egg and spinach cocottes

1 Apr

egg and spinach cocottes

My mother got cross when I admitted to using frozen spinach. (But she is a purist that thinks nothing of growing her own vegetables and herbs.) What can I say? I know the fresh stuff is delicious and cheap and in season. I just always feel cheated, bringing home an enormous bag from the market, washing it, sauteing it only to find a miserly heap of green, a tenth of the original volume. My expectations are lower for the frozen stuff.

And sometimes you are standing in line at the Paris Store, the Chinese supermarket, at the end of a long day at work and you decide you need a first course because the chicken legs look too skinny. And you aren’t queuing up again, or buying anything else, because the plastic bags are carving grooves into your fingers. But you do want to impress your guests. And you did buy 30 eggs for baking. And there is spinach in the freezer.

These cocottes – or oeufs en cocotte - to give them their proper French name only take a few minutes to make but in their individual dishes they look fancy and taste better. The sesame oil and miso paste add an extra kick without overpowering the spinach. It tastes more complex than it is, with all the umami of salmon. The egg yolk should be runny for dipping your bread, the spinach neatly coated in cream, tangy and salty. It somehow surpasses the sum of its parts. Works equally as a starter for a dinner party or jealously guarded for a solo dinner (I can eat at least two).

~~~

Egg and Spinach Cocottes

serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a light supper

4 eggs

300g frozen spinach (preferably leaves, no finely chopped)

1 tsp sesame oil

2 small shallots, or 2 spring onions

1 tsp miso paste

50g creme fraiche (or 50g cream + squeeze of lemon)

salt and pepper

For individual portions, you will need 4 small ramekins (8-10cm wide). Or else one oven-proof baking dish (approx 16cm) to bake them all at once.

Heat oven to 180C. Gently heat frozen spinach in a saucepan until it defrosts. Add the sesame oil. Chop the shallots/spring onions finely and add to the pan, saute until soft. Then stir in the miso and cream and cook for a minute, just to heat through.

Divide the spinach between the four dishes and hollow out a hole in the mixture. Crack an egg into the hole. Sprinkle over some salt and pepper. Bake for 15-18 minutes until the white is no longer translucent but the yolk is still runny.

Serve immediately with a baguette tradition or thin slices of toasted sourdough.

 

homemade ginger juice

29 Mar

ginger juice

Two of my favourite bars in Paris serve homemade ginger juice, both from unlabelled plastic bottles. Both are peppery enough to give you a kickstart, no alcohol needed. One is the Bar Ourcq, a bright blue cafe by the Canal de l’Ourcq that lends out deckchairs and pétanque sets in the summer months. They have board-games inside too (including Trivial Pour-Sweet as a French friend of mine insists on calling it). On the countertop around 7pm, they lay out a saucisson, bread, olives and crisps for the apéritif. The other day when it was too cold to sit on a bench at sunset as I planned, I was grateful to find exactly enough change in my pockets (three centimes to spare!) to pay for a ginger juice and a spot in the corner amid the hubbub of regulars. And despite the ice-cube, it warmed me right up.

The other bar serves an even stronger version, at the quirky Comptoir Général. It styles itself as a “ghetto-museum of Françafrique” (the history and culture of French Africa) and is filled with artwork, taxidermied animals, political posters, trees, and a vintage shop upstairs. The food is fantastic, served up as if from a street stall, and the cocktails potent. For non-drinkers, they have maracuja and bissap juice (passion-fruit and hibiscus, respectively) and the house ginger juice. I asked how it was made, and the girl behind the bar said just grated ginger and sugar. I love the fire of ginger and often eat the crystallised version by the handful. But it isn’t that common in France, even their pain d’épices, a sweet spiced loaf we would call gingerbread doesn’t traditionally have ginger in it.

Google informs me that it is actually a specialty of west Africa – Mali, Senegal and the Cote d’Ivoire – called Gnamakoudji, and often mixed with pineapple juice. With a blender it was the work of two minutes, then several hours to steep. The leftover ginger pulp can be recycled, for it will still have some flavour. Freeze it and break off in chunks to liven up curries, soups, noodles. (I have an excellent recipe coming with an excess of garlic and ginger, this makes it even easier.)

Neat, the juice works almost as well as coffee in the morning. Fiery and lightly sweet. Over lots of ice, it makes for an excellent pre-dinner drink when you don’t feel like alcohol. With pineapple juice and slices of orange it would make for a beautiful punch, rum optional.

ginger juice, recipe

Homemade ginger juice.

200g fresh ginger

1 small lemon

1 litre water

80g icing sugar

Peel and chop the ginger into rough chunks. Cut both ends off the lemon and slice off the peel so that none of the white pith is left. Blend ginger and lemon in a food processor to a pulp. Add a little of the water if necessary. (Or grate the ginger by hand and juice the lemon – more time-consuming.) Mix the ginger, lemon and water in a large bowl. Cover and leave for a few hours or overnight. Strain through a fine mesh sieve, pushing with the back of a spoon to extract all the juice then stir in the icing sugar until it dissolves. Freeze the leftover pulp, which will still have some flavour, for use in soups and curries.

Pour into a bottle and keep in the fridge for a week or so. Serve over ice with a splash of water if the ginger taste is too strong. Mix with half pineapple juice for a refreshing summer drink. Add a splash to herbal tea or honey and lemon when it’s cold; or, of course, use in cocktails and fruit punch.

 

espresso banana smoothie

23 Mar

espresso banana smoothie - illustrated recipe

Once I asked a Japanese colleague, in a mixture of French and English and mime, why she had begun her career as a pastry chef. She thought about it and said,

“Butter…sugar…flour…” (points at each) “….MAGIC! (stretches arms out wide)

I felt the same – and still do, luckily – about patisserie. And this smoothie inspires the same emotions. Such simple ingredients, disproportionately delicious together. Espresso, banana, almond and coconut milks. Cinnamon optional. How have I never thought to put coffee in a smoothie before?

A friend served it at an elegant brunch the other day – with pancakes and four kinds of maple syrup. But it also works on its own, before you rush out the door to work.

It helps me pretend I am succeeding at adulthood. A nutritious, caffeinated breakfast I can make in two minutes. (I get the same smug feeling when I remember my past self has hidden lunch for me in the freezer: chicken mole or the Wednesday Chef’s Chinese celery and beef were recent, happy discoveries.)

Plus it saves on expensive-chain-store-coffee-drinks. And it’s vegan! Everyone is happy. Except the chain-store-coffee people. Win-win-win.

