Chocolate Chip Cookies

“By the way, it’s the school fete tomorrow. Could you make a hundred or so cupcakes?” Not the words I wanted to hear at 6:30 on a Friday morning; making that many cupcakes would take a large chunk of the day, how would I find the time to write the Love and Fishes blog?

“How about some chocolate chip cookies instead?” was my diplomatic reply. Agreement reached, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Cookies are quick and easy to make, and are an ideal way to introduce a child to the magic of baking. They also require no finesse or skill, in fact they benefit enormously from looking rough and ready – as long as they taste delicious, which these do.

I have specified spreadable Lurpak here, just because Delia Smith has tested every brand of spreadable butter and Lurpak is what she recommends. I have however made these using all kinds of spreads and there isn’t so much difference that you need to worry about it. Use whatever spread you have to hand and you will still be delighted with the results.


RECIPE – makes 28 cookies

110g unsalted, spreadable Lurpak

150g light brown soft sugar

1 large egg, beaten

1 tsp vanilla extract

175g plain flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

75g toasted chopped walnuts

100g chocolate chips (use milk, dark or white chocolate, whatever your preference)


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4.

Using a stand mixer (ideally, if not then a hand mixer will do) cream the Lurpak and sugar together until light and fluffy. You can never cream butter and sugar too much so feel free to wander off and leave it beating while you get on with making a cuppa.

Add the beaten egg and the vanilla essence and mix well – again, you cannot over-beat this mixture and the more air you can encourage into the mix the lighter your cookies will be.

Fold in the flour, bicarbonate of soda, hazelnuts and chocolate chips until just combined. Be careful, you don’t want to spend an age knocking air into your cookies only to knock it all out again.

Put a walnut sized blob on to a baking sheet…

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…allowing plenty of room between them because they will spread considerably as they bake. Bake for approximately 15 mins, removing them when they are golden brown. Leave them to cool on a wire rack, they will go crispy with a lovely melting texture in your mouth.

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We took these to the fete and they were a hit – the lady on the stall next to ours had one, waxed lyrical and bought five more, then bought up every one that we hadn’t sold by the end. I’d call that a recommendation.

Tagliatelle with Prawns in a Chilli Brandy Sauce

I love the way that pasta allows you to create impressive dishes with minimal effort. If I had to choose my favourite cuisine it would be a tough decision, but I’m sure I would settle for eating Italian food every day for the rest of my life if I really had to, and I wouldn’t complain. It’s the flavours; just a handful of good ingredients, carefully chosen, lift each other to new heights.

What is there to dislike about Italian food? It is generally quick to prepare, quick to cook, inexpensive and utterly delicious. It’s food for life.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

25g unsalted butter

2 tbsp olive oil

2 banana shallots, peeled and finely chopped

12 cherry tomatoes, quartered

1 tsp chilli flakes

4 tbsp brandy

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

225g tagliatelle

12 raw king prawns, peeled but tails on

a small handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Melt the butter with the oil in a large frying pan over a moderate heat and fry the shallots, stirring occasionally, for a couple of minutes until soft and aromatic, but not coloured.

Meanwhile, bring a very large pan of salted water to the boil, ready for your pasta.

Increase the heat, add the tomatoes to the frying pan with the chilli flakes and a pinch of salt and cook for a minute or so. Add the brandy and cook on for a further minute to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Add the balsamic vinegar and cook for a couple of minutes then turn off the heat, check the seasoning and put to one side.

Cook the tagliatelle in the boiling salted water until al dente, it will cook on a little in the sauce. If using dried tagliatelle nests this will take approximately 6 minutes, if using fresh then it will take as little as two minutes.

One minute before the pasta is ready, bring the frying pan back to a high heat and add the prawns, stirring occasionally. By the time the pasta has cooked and you have drained it, the prawns should have just turned pink and will be ready. Add the tagliatelle to the prawns and sauce, toss thoroughly then scatter the parsley onto it, give it one final toss through and serve alongside a bowl of undressed rocket.

Time this right and you can have it on the table within ten minutes from chopping your shallots – it’s seriously impressive fast food!

Hake with Puy Lentils, Rocket and Salsa Verde

I recently discovered hake and my first thought was: where have you been all my life? It has a similar texture and mouth-feel to cod, but has a lovely flavour all its own (whereas cod can actually be quite bland) and – most importantly – it is sustainable. You may not be able to find hake where you are, but you can use any firm-fleshed white fish so feel free to substitute cod, pollack, coley, haddock or whiting.

