A friend of mine once asked me what ingredient I cook with the most (staples like salt and oil aside). I answered limes, but on reflection it could equally be raspberries. Having said that, I don’t tend to ‘cook with’ raspberries much: I prefer to eat them unadulterated, scattered over porridge or granola or with cubes of golden papaya or juicy ripe mango for dessert when I can’t quite justify eating loads of chocolate or crumble. I occasionally bake them into cakes: I love the way baking intensifies their sharp, almost grassy flavour, and the way they stew their rosy juice through the buttery crumb, perfuming it with that heady scent of summer. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the savoury uses of raspberries.Read More
There’s something rather magical about the pleasing and versatile word ‘glaze’. To coat porous pottery in a thick, impenetrable gloss that survives the trial-by-fire of the kiln is to glaze, combining aesthetics and ergonomics. To have one’s eyes glaze over suggests thoughts have slipped blissfully into the realm of reverie. Double-glazed windows reassure, promising warmth and comfort. Finally, there is my favourite, edible sense: to glaze food is to paint it with slick, concentrated flavour, to make it shine like a pot fresh from a kiln. It makes it glossy, inviting, shimmering with promise: think of a bountiful berry tart, multicoloured fruits nestling in a pillowy bed of pastry cream, their tops brushed and glinting with a sweet glaze of molten apricot jam; or a roast aubergine, its flesh collapsed into silken softness, smothered in a dark, umami-rich miso glaze.Read More
1. Southern Italian wine dinner at the Chequers Inn.
Last week I ventured out into the Yorkshire countryside on a snowy night to attend the first southern Italian wine dinner at the Chequers Inn, Bilton-in-Ainsty. This lovely, cosy pub is tucked away in a small village on the way to Wetherby and was offering a fabulous five-course menu complete with matching wines from the lesser-known southern regions of Italy. A platter of goat’s cheese fritters rescued us from the outside chill, along with delicate morsels of fig wrapped in parma ham and asparagus wrapped in leeks. Why have I never considered deep-frying balls of goat’s cheese before? They tasted like creamy, gooey clouds of joy.Read More
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I visited Oxford. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since finishing my Masters in 2011. The entire weekend was a glorious succession of sunshine, revisiting old haunts, catching up with friends, aching nostalgia, beautiful scenery and incredible food. While I diligently tried to return to as many of my favourite restaurants as possible, I also decided to try somewhere new. I’d read rave reviews on the internet of a place simply termed ‘Oli’s Thai’, and so we found ourselves tucked into this tiny restaurant on a sunny Saturday afternoon experiencing some of the best south east Asian food I’ve ever eaten…including that in south east Asia itself.Read More
When you hear the word ‘wine’, what images fill your imagination? Undulating hills, perhaps? Charming French campagne ? Rolling swathes of gnarled, creeping vines, festooned with plump and plentiful grapes? A plate of buttery escargots, or a giant, bloody steak frites? Perhaps a charming French market, oozing with ripe cheeses and pungent saucisson, sturdy twines of garlic, the scent of baking bread and some fragile, sugary patisserie?
You’re probably unlikely to think of tropical rain showers, shirt-sticking humidity, the fragrant perfume of bulging mangoes, sickly, pungent durian and glossy persimmons. Glowing paper lanterns, and the ever-present aroma of wispy incense fumes. The urgent cries of hawkers and the blaring of motorbike horns. The sizzling of hot woks and the grind of blenders crushing ripe tropical fruit and coconut cream to a chilled and ambrosial pulp. Searing tropical sun, so hot it melts the nail varnish on your toes. Sugar cane peppering the vistas of the lush and lime-coloured countryside. Palm trees. Chopsticks. Rice.Read More
I've started bookmarking recipes in new cookbooks as soon as I first read through them, to make it easier to find them later on. I take this a bit too seriously, having created a geeky colour scheme of page markers (blue for fish, green for vegetarian, pink for desserts, purple for meat...) to categorise the recipes. It's lucky I'm going back to university in October, really, isn't it?
This recipe was bookmarked immediately. Just the title had my mouth watering in anticipation.
Perhaps because it just rolls off the tongue in this incredibly sexy fashion. Perhaps because the word 'chocolate' is effortlessly inviting, conjuring up images of dark, sweet, melting goodness; of the voluptuous flow of a chocolate fountain or the warm, molten centre of a chocolate truffle. There's something beautiful about the word 'marsala', too, its soft sounds reminiscent of a seductive whisper, a romantic sigh, the letters curling around each other like slumbering lovers.
I've always been fascinated by cooking with chocolate. It's not a new concept; the Aztecs used it in this way before we Europeans got hold of the stuff and pumped it full of fat and sugar. You still find chocolate used as an ingredient in some savoury Mexican cooking. I've been experimenting with its deep, tannic richness recently, finding it a perfect partner for smoked duck, caramelised pears and goats cheese in this beautiful salad, though it's also commonly paired with venison. If you use good quality dark chocolate, it can add an intriguing complexity of flavour to a dish; a hint of bitterness, a touch of fragrance, a soft and melting mouthfeel.
