Avocado, orange, and roasted pepper salad

orange, avocado, and roasted pepper salad

This recipe was inspired by a tapa in an Andalusian bar, in a village surrounded by thousands of avocado trees. The dressing is a version of a recipe I learned from Jim Fisher at Cook in France. There, we used grain mustard and served it on a salad of blanched spring vegetables and poached eggs. I toned it down a little here so as not to overwhelm the avocados. I like this colourful salad so much I’m already imagining variations: crumbled feta cheese on top, for example.
Read More

Tortilla de patatas

Tortilla de patatas

There’s an art to making a good tortilla, and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet (although I’ve cracked plenty of eggs trying). It’s the sort of thing where even the most detailed recipe is no substitute for being able to sense when you’ve got it right. Even if they aren’t up to the standards of the average Spanish tapas bar (can I do those rounded edges? Can I hell!), I have been pretty satisfied with my last couple of attempts.

The key points are a) the correct ratio of eggs to potatoes, and b) the right sized, heavy frying pan. I reckon you need about one medium potato per egg, but really you need to look at the mixture and know whether to add another egg. It should be neither too eggy (it won’t hold together) nor too packed with potato (too stodgy). The mixture should fill the pan to a depth of between 1 and 1 1/2 inches — thin tortillas are hopeless, and if it’s too thick it will scorch before it’s set in the middle.

Some people slice the potatoes, others cube them. I’m in the “slice them” camp at the moment, but I may change my mind. The onion is essential — it will be too bland without. The end result should be firm enough when cold to cut into wedges or squares and eat with your hands. At the same time it’s not nice if it’s so overcooked it’s gone leathery (another reason not to do a thin tortilla).
Read More

Moroccan carrot salad

A carrot salad might sound a bit dull, but this Ottolenghi recipe is really lovely. It reminds me of the delicious carrots I had as a side dish at a Lebanese restaurant in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain. I tweaked it a bit for French tastes (no chillis!). It’s very versatile — it can be served warm or at room temperature, as a dish in its own right, as one of a selection of hors d’oeuvres, or as a side dish. You can of course vary the spices according to taste.
Read More

Vintage feasts: Josceline Dimbleby

rabbit liver pate

I hadn’t originally planned to include Josceline in my celebration of 1980s-and-older cookbooks. But then I was reminded of her by Maggie. It made me realise that apart from one of my favourite old standbys, her fusion of blanquette and goulash, I hadn’t cooked any of her recipes for absolutely ages. Maggie says “Thirty years ago, way before Nigella, we had a ‘posh’ cook in the guise of Josceline Dimbleby. She is a great, innovative cook and I can’t understand why she isn’t more widely known and more highly regarded”.

Me neither! I first encountered her via a book picked up in a second hand shop for 50p, entitled Taste of Dreams. It was a good introduction, highlighting her creative, unusual approach, with dishes that are often titivated to within an inch of their lives presentation-wise (the water-lily timbale is a shocker, a flat cake of carrots and avocado wrapped in spinach and surrounded by chicory leaves like petals ). Maybe we can blame the 1980s for that. But she often shows real flair in combinations of ingredients and, especially, textures; Middle-Eastern influences are omnipresent since she spent part of her youth there.

Later, I occasionally picked up the little 50p cookbooks with my shopping in Sainsbury’s, and the most tattered and food-stained one I have is Josceline’s A Traveller’s Tastes. Nearly every recipe in this book is a winner, but for this vintage feast I decided to give myself maximum flexibility by using The Josceline Dimbleby Collection, a Sainsbury’s omnibus of recipes from several of those little books. And it turns out that my choice of author is apposite after all, because after a long break, during which all of her books have gone out of print, she has very recently published a new book: Orchards in the Oasis: Travels, Food and Memories.

I think the dishes I chose for this meal are fairly representative, if short on the Middle-Eastern element. Josceline does tend towards “posh dinner party” food, but there are some family-friendly recipes too. Browsing through the book, I realised that I’d never actually made my own chicken liver pâté, so that seemed a good choice as a starter, especially her “mild” version with orange juice, cream, and chopped almonds in it. I was somewhat peeved, then, to discover that the supermarket was clean out of chicken livers, but recovered by buying a tub of rabbit livers instead. This could only improve it; rabbit liver is gorgeous. My confidence was well-placed; it was delicious served with thin, crispy toast, and so easy to make that I will definitely do it again as an easy dinner-party starter; see recipe below.

