Sunday, 30 March 2008

Here Comes The Summer (honest)

Quick and snappy suppers seem to be the order of the day at the moment. With British spring time here and the one hour lost sleep playing havoc with my tired head, time seems to be eating away and I'm spending less and less time doing what I love the most; churning out recipes in my little kitchen like some mad alchemist. Oh to be a full time food writer, but I'll remain more than content with my world of Blogging.

Hopefully without sounding like a modern age Scrooge, this evening we had to make do with leftovers for our suppers. My wife and daughter had yesterday's vegetable scraps made into a bubble and squeak and served with sausages and some of my mother-in-law's green tomato chutney. I opted for a piece of rump steak that has been sadly sitting in the fridge for the past week being ignored.

Just a few fresh ingredients and some store cupboard essentials can turn the bland into the bleedin' marvellous. My steak was flash fried along with a lengthways strip of aubergine, more leftovers, and served on some toasted stale rye bread on a bed of spicy watercress. And with mint and parsley at hand, a green sauce of English mustard, anchovies and capers made for the perfect accompaniment. This amazing piquant sauce, a salsa verde to the connoisseur, is fairly adaptable to most meats and is by far and away my favourite sauce. Happy spring everybody.

Rump Steak and Aubergine with Green Sauce
Feeds 1

1 piece of good quality aged rump steak
1 lengthways slice of aubergine
2 tbsp olive oil
1 slice of rye or wholemeal bread, toasted
A handful of watercress
Butter

For the green sauce
A handful of parsley and mint
1 tbsp capers
2 anchovies
1 tbsp English or Dijon mustard
A squeeze of lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper
A splash of olive oil

1 - To make the sauce, roughly chop the herbs, anchovies and capers then scrape into a bowl. Mix in the remaining ingredients and taste. Adjust to your palate; you may want more or less heat, more or less sharpness etc.
2 - Heat up the olive oil in a frying pan, and then add the steak and aubergine. Cook the steak to your liking; see previous post for cooking times. Cook the aubergine until golden brown. Rest the steak for 5 minutes.
3 - Toast the rye bread and butter.
4 - To assemble, put the watercress onto the bread, followed by the aubergine and the steak. Top with a dollop of green sauce.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

A Maze Of Flavours

Hot, sour and sweet; the Thai nation seem to marry these three amazing tastes to perfection and it is such incredible food. Thai food appears simple and complex at the same time, combining a myriad of flavours that play tricks with your taste buds. I've been cooking from David Thompson's comprehensive Thai Food book for some years now, and although Thai food isn't on our menu half as much as I would like it to be, it is always a real treat when it is.

My friend William Leigh is a huge fan of Thai food and has visited the country several times. Thankfully Wil has a great Blog which lists several of his inspiring recipes from his travels, and Thai food appears to be a huge influence on his writing. I have never visited Thailand but when life calms down and money becomes available, it is on the list.

In the meantime, I will consult the huge pink book and keep having a tweak. This recipe is influenced by Jason Atherton of Maze in London who did a great feature in The Guardian a few weeks back. I had one of my tweaks and turned the recipe on its head with a few additions and minuses. It ticks all of the Thai food boxes that make their food so appealing to me; fresh and sour from the grapefruit, salty from the Nam Pla, hot from the chilli and English Mustard. Thai/English fusion food - maybe I've started something?

Hot and Sour Sirloin Steak, Pink Grapefruit and Avocado Salad
Feeds 2

2 inch thick quality aged sirloin steaks
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 red birds eye chilli, finely sliced
1 tbsp English mustard
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil

For the salad

1 pink grapefruit, skinned and segmented
2 avocados, peeled and sliced
2 handfuls of cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 handfuls of fresh spinach
A handful of fresh coriander leaves
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
2 banana shallots, peeled, halved and sliced thinly

For the dressing
1 tbsp crunchy peanut butter
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp Nam Pla, fish sauce
1 tbsp soya sauce
1 tbsp Mirin rice wine

