Sunday, July 22, 2007

Courgette and Herb Pasta

Despite the frequent deluges, it is still quite warm here in London, and the shops and markets are full of gorgeous fresh vegetables and fruits (cherries for less than £1 per pound on the market today - bargain!). However, all this rain does still manage to make one feel a tad wintry. This leads to a bit of a culinary conundrum: light, fresh, seasonal veg based meal, or substantial, weather-induced-blues-defeating comfort food? The answer, obviously, is to have both, in the form of pasta (definite comfort food possibilities) married with some simple fresh vegetables. This courgette and herb pasta fits the bill nicely, at once comforting, elegant and seasonal, with a heavy dose of fresh herbs that are sure to brighten your mood even if the Circle line is flooded and more rain is forecast.

To serve one:
  • 120g small pasta (e.g. fusilli, conchiglie)
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil (ideally 1 of ordinary, 1 of extra virgin)
  • 1 decent sized courgette, approx. 180g
  • 3 spring onions
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • black pepper and grated parmesan to serve

  • Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, then add the pasta. Cut the courgette in half lengthways and then into 0.5cm semi-circles. Chop the spring onions into 0.5 - 1cm thick rounds. Finely chop or mince the garlic. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a frying pan and add the vegetables and garlic. Fry, turning frequently, until the courgette is colouring a little on each side. Once the pasta is done, drain, reserving a tablespoon or so of the liquid (to do this easily, dump into a sieve or colander over the sink but put back over the saucepan before it has completely finished draining). Quickly add the chopped herbs and remaining oil to the courgette mixture and stir until well combined and hot, say 1 minute (you don't want the herbs to burn). Combine the cooked pasta and vegetables, adding enough of the reserved cooking liquid to get it all slick, but no more. Turn into a bowl, grind over some black pepper and freshly grated parmesan, then eat.

    Saturday, July 14, 2007

    Carrot, Avocado and Cashew Salad

    Despite the frequent meteorological evidence to the contrary, this is summer time, and so I had my nose once again in Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer recently. Whilst there, I met a few old friends, including her recipe for a carrot and peanut salad. I have sympathy with the lady when she says "the only way I stop eating [this] is by having someone prise the bowl out of my hands". Quite understandable. But nothing is sacred, least of all recipes, and so I decided to play around with this a little, adding some more contrasts.

    To the sweet, crunchy carrots I added instead cashew nuts - more subtle in flavour, slightly waxier in texture than the peanuts - and some smooth, creamy avocado. In the dressing, so as not to overpower the fruit, I used lemon juice instead of vinegar to add sourness, and a few pink peppercorns, mainly because I bought them last week in Fortnum and Mason's and wanted to use them, but also because a little heat was needed and the pink flecks look beautiful against the rest of the colours.

  • 200g carrots (unpeeled weight)
  • 1/2 medium avocado
  • 90g roasted, salted cashew nuts
  • juice of 1/2 a large lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon pink peppercorns

  • Peel and chop the carrots in to short batons. Peel the avocado, slice into 1/2cm semi-circles then in 3 lengthways. Place the carrots and avocado in a bowl and add about a third of the cashews whole. Very roughly chop the remainder of the nuts (just in half is good enough) and throw in the bowl. Bash the peppercorns around in a pestle and mortar a little, then add to the rest of the ingredients. You probably don't need salt as the cashews will contribute enough. Squeeze over the lemon juice, mix well, and enjoy!

    Hazelnut Chocolate Cake

    One of my colleagues left the company on Friday and so I baked a cake to say "goodbye". I have taken a few into the office since I started last September, and this is what I am known for by some people. I am not sure that this is entirely a good sign as a career-progression indicator, but it does at least endear me to (most) people. I have had some slabs of chocolate sitting in the kitchen cupboard for ages, glaring at me reproachfully and asking why I wasn't doing more baking everytime I opened the door, and so chocolate cake it had to be.

    There are some chocolate cake recipes I turn to time and again, but I decided to branch out for a change. Enter Chocolate: cooking with the world's best ingredient, stage left. This book is by the Christines McFadden and France, and begins with introductions to the history and processing of chocolate (interesting the first time round, but ultimately too anecdotal and superficial for a true chocoholic and obsessive), includes explanations of the different types and grades of chocolate (useful for finding out what the equivalent of, for example, bittersweet chocolate is in an English supermarket), and finally moves on to the recipes, of which there are over 200 in total. The Christines cover pretty much all the bases: cakes for afternoon tea; rich gateaux; hot, cold and frozen desserts; biscuits, bars and cookies; sweets and even drinks. In fact, all they are missing is how to use chocolate in savoury cooking - something I am dying to try but probably need a Mexican cook book for.

    In the "Tea-time Chocolate Treats" section there is a recipe entitled French Chocolate Cake, after the Chocolate and Beetroot Layer Cake which I absolutely must test sometime, if only for bizarreness value. I don't know how genuinely French this cake is, and since I took it to work, my flatmate didn't get to test it and so I still can't say. I didn't make it quite to the recipe: I replaced the tablespoon of flour with ground hazelnuts and the brandy or orange liqueur specified with Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur which is practically a syrup and wonderful in affogato*. The result was a very damp, intense chocolate cake with a wonderful perfume and subtle flavour of hazelnuts. It survived the Tube journey exceptionally well (an important consideration) and was a hit with the intended recipient.

