Sunday, 21 August 2011

Sweet Natured

Sweet, gooey and scented, I think I’m slightly obsessed with honey. Everywhere I go, I like to pick up a jar of local honey and I always like to keep a pot of it to hand in the pantry. Decent local honey may not be cheap, but it is the pure unadulterated product likely to carry the signature flavour of our indigenous countryside and even our gardens.
I’m forever amazed at just how those busy honey bees gather the nectar and turn it into such a seductive food for us to plunder.

Generally, bees can fly up to six miles from the hive but one or two is more common if food sources are close by. They collect the pollen and nectar in the spring (when most plants are in flower) and take it back to the hive where they process and store honey in honeycombs to be used as their winter sustenance. Bees make more honey than they actually need and a typical hive can hold up to around 25lb (11kg) surplus.

Depending on the types of plants that the bees forage on, the honey can be either runny and clear or opaque and set. The flowers also impart their unique flavour characteristics too, so honeys can vary considerably from region to region.

As well as spreading it on my toast in the morning, I love using honey in cooking – it is great for baking as it has hygroscopic qualities, meaning that it attracts water, thereby keeping cakes moist for longer.

Apart from the kitchen, honey also has a place in the medicine cabinet too. Its antiseptic properties make it a soother of sore throats and it is even good for the skin when applied externally.
Honey lasts practically forever too, (although not in my house!) an explorer found a 2000 year old jar of honey in an Egyptian tomb and they said it tasted delicious.

For my recipe, I have decided against the assumed route of a dessert and used honey in a delicious main course savoury dish instead, to demonstrate the versatility of this gorgeous substance.

Zingy Honey Chilli Chicken
Chicken really lends itself to the sweet stickiness of the honey and the recipe is really easy to make too.
Don’t be put off by the amount of chilli used as honey has the ability to tame the heat into an overall mellowness.
It can be served with rice or new potatoes with a crisp green salad.

Serves 4

6tbsp runny honey
2 red chillies, deseeded, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
2tbsp worcester sauce
1tbsp cider vinegar
1tbsp lemon juice
1tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 skinless chicken breasts
1 red capsicum pepper, cored and cut into chunks
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp cornflour

Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F / Gas 4.

In a small bowl, mix the honey, chilli, worcester sauce, vinegar and lemon juice. Add the rosemary, garlic and season with salt and pepper.

Take each chicken breast and score the flesh diagonally 3 times. Place in an ovenproof dish along with the capsicum pepper and pour over the marinade. Leave for an hour or so to allow the flavours to mingle.

Drizzle the chicken with the olive oil and place in the oven for 20-30 mins, basting 2-3 times during cooking. As ovens vary check to make sure the chicken is cooked all the way through by inserting a skewer into the thickest part of a breast. The juice should run clear.

Take the dish from the oven and remove the chicken and peppers, using tongs to another dish and keep warm. Pour the juices into a small saucepan and bring to the boil and allow to cook until the liquid has reduced by half and has thickened slightly. Turn down the heat to low.

In a small bowl mix the cornflour with a small amount of cold water. Pour a little into the reduced marinade and stir until it has thickened, simmer gently for a minute. Pour over the chicken and serve.
Photo: ©childsdesign 2011

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Kitchen Scents: Using lavender in cooking

I love relaxing in the garden listening to the buzzing sound of bees bobbing about on the lavender while the sun releases the wonderful soothing scent in to the air. Although the lavender has finally finished flowering I can still enjoy it between now and next summer, as I have dried some bunches and crumbled the aroma packed blooms into jars to be used around the home and in the kitchen.

The mediterranean plant has long been utilised for its health and wellbeing qualities and is the essential oil is used by aromatherapists to promote relaxation. It is an antiseptic and also has anti-inflammatory properties and was even used to disinfect hospital floors during the First World War. A little of the oil applied to your temples will soothe a headache and I can certainly vouch for its ability to aid sleep and relieve anxiety.

Historically lavender can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt where it was used for embalming and cosmetics. The ancient Greeks fully appreciated its scent and the Romans fully made use of its healing attributes. In fact it has been used throughout history to the present day from medicine through to insect repellent to perfume.

When I’m out in my garden tending to the fruit bushes, vegetable plants, and herbs I often ponder how I could use flowers in my cooking, lavender being no exception. It is a strong flavour and should be used sparingly but lends itself to both sweet and savoury dishes.

A couple of sprigs of the flowers tucked into a jar full of caster sugar gently infuses to give you a wonderful ingredient for baking, the subtle fragrance is good in cakes and biscuits. It is also an unusual but interesting addition to rubs and marinades, perfectly complementing lamb or even chicken. A few of the dried flower buds can be dropped into milk or cream, gently warmed and left to allow their flavours to permeate to make a base for custard or ice cream.

I know there a few people who don’t like the smell of lavender as they associated it with elderly aunts’ handbags, but I would urge them to try it in cooking as it really is a different story. Just take care not to use too much and it can transform a dish in a subtle yet surprising way.

Lavender, Chilli & Rosemary Focaccia
Focaccia originates from Italy and is enriched with olive oil, which gives the bread a soft texture. It can be topped with a variety of things, but rosemary and sea salt is the most common. I chose to take that a step further and used chilli flakes and some dried lavender flowers taking the flavour into another dimension.

118ml pint hand hot water
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp dry active yeast
500g strong white flour
2 tsp salt
6 tbsp olive oil plus extra
225 ml tepid water (more may be needed)
sea salt flakes for sprinkling
a couple good pinches dried chilli flakes
a couple of pinches of dried lavender flowers
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
some semolina or polenta for dusting

In large jug mix yeast and sugar into 118ml pint hand hot water, stir to dissolve. Set aside for about 10 minutes until the liquid turns frothy.

