This post combines two things I don’t normally care about: tailoring blog recipes to specific seasonal food-related occasions, and Valentine’s Day. You won’t find me whipping up treats for National Tempura Day, National Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day or World Tripe Day (if you needed proof that these ‘food days’ are just the farcical inventions of bored and desperate PR companies and marketing boards, there it is: World Tripe Day), because there is apparently some silly culinary designation for every single day of the year now, so by that logic I would never ever be able to make a spontaneous decision regarding what I cook. I can also take or leave Valentine’s Day, and it certainly doesn’t inspire me with culinary ambition (if I see one more hackneyed recipe feature telling me that I must serve oysters and fillet steak on the special day, I might find a decidedly more violent use for my oyster knife).Read More
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 are some fruits that people are, generally speaking, fairly comfortable encountering in a savoury dish. Few people would bat an eyelid at a sliver of apple turning up alongside their roast pork, either in sauce form or maybe – outré prospect as it is – in thick wedges, roasted alongside the meat to soak up its delicious juices. Although a subject of mockery, ham and pineapple is a pretty established combination by now, whether it’s performing the ludicrous feat of turning your margherita into a ‘tropicana’, or in the form of a lurid golden ring of fruity goodness perched atop a fat pink slab of salty gammon.Read More
Everything turns orange in the world of food media around this time of year. You can’t look at a recipe without finding that pumpkin has been sneaked in there somewhere. Sweet or savoury, breakfast or dinner, between the months of September and December it’s almost guaranteed to contain the golden vegetable, especially if it’s come from anywhere near America (in which case it will almost definitely also include cinnamon).Read More
I've always found it slightly bizarre that we have one, just one, official day in the calendar where we unite to celebrate a specific foodstuff...and we decide that that foodstuff should be pancakes. The one day where you can legitimately invite loads of people round to stuff their faces with a single specified food, the sort of day that demands to be celebrated with a crowd...and we choose pancakes.
Pancakes are possibly the least crowd-friendly dish on the planet.
Sure, there's great drama to be had in the failed flipping of a pancake with a not-so-quick thrust of the wrist. Or, equally, in the surprise success of a flipped pancake, prompting a squeal of delight from the flipper and admiring 'oohs' from the spectators. It's a spectator sport, really.
And yes, they're a great communal food - everyone can fill, stuff, roll and eat theirs as the whim takes them. Do you put the filling into a quarter of the pancake then fold it into a neat little cone shape? Do you arrange your choice of stuffing in a wobbling line down the centre then roll everything around it and devour it like a baguette or sausage roll, hands only? Or do you spread the filling luxuriantly over half the whole thing, then simply fold it over and attack it with a knife and fork?
And of course, they're pretty darn easy to make. All you need is a bowl, a whisk (preferably electric, though - I'm pretty sure a lump-free batter using only a hand whisk is a mythical holy grail of cooking), some flour, eggs and milk. Ingredients that won't break the bank and will cohere into a satisfyingly squidgy vehicle for whatever delicious interior you choose to adorn it with. You don't really need to be able to cook. You just need to be able to turn on a whisk, measure ingredients, and get good with the ladling of things into a hot pan.
(Unless, of course, you want to flip them using only that deft wrist movement, in which case you'll need slightly more skill).
But really, pancakes are not practical for crowds. They're barely practical for two people, let alone more than that. Sure, you can make them all in advance and keep them in a warm oven, separated between layers of greaseproof paper, until you're ready to eat them. Recipe books often tell you this. What they fail to mention is that said greaseproof-oven process will cause those luscious crispy edges to turn sad and soggy, and the whole pancake to turn somewhat pale and flabby, like Britain in winter.
Don't get me wrong. If you want to cook pancakes for a crowd without driving yourself mad in the process (standing slaving at the hob armed with a ladle and a hot pan while all your friends make merry in an adjacent room, their gleeful laughter ringing, sounding in your ears and inducing a curious desire to rudely dismiss them all from your house, because why on earth did you invite them over anyway?), you can use the keep-warm-in-oven method. You could, of course, just flip them to order, with people bringing their plates to the hob as and when the pancakes are ready. But then you miss out on the joy of a communal meal, and everything ends up somewhat sadly disjointed.
