Friday 28 December 2012

The best 10 cookbooks of 2012

The year is almost over, the last cookbook of the year was welcomed to the household on Christmas Day - so it's time to introduce you to my TOP TEN books of 2012 (4 to 10 in alphabetical order):

1 "Orient Express" by Silvena Rowe

I was simply blown away by the Eastern Mediterranean recipes of this half-Turkish chef (and I was already a huge fan of her previous book "Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume"): light, fresh, completely "new" Ottoman-inspired food which is utterly divine - and easy to cook.

My favourites: Spiced quail and foie gras filo parcels, p. 4 (I used chicken); Caesar-style chicken salad, p. 76 (we had it AGAIN last night with leftover turkey); Rosewater-infused lamb shoulder with saffron and cardamon, p. 165

2 "A Girl And Her Pig" by April Bloomfield

This is SO MY kind of book: down-to-earth Brummie and passionate cook April has taken New York by storm with her three restaurants and it's easy to see why: delicious yet straighforward recipes with, above all, a huge love of nose-to-tail eating (she IS best friends with Fergus Henderson) which I simply adore - and each accompanied by helpful tips and wonderful tales.

My favourites: Mussels stuffed with mortadella, p. 103; Fried pig's ear salad, p. 86; Slow-cooked lamb's head, p. 156 (but even I would remove the eyes and brain before it goes in the oven!)

3 "Curry Nation" by Madhur Jaffrey

I was quite disappointed with Madhur Jaffreys's last book "Curry Easy" (I thought she had pared down her recipes far too much), but this is a most fantastic book: a compilation of authentic recipes from Indian chefs/restaurants - and home cooks! - from all over the UK. This is vibrant, modern and uncomplicated Indian food - an absolute delight.

My favourites: Lamb with potatoes, p. 41; Whole chicken with carom seeds, p. 80

4 "Cake Days" by The Hummingbird Bakery
I LOVE their first book ("The Hummingbird Bakery") and this is surely the BEST follow-up: the most gorgeous, innovative cake recipes you could ever think of... yummy!!!

5 "Everyday" by Peter Gordon
What can I say? You know he's one of my favourite cooks and this book - which is crammed full of mouthwatering recipes - is another winner in my kitchen!

6 "15 minute meals" by Jamie Oliver
I was quite sceptical about this - and I would NEVER attempt to cook these recipes in 15 minutes, but they are all really, really delectable - and (obviously) quick and easy.

7 "How to bake" by Paul Hollywood
Yes yes I "like" him (a lot...), but this book is simply great for the home baker (both novice and experienced) - I especially love his savoury breads...

8 "Recipes from my mother for my daughter" by Lisa Faulkner
A surprise hit by the former "Holby City" actress and winner of "Masterchef 2010": simply lovely, warm yet accomplished home cooking.

9 "Spice it up!" by Levi Roots
I'm a huge fan of Levi (his first book "Carribean Food Made Easy" is one of my all-time favourites) and his latest is - again - full of fresh "sunshine food" recipes that bring a smile to my face every time.

10 "Wahaca - Mexican food at home" by Thomasina Miers
I love, love, LOVE THIS BOOK - and I intend to cook each and every recipe therein!

So: which were your favourite cookbooks of 2012? I'd love to hear from you!

Friday 21 December 2012

Gifts - good enough to eat...

I'm just about to finish a week-long bake/cook-off marathon - which included four birthday cakes for my daughter (carrot and chocolate cakes of course - but this time all in a heart-shaped mould from IKEA) - both Mary (Berry) and "lovely" Paul (Hollywood) would surely be proud of me! And I've just potted/bagged up the last of my edible goodies to give away to friends/family/teachers. I often use this as an excuse to try out new recipes, but this year I've gone with three of my all-time oldies but goldies (BUT with one fantastic newcomer as well).

Tomato-chili jam with ginger and lemongrass...

This fantastic recipe was given to me years ago by my friend Emma - the ultimate and undisputed queen of chutneys and jams (her "preserves cupboard" is a cornucopia of shelf after shelf of jewel-coloured jars in front of which grown (wo)men have been known to weep...). This is simply stunning - and so so easy (and can be eaten straightaway):

1 kg ripe tomatoes
1 - 8 long red chilies*
6 garlic cloves
2 stems of lemongrass
2 thumb-sized pieces ginger, peeled
6 star anise
200 ml red wine vinegar
300g golden caster sugar

Finely dice half of the tomatoes (with skins and seeds).
Roughly chop the other half of the tomatoes, the chillies, garlic, lemongrass and ginger and put into a blender/food processor. Blend until smooth.
Tip into a large wide pan and add the sugar, vinegar and the star anise. Cook over medium heat, stirring, to dissolve the sugar. Increase the heat and bring to the boil.
Add the diced tomatoes and reduce the heat. Simmer for about an hour until it has reduced and thickened. To test if it's set, pop a saucer into the freezer for a couple of minutes. Spoon a little jam onto it, cool, then run your finger through it - the surface will wrinkle if the jam is at setting point. Divide the hot jam among sterilised jars, seal and set aside to cool. 

* I am a complete wimp when it comes to chilies, so 2/3 of 1 (deseeded) is enough for me...

There is no need to sterilise your jars - just put them (on their own)  through the highest temperature wash of your dishwasher and let them dry completely.

This makes enough for exactly three 200g jars, but I always double the amount - the only extra work is dicing the tomatoes!

