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.

Monday, 28 February 2011

British Pasta Sauce v. Italian Ragu alla Bolognese

First up, despite the title, this is not a competition, but a comparison; a little study on how recipes travel and are adopted and adapted far beyond their place of origin. In the drive for authenticity too many cooks over-exert both themselves and their wallets to get the “true” ingredients for their dishes; far better, surely, to sometimes use an equivalent more easily available and local.

I am certainly not arguing that we should never try for authenticity: far from it. There is a real buzz from using authentic ingredients to re-create a dish that we have enjoyed on holiday, seen on television, in a recipe, or in a restaurant of a different kitchen-culture to our own, and there are few better ways to become familiar with ingredients that are exotic or unusual to us. But what about the dishes that are meant to be standard home cooking, that are economical, everyday meals that use common and readily available ingredients to their home culture? We are missing the point if we have to spend a fortune on something that should be a simple family meal.

Recipes, like humans, travel and are influenced by those travels, and we should embrace this. Few Italians would even agree on the “correct” method and recipe for a ragu, other than to say that the only proper way is to follow the version their own mother makes, which is obviously superior to anyone else’s. If we could find a dozen different “authentic” recipes in as many Bolognese kitchens, I can’t see a problem if we make our own version – most Italians would say it’s wrong, whatever we do.

In the search for authenticity, it’s worth bearing in mind that tomatoes, so common now, only made it to Europe a few hundred years ago, and were treated with suspicion even as recently as Victorian times, yet we can hardly conceive of a meat sauce for pasta made without them. So, things change, things move, ideas travel.

Here are two recipes, one for a very typical Bolognese ragu, the other for what I am calling British Pasta Sauce. They are both very good; most cultures, after all, have a tradition of savoury meat sauces, usually making use of the cheaper cuts, or leftovers, chopped and shredded, to be served with a handy carbohydrate, and although Italy is the home of pasta (unless it’s China: another argument) it is no longer the sole owner. The major difference is in the manner of serving: in Italy, much less sauce is served with the pasta than elsewhere. Pasta is cheap, meat is expensive, and it is a meal designed to make a little go a long way.

Sprinkle freshly grated cheese over the top of either version on serving: of course, Parmesan is readily available almost everywhere, and therefore can hardly be classed as an exotic ingredient. Do use the genuine article, though, or try Pecorino or perhaps another good, strong, hard cheese from your part of the world. Never, please, use the vomit-smelling sawdust from the little tubs labelled ready-grated Parmesan.





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Ragu alla Bolognese: this is based on a recipe gleaned by Elisabeth David in the 1950’s from Chef/Proprietor Zia Nerina of the Trattoria Nerina in Bolgna, so I would say that it is a pretty authentic example. Much to my surprise, there is no mention of garlic, or any herbs or spices other than nutmeg, salt and pepper: whether this is correct, or just a simple omission, I have let it stand.

Ingredients:

8oz/225grams lean minced/ground beef or veal
4oz/110grams chicken livers, chopped
3oz/85gram ham or pancetta, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 small-ish onion, peeled and diced
1 stick celery, de-stringed as much as possible and diced
3 tablespoons of concentrated tomato puree
1 wineglass of white wine
2 wineglasses of stock, or plain water
A little butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh grated nutmeg to taste

To serve: freshly cooked pasta, grated Parmesan

Method:

Gently brown the ham or bacon in a little butter (I would add a splash of olive oil, to help prevent the butter burning). Add the diced vegetables, and continue to cook until they have taken on colour. Add the beef or veal, and cook, stirring frequently, until it too has browned. Now add the chicken livers, and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato puree, the wine and the water/stock. Season carefully with the salt (the bacon/ham may already be quite salty), pepper and nutmeg. Cover, and leave to simmer gently for 30-40 minutes. Miss David notes that some Italian cooks add a cup of milk or cream towards the end of the cooking, which makes the dish smoother. She also mentions the addition of ovarine, which are the unlaid eggs found inside the hen. I would imagine that these would be rather difficult to source unless you keep and slaughter your own chickens; I have never tried them.

Thoroughly mix the sauce with the pasta in a warmed bowl, then transfer to serving plates. Hand the grated cheese to be sprinkled on top to taste.


British Pasta Sauce: this recipe is mine, which has evolved over many years. It is not quite engraved in stone, and I often make slight variations, depending on my mood and what is available in the shops. Like most Guerilla Griller recipes, please feel free to use this as a springboard for your own ideas and variations.

8oz/225gram lean minced/ground beef
3-4 rashers of unsmoked fatty bacon, diced
1 small to medium onion, peeled and diced fine
1 carrot, peeled and diced fine
1 stick celery, de-stringed and diced fine
4oz/110gram mushrooms, wiped and sliced fairly thinly
1 red sweet bell pepper, finely diced
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely diced or sliced
lb/400gram tinned chopped plum tomatoes, unless you have some very ripe, very flavourful fresh tomatoes available, in which case, of course, use them – skin them before chopping and remove any really tough core
2-3 tablespoons of concentrated tomato puree
1 large wineglass of red wine
Half wineglass of full-cream milk
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram or oregano (or, if you really must, a good couple of pinches of dried herbs)
2 bay leaves
A handful (yes, a handful – it cooks down to almost nothing) of torn/shredded fresh basil – if you don’t have fresh, leave out: don’t use dried
Salt and pepper to taste

A little olive oil for cooking

You may also need: a pinch or two of sugar, and/or a squeeze or two of tomato ketchup/catsup if the tomatoes are acidic or not particularly sweet – taste the sauce before adding

To serve: freshly cooked pasta, grated cheese

Method:

Gently cook the bacon, in a little olive oil if necessary, until it begins to brown and give off its fat. Remove the with a slotted spoon and reserve. Brown the beef in the bacon fat, in batches if necessary, until it is nicely coloured – use two forks as you cook to help separate the mince into grains; you don’t want lumps or chunks here. Using the slotted spoon again, remove the beef and reserve with the bacon. Tip off any excess fat from the pan, and gently soften all the vegetables except the garlic. When the vegetables are almost done, and any liquid given off by the mushrooms is cooked away, add the garlic, and allow it to take on a little colour – don’t let it burn. Return the meats to the pan, and add the tomatoes, tomato puree, milk, salt and pepper and the herbs except the basil. Stir thoroughly and simmer gently for at least twenty minutes, then taste to see if you need to add the sugar or tomato ketchup/catsup. Simmer for at least a further twenty minutes, but this sauce will bubble away happily for as long as you like, improving all the time.

Just before serving, stir in the shredded/torn basil, if using, and you can also sprinkle a little over the plated dish, or place a few sprigs to decorate.

This sauce reheats well, so can be made well ahead of time, and it’s often worth making a bigger batch, portioning up, and freezing for a quick meal on a busy day.

In Britain, the pasta is usually plated and the sauce spooned on top, rather than mixed as in Italy. Hand the cheese separately to be sprinkled on top.

