Sunday, 14 August 2011

Dipping into summer

So it's been a while. How have you been?! The time from March till now has passed in a bit of a blur thanks to the festival I work on, which becomes all-consuming from early spring onwards. Just having a brief rest and re-charging the batteries before heading full-tilt into autumn.

Last night we got to do something we've not had the chance to do all summer: eat out in the garden. Despite the lovely weather in June & July, I just haven't had the time or the headspace to even engage with something as simple as barbequeing, or even cleaning the table & chairs to make them fit to sit on. So we're having summer now. I celebrated by opening bottles of pink fizz and making hibiscus cocktails. This seemed like a very good idea earlier this year when I purchased an obscenely expensive jar of edible hibiscus flowers in syrup. The idea is that the bubbles in the fizz open the flower, making it blossom in your glass. How romantic! Plus the syrup is a kind of raspberry-and-rhubarb flavour which makes a tasty cocktail. In the event, the flowers were kind of like strange sea anemones or triffids, and we spent a ridiculous amount of time staring into our glasses and deciding whether they were opening or not.


I also decided to use up some veg that was in the fridge in anticipation of being away at three more festivals from Friday (ker-POW!). I had 3 aubergines and half a kilo of sweet potatoes that needed using up, and as barbeque is pretty low-intensity cooking, I thought we could do with some accompanying dips. I was very happy with the dips. So happy I've decided to share them with you. Making them can hardly be called cooking, they were so easy, but they were packed with flavour and made me feel like I'd actually made an effort. I am not even calling these recipes, because there was no measuring involved and I just chucked stuff in according to what tasted nice. That's how summer cooking should be, right?

Aubergine, Garlic and Smoked Paprika Dip
I know what you're thinking. This is just baba ganouj - why is she making a song and dance about it? You're totally right. But it was the smoked paprika that made the difference.

3 medium aubergines
6 cloves of garlic
Sea salt
Lemon olive oil (or ordinary olive oil and the zest of a lemon)
Sesame oil (I didn't have any tahini but wanted that sesame nuttiness, so a couple of teaspoons of sesame oil were a substitute. Use a dollop of tahini instead if you wish.)
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Smoked paprika (sweet or hot, depending on whether you want the dip to have a kick - I used hot)

Crush the garlic and put it into a bowl. Cut the aubergines in half lengthwise and put them cut-side down on the grill. Grill them till the skins just begin to shrivel and char and the flesh is softening. Flip them over and brush the cut side with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Grill till starting to brown and sizzle. Prod them and make sure they are nicely soft. Take them off the grill and leave to cool for a bit, then, holding each one with a tea towel, scoop the flesh out with a spoon into the bowl containing the garlic (I admit it - I ate the skins). The warm/hot flesh will cook the garlic a bit as you mash it all together, and the smell will be amazing. Drizzle in some lemon olive oil, the sesame oil and a bit of lemon juice. Using a hand mouli, blend the aubergine mixture till it is gorgeously velvety and creamy. It will take about 10 seconds. Season to taste and add more lemon juice if you fancy it. Take a scant quarter- to half-teaspoon of smoked paprika and mix it in - the flavour of the dip is quite delicate and you don't want to overpower it, but that deep smokiness will compliment the grilled aubergine gloriously. A drizzle of lemon olive oil over the top and some chopped or torn basil is an optional garnish. Serve with ordinary crusty bread, flatbread or crudites.

Roasted Sweet Potato & Garlic Dip
I had one of those weird food memories as I thought of making this...where have I had something like it before? Was it at Bananas restaurant on St Kitts? Or was it at Sweet Potatoes restaurant in Winston Salem, North Carolina? I can't remember. I just knew I had an idea of what I wanted it to taste like. If you've been to either of those fine eateries and can help me out, I'd be much obliged.

