Friday 15 February 2013

The ubiquitous banana bread

When faced with the (regular) sad sight of the last few brown-black bananas in the end-of-week fruit bowl, I, the canny cook(er), despair not - but rejoice instead, as they are the stars of my most-baked cake ever:

This fail-safe banana bread is (slightly) adapted from a Nigella Lawson recipe from her book "How to be a Domestic Goddess", and it is simply perfect: so easy to make, so moist and so full of gooey, gorgeous flavours... Children love it too and the alcohol in the rum gets burned off of course:

160g mixed dried fruit, chopped (I use Aldi's apricots, dates and figs)*
75ml rum
175g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
125g butter, melted (in the microwave)
150g sugar
2 eggs
4 small very ripe bananas, mashed (ca 300g without skins)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 170°/150° fan oven.
Line a  23 x 13 cm loaf tin with baking paper.
Put the chopped fruit and rum into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for a minute.
Combine the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate and salt.
In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar (with an electric whisk or by hand). Beat in the eggs, then the mashed bananas.
Stir in the fruit mixture and the vanilla extract and combine with a wooden spoon.
Add the flour mixture and and combine well.
Pour into the cake tin and bake for 60 - 75 mins until a wooden skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Late last summer, my banana bread was especially delicious as my Armenian friend Elenia gave me a big bag of dried apricots, apples and pears from her orchard back home - they were SO delicious and sweet:

Oh and did I mention that Nigella approves of my "fiddling" with her recipe: I tweeted her last year about adding a chopped apple to the recipe, and she sent me a message back saying that it was a "brill idea"! That's right dear reader: NIGELLA THOUGHT MY IDEA WAS "BRILL"!!! (I had to lie down in a darkened room for a while after that to stop myself from hyperventilating with excitement...)

*Nigella's original recipe uses 100g sultanas and 60g chopped walnuts instead of my dried fruit combo.
The batter behaves really well and I've turned it into cup cakes, tray bakes - and even little petit fours squares.
I've recently discovered that mashed banana freezes perfectly well - a revelation!

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Buying beef in Brussels

I adore red meat, especially beef - I couldn't live without it. We eat it at least once a week, but buying "proper" beef in Brussels (dark red, juicy and marbled with fat) is surprisingly difficult...

In an ideal world my first port of call would, of course, always be Jack O'Shea. Our "Irish Butcher" started out here 15 years ago and has since opened a second, equally successful shop in London opposite Harrods. All his meat is organic and truly amazing. (And my son has a special claim to fame when it comes to JO'S' wares: my husband was queueing in the shop to pick up a pork loin for a dinner party when I realised (12 days early) that that wasn't going to happen that night: "Hi. Best to come home now. Baby on its way. Do not leave the pork. I REPEAT: BRING.THE.PORK." Said loin was stashed in the freezer and we raced to the hospital - where our son was born six hours later weighing EXACTLY the same as "the pork" (3.322g)...).

But, alas, I usually have to buy my everyday beef at the supermarket and/or from local butchers - and here lies the conundrum: it is, unfortunately, not what you would expect from a nation that seems to live on "steak & frites": it's almost always totally lean, pink and bland - more like veal. (This is because in the 50s, more and more Belgians were suffering from heart diseases which were linked to their red meat consumption, so a new "healthy" breed was introduced - the tasteless "Belge Bleu"...) I get around this by buying my local Carrefour/GB's imported Irish or Scottish beef - but only when it's reduced by 30% - 50%: this means I can pick up a lovely juicy steak for around 5-6 € - a bargain! And in the last year or so Delhaize (our "sort-of Sainsbury meets Waitrose" supermarket) seems to have gone back to the olden days: they now sell perfectly decent entrecotes etc. for around 15 €/kg.

So - how to cook my beloved beef? Well, during the week it regularly pops up as a stir-fry - and my favourite is this Ken Hom adaptation - SO SO fresh, quick and lovely:

Beef and orange stir-fry (serves 2)

300-400g steak
1 bunch of spring onions, chopped
a fat thumb of ginger, peeled and chopped
dark soy sauce
1 tbs of vegetable oil
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 tsp szechuan peppercorns, crushed
1 tsp - 1 tbs sugar
a good splash of Chinese rice wine
the zest of an orange
a few drops of sesame oil

Combine the beef, spring onions and ginger in enough soy sauce for a marinade for at least 30 mins. Heat the oil in a wok/large frying pan until it's smoking. Fry the marinaded beef and vegetables for a few minutes. Add the garlic, szechuan pepper, sugar, wine and orange zest and finally the sesame oil.

And on the weekend I like nothing more than a proper griddled steak with creamy mash and wilted, garlicky spinach. AND the best one, for me, is coated with a porcini mushroom rub: simply grind dried porcinis (or any other wild mushrooms) in a (spice/coffee) grinder. Mix with seasoning and rub into each side of your steak. The rest will keep for months in an airtight container.

But the latest discovery has been hanger steak (onglet) which I finally managed to track down in Delhaize. This is one of the cheapest, most tasteful cuts of beef which used to be known as "butcher's steak" - because butchers used to keep it for themselves rather than offer it for sale! (Each onglet was only 2.50 €). Because of its loose-grained texture, it should be quickly seared over very high heat for 3-4 mins on each side and should be served still quite rare. It was absolutely delicious:

I served it with one of my staple Thai vegetable salads with a Nam Jim dressing (adapted from the great Australian chef Neil Perry's Rockpool restaurant):

Pound 2 garlic cloves, the stems of 1/2 a bunch of coriander (or 6 roots if you can get them) and a bit of sea salt to a paste in a mortar. Add 2 tbs brown sugar (or palm sugar), 3 tbs of Thai fish sauce and 6 tbs of lime juice (that's 2 limes).

The original recipe uses 4 - 6 fresh small green chilis to be added for the paste.
You can use any veg you like - but make sure to also add a handful each of coriander and mint leaves to the salad.
4 tbs of lightly roasted and crushed peanuts are also included in the original recipe.