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Saturday, 29 December 2012

austerity cooking

Ah, Christmas. A time for ill-advised knitwear, lying to children, and dodgy office parties. Oh, and shameless gluttony of course. It's as though December provides the perfect black hole for calories and cash- it's Christmas, so it would be rude not to buy/eat/drink everything in sight, even if we know all too well that feeling of dread and self loathing that hits us once January rolls around. But for now, it's December, and the festive season is in full swing. So without further ado, lets talk about food.
My own ill-advised knitwear. Well- it is Christmas...
For all you Christmas purists out there, there's turkey, 'nuff said. Luckily, due to a combination of a great mother and mother-in-law, I've managed to escape the delights of this dry, over priced and over-rated bird for most of my festive dinners. Frankly, I just don't understand why people invest so much time and effort in what is essentially an oversized chicken on Christmas Day. But, I'm not here to court controversy; instead I'm here to share a recipe that's perfect for the POST Christmas period- you know, those iffy few days between the Big Day itself and New Years. Or, it's great as a relatively fuss-free New Year's Day dinner, and it's a meal that can stretch to as many distant relatives as may deign to rock up on your doorstep over the festive season, providing brilliantly versatile leftovers that I will follow up on with not one, but TWO recipes over the coming week. Which is where the 'austerity' part of this cooking comes in- the cut, due in part to it's size, isn't exactly cheap, but remember- it is Christmas. And the reincarnated leftover dishes freeze perfectly, which will be a relief come January's credit card bill...

I'm not afraid to admit that this is a bastardized Jamie Oliver recipe. Now that's not to say there was anything wrong with the original, it's just that I do enjoy tinkering with things. I also believe that with any recipe, there's always the opportunity to put your own stamp on something- so long as you're not screwing with any basic chemistry at work (so no tampering with Mary Berry's sponge, please).

It's also worth mentioning that this takes a Very. Long. Time. But, it's worth it, and you can prattle around the house while it's cooking- maybe take the time to pair up all those nice new socks you seem to have acquired...

Jerk-Roasted Pulled Pork For The Masses

What You Need:

  • 5kg boned and rolled pork shoulder, but ask your butcher nicely if they still have the bone hanging around. I also bought a nice little rack of ribs for the meat to rest on while it's cooking- the meat's delicious after a few hours in the oven.
  • 1 x bottle of good quality cider- I really like the slightly medicinal taste of Hecks in this dish. You are, of course, permitted a cheeky swig for yourself every once in a while...
  • 1 x can of Coca Cola (other 'cola' brands are available, but let's face it- they're shit. So just buy the real stuff)
  • A handful of fresh thyme, leaves ripped off
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds, lightly bashed with anything solid you have to hand
  • A liberal grating of fresh nutmeg
  • Maldon Sea Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 3 x scotch bonnet chillis. More if you like it really hot, less if you're a bit of a whimp.
  • 2 tbsp dark muscavado sugar
  • A large knob of fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/2 tbsp allspice
  • 1/2 tbsp cloves
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic, mashed with salt in a pestle and mortar
  • Juice and zest of three limes
  • A bunch of healthy-looking coriander
What You Do:

1. Preheat your oven to its hottest setting- I was quite impressed to discover that ours manages 260 degrees. If your butcher hasn't already, score the skin of your pork and rub all over with the fresh thyme, ground cumin, fennel seeds, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Do this dry at first, and then follow with a hefty glug of olive oil to lubricate things nicely.

2. Pop your joint into a snug-fitting oven tray, resting on the bones. Pour half of the cider and half of the coke into the BOTTOM of the tray, taking care to leave the skin completely dry. If it gets even the tiniest bit soggy, your crackling will be abysmal (and we all know legendary crackling is the benchmark of all good pork). Place in the middle of your swelteringly hot oven for half an hour.

3. After the 30-minute mark, turn the oven down to 130 degrees, and add the rest of the cider and coke to the oven tray. You're afforded a bit of faffing-time doing this, as you'll need to have the door open for a moment to cool the oven down anyway.

4. Set your timer for three and a half hours. Commence sock organising.

5. Once it's up, cover your joint with a layer of foil. Set the timer for a further three and a half hours. Write a short play, or learn a language.

6. And, we're done! Well, nearly. Once your timer has sounded, pull the joint carefully out of the oven. Move to a large plate, and leave to rest with the foil on. Skim the fat from the top of the oven tray (do not chuck this carelessly down your sink. Not only will it probably bugger up your drain, it's also a shameful waste of excellent fat that would much rather be used on a potato one day), and pour all the remaining juices into your favourite bowl.

7. Finely chop your scotch bonnets, and avoid all eye-scratching, tooth-picking and baby-cuddling pursuits until you've thoroughly washed your hands. In your nice bowl, start concocting what is essentially a Jerk seasoning-mix the sugar, grated ginger, ginger powder, allspice, cloves, mashed garlic, lime juice and zest. Don't worry too much about being exact with the quantities, tweak according to your own palate. It needs to taste a lot stronger than you'd think, as it has a rather large heap of meat to cover.

8. Remove the layer of crackling from the pork. If it isn't quite up to scratch, pop it under a hot grill for a few minutes. Scrape off the white, flobbery layer of fat from underneath, and discard. Now, start the shredding- the meat should fall 'aaahhh-' inducingly apart- in slow motion, just like a Marks and Spencer advert. Pull it all apart with two forks, and then toss in the jerk seasoning. 

Pile onto your favourite serving plate, and let everyone dig in. It's best served with something that can mop up the juices adequately, so I tend to do mine with sweet potato mash and lots of hot greens. As I mentioned, unless you really are feeding the five thousand there should be a fair bit of meat leftover. Just cover this up and stick it in the fridge to await further instructions...!

Merry Christmas/Happy Hannukah/Jolly New Year and all that malarkey...

mrs hunt.x

Monday, 3 December 2012

the not-so tough cookie

This post could be considered a bit of a follow-on from last week's chocolate prattlings- but no rants this time, just recipes. Or one, at least- my gruff, manly chocolate cookie recipe. Cookies might not be the most gastronomically exciting foodstuff, but there's something quite comforting about baking a batch every once in a while. These ones have a 'hero' ingredient- Green and Blacks Mayan Chocolate. It can be substituted for any other interesting variety of chocolate you might prefer (it works well with the chilli-infused stuff too) but the orange zest and spices in this particular bar are fairly distinctive, and fittingly festive to boot.

