Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Sweet-spiced breast of lamb with braised fennel

Belly of pork has become very popular lately and for good reason; the combination of crispy skin and melting strands of fatty meat is a winner. But while its cousin, breast of lamb, has many of the same qualities - namely good flavour, plenty of lovely fat and being even cheaper than pork belly, it doesn't seem to have taken off in the same way.

Although there is a lot of flavour in it, breast of lamb is a shy cut of meat; it takes some coaxing to bring it out, and to keep it from being tough. Elizabeth David recommends braising it, then cutting in into fingers, which are then dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, grilled and served with tartare sauce. I decided to go for a cross between roasting and braising by first searing the meat then cooking it in a hot oven with a bit of liquid.

For the lamb (enough for four)
Breast of lamb
1 tsp each fennel seeds, black pepper, ground cinnamon, crushed chillies
Half a star anise
4 cloves of garlic plus another whole bulb
2 small leeks
1 onion
A glass of red wine

For the fennel (enough for one)
1 bulb of fennel
A thick slice of butter, about 20g

Grind the pepper, fennel and star anise to a rough powder in a pestle and mortar, then mix in the cinnamon and flaked chillies. I rubbed this into the flesh side of the meat, then crushed the garlic with a teaspoon pf oil to make a paste and smeared this over the top. In retrospect it would have been much simpler to mix everything together and then apply it to the meat - crushed garlic doesn't stick very well to meat when with a layer of spices on it.

Roll up the meat and secure with string, or cocktail sticks would work. Although it's normally recommended to roll it lengthways, starting at the fleshier end so that the thickest layer of fat is on the outside, the fat on mine was fairly evenly distributed so I rolled it across the width to make a thinner sausage shape that would cook quicker.

Sear the meat on all sides in a hot roasting pan until it's a deep gold colour, then add the leeks and onion, cut into big pieces, and garlic bulb, halved. I wasn't sure if red wine would go with the fennel, star and anise and cinnamon but had a sweet, berryish Australian Shiraz to hand, so I added a glass of that then poured in water to come about an inch up the side of the pan. Cover with foil and put into the over, set to 200°C for about an hour.

About 30 minutes in check to make sure it isn't drying out too much. I found that the liquid had reduced by about two thirds so I added about another 250ml of water.

For the braised fennel, trim off the green stalks, reserving any green fonds to use as a herb once it's cooked, and cut the bulb into quarters. Melt a thick slice of butter in a dish with a lid that can go in the oven.

Toss the fennel in the butter until it's glossy and there's butter caught in between its layers. Add water to come just under halfway up the fennel - you can use a light chicken stock if you want something richer, but with the lamb I didn't think there was any need for that.

If I was eating this, as the centre of attention, with bread and salad then I might be more tempted to use stock. Put it in the oven with the lamb, feeling virtuous that you're saving energy this way, and cook for about half an hour until tender.

Once you can stick a knife into it with very little resistance it's cooked, so remove it from the oven and let it rest while you put the roasting pan on the hob. Fish out the pieces of leek and onion and if they still look edible, eat them (mine were delicious).

Taste the juices and if they are too strong then add a bit of water. Squish the garlic cloves to release the creamy flesh and blend it into the sauce. Sieve it - although this seems fussy, it's necessary to get rid of all the garlic and onions skins.

Despite the fairly assertive flavours involved - fennel, chilli, cinnamon - this melded into something mellower than I had expected, and the fat emulsified the water, wine and the juices that leaked out of the lamb into a silky sauce. You need something to soak this up, I went for potatoes but I think rice could be good as well.

The next day I cut the leftovers into thin rounds and cooked them under the grill until they were crisp - they were like little lamb pinwheels and I was tempted to eat them as they were as a snack, but in an effort to make them into a proper meal had them on top of couscous with toasted almonds and some chilli sauce.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Smoked haddock chowder

It's officially autumn. The air smells of smoke, it's dark when I get up to go to work, and I know the clocks go back sometime soon and really should find out exactly when. The onset of cold weather makes me feel I should be about to go into hibernation (eat yourself silly then sleep it off for six months? Yes please!), but failing that comfort food seems to be the next best option to ward off the gloom of shortening days.