This recipe started life in a great book by Lucas Hollweg entitled ‘Good Things to Eat’, an aptly-named book that I heartily recommend. The salsa verde, in particular, is all his and the way it is used here elevates what would be a good dish into a great dish. This meal is never going to win any awards for beauty, there’s a little too much brown going on, but it does a great dance on your taste buds…

It looks like there’s a lot of work to do here given the length of the ingredients list, but if you read the method you will see that it will actually take very little work and the biggest job you face is chopping the vegetables finely.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

For the salsa verde:

a big handful of flat-leaf parsley

a handful of basil leaves

a handful of mint leaves

6 anchovy fillets in oil, drained

2 big garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 tbsp capers, drained

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the lentils:

150g dry puy lentils

4 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 celery stick, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

leaves from one sprig of rosemary, finely chopped

2 tbsp tomato puree

1 bay leaf

720ml water

120g bag of rocket

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the fish:

2 thick white fish fillets or loins, skin on if possible

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

25g unsalted butter

olive oil


METHOD

First make the salsa verde: grab a big bunch of flat-leaf parsley in your hands and tear it in half so you end up with mostly the stalks in one hand and mostly leaves in the other, put everything into a food processor. Strip the leaves from a bunch of mint and a bunch of basil, add them to the food processor along with the anchovies, garlic, capers, mustard and vinegar. Turn the food processor on to continuous action, and slowly drizzle olive oil into the chopped leaves mixture until it becomes a finely chopped sauce that is the consistency that you want it to be. Depending on how you like your sauces you may need to use as much as 125ml of oil. Empty into a bowl, season very carefully and set aside.

Season the fish with salt and pepper and set aside while you cook the lentils.

Put the lentils into a large bowl or saucepan and cover with water; using your fingers swirl the lentils around to clean them. The water may go cloudy; if so, drain the lentils and repeat until the water stays clean. Drain the lentils and set aside for a few minutes.

Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a large pan and over a gentle heat sweat the vegetables, garlic and rosemary under a piece of parchment for up to ten minutes.

*Tip: Sweating vegetables under a piece of parchment is known as using a cartouche. It is a way of cooking that simultaneously sweats and steams the vegetables, extracting maximum flavour in minimum time.

Cut a square of baking parchment that is slightly larger than the surface area of your pan, push it down so it sits on top of your sweating vegetables and then tuck the sides down so the vegetables are completely covered. Keep the heat low and after a few minutes check to see that nothing is catching on the bottom of the pan, then re-cover and continue to sweat them until they are as soft as you need them to be and the aroma is filling your kitchen.

Now stir in the tomato puree and cook it out for a minute. Now add the lentils, water and bay leaf. Do not add any seasoning of any kind at this stage – it will render your lentils tough and probably inedible. Bring to the boil then simmer for anything between 20 and 40 minutes depending on the age of your lentils – keep on checking, they should be tender but retain a little bite.

Drain, but retain the cooking water and remove the bay leaf. Stir in the final 2 tbsp of oil and 4 tbsp of the cooking liquid; you may now dispose of the remaining cooking liquid. Mix in half the salsa verde then season generously but carefully. Stir the rocket through the lentils, cover and keep warm while you cook the fish.

Heat a large frying pan until it is very hot, then add 2 tbsp of oil and lay the fish, skin down, in the oil. Turn the heat down a little and cook the fish without disturbing until the skin is crisp and the flesh has cooked about 2/3 of the way through. Carefully turn the fish over and at the same time drop the butter into the pan, as it melts use it to baste the top of the fish and cook for a further minute. The fish should be just cooked and the exact time it takes will depend on the thickness and type of fish that you are using.

Plate up into bowls, laying the fish on top of a mound of rocket and lentils. Drizzle a little oil over the fish and dot the top with a few spoonfuls of the remaining salsa verde.

This dish sits alone, if you feel particularly hungry it will go alongside a simple green salad but it needs nothing else.

Roasted Sea Bass with Potato Gratin

The smell of roasted fish and potatoes is everywhere around the Mediterranean; it’s a classic pairing and deservedly, deliciously so. Too many amateur cooks are scared, literally scared, of cooking fish though. I must confess that I used to be as well, the problem being that sometimes if you take your eye off it for even 30 seconds then you run the risk of it overcooking. The solution is simple: know how long your piece of fish is likely to take to cook, and keep your eye on it when the time gets close!