Half a kilo of sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
6 cloves of garlic (you're noticing a pattern here, right?)
Olivel oil
Lemon juice
Chilli olive oil
Greek yoghurt
Creme fraiche
Sea salt & pepper

Chuck the sweet potatoes into a roasting tin with some olive oil. toss in the oil and sprinkle liberally with sea salt and pepper. Roast the sweet potatoes for about half an hour - 40 minutes on a high heat, turning about halfway through the cooking time. When you turn them, throw the garlic cloves into the pan and toss them in the olive oil. Keep an eye on the pan - you want nice, brown caramelised bits but not charred edges, as I think this would make the dip bitter (and a bit ugly). When they're done, tip them, with the garlic, into a bowl. You probably want a small tub of Greek yoghurt plus some creme fraiche, but add it gradually so that you get a texture you're happy with as you blend with a hand mouli. Add the juice from half a lemon, plus some chilli olive oil (or ordinary olive oil and some chopped fresh chillies, depending on what you've got in the fridge). Season to taste. I garnished with a drizzle of chilli oil and some thyme.

The texture will be fairly thick - much thicker than the aubergine dip, but useful for scooping up with fresh vegetables or smearing on bread - the mini-Crumpet liked it as a condiment with her barbequed burger.

*For anyone who is wondering how I've got on since my January declaration that 2011 was about seeing if I could be a food obsessive and still lose weight - I have so far lost 3st 10lbs (52 lbs). Still greedy, but shrinking. :)

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Spring Chicken

One mother hen sat on one little egg
Keeping it warm in its little egg nest;
Then one day she heard a shout
And a little voice said as a chick popped out...

I'm a spring chicken, I'm yellow and small
My feathers are fluffy and they're keeping me warm
My legs are not long so I'll never be tall
But I'm a real spring chicken and I'm having a ball
Chi-cken I'm a chi-cken and I'm having a ball.

Roast dinner can be tricky when you're trying to lose weight. And this time of year can be tricky for cooking. Part of you wants cosy comfort food, and another part sees the crocuses and snowdrops pushing their way upwards and thinks, "Spring!"

I've never been a great fan of roast chicken. Chicken is such a mid-week meat, and I've had too many birds overcooked to the point of sawdust (apologies to my ex-mother-in-law). But I got a recipe from Country Living magazine a few years ago which is delicious and very Weightwatchers-friendly. It also combines the comfort of roast dinner with the freshness of spring flavours. And the sauce is a pale pretty green, which makes you think of Easter and sunny days.

A bonus is how great the leftovers are. You've got the makings of two lovely soups to see you through the week.

Pot-roast Chicken with Rocket and Watercress Sauce

You need:

1 roasting chicken
Baby carrots (3 - 4 per person)
An onion, cut in chunky quarters
Half a pint of chicken stock or a glass of white wine
2 cloves of garlic
A couple of tablespoons of half-fat creme fraiche
A good bunch of watercress and/or rocket (about half of a supermarket bag of watercress, spinach & rocket will do)
zest and juice of a lemon

Put the chicken into a good sized lidded pot, with a bit of room around it for the carrot and onion. Plonk the veg into the pot with the garlic and stock or wine. Season the chicken, put the lid on, and roast on a relatively low oven, relatively slowly (time depends on the weight of the chicken, obviously).

When the chicken is cooked, remove it to a warm place to rest, along with the carrots. Add the creme fraiche, lemon zest and the watercress & rocket to the pot juices, garlic and onion. Whiz with a stick blender - the sauce with be creamy and flecked with green. Add lemon juice to taste, and season. You may want to thicken slightly with a little cornflour, but I prefer it as it is. Serve over the pot-roasted chicken, which should be very moist and tender. I usually have this with leeks and Anya new potatoes.

Now, you will have a lot of sauce, and probably a fair bit left over. This is definitely a good thing, because it makes a great next-day soup. If necessary, add a bit more stock or creme fraiche for taste or quantity, but when I had this at the weekend I didn't need to. I just added some leftover chicken, heated it gently, and served (to myself). Yum.

