Monday, 11 June 2012

Meals for a rainy day

Back to the comfort food...

Well that was a long summer! This rain really is terrible, and has completely scuppered any plans that I had for nice outdoor evening suppers - I’m still yet to have a barbecue this year! So it’s back to nice hearty food that is perfect to come home to after trudging around in the rain. 
In this blog I’ve included a recipes for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea (or even dessert).   All are quick and simple to prepare, but incredibly satisfying.
Breakfast of champions: Pan-fried mackerel with scrambled eggs on toast 
Sod a full english breakfast, this is what you want on a nice sunday morning with a cup of tea and the papers. It’s traditional to have smoked salmon or kippers for breakfast, but the fresh mackerel keeps the flavours of the dish delicate and balances really well with the creaminess of the eggs. 

Mackerel is a fantastic fish, and one that you will find me using a lot on this blog. It is criminally overlooked in home cooking, with the reputation of being too strongly flavoured and bony. But give me one any day - mackerel is easy to cook and prepare, and a good start if learning how to fillet fish. They are also really cheap and can be bought anywhere, although I hear that their popularity in restaurants is pushing the prices up. I really hope that this isn’t true! For this dish, you can buy mackerel already filleted so that they will only need pin-boning before cooking.
Everyone has their own way of making scrambled eggs, but for me, heating slowly with a dollop of cream and butter until just cooked and oozing over the toast is best. 
Serves 2
4 mackerel fillets, skin on and pin-boned
1 lemon - juice
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 knob of butter
Salt and pepper
Parsley to finish
For the scrambled eggs:
6 medium eggs
3 tbsp double cream
Salt and pepper
1 large knob of butter
To finish:
2 large, thick slices of sourdough bread
In a large mixing bowl or jug, crack the eggs and add the double cream and some salt and pepper (you can add more later). Whisk well to combine.
Remove the mackerel fillets from the fridge and dry with kitchen roll, season both sides well.

Heat a medium saucepan on a low heat and add the knob of butter. When melted add the eggs, and keep stirring all the time as they start to thicken up. When the mixture has started to thicken and is about half done, remove the saucepan from the heat and place a non-stick frying pan with the vegetable oil on a medium heat. Keep stirring the eggs, they will still be cooking even off the heat. 
When the frying pan has heated up, add the mackerel fillets skin side down, holding them down for a few seconds at first, and fry for 3 minutes before turning. Cook for another 2 minutes before turning the heat off and adding the butter and lemon juice which will sizzle away and gently finish the cooking of the fish in the residual heat. 
When you turn the fish over, put the saucepan with the eggs back on the heat and finish off - it should still be quite runny and just cooked. Check the seasoning and add more if necessary. At the point of turning the fish also get the sourdough bread toasting. 

To serve, butter the toast and spoon over a good dollop of the scrambled eggs. Top with mackerel fillets, some parsley and some more cracked black pepper. Eat while still hot. 
Lunch time: pea, mint and ham soup
This soup is a classic, and perfect for gloomy rainy days. They can be bought in tubs ready made from any supermarket, but as usual a homemade version is far superior. Most simple soups are often overcomplicated with unnecessary ingredients, this version of the soup is so simple and quick to prepare and all of the main ingredients shine through - you can taste the sweet peas, the salty ham and the zing of mint. I like the soup to remain quite chunky in texture, so I crush about a quarter of the peas instead of blending the whole mixture, but this is optional.

