Gluten-free Challenge: Day Three

Today has been the perfect day for avoiding gluten. After the dismal monsoons of the last couple of months, Cambridge has suddenly been blessed with sunshine. Not just any sunshine; this sunshine has returned with a vengeance, angry at being barred by miserable and threatening clouds for weeks on end  and ready to show the citizens of this humble town what it's made of. With the result that the weather is swelteringly hot, and therefore it's completely impossible to entertain the notion of eating very much at all. It's definitely not a day to be craving a huge, freshly baked loaf of gluten-packed bread.

I had breakfast before it got properly hot, though, so my usual bowl of porridge didn't seem out of place. To be fair, I still eat porridge even in the height of summer, because it's delicious and the perfect blanket for all that ripe and ready summer fruit around at the moment. I still had some rhubarb left over from yesterday, so I had that on top with a large handful of raspberries and blueberries, both of which go deliciously well with rhubarb.

For lunch, I decided to try out some gluten-free pasta. In a pasta salad, though, to be eaten just warm or cold, rather than a hot, steaming plate of carbs. They are not the thing when you are hot and steaming yourself. I was intrigued to see if it tasted any different to normal pasta, being made with maize and rice flour instead of standard flour. It certainly looked the same in the packet.

I wanted a vaguely creamy sauce for my pasta salad, something with a generous kick of mustard to spice it up when eaten cold from the fridge. I get very specific cravings when it comes to pasta, you see. Then I needed some protein to bulk it out. Chicken, tuna or smoked mackerel would have been wonderful, but there was some smoked trout on offer in Waitrose, so I decided to use that. I also wanted a lot of nice green veg, for a bit of contrast and to make it a vaguely healthy option. Peas and broad beans work well in pasta salads, and go very well with trout. Finally, I added a couple of chopped hard-boiled eggs. I don't know if this is weird or not. I love eggs with smoked fish, but I don't know if that's a normal thing. But hey, it's my salad, so in they went. Plus eggs are good for you.

To this I added a dressing made with cream cheese, creme fraiche, lemon juice, salt and pepper, a huge amount of lemon thyme leaves (my favourite herb, and delicious with fish and anything creamy) and two heaped teaspoons of mustard. Not just any mustard - Tracklements horseradish mustard, from back in July last year when I went on an exciting tour of their mustard factory and received enough free mustard to last several years (literally - I've only used two jars out of six, and that's taken me an entire twelve months). Horseradish is normally perceived as solely reserved for beef, but actually it partners very well with rich smoked fish, particularly trout and mackerel.

Incidentally, I received a very nice email from Becky at Tracklements today, who informs me that all their products (apart from the Fruity Brown Sauce and the Beer Mustard) are gluten-free, and recommends stirring one of their chutneys into a bowl of quinoa or carmargue rice, adding some leftover chicken or lamb and some sultanas, and digging in for a wonderful gluten-free plateful. That's definitely something I'll have to try.

The result of my pasta experiment was a deliciously comforting plateful full of fresh flavours - crunchy, slightly bitter broad beans, sweet peas, the rich trout and eggs, plus the zingy lemony dressing that manages to be creamy and soothing yet sharp and exciting at the same time.

But I know what you really want to know is: does gluten-free pasta taste the same as normal pasta?

Yes! Yes it does! I have to admit I couldn't tell the difference at all while eating it. Perhaps if you ate it dressed with nothing more than good olive oil and seasoning, and were a connoisseur, you might be sharp enough to spot the difference, but I really didn't notice, and seeing as I usually like my pasta laden with other lovely things, it's certainly good enough for me.

Great news for gluten-free dieters everywhere.

To celebrate, here's a jaunty little video of me making the pasta salad.

After a banana, tea and medjool date snack (a repeat of yesterday), I went to my usual Tuesday kickboxing class. I noticed a huge improvement in my energy levels from last week, when I could barely lift my arms and legs and just felt horribly sluggish. This time I was bursting with energy and had a really great class. I don't know if it's the gluten-free diet or just coincidence, but I've certainly noticed only positive effects so far. It was doubly surprising given I spent most of today asleep in the sun, which isn't exactly great for boosting energy levels.

For dinner, I made a wonderful salad which I will be giving a proper dedicated post soon in the future, because it was just that good. Suffice to say that my mum had a few bites, then said: "If this is what being gluten-free is like, then I'm all for it."

It's a salad of smoked prosciutto, feta cheese, grilled peaches, green beans and rocket. Sounds an unlikely combination, but tastes like summer on a plate and is utterly wonderful. A perfect example of how a gluten-free diet can lead to the most imaginative and delicious recipe creations.

Creamy smoked trout pasta salad (serves 3-4):

250g short pasta shapes, gluten-free if necessary (I used fusilli)
2 large eggs, at room temperature (so they don't crack when boiling)
A large handful each of frozen peas and broad beans
150g light cream cheese
1 heaped tbsp creme fraiche
2 tsp wholegrain mustard
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and black pepper
A few sprigs lemon thyme
2 tsp olive oil
125g smoked trout fillets
Fresh herbs, to serve (optional)

Put the pasta on to cook in a large pot of boiling salted water, adding the eggs to the water. After 6 minutes, remove the eggs and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Add the peas and broad beans to the pasta, wait for the water to come back to the boil, then cook for 3-4 minutes (make sure the pasta doesn't overcook; this timing should end up with it just right). Peel and dice the eggs and set aside.

Mix together the cream cheese, creme fraiche, mustard, lemon juice, a generous amount of pepper and the leaves of the lemon thyme sprigs in a small bowl. Taste and check the seasoning - it should be quite sharp and lemony.

When the pasta and peas/beans are cooked, drain them, reserving a small cup of cooking water. Return them to their pan, then add the cream sauce. Stir together well, adding the olive oil and a little of the cooking water to loosen the sauce if necessary, then flake the trout into the pasta and stir again. Check the seasoning - you might want more lemon juice or mustard. Add the chopped eggs and stir together again. Serve hot or cold, sprinkled with fresh herbs, if you like (dill, basil, parsley and lemon thyme all work well).