With the rest of the leftover chicken and the carcass, plus a bit of veg and rice, I made another soup the following day. 1 chicken, 2 soups, 3 meals. Brucie bonus.

Chicken and creme fraiche soup. Nicer from a chipped bowl, obviously.

This is basically just my grandmother's recipe for a basic but beautiful chicken & rice soup. She often used orzo pasta instead of rice.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Game on.

I hate January. More specifically, I really hate the approach of 31 January, and with it the looming tax deadline. Doing my tax brings out that peculiar combination of impending doom and instinctive avoidance tactics that reminds me of algebra and nuns. Last night I had two choices: start my tax, or gut and dress the game birds. It was a no-brainer. I won't lie to you: dressing birds is never a task I particularly enjoy, but it was still preferable to that mountain of receipts in my study.

A few things about getting birds in feather: first of all, you know what you've got: cocks or hens, old or young birds. That's useful because you will cook them differently. Younger birds, and especially hens, can take more straightforward roasting. An old cock wants putting in a pie, pot roasting with a lot of moisture, or jointing and pan-frying. Secondly, there's the cost difference. I was looking on-line last night and saw dressed pheasants for around £7 each. You can buy a brace of birds in feather for £3. Thirdly, and I know this won't appeal to everyone, but it makes you to come to terms with the fact that what you're eating was a living, and usually a rather beautiful, thing. A lot of carnivores I know will think I'm mad, but I think occasionally skinning a rabbit or preparing game birds gives me more respect for all of the meat that I eat.

So there I was, last night, skinning my birds while my tax receipts glared at me from the dining room table.

I've never done partridges before, and they were a total doddle. The dressed birds are only about the size of pigeons, so a brace should feed two people (just about). I was inspired by reading my friend Jo's facebook yesterday to joint my pheasants. I plan to get a few more roasting birds for the deep freeze, so having a few legs and breasts about for pan-frying or making soup now is a good idea. One of the pheasant legs was pretty badly shot up, so I decided to chuck it in with the carcasses for stock - especially because Jo had also mentioned yesterday that she was making pheasant soup. I still have a memory of eating pheasant soup over 20 years ago at the wonderful (sadly demised) La Fourchette restaurant in Wayne, Pa. That was the first time I ever ate pheasants or truffles, and it was one of those Damascene meals that probably helped to turn me into the saddo you see before you today. Like many wonderful dishes, I have wanted to taste that soup again ever since. It never occurred to me to try amd replicate it - it was beautifully  light and elegant, two qualities that usually describe neither me nor my food. However, last night when the stock was bubbling away, I caught a whiff and thought, "Chestnuts." Pheasant and chestnuts is a winner, so why not in soup? And a food memory from all those years ago kind of assembled itself in my head. For lunch today, I gave it a go.

It was one of those lovely times when the flavour that I intended actually comes quite close to the flavour on my plate. Moreover it was dead easy to make, and I will probably serve it as a starter the next time anyone comes over for dinner (you've been warned). So, without further ado...

Pheasant, chestnut and Bramley apple soup
Serves 3 ordinary people or 2 greedy ones. (16 WW ProPlus Points per greedy serving.)

For the stock:

1 - 2 pheasant carcasses, plus a leg
a few stalks of fresh thyme and 2 bay leaves
1 onion, quartered

Cover the carcasses and herbs with water, season, and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface. Leave to cool. Strain the liquid through muslin or a clean tea towel placed in a colander so you get a lovely, clean stock. Strip the meat from the leg (being careful to avoid the needly little tendons) and any residual nice bits of meat from the carcasses, breaking or shredding it into small pieces. You should have about 100g of meat and a couple of pints of stock. Chuck everything else away.