The scent emanating from the pan as I stirred this heady mixture was intoxicating. The combination of spicy fennel, warm cinnamon and perfumed bay is unusual, wonderfully fragrant in a way that manages to be both sweet and savoury simultaneously. The pine nuts toast, offering up their nutty aroma, while the onions soften into translucent slivers.
To this you add a generous amount of marsala, or medium sherry (I went for the latter as marsala is pretty expensive). The duck legs sit in this sauce, covered, for around 45 minutes, braising gently away while infusing all of their meaty liquor into the sherry.
The finishing touch, once the duck is cooked, is to stir some dark chocolate into the sauce, where it melts and colours the whole thing a deep, dark brown. Being dark chocolate, it lends more of a bitterness than a sweetness to the mixture, which is already quite sweet from the alcohol, rounding off the complex mixture of spices, nuts and raisins. It also thickens the sauce, turning it glossy and unctuous. I stirred in a little parsley at the end, to lend its welcome freshness to the whole affair.
The recipe suggests no other accompaniment than plain couscous or wilted spinach, owing to the complexity of the flavours. I'd have to agree. I served my duck with bulgar wheat (slightly nuttier and chewier than couscous, so a good match for the strong sauce) and the suggested spinach, which worked perfectly.
I'm hoping I don't even need to tell you how unusual and delicious this dish is, because the title has already caught your eye, like it caught mine, and made you think "Right. I can go no longer without this in my life". It's just a fabulous combination of ingredients that work in total harmony. It's sweet yet bitter with cocoa, it bursts with juicy raisins and the crunch of toasted nuts, it melts in your mouth like chocolate. It doesn't overpower the rich flavour of the duck meat, instead complementing it perfectly and allowing its iron-rich gameyness to shine. It is incredibly rich, though, so a little sauce goes a long way. In future I might try it with pan-fried rare duck breasts, which are less intense in flavour than the legs.
I'm not going to give you a recipe, unfortunately, as I cooked the dish word-for-word from the Bocca cookbook, and I think it would probably infringe some kind of copyright to replicate it exactly on this blog. But do go out and buy Jacob Kennedy's excellent book; you'll find far more delights than just this gorgeous dish nestling in between its hallowed pages.
I think I may have been a salamander in a previous life, because I just love smoke.
Smoked anything. Anything, for me, is better if it's smoked. Buying bacon? I always go for smoked, even if a recipe specifically calls for unsmoked. Haddock? Smoke it, it makes it better. (Obviously by that I mean hang it up in a room over burning things to give it a unique aroma, rather than stick it in a pipe and inhale it). Smoked garlic has the most incredible rich scent, though I've always found that it mellows disappointingly if you cook it. If you've never tried smoked chicken, you don't know what you're missing. It's like eating barbecue chicken without having to actually barbecue it. Try it in this amazing smoked chicken and mango rice salad. When I don't want to splash out on smoked chicken, I go for mackerel instead. I love mackerel in all its forms, but particularly when it's scattered in firm, meaty flakes over a salad. Smoked trout is a lovely alternative, much more mild but still possessing the richness to accompany ingredients such as eggs or asparagus.
These are all fairly standard. What I particularly love is finding an unusual smoked ingredient. Smoked quail eggs are something I tried recently, and found utterly addictive and wonderful. There's something about the way the bittersweet tang of the smoke couples with the creaminess of the egg that makes for an incredible taste experience. I once found a jar of smoked roasted peppers in oil, which were sweet, slippery, smoky and delicious. In Italy I sampled smoked swordfish, sliced wafer thin and arranged in succulent, gossamer-like folds on a plate, drizzled with olive oil and tasting simultaneously of smoke and of the sea. I've been eyeing up smoked sardine fillets in the deli section of M&S for months, not quite able to bring myself to splash out on them (no pun intended) but knowing it's inevitable as I can't resist the allure of smoke.
Essentially, if I see 'smoked' before any ingredient, it's going in my mouth.
Smoked duck is a new and firm favourite. Fresh duck breasts are one of my all-time favourite ingredients, mainly because they're quick to cook, can partner with exotic fruity flavours (try this lovely smoked duck, fig and mozzarella salad, for example), and can be served pink and bloody.
I also think I might have been a T-Rex in a previous life, given my penchant for meat that is basically still moving.
You can sometimes find smoked duck sold pre-sliced, but in my opinion it's much better to buy a whole smoked duck breast and slice it yourself. It's fresher, sweeter, and more tasty. I'm lucky enough to find them at my butchers, but you can sometimes get them in good delis or supermarkets. The organic butcher in the Covered Market in Oxford (one of my favourite haunts when I was at university) sells whole smoked chickens vacuum-wrapped for about a fiver. These are a total bargain and there's nothing more satisfying and aromatic - or more oily - than sitting down with the whole bird and rampantly stripping chunks of succulent perfumed meat from its carcass. Memories like this make me miss Oxford the most. Not those of my friends or anything, they pale in comparison to a large hunk of smoked poultry.
