Monday, 25 October 2010

Toad in a bowl.

This was a perfect pudding - then The Chap snaffled a bit while I was reaching for the camera.
I'm not sure if it's one step on my journey to total infantilisation (which will eventually see me tucked up on the sofa in a slanket 24/7, slurping food which does not require any chewing), but I just love a bowl, me. Especially in the colder months. What is it that is so comforting about food in bowls? Soups, stews...yes, but it's not just the ingredients. It's eating a meal that you can basically curl yourself around.

The first time I was invited to the BBC Folk Awards, the invite read "bowl food will be served". Fantastic! Eating from a bowl had gone posh! Having no idea what bowl food could possibly be, I looked forward to the event, and my bowl, with anticipation. As it turns out, "bowl food" means very small portions of things that have to be eaten with a fork or spoon, and you eat them while standing and talking to people and walking around. The idea is to nosh and network simultaneously, and - crucially - to eat more than one bowlful. So it's bigger than a canape, but less than a meal. For a generously-proportioned guttersnipe such as myself, who is unused to such social complexities as bowl food, and events where bowl food might be served, my first experience was something of a disaster: I ate one  portion of duck cassoulet from a doll-sized bowl, and suppressed my disappointment (and hunger) as I didn't want to appear greedy - thin people always look disapproving when they see fat people eating, and I could just imagine what they'd be thinking if I'd tucked into seconds (or fourths). Later in the evening I went on to treat my virtually empty stomach to quite a lot of the free wine on our table. Let's just say that the next day, when a friend mentioned Phil Collins's appearance at the event, I thought she was making it up and actually had to check Youtube for the evidence (turned out I'd got loads of photos of him on my phone, which I still don't remember taking). Um...yeah. Happily, I've become better at bowl food since then (and also care a lot less whether thin people want to watch me eat or not). This year I will have a few bowls for ballast, trying different dishes and maybe even grabbing seconds from a passing waiter if something is really nice, before the wine course is served. It's better that way - trust me.

The problem with event-based bowl food is that it's the opposite of what it should be. It's small and fussy. Bowls should be big and roomy and comforting...even the word is like a hug. So what could be better in cold weather than a bowl actually made of food, and served - where else - inside another bowl? Yesterday I made that pub grub favourite, giant Yorkshire puddings. I tried this many years ago but they never came out the right shape, or rose as much as I wanted. But I've cracked it now: I used two 7" silicone cake tins. Success!

What I really fancied was Toad in the Hole, but I always find my Yorkshire pudding goes a bit dry in a big roasting tin. So instead we had Toad in a Bowl: sausage casserole, sweet potato & swede mash and leeks, served in a bowl made of Yorkshire pudding.

Next time you need double hugs,you might try making this:

Toad in a Bowl (serves two greedy people)

Ingredients for the casserole:

6 good-quality butcher's pork sausages (I used Irish-style sausages with spring onions)
1 - 2 red onions
2 cloves garlic
2 - 3 streaky bacon rashers or pancetta, chopped
A dollop of apple butter (optional - you could use sliced apples and a dash of cinnamon instead, or omit altogether, but apple and pork is always nice)
2 carrots, chopped
A glass of dry cider
Some fresh thyme
A teaspoon(ish) of Dijon mustard
4 oz mushrooms, sliced
Beef or pork stock
A dessert spoon of flour
Olive oil

For the Yorkshire pudding:

4 oz flour
2 eggs
salt & pepper
enough milk to make a thin batter
More olive oil

Measure flour into a mixing bowl. make a well in the middle and add the eggs and a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper. Add a little milk, and using an electric mixer (actually, for this job I use my grandmother's old rotary whisk. I don't know why, but I always do), begin to blend. Gradually add enough milk (a quarter of a pint pint won't be far off) to make a smooth, thinnish batter. Whisk for a minute or so to get as much air as you can into the batter. Set aside to rest.

Now heat a bit of olive oil in a large frying pan. Brown  the sausages and remove them from the pan. Add the pancetta or bacon to the pan and fry for a minute or two. Add the onion and fry for a further couple of minutes, until it begins to soften. Now add the mushrooms, garlic, thyme and carrots (and apples if using), and fry for a further few minutes, till the mushrooms begin to sweat. Sprinkle the flour into the pan and cook for another minute, stirring. Gradually pour in the cider a little at a time, stirring all the while. Add a ladle or two of stock, the apple butter (if using), and bring to the boil. Take down to a simmer and reduce the liquid by about half, stirring regularly, until it is a rich brown and nicely thickened. Return the sausages to the pan and cook for a further 15 minutes. Check your seasoning. 

About half an hour before the casserole is finished, heat the oven to approx 220c (425f). Put enough olive oil in the bottom of your silicone tins to give a thin film, and put them in the oven. When the oil is smoking hot, ladle in the Yorkshire pudding batter - you probably won't need all of it, but you want to ensure that the bottoms of both tins are covered to about 1/8 of an inch (I always find less batter gives a better result). Put them in the oven and check after 15 minutes or so - remove from the oven when well risen and golden, and tip any residual oil out of the middle. Keep in a warm place until the casserole is ready. 

Serve the casserole in the puddings, with mash and veg. Not exactly fine dining - but if you find yourself at a do where they're serving bowl food, you'll wish you had this instead.

