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Monday, March 27, 2006

Pink Food

In recent weeks, there has been a theme to the food I have cooked: it’s all pink. This is not intentional (unless it’s unconscious obedience to my godsister’s instruction to ‘embrace the pink’), but it has yielded some surprisingly good results.
In fact of course it’s just due to a surplus of two seasonal ingredients, rhubarb and beetroot. The rhubarb I have covered in sufficient detail elsewhere (although at some point I should tell you about the rhubarb ice-cream that was the highlight of the dessert menu at tapas restaurant Salt Yard), but the beetroot deserves a bit of attention.
In their first incarnation, the beetroot were just little dusty balls of muddy red, piled into a nasty plastic bag by their onlie begetter at the Marylebone Farmers’ Market. Normally I like talking to producers and am grateful for their advice on how to prepare their goods, but this woman was so monomaniacally firm about how I ought to roast the beetroot that I rebelled.
Carefully donning rubber gloves (I believe Lady Macbeth's problem was just that she had forgotten to do this before dealing with the crimson root vegetable), I peeled the little dears and grated them before mixing them with crème fraiche, a little bit of olive oil and lemon juice and some caraway, cumin and fennel seed, toasted and slightly crushed. This simple but intensely pink salad was so successful that one initially dubious diner offered to send photos of herself, Before and After, to the Beetroot Appreciation Society.
Cheered by this success, I improvised further. Inspired by the find of a half-price smoked chicken breast, I decided that what my life needed was smoked chicken and beetroot risotto.

Smoked chicken and beetroot risotto for 3
75g butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ onion, finely chopped
250g risotto rice (arborio, carnaroli, etc au choix)
1 glass white wine
some hot stock (I’ve never measured the amount of stock in a risotto, I just keep adding till it seems like the right texture and the rice is done)
4 baby beetroots, boiled, peeled and chopped into 2cm dice
1 smoked chicken breast, sliced
100g smoked Gubbeen cheese, grated
fresh chopped chives to garnish

Melt 50g butter in a heavy-based saucepan and gently fry the garlic and onion until soft. Add the rice and stir until it turns translucent. Add the wine and stir until it is all absorbed. Add the hot stock ladle by ladle, stirring gently each time until it is all absorbed. When the rice is almost cooked (in about 20 minutes) add the beetroot and chicken. When it is done to your taste (more or less al dente, more or less liquid), remove from the heat and stir in the remaining butter, cheese and chives. Season to taste.

When this recipe occurred to me, I pictured it the usual creamy white of risotto with pink splodges where the beetroot pieces speckled it. Instead it turned a wonderful, uniform Barbie pink, a colour that only a four-year-old girl could love, which is why the chives are so necessary to relieve the plastic colour.
The final incarnation of the beetroot (the woman who wanted them roasted obviously thought that I needed more pink in my life, and by golly she made sure I got it) was in a spinach salad with croutons and a delicious sheep’s milk yoghurt dressing. Delicious it may have been but the pernicious pinkness invaded it, clashing horribly with the red stalks of the baby spinach leaves. The man to whom I served this blenched at being asked to eat something so unmasculine, but to his credit only murmured a suggestion about adding the croutons last ‘so that they would look like something you’re supposed to eat’. I suppose if you had a nasty imagination, the soggy, ragged, dark pink lumps could be thought to resemble gobbets of raw flesh.
The final two baby beetroots – can you believe I haven’t come to the end of it? – sat in the fridge in their boiled state, developing some of the most exciting moulds I have ever seen outside a cheese cellar.

The beetroot madness may be over, but I have just found a recipe (in The Silver Spoon) for chicken in pink sauce. Can I, should I resist?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Picnic Cheese

Things have been too hectic for me to post in the last couple of weeks, so I thought I'd put up this piece, which I wrote last summer.

Most people, when they think of romantic food, think in clichéd terms of oysters and red wine. Slivers of truffle, pints of cream and chocolate to follow, with the occasional chilli for spice and strawberries for the romantic healthy eater.

