Monday, 29 September 2008

Roast Squash, Chard and Ham Soup

I might be reaching for the central heating control tonight. Despite a summer to forget, the temperatures have remained fairly moderate. But this morning, that unmistakeable 'nip' of autumn was in the air. Time for the big coats and a bit of natural central heating from our lovely Autumnal foods methinks.

Soup is the easiest and most natural food stuff to turn to when you need a bit of inner core thermal warming. I can't help but experiment when it is soup time, and with a few sad squashes in my garden somehow surviving the summer floods, the soup pot was the only humane way of putting their short lives to an honourable end.

A squash sliced into chunks and skin left on - seeds removed for roasting for a delicious snack EVERY time - before roasting to golden perfection, makes for an intensely sweet base for your soup. Leaves of iron-enriched green chard and a few slices of leftover roast ham make things even better. And before you know it, you have a 45 minute soup from start to finish that will warm you up and pack you full of cold-beating goodness. Souper.

Roast Squash, Chard and Ham Soup

Feeds 2

1 medium sized squash, sliced into chunks and seeds removed
1 onion, skin removed and cut into quarters
1 bulb of garlic, cloves separated
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 handfuls of chard, washed and chopped roughly
A few handfuls of leftover ham
500ml hot vegetable stock or water

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees, GM6.
2 - Put the squash, garlic and onion onto a baking tray, season generously and toss with the olive oil. Roast for 30 minutes until golden and caramelised.
3 - Toss the chard in a hot pan for 5 minutes until wilted.
4 - Put the roast squash and onion into a blender. Squeeze in the sweetened roasted garlic cloves from their skins.
5 - Put in the chard, ham and stock then blitz until smooth.
6 - Pour into a pan and reheat. Taste for seasoning.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A kind of a rarebit

What a place France is. Pretty much everything about it, from the obvious great food and wine, to the climate. Even their relaxed and easy going over-confidence and assurance in that everything in France is the best is appealing to me. It makes me laugh and hey, a bit of confidence never did anybody any harm.

In my opinion, the best bit about France is of course the food. They somehow manage to make the most basic of foods sound posh. Take the Croque Monsieur. Two slices of white bread with a bit of ham and cheese in the middle, dipped in egg and cream and then fried. In other words, eggy bread to you and I. Eggy bread with a bit of ham and cheese in the middle.

Stick a fried egg on the top, it becomes a Croque Madame. Hilarious and brilliant at the same time. And that is why I love the French; they could turn a dog's dinner into a Michelin meal I'm sure. Well, at least they would think it was anyway. And that is all that matters. Sod the rest and all that.

I am partial to a bit of eggy bread, so I had a play around with this idea last week. Same philosophy, egg, cheese and ham, but with a few roasted mushrooms in there for good measure. And what evolved was rather delicious, served alongside some sautéed new potatoes and watercress. And I named it my Mushyeggybreadinarushy, which isn't as posh or as desirable sounding as a Croque Monsieur, but I don't care. I'm taking the French attitude from now on. Confidence is a preference. Au revoir mon ami.

Mushyeggybreadinarushy
Feeds 2

Two large, thick slices of your bread of choice
Good sliced roast ham
200g field mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
25g butter
25g plain flour
250ml milk
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 tbsp English mustard
150g strong Cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and pepper

1 - First make your cheese and mustard sauce. Melt the butter in a pan and add the flour. Stir for one minute, then gradually add the milk, stirring all of the time until you have a thick white sauce. Stir in the egg yolks, cheese and mustard and taste for seasoning.
2 - Pre-heat the grill. Heat up the oil in a pan and add the mushrooms. Cook until beginning to turn golden and the water has evaporated.
3 - Toast the bread.
4 - Pile on the mushrooms, followed by the ham and then the cheese and mustard sauce. Place under the grill and cook until golden and bubbling.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Quick Damson Cheesecakes

Lets face it, the seasons just aren't the seasons any more. After the wettest August for some years, September has continued in a similar vain. As I look out of my window at another overcast sky, it is easy to get down about the whole thing. But after the week from hell that I had last week, it is time to take positives from everything. Yes, even another grey day.

Autumn in just about upon us, and as a food obsessive, that is about as positive as it gets when it comes to great produce. I'm already saving every jar available ready for an evening or two of preserving. My demijohns are washed and sterilised in preparation for a litre or five of homemade sloe gin and sticky plum vodka. I've even put a goose on order and invited guests for Christmas Day.