I think both versions benefit from having good chunks of crusty bread, or even garlic bread, to mop up the juices.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Spiral Beef Pudding



This is my own variation on a well-tried theme: a kind of warped love-child of two classics of British cooking, the Steak and Kidney Pudding and the Jam Roly Poly.  Done badly, both these dishes can be appalling; done properly, they are divine, and I hope you find that my creation will fall into the latter camp.

This is filling, economical, and pretty easy: don’t let the long list below put you off, as each step is a simple one.  My mission as The Guerilla Griller is that anyone can cook, however inexperienced and nervous in the kitchen, and can go from learning one dish to create many.  This is a great example: once you’ve got the basic principle you can run with it and be as inventive as you like.  I have used ground/minced beef here, but you can use what you like as a filling – use other meat or fish, go purely vegetarian, or, as I’ll show you at the end, make it into a sweet course.  I spoke to a friend about this recipe recently, and she said that her mother used to make something very similar to use up the remains of a boiled gammon, or other cooked meats left from the Sunday roast.

If you’ve never heard of Roly Poly before, the idea is that you make a simple suet pastry, spread your filling of choice on it, roll it up like a somewhat over-sized Swiss Roll, and then bake it in the oven.

Equipment: you will need a rolling pin, a good quality baking tin or tray, and a pastry brush (or you can use a wad of kitchen towel if you don’t have a pastry brush).  You will also need a good sized saucepan or frying pan to make the filling.

Ingredients:

For the suet pastry:

8oz/225grams plain/general purpose flour, plus a little extra flour for the rolling out
4oz/110grams grated or shredded suet
Pinch each of salt and ground pepper
Approximately (see method) 4-8 tablespoons of cold water

To glaze: a little milk, one beaten egg, or a mixture of both

For a simple beef filling (or get inventive and create your own)

8oz minced/ground beef
1 medium onion, diced finely
2 cloves of garlic, diced or sliced finely, or crushed
1 stick of celery, de-stringed as much as possible, diced finely
1 carrot, peeled and diced finely
1-2 teaspoons of your favourite mustard
1-2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons of tomato puree, or if not available, tomato ketchup/catsup
2-4 tablespoons good beef stock, or if not available, use one crumbled stock cube or an equivalent amount of Bovril or other beef extract

Salt and pepper – remember that the Worcestershire sauce, and also maybe the mustard, puree and stock will be seasoned, so taste first

You may also need a little more stock, plain water, or perhaps a splash of wine if the mixture becomes too dry in the cooking – don’t add this unless you really have to

A little oil for frying and for greasing the baking tray

Method:

Pastry: you can do this by hand, or in a mixer.  Sift the flour and salt into the bowl and add the grated suet and pepper.  Mix well, and begin to add the water, starting with the smallest amount.  Keep mixing, and stop adding water as soon as the dough comes together.  Cover, and refrigerate until needed.

The filling: fry the beef on a medium to high heat, allowing it to brown.  You may need to do this in batches.  Remove the beef, allowing excess fat and other liquids to drain away.

Gently sweat the onion, carrot and celery for a few minutes then add the garlic.  Cook for a few minutes more, until the vegetables have begun to soften and take on a little colour: do not let them burn, especially the garlic which can go from gorgeously golden and nutty to blackened and bitter the moment you turn your back.

Return the meat to the pan, and add the other filling ingredients.  Cook gently over a low heat for at least another fifteen to twenty minutes, but the longer you can leave it the better.  Add a little more liquid if necessary, but remember that you want the result to be only just moist, not sloppy.

Once cooked to your satisfaction (are the meat and vegetables tender and tasting good?) remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Both the initial pastry making and the cooking of the filling can be done way ahead of time: even a day or two before the final cooking.

To assemble and cook the Spiral Beef Pudding:

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 4/180C/350F.

Lightly oil/grease the baking tin/sheet and dust with a little flour.

Turn out the pastry onto a floured board: flour your hands and the rolling pin too.  Roll out into a rectangle roughly 8x12inces/20x30cm – the pastry is fairly flexible and easy to handle, so pat in the edges with the side of your hand, then roll and trim until you get a good shape.  (You could form the trimmings into little balls, freeze them, and then you have dumplings ready to pop into your next stew.)
Spread the cold filling onto the surface of the pastry rectangle, leaving a half inch/1cm border all round.  Use only a thin layer of the filling, just enough to cover: you may well have some left over, so reserve (perhaps freeze) to use as the base of a pasta sauce or similar at a later date.

Brush the border with your milk/egg wash, then fold in these margins, which will make a little barrier to help prevent the filling oozing out while cooking.  Now, working from the thinner edge, roll the pastry with its filling fairly loosely (it will need room to expand inside)  until you have a plump Swiss roll shape.  Wipe off any excess filling that oozes out, and firmly seal the ends of the roll.

Carefully lift onto the baking sheet, with the seam underneath.  Using your pastry brush (or your substitute wad of kitchen paper) brush all over with the egg/milk wash.  Bake in the oven for around one hour – nearing this time, insert a skewer or thin knife to make sure that the pastry has cooked right through; bake for longer if necessary.  The shape will have settled into something more oval than round, and if you rolled it a bit too tightly the top may have split a little as the dough expanded during the cooking: neither is a problem in the eating.  The outsides will be golden and crunchy, while the insides remain soft and fluffy.

Cut off the very ends (these can be disposed of, or munched as a “cook’s perk”) then slice the roll into suitable portions.  You probably don’t actually need any more carbohydrate, yet a nice mound of creamy mashed potato, along with some good gravy and a fresh green vegetable, would go very well here.

For those who don't want the oval shape, and the crusty outside, you may wish to consider cooking by steaming, a more traditional method for suet puddings.   Prepare, fill and roll as above, then wrap loosely but thoroughly, first in a layer of greaseproof paper or baking parchment, and then in two layers of kitchen foil.  Make sure that both layers of foil are tightly sealed at the joins.  Place on a rack above gently simmering water, and cover.  You will need a very large pan, or you can do this in the oven on a rack in a covered roasting tray full of hot water.  The cooking is much longer by this method: at least three hours, possibly four.  The foil wrap helps it keep a rounder shape, and it will be soft and fluffy all over, with no crusty-ness.  Personally, I love the contrast between crusty and fluffy, and I don't mind at all about the shape, but it's up to you.

And finally, yes, I did mention the sweet option earlier in this piece: for Jam Roly Poly, just substitute your favourite jam for the meat filling.  Cook by either the baking or steaming method,  and serve with cream or good custard.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Top Ten Ways to Open Stuck Jar Lids



A bizarre post for the Guerilla Griller, perhaps, but it was a request, and as I am also a musician in my other life, I am used to doing requests!  The specific question was on how to open a stubborn jar of Marmite: those of you not familiar with Marmite need to know that it is a savoury paste of yeast extract, often spread on hot toast.  The taste of the stuff is so unique that it is even marketed on the principal that you will love it or hate it, and, in Britain, “it’s a Marmite thing” is a common phrase to describe something that will polarise opinion – perhaps a song or a movie.  As I can’t stand the stuff, I was tempted to either ignore the request, or find a way of keeping the lid on permanently, but a request is a request, and as it applies to anything in a jar, I suppose this set of hints will be useful elsewhere.

