, shredded fresh basil leaves, or roughly chopped parsley, reserving a few whole sprigs for decoration, home made croutons (see below), a little double cream (optional).

Tip everything except the flour, croutons and basil/parsley into a big pan or stock pot, bring to the boil, then reduce to the lowest simmer and let it gently bubble for three hours or more.  Stir occasionally.  You could do this stage in a very low oven if it’s more convenient.  About twenty minutes before you want to serve, mix the flour to a loose paste with a little water, add to the pan and mix well; don’t worry too much about any lumps, most will cook out and we’ll be getting rid of the rest soon.  Continue to cook until the soup looks glossy and the taste of raw flour has gone.

Strain the liquid through a sieve or colander into a suitable container or bowl, and dispose of the solids - you don't blitz them into the soup, although with a bit of picking over, they could be used as a base for a pasta sauce or similar.  You can hold it at this stage as long as you like, and refrigerate the soup if necessary.  When ready to serve, return the soup to the rinsed/wiped out pan, and gently reheat until piping hot, being careful not to let it "catch" at the bottom now the flour is in.  Season with salt to taste.  Add the basil or parsley.  Pour into serving bowls, decorate with a swirl of cream if you wish, then a couple of home made croutons, topping with a sprig or two of parsley or basil leaves.

Serve your home-made tomato soup with good, crusty bread or rolls.

Home-Made Croutons.

Cut thin slices of bread into suitable shapes; using a knife or a cookie-cutter.  Gently fry the croutons in a little oil in a frying pan, or in a deep-fat fryer, until golden.  Drain well on kitchen paper.  These can be made well ahead of time, and kept in an airtight container once cold and dry.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas From The Guerilla Griller

Being a foodie blog, firstly I’m going to wish you well with all your festive food.  Whether or not you’ve been following my helpful hints and step-by-step guides, don’t worry too much.  Don’t be stressed, relish the experience of providing that wonderful meal and all the other tidbits, accept the praise, and don’t forget to enjoy the meal yourself.  And let the others do the washing up.

Don’t bow under the pressure: hey, if you’ve said you’ll all be sitting down to eat at a certain time, and it turns out to be half an hour late, don’t worry.  Don’t try to serve an undercooked turkey just to fit into some arbitrary schedule.  They’ll wait; let them pour another glass of something, play another Christmas game, watch another repeat on the telly.

I’d particularly like to wish a special Merry Christmas to those who have to work today: to the firefighters, the paramedics and ambulance crews, the police officers, the lifeboat crews, and all the emergency services support staff, to the doctors, nurses and carers, to the members of the armed services, to the merchant mariners, to the caterers, cooks, chefs and pot-washers, bar staff, and all in the hospitality industries, the journalists and broadcasters, and the technicians who keep it all going, to the actors and theatre staff and all the other entertainers, to the farmers and fisherfolk who may still be out there gathering our food while the rest of us develop a drowsy glow at the thought of one more piece of Christmas Pudding…

And to those who have nothing, wherever they are.

To all of those, and many more, and to you reading this, Merry Christmas.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Christmas Cook's Clock is Ticking...

Less than 24 hours to go, and the last-minute scurry is on: last chance for the shops today, for the rest of the food, those presents you haven’t got around to buying yet, more wrapping paper and sticky tape, an extra bottle or two.  What have you forgotten?  There’s bound to be something.  You got the nuts, but have you got any nutcrackers?

For those of you who are more organised, well done.  Sit back and relax, and watch the rest of the world panic, and run in ever-decreasing circles as the sun goes down and the shops begin to close.

If you’re new to all this Christmas cooking lark, or if you’ve done it every year, but still get into a flap, take time out to read through some of the blogs I’ve posted in the last month or so: they’re there to help you.

Here’s a quick list of the links that will gently take you by the hand and lead you through.

First and foremost, here’s my guide to cooking Christmas Dinner the Stress Free Way.  I’ve obviously struck a chord here, as this page alone has received hundreds of hits, which is remarkable for a pretty new blog.  Take it easy, take it step-by-step, and get as much done today as you can.

Follow the links here for more details on cooking perfect roast potatoes, and how to make gravy from scratch.

Don’t believe those who tell you that your Christmas Pudding has to be cooked months in advance and allowed to mature: this Christmas Pudding recipe can be made today, and will be great tomorrow.  If you fancy an experiment, I’ve expanded on it with my guestimate (guessipe?) on how to convert it into this year’s must-have, Heston Blumenthal’s Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding (catchy title, huh?)

Here, I tell you how to make those lovely little accompaniments, Pigs in Blankets – they’re the work of ten minutes to prepare, and everybody loves them.

For after the event, I tell you how to deal with all those Christmas leftovers, and go into detail on how to make a stock from the carcass of the big bird by following my chicken stock recipe.

To illustrate the principals of getting ahead, my turkey is already sitting in the fridge all prepared and ready to go, most of the veg are peeled, still raw and sitting in cold water, where they will come to no harm, and the pigs in blankets are good to go.