Five things I love this week

1. This beautiful teapot from ProCook. It's made of glass with a little stainless steel mesh basket inside for the tea, and a polished steel lid. The idea is that you can let your tea brew to your preferred strength just by looking at it - it's always hard to tell in a china teapot how strong it is. This little pot probably holds enough tea for two people. It's small but perfectly formed, a simple design but one that looks rather stylish on the table. You can buy it here for £12, or there's a brushed steel version if you're not sure about glass and tea. I personally don't go in for those fancy tea glasses you can buy. To me, tea should be taken in a cup or a mug. It's not juice. However, I'm perfectly willing to accept a glass teapot when it's as pretty as this one.

2. A wonderful barbecue chicken marinade adapted from delicious magazine. Take 8-10 free-range boneless skinless chicken thighs, and marinate for up to 12 hours in: 300ml yoghurt, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, 4 crushed garlic cloves, 5cm piece grated ginger, zest and juice of 1 lime, half a red chilli finely chopped, 2 tbsp ground almonds, and a finely chopped bunch of coriander. Barbecue or grill for around 40 minutes until cooked all the way through (I did mine for about 20 minutes on the barbecue and finished off in an oven at 180C for about 20 minutes).

Last night we had our first, and last, barbecue of the year in my house. My family don’t really do barbecues. Even in the days where we did, the process from start to finish, from taking the barbecue out of the shed to wiping the last smear of charcoal-encrusted sausage skin from our chins, would take approximately four hours, and only about five per cent of the cooking would actually take place on the barbecue, the rest relying on the trusty oven to banish all those nasty food poisoning bugs. However, given that we have been blessed with this much-lauded 'Indian summer', I figured it was time to seize the day and see off summer in style before the grey, drizzle and general feeling of dismay set in. I made the above marinade for the chicken, found some beefburgers in the freezer, and grilled some corn on the cob and aubergine slices which I drizzled with tahini yoghurt and scattered with pomegranate seeds. The highlight was the chicken, though.

I normally think marinades are a bit of a disappointing con, that they rarely add much flavour and just tend to evaporate away during cooking. You dutifully put your meat in its marinade early on in the morning, or late at night, and spend the next twelve or so hours anticipating the flavoursome delights of your marinaded meal, only to find that you needn't have bothered, really - there's perhaps a slight hint of garlic and lemon, but you'd have been better off adding the garlic and lemon to the cooked meat. Not so with this marinade - it was utterly divine. There was a lovely tang from the lime, a mellow creaminess from the yoghurt, and a delicious hint of the exotic from the cumin. It reminded me a bit of tandoori chicken, only all the better for having a delightful barbecued exterior.

Admittedly, it's a bit late to be telling you about this now as barbecue season is likely to be over, but save it for next summer. Or just brave the weather/use a grill.

3. Local apples. We've all been there, standing in the fruit aisle at the supermarket, surveying the vast choice of apples in front of us. Braeburn, cox, granny smith, royal gala, golden delicious, jazz. We briefly consider, in a fit of patriotism, the home-grown coxes. We toy with the idea of the British braeburns. And then what do we do? We reach for the expensive bag of foreign, imported Pink Lady apples, because we know they're always going to taste nice - there's no risk of getting a horrible floury texture as can be the case with our own country's offerings. I'm guilty of it too, at times - there's nothing worse than a mushy apple.

However, I've been inspired by all the different varieties appearing at the market stall as summer turns into autumn. First there were the crisp, pink-fleshed Discovery apples. Next the Coxes with their delightful citrus tang. Now there are the Russets, whose flavour is hard to describe - more mellow than some of the tarter varieties, with a lovely crisp texture and beautiful golden skin. Not only are they tasty, they're also incredibly cheap, and come in all shapes and sizes; a far cry from the polished, picture-perfect supermarket specimens. Goodness knows how many were thrown out as 'imperfect'. If you have access to some local apples, I'd suggest you try them - you might be pleasantly surprised. It doesn't hurt to break out of the Pink Lady rut every now and again (and it'll save you money).

4. Orzo pasta. One of those ingredients I've read about and been intrigued by, but have never been able to track down. Clearly I was just being blind, because I found it in Waitrose. It's rice-shaped pasta, ideal for a quicker version of risotto, or for salads. I first ate it in my favourite restaurant in Oxford - Moya - which serves Eastern European cuisine. They have a brilliant salad on the menu with prawns, orzo, and dried cherries. It sounds odd but it's really delicious, with a lovely vinaigrette dressing that holds the whole thing together. I've made a delicious salad with the orzo that I'll be sharing at a later date.

5. Bill Granger's Everyday Asian. I wasn't particularly interested in this cookbook when I first heard about it. Every time I try and cook Asian food (we're talking Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese here - I can manage Indian and Middle Eastern), it ends up disappointing. I can't quite put my finger on why, but it always ends up more bland than I expect, or the noodles stick together horribly, or the sauce isn't quite right. However, out of sheer lack of inspiration I turned to one of Bill's recipes that had been published in a magazine - for sweet chilli stir-fried pork. It was a great success. I tried another - soy and sugar glazed salmon with cucumber salad. Fantastic - like teriyaki but slightly sweeter, the tangy glaze a wonderful match for the moist, rich salmon.

Maybe this book does do exactly what it says on the tin, I thought - turns Asian food into something you can easily enjoy every day. No completely wacky and unsourcable ingredients, no strenuous preparation methods, just brilliant, bold, vibrant flavours. The book was a bargain on Amazon, so I couldn't resist. I'd urge you to buy it just for the absolutely stunning photography, though the recipes themselves are mouthwateringly delicious - I went through and stuck bits of paper in all the 'must-try' dishes, and ended up bookmarking nearly everything. I can't wait to try the rare beef noodle soup with star anise, or the stir-fried butternut squash, or the lemongrass chicken, to name but a few.