As you might have picked up from last week's post (which had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, I'm sure), I'm brazenly snobbish when it comes to chocolate. Now I know Green and Black's can hardly be considered 'artisan' anymore, but it's bloody nice, and a reasonable price for its calibre. Some purists would argue that its dark varieties aren't, strictly speaking, 'dark', since they list milk solids amongst the ingredients. However, after a bit of nosing, I gather this is for allergy reasons and nothing else; they do not use milk solids in the recipe, if you cared. Plus, they're Fair Trade, which is nice.

So, without further ado, my recipe for...

Vaguely Festive Chocolate Cookies:

What You Need:

  • 125g dark chocolate
  • 150g plain flour
  • 30g cocoa, sifted
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp ground allspice
  • 1tsp cinnamon
  • A grating of nutmeg- enough that you can taste it, not so much that you start hallucinating.
  • 125g butter (see below...)
  • 1/2 tsp salt (or use salted butter), at room temeperature if possible.
  • 100g light brown sugar
  • 25g muscavado sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (NOT essence. Horrible stuff)
  • 1 free-range egg- cold from the fridge.
  • 200g Green & Blacks Maya Gold chocolate, chipped.

What You Do:

1. Preheat your oven to 150 degrees if you're using a fan oven. Crank it up to 170 degrees if you're not. Pop an inch (no more) of water into a pan, and place on a low heat. Break up your dark chocolate, and melt it in a snug-fitting bowl over the barely simmering water. If the bowl gets too hot, or the water touches the bottom, your chocolate will suddenly transform into a grainy mess that you'll be forced to eat while you try again.

2.Place the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cocoa, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and, if you're using it, the salt, into a large bowl and mix well.

3.In another bowl (or electric mixer, if you have one), beat the butter until it pales. Add the two sugars, and continue to beat for a few minutes until fluffy. Try not to forget about your melting chocolate in the mean time, and once it's smooth and glossy pour this in and stir through.

4. Beat in the vanilla extract, and crack in the egg. Mix in your dry ingredients.

5. Finally, stir in your Mayan chocolate chips. This is also a good time to start eating your batter.

6. Scoop out enough mix to create a cookie-ball in a size that strikes you as appropriate- this recipe makes 12 decent-sized biscuits, depending on how much of the batter you've managed to consume by this point. Place them on a lined baking sheet, about 2-3" apart. Any closer and you'll end up with a cookie sheet, which I suppose is no disaster. But if you're going for the traditional cookie form, then strategic spacing is advisable. DO NOT PAT DOWN! You might have to do a couple of batches, depending on the size of your baking tray.

7. Bake in the middle of your oven for about 18 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean from the middle, not wet with batter. They might still seem very soft, but don't panic. Leave them to firm up on the baking tray for five minutes or so, and then transfer them to a wire rack.

I like my cookies still warm, served with a bit of creme fraiche and orange zest. If they last long enough to merit it worthy, stick them in an  airtight container and they should last a couple of days.

Happy cookie-munching.

mrs hunt x

Thursday, 29 November 2012

chocolate: an education

A coffee worth the 60-mile round-trip.
But then, I wasn't driving.
Good coffee is notoriously tricky to find outside of the M25 * (and if any of you are even tempted to mention Starbucks, please, just- don't) and so as ludicrous as it sounds, the Husband and I quite often trek over to DunneFrankowski's Protein in Shoreditch for a decent one. This might seem a bit OTT, but a) we're both unashamedly snobbish when it comes to coffee, and b) we're good friends with Rob (Dunne) and Vic (Frankowski), so the 30-mile mission isn't quite as ridiculous as it might first appear. I've always considered these two to be crusaders of a sort- essentially, they're on a mission to get people drinking proper coffee (not low-fat, toffee nut soya lattes), and I suppose they realised that chocolate suffered the same break- people have long since forgotten what it actually is, how to make it, and how to eat it. And so after chatting to Michael Lowe from chocolatier Paul A Young over a coffee, they asked him to arrange a chocolate tasting (read: re-education) one Sunday. I'm not one to say 'no' to chocolate for breakfast, so that's where we found ourselves.

Sure beats coco pops...
I've already confessed my gender-driven compulsion for shopping, and yes, I do enjoy a crap rom-com every once in a while (especially if Jennifer Anniston pops up somewhere), but really I think it goes without saying that, like most girls, I'm quite fond of a good bit of chocolate. Whilst I'm just as snobbish about it as I am my coffee, I have to admit I'd never given the stuff much thought beyond 'well this stuff's obviously better- it's twice the price, and in nice paper...' which is arguably the same yardstick I apply to a lot of my purchases.  I know the American stuff is shit, the Belgian stuff is good, and Cadburys... well, they're a bit like Starbucks. But that was the extent of my chocolate expertees, so I was quite keen to learn more.

Cocoa nibs. An acquired taste...
Chocolate is the only edible substance to contain more aromatics than coffee. If I'm honest, I thought 'aromatic' was just a flowery term used to describe wine, Thai food or candles, but as it turns out, it's a bona fide scientific measurement of certain compounds. On average, coffee has about 850 aromatics compared to chocolate's 1600- hence why Rob and Vic were so interested in the first place. The similarities between coffee and chocolate don't end there- both are grown in a relatively limited geographical region, both are roasted, and, importantly, both are hugely misunderstood everyday commodities. Paul A Young are one of only three chocolate producers in the UK to buy and roast their own cocoa beans (though admittedly this is no guarantee of quality, as Cadbury are one of the others), and they make everything on site, and by hand, the old-school way. So if this makes for a good chocolate, what makes a bad one? Plenty, apparently. Cocoa beans are fermented and roasted to develop flavour; the levels of each required to get the perfect taste vary hugely bean-by-bean, but if you're a mass-producing chocolate conglomerate, then it's tricky, time consuming and expensive to get a consistent product at the end of the process. Unless, that is, you under-ferment and over-roast your beans. This way everything tastes bad, but at least it tastes consistently bad. And it's OK, because you have emulsifiers, sugar, veg oil and artificial flavourings handy anyway.

