Blame it on the baby.

Most of the time, what I choose to cook is based on factors like the time of year, what’s in season, what I haven’t eaten in a while and perhaps an idea for something new that I’d like to try.  My wife (N), is usually happy to be the guinea pig and give me some constructive criticism.  We tend to agree on meals for the coming week and then shop for the ingredients we need if we’re super organised.  Other weeks seem to be a blur of what I can throw together with the impulse buys from a previous trip to the supermarket.  It’s not very often that N will make a specific request, but when she does, boy, do I get excited!  I get a real kick out of preparing stuff to order, as it were.  There’s just enough pressure to make me aim for perfection and I find that making food for others feels very different to making it for myself alone.

A couple of nights ago, N happened to say, “Ooh, d’ya know what I could just eat right now?  A nice chocolate mousse!  Not that I want you to make one now.  I’m just thinking aloud.”  It was all I could do to remain in my seat and passively comment, “Hmmm..I’d eat one too.”  The next day, I rushed out to get enough eggs so that I could prepare the mousse while N was out with friends.  Chocolate mousse is very easy to make, but I managed to mess up just about every stage of it and can only blame it on my baby boy, who was curiously watching me drop eggs on the floor, spill yolk into the bowl of egg whites and generally make a silly mess.  I’m happy to say that no adults were present to stifle sniggers as I went from one disaster to the next, though I could have done with someone sensible to assist guide me.

The lavender in my garden has exploded this year and I haven’t used it much in the kitchen yet.  The chocolate mousse was a perfect chance to add some background flavour.  I cut about five or six buds and steeped them for 20 minutes in boiling water in a mortar.  I then used the pestle to grind the buds for a minute before passing the liquid through a fine sieve.  Next, I passed the liquid through a couple of paper kitchen towels and then once more through a single piece of kitchen paper into a white ramekin so that I could make sure the liquid was completely clear.  It sounds like a chore, but I ended up with a good amount of lavender water that I could use to add flavour to food.  The taste is not a dominant one, so if you decide to do the same, don’t expect the flavour to be obvious.

The recipe for dark chocolate and lavender mousse below is a good one, in my humble opinion.  One element falls short of being completely successful though.  The dark chocolate overpowers the lavender and I regret not using milk chocolate instead.  Here, it was my own taste rather than my common sense that determined what should be in the mousse.  Dark chocolate works much better with equally powerful colleagues such as chilli, cinnamon, cardamom, orange or ginger.  Milk chocolate is light enough to take on the flavour of lavender.  The method for making the chocolate mousse is still useful and I hope you get as much pleasure out of the result as N did.  You may wish to substitute the dark chocolate for milk chocolate if you want to really taste the lavender.  Alternatively, you could just leave out the lavender and enjoy a bit of dark indulgence on its own!

Dark chocolate and lavender mousse

175g dark chocolate

4 eggs (separated)

50g caster sugar

5 tblspoons lavender water (optional)

Break up the chocolate and melt it gently in a glass bowl over some hot water.  Melting it too quickly will give you a grainy texture, so patience is the name if the game.  You could melt it while separating the eggs.  Beat the yolks with lavender water and in a separate bowl, whisk the whites until they form soft peaks.  Add the caster sugar to the whites and whisk again for a couple of minutes until incorporated.

Take the chocolate off the heat and stir until there are no lumps left.  Allow it to cool slightly before pouring in the yolks and stirring well.  Add the chocolate mixture to the whites and fold in with a spatula.  After whisking lots of air into the whites, you don’t want to undo your work by stirring.  As the proteins in the egg whites unravel, they link to one another forming tiny structures that we see as air bubbles.  Stirring destroys these bubbles which is what can make your mousse dense and gloopy.  Take your time and you will see the colour of the mixture change gradually as the whites take on the brown chocolate.  Once it is completely brown, pour the mousse into glasses or ramekins and refrigerate for two or three hours.  With this recipe, I was able to fill four small white ramekins to the top.  It works out roughly as one egg per person, but you will need to increase the amount of chocolate too if you plan on making larger quantities.

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A creamy, comforting, cuddle in a bowl.

Has anything good ever come along and then remained unchanged?  I very much doubt it.  All things change, it’s the nature of our universe.  Besides, people always want to have things their way.  Folk have their tastes and preferences.  Pizza is perhaps the worlds’ most popular take away food and comes in so many different forms.  It has changed a great deal since it was first created.  In fact, many of those “pizzas” offend Italians who often have very clear perceptions of what constitutes a genuine pizza.  Gino D’Acampo finds it all a bit perplexing in Buonissimo!  He encourages readers to make a Margherita and add some ingredients to make it more exciting “as long as it’s not pineapple – what is that all about?”

I’ve touched upon this subject before when sharing a recipe for paella.  One has to be very careful about recipe titles because when it comes to food with heritage, it is very easy to incur the wrath of proud and passionate people.  This is no bad thing.  It does mean that food bloggers need to write sensitively about regional food and be clear about what something is, or in many cases, isn’t.

