Thursday, April 30, 2009

Start by taking your Pulse

Today we take a look at another 'staple' food - the pulses. These are beans, lentils, chickpeas, split peas, dried marrowfat peas...inexpensive, very versatile and most store well. Dried beans are best used within a year of purchase (unless the packet has a later 'best-before' date) for the older they are the longer they take to cook, and after a few years, even when soaked for 24 hours, will never cook down to soft. The younger the bean is, the less time it takes to cook anyway, so even though the instructions may say 45 minutes, newly purchased these may take less less time, so always keep testing a sample as they cook.
As these days we need also to concern ourselves with the expense of fuel used, the best way to save time and labour is to cook a whole pack in one go, then drain and drizzle with a little olive oil while still warm (this helps to prevent them sticking together when frozen, and even if they appear to have done so, bashing a bag of frozen beans on the table or work surface will separate them). Home-cooking and freezing the beans saves a lot of soaking and fuel time than if the beans are prepared each time they are needed. Whether cooking on the hob, or preferring to cook overnight in a slow-cooker, always rapid boil the soaked beans for 8 minutes before reducing the heat, as this kills any toxins that may be there. Originally it was only red-beans that had been simmered from the start that caused a problem, but it is now recommended all beans be initially rapid-boiled.

Overnight soaking is not necessary with lentils, although some of the larger ones may need a soak. Read the instructions on the packet. Lentils usually have a longer storage time than the beans and if you prefer to decant in jars (all the different coloured beans and lentils looks so pretty stored in glass jars displayed on open shelves) always put the cooking instructions in the jars on top of the pulses to remind you.

Although beans and lentils can be bought ready-cooked in cans, usually it is always cheaper to cook them ourselves. Some brands of baked beans and red kidney beans are often sold at knock-down prices, so up to the individual as to whether buy or D.I.Y.

There are a wide variety of dried beans. The ones commonly used are haricot (as baked beans), red kidney beans (used in chilli con carne), the large butterbeans (these make a good dip), and although not a 'bean' - chickpeas (used for hummous and North African stews). These made a good start to the 'dry goods' in our storecupboard, and from then could be added borlotti beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans, black-eyed name but a few. In many cases a bean is a bean is a bean, so if a recipe uses one type, then another similar one could be used in its place.
With lentils we tend to start with split red lentils, later using the larger green lentils (sometimes called brown lentils), which have a better flavour, and the Puy lentils (very small and round) these being more expensive - but fashionable!

The first dish today contains the two vegetable proteins necessary for our bodies to take full advantage - in this instance, pulses and grains. Use different beans and different grains if you wish, but remember the recipe is taking into account the overall colour effect. If using home-cooked beans, use the weight (when cooked) as in the cans.
Curried Beans and Rice: serves 4
1 tblsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 red chilli pepper, de-seeded and chopped
1 tblsp medium curry paste
8 oz (225g) long-grain rice
1 x 400g (14oz) red kidney beans, drained
1 x 400g (14oz) black-eyed beans, drained
1 1/2 pints (850ml) vegetable stock
salt and pepper
4 oz (100g) frozen peas, thawed
2 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
Using a large saucepan, fry the onion in the oil for 5 minutes until turning golden brown. Stir in the garlic, curry paste, chilli and finally the rice, and cook for one minute.
Add the beans to the pan, pour in the stock and add a generous amount of seasoning. Bring to the boil, cover, then reduce heat and simmer for 25 - 30 minutes or until the rice is cooked. If necessary add a little more boiling stock or water.
Five minutes before you gauge the rice will be ready, put in the thawed peas, covering the pan so they cook in the steam, then stir in when ready to serve. Serve in warmed dishes with a dollop of raita on top and a scattering of parsley.

Although not actually a dish, this next recipe is a sort of upside-down 'butter' that takes part an active part, in that the vegetables are piled on this 'buttere' rather than flavoured butter being dotted over, and allowed to soak into the veggies in the more usual way. The walnut oil is essential for the flavour, but if you have none, crush up a few walnut pieces and leave them to soak in 5 tblsp olive oil for some hours, then drain the oil and use in this dish.
Cannellini 'Butter':
1 x 400g (14oz) cans cannellini beans, drained/rinsed
3 tblsp walnut oil
2 tblsp olive oil
3 fl oz (75ml) water
2 tsp lemon juice
salt and pepper
Place all the ingredients into a blender or food processor, and whizz until smooth, adding seasoning to taste at the end. Put into a bowl and chill until needed (up to a couple of days). to serve, bring to room temperature and put the bean 'butter' onto a large dish, spreading it slightly to form a base for the vegetables to be served (asparagus, carrots, mange-tout peas, string beans - any vegetable that likes butter....) place the hot vegetables on top, and serve with hot crusty bread.

Dhal, raita, and rice are the usual accompaniments to a curry, but dhal itself can be served as the main dish, with the rice and raita as supporting cast. Because the lentils and rice both contain the necessary complementary vegetable proteins, we can again ask - who needs meat?
Garlic lovers will rub their hands with glee over this recipe as plenty is used, those who prefer less can use as little as they wish.
Spinach Dhal: serves 6
1 tblsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, finely chopped or grated
4 - 6 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tblsp ground turmeric
1 tbslp garam masala (or 1 tsp curry paste)
6 cardamom pods, crushed, seed only used
12 oz (l350g) split red lentils
1 1/2 pints (850ml) vegetable stock
salt and pepper
8 oz (225g) young spinach leaves, roughly chopped
Using a large pan, fry the onion in the oil for 5 minutes until golden, then stir in the garlic, turmeric, garam masala/curry paste and the cardamom seeds and fry for 1 minute.
Rinse the lentils, then add them to the pan with the stock and seasoning to taste. Simmer for roughly 20 minutes or until the lentils are just tender (not overcooked). Stir in the prepared spinach, simmer for five more minutes then serve with rice and raita.

This next dish has leanings towards the classic Cassoulet, but without the chicken, ham, chorizo and other meats. Perhaps we could think of it as a vegetarian version. Whatever - it certainly contains beans. Although cooked haricot beans are used in this version, as haricot beans are virtually baked beans in a sauce, baked beans could be used for a child-friendly version. For adults, other and similar cooked beans could be used instead, or a mixture.
Mushroom and Bean Chasseur: serves 4
2 tblsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 onion, cut in half then thinly sliced
half of each red and green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
8 oz (225g) mushrooms
1 large carrot, sliced, then sliced cut in half
12 oz (350g) cooked haricot beans
5 fl oz (150ml) chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned)
2 tblsp tomato puree
1 tsp dried thyme
pinch cayenne pepper
half pint (300ml) red wine
quarter pint (150ml) water
salt and pepper
Gently fry the onion and peppers until just tender, stirring in the garlic a minute before the end. Remove from heat.
Take half the mushrooms and slice thinly, then - using an ovenproof casserole - place the sliced mushrooms, carrots, the onion mixture, whole mushrooms, the beans and the chopped tomatoes, then gently fold the lot together.
Take a jug and put in the tomato puree, thyme, cayenne pepper, wine and the water with seasoning to taste. Mix together and pour over the food in the casserole. Cover with a tight fitting lid.
Cook at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for about an hour and a half, stirring after the first half hour, and again half an hour later. When ready the carrots should be soft and the flavours well developed. Check for seasoning and serve.

This next recipe (or one very similar) will already have been given months ago, but no apologies for repeating this dish as it freezes extremely well, and the 'twice-fried' beans are a staple in many Mexican dishes, so whether added to chilli con carne, or used as part of a filling for enchiladas and nachos, eaten as a dip with tortilla chips, or added to flour tortilla 'wraps' with salads and/or meats, this is one worth making. When eating an orange, it is always worth grating off the zest before peeling and freezing it away to add to a dish such as this. Or just freeze the peel and remove the zest later.
Refritos: serves up to 8 (F)
1 1/2 lb (700g) red kidney beans, soaked overnight
4 large onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 - 2 tsp chilli powder
2 tblsp sunflower oil
1 tblsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground cumin
4 - 5 ribs celery, finely sliced
1 each red and yellow bell pepper, seeded and cubed
zest of 2- 3 large oranges
2 x 400g cans of plum tomatoes
salt and pepper
First drain the soaked beans and put in a pan, cover with fresh water and cook until just tender. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, using a large saucepan, fry the onion in the oil until softened, stirring in the garlic towards the end, then stir in the spices and fry for a minute more. Add the celery, peppers, orange zest and cooked beans, and - if necessary add a little more oil - fry for five more minutes.
Empty the can of tomatoes into a blender or food processor (or put into a bowl and chop up by hand), and when liquidised, add to the pan, and when everything has been mixed together, cover and simmer for nearly an hour, or until everything is very soft. Season with a little salt and plenty of pepper.
Remove half the mixture from the pan and blend or process to make a coarse puree, then add back to the pan and mix everything together. Use immediately or cool rapidly (by standing the pan in a sink of cold water) and freeze in small containers.

Pulses are mainly bland in flavour, and this can have its advantages because one bean can usually be substituted for another, any flavour being added by herbs and spices etc. Lentils do not substitute quite so easily, and it is often difficult to find a good recipe for the few types there are. The red lentils are used in many recipes, and green lentils eat very well when cooked with bacon, but here is a recipe that works especially well with the tiny, round Puy lentils - this eating well as a dish in its own right with the savoury fruity bread (recipe given below) or served to accompany roast pork.
If possible make the stock using an 'Oriental' stock - a light stock made with ginger and lemongrass. 'Chinese' stock cubes of this type are sold in supermarkets.
Coconut and Lime Puy Lentils: serves 4
1 tblsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 red chilli pepper, de-seeded and finely chopped
2" (5cm) piece fresh root ginger, grated
1 lb (450g) Puy lentils
2 pints (1.2 ltrs) light vegetable stock
1 x 200ml (7 fl.oz) carton coconut cream
grated rind and juice of 1 lime
Using a large pan, fry the onion in the oil for five minutes, then stir in the garlic, chilli and ginger and fry for a further minute. Add the lentils, and two-thirds of the stock and bring to the boil. Boil fairly rapidly for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for a further 20 minutes or until the lentils are cooked. Add more stock as necessary, but the mixture needs to be thick.
Stir in the coconut cream, and the lime zest and juice. Heat through, then serve.

As well as an accompaniment to the above dish, this cross between a savoury and a fruit 'bread' also eats well with cheese, soups, salads, or just spread with butter as a snack. Very easy to make, do not expect this to look like a loaf, more like a flattish 'blob'. Best eaten on day of making, and as near to fresh as possible.
Savoury Fruit 'bread': serves 4 - 6
4 oz (100g) porridge oats
2 tsp baking powder
4 oz (100g) plain flour
4 oz (100g) raisins or sultanas
1 tblsp chopped fresh thyme
1 shallot, grated or very finely chopped
1 egg
half tsp salt
black pepper
4 fl.oz (125ml) milk
3 tblsp light olive oil
Put everything except the oil into a bowl and mix well together (it helps if the baking powder is first sifted with the flour but not essential). This will not be like a bread dough, more like a very thick and sticky batter.
Spoon 2 tblsp of the oil onto a baking tray and put into a pre-heated oven 200C, 400F, gas 6 to heat up for 5 minutes, the quickly pour on the 'dough' and spread into a rough round shape approx 6"- 7" (15 -18cm) diameter. Brush the remaining oil over the top. Then return to oven and bake for 20 minutes, before turning the 'bread' over and cooking for a further 6 - 8 mins or until brown.
Allow to cool on the tin for several minutes, the cut into wedges and serve warm. If cooled down too much, remove from tin, wrap in foil and re-heat in the residual heat in the oven.

