Sunday, 30 January 2011

Cheeky Spouse in print: Letchworth Living

Starting next month (February), I'll be published with a regular monthly article in Letchworth Living magazine, a free glossy publication that is available to Letchworth Garden City residents and beyond.
I'm very excited, as this is such a wonderful opportunity to be able to share my writing with fellow locals.

I aim to cover aspects that relate to food and local food producers and it will offer me the chance to meet lots of new people in the process.
Thanks must go to Charn Badhan, the magazine's editor, who has taken me on board (does she know what she's let herself in for?!) and I can't say how much I appreciate it, enough.

For those not able to obtain a copy of the magazine it should be appearing online soon, with a brand new website. I'll also be posting the articles on my blog after publication date.


Saturday, 29 January 2011

Making Real Mexican Tortillas

I recently discovered that there's nothing better than an authentic Mexican tortilla. After taking part in a Mexican cooking night with Thomasina Miers, last year, nothing else seems to taste the same.
Wheat tortillas are widely available but they don't have that depth of flavour that you get from a corn tortilla. Occasionally I buy the wrap style ones from the supermarket but invariably I make my own, using just white flour, but now I wanted to have the real thing.

It is not easy to obtain the ground corn (masa harina) for making tortillas, where I live, but I found a company on Borough Market called cool chile co. that specialise in all things Mexican. I bought a bag of masa harina from them, and with some initial trepidation set about with some tortilla making.

I've had a metal tortilla press sitting on the kitchen rack, waiting for some action, since buying it on eBay some months ago. It was inexpensive and definitely essential. A simple tool that allows you to clamp your ball of dough between two metal plates, creating the perfect disc of the correct thickness. Well I say perfect, as my first attempts were perhaps a little wonky, but the process got better as I went along.

They were very easy to make, and the smell is just wonderful. I suppose I could describe it as faintly scented, sweet and nutty. The whole process is very therapeutic too, so I'll be making a lot more in the future.

250g masa harina
330ml warm water

Tip the masa harina into a large bowl and mix in the warm water. Leave to stand for 15 minutes. Knead in more water if necessary. The mixture should feel like soft clay but not sticky.

Divide into 10-12 pieces and roll into balls using your hands. Press or roll into circles, about 3mm thick, between two sheets of plastic wrap.

Heat a heavy frying pan and place one tortilla gently into the pan and cook for about 15 seconds. Turn and cook for a further 30 seconds. Turn again and wait for the tortilla to puff.
Remove from the pan and keep warm in a cloth while making the others.
Photo: ©childsdesign 2010

Friday, 28 January 2011

Focaccia: Variations on a Theme

I have a bit of a thing for making focaccia, firstly because it is very easy to make and secondly, because I'm always thinking of different things to put on it.

The top picture is the very traditional rosemary one, but I had a little brainwave when I made the one in the picture below. Inspired by the Italians' use of fennel seeds in their sausages, I thought why not sprinkle some on top of a focaccia? I also used some chilli flakes which give a lovely spike.

I served them with a simple salad of sliced tomatoes, torn mozzarella and fresh basil leaves. Along side was a bowl of good extra virgin olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar, either for drizzling or dunking.

For a recipe on how to make focaccia, see a previous post here.
Photos: ©childsdesign 2010

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Rosemary & Raisin Bread and Cheese & Black Pepper Bread

Sometimes I like to make my bread a little more interesting by adding some extras. For these loaves I used fresh rosemary and raisins and also strong cheddar cheese with crushed black peppercorns.
My bread recipe is rich in flavour which comes from the rye flour, but is surprisingly light in texture. I like to include white as well as wholemeal flour as this gives a more airy result rather than brick-like and heavy.

I should say that if you don't have a lot of time or patience then this recipe probably isn't for you as the bread requires lots of proving time and kneading to develop the flavour and texture, but I promise you that it is well worth devoting time to using this method.

The beauty of this flavoured bread is that you don't have to put the herbs etc. in at the dry stage, so you can make a big batch of dough, divide it up at the final kneading stage and then add whatever you want, giving you endless options but with any easy approach.

I just chopped some rosemary leaves to add to the dough along with a few handfuls of raisins. Then finished the top of the loaf with some rosemary sprigs and a dash of sea salt flakes.
Cheese is easy to add, just grate some over your flattened piece of dough along with some crushed black peppercorns and knead in. Finish the loaf with some more grated cheese before baking.