1 - Mix together the garlic, chilli, mustard and a little salt and pepper. Rub onto the steaks.
2 - Heat a thick frying pan and add a little vegetable oil. Ensure it is searing hot. Add the steaks and cook to your liking; rare, 3 minutes each side; medium, 5 minutes each side; well done, 7 minutes each side. Leave to rest for 5 minutes and assemble the salad.
3 - Make the dressing by whisking the ingredients together in a bowl.
4 - Toss the salad ingredients together a dress with a little of the dressing.
5 - Pile onto plates. Slice your steaks into strips and arrange on top of the salad. Finally drizzle over some of the dressing ans serve with more lime wedges.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Pigs Are Worth it

Easter Monday saw a new favourite at the table; roast pork. Chicken with all of the trimmings has always been the traditional roast in our house. But trying to get a free range chicken in our Chicken Run obsessed town is like trying to get an Easter egg to stay unopened in the Hall household until Easter Sunday - impossible.

Intensively reared pork has been in the news a lot recently. British pig farming is on the decline due to the market being flooded with cheaper pork, and our British farmers are suffering because of it. I can't work it out over here in the U.K.; we are incredibly proud people, always telling other nations how great we are. Yet we are happy to consume the two most abused animals on the planet, chickens and pigs, without much conscience of where or how they were raised. And in turn, the industry is suffering to the gain of other nations.

For me the philosophy is simple; eat them a little less often and pay a higher price for a better quality and tastier meat. For more information, please visit this worthy campaign and sign the petition.

The pork I used for our roast was the loin. A quality piece of pork gives a rich seam of fat that, when cooked properly, gives crunchy irresistible crackling with soft butter like fat underneath. A boned loin leaves a lovely space for stuffing. The classic sage and onion that accompanies pork so well was given a twist with a simple stuffing of caramelised shallots, fresh sage and lemon zest. Simple roast root vegetables and a thin gravy made from the roasting juices made for a classy Easter Monday meal. Pigs are worth it.

Pork Loin with Caramelised Shallots, Sage and Lemon


1.5kg of pork loin, boned
2 onions, halved

For the stuffing
2 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
4 large shallots sliced, I used banana shallots
2 good handfuls of fresh sage (dried would work too), roughly chopped
Thinly grated zest of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper

For the crackling
Juice of the lemon
3 tbsp honey

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees C, GM7.
2 - Take your loin and lay it out fat side up. Using a sharp knife, cut strips into the fat about 1cm apart, ensuring that you do not penetrate the flesh underneath. Rub salt into the cuts.
3 - Heat up the oil in a frying pan. Add the shallots and cook for 5-10 minutes on a gentle heat until caramelised. Add the sage and lemon zest, season with a little salt and pepper and leave to cool.
4 - Dab the skin with kitchen roll to soak up any leaked water. Turn the pork so that it is flesh side up. If there doesn't seem enough room to stuff it, make an incision in the flesh so that it gives you a little extra room for stuffing and rolling.
5 - Season the flesh then lay the stuffing down the centre. Roll it and bind it with string. Ask your butcher to show you the best way but a few simple ties and knots will do.
6 - Heat a little olive oil in a thick roasting tray on the hob. Quickly seal the meat all over until beginning to brown. Lay the halved onions onto the tray along with any remaining sage and lay the meat on top to form a bed.
7 - Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, and then turn down the heat to 160 degrees C, GM3. Roast for a further 25 minutes per 500g. For the final 15 minutes, stir together the lemon juice and honey and drizzle over the skin.
8 - Remove from the oven and put the meat onto a carving board to rest for 10-15 minutes. Make a simple gravy by pouring in a glass of white wine or cider and a tablespoon of plain flour into the roasting tray on the hob. Crush the onions with a potato masher and keep stirring until you have a thick intense gravy. Loosen with some water and pour through a sieve.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Paranoid Androids

"Aaaatchoo!". "Cough". "Splutter".