(Note: if you don't fancy bowls made of food, this recipe makes approx 14 - 18 standard-size Yorkshire puddings.)

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Oil be seeing you...or not.

Sometimes you find a great ingredient. If you're very lucky, it's not too expensive. If you're really, really lucky, you know the producer, and take a smug satisfaction from getting a special insight into its production, as well as knowing you'll never have trouble locating your next jar/bottle/ packet of The Lovely Thing you've found. 

This is how I felt when The Chap's colleague started a co-operative with neighbours at his holiday home in Tuscany, producing great olive oil for sale in the UK. I was particularly in love with the lemon olive oil they made. It is great in salads, but is also robust enough to use in cooking. The peppery olive oil flavour was perfectly balanced with lemon oil, and I splashed it liberally onto rocket leaves, salads of tomato and basil, into fish stews or onto roast chicken...

And then I ran out.

As The Chap and Olive Oil Man no longer work together, both of them having wisely taken early retirement, I knew I'd have to wait till The Chap went to visit his old stomping grounds (I have whisked him away from the mean streets of South Cheshire to dwell with me in pastoral bliss in the Lincolnshire flatlands). In the meantime we visited a couple of food festivals, but although I was on the lookout, I couldn't find any lemon olive oil half as nice, even though it was all twice the price.

So yesterday, after a visit to his old mum in Southport, The Chap swung by to see Olive Oil Man, to stock up on lemon olive oil as a little surprise for me. Disaster! Turns out the business lost money in its first couple of years, and they have reluctantly decided to call it a day. Olive Oil Man sent The Chap away with half a dozen small bottles of lemon olive oil, gratis (awwww...), from the remaining stock in the garage.

So fare thee well, Frantoio dei Colli - it was a short but sweet affair. I will use you sparingly (which is sad), savouring every last drop till you are finally gone forever. As we all learn sooner or later, some romances just don't last forever - no matter how much we might want them to.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Apple Butter Adventure

Every now and again, I crave something that I know I haven't tasted in at least 20 years - that is to say, since before I came to live in England. The change of the seasons is particularly likely to make me go all food-nostalgic. When my friends John and Mandy down in Devon gave me 7lbs of cooking apples which had escaped mauling from their Springer Spaniel, Bailey (who thinks apples are magic toys that fall from the sky), I decided to make something that I crave every year around this time: apple butter.

There are lots of reasons to love apple butter. Firstly, cinnamon. To be honest, if cinnamon doesn't float your boat, look away now. I cook with it constantly. My daughter can't get enough of it. It is one of the most comforting scents and flavours I can think of. Secondly, caramelised sugar. That's what happens when you cook apple butter for at least 3 hours. The result is a really deep, mellow sweetness, which puts apple butter leagues ahead of any apple sauce or compote you have ever had. Thirdly: apples. What's not to like? Well, soulless supermarket apples, actually. For this recipe, beg, borrow or scrump some proper apples. You're bound to know someone with a tree, and the crop this year is amazing - they'll be delighted to offload some on you. The greeny, sharp bag of apples I brought home from Devon perfumed the car on the journey, and my kitchen for the following week while I decided what to do with them. Every now and again I'd put my nose in the bag and just have a big old whiff - it was the smell of Halloween when I was 9. Put your nose inside a bag of supermarket apples: what can you smell? Wax, maybe. Nuff said. Fourthly, the Amish. I have really happy childhood memories of visits to Pennsylvania Dutch Country. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would reply: "Amish." Later, when my dad lived near Lancaster, I would visit the local farmer's market and speculatively squeeze produce I couldn't even identify just so I had an excuse to talk to the women in their white bonnets, selling their wares - I was like a Mennonite stalker. Part of me still wants to be Amish, but I am trying to figure out a way to smuggle in my iPhone. Anyway, apple butter was always for sale in the Amish farmers' market - as was shoo-fly pie, but that's a culinary adventure for another day...

So apple butter is not just a delicious spread to put on your toast in the mornings (and to use in muffins, sauces, or just smear thickly onto a wodge of parkin): its some of the best memories of my childhood distilled into a jar. My daughter returns from her school trip to Japan on Wednesday. She's never had apple butter in her life. I can't wait to get her hooked.

  • 6 - 7 lb apples
  • 1 pint water
  • 1 - 2 pints dry cider (Americans: this is "hard" cider. if you only have the non-alcoholic kind, make it about 1/3 cider vinegar)
  • Sugar (amount will be determined later, but have at least 3 lbs to hand)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  1. Wash the apples thoroughly, and cut out any bruised bits. Cut into quarters - DO NOT peel or core the apples.
  2. Place in a large pan with water and cider.
  3. Bring to a boil, and simmer till apples are losing their shape and look fluffy.
  4. Using a ladle or wooden spoon, push the pulp through a fine mesh sieve in small batches. Discard remaining skin, core and other lees. Measure out the sieved pulp.
  5. Measure out 1/2 a cup of sugar for each cup of pulp.
  6. Return the pulp to the pan and simmer until it is reduced and thickening.
  7. Add the sugar, cinnamon, allspice, lemon juice and zest.
  8. Boil, stirring frequently, until it is very thick (about 3 hours). A teaspoonful on a chilled plate will not run or pool.
  9. Spoon into clean, dry, warm, sterilized jars.