Final dish of the day is a variable one in that it can be served as a dip, or as a pate to be spread on crostini, and even served warm with roast beef as we might serve pureed cauliflower or potatoes.
Butterbean 'Butter': serves 4
2 x 425g (15oz) cans butter beans, drained and rinsed
4 tsp creamed horseradish sauce
4 - 5 tblsp olive oil
zest and juice of 1 lime or lemon
3 tblsp warm water
salt and pepper (opt)
Put everything into a blender or food processor and blitz until smooth and creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste (optional). Serve in any of the ways suggested above.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Vegetarian Fine Dining

Today - being vegetarian day - we move slightly upmarket with recipes suitable to serve when entertaining. This does not mean we have to wait until the right occasion to make them, for when dealing with 'posh nosh' (or any other dish cooked for the first time) we should always have several goes to make sure we get it right, and this means the family can be given the experiments. Just because food is 'posh', it does not mean it is expensive. Often more depends upon the presentation (appearance) of the dish than the cost.

Perhaps served with drinks before sitting down for the main meal, or - if you wish - served as a starter, these canapes are easy to make and the 'mixtures' can be prepared ahead of time.
brie and olive bites: makes 16 (V)
6 oz (175g) ripe Brie, rind removed
5 fl oz (150ml) Greek yogurt
2 oz (50g) veg. margarine, melted
4 oz (100g) black olives, pitted
8 oz (225g) can water chestnuts, diced
4 slices bread, crusts removed, fried or toasted
Put all but the water chestnuts and bread into a blender or food processor and blitz together, then mix in the prepared w.chestnuts. Either toast or fry (and drain well) the bread and when ready to serve then place a teaspoon of the cheese mixture on the top.

stilton and walnut balls: makes 20 (V)
4 oz (100g) Stilton cheese
2 oz (50g) walnut pieces
2 tblsp walnut or olive oil
Put the above into a food processor or blender and give a quick whizz to blend together, but leaving crunchy pieces of nuts mixed in. Chill, then roll into balls and spear each with a cocktail stick.

For the soup course, am giving a cold soup suitable for the warmer weather we hope to have. Although simple to make, it is definitely one of quality. If you prefer to prepare as much as possible, halve red bell peppers, remove seeds and membrane, roast until charred, then cool in a polybag, remove skins and use as the canned pimientos (sometimes called pimentos).
Tri-colour Pepper Soup: serves 4 (V)
1 x 400g can of red peppers (pimientos) drained
1 pint (600ml) tomato juice
1 green bell pepper, de-seeded and cut into strips
1 yellow bell pepper, treated likewise
salt and pepper to taste
Put the pimientos, tomato juice into a blender, adding a little seasoning to taste, and blitz into a puree. Chill before serving in individual bowls, garnishing each with a few strips of green and yellow peppers. Serve with Melba toast or crostini.

Instead of cold soup, you may prefer a hot starter, in which case this next recipe is a winner. Use the largest flat field mushrooms you can buy, and although the topping can be prepared in advance, the dish needs serving immediately after baking.
Massive Mushrooms: serves 4 (V)
4 large flat mushrooms
1 tblsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
2 tsp dried mixed herbs
salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed (more if you wish)
1 oz (25g) dry-roast peanuts, chopped
3 oz (75g) cream cheese
1 egg yolk (opt)
grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
Remove stalks from the mushrooms, chopping the stalks finely, then set to one side. Heat the oil in the pan and fry the onion gently, covered, for about 5 minutes until softened, then stir in the garlic and fry for a further minute. Add the celery, chopped mushroom stalks and the herbs, adding seasoning to taste. Mix well together, then cover the pan and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the peanuts. Cool, then cream the cheese with the egg yolk, and stir into the mixture in the pan and spoon into the mushroom caps.
Sprinkle with the Parmesan, and bake at 180c, 350F, gas 4 for 25 minutes. Serve piping hot on squares of fried bread.

For a lovely and unusual main course, serve these Asian rice cakes, they are extremely adaptable as different spices can be experimented with. With an internal delicate soft texture and spiced up with the satay sauce, they eat very well with a variety of salads.
Indonesian Rice Cakes: serves 4 (V)
1 pint (600ml) water
2 oz (50g) creamed coconut
12 oz (350g) Basmati or other long-grain rice
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
1 tsp garam masala or curry paste
half cucumber, peeled and diced
1 small pepper, chopped
1 bunch spring onions, chopped
serve with satay sauce
Put the water and creamed coconut in a pan and heat until the coconut has dissolved. Bring to the boil then add the rice, herbs, salt and garam masala/curry paste. Cover and cook gently for 10 - 12 minutes, adding the prepared vegetables a few minutes before the end of the cooking time. When all the liquid has been absorbed, put the rice in a shallow baking tin, cover with a similar sized tin so the base fits over the mixture, and top with weights,(a couple of cans of beans?) to compress the mixture. Leave to get cold. Chill for a couple of hours, then cut into 16 squares. Serve four squares per person, placing them on a bed of shredded lettuce, and spooning a couple or so teaspoons of satay sauce over each square.

Often a vegetarian 'Wellington', or a retro Nut Roast, may be the centrepiece of the main course, so then we look to the vegetable side dishes to add that little extra 'something'. Here is a recipe for celery - the one vegetable that we are never quite sure how to serve (other than raw, with cheese).
Creamy Celery with Almonds: serves 4
1 head celery, sliced
1 can condensed celery soup
2 fl oz (50ml) double cream or yogurt
1 tblsp grated onion
1 whole canned pimento (roasted red bell pepper)
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
2 oz (50g) flaked almonds, toasted
Cook the celery in boiling water for 10 minutes, then drain well. Stir in the rest of the ingredients except the almonds. Put into an ovenproof dish and bake at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for 20 minutes. Sprinkle the almonds on the top and serve immediately.

This next is a vegetable dish where the flavour improves even more after being cooked then chilled and re-heated just before serving. The beetroot can be home-cooked or they type sold in a vacuum pack, but not beetroot already pickled in vinegar.
Beetroot in an Orange Sauce: serves 4
1 lb (450g) cooked beetroot, cut into strips
8 oz (225g) muscavado sugar
5 fl oz (150ml) malt vinegar
1 tblsp cornflour
zest and juice of three oranges
Put the beetroot in an ovenproof dish. Make the sauce by putting the sugar and vinegar into a pan and heating gently until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer for 5 minutes. Blend the cornflour with a little of the orange juice, the add the remaining juice to the pan with the zest. Simmer for 5 more minutes, the stir in the slaked cornflour and stirring constantly, heat until thickened. Pour over the beetroot and warm through in an oven (150C, 300F, gas 2) for about 10 minutes or until ready to serve.

Onions are the one vegetable we cannot do without, so almost certainly we will have them to hand. This next vegetable dish, although can be served as a 'side', as it eats equally well hot or cold, also makes a good buffet dish.
Baked Spiced Onions: serves 4
8 medium onions (unpeeled)
4 tblsp red wine
6 tblsp water
1 tsp salt
2 tbslp cumin seeds
Put the whole onions, peel still on, and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Drain and remove the skins. Put the onions into an ovenproof dish with the wine, water, salt and cumin seeds and bake at 200C, 400F, gas 6 or until softened, turning from time to time, and adding more water if it begins to dry out. Serve hot.

Final dish of the day is a salad, but one with a difference as it can be made with almost all seasonal vegetables, for even raw winter root vegetables taste wonderful when peeled and very thinly sliced. In fact most vegetables, other than potatoes, can be eaten raw: try Jerusalem artichokes, baby turnips, young parsnips, carrots, onions...
The mixed vegetables in this dish could be shredded white cabbage, string beans, baby spinach, courgettes, spring onions, beansprouts, cucumber, bell peppers. Also podded peas and broad beans, sweetcorn (these three are better lightly cooked). Add thinly sliced raw root veggies, and salad leaves such as watercress and rocket. Who needs lettuce?
When we cannot be bothered to make the peanut sauce, instead we could heat some peanut butter until 'runny' then thin down with a little coconut milk.
All Seasons Salad with Peanut Sauce: serves 4 (V)
half oz (15g) creamed coconut
half pint (300ml) boiling water
4 oz (100g) salted peanuts
a little single cream (opt) OR lemon/lime juice
1 1/2lb (675g) mixed vegetables: see above
Dissolve the coconut in the water, then - after cooling - put into a liquidiser with the peanuts, and blitz until it has turned into a smooth paste. Put into a pan and boil for 2 minutes, thinning down with cream, lemon or lime juice. Cool slightly then pour this over the sliced and shredded vegetables, tossing everything together thoroughly.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Heat of the Meat....

Today's Masterclass covers perhaps the most important part of cooking which is the cooking itself, for how we go about it can make a great difference to the taste, smell and texture of the food we prepare, cook and eat. When lacking info. we could spend decades cooking the right food in the wrong way. Most of us probably do know 'how to', but when compiling the details below discovered I still had a lot to learn.

There are many different ways to cook food: pressure cooking, slow-cooking, microwaving, steaming, and the more conventional hob and oven cooking - subdivided into wet and dry methods of cooking. How often do we say we prefer to cook by 'the wet method'? Probably never, but these are terms professional cooks use all the time, and as they have also learned the best way to cook different foods, delving into their text books has helped me to understand some of their jargon.
When it comes to recipes, far too little information is given. It is far more helpful to know WHY we do something, rather than just do it because it says so. With a little more 'know-how' plus practice and the incentive we can all move a step further up the ladder of culinary expertise. Lets hope today will open a few doors.

The three main methods of cooking:
dry methods are:
roasting, baking and grilling
hot fat methods are:
deep frying, shallow frying, sauteing, and stir-frying.
wet methods are:
boiling, steaming, poaching, and casseroling.

The cooking method depends upon the nature of the ingredients. Some foods (such as potatoes) can be cooked by most of the methods shown above. Other foods may be more delicate and some may require preparation before being cooked. As an example, dried beans need an initial overnight soak in water, followed by an 8 minute fast-boil (in order to destroy natural toxins). After than they can be cooked by some of the methods mentioned.

red meats:
The method and choice of cooking red meat depends upon the cut of meat. Certain cuts are better suited to particular cooking methods. The cheapest cuts usually have more connective tissue and need cooking slowly for a long time by a moist (wet) heating method - which converts the connective tissue into gelatine. The older the animal, and the parts of the body that do more work (such as the neck) will have more of the tissue. Younger beasts and muscle that is not used to any great extent will have less of the connective tissue and smaller muscle fibres so more suitable for fast (dry) cooking such as frying or grilling. Prolonged dry cooking of this tender meat is not advised as it results in stringy, dry meat.

roasting temperatures:
a general guide is to use an oven temperature of 180C, 350F, gas 4 the roasting times can be calculated according to the weight:
beef: 25 minutes per lb (450g) plus 25 minutes
lamb: 30 minutes per lb (450g) plus 30 minutes
pork: 35 minutes per lb (450g) plus 35 minutes
When foil or roasting bags are used the cooking times may need to be increased slightly.
As meat shrinks when being cooked, its 'juices' - a mixture of fat and water - will flow out, and use these to occasionally baste the joint while cooking. If the joint is a lean cut, baste more frequently to prevent the meat drying out. Interesting to know that meat naturally contains 75% water.