... and savoury rosemary and walnut shortbread

I devised this recipe as an hommage - and perfect accomplishment - to the tomato-chili jam recipe. These melt-in-the-mouth biscuits are SO delicious and unusual - and, of course, a doddle to make (and the dough behaves beautifully). And as they are so small, you can (according to Marjorie Dawes) "eat double the amount!":

225g plain flour
50g cornflour
50g polenta
200g salted butter
1 tbs sugar

2 tbs rosemary, finely chopped
60g walnuts/pecan nuts, chopped
1 egg yolk

Pre-heat the oven to 180°/fan 160°.
Put the flour, cornflour, polenta, butter and sugar into a food processor and whizz until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Add the egg yolk, rosemary and walnuts and whizz to a dough.
Tip on to a work surface and shape into two logs about 6 cm across. 
Wrap in cling film and chill for 1 hour.
Slice the dough into biscuits ca 0,5 - 1 cm thick and put on a lined baking sheet.
Bake for 20 mins and cool completely before handling.

If you don't have polenta (but I think every kitchen has a bag hiding somewhere...), use 25g of cornflour and 25g of plain flour instead.
If you don't have salted butter, add just under 1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) of salt to the dough.

Apricot and white chocolate cookies

The ingredients may sound unusual (cream cheese??), but they produce the most utterly divine biscuits: soft yet meltingly crispy around the edges with a perfectly balanced sweetness - you just have to try them to know what I mean:

100g butter
100g cream cheese
100g caster sugar
75g plain flour
50g chopped dried apricots
65g white chocolate, chopped

Preheat the oven to 180°. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and cream cheese.  Add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Gradually add the flour and fold in the apricots and chocolate. Drop the mixture by heaped tbs onto non stick or lined baking sheets, leaving lots of space between each cookie, and bake in the oven for about 10 - 15mins or until lightly golden. Allow to cool and harden for a few mins before removing them from the baking sheet and transfer to a wire rack.

I always double the amount of dough because these cookies don't even see the biscuit tin in their time...

Chocolate and pistachio fudge

This is a recipe straight from the wonderful Nigella Lawson I saw it last week on her Christmas special from a few years ago. It couldn't be any easier - and it does make A LOT of dark, lovely fudge to give away (these bags above were just 1/4 of the whole lot):

350g dark chocolate (70% minimum)
397g condensed milk
30g butter
1 pinch of salt
150g pistachio nuts

Put the chocolate, condensed milk, butter and salt into a large microwaveable bowl. 
Microwave on medium heat for ca 2 mins (checking/stirring every 30 secs) until melted.
Put the nuts into a ziplock bag and bash with a rolling pin.
Add the nuts to the chocolate mix and stir well to mix.
Pour the mixture into a lined tin ca 23cm square and smooth the top. 
Let cool and refridgerate until set. Then cut into small pieces (ca. 2 x 2.5 cm)

Monday 17 December 2012

Party food!

I really love catering for parties - with a steady, never-ending stream of tempting nibbles (both savoury and sweet) being carried out of the kitchen until the guests can eat no more and have to waddle home... So here are two of my longest-standing (and most sucessful) party pieces which I dished up yesterday for a Christmas get-together (with goat cheese tartlets with red onion marmelade and tomatoes, banana bread and mini raspberry and white chocolate muffins - recipes to follow another time!):

Curried puffs

These are unashamedly retro - something you would expect 70s cookery writer Josceline Dimbleby to have put on her dinner table (together with avocado mousseline and coronation chicken) - but fear not: they are utterly irresistible - and so easy to make! (The job is even easier if you use a pasty maker - one of my trusted party food tools in the kitchen):

1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and chopped
200g lamb mince (or beef and pork)
a handful of frozen peas
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp garam masala
2 tbsp sweet mango chutney
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 x 230g puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 190°.
Sweat off the onion, garlic and ginger in the oil and add the curry powder. Cook for a minute and stir in the mince, breaking it up with a spoon, then fry until browned a little. Add the frozen peas and let them thaw, then stir in the chutney, garam masala and seasoning. Leave to cool. (This can also be done a few days in advance.)

Cut out as many 10 cm discs as you can of the pastry (re-roll the leftover scraps as well). Put a generous spoonfull of the curried mince on one half, then brush the edges with the egg and fold over into a semi-circular shape, making sure to press down all the edges firmly. Brush all over with more egg and bake for 20 - 25 mins until puffed and golden.

I often double or treble the quantities and turn the extra/left-over mix into one big pie or 4 individual ones (made with puff or shortcrust pasty). They then go in the freezer for another day (served with a green or a tomato-cucumber-onion salad).

Vietnamese meatballs

Meatballs are one of the easiest things to serve at parties as they can be made a good few days in advance - and they freeze very well. I've made these beauties so many times that I could literally do them in my sleep, but a few years ago I became obsessed with creating an ever-expanding "flavour range" for my boulettes: North African, Indian, Middle Eastern... I was like a demented Heston Blumenthal ("Let's push it chef - we can do it: Sardines and chocolate! Saffron and lard!! Sandals and beetlejuice!!!"). They were all very nice but none were as good as the original version:

500g mince  (pork and veal or just pork)
1 bunch of spring onions (whites AND greens)
3 cloves of garlic
a fat thumb of ginger, peeled
1 stem of lemongrass
a good handful of coriander (leaves and stems) and mint (leaves only) each
a good tbsp of fish sauce
1 egg
50g fresh breadcrumbs
2 tbsp of vegetable oil

Blitz the onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, herbs and fish sauce into a paste. Put the mince into a large bowl, add the paste, egg and breadcrumbs. Season and mix well. Put a handbowl of water next to you and roll the mix into small walnut-sized balls (wetting your hands after every four or so balls makes this very easy).
Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the meatballs over a medium heat until lightly browned. (You might have to do them in batches). They will be cooked through when they are firm to the touch.