Before we get into how to open stuck jars, try to avoid getting them stuck in the first place by wiping the neck of the jar (and, if necessary, the thread on the inside of the lid) clean of any gloop before closing.

But, you did that, and the lid is still immoveable: so, here’s my top ten list on how to open a stuck jar…

(Public Health Disclaimer – this is obvious, but I have to say it: forcing glass can be dangerous, as it can break or shatter – protect yourself with gloves, goggles and other suitable clothing.  Make sure kids, pets and others are out of the way, and if in doubt, don’t do it at all.)
1)    Buy a jar opener (see picture above): these are often sold in kitchen stores and websites, and also in places that provide equipment for the elderly and those with disability.  You may not use it very often, but when you need it, you need it.  If you don’t own one, buy one, or you may have to use one of the following methods
2)    Run the neck of the jar under the hot tap: this will expand the metal, and also loosen and soak away any gunk
3)    Soak the whole jar in a bowl of warm water for half an hour, to give the same effect as number 2 above
4)    Wrap a cloth tightly around the lid: this gives you a bigger surface area to grip
5)    Carefully close the lid in the door, applying a firm pressure.  Turn the jar
6)    A very large adjustable spanner, mole grip or plumber’s wrench may do the job
7)    A car oil filter removal tool, which is a kind of latching bicycle chain on a stick will work, if you can make it grip the lid
8)    Gently tap the side of the lid on the edge of a work surface or similar, turning the jar as you do so.  This should break the seal, and loosen any stuck bits
9)    Get someone else to hold the lid, while you hold the jar, or vice versa: this doubles your grip, and assuming you both twist in the correct opposite direction, it should come free 
10) OK, I’m cheating: I couldn’t think of a tenth, so this is over to you.  If you have a sure-fire method for opening a stuck jar, leave it in the comments box below – I’d love to hear from you

Monday, 21 February 2011

Crumble Cake - a Delicious and Very Easy Cake to Bake



Like most keen cooks, I have a collection of recipe books, cuttings from magazines, several somewhat splattered and stained notebooks in which I jot down my own successful (or otherwise) experiments, and nowadays a host of bookmarks to recipe sites and forums etc.  Amongst this lot I have accumulated over the years a bunch of charity recipe books: the home-printed kind produced to fund-raise for very local institutions and events, such as a new church roof, a sports centre, the youth football team or drama group etc etc.  You know the kind of thing.

I love these little books and pamphlets, as they are full of in-jokes, local lore and references that mean nothing to the rest of us, and the recipes range from the frankly awful, mixing several tins and packets type, to the sublime of someone’s Granny’s perfect apple pie or pot roast that has been handed down for generations.

This recipe comes from a very old and tattered booklet, printed in 1986, to fund-raise for the ancient church in Greensted, Essex, UK.  It is credited only to a certain G. French, whoever he or she may be, and I have adapted it very slightly.

This is a very easy cake to bake, and turns out with a somewhat unusual, but very more-ish, finish: not a sponge-type cake, but more a cross between an airy scone and a very light shortbread.  Different, and delicious.

Equipment: you will need: two 7inch/18cm sandwich/cake/flan tins, and, although not essential, some baking parchment or similar to line the tins – the cake should release without this, provided the tins are properly prepared, so it is just an extra insurance.  You will also need a wire grid or cake rack for cooling.
It is also useful to have a skewer to poke into the cake at the end of baking, to ensure it is properly cooked through – again, you can do without this, and use the point of a thin, sharp knife.

Ingredients:

12oz/340gram Self-Raising Flour – if this is not available,  use plain/all purpose flour with baking powder added to the quantity specified on the packet.  Baking powders vary in rise and lift, so follow the manufacturers instructions, but the quantity will be approximately one rounded teaspoon.
3oz/85g caster/confectioner’s sugar
6oz butter
One large egg, or two small, beaten
A pinch of salt (only if using unsalted butter)

Your favourite jam or conserve for the filling – the original recipe specifies Blackberry jam
A little icing/fine confectioner’s sugar for dusting the top of the finished cake (optional)

A little more soft butter and flour to prepare the tins – see below.

Method:

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 4/180C/350F.

Grease the tins thinly with butter, and dust with a little flour until lightly coated all over.  Tip out any excess flour, tapping the tin gently.  This should provide a very good non-stick finish, but you can also line the base of the tins with circles of baking parchment or similar.

This is an “all in” recipe with no creaming of the butter and sugar, so put all the ingredients into your food mixture and whizz until mixed – you should get a result like breadcrumbs, but if the butter is particularly soft or the eggs slightly larger than specified it may become more like a somewhat lumpy and bumpy dough – don’t worry if this happens, it will still work fine.

Divide the mixture equally between the two tins, and here’s the important bit:  firm down and smooth out the dough in one tin – this will be the base of your cake.  Leave the other half crumbly, just firming down enough to hold it together.

Bake for about 30 mins, taking a peek at around 25.  You are waiting for a light golden colour and for a skewer or knife point inserted into the middle of the cakes to come out clean.

When ready, turn out the cakes onto a rack to cool.  When cold, spread the base with the jam, and top with the crumbly half.  Dust the top with the fine sugar, through a sieve or tea-strainer, if you like, or leave plain.

Cut carefully: it is as the name suggests, quite crumbly!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Fresh Chicken v Frozen Chicken



I don’t buy frozen meat.  In fact, I buy almost nothing that is pre-frozen.  My freezer contains things I have frozen down myself, such as produce from the garden that I can’t use right away (if the pigeons and slugs have left anything), leftovers or cook-in-quantity meals portioned up for later use, stock and perhaps carcasses waiting to be made into stock, an emergency loaf waiting to be toasted straight from frozen, ice cubes and maybe a bottle of vodka and a pack of coffee beans.  I do buy frozen peas, as, unless you grow your own or know someone who does, they are usually better than fresh, and I also occasionally have spinach and sweetcorn kernels.

My dismissal of frozen foods is so ingrained that I never even think of glancing in the freezer cabinets at the shops: my subconscious just does not consider anything in there to be food.  There is the economy issue, I know, but my long-standing argument is that if the quality is poor, then you are wasting rather than saving your hard-earned money.  Recently, fellow food blogger Jenny Eatwell and I corresponded about this very issue in the comments section of my post “Mugged by Chicken…” that you can find here.

However, I do have a theory that you should occasionally put your prejudices to the test; apart from the fact that things change and move on, and technology can improve, our own tastes and opinions can modify with time and ongoing discovery – one example was my recent conversion to the use of a cafetiere, which, for a long time, I thought was only the third-best way of making real coffee: now it is my preferred method, once I’d learned the trick (plunge immediately – coffee doesn’t need to brew).