Cooking a whole fish gives you a little more leeway than cooking a slim fillet, but that doesn’t mean you should be complacent – even the best cooks can get distracted at the critical moment. This though is as foolproof as a fish dish ever gets: a delicious fish sitting atop a fantastically flavoured, light and aromatic gratin. This is food that makes you feel good, which is what all food should do.

A quick word about preparing the fish: before cooking it should be gutted and have its gills and scales removed. This is a simple and straightforward task, though descaling can get a little messy as the scales have a tendency to land all around the kitchen (when I do it I put the fish in a carrier bag in the sink – that’s the voice of hard-won experience). There are many guides and tutorials to fish preparation available on the web, so I won’t rehash that information here. Suffice to say that though I am perfectly capable of preparing a fish myself, I won’t do it if I don’t have to – I have other things to do and there are people out there called fishmongers who will be happy to do it for you if you only ask them.

I have occasionally found myself at a supermarket fish counter, spotted something that I would like to cook and I have asked the person behind the counter to prepare it for me, only to be met by a blank look and be told that they only sell them, they’re not qualified to prepare them. On each occasion I have walked away. In my view you have no business selling nature’s bounty if you know nothing about it. I would rather put myself out and travel somewhere else, to a fully-trained professional who cares about his work and can answer my questions about where the fish came from (and when), and offer suggestions on the best way to cook them. Sure, I may pay a bit more for it, but when it comes to fish you definitely get what you pay for.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

 

2 whole sea bass about 300g each, cleaned, de-gilled and scaled

3 sprigs of rosemary

zest and juice of 1 large lemon

750g potatoes, peeled and sliced 3 or 4 mm thick

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

6 anchovy fillets in oil, drained and chopped

2 tsp dried thyme

a good pinch of saffron, shredded

4 tbsp olive oil

20 cherry tomatoes, halved

75 ml vermouth

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Heat your oven to 220C/200C fan/Gas 7.

Slash the fish 3 times on each side with a very sharp knife, taking care only to go roughly 5 millimetres into the flesh. Season well both inside the cavity and on the outside, with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place a sprig of rosemary inside the cavity of each fish and place them in a dish, pour over the lemon juice ensuring it gets inside the cavity and into the slashes on both sides of the fish. Leave the zest for later use and set the fish aside while you prepare the gratin.

The potatoes need to be very thinly sliced if they are to be experienced at their best, and I recommend using a mandolin to do this. If you don’t own one, buy one – seriously, I am not at all into kitchen gadgets but this is one tool I absolutely rely on. If you have doubts, see how you feel after you have cut 150 or so very thin slices of potato.

In a large freezer bag or similar, toss the sliced potatoes with the garlic, anchovies, thyme, saffron and olive oil. Using a bag is more efficient at getting the oil and other flavours all over the potatoes, it means you won’t drown your dish in oil, which can end up unpleasant.

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Rub a little oil on the inside of a large gratin dish – large enough to take both fish without crowding them – and empty the contents of the bag into it; squeeze, shake and wipe out the bag with your fingers to get every last piece of flavour into your dish. Spread the potato slices out into an even layer, then scatter the sliced tomatoes over the top, followed by a sprig of rosemary. Finally, drizzle the vermouth over everything.

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Place in the middle of the oven for 40 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft and are starting to go brown. After 40 minutes, put the fish on top of the hot gratin and drizzle each fish with a little olive oil. Return to the oven and roast for around 17 minutes – start checking the fish at around the 15 minute mark and keep on checking until the flesh is fully opaque. By this time the potato and the tomatoes should have taken on a lovely golden colour, with slightly charred edges – that’s good, there’s real flavour there.

Top the fish with the grated lemon zest and tuck in. All this needs is a couple of handfuls of rocket alongside it, splashed with a little more lemon juice.

 

Linguine with Basil, Lemon and Parmesan

Contrary to popular belief, eating magnificent food doesn’t have to entail sweating for hours in the kitchen preparing Masterchef-style meals. There is a time and a place for that, and for most people it comes on a wet Sunday when you’ve nothing else to do. For most of us our days are full and busy, and when you come home starving but the evening is late what can you cook that is healthy and home-cooked, and will take a mere ten minutes? This is the kind of cooking that Nigel Slater excels at, and I am heavily indebted to him for this recipe.

