Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Blue Cheese Pasta/Brioche Bombe

It is about time I reported back here on the world of food, or at least the state of my cookbooks.  Simply put, I have too many for the allotted shelf space I have, and thus must figure out how to get another bookcase (for them alone, so the books here that happen to be about things besides food can get some much-needed shelf space as well).  One day this will happen; in the meantime, books are scattered here and there, but are still mostly on the shelves, and it is to the shelves that I now go…

First – blue cheese pasta.  Is that all it is?  Well, just about, yes.  This is a dish of a mere three ingredients, so you’ve got to get them right – good blue cheese, good egg pasta, good cream.  This recipe is from French Food at Home by Laura Calder and here is a recipe for two people:

Blue Cheese Pasta

250 g egg pasta (she suggests fettuccine, but I use pappardelle)

125 g blue cheese (Roquefort, bleu de Causses, I use standard Danish blue)

75 g cream, more if needed

First thing first:  get your salted water nice and boiling, and while it’s getting ready for the pasta, the sauce is all ease itself.  Get a pan/pot (anything that will hold all the pasta you’re about to cook easily) and put it on a lowish heat; melt the blue cheese slowly in it, stirring and breaking it up, encouraging it to become a sauce.  When it is all smooth and lovely, add the cream and stir again, add a bit more cream until it looks like a proper pasta sauce.  Cook the pasta until it’s done (egg pasta takes a bit more time than you’d think, but test it as always to make sure it’s al dente) and then drain, then add immediately to the blue cheese sauce and toss it around, making sure all the pasta gets coated.  Divide into warmed bowls/plates and add as much pepper as you like – the blue cheese and egg combination is a strong one, and can take a fair amount. 

I made this and liked it very much, but I noted that Calder says in France this is served before steak, and I thought, hm, this could use some meat…and so there I was at M&S getting more of their house blue cheese and it hit me- get some beef sausages and coax the meat out of the casings to make meatballs!  Cook the meatballs separately from the cheese and then add to the pasta just before you add the pepper, and wow, did that work.  I hope to make this pasta in the future alongside steak of some kind, which I sense is its ultimate pairing.  But the meatballs worked out very very well.

What to serve afterward?  Hmmm…a little digression here…as usual when I go out and about I look for cookbooks; and if you look long and hard enough, you can find some truly good ones.  One is Cook Simple by Diana Henry, which I found last weekend at about the point when I had given up finding anything altogether.  (Earlier in the day I’d found – and rejected – Locatelli’s Made In Italy, because even in paperback it was too darn heavy. Also it has a blurb on the front cover from a non-chef, which bugged me.)  But Cook Simple rocks, and she understands desserts and the need for simple ones; this one is so simple she doesn’t have a name for it; so I am calling it

Brioche Bombe

Get a small brioche – the kind you’d have with breakfast, a small one – and warm it through.  Get some good ice cream out and ready to scoop.  Take your brioche, slice it lengthways nearly all the way through – leave it so it still has a hinge, so to speak.  Scoop as much ice cream into it as you can without making it impossible to make into, effectively, an ice cream sandwich.  Eat, being careful to catch any drips. 

What kind of ice cream can be used here?  Brioche is sweet and rich, so anything that has nuts or chocolate is ideal, but then again so is vanilla – basically if you think it would taste good with brioche, it’s bound to work.  You could even cut the brioche before heating it and get the insides toasted, for more of a contrast to the smooth ice cream.  It’s up to you.  Good eats!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Homely Chicken

If you nose around for cookbooks in London as much as I do, you become aware that it’s kind of hard to find American cookbooks; in bookstores the “American” section can be alarmingly small – just a copy of the New York Times Cookbook and something on barbeques and something that may as well be entitled Southern Cooking Without Tears.  I don’t watch the Food Channel here but I am aware that Ina Garten is well-known enough to have her books out now domestically in the UK; and if I go somewhere US-friendly like Foyles there is a decent US section there, nothing Canadian alas (where I got the cooking bug, first and second-time around).  So charity shops are where I find the American books I actually want, since Americans tend to pass through London and leave these lovely but rather heavy things behind.  Again, I feel lucky in this, as I would rather help a charity and myself at the same time than order a book in person or online; the purchase somehow means more, and the books that can turn up make the sometimes-endless hunt more than worthwhile.