~~~

Espresso-banana smoothie

adapted from CocoJenalle – I’ve doubled the amount of coffee, because. Use any combination of milks you prefer – soy, normal, rice etc – but the coconut does add a nice richness.

makes 1 large breakfast-size, or 2 small brunch-accompaniment-size

1 banana, frozen*

60ml espresso (2 shots)

125ml almond milk

125ml coconut milk

Optional additions: 

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp maple syrup

1/2 tsp chia seeds

If you are super organised, the night before: peel and chop banana into small chunks. (Your blender will thank you for it.) Freeze. Make your espresso according to your preferred method.

In the morning: blend banana, coffee, milks until smooth. Taste. I like it plain. But add maple syrup if you have a sweet tooth. Cinnamon if you wish. More coffee if you are a caffeine addict. Chia seeds if you are a health nut. Blend again, serve.

*If you forget to freeze the banana, just add a few icecubes when serving.

nigel slater’s spiced bread pudding with fried bananas

20 Mar

spiced bread pudding

After a sleepy Saturday wandering from the Buttes-Chaumont  to the Marais, all I wanted was to curl up in my favourite wine-cardigan with something restorative. Luckily Nigel Slater understands me. When I opened his Kitchen Diaries, not only did the Spiced Bread Pudding jump out at me, but the accompanied story almost exactly mirrored one of my own. His recipe is inspired by a visit to Kerala, where he was stuck in “a teetotal oasis” for which he was unprepared: “twenty years ago the lack of alcohol came as a jaw-dropping disappointment after our long, dusty and dangerous drive from hell.” But the pudding made up for it.

We were also in Kerala when we took a six hour bus journey up into the mountains to the tea plantations of Munnar. I had packed a book, but for the first half of the journey I just wanted to watch out of the window, chin pillowed in the crook of my arm. The windows didn’t have any glass, just metal shutters. The dusty air swept in, a salve from the heat. We crossed lagoons that stretched to the horizon, passed banana plantations and busy villages. School-children, whole busfuls, waved at us and shouted HELLO HOW ARE YOU? Each town had at least one temple, mosque and church or shrine with a glass alcove housing a life-size St George and the dragon. Sometimes a few in a row. Trucks thundered by with their colourful head-dresses, painted slogans and flowers. On the back, “Horn Please OK.”  The two-lane road had an invisible third passage in the middle, constantly available for overtaking. The driver would beep and go and somehow the rest of the traffic would flow around us. Once the bus stopped and the passengers all filed out – us worried about our luggage – because apparently the bridge was too fragile. First the bus went across, empty, then we did.

