29 January, 2012

A Feast of Flavours by Annie Bell: cookbook review and recipe

Cardamom rice with prunes

I’m continuing my trawl through the reserve collection.This claims to be a “vegetarian” cookbook, although a few of the recipes include fish or shellfish. It is definitely not the 70s/early 80s style of vegetarian cooking with lots of wholewheat stodge and mushy lentils. Like Nadine Abensur’s, Annie Bell’s dishes are creative and elegant, letting the flavours of fresh vegetables shine. This book is clearly geared towards entertaining, as it’s organised as a series of seasonal menus, most involving five or six dishes.

Not that this is a criticism. Her philosophy of vegetarian cooking is that rather than having a “main” ingredient (a chunk of protein) and some side dishes, a meal can be composed of a harmonious selection of smaller dishes. It’s a philosophy I like, even though it’s more work, so is likely to happen only on special occasions.

I haven’t cooked any complete menu from this book, but I have bookmarked a number of recipes. Actually, in true neglected cookbook style I hadn’t cooked anything at all from it till today, when I decided to try the cardamom rice with prunes.

Rice pudding and stewed prunes … hmm, sounds like British canteen fare. Happily, it is not. I’ve always liked rice pudding, although I do normally prefer to eat it hot, with jam or maple syrup. The cardamom makes this version decidedly un-English. The prunes are not an unappetising brown mush, but whole pruneaux d’Agen simmered in an Armagnac-laced syrup with cinnamon and vanilla. If I’d done the whole menu, I would also have served spaghetti marrow and vermicelli with watercress cream, cannelloni omelettes filled with spinach and gruyère, with a tomato sauce aux fines herbes, and a green salad with avocado and toasted walnuts. You can tell she used to run a restaurant.

Anyway, here’s my version of the rice. It turned out a bit runny, and over-sweet to my taste, so I’ve adjusted the quantities slightly to reflect this. It was very nice cold, with the prunes making an attractive colour contrast. And of course it can all be prepared hours in advance — fortunately, since the rest of the menu seems to involve an awful lot of last-minute frying, pasta cooking, and salad dressing. The recipe seems long, but really it’s very simple and not time-consuming. I’ll definitely keep this book because even if the complete menus are too much work there are a lot of small, stylish dishes. It’s out of print — so if you want to give it a try you can buy it for a penny on Amazon!

Serves six.

140 g risotto rice, or round-grain rice
450 ml milk
30 g butter
50 g sugar
10 cardamom pods

Custard
3 egg yolks
50 g sugar
250 ml milk
100 ml double cream

Prunes
85 g sugar
85 ml Armagnac, brandy, or Calvados, plus about 3 tablespoons
1 vanilla pod, split
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
300 g Agen prunes (they’re supposed to be pitted, but I couldn’t be bothered)

Preheat the oven to 200C. Bring a pan of water to the boil, add the rice, boil for 5 minutes, then drain in a sieve. In a fireproof casserole (I used one of my Spanish terracotta dishes), bring the milk, butter and sugar to the boil, then add the cardamom pods and the rice and give it a good stir. When it comes up to a boil again, cover with a circle of greaseproof paper and either a lid or silver foil. Put in the oven and immediately turn down to 130C. Cook for 40-45 minutes, until all the milk is absorbed and the rice is completely cooked. Remove the cardamom pods and set the rice aside to cool.

While the rice is cooking, make the custard. Beat together the egg yolks and sugar till pale yellow. Bring the milk to the boil, beat it into the eggs, and then put over a low heat and stir constantly till it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon — don’t let it boil. Pour into a jug and leave to cool.

Once both custard and rice are lukewarm, stir the custard into the rice along with about 100 ml of cream. Cut down on the cream if there seems to be too much liquid, bearing in mind that it will thicken a little while cooling. It should be the consistency of, well, creamy rice pudding. Chill for several hours.

To make the prunes, heat the sugar, 85 ml of Armagnac, the vanilla, cinnamon, and bay leaf with 350 ml of water until the sugar is dissolved, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the prunes and simmer gently, covered, for 30 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the prunes to a bowl and add a generous glug of Armagnac or Calvados. If the syrup remaining in the pan seems very liquid, boil it for a few minutes to reduce it and then pour it over the prunes. Leave to cool.

Serve the rice either warm or chilled in small, pretty bowls with 3-4 prunes on top and a little of the syrup poured over. Any left-over prunes can be served with crèmes au muscat.

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