I love those cooking methods that carry with them the element of surprise. Those techniques whereby you put some things together, go away for a while as they cook, then return to find your humble array of ingredients utterly transformed into a coherent mass of deliciousness, completely unlike the medley of things you began with. Stews are a classic example of this - throw a load of meat and veg together and add liquid. You begin with chunks of protein and vegetables floating in an insipid, watery broth, perhaps with a bundle of herbs floating here and there. You end with a dark, unctuous mass of sticky deliciousness, with deep golden tender vegetables, rich tender meat encased in a thick, glossy sauce, and the most delectable aroma.
Another example is the roasting of meat or vegetables. A chicken as it goes into the oven is not generally a pretty sight. Pale, flabby, stuffed to the rafters with various things, its skin bulging unappetisingly (in that way I think it perhaps resembles most of us during an English winter), a pre-roast chicken is best shoved into the oven pronto. Check back ninety minutes later, however, and you will feast your eyes upon the most miraculously transformed fowl, suddenly dark, crispy, exuding delicious juices with succulent, tender flesh. The same goes for a pork joint, into whose thick squidgy layer of fat you have rubbed salt and rosemary. Again pale and flabby, take it out a few hours later and you'll be greeted with the sight of burnished, bubbling crackling, a world away from the waxy fatty exterior of hours ago.
Roasted vegetables, too - shove a tray into the oven containing a mass of tough, unyielding vegetable flesh, rainbow coloured and shiny. Return forty minutes later to find a sticky, tangled mass of deliciously sweet morsels, bearing a slightly smoky flavour and with gorgeous caramelised edges. The same goes for biscuits: in a matter of minutes, pale chunks of dough spread out and turn golden, promising buttery crunchiness with every bite. And anything onto which you sprinkle a liberal amount of cheese; nothing better than pulling it from the oven to find it bubbling and molten.
Perhaps the ultimate cooking method for surprise is the en papillote, or parcel, method. The premise is simple: put your ingredient in a parcel of foil or baking parchment, wrap it up tightly but with enough room for it to steam, put it in the oven and allow it to totally transform, hidden from view. It works for a variety of ingredients, particularly those prone to dryness, like lean meat or fish. Chicken breasts and white fish baked in a parcel, along with a splash of white wine and some aromatic herbs, are wonderful. I like to stuff a whole rainbow trout with lemon slices and shaved fennel, then bake it in a foil parcel with a splash of white wine, some bay leaves and some sprigs of thyme. Chicken breasts are good baked with white wine, mushrooms, bacon and herbs.
It's a wonderful feeling, throwing a few things in a foil parcel, sealing it up, letting it cook away while you have no clue what's going on inside, then opening the parcel (in a childish moment reminiscent of a birthday or Christmas) to find your ingredients totally transformed into one harmonious beautiful thing. You can't peek halfway through - that would ruin the process. It's all about the surprise at the end. So simple, yet so rewarding.
The beauty of the parcel method is that it traps all the moisture (or it does provided you seal the parcel correctly). By leaving a small gap, you allow the steam created by whatever liquid you put in your parcel to circulate, effectively steaming the contained ingredients. The result is very moist meat or fish, plus lots of delicious cooking juices which haven't been allowed to evaporate.
The method also works with sweet things, particularly stone fruits. We're often unlucky with our stone fruits in this country for most of the year - imported varieties can be deceptive, their bright glossy or downy exteriors promising sweet and tender flesh and more often delivering something reminiscent of cotton wool (the exception being British-grown greengages and plums in early autumn, which are wonderful). Slicing them and baking them in a parcel with a splash of liquid somehow concentrates all the flavour, causing them to collapse slightly into sweet, jammy goodness.
For my second recipe for Thomson Al Fresco, who asked me to suggest healthy recipe ideas that can be cooked while camping, I've been inspired by France (last week was Spain - you can see my recipe for tomato, chorizo and chickpea stew here). If you're camping in France you're quite likely to be in the south, which produces some wonderful apricots (in fact, a lot of our imported apricots in the summer are from France). While you should of course take advantage of this and enjoy eating them raw, preferably warmed briefly in the Provençal sun, should you end up with a few that aren't quite perfect enough to consume unadulterated, you can give them this miraculous treatment.
Put the apricots on a large sheet of greaseproof paper or baking parchment. Wrap this in foil, to form a cup shape. Pour in a good glug of white wine, sprinkle over some brown sugar, then add some aromatics - I used cloves and star anise. Seal up the foil, then cook - if you're camping, you will of course do this over a campfire. If you're me, you'll do it in your brand new oven.
Parcel-wrapped food is perfect for campfire cooking. The flames imbue the ingredients with a slight smokey flavour, while transforming them as described above. Cooking fruit over a campfire (or barbecue) is particularly good, as you can do it once you've cooked your main meal and the flames are dying down. Dessert (at least, the home-cooked variety) is something you often miss out on while cooking during camping, but with this simple recipe it needn't be. You can enjoy the bountiful fruit of summer, rendered even more delicious by being wrapped up in foil or parchment for a while.
The best part is that you can adapt the recipe depending on what ingredients you have. Use other fruit, like plums or peaches, or even apples, pears or figs. Use water or orange juice, or maybe some dessert wine, instead of the white wine. Use different herbs or spices (or none - it will still taste great): vanilla pods, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves all work well, or even a sprig of rosemary or thyme for a lovely herbal fragrance. If you don't have baking parchment, just wrap the fruit in foil - the parchment just helps to stop it sticking in the crevices of the scrunched foil. If you only have baking parchment, use two layers of this to make a sort of bag around the apricots, tied with string round the top.
This could be a wonderful camping dessert, served warm with some ice cream (or creme fraiche, to continue the French theme). It would also make an excellent camping breakfast, served with some yoghurt or muesli. It can be eaten warm or cold. It's obviously pretty healthy, being mostly fruit. And it makes use of some delicious local produce.
Plus, for very little effort you get the childish joy of unwrapping a parcel to find your dessert waiting for you, rich and golden and smelling of summer and sugar and spices. If that isn't enough to make sleeping in a tent worthwhile, I don't know what is.
Apricots baked in a parcel (serves 2):
6-8 apricots, halved and stone removed
100ml white wine
3 tbsp brown sugar
2 star anise
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (if not using a campfire/barbecue!)
Tightly fold the foil over to seal the parcel, then bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until the fruit has started to collapse (if it's still a bit firm, re-seal the parcel then bake for a bit longer). Remove and serve warm or cold, as dessert (with some creme fraiche or ice cream) or for breakfast (with yoghurt, muesli or porridge, or just from a bowl with a spoon).