Stewing in the snow

January 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

We’ve just emerged from more than a week of snow and ice. This is unheard of for the UK – a cold snap that has the newspapers reaching back into the archives for tales of ‘the worst winter since I were a lad’.
I’m suddenly feeling kinship for big sections of the world – Scandinavia, the North-Eastern US – that have to deal with this stuff every year.
It focuses your mind on thick, warming dishes – soups with beans or potatoes in, stews, mashed potatoes.
I started out aiming for a beef and Guinness pie, but when the snow came down, and there was no Guinness in the house, I realised that this was a slap-your-forehead moment. A beef stew is adaptable and forgiving, so going out to buy special ingredients, in the snow, when I could do it all with what was in the house was a very special example of foodie blindness.
All we really need for decent beef stew are a few basic elements:
The beef – fortunately I’d got this in earlier in the week – 1 kg of cubed beef shoulder from my favourite butcher (they’re really so nice, and not intimidating at all). Not really optional this part. I like the shoulder because it has plenty of fat in (did you know that if you remove the fat completely from meat, you can’t taste the difference between pork, lamb and beef? Flavour is all in the fat).
Flavourings – onions, leeks, carrots, herbs, celery all add lots of flavour to the stew. You also need to make sure the beef gets nice and brown at some point, to give you lots of really beefy flavour (browning breaks the long beef proteins into shorter aminos and polypeptides – shorter molecules are where you get all the flavour).
Liquid – I originally shot for Guinness, until I realised I have a cupboard full of red wine. Beer also works well. Stock is also good – adds more meaty flavour.
Thickener – not an absolute, but stops it from being a broth. Flour works well, and can be added to coat the meat before it is cooked, or stirred into the fat before you add the liquid. Irish stew uses potatoes. Gelatin is also important.  One of the reasons for choosing beef shoulder over other cuts is that it also has some bits of connective tissue – silverskin, tendons, cartilage – which doesn’t usually sound like a good thing, but these are all substances that when cooked slowly in liquid will dissolve and become gelatin. And gelatin is what makes stock wobble (and jelly for that matter) so it helps to thicken the gravy, without you having too add too much flour. Adding stock as a liquid (at least homemade stock) adds some more gelatin too.
Time – for all of the flavour to work its magic, and to allow the gelatin to emerge, you need to cook it slowly (which means barely simmering) and for a long time (3 hours plus).
The recipe below is what I did on this occasion. Having set out the principles above, can I trust you to guess that you can substitute all you want here? Bacon is fine instead of pancetta. I had chicken stock in the freezer, so used that – stock from concentrate or one of those little jellied pods is fine too – in fact, beef better than chicken. Just keep an eye on the salt if you use one of those.
Rich Beef Stew
——
1kg beef shoulder, cubed
4 tbsp plain flour, seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper, in a ziplock bag.
Shake the meat, a batch at a time, in the bag to coat it.
Heat a casserole. Add a good layer of vegetable oil (don’t worry too much about the amount – you can pour off the excess later).
Take each batch out, and shake off the excess flour.
Brown the meat a batch at a time. Flour the next batch while you’re waiting for the first to brown.
Once all the meat is browned and set aside, pour most of the fat out of the pan and into a small heatproof bowl or jar.
1 packet cubetti di pancetta (100g)
Add to the hot casserole on a low heat, and start to melt the fat, as well as scraping at the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.
1 onion, chopped small
Add the onion once the fat is flowing, with a little olive oil if there doesn’t seem to be quite enough fat. Cook slowly with the bacon until the onion is translucent, using the liquid given off by the onion to help you scrape up and dissolve the brown bits from the beef.
2 small leeks, sliced into thin rings, and washed well
1 large carrot, chopped small
2 sticks of celery, chopped small
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme (it was too snowy to go out and get fresh)
Add the rest of the vegetables, and continue to fry gently and stir until they are all softened. Turn up the heat as the cold vegetables go in, and back down once everything is sizzling gently again.
350ml pinot noir
Add the wine and simmer just for a few minutes to reduce a little and boil off some of the alcohol.
2 bay leaves
400 ml chicken stock
Add the stock and bay leaves and bring back to the boil before adding the browned beef back in. Once it’s all simmering again, put on the lid, and place in a 130C oven for about 2 hours.
Chestnut (crimini) mushrooms
2 large field mushrooms
Quarter the chestnut mushrooms and chop the field mushrooms into slices, then across into small pieces. Heat a fresh frying pan over medium heat, then add olive oil and butter, and toss the mushrooms in. Fry until they are starting to brown in places, keeping the heat fairly high. It will take a few minutes, as the mushrooms need to give up their water and shrink before they will brown.
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tbsp Marsala
Add the garlic, and a splash of Marsala and continue to cook for a couple more minutes. Turn off the heat and leave in the pan.
1 large carrot, sliced
After the stew has had 2 hours, remove from the oven, and taste. Adjust the seasoning if necessary, and add in the carrot and mushrooms. Return to the oven for a further hour.
Serve with mashed potatoes.