My Rustic Bread Dough Recipe

1 tablespoon dried active yeast
500ml luke warm water
1 tablespoon honey
250g white bread flour
200g wholemeal bread flour
200g rye flour
100ml sunflower oil
1 teaspoon salt

In a large jug, dissolve the yeast and honey in the water and then leave to stand for about 10-15 minutes until the liquid froths up.

In a large bowl mix together the white, wholemeal and rye flour with the salt. Tip in the oil and mix well.
Make a well in the centre and tip in the yeast liquid and mix well with a spoon.
Liberally flour your work surface and tip out the dough on to it. The dough will be sticky, but this good. Using more flour on top start kneading the dough with your hands, stretching and folding over in to the middle, over and over again. Do this for 10 minutes until the dough becomes silky and elastic.

Oil the bowl and drop in the dough and cover with some cling film. Put into a warm place (the airing cupboard is good) and leave to rise for at least an hour or until the dough has doubled in size.

Remove the dough on to your floured work surface and knock back and knead again for 5 minutes. You should feel and hear air escaping as you do this. Pop it back into the bowl, cover and leave to rise again for another hour.

Repeat the process of kneading and then form the dough into two loaf shapes.
NOTE: If you want to add any flavourings, this can be done at this kneading stage. Divide the dough in half. Flatten each half out and sprinkle with your herbs, fruit, cheese or whatever you fancy and then roll up inside the dough and knead well to mix in.

Place the loaves on oiled baking sheets, cover with some oiled cling film and leave to rise in a warm place until well risen and almost doubled in size.

Brush with water and make a slash in the top using a very sharp knife.
NOTE: At this stage you can sprinkle with sea salt crystals, spices or herbs.

Place in a preheated oven 200C / 450F / Gas Mark 7 for 30-35 minutes until brown. The loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, then you'll know it's done.

Photos: ©childsdesign 2010

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Shake Up Your Wake Up!

For a long time I was one of those people that missed the value of breakfast. Despite well-meaning family members and friends telling me that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I dismissed their advice and failed to entertain any notion of feeding myself as soon as I woke up.

When you think about it, it has probably been at least eight hours since you last ate, as soon as your alarm clock goes off. That's quite a long time to go without food, after all if this amount had passed during the day with an empty stomach, most of us would be famished and flopping about.

Shake Up Your Wake Up is the new name for Farmhouse Breakfast Week and starts today. Now in its twelfth year, the awareness event is endeavouring to change our thinking and get us all into the habit of eating a good breakfast.

Since leaving my 9 to 5 job and setting up my own business with my husband I have found I now need breakfast. There are now no excuses of lack of time or not being able to face anything so early in the morning. Gone are the days of grabbing an unsatisfying and disappointing cereal bar and munching it on the lurching train to the office.
For me, the day cannot and will not begin until I've had least a couple of slices of toast with peanut butter. I need food to function, to kick start those brain cells and give me the energy to think, let alone move about.

There's so many things besides boring cereal or dry toast and the campaign website has lots of lovely recipe ideas for exciting daybreak treats. In fact if you consider breakfast a treat rather than just a necessity then you're more likely to have it!

Photos from website and supplied by Breakfast Week

Saturday, 22 January 2011

A Slice of Cherry Pie

As a food blogger, it is inspiring to see that it's possible to eventually have one's work in print. Julia Parsons has carved a nice niche for herself in the world of food blogs (she is also the founder of the UK Food Bloggers Association) and her voice is always assured and passionate about the very thing she loves.
In her first book, A Slice of Cherry Pie, she gives us a glimpse into both her childhood and daily life through culinary stories and nostalgic evocations, which I'm sure many British people feel they can relate to.

Cristian Barnett's photograph's present the food well, everything looks appetising and is guaranteed to make the mouth water. As well as the conventional cookbook layout, there are also pages that draw their influences from old photo albums or scrapbooks, faded polaroids, snapshots and notes stuck down with distressed sticky tape. Ephemera made everlasting.

I don't think there is a recipe I wouldn't want to cook and I've earmarked several for future kitchen exploration. The Pea-stuffed Chicken Breasts with Parmesan Crusts (p.39) sounds intriguing, as well as the Pot Roast Pheasants with Chestnuts and Mushrooms (p.130)
Echoing my own family's habits, there are good traditional dishes too like Heavenly Roast Chicken (p.148), Fish Pie (p.82) and Shepherd's Pie (p.163), guaranteed to get everyone around the table and digging in.

