R.R. 12/52 – Gooseberry and Elderflower (I Pity tha) Fool

Yikes!  I am seriously falling behind in the documentation of the New Stuffs I’ve experienced of late!  Believe me, the experimentation has continued apace, but I’m not being terribly diligent about keeping this updated.  Just call me Thoroughly Naughty Nin.

After reading about the decline of the humble gooseberry’s fortune, as more and more shoppers abandon it in favour of other, more fashionable fruits, (which begs the question, what fruit IS the hot, must-have accessory in the chicest kitchens this season?!) I decided to add a punnet of them to my basket during the weekly shop.  That’s me all over – I can’t help but support the underdog.  Also, the blurb on the package promised that they were perfect for me, so I felt doubly compelled to buy them, seeing as I was being addressed by name.  Damn these clever ad campaigns.

I kept darting glances at them, wondering just what I should or could do with them other than, of course, my first natural inclination, which was to….well…let me explain.

The pale and interesting Jools, who was the best of my childhood friends, lived in a cottage with a sprawling, English-style garden which was jealously tended by her mother, Mrs. Fazooli.  Naturally, it fell upon us to raid that garden at every opportunity, strip it of its mullberries, strawberries, and raspberries, and then blame the missing produce on the neighbourhood lads.  (Sorry, Richie.)  But there was one crop in Mrs. F.’s bountiful garden which was never under any threat from the little shehooligans that we were, and that was, for obvious and mouth-puckering reasons, the gooseberry.   That all changed, however, when it was demonstrated to us just how delightfully the gooseberry squashed.   The name of the serpent which bore this knowledge  isn’t particularly important.  Simply remember, children, that is is always unwise to trust an elder sibling, especially one forcibly recruited to watch over you when there is Something Better to Do, like – oh, I don’t know –  a pool party in the offing.  When said sibling carelessly plucks a forbidden fruit from the bush, pierces it with one perfectly manicured nail, squishes its contents on your arm, and in wondering, hushed tones marvels how very like bug guts it is, stop your ears and look away, my preciouses.  You will only be led astray.

There is no denying the power of suggestion.  With the seed planted, The Sib waved airily and retreated to allow her plan to bear fruit.  And Jools and I didn’t disappoint.  Stopping to examine the berries that had gone ignored for so long, we were amazed at how alien they looked, their ghostly green, translucent skins overtraced by a network of  veins.  And if you held one up to the light, you could just make out the vague, indeterminate shape of a certain *something* suspended in the centre, clearly being nurtured, clearly up to  no good; it was  like a bodysnatcher pod in miniature or the chrysalis of some ravenous, otherworldly, flesh-eating insect.  So, yes.  What else were we to do with the sum total of our accumulated knowledge that day?  Humanity will never know or understand the service we did it  that summer – Mrs. Fazooli certainly didn’t – as together, Jools and I, like the proto Willow and Buffy team that we were, singlehandedly and barefootedly prevented a global invasion of the embryonic evil preparing to emerge from those gooseberry bushes.  Just as we finished off the last wave of the vile enemy, we were discovered.  We tried in vain to redirect attention to those pesky, not to mention nimble and lightning-quick, neighbour boys, (Apologies, Chris.) but I’m afraid our juice-stained feet spoke of different culprits.

To this day we don’t know who summoned the adults, but, later from the perspectives of our chambers of banishment, it was with some suspicion that we watched The Sib totter off  down the street toward her party, beach towel thrown jauntily over her shoulder.  We were just pawns in a much larger game.

Back in the present, I largely resisted the urge to squish the gooseberries (which should not be construed to imply that absolutely no gooseberries were nostalgically harmed in the making of this recipe), choosing rather to incorporate them in a Mark Hix recipe for Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool.  Such a lovely name for a pudding, isn’t’ it?  As I assembled the ingredients, I thought I understood why it was called this.  For me, it conjured up images of carefree, madcap summer days, of happiness and light.  With a name like fool, one could also be forgiven for assuming the pudding was quick and easy to prepare.  (Note to self:  Next time, look for the recipe for Gooseberry Foolproof.)

Things began auspiciously enough.  The gooseberries, while they took a great deal longer to thicken than the recipe advertised, shook off their grass green coats and revealed lovely, brick pink interiors.  Following the recipe to the letter, I didn’t sieve the compote when it became jam-like, but, since I didn’t fancy chunky swathes of gooseberry skin catching on one’s teeth, I decided to puree it. Mmm.  It was tart and sweet; it tasted of sunshine and summer.  This was going to be one lovely pudd.  I then turned my attention to the cream mixture, and my fortunes promptly nosedived.  If ever you attempt this recipe, know only this:  the instruction to whip the mixture slowly is SOUND.  Solid, even.  Pretend that your mixer doesn’t even go to 11.  Impatience will cost you dearly – mine ruined my first batch.  After whipping the mixture at slowest speed for several minutes with no apparent change in the mix’s consistency, I chose  to regard the recipe’s speed limit notification as a mere guideline and cranked up the hand whisk to Ludicrous Speed.  In no time at all, I took the cream far, far beyond the required soft peak stage and was rewarded with a mass of curdled cream which floated limply in a pool of unappetising, cloudy liquid.  I was so cross with myself, that I even tried to salvage the wreckage by draining off the whey and adding the gooseberry purée to the curd,  but in the end, I had to admit defeat.  Not even a blindfolded optimist would regard the resultant mixture as anything but fodder for the bin.  I contemplated photographing the mess as a cautionary measure, but I just couldn’t bring myself to commit another atrocity upon the deceased.

For my second attempt, I had to use UHT cream from the corner shop as I hadn’t enough fresh cream left from the first batch.  I had misgivings about this, but the cream did appear to whip up as nicely as its fresh counterpart.  Soft peaks achieved, I added the second batch of strained gooseberry jam to the cream…without allowing enough time for it to cool.  As soon as the compote was introduced, the cream trembled, sighed and then collapsed into the now familiar mass of curds and whey.  Fortunately, I had had the foresight to buy extra cream for a third attempt, even though at the time, I was hopeful that I wouldn’t be foolish enough to botch a second lot.

On the third and final attempt, I whipped the cream with the swiftness of a speeding glacier and I allowed the gooseberry compote to cool completely.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten to strain the jam while it was still molten, and by the time I realised my mistake, it had set.  It just snickered at the sieve when I halfheartedly tried to drain it.  There were skins and pips and corruption all mingled up in the mix, but at that point I didn’t care.  I just wanted a successful bowlful of this allegedly simple pudding.  I folded the jam in and wonder of wonders, the cream didn’t collapse.  I spooned the mixture into small bowls and put them in the fridge to set for several hours.

When sampled later that day,  the chilled fool proved fragrant with elderflower, with a flavour that was lovely and tangy, if a bit sweet.  I won”t lie to you, though.  The texture was a letdown.  It was slightly grainy, perhaps mildly curdled, but lucky Number Three was definitely the best of a bad lot.  Was it due to the heat?  Was it the UHT rather than fresh cream?  Was it the extra stirring required to fold the stone cold, set jam into the cream?  Was it related to the principles of magnetism (i.e. opposite poles attract but similar poles repel) ?   Unsure, I am.  Despite this recipe not going quite to plan, I’m going to keep it on file and try again in better conditions.

Gooseberry and elderflower fool
(adapted from a Mark Hix recipe, June 2003, The Independent)

Gooseberry compote
1 heaping cupful gooseberries
1/3 cup caster sugar
1/8 cup elderflower cordial

Fool
1/3 cup white wine (I used a sweet, dessert Muscat.)
1/8 cup elderflower cordial
the juice from 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup double cream

Procedure

1.  Start by preparing the gooseberry compote in order to allow it time to cool.  In a medium saucepan, combine all the compote ingredients together and then gently heat until it becomes jam-like.  (The original recipe claimed this step took approximately 10 minutes, but since my hob isn’t atomic-powered, it took me a great deal longer; after ten 10 minutes of simmering, my mixture was extremely watery and completely unsuitable for spreading on toast.  The best rule of thumb is to stir the mixture frequently and, when it starts to thicken and “catch” on the bottom of the saucepan, it should be ready.)  If desired, strain the mixture through a fine, mesh sieve now to remove any skins and pips.  Set aside to cool.

2.  In a separate, large bowl, mix together the white wine, elderflower cordial, lemon juice and sugar.  Stir to help some of the sugar dissolve.  Next, add the cream and, using an electric whisk at the lowest speed, whip the mixture slooowly just until soft peaks begin to form.  I cannot emphasise this point enough.  Slow and steady wins the race here.  If you overbeat, you will get fooled.

3.  If your gooseberry compote has cooled sufficiently, carefully fold three-quarters of it into the cream mixture.  Once combined, spoon your fresh fool into individual glasses or a serving bowl and allow to chill for 1-2 hours.  Spoon a dollop of the compote atop or beside your fool to serve.

