There are few things sadder than a ‘chilli con carne’ done badly. Soggy mince; a sour, acidic tomato sauce; bullet-hard kidney beans straight from a can; the overpowering musk of cumin powder…this is a dish that is surprisingly easy to massacre. Perhaps it has something to do with being a student staple, much like its mince-sharing partner, spaghetti bolognese. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is often served, entirely unimaginatively, with a bland canvas of white rice. Or perhaps it’s because bad chilli con carne can be smothered in cheese and crammed into a burrito and thereby turned into something vaguely acceptable, so why bother perfecting the thing?Read More
In an exciting new development in my food writing career, I am now a regular contributor to the beautiful and ogle-worthy Appliances Online lifestyle blog, which features everything from recipes to crafts to ridiculously stylish home design ideas. I'll be contributing recipes twice a month and already have some pretty exciting and delicious things lined up, so watch this space. My first recipe originated from Easter leftovers, but it was so good I had to make it again as a dish in its own right. The result is a gorgeous salad of creamy white beans, charred courgettes, caramelised fennel and green beans, spiked with a feisty dressing of garlic, anchovy and lemon juice. Atop sits a beautiful pink, rare lamb chop. For the recipe and to read more, head over to my post on the blog here. Enjoy!
Spare a thought for the humble chicken breast. Often sliced from the frail bone of that saddest of spectacles, the battery chicken, this piece of meat is so often maligned. It's hacked up and tossed into curries and stews where its fibres are abandoned to toughness and aridity. It's baked in the oven, the noble cook erring so much on the side of caution, so much against the notion of juices running anything but crystal clear, that it ends up possessing the texture of leather. There it sits on the plate, a sad, withered relic of that former chicken, perhaps oozing an unpleasant looking substance as evidence that it has been injected with water during packaging and processing. No amount of flavoursome sauce is going to disguise the mouth-puckering dryness of this overcooked piece of meat; no amount of chewing is going to render it anything more than simply satisfactory.
I hardly ever buy chicken breast any more. The main reason for this is rather mundane: it's too damn expensive. Since I am unable to buy anything other than free range (my conscience won't let me, especially after my post on battery chickens), I just can't afford to buy it more than a couple of times a month. Two free range chicken breasts notched up an impressive seven pounds in Tesco the other day; I could get a whole chicken for not much more than that from a decent butcher.
I've also discovered thighs.
Oh yes, people. Sweet, succulent, rich, meaty thighs. (We're still talking about chicken here). Chicken thighs are my cut of choice for most dishes now. This is nothing new in the world of cookery, as writers like Nigella have been saying this for years, but I never really paid attention until recently. I'm a complete thigh convert: the meat is cheaper, much more flavoursome, less likely to dry out, and stands up more readily to spices and other strong flavourings. If you take the skin off, it doesn't have much more fat than chicken breast, which often seems the cut of choice for a lot of people because of its leanness. Thighs, skinless or otherwise, retain their moisture better than breast, making them much more suited to long cooking in a stew or curry.
However, there is still a place for the chicken breast in my kitchen. Because of its high price tag, I've decided it's almost sacrilegious to hack up the poor thing for use in stews and the like. Instead, I feel a good, free-range chicken breast should be cooked whole, as you would a steak.
Yet there is a problem with this idea. As discussed above, a whole chicken breast dries out very readily in a pan or oven. Poaching it in stock can help, and then you can thinly slice it and add it to dishes such as risotto or Asian recipes, but another way around this is to stuff the meat with something to keep it moist. Not that this always works, mind - I remember a dinner event a few months ago at which we were served chicken breast stuffed with (I think) ricotta and basil. Nice idea, but the execution failed. The meat was incredibly dry, no doubt because the caterers had cooked it to death to avoid any salmonella scares. The stuffing had also become rather arid, and most of it had leaked out of the meat thereby making its purpose redundant. I rarely leave food on my plate unless I don't like it, but I recall leaving half of mine simply because I couldn't be bothered to chew my way through the thing. I may as well have taken off my shoes and tried to eat them.
However, careful cooking and a good choice of stuffing can turn the chicken breast into a thing of joy to eat. I think I've happened, here, on the best possible choice of stuffing: 'nduja, the super-trendy spreadable Calabrian salami that I blogged about recently. I've been thinking of recipes to use up the large quantity in my fridge courtesy of Unearthed, and this came to me out of the blue.
Combined with creamy ricotta, the 'nduja makes an incredible stuffing. Its piquant chilli heat is tempered by the cheese, meaning you don't burn your tonsils off, and it melts in the heat of the oven, flavouring the chicken meat around it while keeping it lovely and moist. I decided to wrap the chicken in parma ham, which helps to conserve even more moisture. At first I was worried that it might be pork overload, but actually 'nduja and parma ham have such different flavours that they complement each other - you get the spicy, rich mouthfeel from the 'nduja and then the crisp saltiness of the parma ham, which is a lovely contrast in texture with the chicken. It just works. The meaty texture of the chicken breast against the crumbly ricotta, fragrant with chilli and pork, is a thing of joy to eat.