My default recipe for boulettes is 500g mince = 1 egg = 1 onion = 50g breadcrumbs and it works every time: good fryable consistency without being too firm/dry.
You can substitute the grated zest of a lime for the lemongrass.
When using the meatballs from cold, reheat in a tbsp of oil for a few minutes until hot.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Catalan chicken (at "The Dalberg Arms")

This well-thumped recipe always puts a huge smile on my face: it takes me straight back to the early 90s and into our house in Brixton - or "The Dalberg Arms", as it was known - even then we loved to cook for friends, ply them with fine wine (supplied by "Maria's Fine Wines" just across the road) - oh and there were even "live acts": who could forget the dinner party where the host (NOT THE HOSTESS!!) disappeared for ages - only to stomp in again wearing my Burberry trenchcoat - and cardboard boxes for shoes - AND two wooden chopping boards for hands (he was chanelling "Edward Cheeseboardhands" apparently).

So, but for the recipe: it is absolutely sublime - looking at the ingredients you might think it can't be that special, but trust me: once encased in the chicken's cavity, it all comes together in the most aromatic, fluffy, wonderful "Spanish" way! (BTW: I clipped this from a "women's magazine" in 93 and I so well remember the first time I cooked it: it was a Sunday in March 94, it was freezing outside, and my (now) husband and two friends were at Wembley Stadium where Aston Villa had just beaten Manchester United in the Cup Final (3:1)!! Happy homecoming indeed!)

1 chicken (ca 1,5 kg)
75g raisins
4 tbsp dry sherry
3 medium onions, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
50g pine nuts
150g chorizo, finely chopped
250g fresh breadcrumbs
1 tsp each dried thyme and rosemary
zest of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to °200.
Mix together the raisins and sherry and leave to soak.
Sweat off the onions and garlic with the olive oil. Add the pinenuts, brown them a little, then add the raisins and sherry and cook until the liquid has evaporated.
Stir in the rest of the ingredients and seasoning, mix well then leave to cool.
Remove any excess fat from the chicken's cavity, then pack in the stuffing - it should all fit in. You can close the opening with a few cocktail sticks.
Cook  for ca 90 mins or until the juices run clear when a leg joint is pierced with a knife or skewer.

(Serves 4)

The stuffing also works very well with (cooked) rice instead of breadcrumbs.

You obviously have to cook the chicken longer with the stuffing, so please weigh it once stuffed and adjust your cooking times for that weight.

Monday 3 December 2012

The jewels in the crown of my hood

Living in a multi-cultural neighbourhood means we're absolutely spoilt for choice when it comes to shopping for fresh produce: there are two fantastic Turkish and North African greengrocers at the top of our road - and two at the bottom. (I will write a feature about them all soon!) I'm also a big fan of the local Turkish supermarkets, and last week I struck pure gold at : 0.5g of saffron threads for only €3.85!! (And they came in the most beautiful little box...)

So I thought they would surely do justice for a stunning - yet so easy - dessert made for dear friends:

Saffron-poached pears...

4 - 6 firm pears, peeled
75g sugar
2 tbs honey
juice of 1 medium orange
2 cloves
2 green cardamom pods
half a cinnamom stick
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped out (or 1 tsp of vanilla essence)
a good pinch of saffron strands

Put everything apart from the pears into a big-enough pan with 300 ml of water and bring to a simmer. Give it all a good whisk and add the pears, then cover and simmer for ca 30 mins until tender (turn them over a few times to get an even colour). Transfer to a bowl and reduce the poaching liquid until syrupy. Pour over pears and chill until ready to serve.

  ...with ginger ice cream

600 ml double cream
300 ml full-fat milk
5 large egg yolks
100 g caster sugar
2 stem ginger balls in syrup, finely chopped
1 tbs stem ginger syrup
1/2 tsp ground ginger

Heat the milk and cream until almost boiling. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until pale and thick. Pour the hot milk onto the egg mixture, whisking, then return to the pan. Put on a low heat, whisking continously until the cream has thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the ginger. Pour into a shallow dish and leave to cool. Freeze for an hour. Stir the mixture with a fork to break up any ice crystals. Repeat twice more.

I use my electric whisk to make the ice cream custard - it works every time and never gets lumpy this way!

You can - of course - use an ice cream maker. (I do...)

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Where my cookbooks live

Today was a MOST traumatic day which I'd been dreading for weeks: it was finally time to choose another unfortunate cookbook from the "A-Team" (the prime-time three-shelf location in the kitchen) to be relegated to the "Second Division" (the poor cousin's inferior bookshelves upstairs). It really upsets me to have to "make the cut" once in a while as I feel I'm saying a tearful good-bye to a treasured long-time companion, but I couldn't put it off any longer - the A-Teamers were simply bursting at their seams and threatening to take the whole structure down (wine rack and all...). So, with regret, this time it was Angela Hartnett's "A Taste of Home" which was fired (nice-enough but ultimately boring). But to make the shameful transition less painful, I've placed her between fellow Great British Chef contestant Shaun Hill's "The Merchant House" (wonderful but simply too cheffy for the pole position) and fellow Italian Valentina Harris' "Recipes from an Italian Terrace" (again, too boring). (Unfortunately, though, Angela now finds herself on the shelf above the collected works of her former mentor Gordon Ramsay (terrific, but not for day-to-day use) which are still kicking up a vicious rant each and every day for being "dissed" - they're "F****ING FURIOUS MATE!")

