Let there be plenty

Soon the festive season will be upon us all – a time of getting together with friends and family, sharing good cheer, good food, and presents – a time when most of us will eat too much, and some of us may drink a little too much…  It’s all part of the festive celebrations, a time-honoured tradition – and seriously, who can resist all that delicious food and drink??

Mindful of the excesses which may be heading our way I thought I would share a special meal with you, which I recently prepared and ate with some very dear friends.  The starting point was “Plenty”, a book by Yottam Ottolenghi, a British based cookery writer with Italian, Israeli and British passports.  “Plenty” is Ottolenghi’s second book, a collection of vegetarian recipes, which he developed for his column in the Guardian Weekend Magazine.  It is a book that draws on many different cuisines and influences.

 

My friends and I selected three dishes from the book:

“Plenty” is not strong on recipes for desserts.  I wanted to stay with a recipe by Ottolenghi for dessert, so I did a search on the net and turned up an interesting sounding recipe for strained ricotta balls with banana fritters, on the Guardian website.

I started the dessert recipe days ahead of our meal, as the ricotta balls need to drain in the fridge for several days.

For the Soba noodles and wakame, I searched the internet for an on-line retailer, and found a Japanese store in Paris which did mail order!!  Great!!  The package arrived on time – five out of five to http://www.kioko.fr !

I had never eaten or worked with wakame before, so it was interesting to try it.  Wakame is an edible seaweed, most often used in soups and salads.   It was very easy to re-hydrate the required quantity:

P1000989

Other ingredients for the salad were soba noodles, which are made with buckwheat flour; shredded cucumber (skin on), which is salted and left to drain for some time; as well as toasted sesame seeds, coriander and mint leaves, and radish sprouts.

The dressing was made with rice vinegar, lime juice, grated lime zest, chillies, fresh ginger, sugar, salt, sesame oil, garlic and sweet chilli sauce.

P1010034

It was quite a challenge to mix all these ingredients, but the result was worth all the effort – a wonderful combination of flavours and textures!

P1010040

The roasted butternut squash called for ingredients which were easy enough to find!  Butternut squashes are plentiful at this time of year, and I think they are the best of all winter squashes for flavour.  The squash was cut into slices, put on a lined baking sheet and liberally anointed with a mixture and oil, ground allspice and coarsely ground cardamom.  A little sprinkle of salt, and 15 minutes in the oven.

The dressing called for Greek yoghurt, lime juice, tahini, a little water and salt.  The sauce was poured over the cooled squash slices, and the whole decorated with lime segments, finely sliced green chilli and chopped fresh coriander.  Another winner!!

P1010041

The recipe for the caramelised garlic tart called for an incredible amount of garlic – three whole heads!

P1000988

The peeled garlic cloves were blanched in boiling water, drained, fried and then simmered with balsamic vinegar, rosemary and thyme until tender and caramelised.

The tart case was made with ready rolled puff pastry, which was blind-baked (pre-baked).P1010018

For the filling, two types of goat’s cheese (soft and hard) were crumbled and scattered over the base of the pastry case.  The garlic cloves were added, and the whole covered with a custard made of creme fraiche, double cream and eggs.

P1010030

The aromas which came from the oven while the tart was baking were heavenly, and the finished tart absolutely delicious!!

P1010043

When the time came, the dessert was very simple to prepare.  Having made the ricotta balls ahead, all that was left to do was to slice the bananas, prepare a tempura batter and deep fry the banana pieces.  I love fritters, and these were very delicious!!

P1010046

I would definitely make all these recipes again!  They were all straightforward to prepare and oh-so-delicious!!  Vegetarian food does not have to be boring, and “Plenty” is a testament to that!

If you want to try any of the recipes, the links at the beginning of this post will allow you to print them off.  Happy cooking and eating!

 

 

Paella with friends

You might have guessed from the title – I’ve been enjoying the annual visit of friends who have a house in Saint-Chinian.  We had some wonderful meals and days out, and together we have cooked and eaten a lot of delicious food!! 🙂 I don’t know how, but I did manage not to gain a huge amount of weight in the process – perhaps it was the hot weather!?