I also added lots of fresh oregano to the stuffing, which worked really well. I don't think I've ever seen fresh oregano on sale over here, but it's a world away from the dried stuff that is synonymous with pizza topping. It's hard to describe its flavour; quite zesty and lemony, and very strong. We have loads growing in our garden (it grows like a weed), but you could substitute basil or lemon thyme very effectively - you want something quite citrussy and strong to cut through the richness of the 'nduja and parma ham. Even parsley would do.
I served this magnificent chicken on a bed of cannellini beans, roasted cherry tomatoes and spinach, again flavoured with lots of fresh oregano, as well as garlic-infused olive oil, salt and pepper. This recipe is incredibly simple, as it all goes in one dish in the oven. It takes 10 minutes to prepare, around 40 to cook, and you can do other things (like salivate in anticipation, or ceremoniously don a bib in preparation) while you wait. The spinach, with its iron tang, is the perfect match for the rich chicken, and the tomatoes go very well with the herbs, ricotta and pork. You don't need a sauce or anything, because the tomatoes, 'nduja and spinach release a lot of flavoursome liquid into the beans.
I should warn you - when you get a sharp knife and pierce the chicken breast at the thickest part to check it is ready, remember that you've stuffed it with a load of bright red salami. I was horrified when I did this to discover scarlet liquid pouring out of the chicken after 30 minutes in the oven. How on earth could it be so bloody after all that time? It took me a good few seconds to realise that this was not, in fact, the precious lifeblood of that noble bird, but in fact the chilli-infused oils from the 'nduja. Panic over.
Chicken stuffed with 'nduja and wrapped in parma ham (serves 4):
[If you like this recipe, have a look at my other recipe featuring 'nduja: octopus, fennel and 'nduja risotto]
- 2 x 400g cans cannellini beans
- A large handful cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 4 tbsp fresh oregano leaves (or another herb of your choice)
- Half a bag of baby spinach (around 150g)
- 4 free-range chicken breasts
- 30g 'nduja
- 100g ricotta
- Salt and pepper
- 8 slices of parma ham
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/fan 170C. In a large baking dish, toss the cannellini beans with the garlic oil, cherry tomatoes, spinach, salt and pepper, and half the oregano.
Mix the rest of the oregano into the ricotta, along with salt and pepper. Slice each chicken breast lengthways, almost in half but not quite, to create a pocket for stuffing. Spread a quarter of the 'nduja into the gap, then a quarter of the ricotta. Place two slices of parma ham next to each other on a chopping board, slightly overlapping, then wrap the chicken in them. Place on top of the cannellini beans and spinach mixture.
Repeat with the remaining chicken, ricotta, ham and 'nduja. Season the wrapped chicken breasts, drizzle with a little more garlic oil, then place in the oven for 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked and opaque at its thickest part, and its juices run clear (it's quite hard to tell because of the red 'nduja stuffing, so err on the side of caution). Serve immediately on a bed of more baby spinach.
I am feeling slightly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of food-related treasure that keeps accumulating as the weather grows warmer and sunnier. First up was asparagus, appearing much earlier than usual, I'm sure, and enticing me to try more and more innovative ways of being able to tolerate the stuff (as mentioned previously, I'm generally not a fan, though this has changed recently). Then Jersey royals, widely lauded as some of the best potatoes money can buy, for their dense, waxy, nutty-flavoured flesh. Then the other day, I spotted a big box of samphire at the fishmongers. I was introduced to this 'poor man's asparagus' (what a joke - it sells for about five times the price of asparagus) by a chef I once worked for, and haven't sampled it since the days of peeling prawns and podding peas in his kitchen when I was seventeen. I figured it was high time to cook with it for myself.
This dish came about rather by accident. I initially had in mind an asparagus, boiled egg, Jersey royal and smoked salmon salad, having purchased a bundle of green spears on a whim and found some eggs in the fridge to use up. Then I spotted the samphire on the fishmonger's icy display, and nearby some lovely fresh sardine fillets. It brought to mind some stuffed sardines I recently tried at an Italian restaurant, which were wrapped in bacon and filled with a lemony breadcrumb mixture. The salad had to wait.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in 2007 referred to samphire as "a fiercely trendy vegetable you'll have to pay good money for". He isn't wrong - samphire retails in Oxford's market for about £13 a kilo. However, this actually works out as about £2 for enough samphire to feed two, which isn't too bank-breakingly lavish. Often compared to seaweed, it grows in muddy, sandy flats in tidal zones, and as a result has the most incredible taste of the sea: a satisfying salty tang, a delightful crunchy yet yielding texture, and a perfect affinity with fish, butter and lemon. It's almost rubbery, but with a bit of crunch to it. It's hard to find something to compare it to, but I suppose the texture is a bit like very thin runner beans. The taste is completely different, though; it has the moreish saltiness of an anchovy, but is much fresher.
