Wednesday, 30 November 2011

To Salt or Not to Salt...

Eagle eyed readers may have noticed that I don’t add salt to any of my recipes on here (with the exception of chutneys where I feel the flavour genuinely needs a bit of salt to counteract the sweetness) and I even use low-salt stock.

I firmly believe that if good quality food is cooked well, with appropriate herbs and spices, then salt will add nothing at all to the mix, but from the way TV cooks throw salt into every dish you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s impossible to cook a dish without it. All this baloney they come out with about ‘correcting the seasoning’; well, it might be correct for you, Michel/Nigel/James et al, but it tastes like the North Sea to me, sunshine!

I don't see this as a health issue – it’s all about taste for me. I don’t slavishly follow every edict from the health fascists, in fact I mostly ignore them; they’ll change the advice next week/month/year anyway, so what’s the point? Although I was diagnosed with hypertension a long time ago I was told very firmly that cutting out salt was not necessary; however, I thought it wouldn’t do me any harm to cut down a bit. Well, to my surprise, I found I preferred food without salt; I started to really taste food properly and realised that contrary to popular opinion salt doesn’t make food taste better…it makes it taste of salt!

What amazes me is the gullibility of people who buy ridiculously expensive so-called 'gourmet' salt which they believe to be somehow superior to common or garden table salt. It now seems they may be forced to eat their words liberally sprinkled with their fashionable designer salt, given that the chemical content of all salt is virtually the same. It’s very much a case of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ as far as I’m concerned, but no foodie worth their salt (sorry!) would dare to say so. Uttering such sacrilege would have them drummed out of the foodie clique…and that would never do.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Mince Pies

If you’ve read this blog before you will know that I am completely unable to make pastry. It’s not that I haven’t tried, it’s just that it doesn’t work for me….So why, you may ask, did I find myself standing in the kitchen this afternoon having yet another try at this seemingly impossible task?

Well, I was flicking through a couple of my old Christmas recipe books, which haven’t seen the light of day for about 20 years, when I came across one by Nanette Newman (!) which was published in 1984! Don’t ask…I have no idea why I bought it, but it probably seemed like a good idea at the time; anyway, there was a recipe in there for mince pies with this amazing sounding orange and almond pastry. I’m a fool to myself but, with much trepidation, I decided to give it a go.

I am astonished and very pleased to report that not only were the pies edible, they were really good! I think it had something to do with the pastry being more like shortbread than shortcrust. It didn’t mind my heavy handedness and it even put up with having the trimmings re-rolled. Result! Eat your heart out Heston, mine tasted better than yours!

I’ve reproduced the ingredients list here but I’ve had to re-write the instructions in my own words for copyright reasons, which is just as well, really, because I used a food processor and Nanette allegedly made the pastry by hand. No chance of me doing that; I've failed too many times before!  

275g plain flour
25g ground almonds
175g butter, chilled and diced
75g icing sugar, sifted
grated zest of ½ an orange
1 egg yolk
3-4 tbsps of orange juice
450g mincemeat
a little milk

Put the flour, ground almonds and butter in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs; add the icing sugar and orange zest then pulse again briefly; mix the orange juice and egg yolk together, add it to the mix and pulse until the mixture forms large clumps.

Tip out onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly just until it comes together; wrap in cling-film and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes.

Roll the pastry out to the thickness of a £1 coin on a lightly floured surface and stamp out circles for the pie bases; lightly knead the trimmings into a ball, re-roll, and stamp out smaller circles for the lids. Press the bases into a bun tin, put a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat in each then press on the lids. Brush with milk and make a couple of slits in the top with a sharp knife.

Bake at 190C fan for 15 minutes until golden and sprinkle with sifted icing sugar before serving.

I made 21 pies from this, but I think you could probably get the full two dozen if you're braver than me and you roll the pastry a little more thinly.

Lovely served warm and if you happen to have a small spoonful of brandy butter to hand to tuck under the lid, so much the better.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Christmas Cake II

It’s ‘Stir-up Sunday’ today, the day when people traditionally make their Christmas puddings; we’re not having the usual sort of pud so, instead, I made my Christmas cake.

(I've just noticed that the whole hazelnuts look like little pebbles on the surface of the cake; too bad, no-one will see them when the marzipan is in place!)

Last year I made Nigel Slater’s small fruit cake; it was really nice, good texture and lighter than most rich fruit cakes I’ve tasted. However, we both agreed that a larger cake was needed to last the two of us through December, so I have to confess I’ve fiddled with the recipe a bit and I’ve also scaled it up somewhat to make an 18cm square cake.