Every bean is about 45% cocoa butter, and it's this that is actually the costly part of the bean. A lot of the 'crap' chocolate manufacturers remove the majority of this, sell it (to The BodyShop, presumably...) and replace it with milk solids and veg oil- normally Palm oil. This, in turn, hurts Orangutangs. And trees. Plus, I really feel that if you are extracting the essence of the bean from your chocolate, then it isn't really chocolate. It's fake chocolate.

So let's talk about good chocolate- this is where my breakfast comes in. I tried a few, but I'll run you through three...

The Venezuelan 72%
First up was a Madagascan 50% cocoa. Yes, a milk chocolate, but Galaxy it aint. Creamy just doesn't do it justice- it melted in the mouth, and had none of that chalky texture of the cheap stuff. Then, just to liven up my tastebuds a bit, I nibbled on some cocoa nibs (also referred to as pate or chocolate liquor). This was 100% raw, hand picked, hand dried cocoa from Madagascar. Having not been fermented or roasted, and containing no sugar, it's unsurprisingly pretty bitter. However, it's smoother than you'd expect, and oddly cooling on your tongue. It's also strangely addictive, and apparently great for baking with. However, my favourite of the half a dozen or so I tried was the Venezuelan 72%. Now without sounding like too much of a ponce, it managed to taste floral and earthy at the same time, and wasn't as bitter as many chocolates I've eaten with a lower cocoa content. It's supposed to be quite good for tempering, too.

There we go. I do hope this doesn't all seem like too much of a rant. Yes, good chocolate is more expensive than shit chocolate- if you want to gorge on an entire bar of the stuff in front of X-Factor, then cool- stick to the Cadburys. But if you like real chocolate- the stuff you can still taste two hours later, and has actually seen a cocoa bean, then I'd say it's worth shelling out the extra pennies. The Orangutangs will thank you for it.

* So to make it easier, I'll tell you where to go: any Wyombeites reading this need to visit to The Pantry (@thenewpantry). It's proper coffee, and they pay their tax bill.

mrs hunt.x

An Orangutang. He's happy.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

autumn leaves, salad leaves

The leaves are golden, the Coca Cola ad has been sighted, and leaving the house in fewer than four layers is, frankly, silly. What better way to celebrate the onset of the chillier months than a warming, hearty... salad. Yes, stews are comforting, stodgy, and arguably more seasonally appropriate, but if you eat hotpot for dinner every night, you'll have a coronary by Christmas. Besides which, this is a very seasonal salad, and because it's healthy you can follow it up with a sticky toffee pudding (or three) and sleep soundly.

A Winter Salad with Beetroot-Roasted Chicken:

What You Need:

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, from happy chickens. 
  • Raspberry vinegar. I use Womersley because I'm a sucker for a nice-looking bottle, and it's the best tasting I've found.
  • Cooked baby beetroot
  • Chilli flakes
  • A squeeze of lemon juice
  • Decent quality olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground back pepper

  • 1 red onion
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Apple (I used Pink Lady for a crisper taste than most others)
  • A handful of walnuts,  lightly crushed
  • 1 medium-soft British goat cheese round, sliced
  • Salad leaves (I used baby spinach and rocket)
  • Flat leaf parsely, to garnish

What You Do:

1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees if it's fan assisted, 200 degrees otherwise. In a pestle and mortar (or something to that effect), bash up the beetroot with a hefty pinch of salt, lots of pepper, and chilli flakes. Do so carefully- the beetroot are slippery little buggers.

2. Once mashed to a pulp, add a good glug of olive oil, a touch of raspberry vinegar, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Don't go too crazy with either, since the pickled beetroot will already be quite acidic. The consistency should still be fairly thick, and it should taste sweet, tangy, with a noticeable kick from the chilli.

3. Dice up your chicken thighs. I use this cut because the darker meat is naturally a lot juicier, and develops a stronger taste from being so close to the bone. Breast meat is comparatively bland, dries out very quickly, and is more expensive. Aim for bitesize pieces- it's always nice to have a salad you can eat with just a fork; it feels more refined, somehow. Place these in an ovenproof dish, and rub all over with your beetroot mix. Use gloves if you'd like your hands to remain the colour they are.

4. Give your chicken a final sprinkling of salt and pepper, and pop in the middle of your oven for 20-25 minutes. The meat turns a glorious pink colour, which looks lovely but can disguise undercooked chicken. Check the centre of your largest piece at the 20 minute mark, but don't just panic and cremate the whole thing regardless.

5. While the chicken is in the oven, halve your red onion and slice thinly into slivers. Put a generous knob of butter into a non-stick pan, and cook the onion on the lowest heat possible, stirring regularly and watching like a hawk to ensure it doesn't catch. While you're doing this, put your salad leaves into a nice-looking bowl, crunch your walnut halves, and slice up the apple as thinly as you can manage. Don't do this too early, as it will start to go brown.

6. Slice your goat's cheese, and arrange on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle over a few more chilli flakes if you enjoy a bit more spice. This only needs about three minutes in the oven, so check on your chicken first.

7. Add a generous splash of balsamic vinegar to your onions, and crank up the heat. They should turn sticky and slightly crisped after a minute or so, but do make sure they're not burning.

8. Once the goat's cheese has melted slightly, remove from the oven with the chicken. Dress your salad with some olive oil, a touch of the raspberry vinegar and seasoning, and toss with the apple and walnuts. Then arrange your chicken, and place the melting goat's cheese slice on top. Spoon over the red onion, and garnish with parsley.

This can be served with whatever you fancy- toasted sourdough bread and butter is always nice, as are sweet potato chips. This served two of us, but with a bit of tweaking could stretch as far as you like.