Once cooked, this soup stands well and the flavour of the ham develops the longer it is left. This makes it great for leftovers, although try not to re-heat it too much as the colour will fade and it won’t taste so fresh.
This recipe uses ready sliced ham as it is easiest to purchase, but for amazing results use freshly roasted ham in roughly shredded chunks.
Serves 4 for lunch or 2 for a hearty dinner
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 litre good quality chicken stock
1kg frozen peas
1 large bunch mint, leaves picked 
8 slices of good quality ham, roughly torn
1 lemon - juice
salt and pepper
To serve:
Extra virgin olive oil
Crusty break or toast with loads of butter. 
Heat up a large a saucepan with the vegetable oil and slowly cook the chopped shallot and garlic until tender. 
Meanwhile heat the stock up in a separate saucepan until boiling. 
When the garlic and shallots are cooked, add the peas and cover with the hot stock. Bring to the boil and simmer until the peas are cooked. 
Using a slotted spoon or sieve, put 3/4 of the peas into a food processor with the mint and blend until smooth, then pour back into the saucepan with the rest of the soup and mix well. Add the chunks of ham and season, and heat the soup back up until just before boiling. 
Just before serving, add the lemon juice and have one final taste and adjust the seasoning. Spoon into bowls and drizzle a little of the extra virgin olive oil over the top. Serve with the crusty bread on the side. 
Afternoon tea: bakewell tart
Another classic and another simple thing to make, but something that if made carefully is really amazing. The soft almondy filling with sweet jam and crisp pastry work so well together, and is really lovely as an afternoon snack with a cup of tea.

Getting the pastry just right is the key with this. You want it to be short, thin and crisp; if mixed too much and rolled too thickly it will be doughy and undercooked, whilst if rolled too thinly you risk it cracking. Experience is the way to get this right really, and every cook I know has had a nightmare with pastry at some point. As with all baking and pastry, following recipes exactly and cooking with care and patience will produce a better result. With the techniques used, it is also a great stepping stone to making other desserts - good pastry and frangipane filling recipes can be used in many different ways. I have even seen it used to top mince pies with good effect! 
This is my take on the bakewell, traditional recipes won’t have the polenta but I think this gives the frangipane a great texture.
This recipe makes a large tart, but if kept covered it keeps really well and stays moist for 4-5 days.
Serves 8-10
For the sweet shortcrust pastry:
125g salted butter
100g icing sugar
255g plain flour
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp milk
Pinch of salt
For the frangipane:
275g ground almonds
75g uncooked polenta (quick cook variety)
300g salted butter
300g caster sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1 tsp almond extract
3/4 jar raspberry jam, preferably home made
good handful of sliced almonds, lightly toasted
To serve:
Double cream
Pre-heat the oven to 170ºC (fan oven)
In a food processor, cream together the butter, salt and icing sugar until light in colour and very soft and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, milk and flour and pulse until the mixture starts to look like coarse breadcrumbs. Tip the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface and carefully pat together until just combined. Wrap the ball of dough in clingfilm and put in the fridge to rest for an hour.
In the meantime, grease and line a 28cm flan tin with greaseproof paper, and cut a second  28cm disc of greaseproof paper that you will use to cover the pastry later. 
When the dough has rested, take it out of the fridge and using a sharp knife, cut it into thin slices. Line the base and sides of the tin with these slices and push together with your fingers until the pastry is all joined up and the tin is completely lined. Using a fork, prick the  pastry on the base of the tart all over, this will stop it rising unevenly. Cover the base of the pastry with the spare disc of greaseproof paper and spread baking beans evenly over the top, and put the pastry into the oven for 8 minutes. After 8 minutes, take the pastry out of the oven and carefully remove the baking beans and greaseproof from the top, and put the uncovered pastry back in the oven for another 5 minutes or until the base is a light golden colour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
Turn the oven down slightly to 160ºC.
While the pastry base is cooling, make the frangipane filling. Put the ground almonds and polenta in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the butter and sugar until creamed together. Add this, along with the beaten eggs and almond extract to the almonds and polenta and fold until smooth. 
When the pastry shell has cooled down, spoon an even layer of the raspberry jam over the base, then fill to the top with the frangipane mixture. Sprinkle over the toasted sliced almonds and bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes, there should still be a little bit of wobble in the middle. 

Allow to cool slightly before serving with a good dollop of whipped double cream and a cup of tea.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Crab supper!

Crab is such an overlooked ingredient. For something so widely available, sustainable and delicious, I definitely don’t eat it enough. They can be pretty cheap too, and if bought near to where they were caught can sometimes just cost a couple of pounds each. Even in London they are pretty reasonable, and a good fishmongers will be able to get live crabs if you order them. Although they are often compared to lobsters, the taste and texture is so different - much more flakey and delicate - but just as good. 