R.R. 11/52 – Homemade Mayonnaise

Just a quick ‘un!  March’s entry from Him Indy’s Calendar of Seasonal Food Hotness was a saucy little number entitled Homemade Mayonnaise with Radishes.  Now, I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never really stopped to contemplate the beauty that is mayonnaise.  Now, don’t get me wrong – it’s not my intent to diss the special sauce.  In my experience, mayo has never failed to bind a potato or an egg salad together beautifully or add that special something to a chicken sandwich.  It’s also been known to turn up as the mind-bending secret ingredient in a chocolate cake or two, but, for fear of H.I. spurning the advances of every cake that emerges from the Portal, the less said about that the better!  So, you see, there will always be a place in my heart and larder for this workhorse of the kitchen, but I’m painfully aware that I could be tried and found guilty of taking it for granted.  Mayonnaise has only ever been the means to an end, the tiny but integral cog in the clockwork, part of the journey, but never the destination.  Until now.

Hand on heart, I was a little bit nervous about making a batch of my very own mayonnaise.   I mean, we’ve all heard the cautionary tales about the dangers of raw egg and its partner in crime, salmonella, so it’d be more of a wonder if I *didn’t* pause to reflect on the wisdom of attempting it.  Surely, I reasoned, Mr. H. Indoors wouldn’t *intentionally* lead me astray with this recipe.  He’d have to know that, even if I were to brew up a batch of the vilest hemlock at his suggestion, he’d be expected to take the first swig.  If I was going down, I was going to take him with me!  Dangers weighed and odds considered, I chucked caution to the wind to discover happily enough that my fears were unfounded.

I thought it would be hard to wax lyrical about mayonnaise, but, so impressed was I with the results of my first attempt, I somehow managed to find some words.  It was so easy to prepare (admittedly with the invaluable assistance of a food processor), knocked out in the span of a few minutes using only a handful of common-as-muck ingredients.  Nothing fancy, nothing arcane, no nonsense!  Talk about banishing the mystique!  As soon as the mixture started coalescing in the food processor, I felt a sense of elation.  It worked, it had actually worked!  There before my wondering eyes was thick, proper, spreadable mayonnaise!  Look, Ma, no jar!  At that point, I didn’t know and didn’t care what it tasted like, I was just so damned pleased that it looked the business.  I don’t think I could have been more impressed if I had spontaneously created a multi-cellular and self-aware lifeform in a beaker.  (Perhaps I should get out more…)  Cracking open the jug, I scooped out my first spoonful.  Mmmmm.  It was sharp and lemony and creamy all at once.   Hellman’s  have nothing to fear from my efforts and, in all likelihood, I will still keep a jar of the shop-bought cream tucked away for sheer convenience value, but as a dressing for for a fresh, spring potato salads, or, as it was used here, as a dip for fresh vegetables or hot, shoestring frites, the homemade mayonnaise could not be beaten.

I suspect that the mayonnaise in this recipe was simply supposed to be the gilding for the lily, which, in this case, was the season’s first radishes.  As an aside, have  you ever tried cooked radishes?  Following the suggestion offered by a quirky television personality (yes, I know – following the advice from anyone who includes the words “quirky” and “personality” on his list of notable accomplishments was never going to end well.) I sliced some up and sauteed them gently in a bit of olive oil.  “Perfect, early spring treat!” the personality had gushed.  “In medieval times, the peasants would have cooked them thus – and peasants have always known how to eat!.”   Tell you what, Quirko, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the peasants didn’t carry the practice on to present day; the peppery bite that everyone knows, loves and associates with radishes was completely neutered in the cooking process.  Crikey, man, your humble ancestors were trying to SAVE you from ruining perfectly lovely food  by quashing the practice!  But, hey, there will always be Pandora-types running amok, willing to open boxes quite clearly marked “DANGEROUS CONTENTS.”

I probably don’t need to offer a disclaimer since the elf ‘n safety message about the potential dangers associated with the consumption of raw eggs has been drilled into collective consciousness for a fair few years now, but I will do so if only for the shizz and giggles.  (Besides, I’d hate to think I’d contributed to a dicky tummy in any way, shape or form.)  Please, since this is a foodstuff made from uncooked egg,  do not consume if you are a very small (and clearly precocious) child or if you are in the process of assembling a small child.  The same applies for anyone suffering from a weakened or compromised immune system.  You know who you are.

Homemade Mayonnaise
(adapted from Him Indy’s Calendar of Seasonal Food)

Ingredients

3 egg yolks, as fresh and free-range as you can source
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
pinch of salt
1/2 cup mild vegetable oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Procedure

1.  Place the egg, Dijon mustard and the pinch of salt in a food processor, preferably using a whisk attachment.  Blend together.

2.  Mix the two oils together.  With the processor running, add half of the oil in a thin, slow but steady stream into the egg.  The mixture will begin to thicken up.

3.  The processor still running, add the lemon juice, followed by the remaining oil.  Drizzle this in slowly as you did  with the first half.

4.  Add the vinegar and let the processor whizz for a few seconds longer.  The processor jug should now be filled with a thick, buttery yellow substance, and you should be feeling pretty chuffed with yourself!  Taste the finished product and season with extra salt and pepper as necessary.  This should make about a cup of mayo.

I think this recipe could lend itself to a bit of experimentation with different blends of oils, vinegars and seasonings, as well.

R.R. 10/52 – Hot Cross Buffins!

The sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that today’s Resolution Result  would have been more appropriate in the run up to the Easter holiday, which is now nothing more than a fond but distant memory.  Yes, okay, fine, you’ve got me cornered and I’ll willingly own up.  I’m constantly playing a game of catch-up, and nowhere will this be more apparent than the times I test and review any seasonal-type recipes.  But then again, I ask you, why should lovely pastries and buns like the ones from today’s reviews be consigned to the dead letter file for 51 of the year’s 52 weeks?  We’ve only just finished the last of my stash of store-bought hot crossies, and I confess to feeling a bit bereft.

So, join the revolution and don’t just reserve these exclusively for Easter!  They’d make a lovely, fruity breakfast bun any old time of the year!  When the hot crossie isn’t on duty, as it were, – in its civilian clothes, if you like – its iconic X can serve to represent the location of  buried (berried?) treasure.  Yeargh, me hearties!  If pirates scuttle rather than float your boat, perhaps the X could represent the target for a bombing run, just before you dive on in.  For the gentler souls amongst us who prefer to make love, not war, the X could only represent a kiss, which serves double duty as a baked-in, subtle reminder to show your appreciation to the head cook and bottle-washer.  Mmmmm.  Who’s for some Hot Kiss Buns?  If you still weren’t comfortable with any of these options, why include an X at all?  Omit it entirely – the integrity of the bun won’t be affected in the slightest – or simply pipe the dough into a different pattern – perhaps an initial or rune!

The Xs on my buffins were largely obliterated due to a heavy hand with the cross dough liquid,  but if you squint and tilt your head to the side, you can just about make them out.  Consider them an example of interpretive, perhaps prehistoric, art.  So, kittens, take heed.  When making the sweet dough paste for the crosses, trust me when I say to add the water sparingly – in half teaspoonful increments even.  A thick, dry yet pliable paste is what you’re aiming for here.  Never mind the advice to use sweet dough that “coats the back of a spoon.”  Every year I’ve fallen for that old chestnut, and every year I get runaway, outta control crosses.

For, you see, I have attempted to make hot cross buns previously, but since I’d never made them in this particular fashion, I do hope that you concur that this submission still meets the resolution requirements.  All of my previous attempts have been, at best, a bit ropey.  No matter what I did, I never managed to achieve the tight, neat little pillows of fruit-flecked golden dough that you get at the bakery.  Sometimes the buns wouldn’t rise, preferring instead to flatten and spread out to conquer the entire baking sheet, and other times they’d simply turn out like scones or rock buns, squatting sullenly in craggy, vaguely toadlike shapes on the bake tray.

This is a bit of a cheat” recipe in that it is a breadmaker-assisted recipe.  I even leant on the breadmaker manual recipe for “Basic Dough:  Hot Cross Bun Variation” for guidance.  If your bread machine has a fruit and nut dispenser that you trust, then you could put the fruit in there and allow the machine to drop it in at a time it deems appropriate rather than kneading it in by hand as I have advocated.  The reason for my reluctance to rely on the machine, unfortunately, is that I cannot count on my breadmaker to do the right thing when it comes to the dispenser.  No, my machine delights in pulverising anything that drops from the dispenser into a fine paste.  Once upon a time, I made an olive loaf, placing my trust and an handful of whole, pitted kalamata olives in the dispenser.  I had visions of a fluffy, white loaf which, when sliced, would reveal a pristine, snowy interior studded with fat, black olives which would stare lidlessly at you  (…Perhaps it’s just as well that the bread machine macerated them.)  The reality was, in my opinion, much grimmer, though.  The loaf that emerged from the machine offered no clue that it ever harboured olives as a constituent and when sliced, revealed an unappetising, dishwater grey interior which, unsurprisingly, hung about in the breadbox until it started sprouting tiny, blue crop circles.  If I were a woman given to flights of anthropomorphisation, I’d imagine that my bread machine was a bit of purist who didn’t stand for any spangly, new-fangled additions which would only adulterate good, honest bread.   Clearly, I am not that sort of woman, but I still decided to knead the fruit and peel in the old-fashioned way AFTER letting Ol’ Thrashy have his wicked way with the plain dough first.