Illness is ravaging throughout our house and at the first signs of any of these noises, we wrap ourselves up in a blanket of paranoia. The perils of running your own separate businesses means that sick days are an absolute no. The days of picking up the phone and in exaggerated tones telling your boss how seriously ill you are have long gone.

The kitchen is seeing a bit of action concocting recipes that will speed up our recovery. My man flu ravaged body can just about chop and slice a few vegetables, and my ladies can just about hold a spoon up to their mouths. It is all a bit pathetic really.

I've had a huge butternut squash sitting on the kitchen bench looking like a patient baby this past week. It was donated to me from a school I taught at, left over’s from a 'Spot the Vegetable' competition. I thought that the whole thing deserved to go into a simple soup with a bulb of that vampire and cold busting vegetable, garlic. Roasted until golden with fennel seeds and chilli, it formed the perfect tonic for our aching bodies. Sweet, deep and hot, and with a few crunchy roasted pistachios sprinkled on top, well, crunchy.

I'm donating this soup to Holler and Lisa's No Croutons Required challenge, as this month they have asked for a spicy soup that will tingle on the tongue. This one certainly does. And it also demolishes colds and flu’s. Yes, even man flu...

Roast Squash, Garlic and Pistachio Nut Soup

1 whole squash, cut into segments and seeded
1 whole bulb of garlic, separated
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp chilli flakes
4 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
500ml water
Soya sauce
A handful of pistachio nuts, shelled

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, GM6.
2 - Slice the squash lengthways into 8 pieces. Place into a baking tray.
3 - Put the garlic cloves into the baking tray. Sprinkle in the fennel seeds and chilli and then the oil. Give it a good mix then place on a high shelf. Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden and fragrant.
4 - Remove the tray from the oven and allow to cool a little. Scrape the flesh from the skin into a pan and squeeze out the garlic from the cloves.
5 - Blitz with a hand blender until smooth. Taste for seasoning and add a little soya sauce to taste.
6 - In a dry pan, roast the pistachios until fragrant and coloured. Roughly chop.
7 - Serve the soup in bowls with a sprinkling of pistachios, a little more chilli flakes and some of the roasting oil from the baking tray.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Fairground Attraction

At South Shields fairground when I was a lad, there were always a multitude of sugary temptations available that inevitably made you ill after a few spins on the Waltzer. Candyfloss, sugar doughnuts, sugar dummies, all there awaiting an exchange of your pocket money to help you feel queasy for the rest of the day. But how I loved a trip to the fair; more so for those forbidden treats than the Helter Skelter or Ghost Train.

My favourite by a mile was the toffee apple; what an invention. An apple that may or may not have been weeks old, with an inch thick red sugar coating and a lolly pop stick stuck into it. Attempting to bite into one without making you look like an idiot was fairly impossible. No mouth, not even mine, was big enough to shatter that coating at the first attempt. And when you finally did get into it, glass-like shards of sugar would penetrate the roof of your mouth and fillings would be destroyed in one sitting. But your 50 pence would be money well spent as I swear it took all day to finish a toffee apple.

Move forward 20 odd years and a toffee apple became the influence for a rather nice cake - but with the benefit of not having glass-like shards of red toffee and a grown up splash of cider to give it an extra apply taste. I think it will be a long wait before a cake like this will be seen at South Shields fairground, but if you do so happen to venture up these parts, I beg you to tackle the legendary red toffee apple. But bring a spare set of dentures.