Today, I shall be making the gravy, or at least the giblet part of it, ready to add the juices from the cooked bird tomorrow.  I’ll also be making the bread sauce, (sorry, no recipe here) and the stuffing (see Stress-Free page), and will get some of the other tasks out of the way.

But, so that I don’t sound too smug, let me tell you that although I may be ahead in the kitchen, I’ve still got a few presents to get.  So, as prepared as I am in culinary terms, I’ll still be rushing round the shops this afternoon along with everyone else.  Now, where did I put those nutcrackers?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Pigs in Blankets, With Bacon Rasher Crackling Curls

It’s not often I blog twice in a day, but as I was preparing these traditional Christmas Dinner treats this morning, I thought I’d dash off a quick recipe.  Due to an ordering error, the butcher had sent rind-on, rather than the rindless bacon I’d wanted for this recipe, and as I can’t bear to waste anything, I came up with a very simple and tasty idea for the bacon rinds.

You will need:
One or two small sausages/chipolatas per person, or more if you’re greedy.
One rasher of rind-on streaky bacon (smoked or otherwise, your choice) per two sausages – although if your sausages are long and the rashers short, one rasher per sausage.  Oh, just get plenty of bacon, you’ll be using it up elsewhere anyway.
A lightly oiled baking sheet or tray.

And for the crackling curls:
Oil for deep frying.

Using a sharp knife, remove the rinds from the bacon and reserve.  Working one rasher at a time, put the bacon flat on a board or your worktop, and stretch it by stroking and pulling it firmly with the back of your knife.  Cut each rasher in half.

Roll each sausage in half a bacon rasher, in a kind of diagonal spiral – it looks nice if you leave each end of the sausage sticking out, so don’t worry about trying to cover the whole thing.  Place each “pig in its blanket” on the baking sheet as it is prepared, with the loose end of the rasher underneath.

You can do this well in advance, and then refrigerate until needed.  On the day, put into your oven once you’ve got a bit of space: they will need 20 – 30 minutes, depending on the temperature you're set at, and will come to no harm if you have to rest them, due to needing oven space, in a warm place until ready to serve.  Or, you could grill or pan fry them, in which case they will need turning occasionally to make sure the bacon is properly crisp and the sausage piping hot throughout.

For the Bacon Rasher Crackling Curls: get your deep-fat fryer good and hot, and pop in the bacon rinds.  Careful, they will spit and pop.  After a few minutes, they will quieten down, and you will need to keep an eye on them.  A few minutes more, and they should be golden.  Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper, so they become dry and crispy.  They shouldn’t need any salt.

They will have curled up, and in some cases will resemble little pig’s tails: that will be good or bad, depending on whether you want to be reminded about where bacon comes from.

Wait for them to become completely cold, then put in an air-tight container, and serve them on Christmas Day arranged on top of your pigs in blankets, or as a taster with the pre-Dinner drinks.  Or eat them yourself, as a cook’s perk.

This will only work properly with good bacon; the real, traditionally cured, non-injected stuff.  The flabby, wet, pre-packed bacon will exude nasty white foamy gunk, which will ruin your pigs in blankets, and the rinds will never go crispy.

Although these are a traditional part of the Christmas meal, these little treats are lovely at any time of year, particularly as an accompaniment to poultry

Braised Steak: Another Easy Winter Warmer for a Busy Day

In frantic times like these, it is all too easy to look to convenience foods, or take-aways, to get a quick meal on the table.  Although I champion real food and real cooking, I am not a fanatic, and have been known to grab a pizza, or whatever, along with the rest of the world.  A better solution is to make more than you need of some meals when you do have time to cook, and to freeze portions down, ready to be reheated for just such an occasion.

Of course, there are many meals that you can knock together in twenty minutes or so: a quick pasta dish, or a stir fry, for example.  I love these kinds of meals, and will give many recipes for fast, tasty grub that can be put together almost at the drop of a hat.

There is another way, though, to feed yourself on a busy day, and that is to make something that needs very little time in the preparation, but will take care of itself in a long slow cooking, filling the house with wonderful aromas, while you get on with the rest of your chores; at this time of year maybe wrapping presents, decorating the tree, shovelling snow off the path, trying to find a plumber to deal with your burst pipe…

So, let me introduce you to this lovely braised steak recipe: not only is it wonderfully tasty, but it is also very economical.  It even makes its own gravy for you.

You will need a piece of braising steak per person: six to eight ounces depending on your appetite.  Buy chuck, skirt, leg or flank, or just ask your butcher for a suggestion.  You can do this recipe with cubes or chunks of meat, but try to get each portion in a piece if you can.

You will also need, per every two people:
A small carrot, a small onion, a stick of celery, and a clove of garlic, all peeled and diced.
Some fresh or dried herbs such as thyme and/or bay
A dollop of mustard (any kind) or horseradish sauce
A splash of Worcestershire sauce
A glass of red wine
Some stock (you could get away with a stock cube or two here, if you don’t have any fresh beef stock), heated.
A little plain flour
Some boiling water to top up the stock if necessary
A little oil for cooking, or you could use lard or dripping
Salt and pepper.