Grilling times vary according to the thickness of the meat. Thin meat can be cooked at a higher temperature for a shorter length of time. Thicker portions require a moderate to low heat for a longer period. Using a pre-heated grill, here are suggested cooking times for meat that is 1" (between 2 - 3 cm) thick except for the minute steak which should be as thin as possible. If the chosen meat is thicker than 1", increase the cooking time accordingly:
minute steak: 1 minute on each side
rare beef steak: 2.5 minutes on each side
well done beef steak: 6 minutes each side
fillet steak: 5 minutes each side
lamb chops: 5 - 8 minutes each side
lamb cutlets: 3 - 5 minutes each side
pork chops: 8 - 10 minutes each side
sausages: 10 - 12 minutes, turning constantly
liver and kidneys: 10 - 12 minutes, turning often

First fry the meat for two minutes over a high heat to seal in the juices, then reduce the heat to medium and turn the meat frequently. Try to use a bare minimum of oil.
Cooking times are roughly double the timing shown for grilling.

This form of cooking is especially suitable for the cheaper cuts of meat. In general, cook the meat in a moderate to low oven at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for around 2 hours. If cooking large quantities, extend the cooking time. Some recipes require the meat to be browned by fast-frying before being gently casseroled.

If the bird has been frozen, ALWAYS make sure it has been fully defrosted. If a bird is to be stuffed, include the weight of the stuffing when calculating cooking times. Also stuff the neck end of the bird only, and ever completely stuff a bird as this leads to poor heat transfer and it will not cook through thoroughly.
To help the bird stay moist, onions and /or lemons (even oranges) could be stuffed into the tail end of the bird, but these should not be eaten. If the bird is wrapped in foil, increase the cooking times by a little. Large birds should not be wrapped in foil, although they top may be 'tented' with a little greased foil for the first hour to prevent the skin becoming too brown. Remove foil for the remaining time.
To test if the bird is cooked, insert the tip of a knife or skewer into the thickest part of the leg. When the juices run clear the bird is ready. If the juices are pink, cook for a further 10 - 20 minutes and test again. Allow the bird to stand for 15 minutes before carving.

Only suitable for thin portions such as breast or drumsticks. Use only a moderately hot grill and cook for 20 - 30 minutes turning frequently. The meat should change from translucent to opaque and if this has not happened, cook for a further 5 - 10 minutes.

Poultry can be casseroled whole or in portions. Place in an oven-proof dish and cover the bird with stock, adding vegetables and herbs, and seasoning to taste. Cover and cook in a moderate oven 180C, 350F, gas 4 for one and a half to two hours depending on the size of the bird if cooking whole. Correctly cooked the poultry meat should be tender and fall easily away from the bones.

Using a large saucepan, put in the poultry joints, vegetables and seasoning. Add enough stock or water to cover and bring to the boil. Skim off any fat, then cover the pan, reduce heat and simmer for 20 - 25 minutes per pound (450g). If boiling a whole fowl, then increase the cooking time to 45 minutes per pound.

Poultry can be deep or shallow fried. Minced or diced poultry can be stir-fried quickly. Fast fry and stop the minute the meat is opaque and feels firm. Drain well.

microwaving is not recommended for raw poultry as it the thickness of the meat when on the bone means that to ensure it is cooked through it can be overcooked in other places.

An important one this as fish - being delicate - when cooked incorrectly can easily lose both texture and flavour and become dry and tough. A properly gutted fish only requires light cooking.

Oven cooked fish is always called baked, never 'roasted'. Baking is suitable for small whole fish, or the chunkier steaks and fillets and the oven temperature for these is 200C, 400F, gas 6, baking for 15 - 20 minutes according to the size of the fish. To prevent drying out, the fish can be baked in a foil parcel, otherwise baste frequently. Additional flavour can be gained by cooking with herbs and vegetables or basting with wine or stock.
When cooking a very large whole fish, the temperature should be reduced to 180C etc allowing 15 minutes to the lb (450g).

One of the fastest and most effective ways to cook small whole fish, fillets and steaks. Pre-heat the grill and line the grill pan with kitchen foil, shiny side up. Brush the foil with oil to prevent the fish sticking. A light brushing of oil to the fish itself will help to prevent it drying out too much. Grill for 8 - 10 minutes then remove from the grill immediately.
When grilling whole fish, make deep diagonal slashes through the skin and flesh down to the bone on both sides to allow better penetration of heat.

The best way to cook thin fillets or small flat fish. Pre-heat water in a pan to simmering point, then place a steamer over the top. Place the fish in the steamer than cover with a lid. It is important not to let the water boil - it should just shimmer on the surface.
Steaming should take about 10 - 15 minutes, although large fish or thicker fillets will need a longer cooking time, taking care not to overcook.

Similar to steaming only the fish is in direct contact with the liquid. Suitable liquids are stock, milk, wine, cider or just water. When intending to make a sauce to go with the fish, poach the fish in the milk then use the milk to make the sauce.
Poach in an uncovered pan for 5 - 8 minutes, but never allow the liquid to boil - just keep it at a simmer or even slightly below.

Shallow frying or stir-frying is most suitable for fish fillets, steaks and small seafood such as sprats and whitebait. When the fish is coated with seasoned flour (then tapped to remove excess flour) this will give a crisp pleasant textured coating and helps prevent the fish breaking when being fried. Egg and crumbing give the same, but thicker, effect.
Shallow frying will take 3 - 10 minutes in pre-heated oil depending upon the thickness. When frying larger pieces, start with a high heat to seal the coating, then reduce the heat down and cook slowly until the fish is tender.
When deep frying, the fish should always be coated with a batter, or flour, egg and crumbs. The temperature of the oil should be between 170C/340F to 190C/375F. The temperature should depend upon the thickness of the fish. Test the oil with a cube of bread, and when it sizzle briskly and browns in one minute the temperature should be correct. Frying should take between 3 - 4 minutes, and the fish drained well before serving.
The fishy flavours get into the oil, so it should not be continually used, and changed fairly often. Do not waste fresh oil by topping it up.

Now we come to two lesser used methods of cooking. Only general info has been given given, as the cooking times for different foods we would need to refer to the instruction booklet that came with 'cooker'.

The boiling point of water is 100C. The addition of any 'impurities' - such as salt - will raise the boiling point slightly which means the food will be cooked faster. Vegetables cook better at slightly higher than boiling point which is why salt should always be added to the water when boiling in the normal way, and why steaming (steam aslo havng a higher temperature) is an even better way to cook veggies.
Altering the pressure will also alter the temperature, and at high pressures the boiling point of water will increase and the food will cook faster as more heat is transferred to the food in a shorter time.
It is important to follow manufacturer's instructions as cooking times will vary for different foods, and also depend upon the size of the food to be pressure-cooked.
Temperatures achieved in a pressure cooked are capable of killing any bacteria present.

Unlike vegetables, protein will cook at a temperature below boiling point, so a slow cooker is ideal for cooking the cheaper, tougher meats as long slow cooking makes the meat extremely tender and full of flavour. A slow cooker is also suitable for cooking pulses (after the initial soak and 8 minute fast boil), some vegetables and to make soups and porridge etc.
It is best to first part-cook vegetables that need more heat to become tender (carrots etc) then add them to the pot. Onions cook very well in a slow-cooker. Other raw vegetables should be chopped small and placed nearer the heat source.

The high and low settings on a slow-cooker will eventually both reach the same temperature of 92C, the only difference is the speed at which that temperature is reached. The high setting can reach that in 30 minutes, but the low setting takes considerably longer. It is best to use the low setting for tougher cuts of meat, so that it can takes it time and cook slowly for several hours (a whole day if you wish), the slower the cooking, the more tender the meat, and for anyone caught in a traffic jam and arriving home hours later than intended, anything slow-cooked will not be spoiled.

When using a slow-cooker, always turn it on as you load it. Never put meat or chicken into the unheated dish and then let it stand around (covered or uncovered) before cooking. If a casserole has been prepared in advance (up to cooking) then keep it in the fridge until ready to load. Never turn the slow-cooker off and leave the food in the dish after cooking. The cooked food should be served up (or cooled and chilled) immediately. Do not keep adding to the stew in order to top it up.

When food has been cooked it should only be re-heated once, whether initially cooked in our own kitchens, or as a bought cook-chill product/ready meal. Food that is repeatedly heated is less nutritious and less safe.
When re-heating, the food should be heated through until piping hot to make sure bacteria is killed. If just 'warmed-up' any bacteria that may be there can multiply to dangerous levels and possibly produce toxins that are not killed by heat, so - if for some reason - the warmed up has to be set aside (even chilled) to be re-heated 'properly' later, these toxins may remain making the food very unsafe to eat. worth knowing that in one bacteria can, within an hour - multiply into billions.

The recommendation when re-heating food is to make sure it reaches an internal temperature of 70C for a minimum of 2 minutes. It is far better to over-heat food and allow it to cool down than undercook and under heat.

When re-heating in a microwave, always follow the standing times recommended by the manufacturer, as the heat still continues working its way through to the middle.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Home is Where the Heart is...

For those needing to lower their cholesterol, here are lists - taken from the book - of high, medium and low cholesterol foods.
high cholesterol:
butter; cakes; crab, lobster, shellfish;
cream; eggs; omelette; fatty meat and bacon;
kidney; liver; pastry; souffles.

medium cholesterol:
lean bacon; cheese made with wholemilk; chocolate; ice-cream; fish; lard; milk; pancakes; poultry; sausages; veal.
(B enjoys these too but prefers streaky bacon)

low cholesterol:
biscuits; clear soups; cottage cheese; soft margarines; skimmed milk.
(apart from biscuits B would not touch the rest).

no cholesterol:
bread and cereals; coconut; coffee and tea - but no milk; fruit (most); honey; jam; nuts; peanuts; pasta; spirits, wines and beer; sugar; vegetables; vegetable oil.

The above does not take into account the amount of saturated fats each contains. For instance the crab/shellfish etc are low in saturated fats but high in cholesterol. Coconut is high in saturated fats but cholesterol free. Sometimes sorting out what is good and what is bad for us is like walking through a mine-field.

Think we all know how many calories we need each day, and eat less of them when we wish to lose weight. This is not a problem when we can afford to buy good, fresh produce. Some foods are so low in calories we can graze all day and still not eat enough cals.
When it comes to living on a low income, it is easy enough to take in the required number of cals. (usually those that fill us up) with the belief that is all that is needed. To keep alive maybe, to keep healthy NOT!

