Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Lemon Tart

Pudding time. I find myself craving delectable sweetmeats in the morning, of all times: lemon tart is as good a breakfast as any (and a lot better than the philistinic 'full English': shoot me, but a slop of gas-inducing bean, a black-lace-edged egg, malodorous pig-slices and a leathery raft of toast is enough to induce a hunger strike). Make sure the lemons are Sicilian and unwaxed: they should be pungent, textured and of a sunlit hue.

For the shortcrust pastry:

8oz plain flour, sifted
6oz good French butter, frozen
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
a little water

For the filling:

6 free range eggs, 2 whole, four yolks only
6 1/2 ounces vanilla sugar
6 fl oz double cream
juice of 3 Sicilian lemons, zest of 1
2 oz melted dark chocolate. (Go for a bar which is max. 60-70 cocoa solids. Any higher and it becomes too bitter if not earthy, overwhelming the delicate lemon flavours)

Sift the flour, salt and sugar into a bowl. Grate the frozen butter *quickly* into the flour mixture. Add a little water and knead the mixture until silky. Place in the fridge for 1/2 hour to rest.
Butter a 10" flan tin. Roll out the pastry and drape it carefully over the tin, allowing the excess to hang well over the edges. Blind bake, using dried beans/foil to line the centre, at Gas 5 for 15 minutes; remove the beans/foil and bake for a further 5. During this 5 minute period melt the dark chocolate. The minute the pastry's out of the oven, brush it all over with the melted chocolate. Allow the pastry to cool and the chocolate to set. Reduce the oven temperature to Gas Mark 1/2.
Separate eggs and yolks into a large, clean and above all DRY bowl and beat in the sugar until your arm is tired. If the mixture isn't light and fluffy by this point, use the other arm. Add in the cream, mix well, and finally the lemon juice and zest. Pour the mixture into the pastry case and place Very Carefully in the oven. Bake for around 50-60 minutes. When you remove the tart from the oven, trim off the excess pastry and dust with icing sugar. Allow to cool for an hour or two before diving in, or the centre will ooze everywhere.
If you're not a lemon fan, substitute pureed raspberries and use almond sugar instead of vanilla.

Monday, 5 July 2010

A Beautiful Beef Stew

I was reminiscing about my favourite restaurant on the happy isle of Oahu, John Dominis, where I ate the best lobster of my life. (Live to broiled in 15 minutes: the ONLY way to do it.) Which naturally led me to think about beef. Beef pie, beef stew, beef on the cow, cow briskly marched towards kitchen, waved at flame and served on plate. Beef pies are, especially in the instance of supermarket offerings, disappointing. Glutinous. Pastry that adheres to one's cheeks/gums/tongue, a shred of unpleasant meat cloaked by a thick slick of 'gravy'. Ditto beef stews (sorry, Sainsburys, but yours are NOT pleasant): gluey, sour, and indigestible.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well and taking lots of time over. MY beef stew takes, oh, approximately 4 hours from start to finish. 9 if you're slow-cooking it (to be recommended to those who work from home and don't take said work particularly seriously).

This recipe will serve four ladies or one lady + hefty chap.

2.5 lbs good diced beef (preferably a dark, delectable red-brown, not the kind of fluorescent jam-coloured hunks of meat served up as part of economy ranges)
2 bottle good red wine. The rule does apply. Don't cook with that which you'd never drink. Merlot works well, as does Casillero del Diablo; try to avoid blends.
Large bulb and a half of purple veined garlic. 2 bulbs is even better.
1 punnet of chestnut mushrooms.
Four ounces of either dried morels or porcini mushrooms, rehydrated (save the liquid).
6 medium red onions.
1.5 pounds tomatoes, roasted in the oven with mixed herbs, salt, pepper and a dusting of sugar; pinched out of skins and pounded through a sieve. Or a bottle of passata if you can't be bothered.
1 pint beef stock. NOT MADE FROM A CUBE. If you don't have time to roast your beef bones and spend three days working on a Larousse-approved demi-glace, Sainsburys does a quite decent Signature beef stock (found in the pasta/rice/sauces aisle).
2 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar.
1 tablespoon tomato puree.
Heaped teaspoon of maille mustard.
Mixed herbs: heaped teaspoon fresh rosemary, thyme, marjoram (or sage if you prefer), 3 bayleaves.
Freshly ground pepper; flaked salt.