I had an unexpected chance to test the “fresh chicken is better than frozen chicken” belief last week: for reasons far to complicated to explain, and to my great displeasure, a colleague on a catering job ordered some chickens a week early (!) and, as they couldn’t be used anywhere else, the only option was to freeze them down for a few days, and then defrost them ahead of the job.

These were chickens from the good butcher that we usually use, identical to those I cook frequently: plump, high-quality free-range birds that produce a wonderful roast.

Defrosted, they looked fine.  Being good quality in the first place, they hadn’t gone soft or watery.  I gave them my usual treatment, which involves a good rub with a well-seasoned, herby butter, and roasted them as normal – legs off, breast side down for the first part of the cooking, removed from the oven as soon as they reached the safe temperature (75C/170F), then rested in a warm place before carving.

The result?  Poor quality chicken.  They looked like roast chickens, even smelled like roast chickens, but the taste was, for want of a better word, weak.  Effectively, the flavour was greatly diluted.  The texture, also, had suffered: the breast meat, when carved, took on that slightly fluffy, fragile, even stringy quality that you get with overcooked chicken – except that this chicken was in no way overcooked (I promise).

So, the moral of this story is that my prejudices had been put to the test, and confirmed.  Bearing in mind that this was originally chicken of a very good quality, one can only imagine the result from anonymous poultry parts from the freezer counter.

Don’t do it, people: buy fresh.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Savoury and Sweet Individual Cheesecakes

First of all, apologies to my regular readers who may have wondered at my lack of postings for the last week or so: The Guerilla Griller is having a slightly hectic time at the moment, preparing to move house.  I will be posting new recipes, hints and tips as often as I can, so watch this space/bookmark/follow/subscribe to RSS etc.


This is a very quick cheesecake recipe, and one that you can make infinite adaptations to as your creativity clicks into gear.  The inspiration for this is my friend Sarah, who asked me the other week if you could make savoury cheesecakes: why not, I thought?  In fact, the usual combination of sweet and cheese would perhaps sound more odd if we weren’t used to it.

You could use this method to make one large cheesecake, using a springform or loose-base flan or cake tin, but I’m using ring moulds here to make one-portion individual cheesecakes, which I think are much prettier, especially for a dinner party or whenever you are trying to impress: and yet they are so easy, and can be made well ahead of time.

You can buy ring moulds, (or ring molds), depending on where you are in the world) literally a short tube open at both ends, which are useful to have around the kitchen, but you could also use small food cans/tins (in Britain, the one-portion sized baked bean tins are ideal), cleaned and with the tops and bottoms removed – you can get a somewhat sharp edge though, so be careful, and if in doubt buy some “proper” ring moulds.  I have also seen some people use sections cut from (new) plastic waste pipe, of the type to be found in plumber’s supply shops.

The bases are made from crushed biscuits, held together with a little melted butter, which is then put into the fridge to set.  Use only just enough butter, or you’ll end up with a very hard and tough base.  Digestive biscuits are ideal for savoury and sweet cheesecakes, but by all means experiment with any other dense but crumbly biscuit, such as oatcakes, bath olivers, ginger nuts, hobnobs or whatever you like.  Although it would be tempting to use come kind of cracker for a savoury cheesecake base, I don’t think they would have the right texture, and could also become soggy once crushed and mixed with the butter.

Cream or curd cheese is the usual medium for the body of the cheesecake, but you could use fromage frais, mascarpone or a mixture – well whipped cream can also be added to loosen if necessary – but remember not to make it too sloppy, as you want the cheese to “stand up” and hold its shape once the mould has been removed.

Here’s the basic method: ideas for fillings and toppings follow.

Ingredients (for four individual cheesecakes)

The cheesecake bases:
8-12 digestive (or other) biscuits
2oz/55g butter

Crush the biscuits, either by whizzing them in a food processor, or in a bowl with the end of a rolling pin – try to keep a little bit of texture, so don’t reduce them to powder.  Melt the butter, either in small saucepan (don’t let it brown or burn) or in a microwave.  Mix into the crushed biscuits – you may not need all the butter, or you may need a little more.  You are looking for a soft, but not sloppy, dough.

Lightly grease four ring moulds with a little more butter, and place on a flat surface such as a small board or tray that can be lifted as one and placed in your refrigerator.  Split the biscuit mixture between the four moulds, and press down into the base.  A small, clean, empty glass jar that fits the moulds is ideal for this job, as it produces an even surface, and you can see what you are doing.

Refrigerate the bases for at least twenty minutes before filling.

The filling:

One to two tubs of cream or curd cheese, fromage frais, mascarpone etc – this will depend on the width and depth of your moulds (you don’t have to fill them to the top), how thick you want your cheesecakes and the quantity of other ingredients you decide to use.

Suggestions to be added to the cheese:

Savoury: (you may not need to add salt to the filling, but a grind or two of pepper will usually be good)

Shreds of smoked salmon, finely chopped dill herb/weed, and diced gherkin/dill pickle
Finely sliced red onion and olive
Finely sliced/shredded salami, pepperoni, chorizo etc
Prawns, crayfish or crawfish tails

Sweet: (you can stir in a little icing/fine confectioners sugar to the filling if you like)

Strawberries, raspberries etc, diced or sliced
Chocolate chips (you could also melt a little good quality chocolate and stir it lightly into the cheese so you get nice decorative swirls)
Fudge chips
Broken biscuit – some of your favourite sweet biscuits/cookies, roughly crumbled.

Method:

Mix your chosen ingredients well with the cheese.  Fill the prepared ring moulds with the mixture, pushing the mix well down onto the biscuit base.  Decorate the top of the cheese mix with a suitable garnish, such as a little more of your ingredient, a sprig of herb,  a small wedge of citrus etc.  Refrigerate until needed.

To unmould:

Using a palette knife or similar, lift each filled mould onto a serving plate.  Wrap a warm cloth around the mould for a few seconds, remove the cloth, and then carefully lift the ring mould away.  You may need to gently use the palette knife to help this operation, and use it again to “tidy up” the cheesecakes once the mould has been removed.  Garnish the plates suitably: maybe with a little salad and a swirl of dressing for the savoury cheesecakes, and a drizzle of sauce and a slice or two of fruit for the sweet (and/or dust over with icing sugar/fine confectioner’s sugar/cocoa powder through a fine sieve or tea strainer).
More fillings:

I have deliberately kept the fillings suggestion list quite short, just to get you started.  Let your imagination inspire you to find other fillings, and why not post your suggestions in the comments box below?

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Bookmaker’s Baguette – the Ultimate Steak Sandwich recipe?

Okay, if perhaps not the ultimate, certainly one of the best steak sandwiches you can stuff into your face: a good, hefty lunch dish, or a quickly prepared but filling and satisfying supper. As with the Club Sandwich, you could serve this with chips/French fries, and/or a salad.