The following list myself find extremely interesting:
the cost of a food per 100 calories (1995):
custard cream biscuits 2p
white sliced bread 3p
frozen chips 4p
full fat milk 8p
boiled potatoes 7p
chocolate bar 8p
pork sausages 10p
meat pie 11p
corn snacks 12p
skimmed milk 13p
fish fingers 13p
apples 19p
carrots 20p
oranges 30p
lean pork 33p
broccoli 74p
lettuce 76p
tomatoes 80p
frozen cod fillet 95p
celery 103p

Our food budget (let's call it Peter) is the only one that is flexible. Often we have to rob Peter to pay Paul, especially when in a recession such as the one we are in now. None of it is our fault, and yet it is left up to us to cope as best we can. It is true that food prices have risen over the past months, but on the good side there are so many offers on so many different foods with canny shopping we should find it fairly easy to feed ourselves and the family. The only problem is lacking the know how, but there are plenty of books and websites to give info and advice' What we all need to do is keep old skills alive.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Choose your Case, Fill your Flan

Today will be concentrating on quiches and flans. These eat very well with salads, and the only difference between the two is that a 'quiche' filling is traditionally made using eggs, cream and cheese, and a 'flan' (although having a similar appearance) need not be made with any of these. Both are just a shallow round pastry (or other) that holds a hot or cold and set savoury filling. Sometimes a flan (usually dessert) is called a 'tart', and a 'tart' with a pastry lid is then called a 'pie'.

Starting with the case itself - normally the richer the filling, the plainer the pastry used, so generally shortcrust pastry is the cook's first choice, although flaky, ruff puff, and puff pastry (even filo pastry) can work well. Try being creative and use crushed water biscuits, cereals and crispbreads to hold the filling (similar to making the base for a cheesecake). One example of this will be given today.

Nutritionally, the best pastry to use for quiches and flans are those made using plain white or wholemeal flour. This brown flour does make a crumblier dough that can be somewhat tricky to work with but is nutritionally better for us. The easiest way to handle pastry made with wholewheat flour is to leave the prepared dough in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before using, and then roll the pastry between two sheets of kitchen foil or cling film. When ready to line the tin, peel off the top sheet, lift the bottom sheet and flip the pastry over into the tin, and gently press round to fit before peeling off the second sheet. Always roll the pastry out larger than you need as it will shrink slightly when cooking. Recently chefs prevent shrinking by easing the pastry into the tin and the excess overlapping the sides, then filled and baked before carefully shaving the extra bits off once fully cooked.

When using shortcrust pasty, it is always better to part-cook the pastry 'blind' before filling, this ensures a crisp dry base. If this is not done, the base can remain slightly undercooked - and seem 'soggy'. Even if a recipe does not suggest first 'blind' baking, it is worth partly cooking in this way for 10 minutes. Another way to help crisp up the bottom pastry is to heat up a baking sheet in the oven when heating the oven itself, so the flan tin can rest on this and the heat immediately starts crisping the pastry base. Personally I always cook a quiche or flan in a metal tin, as it makes for a crispier pastry, and have never had much success using a ceramic dish.

Although dairy products appear in some of today's recipes, there are substitutions that can be used, such as yogurt instead of cream, soya milk instead of cow's milk, and sunflower or olive oil instead of butter. Cheese too can be adjusted to suit your taste and pocket. 'Quark', curd or cottage cheese can replace cream cheese, Edam cheese is lower in fat than other hard cheeses, there are also vegetarian cheeses. Instead of egg yolks, egg whites can be whipped and folded into the filling - this way you still have protein but less calories, less cholesterol - although the filling will be 'fluffier' - more like a souffle.
Skimmed milk can be 'enriched' by stirring in one or two spoons of powdered milk. This makes it taste creamier and adds extra protein.

Although there are plenty of recipes around to make basic shortcrust pastry, here are two that can be eaten by vegans.
(V) - vegetarian; (Vg) -suitable for vegans
wheat and soya pastry: for a 9" (23cm) flan. (V/Vg)
6 0z (175g) plain wholemeal flour
2 oz (25g) soya flour
3 tblsp sunflower or other veg. oil
cold water
pinch of sea or rock salt
Sieve together the two flours, add the salt, then - using a fork - blend in the oil, adding enough water to make a pliable dough that is fairly firm. Wrap and chill in the fridge before rolling.

basic vegan pastry: for an 8" (20cm) flan (V/Vg)
8 oz (225g) plain wholemeal flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 tblsp sunflower or other veg. oil
3 tblsp water
pinch of sea or rock salt
Sift together the flour and b.powder, then add the salt. Mix together the oil and water and stir this into the flour, mixing together as rapidly as possible. Wrap and chill as above.

This next 'case' is normally used for a fruit dessert, being first baked, then filled with cooked and cooled fruit. However, see no reason why it couldn't be used for a savoury flan, but if so probably - because of the longer cooking time - better baked after filling.
crunchy case for a flan: 8" (20cm) flan (V)
6 oz (175g) crunchy oat cereal
2 oz (50g) wholemeal flour
2 oz (50g) veg. margarine or oil
Crush the cereal if in large pieces, and mix with the flour. Melt the margarine and blend this into the oats. Press firmly and evenly into a greased flan dish, and cook 'blind' for about 15 - 20 minutes at 190C, 375F, gas 5, or until crisp. Leave to cool before filling with fruit.

This flan uses no eggs, but does contain milk and a 'meat substitute', so suitable for most vegetarians, but not vegans. Instead of using hydrated TVP 'ham', a Quorn or other vegetarian 'ham' could be used.
Broad Bean and 'Ham' flan: an 8" flan (V)
pastry to line an 8" (20cm) flan dish
6 oz (175g) fresh or frozen broad beans
3 oz (75g) soya (TVP) ham chunks, hydrated
1 oz (25g) polyunsaturated margarine or oil
1 oz (25g) wholemeal flour
1/3 pint (180ml) milk
pinch of dried mixed herbs
salt and pepper
Line the flan dish with the pastry and bake blind at 200C etc. for 35 - 30 minutes, or until cooked.
Meanwhile, cook the broad beans until just tender, drain well then (if you wish) remove the outer (papery) white skins.
Heat the margarine/oil in a pan and stir in the well drain ham chunks and fry gently for 5 minutes, stirring all the time, then sprinkle over the flour and cook for one minute. Stir in the milk and bring to the boil. When thickened, add the herbs and seasoning to taste. Finally, stir in the broad beans. When these are heated through, pour the mixture into the cooked case and level the top. Serve immediately.

This next flan is a favourite as almost any salad ingredients can be used, and it also makes use of left-over cooked rice (brown or white, plain or lightly spiced). Within reason the cook can adapt this recipe according to the food she has available, and it doesn't really matter what nuts are used, as long as some are, as they add both crunch and protein to this dish. The flan case is baked ahead, left to get cold and the filling added when ready to eat.
Twice as Nice Rice Flan: 8" flan (V)
1 precooked 8" (20cm) flan case
3 oz (75g) cooked rice (white or brown)
3 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
4" (10cm) piece of cucumber, diced
8 radishes, trimmed and sliced or diced
small bunch of watercress, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 tomatoes, chopped
1 oz (25g) walnuts, chopped
2 oz (50g) cream, curd or cottage cheese
3 - 4 tblsp mayonnaise
salt and freshly ground black pepper
paprika pepper
Mix the rice with the prepared salad ingredients. In another bowl mix the cheese with just enough mayo to make it moist without being too wet, then stir this into the rice mixture. Add seasoning to taste, stir in the nuts and then spoon the mixture into the flan case. Level the top and sprinkle with paprika. Best served immediately or a.s.a.p.

This is a good one to make when we feel our stores are depleting faster than we can afford to replace. Hopefully most of us can still manage to find an onion, a few red lentils, some milk powder, and the last scrapings from a jar of Marmite somewhere in the kitchen.
Mother Hubbards Lentil Flan: 8" flan
pastry to line an 8" (20cm) flan dish
4 oz (100g) red lentils
1/3rd pint (200ml) water
2 tblsp dried milk powder
1 large onion
1 tbslp sunflower or other vegetable oil
1 tsp dried mixed herb OR..
...1 tblsp chopped fresh mixed herbs
1 tsp Marmite
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper
Roll out the pastry and line an 8" (20cm) flan tin. Heat the oil in a pan and gently fry (saute) the onions until just becoming tender. Add the lentils and the water, stir in the milk powder then cook at medium heat for about 15 - 20 minutes or until the lentils are soft. Drain well to remove any liquid that has not been absorbed.
Mix the lentils with the herbs, Marmite and egg, adding seasoning to taste. Pour into the flan case and bake for about 45 minutes at 180C, 350F, gas 4 or until the filling is quite firm. Can be served hot or cold.

Flans can be either savoury or sweet, so will conclude today's selection with a couple of yummy 'desserts'. As the first contains eggs, honey, wholemeal bread (crumbs), and dates this is both healthy and nourishing. Served cold, a wedge of this could be part of a packed lunch.
There is no reason (other than tradition) why a flan is cooked in the round. Often I make flans in square tins as they are easier to portion out. For that matter, same goes for pizzas but that is another story.
Date and Coconut Flan: 8" (20cm) size
an 8" flan dish lined with uncooked pastry
3 eggs, beaten
5 fl oz (150ml) single cream or evap. milk
4 tblsp runny honey
1 oz (25g) fine wholemeal breadcrumbs
1 - 2 tsp mixed spice
4 oz (100g) dates, chopped into small pieces
3 oz (75g) desiccated coconut
Stir the cream, honey and spice into the beaten eggs, making sure they are mixed well. Then add the chopped dates with the crumbs and most of the coconut. Spoon into the pastry case, level the surface and bake at 200C, 425F, gas 7 for 15 minutes, then sprinkle the remaining coconut over the top, reducing oven temperature to 170C, 325F, gas 3 and bake for 25 minutes more or until firm in the centre. Serve cold.

No pastry needed to make this final dessert, but still a 'flan' in appearance. The flavour of the 'custard' can be varied by using vanilla extract instead of almond essence, or make a 'chocolate' version by adding 1 tablespoon of carob powder to the 'custard'.
Yogurt Custard Tart: 8" (20cm) size approx
4 oz (100g) muesli
2 oz (50g) polyunsatureated margarine
2 eggs
1 oz (25g) light muscavado sugar
half pint (300ml) plain thick yogurt
1 tsp almond essence (or other flavouring - see above)
5 fl oz (150ml) milk
1 oz (25g) flaked almonds, toasted
Melt the margarine and mix this into the muesli, then press onto the base and sides of a lightly greased flan dish.
Beat the eggs an sugar together, then add the yogurt and chosen flavouring and continue mixing until smooth. Stir in the milk, then when well blended, pour into the prepared flan and sprinkle the top with the almonds. Place immediately into the oven and bake at 140C, 250F, gas 1 for about half an hour or until a skewer pushed into the centre comes out clean.
Can be served hot or cold, on its own or with fresh summer berries, or stewed winter fruits (eg the semi-dried apricot, prunes, dates etc).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Low Down on Low Fat

Skimming away the Fat:
If you wish to use any recipe but still cut down the fat, here are some useful tips for buying and cooking.

Trim off all visible fat from meat and chicken, both before and after cooking. And remove skin from chicken before cooking.