However, I have neither a sweet tooth nor a soft spot for clichés, so the way to my heart is with cheese. The man who suggested cheese sandwiches and some wine by the lake in St James’s Park had got it exactly right. The only change to be made to his programme was that I insisted on supplying the cheese myself.

Choosing cheese for a romantic picnic is an interesting challenge. It can’t be bland, but it mustn’t be either too rich or too smelly. The cheese will set the tone for the occasion, and there may be implications to consider.

A deliciously runny Brie or a Stinking Bishop is a very sensuous thing to eat, dripping and sticking to your fingers. If you are definitely trying to seduce your fellow-picnicker, that’s a good idea. If this is just a preliminary exploration, and deliberately choosing a public place for your date may be a sign that you’re not ready to get too close, a firmer cheese is less likely to lead you into compromising situations.

The cheesemongers of Neal’s Yard Dairy were well up to the challenge I threw at them: choose me cheeses for a romantic picnic.

The big cheesemonger with the dark beard knew instantly what he thought was right: Parmesan. I said that, although Parmesan is indubitably the emperor of cheese, it might be too overbearing for a date.

My first choice was Flower Marie, which Beardy Cheesemonger loudly scorned. Luckily his contemptuous remarks were loud enough that his colleague overheard and weighed in on my side.

Flower Marie is a velvety white block of unpasteurised sheep’s cheese, with a furry coat, a soft creamy inside going slightly runny round the edges. Made by Kevin and Alison Blunt in Sussex, it has a very delicate flavour – sweet and creamy with just a hint of acidity in the aftertaste. I always think it tastes faintly of spring flowers, but that may just be an association with the name - the vegetal aroma is actually closer to new-mown hay. This flavour, suggestive of early summer and bats flitting through the twilight as the dew is falling, seems to me the quintessence of romantic food.

BCM suggested that my problem was that I had too feminine a notion of romance, and suggested a Chabis from the same cheesemakers. Chabis is a cute little button of goat’s cheese, but a bit too small to develop an interesting character: one ends up with too much of the rind and nothing else but a generic goats cheese mouth-feel coating one’s tongue and palate. Not good for the occasion, in my opinion; I find it hard to feel romantic when all I can taste is the faintly plastic pungency of goat.

To counter the accusation of girliness, I decided to pick a big hitter as the final complement to my al fresco cheeseboard. Doddington is produced in the Doddington Dairy in Northumberland by Maggie Maxwell - check out their excellent website at It is a fruity Cheddar-style hard cow’s cheese, aged for 10-15 months in a wax rind until it achieves a subtler version of the crunchiness and punch that BCM yearns for in Parmesan.

Although it might also be considered a little overbearing, Doddington is one of the best hard cheeses around, if like me you prefer the fruity flavour to the nuttiness of Cantal or Keen’s Cheddar. The other advantage of hard fruity cheeses is that they go wonderfully with honey on white bread. Tearing a morsel off a fresh loaf, crushing your piece of Doddington onto the soft bread and adding a drop of sticky honey to the mouthful before either eating it yourself or offering it to your companion – that’s what a romantic picnic is all about. And if you can arrange for it to happen while watching the pelicans in St James Park, with the summer evening sun filtering through the fresh green leaves and a squirrel sitting a few yards away looking adorable, then perhaps you’ll realise that gooey cheeses aren’t the only ones that can lead you into a compromising situation on a picnic.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb

I had a huge hit Sunday night with this rhubarb and mascarpone tart - here's how:
Whip 250g mascarpone (or any kind of creamy cheesey thing, I guess) with a tablespoonful of vanilla sugar, put it in a pre-baked, cooled pie shell, and put stewed fruit on top. Easy-peasy.

Especially if you have stewed rhubarb sitting around from your failed attempt at rhubarb jelly (see previous rhubarb post). I mixed some of the non-gelled jelly into the mascarpone, but I don't think it made a huge difference one way or another.