And don't forget the sticky toffee puddings, eh?

mrs hunt.x

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

two small aubergines

So as always, I'm a bit late: October the 8th-14th was National Curry Week. But seeing as a good curry is as close to our hearts as queuing and roast dinners, I don't suppose I need an excuse to bring it up. With the 'Birmingham Balti' currently fighting for protected status, and the roots of the humble (if arguably terrible...) Chicken Tikka Masala allegedly lying somewhere in central Glasgow, the curry is about as close to our national dish as one could get.  We all know that for every good one out there there are a hundred or more bad ones, but that's done little to dampen our love affair. In reality, most of the dishes to be found on your average 'Bombay Dreams' or 'Taj Mahal' menus are so far removed from their cultural and geographical roots that you'd be hard pushed to call them Indian, Bangladeshi or anything other than inherently British.

Fortunately, I've been pretty lucky where curries are concerned: my Dad spent the bulk of his childhood living in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, travelling with my Grandad while he lectured physics. The upshot of this? My Nan cooks a mean curry. And we're not talking that Uncle Ben's crap here, either. We're talking two solid days preparing and simmering half a dozen brightly coloured dishes, served with fragrant and authentic sundries to a twenty-strong horde of hungry family members. Personally, I think the key to a memorable curry is keeping it seasonal, and close to its roots: Indian cuisine, for instance, has as many regional influences as Italy does. The following curry has its roots in my kitchen, in October. I can't vouch for its authenticity, but let's face it- this is what we Brits do. We take something foreign and- for better or worse- we put our stamp all over it. Hopefully, this was for better. At least, I enjoyed it.

A winging it, made-up lamb shoulder curry:

  • 750g good quality lamb shoulder, boneless and trimmed
For the marinade:

  • 2 tbsp tumeric
  • 2 tbsp ground coriander
  • 2 tbsp ground ginger
  • 2 tbsp Garam Masala
  • 5 cloves of garlic, mashed
  • Mild oil

For the cooking oil:
  • 2 tsp Kalonji (black onion seeds)
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds

And for the rest...

  • 5 banana shallots, diced
  • 1 large Spanish onion, diced (sweeter than a normal one, but either works)
  • 2-3 green chillis, according to taste.
  • 2 tins of plum tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • Coriander leaves, to garnish
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste

1) Dice the lamb shoulder into 3/4" chunks, and place in a bowl with the tumeric, ground coriander, ground ginger, Garam Masala and mashed garlic. Add enough oil to get the meat covered, and 'massage' it for a couple of minutes. As feeble as it may sound, rubber cloves are heavily advised; tumeric has a knack for transforming your fingers into those of a 60-a-day smoker. Not hot. Set aside to marinate- the longer the better. If you have time for an overnight session then pop it in the fridge, taking it out two hours before you cook it off so it has time to come slowly to room temperature.

A large, non-stick heavy bottomed saucepan. Something
EVERYONE should own.
2) Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, non-stick heavy bottomed saucepan, on a medium heat. The non-stick part is quite important- nothing pervades the taste of a dish quite as successfully as burnt onions. Add the onion seeds, cloves, and cumin and coriander seeds.

3) Once they start to pop and sizzle, add the chilli, onion and banana shallots. Make sure there's enough room in the pan, and add splashes of water if you feel anything is starting to catch. Cook until soft, translucent and smelling sweet.

4) Add the lamb with all the marinade ingredients, and turn up the heat to brown it nicely. Again, there needs to be plenty of room, otherwise it will sweat when you want to be sealing in the moisture, not boiling it out.

5) Once it reaches a lovely golden brown colour (and not before), add the tomato puree, the tinned tomatoes, and plenty of seasoning. Leave to simmer gently over a medium heat for an hour and a half, stirring now and then to make sure nothing catches. Serve garnished with heaps of fresh coriander.

When I cooked this a couple of weeks ago, I served it alongside some oven-roasted butternut squash, aubergine and pumpkin cubes that I'd tossed in some ground cumin, chilli flakes and oil, which I popped in the oven at 180 degrees for just under an hour. It made the meal taste deliciously autumnal, with the added bonus of bulking it up to feed six of us with the pilau rice, chapatis and salad. Another thing to note- sliced banana with curry is really very nice. Try it.

Happy (belated) curry week!

mrs hunt.x

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

words and (food) pictures

A photo of meatballs
And so, as if I didn't need reminding that I'm no longer gorging myself silly in Sicily, it's just started raining again. We now find ourselves unmistakably and unequivocally in Autumn- one of my favourite seasons food-wise, most definitely not weather-wise. Whilst the rapidly shortening days and plummeting mercury herald the arrival of some pretty indulgent, tasty comfort foods, for the time being I'm going to stick my head in the sand and fondly reminisce about the glut of pasta, seafood and litre carafes of wine (litre! Italians sell wine by the litre!)  that helped contribute to the extra half a stone that's stubbornly hanging around.

Since my last post reached almost epic proportions, I'm going to allow the pictures to do most of the talking for this one. It would be a shame to let them go unseen, seeing as they were the cause of several marital disputes abroad (Husband: 'Seriously? It's a meatball. Stop taking photos of a meatball and talk to me. You look like a tourist.') Well, readers, I was a tourist, and unashamedly papped a few hundred photos of my favourite meals and markets. And cats too, but I'll spare you those...  

Grilled mystery fish. It could have been bream. Who knows.
These didn't last long...
Now if our glowing white pallor didn't immediately give us away as Brits, then my blustering attempts at Italian certainly did. Needless to say, we did eventually end up with an assortment of traditional Sicilian anitpasti at our first restaurant that went down rather well. Caponata, found in abundance across Sicily, would most aptly be described as an aubergine, caper and celery relish- that is if if you want to be very British about things and completely strip it of any allure. It's generally a given that most things sound infintely more tempting in Italian. We guzzled that down alongside some arancinette (deep-fried risotto balls flavoured with saffron) and polpette di sarde. Now it took my exhausted, Ryanair-flight frazzled brain a while to translate this into sardine meatball, when intitally I had been convincing myself it was something to do with octopus ('polpo', if anyone cares...). But sardine meatball it was, and 'delicious' doesn't quite do it justice. Paired with mint, pinenuts and just the tiniest hint of aniseed, it's a far more summery alternative to the standard pork or lamb variety.