Equipment: an oven tray, or saucepan/frying pan/skillet that can be used both on the hob and in the oven, either with a tight lid, or with kitchen foil to cover.

Method.  Peel and dice all the vegetables.  Season the flour heavily with salt and pepper, and liberally dust the steaks with it.  Heat the oil/fat, and gently fry the vegetables until they begin to take a little colour.  Remove from the pan, and brown the meat on both sides.

Return the veg to the pan, pour in the stock and red wine, adding some boiling water if necessary to cover the meat.  Add all the other ingredients, stirring well.  Cover with a tight fitting lid and/or kitchen foil, and put into a low to medium oven (190 C/375 F/gas mark 5).  After an hour or two, carefully remove the lid, and turn the meat so that the top doesn’t dry out, and give the whole thing a gentle stir.  Replace the lid, and pop it back into the oven.

And that’s it.  Your prep time was maybe twenty minutes. Total cooking time is about three hours, but you can turn the oven down and leave it to its own devices for as long as you want, while you get on with your other tasks.

The result will be beautifully tender, almost falling apart: any tough sinew and connective tissue will have melted away.  When ready, lift out the meat and as much of the veg as you can (use a slotted spoon), give the gravy a thorough stir, and pass through a sieve to get rid of any lumps.

Serve with a simple steamed veg of your choice, and maybe mashed potato or noodles.  Or you could just serve with chunks of crusty bread.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas Leftovers: Be Prepared

Only a few days now to the great food orgy that is Christmas.  Hopefully, your shopping is going well, your lists are all getting ticked off, your cupboards, fridge, freezer and vegetable racks are brimming over, and you’ve already started some of the prep.  You’ve read my Stress Free Christmas Dinner and Christmas Pudding methods and you’re confident, albeit a little frazzled.  The presents are wrapped and under the tree, and you even remembered to send a card to Great Aunt Ada.

It may seem a strange thing to say before the great event, but make sure you’re also prepared to deal with all those leftovers: the shops won’t be open for a few days after Christmas, or the weather may prevent you from getting to them.

There is always a lot of food left over, and it would be a shame and a crime to waste any of it.  I will be giving you some leftovers recipes in the days following the festivities, but even a turkey lover like me will soon get fed up with turkey sandwiches, turkey curry, turkey soup, turkey casserole etc.  It’s not surprising that many of us only eat turkey once a year, after that overdose.  Better to keep a little for a few cold cuts, then freeze the rest.

Deal with the carcass as soon as you have a quiet moment: don’t leave it any more than two days after the Big Meal.  Strip all the meat from the bones, and slice, dice and mince into various portions to be frozen for future reference.  Keep the white and dark meats separate if you like.  If you have a break in the endless social round, make a stock with the bones (my chicken stock method here works perfectly for turkey bones), or break the carcass up and freeze that too for a quieter time.

Don’t chuck out all that lovely veg, however unappealing it may look the morning after.  Roast potatoes don’t reheat particularly successfully as roast potatoes, but, cut into smaller pieces, make wonderful sautéed potatoes.  Or chop finely, along with any other leftover veg, such as parsnips, swede, carrots, brussels, cabbage and plenty of seasoning, and you have the classic “bubble and squeak”.  Form into burger sized patties, and fry gently in oil, butter, dripping or lard until they are crisp and golden on the outsides, and heated right through.  They do tend to break up, which doesn’t matter, but if you prefer them to keep their shape, you can add a little beaten egg to the mix.  These patties also freeze well, so use up all the leftover veggies in one batch.

Leftover cooked sausages can be frozen, either whole, or in chunks, and can be later used to make, say, a sausage and bean casserole, toad in the hole, or, with a can of tomatoes and a few herbs, onions and garlic, a simple pasta sauce.

Christmas pudding can be recycled: the traditional way of reheating is to gently fry the portions in a little butter.  Again, spare portions can be frozen.

Cheese is rarely a problem in my house: I’ll have worked my way through it, however much there is, long before there is any danger of it turning, but if you are not such a cheese-monkey as me, the freezer can again be your friend.  Most cheeses freeze and defrost well for “normal” eating, but you may want to break it into smaller chunks, or even grate it before freezing, and use it for cooking.  Grated cheese can be used pretty much straight from the freezer for cheese sauces, gratins, or even a toasted cheese sandwich.

Grate any bread that’s going stale, either by hand, or in the food processor.  A big bag of breadcrumbs is a very useful thing to have – as long as they are thoroughly dried before storage, they will last for ages in an airtight container, or, again, in the freezer.

Make sure you have a big pan to make the stock (it will probably be the one that you use to steam the Christmas Pudding) and plenty of food storage boxes, aluminium foil and cling film in stock.

Also make sure that you have plenty of pickles, sauces and mayonnaise, and lots of bread and rolls for instant “I can’t face any more cooking right now” meals with the bits you don’t freeze.