As I prepared to embark on 2010’s hot cross failure, I wondered aloud if the smug bakeries with their fancy, perfect buns secretly used moulds to shape and guide the rising dough, and lo, my eyes fell upon the muffin tin resting on the drying rack.  “Why not stick them in the cups of a muffin tray?” I thought.  Channelling my inner Heston, I tucked a couple of dough balls into unlined, greased cups, another couple in paper fairycake cases and another handful in squares of greaseproof baking parchment, gave them time to rise and then baked them all up together.  Of the three methods employed, the greaseproof parchment route exceeded all expectations.  The buns in muffin’s clothing rose spectacularly, and they looked perfectly charming and homespun in their rustic, brown paper wrappings.  Fresh and warm straight out of the oven, they were spicy, buttery, lemon-scented gems, and they were perfectly amenable to being eaten like muffins.  The next day, however, they required a little coaxing to shine as brightly, but they required nothing more than a quick turn in the oven and a lacquering of sweet butter.

Basket o' Hot Cross Buffins.

Hot cross buffins

Ingredients

Dough
1 tsp yeast (fast acting, breadmaker suitable)
3 cups  flour (I used strong, white flour, suitable for breadmaking.)
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 – 1/2 cup sugar (depending how sweet you like your hot crossies – 1/4 cup was just right in my opinion)
4 tbsp butter
Zest of one 1 lemon
1 1/2 tbsp powdered milk
1 1/4 cups water, lukewarm (or you could substitute 1 1/4 cups milk and leave out the milk powder entirely)
1 large egg , beaten (2 if they’re small)
3/4 – 1 cup of the dried, mixed fruits of your choice (I used a mixture of currants, muscatel raisins and sour cherries)
1/4 cup mixed peel (if you don’t care for peel, add a bit more of the dried fruit that you DO like.)

Crosses
2 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp icing sugar
-enough water or milk to make a thick paste

Glaze (optional)
1 small egg, beaten

Procedure

1.  Place all of the ingredients for the dough, EXCEPT for the dried fruit, into the breadmaker.  Make sure to layer these ingredients in the order established by your particular machine’s manual.  Select the dough programme and leave it to churn.  (If your machine has a fruit and nut dispenser that you trust, you may wish to add your dried fruit there.)

2. Once the dough is ready, tip it out onto a lightly floured surface and punch it down to deflate.  It will be very sticky, so keep a small pot of flour nearby to re-powder your hands.  If you opted not to use the fruit dispenser on your machine, pat the dough out and sprinkle the dried fruit on top.  Fold the dough over to enclose the fruit and then  knead well to distribute it evenly.

3. Prepare your muffin tin!  Have at the ready several squares, measuring approximately 6×6 inches, of greaseproof baking parchment, and a many-holed muffin tin.  Divide the dough into even, uniform pieces – I got 10 clementine-sized pieces from my batch – and then roll them into neat balls.  Line the muffin holes with parchment squares and then carefully place a dough ball inside.  The ball will protest its fate and try to  cling stickily to the parchment, but just be firm with it and encourage it down.  To prove the dough, cover the nestled dough balls with a tea towel or cling film and place them in a warm, draught-free location for 45-60 minutes.  They should have doubled in size and should now resemble little balloons.

4.  While you prepare the sweet dough for the crosses, preheat your oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.  Combine the flour and icing sugar in a small bowl.  Keep adding the liquid of your choice in tiny, tiny amounts to the flour/sugar mixture until you achieve a thick, dry, but still pliable dough that is suitable for piping.  (I made the mistake of adding too much water at once and then played a losing game of Dry Ingredient Compensation.  Don’t be like me.)  Once the dough has been proven, using a pastry/piping bag  or a plastic bag with a corner snipped off,  pipe the sweet dough into crosses, initials, patterns or hieroglyphs on the tops of the buns.  If you’re using the glaze, brush the egg wash over the buns now.  The oven should now be heated to the correct temperature, so pop the tin in and bake  the buns for 15 to 20 minutes or until they’re golden.  Let them cool in the tin for a few minutes before removing them onto a cooling rack.

R. R. 9/52 – Janssons Frestelse

Continuing on the theme of scalloped food, I thought I’d try one last example of wintry, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food before we were completely engulfed by Spring and rendered incapable of eating anything but tender shoots and unfurling leaves.  The fickle finger of foodie Fate has this week settled upon a dish by the name of Jansson’s Temptation or Janssons Frestelse as it is called in Sweden, the country of its origin.  For the duration of our discussion, however, we shall use the latter form in reference to the dish because, in my opinion, “frestelse” is the far superior word.  Frestelse.  Pronounced “freh – stell – suh.”   I encourage you to try, as I have to great effect, using this exciting new term by way of greeting.  As farewell!  In assent!  In protest!  Shouted at the top of your lungs as a battlecry!  Like me, I think you’ll find that it’s a multi-faceted and nuanced word that ought to be incorporated into common parlance postehaste!

Now, back to the topic at hand.  This week’s novelty was essentially a pan of scalloped potatoes.  Ahhhhh.  Did the mere mention of these potatoes conjure up fond memories for you?  Did you immediately grow wistful and nostalgic for the good old, humble family fare that mother used to make?   If it did, then I’m afraid that we can no longer be friends.  The phrase “scalloped potatoes”, especially when used in conjunction with the question, “What are we having for dinner tonight, Mum?”  never failed to strike fear into my heart as a young lass.  I wouldn’t even utter its name within earshot of my mother for fear of reminding her of the horrid concoction; to speak its name was to invoke it.   Monsters under the bed I could outrun, but there was just no escape from Mother standing guard at the dinner table.  I remember sitting alone at the table with a plateful of uneaten, rapidly congealing scalloped potatoes before me, sobbing my tiny heart out and defiantly vowing never to cook, eat, or force anyone else against her will to eat the casserole of all evil when I was big and all grown up.

Poor Mum.  She was always so hurt that I couldn’t eat those fracking potatoes.  Everyone else that ate her potato scallop loved it – my brother always listed it as his favourite food and, to my chagrin, always requested it for his special birthday dinner.  Rationally, I don’t understand what it was about the dish that induced such a visceral response.  I loved potatoes, the main ingredient.  Onions, while I wasn’t their biggest cheerleader, I could get down my spindly neck.  Cream?  Well, what kitten doesn’t love cream?  All lovely ingredients on their own, or in various different configurations, but, if put all together in one dish and baked up in a pie, they transform into a fresh and potent batch of Ninsbane.

Imagine then, if you will, my horror when, in the early days of our courtship, Him Indy revealed that his favourite dish was “Jansson’s Frestelse.”  Wanting to know more about the likes and dislikes of the object of my affection, I pressed him for further information.  Just who was this Jansson person and what was the moral dilemma with which he grappled?  Obviously, we know what tempted him – the mysterious dish with no solid clues about its ingredients in its name  –  but from what did it tempt him away?  The stage?  His family?  A life of nutritional purity?  If asked post-temptation, would Jan assert that it had been worth the fall from grace or would he admit to being disappointed?  Him Indoors complied with a presentation of his understanding of the dish’s components and construction, and, listening to his description, I felt my blood grow cold.  Not only was what he described practically a blueprint for scalloped potatoes, but it was a blueprint for scalloped potatoes with anchovies.  Why would anyone do that?   Why add fish to a dish that was horrible enough in its own right?!  That was no Temptation!!  That was a Punishment!!!  That was Nightmare on a Plate!!!  Jansson had clearly lost the plot and could therefore not be trusted.  Happily, it wasn’t a dealbreaker and we advanced to the next stages of our Ever After, but H.I. married me with the understanding that like five, Jansson’s Frestelse was right out.

Fast forward to a few years later when, in my quest to eat fish, I investigated an unfamiliar name tacked on the end of the FSA’s list o’ fishy goodness:  the sprat.  As it happens, the Sprattus sprattus is a little herring-esque fish which, when tinned, is none other than the piscean component of the popular Scandinavian dish called – no prizes for guessing, folks – Janssons Frestelse.  Curious about my old foe Jansson, I read on.  In Sweden, the Frestelse is a dish that traditionally, but not exclusively, served at Christmas and sometimes at Easter.  It’s also a favourite hangover-prevention food or nattamat, (another great word, in my humble opinion) meaning “night-food,” served after an evening of high spirits and indulgence.  According to H.I., it is also considered a “walking food,” served to departing guests in order to gird their loins with starch and fat before their long journeys home in the snow.  A common misconception, probably born of mistranslation and english-speaker’s assumption, about this recipe is that the fish tucked into the dish’s layers is the anchovy.  The Swedish word for sprats being “ansjovis”, it’s not difficult to see how the word, and thus the recipe, has routinely been misinterpreted.  (Funnily enough, the Swedish for anchovies is actully sardellen, which in turn lends itself nicely to misinterpretation!)  Apparently, it’s very important for the the authenticity of the dish to use these sugar and spice-cured sprats rather than the salty, mediterranean anchovies.  Not that this meant much to me as a fish-doubter –  I was prepared to dislike both sprat and anchovy equally.  Still, I needed an omega hit for the week, and I thought I might as well go along with crazy ol’ Jansson.