We’ve just emerged from more than a week of snow and ice. This is unheard of for the UK – a cold snap that has the newspapers reaching back into the archives for tales of ‘the worst winter since I were a lad’. I’m suddenly feeling kinship for big sections of the world – Scandinavia, the North-Eastern US – that have to deal with this stuff every year.It focuses your mind on thick, warming dishes – soups with beans or potatoes in, stews, mashed potatoes.
I started out aiming for a beef and Guinness pie, but when the snow came down, and there was no Guinness in the house, I realised that this was a slap-your-forehead moment. A beef stew is adaptable and forgiving, so going out to buy special ingredients, in the snow, when I could do it all with what was in the house was a very special example of foodie blindness.
All we really need for decent beef stew are a few basic elements:
The beef – fortunately I’d got this in earlier in the week – 1 kg of cubed beef shoulder from my favourite butcher (they’re really so nice, and not intimidating at all). Not really optional this part. I like the shoulder because it has plenty of fat in (did you know that if you remove the fat completely from meat, you can’t taste the difference between pork, lamb and beef? Flavour is all in the fat).
Flavourings – onions, leeks, carrots, herbs, celery all add lots of flavour to the stew. You also need to make sure the beef gets nice and brown at some point, to give you lots of really beefy flavour (browning breaks the long beef proteins into shorter aminos and polypeptides – shorter molecules are where you get all the flavour).
Liquid – I originally shot for Guinness, until I realised I have a cupboard full of red wine. Beer also works well. Stock is also good – adds more meaty flavour.
Thickener – not an absolute, but stops it from being a broth. Flour works well, and can be added to coat the meat before it is cooked, or stirred into the fat before you add the liquid. Irish stew uses potatoes. Gelatin is also important.  One of the reasons for choosing beef shoulder over other cuts is that it also has some bits of connective tissue – silverskin, tendons, cartilage – which doesn’t usually sound like a good thing, but these are all substances that when cooked slowly in liquid will dissolve and become gelatin. And gelatin is what makes stock wobble (and jelly for that matter) so it helps to thicken the gravy, without you having too add too much flour. Adding stock as a liquid (at least homemade stock) adds some more gelatin too.
Time – for all of the flavour to work its magic, and to allow the gelatin to emerge, you need to cook it slowly (which means barely simmering) and for a long time (3 hours plus).
The recipe below is what I did on this occasion. Having set out the principles above, can I trust you to guess that you can substitute all you want here? Bacon is fine instead of pancetta. I had chicken stock in the freezer, so used that – stock from concentrate or one of those little jellied pods is fine too – in fact, beef better than chicken. Just keep an eye on the salt if you use one of those.
Recipe——1kg beef shoulder, cubed4 tbsp plain flour, seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper, in a ziplock bag. Shake the meat, a batch at a time, in the bag to coat it. Heat a casserole. Add a good layer of vegetable oil (don’t worry too much about the amount – you can pour off the excess later). Take each batch out, and shake off the excess flour. Brown the meat a batch at a time. Flour the next batch while you’re waiting for the first to brown.
Once all the meat is browned and set aside, pour most of the fat out of the pan and into a small heatproof bowl or jar.
1 packet cubetti di pancetta (100g) Add to the hot casserole on a low heat, and start to melt the fat, as well as scraping at the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.
1 onion, chopped small Add the onion once the fat is flowing, with a little olive oil if there doesn’t seem to be quite enough fat. Cook slowly with the bacon until the onion is translucent, using the liquid given off by the onion to help you scrape up and dissolve the brown bits from the beef.
2 small leeks, sliced into thin rings, and washed well1 large carrot, chopped small2 sticks of celery, chopped small2 cloves garlic, minced1 tsp dried thyme (it was too snowy to go out and get fresh) Add the rest of the vegetables, and continue to fry gently and stir until they are all softened. Turn up the heat as the cold vegetables go in, and back down once everything is sizzling gently again.
350ml pinot noir  Add the wine and simmer a little to reduce and boil off some of the alcohol.2 bay leaves400 ml chicken stock Add the stock and bring back to the boil before adding the browned beef back in. Once it’s all simmering again, put on the lid, and place in a 130C oven for about 2 hours.Chestnut (crimini) mushrooms2 large field mushrooms Quarter the chestnut mushrooms and chop the field mushrooms into slices, then across into small pieces. Heat a fresh frying pan over medium heat, then add olive oil and butter, and toss the mushrooms in. Fry until they are starting to brown in places, keeping the heat fairly high. It will take a few minutes, as the mushrooms need to give up their water and shrink before they will brown. 1 clove garlic, minced3 tbsp Marsala Add the garlic, and a splash of Marsala and continue to toss around. Turn off the heat and leave in the pan.1 large carrot, sliced After the stew has had 2 hours, remove from the oven, and taste. Adjust the seasoning if necessary, and add in the carrot and mushrooms. Return to the oven for a further hour.Serve with mashed potatoes.