  • 250g dark chocolate
  • 225g unsalted butter
  • 90g caster sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Frangelico
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon ground hazelnuts

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 23cm springform tin and line the base with baking parchment or greased greaseproof paper (this is a very wet cake, so you must include a liner). Wrap the tin in kitchen foil, to protect the cake whilst it bakes in its waterbath later. Fill and boil the kettle.

    Chop the chocolate into smallish pieces, and the butter too, and then place in a saucepan with the sugar. Heat gently, stirring frequently, until the butter and chocolate have melted. Remove from the heat, allow to cool slightly and stir in the liqueur.

    Beat the eggs in a large bowl using a fork (you are just breaking them up, this cake is not supposed to incorporate air), then add the ground hazelnuts. Beat until no lumps remain. Stir in the cooled chocolate mixture.

    Stand the foil wrapped cake pan in a large roasting tin. Pour the cake batter into the springform. Pour the boiling water from the kettle into the roasting tin to come about 2cm up the sides of the springform.

    Bake for 25 - 30 minutes. The edges of the cake should be set (mine rose a little) but the middle should still be quite soft. When done, remove the cake pan from the roasting tin and cool on a wire rack. As soon as you can, remove the foil - be careful at this point as you are quite likely to get wet feet. When completely cool, the middle of the cake will have sunk if it rose at all - this is what makes is so dense and intense. Remove the sides of the springform, then turn over and remove the base and lining paper. At this stage, I turned the cake back up the right way and served as was. If you are more inclined to tinkering though, and your cake doesn't have to travel, follow the instructions of the book and serve upside down and decorated with an icing sugar pattern made by criss-crossing the cake with strips of paper, dusting with icing sugar and then carefully removing the paper strips.

    Eat alone, with a cup of coffee (tea just wouldn't work), or serve for dessert with a dollop of cream and some berries.

    *Affogato is a a fabulous dessert, made by taking a scoop or two of ice cream and dumping a cup of steaming hot espresso and a shot of liqueur (optional) over the top. Hot/cold, sweet/bitter and self-saucing, I think it's perfect when you want dessert but are really too full for anything more than a cup of coffee.

    Sunday, July 1, 2007

    Noisette of Lamb with Red Wine, Redcurrant and Rosemary

    A "noisette roll" is a very tender cut, made by chining a saddle of lamb (removing the "chine" bone or spine), getting rid of the gristle and much of the fat and then rolling it all up and tieing in a neat cylinder with string. "Noisettes" are individual cutlets made by slicing the roll into pieces as you would a swiss roll. Yesterday, I got to see a roll being made by one of the butchers at the Northfield Farm counter at Borough Market. He also informed us that the meat came from a Jacob lamb, and pointed to the breed on a poster on the wall behind him; I almost asked whether it had had a name...

    One can either cook a whole roll or individual noisettes; a whole roll is good if you prefer cooking a single joint in the oven to fiddling with individual portions on the hob at the last minute (I definitely do), and it is nice to have the crisp outside and the pink, juicy centre, however, it doesn't look so good as it is apt to unfurl when you slice it to serve. Whichever you choose, both are suitable for a meal when you are not quite certain when people are going to show up, as you can start the cooking when they arrive and be eating the main course in under an hour. I hate having to try and keep things warm and stop them from spoiling whilst waiting for people, as they never comes out exactly as you hoped, but equally, one doesn't want to keep everyone waiting an age for dinner to be done.

    The treatment I gave my hunk of tasty Jacob was what I almost invariably end up doing to joints of lamb: marinading in wine with redcurrant jelly, rosemary and garlic. Not terribly original, admittedly, but it works beautifully. The following was polished off by four, with buttery new potatoes and a generous quantity of asparagus.

  • 1.2kg lamb (yes, we really did eat it all!)
  • 250ml red wine
  • 2 sprigs of rosemary
  • 3 fat garlic cloves
  • 3 tablespoons redcurrant jelly
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-2 teaspoons plain flour

  • Chop the rosemary leaves finely and put in a bowl with the wine and jelly. Cut each garlic clove into two or three chunks and crush each chunk with the flat of the knife's blade, then add to the rest of the marinade ingredients. Stir to combine. If the jelly refuses to dissolve into the wine, zap it in the microwave for a few seconds. You should be able to get the jelly to soften a bit without actually making the liquid hot, if this should happen, just leave it on the side to cool down. Once you have a fairly well combined, cool marinade put the meat in a large freezer bag and pour in the marinade. Seal the bag with as little air in it as possible and place in the fridge, on a large plate in case of leakage, until a couple of hours before you want to cook it.

    At least an hour before you want to cook the meat, take it out of the fridge to come to room temperature.

    Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the lamb in a roasting tin and rub with the oil. Strain the marinade into a jug then pour about a third into the roasting tin; reserve the rest. Add cold water to the tin so that there is about 2mm depth tof liquid (ie a thin layer coating the entire bottom). Bake at 200°C for 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to 180°C. Baste with the pan juices and then roast for a further 25-35 minutes, depending on how pink you like it.

    Once the meat is cooked, remove to a warm serving plate and cover with foil to keep it hot whilst you make a gravy. Strain the juices from the roasting dish into a small saucepan and add a teaspoon of the flour. Whisk until it is combined and there are no lumps visible. Add the reserved marinade and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. If the gravy is very thin, carefully whisk in the rest of the flour and heat again until thickened. If any lumps do form, just strain though a sieve. Serve the sauce in a jug alongside the meat, carved into thick rounds.