The book is sectioned by either the seasons, occasions or mood and the recipes contained within suitably reflect those special moments.
There's no focus on a particular cuisine, and that's a good point. The book is Julia Parsons' culinary journey through life and love. True cooking from the heart.

A Slice of Cherry Pie by Julia Parsons is published by Absolute Press.
Hardback RRP £16.99
Order yours now

Book kindly supplied by Absolute Press

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Chicken Pastilla

I have a fairly adventurous palate, within reason, of course, so I love to try new things with what would seem odd flavour combinations.
I rooted out one of my little cookery books, that was a secondhand find, when I remembered a Moroccan recipe for a pastilla. Pronounced 'bast-eeya', a pastilla is a pie of usually sweetly spiced pigeon, almond, eggs and herbs encased in crispy filo pastry and dusted with icing sugar. Sounds weird? Actually it is rather good, although I used chicken instead of pigeon. I had pigeon once and didn't like it much, so have shied away from it ever since. I'm still looking for an opportunity to be convinced that pigeon is nice without having to pay for it.

The combination of fragrant spices including cinnamon and sugar is surprisingly agreeable and don't be put off by the scrambled egg either as it turns out less eggy than you'd expect. The texture is soft and moist and carries the flavours really well.

This recipe is very much my own adaptation of Fettouma Benikrane's from her Moroccan Cooking book. Firstly after reading the original recipe through, I realised that it would feed hordes of hungry people, so I had to scale everything down to make it more suitable for a normal family.

It's great little book, but I think it definitely embraces the Moroccan approach to good hospitality as the quantities are quite gargantuan in some cases. I also have to read the recipes very carefully as they're laid out in an unconventional way and it could be easy to miss something.
Hopefully my recipe makes things simpler to follow.

Serves 4
2oz flaked almonds
1oz butter, plus more for melting
3 onions, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely crushed
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
quarter tsp ground cloves
quarter tsp ground nutmeg
half tsp cinnamon
quarter tsp turmeric
salt and pepper
4 skinless and boneless chicken thighs
juice half lemon
2 tbsp sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
handful flat-leaved parsley, chopped
handful coriander, chopped
6 sheets filo pastry
icing sugar to dust

Essential equipment
One 8 inch springform cake tin.

In a dry frying pan, on the hob, gently toast the almonds, stirring them occasionally, taking care not to burn them. They should take on a light brown colour. Set aside.

In a large pan, gently melt the butter and drop in the onions and garlic and cook very gently until soft.
Stir in the grated ginger and spices, season with salt and pepper and then add the chicken thighs, stirring them round to coat in the mixture. Add enough water to just cover the contents, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for about 30 minutes until the chicken is tender.
Remove the chicken using tongs or a slotted spoon and set aside to cool.

Keep simmering the onion and spice mix until it has reduced in quantity a little and become thicker. Add the sugar and lemon juice, taste and add more seasoning if you wish.
Next add the beaten eggs, parsley and coriander to the onion mixture and cook gently, stirring all the while. over a gentle heat for about 4-5 minutes until the mixture is scrambled. Leave to cool

Preheat the oven to Gas 6. Butter the cake tin.

Place the filo pastry on a board and brush the first sheet with melted butter. Line the tin with the filo pastry sheet so it fits well inside and has the surplus overhanging the outside. Continue with the remaining three sheets, brushing with melted butter and laying the second at 90 degrees to the first and so on, so that all the pastry covers the tin and is well overlapped.

Shred the chicken and lay in the bottom of the pastry case.
Add half the toasted almonds, crushing them through your hands as you do so.
Spoon in the scrambled egg mix and top with the rest of the crush almonds.
Bring up the overlapping pastry and form over the top of the pie in a random fashion.
Brush the top with plenty of melted butter.

Place in the preheated oven and bake for 30-40 minutes until golden and heated through.

Take the pastilla out of the oven and leave to rest in its tin for 5 minutes before serving.
Remove the pastilla from the tin and dust with icing sugar using a sieve.

Cut into wedges and serve.