One American cookbook I came across recently was Spain:  A Culinary Road Trip by Mario Batali with Gwyneth Paltrow (as you can see when I say American I don't necessarily mean it's about food from the US).  Based on a tv series (I think; I never saw it), it has Batali, Paltrow,  cookbook author Mark Bittman and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols going through Spain, through every region, trying this and sampling that, hanging out and seeing the sights as well as eating the food.  It’s a loose-legged book, not pretending to know everything or see everything, but if you imagine you are with them, on the road and interested in everything, it is almost as good as visiting Spain itself.  Spanish cooking is new to me; the UK being so close to Spain it is easier for me to try these things than if I was back in Canada.  (Chorizo is something I didn’t know about until I moved to London.)

I’ve been cooking a lot of chicken lately, and this dish is simple enough to try without too much hassle.  I had to go to Portobello to get the pimentos (preserved red peppers, whole in a can) but I imagine the roasted ones in jars would do just as well. 

Homely Chicken 

This recipe is for chicken; one 3 ½ pound one cut into eight pieces.  If chicken butchery is not your thing, just get eight pieces, preferably thighs and drumsticks. 

Mince two cloves of garlic; rub the chicken with it and a tablespoon of salt, then cover it and put it in the fridge for an hour. 

Heat two tablespoons of oil in your cooking pot (one that can hold all the chicken in a “snug layer”; I have no such sized-pot, but just make sure it can all get in reasonably tightly, two layers if needed).  Turn up the heat and brown the chicken, working in batches.  15 minutes per batch should do, and remember to turn the chicken over halfway through.  Once the chicken’s all nice and brown, put it on a platter.

While your chicken is browning away, chop up an onion and cut your pimento into slices; when the chicken’s done, turn down the heat a bit and cook your onion until it’s soft, and then add the pimento slices and a cup of dry white wine.  Add the chicken back to the pot and simmer it, partially covered, for an hour, or until the chicken is tender.  Then serve on hot plates with some kind of fried potatoes (home fries will do) and enjoy.  Good Eats!

Pow-Pow Tricolore Pasta

There are some days when I am looking for a cookbook and other days when a cookbook finds me, so to speak.  I am usually very deliberate in what I am looking for, keeping my kind of notorious amazon wish list perpetually up to date with what I am interested in, from new books to books I’ve come across at cookbooker or by amazon itself recommending it to me. 

But as we know there’s thousands of cookbooks that come out each year, dozens and dozens of chefs and general areas of interest, and winnowing these down to the essentials isn’t always easy.  Thinking to yourself, “Hey, I really like Italian food” is a good start, for instance, but then you will find there are seemingly endless books on Italian food, especially since there are so many variations on dishes, so many regions and dishes to begin with, that it is easy to get overwhelmed and even baffled by some of these books.  They also – with the best will in the world – naturally assume that if you are going to cook Italian food, you’re going to do it the good old fashioned Italian way, which by and large is the best way; this includes making your own pasta, as it is supposed to be easy.

What if, though, you barely have enough kitchen space for a toaster and a cutting board, let alone enough space to make pasta (water, flour, egg, a place to roll it out, some way of drying it, the machine, oh the machine…)? Chefs tend to think you should just make the space or naturally have it anyway, just as they assume that you have the time to make the mess, make the pasta, clean it up, and then cook.  This may be easy in a restaurant kitchen, but at home, it nears impossibility. 

One chef who understands this is Andrew Carmellini, whose book Urban Italian I found just a couple of weeks ago, by accident.  He spent half a year cooking at home, working on his recipes, as he waited for his restaurant to be opened; he makes his pasta in a machine (the much-longed for if quite heavy KitchenAid).  With all due respect to those who make it by hand, he hasn’t got the time; he also did all the shopping for those six months, admitting that he had forgotten just how time-consuming and stressful it is to go out, forage, buy and then schlep everything home, hands and feet tired from the long journey. 

