Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Crab Shack

I adore crabs, and for me, they are superior in flavour to a lobster. Their meat is sweet and succulent and incredibly versatile to a number of dishes. Quite why it does not achieve the same culinary praise as a lobster is beyond me.

Pound for pound they are also more economical, with the average meat packed hen crab costing little more than £3. With large numbers of brown crab surrounding the United Kingdom and Ireland, and despite the much highlighted problem of over-fishing in our waters, the brown crab remains a sustainable choice of shellfish.

It is commonly perceived that preparing a whole crab is a messy and time consuming business. If you know a good trustworthy and reputable fishmonger, the task of dismantling a crab can usually be escaped with a pre-prepared dressed crab or simply a tub with both the white and brown meat in. Never buy a whole dead crab unless you know how long it has been dead. But there is something so satisfying about bringing a live crab home and going about the business of boiling them and then taking them apart.

It has become quite ritualistic for me to come home with a couple of crabs fighting in a bag before boiling them in a huge pot of sea salty water and allowing them to cool, before ripping them apart and spending a bit of time with a metal skewer retrieving each morsel of juicy white flesh from the body. This might sound a bit macabre, but it is almost as pleasurable an experience as the actual eating. A fresh crab needs nothing more than a couple of slices of brown bread and a decent home made mustard or garlic mayonnaise to make for a classy yet un-pretentious dinner.

Aside from the shell, gills and stomach sac, every part of the crab is edible and both the brown and white meat taste sensational in very different ways. The white meat is succulent, clean and meaty and is often the preferred choice for many people. But the distinctively stronger brown meat should never be missed. It may not look too pretty but once eaten, you will see why it is considered a delicacy in many countries.

Cheap and plentiful, delicious and fun to prepare, the crab should be the number one choice of shellfish to eat. Here is a recipe which I’ve devised that celebrates our fantastic brown crab.

Crab, Cream and Whisky Soup with Crab and Chive Toasts
Serves 4

2 rashers of streaky bacon, chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
2 potatoes, diced
2 carrots, diced
150ml milk
150ml double cream
500ml vegetable or fish stock
300g crab meat, brown and white
Whisky
2 tbsp fresh chives, chopped
Salt and pepper

1 – Heat up the oil in a large pan then add the bacon and onion. Cook until soft and slightly coloured, approximately 5 minutes.
2 – Add the potato and carrot and heat through for 1 minute. Pour in the milk, cream and stock and bring gently to the boil. Cover, then simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potato and carrot are soft.
3 – Add the crab meat reserving a little of the white meat. Stir through then taste for seasoning.
4 – Pour into bowls and place some of the reserved white crab meat on top. Sprinkle with chives then with your thumb over the whisky bottle, drizzle a few drops over the soup.

Crab and Chive Toasts

4 slices of white or brown bread, toasted
1 egg white
1 tbsp corn flour
2 tbsp crab meat, white and brown
1 tbsp fresh chives, chopped
Salt and pepper
Sunflower or vegetable oil

1 – Cut the crusts off the toasted bread then cut into triangles.
2 – Mix all of the ingredients except for the oil together in a bowl. Spread onto one side of the toasts.
3 – Heat up some oil in a frying pan then place the toasts mixture side down. Cook for 2-3 minutes until golden and crisp.
4 – Remove and place onto kitchen paper

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

I Had A Dream

Last night, I had a dream. In my dream, somebody had placed all of the great puddings on a huge table and I was asked to try and pick out my favourite. On my table of puddings, there was a confusing mass of tempting delicacies; all of my suet packed goodies such as treacle pud, spotted dick and jam roly poly; rich chocolate fudge cakes and sharp lemon tarts; Bakewell tarts and baklava. My dream was slowly turning into a nightmare as I realised I was not allowed to eat any of them - it was all just one big horrible tease.

Thinking about this in the cold daylight, it makes me shudder to think how I would come to a conclusion if this dreamlike scenario was ever transferred into real life. I was thinking more about some elaborate evil plot in an Austin Power's film, where you would be eaten by an ill tempered sea bass with a laser beam on its head if you did not choose in good time. Right now you get a glimpse as to how my mind works.

Like my other great passion, music, my mind changes by the minute as to what is my favourite. And right now at this very minute, my pudding of choice would be that great invention of the 1970s, banoffee pie. I could happily disregard my love of the good old British pud and demolish one of these each night. Something about a combination of biscuit, toffee, banana and cream makes for an amazing taste sensation and whoever invented it, I thank you. Especially for the cheesy name.