There are some books, however, that I could NEVER banish from the top spot - carrying them upstairs would be the equivalent of carrying a most-loved, respected and revered grandparent to a remote mountain and leaving them there to die... so - these are the works of:

Nigel Slater - his greedy passion for food - and his "passionate" writing style - are simply second to none: he's been one of my (and fellow foodies') biggest kitchen heroes for 20 years. (I remember a Brussels dinner party in the mid-90s were everyone was cooing: "Oh, is this one of Nigel's?" "Aah - Nigel's come up trumps again!" "Yes, you just can't beat Nigel!" to which the (visiting) brother of the hostess inquired brightly: "So who is this Nigel friend of yours then - does he live in Brussels too?" Cue sheepish muttering...) 

Jamie Oliver - do I need to say ANYTHING?

Bill Granger - this Australian chef is another food hero of mine. His cooking is simply wonderful: inspired, innovative and experimental - but above all uncomplicated and simple.

Peter Gordon I so adore this New Zealand chef (and founder of London's legendary "The Sugar Club" and “The Providores” restaurants): He is the king of vibrant Pacific Rim flavours which are easily accessible to the home cook.

So, that's it for me today - I just looked in on Angela and she's settling in ok. (She IS giving me the dirty eye though...) But which cookbooks have prime position on your bookshelves – and why? I'd love to hear from you! 

Saturday 24 November 2012

Char siu pork...

... and Szechuan pepper salad

For yesterday's dinner I made one of my all-time favourite easy and quick meals which I've been dishing up for years - and which never fails to delight in all its Chinese(y) glory: aromatic and sticky-sweet pork accompanied by a sour-spicy salad... heaven on a plate!

500g pork loin
a thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
1 large garlic clove, crushed
2 tbs Hoisin sauce
2 tbs dark soy sauce
2 tbs honey
1 tsp five-spice powder
2 tsp light soft brown sugar

1 cucumber
1 bunch of spring onions
1 handful of chopped coriander (leaves and stems)
1 handful of chopped mint leaves
juice of 1 lime
1 tbs fish sauce 
1 tsp crushed Szechuan peppercorns
1 scant ts sesame oil

Preheat the oven to 200°.
Whisk the marinade ingredients together.
Put the pork in a ziplock bag and pour the marinade over.
Close and massage the mixture into the meat. (Ideally, leave to marinade for at least 2 hours or overnight - but it is still absolutely delicious if used straight away.)
Put a large piece of tin foil into a suitably-sized roasting dish. Add the meat and the marinade and then fold/scrunch up the tin foil to make a parcel/pouch.
Cook for ca 30 mins - it's done when a metal skewer inserted into the thickest part comes out hot to the touch.
When done, rest the covered meat while you reduce the cooking juices in a pan until they're thickened.

For the salad, simply peel and deseed the cucumber and cut into thin half moon slices.
Cut the spring onions into rings. Add the herbs.
Whisk all the remaining ingredients together and mix with the salad.

This dish is supposed to feed 4 - but in our house (even with added rice) there's only ever just enough for two adults and one child!
I buy all my Chinese spices from Kam Yuen Supermarket off Bvd Ansbach/opposite the Bourse - it's also brilliant for Indian spices.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Bargain Hunter's Game Delight - at Lidl

My first post-holiday trip to Lidl has left me with a bulging bag of goodies - all in "the name of  the game"! I am most excited about the two 500g packs of wild boar stewing meat - fantastic value at €6.99 per half kilo. (During the holidays they were even on offer for €5.99!) Next new and impressive item was a 600g bag of frozen wild mushrooms - for €3.69! (They also do 300g bags of ceps or chanterelles for the same price.) I wouldn't dream of buying frozen white mushrooms, but these were amazing: heady with their musky, woody aroma, meaty - and they retained their shape and texture brilliantly after being sweated off.

I also couldn't resist 250g of wild boar pate with cognac - an absolute steal at €1.99. And just to push the boat out, I bought a 150g jar of red fruit confit for €1.59 as well - and a big round (360g) of lovely fromage de brebis coated in thyme and rosemary (€ 5.99). With these items I could easily serve a four-course "game meal" (pate, mushrooms, wild boar stew, cheese) for six for under €5 per head (that sum would include a bit of salad, bread + potatoes)!

After looking through loads of lovely wild boar casserole recipes I came up with this Belgian beer version (to serve 6) which is absolutely stunning. And as wild boar is obviously not that easy to come by and usually much more expensive (but please DO check your local (British/French/German) Lidl branches for offers!) this would work nicely with venison - and beef or lamb:

1 kg of cubed wild boar (quite big pieces ie 5 cm)
2 tbs of seasoned flour
3 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
300g of wild mushrooms, chopped/sliced roughly*
2 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tsp of thyme (dried)
250 ml of dark beer/ale/biere brun
400 ml of beef stock (from a cube)
4 tbs of vegetable oil

3 tbs each of:
creme fraiche
red fruit jam/jelly (not strawberry or raspberry though)

Preheat the oven to °160.
Put the meat in a large ziplock bag with seasoning and mix well to coat.
Heat 1 tbs of oil and sweat off the onions and garlic. Transfer to a large casserole dish.
Heat another tbs of oil and sweat off the mushrooms (if using frozen ones, there will be a bit more liquid - but it all evaporates in a few minutes). Add to the onion mix.
Heat the rest of the oil and brown the meat. Deglaze the pan with the stock, stirring to loosen all the lovely "brown  bits". Add to the casserole together with the stock, beer and herbs/spices and seasoning.
Bring to the boil, cover with the lid and transfer to the oven.
Cook for 2 hours. Check the meat - it should be tender. If not, cook for another 30 mins.
Add the jam, creme fraiche and cognac and stir to combine. Check seasoning.