Pasta Carbonara.  It’s a dish that I actively avoid at restaurants.  I’ve eaten gloopy, eggy, garlicky, salty heaps of the stuff and rarely felt like doing anything afterwards except perhaps having my arteries cleaned.  In its simplest form, Carbonara should be silky and smooth and made with little more than egg yolks and a few simple ingredients.  My own version of this dish includes double cream, which for many, will instantly relegate the recipe to the rubbish restaurant examples mentioned earlier.  However, there are no gimmicks in this dish, only good ingredients and simple cooking methods.  My version is by no means traditional or definitive, but neither is it an attempt to insult or distort the original.  I’m not too worried though, since Pasta Carbonara is a 20th Century recipe and less likely to fire up any genuine anger from would-be pasta experts.  In any case, what passes for Carbonara  in my house, is a creamy, comforting, cuddle of pasta and dairy decadence.  It never fails to satisfy.

Creamy, comforting Carbonara

200g dried pasta (I used spaghetti)

200g bacon lardons

75ml double cream

2 eggs

50g parmesan cheese (grated)

2 tblspoons fresh Greek oregano (finely chopped)

50g butter

sea salt

pepper

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I boiled up the pasta as per the packet instructions and then heated a large amount of butter in a separate pan to fry the bacon in.  When the butter had melted, I added the bacon lardons and the oregano.  I fried them until just brown and poured in the cream.  I then took the pan off the heat and stirred everything.  I then ground quite a lot of pepper into the sauce and tipped all of the cheese in before giving it another good stir.

In went the cooked and drained pasta, but I didn’t add any of the pasta water as chefs often make a point of recommending these days.  I tossed the pasta in the sauce before adding the eggs and stirring continuously until everything was silky and ready to devour.  The real beauty of a good Carbonara is the glossy coat that the eggs give to it.  If you make the mistake of adding the eggs while the sauce is cooking, or indeed while the sauce and pasta are still on the heat, you’ll end up scrambling the eggs and getting the same texture as egg fried rice.  It’s really important that the pan is off the heat and also that your eggs are pretty fresh.

All that’s left is to enjoy it with a grating of some more cheese and a good glass of white wine.  Now that’s what I call comfort food!

Matzo, matzo man.

Reading Ruth Reichl‘s Garlic and Sapphires left me with among other things, a curiosity about the tastes and origins of some of her home-cooked food, as well as her restaurant experiences.  The simplest recipe included in her autobiographical story of food criticism in The Big Apple is called Matzo Brei.  Living in a pocket of North West England means that culture is something you have to actively look for.  A few miles out of town and the streets begin to display more diversity and a glimpse of the cultures beyond this sceptered isle.  Here though, in a coastal resort town with a transient population and a seasonal tide of unemployment and washed-up tourism, you’d have to look carefully to identify different faith communities and ethnic groups.  Growing up here means that children aren’t exposed to anything more than white Western culture.  It’s easy then, to understand my curiosity when reading a Jewish recipe for what has become a popular breakfast and comfort food for Jews all over the world.

It was with some excitement that I purchased a box of Matzo crackers a few weeks ago in my local supermarket’s world food section.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve been buttering the crackers and chomping noisily on them whilst preparing dinner each evening.  It wasn’t until today that I decided to make Matzo Brei using Ruth Reichl’s simple recipe.  As a big fan of scrambled eggs, I was hoping to find a new fun breakfast for Saturday mornings and was keen to sample this Jewish dish.

The crackers are broken up into pieces and soaked in some water in a colander until they are damp and beginning to soften.  Once added to a bowl with a couple of eggs, they’re seasoned with a little salt and stirred.  Butter is melted in a pan and the mixture cooked gently.  The mixture can be formed into little pancakes, or as in Ruth Reichl’s recipe, broken up like scrambled eggs.  I followed the recipe carefully (how could I go wrong?) and sat down eagerly with the finished dish and a glass of iced coffee (my new addiction).  I’m glad that I tried this out and it was certainly interesting, but lets just say that I won’t be in a hurry to ditch my buttery scrambled eggs each Saturday…

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Colour me summer.

One thing that I’m keen to point out to people when talking about my love of food and cooking is that my passion for it far outweighs my skill.  Interestingly, most people assume that I have lots of skill in the kitchen and that I’m a very adept amateur chef.  If only.  After years of experimenting with different flavours and tipping countless plates of food into the bin, I’m simply more in tune with what will work and what will turn my stomach.  Now, I’d be doing myself a disservice if I was too disparaging about this acquired skill.  When asked about the difference between a cook and a chef, Michel Roux said that a chef was someone with an exceptional palate that had been developed over the course of a minimum of ten years.  Well I wouldn’t say that my judgement was exceptional, but I’m usually able to avoid disasters.  My failures in the kitchen tend to be lack-lustre dishes, the odd mismatched combination of flavours or some overcooking.  A far cry from the horrors produced as a student.

Cooking every day has given me an eye for good quality vegetables and an appreciation of what goes well together.  Once you’ve established a dish using certain ingredients, it’s often easy to transfer everything to another type of recipe.  For me, where there’s Chorizo, I know coriander and onions will not be far behind.  The following recipe came about by accident, but turned out to be a really cheerful meal that I’ll be making again in the future.  It was just a case of putting together a team of ingredients who would get on with one another.

