Sunday, 27 February 2011

Baklava with rose, cardamom and almonds

I can't remember which happy occasion led me to first sample this irresistible and other-wordly combination of nuts, pastry, butter and syrup, but I do know that it sparked a love affair that shows no sign of dwindling. The weeks I spent in the Middle East last summer rarely featured a day that didn't involve baklava; on the first night in Istanbul I procured a kilo of the stuff and managed to devour most of it (I then spent the next two hours with a hideous headache in a bipolar state that swung from hyperactive to exhausted and back again - not recommended). I do enjoy most sugary things and pretty much all desserts, but if I had to select my favourite, it would be impossible to choose between crumble and baklava. There's something amazing and almost alchemical about the way simple ingredients - pastry, nuts, butter, sugar, water - can combine to produce a taste sensation that is curiously indefinable. It's nutty, crunchy, soft, flaky, sticky, sweet, and perfumed all in one. There's the crunch as you bite down through the crispy top layers of pastry, followed by the dense, sticky mass of nuts in the middle, then the softened, compressed pastry underneath. Truly wonderful. I have never, until now, attempted to recreate it myself, and I think doing so has actually done me more harm than good - now that I've discovered that it takes barely more effort than a crumble, my teeth and my waistline are in certain jeopardy.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Nigella's Lazy Loaf

If you've never made home-made bread before, this is the perfect introduction. It requires about as much effort as curling your own eyelashes. You mix some things in a bowl, put them in a tin, put it in the oven, take it out a couple of hours later and you have a perfectly formed little loaf right there, perfect for devouring eagerly with some butter and jam. Or even with cheese and soup - it works well with both sweet and savoury adornments. This was originally a Nigella recipe from her 'Nigella Express' book, but I've adapted it a bit over the years and now I think I have it down to the perfect formula.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Where to eat (well) in Oxford

It's inevitable. I tell someone that I am interested in food, and their next question is, without fail, "Oh, so where is good to eat in Oxford, then?" Now, it's not that I could ever get bored of discussing food with people, but rattling off the same litany of restaurants time and time again does get a little bit tedious, particularly as I know they're going to forget all the names and locations straight away, and carry on eating at Pizza Express for the rest of their student days. So from now on, I shall direct them here. These are, in my opinion, some of the best places to eat in Oxford. I've attempted to vaguely group them by cuisine.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Coconut 'panna cotta' with lychees in lime syrup

I say panna cotta, but this doesn't actually have any cream in it (and 'panna cotta' literally means 'cooked cream', in Italian), so I guess it's actually closer to that old fashioned dish, blancmange. It's just coconut milk set with gelatine into a delightfully wobbly, dome-shaped creation. Hours of fun can be had just poking it or wobbling the plate. Of course, minutes of fun can also be had eating it, which is what I'd suggest you do soon afterwards. This came about really as a way of using up the vast amounts of lychees that keep appearing at the markets at the moment - I know they'll disappear for months soon once the season is over, and there's something so exotic and moreish about their delicate perfume that I am inspired to use them in as many ways as possible. You don't find many lychee recipes out there, so I'm making my own.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Traffic-light vegetarian paella

So-called because of its wonderful contrasting reds, yellows and greens. Paella is one of my favourite dishes; I always make it for big crowds because it's easy and it's adaptable to whatever you have on hand. OK, so a Spaniard would probably weep at some of the bastardised paellas I've produced on self-catering holidays and the like, incorporating bits of bacon, tuna, prawns, frozen squid, and whatever else I could scavenge from the strange aisles of foreign supermarkets, but I think the basic formula I always use is fundamentally Spanish: onions, red peppers, garlic, peas, rice, saffron, tomatoes. I've read somewhere that paella didn't actually originate as a seafood dish in Spain; initially it was made with things like rabbit and snails (a version which I'm keen to try at some point). A seafood paella is a beautiful thing, but I was curious to see what would happen if you removed all that fish and added a few more vegetables and spices. This is the - excellent - result.

Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets

I am so glad that this excellent programme is once again on TV. So glad, in fact, that I have decided to share it with the world (and by that, I mean my limited readership) and urge anyone interested in food to have a watch themselves. The format is simple: chef Raymond Blanc invites viewers into his "Oxfordshire Kitchen" (which, I assume, is the kitchen of Le Manoir, his restaurant in Oxfordshire, which lies so tantalisingly close in distance to, and yet so far in affordability from me that it makes me want to weep) and prepares a variety of dishes based around a type of ingredient. What I like about this is that he doesn't choose obvious categories like "meat", "fish", "vegetables". Instead we have a whole episode devoted to apples, or mushrooms, or tomatoes. In the new series he starts off with shellfish.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Iranian-style roast teal

A couple of weeks ago I visited Borough Market for the first time. For someone who expends every waking thought on culinary matters, this was rather an exciting experience. It reminded me of the Real Food Festival; lots of independent retailers selling weird and wonderful things - the favourites seem to be cheese, artisan bread, and chorizo sausages. I was expecting more of a generic market, so I was pleasantly surprised. I loved the fruit and veg markets especially, with their lush displays of glistening fresh cherries, lychees, champagne rhubarb and quinces. I haven't seen quinces for a while now, so I bought a load of them eagerly for future use. They were the most perfect quinces I have ever seen; smooth and with a perfect, unblemished surface. But this isn't about the quinces. Another exciting purchase came in the form of a brace of teal from a butcher's. I've never seen teal before; the butchers here have never had it in stock, so I've only read about it in my game cookbook. It's a very small breed of wild duck, and I was struck by just how tiny it is - smaller than a wood pigeon. Always keen to try cooking something new, I bought a couple, with no idea of what I was going to do with them.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Cheesecake pancakes

I've called these cheesecake pancakes because, as my good friend Helen remarked while eating them this morning (well, afternoon, but ssh), they taste like cheesecake. It's the combination of ricotta, eggs and vanilla extract; your basic cheesecake mixture. On top of that, I made a cranberry and orange compote to accompany them, which is very like your basic red berry coulis that you often find on a vanilla cheesecake (but more interesting due to the use of oranges and brown sugar). Together, the two are completely wonderful; a delicious and dramatic-looking winter brunch.

Strawberry tarts with basil ice cream

The market here tends to sell punnets of strawberries all year round. I tend to avoid them, knowing they're imported from goodness knows where, and also because strawberries don't really appeal to me in winter. I associate them with summer, and wrenching them from that glorious context would be wrong, somehow. However, they caught my eye the other day, largely because they were very cheap, and also because they did look rather good; plump, scarlet specimens glistening in their neat little boxes, imploring me to purchase them and at least make their journey from some far-flung continent worthwhile. When I think about all the fruits I love, strawberries rarely feature, possibly because I only ever eat them for that fleeting section of summer when they're in season, and then forget about them for the rest of the year (though, by that logic, the incredible Alphonso mango shouldn't always spring to mind when I think of my favourite fruits, and yet it does, unfailingly). Yet, after making this delightful dessert, I am reminded of what a fine thing the humble strawberry can be, when treated properly.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Pork fillet baked in spices and yoghurt

I love cooking with pork fillet. It's such a versatile ingredient: perfect for roasting in a char sui marinade and slicing for stir fries, but also great for slicing lengthways, stuffing with something delicious, then roasting. I've cooked it this way stuffed with apricots and pistachios, and also with Stilton, apple and walnuts. I then wrap the fillet in parma ham, cook it in the oven, then finish it off in a pan to give a lovely crispy, bacony exterior that contrasts nicely with the soft, juicy meat. It also looks very pretty cooked this way, sliced and served atop a mound of polenta or mashed potato. However, when I found this recipe in the Guardian a few weeks ago, it sounded so delicious that I couldn't not try it out. I liked the idea of baking the pork in a rich, spicy yoghurt sauce that would then soak beautifully into a big mound of rice. It didn't disappoint.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Little rhubarb puddings with rose and cardamom ice cream