Around halfway we stopped for a chai-break. Around four or five hours in, it got dark all of a sudden as the sun disappeared. Bella distracted me as you might a bored toddler, with iphone games of Clumsy Ninja and Trivial Pursuit. After six hours and a half hours, we scrambled off with our backpacks some way out of the town centre – where there was no-one to direct us to our hotel in the old British club, the only place with a last-minute vacancy. The Lonely Planet had promised us a quaint place perfect for gin and tonics. Sadly, due to licensing issues the three bars in the club could only serve lemonade. We came in just in time for dinner, just in time to read the Club Rules that forbade sandals and panic.

“You haven’t taken any chicken, please take! Come!” The manager barked. Two of us scurried back to the buffet obediently. He was an affable but abrupt character who might have been Basil Fawlty’s brother in another life. Hands in pockets, he gave us a tour of the club: lounge with leather armchairs and obligatory animal heads, library with table-tennis table. “You play? Yes? You will play now, for forty-five minutes.” It wasn’t a question. We could only acquiesce and laugh. It was an uncomfortably British time-warp. Even without our gin-and-tonics, we slept so well that night, totally exhausted.

The next day we visited the factories of the DARE initiative that teaches the differently-abled children of tea-planters: it included a textile workshop for dyes and prints, one for hand-made paper products, a jam factory, a bakery and a kitchen garden. The quality was absolutely incredible, especially the Aranya silks – all-natural, local dyes made of tea-waste, banana leaves, pomegranate skins, Indian madder. The workshops were surrounded by the hills planted with tea bushes, whose crazy mosaic pattern and bright green colour made it feel like we had wandered onto a Tim Burton set. Kerala is full of plantations, tea, coffee, cardamom, coconut palms. Pepper, vanilla. Bananas. Most of the delicious things in life in fact.