Toffee Apple and Cider Cake

For the toffee sauce
50g Demerara sugar
2 tbsp golden treacle
50ml single cream

2 apples, peeled and cored and cut into slices

100g caster sugar
100g butter, softened
200g self raising flour
2 eggs
100ml dry cider
A pinch of cinnamon
A pinch of nutmeg
3 apples, cored and grated
A handful of sultanas

1 - Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 4, 180 degrees C. Grease and line an 8 inch cake tin with a removable base.
2 - To make the toffee sauce, put the ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer until golden then put aside.
3 - In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Whisk in the eggs one by one until thoroughly combined.
4 - Fold in the flour, spices, sultanas and apples, and then stir in the cider. You may not want to add it all or you may want to add more, you are looking for 'dropping' consistency, i.e. take a spoonful and hold it upside down. It should fall slowly from the spoon.
5 - Place the apple slices into the cake tin then pour over the toffee sauce. Pour over the cake mixture. Place onto the middle shelf of the oven and cook for 30-40 minutes or until firm.
6 - Leave to rest before turning out onto a cooling rack. Serve slightly warm.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Carling Cup Sunday

This coming Sunday is a special day up here in the North East. So special, that it will pass by almost unnoticed and uncelebrated. For it is Carling Sunday, another day of complete irrelevance to most concerned yet one that should still be an important day on the calendar of local food customs.

On this 5th day of lent, Carling Sunday, or Passion Sunday (which sounds much more glamorous) was traditionally a day of mourning for the memory of Christ's passion, the word 'carling' being the old English word for 'mourning'. Church altars would be draped in purple in the memory of Christ's passion, and people would look generally miserable, whether they were feeling happy or not.

As meat was pretty much banished from the menu during Lent, peas were consumed in large amounts in Geordie land to help fill hungry tums after the fast. Usually boiled, formed into cakes and simply fried in lard, I can imagine it would have made for bland eating after a few repeated plates. In some Northumbrian towns, a splash of rum and brown sugar may have been added to try and make things more interesting, but I have to assume that desperation rather than culinary experimentation was setting in at that point.

The traditional pea that was used was the Pigeon Pea, which is actually more a bean than a pea. I can't tell you exactly why these particular 'peas' were used as opposed to typical split green peas as you cannot find them anywhere. I know that they are commonplace in tins in the Americas and Caribbean, but here in the North East - not a bean.

So this is my version of a pea 'cake' served with some simple boiled ham, poached egg and a mustard sauce made with the hock juices. I didn't feel like mourning whilst eating it as it was rather lovely. But I could imagine that back when these kinds of days were an important date in the majority of British diaries, any happiness would have been soon expelled after eating yet another bland old pea cooked in lard, with a splash of rum thrown in for good measure. So drape the house in purple, knock up my modern version of an Old English classic and have a happy Carling Sunday.

Carling Pea Cakes with Boiled Ham and Mustard Sauce
Feeds 4

250g dried green split peas, soaked for 8 hours in cold water
4 anchovies, chopped
A sprig of rosemary, chopped
A handful of capers, rinsed and chopped
1 tbsp English mustard
A few splashes of Worcestershire Sauce
A handful or two of breadcrumbs
Freshly ground pepper
Plain flour
Olive or rapeseed oil

Boiled ham hock

For the mustard sauce
2 tbsp cider vinegar
50ml ham stock
100ml single cream
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard

1 - Put the peas into a pan, just cover with water and bring to the boil. Boil hard for 5 minutes then reduce the heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes, or until the peas have broken apart completely. Ensure that they do not boil dry and top up when necessary.
2 - Pour the peas into a bowl and allow to steam off and cool completely.
3 - Tip in the anchovies, rosemary, mustard, Worcestershire Sauce and pepper. Put in a handful of breadcrumbs and combine until it starts to come together, becoming more stiff.
4 - With floured hands, form the pea mixture into round cakes about an inch thick. Pour in enough oil into a non-stick pan to cover the bottom and fry off the cakes until golden on each side.
5 - In another pan, heat up a little oil and heat up slithers of ham hock. Remove and keep warm.
6 - To make the sauce, pour in the vinegar and scrape the pan. Then add the other ingredients and cook until slightly thickened.
7 - Serve the ham on top of a pea cake with a drizzle of the mustard sauce. A poached egg would go perfectly with this.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Colour Purple

It is still cold up here by the wilds of the North Sea, and despite some early promise of a warm March, it is proving to be anything but. The hats, scarves and mittens are still in full use and central heating is a must on an evening.

