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.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Pan-Fried Flounder: Easy Flatfish Recipe

Pan-Fried Flounder: Easy Flatfish Recipe

As I am in the UK, this recipe refers to the European Flounder which is currently not a threatened species; please check the situation if you are not in Europe and substitute any other sustainable flatfish.

Flounder are a bargain at the fishmongers; along with species such as Dab and Torbay Sole (Megrim), they don’t command the higher prices of other flatfish such as Plaice and Lemon Sole, let alone the premium flatties such as Brill, Dover Sole, Turbot etc.  In flavour, they most resemble Plaice; the species are close enough that they sometimes hybridise, yet Flounder are currently around a third the price.  So, if they are on your fishmonger’s slab, snap ‘em up and give them a try.

Ideally, all fish should be filleted as close to the cooking time as possible.  If you are not confident in your filleting abilities, ask your fishmonger to do it for you, buying on the day you are to cook them.

As I have suggested in the first paragraph, this method of pan-frying is suitable for any flatfish fillets, and indeed works very well for fillets of many round and white fish, such as Mackerel, Herring, Bass etc, as long as they are not too thick, in which case an oven-roasting may be more suitable.

Pan-Fried Flounder Recipe: Ingredients

One or more Flounder or other flatfish fillets per person, depending on their size and your appetite
A little neutral everyday oil for frying
Salt and pepper

Optional (see Cook’s Tip); a little butter or cream.

Pan-Fried Flounder Recipe: Method

Note that the whole cooking process will only take around five minutes: have the rest of your meal, and some warm plates, ready.  Never overcook fish; as soon as it is ready, Dinner is Go!

Put a heavy, preferably non-stick, frying pan that is large enough to take all the fillets in one layer, onto a high heat.  Allow the pan to get quite hot, then shake in a splash of oil; a teaspoon or two, just enough to lubricate the pan.  Place the fish skin-side down into the pan.  Take care, it may spit a little.  Continue to cook on a high heat, only turning it down if the skin is threatening to burn rather than go a crispy golden colour.  Watch as the flesh begins to turn opaque, the colour change working its way up from the bottom.  When the fish is cooked from two-thirds to three-quarters of the way up, liberally season the fillets with salt and pepper, and flip the fish over to finish cooking topside down; this will probably take no more than a minute.  Serve immediately.

Cook’s Tip: once the fish is plated, add a walnut-sized knob of butter or an equivalent amount of double cream or whipping cream, stirring up any flavoursome crusty bits from the pan and amalgamating with any cooking juices.  As soon as the butter has melted and started to froth, or as soon as the cream has started to thicken a little, pour over the fish.

Serve with: whatever you like with fish, be it chips/french fries, rice, a simple salad, lightly steamed vegetables, or stuff the fillets into some crusty bread and eat as a sandwich.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Chicken Stock Recipe: Basic Cooking Techniques

Chicken Stock Recipe: Basic Cooking Techniques

A good home-made Chicken Stock is one of the most useful ingredients to have in your fridge or freezer, and it’s easy to make.  Once you have the basic idea, you can of course use the same method to make stock from poultry of any kind; goose, duck, turkey etc.

Home Made Chicken Stock Recipe: Ingredients

The remains of one or two cooked chickens: all the bones, skin, trimmings and scraps of meat etc, plus the giblets (raw or cooked) if you have them
One onion, peeled and halved
One carrot, peeled and cut into a few chunks
One stick of celery, cut into a few chunks
Two to four garlic cloves, peeled
One or two bay leaves
Six to twelve whole black pepper corns
Water to cover

NO SALT – add the salt at the point of use, i.e. when you have added the stock to whatever dish you are making

Home Made Chicken Stock Recipe: Method

Put all the ingredients into a large pan or stock pot, breaking up the chicken if necessary to make it fit, and add the water to more or less cover.  Put on a high heat until the water boils, and then turn down to the lowest possible simmer – just the odd bubble breaking on the surface every now and then.  Use a heat diffusing mat if necessary.  Skim off any nasty looking scum that rises to the surface.

Continue to simmer for three to four hours, basically until the resulting broth tastes good.  Strain the liquid through a colander preferably lined with muslin or a clean cloth.  Dispose of the bones and used vegetables.

The stock is now ready for use or storage as it is, but I prefer to reduce it to concentrate the strength and flavour.  Clean the pan, or use a fresh one, tip in the strained stock, and return to a high heat.  Continue cooking until the liquid has reduced by at least half, or lower if you like.

The stock will keep for a few days (or longer) in the fridge, or can be frozen for later use.  I freeze some of mine in 1 pint/half litre tubs, and some in ice cube trays.  A few cubes of frozen concentrated stock can be dropped into your stews and casseroles as required.

