Monday, March 31, 2008

Beef stroganoff pie

Apologies for having been on radio silence for the past week. My BT line has been 'hors de combat' so I've been without internet access. I tried to explain the importance of passing on my recipe for rhubarb pavlova (to follow), but somehow BT didn't seem to think that this classified as an 'emergency'! I can't think why... It has shown me just how reliant I have become on the internet - I felt quite lost without it!

Anyway, the good news is that I have a whole host of things stored up to share, mainly various dishes served at a supper party I hosted last Thursday. It was a work night and, with the benefit of hindsight, I think it would be safe to say that I should perhaps have prepared a little more of the menu in advance! Things weren't served quite at the moment I had intended and the beef stroganoff pie and roasted vegetables could really have done with another 15 minutes in a hot oven to allow both pastry and veg to crisp up more. Oh well. You live and learn.

It is strange, isn't it, how some things can look delicious and yet taste revolting whilst other dishes look less appetising yet taste divine. Not sure what I mean? Take a look at this sundried tomato hummus...

Mmmm. Looks good, huh? Sadly not. It tasted horrid. I'm not sure why. I think perhaps I used a little too much tahini paste. Then take a look at this...

Looks kind of... grey... doesn't it (though note the cute butterfly shape decorating the top). But yet it tastes delicious. Really! I have said it before and shall say it again... I find it IMPOSSIBLE to make stews/casseroles etc perform for the camera. You'll just have to trust me.

This in fact tasted much better the second day (minus the slightly soggy pastry). Next time I'll make it in advance and re-heat, giving extra time for maximum pastry crispage. It is by no means an authentic stroganoff - it has no soured cream and no paprika. Though you could use both. It has a great kick from the mustard though and by using half fat crème fraîche, you can feel slightly less guilty about the amount in the recipe. You could use less, I suppose. But come on. Beef stroganoff isn't meant to be a healthy dish exactly! And remember, that amount is divided amongst 8 people. In fact, mine would have fed 10 easily.

This recipe came from delicious. magazine, I think. Foolishly, I didn't note where I got it. I have a feeling that it was a Bill Granger recipe, but a google search has left me none the wiser. I hope you (and Bill) will forgive me for this oversight. I've juggled ingredients slightly - the original recipe used many more mushrooms. I just used what I had, which seemed fine. I seem to remember that the original was for individual pies which would be great. I don't have individual pie dishes, but it would be fun for a dinner party if I did.

Beef stroganoff pie
serves 8 (or halve recipe easily for 4)

Ingredients -
1 kg good quality rump steak, cut into strips
2 knobs of butter
2 -3 large red onions (depending on how much you love them!)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
700g button mushrooms, sliced (or more exciting mushrooms if you prefer)
4 tsp fresh thyme
4 tablespoons tomato purée
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
large handful flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
400ml half-fat crème fraîche
puff pastry - large packet that will cover a big pie dish (or two smaller ones if you prefer)
1 egg, beaten with a little salt

1. Pre-heat oven to 210C.

2. Season the steak strips and brown in hot olive oil and a little butter. Do this quickly over a fairly high heat and in small batches. Do not crowd the pan! Remove with slotted spoon and set to one side.

3. Add a large knob of butter to the pan and cook the onion and garlic until soft. Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to do this in two batches.

4. Add mushrooms, thyme, seasoning and tomato purée and cook for a few minutes, until mushrooms are just starting to soften. Then add the steak back to the pan. Stir in the mustard and parsley and heat together for a few minutes.

5. Remove pan from heat and add the crème fraîche, stir together.

6. Pour into a large ovenproof pie or lasagne dish and then roll out the pastry on a floured surface. Brush edge of pie dish with beaten egg and place pastry over the top. Press down at edges and trim. Pinch around edges to create a pleasing pattern. Decorate using the scraps of remaining pastry - I used cookie cutters to decorate with butterflies and 'gingerbread' men! Stick decorations on with egg and then brush the entire pie with the beaten egg to help it brown.