Tomato sauce

May 24, 2009 § 1 Comment

I have a tub of this in my fridge at the moment

I have a tub of this in my fridge at the moment

As far as I’m concerned, having tomato sauce on standby is a no-brainer. There are just so many favourite meals that need it somewhere: pasta sauce, chicken curry, beef stew, a vegetable bake – the list goes on. Shop-bought ones can be good – and essential to have in the cupboard for emergencies. Delia likes the Dress range, which I’ve tried and like a lot, but you can’t find them everywhere. My Other Half prefers Ragu original, for nostalgic reasons – I find it a bit salty, and usually dilute it with some passata from a jar.

But the revelation is that you can make your own tomato sauce, freeze it in pots, and then use it as you would a jarred one. And it’s easy and cheap, and only needs an approximate recipe.

This is an ideal task for when you’re at the stove anyway, as it mostly minds its own business, and needs hardly any preparation. This is adapted from Marcella Hazan’sEssentials of Classical Italian Cooking tomato sauce with butter, so in addition to being easy, has impeccable Italian credentials.

Recipe: Tomato Sauce

So, large saucepan, preferably with a thick bottom to help stop the sauce from burning on the base of the pan.

Tip in 2 400g tins of peeled plum tomatoes and an entire 700 jar of passata. Break up the tomatoes with a spoon, or just do what I do, and squish them between your fingers as they come out of the can.

Add about 25g butter, a drizzle of olive oil, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp sugar and one large or 2 small peeled onions, halved from top to bottom.

Turn on the heat, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat as low as it will go and leave to simmer for about 45 minutes until thick and reduced.

That’s it. Just discard the spent onion halves and spoon into pots or ziplock bags and freeze for up to 3 months. If you have a food mill or a food processor
, you can also put the sauce in there and chop the onion into the sauce – this will make it a bit thicker as well.

Adapting the sauce

  • Add dried or fresh herbs – oregano, basil and parsley would all be good
  • Use all butter or all olive oil (Marcella’s recipe is heavier on the butter)
  • Up the quantities with more tomatoes
  • Use all tinned tomatoes, rather than the passata

Using the sauce

  • Just add to pasta
  • Make pizza dough and spread on top before adding toppings
  • Make curry: fry some onions and curry powder, add chicken and cook until brown, then add tomato sauce and stock and reduce. Stir in yoghurt at the end.
  • Quick Parmigiana: layer with grilled vegetables and creme fraiche and top with parmesan; bake in the oven.

Cookbook Library

January 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

I have a rather large cookbook collection (although I have certainly heard of larger ones, so I comfort myself with that). There are a whole stack of online library tools, aimed at cataloguing, lending to friends, social networking, etc. However, I really like Delicious Library, (mac only) which allows you to create an inventory of books just by scanning the barcodes with a webcam. And it pleased me again today, when I was able to publish my cookbook library almost instantly.