The only thing that is giving us any indication that spring may be just around the corner in this bleakest of natural food months is one of my favourite vegetables - purple spouting broccoli. No matter how harsh the weather, this delicious sweet relation of the cauliflower rears its wonderful head in March and begs you to do nothing more than steam it, toss it in a little butter and devour it.

When the first purple sprouting broccoli is available, it is ritual for me to steam a bunch and eat a large pile of it with some form of mustardy anchovy dressing. You can feel yourself getting healthier by the bite, it is that good for you. But the taste is one unique to this special vegetable; sweet and delicate, almost like the first asparagus but arguably better.

I've devised a tart to help celebrate the arrival of the purple sprouting broccoli. You may say it is a quiche, but with the addition of some Northumbrian Cheese Company Redesdale sheep's cheese and a little English mustard, it turns that French mainstay of the 1970s into a thoroughly English thing. If you can't get your hands on some tangy sheep's cheese, experiment and try just about any. A good Cheddar will always be good.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Sheep's Cheese Tart

250g shortcrust pastry, either homemade or shop bought
200g purple sprouting broccoli
6 large free range eggs
2 large free range egg yolks
250ml natural yoghurt
200g sheep's cheese, or similar, grated
1 tbsp English mustard
Salt and pepper

1 - Preheat oven to 180 degrees C, GM4.
2 - On a floured surface, roll out the pastry. Butter an 8 inch quiche or pie dish and line with the rolled out pastry, leaving the excess hanging over the sides. Prick with a fork, line with baking paper and baking beans or rice, and blind bake for 15 minutes on the middle shelf.
3 - Remove the paper and beans, return to the oven and bake for a further five minutes. Remove then trim the excess pastry.
4 - Bring a pan of water to the boil then blanch the broccoli for 2 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water. Drain thoroughly.
5 - In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, yoghurt, cheese and mustard, reserving a handful of cheese. Season with a little salt and plenty of black pepper.
6 - Put the broccoli into the cooked pastry case then pour over the egg, cheese and yoghurt mixture. Sprinkle over the remainder of the cheese.
7 - Bake on the middle shelf for 30-40 minutes, until the mixture has cooked and risen and the top is golden brown. Serve hot or cold.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Shucks

Mother's Day became Madhouse Day for me yesterday. An early rise meant leaving the lovely ladies in my house still snoring as I made a long trip up the Scottish Border town of Kelso to do some food demonstrations for their annual Potato Day.

After a full day of potato based recipes, I found time to have a chat with some of the fantastic suppliers and to sample some of their tasty goods. A certain Steve Oldale of Northumberland Mussels was there, selling his sublime mussels which I swear are the best in the world. Berwick based Steve is the only person licensed to harvest mussels between the Wash and Aberdeen and is currently harvesting almost 4 tonnes per year. Back breaking work and a half. He really is a top man; hard working and extremely proud of his product.

As well as mussels, Steve also had some hand plucked oysters from the same waters which were less than 24 hours old. Absolutely divine specimens which I thought would make for a perfect starter for a deserved meal for my wife who has been a mother now for 3 years. And yes, she is the best. Just ask Cerys.

Oysters are a thing that I could wolf down all day but my wife Helen has always had a bit of a phobia with. That was all put to bed yesterday as each of the fresh and juicy oysters were shucked and consumed with pleasure. To help them along, I knocked up a quick Asian style dressing which complimented the raw beauty of the oyster rather than overtake. And if you can get your hands on some spanking fresh oysters, give it a go.

Asian Oyster Dressing


2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soya sauce
1 tbsp Chinese cooking sherry
1 tbsp rice vinegar
A pinch of chilli
A good squeeze of lime juice
Fresh chives, finely chopped

Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and drizzle onto your freshly shucked oysters.