In a large bowl mix together the flour and salt. Stir in the olive oil.
Add the yeast liquid and the water and use you hand to mix into a soft dough. The dough should be quite moist and sticky at first.

Turn out on to a well floured surface and knead the dough for about 10 to 15 minutes until the it no longer sticks to your hands and becomes elastic and springy to the touch.
It is important to work the dough really well, making sure you stretch it and fold it back in on itself. This works the gluten from the flour so the dough rises.

Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a bowl and smear around, drop the dough ball in and cover with a damp tea towel and place in a warm place to rise, for around 11⁄2 hours. After this time the dough should have doubled in size.

Slip the dough out the bowl on to a floured surface, knock back (knead vigorously) to remove air bubbles – you should be able to hear and feel the air puffing out – and knead again for 5 minutes. Then roll it out in to a flat oval shape. Not thin but slightly less thick than you want it to be when it’s baked.

Place on an oiled baking sheet dusted with polenta or semolina, cover with a damp tea towel and place somewhere warm for about 30 minutes until it has risen and doubled again.
While it is rising, preheat the oven to 200C, Gas 6.

When the dough has risen, make indentations in it using your fingertips. Drizzle with olive oil and a little water. Sprinkle with sea salt to give an even and light coverage. Do the same again with the chilli flakes. Sprinkle over the pinch of lavender flowers, but be quite sparing as they have a strong flavour. Then pull of a few leaves at a time off the rosemary and push into the dough.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes until golden brown and the loaf moves freely on the baking sheet. Slip on to a wire rack to cool.
Photos: ©childsdesign 2011

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Restaurant quality food at home: David Oliver Fine Foods

As a home cook, I don't often buy ready meals, not because I think they're substandard or because I'm snobbish in any way, but I just love to cook, so it rather goes against one of the parts I enjoy about food.
On this occasion it may seem odd that I'm writing about pre-prepared meals, but I was given the opportunity to try some restaurant quality complete meals and give my feedback on them. It's not often that I get the chance to test out something as premium as these so obviously I was enthusiastic.

David Oliver Fine Foods produce a range of dishes using the finest ingredients from specially selected sources and prepare them using the same techniques that are used in quality restaurant kitchens.
The creators David Holliday and Oliver Shute, both chefs and friends, set up their business to make exceptional ready meals, recognising that there was a lack of good quality complete meals that led to them feeling frustrated by the mediocre offerings.

David has a wealth of experience in the world of food, he was the head chef at The Pot Kiln and later went on to run The Harwood Arms in Fulham, the first London pub to receive a Michelin Star. He now owns his own catering business, Season 2 Taste, based in Henley-on-Thames.
Oliver too is well experienced in food, he has worked with Clarissa Dickson Wright and as a private chef to distinguished guests at Scottish castles to chateaux in France and luxury chalets in Chamonix. He now runs his own outside catering company, The Pot Kiln Anywhere and co-owns The Game and Wild Food Cookery School.

Knowing about their background I was expecting something really good and I wasn't disappointed.
There are four meals in the range: British Beef & Dorset Ale, Guinea Fowl & Lentils, Rabbit & Flageolet Beans and Classic Venison Stew. All are complete meals which means you get a good balance of meat and vegetables in a satisfying sauce. No need to serve them with anything more than a piece of crusty bread.

British Beef & Dorset Ale
This stew is described as being able to take you back to the sort of meal that your grandmother used to make with its earthy root vegetables, melt in the mouth Yorkshire beef and deep rich beer gravy. I think I could agree. The beef is indeed meltingly tender and the vegetables (carrots, swede, turnip and mushrooms) are perfectly cooked and even after reheating they retain a good texture. The flavour is deeply savoury and comforting, enriched with butter and honey and flavoured with thyme, perfect for a cold evening.

Guinea Fowl & Lentils
Claiming to be be a "bit of a show stopper" because it contains a whole breast of guinea fowl in it. I loved it, not just beacause of the whole breast, but because of the moistness of the meat which is flavoursome and tender. The mixture of puy lentils, carrots and smokey pieces of bacon cooked with wine are the perfect accompaniment, wholesome and fulfilling. I maybe would have preferred the skin on the guinea fowl to have been crisp – but bearing in mind the way it has to be heated that wouldn't be achievable without drying out the meat – but it was fine nevertheless.

Rabbit & Flageolet Beans
The first thing that hits me is the lovely scented herbal flavour from the rosemary which gently suffuses the whole dish. As well as the beans, there are courgettes which are perfectly cooked. They have not turned to a mushy consistency which is very pleasing. The large pieces of rabbit have a good flavour although they are slightly on the chewy side. I haven't had rabbit very often, but I do know that it needs some long slow cooking to make it more tender.

Classic Venison Stew
David Oliver rightly declares venison as being the "king of meats" although I personally don't agree that it is underrated. This dish though, has certainly done it justice with big chunks of tender venison cooked in a red wine sauce, with sizeable pieces of sweet potato and new potato. It has a great flavour, not too gamey and the pieces of smoked bacon give it nice roundness. A good robust stew and my favourite.

They are all great meals if you're looking for high quality food that doesn't have any unnecessary ingredients or additives. They'd be fantastic for a dinner party and a sure fire way to impress your guests. Whether you choose to hide the packs or not, is up to you!

For more information and to order online visit: www.davidoliverfood.co.uk
Pictures taken from the David Oliver Fine Foods website
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