My friends enjoy food as much as I do, and one day we decided to try and cook paella.  There is a stall in Saint-Chinian market which sells perfectly good paella, but we had a sneaking suspicion that a home-cooked paella could be at least as good if not better

On my cookery book shelf I have a book called Catalan Cuisine (Europe’s Last Great Culinary Secret) by Colman Andrews.  The author gives a number of recipes for Valencian paella, which is not strictly speaking a Catalan dish, but one which has been enthusiastically adopted by the people of Catalunya.  We decided to try the straightforward Valencian Paella, for which rabbit and chicken are used – no seafood here!  You can read an article by Colman Andrews about paella here – he also gives a recipe for a vegetable paella as part of the article.

Our ingredients were 250g rabbit, cut into pieces by the butcher, and 750g chicken, also cut into pieces by the same butcher.  I love my butcher in Saint-Chinian!  I sometimes wonder what I’ll do when he retires!  We also used some chorizo, which was not listed in the recipe, but we felt like it.

Some of the ingredients used for our paella

Some of the ingredients used for our paella

The recipe also called for one chopped onion, three tomatoes, olive oil, 500g of assorted beans (we used broad beans, French beans and a type of flat bean), a sprig of rosemary and 500g of short grain rice.  We also made up 1.2 litres of chicken stock.

More ingredients for our paella

More ingredients for our paella

If you have read Colman Andrews’ article, you’ll know how important it is to use the right kind of rice for your paella.  Long grain rice just won’t do – you’ll have to find the right kind of short grain rice, or use risotto rice.  Where I live I I can find paella rice in almost every supermarket and grocery store – lucky me! 🙂

Paella seems to take its name from the dish in which it is cooked, although in Spain, outside of Catalan territory, the pan is called a paellera, and in Valencia the pan is called a caldero.  I’m sure there are reasons for that!! 🙂  The pan is almost as important as the rice – it has to be wide and shallow, to allow the rice to cook through evenly.

Paella pan

Paella pan ready for action

We started off the cooking by browning the rabbit and the chicken pieces in some olive oil.

Browning the meats

Browning the meats

After the meat was nicely browned and had been removed from the pan, the chopped onion was added and cooked in the remaining fat until golden .

Cooking the onions

Cooking the onions

The tomatoes, which had been peeled, seeded and chopped, were added to the onions and cooked until they had softened.

Tomatoes and onions cooking together

Tomatoes and onions cooking together

Meantime the beans and chorizo had been prepared.

ingredients all prepared

Ready for action!

The beans went in first:

beans added to the paella pan

Beans ahoy!

Then came the chorizo:

beans'n'chorizo

 

All topped up with the chicken stock:

IMG_2593a

Ooops!

It was at that point that we realised we might be in a bit of trouble! 🙂  The pan might not be quite large enough to hold all our ingredients!!  The rice was next:

Adding the rice

Adding the rice

Once it was all in, the pan looked extremely full:

Almost there!

Almost there!

The meat and rosemary were tucked in, and the pan brought gently to the boil.  Somehow we managed it without making an unholy mess all over the cooker!  If you are going to try this at home, be sure to use gentle heat to avoid burning the rice.  Once it had cooked for about 10 minutes. we covered the pan with aluminium foil and turned the heat to its lowest setting.  Then we had a well-earned glass of wine while we waited!!

Waiting....

Waiting….

The wait was difficult, the smells ever so tempting.  When the cover finally came off, after about 35 minutes, the paella looked like this:

The finished paella

The finished paella

The rice was perfectly cooked and the flavour was divine.  The recipe notes stated the quantity to be enough for 6-8 as an appetizer and 4-6 as a main course.  There were six of us, and despite our best efforts there were plenty of (delicious) leftovers!

It was a truly wonderful dish, and one which I’ll be making again!!

Buonissimo – Italian food

The theme for our most recent “cooking with friends” get-together was Italian food and our hosts were the owners of La Petite Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois.

For our menu the following had been decided:

The recipe for the pimientos came from Italian Food by Elizabeth David.  As with many of her recipes the instructions leave some room for interpretation. 🙂  The peppers are grilled and peeled, and left to marinate in olive oil with a very little lemon juice.  After they have marinated for about half an hour they are cut into strips lengthwise.  On each strip is put a chopped anchovy fillet and some chopped capers.  Each pepper strip is then rolled up to form a sausage shape.

When the peppers were all done that way, they were arranged on a platter and garnished with some chopped parsley.

P1160167

The next course was a very refreshing salad made with fennel, cucumber and radishes, all thinly sliced and dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and a little salt and pepper.