So yes, I do find it a curious paradox that we celebrate this foodstuff that is so fundamentally unsuited to celebration.
(I am also aware of the reason we do so, and the historical tradition of using up ingredients before Lent, et cetera...but I'm just pointing this out).
I found this out to my cost this weekend, when I decided to make breakfast crêpes for two people in my undergoing-refurbishment kitchen that currently has the grand total of one square foot worktop space. It wasn't pretty. Everything, including my hair, ended up dusted with flour. There were a few frustrated tears. A burn. Enough used utensils to suggest Henry VIII had been banqueting there. Items of cookware perched precariously on chairs, shelves, and I did contemplate the floor before I settled for on top of the toaster instead.
The flipside, of course, as with all (or most, anyway) pancake scenarios, is that you end up with something delicious. In this case, a big pile of squidgy crêpes stuffed and dolloped with a gorgeous warm, spiced compote. There are pears, caramelised in butter and brown sugar. There are cranberries, which simmer down into sticky red globules of tart juiciness. There are warming spices: ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. There is a scattering of nutty toasted pecans for crunch. The compote has all that delicious warm sweetness of Christmas cranberry sauce, with the added bonus of beautiful fragrant caramelised pears, sweet with perfumed juice. It is the perfect accompaniment to pillowy crêpes, stuffed inside them and spooned over the top in a dramatic profusion of scarlet stickiness.
I made this for breakfast, to serve two very greedy people (one, obviously, being myself). It would also make an excellent dessert, though in substantially smaller quantities. While I do believe it's hard to beat a good simple crêpe with lemon and sugar (or, my skiing favourite, crème de marrons - French chestnut and vanilla jam), sometimes it's nice to do something a bit different. This compote has texture, flavour, and colour. It's sweet yet tart, substantially fruity and delicious. It's perfect tucked inside these crêpes, a delightful mixture of squidgy batter and fruit pieces in every mouthful.
But if you're planning on making this for more than one person, in a small kitchen...I'd advise deep breaths, a box of tissues handy, and preferably one or more minions on hand to prepare fortifying cups of tea (or gin, but preferably only if these are dessert rather than breakfast. And preferably in glasses, not cups).
Happy pancake day!
Crêpes with spiced pear, pecan and cranberry compote (serves 2 for breakfast; 4 for dessert):
- 5 medium pears, ripe but firm
- A knob of butter
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 150g fresh cranberries (you can also use dried, but add a little water to the compote too)
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- A handful of toasted pecans, chopped
For the crêpes:
- 200g plain flour (or 100g plain and 100g wholemeal)
- 2 eggs
- Pinch of salt
- 500ml milk
- Butter, to cook
First, make the compote. Quarter and core the pears, then slice lengthways into 1cm slices. Heat the butter in a non-stick frying pan until bubbling, then add the sugar. Add the pears and cook on a medium heat until starting to soften and caramelise, then add the spices and cranberries. Cook over a low-medium heat until the cranberries have burst and released juice, and the compote has a thick, jammy consistency. If it starts to dry out, add a splash of water. Taste and add more sugar if you like. Set aside.
For the crêpes, sift the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre then crack in the eggs and add the salt. Using an electric whisk, start whisking the eggs into the flour, adding a little milk. Keep whisking, gradually incorporating more of the flour, and add the rest of the milk as you go until you have a smooth batter the consistency of double cream. (You can do this the night before and leave the batter to rest in the fridge, whisking it up again just before you need it).
Put the oven onto a low heat (around 120C) and put a plate in it, ready for the pancakes. Get a non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan very hot. Add a knob of butter, and wipe it around the pan with kitchen towel. Ladle in enough batter to form a 3-4mm thick crêpe, tilting the pan so it spreads evenly over the surface. Cook for a minute or so on each side - adjust the heat so that the crêpes are golden brown but not scorched or pale and flabby. Put each crêpe on the plate in the oven as you make them, separated with sheets of greaseproof paper, to keep warm.