Smoked fish and quail egg ravioli

I've had quite a few moments of late where I've one way or another stumbled upon a recipe idea or concept that is either so simple or so brilliant that I find myself amazed it had never occurred to me before. Tonight I went to La Cucina, one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Oxford, and on the specials board they had stuffed sardines wrapped in pancetta. So simple, yet so delicious-sounding, and something I can't wait to try. Another such moment occurred on an episode of Raymond Blanc's latest TV series. He made a stunning pasta dish featuring ravioli filled with spinach and quail eggs; the eggs were briefly poached before being encased in the pasta, meaning that they were still liquid when cooked. I remember the camera lingering lovingly on a shot where the knife cut through the beautiful pillowy pasta to reveal flowing golden egg yolk, encased in a nest of greenery, and I wondered why on earth that had never occurred to me before. Who doesn't love slicing into the tender yolk of an egg to reveal its molten core? Surround it with a thin film of carbohydrate, and you have food heaven.

This dish had been on my mental 'to make' list for a while, and the other day I had an enormous craving for ravioli. Sometimes nothing will do, except those beautiful plump parcels piled in a steaming mountain on a plate and drizzled with a buttery, creamy sauce. I thought about making Raymond's recipe, but couldn't really be bothered to create all the different garnishes he serves with it; sauteed mushrooms, beurre noisette... Whilst the taste of ravioli served with nothing but melted butter and herbs is sublime, my waistline will unfortunately not survive such things on a regular basis. I wanted to make ravioli that could survive being served with some sort of sauce, without losing its delicate flavour; spinach and eggs are too subtle to risk overpowering with a tomato or other non-buttery sauce.

I've no idea where the idea for this recipe came from. I was on the train, and it literally popped into my head. I feel this is a good sign: J.K. Rowling said the inspiration for the Harry Potter series popped into her head in the same way, also while she was on a train, so I must be on the right track for future fame and culinary stardom. Right?

I won't claim that pairing smoked fish with eggs is a culinary revelation, because it isn't, but I am quite proud of the flavours in this ravioli. For the fish filling, I mixed flaked smoked fish (Vietnamese river cobbler, because it was on offer in the supermarket, but you could also use haddock) poached in milk with ricotta cheese, grated parmesan, salt, pepper, chives, a few fresh thyme leaves, and some grated nutmeg. The parmesan is great for accentuating the smoky, savoury richness of the fish, while the ricotta lightens it as well as binding it all together. Some lemon thyme would be excellent, but I only had normal thyme, which works too; its fragrance cuts through the richness of the filling.

The tricky part involved the quail eggs. I'm not brilliant at poaching eggs - they turn into watery ghosts more often than not - and seeing as quail eggs are so tiny I was sure I'd fail miserably. Actually, they came out perfectly, which pleased me immensely. I just added a little vinegar to simmering water, dropped them in (cracking them is not as easy as a hen's egg - you end up having to pierce the membrane under the shell with your nail), and removed them about 30 seconds later with a slotted spoon. I left them to drain on kitchen paper before placing them atop a spoonful of fish mixture on a square of pasta. It was a bit fiddly, but went much better than expected. I was worried they'd break when I tried to seal the pasta around them, but had no problems.

Unfortunately, seeing as quail eggs are so small, in order to poach them enough to be able to handle them, you have to almost cook them completely. This means that by the time the ravioli has cooked in its boiling water, the egg will be hard rather than soft boiled. I'm not sure how Raymond managed to get his to ooze luscious yolk all over the plate, and I'm a bit jealous, but to me it didn't matter that much. You still have the wow factor of cutting into each raviolo to reveal a beautiful little egg yolk, and the combination of crumbly, creamy yolk with the smoky fish filling is wonderful.

I deliberated for a while about what to serve these with, and in the end chose spinach - another classic partner for smoked fish and eggs. I found some leeks in the fridge, so decided to use those too. I just sauteed them in a little olive oil until soft and wilting, and then stirred in some seasoning, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some creme fraiche. The latter helped bring the whole mixture together to form a gorgeous, creamy green sauce. I piled it onto plates and arranged the ravioli over the top.

I am pretty proud of this recipe. The creamy greens provide just enough moisture to go with the ravioli, but aren't strong enough to overpower the subtle egg and fish mixture. It's a perfect harmony of flavours, and a very luxurious-tasting dish that still remains quite light. A bit fiddly, perhaps, but actually easier than you'd expect, given the delicious results. Thank you, Raymond, for the excellent inspiration.

Smoked fish and quail egg ravioli (serves 2):

140g plain flour
1 whole egg and 1 yolk
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt

150g ricotta cheese
1 fillet (about 200-300g) smoked fish
300ml milk
Salt and pepper
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
3 tbsp grated parmesan
A few lemon thyme or normal thyme leaves
2 tbsp finely chopped chives
12 quail eggs
1 tsp white wine vinegar
Squeeze of lemon juice

2 leeks, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
300g spinach leaves
3 tbsp creme fraiche

First, make the pasta dough. Combine the flour, egg and egg yolk, olive oil and salt in a food processor and then knead to a firm and not sticky dough. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for up to an hour.

To make the fish filling, poach the fish in the milk until cooked. Flake into a bowl, then add the ricotta, seasoning, nutmeg, lemon, parmesan, thyme, and chives. Mix together until you have a paste.

Poach the quail eggs in simmering water to which you have added the vinegar. Cook them for just long enough that you can remove them from the water with a slotted spoon. Leave to dry on kitchen paper.

Roll out the pasta using a pasta machine, and cut into evenly sized squares. Place a teaspoon of fish mixture in the centre of each square, then place a quail egg on top. Brush around the filling with water, then place another square over it. Be careful to push out any air when sealing the ravioli together.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.

Now make the greens. Saute the leeks and spinach in the olive oil until the leeks are soft and the spinach has wilted. Stir in the creme fraiche, seasoning, and a touch of lemon juice. Keep warm while you cook the ravioli by putting them in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes.

To serve, pile the creamy greens into bowls and top with the cooked ravioli. Garnish with more grated nutmeg and parmesan, and a sprig of thyme.

Spaghetti with razor clams

The first time I ate these rather space-age-looking shellfish was overlooking a marina in La Rochelle. We were lunching at a 'seafood shack', one of several small huts by the water that served fresh seafood, simply cooked. There was no menu, just a chalkboard over the serving counter with the names of various forms of fish and shellfish. We ordered most of the things on offer, sat on plastic tables with paper napkins, and devoured an array of delicious fruits de mer. I remember mussels, steamed in a foil parcel with white wine, butter and herbs, grilled sardines, fried squid rings, and a big platter of oysters with lemon. I also remember my first razor clam: I'd seen them at the fishmongers before, but had never bought them because I had no idea what to do with them. They were soft and slightly salty, like very delicate mussel meat. When I found a tasty-looking recipe in one of my new cookbooks recently, I decided to have a go at cooking them myself.