Serve with mashed potatoes.

* You can, of course, use normal mushrooms - but ideally jazzed up with a few (soaked) dried mushrooms for extra flavour (use the soaking liquid for the stock!) Aldi do a great value 100g of mixed wild ones for under 4 Euro.

Yesterday I added a leftover large parsnip and a chunk of celeriac (boiled together) to the potatoes - lovely!

Saturday 10 November 2012

A kinda Mexican supper

I've always been obsessed with Mexican food - mainly because, until recently, I've never had "the real thing": in my years in the UK there were only horrid Tex-Mex chain restaurants - a travesty of chicken goop and nachos smothered with fluorescent yellow cheese - only "helped down" by copious jugs of margaritas... There was a welcome respite though during a trip to California: we had the most gorgeous, fresh burritos in a student café in Height-Ashbury/San Francisco and in a surfers' shack outside San Diego.  But we were very disappointed when we ventured south to Ensenada - although that was our fault as you really can't expect genuine Mexican food in this touristy border town... And I haven't been very lucky in Brussels either - there is a take-away that American friends swear by (but you have to order a week in advance and so far I've always chosen "unwisely"....). But while in London two weeks ago we went to a branch of Thomasina Miers' wonderful Wahaca restaurants which has restored my faith in this brilliant cuisine: spicy slow-cooked pork tostadas, velvety vegetarian tortillas, crispy chicken taquitos - YUMMEE!

And at home, my version of chicken burritos is unashamedly "non-authentic" in every shape or form - but it is extremely delicious and the whole family adores it (it's evolved/adapted from a recipe by the great Australian chef Bill Granger):

a large bunch of coriander (leaves and stems)
2 tsps paprika (I use the sweet smoked variety)
1 tsp cumin
zest of a lime
3 tbs olive oil
black pepper and salt
red chili, seeded and chopped (to your taste)
750g chicken (breast or thigh), chopped into bite-sized chunks

With a food processor whizz up all the ingredients except the chicken into a rough paste. Mix thoroughly with the meat and leave to marinate (up to a few hours).

Heat a non-stick frying pan over high heat and fry off the chicken pieces (you might have to do them in batches).

Serves four.

Tomato salsa:
5 - 6 tomatoes, deseeded and cut into small dice
1/2 cucumber, deseeded and cut into small dice
a small red onion, cut into small dice
juice of 1/2 lemon

Combine all ingredients.

Black bean salsa (based on a Thomasina Miers recipe):
100g dried black beans (or 1 400g tin)
a small tin (140g) of sweetcorn, drained
a bunch of spring onions, finely sliced

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
juice of 1/2 a lime
a generous pinch of cumin
2 tbs olive oil

Soak the black beans overnight in water. Drain and add an onion, a few cloves of garlic and a few bay leaves. Cover with  at least 10cm of water and bring to the boil. Simmer for at least 2 1/2 hours until just soft, topping up with water if needed - then drain.

Mix with the rest of the ingredients, whizz up the dressing and stir into the salsa.

To assemble:
8 tortillas, heated in a non-stick frying pan for ca 15 secs on each side
8 taco shells, heated as per instructions (I use the microwave...)
a cup of thick plain yogurt or soured cream
a small handful of chopped coriander (stems and leaves)

You can also use white fish (cut into strips) instead of chicken.

I hadn't found tinned black beans in Belgium yet - but have just been told by a friend that Pueblo Latino in 1030 Brussels (St.Gilles) sell them! And all the Turkish and Morocccan supermarket/grocers sell dried ones.

If you forget to soak your dried beans overnight, you can boil them in the water vigorously for 10 mins, then leave to soak for a few hours. Then boil until just soft (which will be ca 30 mins longer with this process).

Monday 5 November 2012

An ode to Lakeland Plastics

Before regular cooking commences tomorrow, I HAVE to let you know that, last week in the UK, I was finally able - after a far too long exile - to pray at the altar of Lakeland Plastics again!! For the uninitiated, Lakeland ( is "the home of creative kitchenware" where one can find the latest and most useful utensils, gadgets and appliances: stepping into one of their stores is like entering an Aladdin's Cave of "shiny things" that one didn't even know existed - but simply has to have NOW! So here's my haul:

  • 3 clip-shut storage boxes (buy 2 get 1 free)
  • 25 sealing clips (I use those for EVERYTHING)
  • oven gloves made from Kevlar (SO brilliant - my old ones lasted 10 years)
  • miniature whisk (free with the 3 storage boxes)
  • 15cm paring knife (can't have too many knives!)
  • OXO 500ml angled measuring jug (I also have the small 60ml one)
  • fizz keeper for "pop bottles" (this one is really for me - not the kids)
  • julienne peeler (perfect for my Japanese/Asian salads and/or decorations - AND only £2.99)
  • stopper for champagne/Sekt/sparkly (REALLY works - even for a few days)
  • fruit&veg fridge cushion - no more "moulding" (fingers crossed on that one...)
  • microwave saucepan - WITH integrated strainer!
  • OXO flexible omelette/pancake turner - perfect action
  • 10 4cm high stackable boxes (simply the best - I "lost" my last one recently)

What I forgot to buy:

  • non-slip silicone pastry mat (62x42cm) - perfect for kneading and rolling dough/pastry (I inherited my old one from my mother, but after 40 years of use it is sadly no longer in top condition)

But here are some items that I DIDN'T buy:

  • The "Bag Master": a contraption for "filling freezer bags easily" £6.99 (I'll just pop them in a high jug as before...)
  • The "Banana Guard: no more bruising!" £5.49 (I thought they already came in a "peely guard"??)
  • Electric Plate Warmer £34.99 (my husbands covets this one, I don't - sorry!)