I came up with this salad because I wanted to find a recipe to use this gorgeous chocolate and vanilla infused balsamic vinegar from the Gourmet Spice Company, whose blackberry and rosemary balsamic I wrote about recently. They're not asking me to write this, I should add - I just bloody love their flavoured balsamic vinegars.
Chocolate and vanilla...in balsamic vinegar? You may think it sounds mad. But then you obviously haven't dipped your finger (or a piece of bread, if we're being hygienic here) in this heavenly elixir and had a taste.
The richness of the cocoa is the perfect match for the deeply flavoured balsamic, which has a hint of dark sweetness anyway that is perfectly complemented by the flavour of cocoa. The hint of vanilla gives the whole thing a pleasantly light, fruity taste. It blurs the line between sweet and savoury in an unusual and delicious way.
I came up with this salad essentially by thinking of all the things that I know work well with chocolate, and putting them on a plate together. Pears and chocolate are one of the most heavenly combinations known to mankind. Nuts obviously work well too, particularly walnuts whose bitterness counteracts the sugar content. But would you ever have thought of duck and goat's cheese working with chocolate?
It's not too surprising; venison and chocolate is a well-known pairing, and duck has a similarly rich gamey flavour. Smoked duck has even more depth, and is so rich that it desperately needs something to stop it cloying; enter chocolate. Goat's cheese works amazingly well; something about its light tanginess is excellent against the darker, deeper aroma of cocoa.
I caramelised some sliced pears in a little butter and brown sugar. I mixed these with slices of smoked duck breast, a handful of rocket, crumbled walnuts, chunks of soft goat's cheese, and a generous drizzle of the chocolate and vanilla balsamic. I tried making a vinaigrette using rapeseed oil, as its flavour isn't too intrusive, but I found that the oil made the whole thing rather greasy and unpleasant, totally detracting from the flavour of the vinegar. This beautiful vinegar is sweet and mild enough that it doesn't need anything else; you can splash it, unadulterated, over your salad.
I was sceptical that all these ingredients would work in harmony, but I needn't have been. Instead, I was rewarded with one of the most invigorating, delicious and unusual salads I've ever made. There's a perfect marriage of textures - dense meat, soft tangy cheese, crunchy walnuts and juicy, grainy pear. There's a gorgeous relationship between all the individual flavours, which stand out on their own and combine beautifully with the chocolate and vanilla. The acidic, cocoa-rich bite of the vinegar prevents the combination being too rich or confused, bringing everything together.
Plus I think it looks beautiful, with all its different colours and textures. If you can't get hold of this vinegar (you can order it online), try using ordinary balsamic and warming it with some grated extra dark chocolate. I promise you, this is an incredible salad; you need to try it soon.
Smoked duck, goat cheese, pear and walnut salad with chocolate & vanilla balsamic (serves 2):
- 2 medium pears
- A knob of butter
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 1 large smoked duck breast, thinly sliced
- 150g soft, mild goat's cheese
- A large handful of walnuts, toasted if you like
- 75g rocket, spinach or watercress (or a mixture)
Chocolate & vanilla infused balsamic vinegar (or normal balsamic - you could grate in a little strong dark chocolate and warm it to get the flavour)
First, make the caramelised pears. Quarter the pears, cut out the core and slice lengthways into slices about 5mm thick. Heat the butter and sugar in a non-stick frying pan until bubbling, then add the pears. Cook over a high heat until caramelised on one side, then turn over and cook for another couple of minutes, until soft and golden.
Arrange the salad leaves between two plates. Arrange the slices of duck breast and pears on the plate, then scatter over chunks of goat's cheese and the toasted walnuts. Before serving, drizzle with the balsamic.
How utterly gorgeous are these little baby figs?
I found them in M&S months ago, but dismissed them as the kind of gimmicky, ludicrous, overpriced fruit that I generally tend to avoid, preferring to buy stuff that's in season and hasn't been shipped from halfway across the world (exceptions: pineapple, bananas, and Alphonso mangoes). They were something like £2.50 a box, which for some reason at the time seemed an inordinate amount of money to spend on just a handful of tiny fruits that would probably prove tasteless, fuzzy and disappointing.
Then I saw them again the other day, and thought...what? Two boxes for £3? Three pounds. That is, in the grand scheme of things, not a lot of money. I couldn't quite think why I hadn't just bought them before. Maybe because real, normal-sized figs were in season. Maybe because they seemed extravagant when I was still a student and not earning money. But now that I am, in fact, earning (some) money, they were just the treat I needed at the end of a long day.
Oh and I may also have just bought a pair of Russell & Bromley shoes...but let's focus on the figs. If only because they seem positively bargainous in comparison.