These are just lovely. A very simplistic and boring description for a dessert, admittedly, but it seems the most appropriate way of describing them, in their diminutive pink perfection. I love the look of little individual sponge puddings, and, having purchased a set of dariole moulds, I can now make them myself. There's something quite generous about giving everyone their own individual pudding, and even better if there's a scoop of home-made ice cream (or three) to go with it. These are a variation on upside-down cake: the poached rhubarb goes into the mould first, then the cake batter, and then they're turned out to form a little pyramid of sponge with a delightful topping of warm rhubarb. The bright rhubarb juices infuse the sponge to form something moist and delicious, and the accompanying ice cream is a veritable tastebud sensation, and one which I am quite proud of. It would work very well with most poached fruit, particularly apricots, figs or plums.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Spiced mackerel with coconut and mango salad

Another variation on my much-loved combination of mackerel and fruit. This time, the mackerel is rubbed with a spice paste to give it a lovely flavoursome skin before grilling. The accompanying salad, with its combination of fruit, mint and coconut, makes a cooling and refreshing contrast to the mixture of cayenne, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cumin and coriander. It also looks rather beautiful, with contrasting yellow, white and green colours. 

Monday, 14 February 2011

A Valentine's pavlova

For this was on seynt Valentynes day/Whan every fowl cometh ther to chese his make ~ Chaucer

Just as I believe you shouldn't need Hallmark to tell you when you should be showering your beloved with affection, so I also believe you shouldn't need an occasion to make a spectacular pavlova. This is my contribution to the day of St Valentine. The man himself is someone we actually know almost nothing about. The first association between romance and the Saint came, in fact, from my favourite man of all time - Geoffrey Chaucer. In his poem, The Parliament of Fowls, he describes all the birds flocking to a parliament in order to choose their mates, because it happens to be the day of St Valentine. Perhaps a dish of bird in some shape or form would have been a more appropriate Valentine's day emblem, in this case. Newspapers and magazines nationwide for some reason decide that making a chocolate fondant for your loved one is the appropriate way to celebrate, along with the usual suspects - oysters, scallops, fillet steak. I reckon this rhubarb pavlova is a far more apt metaphor for romance: sweet and delicious, but with a tart, astringent edge. 

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Poussin with cherry and goat's cheese stuffing

There are few simple meals I enjoy more than a roast chicken. My favourite part is the crispy skin, so wonderful a thing when you've seasoned it with lots of salt and pepper and rubbed it with butter or olive oil. The contrast in texture between the crunchy exterior and the soft chicken flesh underneath is a wonderful thing. The only thing that makes this experience even more delicious is the promise of some juicy, flavoursome stuffing encased within the meat. I know some chefs advocate cooking the stuffing separately to make sure it cooks through, and because stuffing a chicken takes a bit of effort, but for me the main reason to eat stuffing is because it has soaked up all the delicious chicken juices during roasting. The only problem when roasting a whole chicken for several people is that this gastronomic gold has to be divided up, and you can't fit that much stuffing inside a chicken. Serving poussin, however, solves this problem. It feels, somehow, as if you get so much more because you have it all to yourself. No faff of carving a whole chicken and trying to make sure people get all the bits they like; with poussin, you get a whole bird per person. It feels so much more generous and looks so much neater. Plus, there's more crispy skin, all for you.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Fish stew with mussels, coley, cider and chorizo

How annoying. If it weren't for the inclusion of mussels, the title of this stew would alliterate nicely. As if you'd get me to leave them out, though. I love mussels. They're quick to cook, cheap, plentiful, and yet somehow always feel rather luxurious and exotic. I suppose it's the inevitable association with summer holidays, with moules mariniere eaten in the setting sun on a beach in the south of France or somewhere equally wonderful. Also, I suppose, because they're not that easy to get hold of (live ones, I mean) unless you have a good fishmonger or live near a very large supermarket with a proper fish counter. I find carting home a big bag of mussels immensely satisfying, largely because whenever I cook mussels for dinner guests they seem to get very excited by them. Again, I think it's the sensation of the unusual.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Sicilian blood orange cheesecake