The book in question is Cooking with the Master Chef by Michel Roux Jr. I think he's great. I've watched him on Masterchef: The Professionals and also on the new BBC Great British Food Revival (more on that another time - it's a brilliant programme and I recommend you all watch it). I love his passion for good cooking and good ingredients, and also his genuine care for the industry and the people who work in it. I also never cease to be amazed by the fact that a self-professed Frenchman can possess an accent more English than the Queen. This recipe book is great because it takes the classic French haute cuisine techniques that are Roux's heritage, but uses them to make dishes easy to recreate at home. The result is a collection of recipes that are simple, but possess a certain je ne sais quoi that elevate them from weekday meals to dinner party fare. The recipe for spaghetti with razor clams is one of the simpler dishes.

So, after a period of sadness in which I continually visited the fishmonger, buoyed with excitement, only to find razor clams distinctly lacking in their display, I was in luck: several large bundles of brown, shiny clam shells stood on the counter, wrapped with elastic bands. What is odd about razor clams is that, unlike mussels and normal clams, you can actually see the meat inside: the white clam will protrude out of its shell and wave around in the air. It's utterly bizarre to watch, and what's even funnier is when you poke the protruding clam meat, and it retreats into its shell with a sort of sucking sound. A bit like if you poke a snail. I stood there for a while, fascinated by these alien-like tentacles waving around. One of the fishmongers came along and poked them. I imagine it's probably one of the highlights of their day - it certainly would be for me if I worked there, but I do take a childish delight in such things.

The downside to the distinct liveliness of these clams I discovered later. I rinsed them thoroughly in cold water before cooking to remove any grit. The clams, in retaliation, squirted all the water back into my face as I carried them over to the pan. It was as if they could sense their impending doom. Into the pan they went, with some shallots, white wine, and olive oil, and the lid went on to steam them for a minute or so. They open much more quickly than mussels and are easier to overcook. After that came the laborious task of extracting the intestine (a bit like the black vein down the back of a prawn). You're left with very little meat, considering how large the bundle of clams is initially (this recipe uses a kilo).

The cooking juice from the clams goes in a pan with some parsley, chopped chilli and garlic, and reduces until it forms a sauce for the pasta. After that, it's as simple as draining the spaghetti, tossing it in the sauce, adding the clam meat, heating through and serving with some more parsley. It's delicious: rich and salty from the wine and the clam juices, with lovely little nuggets of flavoursome clam meat. You could also make it with mussels or regular clams if you can't find the razor variety (and to be honest, it would be a lot less faff, given the painstaking task of extracting the intestines). I've adapted the lovely Michel's recipe a bit, to include more garlic and more spaghetti (he suggests 300g for four people, which is fine as a starter, but you need more for a main course, especially as there's no filling sauce to go with it).

Spaghetti with razor clams, parsley and garlic (serves 4):

1kg fresh live razor clams (store in the fridge wrapped in damp newspaper until ready to use)
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
200ml dry white wine
450g dried spaghetti
6 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 red chilli, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

Rinse the razor clams in cold water (wear an apron - they will spit it back at you!) Sauté the shallots in a little of the oil until soft. Add the clams, turn the heat up, then pour in the wine. Put the lid on, shake the pan, and after a minute or so check the clams - when they've opened, they're ready, and they overcook very quickly. Drain the clams, reserving the cooking liquid (return this to the pan).

Pick the clam meat out of the shell and remove the sand bag/intestine at the bottom. Chop the clams into short lengths.

Put the pasta on to boil while you finish off the sauce.

Boil the cooking juices until reduced by half, then add most of the parsley, the olive oil, garlic and chilli to taste. Season and add the clam meat. Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the water, and add to the clam sauce. Toss well, adding a bit more pasta water to loosen if you need to. Garnish with the rest of the parsley, and serve.

(Adapted from Cooking with the Master Chef, by Michel Roux Jr.)

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.

In 2006, a UKTV Food survey of 2021 people found that 70% of people stated that they would refused to eat jugged hare if it were served at the house of a friend or relative. Although the idea doesn't bother me in the slightest (seriously, people, man up - it's basically the same as eating a rare steak), I settled on a slightly less gory way of cooking this wonderful animal, in case my four dinner guests comprised those people who object to the idea - braising the joints in a mixture of red wine, cocoa, bacon, vegetables and aromatics (juniper, bay, thyme), and serving it with pasta. This hare ragu is served throughout Italy with pappardelle; thick, wide strips of pasta that hold the rich sauce perfectly. 

I'd never tried hare before; I knew it was very different to rabbit, and much more like venison both in its appearance and flavour. I didn't realise quite how much larger than rabbit it is; the hare and its braising liquid could barely fit in my Le Creuset (and that, avid readers, is perhaps the most middle-class sentence you will ever find within this blog). Nor was I prepared for the sheer amount of blood that the meat seems to shed, even when it has already been jointed. I felt a little bit like Lady Macbeth, frantically scrubbing bright red blood from under my fingernails. 

That said, it's a magnificent animal. The meat has a fresh, glistening look about it, and a startling red colour that will satisfy any carnivore. The saddle of the hare is good roasted, which I'd quite like to try. However, the legs are best braised; because the hare is such a muscular animal with hardly any fat on it, roasting the leg joints would probably result in dry, tough meat.

This is a very straightforward dish, and one that doesn't require much attention. Marinate the hare joints overnight with crushed juniper berries, a bay leaf, thyme, a chopped onion, chopped carrots, leeks and celery, and olive oil. Then brown the joints in a casserole, remove and fry some streaky bacon until crisp, then add the vegetables and cook until softened. Pour in some red wine, a teaspoon of cocoa, and some tomato pureé, leave to bubble for a bit, then return the hare joints to the pan. Cover with water, put on a lid, and simmer for at least two hours. The cocoa is an interesting addition: the pairing of chocolate and venison is not that unusual, so I suppose it makes sense: it adds a depth to the sauce.