Sunday 28 October 2012

My chicken biryani

I simply could not live without Indian food - I cook it at least once a week. I grew up in (Northern) Germany when and where Indian food and spices were completely unheard of. The first time I was introduced to Indian cuisine was in the UK in 1988 when my then boyfriend (now husband) took my for my first meal at "an Indian" - and I was completely blown away by it! (I did try to eat the potpourri at the counter as well though - but we all learn from our mistakes...) So the next 12+ years in London were a culinary orgy of bhajis, brinjals and baltis - happy times! However this turned to a barren wasteland once we moved to Brussels - because there is not even a single HALF-DECENT Indian restaurant in the whole of Brussels - a city that is brimming over with numerous wonderful Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants and take-aways... (I would SO love to be proven wrong on this - so if any Brussels-dwellers have found "the mother lode", please let me know!) And that's why I love to serve Indian food to friends - especially non-English ones: it's just lovely to hear them exclaim: "Wow - I've never tasted anything like this before!"

Today I cooked one of my "usual" Indian lunch buffets for six: poppadoms with pickles and a lime-drenched salad, cauliflower pakoras, lamb rogan josh, pumpkin, red lentil and spinach dhal, naan breads and coconut and pineapple ice cream (all recipes to follow another time) - and my absolute long-time favourite: my version of chicken biryani. It's simply fantastic - and actually really easy: don't be put off by the (quite) long list of ingredients - everything can be done in stages: for example, I make the chicken curry at least a day in advance, then during the day I assemble the spices for the sweet and savoury liquids and let them steep at leisure. So here goes:

3 tbs of vegetable oil
4 onions
thumb of ginger
3-4 cloves of garlic
300 – 450 g of cubed chicken (breast/thigh)
4 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp tumeric
2 tbsp garam masala

Fry off the chicken in a bit of oil. Remove from pan/casserole.

Blitz the onions, ginger and garlic into a rough paste in a food processor. Fry in oil until soft, then add the spices for a few minutes. Add the tomato puree and simmer for a few more minutes. Add chicken and a few tablespoons of water and simmer again for 8 - 10 mins. The curry will smell quite “raw” and unrefined at this stage – that's perfectly normal as it will get finished off in the oven!

3 black cardamom pods (bruised)*
12 peppercorns
1 large stick of cinnamon
10 cloves
grated nutmeg
1 tsp fennel seeds
4 bay leaves
750 ml chicken stock

Put all the spices into sauce pan with the chicken stock and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and leave to infuse.

4 tbsp milk
5 green cardamon pods (bruised)
saffron (I use two of the tiny little red containers of the powder – fine for this)
2 tbsp of rosewater

Mix together with a whisk.

300g basmati rice

Preheat the oven to 200°. Reheat the savoury liquid until hot. Sweat off the rice in your casserole dish until opaque.  Add the chicken curry, then pour over the savoury liquid (you can pass it through a sieve but I like to leave the spices in). Pour over the sweet liquid into the middle, bring up to boil, seal with tin foil and lid and cook in the oven for 40 – 45 mins. 

(feeds 6)

* I used to make this with the usual green cardamon pods which are perfectly fine – until I found the black ones one day in a Chinese supermarket and they do add another musky/earthy dimension to the dish!

Don't be alarmed when you pour the liquid into the casserole - it will look like a soup with no rice but trust me: it will absorb all the liquid! 

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Let the stew season commence!

Today has seen the "official opening" of my annual stew and casserole season! I love stews because they are comforting, economical and, above all, really easy to make: you can knock them up with really hardly any preparation - and after that, the oven does all the work! I also tend to cook a lot of stews which are done in two stages: you prepare and marinate your meat at leisure the day/night before, shove it in the fridge and then do the rest the next day - how easy is that? Stews are also the ideal dinner/lunch party food because they are even better when prepared a day (or two or three) in advance as the flavours just keep improving in the fridge - that means your main course is done and dusted before you even enter the kitchen on the day!

So this year I'm kicking off with a Caribbean-style beef and rum casserole. You might recoil in disbelieving horror when you look at the ingredients: beef with - a giant glass of rum, three limes and soy sauce?? But trust me - it all comes together in the most amazing culinary marriage (and the rum-my smells emanating from the oven during cooking are wonderfully homely.) You DO need to serve it with a "sweet" side though to get the ultimate flavour combination on your plate - if you haven't got/can't get pumpkin/squash, sweet potatoes are another great option (oven-roasted or mashed).

1,5 kg stewing steak
2 tbs seasoned flour
4 tbs olive oil
3 medium onions
4 garlic cloves
3 bay leaves
1 ts dried oregano (or a few fresh sprigs if you have them)
400 ml beef stock (from a stock cube)

1 or 2 red chillies, deseeded and sliced (or only half of one - as I (wimpishly) do)
finely grated zest and juice of 3 limes
250 ml dark rum
1tbs dark soy sauce
2 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs crushed black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
1 ts dried oregano (or a few fresh sprigs if you have them)

Oven-baked squash:
4 tbs olive oil
1 small(ish) squash or pumpkin
a generous grating of nutmeg

Cut the beef into bite-sized pieces and put them in a deep, non-metallic dish. Mix all the marinade ingredients together and pour over the beef. Toss well to coat. Cover with cling film and marinate in the fridge overnight.