Variations: you can make your stock from raw bones or raw cuts such as wings and thighs.  The results are subtly different, but equally good.  A few writers insist that stocks should only be made from raw ingredients, to give a “cleaner” stock;  I strongly disagree.  Using up the remains of your roast chicken not only makes for a very tasty and useful stock, but is also thrifty and economical too.

Blind Baking Pastry: Basic Cooking Techniques

Blind Baking Pastry: Basic Cooking Techniques

So, you’re working through the recipe: you’ve made your pie filling, and you’ve mixed up your pastry dough.  Suddenly, the recipe tells you to line the pie dish with the pastry, and to blind bake it, with no other information.  Ok, many recipe writers will assume that experienced cooks know how to blind bake, but what if you don’t have much experience?

What is Blind Baking?  Blind baking simply means to cook, or at least part-cook, the pastry before you add your filling, avoiding a soggy base to your pie, tart or quiche etc.  Blind, because the raw pastry is covered during this pre-cooking.  There are a couple of variations, but the idea and method is very simple.

How to Blind Bake Pastry: method

Make a pastry dough as directed in whatever recipe you are following, rest it in the fridge for half an hour, then roll it out and line your pie dish or tart pan.  Thoroughly prick the base and sides of the pastry all over with a fork.  If you have time, rest again in the refrigerator to minimise shrinkage while cooking.  When ready to proceed, crumple up some baking paper or parchment – do this several times so it becomes soft, with no sharp edges to pierce the pastry.  Line the pastry loosely with the parchment/paper; there is no need to cut it to a perfect fit as long as the pastry is covered.  Weigh it down with specialist baking beans from the kitchen shop (usually ceramic), or ordinary dried “vegetable” beans, such as haricot (discard these after use).  Some prefer to use metal beads, or even a handful of loose change, as they are a better conductor of heat.

Now place the tin/dish into the oven (set at whatever temperature your recipe recommends, but usually a medium heat) and bake for twenty minutes.  By this time, your base will be at least part-cooked, and you can proceed with the rest of the recipe, filling your pie etc.

I prefer at this stage to remove the paper/parchment and the beans, then return the pie base to the oven for a further ten minutes or so – this thoroughly dries out the base and gives a crispier finish.

The reason for the fork-pricking and weighing down is to stop the pastry rising during this blind baking period.  This may be necessary for some pastries, but I have found that for simple shortcrust pastry all that is needed is a good fork-pricking and an unweighted lining of loosely crumpled kitchen foil.

You can do the blind baking well ahead of time.  If adding a hot filling, first reheat the blind baked pastry for a few minutes, which helps to preserve the crispiness.

Shortcrust Pastry Recipe: Basic Cooking Techniques

Shortcrust Pastry Recipe: Basic Cooking Techniques

If you’ve never made shortcrust pastry (or any pastry) before, don’t panic; it’s a lot easier than you may think, and the magical transformation from a bag of flour with a little fat to a light, crispy pastry will give your kitchen confidence a huge boost.

You will see that the recipe and method at the end are very short, and you can cut straight there; however, I’ve written the following notes and tips to help you on your way.

Different recipes will call for different quantities, but the basic measure for shortcrust pastry is always two parts flour to one part fat.  The only other ingredients are a little salt to season (pepper too, if it’s for a savoury dish) and just enough cold water to bring it all together.

It’s worth expanding on the phrase “just enough cold water,” as this is the really crucial part of the equation.  If you don’t have enough water in the mix, the pastry will break up and be impossible to roll out; too much water,  however, and the resulting pastry will be hard and tough when cooked, rather than light and crispy.  You can’t use measures here, though, as the amount of water needed will vary almost day to day, even if the other ingredients are consistent: some flours absorb more water, and some less.  Ambient temperature and humidity also make a difference.  That said, use the easy never-fail technique in the next paragraph, and you will never go wrong.

The Water: Once the other flour, fats and seasonings are mixed and ready, add a small amount of cold water; just a teaspoon or two at first.  Mix again, then pinch a small piece of the pastry between the thumb and forefinger of each hand and give it a gentle pull: if the dough breaks, add some more water.  If it stretches easily, the mix is correct.  Continue to add a little water, doing the pull and stretch test until you have a nice pliable dough.  If this sounds complex, don’t worry, it isn’t and will make perfect sense once you try it, and once you’ve made this shortcrust pastry a few times the method becomes second-nature.

The Flour: you simply need good quality plain/general purpose white flour for this recipe.  Once you’ve weighed out the flour, pass it through a sieve into the mixing bowl; this obviously removes any lumps, but equally importantly gets some air into the flour, leading to a lighter pastry.