It depends on the age and toughness of your hare as to how long you'll need to cook it, but mine was perfect after just two hours. The meat fell off the bone in beautifully thick, deep russet strands, which I stirred back into the cooking liquid to make the ragu. It's hard to describe the taste of the meat, but it's incredibly strongly flavoured. In fact, the smell of it is almost unpleasantly strong, though the taste is excellent. If you like venison and don't object to gameyness, you'd probably like it. The sauce needs lots of grated parmesan to cut through the meaty richness, but what you'll end up with is an immensely satisfying - and unusual - bowl of pasta. I'd quite like to try cooking hare with some form of fruit; I think it needs sweetness to complement its dark, iron-rich meat. Watch this space.

Hare ragu (serves 6-8) (taken from Game: A Cookbook)

Place a hare, jointed, in a large bowl with a shredded bay leaf, the leaves from a sprig of thyme, 6 crushed juniper berries, 4 crushed cloves of garlic, a finely diced onion, 2 finely diced carrots, leeks and stalks of celery, and 2tbsp olive oil. Mix together and leave in the fridge to marinate overnight.

Heat some oil in a large casserole and brown the hare pieces all over. Remove to a plate and fry 100g smoked streaky bacon until it becomes crispy. Add the vegetables and any marinade juices. Add 500ml red wine and allow to evaporate partially, then add 1tbsp tomato pureé and 1tsp cocoa powder. Return the hare to the pan and cover with water. Season and bring to the boil; cover and simmer gently for at least two hours, or until the hare falls off the bone.

Remove the hare from the pot and let cool until you can handle it. Shred the meat from the bones and be careful not to snap off the ribs and put them in the sauce too (ouch). Mix the shredded meat back into the cooking liquid - you may need to add more water to loosen it, or arrowroot or cornflour to thicken it. Serve over cooked pasta with lots of grated parmesan.

For more wonderful game recipes, I'd strongly urge you to buy this recipe book. It's very rare that you find such an enticing selection of recipes in one place, and if you're a big game fan (that is, a big fan of game, not a fan of big game like rhino), you'll know that finding nice recipes can be a struggle, because the meat is so underrated in this country. Click the know you want to.

Wild mushroom tortellini with prosciutto crisps

While cooking something from scratch is always satisfying, I think there is no food group that is as satisfying to produce yourself as the humble carbohydrate. It is perhaps because carbohydrates are so cheap and abundant in the shops that no one really bothers with the effort of making them anymore; you can buy pretty decent artisan loaves, fresh pasta, biscuits and muffins almost anywhere these days. However, it is amazing how something so simple and easy to make can be elevated to something so sublime when made yourself. Take stuffed pasta, for instance. This is one thing that is never as good in the shops. Supermarket ravioli, to me, tastes the same no matter what flavour it purports to conceal within its envelope of dough. Cut a supermarket raviolo open, and you are faced with an unidentifiable, greyish mush that appears the same whether the pasta supposedly contained four cheeses, meat filling, or spinach and ricotta. Which brings me on to another point: the fillings of supermarket ravioli bore me to tears. The advantages of making your own pasta are many, but the chief benefit is freedom for the imagination to roam wild. So wild, in fact, that mine stumbled across some wild mushrooms.

After a pretty meat-heavy week, I fancied a dinner containing a fair amount of starch, and a lot of flavour, but without resorting to meat. I did, however, conjure up in my head an amazing recipe for venison ravioli with redcurrant jus, which I intend to test on a few willing victims as soon as any volunteer (or are coerced). Watch this space.

It's easy to resort to cheese for flavour in vegetarian cooking, but I didn't fancy much of that either. So I turned to that umami-rich favourite, the mushroom. Not just any mushrooms, however, but a mixture of fresh oyster, shiitake, chestnut and closed cup mushrooms, with a few dried porcini thrown in as well. Sauteéd with lots of garlic and thyme until the water had evaporated and they were dark, sticky and deeply flavoured, they went in the blender to make a coarse puree that resembled the mushroom duxelles I imagine one would use in a beef wellington. I added some lemon zest too; it might sound odd to marry something so sunny and zesty with something so dark and earthy, but lemon and mushrooms partner each other extremely well; the lemon cuts through the richness of the mushrooms while somehow enhancing their flavour. I also threw in lots of chopped parsley and some walnuts for a bit of crunch.

I mixed in some rye breadcrumbs, lots of grated parmesan (I say I didn't fancy cheese, but parmesan and mushrooms is a winning combination) and a tiny amount of stilton, just enough to add a sharpness to the mushrooms. The result was a deeply flavoursome, perfectly balanced pasta stuffing. The walnuts are a really good addition; they prevent everything from being too mushy (no pun intended).

Then, onto the laborious task of rolling out and filling the tortellini. Except I secretly rather enjoy this, and have got it down to a bit of a fine art now - I can get the pasta to a thickness (though that should be thinness, really) of seven on the machine (it goes from one to nine, nine being the thinnest). I finally achieved the consistency I have been coveting ever since I read Marcella Hazan's advice on pasta-making (for those of you who don't know, she is basically the Nigella of Italian cookery): I could see through my pasta sheets. You can even see the process in action right here. Note the large glass of rosé next to the pasta machine: this is essential when embarking on the task of making stuffed pasta at home.

I decided to try something different; normally I make ravioli (simple squares made by sandwiching two squares of pasta around the filling) or crescent-shaped ravioli (there must be a correct Italian term for this shape, but I'm not sure what it is), but this time I thought I'd try tortellini. Basically you put the filling in the middle of a square of pasta, fold it over to make a triangle, and then pull the ends of the triangle around the middle to make a sort of hat shape. They're rather sweet-looking, and less likely to stick to the baking sheet they're kept on than ravioli.

The easiest way to hang on to them while you're using up all the dough is to make sure you shape the pasta on a chopping board that is well-floured. Then transfer the shapes to a sheet of non-stick baking parchment. The pasta shapes will dry out slightly in the air, and hopefully not stick to the baking sheet. If they do, they will split and the filling will seep out in the cooking water. Another tip is to make the tortellini as small as possible; they hold their shape better and have less chance of splitting.