I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but I do like a piece of cake with a cuppa of a winter’s afternoon. If I can combine it with a bit of present wrapping and maybe a Christmas song or two on the radio, so much the better!

675g mixed dried fruit (along with the usual vine fruits I included some dried cranberries, chopped preserved ginger and chopped dried apricots)
3 tbsp brandy
2 tbsp Cointreau
grated zest and juice of an orange
190g unsalted butter
100g light muscovado sugar
90g dark muscovado sugar
3 large eggs
100g whole hazelnuts
60g ground almonds
190g plain flour
1 level tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
brandy for feeding the cake

an 18cm square cake tin or a 20 cm round tin if you prefer

Put the dried fruit into a bowl, pour over the brandy and Cointreau, then add the zest and juice of the orange. Stir the fruit well to coat it in the alcohol, cover, and set aside overnight.

Next day, line the cake tin with a double layer of non-stick baking parchment allowing the paper to come 5cm above the rim of the tin.

Turn the oven on to 160C.

Beat the butter and sugars with an electric hand mixer until light and fluffy. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl and add them, a little at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar, beating well after each addition. Add the dried fruit, ground almonds and whole hazelnuts, stirring them in well with a large spoon (don’t use the mixer now, it’ll break up the fruit).

Sift the flour with the baking powder and spices then stir it into the cake mixture, a heaped tablespoon at a time.

Spoon the mixture into the lined cake tin then bake for exactly one hour without opening the door. Turn the temperature down to 150C, quickly place a double sheet of baking paper over the top of the cake and continue cooking for a further 1½ hours.

Test by inserting a skewer into the centre of the cake, it should slide out cleanly, if it looks a bit damp or sticky give it another ten minutes in the oven and test again with a clean skewer.

Let it cool in its tin and, when it’s cold, wrap the cake and its paper in another layer of baking paper and store in an airtight tin in a cool place. Feed it with a little brandy every week till you’re ready to decorate it.

I think I'll do the same as I did last year: no icing, just a layer of marzipan topped with nuts and dried fruits with an apricot and brandy glaze.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Nut Roast Wellington

I’m planning to do this rather spiffing Nut Roast Wellington as the centrepiece of our Christmas lunch this year. Having never made one before the last thing I wanted was to put the whole thing together on Christmas morning only to find it didn’t work…! Nightmare! So, a couple of weeks ago, before I went down with the dreaded lurgy, I decided to have a trial run.

The thing I was most worried about was the pastry splitting, allowing all the filling to fall out, but I needn’t have worried; it all held together nicely and went surprisingly well.

Although the instructions look lengthy, it’s actually not as fiddly to do as I expected; it sounds much worse than it is. Now I’ve done it I feel quite confident about doing it again; in fact, I’m looking forward to it.

I shall be serving this on Christmas Day with roast potatoes, maple roast roots (parsnips, carrots and celeriac), sprouts with chestnuts and proper homemade gravy. Lovely!

Incidentally, if you're looking for something to serve with the leftover Wellington, can I suggest this Root Vegetable Gratin? It tastes brilliant and it cleverly uses up any leftover roasted roots from Christmas Day.

Nut Roast mixture:

1 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
200g whole mixed nuts
175g fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs
75g mature cheddar, grated
200ml stock
1 egg, beaten
½ tsp Marmite
1 tsp dried oregano
25g dried cranberries

Mushroom Duxelles:

250g chestnut mushrooms, very finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
few fresh thyme leaves
25g butter

500g pack of ready-rolled puff pastry
1 egg, beaten

For the Mushroom Duxelles:
Sweat the mushrooms, thyme and chopped shallot in the butter over a very low heat until all the liquid has evaporated and you are left with an almost dry mushroom pate. Set aside to cool.

For the Nut Roast:
Sauté the chopped onion in the olive oil until golden and set aside to cool.
Grind the nuts in a food processor until reasonably fine, but still with some texture. Place the ground nuts in a large bowl; add the breadcrumbs, grated cheddar, oregano and cooled onion; mix well. (At this point you can put it in the fridge and finish it off next day, if you want.) Whisk the stock together with the beaten egg and Marmite; add this to the bowl and mix with a fork until the mixture starts to hold together. Remove about 1/3 of the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the dried cranberries.

Assembling the Wellington:
Unroll the pastry onto a lightly floured surface and roll lightly with a rolling pin to make it a bit larger.

Put the nut roast mixture with cranberries in the centre of the pastry and form into a rough rectangle about 8cm x 12cm. Spread the mushrooms duxelles over the top, then cover with the remaining nut roast mixture.