Unlike some chefs, who are a bit presumptuous or lofty (naming no names, I’m sure you know who I mean), Carmellini is on the would-be cook’s side, is practically there with you as you cook, not tut-tutting but encouraging.  His life has been, since his teens, all about restaurant work, but those six months at home taught him how difficult cooking at home can be.  (He had a propensity to set off the fire alarm, for instance.)  I have made two main courses from his book so far – Ziti with Tuna, Red Onions and Cannellini Beans and  Tagliatelle with Herbs, Caprino and Marinated Tomatoes – each a hit, each quite doable in a modest kitchen.  There are other recipes I look forward to making (Rigatoni Pugliese, Penne with Bacon, Radicchio, and Piave Cheese) and others, well, not so much (I avoid anything that calls for tripe, veal, swordfish or sardines).   It is Carmellini’s voice and experience that are the real stars of this book; the recipes simply come out of those, are truly Italian and truly urban. I would rather have this book than The Silver Spoon, the encyclopaedic national cookbook of Italy which may well be comprehensive but doesn’t have that empathy that I find is necessary in any real cookbook – that the writer/chef is on your side, is trying to help you as best s/he can.  I was lucky to find this book, one written by a man who, given his credentials, could have been haughty and faux-friendly, but he isn’t; he’s the real thing, a chef who knows what that tiny kitchen at home is really like.
And now, I hope Mr. Carmellini doesn't mind my paraphrasing one of his recipes!

Tagliatelle with Herbs, Caprino and Marinated Tomatoes
This recipe has a lot of ingredients, but doesn't require a lot of skills or space if you do things neatly and in order. 

First, get some water for your pasta and salt it; bring it to the boil slowly (Carmellini's home stove is gas, mine is electric, so slow's a given for me) as you cut a bunch of cherry tomatoes (a cup for two, two cups for more) in half.  Then get some shallots-one if you're just cooking for two, if more, two then - and mince them.  (They will make your eyes water if you cry cutting onions, by the way.)  Get a bowl and put the tomatoes and shallots together with I teaspoon of both balsamic and red wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper (tiny amounts, 1/4 teaspoon).  Also add in some nice fresh chopped up parsely, enough so that it mixes in well and is visible (about as much as the oil).  Obviously you can adjust everything for the number of people you're serving; beware, this is a dish that doesn't keep well, so make only as much as you need.  Right!

In a saucepan, combine a quarter cup each of milk and cream (I used single cream) and a half cup of chicken stock (or if you're vegan/vegetarian, vegetable stock) and blend away.  Add the cup goat cheese (caprino is a soft goat cheese)  and turn up the heat, until it blends all nicely together.  Add some fresh thyme leaves, some fresh rosemary chopped up, salt and pepper.  By now your water should be boiling and the tagliatelle can go in.  While it's in the pot, grate some Parmesean (1/4 cup but really as much as you like) and chop/tear up as much basil.  Cook and drain the pasta, putting it in the goat cheese sauce directly, then stir in the cheese and basil, mixing it all up.  Serve hot in hot bowls (always heat serving dishes!) and put the marinated tomatoes on top, with a bit more cheese if you have the time.  Sharp and glorious, tricolore and zingy.  Good Eats!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Two Books, Two Stories

As you know, dear readers, I am something of a…collector always seems like such a cold and scientific word…an accumulator of cookbooks. Sometimes I go out looking for something; sometimes a book just appears and I have to get it, especially if it is on my wish list or is something that I have been wanting to get – for whatever reason – for some time. As you know I am picky, but then I will succumb to any book if I get a good vibe from it, whether I have much experience with the food itself or not.

The newest editions to the library are above – Chez Panisse may be a long way from Clapham but as I was kindly taken there once in my youth (by a realtor who was dealing with my mom in getting our house in Berkeley on the market & sold, back in ’81) I have never forgotten how good the food was, even though it was pizza & cider and perhaps some salad, it was so good it must have imprinted upon me in some deep way. Thus when I came across the Chez Panisse CafĂ© Cookbook I had to get it, just in order to be reminded that the pizza was from a wood-burning oven and how good the French cider was…many Chez Panisse books are out there, I suspect, that sit beautifully on the shelf but never get used; I am going to try to make something from this, even if it’s just a side dish, to see if I can create some of the Berkeley magic right here.

