Saturday, 30 April 2011

Thai-flavoured prawn and mango salad

My food-related habits are so predictable. A couple of weeks ago I emerged from Italy feeling like I'd eaten an entire pig, and had consequently turned into one. I reached for the lime juice, ginger, chilli and Thai fish sauce to make me feel more human and less porcine. A couple of days ago I emerged from Prague, land of (more) pig and omnipresent dumplings, again feeling more like a farmyard animal ready for slaughter than my normal, relatively healthy self. The remedy? Thai food. Or, at least, vaguely Thai food, because this is in no way authentic and I'm sure would make a Thai person weep. There's just something about the freshness of lime juice, chilli, fish sauce and copious quantities of herbs that will bring life back to the most jaded and over-porked palates.

Friday, 29 April 2011

A dessert for the Royal Wedding

I immensely enjoyed watching the royal wedding today. I think this is very much due to the fact that I am an ardent lover of Disney princess films. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I think the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton possesses an astonishing number of characteristics reminiscent of this iconic genre. It's essentially the plot of Beauty and the Beast. The part where she walked out onto the balcony to be greeted by thousands of screaming patriots? Almost exactly like the part in Aladdin where Jasmine thrusts the future king out onto a balcony in front of the entire population of Agrabah, and he's not entirely sure how to cope with such attention. I loved it. I hadn't really been bothered until it actually came up on the television, and I am not ashamed to admit I had to get my boyfriend to fetch me a piece of kitchen roll to dry my eyes. (Kitchen roll, not a tissue - that would have required going upstairs and possibly missing priceless nuptial action).

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Hot cross buns and happy Easter

It's Easter. Therefore it seems a fitting time to post about the hot cross buns I made a few days ago. I've been quite late with them this year - normally as soon as I return home for the holidays, I get out the flour, yeast, milk, dried fruit and spices. Better late than never, though, and I will be enjoying one of these delicious creations today, split, toasted and spread with lashings of butter. I think hot cross buns incorporate many of my favourite things: a doughy texture, a sweet crust, dried fruit, liberal amounts of spice, and the potential to be toasted and buttered. Rather like a teacake, but somehow better and more interesting. I hate the insipid versions you can buy en masse at supermarkets at this time of year: no more complex than a white bread roll, but with a cross piped on top in order to guarantee it goes in your basket in the run up to Easter. A hot cross bun is not a white roll with a bit of fruit in and a cross on top; its culinary DNA is completely different. The dough is enriched with butter, milk and sometimes an egg in order to give it that rich, glorious density that marries so well with sweet, spicy adornments.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Eggs of fish and fowl

I always feel slightly nervous when I go food shopping without a list. This is largely due to my near-notorious inability to make decisions of any kind, but also because there are so many exciting things at the market at the moment that it's incredibly difficult to settle on something for dinner. I've been eyeing up gorgeous, glossy black aubergines, huge bulbs of feathery fennel, blood oranges (still? I always thought their season ended in February...not that I'm complaining), slim early asparagus spears, weapon-like globe artichokes...the list goes on. The other day I found myself with a big bundle of English asparagus in my shopping basket. The mood for greenery proliferated, and I soon found myself purchasing a big bunch of watercress (so much nicer than the soulless stuff you buy in a crinkly plastic bag from the supermarket), and a pound of broad beans. I also just had to get some duck eggs. They've been crying out to me from their little cardboard nests at the market for weeks now, begging me to find some use for their gorgeous yellow yolks.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Roasted loquat meringues

You know you're on your way to mastering a foreign language when you're able to glean information regarding the flavour, texture and culinary potential of a strange fruit that you've never seen before, entirely in the vernacular. Such was the case in Italy last week, when I stumbled across a box of 'nespole' in a little fruit shop. I'd never seen them before; they looked rather like apricots, but more oval-shaped. Intrigued, I asked the shop-owner, a devastatingly sweet little old lady, if she knew what they were called in English. She shook her head. A rather faltering (on my part) Italian dialogue then ensued, during which I attempted to find out if they were like apricots, and - more importantly - if they were edible raw, or likely to poison me. The lady was effervescent about the virtues of this fruit, to the extent that she picked one up and started stroking it, and assured me that it was "dolce, dolce!" My curiosity got the better of me, and I bought one, to her immense delight.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Adventures with a KitchenAid mixer #3: sticky rhubarb cake

