Saturday, February 28, 2009

Orange almond couscous cake

Cakes are one of those areas where even quite proficient cooks are reluctant to improvise. I guess this is the result of the mania for measurement which surrounds baking, coupled with the erroneous belief that any movement beyond certain fairly strict parameters will inevitably result in disaster. There is also, to be fair, something inherently mysterious about baking cakes. You fill a tin with some rather unappetising batter, pop it into the oven, and take it out to find that it has been transformed into a delicious cake. The fact that baking is often something of a special event may also make us particularly intolerant of the failures which would inevitably accompany experimentation.



I don't know how many basic types of cake there are in European cuisine. (I wonder if anyone has ever tried to produce a typology of them, a bit like those claims that there are only seven plots in the whole of world literature.) One very simple version involves mixing eggs, sugar and flour, and possibly adding something else for extra flavour (fruit or chocolate, for example). There's no reason why the carbohydrate element has to be provided by flour. I already have a recipe for an orange cake with polenta, and it occurred to me that the polenta could be replaced by couscous. The result was very successful - moist and with a good texture, without being crumbly. The overall flavour is quite intense, as the whole oranges give it an almost marmalade-like bitterness, so probably one to serve to grown-ups. I think it would be good hot with some vanilla ice cream.

Ingredients
3 large oranges
6 eggs
150 g couscous
150 g ground almonds
300 g demerara sugar

Method
  1. Place two of the oranges in plenty of water, bring to the boil and simmer for one hour. Drain the oranges, and allow to cool.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180°C, and line and grease a springform cake tin.
  3. Halve the oranges and puree in a food processor.
  4. Transfer the orange puree to a mixing bowl, and beat in the eggs, couscous, almonds and 250 g of the demerara sugar. (Set aside the remaining 50g to make orange syrup with.)
  5. Pour the mixture into the tin, bake for 1 hour and remove from the oven.
  6. Meanwhile, juice and zest the remaining orange.
  7. Make a syrup by gently heating the remaining 50g of sugar, zest and juice for a few minutes until the sugar is dissolved. Strain through a tea strainer to remove the zest.
  8. While the cake is still in the tin, prick it all over with a toothpick to allow the syrup to soak in, and pour the syrup over it.
Pac-Man
My video game career never really got beyond Pac-Man. The next game I tried was Frogger, but I struggled with its complexity. I don't know how much money I had wasted (and how many electronic frogs I drowned) before I finally realised that although I had to navigate my way across the road by jumping into the gaps between the oncoming vehicles, I had to cross the river by jumping onto the logs and not into the gaps between them. It struck me as a bit arbitrary and I gave up at that point. After all, surely frogs can swim and don't need to hitch rides on logs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pancakes

As Pancake Day approaches, I thought I should take the opportunity to post this. I always used to make Scotch pancakes (smaller and fatter than crepes). However, my kids have started insisting on the big, flat variety which can then be rolled up. Sammy and Carmela like them with honey and chocolate - just melt the chocolate in a bain marie and heat the honey a little to make it go runny.



Ingredients

2 cups of plain flour
2 eggs
20 fl oz of milk
vegetable oil for frying

Method
  1. Sift the flour into a bowl, beat the eggs and add the eggs and milk to the flour. Whisk until you have a smooth batter. If it looks a bit thick, then add a little milk. Transfer the batter into a jug.
  2. Heat a non-stick frying pan with a little oil in it. Pour off any excess oil, then pour some of the pancake batter into the pan and swirl around until the bottom of the pan is thinly but evenly coated. Once it has cooked on the bottom (30 seconds or so), turn it over (or flip it if you feel like showing off), cook the other side, and serve with the topping of your choice - traditional lemon and sugar, or a spider's web of honey and chocolate.


Time
The biggest change in my family's life since I started this blog has been our decision to start homeschooling our kids in September last year (2008). One of the things that many of our friends wondered about - and that we ourselves were obviously a little unsure of - was where we would find the time to do everything: schooling, work, domestic chores, socialising, blogging (!) etc. However, one of the benefits of homeschooling for us (and there have been many), has been that it has completely changed the way we think about our time. Without wanting to sound too pretentious about the whole thing, our society commoditises time: we measure it, allocate it out to the different tasks we have to perform, classify it depending on whether we control it (leisure) or somebody else controls it (work/school), jealously guard the distinction between the two (to the extent of classifying most of the things we do as either 'leisure' or 'work'), and are often resentful when 'work' infringes on 'leisure'. Now that we have done away with this distinction (or at least pushed it into the background a bit), we have found that we have more time than we realised. Yes, this does involve working late in the evening, but it also involves enjoying the privilege of spending time with your kids when society says they should be at school and you should be at work. And it has helped me to realise that cooking is not a household chore (most of the time!), but is a source of pleasure and an opportunity for self-expression.