A long story to say: this pudding will remind you of exotic climes AND a really comfortable armchair. It works scaled down as solo supper or scaled up for an easy brunch. (Much simpler than pancakes or French toast if you have to feed a crowd – one dish you can prepare ahead.) I like using brioche for extra luxe, but bread and butter will work too. It isn’t too sweet nor too stodgy, more like a creme caramel than a slab of sponge pudding. It offers the intoxicating scent of cardamom and coconut, barely any resistance to the fork as the brioche soaks up the custard, just a few crisp, sugared points poking out. And the fried bananas, sticky and slightly caramelised around the edges, are delightful. It will cure a hangover, the ennui of a recently-returned traveller or the aches and pains of a long commute. Enjoy.

~~~

Nigel Slater’s Spiced Bread Pudding with fried bananas

Slightly adapted from Kitchen Diaries Vol II. If using brioche slices, omit the butter. Great for using up egg yolks if the whites are needed for meringues or macarons.

serves 4 for brunch or 6 for dessert

300g sliced bread or brioche (about 10 slices for me)

a little butter for spreading (not necessary for brioche)

6 green cardamom pods

1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)

1/8 tsp cinnamon

400ml coconut milk

400ml milk

2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks

OR 7 egg yolks, about 140g

80g light brown sugar

pinch salt

a sprinkle of sugar for the topping

for the bananas:

50g butter

4 bananas

2tbs sugar

zest of one orange

Preheat oven to 180C. Butter a baking dish (approx 22cm diameter, but more or less is fine). Lightly toast the bread or brioche until golden-brown. If using bread, spread with butter. Cut slices diagonally and arrange the triangles in the dish, points up, overlapping slightly.

Remove cardamom seeds from the pods and crush in a pestle and mortar or with the end of a rolling pin. Slice the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds. Mix cardamom, vanilla seeds, cinnamon, both milks, eggs and sugar in a large bowl to combine.

(If you are preparing ahead – stop now. Clingfilm the bread, put the custard mixture in the fridge. Then all you have to do in the morning, or at the end of the main course is heat the oven, pour over the custard and bake.)

Pour custard over bread/brioche. Sprinkle a little more sugar over the points that stick out. Bake for 25 minutes or until the bread is nicely browned and the custard is set. Let it cool for 15 minutes or so before serving. (Equally nice reheated later or the next day.)

For the bananas: cut in half length-ways. Heat the butter in a large frying pan and cook the bananas on both sides until golden and soft. Sprinkle over the sugar and cook for a few more minutes until they start to caramelise around the edges. Stir in orange zest and serve immediately with the bread pudding.

(For a slightly lighter dessert, serve simply with oranges peeled and sliced into rounds.)

chickpeas and chocolate (not together)

13 Mar

cheap and cheerful chickpeas crop 1

We really do live on chickpeas and chocolate in our flat. They are permanently on our shopping list, the Bio 70% dark chocolate and those squat tins of chickpeas. (While soaking and cooking them is admirable and more economical, I have never been organised enough to do so.) My flatmate eats them plain with olive oil and salt. I found a new recipe for a spicy chickpea salad in the Avoca cookbook, that I made with barley. It was a perfect prepare-ahead salad, robust and complex. But I thought I had written about them too much – after all, they are in my:

They turn up at almost every dinner party I have, especially if impromptu, in the guise of a quick hummus or as a roasted, salty snack. So they were my obvious choice for the 1 ingredient – 3 ways competition on They Draw And Cook. A site I have been meaning to submit to for years now. It is not so easy, making a comprehensible recipe into graphic form. This is my first attempt. Individual chickpeas are very satisfying to draw! But I need to work on my illustration and I will certainly be trying another recipe sometime soon. Check out their other artists for dinner inspiration – or try They Draw And Travel for a new way to explore the world.

cheap and cheerful chickpeas crop 2

apple and cheese soufflés, and cheat’s ratatouille

10 Mar

apple cheese souffles 1

There is a magnificent sunset outside, swathes of pink on a clear, blue sky. From the bridge at the end of my road, it is criss-crossed with black wires hung over the train lines. I like the contrast. Walking back home, along a route I never take, I look up and see a classic silhouette behind a skyscraper, the dome and tower of the Sacré-Coeur. Normally I never go that way, normally I go inwards to the centre of Paris’ clock-face. But Paris extra-muros is being steadily smartened and I had been to visit the new Ciné-Cité on the outskirts, pristine and echoing still. I shouldn’t be surprised that there is more to discover, that a different road will yield such different results. The day before a long run took me past a British telephone box stranded in the Paris suburbs, fully functional with a dial tone and everything. It is a tiny city sometimes, and sometimes even after three and a half years I don’t know it at all.

Talk about leaving my comfort zone in increments. I curl up on the sofa with a pile of cookbooks the afternoon of the dinner party with the will to make something new… And what really leaps out out at me are the soufflés. The way I open a menu and instantly know I must have that  or I will be disappointed. But I already wrote about soufflés three posts ago. And I will make them with goat’s cheese, which has been so over-done the Guardian has been panicking about a desperate shortage of the stuff. What’s more, the recipe comes from my mother’s cookbook.

apple cheese souffles 3

What can I say? Everyone has food phases, cravings, repetitive habits – see also, the Croutons for Breakfast period circa 1998 – and though they may be a la mode, I can’t resist making more soufflés. Their craggy puff, their splendour as they arrive at the table – and above all, their relative ease. Granted, I can only make four at a time because of my little oven, but I only need ingredients lying around the kitchen – cheese, milk, butter, eggs and in this case, an apple – and a good whisk. As simple as an omelette, but more spectacular.