In these short of time and inspiration situations, pasta is generally the first thing that springs to mind, but what to do with it apart from stir in a couple of spoonfuls of pesto from a jar? My first thought is to add a lemon. Pasta and lemon are a match made in heaven, the bright notes of the citrus lift pasta from a potentially stodgy dish to a light and airy bowl of heaven. The Parmesan used here reacts with the lemon to create a grainy sauce that is not unlike carbonara, only without the bacon, while the basil gently wilts and adds a delicate fragrance.

This is the kind of dish that would cost you a tenner in a smart restaurant but can be made for pennies from a kitchen storecupboard.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

220g linguine

the juice of a large lemon

5 tbsp olive oil

50g finely grated Parmesan

a bunch of basil, leaves only, shredded

Rocket, lettuce and cucumber (for a salad)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Put a very large pan of generously salted water on to boil and when it is bubbling vigorously add the linguine. Set your timer for 9 minutes.

Combine the lemon juice and olive oil in a small bowl and whisk together. Tear up the basil and grate the Parmesan, using a microplane grater if you have one, otherwise grate it as finely as you can.

Assemble a simple green salad of rocket, torn lettuce and finely sliced cucumber, drizzle a little of the lemon and oil dressing through it. Light your candles, pour a glass of wine and wait for your linguine to finish.

When the linguine is cooked (it should be al dente as it will cook on), drain thoroughly and return to the pot. Add the lemon and oil, stir thoroughly then add the basil leaves, stir thoroughly again. Now tip in the Parmesan and once again stir thoroughly.

Season in the bowl, relax and enjoy a delicious meal that has taken less than 15 minutes to prepare. A takeaway wouldn’t arrive that quickly…

 

Nettle Soup

My wife and I have developed a keen interest in foraging over the past couple of years, driven by our curiosity about all the plants we saw while out walking our dog. We knew that some were edible, but apart from the obvious – nettles, wild fennel, elderflower, cherries – we didn’t have a clue which would taste great and which might kill us. We now know that there are a fair few that will kill you, and wherever you live you are very likely within half a mile of a common poisonous plant.

Foraging is a huge subject, endlessly interesting and a great way of filling anything from an hour up to a whole weekend (or more), but well beyond the scope of anything I can write. The potential dangers are such that I recommend that you book onto a half- or one-day foraging course where under expert guidance you will learn to find, identify and cook a huge variety of wild food. If you live anywhere near Hampshire, Dorset or Wiltshire, or you are willing to travel, I can unreservedly recommend James Feaver of Hedgerow Harvest who runs excellent courses in seashore, hedgerow and fungus foraging. You can find him here: www.hedgerow-harvest.com

One plant we can all safely identify is the common stinging nettle, and if you want to discover just how good wild food can be then this simple and delicious dish is the place to start.

To gather stinging nettles all you will need is a carrier bag, a pair of scissors, a pair of stout gloves and clothing offering enough protection to ward off the stings. The nettles you are looking for are the young leaves and the tops of the plants, in other words the leaves shooting off thin stems which you will most likely find in the spring – though if you live in an area where hedgerows get cut back then you will probably find new growth throughout the summer. Avoid thick stems and old tough leaves, they are not good to eat. Also avoid nettles that directly border paths where dogs are walked – though it is a brave dog who will cock a leg on a nettle I am sure it happens. Instead, push back a couple of feet where the nettles will be undisturbed by canine activity – that is why you need stout gloves and heavy clothing.

Passers-by may well think you’re mad, but once you’ve gathered your nettles and made this soup you will very probably ignore what others think and go nettle foraging again and again.


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RECIPE – to feed 6

 

1/2 a carrier bag of young nettle leaves and tops

50g unsalted butter

1 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, roughly chopped

1 large carrot, roughly chopped

2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 litre vegetable stock

1 large potato, diced into 1cm cubes

1/2 nutmeg, finely grated

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

The standard unit of measurement for nettles is the carrier bag; you don’t need to be accurate, but the more you gather the more flavour you will get. When you get them home, wash them thoroughly, pick out anything that doesn’t belong and leave to drain. As long as the stems are thin then you don’t need to strip the leaves off, it will all blitz up and every part of the plant gives you flavour.

Gently sweat the onion, carrot and garlic in the oil and butter, in a large heavy-bottomed pan, with the lid on. After 10-15 minutes the onion should be soft but not coloured, and the carrot should be softening. And the stock and the potato, then pile the nettles on top and carefully push them down; they will wilt and lose volume, and as soon as they start to cook they will lost their sting. Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked.