P1160184

No self-respecting Italian meal would be complete without its pasta course.  Our pasta course consisted of mushroom ravioli, with a white wine and tarragon cream sauce.  Below are the ingredients we used (note, we didn’t use the chicken breast specified in the recipe):

P1160126

First the pasta dough was made, as that needed to rest for a good half hour before being rolled out.  While the dough was resting, the filling was cooked:  the onions were finely chopped (in the food processor) and slowly cooked with some olive oil, garlic and thyme.  The finely chopped mushrooms (again done in the food processor) were added, and the whole cooked until the mushrooms were tender and had “dried out” somewhat.

P1160136

Next came the fun part – rolling out the pasta dough!!  With he help of a pasta machine it was easy and great fun!  We ended up with three long strips.

P1160142

We deviated from the recipe in that we put the filling all down one side of each sheet and then folded it over to make our ravioli – doing it that way worked very well for us!

Here are the finished ravioli, before being cooked:

P1160165

The spinach was supposed to be cooked separately and the ravioli served arranged on top of it, but we decided to give the spinach a miss.  The sauce was simple to prepare:  onions and shallots were cooked over gentle heat until golden, white wine was added and cooked a few minutes to allow the alcohol to evaporate, then the cream and tarragon were added and heated through.  Very delicious!!

For our main course our hosts had choosen Osso Bucco Milanese – stewed shin of veal.  Since this is a dish which requires long and slow simmering, it was already cooking when we arrived.  The recipe again came from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food.

P1160139

To round off this meal, we baked an Italian almond cheesecake:

P1160125

It was one of the first dishes we prepared that afternoon, as it required a fair amount of cooking and cooling time.  Here’s what it looked like fresh from the oven:

P1160163

Once all our dishes were pretty much finished we had a little break.  I took the opportunity to wander about the beautiful show garden at La Petite Pepiniere, and took a few pictures for you.  The flowers are all different varieties of cistus, a native plant to the Languedoc region.

Soon it was time to sit down to our feast:

Pimientos stuffed with anchovies and capers

Pimientos stuffed with anchovies and capers

Fennel, cucumber and radish salad

Fennel, cucumber and radish salad

Mushroom ravioli with a white wine, cream and tarragon sauce

Mushroom ravioli with a white wine, cream and tarragon sauce

Osso bucco milanese, served with plain risotto

Osso bucco milanese, served with plain risotto

Italian almond cheesecake

Italian almond cheesecake

And what a feast it was!!  A big thank you to our hosts for choosing such wonderful dishes!

 

The Apicius Way

Recently, it was my turn to host our cookery group.   We had already set the theme for “my” date before Christmas, and now it was time to see what we could do with it.  The idea was to try and cook food which the ancient Romans would have eaten.

2000 years ago cookery books did not proliferate in the way they do today.  BUT a collection of recipes from ancient Rome has somehow survived, and this collection is commonly known as Apicius.  Here  is what Wikipedia has to say: “Apicius is a collection of Roman cookery recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD and written in a language that is in many ways closer to Vulgar than to Classical Latin.  The name “Apicius” had long been associated with excessively refined love of food, from the habits of an early bearer of the name, Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet and lover of refined luxury who lived sometime in the 1st century AD, during the reign of Tiberius. He is sometimes erroneously asserted to be the author of the book that is pseudepigraphically attributed to him.”  You can read the rest of the article  here.

I wonder if the French word gaver (to stuff, force feed) has anything to do with Gavius??  It sounds as though he was rather fond of filling his belly! 🙂

Searching the net, a great many references to the Apicius texts can be found.  I drew my recipes from two sources: http://www.3owls.org/sca/cook/roman.htm and http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/233472.html.  There is also a very interesting site at  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Apicius/home.html for those of you who would like to take it further!

For our afternoon of cooking I had chosen the following dishes:

Soft boiled eggs in pine nut sauce
Roast tuna
Fried veal escalopes with raisins
Parsnips with coriander
Stuffed dates
Nut tart

You can find the recipes here.  As I was preparing my shopping list, I realised that the ancient Romans must have been rather fond of pine nuts :)!!

The first dish to be prepared was the nut tart, as it needed some time in the oven, and then more time to cool!  I bought almonds and pine nuts for this dish and we used vin santo, an Italian dessert wine, as the sweet wine.