If I did eat one of these every night I would now be struggling to get out of the house. So I've invented a lower calorie banoffee pie that does not lack the flavour of the full fat version. I know that a pudding should just be a pudding with no tweaks, and I'm very much a firm believer in that. But I'm being asked to create lower fat desserts for Expo Chef, so I guessed that if I could do it with a sugary cream topped banoffee pie and still make it taste great, it would be happy days all round. And it was. The decision has been made, and I fall back into a deep sleep knowing it was the right one.

'Skinny' Banoffee Pie
Makes 4 individual or 1 large banoffee pie

For the base
10 oat cakes
A glass of apple juice

2 bananas

For the toffee sauce
50g low fat margarine
100g honey
100ml of milk

Low fat créme fraiche or yoghurt
Cocoa powder

1 - Crush the oat cakes in a bag with a rolling pin or similar object into crumbs. Tip into a bowl then pour in a little apple juice. Mix until it begins to stick together, you still want to retain a little crunch.
2 - Put the margarine and honey into a small pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until it begins to darken and caramelise. Pour in the milk, bring back to the boil and simmer until it thickens. Leave aside.
3 - Either in a large flan or cake mould with a removable base, or 4 individual cake tins or chef's rings, press in the oat cake crumbs to make the base.
4 - Slice the bananas and then top the 'biscuit' base.
5 - Pour over the toffee sauce. Lightly whip the créme fraiche or yoghurt until it thickens slightly, then smear over the top.
6 - Remove the cake mould, place onto a plate and then sieve over a little cocoa powder. Serve and don't tell anybody that it is a lower fat version.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Sticks Of Sunshine


Today is one those blinding winter sunshine days, when despite the sun being so bright it makes you squint all day, the frost has taken hold of everything. I love this kind of weather; I call it perfect walking weather, where you can get wrapped up and still bask in a little sunshine at the same time.

It is also perfect soup weather. Nothing too elaborate, just a peek at what is left from the weekend and then devising a simple soup. In other words, the bottom of the fridge soup. Waste not want not and all that.

Celery is one of those vegetables that often is just there to make up the numbers. So a stick or two is chopped as part of your base for a soup, casserole or stew then the rest is left to go limp at the bottom of the fridge. Personally, I think it should be celebrated. It has a fantastic unique fresh taste and crunch of its own yet it remains a vegetable not exactly top of the list of choice, especially with young ones.

If it is the strings that put you off, a blitz into soup form gets rid of that. This soup combines lots of celery with fresh mint and salty fresh feta cheese, in this instance the superb Yorkshire Feta cheese, now known as Fine Fettle from Shepherds Purse Cheeses in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. And the sun shined down and I squinted at it. And everything seemed rather lovely on this bright frosty North East Monday morning.

PS I've decided to be a late entrant in the wonderful 'No Croutons Required', a Blog that invites Bloggers all over the world to enter a vegetarian meal each month to be judged by Lisa and Holler. This month it is soups, so I reckon my soup meets the requirements. Wish me luck, there looks like lots of good competition in there.

Celery, Mint and Yorkshire Feta Soup

Feeds 4

1 small onion, peeled and sliced
1 whole bunch of celery, leaves and all, sliced
2 floury potatoes, such as Maris Piper, peeled and cubed
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
3 juniper berries, crushed
750ml vegetable stock or water
A handful of fresh mint, chopped
250g Fine Fettle Cheese or any feta
Salt and Pepper

1 - Heat up the oil in a large pan and add the onion, celery and potatoes. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes until the vegetables are beginning to soften.
2 - Add the stock, juniper berries and bay leaves. Bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Remove the juniper berries and bay leaves.
3 - Crumble in half of the cheese. With a hand blender, blend the soup until smooth, don't worry if it still a little lumpy.
4 - Taste for seasoning. It should not need any salt due to the feta cheese. Serve in bowls with more feta crumbled over the soup, some fresh mint and a drizzle of oil.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Whole Lotta Love

Love is in the air today. If you are the type of person who can't say, 'I love you', to your nearest and dearest, you simply cannot be forgiven for not saying it today. For Valentines Day is upon us, a day when shares in major card shops go through the roof, buckets outside of garages are strangely empty of wilting flowers and boxes of Maltesers vanish from shelves. There are some lucky ladies out there.

I prefer to show my love through food for the simple reason that I know that my wife would prefer a decent meal to a box of Terry's All Black. Last night we had to do our bit of celebrating as I'm working this evening, and it was kept very simple with one of our favourite red wine packed casseroles, Beef Bourguignonne. Little Cerys shared our special dinner with us; we thought it only fair considering she had made us a valentines card at nursery.