Although there are exceptions I think comfort food falls into three categories: food that you ate as a child - for me this is macaroni cheese and rice pudding; most warm food you eat from a bowl with a spoon, such as soup or stew, and food that is so sweet or fatty you it is clearly intended to provide an emotional rather that nutritional boost - chocolate brownies and ice cream, cheesy mashed potatoes.

Chowder falls into the second category, although I did eat eat is as a child it was never with much enthusiasm. When I was living in Brussels I found most supermarkets sold very thin slices of smoked haddock which prompted me to try and make variation on the chowder my Mum used make, which was mostly white fish, leek, potato and corn. Perhaps it was the tinned sweetcorn, which I never really liked, that used to put me off.

I developed my own version using lardons, leek and potato fried until the potato began to soften then added the haddock, covered with milk and simmered very gently until it turned opaque. Lots of parsley was essential. I made this when my parents came to visit me one weekend and I wanted to show off how domesticated I was capable of being. Chowder seems like something a brisk, sensible, sober housewife would make. I am not that, but at least I can make chowder.

Butter, plenty
One large leek
One large floury potato
One carrot
One skinned smoked haddock fillet, around 200g
Enough milk to cover, about 300ml
A bay leaf or two
Small bunch of parsley

Cut the leek into finger-wide slices, and rinse if they're gritty. Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pan -I used my old faithful Le Creuset I found at a second hand shop - stir in the leeks and leave on a very low heat while you peel the potato and carrot and cut into small cubes. Add these to the leeks and cook, covered for about ten minutes until the potato has started to soften around the edges, although it will still be hard in the middle. Add more butter and/or a splash of water if it begins to stick.

Add the haddock, cut into bite sized pieces, and the bay leaves to the vegetables, then pour over over enough milk to just cover. Simmer over a low heat until the fish begins to flake. Sprinkle with roughly chopped parsley, and eat with buttered bread.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Fried aubergines with tahina yogurt

I'm still trying to make it up to my body for the nutritional desert that was the political party conference season. There was excitement, some interesting discussions (and some very bizarre ones), and some fun nights in hotel bars. But a vitamin feast it was not.

A few days into the first conference I never wanted to see another piece of lukewarm chicken satay again in my life. The rule for conference food seems to be anything as along as it's beige: sandwiches with unidentifiable protein fillings, odd deep fried pastry things and anaemic bits of quiche.

So, a vegetable-heavy meal was very much needed. In retropect aubergine fried in fairly copious amounts of oil probably doesn't count as particularly healthy, but it is very good. As it cooks the aubergine flesh becomes soft and melting in contrast to the slightly charred edges.

If you want to create a crunchy carapace to provide even more contrast the silky interior then dip the slices in beaten egg then flour before frying. Oddly enough fried aubergine is also good cold and makes a great sandwich.

One aubergine
Plenty of olive oil
100ml plain yogurt
1tbs tahina
Small bunch of parsley
Salad leaves

Cut the aubergines into 1cm wide slices. This is a situation in which you would normally be recommended to sprinkle the slices with salt and left for half an hour or so so draw out some of the excess juices and to reduce bitterness. However, I think most aubergines available in the UK today have had excessive bitterness breed out of them, and I don't generally find them to be too soggy. Also, I just can't be bothered.

Heat a shallow layer of oil in a pan, then add the aubergines. Fry over a medium heat for about five minutes on each side. Try not to move the slices around too much to allow a slight crust to form.

Meanwhile, put the tahina in a bowl and slowly stir in a tablespoon of water. This can cause it to thicken and seize up, but keep stirring and it will loosen up. Gradually mix in the yogurt, then add salt, pepper and the parsley, finely chopped.

Let the aubergine cool for a minute or two then slather with the tahina yogurt. I ate this with a salad of Little Gem and parsley leaves. An easy way of making a small amount of dressing is to mix the oil and vinegar straight onto the plate you're going to eat it off, then toss the salad in it.

One aubergine should serve for two, although, just because I was so vegetable deprived, it was just enough for me.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Lamb and flagolet beans

Plagiarism is a great thing when it comes to food. Although now and then chefs come up with amazing discoveries of new flavour combinations or techniques (I wonder if there was ever a time when strawberries and cream or beef and mustard was ever considered new and daring?), I think generally food evolves by taking someone else's creation and tweaking it.