Cut down on the meat used in stews and casseroles. TVP mince cooked with to ordinary minced steak gives the texture of 'real' meat throughout, still the same protein value, but less calories and contains no fat.
Alternatively, add extra vegetables and pulses such as chickpeas, red kidney beans etc.

Serve meals with plain pasta, potatoes (dry-roasted) and boiled/steamed grains to help fill us up. With any fat-free food (potatoes are a good example) it is not the food, but the butter, dressings, sauces etc. that we add to the food that is the problem.

Whenever possible leave a 'fatty' soup or stock (or even casserole) to chill overnight in the fridge. The fat will have risen to the top and solidified, so easily removed. Make sure the food is thoroughly reheated before eating.

There are plenty of low-fat dairy products now on sale, and the yogurts, fromage fraise and creme fraiche can be used instead of full fat cream.
Also there are very low fat cream cheeses that work just as well as those with full fat, and many fat-reduced cheeses of the Cheddary type. Edam is a cheese that is naturally lower in fat.
A swirl of yogurt on top of a bowl of hot soup makes a good alternative to cream.

The best oil to use is olive oil, but as an alliterative for keeping foods moist when being cooked (aka basting), use citrus juices, vegetable juices, soy sauce or wines. When making bolognese sauce, 'fry' the onions in a little of the juice from a can of tomatoes, before adding the meat and then the remaining tomatoes.

Look out for low-fat alternatives such as low-fat evaporated and condensed milks, and a low-fat coconut milk. But always check the label. Low cholesterol doesn't always mean low fat - just low in saturatated fats. Processed foods tend to be higher in fats.

Use oil that comes in a spray-can, for a light film of this could be adequate (esp if using a non-stick pan) and will save many tablespoons of cooking oil that might normally be used over a period of time. If shallow frying, the hotter the oil the less the food will absorb, and the food should always be drained on kitchen paper to absorb the surface oil.
Steaming is an excellent way to cook food (fish, vegetables etc) as this keeps in all the natural flavours, and as some important vitamins are water-soluble, steaming also helps to retain these.

For extra flavour add herbs, spices and citrus juices to meat, fish and chicken, and wrap in a parcel of foil if wishing to oven-cook. They then 'steam' in their own juices.
If wishing to open-cook, place the meat on a trivet standing in a roasting tin so that all the fat drips below and can be poured away.
Grilling and the barbecue are also an excellent way to get the flavour of 'roasting' but losing most of the fat, as this again drips through the bars.

If not needing to cut out fat entirely (and we do need to eat a small amount) we can at least cut down and still serve a dish in the 'normal' way. Here are a few recipes that may help...

Low Fat Cheese Sauce: use for lasagne, cauliflower cheese...
1 oz (25g) cornflour
16 fl.oz (450ml) skimmed milk
4 oz (100g) reduced fat cheese
Blend a little of the milk into the cornflour to form a smooth paste (this is called 'slaking'), then gently heat the milk and when hot, but not boiling, stir in the slaked cornflour. Keep stirring until the the mixture boils and thickens. Remove from heat, stir in the cheese until melted, then use as required.
Do not over-boil a sauce made with cornflour as after about 20 minutes or so it tends to go thin again.
Note: adjust the thickness of the sauce by using more (or less) cornflour, and more (or less) milk.

Roasted Red Pepper Sauce: pizzas, pasta, chicken etc...
2 red bell peppers
1 dessp olive oil
1 red onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 x 425g (14oz) can chopped tomatoes
1 oz (25g) each chopped fresh parsley and basil leaves
1 tblsp tomato puree
2 tsp caster sugar
12 fl.oz (375ml) water
salt and pepper
Cut the peppers into quarters, remove membrane, stalk and seeds, and cook under a grill, skin-side up, until the skins are charred and blackened. Place immediately into a plastic bag, twist the end shut and leave to 10 minutes, by which time they will have cooled and the skin able to be easily peeled off and discarded, then roughly chop the peppers and set aside.
Heat the oil in a pan and cook the onions for 2 minutes until beginning to soften, then stir in the garlic and cookj for a further minute. Add the tomatoes, herbs, tomato paste, sugar and water. Stir to mix, then add the prepared peppers. and simmer, uncovered, over a very low heat for up to an hour, or until thickened.
Cool slightly then blitz (in batches) in a blender or food processor. Season to taste.
note: if wishing to use for a pizza, it may not be necessary to blitz if you want a chunky tomato sauce to spread over the base, but cook it down until really thick.

When if comes to reducing fat, most of us avoid baking cakes, but these Brownies are lower in (saturated) fats, and for those who wish to cut down but not cut out, these at least can be eaten without too much of a guilt feeling.
Fudge Brownies: makes 18
2 oz (50g) plain flour
2 oz (50g) self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 oz (75g) cocoa powder
2 eggs
10 oz (3oog) caster sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tblsp vegetable oil
7 oz (200g) low-fat fromage frais
4 oz (100g) apple puree
icing sugar
Sift together the flours, bicarb, and cocoa together. In another bowl put the eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, oil, fromage frais, and apple puree and mix well. Add to the flour and stir until well combined.
Spread mixture into a lightly greased and lined shallow baking tin (12" x 8"/30 x 20cm), smoothing the surface, then bake at 180c, 350F, gas 4 for about half an hour or until a skewer pushed into the centre comes out clean.
Leave to cool in the tin for five minutes (it will sink slightly in the centre so not your fault), then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Dust with icing sugar then cut into pieces to serve.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Masterclass - Pancakes/Crepe Suzettes

It may seem strange to suggest that pancakes need a Masterclass, but they are one of the few ‘easy’ dishes that need a few hints and tips to make them successfully. Perhaps because we remember them being traditionally and freshly made on Pancake Day, with a fair number to feed the first one is eaten before the next is ready – and like baby birds in a nest, all waiting to be fed but only one at a time - Mum can be feverishly making pancakes until every plate has eventually received three, Making them only once a year can seem once too often.

Ignoring the fact that it is traditional to toss pancakes over rather than flip them with a palette knife, because half the time they end up on the floor, the first pancake always seems to stick to the pan, sometimes even the second. Flip them if you wish, but that choice I leave to you.
It is easy enough to make the batter, and not too difficult to cook the thicker pancakes, but when it comes to the really thin ‘crepes’ as they are called, then what can be an extremely cheap ‘pud’ anyway can turn into a spectacular dinner party dessert.
Not only that, the pancakes – once made – keep for several days in the fridge, and freeze extremely well and can be used for both sweet and savoury dishes, either rolled or parcelled around fruit fillings to be heated through and served with a sweet sauce, cream or custard, and can even be wrapped parcel-fashion around firm cubes of ice-cream and quickly deep (or shallow) fried,
Pancakes can also be rolled or wrapped around savoury fillings, placed in a shallow casserole and covered with a tomato or béchamel sauce topped with cheese to be cooked in the same way as a similar pasta dish. Or they can be ‘stacked’ with assorted savoury fillings between them and a cheese sauce poured over before being heated through. Throughout this blog are many recipes using pancakes – all will eventually appear in the recenet ‘collection’ (March 2009),.
As a very economical ‘food’ which also has a good degree of nourishment (eggs, milk, flour), it is worth learning how to cook a decent pancake and move on from there.

The Perfect Pancake.
Although pancakes seem simple enough, they can sometimes be fiddly to make and there are many ‘tricks of the trade’ to perfect the cooking.
It is always work spending an hour making a large batch of pancakes, as – when interleaved with greaseproof paper and bagged up – they freeze very well and a few can be taken out and used as required for both sweet and savoury dishes. They also thaw out quite rapidly. If you have no freezer, a batch of pancakes (again interleaved) and bagged up will sit quite happily in the fridge for up to a week.

To make the pancake we start with the batter. This can be used immediately after making or it can be left to stand in the fridge. If left to stand the flour tends to thicken so a more milk may be needed to thin it down slightly.

Most pancake recipes use the same ingredients, although some differ slightly with the amounts. A good one to use is the following:
PANCAKE BATTER: makes 8- 12
4 oz (100g) plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
1 egg yolk
half pint (300ml) milk
1 tblsp butter
Sift the flour and the salt into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Beat together the whole egg and the egg yolk with a third of the milk and pour this into the well. Using a wooden spoon slowly mix in the flour, drawing it into the liquid from the sides until you have made a smooth paste. Gradually add the remaining milk until you have a batter the consistency of single cream.

With the batter now made, and when ready to cook the pancakes, first heat up a medium sized non-stick DRY frying pan over medium heat for at least 5 minutes – this really heats the pan through and this can often prevent the first pancake sticking to the pan (as so often happens) , the heavier the pan the longer it will take to heat.
If pancakes are intended to made several times a year, it is worth investing in a proper ‘pancake pan’. Put in the butter, swirl it round the pan until melted (but do not allow it to brown), then pour the melted butter into the pancake batter (stirring as you go so that it doesn’t ‘cook’ the batter as it touches), this also helps to prevent the pancake sticking to the pan. There need only be a film of butter left covering the base of the pan as the pancake is more cooked than fried.. If the pan is bare metal (not non-stick) it is useful to have a little more melted butter in a dish by the pan to dip kitchen paper into and wipe the pan between pancakes.

Pancakes do not always need to be the same thickness. Really thin pancakes are called ‘crepes’ and used mainly for dessert dishes, slightly thicker pancakes can be used for savoury dishes, so when cooking a batch to freeze, start by making the thicker pancakes as these are easier to handle while the pan settles itself (there is no other term for this – it always seems the more pancakes made the easier it gets to cook and turn them).
The recipe for the basic pancake batter is given below, and start by making a thickish pancake. Lift the pan slightly up at the handle end, then tip in 4 tblsp of batter (equivalent to one small ladleful) and swirl it down and around the pan, if this appears too much (depending upon size of pan used) tip the surplus back into the batter and use less for the next. To cook ‘crepes’ no more than 2 tblsp of batter should be used.
Obviously we cannot put the amount in spoon by spoon as the first lot will start cooking before the second hits the pan, so judge the amount (practice pouring the amount into a small jug/cup and decant into and pour from this. With practice it is easy to estimate the right amount, and make the batter in a large jug and pour from this.

Cook over medium heat for 1 minute or until the underside is golden, Using a palette knife or fish slice flip the pancake over, them cook for a further 20 seconds. Turn out onto a plate and serve immediately, whilst still hot – traditionally eaten with a sprinkling of sugar and a squeeze of lemon.
If intending to make a lot of pancakes, lay sheets of greaseproof or parchement paper on a counter top or table and slide each cooked pancake onto the paper, side by side, and when cold cut the paper between the pancakes and lay one (including its paper) on top of another, finishing with paper. Bag up and keep in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze.
When using, one side of the pancake will appear browner than the other. When folding/rolling pancakes, they look more attractive with the best side facing up. Not essential of course, but good presentation always helps..