It is quite economical, as you are using a smaller portion of meat than the one you may put directly on your plate for a steak supper – one typical 8oz/225g cut will easily make two of these baguettes. Of course, use more if you are hungry, or in an exceptionally carnivorous mood.

I used to work in a restaurant that also supplied the food to the next-door pub. Many of the pub regulars would spend their afternoons moving back and forth from their pint to the bookmakers on the corner, placing their bets, then returning to the beer, and perhaps ordering one of these to celebrate or console. I have never found out if our head chef invented the Bookmaker’s Baguette, to honour these horse-loving punters, or if it is a time-honoured combination, perhaps under a different name: there are certainly thousands of steak sandwich recipes out there. I did a quick Google just before writing this, and I found it on the menu of only a few places; maybe they’re all establishments at which he worked. Whatever, you do not need to be a gambler, or frequenter of race-tracks (or pubs) to enjoy it.

There are differing versions of the Bookmaker’s Baguette: the essentials of mine are steak, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes, with a slathering of mustard, on a good chunk of split French bread. As usual, I encourage you to invent your own version, with fillings (or breads) of your choice.

I would suggest you use rump steak here; fillet is more tender, but often has less flavour and yet costs substantially more.

Ingredients: (per person)

A good, crusty baguette, or one-portion sized chunk of French bread
4oz/110g steak (preferably rump)
Half an onion, peeled and thickly sliced
About 2oz/55g mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced
One good tomato, sliced
Mustard of your choice
Salt and pepper

A little oil (or oil and butter) for frying

Note: you may warm the baguette in a low oven if you like: I tend not to.

Method:

Season the steak, mushrooms and onions with salt and pepper as you go, to your taste.

If the steak is thick, beat it out with a tenderising mallet; if you don’t have one of these, cover the steak with clingfilm or a clean cloth, and use a heavy rolling pin or similar.

Fry the mushrooms and the onions, preferably separately. You want to cook the mushrooms to the stage where they give up their watery liquids (thus concentrating the flavour) and take on a little golden colour. The onions should soften slightly, but still retain their texture and bite, and also have a little colour – you are not looking for the soft, deep brown “hotdog” onions here. Both of these jobs will take less than five minutes over a brisk heat. You can do this ahead of time, and either keep warm or quickly reheat when it is time to assemble your sandwich.

Fry or grill/broil the steak: I prefer a medium-rare finish here, as too much juice will make the bread soggy. This will take only a couple of minutes a side. Once cooked, rest in a warm place for a few minutes, then slice into long, juicy strips.

Split the baguette, butter or not as your prefer, then spread with mustard and fill with the strips of steak, the tomatoes, the mushrooms and the onions.

You could add more salad, if you like, such as shredded lettuce and thinly sliced cucumber. Sliced red bell peppers, either fried with the onions or raw, would also work well. Much as I like cheese, I think that this would be “over the top” here, but, as always, it’s up to you.

This makes a good meal on its own, but as I suggested above, you could serve this with chips/French fries, a salad, or anything else you like.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

How to Make a Club Sandwich – the Moveable Feast

You’d have thought that there would be some agreement over just exactly what is a Club Sandwich. Surely, there is no argument that it is a double-decker affair, with two layers of filling between three slices of bread? Nope, even that basic identity is challenged: some say that the original was only a two-slice sandwich, and it’s the fillings that count.

Okay, what fillings? Well, the “classic” is turkey, bacon and tomato. Er, unless that’s chicken, bacon and tomato. With maybe a poached egg in there somewhere. Or not. And some shredded lettuce. Mayo, for sure. Unless that’s mayo and honey mustard. Or just mustard.

At least we’re pretty safe saying that the bread should be toasted, aren’t we? You guessed it, some say it should not. And no-one really agrees as to whether the fillings should be hot or cold.

Aaargh! There must be as many Club Sandwich recipes as there are clubs (and pubs and bars and diners) that serve them. At least we can agree that, however it’s made, it should be a substantial meal, otherwise it’s just, well, a sandwich. And actually, all this controversy is to your advantage: it goes nicely with my ongoing theme as The Guerilla Griller that, after all, this is YOUR meal, no-one else’s. If you understand the basic principles, or just use it as a springboard for your own ideas, that is the important thing.

So, I’m going to stick my neck out and give you MY recipe, then you can run with it and do what you like. I do not claim that mine is particularly authentic, original, or that my Club Sandwich fillings are the only ones you should use. It just happens to be what I like.

So, I’m going to toast my bread, I’m going to use three slices, but I’m not going to be too specific as to what type of bread I will use, or what you should use, for that matter. It’s going to depend more on what bread I fancy eating when I’m out at the shops. It could be plain white, sourdough, granary, wholemeal – whatever. But it is going to be a “normal” sandwich type of shape for me, although there is no reason why you shouldn’t use ciabatta, panini, French sticks, subs or whatever you like.

My fillings are going to be chicken, bacon, tomato, shredded lettuce AND a poached egg. I’m more likely to use a dab of mustard than mayo, as I prefer to serve my fillings hot, and I just don’t really like mayonnaise with hot foods – but that’s just me.

One chicken breast could easily do for two of these creations, but I’ve been known to be greedy and use it all up in one.

So, ingredients for one Club Sandwich, Guerilla Griller style:

Three slices of your favourite bread, toasted and buttered (the “middle” slice on both sides).
Half a chicken breast, sliced, that has been freshly grilled, fried, roasted, poached – or some slices off a freshly roasted chicken.
Two or three rashers of the bacon that you like – smoked or not, grilled or fried as you prefer
One egg, freshly poached (you can do this ahead of time, plunge it into cold water to stop it overcooking, then reheat for a few minutes in hot water just before using)
One good tomato, sliced thinly
A handful or so of shredded lettuce
Mustard, mayo or any other condiment that you like
Salt and pepper

Method/Assembly

Truly, you can put this together however you like. I’d probably do it like this.

(Liberally season throughout with salt and pepper to your taste as you assemble.)

On the bottom slice of buttered toast, smear a little mustard, or mayo, or other condiment. Put on the shredded lettuce, the sliced tomato, and the sliced chicken. Top with the “buttered on both sides middle slice” of toast, on which you can also spread condiments, if you like.

Now put on the bacon, topped with the poached egg. I like to break the yolk now, and spread it around. Top with the final slice of toast.

You can cut it as you like and dive right in, but a posher way is to remove the crusts, and then cut the Club Sandwich into quarters, each secured with a cocktail stick (and if you can find the buffet-type ones with the little frilly paper pom-pom tops, go wild and use them – so silly, they’ll make you smile, but not if you get one stuck up your nose as you munch).

This is, as I have said, a substantial meal rather than a “light bite”, but you can make even more of it by serving with French fries/”English chips”, English potato crisps/American chips, or perhaps a salad.

As I have said, it’s your meal, so fill your sandwich with anything you like. It may not be an authentic Club Sandwich, but as no-one seems to agree as to what that actually is, who cares?