The great thing about this kind of meal is that it can be prepared in advance, and left in the lowest of ovens pretty much all day (I mean the LOWEST of ovens if you are going to use this method). Or even better, make it the night before and re-heat it; the flavours will be much improved. Either way, it packs in flavour and makes for a classic no fuss romantic meal that can be eaten with the remainder of a decent bottle of Burgundy. Happy Valentines Day lovers everywhere x

Beef Bourguignonne
Feeds 4

2 carrots, peeled and cut into cubes
2 sticks of celery, cut into cubes
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
4 rashers of smoked streaky bacon, sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
A dozen shallots, peeled and left whole
1 tbsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
6 whole cloves of garlic
750g stewing steak
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp plain flour
Half bottle of Burgundy
300ml beef stock
250g mushrooms, I used chestnut
Salt and pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees C, GM2.
2 - In a large heat proof casserole dish, heat up the oil and add the bacon and vegetables. Stir for 5-6 minutes until softened and beginning to colour.
3 - Add the shallots, thyme, garlic, bay leaves, tomato purée and beef and cook for a further 5 minutes until it begins to take on a golden colour.
4 - Stir in the flour until thoroughly combined, then pour in the wine and stock. Bring to the boil then place in the oven and cook for 2 and a half to 3 hours.
5 - Halfway through cooking, slice the mushrooms into quarters and fry off in a little olive oil to take out some of the water and give a little colour. Add to the casserole for the remainder of the cooking time.
6 - When finished, taste for seasoning and serve with mashed potato and seasonal greens.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

It Was Acceptable In The 80s

One of the first things I attempted to cook when I was a young lad was tuna and sweetcorn pasta. It is a very 1980's thing; a tin of tuna, a tin of sweetcorn, a huge dollop of jar mayonnaise and your pasta of choice. Hardly challenging, but staple food for the school Tupperware bowl. Alongside egg and tomato sandwiches, they were the two 1980's foods I could knock together in my sleep.

Moving forwards 25 years, tuna and sweetcorn still appears on the Hall menu. It is perfect fast food when the cupboards are bare, and I for one am not going to get snobbish about the fact that it involves opening up a couple of tins and stirring it into some pasta. Sometimes life calls for such emergencies. I'm sure Delia would approve in her new series, How To Cheat At Cooking.

So I thought I would try to turn this ever-lasting classic pasta 'sauce' into a slightly classier number, if that was possible. In the 10 minutes it takes for the pasta to boil, I was pretty sure I could knock together a 'posh' tuna and sweetcorn pasta dish using what little I had left in the cupboards.

So a leek to give it some mild onion flavour, a pinch of chilli and some sun-dried tomatoes to lift the blandness, and a squeeze of lemon juice to sharpen would do the trick. And that magical ingredient, low fat crème fraiche, makes an instant coating for your pasta of choice. No escaping the Jolly Green Giant or the tin of tuna, and hey presto, a retro pasta dish is on your plate in 10 minutes minus any sniggering from food snobs. Simple, nutritious fast food with lots of flavour and a bit of nostalgia.

'Posh' Tuna and Sweetcorn Pasta
Enough sauce to feed 4

1 leek, halved and shredded
2 tbsp olive oil
A pinch of chilli flakes
4 tbsp low fat crème fraiche
A good grating of strong cheddar
1 small tin of sweetcorn
1 tin of tuna
A couple of sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced
A squeeze of lemon juice
Dried pasta of choice
Paprika
Salt and pepper

1 - Bring a pan of water to the boil and add your pasta of choice.
2 - Whilst the pasta is cooking, heat up the olive oil in a large pan and add the leek. Cook for 5 minutes on a gentle heat until soft.
3 - Stir in the chilli flakes. Add the crème fraiche and heat up, ensuring it does not boil or it will split. Stir in the cheese and combine thoroughly.
4 - Finally, add the tuna, sweetcorn and sun-dried tomatoes and heat through. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and taste for seasoning.
5 - Stir into your cooked pasta and serve in bowls with some greens such as rocket or watercress and a pinch of paprika.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Art Of Parties

Catering for a lot of people can have its pressures. Catering for 50 children is pressure. And with my little girl becoming a big 3 year old today, it was time for that horror of all horrors, the children's birthday party. With the church hall hired out, party games devised and a Snow White costume pressed and ready for Her Majesty, all that was left was a boat load of food to be prepared by yours truly.