A walk around a decent bit of countryside at this time of the year should indicate free food of all forms amongst the hedgerows and trees. One of my favourite is the wild plum, and in my area I've found a lovely patch of damsons. Small and oval shaped, deep purple with a powdery sheen to their skin, it is a truly great find. Slightly sweeter than a commercial plum, they can be plucked and devoured on the spot. And that can be a problem when your helper is a certain 3 year old plum lover.

I like to soften a few damsons in honey and vanilla which can then be used as a very loose jam for your toast, a great topping for yoghurt and muesli or just as it is with a little double cream for a simple dessert. If you are feeling adventurous, they also make for a nice topping on my quick and easy cheesecakes. So keep your eyes peeled and a plastic bag handy ready for them damson moments. I'm feeling positive already.

Quick Damson Cheesecakes
Feeds 4

8 ginger biscuits
50g butter
200g damson or plums
50g honey
200g cream cheese
100g icing sugar
A squeeze of lemon juice
300ml double cream
1 vanilla pod

1 – Line 4 individual ramekins with clingfilm.
2 – Grind the ginger biscuits down in a food processor. Melt the butter in a pan, add the biscuits and combine. Press the biscuit mixture into the ramekin dishes and place into the fridge.
3 – Half, stone then quarter the damsons or plums. Place into a pan with the honey and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes until soft then remove from the heat and cool.
4 – Beat the cream cheese, icing sugar and lemon juice together in a bowl. Whip the cream to soft peaks in another bowl, scrape in the vanilla seeds then fold into the cream cheese mixture.
5 – Press the mixture into the ramekins, smooth off then place back into the fridge for an hour or so.
6 – Remove from the ramekins and clingfilm, place onto serving plates and top with the softened damsons.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Pigeon, Squash and Beetroot with Hazelnut Dressing


Linden Hall Hotel in Northumberland was the setting for Taste 2 last weekend. Once again, the place was packed with people wanting to taste and buy superb food from local suppliers. I love these types of events: likeminded people all in one field, being passionate about the subject of local and seasonal food. Well done Jane Hall at The Journal for organising yet another successful celebration of local food.

After my demonstration, I literally bumped into The Hairy Bikers who turned up as the stars of the show. It is hard to put into words how lovely they both are and it is rare that you get such 'down to earth' qualities within people who are so in demand at the moment. The people simply love them and personally, I think they deserve all of the success they get. They connect with the public with no ego or alternative motive, and that is an extremely important quality up here in the North East.

For my demonstration, I showed the audience a simple recipe using one of my favourite cheap eats at this time of the year, wood pigeon. It is a lovely little warm salad of sorts, a nice introduction to anybody who has never had pigeon before and still harbours suspicions. Judging by the elderly lady who had never eaten pigeon before who proceeded to snaffle most of the plate, it obviously worked. Roll on Taste 3.

Pigeon, Squash and Beetroot with Hazelnut Dressing

Feeds 4

1 butternut squash, deseeded, halved and sliced thinly
1 tbsp olive oil
8 rashers of streaky bacon or Parma ham
1 tbsp olive oil
2 beetroots, sliced thinly
500ml Sunflower oil
8 skinless pigeon breasts
2 tbsp fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
4 handfuls of hazelnuts, crushed
2 tbsp cider vinegar
3 tbsp apple juice
4 handfuls of watercress

1 – Pre-heat the oven to 200C, GM6. Put the squash onto a baking tray and toss with the olive oil and a little seasoning. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden.
2 – Heat a little olive oil in a non-stick frying pan then add the bacon or Parma ham. Cook on both sides until crisp and golden. Reserve on kitchen towel.
3 – Heat the sunflower oil in a large pan until. Place in a piece of beetroot and if it floats to the top instantly, it is ready. Place in the beetroot in batches and cook for 5-6 minutes until crisp. Remove and set aside on kitchen towel.
4 – Toss the pigeon breasts in the oil, thyme and a little salt and pepper. Heat up a pan until hot then place in the pigeon. Cook for 2-3 minutes each side then put aside to rest for 2 minutes. Slice each breast diagonally into 3 pieces.
5 – Keep the pan on the heat and put in the hazelnuts. Toast for 1 minute, then pour in the vinegar and apple juice. Bring to the boil then turn off the heat.
6 – To plate up, arrange the watercress on a plate. Place on a few slices of squash, followed by the pigeon. Tuck in the beetroot crisps then drizzle on a little of the hazelnut dressing.