I came back from Italy a few days ago to find an enormous bag of rhubarb in our kitchen. Enormous. There must be at least three kilos of the stuff in it. I will spare you my favourite spiel about how much I adore rhubarb and proceed to describe how I turned this back of green and pink stalks into one of the most delicious cakes in existence, with the help - naturally - of my beloved new KitchenAid stand mixer. Because this rhubarb is later in the season, it lacks the slender, elegant pinkness of its champagne cousin, and therefore isn't entirely suitable for a simple poaching or roasting treatment. This cake is a great and pleasantly rustic way to make the most of rhubarb that needs a little more doing to it than a simple scattering of sugar.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Pearl barley risotto with asparagus, quail eggs and parma ham

Here goes. Episode number something-or-other in the series of "Elly tries, yet again, to like asparagus". As I've mentioned before, I am not the biggest fan of those green spears that, come late spring, set most food-lovers' hearts ablaze with excitement. Yet I feel compelled to like asparagus, because it's one of those 'things' that any self-respecting gastronome should go mad for, along with the first rhubarb of the season, real English strawberries, and purple sprouting broccoli. I therefore feel it is my mission to devise recipes that will render the green stuff a little more palatable; I am usually put off by its bitterness and almost sour flavour (maybe there's something in my saliva that reacts badly with it - I know this is the reason a lot of people can't stand coriander). So when I saw the first spears of the season at the market the other day, I snapped them up (at vast expense - how is it that English-grown produce can be three times the price of stuff flown in from Spain?) and set about devising a way of making the most of such a widely-revered crop.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Asian fusion fishcakes

One of the perils of being obsessed with food is that you constantly carry around with you a mental list of various food-related tasks that you intend to effect at some point in the near future, items from which will pop up in your head in the most unexpected places. You're on the tube and see an advert for pregnancy tests - naturally it immediately causes you to remember that desire to obtain some goose eggs and cook with them. You smell that artificial baked aroma wafting from a nearby Subway and your mind is forcibly recalled to the huge bag of rhubarb in the kitchen that you keep meaning to create a bread recipe for. And - I know this is quite morbid, but I can't help it - you see the deer frolicking around Christ Church meadows and remember that recipe for venison kebabs that you keep meaning to try.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Spring has sprung with scones in Yorkshire

I've recently spent a weekend at our house in Yorkshire. This is always a noteworthy occasion, culinarily speaking, largely because of said house's proximity to Betty's tearoom in Harrogate. This, for the uninitiated, means cream teas, excellent lunches, delicious baked goods and pastries, fine tea and coffee, and a wonderful bakery and gift shop. However, there were several other gastronomic perks to the weekend. In fact, Betty's hardly featured at all, as I was in Harrogate alone and it seemed a little tragic to queue for about an hour for a table to have tea on my own. I bought a Fat Rascal from the shop, though - this is a Yorkshire classic, a rather dense, scone-like cake with fruit, citrus and almonds. But that was not the only scone-related incident of the trip.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Walnut and juniper crusted venison loin with chocolate jus

This beautiful loin of Yorkshire venison has been sitting in my freezer for months. It seemed so special that I could never find an occasion good enough to defrost and cook it. I was also frightened of doing something bad to it and ruining what is one of the most wonderful ingredients I have ever used. The loin of venison is the prized cut: like beef fillet, it is tender, succulent, and beautiful. Overcooking it would be a culinary crime. I've only used it once before, to make a venison carpaccio with raspberry vinaigrette. I seared the loin, and then thinly sliced it to serve with a mixture of balsamic vinegar and crushed raspberries. I remember being delighted when my guests didn't finish it all, and the next day I feasted off sandwiches of thinly-sliced, rare deer. Carving rare meat is one of my favourite kitchen tasks; I love the incredible colour and texture of tender, pink flesh, particularly game. Finally I plucked up the courage to remove the venison from the freezer.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Adventures with a KitchenAid mixer #2: fennel and garlic focaccia

I love making bread, but I am not afraid to admit what most cookery writers steadfastly refuse to concede: that it is a bit of a faff. Of course, this depends on the bread - there are some excellent no-knead, straight-in-the-oven versions around (soda bread, for example, or any bread involving the reaction between yoghurt or buttermilk and some form of acid) - but, largely, bread does require a bit of effort. It would probably be unrealistic to say that for the average busy person, baking bread daily is a doddle. Even if it doesn't require much kitchen effort, it usually requires several hours of sitting around waiting for it to prove, then knocking it back, shaping it, giving it a second rise, and finally the actual baking. And while kneading is usually rather enjoyable, it does make a hell of a mess - not just the worktop, but your hands too. My hands are always hideously dry for a couple of days after I've made bread, because I've had to scrub them with a nail brush to remove all the congealed bits of dough. It's also why I never allow my fingernails to grow more than about two millimetres.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Adventures with a KitchenAid mixer #1: simnel cake