So, you can see my food library in all it’s glory here:

http://www.usingmainlyspoons.com/deliciouslibrary/

Let me know if you want to borrow something!

Goldilocks’ Chicken

July 1, 2007 § 2 Comments

When choosing a recipe to make, I often find myself objecting to some element of each one I read – an unpossessed ingredient, a step that I deem too fiddly – and move right along to the next one. Given the size of my cookbook library (not to mention the awesome power of the interwebs), this can lead to excessive time being lost before even getting to the kitchen. So the right course is often to pick and choose elements from each of them to arrive at a happy compromise – the option in the middle that is just right.

Yesterday’s problem was roast chicken, and my inspiration came from reading Laurie Colwin’s second compilation of cooking writing, More Home Cooking.  Her idea is to roast the chicken relatively slowly but thoroughly, to the point where the joints separate easily, and the leg meat falls from the bone, and to roast some vegetables at the same time. Laurie Colwin prescribes over 3 hours of roasting at a low temperature – I didn’t have time for that, but I liked the idea of the end result.So I turned to a reliable standby:  Marcella Hazan’s Roast Chicken with Two Lemons.

Marcella Hazan prescribes a pattern of temperatures that leads to a good, well-cooked bird, but also that your chicken is stuffed with 2 pierced lemons and the cavity sealed with a toothpick – and I didn’t want to fiddle that much. So I ended up with a compromise – and that was just right.

Roast chicken and vegetables

  • 1 large organic chicken
  • 5 or 6 medium potatoes
  • 1 onion
  • 4 medium carrots
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • small handful fresh thyme
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • olive oil, salt and pepper

Remove the chicken from the fridge at least an hour before you want to start cooking, to allow it to come towards room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 180C (160C fan). Spread a little olive oil in a roasting tin. Remove any fat from the cavity, season inside the cavity with salt, and place the garlic cloves (unpeeled), thyme and half lemon in there. There now follows a series of roasting phases:

  1. Place the chicken breast side down and roast for 30 minutes.
  2. Turn the chicken breast-side up, baste it and add the peeled potatoes and onions to the pan. Roast for a further 30 minutes.
  3. Remove the chicken and add the carrots, peeled and halved, and baste again. Roast for a further 30 minutes.
  4. Turn up the oven to 210C (190C fan) for a final 20 minutes.
  5. Remove the chicken to a cutting board to rest. Toss the vegetables in the pan juices and return to the hot oven to brown for another 10 minutes.

Carve the chicken and serve with the roasted vegetables, plus a green vegetable such as green beans or broccoli. I served this with green beans from the garden, which are going great guns in all this rain.

Surprise cake

January 5, 2007 § 2 Comments


Surprise cake
Originally uploaded by louise_marston.

The picture looked quite appetising. You can see it too if you have a copy of ‘Jamie’s Kitchen’ by Jamie Oliver. Go ahead, take a look. “That looks good” I thought. “That looks moist, a little crumbly, a lovely teatime cake”. And I even had beetroot. the recipes most esoteric ingredient, lying around from my organic box a few weeks ago. So I set to work. Something should have tipped me off though. Maybe the use of olive oil instead of butter or another fat. Maybe the need for virtually a whole jar of honey to sweeten it, as there was no other sugar in the recipe. And maybe the colour of the batter after I had added the beetroot mash. It was purple – very purple indeed. But I persevered, popped it in the oven, and prepared to unveil it for pudding that evening when my parents were coming round to eat.

Everyone was suitably amused at the colour, and not a little apprehensive when they heard that this was a beetroot-based cake. But all bravely accepted and tasted a slice. I think it was my other half who first voiced his opinion. “This is terrible” he said. Unfortunately my mum and I were pretty much in agreement. There was no getting away from it – it tasted mostly of beetroot and little else. It wasn’t sweet enough to really be cake, with a harsh, bitter note which I put down to the beetroot combined with my use of Chestnut Honey. My Dad bravely finished his slice, but could not be prevailed on to accept seconds. And the conclusion? Beetroot and cake are not natural partners, so beware any recipe that calls for over 1lb of them. And Jamie Oliver must have been thinking of an entirely different recipe when he took that photo. Reassuringly, I have not been the only one to come to these conclusions – others have had a similar experience.