A fresh fig is just the thing for these grey sort-of-but-not-quite-Spring climes. If Hamlet were still alive, I venture he'd be saying 'The fig's the thing'. I just realise I wrote 'still alive', as if Hamlet were, in fact, once living and not the figment of Shakespeare's imagination. Hmmm.
Anyway, the fresh, sweet, crunchy bite of a fig is a welcome thing at the moment. As is its glorious dark pink flesh and perfect bulbous form. Even more so for being miniature - these baby figs are the perfect garnish to just about anything.
I've used them in a few recipes so far, but this one is definitely a highlight. I found some glorious smoked duck breast at the recent Feast East food festival in Cambridgeshire (more on other delights from there at a future date...), which again was something I'd usually dismiss as extravagantly expensive, but something about food festivals seems to turn me into an unabashed hedonist with an apparently limitless bank balance, so it was all OK. I bought it. Duck and figs are a classic and wonderful combination that I've worked with a few times, and adding a smoky element just makes it even better. This would have been lovely on its own, but I added some mozzarella. I'm not really sure why. I think my thought process went:
"Figs. Mmm, sweet. Good with creamy things. Like cheese. Ricotta cheese. Mmmm. But I always make a fig and ricotta salad. Need something similar. Milky and quite bland but still tasty. MmmmOZZARELLA. I love mozzarella. Haven't had it in ages. Would it go with duck? Hmm. I don't see why not. It goes with most cured meats, and that's basically what smoked duck is. Ooh I can't wait to tear apart that quivering globule of milky goodness."
Bear in mind this entire train of thought either occurred in the swimming pool or while negotiating Cambridge traffic on my bike. Unsure which. Neither are really appropriate, are they?
Now, I don't like salad without carbs. I don't mean dough sticks, Pizza-Express style. But something starchy and filling, otherwise there is just no point - I'll be hungry again in five minutes. For this element I tend to use either couscous, pearl barley, or lentils. Any of those would be great here, but I went for lentils - their earthy, knobbly texture is great with rich meats and also with sweet figs.
Puy lentils, cooked in chicken stock then tossed in a tangy mustardy dressing (I'm obsessed with mustard at the moment...I dress basically everything in mustard except myself), oodles of fresh lemon thyme (so great with figs), some rocket, those smoky slivers of tasty duck curled like ribbons on the plate, fat hunks of torn mozzarella sitting like little milky clouds and finally, those wonderful jewel-like baby figs.
I took this into work the next day and one of my colleagues peered over and said "Ooh, that looks very healthy. Are those lentils?"
I said "Yes - lentils, rocket, smoked duck, mozzarella and baby figs".
I could also have said, "Yes, I'm a massively middle class food snob, the kind that makes her own cheese and muesli and has six different types of flour in her larder, as well as a sourdough starter lurking in the airing cupboard."
Either, really. She replied, "Oh. I have last night's shepherd's pie."
So, if you happen to have some smoked duck and baby figs to hand, give this a go. It's a really delicious combination of flavours and textures, with the smoked duck the star followed closely by the adorable figlets. However, you could also use fresh duck breast, served pink and thinly sliced, or just something like Parma ham, or even bacon lardons. You could use fresh normal figs if in season, or replace with thin slices of pear or quince, or maybe grapes.
But I'd say, live dangerously. Go to M&S and buy a box of baby figs. They might make you smile. If they don't, try a pair of Russell & Bromley shoes.
I'm not going to post a recipe for this, because a) I don't really remember quantities and b) it's so easy that you could probably make it in your sleep. Though I wouldn't recommend that. Basically, you want to boil some lentils (around 80g per person) in chicken stock until tender but still nutty. Toss with a dressing made from 1-2 tsp Dijon mustard, 1 tsp balsamic vinegar, and 2 tbsp olive/rapeseed oil, and lots of salt, pepper and fresh thyme/lemon thyme leaves. Add a handful of rocket/rocket and spinach salad. Toss with strips of smoked duck, torn mozzarella, and halved baby figs. Eat.
Mallard is an underrated bird. It has several advantages over its farmed counterpart, duck. First of all, it takes a fraction of the time to cook. Roasting a duck will take you at least an hour or maybe two; mallard needs only about fifteen minutes in the oven, if that. Secondly, you can pretty much guarantee it's free range and has lived a good life, as with a lot of game. Thirdly, it's much lower in fat than duck but still delicious. And finally, it has a stronger, gamier, richer flavour than farmed duck, making it ideal for pairing with slightly more flavoursome, fruitier sauces.
One thing you must know: never, ever overcook a mallard. Like pigeon, this is a bird that has to be served dark, at most medium rare, and preferably oozing a little blood. You may find recipes suggesting you can pot roast or braise a mallard for hours to tenderise it: please don't. Sear it in a very hot pan, scorch it in a very hot oven, then serve it pink and delicious. Otherwise you may as well eat your own shoes.
