Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sickness Soup (Spinach and Pea)

I've had a fascinating new experience over the last few days: I think I've had 'flu. For the first time. I've tried to view it as a learning opportunity, but honestly, these are lessons I could have happily lived with out.

So, I had a cold which incorporated aching and exhaustion, which probably makes it 'flu, though I didn't have a fever, so didn't bother with the Swine 'Flu helpline. Anyway, the other astonishing symptom was - take a seat - loss of appetite. I'm not kidding, I missed quite a few meals, and didn't even think of having a snack. But yesterday, when I was marginally better than on Friday night, I thought I ought to have something. We have fresh spinach from this week's box, so I made a very simple soup, supplementing the spinach with frozen peas. Obviously, being sick I didn't measure anything, so this will be as vague as me when I made it. If you're fully -functioning, you might like to add some herbs (basil or mint would both be good), but really it's pretty tasty as-is:

  • Fill the kettle and turn it on
  • Put a couple of teaspoons of Marigold Vegetable Bouillon in a saucepan
  • Chop a handful or so of fresh spinach into about 1-2cm strips
  • Pour the now boiling water from the kettle into the saucepan - probably about 750ml-ish?
  • Turn on the heat under the saucepan, add the chopped spinach and some frozen peas - say half-to-one mugs-worth
  • Cover and bring to the boil
  • Check a pea and a picee of spinach stalk to check they are softened, and turn off the heat if so
  • Puree in a blender
  • Ladle into a bowl, grate over some hard cheese if you feel up to it, and return to your nest on the sofa to eat
  • Thursday, July 16, 2009

    Caprese Salad Filo Bites

    On Saturday night I gave a dinner party. We were five in the end, which makes for a comfortable table (eight around our kitchen table was a squash, I have to admit) and also expands the menu possibilities a little. This is both from the cost and ease-of-execution perspectives. The former needs no explanation, and by the latter I mean merely that I wouldn't want to do anything "tricky" for larger numbers. Cooking something on the hob at the last moment - say pan-fried fish or individual lamb noisettes - is fine for a few, but I'd find it intimidating to have to produce lots of perfectly-cooked individual portions with the recipients sitting by waiting - it'd be too much like a practical exam, and I've always sucked at those. As usual though, I opted for a menu done mainly in advance, other than a bit of last-minute assembly. Here it is, followed by an outline of my time-management:

  • Mini filo baskets with pesto, tomato and mozzarella
  • Polenta cubes with olive and chargrilled peppers
  • Cheese straws (always!)
  • Fillet of beef with red wine, anchovies, garlic and thyme (from How To Eat)
  • Pointed cabbage and green beans
  • Hasselback Jersey Royal potatoes (a.k.a. hackelback or hedgehogs)
  • Blackcurrant sorbet with peach coulis and hazelnut biscuits*
  • British cheese board

  • The canapes I made up from scratch, and the baskets were by far the best. An outline of the recipe is below, but basically they can be filled with anything that you might otherwise use as a crostini topping. Rough schedule:
    Friday night: Make filo cups, cheese straws and polenta cubes. Toast hazelnuts. Cook the blackcurrant mix and refrigerate it overnight.
    Saturday morning: Clean bathrooms (sigh). Shop for everything - food, wine, flowers, the lot. (After carrying which, my arms ached - I blame the wine.)
    Post-shopping: Make blackcurrant puree, set to churn, place in freezer. Make hazelnut biscuits. Tidy lounge and half-heartedly hoover, arrange flowers (badly). Skin, core and chop tomatoes, dice mozzarella. Prepare potatoes and vegetables. Make peach coulis. At some point, eat for lunch exactly the same as you had for your last three meals, feeling thankful that it is finally all gone and glad the monotony will be broken soon.
    6.00pm: Shower and dress. Wish you had a slave/well-trained partner/Sarah at home commis chef.
    Last minute: Tidy kitchen and lay table. Prep ingredients for beef. Greet first guests, pour delicious sparkly wine and point one guest in the direction of laptops and router so he can sort out wireless before dinner. Set the other (who you have only just met) to construct filo baskets. Accept you won't be winning the World's Best Hostess award just yet. Get cheese out of the fridge and transfer sorbet from freezer to fridge. Finish prepping main course.
    Second couple arrive: pour more drinks, serve nibbles, set main course to cook and enjoy your guests' company!

    Caprese Salad Filo Bites (24 of them):
  • 12 sheets filo pastry
  • 100g unsalted butter, melted
  • Small tub fresh pesto
  • 4 large, ripe tomatoes
  • 1 ball buffalo mozzarella
  • Black pepper

  • First get a clean tea-towel and dampen it. This is to wrap the filo pastry sheets in whilst you are working, as, if it dries out, you're stuffed. Preheat the oven to 190°C. Lightly grease two twelve-hole mini muffin trays.

    Take your first sheet of filo, placing the remaining inside damp tea-towel. Cut into six squares of about such a size as to line a mini-muffin hole with some overhang - about 2.5" - 3". With the pastry I had, this meant that I had about half an inch wastage along the edges of each sheet - unfortunate, but unavoidable. Brush one square lightly with melted butter and lay another on top at an angle (i.e. corners off-set). Brush this second square lightly with butter and place a 3rd one on it, off-set from both of the first two. Brush lightly with butter and then lift the little stack, which should hold together easily due to the butter, and place over a hole in the muffin tin. Ease it down into the mould, trying to get it as central as possible and with the folds of pastry fairly uniform around the entire circumference to ensure even cooking. Repeat with the remaining 3 squares from that filo sheet. Continue with the rest of the pastry sheets. Try to work as quickly as possible, while maintaining accuracy, so the pastry doesn't dry out and become brittle and/or likely to burn. When you have filled the first muffin tin, pop it in the oven. Check after 4 minutes, then at 1 minute intervals. Take them out when the top edges are golden and crisp and the bases are dried out (you won't get the base coloured before the tips are burned as they are so much thicker and heavier with butter).

    Once cooked, leave them to cool for a few minutes in the tin, then when cool enough pop them out of the tray and on to a wire rack to get completely cold. Store in an airtight box if you are not using them straight away.

    To assemble, first prep all the filling ingredients, have them all lined up and then construct immediately before they are going to be eaten, so there is no time for the pastry to get soggy. (As has been said before, nobody likes a soggy bottom!) So, the tomatoes: fill the kettle and turn on. Place the tomatoes, stalks removed, in a large, heatproof bowl. When the kettle boils, pour the water over the tomatoes and leave for five minutes. Empty out the water and pour over plenty of cold - the colder the better. When the tomatoes are cooled down somewhat, take a sharp knife and score the skin into quarters from pole to pole. You should be able to easily get hold of a corner and peel the skin off in four neat pieces. If not - good luck! Once peeled, chop the tomatoes open and discard the pulp along with the skin. Finely dice the flesh and set aside until assembly-time. Finely dice the mozzarella also. When just about ready to serve, layout the filo cases on the plate or whatever. Take one, drop in a blob of pesto to cover the bottom - about 1/3 of a teaspoon. Add a layer of tomato pieces, a few tiny cubes of cheese and a fine dusting of pepper. (You should have leftover filling, but better to be safe than sorry.) Serve quickly.

    *I actually don't really recommend this recipe - it was a little bland, even with toasted hazelnuts, and the dough was a bit of a nightmare to deal with - it "bruised" like none I've used before (i.e. you couldn't touch it without leaving a mark).