Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Mustard Macaroni Cheese with Chorizo

I always use holiday season as a good excuse to 'turn over' your fridge and freezer, to strip the cupboards bare ready for the winter hoard. However, if you are busy in your job, then that makes life a little awkward when it comes to feeding your family.

Knowing what to do with some store cupboard essentials and one or two fresh ingredients is the key, so it is always good to have a few simple recipes up your sleeve ready for these times.

At a food show I was presenting at on my return were the usual array of quality local suppliers. One supplier I've been a fan of for some time is Piperfield Pork of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Using their herd of middle white pigs, Piperfield are producing incredible quality pork produce, including their take on a chorizo sausage. Not too salty, plenty of soft fat and paprika tinged meat, these chorizo are up there with some of the best Spanish chorizo I have ever tasted. If you can't take my word for it, ask Heston Blumenthal who has been using Piperfield pork at The Fat Duck some years now.

Thanks to one of their delicious sausages, it made that old standard comfort food of youth, macaroni cheese, into a memorable store cupboard meal for the family. Digging into the soft creamy pasta stuffed sauce and finding a nugget of crisp chorizo; do I really need to paint the picture? It is essential to strip, so be inspired and turn those cupboards over.

Mustard Macaroni Cheese with Chorizo
Feeds 4

50g butter
50g plain flour
500ml milk
150g Cheddar cheese, grated
1 tbsp English or Dijon mustard
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
250g macaroni cheese
1 chorizo sausage, cut into think slices
1 tbsp olive oil
50g Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200C, GM6.
2 - Bring a pan of water up to the boil and add the macaroni. Boil for 5-6 minutes or 2-3 minutes less than the instructions state. Drain and reserve. Cool under cold running water if preparing in advance so that it does not overcook.
3 - To make the cheese and mustard sauce, melt the butter in a pan then add the flour. Cook and stir for 1 minute. Gradually add the milk, stirring all of the time until you have a smooth béchamel sauce. Stir in the cheese and mustards. Taste for seasoning.
4 - Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the chorizo. Cook until crisp in each side then drain on a piece of kitchen towel.
5 - Stir the pasta and sausage into the cheese sauce. Pour into a buttered casserole dish then cover with the Parmesan cheese. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes until golden and bubbling. Serve with a simple green salad.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Easy Cassoulet

The return from holiday is always an odd experience if you are British. If you have been to sunnier climates, you will know very well that sinking feeling as the aeroplane descends into your airport, especially if it is British summer time. From a week or two of freedom and hot sunny weather, you descend through the turbulence of dark clouds to a wet and familiar Britain to proceed with life as normal. The holiday is well and truly over.

Thankfully, France was delightful and the memories will linger long enough to banish any depressing thoughts. After an unsteady first few days of dark skies and the odd shower, the sun soon cracked the flags over the Pyrenees and gave us the weather that we craved. This paved the way for plenty of mountain biking, swimming in crystal clear lakes, laughing, chatting and singing and of course, eating and drinking. My favourite hobbies all in one.

The Eastern Pyrenees is home to many famous foods and wines, none more so than the cassoulet. Cassoulet is one of those recipes that have been written and debated about far too many times for little old me to cast any strong opinions on. I will leave the chemistry and history to the good people of this beautiful area of France to argue over as they have done so for many years. My description of it is posh sausage and beans. But this does not really give it the credit it deserves. Think of quality plump haricot beans with intense garlic pork sausage, rich and buttery confit duck and/or goose with a crust of crunchy breadcrumbs and you may get the picture. And I'm not even going to debate whether or not a cassoulet should have a crust on or not: it is as essential to my cassoulet as is beef with a Yorkshire pudding. But of course, that is my only culinary opinion on this fantastic, filling and sustaining peasant dish.

We ate our cassoulet with our friends, children and lovely hosts, Eileen and Alan who kindly put us up for the week. It was a famous holiday for many reasons, but Eileen and Alan were so accommodating, patient and kind. So I dedicate this famous French meal to them, as well as The Graingers for being amazing people and inviting us into their family home. And with my easy recipe which has been adapted to cut out a good few hours of preparation from some of the long and drawn out cassoulet recipes I have seen, they can impress their friends at any time of the year, summer or no summer, Britain or France. Holidays in the sun and happy days indeed, roll on the next one.

Easy Cassoulet
Feeds 6-8 people

500g dried haricot beans, soaked for at least 8 hours
8 slices of smoked streaky bacon, sliced
2 onions, roughly chopped
8 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced in half
1 handful of dried or fresh thyme leaves
3 bay leaves
3 cloves
400g tinned tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
12 large quality pork sausages, preferably Toulouse
6 pieces of confit duck or goose, or a mixture of both, excess fat removed and kept aside
500ml hot chicken stock
Salt and pepper
A bowlful of dried breadcrumbs

