Saturday, 14 March 2009


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.


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. 


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
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;
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.