When you have 8 crêpes (there might be a bit of batter left over), spread each one out and spoon a little compote onto a quarter of it. Fold in half and then into quarters. Repeat with the remaining crêpes, reserving some compote to spoon over at the end. Arrange the crêpes on a plate, then spoon over a little more compote and scatter with the toasted pecans. Dust with icing sugar, if you like, then serve immediately.
Prunes are an unfairly overlooked ingredient. Perhaps this is because of their rather menacing appearance: prunes are dark, wrinkled and gnarled in comparison to their plump, sunny cousins - dried apricots. Apricots just look much more user friendly, with their fat, honey coloured flesh. They crop up in many more recipes and seem to be the 'go-to' dried fruit for a lot of cooks, perhaps after raisins or sultanas. I think prunes carry a lot of unfair associations with school dinners, health food, and elderly people. It's sometimes easy to forget that they are, in fact, just dried plums - nothing remotely ominous about that.
Prunes have a huge amount to offer, both raw and cooked. They have a gorgeous rich stickiness to them that, in common with dates, I think makes them just as satisfying as a dessert. They have a real complexity of flavour, with notes of berry, wine, sometimes even chocolate. They are hugely versatile, working equally well in both sweet and savoury dishes - lending a sweet squidgyness to a chocolate brownie or tart, for example, or a bite of fruitiness to a rich lamb tagine.
Prunes are also pretty good for the health-conscious. They count as one of your five-a-day, are full of vitamins, and are low-GI so fill you up for a long time. They can also be used to great effect in healthy (but not boring) recipes - I make a delicious chocolate brownie that replaces the butter with prune puree, making it a lot more justifiable to eat several in one go. I've fed them to people who never guessed they weren't ordinary brownies (but mostly I've saved them all for myself). I imagine you could try a similar trick with general chocolate cakes, or other dark cakes.
I was recently sent some California Prunes to try, and couldn't refuse given my love of dried fruit. 60% of the world's plum production occurs in California, where the environmental conditions produce fruit that ripens fully on the tree, resulting in a perfect sugar content and full flavour. The prunes are delicious; sweet, rich and the perfect moist, sticky consistency - I'm not a fan of those over-dried ones that resemble leather and have to be rehydrated before eating. These also came individually wrapped, which I kind of loved. They looked like sweeties...only substantially better for you! (Should you want some for yourself, they sell them in Holland & Barrett and Tesco.)
I was fascinated by one of the recipe suggestions that accompanied my sample: a salad of prunes, broad beans, watercress, feta and pecans. Given my love of unusual salad combinations and anything involving fruit (particularly with meat and/or cheese), I had to try it. I've only ever used prunes in savoury recipes involving quite rich meat before, never something light and vegetable-heavy, so I was intrigued.
This is a surprising salad. I wasn't sure it would work, and in the end I was rather astounded by how tasty it was. There's a simple dressing of wholegrain mustard, honey and white wine vinegar - but I didn't have any of the latter so used lime juice, which was great. Watercress, mange tout and broad beans are tossed in the dressing (the recipe uses raw mange tout, but I boiled mine briefly to take the bitter edge off), then some chopped prunes, chopped pecans and crumbled feta. That is it.
The result is a fantastic combination of textures: grainy broad beans, crunchy mange tout and pecans, soft feta and delightfully squidgy prune pieces. There's just the right balance of saltiness (from the feta), acidity (from the mustard and lime juice/vinegar), sweetness (from the prunes) and bitterness (from the watercress and mange tout). It's a really pretty salad, very nutritious, and very filling too. I'm looking forward to trying out more salad recipes with prunes in the future, maybe with some leftover roast chicken or lamb, and some pine nuts...