The last time I cooked mallard, I served it with quince and a star anise sauce. Quince goes beautifully with mallard, as with duck, but this time I wanted to try a more classic flavour combination. Duck and orange is a bit retro, and something I've actually never tried, despite it being almost traditional. I figured I'd put a seasonal twist on this pairing by using Seville oranges.
The woman in the greengrocers looked earnestly at me when I bought my two wrinkled oranges. "You do know those are marmalade oranges, right?! They're not for eating!" I nodded, as if it was obvious. Apparently there had been several instances of customers complaining about these extraordinarily sour citrus specimens. I can't help but be amused by imagining the facial expression of someone who's just popped a segment of seville orange in their mouth.
Instead of making the traditional marmalade with these, I thought they'd be a lovely contrast to the gamey mallard. Mallard, marmalade, they sound quite similar. Although you probably wouldn't put duck on your morning toast. I've used Seville oranges once before, in a cake with almonds, which was lovely. They're not the most versatile of citrus fruits, unfortunately, being both hugely sour and also containing about a million pips per orange, but fortunately that suits this recipe well.
I made a light, sharp sauce with the oranges, rather like a jus, if you wanted to be all fancy and Mastercheffy about it. This involved blanching strips of orange zest in boiling water twice, to remove most of the bitterness, then making a kind of caramel with sugar and white wine vinegar. To this I added chicken stock and the juice of the two oranges. It looked rather like melted marmalade in the pan, with those gorgeous marigold strips of zest and its light, tawny colouring. I roasted the mallard in the oven, having seared it first in a pan, and served it with the sauce, some steamed cabbage, and celeriac mash.
This sharp sauce makes a wonderful contrast to the iron-rich meat of the mallard, which stays moist and delicious because of the fast roasting time. The mash soaks up all of the lovely sauce while the crunchy cabbage is a nice texture contrast and, obviously, good for you. You could make this sauce with any orange, though Seville and blood oranges are good because they're slightly sharper. It would also go well with normal duck, roasted until crispy, or pan-seared rare duck breasts.
A wild twist on an old classic; seasonal, comforting and delicious.
Roast mallard with Seville orange sauce (serves 2, with sauce left over):
- 2 Seville oranges (or any kind of orange - blood oranges are good)
- 3 tbsp caster sugar
- 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 400ml chicken stock
- Olive oil and a knob of butter
- Salt and pepper
- One oven-ready mallard
- A handful of fresh thyme
- Mash and greens, to serve
First peel the rind from the oranges using a potato peeler. Slice this into long thin strips. Boil for a couple of minutes in a pan of water, then drain and boil again. Set aside. Bring the sugar and vinegar to the boil in a small saucepan, lower the heat and cook until it has turned a light caramel colour. Add the stock and boil for 5 minutes or so until reduced by a third. Add the juice from the oranges along with the rind, and keep warm.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C (190C fan oven). Season the mallard with salt and pepper. Warm a glug of olive oil and the butter in a pan and sear the mallard on all sides over a high heat until the skin has browned. Put on an oven-proof dish and place in the oven for 12-15 minutes (for rare to medium rare). Remove, place on a board and cover with foil. Leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving with the sauce, some greens and mashed potato - garnish the plates with the thyme leaves.
Whenever I cook with nuts, I find myself thinking about which is my absolute favourite. I suppose in the same way I often wonder which meat or fish I would choose if I could only eat one for the rest of my life (I still ponder this question in moments of boredom, but I think it'd have to be lamb, for its sheer culinary versatility, and mackerel, again for the same reason). I can never reach a conclusion, though, I think because nuts have such diverse flavours and are suited to such a range of different culinary applications. Hazelnuts, to me, belong firmly in the realm of sweet things - desserts with chocolate or pears or bananas, for example. Then there are almonds, which are usually too bland to use in desserts but taste wonderful toasted and added to fragrant Middle Eastern or Indian dishes. Pistachios have a toasty gorgeousness that I love both with fruit - apricots in particular - but also with some meat dishes. I wouldn't normally cook with brazil nuts, but their grainy creaminess is wonderful in muesli.
Sometimes, though, I think the pecan is 'the one'.
Attractively shaped, easily crumbled (unlike almonds or hazelnuts, which are an absolute pain to attempt to chop without a food processor), the pecan possesses a richness that makes it interesting enough to stand up to strong flavours, both sweet and savoury. Pecans are wonderful with chocolate and bananas, for example, but also delicious in savoury dishes, as this amazing recipe proves.
I received Diana Henry's beautiful book Roast Figs, Sugar Snow for Christmas. I admit, I largely requested it on the strength of its title, without really looking at what it was about. Anyone who reads this blog will know I am a fiend for figs. When it arrived, I discovered it to be a book full of recipes from colder climates - "food to warm the soul", as its subtitle proclaims. What a brilliant idea, I thought - how has there not been such a book before? Having just returned from a week of skiing in the Alps, I recognised the familiar tartiflette and cheese fondue gracing its pages, as well as other dishes to be reserved for days of strenuous physical activity, such as an Austrian pasta creation that includes nearly a litre of sour cream. Might save that one for a time when I'm not still eating my way through the Christmas cake.
