2010 in review – year of chocolate, tortillas and courgettes

January 3, 2011 § 4 Comments

The WordPress fairies reminded me of the New Year by sending a little summary of how this blog fared in 2010. They offered to put it up as a post, but the stats don’t seem to tell the story of the year very well, so I’m going to have a go myself.

Mexico

The year kicked off in Mexico, where we went for a holiday in February while our back garden was being renovated.

It was a great break, and the best food was eaten on the beach, with pelicans diving in front of us. Tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner is a seriously underrated diet. When summer and my birthday arrived, I got hold of Thomasina Miers’ Mexican Food Made Simple and had a go at tacos at home. The main problem seems to be finding good tortillas in the UK – although apparently Thomasina is working on that problem too. I also bought masa harina this year, but haven’t found the time to try making my own tortillas yet. A project for 2011 instead.

Eating out

It seems that there has been more eating out this year – maybe having a new job, and a bit more time has helped. I also have access to a huge amount of great lunch food in my new location. Following the mexican theme, I have had many good burritos this year, but Daddy Donkey is still the favourite. Konditor & Cook and Fleet River Bakery are other great lunch spots in EC4.

As far as restaurants go, I particularly enjoyed the vegetarian Vanilla Black, the all-booth, all-day dining at Bob Bob Ricard, traditional hotel dining at Hix at the Albermarle, the pizza bianca at Polpo, gelato from Gelupo and a family dinner at Middlethorpe Hall in Yorkshire.

Chocolate

This has been a very chocolatey year, and I have found a whole new group of fellow twitterers to share this with. I saw demos by Paul A Young, William Curley, Micah Carr-Hill and Angus Thirlwell. All really inspirational and passionate people, who are really excited to be working with this strange material every day. The biggest eye-opener was probably William Curley’s raspberry ganache, made from just raspberry puree and melted chocolate.

I’ve tempered chocolate at home twice, with help from Katie at Matcha Chocolat, and made truffles and caramels. I even entered a brownie competition – and won even more chocolate!

I’m looking forward to trying lots more chocolate baking in 2011 with my stash, and maybe extending the repetoire beyond brownies…

Garden

This year is the first one in which I’ve had a proper garden, rather than narrow borders and pots. I took full advantage by planting a Rocket Garden, with tomatoes, beans, courgettes, chard, spinach, strawberries, lettuces and peas. I’ve learnt a lot about how the plot works, which I’m hoping to put into practice this year. I’ve also learnt that, despite good intentions, I just don’t pick or eat lettuce, so I should stop growing it.

The four courgette plants were very enthusiastic, giving a glut, as they always do (I saw in a seed catalogue today the words ‘heavy cropper’ next to a courgette variety, as if this was a good thing!). It did mean that I was able to make Clotilde’s eponymous Chocolate & Zucchini cake this year, which was really good, and will be coming out again.

Baking

Other baking adventures included making a lot more bread at home than I remember doing in previous years. I think this comes partly from finally adopting a more relaxed attitude to it, and an acceptance that using dried yeast, not massively wet dough and not kneading it is all fine, and even beneficial. For this, I have the wonderful Dan Lepard and also Azelia’s Kitchen to thank.

I also got to grips with macarons, caramels, many muffins as well as marmalade, jam and chutney.

Well, that’s about it for 2010. Further posts to come on my Christmas truffle making exploits, and plans and challenges for 2011. Happy New Year!

Learning (more) about chocolate

March 17, 2010 § 4 Comments

I’ve been on an uncharacteristic splurge in the last couple of weeks, and been to two different chocolate evenings. Although I consider myself a keen chocolate consumer, some would even say a chocolate snob, I surprised myself by how much I learnt on these two evenings.

The first was a demonstration session at Divertimenti, given by Paul A Young. I know him only by reputation, and because I got his beautiful book, Adventures with Chocolate, for Christmas. I haven’t even been to his shop, although it’s now on the list. This was a great evening – Paul’s passion for chocolate came through vividly, and was completely infectious. He started with a short run-down of how chocolate is made, and a tasting session that started with roasted nibs, and went through to several types of chocolate. Then he started the recipes, and elaborated on a few topics that he’s really keen on – using herbs with chocolate, and pairing chocolate with unusual ingredients, in this case a white chocolate sauce with sole. He spoke about flavour matching a lot – choosing which chocolate goes with what, whether it will overpower, what else to match with it to balance the flavours. The fish with chocolate was actually really good – not unlike fish with vanilla, if you’ve ever had that combination. Shallots, creme fraiche and aniseed notes from dill and Pernod balanced out the sweetness of the chocolate really well.

Inspired by this evening, I started browsing around seventypercent.com and came across their Chocolate Tasting Workshop. This was at the Scotch Whisky Society (who knew that existed?) and was really a series of tools to equip you for tasting chocolate. We looked at the way chocolate’s flavour changes over time, the many different notes you can distinguish, particular qualities that make chocolate ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – things like over roasting, a coarse texture, lack of length (the persistant chocolate aftertaste in the mouth), or a bad aftertaste. It covered quite a few things I knew, but also some new things. Most of all, it was good to put aside some time just to sit down and contemplate nothing more than the flavour and smell and texture of the chocolate you’re tasting. It might have been good to taste a wider range of chocolates, including some rubbish ones, but I can see how your palate would start to get overwhelmed very quickly.

Here are some things i’ve learnt from these two sessions:

  • I really like fruity chocolate – and I’m most likely to get that hit from Madagascan beans, hence my preferences for Valrhona Manjari and Malagasy Mora Mora.
  • I am pretty tolerant of all sorts of chocolate, equally happy to eat caramelly, biscuity (probably cheap ones) as the dark and bitter sort (although we’re still talking fine chocolate here: Galaxy is scum, and Dairy Milk is fine but gives me an unpleasant sugar-comedown).
  • Chocolate is ground down into very varied granule sizes, and some are much smoother than others. Brands like Amedei feel especially smooth and liquid. Green & Blacks is much coarser.
  • Water ganache is a revelation. I’d read about it before, but never made it, and tasting Paul A Young’s fresh mint ganache, made with just water, mint, sugar and chocolate has totally converted me. I’m now really keen to try this with tea – guinea pigs wanted!
  • The thing I most want to learn about next is tempering. I’ve done it a couple of times at home, but I would really love to be able to do it without having to clear the whole day – to make it something that I can contemplate doing in smaller quantities.

Some useful chocolate links that I’ve been collecting:

  • Seventypercent – a chocolate blog and (very comprehensive) review site for fine chocolate.
  • Paul A Young – lovely man, and great chocolates: the salted butter caramel I tried was indescribable, and has won 2 Gold medals. In Islington and the City.
  • Rococo – chocolate shops in Marylebone and Chelsea and also a chocolate school offering tempering and truffle-making classes.
  • William Curley – shops in Richmond and Belgravia.
  • Melt chocolates – little white boutique shop in Notting Hill and also available in Whole Foods
  • Matcha chocolates – recommended by Shuna aka eggbeater, so must be good :)

My chocolate books:

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.

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