The original recipe is here, on the California Prunes website, along with a vast number of other tempting suggestions (I'm particularly excited by the prune, amaretti and citrus tarts, and the prune, pecan and celery stuffed chicken). My slightly altered version is below; adjust quantities if you wish - you might want lots more pecans, if you're a big fan, or more feta, if you like salty food, et cetera.
If you're sceptical, I promise you this salad is really delicious. If you can't bear the idea of a vegetarian meal, I reckon it would make a great side dish to chicken or lamb.
Eat, enjoy, and give the poor prune a chance!
Prune, broad bean, feta, watercress and pecan salad (serves 1, easily multiplied):
- 100g frozen broad beans
- 40g mange tout, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp wholegrain mustard
- 1 tbsp lime juice (bottled or fresh) - or use lemon juice or white wine vinegar
- Salt and pepper
- Two big handfuls of spinach, watercress and rocket salad
- 15g pecan nuts, chopped (toast them first if you like for extra flavour)
- 50g feta cheese, crumbled
- 6 prunes, quartered
Bring a pan of water to the boil. Add the broad beans and cook for 5 minutes. One minute before the end, add the mange tout. When tender, drain well and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the honey, mustard and lime juice with some salt and pepper. Add the broad beans and mange tout and the salad, and toss together. Add the pecans, feta and prunes and toss together before piling onto a plate. Serve immediately.
'Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon' ~ Doug Larson, 1924 Olympic gold medal winner
No, don't worry. This is still me. This blog hasn't been taken over by an impostor. I'm not being held hostage somewhere chillingly remote while food-blog fraudsters take over Nutmegs, seven.
But yeah, I know. You probably think I'm going mad. That I'm not myself. My recipes are normally so healthy, so full of vibrant fruit and vegetables and sexy wholegrains. Only a couple of days ago I posted about my love for virtuous sugar-free dried fruit compote...
...and now I've created something that basically combines all the hallmarks of American gastronomic hedonism in a single muffin.
Interestingly, did you know that bacon dates back to Roman times? That a bacon sandwich is the nation's favourite 'guilty' food? That the phrase 'bringing home the bacon' possibly refers to an Essex tradition of AD 1111, where a noblewoman offered a prize side of bacon to any man in England who could honestly say he had had complete marital harmony for an entire year and a day? (Apparently in over 500 years, the prize was won by a grand total of...er...eight men).
No, I didn't know any of this either. It's remarkable how little we think about one of our favourite, staple foodstuffs.
I had the privilege of testing out some simply gorgeous M&S bacon, smoked over chestnut chippings and flavoured with juniper. You buy it in packs of thick, fat, meaty slices that actually look like they've been cut off part of a pig, rather than the horrible congealed slab of sticky mess that normally constitutes most packets of cheaper supermarket bacon. This stuff has a really lovely depth of flavour and a proper smokiness. It's pretty salty, so if you're using it for cooking I wouldn't add any extra salt.
It's probably a little more expensive than your standard bacon, but actually I reckon you'd need to use less in a recipe because it has such an intense flavour (and clearly hasn't been pumped with water like a lot of the cheaper varieties), so it basically works out at the same price. Plus happier pigs are involved. Win-win.
The other night I woke up, completely randomly, at 3.30 am and suddenly the idea for bacon, pecan and maple syrup muffins popped into my head.
It kind of had to be done, really.
One of my students came round yesterday for a lesson and saw these muffins cooling on the rack. She said "wow, what beautiful cupcakes". I said, "yeah, they're quite interesting...they're bacon, pecan and maple syrup. Would you like one?"
She looked at me like I was insane, and without any hesitation said, "no."
Not, "oh, that sounds...interesting! I'd love to but I'm still really full from breakfast", or "oh, I wouldn't want to deprive you of them", or "thanks but I'm a vegetarian". Just, no.
I admit, it does sound a bit odd. But this combination works. These are obviously muffins on the more brunchy, savoury side - they're not going to compete with fancy swirly, glistening, buttercreamed cupcakes for the attention of one's sweet tooth. But the combination of salty bacon, fragrant pecans and sweet syrup is really irresistible, and a wonderful platform for anything you want to pair it with.