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You could go extreme, and make a Dagwood Sandwich, named after Dagwood Bumstead, the character in the Blondie comic strip who was forever constructing monumental sandwiches of many layers, full of all kinds of meats, cheeses, sausage; whatever he could cram in there. You may end up having to use a chopstick instead of a cocktail stick to secure it, and I’m not sure how wide you’d need to open your mouth to eat it…

For me, for now, I’ll stick with three slices, and two layers of filling. Hemingway referred to Paris as “The Moveable Feast,” but I think it’s also a pretty good description of the Club Sandwich.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

How to Make Toad in the Hole and Yorkshire Puddings



This is really several recipes in one, as you first need to make a Yorkshire Pudding batter;  cook it without the sausages and it is plain old Yorkshire Pudding, cook with the sausages and you have Toad in the Hole.  Make a version with cherries or plums, with a little sugar added to the batter mix, and you have the classic Clafoutis, a batter pudding dessert from the Limousin area of France.

As a bonus, the batter will make pretty good pancakes too, for sweet or savoury dishes; you may need to add a little more milk if you want the batter to flow out across the pan for thin pancakes.

Too many home cooks are scared to try their hand at Yorkshire Puddings and Toad in the Hole etc.  As with soufflĂ©s, the worry is that they will not rise, or will rise and then immediately collapse.  Fear not, it really isn’t that difficult; the only time it has ever really gone wrong for me was when I got distracted and forgot to put the eggs in.

One essential is that your tin or dish is VERY hot before you put in the batter; the batter should hiss and sizzle as it hits the pan.  Another is that the batter, once mixed, rests for a while before cooking; this allows the glutens in the flour to develop which will “hold” the rise.

I prefer to use a metal baking tin for this, as I believe it gives a crisper result, especially on the bottom, but a ceramic dish would be fine: just make sure it is very hot before you start.

Regarding the quantities, as ever, I have no idea of the size of your baking tin, or how many sausages per person you like, and indeed, how thick your sausages are.  This is no problem, as, throughout these blogs I am trying to get you to develop your cook’s instincts; think about it – if you have a wide, shallow tin, the mixture will spread out and will cook quicker.  A smaller, deeper tin will take longer, and will need a somewhat lower heat so that it is cooked through before it catches and burns on top.

It is useful to part cook your sausages before you put them into the batter.  They will be very well insulated as the batter rises around them; almost tucked up in their own duvets.  It is not so much that they will not be properly cooked by the time the batter is done, more that they may look a little pallid if you don’t brown them first.  Don’t overdo this initial browning, or the ones that rise to the top will end up dry and leathery.

You may see other recipes that give a much higher cooking temperature.  This is okay if you are making small individual, muffin tin sized Yorkshire Puddings that will be ready in ten minutes, but when cooking this big dish there is a danger that the outsides will be burning by the time the insides are cooked.  The temperature I have suggested will give you the result I prefer, which is golden and crispy on the outsides, with a slightly spongy and chewy interior.  If you like a batter that is crisp and dry throughout, as some do, then reduce the temperature, and cook more slowly for longer – start with the higher temperature to get the initial sizzle, then immediately turn the oven down.

Finally, before we start, what sausages you use is up to you.  Big, fat pork butcher’s sausages are traditional here, but you can use what you like.   Although it is certainly not British, I see absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t try a version with something hot and spicy, such as chorizo or merguez, or a mixture of spicy and plain.  The only sausages that I would avoid, really, are frankfurter types; somehow, they just wouldn’t cut it.  Some old versions of Toad in the Hole use chops instead of sausages; pork or lamb.  By all means, try this, although I would suggest that you remove the bones and most of the fat first.

For plainYorkshire Puddings, use the following method, obviously omitting the sausages.  You can make one huge pud in a baking tin as below, or make individual ones in muffin tins – the latter will obviously cook much faster.

Toad in the Hole: serves 4

Eight good, thick butcher’s sausages.
A little oil for their initial browning

For the batter:

8oz/225gram plain/all purpose flour
Baking powder to the quantity suggested on the packet – about a teaspoon for the above quantity of flour.  Or use self-raising flour if available.
3 eggs, beaten
Half pint/290ml full fat milk – you may need a little more or less; see method.
A good pinch of salt
A good pinch of ground white pepper – you may omit this if you are adapting the batter for a sweet dish such as the Clafoutis.

A little more oil for the baking dish: enough to make a thin layer about the width of a matchstick across the bottom of the tin.  Don’t use olive oil, as it may burn.

You will also need a baking tin or dish, a large frying pan, and some tongs or other gadget to handle the sausages.

Method:

Preheat oven to gas mark 5/190C/375F

Use a food processor/mixer for this, or do it by hand if you’re old-school and have strong wrists.

Sift the flour, with the baking powder, salt and pepper into the bowl.  Mix in the beaten eggs.  Start adding the milk, until you have a batter that flows, but will coat a finger when dipped in it.   The flour does tend to sink and gather at the bottom of the bowl, so make sure you have mixed it really well.  Cover the batter, and leave to stand for at least half an hour, or overnight if you like, refrigerated if necessary.

Heat a little oil in the frying pan, and quickly brown the sausages; do it in batches if you don’t have a large enough pan.  It’s up to you if you like the sausages browned all over, or just with a few stripes.

At least fifteen minutes before you are ready to start cooking, put the baking tin/dish with the thin layer of oil into the oven to thoroughly heat.

Give the batter a final good whisking – it should look “bubbly”.  Put the sausages into the hot baking tin, and immediately pour in the batter and return to the oven.

DON’T open the oven door for at least 30 minutes (unless you’ve got the temperatures drastically wrong and you smell burning!).  Take a peek after half an hour, and see how it’s going.  By now, it should be well risen, and the top beginning to colour.  Adjust the temperature up or down if necessary, and give it perhaps another ten or fifteen minutes, until it is set and the top a wonderful golden brown.
Serve with, perhaps, mashed potatoes, your choice of vegetables and onion gravy (to make onion gravy, gently sautĂ© a finely sliced onion in a little oil and butter until they have begun to melt and take on a little colour.  Add to the home made gravy that you made earlier.  Failing that, some butchers and supermarkets sell ready-made gravies, or fresh stock from which you can make it, some of which aren’t too bad.  Or, if you must, use granules – sigh).

Options: some people like to chop the sausages before adding to the batter, giving you nice bite-sized chunks – Tadpole in the Hole, perhaps.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Cooking Without a Recipe



This may seem a strange subject for a food blog whose archive is full-to-bursting with recipes, yet if you look back through them you will see that in the majority of cases I have often been less than specific with ingredients and timings.  I have not only suggested variations on the basic theme, but also that you should use your own judgement, experience (however limited) and the evidence of your senses to get you a good meal.

I am passionate that everyone who eats should be able to cook: constant themes of the Guerilla Griller are to demystify, to assure, to encourage, to remove the fear.