For some reason the upmarket Crepe Suzettes are believed difficult to make, but they are just thin pancakes heated through in an orange sauce. Try and make the pancakes as thin as possible, and – when using less batter - if it seems too thick to cover the whole base of the pan before it begins to ‘set’cooks before beat in add a very little more milk to the batter to thin it down slightly. It has to be said trial and error is the only way to perfect this, but a good tip when cooking a goodly number of pancakes to freeze, is to make the thicker pancakes first and then very slightly thin down the batter in the bowl, carry on frying and see how the pancakes turn out. You could end up with several different degrees of thickness throughout the batch and all these can be used for various dishes.
Looking at it purely economically, thinning down the batter means we end up with more pancakes (sorry ‘crepes’ – and it is not often that something ‘better-class’ works out cheaper!). However, during the learning curve, thicker pancakes are easier to handle and control, and even if it doesn’t go quite right first time, serve them anyway and they taste just as good with sugar and lemon juice. Practice makes perfect.

To make Crepe Suzettes to feed four you need at least one pancake each (Beloved requests three) and an orange sauce. One advantage of this dish is that the pancakes do not need to be perfectly round, as even raggedy ones will look fine once folded.
Two recipes are given to make this dish, the first being made in the microwave.
Quick Suzettes: serves 4
4 ready-made pancakes
4 oz (100g) caster sugar
juice of 2 large oranges
zest of 1 orange
small knob of butter
crème fraiche (opt)
Put the sugar into a microwaveable bowl and stir in 3 tblsp of orange juice to dampen it down. Microwave on High for 3 – 4 minutes until it turns into a bubbling caramel. Remove from the microwave – taking care to hold the bowl with a cloth as it will be extremely hot) – then add the rest of the orange juice, the orange zest and the butter. Return to the microwave, cook on High again for 1 minutes, stir, then cook for a further minute until the caramel has dissolved into a syrup. Remove from oven and set aside.
Heat the pancakes in the microwave for one minute, or until heated through (if buying bought pancakes – heaven forbid – the heating instructions will be on the pack). Serve each folded into quarters with the sauce poured over. A dollop of crème fraiche on the side adds to the dish.

With most recipes the sauce is first made in the pan and then comes the variations. One will suggest laying a pancake in the sauce, allowing it to heat through, then folding in half and half again to make a triangle (they are all eventually folded this way), then pushing it to one side, and placing another flat pancake in the sauce and repeating until all are folded and heated. Another suggests folding the pancakes first and then placing all into the pan with the sauce, or even pouring the sauce over and reheating. It is really a matter of choice and whether you prefer to make as much as you can in advance, or make the sauce on the spot.

To avoid complicating matters, just use ordinary very thin pancakes for this dish, then make the sauce and follow directions (or watch the video), but once you have mastered the process, and wish to serve the dish again, add the zest of an orange to the batter before making the crepes and keep them for this dish.

Orange sauce for Crepes Suzettes:
5 fl oz (150ml) fresh orange juice
zest of 1 orange
1 tblsp caster sugar
2 tblsp Cointreau or Brandy
2 oz (50g) butter
Put the butter into a frying pan(large enough to hold four folded pancakes) and heat gently until melted, then add the rest of the ingredients. Cook until the sugar has dissolved and the sauce thickened slightly to a syrupy consistency
Heat the pancakes in this syrup (either starting them off flat or folded according to your choice), then moving the pan away from the heat pour in a small ladleful of the chosen spirit and either set fire to it with a taper, or tilt the pan over a gas flame so that the vapour ignites, but take care to keep your head away from the pan or your eyebrows/fringe may go up in smoke.
Serve immediately the flames have subsided.

Home-made Orange Liqueur:
1 large orange
2 oz (50g) caster sugar
half pint (300ml) brandy
Using a zester, remove a thin layer of peel from around the orange, or – if using a knife – make sure all the pith has been removed from the peel before using, then slice the peel into fine shreds. Place into a jar with the sugar, and all the juice from the orange. Pour over the brandy, Seal with a tight-fitting lid and give a good shake, then store in a dark cupboard. Every few days give the bottle another shake to help dissolve the sugar.
Leave for a couple of months before using to allow the favours to develop. The ‘liqueur’ can be strained and re-bottled if you wish. Or leave the shreds in the jar. Either way don’t discard the shreds (they could be frozen) as they give a luxury taste when used as a topping for ice-cream, added to a fruit salad, and even included in a beef casserole. They can also be sprinkled over the Crepe Suzettes in the pan before being served.

(Lemon 'Brandy' can be made in the same way - using lemons instead of oranges - and allegedly the secret ingredient used in the traditional recipe for Bakewell Pudding).

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Stapling it Together

Today have chosen LAMB as the ingredient of the day as this is traditionally eaten at Easter. Although some of the recipes below use raw minced lamb, mince made from cooked lamb (leftovers) could be used instead, but would take less cooking time. With my cost-cutting to the fore as per usual, the dishes below are fairly cheap to make.

The first recipe is really two, one part makes the lamburgers (these can be cooked for longer as-is and eaten as any burger would be), in the second part they cook on nestled in the custard, allowing the lamb juices to seep into this to give added flavour. .
Baked Lamburgers with Yogurt: serves 4
1 lb (450g) minced lamb
salt and pepper
half tsp paprika
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 onion, finely chopped
3 oz (75g) lard
1 tblsp finely chopped mint
1 bread roll, soaked in water and squeezed
4 eggs, beaten
12 fl oz (350ml) yogurt
1 extra tsp paprika
Season the meat generously with the salt, pepper and paprika and set aside. Put a little of the lard into a frying pan and fry until softened, then stir in the garlic and fry for one minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and allow to cool, then mix into the meat with the mint and the bread. When thoroughly combined, divide into 8 equal portions and roll each into a burger shape.
Melt the remaining lard in the frying pan and when sizzling, place in the burgers. Cook over medium to high heat for about 3 minute on each side. They should be well browned on the outside, but still pink in the centre. Remove from the pan and arrange in a shallow baking dish.
Whisk the eggs and yogurt together, season to taste and stir in a spoonful of the fat from the pan. Pour this over the burgers. Blend another spoonful of fat with a teaspoon of paprika and sprinkle this on top. Bake at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for 1 hour or until the top is lightly browned. Serve immediately.

This next dish originated in Baghdad, and an interesting way to cook minced lamb with burghul wheat. As this wheat needs to be fairly finely ground, the coarser burghul can be whizzed in a blender or food processor to grind it down slightly.
Wheat 'n Meat: serves 4
1 lb (450g) lean minced lamb
7 oz (200g) burghul wheat, finest grind
20 fl oz ( 0.75 litre) cold water
1 onion, chopped
4 tblsp olive oil
salt and pepper
ground turmeric
3 oz (75g) pine nuts
2 oz (50g) raisins (opt)
2 0z (50g) butter, melted
extra butter
Put the burghul into a bowl and pour over the water. Leave to soak for at least one hour.
Using a large frying pan, gently fry the onion in half the oil. Add a pinch of turmeric and a grind of pepper and stir occasionally until the onion is golden. Add 12 oz (350g) of the meat, stir and cook over medium heat, until all the liquid has gone and the meat cooked through, then add the pine nuts, raisins, and salt to taste. Mix well then remove from heat and leave to stand.
Drain the soaked burghul and, taking a handful at a time, squeeze dry. Put into a large bowl and add the remaining meat, adding seasoning, and mix well. Add the melted butter and (if necessary some cold water)to make a soft dough.
Generously grease an 11" x 7" (27 x 17cm) ovenproof dish. Put half the dough into the dish, flattening it to cover the base of the dish. Spread the cooked meat over this, then spoon the remaining dough on top and level it with a knife. Score the top in both directions to make 2" (5cm) squares, placing a dab of butter on each.
Tent lightly with foil then bake at 200C, 400F, gas 6 for 40 minutes, then remove foil and continue baking for a further 15 - 20 minutes basting if necessary with a little melted butter and water to keep the inside moist. The top should be crisp. Serve hot with a crisp green salad.

It is the gravy in this next dish that is 'interesting', for not only does it turn left-0ver cooked mutton (or lamb) into something very palatable, it also makes use of a kidney, or piece of liver we may have in the freezer and never got around to using. Being me, once the gravy has been made, the kidney and liver (also carrots and onions) would then be added to other cooked vegetables and end up in a pie. Two for the price of one. Browning the flour gives a good colour to the gravy, and worth browning extra flour at the same time to store in an airtight container to use at a later date. If you don't wish to bother doing this, then a dash of gravy browning, or beef stock cube could be used to deepen the colour of the gravy.
Venison-style Mutton Hash: serves 4
1 lb (450g) cooked mutton or lamb
salt and (pref white) pepper
1 tblsp plain flour
mutton bones and trimmings
half pint (300ml) water
1 lamb's kidney, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 oz (50g) lamb's liver, chopped
1 tblsp redcurrant jelly
4 - 4 tblsp ruby port
Slice the cooked meat to 1/3" (8mm) thick, removing any fat. Brown the flour in a 200C /400F/gas 6 oven for five minutes. Add salt and pepper (to taste) to season the flour then dip the slices of meat into this, then place in a flame-proof dish or deepish frying pan.
Put the bones, trimmings into a saucepan with the kidney, shallot, carrot and liver, simmer - uncovered - for 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve and pour the gravy over the meat. Cover, and cook on the hob, barely simmering, for a good hour. Stir in the redcurrant jelly and then the port, and serve immediately.

Breast of lamb is not the most inspiring of meats, and to make it interesting we need to add plenty of flavourings. This recipe certainly pulls out all the stops. My mouth is already watering as I begin to read through the ingredients.
Lamb Breast with Chocolate: serves 4
1 breast of lamb
knob of lard
3 small onions
2 oz (50g) dried mushrooms
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch dried thyme
pinch dried oregano
1 bay leaf
5 fl oz (150ml) white wine
5 fl oz (150ml) water
2 oz (50g) coarsely ground almonds or hazelnuts
1 clove garlic, chopped
3 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
3 oz (75g) quality dark chocolate, grated
1 tblsp tomato puree
approx 1 pint (600ml) stock or water
Firstly, cover the dried mushrooms with water and leave to soak for 20 minutes, then drain and chop.
Put the ribs (lamb breast) under a hot grill and cook for 5 minutes or until the fat begins to flow, then place the breast in a deep pan (you may need to cut the ribs into two, and a deep frying pan might be the best choice) with the lard, onions, chopped mushrooms, the cinnamon and herbs. Cover and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes, the stir in the wine, nuts, garlic, parsley, chocolate, tomato puree and enough stock or water to cover the meat. Cover and simmer for about an hour and a half or until the meat is very tender and the liquid reduced to a thick sauce.