I sourced my spratsovies from a lovely, little shop in London, called “Totally Swedish.”  Apparently, the correct sort of fish is also available from IKEA, but, since I’m not within hurling distance of a big blue and yellow shop, I simply HAD to go into London (by way of the Emma Bridgewater shop, of course).  If ever you’re in the vicinity of Crawford Street, it’s worth poking your nose into Totally Swedish, not only for some ansjovis, but for the stacks of crispbread discs in a rainbow of flavours, boxes of pepparkakor, and painted, wooden butter paddles.  The service was warm and attentive, and the young ladies behind the counter were friendly, helpful, and completely unruffled when greeted with a  resounding “Frestelse!”  Locating the ansjovis in the chiller section, I was completely won over by the cheerful, little tin with its border of gold, field of bubblegum pink and trio of happy, smiling red fish rampant.  If I could somehow enlarge the tin faceplate and tack it up on my kitchen wall as art, I would do so!  How could anything evil come from so fair a face?

Once back at home, I carefully peeled back the lid, to get my first look at the smileyfish.   Jostling for space in the tin were several flat, silver bellied fish suspended in a pale pink liquid.  I hesitated.  Was it my imagination or was that fish’s smile starting to look a bit sinister?  The pink liquid was unsettlingly familiar, and the connotations were not good.   I had a  vague recollection of Jo-beth Williams being covered in a translucent pink goo after going through the portal in Poltergeist,  followed by the mental image of the river of pink slime from Ghostbusters 2.  Had I picked up a bad batch?  Did I get the tin of mislabeled surströmming?  A wary sniff revealed the unexpected but unmistakable aroma  of cinnamon and cloves!  Granted, I knew that the sprats were preserved in salt, sugar, and spices, but I hadn’t expected them to smell so strongly of Christmas.  That’s why those fish were grinning – it’s difficult to pull glum faces in the presence of such wonderful scents!  Placing my trust in the smiling sprats of yuletide, I put aside my misgivings and cracked on with the dish.

And my verdict?  I’m pleased to announce that the Frestelse has earned itself a place in my Saved File.  I now understand why it was the young H.I.’s favourite food in all the land.  It was a doddle to make, it smelled divine as it baked, and once out of the oven, it looked like I’d spent ages hovering over it.  It was comfort food at its best; it was very filling and substantial,  it was creamy, velvety, and yes, starchy – Atkins devotees need not apply  – and best of all, not at all fishy.  Be warned that it’s truly addictive!  Serve it as a side dish, as part of a smörgåsbord or even as the main dish; it’s just that versatile.

Given my positive reception of this scallop, one might be forgiven for thinking that it was time to give my mother’s Scallop of Doom another try.  At a recent family gathering, Mum nonchalantly tried to serve it to me.  There was minimal fanfare with no cajoling, no calling of attention to the scallop-hating freak, and nary a thunderous look in attendance.   Eyeing my opponent, I squared up to the plate, confident that my tastebuds had evolved sufficiently to overcome whatever animosity they may have previously held.  Feeling curious eyes upon me, I casually put a forkful into my mouth….and instantly regretted it.  The spontaneous tide of bile that my younger self experienced each and every time she tried to eat those potatoes rose up and threatened to overcome me.  Suppressing a chuckle, Bud resurrected another of our childhood rituals – the delicate and covert transfer of Nin’s share of the tatties to his plate.

And if you’ve managed to read this far, congratulations and apologies.  I do run at the mouth at times, it has been said!  As a reward for your perseverance, I offer you the challenge of a little Easter treasure hunt.  The first person to correctly name the Easter themed Swedish drink that H.I. swears is the only thing to wash down a plateful of Frestelse will receive one little, Swedish cookbook, recently purchased at the aforementioned London shop.

Janssons Frestelse

Ingredients

1-2 tbsp butter
2 large onions
5-7 large, floury potatoes (I used Maris Piper)
1 tin of Swedish sprats, 125g  (about 7-10 fillets in total), curing brine reserved.**
1 – 2 cups cream (use half milk and half cream for a *slightly* lighter version)
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tbsp butter, cut into pieces
1/4-1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs

** If Swedish ansjovis are absolutely impossible to find, I’ve since learned that one can use regular, tinned anchovies, so long as they are well rinsed and then soaked in milk to reduce excessive saltiness.  Fresh anchovies, however, are not welcome in this dish.

Procedure:

1.  Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.

2.  Slice the onions thinly and, in a frying pan, gently soften them without browning in the butter.

3.  Peel the potatoes and slice them thin.  In accordance to H.I.’s preference, I sliced mine in thin rounds, but other cooks have advocated shredding, grating and even julienning them.  Personal preference!

4.  Lightly grease an oven-proof dish.  Layer the potatoes, onion and the fish fillets, making sure that you reserve enough potato for three layers.  Start with the sliced potato; cover the bottom of the dish with a layer and then add half of the sautéed onions.  Overtop the onions, carefully lay out half of the ansjovis.  Repeating the process, arrange another layer of potato with the remainder of the onion and fish on top.  Finish with one last layer of potato.

5.  Sprinkle some salt and pepper on the potatoes, and then decant the reserved sugar-brine preserving liquid from the ansjovis tin.  (Yep, that’s right!  Be brave and tip the pink ectoplasm right on top of the tatties!)    Pour the cream over the casserole just until its white tideline can be spotted rising through the potatoes.  Depending upon the size and configuration of your dish, you might not need to use the entire amount of the cream.  Dot the top with butter, sprinkle it the breadcrumbs, and then pop it, uncovered, into your preheated oven.  Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the potatoes are tender and the crumb top is golden brown.

R.R. 8/52 – Scalloped Cabbage au Gratin!

As I sat down to write this entry, it only just occurred to me that my lamentations for the Milk Calendar had not fallen on deaf ears.  The proof, which is currently hanging on a cupboard door in the kitchen, is a culinary calendar filled with photos and seasonal recipes, that Him Indoors made for me for Christmas just past.  Of course, he had a little administrative and technical help from the folk at Lulu, but all the content – the photos, the text, the recipes – was the sweat of his brow and callus of his hand.  Sorry, Him Indy!  There are none so blind as those who will not see, a wise man once said!

With the signs of spring defiantly bursting forth all over in spite of the bitter cold,  I chose to celebrate the arrival of the first seasonal vegetables, the spring cabbages, by trying out the recipe offered by the comely Miss February in my calendar – Scalloped Cabbage au Gratin, by name.   I thought it was very magnanimous of H.Indy to include a recipe based upon cabbage at all as he loathes it with a passion that burns as brightly as a ribbon of lit magnesium.  (A quick check of the calendar’s particulars didn’t reveal any disclaimers or get-out clauses based upon authorial discretion either.  Oversight, perhaps?)  To H.I., cabbage was school food,  a grey, rubbery punishment meted out by Headmaster and his hench-dinnerladies.  To me, although it has already been established that I was an odd child, cabbage was all kinds of *wonderful*.  It was coleslaw in the summer and sauerkraut in the winter.  It was bubble and squeak, it was colcannon.  Boiled in thick slices and slathered with butter, it was Mum’s and my secret indulgence when the boys weren’t home to pull faces.  It was the slightly translucent wrapper for fat bundles of holubtsi, or cabbage rolls, which Bud would slit open like the bellies of  fish (sometimes smeared with a little tomato sauce for realistic effect) in order to scoop out the rice and meat innards, before quietly palming the emptied cabbagefish skin off to his Nin-conspirator.   How could anyone not like cabbage?!

Perhaps this recipe might go a little way towards making reparations for this much maligned vegetable.  H.I. reluctantly admitted that it was “all right” for a cabbage dish but added the disclaimer that its edibility was directly correlated to its top layer of cheese and crumb. Gratiné, he pronounced loftily, makes anything edible.  I’ll file that information away for further exploitation later!  The end result was a simple, warming and fresh-tasting side dish, easily prepared and homey.  In my opinion, it’s perfect for this time of year as the new season desperately battles to gain a foothold in winter’s domain.  Winter’s implacable resistance to change can make these early days of spring a treacherous and chilly time, so we may not collectively be ready to sit down before bowls of warm-weather slaw.  This dish offers a compromise; you get your fresh, seasonal (and preferably local) veg only recently plucked from its bed and you get it prepared in a manner usually reserved for wintry fare, for the express purpose of cockle-warming.  Just don’t boil your cabbage until it’s as grey-faced as old dishwater.  Try it as a part of your St. Patrick’s Day feast!  I mean, you’ve got to invite someone from the cabbage family ’round for St. Paddy’s – I reckon it’s a law – so it may as well be this hooligan!

Scalloped Cabbage au Gratin
(from H.Indy’s Calendar of Seasonal Food)

Ingredients

2 lb cabbage, coarsely shredded (savoy, pointed or white cabbage)
2 cups tomatoes, blanched, peeled and chopped (tinned tomatoes also works a treat)
2 tsp sugar (white or brown)
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2-3 tsp butter
1/2 – 1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs

Procedure

1.  Preheat your oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4.

2.  Cook the cabbage in boiling, lightly salted water for about 5-6  minutes, or until slightly wilted but still lovely and green.  Drain well, and then plunge in cold water to stop it from cooking further.