Even the most nervous beginner cook, the newest kitchen newbie, can tell when something is starting to burn, or is still half-raw.  If they don’t know what cut of meat to buy for their casserole, they can ask the butcher and take their recommendation.  They can very quickly realise that onions and carrots do not come in tidy portions to the ounce or gram.  Few cooks ever follow a recipe exactly, for the simple reason that it is rarely possible to do so.  How big is a chunk?  How much is a pinch?  What exactly is a bite-sized piece?  What is a “medium” onion?  You may set your oven to the specified temperature, but oven thermostats are notoriously inaccurate.

The only real exception is in baking, of any kind.  Here we are dealing with chemical reactions, and need to be as accurate as we can with quantities and temperatures, but even so, it is impossible to eliminate all the variables: the oven temperature as mentioned above, the size and thickness of your baking tin, the general humidity, the “rise” in your particular brand of baking powder.

The simple fact is that most people cook without recipes, most of the time.  Now, this could be because you have “learned” a recipe in the same way as a singer learns a song; you have done it so many times that you can produce it without really thinking about the steps involved.  Nothing will ever taste as good as your Granny’s chicken soup or your Dad’s Sunday roast; all the little touches that they have learned over the years will be automatic, and you, too, will come to have your own specialities, if you don’t already.

But think of this: if you know how to cook one thing, you actually know how to cook many.  If you know how to make a chicken stir fry, you know how to make a beef, fish, mushroom or tofu stir fry.  If you know how to grill a steak, you know how to grill anything.  If you can roast a chicken, you can roast a duck, or a goose, or a turkey.  Yes, you may need guidance from the recipes as to timings, and get great suggestions for accompaniments and flavourings, but all the basic principles are the same.

Try this: shop without a meal in mind.  See what is good today.  Go to the greengrocer or farmer’s market: look, there are some beautiful, fresh, local baby turnips.  Hmm, what would go with those?  I’m not going to tell you, as that’s not the point; maybe you don’t even like turnips, but you get the idea.

Go to the butcher, and there are some lovely, plump, free-range chicken breasts at a good price.  Snap ‘em up.  You could grill, fry or oven-roast them.  You could poach them in some aromatic liquid.  You could cut them into chunks for the above mentioned stir fry, or thread them onto skewers for a kebab or brochette, to be served on rice and salad, or in pockets of pitta bread.  Or rolled in a tortilla with a spicy salsa.  Or make a quick stew or casserole.  Or make a curry.

Build up a store cupboard of the things you like, and then you’re good to go with whatever you’ve found at the shops: tins of tomatoes and various beans, perhaps.  The spices, herbs and condiments that turn you on.  The ever-ready carbs; rice, noodles, couscous, cracked wheat, pasta.  You’ll always have oils, salt, pepper, maybe a good wine or balsamic vinegar, to hand.  Some home-made stock in the freezer (or even an emergency box of the powder or cubes – I won’t tell).  One of these days, I will do a “cooks store cupboard” blog, listing the things that I find essential, but it’s really about what you like.  DON’T fill your cupboards with things that you’ll never use, just because I’ve suggested them.

The other essential, other than some good knives and cooking pots etc, which you can build up over time, is a probe-type cooking thermometer.  They are not expensive, and last for years.  Why one of these?  Well, obviously you don’t want to make yourself and your loved ones ill by food poisoning – it’s very helpful to know that risky foods (pork, chicken etc) have reached the safe internal temperature (75C/170F).  But, almost equally importantly, once you have your thermometer you will no longer overcook your food. There is a vast difference between a juicy morsel of chicken, tender and bursting with flavour, and a dried-out nugget that has been cooked to death “just to be on the safe side”.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to answer the question “is it done yet?”, to be absolutely sure?  Nothing can improve the cooking of the inexperienced more than the answer “yes, it’s just right”.  Get a probe thermometer.

Some things are so obvious that you already know the answer: a great thick piece of something will take longer to cook than a thin piece: so, turn the temperature down and cook it very slowly.  Something that's very lean will need added fat or other liquid to stop it drying out.  If you’re making a quick meal, have everything ready before you start, measured and weighed if necessary, peeled, chopped and prepped.  Pre-heat the oven; don’t start from cold.

To finish this piece, I’m going to give you a recipe for “cooking without a recipe”.  As you’ll see, the instructions are very non-specific, but you can do it.

Pan Fried Chicken Breast; serves two

Ingredients:
Two plump free-range chicken breasts, skin on
Salt and pepper
A splash of oil (how much is a splash?  Just enough to lubricate the pan; you don’t want the meat swimming in oil.)

You will also need: a good, heavy based frying pan.  Tongs or an egg flipper to turn and serve the meat.  Whatever else you want to serve with the chicken and complete the meal.

Method:

Put the pan on a medium-to-high heat.  Add the splash of oil.  Sprinkle salt and pepper on the chicken, and put into the pan skin side down.  You should hear it sizzle.  Leave it alone – don’t poke or prod it.  After a couple of minutes, carefully lift the chicken, and see that the skin is beginning to turn golden.  Reduce the heat to fairly low – we don’t want that golden brown to become black.  After another five minutes or so, turn the chicken so that it is now skin side up.  Continue to cook on a gentle heat until your temperature probe tells you that it has reached 70C/170F – you may wish to turn the chicken once or twice during the cooking so the temperature evens out.

Once the meat has just reached the safe temperature, let it continue to cook for another two minutes, then remove it to a warm place to rest for at least five minutes while you finish the rest of the meal.  This resting process is very important, as it allows the juices to flow back through the meat.

Tip:  once you’ve browned the skin and turned the meat, and assuming you are cooking in an oven-proof pan, you can pop the whole thing into a medium oven at gas mark 5/190C/375F (pre-heated, of course) and finish the cooking there.

Now, notice that I haven’t given timings.  This is where you come in.  Your ball-park estimate is around 15-18 minutes in total cooking time, but I don’t know how thick are your chicken breasts, how conductive your pan, how efficient and accurate your heat controls.  Use your judgement, and use your thermometer; don’t be afraid to turn everything down if you think that it’s all happening too fast, and you’re worried that the outside will be overcooked before the inside is ready.

Job done: serve and enjoy.

Now, if you can do the above with those nice pieces of chicken, surely you can do it with anything else?  If you can make a Bolognese sauce, you can make an arabiatta.  If you can make a casserole, you can make a curry.  If you can poach a fish and mash some potatoes, you can make a fish pie.  If you…  You get the idea.



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You can cook without a recipe.  By all means, use them for inspiration; I do all the time.  And do follow them for the classics (and then tweak them your way), and for baking, and just generally to get ideas: we all get stuck in a rut sometimes.  But, remember; you already know how to cook.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Rabbit Stew in Cider with Apple Dumplings



Although suggested by the fact that it’s now the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, this stew is resolutely British; however, you will find similar anywhere you find a tradition of cider drinking and rabbits to be eaten.  It is a hearty winter dish, but can easily be adapted for the summer months, as I will show at the end.