Label everything very clearly: you know what it is right now, but won’t remember on a dark February evening when you are rummaging through the freezer looking for a quick meal.  Freeze everything as soon as possible, and make sure that you thoroughly reheat any leftovers – don’t take risks with food bugs: they are there however clean a cook you are.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Lovely Lentils: another storecupboard special for a winter day

This simple and easy lentil recipe is another store-cupboard meal, good at any time of year, but perfect for the cold weather.  It’s very adaptable, so play with the flavourings as you wish.  You can use any kind of lentil: red lentils, green lentils, brown lentils, puy lentils.  If you use Asian or Indian spices, you are making a daal, dhal or dahl.  Using herbs such as thyme and bay will give you a more European result.

You may need to pick through the lentils for small stones etc before use: tip them onto a roasting tray to make this easier.

8 oz/250g Lentils – any kind
I small onion, diced small
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed or sliced very finely
Herbs and spices as you like or have available
Boiling water
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
A little oil for frying (or oil and butter)

Method:  sweat the onion and garlic in a little oil (or oil and butter) in a saucepan over a gentle heat until they soften and begin to take colour.  You can let the garlic take on a golden hue, which will add a lovely nutty flavour to the dish, but don’t let it brown or there will be a nasty, bitter taste.  If you want to control this perfectly, then cook the garlic first until it is just right, remove from the pan and return once the lentils go in.

Add your herbs and/or spices (last night, I used a commercial Thai 7 spice blend that I just happened to have in the cupboard, but use anything you like), stirring well into the onion/garlic mixture, then the lentils.  Grind in some fresh black pepper: no salt at this stage.  Add enough boiling water to twice the depth of the lentils, bring back to the boil, then reduce to the gentlest simmer.  Use a heat-diffusing mat if you have one.  Stir well from time to time.

Add more boiling water, a little at a time, if needed.  You can judge this better once the lentils start to soften and break up.  You can control the consistency to get the result you like – a dryish porridge, a looser mix similar to a risotto or paella, or even a soup.

Cooking times vary depending on the type and age of the lentils: something between half to three quarters of an hour is a ball-park estimate.

Add the salt at the end of cooking: lentils will take a lot of salt.

You can use this as a side dish, perhaps to a curry: if you use the more herby flavourings, it is brilliant with any kind of pork, including sausages.

Or serve it as the main event, with any kind of bread to mop the lentils up.  Bread and lentils is a marvellous combination that goes so well, and is ridiculously more-ish.  Perhaps it is that together they make a complete protein, and our bodies instinctively know this.

If your image of lentils is as some kind of bland and virtuous hippie-food, think again.  Lentils, as with all pulses and legumes, are cheap, versatile, nutritious, tasty, filling, fat-free and low on the glycemic index.  They keep for ages in your cupboard, so there is no excuse not to have a bag or two in store.

As with beans, I usually cook much more than I need for one meal, and portion and freeze the rest for later use.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Perfect Toasted Cheese and Ham Sandwich, or Croque Monsieur, recipe

When I moved to my little corner of Devon a few years back, it was winter, and a month or so later the rest of the country ground to a halt after a heavy snowfall.  “Never snows here,” I was told.  “Well, hardly ever.  Not for twenty years, anyway.”

It’s made up for it now: overnight, a deep blanket of the white stuff has settled, the car is half-buried, and the hills look very pretty in the distance.  I’m sure readers in some parts of the world would laugh at it; it’s only a few inches, after all, but we’re simply not used to it.  We don’t have the infrastructure to deal with snow, nationally, locally or even personally.  It’s always a surprise when it happens, and catches us unawares.  And, in our defence, would you buy snow chains or snow tyres if you’d only use them for a few days every six or seven years?  Better to stay at home, and wait it out.

I live in a small town, only a short walk from the shops: although they may not have had all of their deliveries, I hardly think there will be many shortages.  But I don’t doubt that there are many people in more rural districts hereabout that are totally cut off.

Which led me to wonder what they would eat.

I don’t know about you, but I always have the potential to create meals from what I have in store.  I’m not talking about developing a bunker-mentality, but there is always food in the freezer, and tins, dry goods and other staples in the cupboards.  I often shop daily for my fresh ingredients, and my cooking is inspired by whatever I find.  On a day like this, though, we may have to scratch together something from what is already in store.

An easy idea is a toasted cheese and ham sandwich, or, as it is known in France, a Croque Monsieur – or, as it is sometimes misspelled, Croc Monsieur, which I like, as it suggests a big, crunchy bite, which you’ll certainly get here.  I’ll give you my recipe for the perfect cheese and ham toastie, and then some ideas how you could improvise if you don’t have all the ingredients, and don’t fancy going to the shops.

You can make this as a single round sandwich, or as a double-decker: the choice is yours.

So, two or three slices of bread (you do keep an emergency loaf in the freezer, don’t you?)
As much cheese as you like for the filling, plus a little more for the topping – traditionally in France it will be Gruyere or Emmental, but a good cheddar or any other tasty cheese that melts well will do.
A few slices of ham.
You probably won’t need any salt, due to the cheese and ham, but a liberal grinding of black pepper would be a good idea.

