Saturday, 26 September 2009

Beef and Guinness pie

I find cooking for large numbers of people terrifying. Partly because I've haven't done if much, although when I lived in France I once managed to make dinner for twelve people in my tiny studio flat with two hot plates and a microwave: chicken from the rotisserie down the road, ratatouille in a borrowed saucepan, about 4,000 baguettes, and a lot of wine.

Generally I find feeding crowds intimidating, I can’t judge quantities in large amounts and live in fear there not being enough to go around. But having lots of people for dinner is fun so I’ve decided I must face my fear.

Last weekend a friend from Bristol came to stay, and a few other people were going to come round in the evening. A few somehow turned into many and I began to panic about how to feed them all. Seeing as most of them were hungry boys - one once made the New Year's resolution of 'only one meal at a time' - something substantial was in order.

The stew part of a beef pie can simmer all afternoon, making the kitchen smell like all kitchens should, or be cooked a couple of days in advance meaning that when you want to eat all you need to do is make the pastry, put in a pie dish, drape the pastry over and bake it.

Pie for ten:

For the filling

1kg stewing beef, preferably shin, in bite sized pieces

3 large onions

5 large carrots

Oil or beef dripping

1 tbs flour

A few sprigs of dried thyme and bay leaves

2 cans of Guinness

1tbs brown sugar

You can brown the meat for this but I didn’t brown the meat for this, mostly because I was feeling lazy, and decided that the Guinness and sugar would make up for any loss of caramelised meat favours.

Slice the onions and cook over a low heat for about 20-30 minutes until they’re a soft, pale brown mass. I used olive oil but beef dripping, if I’d had any, would have been even better. Add the carrots, cuts into slices, and cook for a further ten minutes.

Turn up the heat, add the beef and stir until it loses it loses its raw appearance. Add the flour and cook for a minute or two before adding the herbs, Guinness and sugar. Cover, turn the heat as low as it will go, and leave it to bubble very gently for at least two hours. Add some water if it starts to look too dry, but it shouldn’t be soupy either. This is the sort of thing that actually improves if you leave it for a day.

You could use any dark ale instead of Guinness, or any beer at all. One day I’m going to try making a Belgian inspired stew using a dark beer such as Chimay or Leffe Brun, a bit of sugar and the sweet gingerbread spices called pain d’epice.

For the pastry

100g butter cut into cubes

200g plan flour

Pinch of salt

As per normal shortcrust, rub the butter into the flour and salt until it looks a bit like porridge oats. Stir in very cold water with a knife (I’m not sure why I always make pastry with a knife but it just feels right) until begins to come together into a lump, but isn’t too sticky. Beware that sometimes the flour mixture looks really dry but if you carry on stirring it then suddenly it starts to cohere into a ball.

Quickly knead the pastry into a ball and chill it in the fridge for half and hour or so. Decant the stew mixture into a large dish then roll out the pastry to the thickness of a pound coin and place over the dish. Press the pastry into the rim with your fingers to make a scalloped pattern then trim away the excess.

If the filling was hot when you put it in the dish then you just need to cook the pastry – about 20 minutes at 200°C – but if it starts off cold then cook it at 150°C for 45 minutes, covering the top with foil if the pastry begins to look too dark. Best eaten with lots of buttery mashed potato, and some cabbage if you feel the need for something green.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Braised pork belly

I have always thought of pork belly as something that should be cooked in huge vats to be served up to tables full of rosy-cheeked children. Unfortunately (thankfully, come to think of it) I don't have any of those so I just bought to two little slabs you see above.

The few times I've pork belly I've done it with garlic, fennel seeds and chilli, which is good with all things porky, and I think would be great minced pork in meatballs. However, today I wanted to try something more Asian, inspired by Chez Pim's five spice braised pork and Eat Like A Girl's spiced roast pork.

So, peppercorns, dried chillies, fennel, a little piece of star anise and cinnamon were pounded in the pestle and mortar (the biggest, toughest-looking, best pestle and mortar, incidentally) and then smeared over the two pieces of belly. Ideally I would have left it to marinate for a a few hours but I didn't have time and it didn't seem any the worse for it.