I continued the bunny theme with a “rabbit in the orchard” pie; classic flavours of rabbit, cider, mustard and cream, with apples, mushrooms, and tarragon added. The recipe has a Josceline signature to it: no onions. I think she must have an onion-hater in the family, because a lot of her recipes lack them where you would expect to see them. It’s ages since I made one of these very English meat-and-sauce filled pies. Despite my care in decorating the pastry, it looked terrible when it was dished up; the runny beige sauce looked really unappetising. It did taste good though, and we liked the way the juices had soaked into the bottom of the thick pastry lid; yum!

Josceline is very fond of fancy desserts. I chose one featuring one of her favourite ingredients, dried apricots. Here, they are poached and then covered with a “caramel cloud” of vanilla cheesecake and a brûlée topping. I had a bit of a problem with the topping; she suggests sprinkling sugar over the top of the cheesecake, caramelising it under the grill, and then putting it in the fridge for several hours. Surefire recipe for soggy caramel. It seemed to me that sprinkling sugar on the uneven top and trying to burn it wasn’t going to work that well anyway. So I ended up making caramel in a pan and pouring it over the cheesecake once it had been chilled. This worked, although it was a bit thick in places. But it was another dish that looked a total mess when served. Definitely a candidate for small individual dishes. But the taste wasn’t exceptional, so I wouldn’t make it again. I find you do have to be selective with Josceline Dimbleby recipes; sometimes she’s too creative for her own good, and they certainly aren’t foolproof the way Delia Smith ones are. But when she gets it right (as in the paprika-flavoured blanquette), they work really well.
Read More

Tartare de tomates

OK, this is just tomato salad presented in a trendy form. But draining and marinating the tomatoes really concentrates the flavour. Assuming your tomatoes have flavour in the first place. If all you’ve got are Dutch hothouse tomatoes, don’t bother.

This is good served with mild fresh goat or sheep cheese. But I think it would go well with fish too. Or thinly sliced raw vegetables (fennel, baby artichokes…). Maybe even roasted garlic. Note that you need to start preparing it at least 8 hours before you want to eat it.

I had a photo, but I deleted it! Oh well.
Read More

Vintage feasts: Spices, salts and aromatics in the English kitchen

Elizabeth David: Spices, salts and aromatics in the English kitchen

After last month’s blandfest, it seemed apposite to turn to Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, published in 1970, for this month’s cookbook challenge. She points out that England has a long history in the spice trade, reflected in cooking from the Middle Ages onwards: “we took to spiced food with an enthusiasm which seems to have been almost equal to that shown by the Romans at the height of their preoccupation with the luxuries of living. A study of English recipes of the fifteenth century leaves one with the impression that to the cook the spices were a good deal more important than the food itself.”

First a word about the book. I am a huge fan of Elizabeth David, no matter how unfashionable she has become, and practically every modern British cookery writer owes a debt to her (often uncknowledged). Her French Provincial Cooking is required reading for any English speaker who wants to learn to cook classic French food. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and she happily assumes intelligence and competence on the part of her readers. But Spices, Salt and Aromatics… is not one of her best books. It’s bitty, parts of it cobbled together from a number of previously published articles, and not very coherent as a result. It’s hard to figure out, for example, what a recipe for paella is doing in a book ostensibly about English food! But that being said, this is Elizabeth David. Of course there are good things here, and masses of interesting snippets of information. The chapter on spices and condiments is inimitable David: a combination of the academic and the personal. Using old recipe books as sources, she dragged many worthwhile recipes from oblivion and played her part in making people realise that English food was not without its own merits. Like all her books, it’s one you can read for pleasure as well as cook from.

Oh, and the cover art is gorgeous! The back cover tells us:

De Heem’s painting shows a seventeenth-century version of a Lombard crustade or pie, a survival from the fourteenth century, when such pies were common to the tables of the rich in Italy, France, England, the Low Countries, and Germany. This one, as the artist made plain by placing a dish of prawns in the foreground of his composition, was a fish day pie. The medley of dried and fresh fruit, almonds and pine kernels, probably concealed the main filling of fish, perhaps salmon and eel, or haddock and codling, ground to a paste with apples and pears, and ginger, cinnamon, cloves and mace.

When the pie was baked the top crust was lifted, a mixture of cream and egg yolks, or for fish days a cream of almonds, was poured in. The cover was then replaced and, surmounted with its decorative cluster of pears, cored, filled with sugar and sweet spices, the pie was returned to the oven until the custard or cream had thickened.

Recipes for Lombard or “lumber” pies survived in English cookery books, virtually unchanged, until well into the eighteenth century.