A couple of hours before dinner, I fried an apple in butter, then made a simple béchamel sauce. When it was thick and creamy, I added egg yolks, goat’s cheese and apple. That was it. The egg whites waited on one side for the last minute.

cheat's ratatouille 2

Meanwhile, the oven did all the work for the laziest (best) ratatouille I have ever tried. One large aubergine, one courgette and one red pepper were roasted whole until blackened and collapsing in on themselves. (The aubergine gave up the ghost first, the courgette was made of tougher stuff.) Once baked soft, they need all of ten seconds to chop roughly – can be done with kitchen scissors, even. All I had to do was gently saute a clove or two of garlic in some olive oil, add a tomato and done. Stir them all together, season. Best of all, no squeaky aubergine: too often ratatouille has cubes of polystyrene eggplant swimming in watery sauce because it takes so long to cook each vegetable to the proper consistency. This oven-roasted version was silky, meltingly tender and took less effort than reading this paragraph.

So after half an hour’s actual work, I was done. Wash up, go back to the sofa for more tea. Pretend to be the consummate hostess when my guests arrive. When they do, when they begin to look hungry despite the crisps and crackers, all that needs doing is preheating the oven, whisking the egg whites and gently folding in the rich béchamel. The soufflés were over enthusiastic, bursting from their dishes. Even better. Brown around the edges, fluffy in the middle, with the subtle tang of apple balancing the goat’s cheese: they were comforting and ever-so-slightly out of the ordinary. Just right for a Wednesday.

cheat's ratatouille 1

Apple and cheese soufflés

from Victoria O’Neill’s Seasonal Secrets -  she suggests using blue cheese (in which case omit the salt). Her version is also twice baked, which means you bake them, let them cool for 20 minutes then turn them out of the ramekins onto a baking tray and reheat for 10 minutes when needed. This reduces last minute preparation, and leads to a slightly more crisp texture – but I like the pomp of a freshly baked soufflé. Serve with salad and toasted walnuts for a starter, or with ratatouille, some steamed potatoes and bread for a filling main course.

makes 8 starter size or 4 main course size

100g butter, divided into 30/70g

1 large apple (160g)

50g plain flour

300ml milk

100g cheese – mild goat’s cheese or strong blue, according to taste

(3/4 tsp salt – omit if using blue cheese!)

pepper

4 eggs, separated into yolks and whites

You will need some ramekins or little straight-sided dishes so that the soufflés rise properly. For the small, starter size they should be about 8cm across, for the larger 11-12cm.

Melt 30g butter in a small saucepan; peel and finely chop the apple. Cook the apple in butter, covered, for 5 minutes or until soft and golden. Tip into a bowl. In the same saucepan, melt the rest of the butter. Using a pastry brush, thoroughly coat the inside of your ramekins with butter. Dust them with a little flour, rolling them around so the flour covers the sides and bottom. Set aside.

Add the flour to the melted butter and stir well to make a roux. Let it cook for a minute or two until it smells slightly nutty, so that the flour loses its raw taste. Off the heat, add the milk a little at a time, whisking in between to remove lumps. Return to the heat and cook until thick and creamy and just starts to bubble. Decant into the bowl with the apples. Crumble in the cheese, add salt (if using) and pepper and finally the egg yolks. Stir. Clingfilm the surface so it doesn’t form a skin. Have the egg whites in a separate, large, clean bowl – also with clingfilm over it to stop any contamination. Whites whisk best at room temperature.

(All of the above can be prepared in advance. If it is more than a couple of hours beforehand, refrigerate the béchamel and whites and bring to room temperature before using. Alternatively, bake the soufflés straightaway as below. Then when they have cooled – 20 minutes or so – ease them out of their ramekins with a palette knife and turn onto a baking tray. Reheat when needed.)

Preheat the oven to 200C and whisk the whites to stiff peaks. Stir a quarter into the béchamel sauce to lighten it, then tip it all into the whites and fold together, careful not to lose the air. Fill ramekins to the brim, smooth the tops. Run a knife around the edge to help them rise up evenly. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for 25 minutes, until they have puffed up, turned golden-brown and feel reasonably firm to the touch.

Serve immediately.

apple cheese souffles 2

Cheat’s Ratatouille

serves 4 as a side dish

1 large aubergine

1 large red pepper

1 large or 2 small courgettes

1 large or 2 small tomatoes

2 cloves garlic

2 tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

Heat oven to 250C. Line a baking tray with foil. Stab the aubergine and pepper several times with a fork. If using a large courgette, slice in half, otherwise leave everything whole. Bake for 20 minutes or so until the vegetables have collapsed and, for the pepper, blackened around the edges. Remove any vegetables that cook quicker – my courgette needed an extra ten minutes to really soften. Meanwhile, peel and smash the garlic cloves with the back of a knife; cook in the olive oil until soft but not brown. Roughly chop the tomato and sauté for a couple of minutes until it breaks down. Chop the roasted vegetables with knife or kitchen scissors (remove stalk and seeds from pepper) and pour away any liquid that seeps out. Add to tomato, garlic, and heat through. Season with plenty of salt and pepper. Serve.

book jenga

3 Mar

books

Yesterday a pile of books in my bedroom threatened to engulf me. There aren’t any shelves, only artfully arranged stacks. And the one I wanted was at the bottom.

The cookbooks in the kitchen do not fare much better. They have to share space with our ever-expanding tea collection (black, green, white, cranberry, chai, cardamom, almond) that also threatens an avalanche when one item is removed.