Crazy Water Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry is a whole other story. I am moving tentatively (very tentatively) into trying out Mediterranean food, beyond Italy, beyond Sicily even; and this book looks like the right place to start (yes I do have the Claudia Roden book as well – so I can contrast & compare, of course). It is awesomely pretty, for one thing, and on a grey day like today the light and heat radiating from the book are enough to inspire me. But there is something else too; in buying this book I feel as if I have freed myself, and that is in part due to the fact that I got it somewhere I not only didn’t expect to find it, but in a chain of shops that ordinarily I avoid. I avoid it for a good reason, and have done so for over a year, but my gut instinct told me to go in and look, and there it was, sitting there patiently waiting, or so I like to think, for me. A cook’s relationship with any given book has to be a good one, or else the book will be ignored and the cook will remain ignorant of whatever wisdom it can provide. Mediterranean food is some of the oldest in the world, and that is why I am interested in it (of course I am following Elizabeth David’s main interests too – French, Italian, Mediterranean…more imprinting, I think) and I have not seen this book anywhere else, at any price. That I was forgiving and then rewarded shows how the cookbook gods, if there are any, wanted me to find that book; that it is a gorgeous and inspiring one is also moving, in a way.

Oxtail Stew

Oxtail stew is one of those things that is very good, but few of the books I have even bother to mention oxtail (I do have more than a few books, but only one – Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries – has a recipe). I don’t know why this is, save for the fact that because it’s not a glamorous cut, nor one easy to find (I’m guessing at this but think about it – it’s not what any butcher is going to feature in the window) that it is avoided. The fact that it’s the tail – bone and all – also probably puts people off.

That is too bad, as oxtail stew is amazing stuff – strong, richly comforting, good for what ails you, whatever that might be. The recipe I used wasn’t Slater’s – I tend to shy away from using mushrooms in a stew – but this one, which I highly recommend, with these caveats:

A whole oxtail is not something you can just get off the bat, so to speak; I used two large pieces, three smaller ones and a long narrow piece that looks something like a child’s bicycle’s handlebar which must be the end piece of the tail. The two large ones I got from a friendly butcher (note: I live in Clapham and didn’t go to an independent butcher but to a grocery store, for reasons I will mention in the fullness of time) and the smaller I got at another branch of the same grocery store that had them out and already cut and packaged to go. I figure with these six pieces I had most, if not all, of the tail, and cut back only on the onion, using half of one instead of a whole one.

I used ready-in-a-bag chopped swede instead of a parsnip on the hunch it would work, and it did; ordinarily I advocate cutting up your own vegetables, but these were on a discount shelf and had ripened, if that’s the right word, to a good point for using in a stew.

The crazy part of this recipe is when it tells you to use a strainer to get out all the celery, onion and carrot you put in to make the basis of the stew in the first place. That is impossible without a strainer (guess what – I don’t have one) and kind of pointless, as they lend body to the gravy and are good for you, if only for fibre. So keep ‘em in!

Also, when you put the stew in the fridge overnight to scrape the fat off the top the next day, do not go crazy trying to get every bit of fat off, and keep the fat – it’s good stuff – for using to cook vegetables, particularly carrots, as the thyme is right there in the fat already…and indeed I used dry twigs of old thyme and that worked out fine, though fresh thyme is always preferable.

Remove the bones just before serving, and you'll know when the stew is ready when you can do just that - the meat shouldn't be falling off them, exactly, but should pull away very easily.

The wine should be a strong red, as oxtail has a strong flavour and will twack anything too diffident.

The side dish I’d advise is mashed potatoes and lots of ‘em, straight up (no garlic or mustard or caramelized onions needed) with lots of butter.