Sicillian culture has been subject to
countless influences over the centuries, owing largely to its indefensible position bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. However, it seems being conquered time and time again by hordes of knife-wielding men from boats can do funny things to a country, and in the case of Sardinia- Italy's largest island- it's resulted in quite an inherent mistrust of anything that comes from the sea. Like fish. Luckily, Sicilians are far more laid back, and embrace anything they can catch. Sicillian sea urchins are harvested in 'cooler' weather, so I was a bit late (or early, I suppose) for linguine di riccio. Needless to say, there was an abundance of seafood around, and the Sicilians adore a simply grilled fish (see above left- but don't ask me what fish it was, since to this day I can't tell you). And then there's the shellfish: mussels are everywhere. A packed-out backstreet trattoria served me an amazing  zuppa di cozze- a glass bowl of huge mussels in a translucent broth. Unlike the richer Belgian or French moules frites, this was an incredibly simple starter dish- just fish stock, lemon, more pepper than you would ever dare to use yourself, and the tiniest sniff of garlic. Perfect for when you're planning on a marathon six course dinner.

Despite not being native to Italy, tomatoes
have done a darn good job of cementing
 themselves firmly in Italian cuisine.

Letting me loose in Ballaro Market, Palermo's biggest outdoor food market, proved very much akin to allowing a child free reign in Hamleys at Christmas- I demonstrated a complete lack of regard for money, practicality or personal welfare, and had to be reminded on several occasions that marrows were unlikely to survive Ryanair's draconian excess baggage policy, and a lot of the spices on offer would look incredibly suspicious under x-ray scrutiny. Regardless, I still saw fit to purchase a kilo of ripe nectarines, and ate them all more out of spite than hunger. But when you experience a market like this- where everything is so fresh, cheap and seasonal, you can see why Tesco are yet to try extending their reach into mainland Europe. The idea of polypropene containers, Peruvian asparagus and Birdseye fish fingers is quite laughable when you see the local fare on offer.

It was like Christmas had come early...
A vivid display of some seasonal Sicillian veg-
and I didn't even  need to use Instagram.

Now I would be remiss in waxing lyrical about the wonders of Italian produce if I failed to mention street food. Sadly, we live in a country where street food is synonymous with overpriced, cremated sausages bought in a state of utter inebriation, somewhere along Oxford street at 3am, or else scraps of indefinable grey-coloured meat that does little justice to the middle-eastern kebab. But in Sicily, street food is a way of life; at around 9pm, families come out into squares in their hordes, and mill around food stands and plastic tables with arancini, panelle (deep-fried chickpea fritters) and guasteddi. Now, I'm fairly brazen with my eating, and am yet to come across a food I won't sample. That said, I was a little dubious about devouring what is essentially a role filled with calf spleen, lungs and lard. But I did, and it was good, if a rather interesting texture.

Guasteddi- tastes good,
 looks... well... not good.
Genovesi Ericine

I suppose the reason I get so giddy in Italy is because I feel very safe in the knowledge that I can be reckless with my food choices- you know that chances are, you're going to get something damn good, even if it does come under the dubious heading of 'chef's meat special.' A restaurant that looks as ropey as hell from the outside is just as (or perhaps even more) likely to serve you the best meal of your life as the one with the linen napkins and 120EU bill. Good coffee is ubiquitous (no skinny decaff soya lattes or Nescafe here, thank you very much), and one of the best things I put into my mouth came from a dodgy-looking food stand in a train station. Genovesi Ericine- sugar dusted, lemon custard filled Sicillian pastries-served up warm with a cup of strong espresso, made our three-train, two-bus trip to the airport bearable.

But now, back to reality. It's still cold, it's still raining, and I'm definitely in need of some comfort food. So I'm off to make some pumpkin soup, and dream of the sunshine....

mrs hunt.x

Thursday, 13 September 2012

a very small book addiction

I'm a girl. That I should enjoy shopping will be of little surprise, no doubt (though you would think Husband would have gotten over it by now... sadly not). Whilst I seem to have little problem earnestly declaring a brand new dress to have 'been in my wardrobe for aaaaages', and getting away with it, he seems a little more adept at identifying new cook books. This is unfortunate, seeing as I appear to trot home with a new one every week. Despite rapidly decreasing shelf space, I really can't help myself- as I've said, I love cooking and writing in roughly equal measure, and so naturally letting me into Foyles is like letting Pete Doherty loose in a chemists.

In my experience there are three kinds of cook, at least as far as cookery literature goes:

Category One: This type of cook holds recipe books in much the same regard as a bomb disposal team would their 'how-to' guide; that is to say, there is no veering away from any given recipe, at any given point. Ingredients are painstakingly measured out, and their trust in the narrator is absolute. If Jane Asher tells them their sponge needs 20 minutes at 180 degrees, then no way on God's earth is it coming out early- even if there is a suspiciously acrid smell emanating from the cooker, and the smoke alarm is screaming at them.

Category Two: Cookery books, magazines and websites serve more as a form of inspiration than instruction, and recipes are adapted according to season, quantity, or mood. These cooks have faith in their own senses and intuition- or at least they pretend to. Their food can be imaginative, daring, and occasionally disastrous.

Category Three: Now I mean no offence, but from what I can ascertain this category is dominated largely by men. This can be seen as both good and bad, I suppose: I'm fairly certain Heston never felt the need to stay safe within the realms of Mrs Beeton et. al., and without his flagrant disregard for the 'rules' of cooking, we'd exist in a snail-porridge free world, which would be very sad indeed. That said, I've lost count of the number of times I've come home to a decimated kitchen, a husband coated in flour (amongst other less-identifiable substances), sheepishly announcing that his tequila bread has 'gone a bit wrong.' Apparently tequila and yeast are quite volatile when mixed. In short, category three cooks have failed to cast a glance at a cookery book. Ever.
Now seeing as I find myself firmly entrenched in category two territory (if more of its 'disastrous' side, perhaps...), I hereby present my own cookery book shortlist. As it seems this entry is in danger of reaching 'Silver Spoon' proportions (keep reading, if you don't know what I'm talking about), I shall divide the books into two lots. Hopefully this will keep you all tantalised- or, at the very least, minimise the chances of you nodding off. The first lot (below) will include more well known, 'iconic' publications. The second (to come...) category consists of books that, whilst not obscure, are arguably a bit less recognised. All of the books I'm including have been read cover to cover by me- even the really long ones- and are indispensable, well-thumbed resources.
And so, in no particular order...