Dice the onions. Attempt not to cry. Open both bottles of wine. Pour yourself a large glass. Gently sautee the onions in 2 oz butter (clarify it if you have time: it tastes so much more velvety without all those horrid proteins) in either a heavy-bottomed iron stockpot or an earthenware casserole (heat-safe, of course), lid on, for 10-12 minutes until they are soft and translucent. Using a garlic crusher, add the entire bulb or two of garlic to the pan and mix briskly. Add all the beef. Allow to colour; it doesn't matter if it is a little pink. But don't, for Heaven's sake, allow it to stick. Pour in an entire bottle of wine (and more into yourself), the stock, roasted tomatoes or passata, beef stock, puree, herbs, mustard, balsamic vinegar and half the liquid from the rehydrated mushrooms. Salt it, pepper it, and stick it in the oven on 100-110*. Stir once an hour for the next two and a half hours. Finally, add the quartered chestnut mushrooms and morels or porcini and cook for a further hour. Take stew out of oven and allow to rest while you finish off the wine (should there be any left), crack open another bottle, and prepare some mash with heavy cream, butter, pesto and grated gruyere, or a little buttered pasta or even walnut bread.

*If you're slow-cooking it, heat it at 130 for 30 mins and then turn the oven down to 70. It needs to be warm enough to kill virii, cool enough to very slowly tenderize the meat to an unbelievable degree.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Pesto

Open a jar of supermarket pesto and the response is likely to be 'pest...oh'. You look sadly into the greenish-black sour, flaking mess, knowing that once you plunge in the spoon and extract a tablespoon of gunk you're going to regret it: bitter, coarse, incredibly salty, with no relation to fresh ingredients. Having consumed enough sodium in one supper to make your arteries go 'clang', you turn to the label and discover that the so-called pesto's full of strange nuts and cheeses that should be slapped with a restraining order. NO MORE.

Ingredients

A bunch of basil the size of two clenched fists, all its stalks and shoots removed. Reserve three little leaves for garnish;
An ounce and a third of pine kernels, lightly toasted in a dry pan. Keep the heat on LOW and watch the kernels like a hawk. Shake the pan constantly. As soon as you avert your gaze, they will burn;
One big fat clove of garlic;
4 oz fresh reserve parmesan - 1 and a half oz finely grated, the rest shaved;
Two to three glugs of extra virgin olive oil;
A tablespoon of good white wine (or, if you've already opened a bottle, champagne)
A pinch of salt
Coarse black pepper

Throw your basil into your food processor (or if you're feeling really virtuous, your mortar) along with the garlic clove, finely grated parmesan and three quarters of the pine kernels. Dribble a good gloog of olive oil and the wine and blitz it (or pestle it) until it's absolutely smooth and silky. Add in another glug or two of olive oil - depending on how runny you like your pesto - the remaining pine kernels and the pepper and stir.
Serve with really really good Italian spaghetti; spread on toasted ciabatta; smoothed over a salmon fillet and baked for 15-20 minutes; dotted over a home-made pizza; rolled up in the centre of a good monkfish fillet which is then served with roasted red peppers and red onions and sauteed mushrooms; with smoked salmon on a black bread sandwich. Mmm-hmmm.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A Perfect Hen

Sunday afternoons are the best time in which to savour the deliciousness of a perfectly roasted hen. Those poor bleached birds in the supermarket, all anaemic and pimply under their polythene shrouds, simply won't do: you need a fat, yellow-skinned bird, one that in life had a bright eye, beautifully puffy bloomers and a jolly cluck. 