And somehow I seem to forget to use them. Or I open them only at well-loved recipes, creased pages. Some of their spines have never been cracked. For the last month, I have been stuck in a rut, making the same two cakes (upside-pomegranate and orange with coconut); soup, bread and Rachel’s peperonata, which never gets old. (Today it is going in a savoury tart and I cannot wait for lunch.)

books 2

Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries have been demoted to bedtime reading, or worse, laptop stand. Not good enough. The seasons are changing, on the cusp, and the markets have switched their produce from one week to the next. Like in Japan, where the 1st September means off with the air-conditioning, here the first weekend of March means I can’t find any more pomegranates, but artichokes are in abundance. So I am getting out of my rut and opening my books.

If I go rescue the Kitchen Diaries from my bed, let’s see… For the beginning of March, Nigel offers lamb shanks, and passion-fruit creams, like a ray of sunshine. (In fact, the recipe for the latter is remarkably similar to my rosemary creams.) This month, I am going to try at least one new recipe per week, each from a different book. Must include artichokes, since I’ve always avoided preparing them. And I think I know which book they require, The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina …

spring supper

2 Mar

spring, cherry blossoms

Two days in bed with a bad cold and my brain went to mush. The extremely nice flatmate brought me tisanes and yoghurt and pretended to understand my French. (“No, he wasn’t telling the truth, he was telling candles. Wait, what?”) Eventually she judged me well enough for a short walk into the outside world. We went to the canal, as always, over the cobbles. The sky wasn’t quite blue, a typical Paris grey with a bright edge to it.

A very few cherry blossoms decorated some bare black branches. Slim daffodils surrounded the trees down the avenue. “It’s the first of March! Pinch and a punch!” I demonstrated, twice, to teach her the English phrase. We squeezed into the busy Ten Belles for cappuccinos with foam hearts, and a cookie. Bought a bag of fresh-ground Belleville Brulerie coffee for home, to go in our matching Moka pots. (Tasting notes: chocolate and forest fruits.) Then we walked and talked and walked some more.

Once home again, to celebrate my new ability to stand upright, I made a batch of the best cookies in the world. (Though Ten Belles’ version was pretty damn good: thin, crisp and chocolaty.) The recipe that uses nearly 600g dark chocolate, enough to fill a chopping board and spill over the edges.

spring, chocolate chip cookie

Three things I have learned since I first wrote about them: 1) to soften the butter, sandwich it between grease-proof paper and beat it with a rolling pin, v. satisfying; 2) to stop brown sugar from drying into a hard clump, peel a lemon with a vegetable peeler and stick a strip or two in the bag; 3) my oven will only bake 4 cookies at once (restraint) but I am not immune to eating frozen, raw cookie dough (total absence of self-discipline). Now there are thirty-something cookie balls in the freezer for me and the chocolate-obsessed flatmate, with control-freak cooking instructions posted on the door.

~~

For the perfect spring supper then: start with an afternoon of fresh air. Take frequent gulps. Then go home to a warm apartment. Have a friend or two come over with a fresh baguette and some Tomme de Savoie cheese. Slice a crisp apple. Alternate bites of bread, cheese and apple. Throw together a slapdash version of Ottolenghi’s pea and yoghurt pasta, miraculously made of items in cupboard and freezer. Boil some water, salt it. Have your friend or flatmate chop some almonds while you blend frozen peas, yoghurt, olive oil and garlic. Toast the almonds with more olive oil and chili flakes. Cook spaghetti. (Keep sneaking bread, cheese, apple.)

spring, ottolenghi pea and yoghurt pasta

Toss everything together: pasta, peas, yoghurt sauce, mint, spicy oil and nuts and serve with some mâche (“lamb’s lettuce,” a nutty soft salad leaf) and a squeeze of lemon. Grate any cheese you haven’t eaten on top. Preheat the oven while you eat and admire the bright green meal. It has all the comfort of winter carbohydrates without the heft, a creamy sauce that isn’t rich, and a serving of spring-y vegetables without tasting smugly virtuous. The flavours were so clear and well-rounded that the cheese was almost superfluous. (I wouldn’t even add bacon, which normally improves everything.) It is the kind of vegetarian food where you forget there is a meat alternative, the reason Ottolenghi was such a success in his New Vegetarian column.

When you have scraped your plates, bake a ball of cookie dough each for exactly 17 minutes. By which time, your appetite will be just about piqued again. And a warm cookie on a paper napkin will be the right way to finish the meal. (Really it is a disc of melted chocolate with a thin cookie shell as a disguise.)

Be happy you can taste fresh air and pasta and cookies again, and look forward to the day when you can have exactly the same supper but outside, legs dangling over the canal.

spring, obsessive cookie instructions

Ottolenghi’s pea and yoghurt pasta

makes enough for 2 hungry people or very 3 polite ones

The original version calls for fresh garlic, pinenuts, basil and feta, none of which I had in the house. Orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) collects the sauce better, but spaghetti is no less delicious. The beauty of this recipe is that it adapts well to whatever you have in your cupboards or freezer. I suggest freezing a bunch of mint for later use, for though it doesn’t look as pretty when defrosted it is useful in a hunger-emergency.

250g frozen peas (divided into 50g/200g)

250g plain natural yoghurt

2 tsp garlic-ginger paste

75ml olive oil (divided into 45ml/30ml)

30g whole almonds

scant 1 tsp chili flakes

250g spaghetti, or favourite pasta

handful mint leaves, roughly torn

salt and pepper

50g-100g mild cheese, grated (Tomme de Savoie)

half a lemon

(optional: several handfuls mâche, or lamb’s lettuce)