I briefly seared the meat on both sides, then added about three tablespoons of fish sauce, two of brown sugar and enough water to just cover. Turn the heat down as low as possible and leave to simmer very gently for at least two hours. The water will evaporate a bit; this is part of the plan.

After about two and a half hours my house smelt amazing - sweet, salty and pungent - and the meat was beginning to fall apart. The liquid had reduced down to a few very intense spoonfuls made unctuous by rendered-down fat. I ate it with rice, lubricated with these juices, and with steamed spinach to cut through the richness. Any leftovers are amazing for breakfast, reheated and shredded, then piled on to toast which you have dunked in the fat.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Coffee pot - my new favourite toy

A friend recently went on holiday to Lisbon and very sweetly brought me back this amazing coffee-making device. It is a moka pot but instead of collecting the coffee in the top half of the pot in this little baby it flows up through the central stem and is neatly decanted straight into two coffee cups.

Besides looking very cute, I've discovered its much harder to spoil coffee in it. If you leave a moka pot on the heat for too long it eventually boils, and boiled coffee is nothing more than a nasty bitter brown liquid that will ruin your breakfast and leave you in a bad mood all morning.

When I lived in France I would often put the coffee on the hob then rush down to the bakery for some bread. Normally I would arrive home just in time to hear it bubble through into the top container but if there was a queue at the baker's I would return to the smell of burnt coffee and sometimes splashes of coffee over the wall behind the hob.

However, with this new version the coffee is protected from the heat by both the china of the cup and the little metal shelf it stands on which is not directly above the boiling water. Genius.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Hangover cure

Wake up, and then wish you hadn't. Resolve never to drink to excess again. Try to block out the sunlight and go back to sleep. Wake up a few hours later, go downstairs and attempt to talk to housemates. Fail, and retreat back to bed. Try to remember why a second bottle of wine seemed like a good idea last night. Drink a cup of tea brought to you by your lovely housemate. Eventually feel human enough to go downstairs again in search of sustenance.

Drag a pot out of the cupboard, noticing that it seems heaver than normal, and put it on the hob. Slice a pepper carefully, being aware your physical coordination is not what it usually is. Fry it in oil with a sprinkling of chilli flakes for a few minutes. Add a couple of handfuls of red lentils and enough water to cover them by about 5cms. Retire to moan quietly on the sofa while they cook for 15 minutes or so, adding more water if it dries up. When the lentils are soft and the whole mixture looks thick and soupy it's ready. Add some salt if you want.

Eat from a bowl on your lap. This is not a time for tables and chairs. Feel much better, so go back for seconds.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Oops, or the tarte au citron that wasn't

Today I had intended to post a picture of a cute little individual tarte au citron with cream and raspberries on the side. Unfortunately when I took them out of the oven, a bit later than I meant to having been distracted by the fantastic thai salad my lovely housemate had made, I ldiscovered that if you cook lemon cream for too long if turns into something that resembles a cross between scrambled eggs and little souffles in pastry.

Once they'd been out of the oven for a bit they did deflate somewhat and, while not as smooth as I would have liked it the texture looked at least edible. It was just as I was about to take a bite that I realised they would not be edible: I had forgotten to add the sugar to the lemon-egg-cream mixture. Oops.

I hope that those of you who are less forgetful are more successful with this recipe (which is adapted from the Lemon Cream in Nigella Lawson's 'How To Eat').

For the pastry I used the same method as for Green Pie and used it to line four holes in a cupcake tin, then baked them blind for about 10 minutes.

Combine the zest and juice of one lemon, 100ml of double cream, one egg and 75g of sugar (N.B This is not optional) and if you have time leave it to stand in the fridge for an hour or so, or even overnight if you have time. This could be a good pudding to make if you have people coming round for dinner - make the pastry cases and the mixture the day before and then you only have to assemble and bake it on the day. Or make the whole thing the day beforehand, it keeps for a few days and I prefer it cold to hot.