 1. The Silver Spoon, Phaidon Publishing:
The Silver Spoon is widely toted as 'the bible of Italian cooking', and with over 2,000 recipes it's certainly long enough to justify the reputation. First published as 'Il Cucchiaio d'Argento' in 1950, it's been tweaked and translated numerous times, and I will say that despite this, it's definitely worth still baring its original context in mind. It features very traditional Italian fare with a hint of post-war austerity still clinging to its recipes, which regularly feature cheap, easily obtainable produce like perch, tench and offal. However, this is something inherent in Italian cuisine- it does rural peasant food famously well, and The Silver Spoon provides mouth-watering, solid and reliable recipes in abundance. In terms of value for money, the book is fantastic: half encyclopaedia, it will teach you almost everything you need to know about food and how to cook it, and the recipes themselves have aged well- every serious cook should give it at least a cursory flick-through. And you know what? Simple Italian works well, and that's why The Silver Spoon still sells.

2. Je Sais Cuisiner ('I Know How To Cook'), Ginette Mathiot:
Another hefty tome, Mathiot's guide to French cooking is regarded as the Gallic equivalent to The Silver Spoon. Both feature as much in the way of ingredient advice, cooking techniques and seasonal guides as they do actual recipes. Published much earlier, in 1932, Mathiot is very much present in the book's narrative- the  bossy (or confident, I suppose you could say) and succinct instructions proffered by the French matriarch give the book a rather amusing dimension, and make it very readable. The recipes themselves are far less intimidating than you might come to expect from a compendium on French cooking, but just as sophisticated.

3. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child, Louisette Berthole and Simone Beck:
Another French one, but where Je Sais Cuisiner is rather like being lectured on cooking by your stern maiden aunt (in a good way), Mastering the Art of French Cooking is like being let loose with the fun auntie who buys you age-inappropriate presents, and lets you lick the bowl. All within the context of 1950s France, of course. The recipes in themselves are classic staples, but it's the tone of the book I love so much. As the lead writer, Child's clamouring to prove herself equal to the rigours of French cooking (borne of being a Yank in France) is palpable. The work essentially serves to demystify much of French cuisine, and it does so in a thoroughly charming way. The narrator is immediately likeable, which is important given the book's teeny-weeny print and lack of pictures.

4. Great British Recipes, Jamie Oliver:
Sorry, who? Exactly. Love him or hate him, you do know him- and he's certainly a man on a mission. This hyperactive, cheery celebrity chef has waged an assault on our country's eating habits which, let's be honest, were probably in need of a bit of attention. I'm a patriotic person- I love local produce, and I love quintessentially English food. However I've found that of late, many chefs and restaurants have been too concerned with appearing stubbornly British and have turned a tad, well, xenophobic. And that's why I bloody love Jamie. I do. I'd wear a Jamie Oliver badge if I could find one. Yes, he can be irritating. Especially when you're hungover and struggling to muster enough energy to cook baked beans on toast- the last thing you want to see and hear is Mr. Oliver telling you that in seven minutes you can concoct a fantastic meal for a family of thirty-six. Or something like that. But I love his attitude to food; YES, buy local produce. YES, avoid supermarkets (we'll ignore the fact that he's the Sainsbury's poster boy- in his books and magazines, he rarely advocates supermarket shopping,) but embrace our HUGE cultural heritage!

Great British Recipes is a fantastic source of ideas that embody all of Britain's cultural influences, and is a great tool of inspiration in the kitchen. Its recipes are easy to read, easy to cook, and even easier to eat. It is not, however, 30-Minute meals: there are a lot of over-night marinades and slow cooks. In fact, my favourite recipe is the slow roast pork belly, which I've tweaked endlessly to suit whatever occasion I pull it out the bag for, as it really is very adaptable. However, it does take a good nine-hours of love and attention. I had to sleep in half hour stints the first time I attempted it- I soon learnt it is not a Sunday lunch dish- early evening at the very least.... But then sometimes a little bit of sleep deprivation can be worth it.

So there you go- the first four. I do hope you're all still awake...

mrs hunt.x

Thursday, 6 September 2012

please sir, can I have some more?

I'm a bit odd, and will happily slurp down a chilled, decidedly 'summery' soup in the depths of December. And since December is all-too rapidly approaching, I thought I'd hark back to those early days of summer: for me, there is nothing more mood lifting than celebrating the mercury hitting twenty degrees (since let's face it- we are British...) with a super-cool soup.

When most people think 'cold soup,' their minds understandably jump to Gazpacho, in one of its numerous regional variations. Now call me a cheat, but I rarely bother making my own; the reality is that most decent delicatessens stock fantastic stuff in cartons, saving a huge amount of time and effort on your part. Balancing the seasoning and acidity of a Gazpacho is notoriously difficult, so if you find a brand you like, don't see buying it as a cop-out.

Amongst others, there is also the Vichyssoise vein of cold soupage, but it's not my favourite. For me, the best soup to usher in those early summer days, and one that will see you through to mid-September, is anything bright green and with a healthy amount of gin. Now, when I first started putting gin into soup, I'm fairly certain my husband suspected me of having some kind of borderline alcohol dependency; admittedly, if the gin wasn't going into my food, it would be going into my tonic. Or both, for that matter. But my logic is very convincing: the botanicals found in most gins match perfectly with all those foods we associate best with summer- think cucumber and lemon, for example- so it gives a green summer soup a perfectly innocent kick.

What You Need:

  • 2 sticks of celery (hold on to the leaves)
  • A large handful of borage, if available. Failing that, 2/3 of a cucumber.
  • 1 courgette
  • 1 average-sized bag of watercress
  • A couple of slices of decent quality white bread, crusts off.
  • Juice of 3 unwaxed lemons, and the zest of 2 (reserve half for the  the garnish)
  • 100g of soft British goat's cheese, or feta.
  • 100g frozen peas
  • 1 handful of applemint (or ordinary if you can't find any)
  • 50ml Hendricks gin (as it has a more pronounced cucumber flavour, but any gin works well)
  • A good slug of cider vinegar
  • 1 cup of crushed ice 
  • Tabasco/generic hot sauce to serve (optional)

Plus: a blender.