7. Pierce pastry around 3 times to allow air to escape and then bake in the oven for a good 30 minutes. Check after 30 mins, you may want to bake a little longer - the pastry should be crisp and brown.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Chocolate and pear crisp

Heaven forbid that I should take off for Easter and leave you with nothing but a creamy, leeky pork dish. Good it was. But it is hardly Easter-y. There is good reason for the lack of Easter-themed posting. As always, I am spending Easter at home on the Isle of Wight with my parents and family so it is my mother who is in charge of all things culinary. I would have loved to have baked and posted her delicious Simnel cake, but I'm not sure we would have managed to eat our way through both hers and mine!

Anyway, I couldn't leave you without something a little... chocolatey. I made these rather good pear and chocolate crisps on Wednesday night, when a friend came for dinner. Oh. You are wicked, I hear you thinking. But no. The good news is that these little chocolate treats have absolutely zero saturated fat. At least that is what Mary Cadogan tells me, via BBC Good Food. I'm perfectly happy to believe her.

These are a doddle to make. First you stick your spoon through a crispy, crackly layer of chocolate. Then you reach a gooey, almost souffle-like interior. And finally, a base of sticky pear. Want to take another look?

The chocolatey mixture looks most peculiar when you are mixing it together as there is no liquid. Don't let this worry you, do persevere. I actually found these too sweet (a miracle as I have the sweetest tooth known to man). I think that next time, I would cook the pear without any sugar. Or certainly half the amount, as per my version below.

You can find the original recipe for these here. My version is here. I wish you all a very Happy Easter!

Chocolate and Pear Crisp (BBC Good Food)
Serves 4

Ingredients -

3 ripe pears

juice of half a lemon

2 tablespoons water

light muscovado sugar to taste (1 heaped teaspoon-1 tablespoon)

50g icing sugar

1 tablespoon icing sugar

25g ground almonds

1 egg white (large egg)

1. Peel the pear and chop them into small pieces. Place in a small pan with the lemon juice and the water, plus the muscovado sugar. Bring to the boil, cover and cook for 10 mins. Uncover and cook for a further 10 mins until the juices start to thicken.

2. Pre-heat the oven to 160C. Sift the icing sugar and cocoa, then stir in the almonds. Whisk egg white until stiff and fold into dry ingredients. Fear not when it looks odd! Persevere!

3. Divide pear between four ramekins and spoon over some of the juices. Top with spoonfuls of the thick chocolate goo. There will be enough (provided you aren't using super-size ramekins). Give a quick shake to each ramekin so that the mixture evens out a little.

4. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the top is firm to the touch. Serve with a little creme fraiche to cut the sweetness, if you like!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pork with creamy leeks and mustard

Earlier this week, I found myself buying pork fillet. This may not sound surprising or even noteworthy. Yet it was. For I virtually never by pork. Unless it is in the form of sausages. Or bacon. Or ham. There is absolutely not reason whatsoever for this non-purchasing (and thereby non-cooking) of pork. I love it. I have absolutely no idea why I never cook it (aforementioned pork products aside).
The only reason I can proffer, is that my mother hardly ever cooks pork. As she and I are in many ways the same person, it is hardly surprising that my culinary habits are similar to hers.
The pork fillet in question looked tempting and I decided it was high time I made my peace with pork and actually cooked some. In retrospect, the fillet that I bought was a rather funny place to begin. It was extremely lean and thus devoid of flavour-giving fat - it sat there, looking at me, threatening to dry up completely upon contact with heat. I was nervous. Initial plans of coating in a mustard crust and roasting were put to one side in fear of very dry meat. I decided instead to cut the fillet into smallish medallions and pan fry quickly, before serving with a pork friendly sauce.

What, I hear you ask, is a pork-friendly sauce?! Apples are good with pork, yes. But I have a 'funny thing' about meat and fruit. Least said the better. So, I went with other natural partners: leeks, mustard and... cream! Could anything be better? Ok. A little cheese maybe. But I didn't want to go totally overboard.