3.  In a separate bowl, combine the tomatoes, sugar, paprika, oregano, salt and pepper.

4.  Place the drained cabbage into a greased 2.5 pt/1.5 L baking dish.  Dot the cabbage  with a few teaspoons of butter and then cover it with the tomato mixture, followed by the cheese and then the breadcrumbs.

5.  Bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until heated through and the cheese and crumb topping is golden and bubbling.

R.R 7/52 – Cranberry and White Chocolate Blondies

Well done, the Canadians!  The Olympic Winter Games of 2010 have now closed, alas, but what a thrilling ride the people of Vancouver treated us to.  I enjoyed every rollercoaster moment of it,  although I will confess to being slightly mystified by several things I witnessed over the course of the games:  the neckbeard bloke from the opening ceremonies, the pervasive Blades of Glory theme in the men’s ice skating costumes, and the ski jumping event which seemed to run the entire length and breadthof the games to name but a few.  Let this not diminish in any way, shape or form, my heartfelt congratulations to the host country and all her athletes for their stellar performances!

Loud, raucous thanks in particular is extended to Mike Babcock, Sidney Crosby and the Boys of Winter, for that spectacular grand finale on the ice – that was one nailbiter of a showdown!  So buoyed up by the gold medal winning performance by the Canadian men’s hockey team was I that I decided my next entry would simply have to have a Canadian aspect to it.    So, all fired up with good intentions but painfully short on ideas, I ventured into the kitchen.  What could I cook that would make a fitting tribute to the Homeland of the Hoser?

Canadawg, Olympic Lounging Team hopeful.

In the multicultural crazy quilt of a nation that is Canada, was there a single ingredient or foodstuff which could be considered quintessentially Canadian?  Should I make frogs’ legs and frybread as a tribute to the Anishnaabe?  (No, of course I wouldn’t REALLY consider crippling a knot of frogs – I told you I was casting wildly for inspiration!)  Perhaps pierogies for those of Eastern European ancestry?  Calzone for the Italian-Canadians?  Salmon sushi could cover both the West Coast native tribes and the Japanese-Canadians.  I toyed with the idea of poutine, but, whilst it’s a dish that growing in popularity, or notoriety, rather, it is not necessarily representative of all of Canada. (It’s also completely filthy, unhealthy and addictive, and that wasn’t the sort of flag I wanted to fly!)  The more I thought about it, the more implausible and unlikely the potential dishes became.  Could I interest monsieur in some joues de castor, braised and served with roast seasonal vegetables?  No?  How about a nice slice of moose liver pâté?

In the end, I determined that whatever my next new dish would be, it would have to be a pudding of some description.  What better way, I reasoned, to symbolise the sweetness of the victory on ice than to prepare something sweet and decadent – maybe something made with maple syrup…eh?  Freshly refocused, I dove into my cookbooks and clippings only to be thwarted again.  Maple syrup pie?  Too sweet.  Nanaimo bars?  I make a wicked nanaimo bar, tis true, but since I have made them many times before, that would invalidate the effort as a Resolution Result.  On the verge of abandoning the idea completely, I had a brilliant idea.  Why not select a recipe from my trove of Milk Calendars?  What’s more Canadian than the Milk Calendar?  (Toques, red and black lumberjack flannel, and Benton Fraser excluded, thank you kindly.)

For those of you whom the mere mention of the Milk Calendar  doesn’t make you smile involuntarily, it is a calendar released by the Dairy Farmers of Canada each November, featuring recipes made with Canadian dairy.  When I was a youngster, every household had one tacked up somewhere in the kitchen.  Sure, there are some that might decry it as a shameless marketing ploy, artfully designed to lure the masses right down the cowpath, into the unthinking consumption of ever more milk.  My older, jaded self  is not unfamiliar with this sentiment, being sniffily disparaging of such mercenary, self-aggrandising tactics in this day and age, but it will permit an exception for the Milk Calendar, whilst strenuously denying that acknowledgement of a certain fondness for the aforementioned Dairy Propaganda is an open admission of abandonment of its principles.

Moving swiftly on!  With the arrival of each November, an aura of restlessness would descend upon the Nin Homestead.  The same question was on everybody’s lips.  “When was the Calendar coming out?”   Had we inadvertantly missed it?  It wasn’t unheard of for some unscrupulous folk to brazenly steal the calendars from in between the pages of the newspapers stacked at the counter; maybe we’d had the ill luck to pick up a paper that had already been looted.  What about that Sunday when all copies of the newspaper had sold out by the time I’d got to the shops?  What if it had been included then and we’d missed out because I’d slept in?  Tense times in Ninville, I assure you.  More often than not, however, the Calendar did arrive safely, order was restored and there was great rejoicing in the kingdom.  As I began the process of leaving the nest, increasingly finding myself away from home and calendarshot at that pivotal time of year, my father would buy extra newspapers in order to secure a copy for me because, while he loved me unquestioningly, he sure as hell wasn’t about to let me to go wandering off into the wilderness with any of HIS copies of the Calendar tucked under my wing.  Wherever I was in the world, he’d ring me to let me know that my copy was in the post and to give me a blow-by-blow account of that year’s batch; the coming year would be judged upon the strengths or weaknesses of that year’s Milk Calendar recipes.  “This looks like a good year, Nin,” he’d say. “You’re going to have to try July and November.”  When the Calendars stopped arriving a few years ago, I was heartbroken.  Irrationally, I felt that the loss of my connection with the Calendar and the rituals surrounding it somehow spelt the loss of my connection to Dad.  Fortunately, he didn’t raise a perfect fool (only a slightly flawed one with daft bits), and I was quickly able to discover ways and means to perpetuate the ancestral traditions.

For gone are those dark days when one had to hunt down her Milk Calendars armed only with stone tools and cunning!  These days, the calendar is distributed through newspapers, magazines, and participating dairies, and, if you’ve still managed to miss out, you can now go online and get one sent directly to you if you reside in Canada.  For those of you living abroad, there’s always the option of browsing calendars past and present online as well; you won’t have a hardcopy calendar to tack up on your jelly cupboard door, but you’ll still have access to the wonderful, homey recipes, which are usually a doddle to make and are brilliant for families.  The Milk people don’t ring me up with a précis of the year’s recipes, it must be said, but then again, I suspect that they’d be a bit partisan to offer up proper, constructive criticism.  Hmmm.  I wonder if they’d have an explanation for the consistently boring recipes on the month of my birth….

So, back to my choice!  I found what I was looking for in the very first calendar I opened, a well-thumbed 2003 edition.  I had to go through the rest of the collection, just to be sure, but I knew I’d come back to that first one.  The small image of the stacked squares of white cake studded with cranberries practically leapt out at me and dragged me, protesting, into its lair.  White Chocolate Blondies!   Albino brownies with bright red eyes, the colours of the Canadian flag!  It HAD to be the one!  What can I say about these?  They were, as expected, simple and quick to whip up, and they were tasty and more’ish.  What they were not, however, were brownies.  On the baked good spectrum, they definitely fell on the cake side.  This is not a bad thing – they weren’t exceedingly rich, but they were just the perfect combination of sweetness, tartness, and nuttiness, which probably isn’t a bad metaphor for most Canadians.  I had just been anticipating something a bit fudgier.  So, if like me, you were hoping to bake up the white chocolate equivalent of the brownie, all squidgey and molten and buttery, I’m afraid that you will have to move along.  These are not the droids you are looking for.  On the other hand, if you’re in search of a nice, simple snacking cake, look no further.

Sent to the Saved File!

Cranberry and White Chocolate Blondies
(adapted from the 2003 edition of the Milk Calendar)

Ingredients:

1/3 cup butter
4 oz white chocolate, chopped
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 cup cranberries (I used fresh ones, which bobbed to the cake’s surface as it baked.  Use dried if you’d rather they sunk!)
1/2 cups nuts (pecans or macadamia, chopped)
1 oz white chocolate, melted (optional)

Procedure

1.  Preheat your oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 4.  Lightly butter or line with greaseproof paper a 9×13 inch metal baking tin.

2.  Melt the white chocolate with the butter in the manner of your own choosing.  (You can either set the bowl containing the chocolate and butter over hot but not boiling water and stir until smooth, or you could microwave the bowl on a low power setting, stopping play frequently to stir the contents.)  Allow the melted chocolate mixture to cool slightly.

3.  In a separate, large bowl, whisk the sugar together with the eggs until foamy.  Now whisk in the chocolate mixture and the vanilla essence.  Stir the flour and salt into the eggy-choccy batter alternately with the milk, making 3 additions of the dry ingredients and 2 of the milk, stirring well after each addition.  Add the cranberries and the nuts of your choice, if you’re using them, and stir to combine well.

4.  Spoon the batter into the prepared tin and pop it into the oven for 25-35 minutes.  There was a discrepancy of 10 minutes between the official baking time and the actual, and I’m not sure why – perhaps my oven was running a bit on the slow side.  To stay on the SAFE side, set your timer to go off at 25 minutes and check for doneness with a wooden tester.  If not done, increase the baking time in 5 minute increments until the cake tests clean.

5.  Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack.  When sufficiently cool, cut it into squares and drizzle the melted chocolate over top.