Now, the biggest problem with a toasted cheese and ham is that if you put the ham on top before grilling, the cheese will hardly have melted before the ham is overcooked and dried up.  If you put the cheese on top, the ham can slide off the toast.  My solution is to grate the cheese and shred the ham, mix them together, and go from there.

Toast the bread.  Butter the slices if you like, or not as you prefer.  Load up one slice (or two, if you’re making the double decker version) and pop under the grill until the cheese melts.  Assemble your sandwich, sprinkle the top with more grated cheese (a proportion of Parmesan or similar is good here), and slip back under the grill until it’s melted.

If you like, you can top with a fried or poached egg, and you have a Croque Madame.  Either way, you have a great store-cupboard meal for a cold day.

But, what if you don’t have all the ingredients, and you can’t get to the shops?  Well, surely, improvise.

I don’t always have ham in my fridge, but when I do, I usually make sure that I shred any leftovers and freeze them.  Likewise gammon.  Still no ham?  How about bacon?  It won’t officially be a Croque, but who cares?  What about some left-over roast beef, chicken, or lamb?  How about some diced sausage or chorizo?  Or use whatever other meat you have, or perhaps a tin of tuna or sardines.  If you are vegetarian, or even if you are not, how about a slice or two of fried aubergine, or a spoon or two of cooked lentils or beans?

No sliced bread?  Stack it up on tortillas, pack it into pitta bread pouches, slice a floury bap, a bagel, or go Mediterranean with some ciabatta.

And feel free to add whatever you like; whatever you have, whatever you fancy, whatever’s tasty.  We’re talking improvising here: if you don’t even have any breads in the house at all, you could use the other ingredients to make a pasta sauce – you’d effectively have a carbonara,

Some versions of the Croque Monsieur use a mornay, or cheese, sauce.  I tell you how to make that here.  Make it quite thick, mix in the ham or whatever you are using, top the bread and grill as above.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Gravy Training - or How to Make Gravy from Scratch

Gravy is a sauce, and sauces are there to accentuate, lubricate, flatter, decorate, improve, and compliment your meal.  When put like that, I hope it’s clear that real gravy does not come from a jar or a packet.

At its simplest, gravy can just be the juices from the meat.  Somehow, “would you like some meat juice” just doesn’t cut it in English, hence many otherwise English speaking restaurants and chefs using the French term “Jus”.   I don’t know why this annoys me and strikes me as pretentious, but it does.  It’s the diner’s fault, rather than the menu-writers; why “meat juice” produces a “yuk” response in English and not French is a mystery.  Perhaps it’s the English-speaking nations’ notorious reluctance to embrace the reality of where meat actually comes from, and thus instinctively avoid reminders…

Anyway, assuming you want something a little more substantial than those controversial juices, read on to discover the method.  As often with my recipes, I am deliberately hazy about quantities, and even ingredients: once again, it’s the principal that counts.

So, how do you make gravy?  Beef gravy, chicken gravy, lamb gravy, pork gravy, duck gravy, any old gravy you like: the basic method for making gravy is the same.  No, it doesn’t take a dozen or so paragraphs to teach you how to make good gravy: I’ll give you a quick summary in a few lines at the end.

Firstly, you will need some flavoursome liquid.  Hopefully, whatever you are roasting will throw off lots of the lovely juices we were talking about earlier.  When you take the roast out of the oven for its all-important resting period, leave the juices in the pan to settle for a few minutes, then skim off most of the fat – don’t think you have to remove every last drop of it, as apart from anything else, you won’t be able to.  You can make this process easier by using a gravy separator, or by tipping the juices into a glass jug so that you can see what you’re doing.

Whatever,  put the roasting pan, with the juices, back onto a low heat on the hob.  Stir up all those crusty and delicious bits stuck to the base and sides of the pan.  Assess the situation: do you have enough liquid for the amount of diners?  If not, you need to add some.  Liquid, not diners, obviously.

Stock is a good solution here.  If you have been roasting poultry, and you were lucky enough to have got the giblets with it, you should have been making a stock with them while roasting the bird, and will now be adding this to the pan juices, and thus creating giblet gravy.  If not, you hopefully have already made some stock on an earlier occasion, perhaps by following my recipe for chicken stock in this article, which works perfectly with the bones/carcasses of any roast, not just poultry.  Being a sensible cook, you will have made sure to freeze some.  Defrost it now, on the hob or in the microwave, and add it to your pan juices.

You could add wine as all or part of your extra liquid (the alcohol will cook out) or even plain water, if your basic juices are flavourful enough.

Now make what is known as a “cold water roux”.  Put a few spoonfuls of plain flour (not cornflour or any other thickening type agent; just plain, ordinary household flour) in a jug or mixing bowl, and whisk in cold water until you have a fairly well amalgamated mix.  It should be roughly the consistency of milk: don’t worry about a few lumps – we’ll get rid of them later.