I served my leeky porky mustardy creation with the new season's purple sprouting broccoli and a pile of fluffy mashed potato.
Pork medallions with creamy leeks and mustard
Serves 2
Ingredients -

Approx 200g pork fillet

2 large leeks (or 3 medium)

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

knob of butter

2 heaped tablespoons half fat creme fraiche (or double cream if you are feeling really wicked)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon wholegrain mustard

half a glass of white wine

salt and pepper

1. Turn oven to low temperature (for keeping plate and pork warm). Slice leeks lengthways, or in rings if you prefer. I like them in strips, like noodles, but we are all different.

2. Heat oil and butter in a non-stick frying pan and add the leeks and garlic. Soften over a lowish heat until transluscent and soft. Remove with a slotted spoon and set to one side. Pop a plate in the oven to warm.

3. Cut pork fillet into 2cm thick medallions. Fry in the same pan with the leek juices for around 8 minutes, turning half way through. When just cooked, transfer to plate to keep warm in low oven.

4. Pour wine into pan and bubble until almost entirely reduced and alcohol smell has vanished. Add leeks.

5. Mix together the creme fraiche and mustards. Add to leek mixture and heat, mixing well to combine. Continue to heat until sauce thickens slightly. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

6. Serve pork with sauce spooned over, or use sauce as a base for the pork medallions. Serve with fluffy mash and veggies of choice.

Notes - I like mustard a lot. If you prefer a milder, more subtle flavour, use a little less mustard. You can always add more to taste!

P.S. I am sorry if some recent posts have seemed badly formatted. I have been having trouble with blogger - whilst things look fine on the screen when I type, once I publish some of the text squashes together and in other areas large gaps mysteriously appear between paragraphs. If anyone can shed any light, I'd be most grateful!

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Easter chick gets the chop

Those of a sensitive nature should probably look away now..! The gorgeous chocolate Easter chick you see above met a rather sorry end on Sunday. Bought lovingly for one of my many nephews and nieces as a little Easter gift, my inner chocoholic got the better of me...

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking 'how could she?'. 'Who is this cruel-hearted murderess that we thought we knew?' Fear not. It was all in a very good cause. Really.

You see, a week or so ago, I was taking a look at a blog that has recently caught my eye. Though still only a young whipper-snapper studying for her A-levels, Indigo from Happy Love Strawberry is something of a demon in the kitchen (hmmm - she might not stoop to my chick-murdering level, but I'm not sure...). Brilliantly witty and rolling out one deliciously tempting treat after the next, I have become a big fan.

Anyway, I blame her entirely for the massacre of the Easter chick. You see I caught sight of these. Adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe, I knew I wanted one. In fact I wanted a whole lot more than one. Fudgy, crackly, sticky, chewy and deeply deeply chocolately - I could just tell from Indigo's gorgeous photos.

Now, what is the first rule of following a recipe? Read through the recipe thoroughly first and ensure you have all the right ingredients and utensils. Easy enough, hey? You'd think so. Anyway, I think you are guessing what happened with the chick. I totally failed to realise JUST HOW MUCH CHOCOLATE is in these little beauties. You need a lot of chocolate. I'm telling you now as I know you are going to want to cook these. Having searched every cupboard and drawer in the house, I just couldn't find quite enough. I had to improvise. So the chick got it. Sad, I agree. But not so sad when you consider just how delicious these cookies are. Or should I say 'were'.

However. I'm sad to say that mine didn't turn out quite as well as Indigo's. Go on. Take a look. Then come back and compare them with mine. Hmph. Not quite as good, are they?

Mine puffed up more than I was expecting - I was after something a bit... flatter. And they didn't go all crispy, crackly on top. I thought perhaps my oven was hotter (they were a little more cakey and not quite as gorgeously gooey as those other ones I am still coveting). But the last batch I cooked for only 8 minutes, yet still they were a little too puffy and cakey.

But don't let that put you off! Oh no. They were totally delicious - the most chocolately cookies I think I have ever eaten. Even I could only manage one ( a time). Testament to their deliciousness is that I took them to work today (around 20 of them) and they were all gone within half an hour. And there certainly aren't 20 of us in the office.