Leave to cool for a few minutes, just so it is a little safer to handle, then add the nutmeg and blitz until it is perfectly smooth using a stick blender, or pour into a jug blender – you will need to do it in several batches if using a jug blender.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with a little creme fraiche or double cream, some chopped chives (wild if you can get them) or similar foraged plants such as crow garlic or wild leeks (see, you’ll need to get onto a foraging course now!)

You can also make this using wild garlic in place of the garlic cloves, though the season is very short – just a few weeks in early spring. If you do manage to gather some wild garlic then add a dozen or so leaves to the nettles and use the wild garlic flowers as a garnish – they are quite crunchy and taste like delicate garlic, quite delicious.

To make it vegan just use olive oil and omit the butter.

 

Bakewell Tart

It’s one of my favourite things in the whole world, that’s all I really need to say.

Like all baking, it’s a bit of a faff to make: you have to make pastry – and it needs to be as short as you can make it so that it crumbles and melts in your mouth, and that means it can be difficult to handle – you need to blind-bake that pastry and then you have to make a frangipane. But really, once you’ve tasted it you’ll be rushing to make another one, I promise.

At 30cm, this is a big, deep tart, easily big enough to feed a crowd at a birthday party – which is the reason I made the tart pictured below. The recipient was my mother-in-law, an amazing cook with very high standards, and she was insistent that she wanted this as her birthday cake – high praise indeed!

If you don’t want your tart to be quite as big then reduce the quantity of each ingredient – just be sure to keep everything in the same ratio and amend your cooking time accordingly, like all baking it always pays to keep your eye on it in the latter stages of cooking.


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RECIPE – to fill a 30cm loose-bottomed flan tin

 

For the pastry case:

275g plain flour

80g ground almonds

75g caster sugar

110g vegetable shortening (Trex) – fridge cold, cubed

115g unsalted butter – fridge cold, cubed

3 egg yolks


For the filling:

1 whole jar of raspberry jam

1 tsp vanilla extract

300g butter, room temperature

300g caster sugar

200g ground almonds

100g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

3 medium eggs, beaten

A handful of flaked almonds


 

METHOD

Heat your oven to 190C / 170C Fan / Gas 5 when ready to blind-bake your pastry case. You will need a 30cm loose-bottomed flan tin.

Make the pastry:

Put the flour, ground almonds and caster sugar into a food processor and pulse a few times to mix it thoroughly. Add the cold butter and Trex and pulse until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, then gradually add the egg yolks, pulsing once or twice with each addition. Take care not to overwork the pastry mixture, the beauty of this pastry is that it is soft and crumbly, doing too much to it is liable to make it tough. When fully combined empty it out of the food processor and form into a ball but do not knead it. Wrap it in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes to 2 hours.

If you are old-school and like to work your pastry by hand then you don’t need me to give you instructions for that. I seem to have fingers that are too warm to make pastry by hand so I always do mine in the food processor – if anyone would like to give me a masterclass in making pastry by hand then I would welcome it!

On a lightly floured surface, roll your pastry out into a round until it is approximately the thickness of a pound coin, this should give you the correct diameter to fill your pastry case with a little left over that you can trim off later. Always keep your trimmings as you may need to make a couple of repairs.

*Tip: As mentioned earlier, this is a very short pastry which can be difficult to pick up; one way to alleviate this is to roll the pastry out between sheets of baking parchment, another is to lay the loose base of the flan tin on your work surface, lightly dust it with flour and then roll out your pastry over it. If the latter, to put it into the flan case fold the edges of the pastry in on each other and drop the base into your case, then unfold the edges and press in to the flutes, using a small piece of pastry to gently push into the sides and bottom.  At this time you may need to make a few small repairs to rips and tears, just take a small amount of pastry and press in to any problem areas – it doesn’t matter if it is a bit rough and ready, nobody will see it, the important thing is to ensure that the pastry case is completely sealed otherwise your frangipane will leak out.

At this point you can trim the pastry to the level of the flan-case, by rolling a rolling pin across the top. There should be no shrinkage of the pastry case when you bake it because there is no water in the pastry; the presence of too much water is the most common reason for shrinkage.