The book is beautiful, divided into chapters based on classic warming winter ingredients, like chestnuts, apples, quinces, smoked food, game, cream, pork and beans. I particularly liked the section on cranberries, where Diana bemoaned the fact that we reserve them for the Christmas sauce only, rather than making the most of their refreshing tart sweetness in recipes all year round. There's a recipe for a pecan and cranberry upside-down cake that I am dying to try.
However, one of the most intriguing recipes was this one - a wild rice salad with dried cranberries, toasted pecans, green beans, a maple-cider vinaigrette dressing, and sliced roast duck breast.
Fruit with meat?
Thinly sliced rare duck breast, barely seared in a hot pan?
All these things I love - it just had to be made.
This is a very simple dish to make - after cooking the rice (I used a mixture of basmati, red carmargue and wild rice, which you can buy from Waitrose and is delicious), you stir it together with dried cranberries (soaked in hot water to plump them up), toasted pecans, blanched green beans, chopped parsley, and the dressing.
The dressing is what really makes the dish - it was a complete revelation for me. I eat wild rice a lot, in salads, but I have never added a dressing. This simple elixir of maple syrup, vinegar, mustard and oil lifted the combination of ingredients to a totally different level. It coated the rice, giving it a gorgeous silky feel in the mouth, and it also provided a sort of salty-sweet flavour that brought all the other ingredients together perfectly.
It's honestly so hard to describe the incredible deliciousness of this salad. If you're sceptical about all those ingredients together, don't be. The nuttiness of the pecans and the wild rice is a perfect match for the sweet cranberries and gamey duck breast, and then you have the freshness of green beans and parsley and the tang of mustard to balance everything.
I can't wait to make this again. I could probably eat it every day for the rest of my life.
In which case, I might have to change my 'desert island' meat to duck.
Wild rice, toasted pecan and cranberry salad with rare duck breast (serves 4):
(Barely adapted from 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow' by Diana Henry)
- 50g dried cranberries
- 30g pecans
- 250g mixed wild and basmati/brown rice
- 500ml chicken stock
- Salt and pepper
- 3 large or 4 medium duck breasts, skin on
- 200g green beans, trimmed and halved
- 3 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- For the dressing:
- 1/2 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
- 1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/2 tbsp maple syrup
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp rapeseed oil
Cover the cranberries with boiling water and leave to plump up for 20 minutes or so. Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 200C. Toast the pecans in a dry frying pan, then let them cool before crumbling them roughly.
Put the rice in a pan and pour over the chicken stock. Put on a lid, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer for around 25 minutes, by which point the rice should have absorbed all the stock and be cooked but still with a slight bite (different rice mixed vary, so follow the packet instructions with regard to timings). Leave the lid on to keep it warm.
Make the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients. Season the duck breasts, then get a frying pan really hot and sear them, skin-side down first, in the pan until golden brown. Once browned, put them in an ovenproof dish and place in the oven for 5 minutes (this will give you rare meat - if you like it a bit more well done, allow 7-8 minutes). Remove, cover with foil and rest for 5 minutes.
Cook the beans in boiling water until just tender, then drain. Put the rice in a large mixing bowl and add the beans, cranberries, pecans, parsley, and the dressing. Toss it all together well and check the seasoning. Divide between four plates or bowls.
Slice the duck breasts thinly and arrange over the salad. Garnish with a little extra parsley and toasted pecans.
I'm starting to get a little bit cross with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He seems to have a knack for publishing pieces in the Guardian on topics that I have been on the cusp of writing about myself, or have already written. First it was the pig's cheeks. Obviously I was pleased that Hugh had helped to bring a highly underrated ingredient to the masses. But, dear readers, you saw it here first, on my blog, and here, in my article for lovefood. Then it was Hugh's charming little article on homemade cheese. Again, been there, done that (although I do concede that my efforts ended with ricotta and labneh, and I have not yet attempted homemade mozzarella).
While I understand that it must be difficult for Hugh, a mere nobody who has yet to make it in the world of cookery and food writing, to come up with original ideas week after week, I would really appreciate it if he would at least credit me in his weekly Guardian articles for the effervescing fountain of inspiration that I constantly provide.
I was similarly dismayed by his most recent articles. No sooner had I drafted a post about the beauty of figs than a similar piece pops up in the Guardian. Hugh's love for figs even seems, like mine, to border on the erotic, judging by the highly fetishised voyeuristic language he used to describe them ("provocatively, fleshily, immodestly sexy"). Like myself, he bemoaned the availability of decent ripe figs in England, owing to their stubborn resistance to transportation without turning to mulch. As in my last post about figs, he harked back to romantic holidays in the Med, where he would pluck ripe, ready and abundant figs off trees laden with fruit and gobble them greedily.