R.R. 6/52 – Pumpkin and Barley Risotto

I’ve always appreciated a well-made risotto, but I’ve never been able to produce a good one, myself, and this drives me around the bend.  The method appears simple and straightforward enough and the ingredients usually aren’t terribly exotic or prone to sudden destabilisation, so I don’t understand why my every foray into this arena of cookery results in gluey, stodgy messes that even the dog turns his nose up at.    I’m not talking about a finicky, pampered, handbag-dweller of a dog either – you wouldn’t believe some of the corruption that the Schnub has willingly wolfed down, usually just after rolling in it.

It’s been a source of some angst for me.  One of my mothers-in-law gave me a recipe for a risotto, and, sheepishly, I had to explain that I probably wouldn’t be able to do it justice.   She looked at me uncomprehendingly for a few moments and then smiled in that “Ahh-you-almost-had-me-there-you-old-joker-you” fashion when one is convinced that one is being teased, but a look of concern quickly replaced her smile when it dawned on her that I was being earnest.  Bless her, she regained her composure, but I knew what that look meant.  “How on earth,” the unspoken text in the chat bubble which floated above her head read, “can Nin manage to keep my son sustained and properly nourished when she can’t even manage to churn out a simple risotto?”  She continues to offer advice on the subject and I continue to regard the veritable smorgasbords of Him Indoors’ favourite foods which suddenly grace the table for even the shortest of our visits as purely coincidental!

With enough time having passed since my last attempt (they say the memory is the first thing to go) and my tastebuds still ringing from the most delicious pumpkin risotto I had at one of Ramsay’s Plane Food restaurants, I decided to have another crack at it.  I selected a victim from my files and then promptly discovered I lacked a particular ingredient.  Nothing major, really, surely I could make a sneaky substitution and no one would be any the wiser!…Okay, fine.  It was the star of the show, the arborio rice, that I didn’t have in the pantry.  Deflated, but not enough to run to the shops to get a packet of the rice, I began sifting through files and clippings again, hoping to find something else to pique my interest.  A clipping from the Times waved shyly at me, so I tugged it out of the stack.  Hello, what have we here?  A risotto made from barley, you say?  I cook with barley all the time!  It’s a cheerful, forgiving little grain, happily absorbing any flavours and liquids thrown at it, and, best of all, it’s never transformed itself into gluey sludge in my presence.  This was the one for me!  Quickly scanning the lines of the recipe, I noticed that the method was certainly different; I wasn’t required to hover over the steaming pot constantly stirring and spoonfeeding it ladles of stock.  Favourable grain + low maintenance method = Triumph!

Despite the early signs being auspicious, I ensured that there was a Plan B meal waiting in the wings as a form of disaster recovery before cracking on with the recipe.  Having learnt from bitter experience,  I would never dare offer up just a plate of risotto for dinner.  No.  In that direction, madness – with its disagreeable companion, hunger – lies.  And good, bloody luck that I had, as it turns out.  You guessed it, sports fans.  My incredible losing streak remains unbroken.  In my own defense, though, I don’t think that this should be considered a risotto, not only in terms of the featured grain but in method.  If anything, it was more of a pilaf than a risotto, so this dish, this barleyotto – barlotto? –  will not be included on my Roster of Risible Risottos.  In my opinion, which was echoed by H.I.,  the dish wasn’t unpleasant or inedible – it was simply a bit bland and not robust enough to stand on its own, but it might make a nice accompaniment or side dish for a winter roast dinner.  In all likelihood, I won’t be making this one again, but I pass the baton to my brother Bud, who has a magical way with barley.  If anyone can transform this dish into a beautiful butterfly, it will be him.

Pumpkin and barley risotto
(adapted from The Times, November 2008)

Ingredients:

5 cups pumpkin, peeled and cubed (800g by weight)
2 tbsp vegetable or olive oil, divided
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2/3 cup white wine (you could also use more stock or a little lemon juice diluted with water)
1 heaping cup pearl barley
3 cups stock, vegetable or chicken
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 – 1/2 cup hard cheese, like parmesan or Grano Padano, grated – a little reserved for sprinkling atop
3 tbsp flatleaf parsley, chopped (optional)

Procedure

1.  Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.  In a fairly deep roasting tin, toss the pumpkin with a tablespoon of the oil, coating it thoroughly.  (I splashed a bit more oil on the pumpkin at this step as I felt that 1 tbsp didn’t provide much coverage, but this is up to you.)    Pop the tin into the oven and roast the pumpkin for at least 20 minutes, until the flesh is softened and starting to brown.  Mine took a bit longer than the requisite 20 minutes, so just watch yours and remove from the oven when you deem it ready.  Set it aside.

2.  Rinse the barley and leave it to drain in a sieve.

3.  In a medium to large saucepan, gently fry the onion and celery in the oil, cooking for about 5 minutes or until the onions begin to soften.  Turn up the heat, add the white wine and let it boil vigorously  for a couple of minutes, which will evaporate the alcohol.  Stir in the barley, then pour the stock over it.  Give it a stir and then reduce to heat, bringing the liquid to a simmer.  The barley can now be left to its own devices for about 20 minutes, but do check on it occasionally to give it a stir to prevent any sticking at the bottom.   The barley should need a further 10 to 15 minutes of cooking to soften up completely.  From this point onwards, you will need to check the liquid levels quite frequently.  If the barley is starting to get dry, add some splashes of boiling water to the pot.  If, on the other hand, you’re left with a surplus of stock at the end of your final 15, simply boil the pot a bit harder until it’s gone.

4.  Stir in the roasted pumpkin and grated cheese.  Check the seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste.  To serve, sprinkle with a little of the reserved cheese, and the parsley if you’re using it.

Resolution Result 4/52 – Salted Chocolate Shortbread

Kung Hei Fat Choi!  (Valentine’s Day got the lion’s – or tiger’s, rather – share of the press this year, so it only seems fair to give a nod to the Chinese New Year!)  And without further ado, welcome to my post about chocolate cookies, the natural accompaniment to your Chinese New Year menu!

I discovered the recipe for this unusual treat in the Toronto Star’s Christmas cookie countdown, itself an adaptation of a recipe from J. Scharffenberger and R. Steinberg’s The Essence of Chocolate. One of the ingredients required for this cookie was cacao nibs, which hadn’t even been registered into my consciousness so I didn’t fancy my chances at finding any in the local shops.  Wonders never ceasing, however, I did manage to get my paws on a tin of this strange new ingredient, from the local Waitrose.   A quick scan of the package revealed why it was kept in stock; the cacao nib appears to be a fairly recent arrival to the Superfoods neighbourhood.  (Late to the party again, I know.  I’m still on chapter Pomegranate in the Superfoods Diary.)  I tipped a few nibs into my palm for closer inspection.  They looked rather unremarkable, like broken coffee beans or discarded nut husks.  The promotional blurb on the tin declared  that the shrivelled hardscrabble I held in my hand was the closest I was likely to get to chocolate in its wildest and rawest form.  Quite frankly, it didn’t even look edible, but, always being up for a dare, I popped a few into my gob.  Mildly bitter and tasting of chocolate and coffee, it crumbled in my mouth, with a slightly waxy texture despite its fibrous appearance.  Packed with antioxidants, minerals and vitamins, the label gushed, they give one all the mood enhancing benefits of a chocolate bar without the unwanted baggage of extra fat and refined sugar.   Add them to smoothies!  Eat with bananas!  Sprinkle on your muesli!    There was no mention to what heights they might elevate a humble piece of shortbread, but I was willing to give it a try in the name of science. 

The recipe directions were  straightforward and simple enough, but still I managed to get myself flustered so I’m waving my red flag here merely as a precaution.  When the instructions directed one to shape the dough into a square, I interpreted this as a direction to roll the dough into a long rectangular log, with an eye to slicing off pieces as one does with refrigerator cookies.  In all fairness, there is no reason why this couldn’t work, but this method would not and did not produce the sharp, clean lines that I was after.  To achieve that, you do need to roll out the dough, trim away the rough edges with a pastry scraper or whatever clean, straight edge you have at hand, and then section your dough out in grid fashion.  If you’re pressed for time or simply not bothered about the geometry of your cookies, you could go right ahead and use any manner of cookie cutter once the dough is rolled out.

A word of warning to any and all who dare attempt this recipe –  before you unleash these little beasts upon your unsuspecting audience, please be aware that they have a rather polarising effect on people.  Think of it as the Marmite Effect – you will either love these cookies or you will hate them.  There is no middle ground here.  I had my own moment of doubt after snuffling up a crumb of cookie that had been broken off during transfer to the cooling rack.  It was an automatic reaction which I’m sure many of you will recognise – “Broken cookie detritus spotted.  Target acquired.  Evidence of imperfection…ERADICATED.”    For the most part, my selfless acts of cookery hoovering have been rewarded with sweet morsels, but this crumb of alleged chocolate was face-crumplingly salty.  Horrified, I stared at the ranks of cookies lined up with military precision on the cooling rack.  Did I miscalculate?  Did I oversalt the pudding?  If they all tasted like that, I wouldn’t be able to serve them up to anyone save my worst enemy, and even then I’d have misgivings.  No, there was nothing for it – I had to try one in its entirety.  I nibbled a corner warily, anticipating another mouthful of salt, but happily, I tasted nothing more sinister than rich, dark chocolate.  I bit deeper to get at some of the fleur de sel sprinkles and, yep, I did find them, but it wasn’t the jarring experience I’d had but a moment before.