Put a large saucepan of water on to boil. (Or boil kettle, faster.) Blend 50g peas with yoghurt, garlic paste and 45ml olive oil until smooth. Tip into large serving bowl. Generously salt boiling water and add pasta. Heat remaining 30ml olive oil with chili flakes in a small frying pan. Roughly chop almonds and toast in the oil until golden-brown. Remove from heat. When pasta is nearly ready, add remaining frozen peas for a minute or two. Drain well. Toss half of pasta in sauce to coat well, then mix in the rest as well as the mint. Salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle chili-oil and almonds over the top. Serve with grated cheese and a squeeze of lemon, a handful of mâche on the side of each plate.

gontran cherrier’s pain au cidre

11 Feb

gontran pain au cidre

By all rights, I did not deserve to get such a perfect loaf. I forgot it three times between rising and baking. I used plain flour – I think – from an unlabelled canister, and beer instead of cider. Which I forgot to measure, just tipped it most of it in. The yeast had been in the cupboard since I don’t know when.

But I was home after a while away and in the way of a territorial cat, I wanted to take back my kitchen. Most of the ingredients were there, flour and honey and beer, so that I could start kneading in my pyjamas. Once I had rescued the sloppy dough (my fault) with extra flour, and had to punch down the bread twice and reknead because it had been spreading, steathily, while I went back to bed with a book, once I remembered that it was in the oven only because the beep awoke me from a Saturday morning stupor… after that, my expectations were low.

It was a nice round loaf, full and plump. The crust was browned properly, while the crumb was surprisingly soft, white and fluffy. There was a slight tang from the beer that gave an edge like good sourdough but with a lighter texture. With butter and last summer’s apricot jam it was heaven.

The next time I made it with cider it was even better. It may become my go-to bread recipe, that I can tweak and change, add a quarter wholemeal flour or seeds, nuts, dried fruit, depending on my mood. I can confirm that a double quantity suits  this insane recipe forgarlic party bread from Smitten Kitchen extremely well. Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to work for Gontran Cherrier for a couple of months at the beginning of my apprenticeship, and his breads are just incredible. Seedy baguettes, squid ink buns, fig loaves. The most original in Paris, certainly. This recipe is from his book, Gontran fait son pain. I am looking forward to making the cider version into cheese and apple sandwiches, or even homemade cinnamon toast, if I can resist eating it all fresh, on the first day.

Which reminds me: toast is the new cupcakes, accordingly to a heartwarming article that surprised me by switching subjects halfway. No sarcasm, do read it.

(If you have leftover cider, consider making spiced mulled cider and adding icecream, optional. If you have no patience, try a quick-bread recipe with much the same ingredients: my beer and honey bread. It has a cakey crumb more like soft soda bread, or a scone, but it is still delicious, and instant.)

gontran pain au cidre 2

Gontran’s Pain au Cidre

makes one small loaf

250g strong white flour

180ml cider

7g instant dried yeast (normally one packet)

1 tbs runny honey

1/2 tsp salt

Mix the yeast with 30ml or 2tbs tepid water, at body temperature. Leave for five minutes. Stir all the ingredients together including the yeast and knead until it comes together into a smooth dough, another five minutes. (Obviously this is possible and faster with an electric mixer and a dough hook.) Lightly oil the bowl and place the ball of dough in it. Sprinkle with a little flour, cover with a teatowel and leave to rise, 45 minutes to an hour. (On a cold day, I like to heat a bowl of water in the microwave for 2 minutes, then put the dough for a warm, humid environment.) It should have roughly doubled in size, be nice and puffy.

Knock some of the air out of the dough, knead once or twice and shape into a ball. Place on a piece of baking paper and cover again. Leave for an hour. Preheat the oven to 200C with two baking trays already inside it, one flat, one with sides. Boil the kettle. With a sharp knife, slash the ball of dough a couple of times, parallel lines about 1cm deep. Slide the dough onto the preheated, flat baking sheet. Pour some of the hot water into the other tray and have it on a lower rack. The steam will help the bread rise and form a nice crust.

Bake for 30 minutes until brown. Turn the loaf over and knock it, it should make a hollow thump. Allow to sit for 15 minutes before cutting.

rebecca’s salmon and lychee salad

8 Feb

salmon salad 3

Travelling is best when you can put on someone else’s life for the weekend, see a city through a local’s eyes. Visiting yet another cousin, I was happy to bypass Parliament House and go straight to the farmer’s market early Saturday morning instead. I tagged along to a yoga class and ran a race with her in the nearby mountains. I liked her version of the green city that involved a lot of walking, with breaks for vegan chocolate chip cookies in a bar decorated with skulls and cacti. I liked that it was small enough that we bumped into her friends everywhere we went, to the extent that one of them joked he had been paid to make her seem popular. I liked that the woman in the Chinese supermarket knew and joked with her when we bought lychees and coconut milk.

Maybe it was all of the outdoors that made me hungry, the scent of gum trees and crackle of leaves underfoot, but I especially liked the supper we cooked together, better than any restaurant. It was her weekly standby, one she is happy to eat again and again, changing a few ingredients but keeping the basics: salmon marinated in fish sauce, pan-fried to give it a crisp brown edge; a bowl of greens, cucumber and lettuce and onion; the unexpected addition of lychees, canned were fine; and a lime-chili-fish sauce dressing. It was fresh, salty, tangy with plenty of crunch and bite from the chili. The generous handfuls of herbs and that addictive dressing made it totally addictive. I made it twice more in the next ten days, not always giving Rebecca the full credit! So here is her official acknowledgement; this will go down in my cavallo di battiglia folder to be made over and over.