What does all this have to do with pancakes? Well, the last time I wrote about pancakes (over a year ago and before we had started homeschooling), I began my entry with the words "I make these for breakfast at the weekends. (And sometimes during the week too, if I'm feeling extra nice.)" The reason they were a weekend treat was very simple: by the time we were ready for breakfast, the clock was already ticking, and if we were to avoid being late for school then there was no time for making pancakes. Nowadays, breakfast is a much more leisurely affair, and includes time for making pancakes and even scones. And so, I dedicate these pancakes to our homeschooling friends, Laila and Aisha in London:


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Puchero gaditano - Cadiz chicken soup with chickpeas, vegetables and noodles

Chicken soup or stew with chickpeas is central to Spanish food. The most famous version is the cocido madrileño (Madrid stew) which is a chickpea stew with a selection of meats and vegetables. The Cadiz version is called puchero and is a little lighter than its Madrid counterpart.



Butchers in Cadiz always have a couple of trays on top of their counter containing various strange-looking items which are used to make the caldo or stock for the puchero. These include salted lard, ribs, vertebrae and trotters, and sections of ham bone. The butcher also sells pre-soaked bags of chickpeas, in case you've forgotten to put your chickpeas in to soak the night before.



Greengrocers also provide a little selection of vegetables for use when making puchero: leek, celery, carrot, turnip and some fresh mint. Collectively, these are los avíos del puchero.



There are lots of recipes in the Sephardi Jewish repertoire for chicken with chickpeas, and it is quite possible that the Spanish versions are Jewish in origin, with the prominent use of ham bones and other pork products ensuring that cook and diners would be safe from any accusations of backsliding from the Spanish Inquisition. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition ...!) This somewhat overstated use of blatantly unkosher items is a feature of Spanish food. I guess it is the culinary equivalent of a closeted gay man constantly talking about cars and girls.

Ingredients
300g dried chickpeas
1 piece of salted lard
1 piece of salted pork rib
1/2 salted pig's trotter
1 piece of ham bone
2 leeks
2 sticks of celery
2 carrots
1 small turnip
1 small bunch of mint
8 skinless chicken thighs
100g fine soup noodles



Method

  1. Put the chickpeas to soak in plenty of water the night before.
  2. The next day, place the chickpeas in a large pot, cover with plenty of water, and bring to the boil.
  3. Meanwhile, finely chop the leeks, celery, carrots and turnip.
  4. Once the chickpeas have reached the boil, skim off any scum, then add the lard, rib, pig's trotter and ham bone, bring back to the boil, reduce to a low heat and cover and simmer gently for about half an hour.
  5. Add the chopped vegetables, add a bit of water if the soup looks to dry, and simmer for another hour or so. Check to make sure that the chickpeas are very nearly done.
  6. Add the chicken fillets and simmer for another half an hour or so.
  7. Add the noodles and simmer until they are cooked.
  8. Remove the lard, rib, pig's trotter and ham bone, and serve the puchero in a soup plate.




Authenticity
I have made a couple of changes to a typical puchero gaditano, replacing whole unskinned chicken leg with separate, skinless thighs. I have also not included one of the traditional ingredients, which is a large chunk of boiling beef. In my opinion, this makes a cheap dish expensive, while the beef itsel ftends to come out a bit dry and tasteless.



There's nothing wrong with trying to produce 'authentic' versions of dishes, but I think this is something we can get too hung up on. It is often little more than an excuse for buying expensive imported ingredients instead of cheaper local ones, and can be a barrier to creativity. If you are making this soup in the UK (or anywhere where funny bits of salted pig are hard to come by), then just use a good chicken stock or substitute with something you think will work. After all, the presence of pig in this dish is itself probably the result of an earlier innovation.

Talking of authenticity, in the modern Spanish home this would almost always be made with a pressure cooker. In that case, you just bung all the ingredients in at the start (apart from the noodles) and cook until the chickpeas are done.