I open this up as if I thought it was a chore; of course I loved it, especially devising a menu that would hopefully have a fine balance between not containing any processed readily prepared 'party foods' but containing all of the yummy 'come and get me children' appeal of such foods. So on the menu were lots of healthy but delicious sandwiches, home made free-range sausage and herb rolls, design-a-pizza straight from the oven and a few dips for some crunchy vegetable sticks. Oh, and a few crisps. And of course, cakes.

It all went incredibly well. The food appeared to get the thumbs up from the children. And after 2 hours of unbelievable din from the Fairies, Princesses, Superheroes and Pirates, as well as the ubiquitous children's party music, we were just about ready to collapse. But only after polishing off whatever was left. Funny how at these types of events where the food has been prepared for the kids only, willing adults appear to congregate in large packs around the kitchen area.

Here is a recipe for an 'anything goes' biscuit that Cerys and I indulge in now and again. These were made for the party, and although they are just biscuits, the addition of a few quality ingredients and some enthusiastic hands from a loving child seem to make them an extra special treat. Happy Birthday my little princess xxx

Apple, Ginger and Oat Biscuits


100g margarine
75g demerera sugar
1 apple, cored, peeled and cut into tiny cubes
125g wholemeal flour
50g rolled oats
1 tsp ground ginger
Half tsp baking powder
75g sultanas
Apple juice

1 - Pre-heat the oven to GM4, 160 degrees C.
2 - In a large bowl, cream together the margarine and sugar.
3 - Pour in the rest of the ingredients except for the apple juice and with your hands, mash together to form a stiff dough. If the dough is too stiff, mix in a little apple juice which will also naturally sweeten it even more.
4 - On a floured surface, roll out the dough to approximately 1cm thick then with your cutter of choice, cut out your biscuits.
5 - Bake on a greased baking tray for 8-10 minutes until golden. Allow to cool on a wire rack. They will keep in an airtight container for a couple of weeks.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Tastes Of Sadness

As busy and fascinating as 2008 has been already, it has also been tinged with disappointment. For last week I received some news I wasn't expecting; the magazine I write for, Tastes Of Britain, is folding. Only 4 months old, the magazine has been incredibly well received amongst the more established magazines, praised for its theme of championing British local and seasonal food.

Unfortunately, it appears that due to lots of complicated reasons, it will be no more. So my fledgling writing career for glossy mags comes to an abrupt halt along with a few others. The only good thing I can take out of this is the backload of writing and recipes I already have for them that sadly cannot be used now. So I will reach into the archives and print them up here.

As leeks are the vegetable to sing about in these days of damp darkness, and as they are one of my favourites, I've devised a nice fishy number. Mussels and leeks go remarkably well together; earthy deep orange fresh Northumbrian shellfish accompanied by sweet mild onion leeks, in a kind of gratin, make for a lovely winter warmer to be eaten with good bread and butter. It almost banished the blues after hearing this sad news. And all I can end on is this - it was fun while it lasted. RIP Tastes Of Britain.

Leek, Dill and Mussels
Serves 2

500g mussels
1 shallot, finely chopped
150 ml dry cider
1 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
2 leeks
50g butter
25g plain flour
300 ml milk
150g mild crumbly cheese such as Lancashire, grated
A handful of fresh dill, finely chopped
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1 – Wash the mussels and pull off any beards. Tap them sharply onto a work surface and throw away any that do not close up.
2 – Heat up the oil in a deep pan and add the mussels, shallots and cider. Put on the lid and cook for 2-3 minutes, shaking the pan every now and again, until the mussels have fully opened. Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon and keep aside, throwing away any that have not opened. When cool, remove the mussel flesh from the shells. Strain the cooking liquid through a sieve and keep aside.
3 – Trim and slice the leeks into 1 inch chunks. Place in a steamer for 5 minutes until soft. Remove and keep aside.
4 – Make a roux by melting the butter in a pan then stirring in the flour until well combined. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Gradually add the milk, stirring, until you have a thick white sauce.
5 – Stir in 100g of the grated cheese along with the mussels, leeks, dill, reserved cooking liquid and a good grinding of black pepper. Taste the sauce for seasoning.
6 – Pour the mixture into individual gratin dishes or a large gratin dish, top with a little more cheese then cook under a hot grill until golden and bubbling.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Don't Pan Our Traditions

On the news this morning, it was claimed that only a third of us Brits indulge in Pancake Tuesday. The traditions appear to be on the way out and seriously, that is sad. Our friends in France or Spain, for example, would never give up on their quirky traditions; if anything, they look forward to having any celebration as long as it is based on food. And so do I.