The sauce for the soft-boiled eggs called for an incredible amount of pepper!  Tasting the sauce before it was cooked made several of us choke, but the flavour mellowed with cooking.

The parsnips recipe required a fair amount of peeling, chopping and preparing, but relatively little cooking.

For both the veal escalope and the tuna recipes, the important part was the sauce or dressing, which was poured on after cooking the meat and fish.  The tuna fish was cooked on a red-hot griddle for 30 seconds each side, and turned out perfectly pink, tender and juicy.  The veal escalopes were also cooked very briefly in a hot frying pan.

The stuffed dates required two kinds of nuts – pine nuts and walnuts.

And here is what we ate:

Soft-boiled eggs with pine nut sauce

Soft boiled eggs with pine nut sauce

 

The soft-boiled eggs were delicious.  The sauce was more like a paste, and it did taste very nice, and not as peppery as we had feared earlier.  The quantities given for the sauce can be halved, or the number of eggs doubled.

Roast Tuna

Roast Tuna

 

The sauce with the tuna was much like a Mexican salsa, and went perfectly with the fish.  Definitely a recipe I would do again!

The next course was the Veal escalope with raisins.  I prepared that, and I guess in my excitement I forgot to take a picture, mea culpa!!  I’m not sure if it is because of the lack of photographic evidence to refresh my memory, but somehow this dish is not as memorable as some of the others.  The parsnips were very tasty and eaten with the veal escalopes…

Nut tart

Nut tart

Next came the nut tart – it turned out to be a fairly dense confection, not overly sweet, but very nutty!  I would reduce the quantity of nuts if I were to cook this again.  The recipe hinted at its being a kind of flan, and it wasn’t really very flan like.  Nobody disliked it though, nor did any of us leave anything on our plates, so it must have been pretty tasty!

The stuffed dates came at the very end of our meal, when we all felt rather full.  But we managed to try them all the same, and they were very delicious!

Stuffed dates

Stuffed dates

 

What an interesting afternoon we had, and what tasty food!!  I am sure that we’ll be doing some more historic recipes before too long. 🙂

 

 

Operation mincemeat

It’s this time of year, when I start to look forward to Christmas.  I try to keep Christmas firmly out of my mind until December has started, and I’m glad that the French have not yet fallen into the trap of starting to set out their Christmas merchandise as soon as August is over, or putting their Christmas decorations up at the beginning of November.  I know there are villages around here that never take down their Christmas lights, but at least they don’t turn them on until the appropriate moment.  I’m sure you can tell how I feel about timing in relation to Christmas, so I’ll stop the rant now!!  🙂

For me Christmas isn’t Christmas without some mince pies.  I was fortunate to be given a recipe for mincemeat by my dear friend Nadine Holm.  She has been using it for her mincemeat for a very long time, and I believe it’s a fairly old recipe.  Why?  Because for this recipe you actually add meat!  Wikipedia has a fascinating article on mincemeat here.  I was very interested to read that the mince in mincemeat and mince pie comes from the Latin minutia, which means smallness.  When we mince something we usually make it small, as in chopping, so that makes perfect sense.

Anyhow, I digress.  A few months ago I decided to try Nadine’s recipe, and I enlisted the help of a friend to prepare it with me, and to share the resulting mincemeat.  Preparing the mincemeat months before Christmas means that the flavours have time to develop (much as for fruitcake and Christmas pudding) and that it will be much tastier.  It also means that you have one less thing to think about in the run up to Christmas!!  Here is the recipe (you’ll find a scanned copy of the recipe at the end of this post):

IMG_9374

I assembled the various ingredients – not all that easy, as ready prepared suet is unknown in France, and brown sugar is fairly difficult to find.  But where there is a will…

IMG_9372

IMG_9377

Weighing out the sugar, raisins, suet and citrus peel was the easiest part.  I prefer to use brown sugar for all the recipes which contain lots of dried fruit, such as Christmas puddings, fruit cake and the mincemeat.  I managed to get the suet from a supermarket that stocks British products, but I have in the past prepared it myself, buying beef fat from the butcher and grating it – somewhat laborious to say the least!  The cooked meat was put through the meat grinder, and the apples were peeled, cored and chopped finely.  I ground the spices by hand, the aroma was wonderful!