I decided to use the samphire (I blanched it in boiling water for about a minute - you don't want to lose that lovely crunch) in a salad with some boiled asparagus spears, sliced Jersey royals, and the remainder of a packet of frozen broad and Edamame beans that I discovered lurking in the freezer. I put the warm, cooked vegetables in a bowl with some salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of garlic-infused olive oil, and some chopped dill. I had no idea how it would taste, but I figured it would be passable, at least. I wasn't quite prepared for the sheer deliciousness of this salad. I'm not sure if it's the delicate dill flavour or the garlic, but these ingredients work incredibly well together. It's probably due to all those different textures: soft, waxy potato; grainy beans; crunchy asparagus, and salty samphire. Needless to say, the salad alone would make a meal in itself, or would go very well with fish or chicken. You can't help but feel incredibly nourished as you tuck in, with all those beautiful shades of green, and the earthy potatoes complement it wonderfully.
For the sardines, I thought about replicating the breadcrumb stuffing from the Italian restaurant, but I feared it might turn into mush during cooking. Instead, I used bulgur wheat, which is rather like couscous but with larger, more irregularly-shaped grains. I soaked it in boiling water for half an hour to soften it, and then added lemon juice, finely chopped parsley and lemon zest, garlic oil, pine nuts, and lots of salt and pepper (the wheat can be very bland on its own, so needs judicious seasoning). There was something missing; I threw in a handful of raisins, and it was perfect. The garlic, lemon, parsley and pine nuts are all quite savoury and rich when combined with the wheat, and the little sweet nuggets of raisin are just the right thing to tie it all together. Also, raisins work incredibly well with sardines, as in the famous Sicilian pasta dish featuring saffron, raisins, fennel and pine nuts. It's because the flesh of the oily fish is so rich; you need sweetness to cut through it.
I simply made a sort of sardine sandwich using the stuffing as a filling. To keep the sardines together and stop the sandwiches falling apart during cooking, I had the inspired (I think) idea of using asparagus 'ribbons' to tie them together. I cut strips off an asparagus stalk using a potato peeler, and wrapped them around the sardines. Not only is this practical, it also looks beautiful. I was rather impressed with myself after I'd lined them up neatly in a baking dish. They went in the oven at 180C for about eight minutes. This is the kind of dish that never fails to impress people: it looks like you've spent ages painstakingly stuffing and wrapping each sardine, when in actual fact it takes about ten minutes, maximum, to achieve. The flavours of the stuffing are also quite unusual, and make for a great contrast against the oily fish. It's also a good dish to cook at this time of year, because a lot of my friends are about to sit their Finals, so the more brain food and omega-3 oils, the better!
I really love this dish, especially because it tasted even better than I imagined it would in my head. The sardines are rich and meaty, complemented by their lemony, herby stuffing, and the salad is fresh and crunchy, the perfect accompaniment. The samphire gives an unusual dimension to the flavours, providing a salty, savoury element that goes so well with the rich fish. This is the perfect thing to cook for early summer, when it's not warm enough to eat just salad, and you want something vibrant and flavoursome. It combines most of the ingredients I love about this time of year in a way that emphasises their individual qualities, and I'm very glad to have been reunited with samphire, which I predict will become a bit of an obsession while its short season endures.
Stuffed sardines with samphire, asparagus and Jersey royals (serves 2):
- 12 sardine fillets
- 100g bulgur wheat, soaked in boiling water for 30 minutes and drained
- 2 tbsp raisins
- 2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
- 4 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, very finely chopped
- Zest of 1 lemon, very finely chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- One bundle of asparagus spears
- 100g samphire
- 4 Jersey royal potatoes
- 200g fresh or frozen broad beans, or frozen broad bean and edamame bean mix
- 2 tbsp finely chopped dill
First, boil the potatoes until tender and set aside. Pre-heat the oven to 180C and oil a baking dish or tray, or line with baking parchment.
Mix the wheat with the raisins, pine nuts, parsley, lemon zest, half the lemon juice, half the garlic oil, and liberal amounts of salt and pepper, to taste - add more raisins/pine nuts/lemon if you think it needs it. Lay the sardine fillets out on a chopping board, flesh side up, and cover half of them in the stuffing mix. Lay the other fillets on top.
Use a potato peeler to peel strips off one of the asparagus spears, and gently wrap around each sardine sandwich. (You can skip this bit if you can't be bothered - it isn't essential).
Place the fish in the baking tray or dish and bake for about 8-10 minutes, until opaque and flaky.
Slice the potatoes and place in a large bowl. Boil the asparagus and broad beans for about 3 minutes until almost tender, then add the samphire and cook for another minute. Drain and add to the potatoes. While still hot, toss with the dill, the rest of the garlic oil and lemon juice, and salt and pepper.
Serve the sardines with the salad alongside, and lemon wedges for squeezing over.