It’s not the smooth, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread that Auntie X makes at Christmastime – this is Sophisticated Shortbread, for adults only.   They’re not terribly sweet, these cookies, but they are immensely rich and chocolatey with a slightly chewy texture, gratis the nibs.  This richness is, in turn, tempered by the crisp flakes of salt.  Fear ye not about the fleur de sel as wildcard ingredient; salt is not this cookie’s predominant flavour (…unless you  happen to hoover up the one crumb concealing a nugget of pure salt.  Try to avoid this.).  It’s far, far more than the sum of its parts.  Don’t ask me how it works, it just does.

When offered to my flock of test gannets, these cookies divided the population right down the centre.  Half of them thought the saltychocs were foul abominations, but at the end of the day, the cookie plate had mysteriously been cleared.  So, the fifty per cent of the sample population that DID enjoy them, did so right down to bare crockery.  Result!  Personally, I found these cookies made me dance around the kitchen in delight.  Him Indoors’ reaction was far more subdued, but he’d rather I described it as dignfied.

And don’t just save them for a special occasion.  Why wait for one specific day of the year to show your nearest and dearest that you love them?  EVERY day should be Valentine’s Day!  Tell your Specials every day of the year!  Make and share these cookies with EVERYONE you love, and maybe even some of the people you’re not so wild about.

Salted Chocolate Shortbread Squares
(adapted from a recipe in the Toronto Star)

Ingredients

1 cup flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder (use a good quality cocoa)
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp cacao nibs, crushed fine with rolling pin
1 tsp fleur de sel + a little extra for sprinkling (do not attempt with any other formulation of salt!)
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Procedure

1.  Preheat your oven to 325F/160C/Gas Mark 3.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or greaseproof paper.

2.  Sift flour and cocoa powder together into small bowl and set aside.

3.  In another small bowl, combine the crushed cacao nibs with 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel and set aside.

4.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until it’s light and fluffy.  Beat in the vanilla essence.

5.  Next, add  the flour and cocoa powder mixture and beat just until the mixture is moistened.  Follow with the cacao nibs and salt mixture.  Stir to blend the two until the mixture comes together.  (It will now be getting a bit difficult to stir, but persevere!  It can be done!)

6.  Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and pat it gently into the shape of a rough square.  Cover this with another sheet of plastic wrap.  With a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a square about 1/4-inch thick.  You can adjust the edges of your dough square to clean, straight lines with a metal scraper.  Cut the dough into 1-inch squares.  Don’t pitch the scraps – set them aside for reassimilation.

7.  On your baking sheet, gently place the squares about 1 inch apart from each other.  Bake them in the centre of your preheated oven until the tops look dry – about 12 to 14 minutes.  N.B.  Halfway through baking time, remove them from the oven and dust them lightly with pinches of the fleur de sel.  Return them to the oven for the remainder of their baking time.  Once done, remove the sheet from the oven and allow to rest for a couple of minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.

8.  Whilst waiting for the first batch to cool on the sheet, load your second prepared baking sheet with squares and begin round two of the baking.

9.  Gather up the scraps and re-roll them into 1/4-inch thick squares.  Cut into squares and add to baking sheet.  Lather, rinse and repeat the baking process.

You could, as the recipe originally advised,  also use an electric beater in order to spare your poor arm muscles, but I wanted to see if it could be accomplished with good results using old-fashioned elbow grease.  And guess what?  You can!

Resolution Result 3/52 – The Ongoing Quest for Omega(tron) Three

This year is the year that I’m finally going to train myself to eat, if not outright enjoy, oily fish.  For the better part of my life, I’ve steadfastly refused to eat fish –  with a few notable exceptions, of course.  I will happily wrestle a lobster for the sweet meat hidden in its claws, I can consume tinned tuna when it’s wearing a disguise of mayonnaise, lemon and spring onions without batting an eyelash, and I could be considered a top contender for medals if there were a national Olympic team for eating prawns.  Unfortunately for me, however, none of the seafood listed above provides the health benefits that I’ve been reading so much about.  No, for those added perks, I would need to invite its oilier relatives around.

For my inaugural foray into the briny depths, Him Indoors prepared me a pasta dish with brie , mediterranean spices, sundried tomatoes and kipper.  It was his recipe and he wasn’t completely happy with it, so I was not granted permission to write about it, other than to say that I had experienced it.  (For what it’s worth, Him Indy, I thought the sauce was very nice, and the fish, whilst challenging, was not entirely horrible.  I could probably eat it again.  So there.)

My next attempt involved tuna, but this was no sanitised tin o’ chicken of the sea,  my friends; this was proper tuna steak.  Don’t roll your eyes in exasperation – I swear this was a very big hurdle for me to leap!  A little research into the care and feeding of tuna steak revealed that it didn’t require a great deal of cooking.  There were plenty of spices, rubs and marinades recommended, but I thought it was better to experience the flavour of the fish relatively unembellished.  Seasoning the steaks very simply with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper and sea salt flakes, I then showed them the hot pan.  Each side was seared to a pork-like whiteness which sandwiched an unsettlingly pink centre.  I didn’t – couldn’t, in fact – pause to snap a photo of it, as I had to get it to table quickly before I lost my nerve.   I set the plate before H.I, and his eyebrows flew up in surprise.  “You’re brave,” was his only comment, and he fixed me with a look that was a curious blend of scepticism and sympathy.  And you know what?  I enjoyed it.  It was actually good. So, chuffed and emboldened by my two relative successes, I decided to try my hand and palate at (cue the dramatic music) salmon.

Him Indoors had been to YO! Sushi earlier in the week and claimed that he had discovered another potential candidate for kind and gentle omega 3 delivery:  teriyaki salmon.  He didn’t go into great detail about how it was made, so I plunged ahead with preparations based solely on assumptions.  Bud, my brother, rang me whilst I was in the midst of preparing it.

“Whatcha cooking?” he asked, hearing the rattle and hum of pots and utensils in the background.

“Teriyaki Salmon,” I answered brightly.

Silence.  The currents of fish-aversion run deeply and swiftly in the Nin family’s bloodlines.

Undaunted, I made my pitch.  “”I just thought it might be a good idea to get more omega three into our diets – you know,  in terms of health benefits.  An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, as they say…”  I trailed off and strained to hear some indication of his reaction.  Was he curling his lip in derision?  Did he think his scatty sister had finally gone completely and irrevocably doo-lally?

“Jesus, Nin, just take supplements,” he advised, sighing wearily, “and save yourself the agony.”  The man’s got a point, but then again, if I hadn’t bitten the mullet, I wouldn’t have discovered that I actually liked fresh tuna.  And who knew?  Perhaps beneath my stubborn breast might the heart of a salmon aficionado beat.

Later that evening, H.I. looked at the long, burnished fillet I had laid out on his plate and then looked back at me.  My Spidey Sense told me that this wasn’t exactly what he had been expecting.  “The skin’s still on,”  he observed flatly, poking at the fillet.  Picking up his cutlery, he surveyed the table expectantly.  “Where’s the sauce?” he asked.  I shook my head, not comprehending.  He demonstrated a little swooping gesture with a chunk of fish on the end of his trident.  “For dipping?”  I blanched.  Ahhh.  The sauce – the stuff I used to marinate and then baste the fish – was intended for dipping.  This was all going horribly wrong.  Apparently, at the YO!, the fish is cut into chopstick-manageable chunks, skinned, lightly cooked, and THEN served with a thick, savoury-sweet teriyaki sauce on the side for dipping.  My version – well, so, so much was lost in translation.

Despite the inauspicious start, the salmon was pronounced good – but only by H.I.  My status as jaundiced Tenderfin does not yet permit me to pronounce judgment on fish dishes, but one day, sensei, ONE DAY….

Teriyaki Salmon
Not at ALL in the style of YO!Sushi
(for 2 people)

Ingredients
2 salmon fillets, approx 100g (3½oz) each
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp salt ( I used sea salt flakes)
4 tbsp teriyaki sauce
1 tbsp honey
a dash of toasted sesame oil

Procedure

1.  In a small bowl, combine the teriyaki sauce, honey, and sesame oil.  (This doesn’t make a lot of sauce, but you will need to set a small amount aside for the quick marination and reserve what’s left over for basting the fish while it grills.)  Using some of this reserved sauce, marinate the salmon fillets for 1/2 – 1 hour.

2.  Preheat the grill to high.  Prepare your grill pan by lining it with some foil.

3.  Remove the fish from its teriyaki bath and gently pat it dry. (Dispose of the marinade.)  Brush the salmon with the oil and season with the salt.  Skin-side down, put the fish under the grill and cook it for 4 minutes.  Carefully turn the fillets over and cook them skin-side up for another 2 minutes or until the skin starts to char and blister.

4.  Reduce the grill’s heat to medium.  Skin-side down again, brush the fish with the second lot of reserved teriyaki sauce.  Return it to the grill for 1-2 minutes, then brush on more sauce. Repeat this process twice, reserving a small amount of sauce to brush on just before serving.