~~~

For an easy dessert along the same theme, mix equal quantities of leftover lychee juice and coconut milk to make a quick and unusual granita: pour into a shallow metal dish and freeze for 3-4 hours, stirring every 30 minutes to break up the crystals. Serve plain or with fresh mango.

~~~

Rebecca’s salmon and lychee salad

Originally adapted from Bill Granger

Feeds 2-3 people, depending on appetite

2 salmon steaks

3 tbs fish sauce

1 tbs brown sugar

1 bag mixed leaves

1 cucumber

1 red onion

½ bunch coriander

½ bunch basil

1 tin lychees

Dressing:

1 small red chili

Juice of 2 limes

1 ½ tbs fish sauce

2 tsp brown sugar

Marinate salmon in fish sauce and sugar. Meanwhile slice the red onion as finely as possible, cut the cucumber into rounds, tear up the herbs, tip it all into a large salad bowl with the leaves. Drain lychees, reserve the juice and add the fruit to the salad. Cut up the chili (remove the seeds if you don’t like it too hot) and mix with lime juice, fish sauce, 1 tbs of the lychee juice. Taste and adjust accordingly, so it makes a nice balance between sweet, sharp, salty and hot. Pan fry the salmon until crisp around the edges, breaking it up into chunks in the pan as it cooks. Tip onto salad and pour over the dressing. Toss the salad, taste again and add more salt-sweet-sour if necessary.

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