These muffins are an all-rounder kind of food. They're fabulous warmed up and buttered for breakfast or brunch. They're ideal served with cheese for lunch. I bet they'd be delicious dunked into a pea or vegetable soup, or served alongside a simple dinner instead of bread rolls.
Or, of course, you could just pour over some more maple syrup and eat them whenever you like.
They're a simple muffin mixture (flour, eggs, milk, oil) to which I added a little cornmeal, partly for texture and partly because it's reminiscent of American cornbread, that brunch classic; I couldn't combine bacon, maple syrup and pecans in a recipe without acknowledging the clear influence of American brunch. I'm quite into adding cornmeal (or polenta) to baked goods at the moment - it adds a slight grittiness, but in an interesting rather than unpleasant way.
Into the muffin mixture goes chopped bacon, fried until sizzlingly crisp and glistening with fat. Then crumbled pecans, toasted until fragrant, sweet and nutty. Then the glorious amber elixir that is maple syrup. Dark brown sugar gives an extra caramel flavour to the muffins that enhances the maple flavour. A little dried thyme and sage to give everything a lift, a little black pepper, and they go in the oven to emerge twenty minutes later warm, fluffy, salty, sweet, crunchy and wonderful.
This is basically American brunch in muffin form. Portable, neatly portioned, faff-free American brunch. You need to give these a go soon.
Bacon, pecan and maple syrup muffins (makes 12):
- 200g plain flour
- 70g cornmeal or polenta
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sage (dried or fresh)
- 1 tsp thyme (dried or fresh)
- A pinch of black pepper (or cayenne if you want to add an extra kick)
- 120ml milk
- 2 eggs
- 120ml vegetable oil
- 70ml maple syrup, plus extra for drizzling
- 4 rashers of bacon, finely diced and fried until crispy
- 60g pecans, toasted and crumbled
Pre-heat the oven to 200C/190C fan oven. Line a muffin tray with 12 muffin cases.
Mix together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar, salt, herbs and pepper. Whisk together the milk, eggs, oil and maple syrup. Add this to the flour mixture and stir until just combined - don't over mix. Stir in the bacon and pecans, reserving a little to top the muffins before they go into the oven.
Divide the mixture between the muffin cases, then sprinkle over the reserved bacon and pecans. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack, then drizzle each muffin with a little extra maple syrup. Leave to cool if you can, otherwise devour instantly.
Last night, it started snowing. Feather-light flakes were falling from the sky as my boyfriend and I left the house to walk to town for dinner. We lingered over dim sum - gorgeous cloud-like cha siu pork buns; sticky, ginger-spiced prawn dumplings; wispy fried taro paste croquettes with a creamy and delectable meat filling - for about an hour and a half. When we emerged, we found the snow whirling fast and furious through the air, and at least two inches on the ground. Fast forward three hours later to exiting the cinema, and I was sinking in snow halfway up to my calves. There was a sweet and beautiful silence all around as we trudged home, stopping for a childish detour to run madly over a pristine patch of virgin snow, tutting at people attempting to drive, and incredulous as we spied girls sporting bare legs and heels. (If you are one of those types, I honestly would love to know how you do it - email me).
Despite the bitter chill and the surprising effort required to walk for forty minutes in deep snow, I treasured that walk home. There was an eerie light in the sky, a ceiling of fluffy snow clouds stained with the glow of numerous street lamps. Cars made barely a sound, gently rolling and fumbling along; echoes of shouting and general weekend revelry were swallowed whole by the lavish carpet laid out by the clouds; everything subject to the capricious whim of mother nature. Sometimes I think we get ahead of ourselves in this modern day and age and need a thorough coating of snow to remind us that we are, in fact, very lucky to be allowed to remain on this planet, given that we are in fact completely at the mercy of forces beyond our control.