I finished off the cooked pasta with a white wine cream sauce, some sauteéd wild mushrooms, and prosciutto crisps. The former was made by frying some finely-chopped shallots and garlic, adding a few glugs of white wine, letting it reduce a bit then adding some of the reserved water from soaking the dried porcini; this is one of the most flavoursome stocks you can find. Then I thickened the sauce with créme fraiche, and added lots of parsley and black pepper.

The prosciutto crisps are just slices of parma ham, dry-fried in a non-stick pan until crispy and solid. They provide an essential saltiness that cuts through the richness of the mushrooms and the cream sauce.

All you really need to complete the dish is a drizzle of truffle oil (elevates the whole thing to a level of deliciousness that is rather astounding), a scattering of crumbled walnuts, and a grating of parmesan. The combination of crunchy, crispy, doughy, earthy, salty and citrus results in a really wonderful dish.

Sicilian-style cauliflower, and a strudel

I'm a big fan of the intriguing way the Sicilians manage to blend sweet, sour and salty to produce unexpected and magnificent results. Take caponata, for example, which I posted about a while ago: aubergines, vinegar, sugar, raisins, capers. Sounds odd, tastes sublime. Similarly, pasta con le sarde features fennel, chilli, pine nuts, raisins, parsley, and sometimes anchovies, saffron and breadcrumbs. That topping is the inspiration for this recipe, which is also loosely based on a popular Italian pasta dish of broccoli with anchovies, garlic and breadcrumbs, usually served with orecchiette (meaning "little ears") pasta.

It's incredibly simple: break a cauliflower into florets and cook in boiling water until tender. Meanwhile, fry a couple of handfuls of breadcrumbs in olive oil until crispy. Add some chopped garlic, dried chilli flakes, toasted pine nuts, capers, raisins (soaked in boiling water for 15 minutes and drained), chopped parsley and anchovies. Cook for a couple of minutes, add the cauliflower and some more olive oil (I used the oil left in the tin of anchovies), and then toss with pasta and a squeeze or two of lemon juice. Or you can eat it on its own as a side dish. I imagine broccoli would work just as well, too. It's delicious - in each mouthful you get salty anchovy and caper, but it's perfectly balanced by a sweet and juicy raisin, and a crunchy pine nut. The parsley stops the whole thing being too cloying. It may sound an odd combination, but I urge you to try it. I'll be making the sardine version once I get within reach of a decent fishmonger again.

For dessert, a pear and blackberry strudel to use up more of my Yorkshire blackberry stash. Chopped pears, blackberries, cinnamon and flaked almonds in the middle, buttered filo on the outside. Unfortunately I seem to be incapable of getting a sensible filling/pastry ratio when I make a strudel, and end up with something vastly wide and very unsliceable. The pastry barely fitted around the lovely fruit mixture. But it didn't matter really. It tasted nice and I like to think the collapsibility factor just added to a sense of rusticity.

Pasta stuffed with courgette and feta

I think I've finally mastered the art of stuffed pasta. I attempted something novel this evening in that I cut little circles out of pasta to make circular ravioli instead of square. It means there's more stuffing and less overlap of pasta round the edges that tastes of nothing. Which is definitely a good thing. I also changed my pasta dough recipe by omitting the tablespoon of water I normally add: it means the dough is more difficult to pass through the machine at first (it crumbles a bit), but after that it is infinitely easier to work with, and doesn't stick together. The eggs I used were laid by my Dad's colleague's hens, and they turned the dough a rather startlingly bright orange. 

I've long been a fan of a Nigel Slater recipe for courgette and feta cakes: saute spring onions with garlic and grated courgette until golden, then mix in feta, flour and dill and form into cakes, then fry. They are delicious - I'm not normally a fan of courgettes because they can often be watery and bitter, but somehow when mixed with dill and feta they take on a wonderful flavour. When you fry the cakes and get a lovely crispy outside and a soft inside where the feta has heaven.

It seemed an obvious candidate for stuffing pasta. I added pine nuts for a bit more texture, and served the pasta with a lemon, parsley and butter sauce. I figured a creamy sauce would be overkill given the feta in the stuffing; these lovely little ravioli (not the technical term I am sure, as I think ravioli are square, but I am too tired to look it up right now) taste great just with lemon, butter and parmesan. 

Pork and lemon meatballs

There are few things more satisfying than spaghetti with meatballs. The crispiness of the seared outside, the softness of the seasoned meat in the middle, all enveloped in a nest of pasta, tomato sauce and lashings of cheese. I prefer this version to the more traditional beef; pork mince is lighter than beef and, when coupled with lemon and parsley, produces something quite refreshing rather than something that will make you want to lie down immediately after finishing it. 

The recipe is based on a Nigel Slater creation. He suggests adding chopped anchovies to the mixture; I heartily agree (they give everything so much more depth of flavour), but unfortunately Jon does not like anchovies, therefore they were banned from the mix. Alas. 

For enough meatballs for four people, mix 500g minced pork with salt and pepper, 70g breadcrumbs, the zest and juice of a lemon, a big handful of chopped parsley, a teaspoon of dried thyme and two tablespoons grated parmesan (and 8 chopped anchovy fillets if you're lucky enough to be cooking for someone who appreciates their salty goodness). Shape into little balls. You can pan-fry them, but I prefer to cook them in the oven, a) to guarantee they're fully cooked through and b) to guarantee they're crispy on all sides. Put them in the oven at 180C for about 15 minutes - keep checking as you don't want them to dry out.

For the tomato sauce, just saute a chopped red onion and three crushed cloves of garlic in some olive oil until soft. Add a couple of tins of chopped tomatoes and some tomato puree, a pinch of sugar and a dash of Worcester sauce, and simmer until thick. Season to taste and serve over the meatballs on top of spaghetti (or penne, for that matter). An immensely satisfying dinner.

(Thank you to Jon for the photos).