Ingredients:

The aforementioned hen
A bulb of large-cloved violet and cream veined garlic (French is best)
A medium carrot (purple if possible)
A lemon
A bunch of fresh rosemary
A handful of small basil leaves
A bay leaf
Salt
Pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Release the hen from its elasticated confines and untuck the legs from the cavity. Place it on its side and press down very hard until you hear the bones crack: all the lovely marrow will moisten and enrich the hen inside. Halve the lemon, hold the hen upright and squeeze the juice into the cavity. Tuck the lemon half deep inside the hen, followed by the bulb of garlic - simply cut in half, skin and all, the rosemary, basil leaves, bay leaf, and the carrot cut into batons. Drizzle olive oil with abandon all over the bird's skin and rub in; then grind a good quantity of salt all over so it will crisp up deliciously.
Roast in a shallow tin at Gas Mark 5, basting 3-4 times during cooking. A small to medium hen will take around an hour and a half. When roasting my potatoes - parboil some Desiree or King Edwards and, when draining, 'fluffle' them in the colander so that the outsides are all flaky, put in a china dish and pour over around half the chicken cooking liquor, add around an ounce of butter and a little salt - I like to put the hen in the very bottom of the oven for the first twenty minutes of the potatoes' cooking time, and then allow to rest out of the oven for a further twenty minutes whilst you turn up your oven to around Gas Mark 7 to encourage the potatoes to crisp.
A quick and simple gravy can be made by removing the hen stuffing and adding it to the pan juices; throw in a large glass of dry white wine and simmer over a medium burner until the alcohol's evaporated. Pass through a sieve. 
I like to serve my hen with asparagus tips, broccoli and cauliflower simmered in a court bouillon, fresh green peas, lightly sauteed savoy cabbage with spinach and red onion, and baby carrots.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Ahh... Dauphinois...

Some restaurants serve what they claim is a 'gratin dauphinois'. Sometimes they try to be less pretentious and offer up 'gratinated potatoes'. Imagine my disgust when I was presented with a thick little tureen - made of that kind of unbreakable china you give to a young child - filled with half burnt, half raw glumph and topped with a near-impenetrable slurp of viscous orange cheese. Which I *think* was Red Leicester; I'm still in doubt.
To make a good Dauphinoise, you need a) not to be on a diet b) not to have made any after supper plans beyond falling asleep under the FT c) with a good Waitrose or farm shop nearby.
There are few ingredients, but they must be the best.

A pound of lovely King Edward or Desiree potatoes;
A small pot of Jersey cream;
half a pint of buttercup yellow milk;
A bayleaf;
Nutmeg;
A slice of onion;
A crushed clove of garlic;
Half a tablespoon of chicken demi-glace*;
2oz reserve Gruyere grated so finely it resembles a cloud;
Salt and pepper.

Mix together your milk and cream and steep the slice of onion in it for an hour at room temperature. Then pour into a saucepan, heat through with the crushed garlic, bayleaf, nutmeg, demi-glace, salt and pepper but do not allow to boil - take it off the heat when curling wisps of steam begin to rise from the surface and discard the bayleaf and onion.
Meanwhile, peel and wash your potatoes; then slice them very finely so that they are transparent and rinse again to get rid of the starch. Layer in a casserole. Pour over the milk and cream mixture, top with the Gruyere and bake at gas mark 2 for an hour and a half.
Serve with duck, slow roasted beef, left over chicken.

*Demi-glace: a thick chicken stock. After making your initial stock (carcass, halved large onion, roughly sliced carrots, halved turnip (optional), 2 stalks celery, half a lemon, 12 peppercorns, bouquet garni, bayleaf, enough water to cover; bring to boil, skim off froth as it forms, reduce by half, top up with water and repeat process until no no scum is left; pour through a funnel into a clean bowl, allow to cool, refrigerate overnight) carefully remove the layer of fat that has formed on the top of your now jellified, chilled stock, place in a saucepan and reduce by half (demi-glace). Refrigerate overnight, remove any remaining fat, heat and reduce by half to form a glace. SO much better than chicken stock cubes even if it does take 2-3 days; can be frozen in icecube trays and used when necessary.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Comfort Food