I'm not going to repeat the recipe here. You know where to find it. And anywhere, as I mentioned, hers are better than mine (...I'm trying not to sulk). I can tell you though, that if you are a chocoholic like me, then you really should try these cookies.

Now I come to think about it, I think perhaps they should be called 'brookies' as they are slightly like a cross between a brownie and a cookie. Now what could possibly be wrong with that?

Exactly. The Easter chick should be proud. He was sacrificed for a very, very good cause. I hope I am forgiven!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Smoked mackerel fishcakes

You may already be aware that I am quite partial to fresh mackerel. I eat this very rarely though because, when I say fresh, I really mean fresh. I like my mackerel to be caught and eaten on the same day. Preferably by myself. And this usually happens only once or twice a year. In between times, I usually get my mackerel fix with the odd bit of smoked mackerel paté, of which I am also a huge fan.

This week though, I decided to be a tiny bit more imaginative with my smoked mackerel and make some comforting fish cakes. Fish cakes, along with fish pie are, to me, the ultimate in fishy comfort (...if there exists such a thing). I think both are all the better when made with smoked fish for extra oomph. The strong flavour means you can get all excited and add a few other strongly flavoured ingredients into the mix - I used horseradish and capers but had I had them, I probably would have thrown in a few spring onions and even (dare I say it) a smattering of chopped red chilli. This is definately one of those recipes that invites tampering and forbids the use of careful measuring. A little of this, a smidge of that until the flavour is just how you like it.

I enjoyed mine served with a salad of peppery salad leaves and a little balsamicy /mustardy/honeyish dressing. Bold flavours all round!

Smoked mackerel fishcakes

serves two very hungry people as a main course or four as a starter

300g of smoked mackerel (this is a standard pack size)
2 good sized potatoes
1 heaped tablespoon horseradish sauce (or more or less to taste)
1 handful chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon drained capers, chopped small
squeeze of lemon juice
knob or two of butter
1 egg
plain flour for dusting

1. Peel and chop potatoes and then boil or steam. Mash with a little butter, but no milk or cream. You want a fairly solid mash.

2. Flake the fish into a bowl and mix thoroghly with the potato, horseradish, capers, lemon juice and parsley. Taste the mixture and adjust to taste - more horseradish? more lemon juice? Season with pepper and salt if needed (remember both fish and capers are pretty salty).

3. Crack the egg into a little dish and whisk briefly with a fork to combine white and yolk. Add egg to fishy mixture to help combine*.

4. Shape into fishcakes and coat with flour**. If you have time, place the cakes in the fridge for half and hour or so - they will hold their shape better upon cooking.

5. Heat a little oil and butter in a large non-stick frying pan and cook the fishcakes until crisp and golden on the outside and hot in the middle - around 7 minutes per side (longer if they are really cold from the fridge). Take care as you turn them over half way through cooking time!

Notes -

*the addition of egg is not strictly necessary. I didn't add egg for these ones. You can see that they didn't hold together that well - this didn't bother me in the slightest as they tasted superb, but if you want a firmer fishcake, then do add the egg.

**I coated my cakes in a light dusting of flour. Sometimes I coat them in egg first and then flour. And sometimes, for a really crispy coating, I dip them in egg and then breadcrumbs.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Madeira Island - no place for vampires

My holiday seems like an age away already! Since returning on Saturday, I've been to Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham, driven a high sided van down the A1 in the storms and had my car broken into. But just looking through the photos a moment ago reminded me of what a lovely week it was. Madeira is a stunningly beautiful place of rugged mountains, glittering sea, dazzling flowers and smiling faces.

The natural beauty of the place really is staggering though unfortunately, many visitors don't get to appreciate all that the island has to offer. Too many remain in the capital, Funchal, and delighted by its pretty cobbled streets, gorgeous gardens and stunning situation fail to venture into the rugged interior. Those who do will be rewarded by towering mountains, breathtaking views and a taste of rural life that has hardly changed over the past century. What a refreshing change from the usual hurly-burly of life in London!