If you haven't seen one of these before, where have you been living? The iconic design of the KitchenAid stand mixer means it is coveted by cooks everywhere. And probably also non-cooking hedonists whose lives are dominated by a search for the aesthetically pleasing. You can't deny that its gorgeous curves, sleek surface and beautiful colours are probably more of an incentive to purchase it than any skill it might have in actual mixing; however, style and substance unite in its ability to effect a huge variety of kitchen tasks while still looking fabulous - it's the Nigella Lawson of kitchen equipment. I'm lucky enough to possess one of these mixers at the moment, so I'll be putting it through its paces to see how it fares in my busy culinary lifestyle.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Bottled rhubarb

This week Rachel from The Crispy Cook is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I've found an exciting new way of using one of my favourite ingredients.

There are some ingredients so beautiful and exciting that they always put a spring in my step on the journey back from the market to my kitchen. Blood oranges are one; really fresh, glistening mackerel is another; gorgeous jade-green, slightly squat Williams pears, with their promise of fragrant, sweet juice; dark aubergines, plump, glossy and black like beetle eyes. But probably my favourite is rhubarb. Spring rhubarb: bright, almost obscenely pink, poking out of my bag like sticks of rock. It's even better when the leaves are still attached: the contrasting bright green and pink is slightly mesmerising. I just love this vegetable, and am always looking for new ways to use it.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Duck sausage, red wine and radicchio risotto

I've been meaning to try a risotto with red wine for ages. Sometimes I find the pure white creaminess of a standard risotto a bit boring and monotonous, and was intrigued by the notion of bringing more flavour to it using red wine, as well as creating something dark and delicious. A white risotto goes well with delicate ingredients like seafood or chicken; for a red risotto, I wanted something more meaty. The butcher I normally visit had all sorts of sausages on display, which caught my eye because of their unusual ingredient combinations: pigeon and peach, pheasant and pear, guinea fowl and apricot, duck and mandarin. The pheasant and pear I've tried before, and they were delicious, so this time I went for the duck. I figured the gameyness of duck would go quite well in a sausage. I could have cooked them as they were, with mash, but the red wine risotto occurred to me and I decided to try them together.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Kumquat, vanilla and ginger cheesecake

For this week's Weekend Herb Blogging (hosted by Susan from The Well-Seasoned Cook), I've decided to further investigate the intriguing kumquat. I have eaten these little citrus beauties three times: first at Gordon Ramsay's York & Albany restaurant; next, I tried them in a sharp compote with venison, and last week I decided to explore their dessert potential. I find them curiously exciting: I think it's because you wouldn't think, from looking at their dimpled, waxy skins, that you could put one in your mouth whole and enjoy it. Yet you can: they have an astringent edge that ideally requires the mellowing effect of dairy, but they are certainly not unpleasant raw and unadulterated. I love finding a new ingredient and thinking of interesting and tasty ways to use it. Seeing as the kumquat is part of the citrus family, I started thinking about other flavours that go well with oranges and lemons. I came up with ginger, and also remembered the blood orange cheesecake I made a while ago. I decided that the tartness of the kumquats would work very well folded into a crumbly, sweet, creamy cheesecake.

Friday, 1 April 2011

For my inner home economist: ham hock terrine

It struck me as I was standing in the covered market a week ago. One minute I was standing there quite calmly; it was a lovely spring day, I was heading home for a much-needed month away from university, I'd just handed in the last of my term's work, and I decided to get something nice to take home for dinner. The next, I was gripped by it: food-shopping indecision. It's a condition that I find plaguing me on at least a weekly basis. Often when I've headed to the shops or the market with something specific in mind, and then suddenly I spy something quite different and exciting, and then dither for hours over what to do with it and what else I need to buy. Or, often worse, when I have no idea what to cook, am presented with several potential options, and can't settle on one. I'm generally a fairly indecisive person. It drives my boyfriend absolutely mad. Oddly, the more minor the decision, the more difficult I find it. Selecting a film, for example, or choosing between going for a walk in the morning or the afternoon. When you add food to the decision-making process, it's nigh impossible. I've been known to circle the covered market for almost half an hour, weighing up in my head the comparative merits of duck sausages versus pork tenderloin, or mussels versus red mullet. I realise this is deeply tragic, but I've heard that acceptance is the first step towards recovery. The result of this aforementioned indecision last week was a completely unexpected ham hock. Honestly, you may as well have crept up behind me in the street and placed a bag of ham hock in my hand. I have no idea what possessed me to buy it. I only know that it took me about twenty minutes to finally do so.