This morning, my garden and the surrounding houses looked like some feature from an old stately home that hasn't been lived in for years, where everything has been covered in dust sheets rendering it featureless, bleak, unrecognisable. My favourite part of snow is the flat light that comes with it, making the everyday seem otherworldly and allowing the landscape to sprawl on almost indefinitely in meandering white waves. Almost indefinitely, of course - it was broken everywhere I looked today by excitable children building snowmen and igloos.
For breakfast, I made waffles.
Perfect winter fare, given their association with skiing and colder climes. There's nothing like a steaming hot waffle, replete with butter and sugar and smothered in something even more calorific, to warm you from the inside out on a cold day.
These are not just any waffles, though - they're banana oatmeal waffles. Essentially, banana porridge in waffle form (and far healthier than the buttery Belgian kind, which seem a little too indulgent for breakfast, even when it is minus two outside). The recipe is a simple porridgey mixture of very ripe bananas (the kind I had to ask my parents not to throw away as they sat blackening and mouldering in the fruit bowl), milk, oats and cinnamon, plus a little flour, baking powder and an egg to help bind it all together and make it turn fluffy and lovely in the waffle maker.
I served these with a generous drizzle of maple syrup, plus toasted pecans and some blueberries. If I'd had some bananas that weren't almost liquid inside their skins, I'd have sliced them over too. They were gorgeous - crispy on the outside but moist and fluffy within, with a delicate banana flavour. The crunchy pecans and tangy blueberries were a perfect combination, along with the necessary sweetness of the syrup (I didn't add any sugar to the batter, so they needed those caramel notes to lift them a bit).
I couldn't resist taking these outside and photographing them against the beautiful blank canvas that was my snowy garden. Naturally, my cat decided to take a great interest and get in the way. Fortunately at the last minute she decided that waffles weren't quite meaty enough for her feline tastes, though you never know with these animals - my other cat is a big fan of blue cheese.
It's been a real case of trial and error, experimenting with my new waffle maker (a Christmas present). The first batch I made were flabby and awful, as the heat setting wasn't high enough. They looked rather like greying, rubbery teatowels. Subsequent attempts were OK but had a tendency to go soggy as soon as they emerged from the machine, I suspect due to not leaving them to cook for long enough. Finally I think I've cracked it - cook them for longer than you'd think necessary to give a nice crisp exterior, then put them in a warm oven to stay hot. Serving them one at a time helps, too - stacking them up means the underlying ones go a bit soggy.
And of course, the key to turning an average waffle experience into a great one is simple: liberal amounts of maple syrup.
These are lovely - the slight banana flavour, the contrast with the crisp pecans and the sharp bite of the berries...just perfect for a snowy winter morning, accompanied by a large mug of tea and two hilarious cats whose attempts to negotiate the snow never fail to amuse, every year.
Do you have any favourite foods to cook when it's snowing?
Banana oatmeal waffles (makes about 6 waffles, enough for 2 people):
- 2 very ripe bananas, mashed
- 1 egg
- 100g oats
- 5 tbsp flour, sifted
- 5 tbsp milk
- 1 tbsp melted butter
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Toasted pecans/sliced banana/maple syrup/blueberries, to serve (I'd recommend all of them!)
- Icing sugar, for dusting
Pre-heat your waffle maker. Whisk together (preferably using an electric whisk) the bananas and egg, then add the rest of the ingredients. You want the batter to be fairly thick (a little thinner than it would be for American-style pancakes), so add more flour or oats if necessary, or milk if you think it's too thick. It's really a case of trial and error - if the first waffles don't come out quite right, adjust the mixture.
Spoon about 3 tbsp of the mixture into your waffle maker (how much you use depends on the size and shape of your waffle maker, but you'll probably know how much mixture yours takes if you use it regularly). Cook for 4-5 minutes until crispy on the outside. You can put the waffles in a warm oven while you make another batch, or cook them to order. Scatter with your chosen toppings, drizzle with maple syrup and dust with icing sugar, then serve immediately.
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.