Now cut a piece of baking parchment large enough to completely cover the base and sides of the tart. Scrunch it up, then flatten it and place it in the pastry case, then fill with ceramic baking beans if you have them, rice or dried beans if you don’t. Now blind-bake the pastry case at 190C for 25 minutes; after this time remove the baking beans and parchment and return to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes until your pastry is golden and cooked through.

*Tip: The best bit of baking wisdom I ever received was this: blind-baking is not part-cooking, it is pre-cooking. In other words, your blind-baked pastry case should be fully cooked when it comes out. That’s the 100% guaranteed way to ensure that you never suffer the baker’s nightmare of a soggy bottom. Some authorities suggest sealing the base of your pastry case with a thin layer of egg white; don’t bother, it doesn’t belong there and you will be able to detect it.

While your cooked pastry case is resting, turn your oven down to 150C / 130C fan / gas 2 and make your filling:

Cream the butter and sugar together using a whisk if at all possible, if you don’t own a stand or hand mixer you can do this using a wooden spoon, but it’s hard work. Now add the vanilla extract, ground almonds, plain flour, baking powder and beaten eggs and beat well until thoroughly combined.

Spread the jam over the bottom of the baked pastry case in a thick and even layer. Pour the filling over the top and gently even it out using a spatula or pallet knife. It should sit at a level slightly below the lip of the pastry – as it cooks it will rise and expand to form a gentle dome.

Now bake your tart for 30 mins. After this time, take it out of the oven and you should see that it has domed and is starting to go golden; sprinkle the flaked almonds all over the top and return to the oven for a further 20-30 minutes. The tart is cooked when a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Leave it in the flan-case to cool completely, after which you should be able to remove it cleanly.

Black Bean Chilli

We are largely vegetarian in our house; I will happily eat anything but my wife won’t eat meat – though she will eat fish. The challenge then is to come up with meals where the absence of meat is not an issue, and the secret to achieving that is to concentrate on flavour and texture.

We both love the heat and flavour of spices, so we have spent a great deal of time testing and refining recipes for chilli. Quorn mince has been a godsend; it is so good now that when we have friends and family over for dinner they often don’t realise that they haven’t had ‘real’ mince. Using a meat replacement always feels like a bit of a cheat to me though, one I’m happy to indulge in, but it is so much more satisfying to have a recipe that stands on its own ingredients rather than pretending to be something else. The black beans used here add a rich, thick texture that works perfectly with chilli.

This black bean chilli recipe is universally loved, and the reason for that is the bold spicing. It isn’t blow-your-head-off spicy, instead it is deeply-flavoured and comfortably warming. It has a lovely umami feel as well, thanks to the addition of a little fish sauce – fish sauce is my favourite seasoning ingredient, adding not only a layer of salt that accentuates the other flavours, but also a layer of ‘mmmmmm’ that you can’t quite put your finger on. It smells disgusting when you open the bottle, but once cooked in it takes all the other flavours to another level entirely.


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RECIPE – to feed 4

250g dried black beans (or 2 tins)

1 onion, halved

1 orange, halved

2 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole


2 tbsp olive oil

4 garlic cloves, crushed

2 large onions, finely chopped

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

3 tbsp smoked paprika

3 tbsp ground cumin

3 tbsp cyder vinegar

2 tbsp caster sugar

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

2 tsp fish sauce

1 tin of kidney beans

1 lime, zest and juice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

 

The conventional wisdom is that you should soak the black beans in plenty of water, the evening before you use them. However, after much back-to-back testing it is plain that not soaking them makes them blacker, more beany and flavourful, at the cost of having to cook them for a little longer. How long? Around 90 minutes or so, until they are soft but retain bite and texture – the older your beans the longer they will take. To cook them, use a big pan and plenty of water, into which you have put an onion – halved but otherwise intact – an orange, again halved and gently squeezed, and then put both halves in the water, and a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves. Bring to the boil then simmer until ready. If you have a pressure cooker then life is much simpler, follow the guidelines for your device but cook them for around 20-25 minutes. When cooked, remove the onion, orange and garlic and set the beans aside.

You don’t have to do all this, but for some reason using dried beans adds more flavour, and when cooked using aromatic ingredients the flavours are amped up even higher; tinned beans are fine though, no need to feel guilty.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions until just softened, then add the garlic and chilli flakes. Cook gently for a minute or two, taking care not to burn the garlic.