Raise the heat under your pan, pour in the cold water roux, and bring to the boil, whisking as necessary.  Once boiling point is reached, immediately turn it down and let it simmer.  If, after a few minutes, your gravy is too thick, add some boiling water.  If it’s too thin, either add a little more of the roux, or just let the gravy cook away until it naturally reduces to the consistency you like.

Let the gravy simmer for at least twenty minutes, to make sure all the raw flour taste is cooked out.

Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as needed.  Pour through a sieve into your gravy boat or gravy jug, and serve.

Vegetable or vegetarian gravy can be made in the same way: just make a good vegetable stock, add the juices from any roasting veg, and use any vegetable cooking liquids.

All done, with absolutely nothing from a packet – well, except the flour: if you grow your own wheat and grind your own flour, you’re way ahead of me!  Oh, alright, you probably bought the salt and pepper too, but you know what I mean.

So, that’s it: how to make a gravy.  However, you can fiddle with this to your heart’s content, by adding some other flavourings – just make sure they’re complementary to your meal: you’re not trying to upstage it here.

Good things to add to gravies (not all at once, obviously).

Wine – already mentioned, but a glass or so often really makes a gravy come alive.
Other booze – again, make sure the alcohol has time to cook out
Herbs – whatever suits the main event
Tomato Ketchup/Catsup – a glug or two adds sweetness and a little colour
Sugar – a touch of sweetness can be just what is needed, but go carefully
Mustard – a little goes a long way.  Add a little, stir well, and taste before adding any more
Worcestershire Sauce – adds colour and flavour, but is also pretty salty, so again, use with caution
Redcurrant jelly, mint sauce, cranberry sauce etc – adds sweetness, tartness and depth of flavour
Horseradish – same caution as mustard, but great with beef gravy
Citrus juice – orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, and perhaps a little of the zest, but no bitter white pith, or you’ll be sorry
Cream, or milk – be aware that the cream will also thicken your gravy
Garlic – if your food is already fairly garlicky, then you can go heavy: if not, add just the subtlest amount, or it will overpower the rest of the meal

Add whatever you like, really, but remember it’s gravy, not some exotic sauce.

How to make onion gravy: slice a pound or so of onions very thinly, and cook down very, very slowly, either on the hob or in the oven, until they have turned a rich, golden brown. To reach this stage they will have reduced in volume to about a fifth of the original amount.  You will need to stir and turn frequently; be very careful that they do not catch or burn.

Stir the onions into your gravy, make sure to deglaze the bottom of the onion pan with a little boiling water and add these juices too.  Add them early in the gravy making process, just after you have turned it down to a simmer.

Summary: Recipe for real gravy
All your meat juices, with some added stock, wine or plain water if necessary, plus other flavourings as you like.  Whisk in mixture of plain flour and water.  Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least twenty minutes, adjusting for thickness as you go.  Strain/sieve, and serve.

You can, of course, make any of these gravies with no thickening at all, making your “jus” go further.  Damn, I used the J word.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Smelly foods, clean hands

Not a recipe here, but a very quick and useful trick.  Have you noticed that after handling certain foods, such as fish, onion, garlic etc, the smell lingers on your hands, however many times you wash them?

Here’s a tip from a chef friend who spent a long time on the fish section of a restaurant while doing his apprenticeship: wash your hands with COLD water.  This closes the pores in your skin, and prevents the smelly oils from penetrating.

Obviously, you still use soap or handwash, and you would still use hot water for good hygiene during the rest of your cooking session; before you start, and whenever changing tasks to avoid cross-contamination.  But the cold-water trick really works.

On the subject of hygiene, cross-contamination is such an important issue that it’s worth a few words here.  In a pro kitchen, chefs use colour-coded chopping boards, and sometimes even colour-coded knives to avoid cross-contamination, however fast and furiously they are working.  Yellow for cooked meats, red for raw meat, blue for fish, white for dairy etc.  And they (should) wash their hands thoroughly between each task, and whenever they’ve touched something that could cross-contaminate.  It becomes such an ingrained habit that your fingers can feel “tingly” after doing something as routine as scratching your nose: an unconscious signal to wash and scrub.

When viewers complained how television chefs seem to continually touch foods with their bare hands, the great chef Michel Roux Jr was quoted as saying, in support, something along the lines of “I touch the food all the time in my kitchen…  But I have exceptionally clean hands.”  I haven’t managed to track down the quote, so it may be apocryphal, but the principal remains.

We are unlikely to use colour-coded boards in the home kitchen, but it is still important to clean hands and equipment thoroughly in between preparing different types of foods.  I hope you would scrub down between prepping raw chicken and slicing a tomato, but get into the habit EVERY time, particularly before handling foods that will be served raw, or that will get no further cooking, as there would be nothing to kill any potentially harmful bacteria.  Which is why, to digress slightly, raw foods should always be stored below cooked or ready-to-serve foods, in the fridge or elsewhere; if anything drips, it won’t do any harm.

Believe it or not, there is a correct method for handwashing: this may seem patronising, but read on.