Preheat the oven to 160°.

Chop the onions and garlic. Sweat them off in in a large frying pan with a tbs of the olive oil until soft. Transfer to a casserole.

Drain the beef (reserving the marinade) and put into a plastic (ziplock) bag. Add the flour, seal tightly and shake to coat evenly.

Heat more of the oil and fry off half of the beef. It doesn't have to be browned completely - just cooked through. Repeat with the rest of the meat and add to the casserole. Add the bay leaves and oregano.

Pour the reserved  marinade and the stock into the pan, bring to the boil and stir to de-glaze the pan juices. Pour  into the casserole and stir to combine. Put the lid on and bring to the boil. Transfer to the oven and cook for three hours.

Cut into large cubes and toss with the olive oil and nutmeg in a roasting tin. Add to the oven after 2 hours.

(Serves four)

I like to cook my stews gently at a low temperature. But there's absolutely nothing wrong if you're pushed for time to increase to 180° for two hours. (I would, however, never cook casseroles above that temperature).

Monday 22 October 2012

A gravy boat malfunction...

The Sunday roast yesterday was pork - nothing out of the ordinary there. HOWEVER, things took a dramatic turn for the unexpected when it came to pouring the gravy into the sauce boat: the vessel (which had been in service for at least 15 years) suddenly CRACKED horizontally in two - oozing the lava-hot liquid all over the work surface, onto the floor - and into the three food drawers underneath! (My husband was quick to offer an unusual "explanation" for this - which he has since recanted.)

But to the joint in question: two nice "couronnes" (loin with bones) at 800g each. They were as cheap as chips (from GB/Carrefour) AND 30% off (alltogether just over €6 (£4.80) - now that's a bargain!). I'm sure you all have your own "way" of roasting pork, but if not: I start off my seasoned joint(s) in the pre-heated oven at 230° for 20 mins and then 25 - 30 mins at 200° per pound. I can just put it in the oven like that because - UNFORTUNATELY - I don't have to "worry" about crackling - which is almost impossible to get here in Belgium (but that will be the topic of another blog soon...)

... and my fruity pork stuffing
I also use this lovely stuffing over and over again because it's just brilliant - and easy:
Finely chop a handful of dried apricots and 5-10 sage leaves (depending on size). Add a few tablespoons of pine nuts (toasted if you have the time) and 2 handfuls of breadcrumbs. Chop a medium-sized onion (red ones are really nice for this) and a garlic clove or two. Sweat these off in a bit of olive oil, then mix into the rest of the mixture and season. (You might want to add a bit more olive oil to bind it all together). Then take your joint and either butterfly it (carefully cutting it in half lengthways almost to the end and then opening it up like a book) or, with a sharp long knive, cut a deep and wide pocket into it. Once stuffed, secure with a few rounds of butcher's string and you're ready to roast! 

The stuffing quantities are for a joint of about 1 kg.

The dried fruit-sage-breadcrumb mixture freezes really well, and, since my sage died in the garden I have to "buy it in", I usually knock up a big batch using all the sage. Then I just shake out the required amount the next time to go with the (new) onion mix.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Mussels from Brussels - Asian Style!

I ADORE mussels (the national dish of Belgium - together with glorious twice-fried frites of course) because they are sweet, tender and succulent and also because they are the ultimate fast food (they can be served from pot to table in under five minutes) and - if cooked at home - they are completely affordable (I always buy them when they are on offer (vacuum-packed in 2 kg packs) and under six Euros (£ 4.85) - this will feed two as a main course or four as a starter.) I do have to say though that I hardly ever order them in restaurants or bistros here because they are so OUTRAGEOUSLY EXPENSIVE (€20 is the norm - and that's for 500/600g)! But that's just my parsimonious nature...

Yesterday evening's moules supper was just a very simple mariniere (recipe below), but my favourite way of serving them is as a sort-of-Asian-style-dish - it makes a really fresh, fragrant and unusual change:

Asian-style mussels
2kg of mussels
1 tbs of vegetable oil
a bunch of spring onions
a knob of ginger (peeled)
a couple of garlic cloves
1 fat or 2 small stalks of lemon grass
a bit of fresh red chili (depending on how hot you like it)
juice of 1/2 a lime
1 tbs (or more) of fish sauce
a cup or so of coconut milk/cream
1/4 ts or so of saffron (if youre feeling luxurious - powdered is fine) or 1 ts of tumeric
a handful of chopped coriander

1 Rinse the mussels in a colander under cold water (that is usually ALL you need to do with them - they will be farmed and usually do not have any "beards" that need pulling off). Discard any obviously broken ones.
2 Chop all the ingredients (in a food processor).
3 Sweat them in the oil in a large pot until soft.
4 Add the mussels, lime juice, fish sauce, coconut milk and saffron/tumeric.
5 Put the lid on, give it all a shake and put it on a high heat.
6 Let it come up to the boil and let them bubble for ca 2 mins.
7 Take the lid off - they should by now be open. If not, give them another shake and look again after 1 minute or so.
8 Check for taste, adding more lime juice, fish sauce or even coconut milk if you want.
9 Ladle into big soup bowls - that's it!
10 When eating, discard any that are completely closed.

You can also stretch this into an elegant soup starter for six - just add enough fish stock (from a cube) at the last stage and give it all a good stir.
I always freeze any left-over lemon stalks - they just go a tiny bit soft when defrosted, but that makes them so much easier to chop!