Put the paprika and cumin in a small bowl, add the cyder vinegar and sugar and mix to a paste – you may need to add a little water. Doing this prevents the powders from burning and means the flavours cook out more evenly. Add this paste to your onion mixture and cook on for another minute or so before adding the tinned tomatoes and the fish sauce. Simmer gently for ten minutes, then add the cooked (or tinned) black beans and the kidney beans. Bring back to a boil then turn the heat off. Ideally, leave your chilli to sit for a few hours so that the flavours can develop, the longer you can leave it the better it will be. This really works, but if you eat it straight away it will still be delicious.

Just before serving, finely grate the zest of the lime into it and squeeze in the lime juice, stir thoroughly and check and adjust the seasoning.

This goes extremely well alongside guacamole, and can be garnished with chopped spring onions, soured cream, grated cheddar, chopped coriander leaves, crumbled feta, sliced radishes, chunks of avocado and, of course, is best served with fluffy rice.

To make it suitable for a vegan, simply omit the fish sauce; it can be replaced with 4 teaspoons of Marmite which has a similar umami nature.

Guacamole

There must be as many recipes for guacamole as there are people living in Mexico, and everybody will tell you that theirs is the best. I have lost count of how many different guacamole recipes I have tried, all of them were missing an elusive something. The recipe I give you below was, in a slightly different form and for a couple of years, the best one that I had distilled down from all the others. Everybody raved about it, but I always felt that it was still missing something. It was only when I read Thomasina Miers’ excellent ‘Wahaca: Mexican Food at Home’ that I realised that all it needed was a little garlic to make it complete.

Garlic. Among the most common of all cooking ingredients, and yet it had never crossed my mind (nor that of virtually every other guacamole recipe-writer) to add it to my guacamole. It just didn’t seem right; guacamole should taste like a bright, zesty ray of sunshine, garlic brings undertones of darkness and danger. And yet, that little bit of shading that garlic brings to guacamole makes the brightness shine even harder. It was a reminder to me that a recipe is never finished, is always evolving, and there’s always somebody out there with a different perspective on things who can bring real enlightenment to you. I’m not one to give advice to others, but my advice to myself is: always seek those people out.


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RECIPE – to feed 4

2 limes, zest and juice

2 large, ripe avocados

1 small green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

4 spring onions, trimmed and very finely chopped

1 plump garlic clove, crushed

1 ripe medium tomato, skinned, deseeded and finely chopped

A bunch of fresh coriander, leaves chopped, stems finely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

First thing, zest the limes then juice them, putting both into a large bowl. It is essential that you do this first as cut avocado requires citrus to prevent it from oxidising.

Now cut your avocados in half lengthways, take out the stone, then score the flesh down to the skin (but not through it) and using a spoon remove the flesh and toss it thoroughly through the lime juice and zest immediately. Roughly mash the avocado so that approximately half is fully mashed, a quarter is not mashed at all and the final quarter is slightly crushed; this will give you a lovely texture.

To skin your tomato, boil a kettle, lightly score a cross in the base of the tomato and put it into a cup. Pour the just-boiled water over the tomato and leave for 15-20 seconds. Empty the hot water out and immediately refill it with cold water. Lift out the tomato, insert the point of a knife under the score and lift the skin away, you should find that the skin peels off easily. If you leave the tomato in the hot water for too long it will begin to cook, and the skin will not come so easily.

Prepare and combine the remaining ingredients, stir thoroughly and season carefully. You may need to add more lime juice, just keep on testing and seasoning lightly until you have the perfect balance of sharpness from the lime and flavour accentuated by the salt and pepper.

To feed a crowd, just double the quantity; you will be amazed how far it will go and how quickly it will be demolished.

Pizza!

Watching Masterchef the other evening, I heard a Michelin-starred chef state that the whole idea of eating out is that you get to eat something better than you could ever make at home. That’s the whole idea of eating out for me, but it can be a double-edged sword – sadly we can’t go out for pizza any more, not even to the best restaurants; we are always disappointed because we unavoidably compare what we are given with what we make at home. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, the truth is that nothing can compare with a fresh, home-made pizza.

There is a secret ingredient to a great pizza, that ingredient is time. Time for your dough to develop its flavour, time for your tomato sauce to mature, and the shortest possible time in the oven. Master the use of time and, like me, you will never be able to go out for a pizza again, and you certainly will never order in.

The best thing about making your own pizza is that you can make it faster than you think. Spend a little time getting your dough and sauce ready the day before, then ten minutes rolling your dough and assembling your toppings, ten more minutes in the oven and it is ready to eat. That’s faster than the time it takes for a takeaway to be delivered, and probably faster than the time between ordering and eating in a restaurant. It costs next to nothing as well.