I give a guide to quantities here, but do consider it a suggestion rather than a writ from on high.  Personally, I’d just get a good sized rabbit, a few handfuls of veg that looked good, and slosh in the cider until the meat and vegetables were just covered – I wouldn’t really be doing any precise measuring here.

Like you, I enjoy seeing bunnies going skippety-hop around the fields and meadows, but I hope you do not have issues with eating them: they are tasty, as free-range as you can get, are a pest in many areas, and breed like, well, like rabbits.  If you don’t know anyone who shoots, then many butchers sell them, as do some supermarkets.   Do make sure, though, that you are buying wild rabbit.

However, if I can’t convince you and you really are squeamish about eating bunnies, then you could use chicken or pork instead.  Actually, this recipe is brilliant with pork; chops perhaps, chunks from the shoulder, or slices from the belly, which last will need a longer, slower cooking (so put your veg in later so they don’t turn to mush).  Or you could even use good sausages.  My goodness, this is a dozen recipes in one.  But, for now, let’s cook rabbit.

Ingredients: serves 4

For the stew

One good sized rabbit of about 3lb/1.5kg, jointed
Four oz/110g good streaky bacon, unsmoked – cut into postage stamp sized pieces or lardons
1 pint/570ml cider – preferably not the designer kind that is supposed to be drunk over ice, but a proper still, sparkling, dry or (not too) sweet cider.
Onion, carrot and celery, plus, if you like, a mix of other root vegetables as available and in season, such as parsnips, turnips, swede, celeriac etc, all peeled and cut into good-sized chunks – about 1.5lb/750g in total, or around half the weight of the rabbit
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, peeled, cut in half
1oz/30g of plain/all purpose flour, liberally seasoned with salt and pepper
A sprig of rosemary or thyme, plus two bay leaves
A splash or two of oil for frying

You may also need a little plain boiling water or stock (chicken or rabbit) as the cooking proceeds

For the Apple Dumplings

8oz/225g plain/all purpose flour
Baking powder to the quantity suggested on the pack – different brands vary in “lift”, but it will be about one teaspoon for the above quantity of flour
4oz/110g grated/shredded suet, or any other hard fat as you prefer
Approximately 4oz/110g apple, peeled, cored and cut into slivers – splash with lemon juice or cider vinegar to stop from browning, which will also add a tang to the dumplings
Salt and pepper
Some cold water – How much is “some?”  See method below.

A little more flour to dust your hands and the surface on which you roll out your dumplings.

Method:

This can be cooked solely on the cooker hob, or finished in the oven as you prefer.  A cast iron pot, plain or enamelled, with a lid is ideal for the job. If using the oven, preheat to gas mark 4/180C/350F.  I prefer to finish in the oven, simply because I like to get the top of the dumplings a little crusty and it frees up the cooker top, but it’s up to you.

Put the pan onto a medium heat, splash in a little oil, then fry the bacon until it starts to brown and give off its fat.  Remove with a slotted spoon, and keep to one side.  Dust the rabbit pieces well with the seasoned flour, and fry in the bacon fat and oil, adding a little more oil if needed.  Turn once or twice until the rabbit has taken on some colour – you are not trying to cook it through here.  Remove with a slotted spoon and put with the bacon.

Add a little more oil if needed, and sweat the veg, including the garlic, until they begin to soften a little and take on some colour.  Return the rabbit and bacon to the pan, pour in the cider, and add the herbs.  Scrape up any tasty, crusty bits from the bottom.  Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer, put on the lid and either continue to cook on the cooker top on a low heat, or place in the oven.  The flour from the rabbit-dusting will thicken the sauce as it cooks.

Now make the dumplings.  I use a mixer, but by all means do it by hand if you like.  Sift the flour and mix all the dry ingredients together.  Add a very small amount of water and begin to blend, adding a little more water at a time, just until the mixture comes together and pulls away fairly cleanly from the side of the bowl.  You should have a fairly firm dough that is not too sloppy or sticky.  Carefully mix in the apple slivers, trying not to break them up too much.

Dust your hands and work surface with flour, and separate the dough into pieces the size you like, rolling them into balls – remember they will rise to about twice their current size.  I make mine about the size of goofballs in their raw state.

After the rabbit has been cooking for about half an hour, check the liquid levels in the pot, and add a little water or stock if needed.  Drop the dumplings into the rabbit stew, replace the lid, and cook for another twenty minutes.  If you like the tops of the dumplings to get a little crusty, now remove the lid; If you like soft dumplings, leave it on.. Continue cooking for a further twenty minutes or so.



You may like to serve your choice of green veg with this, perhaps simple greens, braised lettuce or even pak choi (with a nod to the Chinese).  If the dumplings aren’t enough carbohydrate for you, serve with noodles, rice or any kind of spuds.  Either way, I’ll probably want some good bread to mop up the juices (and how many recipes do I finish with those words?)

To adapt this for the summer, lose the dumplings, keep the onion (but perhaps spring onions/scallions instead), carrot and one stick of celery, diced a bit finer, and add some peas, green beans or lettuce toward the end of the cooking time.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Potatoes Gratin Dauphinois – Potatoes au Gratin

This is an easy and very tasty potato recipe, but the thing to bear in mind is that there are so many variables – the variety, thickness and how deep you layer the potatoes, the type of dish used, the efficiency of your oven – that you need to take the timing given here as a very rough guide. If the rest of the food you are serving can be brought together easily at the end, and you are not too bothered about how long you wait for your dinner, then there is no problem. Otherwise, cook ahead of time, and finish when you are ready by reheating and browning in the oven for about twenty minutes.

You can use waxy or floury potatoes for this recipe, depending on season and your preference. Traditionally, however, waxy varieties are used, as they hold their shape better when cooked.

An earthenware cooking dish is ideal for this, but you can of course use metal, heat-resistant glass or whatever you have.




Ingredients:

Two pounds/900gram potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly into rounds
One pint/570ml milk, double cream or milk and cream mixed
One beaten egg if not using cream only
One clove of garlic, peeled and cut in half
4oz/110gram good strong cheese, traditionally Gruyere, grated
Grated nutmeg – about a quarter to a half of one nutmeg
Salt
Pepper
A little butter

Method:

Preheat oven to gas mark 5/190C/375F

Rub the dish all over with the cut garlic, and then grease well with butter. Add the sliced potatoes in layers. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper to the liquid in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer. If you are using egg with milk, continue to beat as it heats through so the egg does not curdle. Pour the heated milk/cream over the potatoes, sprinkle the cheese over the top, and put into the oven for around 45 minutes – as mentioned in the introduction, this could take longer. What you are looking for is that the spuds will be properly cooked through and soft while turning a golden brown on top. The sauce will have thickened and mostly absorbed by the potatoes.

Tip: one way to speed up this recipe, and to ensure that the potatoes are properly cooked through, is to simmer them in the milk/cream before assembly – don’t pre-cook them until they are starting to break up, though.