Now the fun begins! Fold the edges of the pastry over like a parcel, to completely enclose the nut roast, using the beaten egg to seal all the edges. You may need to cut off a bit of the pastry to avoid the seams being too thick. (I cut some little Christmas trees from the trimmings and stuck them on top but, quite frankly, that was a waste of time!)

Line a shallow baking tray with non-stick baking paper and, very carefully, turn the Wellington over and lay it, seam-side down, on the baking tray. Brush all over with the rest of the beaten egg and bake at 210C for 20 minutes then turn the temperature down to 180C and cook for a further 35-40 minutes until deep golden brown and cooked through. (I have a fan oven so you may need to adjust timings or temperatures a bit).

It looked a bit like a rather gorgeous loaf of bread when it came out of the oven! Allow to cool for about 20 minutes before cutting in thick slices to serve.

Serves 4 with lots of lovely leftovers to pick at later!

Quick update:  Last year I decided to go down the route of making a plait. To be honest, it was much easier and quicker than the original version and it was just as yummy.

All I did was lay the ready-rolled puff pastry on a floured baking sheet, put the same filling as above length-ways down the centre third, then cut the pastry either side into an even number of strips slightly on the diagonal; brush the strips with beaten egg then fold over the filling, making sure you tuck the ends in neatly. Brush the whole thing with more beaten egg and bake as above. 

And there you go - you have yourself a gorgeous golden Christmas Nut Roast Plait!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Leek and Potato Soup

Cooking has sort of fallen by the wayside for almost a couple of weeks; I started off with a cold then managed to pick up a stomach bug (deep joy!) and I've now got another cold; when I cough I sound like a sealion…so attractive!

I’ve just about cleaned out all the soups I had stored in the freezer – I seem to have lived on soup and toast recently – so I’ve had a soup-making session in the kitchen this morning. Leek and potato is very comforting and easy on a delicate tum whilst tomato and red lentil should pep up my poor old jaded tastebuds.

Two weeks ago I was planning to make my Christmas cake and do a bit a baking for the freezer; hopefully next week I shall return to the land of the living and get cracking.

Early night for me I think.

25g butter
4 medium leeks
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1 large floury potato, peeled and diced
1l stock
1tbsp crème fraiche
a little chopped parsley

Melt the butter gently in a large saucepan; trim off the greenest part of the leeks (keep it for making stock) then finely chop the rest of the leeks and add them to the pan along with the chopped onion and diced potato. Turn the vegetables to coat them with the melted butter, put the lid on and let them sweat over a very low heat for 15 minutes. Add the stock and bring to the boil; simmer gently for a further 15 minutes.

Blitz the soup like billy-o with a stick blender until it’s silky smooth then stir in the crème fraiche.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve piping hot.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Tomato and Basil Pasta Sauce

This is one of the most useful recipes ever – a multi-purpose tomato and basil pasta sauce which can be made in bulk and frozen in handy-size portions to bring out whenever you need it. It's so simple that I dithered for ages about putting it on here; well, let's be honest, pasta sauce isn't terribly exciting, is it?

I first started making this years ago when I was still at work and always looking for shortcuts. These days I have a lot more time on my hands, but I still make a batch for the freezer every couple of months; it’s brilliant for roast veg pasta bakes, garlicky mushrooms with spaghetti, spag bol with soya mince, gnocchi and aubergine bake, pizzas…the list is almost endless.

Just because it’s made in bulk it doesn’t mean that every pasta meal you use it for will taste the same. To each defrosted portion, along with your chosen veg, add some different herbs or maybe a splash of balsamic, perhaps a few olives and capers, some chilli flakes…or whatever takes your fancy at the time.

2 onions, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp of oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes
8 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
50ml red wine
3 tins chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
250ml stock
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil

Heat the oil in a large pan and gently fry the onion for 5 minutes; add the crushed garlic and fry for a further minute. Add all the other ingredients, except the basil, stir well and bring to the boil; turn the heat right down and simmer without a lid for about an hour, by which time the sauce will be thickened and concentrated. (I feel I should warn you, the contents of the pan will plop and bubble like ‘Old Faithful’ in Yellowstone Park; it’ll make an awful mess of your cooker and splashback!)

Take off the heat and add the chopped basil; if you like a smooth sauce you can blitz it but I prefer to leave it chunky. Allow to cool then divide into your chosen portions and freeze.

Depending on what I use it for I find this makes enough for four to six meals for the two of us.