Of course, that is not to say that Funchal isn't a great city. Sitting in a natural amphitheatre, it is the ideal base for a Madeiran holiday. Our hotel was situated in the hills a little way from the centre and had spectacular views over Funchal bay, the harbour and the Atlantic ocean. By day and by night...

But what of the food? Well. I'm not sure I'd recommend Madeira as a gourmet's paradise although it certainly has the raw ingredients - the mild climate mean that exotic fruits and vegetables are in abundance. A visit to the colourful mercado dos lavadores is a must to see all that the island produces. There were numerous fruits I didn't even recognise! What is truly remarkable is the terrain on which Madeiran farmers cultivate their crops - steep terraces cut into the mountainside make working the land back-breaking and laborious. And there is no rest for the wicked - the climate means that most fruit and vegetables ripen several times a year. It is not unusual for farmers to get four lots of potatoes in a year! Taking a walk through the farm terraces was a real eye-opener - I even saw my first ever avocado tree.

Unsurprisingly, fresh fish and shellfish is also delicious when prepared simply with olive oil, a little garlic and herbs. The speciality is 'espada', or black scabbard fish. To look at one, freshly caught, you might not be so keen to eat it. It is hardly the most appetising-looking specimen. This is because these fish live in the very depths of the ocean, surfacing only at night when they seek shallower waters in which to feed. Fishermen head out at around 2am to seek their catch to sell at market the following day...

I really enjoyed this fish - a fairly firm white fleshed fish with a pleasant flavour. It appears on every single menu, usually cooked in five or six different ways so it was fortunate that I liked it! I didn't try it cooked with banana - a speciality that I just didn't fancy!

Quality of meat was also excellent, in particularly the beef which was beautifully tender. I was slightly concerned that this was because the cows spent their lives living in tiny cowsheds on tiny terraces and therefore didn't move much, but I tried not to dwell on this too much. Some meat is also imported from the Azores. My favourite Madeiran speciality was the 'espetada' - a food usually served on high days and holidays. These are rather smart kebabs, I suppose. Large chunks of melt-in-the-mouth beef skewered with laurel twigs and grilled over an open flame. These are often served on extra long skewers which are hung ceremoniously above the table. This terrible photo should give something of an idea!

We enjoyed our 'espetadas' with sweet potatoes and salad, but fried bananas (!) and corn on the cob are also traditional.

Every meal should also begin with the really delicious 'bolo do caco' which is a type of flattened bread served with garlic butter and parsley -

Espetadas are also made with the ubiquitous black scabbard fish, mixed sea food and lamb. The best meals that we ate were the ones that were simple - seabass fillets grilled and served with a simple selection of vegetables, steak cooked to perfection on a hot stone and huge tiger prawns cooked with garlic. In fact, garlic featured in most dishes. Vampires visiting Madeira should beware. In my mind, attempts to 'smarten up' the food were less successful. Chefs seemed to be somehow stuck in the 70s or 80s - fiddly methods, prawn cocktails and an unhealthy obsession with flambéeing. Actually, the latter was quite welcome. I am particularly fond of crepes suzettes and the theatre associated with the whole flaming ritual was entertaining to watch...

During the week, I saw flambéed bananas, steaks, oranges, pineapples, prawns and pancakes.

Puddings haven't quite made it to Madeira - fresh fruit is the usual choice and is absolutely delicious, of course. I did enjoy a particularly good 'Pudim maracuja', or passionfruit pudding which was a creamy thing served in a glass, sweet and sharp at the same time - excellent. The Madeirans make up for their lack of puddings with an excellent array of cakes. Madeira cake as we know it in the UK is not, in fact, something you would find in Madeira. Bolo de Mel is the traditional cake of the island and it is delicious - a rich, dense honey cake made from sugar cane molasses and the odd nut plus a generous helping of spice. A bit like a dense ginger cake. I must find a recipe and try to reproduce it.