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees, GM3.
2 - Scrape off some of the duck or goose fat from the confit and melt in a large frying pan. Add the bacon and cook until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and keep aside.
3 - Brown the sausages in the fat then remove and keep aside.
4 - Add the onions and garlic and cook until soft. Add the thyme, bay leaves, cloves, tomatoes and tomato puree and heat through. Season with a little salt and pepper.
5 - Drain the beans and reserve the liquid. Add half of the beans to a large casserole dish. Add the sausages, duck and/or goose, the bacon then the tomato, onion and herb mixture. Top with the remaining beans then pour in the stock until it just reaches the top of the beans. If there is not enough, add some of the water you used to soak the beans in.
6 - Cover and place into the oven and cook for 2 hours. Check every now and again to see if the mixture is boiling dry and top with reserved water when necessary.
7 - Melt some of the fat in a pan and add the breadcrumbs, thoroughly combining. Cover the casserole with the breadcrumbs and with the lid removed, place back into the oven and cook for a further 60-90 minutes until the topping is golden and crunchy.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Ratatouille with Mussels and Lemon Balm

France beckons and I cannot wait. It is a country that I love and it has been far too long since I visited. What excites me the most is that we are hitting the south west, a region I have never been to before. And I gather that it is arguably the best region for produce. So you can guess what I will be doing whilst I'm there.

As a dedication to the more simple and rustic French cuisine that I prefer, tonight we knocked up that classic combination of fresh vegetables, ratatouille. Ratatouille has become my daughter's favourite meal. I'm not 100% sure why but I'm guessing that it might have something to do with a recently animated rat. Either way, it doesn't matter as this dish is so simple to make, packed with flavour and incredibly good for you.

In a little twist to the usual vegetables in a tomato sauce, I added a few handfuls of fresh and plump Northumbrian mussels, and a good dose of lemon balm rather than basil. Lemon balm is a herb that is rarely used in modern day cookery. But with its surprising citrus fragrance and earthy taste, it is a natural herb to accompany shellfish. It is brilliant in a lemon ice cream. And a few thrown into a teapot with hot water and a little honey makes a delicious tea. And with that, au revoir mes amis, je serai arrière bientôt!

Ratatouille with Mussels and Lemon Balm
Feeds 4

1 aubergine, cut into small chunks
2 courgettes, halved and sliced into chunks
1 yellow pepper, deseeded and sliced into chunks
3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 clove of garlic, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tins of plum tomatoes
1 tbsp balsamic or red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
4 handfuls of live mussels, cleaned
A handful of lemon balm or basil leaves, finely sliced

1 - Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large frying pan. Add the aubergine and cook, tossing regularly, until beginning to turn golden. Remove and set aside.
2 - Heat up the remaining tbsp olive oil and add the peppers and courgette. Cook, tossing regularly until beginning to soften and turn golden. Remove and set aside.
3 - Heat up the olive oil in a separate pan and add the onion and garlic. Cook for a few minutes then tip in the tomatoes. Bring to the boil, stir in the vinegar and cook for 10 minutes until beginning to reduce and deepen in colour.
4 - Tap any open mussels onto a hard surface. If they do not close, throw away. Put the mussels into the tomato sauce, put on the lid and cook for 5 minutes. If the mussels have not opened properly, throw away.
5 - Stir in the vegetables and heat through. Taste for seasoning. Sprinkle on the lemon balm and serve with rice or crusty bread.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Nettle and Cumin Paratha

The old curry fix was required at the weekend. Sometimes I can go weeks without a hit of them familiar spices that always seem to soothe and satisfy me. And then something tells me that it is time and like a slave to Indian cuisine, I'm knocking up one of my tongue tingling curries.

I'm a big fan of Indian breads. They don't bloat me out as much as Western breads, probably due to the lack of yeast. They are also so simple to make and knock the socks off the commercially available Indian breads. Take a paratha, which is basically flour and water mixed into dough, rolled into a flatbread and dry fried. Nothing could be simpler, and it is also a basis for experimenting. Add roasted spices, stuff it with meats, fish or fresh herbs and you get a meal in a bread.

I'm still on a nettle fix, grabbing a few here and there before they soon turn tough, bitter and crystallised. A few blanched leaves with dry roasted cumin and added to the basic dough mixture produced a bread with a difference. The perfect accompaniment to any curry.

Nettle and Cumin Paratha

Makes 4

250g whole-wheat flour
1 tbsp cumin seeds
4 handfuls of spinach leaves
100ml milk
Salt and pepper
A little melted butter

1 - Pick and wash the nettles, then place into a hot pan. Wilt for 2 minutes, remove and squeeze out the water through a colander or sieve. Cool then finely chop.
2 - Put the cumin seeds into a frying pan and dry fry for 2-3 minutes until fragrant. Remove and place into a bowl with the flour and chopped nettles. Season with a little salt and pepper.
3 - Gradually pour in the milk, stirring with a wooden spoon until it combines to a stiff dough. Lightly knead then separate into 4 balls.
4 - On a floured surface, roll out the dough with your hands into a sausage shape. Then coil this around into a circle. Roll this out to a circle the size of a dinner plate. Then roll back up into a sausage and repeat 2 further times. Finish off with a circle, but not too thin.
5 - Brush one side of the paratha with a little melted butter. Place into a dry frying pan and cook for 1 minute, before turning, brushing with butter and cooking for a further minute. Keep cooking and flipping until the bread is golden brown and puffed up.
6 - Wrap in a tea towel and repeat with the rest of the dough.