Crab comes available in many different forms. You can buy whole cooked crabs, or ready dressed crabmeat from most fishmongers or large supermarkets, but buying them live and cooking at home is definitely the way that I would recommend eating them. In my mind, the perfect way to eat crab is very simply - a warm, freshly cooked crab with lemony mayonnaise, thick slices of crusty bread and a simple watercress salad. You can use crab in many other (and more complicated) ways, but eaten like this emphasises the wonderful sweet flavoured meat. 
However, buying and preparing a live crab is not for the squeamish, and involves killing it yourself. Performing this task always feels a bit strange and weird, but has to be done in order to kill them humanely. I personally don’t have a problem with this as all meat and fish that we eat starts off as a living thing, but if this isn’t for you, then buy a ready-cooked crab. Shelling and picking all of the meat from the crabs can be a slow and laborious task, but once you have done it a couple of times it becomes quicker and easier. 
This recipe shows you how to cook and prepare the crab, and serve with a homemade mayonnaise, but once you know the basics you can use the finished crab meat in loads of other dishes.
Serves 2 as a decent lunch or light supper, with leftover crab meat if you get larger crabs. 
2 live crabs, about 1kg each
For the lemon mayonnnaise:
1 egg yolk
200ml vegetable oil
1tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp dijon mustard
1 small clove garlic, very finely chopped
1 lemon - juice
Salt and pepper
For the watercress salad:
2 large handfuls watercress, washed
1 lemon - juice
3/4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
To serve:
Fresh crusty bread, thickly sliced
Salty butter
Wedges of lemon
Put the crabs in a tray and place in the freezer for about half an hour - this will put them into a deep sleep.
Heat up a saucepan large enough to easily hold both crabs with very salty water until it comes to a rolling boil.
When the water is boiling, take the crabs out of the freezer and kill them quickly. To do this,  flip the crab onto it’s back and drive a sharp metal skewer through the small hole underneath the tail flap towards the roof of the shell, moving the skewer around a couple of centimeters. Once this is done, turn the crab back over and push the skewer deep through the mouth. The crab will die instantly, and this is widely viewed as the most humane way to kill them. Once this has been done, plunge the crabs into the boiling water and cook for 15 minutes, adding a couple of minutes if the crabs are bigger. Remove and allow to cool on a plate.
While the crabs are cooking and cooling, make the mayonnaise. Put the egg yolk, garlic and seasoning in a bowl and whisk until the mixture thickens. Add the white wine vinegar and dijon mustard and whisk well again. Using a measuring jug, very, very slowly pour the vegetable oil into the mixture, whisking all of the time until all of the oil has been emulsified. Once all of the oil has been added, taste and add the lemon juice and adjust with salt, pepper and white wine vinegar. Cover and put aside.

To make the dressing for the watercress, put the lemon juice and the olive oil in a bowl and mix together. Add salt and pepper to taste and put aside. Only mix with the watercress at the last minute before serving.
Once the crabs have cooled down a little you can pick out the meat. Pull the legs and claws off of the main body, and with the crab upside down and facing away, push the central part up and away from the main body. Remove the the grey gills - the dead mans fingers, the small yellow stomach sac and the membranes inside the shell. Scrape the rest of the brown crab meat from the inside of the shell and place in one bowl. You can now wash and clean the main shell if you want to use it (in a very 1980s fashion) later for presentation. 
Now you can pick the meat out of the main body. Using a heavy knife, cut it into two pieces, and using a metal skewer pick out all of the white crab meat from all the little gaps. Be persistent! Place the white crab meat in a separate bowl.
Crack the claws and legs and pick out the meat from there - there is loads stored in here - and add to the white meat. Try not to mash the meat up too much, it’s nice to have a mixture of textures. Pick through the meat carefully and pick out any shell that might have got in. Season with a little salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.
To serve, warm the bread through in the oven or toaster, dress the salad and serve on a board with piles of the crab meat and the mayonnaise. 

Keep any leftovers - they are great tossed through some linguine with garlic, chilli, parsley and lemon.