Turn on tap, and wet hands.  Apply soap, making sure your hands are thoroughly covered, especially between your fingers.  Lather up, and rinse, leaving the tap running.  Dry hands on paper towels,  and use the paper towel to turn off the tap.  This way, there is no possibility that any contamination from your dirty hands can transfer to your freshly-scrubbed paws.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Winter Warmer: Boozy Hot Chocolate (adults only!)

We’ve had the first heavy snow in my little corner of Devon this morning, but the bright sunshine has already melted most of it away.  There are more blizzards forecast for this evening, but who knows?  Snow or not, it’s a good excuse for this adults-only boozy hot chocolate drink that’s guaranteed to get your veins zinging and your fingers and toes tingling after a brisk walk on a cold day.

If you want an easy and more instant version, you could make this with the normal hot chocolate mix or cocoa powder you may already have in your cupboard, or even by heating up a ready-made chocolate milkshake.  But the real thing is easy enough, won’t take you long, and will drive you wild with anticipation from the aromas as you prepare it.

Boozy hot chocolate drink:  Serves two.

4oz/120 grams good quality dark chocolate, broken or chopped into pieces.
1 pint/550 ml/20 fluid oz whole (full fat) milk (or a mix of milk and double cream)
1 tsp/1 good pinch ground mixed spice
1 or 2 cinnamon sticks, or 1tsp/1 good pinch ground cinnamon
A little sugar, to your taste, if you like (optional)
2 good measures brandy, dark rum or whisky (or whiskey, if it’s not from Scotland)

1/3 pint/120 ml/4 fluid ounces double cream, whipped to soft peak consistency
A little dark chocolate, grated or shredded

Put the milk and the ground spice(s) into a pan, and add the broken/chopped chocolate.  Heat very gently until all the chocolate has melted, whisking frequently, until just at the boil.  Taste for sweetness, and add sugar if necessary.  Whisk in your booze just as you take the spicy chocolate milk mixture off the heat, otherwise the alcohol will boil off, and you don’t want that!

Share between two large cups or mugs.

If you are using cinnamon sticks, rather than ground cinnamon, either stir the mixture while it is heating with the stick or sticks, which gives a more subtle flavour, or put a stick into each mug before pouring the hot boozy chocolate in.

Top each mug with the whipped cream, and sprinkle the grated or shredded chocolate over it.

Enjoy – and feel the glow.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

How to Cook Perfect Roast Potatoes

Even good cooks sometimes put most of their concentration into the “main event” of the meal, which is a shame when the accompaniments don’t quite measure up to the central, perfectly prepared, masterpiece.  Put a bit of concentration and forethought into the side dishes as well, and you’re heading for master-cook status.

This simple recipe is for beginner cooks and experienced cooks alike, and will give you the perfect roast potato.  I have given a short version, and a more detailed explanation.

The short version:
Peel a quantity of floury spuds sufficient for your appetites, cut to the size you like, and boil until the outsides are beginning to soften and a sharp knife will penetrate to the middle.  Drain and dry thoroughly, shake a little to scuff up the outsides,  tip into a little hot , seasoned oil on a roasting tray, and cook in a hot oven for 45-90 minutes, depending on quantity, size and variety of potato until crispy gold on the outside.  Serve immediately.

The longer version:
You can roast any type of potato, including the waxy “new” types, but the proper, traditional, crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside roasties are made from floury spuds.  Choose varieties such as Desiree, King Edward, Maris Piper, or whatever floury type is local to your part of the world.  If in doubt, ask at your greengrocer, farm shop,  organic box scheme suppliers, or, if you must, the supermarket.

(What are waxy/floury potatoes?  Potatoes fall into a spectrum of the two basic types.  Waxy potatoes – such as Charlotte, Anya and Maris Peer – remain firm after cooking, and are great for potato salads, etc, and whenever you want the boiled or steamed potato to retain its shape.  Floury varieties – see above – are great for roasting, mashing, chips/french fries, potatoes-in-their-jackets etc.  There are thousands of varieties grown around the world, so experiment.)

Quantity: I don’t know, how hungry/greedy are you, and what else will you have with the meal?  Any suggestion I make here is likely to be wrong.  If you are a really new cook, and are only buying the potatoes for this one meal, consider a typical spud from the batch.  Guess how many of the size you like will come from that potato, and multiply accordingly (allowing a small amount of loss from the peeling).

I prefer small-to-medium roasties for my perfect ratio of crispy crust and fluffy interior: think slightly bigger than a golf ball, or three from a spud the size of a tennis ball.  It’s totally up to you; huge cannonballs, or little crispy items not much different from a sauté potato.  Whatever you like.  You are cooking YOUR perfect potato.

Method: peel the potatoes, cut to size, boil in plenty of water.  Once the water has come back to the boil, turn down to a brisk simmer, and check every few minutes.  You want the potatoes to start to soften on the outsides, but not begin to disintegrate.  When you are starting to get a little fluff on the outsides, and when a small, sharp knife-point or skewer will penetrate reasonably easily to the centre of the spud, they are ready.

Immediately tip into a colander to drain, and cover with a clean cloth to absorb as much of the steam as possible.  Depending on the quantity, they can sit happily like this for up to an hour before the actual roasting – not much longer, or they begin to discolour.