Cock-a-leekie
If I was more given to crazy ethnographic theories, I would suggest that Scotland's cock-a-leekie soup has its origins in a small group of Sephardic Jews who made their way north after being expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, bringing with them their love for chicken soup. No chickpeas being available, they substituted with barley, and helped create one of Scotland's national dishes: a chicken soup containing leeks, potatoes, barley and prunes.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sesame potato wedges

Potato wedges!? This was inspired (if that's the right word) by a menu Gemma was translating into Spanish. It read like a spoof of everything that is worst about British food cliche: prawns marie rose (that's mayonnaise with ketchup), jacket potatoes, and even Quorn chilli. For anyone who doesn't know, Quorn is a meat substitute made from an 'edible' fungus. I've never understood this. If you're a vegetarian, then why would you choose to eat nasty ersatz meat instead of proper vegetables? After all, you can easily make a meat-free chilli by replacing the meat with some auberines. However, the potato wedges made me curious. We eat a lot of chips in our house, and while I don't worry at all about the health aspect of this, it's always good to have something else to do with potatoes. I got on the web and this was the result.



Ingredients

1 kg of potatoes
olive oil
1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
4 bay leaves
salt
pepper

Method
  1. Wash the potatoes but don't peel them. Cut them into wedges and mix in a large bowl with all the other ingredients.
  2. Transfer to an oven tray or dish and bake at 200oC for 45 minutes or until done.

Spring is here
We ate these on our roof terrace, together with the aubergine and bean puree and some beautiful steaks. We've had a long wet winter in Cadiz this year (well, long and wet by local standards), but the sun is back and it's getting warm. Soon it will be time for picnics on the beach.

Aubergine and bean puree

Chick pea-based humus so dominates the dip scene that we often forget that other pulses make good dips or purees, too, as does aubergine. In the past, I have sometimes been guilty of using up all my energy on the main dish, and not putting any effort into the accompaniments. This is part of my ongoing resolution to pay more attention to the little things in life.



Ingredients

1 aubergine
1 can of white kidney beans
a handful of chopped parsley
1 teaspoon of garlic puree
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
salt
plenty of olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 spring onions, chopped

Method
Peel the aubergine, chop it into large chunks, and fry it until cooked. (I cook it in my deep fryer, but you could shallow fry as well.) Put all the ingredients into your food processor (including a good dash of olive oil) and whizz until you have a fairly smooth puree. Serve as a dip or as a vegetable side dish.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Beansprouts and peanuts with ginger and chilli

Apparently British family doctors have what they refer to as 'heartsink patients' - the ones who make your heart sink when they walk through the door. Well, I have heartsink ingredients, the kind of thing that sits in your fridge and inspires you with a mixture of gloom, guilt and boredom in equal measure. For me, one of the great things about writing this blog is that it has given me a fresh approach to some of these ingredients, and now instead of my heart sinking I tend to see them as a challenge to my culinary imagination. I think this crunchy, spicy take on beansprouts is quite effective.



Ingredients
vegetable oil
250 g beansprouts
a generous handful of peanuts
1 teaspoon of chilli paste
1 teaspoon of fresh ginger
a good dash of fish sauce
a drizzle of sesame oil

Method
Heat a little oil in a large frying pan. When hot, add the chilli paste and ginger and stir-fry for 10 seconds or so. Throw in the peanuts and stir fry for a few more seconds, then add the beansprouts and stir fry for a little longer. (Just long enough to heat the beansprouts - you don't want to cook them too much or they will lose their crunch.) Transfer to a serving bowl and dress with the fish sauce and sesame oil.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Swiss chard and potato omelette (tortilla de patatas con acelgas)

I'm a bit of a food purist, and tend to cook things from scratch. Once you've acquired a certain level of experience, this isn't as difficult or time-consuming as it sounds, but it still takes a lot more time than opening a tin. (Although I do plenty of that too.) One way I cut down on the work is to make generous quantities and to make good use of any leftovers.

I looked in the fridge this lunchtime and realised that both me and Gemma had been on an egg-buying binge, so I beat some up with the leftovers from my Swiss chard and potato curry to create this. A classic Spanish omelette just has egg, potato and onion, but variants with spinach or courgette are quite common, so this seemed like a logical thing to do.



Ingredients

500g of leftover Swiss chard and potato curry
1/2 a large onion
1 clove of chopped garlic (or use 1 teaspoon of garlic puree)
4 large eggs
olive oil

Method
  1. Finely chop the onion and fry it gently, adding the garlic when it is nearly done.
  2. Stand the Swiss chard and potato curry in a colander over a bowl to remove any liquid, then transfer to a chopping board and roughly chop the potato pieces.
  3. Put the chopped curry and the onion into a mixing bowl. Beat the eggs, add them to the bowl and mix well.
  4. Heat a little oil in a medium-sized non-stick frying pan, then pour the mixture into it.
  5. Cook over a low heat until the bottom of the omelette is cooked and the whole thing is beginning to set.
  6. Flip the omelette over into another non-stick frying pan in which you have already heated a little oil. (Or use one of the other methods described in my earlier post on this subject.)
  7. Once the omelette has cooked underneath, transfer to a plate and serve. (The omelette should still be moist, even a little runny in the middle. The Swiss chard helps here, as it retains more moisture than potato alone.)