Simple moules mariniere
Chop a large onion and a few garlic cloves and sweat them off in a bit of olive oil until soft. If you have, add: a chopped carrot, a bit of chopped leeks, a chopped celery stalk and/or a handful of flatleaf parsley. Add a glass of white wine (or cider) and season with black pepper (if you have, you can also add some cream). Then simply cook as above! And yesterday, my children's oven chips went rather well with them too...

Sunday 14 October 2012

A tale of two cakes

Yesterday was my son's birthday so it's only fair that I share my two oh-so-wonderful and easy birthday cake recipes with you:  

The carrot cake

This is the “school” cake that I've been baking for my children for the last ten years. It has none of the “frivolity” of some of the fancier carrot cakes but it is an absolute star: it's an extremely “good bake” that behaves well in all quantities and shapes (I always bake it in a massive (27 x 40 cm) square tin with the normal quantities trebled), it only has five ingredients, it is a doddle to make (it can all be mixed with a wooden spoon) – and it is UTTERLY delicious! It is adored by children and adults alike (but the biggest fans are the teachers at our school: they literally swoon whenever it is wheeled in – indeed, there have been a number of ugly incidents involving Mme M and Mme P “fighting dirty” over the last crumbs...)

250 ml vegetable oil
225 g golden sugar
225 g self-raising flour
3 eggs
1 pinch of salt
250g grated carrots (I use the food mixer)

Pre-heat the oven to 180°.
Mix the oil with the sugar (by hand or with an electric whisk).
Add the eggs and the flour.
Then add the grated carrots and combine well.
Pour into your mould and bake for 50 – 60 minutes.

If you double (or treble) the quantities you need to bake it longer of course – keep checking with your skewer.

Chocolate and buttermilk cake

I'm extremely pleased with this absolutely yummy chocolate cake which I make for the children's party at home – it bakes almost like a brownie (even in the “big tin”) but holds its shape extremely well and is lovely and moist without being stodgy, dense or too rich:

100g softened butter
350g caster sugar
2 eggs
225g plain flour
50g cocoa powder
1tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
250ml buttermilk (or full-fat milk with a good dash of lemon juice)
1tsp vanilla essence 

Pre-heat the oven to 180°.
Put the butter and sugar into a large bowl and beat together. 
Add eggs one at a time and beat well until light and fluffy.
Sieve flour, cocoa, baking powder and bicarb of soda into the butter & sugar mix and then pour into the buttermilk and add vanilla essence. Stir well to create a smooth dough.
Put the mixture into a ca 28 cm round cake tin (or ca 20x20cm square) lined with paper. 
Bake for ca 30 mins until just set in centre. 

I've simplified my icing over the years for both cakes – now I only ever use 2 packets (500g each) of sifted icing sugar whisked with a few tablespoons of hot water (and a few drops of food colouring) into an almost glue-like consistency which I simply pour over the cake beginning from the middle.

Friday 12 October 2012

My "love affair" with Lidl continues...

Bargain of the week here in Brussels-Schaerbeek goes to: Lidl! *drum roll* They're selling "Label Rouge" chicken at €4.99/kg (roughly 1/2 price of other supermarkets) - I would have bought the lot if I had the space in my freezer. AND they're starting foie gras early this year - again at an absolute steal (the cheapest comes in at €2.49 for 80g) - we'll just have to "go on go on go on go on" eating it at that price I'm afraid! But I'm MOST excited about their latest addition to the freezer cabinet: authentic thin Turkish lamb pizzas (Halal) - 3 x 150g for €3.09 (I used to be able to buy them in the Turkish supermarkets around here - but they stopped doing them) - can't wait to serve them tomorrow at my son's birthday party!

Thursday 11 October 2012

Hello and welcome to my blog!

I'm a mother of two and I live in Brussels, Belgium with my family. I'm a keen and enthusiastic home cook with a vast repertoire of "tried-and-tested" dishes - all easy to make and delicious to eat. After a lot of “deliberating, cogitating and digesting” I've finally decided to start my own food blog - simply to share all the food that I love eating and making with "the world out there". I'm also a passionate bargain hunter and can often be found lurking in the aisles of Lidl and Aldi sniffing out their foodie treasures - more about that later... So here's my first recipe - enjoy!

Smoked trout tartlets

I first tasted this wonderful concoction this summer on my friend Emma's terrace in South-West France. She had just thrown it together for I think 18+ house guests and it was SO delicious... it had never occurred to me to use smoked fish in this way before! I finally got round to re-creating it last weekend for lunch with friends – and it was as wonderful as it was back in July:

230g shortcrust pastry (shop-bought)
1 ts oil or butter
300 ml cream
3 eggs
2-3 tbs horseradish cream
pepper and salt
a bunch of spring onions (or any other onion(s), chopped
1 or 2 garlic cloves, chopped
125g packet of smoked trout (or any other smoked fish)*

1 Preheat the oven to 200°. Line 4 loose-bottomed tartlet tins (10-12 cm) with baking paper (or use 1 25-28cm tin). Line again with baking paper and baking beans (or dried pulses/rice) and cook for 5-10 mins until golden brown.

2 Gently fry the onions and garlic in the oil until soft.

3 Beat the cream, eggs, horseradish and seasoning together.

4 Spoon the onion mixture into the (cooled) pastry shell(s). Add the flaked fish and the egg mixture. Bake for ca 30 mins until set and golden.

*Lidl and Aldi's smoked trout are a great bargain at €1.49 each

This is my default egg mixture for quiches and tarts ie 100ml cream per egg. For any other quiche I add a handful or so of grated/chopped cheese – whatever is in the fridge.