Summer fritatta

3 eggs

5 baby new potatoes

2 ripe tomatoes (roughly chopped)

100g Chorizo (thinly sliced)

1 onion

1 red chilli (deseeded and sliced)

1 green chilli (deseeded and sliced)

handful coriander (roughly chopped)

grated Cheddar cheese

olive oil

salt and pepper

Boil the potatoes for twenty minutes, cut into thick slices and set aside.  Slice the onion thinly and fry in a drop or two of oil until beginning to brown and set aside too.  Season the eggs and whisk them vigorously for a couple of minutes until you can see plenty of air bubbles. Next, pour into a small heated frying pan (mine’s 23cm) with a little olive oil.  Start adding all of the ingredients, making sure that you spread them out evenly.  Push the potatoes and tomatoes down into the egg to allow room for everything else.  Finish the fritatta with lots of grated Cheddar on top and a little more seasoning.  Leave it to cook on the lowest heat until most of the egg mixture has coagulated.  When only the very top is still running, finish it under a very hot grill until just golden.

Fritatta is great for slicing and sharing.  It makes a really versatile brunch dish, or could be eaten for lunch with a salad.  I love the fact that it tastes marvellous whether it is served hot or cold.

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The slower, the better.

Our best intentions are challenged daily and we often find ourselves making choices we thought we wouldn’t.  This applies to food too.  When I’m tired, grumpy, or both, what sort of food do I crave?  What sort of meals do I end up preparing?  Certainly not the kind that will benefit my family or my heart.  That’s why planning meals is useful.  Shopping for specific ingredients rather than random items that may or may not make a meal or two is definitely wisest.  Even so, there are times when unplanned meals come together with the ingredients in the fridge.  That’s what happened today and the results were tasty, filling and chalked up some brownie points with my wife.  She loves it when we, “use things up”, although, if we shopped smarter, we wouldn’t need to do so!  The temptation to resort to frozen pizzas or take away is not always easy to resist when you’re exhausted.  That’s one of the battles being fought by food lovers the world over, particularly the Slow Food movement.  Today, quality food prevailed.  I wanted to sit down and eat some cake, but you’ll be glad to hear that I chose instead to fight the good fight.

I decided to make an omelette with lots of my favourite things in it.  This is a fantastic opportunity to use up various bits and bobs.  It was also a good way of getting a variety of healthy ingredients into my body without resorting to making a salad.  Nice as they can be, I’m just not a salad fan, and listening to the rain hit the windows didn’t inspire any urges for a leafy dinner.  The variations on this recipe are too numerous to list, but I definitely would have use more herbs from the garden (thyme, Greek oregano, parsley, mint, marjoram) if the rain hadn’t been bouncing off the ground.  Use what’s in and try to keep it colourful.

Mediterranean Omelette

3 or 4 large eggs

2 ripe tomatoes (sliced)

1 courgette (diced)

1 red onion (sliced)

1 onion (sliced)

2 garlic cloves (sliced)

1 handful Kalamata olives (pitted & halved)

2 tblspoons fresh basil (sliced)

1 tblspoon dried oregano

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

Use a high heat to stop the courgette becoming soggy.

Heat some oil in a frying pan or wok and fry the courgette on a high heat.  Courgettes have a high water content and low temperatures will simply allow the courgette to release that water and go soggy.  Once it begins to brown, take it off the heat and set it aside in a bowl.  Next gently fry the onion and garlic until soft and just cooked.  Don’t brown them.  Set these aside too.

Beat the eggs and season with salt, pepper and oregano.  Heat a large frying pan and add a little oil before pouring the eggs in.  Quickly add the courgette, tomatoes, basil, onion and garlic and Kalamata olives.

Do they need to be from Kalamata?  Nope.  A huge variety of olives are available.  Spanish olives are the most common, though these tend to be poor quality unless you’re willing to spend more.  Be careful.  Some companies are well aware of the desirability of Greek olives and package their Spanish produce cleverly, going as far as displaying a small Greek flag on their jars.  The easiest way to spot dodgy olives is by looking out for phrases like Greek-style olives.  Like all things, paying a little more will give you a completely different product that is worth your time.  Simple dishes rely on the quality of the ingredients.  Perhaps I’m a little too passionate about olives.  Let’s get back to the omelette.

The simpler the dish, the better the ingredients need to be.

Cook the omelette on a low heat so that it can cook through without needing to be turned over.  I’ve included red onion in the recipe for colour and because I like the fresh, sweet taste.  It doesn’t really need to be cooked.  The white onion and garlic would be overpowering if left uncooked, hence the quick fry.  Add the red onion last and grind some pepper over the omelette as it is cooking.  Once the egg has cooked through and is no longer runny on top, slide it onto a plate and season again if necessary.  I think this is a great summer meal that could be shared and eaten with salad (if you want to live your life like that).  A little drizzle of extra virgin olive oil helps it go down a treat!

Eating colourful food makes you feel good!