The final recipe am including as the other day there was a request for recipes using chickpeas, and this Middle Eastern dish is a cross between a Lamb Couscous and a Tagine. Serving as many people as it does, it uses remarkably little meat, so a dish cheap to make, but wealthy in flavour.
Spicy Lamb with Chickpeas and More: serves 6
8 oz (225g) lamb, cubed
3 oz (75g) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight OR...
approx 8 oz (225g) cooked chickpeas
3 tblsp olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
1 small aubergine, finely sliced
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground allspice
1 cinnamon stick, broken into two
5 fl oz (150ml) red wine
1 x 400g (14 oz) can chopped tomatoes
8 oz (225ml) rich vegetable or lamb stock
4 oz (100g) dried no-soak apricots
4 oz (100g) couscous (more if you wish)
3 oz (75g) flaked almonds or pistachio nuts
chopped fresh parsley
If cooking the chickpeas, drain after soaking, put in a pan with plenty of fresh water, cover and simmer for 30 - 40 minutes or until tender. Drain and set aside. If using canned chickpeas, drain and rinse and drain again.
Fry the lamb in the oil until browned on all sides, then remove from the pan using a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the onion and aubergine to the pan and cook over high heat until golden, adding more oil if necessary. Stir in the spices and reduce heat to low. Cook for a further 2 minutes then return the lamb to the pan and add the wine. Bring to the boil, and simmer until the liquid has reduced right down. Keep scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to prevent the food sticking.
Stir in the tomatoes, stock, apricots and seasoning to taste, then add the drained chickpeas, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
After the above has been simmering for 15 minutes, put the couscous into a bowl and pour over boiling water to a couple of fingers above the surface, cover and leave to stand for 15 minutes. By this time all the water should have been absorbed, if not press through a sieveto extract as much as possible. Put the couscous into a warm bowl and sprinkle over a little olive oil, seasoning to taste, and add half the parsley. Fluff up with a fork, place in a shallow serving dish and top with the lamb 'stew'. Sprinkle over the remaining parsley.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Food for The Freezer

The great advantage is being able to cook for the freezer is the cooking can be done at a convenient time, when we feel more inclined to do so, when prices are low enough to take advantage of a bulk buy, and nothing else is tugging for our attention.

The recipes given today eat well together (choosing either of the main courses), and the first helps with one of the queries raised in a recent comment, such as using vacuum packed beetroot, although ordinary cooked beetroot can be used instead.
Beetroot Soup: serves 4 (F)
1 lb (450g) cooked beetroot, diced
12 oz (350g) potatoes, peeled and diced
1 oz (25g) butter
1 onion, chopped
2 pints (1.5 litres) chicken stock
salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a large pan and add the onion and potato. Fry gently for four minutes, then add the beetroot and fry for a couple more minutes before adding the stock and seasoning to taste. Bring to the boil then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes or until the vegetables are very tender. Rub through a sieve or blitz to a puree in a blender.
To freeze: pour into a rigid container, cool, cover, label and freeze.
To serve: thaw overnight in the fridge, then pour into a saucepan and heat gently. Taste and add more seasoning if required. Serve piping hot, with a swirl of thick cream or creme fraiche dolloped in the centre (optional).

This next is a main dish that makes use of the cheaper chicken joints, and when it comes to the bacon, suggest buying one of those packs of bacon pieces/offcuts as the recipe chops up the bacon anyway. As regards using wine, use any red wine you have (you may already have some frozen away in cubes) and dilute with water if you haven't the full amount. Alternatively, if no wine available when cooking for the freezer, but the plan is to open a bottle when serving the dish, then use a couple more fluid oz. of stock and add the wine when reheating the dish. As it takes almost as long to re-heat as it does to cook, it hardly saves on the fuel but if there are raw chicken joints in the freezer (once thawed then cooked thoroughly it is safe to refreeze them) they could be used to make a bulk amount of this dish which could then be divided up into family or portion sizes before being frozen.
Country Chicken: serves 4 (F)
8 chicken joints, skin removed
1 oz (25g) butter
4 oz (100g) smoked streaky bacon, diced
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 oz (25g) flour
5 fl oz (150ml) red wine
5 fl oz (150ml) chicken stock
half teaspoonful dried thyme
salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a frying pan and fry the chicken until browned, then place into a casserole. Add the bacon to the fat in the frying pan and fry the onion until softened, then stir in the garlic. Fry for a further minute then stir in the flour. Stir/fry for 2 minutes to cook the flour then add the wine, stock and thyme. Add seasoning to taste. Bring to the boil and pour over the chicken.
Cover and cook at 160C, 325F, gas 3 for one hour - or until the chicken is tender. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Set aside to cool.
To freeze: put contents of casserole into a rigid container, cover, label and freeze.
To serve: thaw overnight in the fridge, replace into the (clean) casserole, cover and reheat at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for 45 -50 minutes.

Although only one type of fish is used in this next recipe, a mixture of white fish, salmon and smoked haddock (as sold as 'fish pie mix') could be used instead. Make it family size in one dish, or make individual servings using smaller dishes. Use less peas and add some sweetcorn if you want to ring the changes.
Fisherman's Pie: serves 4 (F)
1 lb (450g) cod or chosen fish (see above)
8 oz (225g) frozen peas, thawed
16 fl oz (450ml) milk
2 oz (50g) butter
2 oz (50g) plain flour
2 - 3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
2 tblsp mayonnaise
salt and pepper
1 1/2 lbs cooked potatoes, mashed with butter and cream
Remove skin from the fish and put in a pan with the milk. Bring to the boil, cover and reduce heat to a simmer and poach for up to 10 minutes or until the fish can be flaked with a fork (if using smaller fish pieces, this will probably take only 5 minutes). Using a slotted spoon, remove fish from the milk and pour the milk into a jug. Set both to one side.
Rinse out the saucepan and then put in the butter over a low heat to melt, then add the flour and stir for 2 minutes, then gradually add the reserved milk, whisking to remove any lumps. When it comes to the boil and has begun to thicken , boil for 1 minute then turn out the heat. Flake the fish, removing any bones, and add the fish to the white sauce together with the peas, eggs, mayo and seasoning to taste.
Sp0on/turn into a 3 pint (1.75 litres) foil dish and leave to cool, then spread or pipe a border of mashed potato over the contents.
To freeze: cover, label and freeze.
To serve: thaw overnight in the fridge, then remove lid and reheat at 200C, 400F, gas 6 for 40 - 45 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with sprigs of parsley.

Final freezer recipe today is a dessert that would eat very well with many main courses. There are more complicated versions of this, but why make things more difficult?
Easy Lemon Mousse: serves 4
4 eggs, separated
4 oz (100g) caster sugar
zest and juice from 2 large lemons
half ounce (12g) gelatine
3 tblsp cold water
Put the egg yolks into a bowl with the sugar and beat until thick and creamy, then add the lemon zest and juice. Put the gelatine in a small bowl or teacup with the water and leave to stand for 3 - 5 minutes until it has turned 'spongey', then stand the bowl/cup in a pan of simmering water until the gelatine has dissolved completely. Cool slightly then stir into the creamed egg/sugar mixture. Leave to stand for a few minutes until JUST beginning to set, then whisk the whites until stiff and fold into the lemon mixture. Put into a 2 pint (1.25 ltr) glass dish or other freezer-proof container.
To freeze: cover with foil, label and freeze.
To serve: remove foil and thaw overnight in the fridge, or for 4 hours at room temperature.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Pasta to Please Masterclass

Pasta to Please Masterclass. From the economical side of the fence we could use almost any pasta even when a particular one is called for, although certain shapes hold sauces better than others. However, some pastas look so attractive that they are worth using. Even when it comes to the sauces we can cut a few pennies from the corners, but for a proper Masterclass, we climb over the fence up to the top of the ladder (am I mixing metaphors here?), and once we have learned 'the right way' to make/cook things properly, and are given hints and tips on how to do so, then we can begin to unravel some of it and weave our own cost-cutting magic.

There is a huge variety of different shapes and names (even colours) of pasta, and if we wish to cook pasta dishes as they should be cooked then the first tip is to use long thin pasta such as spaghetti or tagliatelle with seafood and tomato or egg sauces, and use the heavier stubby pasta (macaroni, penne, and 'curvy shapes') with a heavier, meaty sauce as this will then be able to be trapped in the folds. But even this is not set in stone.

My personal choice (basic and economical level) is to use quick-cook pasta, for not only is it inexpensive, it also saves fuel time when cooking. However the more costly pastas do have better texture and flavour, and for a few pennies more it is worth buying the best, when the best is needed. For keen cooks, home-made pasta is the very best, and also economical, and as it cooks within a very few minutes when freshly made it makes both economic and 'cheffy' sense to make our own.

to cook pasta:
Pasta should always be cooked by adding to a pan holding plenty of fast boiling water. Once the water boils add salt as this will bring out the flavour of the pasta (try with and without salt and you can really taste the difference) and also helps to raise the boiling point (temperature) slightly. Using a large amount of boiling water prevents the pasta from sticking together and will return to the boil more quickly once the pasta has been added. Some people like at add a little oil to the pan before putting in the pasta, but this is not really necessary as it end up floating on the top anyway. The recommended amount of water to use is 2 pints (1 - 1/2 litres) of water and 2 tsp salt for each 4 oz (100g) of pasta. An average serving of (uncooked) pasta per person would be 2 oz (50g) for a first course, and 3 - 4 oz (75 -100g) for a main course.

Add the pasta to the water when it has come to a rapid boil and after the salt has been added, then stir for a few seconds to prevent it sticking. When cooking long thin pasta such as spaghetti, you have to hold it in one hand and slowly ease it down into the pan until the bottom of the strands soften enough for you to curl it round enough to push the rest down into the pan using a wooden spoon. Stir gently, and cook at a fast boil, reducing the heat if there is a tendency for the water to boil over.

All packet pasta will give the cooking time on the pack, but if decanting dried pasta into jars, either cut out the cooking direction and stick them to the jar, or write them in a book, OR remember that the thin, long pasta takes between 5 - 10 minutes to cook, while the more shapely ones can take as long as 15 - 20 minutes.
Ideally the pasta should be 'al dente' (firm to the bite) when ready to eat, so always test five minutes before the end of the suggested cooking time by removing a piece and biting through it. Overcooked pasta becomes too soft and mushy. Quick-cook pasta requires care as it easily gets 'soggy'. Home-made egg pasta is cooked exactly as above (salted boiling water) but cooks in only 2 - 3 minutes.
Note: pasta that is going to be added to dishes that will be then be backed should be undercooked by 3 - 5 minutes, to the stage where it has begun to soften but the centre 'core' is still hard. It will continue to cook in the oven.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain immediately in a colander, shaking to remove most of the water - very necessary when 'curly' shapes are used as they hold water in their folds. Put back in the pan and immediately add a knob of butter and toss - this is extremely important, because without the butter (or you could addd a slup of olive oil) the pasta will stick together.

home-made pasta:
a few recipes have already been posted for making this, and these may vary. This is using a classic recipe, but depending upon the cook, the flour may differ (using plainwhite flour, brown flour, 00grade flour - and stong flour - but I've made good pasta using ordinary plain flour) but the proportion of flour to egg always remains the same: 4oz (100g) flour to each medium to large egg . Another way of working this out is use twice the weight of flour to the weight of the eggs used.

To make pasta the Masterclass way, clear a large work surface so there is room to spread out the pasta, allowing it to dry slightly between rollings.
Traditionally the flour is placed in a heap on the table, a pinch of salt scattered over, a well made in the middle and into this is broken the eggs, then slowly, using the fingers, work the flour into the eggs until a dough has been formed. Today we tend to prefer a less messy way of cooking, so the pasta can be made by putting the flour, salt and eggs into a bowl, then mix together first with a fork, then with the hands until it just holds together. Although slightly sticky, the dough should not be too moist - if so add a little more flour. If you have no pasta machine, keep kneading the dough until very smooth and all stickiness has gone - this may take a few minutes - then put into a poly bag and leave to stand for half an hour before rolling out as thinly as possible using a rolling pin.