An unusual pasta sauce

Generally when pasta sauces involve meat, it is normally minced meat or finely ground meat. However, last night I made a sort of stew to use up some lovely braising beef from the Yorkshire butchers, and to satisfy a pasta craving I had been nursing for a couple of days, thought I would serve it with pasta. I finely shredded the large chunks of beef so they'd stick more easily to the pasta, and the pasta became coated in the lovely braising liquid, containing cinnamon, cloves and coriander. I suppose you could serve it with couscous or mash, or even rice, but there is something very satisfying about the combination of pasta and aromatic shreds of beef and red peppers. Pappardelle is, I think, the best choice of pasta here because it's large enough for the sauce to cling to all the strands, but rigatoni might work well too, or those giant pasta shells you can get (I imagine the sauce would fill up the shells nicely once given a good stir).

Recipe (to serve 4-5): finely slice about 5 onions and saute them until soft in a pan. Remove and set aside. Add two sliced red peppers and saute until soft. Remove to a separate plate. Add 900g stewing beef and brown in batches. Return all the beef to the pan and add the onions, 4 cloves, a cinnamon stick, a tsp ground coriander and a tsp ground black pepper plus a generous grinding of salt. Pour over 900ml beef stock and bring to the boil. Cover, turn the heat down and simmer for a couple of hours. After this time, remove the lid and reduce until the liquid has a sauce-like consistency (I used some arrowroot to thicken it more). While doing this, remove the beef chunks from the pan and, using two forks, finely shred the meat before returning to the pan. Return the red peppers to the pan until they have softened. Serve with pasta.

Veal ravioli with a mushroom cream sauce

I bought a pack of minced veal from Boccadon Farm Veal at the Real Food Festival with the intention of using it to stuff ravioli, and finally got round to it this evening. I just browned the veal with chopped red onion, garlic and rosemary, added a splash of red wine and let it simmer. This went into the ravioli, and I made a mushroom sauce - sliced mushrooms sauteed with garlic and thyme, a splash of white wine added and reduced, and then some creme fraiche and parsley stirred in. Delicious with some grated parmesan on top. It was as if I had combined two of the best pasta dishes - bolognaise and carbonara. 

Pasta with sausage, fennel and tomato sauce

Possibly the easiest pasta dish in the world that involves some modicum of preparation (I don't count things like stirring a jar of pesto into cooked pasta). It is also profoundly delicious, and this I think is largely due to the lovely Yorkshire sausages I used - get good quality ones for this. Italian sausages would be more authentic, so if you can find some nice ones use those. Take about 500g of sausages, take the meat out of the skins and crumble into a hot, non-stick pan. Fry, stirring and breaking up the meat, for a few minutes, adding a teaspoon or so of fennel seeds (or more if you love fennel seeds, which I do). Then add 2-3 crushed garlic cloves and fry for a couple more minutes. Add a generous glug of red or white wine (white is probably more summery), a can of chopped tomatoes, a tablespoon of tomato puree and some chopped rosemary or thyme. Or any herb, really - oregano might be nice too. Simmer for 10-15 minutes until you have a lovely thick sauce (you might need to add some of the drained pasta water to loosen it a bit and ensure it coats the pasta). Stir through hot pasta - I used pappardelle for this, but any pasta would work really. It would also make a lovely filling for soft pillows of ravioli, but I had no time. Sprinkle with grated parmesan, black pepper, and torn basil/oregano leaves. Delicious.

Les petits coquelets

I suppose it could be considered slightly morbid to think of these little poussins as cute. There is something rather sweet about the French name, "coquelet". I have been wanting to cook with them for a while now, but have only ever seen a couple on display at the organic butchers in the Covered Market, and I have usually needed at least four. However, when I enquired yesterday it turns out they have a lot frozen, and I ended up with five little baby chickens in a bag. I intended to cook something meaty for dinner, but it was far too summery for beef or lamb (despite my recent yearning to make a tagine). Poussin seemed just right - summery like chicken, but not as overwhelming as a huge roast chicken.  I always think it is much nicer to present people with a whole animal on a plate: that's why I love cooking pigeon, partridge, whole fish with the heads left on. It looks more impressive and feels much more generous, somehow. Plus there is the fun of picking your own little carcass, if you are a manic carnivore like some of my friends. 
Some friends and I are in the process of planning a trip to the Middle East this summer. In the spirit of this, I decided to do a Middle-Eastern themed poussin dish. I adapted a recipe from Claudia Roden's Arabesque, my Middle Eastern cookery Bible. So, I made some couscous, stirred in some orange blossom water (sounds odd, but gives a wonderfully alluring fragrance to the dish), raisins, pistachios, chopped almonds, cinnamon and olive oil, and stuffed the poussins with some of it. I covered them with a mixture of olive oil, cinnamon, ginger, lemon and honey and put them in the oven at 200C for an hour or so, breast side down at first, turning them up for the last half hour. They came out of the oven beautifully burnished and golden, and the roasting juices were deliciously lemony drizzled over the rest of the couscous, which went on the side with some watercress - I figured the pepperiness of watercress would be a good match for the couscous, which was quite sweet.

Now I think about it, this whole meal was a medley of my food-related whims yesterday. I wanted to make pasta, having not made it for weeks - not since before the Finals panic set in. A little tip: making pasta in hot weather is tricky. Roll it out thinly and it turns sticky and is impossible to stuff, and even more impossible to prise off whatever you lay it on before you put it into the cooking pot. The result was that my ravioli was slightly thicker than usual. I have to say, though, that I think it was my favourite yet. I found three beautiful red peppers at the market yesterday for a pound. They went under the grill until black, and I then peeled off the skin and cut them into little pieces with scissors, holding them over a bowl so as not to lose any of the beautiful sweet and sharp juice. I then crumbled in some goats' cheese and stirred it all together so that the cheese melted into the hot peppers and formed a paste. Some black pepper, and this went into the middle of the ravioli. The garnish was a very rustic home-made pesto: a basil plant in the blender with a trickle of olive oil, some grated parmesan and some pine nuts. 

It looks somewhat anaemic in that photo for some reason, but I was very impressed with the way it tasted, and will definitely be making it again. Just after I had blitzed the pasta dough in the blender it occurred to me that putting some basil leaves in first would have been a nice idea, to turn the pasta green and make it taste even more basilly. Next time, I think.