Try to allow some degree of flexibility with your ingredients: asparagus works well if you throw in a couple of stalks, but it is worth bearing in mind that its season is very short (just a couple of months from the end of May, depending on weather.) Obviously you could use asparagus imported from Israel or some other far-flung country, but it kind of defeats the object here. This soup is amazing because you could probably source everything within a twenty mile radius, if you tried hard enough- depending on how many local goats are hanging around. Essentially, if you have anything non-toxic and of the right hue hanging around your garden, just chuck it in. Lettuce, broad beans and chives can all be subbed-in as necessary, depending on your mood. Just be creative.

What You Do:

Seeing as this soup is raw, there's not much scope for screwing it up. That is unless (like me) you feel the urge to stick a wooden spoon into your blender halfway through the blending process. Large chunks of wood are an optional extra.

1. Chop up your celery, keeping a few of the leaves for a fancy garnish. Throw it in the blender with the roughly chopped borage/cucumber and courgette.

2. Pulse a couple of times to achieve a lumpy, thick-ish base, and then tear up your bread, adding this on top. Follow this with the rest of the veg, and then the cheese. Feel free to keep some back if you want to crumble it on top with the rest of your garnish. Blend it.

3. At this point, the jug will probably need a bit of a jig to ensure everything is getting mushed. But like I said, don't use a wooden spoon.

4. Add the gin, lemon juice and cider vinegar, followed by the zest of one of your lemons. If you are using the unwaxed variety, you'll notice that the scent and oils are a lot stronger than in its waxed variety. I'm sure I don't need to explain why.

5. Season like there's no tomorrow- this can take it. In the unlikely event that you do go over the top, it's easy enough to counter balance with a bit more gin, lemon juice, cucumber... anything. Whizz it all up until you get a smooth-ish consistency, and then heap on the crushed ice. Bash it all up again, and then check for seasoning. This really is quite a personal soup, and you can add as much or as little of the ingredients as you like to suit your taste.

6.Serve chilled, with a few pretty bits and pieces of anything that went in there initially adorning the top.  I get incredibly excited by the contrast between cucumber and chilli on my tongue, so I'm not shy with the Tabasco, but it's always up to you.

So, before it's too late, try to squeeze in one more summery soup. Before you know, it'll be leek and lentil all round...

mrs hunt.x

Friday, 30 March 2012

the ultimate store-cupboard

Even if it does take me
twenty minutes to locate
 what I'm looking for,
 it's MY store cupboard,
 and I love it.
I'm one of those people that has the habit of buying one of the following items on every shopping trip, in the full knowledge that I have at least three in back-up at home. But still, for the most part these are non-perishable- so space permitting, go crazy...

Anchovies- On toast. Melted into sauces. Clumsily yanked out of the jar when you're drunk, hungry, and in need of a juicy little salt-kick. Or maybe that's just me.

Capers- Another glorious multi-tasker, these are perfect for adding texture and balance to any dish that might otherwise be a bit on the rich side. Or, chuck a load over any kind of cured fish, put a dollop of creme fraiche on the side with a heaping of peppery rocket, and hey presto. A pretentious-looking lunch.

Olives- With the first two store cupboard essentials, these form a Holy Trinity of sorts. Just ask any passing Neopolitan, if you can find one.

Goose/Duck Fat- pricey, but ESSENTIAL for any roast potato worth its salt.  Lard and vegetable oil don't even come close. If you don't fancy paying four quid for the tinned stuff, just pop round to your local butchers. Give them a cheeky little smile, ask very politley, and I'm sure they'll oblige with a good lump of tasty fat for far less than Mr. Tesco would ask of you.

Parmesan/Gran Padano/Parmigiano Regiano etc - Now, when I say Parmesan etc, I mean etc. Any kind of hard, piquant, peppery cheese is a must-have, in my house at least. Swap for manchego (derived from ewe's milk instead of cow's) or anything else you fancy. It's probably also worth mentioning that most hard cheeses of this nature freeze excellently- just pull out a nugget, and grate/shave/whatever, and it defrosts instantly. Pop it back in, and it'll keep for ages. My mother-in-law taught me that. Useful, eh?

Chilli- I'm a heat-fiend. I love anything with a kick- the hotter, the better- and I am yet to be trounced in any variety of hot sauce shooting contest. So needless to say, there's rarely a shortage of scoville-providing goodies in my kitchen. It is worth baring in mind that you never really know what you're getting heat wise until you test a chilli- some of the varieties considered 'medium' in heat can often turn out to be disappointingly mild. I always like to have a tiny little nibble first, just to gauge how much I should be using. That said, I wouldn't suggest trying this for any of the super spicy varieties. Scotch Bonnets burn. And, as always, WASH YOUR HANDS AFTER. I won't divulge any of the more intimate nasty experiences I've had after failing to do this, but be warned.

Oh, and chillis both dry and freeze quite nicely.

Lemons/Limes- Perhaps it has something to do with being wife to a mixologist. Or maybe it's because I'm overly fond of a nice G&T. Either way, lemons and limes are essential. You can even cook with them, if you must.

Garlic- Need I really justify this? No? Thought not.

Cheap Red/White Wine- Now nothing so good that you'll be tempted to drink it, but nothing so crap it'll turn a hearty chilli into a vinegary mess. Whilst wine can be used at the iffy point where you wouldn't really mind drinking it- you know, if you were desperate, don't be mistaken into thinking anything with a decent ABV will do. If you have a couple of bottles knocking around somewhere, you're only a few steps away from whipping up a decent pasta sauce or wintery stew.

Palm Sugar- Found pretty easily in ethnic food shops, markets, or even some bigger supermarkets (if you must), palm sugar is fantastic for anything Asian or Carribbean-inspired. With a bit of lime, chilli and oil, you have a beautiful little dressing for a Thai beef salad. Obviously you can just use normal sugar, but where's the fun in that?