A Tale of Tourtière

Happy New Year!  I’ve been seriously remiss in my month-long hiatus, but I plead for leniency on account of being ambushed by Christmas.  Honestly, I only just got the mincemeat bottled in time for the festivities, and I was still madly baking cookies well into the wee hours of Christmas Eve.   Grovelling aside, I do hope that everyone had a lovely, peaceful holiday, full of good cheer, scintillating company, and, above all, excellent food.  H.I. and I did, thank you very kindly, and, as we head into the New Year, I shall relate some of the new and delicious things we experienced during the break.  As a general rule, I don’t participate in the resolution game, but, for the dawning of a fresh, new decade, I have relented – to a certain extent.  As a nod to the great tradition of self-deception, my oath, delivered smirkingly, is to be more adventurous, culinarily speaking.  I shall sample at least one new thing a week –  be it a new recipe, product, ingredient, utensil, shop or restaurant.  So.  Fifty-two new things.  How difficult can that be?

For my first post of the year, I’m not starting with New Thang #1, but I’m harking back to Christmas.  You’ll see why, if you bear with me!  For me, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the tourtière, which is a savoury, French-Canadian meat pie, typically served at the Christmas Eve Réveillon after midnight mass.  Each family has its own version of this pie – some are filled simply with spiced meat, whilst others boast a mixture of meat and winter vegetables, some use puff pastry, others rolled – and each one will passionately defend the authenticity and general righteousness of its version.  I’m not here to dispute the tastiness of anyone’s Grand-maman’s recipe (although Mum’s vegetable-studded pies would rock your world), so no defensive, angry words for ol’ Nin, pretty please.  No, my mission was to bring the elixir of tourtière to the uninitiated.  During my years as a vegetarian, I remember feeling like such a martyr on Christmas Eve when they passed the tourtière around the table.  I tried not to show it, but the smell of the spices wafting from my Mum’s flaky pastry cases drove me to distraction and nearly broke my resolve.  I’m not naive – I’m sure it was all part of a carefully orchestrated covert operation to turn me back to the dark side.  

Well, as I knew we’d be having Christmas lunch with a vegetarian or two, I decided that my contribution to the feast would be a meat-free version of tourtière.   Most of them, if not all, hadn’t ever experienced the magnificence that is the tourtière, so I wanted to give them the opportunity to taste as close an approximation of it as I could muster.  Before I plunged headlong into the task, I browsed for vegetarian versions of the pie’s filling in my cookbooks and online, but I wasn’t terribly inspired by what I found.  There appeared to be an over-reliance on TVP (textured vegetable protein) as the main ingredient, and I just didn’t want to go that route.  This is by no means a denigration of TVP;  I completely understand why it would prove a popular choice for a veggie tourtière.  As a meat analogue, TVP is cheap, versatile, quick-cooking,  low in fat, and it provides a familiar, meaty texture.  Not only is it an excellent protein source, but it can used to introduce non-vegetarians to meatlessness in unthreatening shapes and forms or even to offer fledgling and transitional veggies the support of familiar dishes as they learn of new ways and ingredients to cook.  The people for whom I was making this tourtière, however, were rarefied creatures who no longer needed to be weaned from the texture or mouth-feel of meat.  Indeed, one of our guests, the glamourous Raoeme, has never consumed an ounce of animal flesh in her life, so I didn’t feel that I could, in good conscience, set a dish made to resemble the original as closely as possible before her.  No, it had to be made of lentils, and it had to be made of Puy lentils.

After much hovering, stirring, muttering and adjusting, I was satisfied with my vegetarian tourtière filling.  In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea to prepare the poultry version of the tourtière filling at the same time, but at that moment, it appealed to me as good sense.  If made side by side, I reasoned, the two disparate mixtures could be sampled for comparison and contrast throughout their constructions.  I’d be able to adjust the seasonings of the veggie version to approximate that of the turkey one.  What it actually did, sadly, was alter my perception so radically that I had all but convinced myself that the vegetarian version was a DEAD RINGER for the meat-based one.  Pleased with myself, I baked up a handful of each sort and set them before Him Indoors.  He chewed in silence and avoided eye contact.  Heart sinking, I plunged a fork into a veg pie for a confirmation of the worst.  “They are edible,” he said tactfully, “but they are nothing at all like tourtière.”  Sighing, I had to agree.  In terms of what I was trying to achieve, namely giving my vegetarian friends an approximation of the flavours that I loved and associated with Christmas, it was a dismal failure.  Needless to say, I didn’t bring the vegetarian course to Christmas lunch; I spared the guests that much.   Upon further reflection, however, we both decided that the taste was reminiscent of a store-bought vegetarian haggis made by Hall’s, which I had tried my level best to replicate in the past but never seemed able to accomplish.  So, ha!  I shall declare this a backdoor success!  It makes a terrible tourtière but a rather nice vegetarian haggis substitute, just in time for Rab Burns’ Night on January 25th!

Depsite this relatively happy ending, I was left with far more “raw” filling than I knew what to do with.  I wouldn’t countenance throwing it away, but I also knew I couldn’t keep offering it apologetically up to H.I. if I wanted to remain happily married, so for lunch one day, I flattened a ball of filling into a patty, coated it in breadcrumbs and sautéed it until golden.  Served on a roll with spiced plum chutney, it tasted pleasant enough, but the texture was so loose and crumbly, it had the look of something that had been dragged sideways through a prickly hedge. My last salvage attempt involved the addition of some tomato paste and several more dashes of seasoning to the leftover lentil mix.  I reheated the entire mess, spooned it into a casserole dish, topped it off with mashed Maris Piper tatties and a crown of grated cheddar and baked it for 40 minutes at 180C.  Presto!  Veggieherder Pie!  It was unrecognisable as its former incarnation and it was delicious.  I set the plates in front of H.I. without so much as a grunt by way of explanation and tucked wordlessly in, fully expecting him to suss out the culprit.  To my surprise, he nodded appreciatively and declared whatever it was we were eating quite good.  So, as I said before, it’s not a unmitigated disaster but a work in progress  to which I shall definitely return.

Veggie Tourtière/Substitute Veggie Haggis/Veggie-herder Pie Base

Ingredients:

1 1/2 – 2 cups puy lentils, soaked overnight
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup raw millet
1 cup cooked brown rice
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 cup very finely sliced mushrooms – as close to minced as one can get
1 tsp sage
1-1 1/2 tsp savory
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/8 tsp cayenne
1/8 tsp allspice
1/2-1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
1 1/2 – 2 cups vegetable stock
1 tbsp  vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp yeast extract, such as miso or Marmite
1 large carrot, chopped/diced and cooked
1 large potato, peeled, diced and cooked (preferably a waxy variety)
(Optional!  I used 2 potatoes in mine: one floury potato, peeled, cooked and mashed, to further thicken up the texture of the lentil mixture, and one waxy potato, cooked and diced, to stud the lentil mixture.)

Enough of your favourite recipe for pastry for a double crusted pie OR about 6-8 individual pastry shells

* 2 T tomato paste (only used in the shepherd’s/vegherder pie)
* salt and pepper to taste

Procedure:

1.  Soak the lentils overnight.  After their all-night bath, drain and rinse them off, cover them with fresh water in a medium saucepan and, adding the the bay leaf, bring them to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender.  (Mine didn’t take very long at all – 20 minutes tops – but they could take up to 45 minutes.  Always make with the checking!)  Drain and rinse them again, remove the bay leaf, and set aside.

2.  While the lentils are simmering, prepare the millet in a separate, small saucepan.  Combine1 cup of water with the grain in the pan and bring it a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the millet has absorbed the water, which should take about 20 minutes.  Set aside.

3.  In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepot, heat the vegetable oil.  Add the onions, celery and garlic and fry until the onions have softened but not started to brown.  Tip the mushroom mince in next, and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes.  Next for the pot are the herbs, spices, and seasonings:  sage, savory, cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, allspice, salt and pepper.  Stir well to combine, and cook the mixture for a few minutes until the spices are fragrant.

4.  Now add the drained lentils, cooked brown rice and millet to the onion and spice mixture.  Stir to combine all the components well.  Add enough of the stock to keep the mixture from sticking to the bottom – I added the liquid in 1/2 cupsful at a time, as needed.  Along with one of the 1/2 cup stock additions, stir in the Worcestershire sauce and Marmite.

5.  If your carrot and potato are not already prepared, now is the time to do so.  Steam, boil or microwave your diced vegetables to your desired consistency, drain them of excess moisture, and stir them gently into the lentil mixture simmering on the hob.  (At this point of my own preparations, I decided to include a floury, mashed potato for a little extra thickness to the filling.  It didn’t affect the flavour significantly, it was just padding and probably entirely unnecessary!)

6.  Preheat your oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4.  Roll out your pastry to fit your pie pan, and then pour the lentil filling in.  Cover with the second layer of pastry, and then pop it in the oven to bake until golden – about 30-35 minutes.  Serve with winter vegetables, preserves, and a thick slice of cheese.  (Some folk would have you smother it with gravy, but they would be WRONG.)

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