Ideally, use a pasta machine as this does the kneading for you while rolling. Take a lump of in-kneaded dough about the size of a lemon and feed it through the rollers starting with the widest opening, then when rolled through, fold in half (end to end) and feed through at the same setting several times, sprinkling a little flour on the pasta (or rollers) if it begins to stick. Once the dough is smooth and a rectangular shape, lay out flat on a floured cloth and repeat with remaining lumps of dough.
Once these have been done, reset the rollers to a narrower setting and run each strip of dough through these, just the once, starting with the first, and keeping in order so they all dry out evenly. When all rolled out, reset to an even narrower setting and repeat. Eventually all should have been rolled out (in order) as many times as there are roller settings, or to the thickeness you want, each strip becoming longer and longer (for easier handling they can be cut in half).
When at the desired thickness, they can be cut into chosen shapes. Wide strips for lasagna, or fed through the cutters on the machine to make noodles (or the pasta can be floured and rolled up into a sausage and cut into strips with a knife. Leave the noodles to dry out a bit (best done by hanging over a stick, chairback, even a wooden clothes horse).
If using the pasta for lasagna, cannelloni, or ravioli etc, use immediately (or cover with cling film to prevent drying out), with noodles these can be made in advance and laid on a tray covered by greaseproof paper. They can also be frozen - first loose on trays then when solid, packed together in a container (taking care not to break them).

colouring pasta:
As well as the white pasta, there are green, red and black versions. The black uses squid/octopus ink I believe, so lets not go there today. The red uses beetroot juice, and more flour is needed to absorb the extra liquid. Green pasta is make using cooked, very finely chopped spinach - squeezed as dry as possible - to the eggs and flour (working on 2 oz (50g) spinach to 3 eggs and approx 11 oz flour).

pasta sauces:
There are several sauces that go well with pasta, from the Bolognese meat sauce, to the creamy egg sauce with Carbonara, and in Italy they prefer more pasta and less sauce with their dishes than we do and although their recipes suggest 1 pint (600ml) sauce for each 1 lb (450g) pasta (to serve 4 - 5 as a main course), we may prefer to use more.
Note: the correct way to serve pasta with a sauce is add the pasta to the sauce and mix gently together NOT putting a pile of pasta on a plate with the sauce dolloped on top (as we still tend to serve it in this country).
Four traditional sauce recipes are given today, and all - except the Bechamel - can be made in advance and kept chilled for 2 - 3 day, or frozen.

traditional Bolognese sauce: makes 1 pint (F)
1 tblsp light olive oil
1 oz (25g) butter
2 oz (50g) unsmoked streaky bacon, diced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
8 oz (225g) quality minced steak
2 oz (50g) chicken livers, chopped OR lean minced pork
5 fl oz (150ml) wine, red or white
8 fl. oz (225ml) stock
2 tblsp tomato puree
1 small bay leaf
pinch dried oregano/marjoram
few parsley stalks
pinch grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
Heat the oil and butter in a large pan and fry the bacon gently until it begins to brown. Add the vegetables and stir together, then cook for a few minutes until they are beginning to colour. Next break up the beef with the fingers (this prevents it sticking together in clumps, and some Italian chefs like to work a little olive oil through the beef before cooking to prevent this happening), add the beef to the pan and when lightly browned stir in the chicken livers. When these have begun to colour, add the wine, turn up the heat and boil fairly rapidly until most of the liquid has evaporated (the flavour remains). The add the stock, tomato puree, and herbs. Place on lid and cook over a very low heat (barely simmer) for at least one hour. Check now and again and if becoming too dry add a little water. When cooked, add the nutmeg and a little salt to taste, and as much pepper as you think it needs. Remove the bay leaf and parsley before serving (or freezing).

This next recipe is the way to make the pesto sauce that we often buy ready-made in bottles. Traditionally made in using a pestle and mortar, it is so easily made using a blender that this is the way suggested. This sauce freezes very well if the butter and cheese is omitted, to be added when thawed. It will also keep for weeks in the fridge in an air-tight container/jar. Grow the basil on your windowsill, pinch out the longer stemps, put these in water until rooted, then pot them up and you will have more than enough basil to make this sauce.
pesto alla Genovese: for up to 1 1/2lb (675g) of pasta (F)
2 oz (50g) fresh basil leaves (without thick stalks)
4 fl oz (110ml) olive oil
3 oz (75g) pine nuts OR walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
pinch of salt
2 oz (50g) butter, softened
3 oz (75g) Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Put the basil, oil, nuts, garlic and salt in a blender, and blitz to a puree (it can be frozen at this stage). Transfer to a bowl and mix in the butter and cheese. To make a pouring sauce, add up to 7 tblsp of the water the pasta has been cooked in.

A quality - preferably home-made - tomato sauce goes so well with pasta. Grow plum or beef tomatoes if you wish to get a richly flavoured tom, alternatively use canned plum tomatoes (not the chopped ones) as these have exactly the right taste. Make sure the cans are the correct weight (or nearly) as they come in different sizes. The sugar is necessary to offset the acidity of the tomatoes.
sauce pomodoro: makes 1 pint (600ml) (F)
2 x 397g cans tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 tsp sugar
5 tblsp olive oil
few fresh basil leaves, or pinch dried oregano/marjoram
salt and pepper
Put all the ingredients except the seasoning into a saucepan and simmer over LOW heat for at least an hour. Then spoon into a blender and blitz to a puree. Add seasoning to taste.

Final sauce given today is a classic, and used for many dishes other than pasta. The French version has a stronger flavour and the recipe for this will be given on another day. Today we use the one given below for pasta, and perhaps recognised more as the sauce that is used when baking lasagna, cannelloni, and macaroni cheese. Depending upon the dish, make the sauce as thin or as thick as you wish by using more or less milk.
Italian bechamel sauce: makes 3/4 pint (450ml)
1 pint milk (600ml)
1 small bay leaf OR pinch ground nutmeg
2 oz (50g) butter
2 oz (50g) plain flour
Put the milk into the pan with the bay leaf (if using - but not the nutmeg) and heat to not quite a simmer, but do not bring to the boil. Set to one side whilst melting the butter in another saucepan. When the butter bubbles (do not let it brown) stir in the flour and cook over very low heat for about 3 minutes. It is important not to let the flour discolour, but the cooking time gets rid of any unpleasant 'floury' taste.
Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the hot milk, then return to the heat and stir/whisk until thickened and smooth ( if there is a problem with lumps, pour the sauce through a sieve into the pan, rubbing the lumps through with a wooden spoon). Continue cooking, uncovered, over a very low heat for about 15 minutes, then add the nutmeg (if not already flavoured with the bay leaf).
Pour into a jug, and if not using immediately pour a little melted butter over the surface or cover with a piece of cling film or fitted piece of greaseproof to stop a skin forming. Keep at room temperature, but use the same day.

stuffed pasta:
Stuffed pasta, when made properly, both look and taste wonderful, with a subtle filling and the pasta melting in the mouth.
Easy enough to make the pasta sheets using a machine, but not that difficult when the dough is rolled by hand (after all this was the traditional way for centuries). Green (spinach) pasta is especially good to use as it contains extra moisture and seals itself together well. You can choose any stuffing you wish (that will cook in the time) and vary your sauces. Some stuffed pasta is cooked in boiling water, other (to give added flavour ) are cooked in meat or vegetable stock.
Cook as with 'ordinary' pasta, but reduce the hob temperature from high (rapid boil ) to medium (gentle boil, but above simmer). The cooking time varies with the thickness and dryness of the pasta dish, but takes approx. 10 minutes. Again test for 'al dente' by biting into one piece.

Home-made ravioli is simple to make and truly melts in the mouth. Obviously there are many recipes for different fillings, but this is one of the simplest and eats well with the above Pomodoro sauce. The amount of pasta needed for this dish is one made with two eggs (therefore with 4 oz flour).
Ravioli stuffed with cheese: serves 6 as a first course
8 oz (225g) ricotta or curd cheese
1 egg yolk
2 oz (50g) grated Parmesan cheese
2 - 3 tblsp very finely chopped fresh parsley
pinch ground nutmeg
white or green pasta (made with 2 eggs)
half pint Pomodoro sauce (recipe above)
Put all ingredients - except the pasta and sauce - into a bowl and mix well. Check the flavour before adding salt as some cheese are saltier than others.
Roll the pasta sheets as thinly as possible, but not so thin they easily tear when stuffed (chefs usually use the last but one setting on the pasta machine when making pasta for ravioli). Keep any unworked dough covered to prevent drying out.
Take strips of the pasta - approx 3" (8cm) wide and place small teaspoons of the stuffing along the strip at 1 1/2" (4cm) intervals in a line, about the same distance from the edge. Dampen along the front edge and betwen the stuffing and fold the opposite edge of the pastry over. Press between the stuffing and along the cut edge to seal the pasta together, then cut with a pastry wheel (or knife) between each lump to make small 'packets'. If you wish to make quite a number, roll out two large sheets of pasta, one slightly larger than the other, then dot the filling evenly spaced and in lines over the smaller sheet, dampen between and around the edges as above, then lay the second (larger sheet) over the top, pressing down between each lump to seal. Once cut, if the packs have not sealed too well, dampen with water and press together with a fork.
Put the raviol onto a floured cloth to dry out for for one hour, then turn and leave to dry for at least a further 30 minutes to allow the underside to dry.
Cook in gently boiling water or stock for about 15-20 minutes, then remove carefully, using a slotted spoon, and serve immediately with the tomato sauce (or other sauce of your choice).

The above is my first Masterclass and hopefully enough info for you to get the measure of pasta and sauces. As to pasta dishes, these are numerous, hope that you will feel armed with enough info now to begin tackling any you come across.

It would be most helpful if you could let me know whether any of the above has been useful, or whether you wish me to 'Masterclass' a dish rather than covering just the 'basics'. When it comes to economics, once we know more about the traditional (basic) methods, almost always it works out cheaper. Believe me, my home-made-pasta cannelloni is still talked about, yet was exceedingly inexpensive to make. It also freezes well, and graced many a dinner table and even requested at buffets. To make my version is more a method than a full blown recipe. Form a cold and very thick Bolog. sauce into thick sausages and roll a strip of home-made pasta (lasagna size - that has previously had two minutes boiling) around the 'filling'. Open freeze, then box up and keep frozen for up to six months. To cook: thaw, pour over Pomodoro sauce (or could be Bechamel topped with cheese), cover and bake at 180C etc. for about 25 minutes or until well heated through. Remove cover halfway through if wishing to add more cheese and brown this off.

If this is the type of Masterclass you wish, then one will be given each week, but not yet sure whether Friday or Saturday. Plenty of time for you to let me know. The more that do let me know the better, for if only three come back saying yes, this could mean a great many more are not interested, and my aim is to please everyone. You note I have mentioned 'Masterclass' in the title, so it can easily be retrieved by searching through archives. The sauce recipes will eventually be added to the ' Pasta collection'.
Looking forward to your replies - so back with you again tomorrow. Have a good weekend.