The Fat: I use butter or lard, or a combination of these.  Many cooks use margarine, and indeed here in the UK and doubtless elsewhere, there are brands of margarine especially developed for baking purposes that are household names  I prefer not to use margarine, which usually contains trans and hydrogenated fats and other unnatural chemicals that I don’t want in my kitchen or in my body.

Seasonings: I use Maldon Salt for pretty much all my cooking.  It’s a lovely, flaky sea salt with no chemical additives.  However, use any salt you like; the only criteria is that you may need more salt than you think – flour doughs, along with other starchy carbs such as potatoes, rice, pasta etc need quite heavy seasoning.  If you are at all concerned about your own salt and sodium intake, then I’ll leave it up to you as an adult to make your own decisions.  I also put pepper into pastry mixes intended for savoury dishes: ground white pepper is useful, but you can use ground black pepper if you don’t mind little black flecks in the finished pastry.  A little pepper is also surprisingly good in some sweet dishes; be brave and try it.

Mixing: All the ingredients (and equipment such as bowls etc) should be as cold as possible to prevent the fats running and becoming oily.  Traditionally, pastry is mixed by hand, just using the fingertips to keep the transfer of heat as low as possible, then with the blade of a knife once the water is added.  Frankly, I see absolutely no problem with using a food processor or other mechanical mixer.  It’s easier, quicker and the pastry comes out just fine.

"Resembles Breadcrumbs": Most pastry recipes, including mine below, tell you to mix the fats into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Be aware though that some days, particularly when it's warm, this breadcrumb stage will never happen as the fats are starting to run.  Don't worry, just start adding the water as soon as you are sure everything is thoroughly mixed.

As I mentioned, quantities will vary with your recipe.  Here I’ll give a typical set of ingredients for a simple tart or pie.  Adapt as required.

Easy Shortcrust Pastry Recipe: ingredients

8oz/225g plain/all purpose flour
4oz/110g butter or lard, or a mixture of the two
A little cold water
Salt and pepper as required

Easy Shortcrust Pastry Recipe: method

Sieve the flour and seasonings into your mixing bowl.  Add the fat, either cut into small chunks or grated.  Mix with your fingertips or in a machine until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.  Begin to add the water, a very small amount at a time, mixing well, just until the dough becomes pliable, as described above.

Cover or wrap the dough and refrigerate for at least half an hour; this makes it easier to handle and to roll.  Roll out and use as directed in your recipe; if at all possible, rest and refrigerate the pastry again once you’ve put it into the pie dish etc.  This last tip is not essential, but it minimises the shrinkage when cooking.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Braised Cabbage Recipes

Braised Cabbage Recipes

Before I give you two delicious Braised Cabbage recipes, let’s first look at how not to cook cabbage: do not boil it for half an hour or more until it becomes limp, soggy, grey and sulphurous.  This “traditional” method of cooking cabbage (and other vegetables) beloved of school dinners, transport cafes and some grannies is thankfully declining, as the disgusting results are likely to put people off their veggies for life.

I’m giving two Braised Cabbage recipes here; the first is for a side-dish, while the second makes a feature of the cabbage and is a meal in itself, and uses a few other vegetables to add further flavour, contrast and texture.  As often with Guerilla Griller recipes, these can be seen more as methods than strict instructions; it’s of course impossible here to give precise quantities – after all, how big is your cabbage?

Simple Braised Cabbage Recipe for a Side-Dish: Ingredients

One cabbage, any kind that is good, fresh and seasonal
A little butter (perhaps one or two tablespoons)
A little water (similar quantity to butter)
A pinch or two of salt and a good grind of black pepper

Simple Braised Cabbage Recipe for a Side-Dish: Method

Quarter the cabbage, cut out the cores and remove any coarse, limp or discoloured outer leaves.  Chop or shred the cabbage, not too finely.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over a gentle heat, put in the cabbage and stir well until coated in the butter.  Add the water and seasonings, stir again, cover and cook on a very low heat, checking progress and stirring from time to time.  After about half an hour the cabbage should be tender rather than soggy, and will have absorbed all the butter and liquids.   A simple, yet delicious recipe.

Cook’s Tip: variation for serving with pork – add a thinly sliced, cored, eating apple to the cabbage at the beginning of cooking.