For this reason I find other peoples' recpies, especially handwritten ones fascinating. I love looking at other peoples' cookery books and gueassing what they have made from it (if they're messy) by which pages are most splattered, or by comments written in the margins. These can trigger such strong memories, for example when, after my grandmother died, my mum found a piece of paper with what she had cooked for her 21st birthday party tucked into a cookery book.

This recipe came from my housemate Agnes, who copied it from somewhere else. The fact that the sheet it's written on is reassuring crumpled from being used so often, and that I've tasted it before - and it was amazing, hearty and comforting - made me want to try the recipe myself.

2 large onions (the recipe I used called for shallots as well but I didn't have any)
12 cloves of garlic
A couple of finger length pieces of fresh rosemary, or a teaspoon dried
2 bay leaves
A small shoulder of lamb
6 tinned anchovy fillets
A tin of chopped tomatoes
2 glasses of wine, both red or white work well
A tin of flagolet, cannelini or butter beans

Slice the onions into 1cm wide strips and peel the garlic. Put the onions and ten of the garlic close into a roasting tray large enough to take the lamb later. Pull the rosemary leaves of the stems - I love doing this, and it makes your hands smell wonderful - and sprinkle them, along with the bay leaves over the onions. Add a bit of salt and a good grinding of pepper.

Cut the remaining garlic into little chards and roughly chop the anchovies. Using a small knife stab holes all over the lamb and poke a piece of garlic and some anchovy into each. Smear any remaining anchovies over the top of the lamb.

Put the anchovied lamb in the pan on top of the onions then pour the tinned tomatoes and wine around the meat. Cover with tin foil and roast at 180°C for four hours, by which time your kitchen shuld smell like a French farmhouse kitchen, the meat should be beginning to come away from the bone, and the tomatoes, wine and lamb fat should have amalgamated into pungent, slighly oily sauce. Remove the lamb, stir the beans into this, put the lamb back on top and roast for a further 30 minutes, this time without the foil, until the lamb is bronzed and screaming 'eat me' at you.

This should serve four, just, although the piece of lamb I used was really quite small. Despite the beans if I was serving this to other poeple I would probably make something potato-ey, maybe mash or sliced potatoes baked in stock, to go with it. As it was I ate it greedily on my own, for dinner one evening and lunch the next day and froze the rest for a clod evening when I suddenly need a lamb and bean hit.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Spinach and gorgonzola risotto

Risotto is one of the few foods that manages to be comforting, yet still feel like a proper meal. Rice pudding, bread in hot milk and mashed potatoes are all soothing but can sometimes feel a bit close to baby food.

It also works as a comfort food because it takes some time to prepare, although it isn't difficult, so you feel that you are looking after youself and can tell any concerned relatives that you are indeed 'eating properly'. Standing over a pan stirring can be strssful it you're doing it for a tableful of people but for one it is mindlessly soothing.

The strong flavours of spinach and gorgonzola counter balance the gentle blandness of the rice and I think the green and blue streaks look beautiful, even though they don't really show up in the photo very well.

Per person
A small onion
One large handful of Arborio or Carnaroli rice
Splash of vermouth, white wine or similar
125ml stock, preferably homemade but à la stock cub

e is fine
One hanful of baby spinach, chopped
50g gorgonzola

Fry a small onion or shallot until it's transluscent. Stir in the rice, coating it in the oniony oil then add the vermouth or white wine. Keep stirring until the liquid has mostly evapourated. Now start adding the stock a small ladleful at a time. It should be added hot, so either put it in pan and keep it over a low heat if you're using real stock, or crumble in a teeny lump of stock cube at the beginning and then add water from a recently boiled kettle.

Add liquid, stir, add more liquid and stir some more. The amount of liquid you end up using will dependon the heat of the pan and on the rice itself. This is not the thing to cook when you're liable to be distracted or not in the mood to spend twenty minutes by the stove. But after a long day some mindless chopping and stirring can be surprisingly relaxing - having to concentrate on something fairly untaxing gives you a break from thinking about other things.

When the rice has swollen and feels soft but with a bit of chalkiness towards the centre, add the chopped spinach. After a minute or two if should begin to wilt. Take the pan off the heat and throw in a small lump of butter and the gorgonzola.

Cover, and leave it while you quickly get together some salad and or pour yourself a drink. By now the cheese should be beginning to slowly ooze into the rice, but not yet fully melted. With the gorgonzola there's no need for parmesan but a meagre dusting of nutmeg or a bit of chopped parsley is a good idea.