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...)