Braised Cabbage Main Course Recipe: Ingredients
(I cannot be exact about quantities/size/weights, but consider the cabbage to be the star of the show so use approximately two parts cabbage to one part combined other veggies)

One cabbage, any kind that is good, fresh and seasonal
One or two carrots, depending on size
One or two onions, depending on size
One stick of celery
Salt and pepper
One star anise (optional)
Garlic to your taste, peeled and sliced
A little butter (perhaps one or two tablespoons)
Some stock (proper stock, not made from powder – a good, home-made vegetable or chicken stock, or perhaps some of your own turkey stock that you made after Christmas and stored in useful quantities in your freezer) – a similar quantity to the butter

Braised Cabbage Main Course Recipe: Method

Quarter the cabbage, remove and discard the core and any outer leaves as in the first recipe.  De-string the celery.  Peel the onion and carrot.  Chop or shred all the veggies to a similar thickness – if you like, make the carrots into julienne (thin matchstick strips) for a pleasing contrast.  Peel and thinly slice the garlic.

As in the first recipe, melt the butter in a saucepan over a gentle heat, put in the vegetables and stir well until coated in the butter.  Add the stock, the star anise and seasonings, stir again, cover and cook on a very low heat, checking progress and stirring from time to time.  As in the first recipe, the idea is that the veggies will be perfectly tender and will have absorbed the butter and all the liquids.

Remove and discard the star anise before serving.

A portion of this will make a satisfying and tasty meal on its own, but you could serve it with good crusty bread, or your favourite potatoes.

Cook’s Tip: Variation – add more stock as you desire and transform the recipe into a stew (more moist than the above) or even a soup (shred all the veggies more finely for this).

Monday, 2 January 2012

How to Fry Onions: Basic Cooking Techniques

How to Fry Onions: Basic Cooking Techniques

As with many things in life, good cooking involves knowing what you want to achieve, and knowing how to achieve it.  Simplistic advice, no doubt, but inexperienced, nervous and beginner cooks often complain that something didn’t turn out the way they expected.  A good example is the frying of onions, a basic cooking technique at the start of so many dishes.

So firstly, what are we trying to achieve?   There are, I think, two extremes, and then the middle ground, the last of which being what we want to achieve most of the time.

The first extreme is the half-burned fried onion, where the edges have gone beyond golden to a crispy black, while the rest of the onion is half-cooked at best.  I would dismiss this out of hand, except that there are some people who do like this combination of part-raw and bitter-burned flavour.  Not to my taste at all, and rather you than me, but if this is what you want to achieve, slice your onions fairly coarsely, and fry them quickly at a fairly high temperature, until the edges have burned.  Job done.

The second extreme is Caramelized Onions, where you cook down pounds of sliced onions over the slowest possible heat for an hour or two until all that is left is a light-golden, very sweet jam.  This can also be the base for Onion Marmalade.

If those are the extremes then the middle ground is what I find most useful in my kitchen, and the way I will most often cook them.  Master this (and it’s pretty easy) and you are well on the way to understanding some of the most important principles of good cooking.

So, what do I want to achieve?  Certainly no burned or blackened edges: I do not like much bitterness.  On the other hand, I don’t want to spend hours caramelising a vast batch of onions when I just need a little to start a stew, casserole, curry, sauce, omelette or whatever.  What I want is a few spoonfuls of sweet, tangy onions that have given up some of their moisture and developed some golden-brown colouring.

Here’s how to do it.

Fried Onions: ingredients

As many onions as you need, (they will reduce to about a half or less of their volume when cooked) halved, peeled and sliced or diced as required
A little olive oil
A little butter (optional, for a richer flavour with better browning)
A little salt

Fried Onions: method

Put a heavy-based pan or pot onto a medium to high heat, wait until the pan has heated, put in a splash of oil (and the butter, if using: work quickly, let the butter melt and froth, but not brown or burn).  Immediately tip in the onions, and stir until well coated with oil.  Reduce the heat, add a good pinch of salt (this helps the onions release their moisture as well as adding savouriness) and stir again.

Now comes the important bit: it’s all about managing the heat, as in so many cooking techniques.  If the onions are just sitting quietly at the bottom of the pan doing nothing, then turn the heat up a little.  If the edges are beginning to change colour rather rapidly, turn the heat down.  Take your time.  The onions will first go translucent, then more opaque and they will also begin to take on the golden colour we are waiting for.  Be patient.  Stir frequently, and continue to juggle the heat as required.  And that’s it.  When they’re ready, they’re ready.

It may seem bizarre, or even unnecessary to write a whole essay on the frying of onions, where many recipes (including some of mine) may just say “brown the onions…” but this Zen-like concentration on one small aspect of the meal will do wonders for your cooking.  If your onions have never quite turned out the way you want in the past, they will from now on if you follow the technique laid out above.  And if you apply the idea of “getting the small things right” to all your cooking, your meals will improve immeasurably.