I was vexed, I admit, but I let it slide, as I have a rather ravishing fig, raspberry and hazelnut cake recipe up my sleeve to share with you all at a later date, which I'm sure would knock socks off Hugh's fig and almond tart. Besides, there were always the quinces.
Oh wait. What did I see the following week in that most austere of journalistic publications?
Oh well. They do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose.
What I found most interesting about Hugh's article on quinces last week was not the article itself, but the comments underneath (this seems to be the case with a lot of Guardian articles for me, especially the foodie ones - the middle-class outrage evinced by some of the commenters is utterly priceless and can make for very entertaining reading; I imagine they could devote a whole section on the 'First World Problems' website to them). Most of the comments underneath had one thing in common: they were lamenting the elusive nature of the humble quince.
I found this rather hard to comprehend. I seem to be overwhelmed by quinces at the moment. Every fruit stall in Cambridge market is selling them. They're mostly Turkish imports, but I picked up three home-grown specimens the other day. I try and buy a couple every time I go to the market, ensuring I always have a permanent stash should the mood for quinces arise. (Admittedly, quinces aren't something one cooks on impulse, as they can take hours to cook into sublime, perfumed softness).
However, I think I am just lucky that Cambridge has a decent fruit market. Quinces are, by and large, quite difficult to track down. Supermarkets don't tend to sell them, which I always find odd, because they keep incredibly well. I kept one in my fridge for nearly six months and it was still perfectly edible when I finally got round to stewing it for porridge. They also transport well, prone to none of the bruising of fruits like peaches and figs, which supermarkets still manage to sell in abundance.
A mystery, I think. Generally your best bet for quinces are greengrocers or Middle Eastern stores (though the latter in Cambridge has never, to my knowledge, stocked them). Maybe a nice greengrocer would be able to order some for you. Support your local greengrocer, readers; they're few and far between these days.
Judging by how many Guardian readers are unable to locate this excellent fruit in their vicinities, I think it'll be a while before quince becomes a mainstream ingredient. I know it's rather selfish of me, but I'm quite glad of this. I like that the quince still maintains a rather mysterious, elusive aura. It makes cooking with it so much more interesting, because few people are used to its delightful perfumed flavour and sweet, slightly grainy texture. It means that there are relatively few recipes around using quince, giving me the scope to be creative and invent my own, both sweet and savoury.
A couple of weeks ago I baked two whole quinces for a couple of hours. When they had turned crimson and soft, I sliced them in half and scooped out the core. I stuffed them with a mixture of lamb mince, onion, pine nuts and allspice, then baked them for half an hour or so until the stuffing was golden and oozing delicious lamb juices over the fruit. Perched atop a bed of saffron and coriander rice and drizzled with a tahini yoghurt sauce, they were utterly delicious, their intense sweetness balanced by the earthy lamb, nuts and saffron.
Hooked by the combination of meat and quinces, I wanted to try them with duck. This salad is something I came up with out of the blue (literally, actually - all my best recipes come to me while I'm swimming). It's a really simple combination of pan-fried duck breast, thinly sliced, with poached quince segments, on a bed of lentils and spinach and scattered with walnuts. It looks labour-intensive on the page (lots of ingredients) but it's actually really simple, just a matter of cooking and co-ordinating the various components. Most of the ingredients are herbs and spices.
I rubbed the duck with a mixture of ground cumin, coriander seed, paprika and olive oil before searing it on both sides in a very hot pan and cooking it briefly in the oven for medium rare meat. I wanted some nice pungent spices in there to counteract the sweetness of the quince, which they did perfectly. Cumin and coriander seemed just right, given the Middle Eastern origins of the quince, and they work really well with the sweet meat of duck. I absolutely love duck breast, but I don't eat it that often. There are few things more satisfying than using a really sharp knife to slice into a medium-rare duck breast, still pink and tender in the middle, whispering promises of juicy, flavoursome meat and a crisp, spice-rubbed skin. It's during moments like these that I feel most content and satisfied as a cook.
The quince I poached in a sugar syrup infused with star anise, cinnamon, lemon peel, lemon juice, bay leaf and black peppercorns. It renders the quince delightfully soft and fragrant, the flavour of the anise and the lemon juice preventing it from cloying, which quince has a tendency to do more than any other fruit. Any leftover quince is great eaten on porridge the next day, as I found out this morning. That's the beauty of this fruit - it can provide a supporting or even a starring role in sweet and savoury dishes alike.
This is a really delicious salad, full of interesting flavours. There are a lot of what I would call 'earthy' flavours in there - lentils, cumin, coriander, walnuts, spinach - to counteract the natural sweetness of the duck meat and the intense sweetness of the quince. The end result is flavoursome and satisfying but still quite light (did you know that duck breast, when you take the skin off, is actually leaner than chicken?). To make it lighter still, you could just serve the meat and quince on a bed of salad leaves or wilted spinach, but you might want to use more duck in that case (I allowed half a duck breast per person, but the duck breasts I bought from the butcher must have belonged to some kind of Godzilla duck because they were absolutely gigantic).