Veggie heaven
I hope I've now made it up to all my veggie friends for the rude comments over the past few months! I can't promise that the comments will stop, but I will try to leaven them with plenty of meat-free recipes.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Zambian pineapple piccalilli

Gemma bought a couple of ripe pineapples the other day and they were threatening to go belly-up, so I needed to do something with them and fast. The web is great for this kind of thing. I found a recipe for Zambian pineapple pickle (on CeltNet) and then tweaked it a bit (well, a lot), to produce something a bit more like piccalilli: less sugar, fresh ginger instead of candied, turmeric to give it some colour, a little chilli for some kick and thickening the sauce with cornflour.



I used to do a lot of pickling when I was a student but apart from the occasional batch I have never really got back into the habit. I love simple pickled vegetables, homemade pickled eggs are great, and I once pickled an octopus with great success.



Ingredients

500g green pepper
500g fresh tomatoes
200g onion
2 whole lemons
2 whole oranges
200g sultanas
500g fresh pineapple (about half a large pineapple)
500ml white wine vinegar
200g brown sugar
4 tbsp grated fresh ginger (or use minced ginger)
2 tbsp salt
3 teaspoons of turmeric powder
2 finely chopped red chillies (or use 2 teaspoons of minced chilli)
4 tbsp of cornflour

Method
  1. Chop the tomatoes, pepper and pineapple into 2-cm chunks, and the lemons, oranges and onion into 1-cm chunks.
  2. Combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to a boil then reduce heat to minimum and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Allow to cool a bit, then place a colander over a large bowl and tip the cooked pickle mixture into it. Once all the liquid has drained out, stand the colander over a plate, and transfer 500ml of the liquid which accumulates in the bowl into a medium sized saucepan. (You can discard the rest of the liquid.)
  4. Put the cornflour into a glass, and slowly dilute it with about 8 tbsp of the liquid from the saucepan, stirring with a fork to dissolve.
  5. Add the dissolved cornflour to the saucepan and heat gently, stirring all the time with a whisk. When it starts to reach simmering point the liquid will thicken.
  6. Combine the cooked pickle and the thickened sauce in a large bowl, and transfer to sterilised jars. Allow to cool fully before closing.

Zambia
My aunt spent a couple of years in Zambia in the 1970s. She didn't have a great time there - I don't think she was ideally suited to ex-pat life in the Zambian copperbelt or to her first husband. However, I still remember the gifts she brought back for us: African masks, stools covered in hide, and a little tinderbox contain flints and some dried moss. And I think I recall her making a mean chicken in peanut sauce, too.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Chocolate biscuits

It's been chucking it down non-stop today (as if someone had turned a shower on over Cadiz), so we've had a pyjama day. We were planning to go out and celebrate the reopening of our local ice cream place after its winter break, but we decided to stay in and have biscuits instead. (Cookies to anyone on the other side of the Atlantic.)

The recipe is incredibly simple - basically, you bung the ingredients into the food processor and whizz them. Of course, with kids things are never that simple, and it took quite a lot of negotiating over whose turn it was to use the blender and one stern lecture before we finally produced these.



Ingredients
7
5g margarine
125g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
50g brown sugar
50g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g plain chocoolate, broken into squares
1 large egg

Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 180oC, and prepare two baking sheets. (These can be a bit sticky, so oiled baking paper is probably a good idea.)
  2. Put all the ingredients apart from the egg into a food processor, and blend for a few seconds.
  3. Add the egg, and blend again.
  4. Using a teaspoon, put blobs of mixture on the tray. Leave plenty of space between the blobs, as they will spread. With wet hands, shape them to make them round.
  5. Bake for 12 minutes, then leave to cool on the baking sheets.
Is there anybody out there?
I sometimes wonder if anyone ever reads this blog (other than those members of my circle of close friends and family who feel more or less obliged to pander to my strange obsession with kitchen craft). But my blog now has its first official follower, the owner of Alley Katz Antiques in Amarillo, Texas. Sounds so exotic to us over here in Europe, obviously the place to go if you want see some really cool cowboy boots.