Pour a little oil into a roasting tin or tray (enough to cover the base to the thickness of a matchstick), and season with salt and cracked black pepper,.  Put the tray or tin into a hot oven (somewhere between three-quarters and full heat), and leave it there for at least ten minutes.

Shake the dried par-boiled potatoes a little, to break up the surface slightly, which will give you lovely crispy bits when cooked.

When the oil and tray are hot, tip the spuds in, quickly turning them round and over to get a coating of the seasoned oil, and immediately put back into the oven.  Give the potatoes a shake/turn every twenty minutes or so, and/or turn the tray round so that what was at the back of the oven is now at the front (this last is a good tip when roasting anything, especially in quantity).

If you are only cooking a few portions of roast potatoes, they will probably be done in 45-50 minutes.  If you are cooking substantially more, they can take 60-90 minutes.  It is perfectly ok to juggle the temperature if they are coming on too fast or too slow.  Time it so they can be served as soon as they are ready: if you leave them sitting around, even in a warm place, the interiors begin to lose their fluffiness and become “claggy”.

Ok, says the beginner cook, you say a hot oven, but the meat I am cooking to serve alongside needs a much lower temperature – what do I do?  Simple: you are going to rest your meat in a warm place for at least half an hour before carving.  Put the spuds in whenever you can, and when you take the meat out, turn the oven on full-blast, keeping an eye on them from time to time.

As an alternative to your everyday vegetable oil, you can also try olive oil, rapeseed oil, pork or beef dripping, or goose/duck fat.  All give slightly different flavours and textures.

You can roast pretty much any root vegetables in the same way.  Why not roast off a mixture, such as carrot, onion, swede, parsnip, turnip, bulb fennel etc, with maybe some of the more waxy spuds thrown in.  Add some woody herbs, such as thyme or rosemary, and perhaps a little garlic.  Not such a fierce temperature here, as you don’t want the more delicate and sugary items to burn; a longer, slower cooking gives a wonderful tender and sweet result, with a mixture of flavours and textures.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Cooking for Beginners

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response to this blog; it’s only early days yet, and I’m already getting quite a few regular readers.  One common theme seems to be developing in the feedback, and that is a need for cooking lessons for beginners, nervous cooks, and inexperienced cooks, both online and in the real world.

I’ve been asked for cooking lessons by so many people in the last few weeks, that I’m seriously considering it as a project for the new year: just collecting my thoughts at the moment, so watch this space.  There are many fancy cooking schools out there, but these are offputting to many – I’m being asked for basic cooking, beginner recipes, simple cooking techniques, easy recipes, how to start cooking.

I can start that, right here, right now.

In one sense, I am a passionate foodie – I care about what I eat, and what others eat.  But I have another life; unlike some, I don’t spend every hour of every day thinking about food.  And I guess most people are like that; they have their job, their social life, their hobbies, families and friends, but when they eat at home they want to eat well, and not rely on processed and pre-packaged food, micowave meals, and take-out and takeaway meals.  They want to be able to produce great meals by simple home cooking.

And I realised that this is also something that I am passionate about: I believe that EVERYONE should know how to cook, not necessarily to a gourmet level, but to be able to prepare simple, easy, tasty food for themselves and their loved ones.  I will tackle some fancy-pants recipes here in The Guerilla Griller, but in the main I will stick to simple cooking techniques that everyone can master, hold your hand through basic recipes, show you how to shop wisely and economically, find something good in the shops, take it home, and make a meal.

It’s about principles of cooking.  I’m not talking about moral principals, although that is important too.  I’m talking about the basic principles of cooking, which everyone can learn, adapt and progress from to whatever level they like.  Throughout these blogs, I will give you cooking tips, cooking instructions, recipes for beginners, or at least suitable for beginners, and the kitchen know-how to get you going.

Here’s a thing: if you understand the principals and basic cooking techniques, then you often won’t need to follow recipes to cook a meal; you will know how to do it, and make the rest of it up as you go along.  Of course, recipes are fun, and will give you ideas, so I’ll have plenty of step-by-step recipes too.

If you know how to bake one cake, you are on your way to baking many.  If you learn to make one sauce, then other sauces will hold less fear.  If you can pan fry salmon, you can pan fry other fish.  If you learn to roast a chicken, then you can roast anything that will fit into your oven; and then you can learn to make a chicken stock with the carcasses, and you will be able to make all kinds of stocks, and use them in further meals.

My first blog, The Cheese Sandwich Concept sets out some of these principals: buy quality, which doesn’t have to be expensive.  If you have good ingredients, it’s pretty easy to make a good meal.

Quite a few of my blogs here already contain pretty simple recipes, and basic kitchen skills.  They are easy to follow, and will always give good results.  Have a browse (links on the side) and keep coming back; new content will be appearing all the time.  Please feel free to contact me or leave comments with requests and ideas.

In the meantime, you may want to have a look at these to ease you in gently, and give you an idea where I'm coming from:

Enjoy, and welcome to the kitchen.