For the soup:

1 onion
1 carrot
100g pheasant meat
half a Bramley (or other cooking apple)
16 chestnuts (vacuum-packed)
30 ml double cream
15 ml half fat creme fraiche
pinch of cinnamon

root vegetable crisps and fresh parsley, to garnish

Put the stock into a large, clean saucepan. Add chopped and peeled carrot, onion and apple. Add whole chestnuts. Cook for 20 - 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and liquidise with a stick blender. Return to heat and reduce until slightly thickened (about 10 minutes). Whisk in the cream and creme fraiche. Stir in pheasant meat and cinnamon, and return to the hob. Warm through gently, removing form heat when it is just coming back to the boil. Season well. Garnish with root vegetable crisps and parsley (avoid beetroot crisps as they will "bleed" into the soup) and serve.

Oh - look at the time! And I still haven't done my tax...

Friday, 21 January 2011

Sometimes, things are right under your nose.

  I've been living in this bit of Lincolnshire for 4 years now, and I thought I'd got it sussed from a foodie point of view: you can come by most things, but not all the time, and you do have to make a fair bit of effort.

How did I never know about this?

Simple, really: the other side of the A1 is another country - they do things differently there. Daft as it sounds, a dirty great busy A road acts as something of a psychological barrier (even if it's no longer a physical one, thanks to the new-ish flyover). Burton Coggles is only a few miles from my house, but I'd never been there. So a big thank-you to Elly, who told me about the shop over tea this morning. She lives a stone's throw from Burton Coggles, so I called into the shop on my way home.

The shop and the pub (and quite a lot of other things locally) are owned by the Easton Estate, one of the two big estates in this area. The game is shot on the estate, and at this time of year they must have tonnes of it - hence the ridiculously cheap price of £3/brace for pheasant and partridge. I got a brace of each. They will get you most types of game on request - rabbits, hares, ducks...there were even a couple of Canada geese hanging. They also sell local beef, pork and lamb - the lamb, pleasingly, comes from my village. The other produce is sourced as locally as possible, with lots of it coming from the Fens. And it's a lovely little place, too:

(photos from their website - I don't think they will mind)

To pay for my booty I had to go next door, into the exceedingly cosy pub, all chunky furniture and blazing log fires. I could have cheerfully found a perch and settled in for the afternoon.

The slightly longer and sunnier days of the past week have made me start to feel restless, and I'm inspired to get out and explore a bit more. The church at Burton looks well worth a nose around, and there's Easton Walled Gardens down the road, which are apparently rather lovely - and open just in time for the snowdrops.

So roll on springtime. I'm ready for ya. But first we need to see off these guys:

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Resolution Road

One of life's eternal dilemmas: can you be a food obsessive and not be a lard-arse? Nigella seems to manage it through channelling all weight gain into her breasts. Being a mere mortal, I find I'm just huge all over. I could go on for hours about the reasons why I'm fat, but I'd only bore you and myself. Suffice to say, I could never stop loving food. I love the process of cooking at least as much as eating, and I love other people eating and loving my food the very best of all.

So this year's goal: to continue enjoying good food, but to bring my proportions down to a more healthy and manageable level. It's a goal I've set numerous times for myself in the past, but I am hoping that recording it here will provide sufficient motivation, as well as the potential for widespread public humiliation if I wimp out.

A source of inspiration is the new Weightwatcher's Points Plus plan. I like Weightwatchers - it's really just re-training yourself to eat more healthily. The new plan is particularly good because it contains an allotment of points each week for unexpected events or a special treat: a drink in the pub with friends, a meal in a restaurant, or a good, home-cooked Sunday lunch - with pudding, of course. You can enjoy these things without feeling you've "blown your diet" and gone off course. This is something that has nobbled me numerous times in the past, so I'm greatly encouraged by the idea of being able to maintain motivation while still enjoying nice things to cook and eat. I'm doing the plan on-line rather than going to meetings, so I will post my weigh-ins, along with any new recipes (some nice, and some plain naughty) here. I'm hoping to lose a whopping 6 stone this year, so we're talking about a marathon rather than a sprint.

So thanks in advance for any words of support or encouragement - and if anyone fancies losing a bit of weight and would like to be my weight loss buddy, let me know - we can spur each other on!