January Cooking

December 29, 2006 § Leave a comment

In the reading time afforded by the Christmas holidays, I have been composing a list of recipes to tackle in the next few weeks. This started out at a mental list, but then I committed it to post-it, and now I’m posting it for the world to see – in the hope that it will help me actually tackle them all.

Lentil & Chestnut Soup from Feast: Food That Celebrates Life by Nigella Lawson
I made this a couple of years ago, and spent ages trying to remember where I got the recipe from. All I remembered that it had chestnuts, and was the best, most wintry soup I made that year. This one I accomplished this afternoon – there’s no picture, because it’s not the most exciting soup to look at, as you might expect from the ingredients list.

Rudolph Pie also from Feast
This is to use up the cold venison I have in my fridge from Boxing Day at my parents house. Going to do this tomorrow.

Marmalade
The Blood Orange Marmalade I made last year is nearly out, so time to make some more as soon as Seville Oranges are in the shops. This year I will either use the recipe from my new copy of the The Cranks Bible or from MFK Fisher’s description of her family recipe in With Bold Knife and Fork. This one sounds like it could be wonderful, but includes no very specific quantities and requires 3 days!

Pumpkin & Mango Chutney Parcels
Pasta stuffed with the butternut squash I’ve got sitting in the vegetable box.

Ginger Cake
Ginger cake always goes down well in our house – it lasts ages, and goes very well with tea. Dan Lepard’s recipe in the Guardian a few weeks ago looks like a good one.

Chips
Jeffrey Steingarten’s article on the perfect French Fry in The Man Who Ate Everything includes a description of how to make chips at home following Joel Robuchon’s home method. The idea is apparently to put the cold cut-up potatoes into cold oil and heat the whole thing up together, thereby giving them the first cooler cooking followed by the hotter second frying, all in one go.

Christmas cookies

December 26, 2006 § Leave a comment

Food blogs have been awash with cookie recipes recently – those to eat, then & there, those to share with visitors and those to pack up and post off to deserving friends and relations. I have been busy with a variety of recipes this year – some new and some old. But rather than describe all in detail, here is a round-up of my Christmas baking:

Oatmeal and Raisin Cookies
These come from a book purchased in America – appropriately enough, the The All-American Cookie Book, and have been a favourite for some time. They are apparently from a bed and breakfast known as Dairy Hollow House, and guests would be presented with one giant cookie in a little bag for their journey home. They are subtly spiced with ginger and cinnamon, and are crispy with just a little chewiness at the centre.

Clementine Sables
Inspired by Orangette‘s Meyer lemon sables, and by the Buy One Get One Free offer on Marks & Spencer‘s clementines, I made these little chill-and-slice shortbread biscuits. My genius discovery is that sanding sugar, used for decorating cakes and cookies, especially in America, can be very cheaply and easily substituted by preserving sugar.

Gingerbread Men
I have never made gingerbread men before, but the Christmassy-ness of them, plus the opportunity to play with icing faces and buttons proved too much to resist. I came across various ginger biscuit recipes at Chocolate and Zucchini, 101 Cookbooks and in several of my books, but in the end, I stuck to Nigella’s Britishness in How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. My only adjustments to her recipe were to reduce the black pepper, and to replace this by ground ginger. The biscuits were appropriately stiff and plain, but the spices developed beautifully over time, and now, a week since baking, they are very fragrant – although the icing did end up sticking them together in the cake tin.

Chocolate Macaroons
I love chocolate macarons de paris, and have bought them from many places, including Miette bakery at the Ferry Plaza building in San Francisco, and from the Yauatcha concession at the Taste of London exhibition this year. However, since my first attempt at baking them myself at cooking school came out badly, I haven’t really attempted them again. The main problems are 1) that characteristic smooth and shiny top and 2) the requisite chewiness combined with good chocolate flavour. There is no doubt that it is much easier to make them in the UK, where finely ground almonds are easily obtainable than to grind them yourself. This time I followed Flo Braker’s quite precise instruction in her book Sweet Miniatures – some worked very well, others stayed crackly, but they all tasted pretty good :)

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