'Tipo 00'- the strong stuff
Caster Sugar- Just for those impromptu baking whims. Don't fool yourself by thinking any sugar will suffice- granulated won't dissolve properly in most cakes, biscuits or sweet pastries, and whereas anything dark might compliment a ginger or chocolate cake, it will just overpower Grandma's Victoria Sponge. So if in doubt, opt for caster.

Flours- Plain and self raising are, of course, store cupboard staples, but I always like to mix things up with a Spelt or Buckwheat. Both are really good for savoury recipes (galettes with goats cheese and chorizo are a personal favourite), but are also suitable for anyone with a gluten intolerance. Happy days.

Eggs- Please, forgive the rant. It will be a short one, because I'm planning an entire post dedicated to whinging about the awareness of food provenance (it's something us Brits in particular are double-crap at...) So- eggs. PLEASE please please, DO NOT ever buy from caged or battery farmed hens. Aside from the fact that the conditions these chickens are kept in are unbearably cruel, the resulting eggs are pale, tasteless little lumps of horribleness. Just shell out the extra- what? 30p?? And get some from hens that are free to roam around and be happy. Or better still, get them from a farm. Or a farm shop. Or my dad- he has loads of hens, and the eggs are big, juicy, with tasty golden yolks.

Result: you get nice eggs, keep a clear conscience, and people power will help destroy a cruel industry that's mean to chickens.

NB. Don't bother putting eggs in the fridge. They are almost always better off cooked from room temperature, and cold egg whites are a lot harder to fluff up. They'll keep just as long, promise.

Maldon Sea Salt- It has no preservatives (so none of that weird bitter taste some cheap cooking salts have), looks pretty, and is fun to smash up. It also has the added bonus of being British, which is always nice.

Virgin and Extra-Virgin Olive Oil- Don't just stick to what you know with oils. Virgin is best for cooking (don't waste the good extra-virgin stuff- the taste just disappears as soon as it heats up), but extra-virgin is where you can have fun experimenting. Different countries and regions can have a huge impact on the taste of the oil that's being produced. For instance, as a rule, Cypriot olive oils tend to be grassier, and the Italians more fruity and mellow. But shop around, and don't be afraid of spending a bit more on a nice bottle, because it's definitely worth it. Remember to keep in a cool, dark-ish cupboard (or else in a tinted bottle) to stop it going dodge.

Rapeseed Oil- It's British, it's a nice colour, and it tastes lovely.

I wouldn't recommend eating Daffodils.
Paprika- Buy the smoked stuff in the pretty tins, and sprinkle it over anything for a bit of warmth and spice- it really is very versatile, and can save any casserole or chicken dish from blandness. Nutmeg and cinnamon can be used to a similar end, in a pinch. Neither have the same smoky heat, but both will help create some warmth. Personally, I like my paprika over griddled asparagus with olive oil and lemon zest.

Cumin (Ground and Seeds)- Essential for any kind of Indian or Middle-Eastern cooking. It has such a distinct taste, and it can really help to transform a meal in a jiffy. Seeds can be bashed up and fried lightly in oil to give an aromatic base to anything else you want to throw into the pan. Cumin and root veg- especially carrots or parsnips- are a match made in heaven, and it goes just as well with lamb and (perhaps surprisingly) shellfish.

Fennel Seeds- Use with lamb, fish, chicken, pork, or anything that reminds you of the sunshine.

Mustard Seeds- Black or yellow, these are great at imparting flavour into oil before you chuck your meat in, and help add a bit of heat and pepperiness into Indian cooking. You can also get creative and make your own mustards, if you feel inclined.

Chicken Stock- I really do believe that people don't poach chicken enough, and here's why it should be done more: 1) it keeps it so moist and lovely, whereas most other forms of cooking tend to dry it out, 2) it's a super laid back way of cooking, but really helps saturate the chicken with the flavour of whatever it is you're sticking in the water with it, 3) you get a nice big pan of stock at the end of it. Stick in a freezer bag, and use in soups, risottos, and sauces. I don't care what Marco Pierre White says, I seriously doubt he'd pick a bloody Knorr cube over home made stock any day.

Rices- Long grain, arborio risotto rice, and basmati. Cook it up in your chicken stock, and don't use the microwave stuff. Yes, it's quicker to turn to Uncle Ben, but it's also expensive and, let's face it, crap.

Now this is by no means a definitive list of the world's most useful ingredients, and it certainly isn't going to see you through any kind of nuclear holocaust (though I'm fairly certain I could survive off anchovies alone for a year or so...) That said, everything in here will help to provide a pretty solid basis to some decent meals. So what more can I say? Happy shopping!

mrs hunt.x

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

the imaginatively titled first-post

Hmm. This feels like a momentous occasion: I have finally ceased colour-tweaking, and actually started blogging. Which was, after all, the idea.

the idea:

I like to write, and I like to cook. Asking me which I prefer is like asking a parent to admit to having a favourite child- they secretly know, but will never let on. So why on earth have I decided to chuck my food-based musings (and rants- I'm sure there will be rants) into the abyss that is food blogging? Partially, I suppose, because if I spend nearly every spare waking moment cooking, I really ought to give more people the opportunity for ridicule; it just wouldn't be fair otherwise. Equally, with most of the remaining  non-cooking moments spent eating, I always think it's rather nice to let people in on some of those unexpected gems that crop up in the way of places to get fed.

Now, I say this with every intention of avoiding sappiness, but I suppose all of this (*nods towards the sea of notes, recipe clippings and reviews I've scribbled over the years swamping both myself and the cat on the sofa*) boils down to  having a passion for anything I can put in my mouth (Ahem. Food-wise. This is not one of THOSE websites. Sorry to disappoint), and it all comes from a girl who recently spent her last fiver on  ceramic baking balls instead of actual food, for either myself, husband, or aforementioned cat. But then the satisfaction of having a beautifully blind-baked tart case surely overshadows the grim reality of having nothing to fill it with. It might be worth mentioning that Husband failed to see where I was coming from on this particular whim.

That said, my ramblings are not necessarily intended for those as obsessed (or financially reckless) as myself. To enjoy my blog, I hope all anyone needs is a modicum of interest in good food, where it comes from, and the fun you can have when you start to mix things up a bit. And, as always, enthusiasm is far more important than actual talent. Enjoy.

mrs hunt.x