As well as the tradition and the inevitable eating, pancake making can also be a lot of fun. My daughter had her first experience of pancake flipping last year, albeit one with both of my hands on the handle too, and rarely have I seen her so excited when we piled in the apple, cinnamon and chocolate filling we prepared together. It took 5 minutes for her to demolish our creation, but 5 minutes of rare silence followed by a resounding, 'Dad, that was soooooo good!' Surely these reasons alone are enough for us to keep these fantastic food traditions alive. Happy Shrove Tuesday everybody.

Apple, Cinnamon and Chocolate Toffee Pancakes
Makes 8

For the pancake batter
125g plain flour
2 eggs
150ml milk
50ml water

For the filling
4 eating apples, peeled, cored and cut into small chunks
50g butter
A good pinch of cinnamon
6 tbsp honey
Chocolate, any, roughly chopped

1 - Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, break in the egg and with a whisk or fork, combine. Slowly pour in the milk and water combination, whisking all of the time, until you have a batter the consistency of thin cream. If it looks too thick, add more milk.
2 - Heat up a non-stick frying pan. Pour in a little oil - I use a flavourless one such as groundnut - then wipe with a piece of kitchen towel. When the pan is really hot, pour in a small ladle of batter mixture and quickly turn the pan around until it is covered. Cook for 1 minute then flip and cook the other side. Cook the pancakes in batches and set aside between greaseproof paper.
3 - To make the filling, melt the butter in a non-stick pan. Add the apples and quickly cook, stirring all of the time, until they slightly soften and colour. Stir in the cinnamon and the honey. Cook for a further 2-3 minutes until the honey and butter form a toffee sauce.
4 - To assemble, pile the apple mixture onto pancakes, dot pieces of chocolate amongst it and drizzle on the toffee sauce. A little créme fraiche or yoghurt would be lovely.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Who Did It?

Just over a year ago, I decided to put a stop to buying recipe books. With a huge shelf already creaking under the weight of the load I already have, I decided that you can have too much of a good thing. With books covering almost every culinary angle of the globe, there really was no need to buy the latest great recipe book.

I do make the odd exceptions. I can't let Hugh FW or Nigel Slater escape my clutches and they are my favourite books anyway, due to the quality writing inside. I also had to make a dash for the Spanish bible of food, 1080 recipes, a book I have had in my sights for an age. And if Keith Floyd ever decides to come out of hibernation and realise that he truly is the finest, most original TV chef to ever exist, I would instantly be heading the queue down at WH Smiths.

Due to my new status of not snapping every recipe book up that comes out, I still can't avoid browsing friend's kitchen shelves and peeking at their recipe books. This has two problems; if I find a good one that I don’t have, I want to buy it instantly. And if I see a recipe that takes my fancy, it remains in my little head like an annoying high pitched sound until I try to remember it and make a go of it.

That very scenario happened to me last week. But for the life of me, I cannot remember when or where I had read about this recipe - chocolate and red wine cake. I remembered it, for it is roughly the same as a basic chocolate cake with the addition of red wine rather than milk to soften it. But I have no idea who wrote it; it may even be a figment of my imagination. Either way, it is inspired and utterly delicious. The red wine does not appear as an overbearing flavour, it simply moistens it to perfection. And with Valentines Day approaching, the combination of two alleged aphrodisiac packed ingredients should make for the perfect dessert on your special night. Just try to remember who gave you the recipe...

Chocolate and Red Wine Cake

200g butter or margarine
180g sugar
4 eggs
250g plain flour
1 tspn baking powder
30g cocoa powder
A pinch of salt
1 tspn cinnamon
150g 70% dark chocolate, roughly chopped
100ml red wine

1 - Grease and line a 20cm cake tin. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C, GM3.
2 - In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.
3 - Break in the eggs one at a time and stir thoroughly. Don't worry if the mixture looks curdled, it will all sort itself out.
4 - Sieve in the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Fold together until thoroughly combined.
5 - Stir in the chocolate then finally the red wine. If the mixture does not fall easily from a spoon, add a little more red wine to reach the correct consistency.
6 - Spoon into the cake tin and bake on the middle shelf for 50-60 minutes. If it starts to catch on the top, loosely place a piece of foil over the tin.
7 - Test that the cake is cooked by inserting something like a knitting needle. It should come out clean.
8 - Place on a wire rack and allow to cool. This will keep in an airtight cake tin covered in foil for a couple of weeks.