IMG_9380

Soon we had everything mixed and in the largest pot I have in my house – as you can see it was a tight fit!! IMG_9384

The smell when the pan came to a boil was beautiful – and very reminiscent of Christmas!  As it simmered, the quantity in the pan reduced, and the texture changed from very liquid to a more jam-like consistency. I know the colour isn’t very appetising, partly due to the yellow cast from the lighting – I’m sorry!!

Soon it was time to put the mincemeat into jars.  It looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

IMG_9419

Oops, that one got filled a little too much 😮

IMG_9418

And then we were done, and all the jars were stored on the shelf until we’re ready to make those delicious mince pies!  Roll on Christmas!!

IMG_9424

 

 

 

 

Nadine Holm's mincemeat recipe

Bring it on – a collection of recent cook club food

It’s been a few months since I last shared the exploits of our cookery group with you.  So it’s time to catch you up on what we’ve been cooking AND eating! 🙂  A note before I start – I don’t have the recipes for all of the dishes we cooked.  Where possible I have included the links to the relevant recipes.

Early in the summer, my friend in Narbonne hosted our get together with an Italian theme.  It was prime peach season, so we started our session with Bellini cocktails – peach juice and sparkling wine – way to go!!

For the starter we cooked stuffed round courgettes, which were accompanied by home-made foccacia bread.

P1110367 

Our main course was vitello tonnato, thinly sliced cold veal (poached the day before), covered with a tuna fish mayonnaise sauce, and decorated with anchovy fillets.  With the vitello tonnato we had a beautifully crunchy salad of green beans and radishes.

For dessert we prepared peach amaretto mess – a take on Eaton mess.  For those of you not familiar with this dessert, it is generally made with whopped cream, meringues and crushed strawberries. You can see how decadent it looked, and it tasted very, very good!

A month later I hosted a Mexican themed session – I adore Mexican food, and perhaps I got a little carried away in my menu planning.  We had a lot to cook and eat!!  Here are the Mojitos we started with:

Some years ago visitors from Texas brought me a cast-iron tortilla press (THANK YOU, Susan and Alan!!), and I decided we could make use of that, to make our own corn tortillas.  For the first course we prepared Ham and chesese quesadillas with mango salsa:

This was followed by a Ceviche of scallops with avocado:

 

Our main course was Meat in tasty broth in the fashion of Guadalajara.  It really was very tasty, and a meal in itself, accompanied by beans and grilled spring onions.

5a

4a

We also had a Spinach salad with amaranth seeds with our main course!  We were starting to feel rather full at this point!!  So full in fact, that we decided to forego the dessert we had prepared (bunuelos, a kind of doughnut, served with an anise flavoured syrup), and the Mexican hot chocolate!!  🙂  We had a great time with all that lovely food though!

An afternoon of Caribbean food was hosted by my friends in Caunes-Minervois. I was put in charge of preparing the Simple Coconut and bean soup.  It was pretty simple and incredibly delicious!!

Jerk chicken kebabs with mango salsa were our main course, but we all agreed that the jerk seasoning mixture was too spicy and lacking depth of flavour.

P1120813

 

With the chicken kebabs we had exotic avocado salad, made prettier with the addition of pomegranate seeds. 🙂

P1120805

Our dessert that day was spiced glazed pineapple with cinnamon fromage frais – quite a mouthful, that recipe name, but a delicious ending to a wonderful meal!

P1120822

 

Our most recent get-together was held in La Caunette, and it had a vegetarian theme.  I have to admit that I was too distracted with the cooking, to be able to take many photographs.  The recipes we used were all taken from Simon Hope’s book “Entertaining with Friends”.

Our first course was a delicious salad topped with a goat’s cheese crouton:

The grilled tomatoes were for a sauce to accompany the corn fritters, which got eaten so quickly that I did not get a chance to take a picture 😦

P1130343

 

The parsnip croquettes were delicious too!

P1130383

 

I was in charge of making the wild mushroom filo parcels – a delicious, if somewhat involved recipe.

I managed to slightly overcook the filo parcels – they were nicely crisp, but a little too brown to be photogenic!! 🙂  No, they weren’t burnt to cinders, how could you??

For dessert we had kiwi compote, which I enjoyed more than my fellow cooks did.

So here you have it, four very different cookery sessions, with very different foods.  What all the sessions have in common though, is that they were all highly enjoyable and that we would probably not have tried to cook the food we prepared on our own.  If you enjoy cooking and food, why not start your own cookery group with some of your friends??  You’ll have fun, I promise!!