Food photos: ©childsdesign 2010

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Knäkebröd (Rye Flatbread)

After becoming bored with the choice of crackers in the shops I decided to make some of my own. I remembered seeing a recipe in Trina Hanemann's Scandinavian Cookbook that was for some authentic Nordic crispy flatbreads.
I adapted the recipe a little as I didn't have aniseeds and used caraway seeds instead, which worked perfectly well.
The recipe was very easy to make and although my initial thoughts were perhaps there were too many oats that could have made the dough potentially on the rough side, I was proved wrong as they just disappeared into the mixture.

Be prepared for a session of batch baking unless you have an oven of industrial proportions, as it will take several tray loads to complete. I made rather more than than stated so they were slightly smaller. The important thing is to roll them thin.
I found the recipe's timings rather academic (no two ovens are the same) and had to make sure I kept an eye – and my nose – on them to know when they were ready.

They turned beautifully crisp and were rather moreish with a selection of good cheeses and chutneys.

Makes 10
50g fresh yeast
500ml lukewarm water
1 tsp salt
2 tsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp honey
100ml sunflower oil
200g rye flour
200g rolled oats
250g plain white flour

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, then add the salt, caraway seeds, honey and oil and mix well.
Add the rye four, oats and half the white flour and mix for 5 minutes if using an electric mixer, or for 10 minutes if making the dough by hand. Sprinkle the rest of the the white flour over the dough and leave to rise for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 220C (Gas 7) and line a baking sheet with baking paper. Knead the dough on a floured work surface, then divide it into ten equal pieces (I made more) and roll each one into a very thin disc. Lay the flatbreads on the baking paper and bake for 5-8 minutes until crisp.

Photo: ©childsdesign 2010

Monday, 3 January 2011

There's Nothing Wrong with Leftovers

Leftovers. When applied to food it really isn't a very appealing word. Implying everything from dull to unwanted and possibly disgusting, why on earth would anyone want to eat leftovers?
Funnily enough, something left from a previous meal can be unbelievably enticing. A cold roast potato sitting in the fridge is just begging to be snatched and eaten there and then.

If you can wait long enough, more often than not, surplus cold cooked vegetables can be made into a completely new meal.
We were quite good over Christmas and did not have too much left over, however as always I did do too much veg on purpose. Some sprouts with pancetta and chestnuts, a few roast parsnips and carrots and there should have been some roast potatoes, but they were snaffled up sooner.

I made a tasty brunch using the aforementioned vegetables, but had to cook some potato to bind everything together into a type of bubble and squeak/hash cake. With the addition of some small pieces of smoked brie, extra seasoning and an egg to stick it all together. Just chop and mash everything until it can be moulded into a round flat cake shape, dust with flour and shallow fry in a little oil until crispy and warmed through.
I served them with cranberry sauce mixed with some chilli sauce for added zip.

Photo: ©childsdesign 2010

Declaration: I Love Sprouts!

Christmas has been and gone, so perhaps I'm a little late to be talking about brussels sprouts, but they are still in the shops, to be bought by lovers and now at last allowed to be ignored by the haters. However, I happen to love them.

"I'm not eating those – they're disgusting!" "Gross – they look like giant bogies!"
Being that time of year again, children all over Britain were likely to be heard making these exclamations against the brussels sprout.

For any of you out there who hate them, I'm not about to try and make you acquire a taste for these mini brassicas, but I am in support of them. I've alway liked sprouts, even when I was a kid. Maybe I was a weird child, although I didn't like the ones served up at school or any others that were over cooked to a stinky yellow mush, by anyone else for that matter. My Mum, however, has always cooked them to perfection and maybe that's why I've always enjoyed them, when they've been treated with some respect of course.

Sprouts can be bitter, but I have heard the flavour becomes sweeter after they have been exposed to a good frost. We've had some pretty cold icy weather lately, so that means they are exceptionally delicious, well at least the ones that the farmers managed to save from the fields.

I like to cook them lightly so that they retain a little bite to them. I also now avoid cutting a cross in the bottom too. Sorry Mum, I know that's how you've always done it, but I've since learnt that the cross allows water into the sprout and can make it soggy if you're not careful.

To anyone who still has an aversion to brussels, they can be tarted up by tossing them in butter with some small pieces of crispy pancetta and roasted chestnuts. Both of these add a sweeter dimension that can take off the bitter edge.

Of course brussels aren't just for Christmas dinner – they're also great when finely sliced and added to Chinese stir-fries. You could stir them into mashed potato to make bubble and squeak too.

Photo: ©childsdesign 2010
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