I fully expect Hugh to have an article on duck in the Guardian this weekend.
Spiced duck and quince salad (serves 4):
- 2 large or 4 small duck breasts, skin scored at 1 inch intervals
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp paprika
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2 small or 1 large quince, peeled, cored, and cut lengthways into eight
- 100g sugar
- 3 star anise
- 4 bay leaves
- Juice of half a lemon
- Four strips of lemon peel
- 10 black peppercorns
- Half a cinnamon stick
- 250g green or Puy lentils
- 1 chicken stock cube
- A few sprigs of lemon thyme (or normal thyme)
- 4 bay leaves
- A bag of baby spinach
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- A large handful of shelled walnuts (or pecans/hazelnuts)
Toast the cumin and coriander seeds in a dry frying pan until fragrant. Crush in a pestle and mortar with the paprika, then add 2 tbsp olive oil and a good grinding of salt and pepper to make a paste. Rub this over the duck breasts and set aside.
Place the sugar in a large saucepan with around 300ml water. Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the star anise, bay leaves, lemon juice, lemon peel, peppercorns and cinnamon stick, then add the quince slices. You may need to add a little more water to cover them. Bring to the boil, then cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for around 20-30 minutes until the quince is tender. Keep checking it every 10 minutes or so, as it can collapse into mush very quickly. When cooked, turn off the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, bring around 500ml water to the boil and add the chicken stock cube, a few thyme sprigs, and the bay leaves. Add the lentils and boil for about 25 minutes until tender but still with a little bit of bite. Drain and keep warm.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large frying pan until very hot, then add the duck, skin side down. Cook for a couple of minutes or until the fat starts to crisp up, then turn over and sear for a minute or so on the other side. Transfer the duck breasts to an ovenproof dish and cook for 4-6 minutes (for medium rare meat). When cooked, place on a chopping board and leave to rest, covered with foil, for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the spinach to the hot duck pan (drain away most of the fat). Cook until wilted, then add to the lentils. Add the balsamic vinegar and some seasoning, then stir together to mix well. Taste - you might want a little more vinegar or seasoning (the quince is very sweet, so it needs the tang of vinegar to balance it out).
When ready to serve, cut the quince segments into thin slices. Slice the duck breasts thinly. Arrange the lentils and spinach on four plates, then top with the quince and duck slices. Scatter with walnuts and a few thyme leaves, then serve.
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.
I do enjoy experimenting with risotto: it's one of those basic recipes where very little can go wrong. The basic components of a risotto - creamy rice, flavoursome stock, herbs, melting onion and garlic - are so good together that even if you put something completely weird in with them, it's bound to taste halfway decent. Another ingredient I've wanted to try for ages is red radicchio; it's a bitter leaf, a bit like chicory, and I thought it would work very well stirred into my risotto at the end: its sharpness is great at counteracting rich meats like pork or duck.
I cooked the sliced sausages in a pan first before adding the onions, coating them in the sausage fat, and proceeding as I normally would for a risotto, except instead of adding a glass of white wine, I used a glass of red. It turned the rice a lovely russet colour, which I contrasted with some beautiful leaves of my favourite herb, lemon thyme. The lemon note lifts what is otherwise quite a strongly-flavoured, rich dish.
Finally, I shredded the radicchio and stirred it into the almost-cooked risotto, allowing it to wilt in the heat and become slippery. It keeps a slight crunch, rather like the texture of steamed greens, which is a good addition to the soft uniformity of the risotto and the sausages. Sausage risotto works very well, whatever sausages you use: these weren't overly redolent of duck, but they had an interesting flavour and made for a lovely and rather unusual Italian dinner. I reckon venison sausages would work well too, or just your average pork variety. A spicy Italian type like luganega would also be good.
Sausage risotto with red wine and radicchio (serves 4):
- 6 good-quality sausages, of whatever variety you like
- Olive oil and butter
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 300g risotto rice
- One large glass red wine
- 1 litre chicken stock
- A few sprigs lemon thyme (or normal thyme)
- 1 head of radicchio, shredded
- Parmesan, to serve
Slice the sausages and roll the meat into little balls. Heat some oil in a large pan and fry the sausages until golden. Add the onions and garlic, and cook until softened. Add a knob of butter and melt.
Stir in the risotto rice, coating in the fat. Cook for a minute or so, then pour in the wine. Leave to bubble and reduce, then add a ladleful of hot stock. Wait until all the liquid has been absorbed, then add another ladleful, proceeding until the rice is soft with a little bite to it.
Check the seasoning, and stir in as much lemon thyme as you fancy (I like a lot of it, but I have a penchant for the stuff). Stir in the radicchio and leave to wilt. Add grated parmesan to taste, and serve.
Also, many thanks to my exceptional boyfriend and duck-eating companion for the beautiful photos.