It's still chilly outside; we need our fat blankets. What better to make a thick, windproof layer of blubber than a nice pheasant casserole served with an unpretentious Beaujolais, or the simplest and best nursery supper of all: a poached egg on toast? (Only make sure that the toast comes from a new, crisp-crusted snowy white loaf and is cut half an inch thick; that the finest butter is allowed to melt in little glistening trails all over the warm golden surface, and that the egg is perfectly poached. Add a tablespoon of white vinegar to the water; when it comes to a rolling boil stir it vigorously so that there is a little whirlpool in the centre; pour the egg, which you have already broken into a glass, carefully into the whirlpool and cook until the white is just set. Remove with a slotted spoon, and allow to steam dry; watery toast is fatal to enjoyment. A good grinding of salt and pepper is essential.) 
My favourite comfort food has always been macaroni cheese. Not the awful, perma-baked stuff that they served up at school with brown crust so thick it could only be shattered with a mallet, made from cheese that bore as much relation to cheddar as a parlour does to an abattoir; but incredibly rich, golden, and above all flavoursome pasta designed to warm your heart.

All measurements are approximate.

2.5 oz extra mature cheddar - a Davidstow from Marks and Spencer will do the trick, grated finely, if you're in a hurry; otherwise, go to a deli;
1 oz fresh parmesan - grate five minutes before preparing your sauce;
1.5 oz reserve alpine gruyere finely grated;
1 oz good dolcelatte, cubed;
1 pint full fat milk - Borrowdale farms Jersey milk is best: it must be buttercup yellow and laced with cream;
1 small pot Jersey cream;
2.5 oz butter;
a grating of fresh nutmeg;
1 tablespoon flour;
1 small clove garlic;
1 teaspoon Grey Poupon;
a bag of Sainsbury's macaroni. 

The first question is: to bake or not to bake? If you are to bake, do not boil the macaroni; scatter it in the bottom of an earthernware dish to await your sauce. If you are not to bake, fill a Large pan - a stockpot will do - with water, oil and salt. Sainsbury's macaroni is the best out there, in my opinion, but it's high in gluten and will stick if it doesn't have room to move around. Cook the macaroni for a full 13 minutes. 
In a 6in  saucepan, melt the butter on a low heat: it must not brown or burn. (You're not cooking skate wings, after all.) When it begins to froth remove the pan from the heat, tip it at an angle and skim off the froth. Repeat this process until the butter is absolutely clear of impurities (you will remove over half an ounce of solids). Then grate in half a clove of garlic and shake the pan vigorously to prevent it from burning; immediately add all the flour and stir for around a minute and a half. You do not want to brown the flour/butter mix (roux). Add 2-3 tablespoons milk and stir into the roux, once that has been absorbed, add another 2-3 tablespoons, using around half the milk, until the sauce is smooth, thick and elastic; then pour in the rest of the milk and the cream and whisk until the surface is covered with small bubbles. Add the Grey Poupon, a good grinding of rock salt (I prefer the Fleur du Sel, the lovely Provencal salt that has a unique, piquant flavour), a small, fragrant cloud of nutmeg, and black pepper and whisk the sauce until it is steaming and thickening. Then add your Dolcelatte and allow to melt; your Gruyere; your Cheddar and your Parmesan and whisk slowly, on a low heat (do Not allow to boil) for around 5 minutes until your sauce is scented and thick and velvet-smooth and delectable.
If you are baking your macaroni, allow a good fifty minutes at gas mark 4; about an hour in the bottom of an Aga. If you're feeling peckish, make a large green salad with little gem lettuce, chopped red peppers, sliced vine tomatoes, cucumber, grated carrot and avocado, served with a homemade dressing of 2 parts extra virgin olive oil/1 part good wine vinegar, fine herbes and lemon juice.
I like to eat my macaroni cheese with a good glass of Pinot Grigio or a similarly light, grassy, undemanding wine that complements the rich cheeses without overpowering them and an episode of Frasier. Make sure to wear elasticated trousers.