Ravioli, chicken and a honey tart

Inspired by a dish I ate in a little trattoria in Bergamo a couple of summers ago, I thought I'd make ravioli filled with sausagemeat. I found Luganega sausages at David John's butchers in the covered market - wish I'd known they were there before, as I've been searching for them for a couple of recipes and had never thought - bizarrely - to look in the butchers famous for its sausages. Hmm. It wasn't authentic Italian Luganega, which is sold by the metre and not shaped into links, but its flavourings I think were similar. Anyway, I took the meat out of the casings, crumbled it into a pan with some garlic, tomatoes and fennel seeds, and just cooked it and put it into a bowl to cool. I made the ravioli with tomato puree, which I hoped would make it scarlet but actually just made it a sort of orange colour, but never mind. The filling went in the middle, I shaped it and crimped the edges with a fork, cooked it and served it with a sage butter sauce (quite literally melted butter with sage and black pepper) and lots of grated parmesan. It was lovely. 
Next I decided - in the spirit of this Ottolenghi phase I have previously referred to - to make one of his chicken dishes - chicken with sumac, lemons and za'atar. I found sumac and za'atar in Maroc Deli, although they were out of the smaller packets of the latter so I had to buy an absolutely enormous jar which I reckon will be enough to flavour everything I cook ever for the next ten years. It's a middle Eastern spice mix, consisting of dried thyme, salt, sesame seeds and other spices (I think this one had some aniseed in there). I'm pretty sure I now possess every middle Eastern ingredient I could ever possibly need. My friend the butcher kindly gave me two chickens for £7, so they were jointed and went in a marinade of sliced red onion, cinnamon, allspice, olive oil, sliced lemon, sumac, salt, pepper and water overnight. Then they just went in the oven in the marinade with some parsley and pine nuts with the za'atar sprinkled over. I had to turn the oven up quite high to get them to cook but it just gave them a nice crispy skin. Yum. We had it with couscous and a garlic yoghurt sauce that I made by crushing garlic into Greek yoghurt...except I added a bit too much garlic (convinced I couldn't taste enough when I tried it) and could still taste it while eating dessert. Oh well! It was delicious - the lemons and sumac were quite sharp and the meat was still juicy despite being in the oven at 220C. Clearly they were good chickens. Thank you, butcher man whose name I still don't know despite seeing you most days.

For dessert I made a sort of Greek variation on a treacle tart, with filo pastry. I baked the pastry case (filo sheets layered over each other and brushed with butter in a tart tin) and then poured in the filling, which consisted of two eggs, two yolks, the zest of two lemons, 150g breadcrumbs (which were quite large as my blender decided not to blend properly...but it didn't do the dish any harm), 8 tablespoons of creme fraiche, a tsp ground ginger (might add more next time as I couldn't really taste it...or some cinnamon would be nice), 150ml honey, and 250ml agave nectar. Agave nectar is marketed as a sort of "healthy" alternative to sugar, because it is much sweeter so you need less, and doesn't give you that sugar high and then low, or something. Apparently, anyway. Still, given that an entire bottle went into the tart, and it gave me a massive sugar headache afterwards, I still don't think it was that healthy. 

BUT it was absolutely sublime. One of my favourite desserts that I have made so far. The middle had a sort of cheesecake texture but a bit firmer, and was sweet and lemony and delicious, and I love the crispyness of filo pastry. Especially with some nice vanilla ice cream. Definitely making this again. I reckon it'd be nice with orange zest and cinnamon. Maybe with some candied orange slices on top. In fact, the thought is making me a little bit hungry. It's a good job I have two slices left over in the fridge...

Pasta, round three

So I found two willing victims on whom to experiment with my pasta ideas. I made ravioli filled with spinach and bacon and served with a creamy (a word I hate, but it had cream it in, so there isn't really an alternative word) blue cheese and walnut sauce. It was superb...but incredibly filling and I now feel slightly queasy. Still, YUM.
It was fairly easy really...fry little pieces of bacon till crispy, add an entire bag of spinach (which cooked down to literally about three spoons of filling...absurd) and leave to wilt, and then cool a bit. Meanwhile, roll out the pasta into strips, put the filling in, put another sheet of pasta over the top, trim and sounds so easy, but I totally failed the first time I attempted this a couple of weeks ago. I realise now it was because I rolled the pasta too thinly and it just stuck to the surface and wouldn't move when I tried to lift it off. These happy images are something I have long watched on Masterchef and strived for:

Perfect. So to make the sauce I literally just put some creme fraiche and some Dolcelatte into a pan and melted it, and added loads of nutmeg. Because I love nutmeg. Fortunately I think it's only vastly excessive (sort of...truckload) quantities of nutmeg that can make you hallucinate, otherwise my morning porridge would probably have a fairly trippy effect on me. And black pepper. This went on the pasta, some nice pecorino grated over the top, and a sprinkling of walnuts that I bashed in a pestle and mortar. Very satisfying. The whole thing tasted truly delicious - the only thing I would change is I'd squeeze out the spinach before putting it in the ravioli, as it went a bit watery inside. But still - blue cheese, walnuts, bacon, spinach - can't really go wrong with that combination. YUM.

For dessert we had a Nigella recipe that I've wanted to try for a couple of weeks: poached apricots stuffed with creme fraiche (a bit of a creme fraiche heavy meal, it seems - which my housemate commented was "no bad thing"). Dried apricots, soaked overnight in water, the water then boiled with sugar, cardamom seeds and lemon juice to make a syrup, which was poured over the apricots and they were baked in the oven at 130C for an hour or so. After chilling, I then cut them open, stuffed with a bit of creme fraiche, and sprinkled some crushed pistachios (I have only just discovered how much I love pistachios and am fighting the urge to eat the rest of the bag) over the top, along with a bit of the poaching syrup. Delicious. Nigella comments that you can also use yoghurt instead of creme fraiche...however, given my aversion to yoghurt I will not be trying this. Even creme fraiche was pushing it a bit - I hate cold creamy things. It was lovely though. I reckon stuffing them with vanilla ice cream would work too...but I'm sure the Turks would consider this sacrilegious (it's a Turkish recipe).

And they look beautiful, too.