Of course, the thing I should really comment on is the wine. I absolutely adore Madeira wine. The wines are fortified and then matured in barrels in the sweltering hot attics of Madeira lodges, or heated in estufagem. This treatment would ruin most ordinary wines, but it is what makes Madeira so wonderful. The grape varieties in question take on a burnt caramel character with oxidation and the wines can be gloriously complex and interesting. Sercial and Verdelho wines are off-dry and make fantastic aperitifs served with a handful of nuts or a plate of cheese. Bual is somewhat sweeter and Malmsey the sweetest of them all. Malmsey is wonderful with chocolatey or nutty desserts or with a cup of coffee at the end of a meal.

Sadly, too many of us are familiar only with cheap cooking Madeira which can make wonderful sauces and gravies, but I urge you to discover the better wines. The best thing about them is that unlike Sherry and Port, they really do keep forever once open, especially the darker Bual and Malmsey wines. So, open a bottle, enjoy a glass or two and happily store in the cupboard until you fancy another glass (...if you can wait that long)!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Blogging by mail

I arrived back from holiday yesterday afternoon feeling rather glum. I'd had a great time - more on that later - but descending through the thick cloud and rain into Gatwick was enough to make anyone want to leap on the very next plain back to the sunshine. Everything just looked so grey. Everyone looked so... miserable. Unlike all the smiling, sun-kissed faces I'd met round every corner in Madeira. Having staggered home on the train with bags galore (plus a cumbersome bunch of strelizia which I insisted on bringing back with me), I wearily put my key in the door. What should be sitting outside on the doormat but a great big parcel from Washington. The lovely Lisa Rene had sent me a wonderful blogging by mail box of gourmet gifts. Hooray!
I just about managed to get my case through the door when excitement got the better of me and I just HAD to rip the parcel open, before even taking my coat off. Fortunately, my camera was at the top of my bag so I managed to capture the beautifully packaged gift. It felt just like Christmas - Lisa had wrapped each gift in brightly coloured tissue paper which added to the excitement. So, what did I get? All sorts of wonderful goodies. Lisa had taken great care to study my blog and work out some of my favourite kinds of foods and wrote a lovely note explaining her choices...
Want to take a look at the goodies? Here you go...
Lisa sent me some of her favourite seasonings - she explained how sea salt was her 'essential' seasoning and I couldn't agree more. But she didn't just send me ordinary sea salt. Oh no. She sent three very wonderful flavoured salts that I just can't wait to use.
I'm particularly excited about trying out the truffle salt which she suggested using in pasta or risotto dishes. Sounds wonderful...
Also included were saffron salt and porcini salt. I think these will really liven up my pasta dishes and the porcini salt should be a great addition to a plainly grilled steak. I can't wait to experiment with these indulgent seasonings. Lisa was so thoughful that she decided that I would need a special something in which to serve these lovely salts, and so she sent this gorgeous pewter salt cellar, shaped like a leaf. I think it may actually be a vine leaf, making it all the more appropriate. It will make a lovely addition to the dining table - thank you Lisa!
But it didn't end there. Oh no. Lisa had read my post on freshly-caught mackerel and was reminded of some gorgeous chocolate fish that she'd spotted in her local store - they are supposed to be salmon but Lisa and I have decided to pretend that they are mackerel. Either way, they look almost too good to eat, but I'm sure I'll be trying one later today!
Finally, having spotted my love of all things sweet and 'naughty', Lisa included a typical American campfire treat - a S'more. I've heard about this delicious treat and always wanted to try it as I just adore toasted marshmallows. This version may not have been toasted over a campfire, but it was delicious - I opened it straight away and finished it before I'd even opened my suitcase!
Lisa, I can't thank you enough for these great goodies. It really brightened up my home-coming. What a thoughtful package! For those of you who haven't discovered Lisa's blog, please do so. She cooks up wonderfully tempting yet healthy vegetarian food and great-looking cocktails (though, be warned, she likes them strong!). I'd also like to thank Stephanie at Dispensing Happiness for organising this fantastic event - it has been such fun to participate and your work in pairing everyone off is hugely appreciated! Do visit her blog too - lots of deliciousness over there!
For those who are interested in what I sent in my package, do hop over to Cave Cibum, where you'll discover the contents of my very British parcel.