Fill the pastry cases three-quarters full and put into an oven preheated to 150 degree for about 15 minutes - check them regularly to avoid making lemon-scented scrambled eggs.

Rice, spinach, bacon and onion

Some meals are carefully planned in advance, shopping lists written, ingredients bought, anticipated before and lingered over afterwards. Other times things - work, seeing friends, studying, boring domestic chores - get in the way and you have to feed yourself from what you have already languishing in the fridge.

Not that this is a worse way to feed yourself. I think one of the most important aspects of cooking is learning how to make a meal from what you have, rather than being only being able to follow a recipe and having to go to the shop if you're missing an ingredient. When you cook from what you have to hand you experiment, try things you wouldn't otherwise, and discover new combinations. It's cooking off piste, maybe scarier to begin with but ultimately much more satisfying.

I find it helps that I tend to cook like this for myself or maybe one other person. Cooking alone I don't feel the pressure to come up with something with a wide appeal, I can make some variation on fried vegetables with fish sauce again, or whatever suits my mood. (However, I don't understand why everyone doesn't love fried cabbage, especially with chilli, garlic and fish sauce. Their loss, I suppose.)

This concoction was the result of what I could find in the fridge and that fact that I had some spinach that needed using up. I was particularly pleased by the colour combination here: the bronzed pink of the lardons, the green of the spinach and the violet of the onions. All quantities are, as ever, approximate - use what looks right to you, or what you happen to have to hand. If I'd had either I might have added a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts or a poached egg

100g chopped smoked bacon or lardons
olive oil
1 red onion
1 small bag of washed baby spinach - about two large handfuls

Fry the lardons in a teaspoon of oil until they're browned then add a sliced red onion and turn the heat down. Leave it to soften, stirring every now and then and adding a drop of water if it looks like it might stick. When the onion is sweet and transluscent throw in the spinach and stir until it has wilted. Serve over rice with a teaspoon of butter stirred through it. Makes enough for one greedy person.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


As I mentioned in my first ever post, I love ratatouille. Even though it's really a summer concoction I find it really cheering in winter, although that means having to make it with hothouse vegetables, but I doubt many aubergines sold in the UK are grown here so I don't feel too bad about that. (Does anyone know if aubergines do grow in the UK?)

Ratatouille is wonderful hot, tepid or cold when it starts to seem relish-like, which you can play up by chopping it up a bit more. A few days ago I had it on toast for a late breakfast. It is great with roast meat, esepcailly lamb or pork but most often I have it on top of rice, which is how I ate this, with plenty of soft red wine.

I think that a ratatouille is so much better if you cook all of the vegetables separately. This may seem excessively effortful but unless you have an enourmous frying pan then most of them will not be in contact with the base and rather than gently frying in oil then will steam. There is little to love in a steamed ratatouille. For the same reason I tend to use A LOT of oil, it helps the vegetables caramelize. You can drain out the excess before adding the tomatoes but remember that it is supposed to be quite oily.

For enough for two large servings and some leftovers I used one onion, one aubergine, two peppers, two courgettes, two cloves of garlic and a tin and a half of tomatoes - this is also the order in which I cook them. Despite many cooks advising it I don't see much point in salting aubergines to remove water or bitterness. I have never some across a particularly bitter specimen so I think that this must have more of a problem in the past and that it has now been bred out of them. However, aubergines do soak up masses of oil so don't use too much when frying them if you want to avoid creating oil-sponges. One of my housemates told me her dad (who is a fantastic cook) cooks them will a mixture of water and oil to stop them getting to greasy and I think I will try that next time.

So, fry each vegetable in olive oil until soft and slightly browned, then decant to a bowl and start on the next one. Once they're all done add the tomatoes and a pinch or two of salt - use more or a bit of water if it seems to dry - and cook very gently for an hour or so. I'd forgotten until I started writing this that I used to eat it with goats cheese when I lived in Aix. I wish I'd bought these that I saw at Borough Market on Friday.