Everything about these paragraphs, the precision, the careful use of phrasing and detail, the casual erudition, tells me they were written by Elizabeth David herself, not some Penguin editor.
Read More

Carottes forestière

Carrots, courtesy of sxc.hu

A la forestière in French cuisine invariably means the dish contains mushrooms, because in autumn every self-respecting peasant is out there scouring the woods for fungi while hoping to avoid trigger-happy hunters. All we’ve scored so far are a few piboules from the poplar tree in our garden, but luckily dried ceps are always on hand to add a secret kick to savoury dishes.

This Jane Grigson recipe (from her Vegetable Book) worked wonders with the woody organic carrots in our veggie box. She serves them in hollowed-out bread rolls brushed with butter and crisped in the oven; I just served them on toasted muffins. They make a good vegetarian starter or light lunch/supper, but would also be an excellent accompanying vegetable for a roast, with or without the bread.

You could just use common-or-garden cultivated mushrooms, but fresh or dried ceps (porcini) will take it into another league.
Read More

Sheep’s cheese baked in foil

Time to pull my socks up and get on with my Cookbook Challenge — only a dozen done, and Maggie has raced ahead with 80-odd! This evening we ate papillottes of feta (or rather French imitation feta, which can no longer be called feta since it doesn’t come from Greece) baked in foil with spices (pepper, cumin, chopped chilli), herbs (oregano and garlic) and branches of cherry tomatoes, with a glug of good olive oil poured over the lot. Very nice — it makes a good vegetarian starter with some green salad and plenty of good bread to mop up the melted cheese and delicious juices. I can imagine cooking these on the barbecue at the height of summer.

Mushroom crostini

mushroom crostini

… aka mushrooms on toast.

Don’t let it be said that I’m a procrastinator! Here’s my first dish from Delicious Days, my cookbook challenge for this year. Supplies were low and dinner improvised, but I found some mushrooms in the fridge, so while the “real” dinner was cooking I opened a bottle of wine and made Nicky’s mushroom crostini: a 10-minute job.

We didn’t have any chives, which would have made them look prettier even with my poor photographic skills. We didn’t have any Marsala either, but we don’t do things by halves in this household, and Christmas comes but once a year — in went a glug of Warre’s excellent vintage port, bought at the airport last week. Well, it was only a couple of tablespoons. The completed sauce was poured over a few slices of my home-made 5-minute bread, and we enjoyed them with a glass of wine by a cosy log fire.

The mushrooms and sauce were delicious. Nicky says the bread should be fried, which I did, in olive oil, and then drained on kitchen paper, but some of it was a bit greasy. Next time I’ll toast or bake it.

Tatin round-up

tarte tatin with cream

Tatins seem to be everywhere these days; first Bellini Valli of More Than Burnt Toast, then Loulou, then Ivy came up with their own versions. I saw Ivy’s post just as I had got home with a big bag of apples to make one myself. At a stroke, I tried Ivy’s idea of making small individual ones, using some perfectly-sized shallow gratin dishes. A great idea for anyone nervous about flipping the tatin; it’s much easier with small ones! I think I’ll be making these a lot now, although there is something impressive about a single large tarte tatin fresh from the oven, glistening with caramel and just waiting to be shared with friends.

Finally, if you are really, really nervous about making tatins, try this unconventional method from Zen Can Cook — the results look stunning, and that’s exactly the colour you should be aiming for — though personally I would not use puff pastry.

Once upon a time, tarte tatin meant apples, but now it’s come to cover a much broader spectrum, from sweet to savoury. Some of them are a travesty of what tatin is about in my opinion; it should be simple, not tricked-up with loads of extra ingredients, and the essential point is that whatever you use should caramelise to a rich golden brown; if it doesn’t, what’s the point? Things that produce too much juice or go soggy/disintegrate will not work. Whatever you choose, you must be brave and caramelise it to within an inch of its life; it must be deep golden-brown before you put the pastry on, otherwise your finished tart will be pale and disappointing. So that said, here are a few ideas:

  • To a classic apple tatin, add some thin slices of quince for a wonderful added aroma, or mix pears and apples. I always add some grated lemon zest and a squeeze of juice to mine.
  • Try a pineapple tatin; it works really well, and is a good use for a fresh pineapple that isn’t as flavourful as you had hoped. Peaches and apricots are good summer candidates too.
  • On the savoury front, tomato tatin is obvious and excellent; either one large one as a main course with salad, or small individual ones served as starters.
  • Shallots make a fabulous tatin: caramelise whole peeled shallots slowly in butter or olive oil with a sprinkling of sugar, and add some balsamic vinegar at the end. For the ultimate taste and texture sensation, make individual ones, turn out, and top each with a slice of pan-fried foie gras. This is sinfully good!