I don't think the orange has ever featured in my cooking as much as it has over the past month or so. I suppose it's only natural that, in the first month of the year, one's tastebuds crave something sharp and sweet in order to liven up that cold, grey climate, and to help shake off the after-effects of stodgy winter fare. How convenient, then, that blood oranges appear in the markets around this time. I like to pair them with ordinary oranges so that their beautiful red-tinged flesh stands out. They're wonderful in an orange salad with dates, cinnamon and orange blossom water. They're also excellent with grilled mackerel, as I've discussed here recently. I also decided that they'd be a perfect match for a fluffy, creamy baked cheesecake flavoured with nuts and candied fruit.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Ragu of hare with red wine and cocoa

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? ~ Macbeth

I had only come across hare in a culinary context once before I attempted this classic Italian dish. My housemate last year fancied trying his hand at jugged hare (which, if you are unaware, means cooking the hare in its own blood). Fortunately, he asked the butcher to do all the cutting and jointing for him. So when I entered our communal kitchen to find blood spattered everywhere (we later found some inside the kettle), I was more than a little confused, and was told that apparently the butcher hadn't cut it into enough pieces. He stood there, gore-stained knife in hand, hacking away at a deep red carcass and looking decidedly sheepish. To this day I am unsure if perhaps the hare story was a clever ruse to cover for some sort of kitchen-based murder.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Pan-fried whiting with clams and bacon

I have to admit, I'm not very good at improvising when it comes to cooking. Most of my friends have, at some point, asked me when I am going to go on Masterchef. Most of them, however, have never watched Masterchef, and if they had, I believe they wouldn't be asking the question. Firstly, because they would realise that if I went on Masterchef I'd be subjecting myself to the kind of humiliation that scars for life (something that, fortunately, I haven't experienced since I was ten and my sadistic, psychotic P.E. teacher used to try and get me, the least flexible, athletic person in the WORLD, to do gymnastic manoeuvres in front of my entire year); and secondly, because I am just not that kind of cook. I would fall flat at the first hurdle of Masterchef, just as I often literally fell flat at the first hurdle during P.E. All contestants have to pass the first round before they can continue: the Invention Test. They are presented with a huge (beautiful) bench of ingredients and have an hour to create a dish (or sometimes two) from them. It's often the most amusing moment for those who, like me, are watching the programme from behind the safety of a computer, and can chortle at the contestants' ridiculous combinations and attempts to impress, which are met with scorn by the formidable Greg and John.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Lychee sorbet

Lychees are everywhere at the moment. I always associate this wonderful little fruit with Christmas, I think because when I was younger they were always included in the obligatory fruit salad my mum made to follow Christmas dinner. They still have that hint of the exotic about them, perhaps because unlike a lot of other fruit, you can only get them at a certain time of the year. How perfect, that they start appearing just as your palate is bored of hearty winter stews and comforting flavours. Their sharp juiciness and hint of sweet perfume is just what you need on a gloomy January day, and, along with rhubarb, their colour can't help but cheer you up a little bit. Their texture is also immensely satisfying; despite them often being used for children in Halloween games to replicate eyeballs, I still love the smooth, slippery flesh with its translucent and sometimes slightly pink hue. The other day I spied a two-kilo box of lychees at the greengrocers' for £4. I can't resist fruit in a box; I think it's the sense of abundance and plenty that it carries with it. Perhaps that's why I love alphonso mangoes so much. There's something very satisfying about carting home a whole box of fruit, knowing that your vitamin supply is well and truly secured for the next week or so. Needless to say, I bought the box without hesitating.