After I made the stew I found a Delia Smith version where cider is used instead of wine; I may well try that out next, and report on how it goes…

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Trucker's Pasta

As you probably know by now, I love pasta, and I judge books by their pasta recipes; if there is something intriguing about a name or a combination of ingredients I've never heard of before (and that sounds good to me), then I usually get the book.

This is from Made in Sicily, a lovely book by Giorgio Locatelli, who went to Sicily and found out how this old island - part of Italy and yet its own world - goes about cooking. This pasta is substantial, as its name implies, and yet there is no meat in it; and really, barely any cooking to speak of, besides boiling the water for pasta and some brief chopping.

The main problem I had with it was finding the right kind of pasta - the almighty bucatini, which looks like a fat spaghetti and pretty much is...until you look at it and see it's hollow! This is truly tubular pasta, therefore, and it is the one most suited to this dish. You could use linguine for it as well, but bucatini simply looks more truck driver-like to me. (For UK residents - I found mine at Sainsbury's; otherwise an Italian deli with a halfway decent pasta section should have it.)

Be warned: this is a very filling pasta. You don't have to know how to drive a truck to eat it, you just have to be hungry. I'm going to give you the recipe for four people - it can be easily divided into a meal for two, or one really hungry person.


450g chopped tomatoes (I used ones from a box because I could; canned is just as good)
2 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced as finely as you can
10 basil leaves, finely chopped
5 mint leaves, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
400g bucatini (or linguine if you can't find it)
80g pecorino cheese, grated

Once you have all these, the battle is half over. First, the sauce - get a big bowl and put the tomatoes, oil, garlic and herbs in it, one after another, and stir them up well and let them sit for an hour. You can just leave the bowl right there on the counter, it doesn't have to go anywhere special. Towards the end of the hour is a good time to get the water boiling and grate the cheese.

Once the water's boiling, make sure the pasta gets in the water all at once (Locatelli says you should use a fork to curl it). Cook it for a while, but drain it before it's absolutely done; save some of the pasta water and add it to your sauce. Add your pasta to the bowl and mix up well, adding about 70g of the pecorino and continue until it's nicely coated. Transfer to a good warm plate or bowl and add the rest of the cheese and be amazed at how a sauce as simple as this can taste so good. Salute!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Slacker's Delight

For those of you who cringe at the very idea of baking something just to have dessert and enjoy experimenting...also a 'cupboard/fridge cleaning' dessert, for those of you who enjoy that sort of thing.

Ingredients per dessert: one muffin, one scoop of ice cream, dark chocolate, double cream/half-and-half, golden syrup (optional)

The first ingredient is a muffin that is just a bit stale - not so much that it can't be eaten, but it is not just-fresh either. Get a serving bowl and break the muffin up into pieces, not too big, not too small. If a muffin can be broken up rustically, this is what you are after.

Then, ice cream. It doesn't matter if the ice cream in question is superdeluxe or ordinary as its main function is to add moisture to the muffin in question; the ice cream should go well with the muffin, of course, but that is a matter of taste I'll leave up to you. Put on just enough to make a good impression, as opposed to drowning the muffin altogether.

Now then - the cooking part. Get chocolate - the darker, the better - and break it up into pieces. Rig up (however you can) a bowl to melt it in, over boiling water. In my case I use my larger mixing bowl over the pot I make pasta in, as the bowl is large enough that no steam can turn back into water and mess the chocolate up. You could use a microwave for this I suppose, but chocolate is a delicate thing, so don't put it in there for much more than half a minute, I'd guess.

Melt the chocolate slowly - and the higher in percentage in cocoa it is, the longer that will take - and add a teaspoon or two of cream and stir. Be patient; use as much chocolate as you think you'll need for sauce, and wait and stir when it starts to melt. If you have some golden syrup around, put in a little of that, one squeeze will work. Stir some more and remove the bowl as it's hot enough now to keep going without being directly above boiling water. Stir until it's smooth and then using a spoon drizzle your sauce over the ice cream, leaving some for bowl-licking purposes, of course.

Good eats, as the man says! This recipe came from my own kitchen, though I am sure it has been done hundreds of times elsewhere.