The pastry was a recipe from a friend called Eithne - 175g flour, 40g icing sugar, pinch of salt, 75g butter, 1 egg. Blitz dry ingredients and butter briefly in the magimix, then add the egg and 1 or 2 tablespoons of water and mix even more briefly. Wrap the resulting ball of pastry in clingfilm (actually, it was more like bread crumbs, but I squodged it together) in the fridge for at least half an hour, roll out and bake at 200degrees, Gas mark 6, for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown. This fits a pie dish 25cm across (10 inches or so).

The clever trick with the pastry that I learned this week was not to trim it around the edges until after it has been cooked. This means you don't have to deal with it shrinking.

For anyone still following the saga of the St Patrick's party menu, the rhubarb mascarpone tart is now the official pudding.

I promise I will track down a camera before Friday AND learn to post photographs to the blog!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Improving karma

I've always had terrible trouble making yeast bread. It turns out heavy and lumpen, the crumb heavy with tiny to non-existent airholes and no flavour to speak of, despite my religiously following all the instructions. So after numerous failed attempts, I wrote it down to bad karma and gave up the effort.

Recently however, I have been through quite a lot of life changes and have reason to believe that my karma may have changed. On impulse last week, I bought a cheap pizza dough mixture, thinking that if I were wrong and my karma left me with nasty pizza, it wouldn't matter much. I bought nice but not riduculous ingredients for the toppings - mozzarella di bufala, fresh tomatoes, mushrooms. (Anchovies and olives also went into the shopping basket but when it came to the point, the pizza looked full enough without. Next time.)

Just two ten minute provings were required by the recipe on the side of the packet, and it worked! Not the nicest pizza ever, but given the constraints (an unfamiliar oven, a too-small pan, the cheapness and nastiness of the mix, my family calling me just as I took the pizza out of the oven), it was a triumph.

So this week I decided to take the next step and make the pizza dough from scratch. I used extra strong Canadian flour from Waitrose and dried yeast. Jamie Oliver (in his first book) offered a fairly straightforward-looking recipe, although I halved it because there is no room in my freezer for the extra pizza bases he suggests making. I'm not convinced I got the yeast/honey/warm water mixture right, as it didn't fizz up the way I expected, and the final product smelt much too strongly of yeast. The proving was also underwhelming - I have never seen dough double in size, despite in this case putting it in the hot press. However, the resulting product was definitely not to be sneered at. It was a little heavy, and soft in the middle, but that should be remedied by the pizza crisping pans I bought yesterday, and possibly by rolling the dough a little thinner.

Next step: real bread!

PS the other thing that is affected by karma is yoghurt making. I have never had a problem making yoghurt at home in Ireland, but never once has it worked for me in England. I tried everything, even taking it to bed with me, but it just sat there being runny, sour milk. Yuck. Maybe I should try that again.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Rhubarb jellies

The rhubarb and muscat jellies taste absolutely delicious, but unfortunately they just barely qualify as 'jellies' because they are so liquid. Instead of little round quivering lumps, they turn out of the moulds as dispiriting puddles, slopping across the whole width of the saucer I have put them on.

I followed Nigella Lawson's recipe faithfully, and am furious that it was so unreliable, particularly because she is adamant that using sheet gelatine makes it foolproof. She is very rude about powdered gelatine, which I have frequently used with great success.

The only point at which I deviated from the recipe was when the oven-baked rhubarb yielded much less juice than she predicted, so I made up the difference with extra muscat wine. A couple of people have suggested that this may have affected the setting power of the gelatine, which would make sense.

So my question is: do I just assume that I can correct for this and go ahead and make jellies for the party? If it doesn't work again, will I be able to come up with an emergency substitute?

And a minor question: can anyone think of something delicious to do with seven little rhubarb and muscat non-jellies? I also have the rhubarb pulp, so maybe it should all go together with a farinaceous topping and be called crumble.