 

RECIPE (Makes 2 thin and crispy pizzas, double or treble everything to make more)

For the dough:

125g strong white flour

125g ’00’ flour

1/4 tsp dried yeast

1 tsp fine sea salt

160ml tepid water

Olive oil, for kneading

For the tomato sauce:

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

A good pinch of Maldon sea salt

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 tsp caster sugar

30g basil leaves, shredded

A drizzle of the best extra-virgin olive oil


METHOD

The evening before you plan to eat, make your dough.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, using your fingers in a claw, making sure everything is well combined. Make a well in the centre and add the water, slowly, again using your fingers in a claw bringing the water and dry ingredients together. When all the water is added and you have pulled everything together you should have a slightly sticky dough which pulls itself away from the sides of the bowl, leaving it clean. If you need to add a little more or less water then do so, but be careful not to make your mixture too wet.

Lightly oil a clean, dry work surface with good olive oil, turn the dough out onto it and gently massage the dough using your fingers and palms for around 20 seconds to end up with a fairly smooth ball. Now leave it for ten minutes; when you come back to it you will see that it has already softened and become more silky. Gently knead it again for twenty seconds, using your fingers and palms, shape it into a ball and leave again for ten minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl.

Come back to your dough after ten minutes, give it a final twenty second knead, shape into a ball, place in your oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Put it in a cold place overnight and leave it. The time it now spends gently rising gives the flavour of the yeast the chance to permeate through the dough.

The same evening, make your tomato sauce.

Sieve the tinned tomatoes, pushing the liquid through until you are left with the tomato pulp and a little liquid. Approximately half the volume of the tin will be left in the sieve, the other half (the liquid) you can leave, covered, in the fridge for a week or so and use in a stock, or you can indulge yourself in a Bloody Mary or two…

Combine the rest of the ingredients and stir thoroughly. Cover and leave overnight, chilled or not doesn’t matter. You can now forget about it for the rest of the night, and your finished sauce should look like the picture below:

IMG_0311 The following morning, check on your dough, it should have risen to at least twice its original size, probably more, and will be soft and pillowy. Using your fingers, and leaving it in the bowl (just to avoid making a mess) gently push the dough back in on itself, expelling the air and shaping it back into a ball. The professionals call this ‘knocking back’ or ‘punching down’ but that sounds too violent to me; I think bread should be treated tenderly and it will reward you. Cover again, and leave it in your kitchen to rise again until around an hour before you intend to eat.

When you reach that time, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (regular plain flour is fine, no need to use the ’00’ flour at this stage), push it down again using your fingers, and divide the dough into two equal balls. Place on a lightly floured piece of baking parchment, dust the top of each ball lightly with flour and loosely cover with either a clean, dry tea towel or a piece of cling film. If using cling film gently drape it over or it is likely to stick.

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When the time comes to start cooking, pre-heat your oven to the hottest temperature it will reach (mine reaches an indicated 250C, and if I use it on fan – which I do – it will reach a real temperature of around 270C). Put two baking trays in the oven to heat up with it, and give it plenty of time to get properly and thoroughly hot.

Now roll out your dough. On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll it out as thinly as you can. We go down to less than the thickness of a twenty-pence piece; don’t be scared of going so thin, it makes the base lovely and crunchy and, because it has had around 24 hours to develop, the dough will be strong enough to hold. If you do get a little tearing just pinch the holes together and it will be fine. If you roll it thinly enough your dough will be big enough to completely fill a standard-sized baking tray. Don’t worry about trying to make it perfectly round, we shape ours into an approximate rectangle. The whole idea is to get a pizza that tastes terrific even if it looks a bit ‘rustic’ – this is home cooking after all.

Now transfer your rolled dough to a piece of baking parchment or a silicon sheet which has been lightly dusted with fine semolina. Flatten it out and thinly spread a layer of the tomato sauce that you made the night before all over the pizza base. Be careful not to apply too much sauce, it is there for flavour and too much will prevent your pizza base from getting really crispy.

Now finish with whatever toppings you like on your pizza – my favourite is torn mozzarella, thinly sliced shallot, a tin of tuna in oil (drained and flaked), thinly sliced hot jalapeno chillies and sweet piquante peppers, topped with a grating of cheddar cheese and a good grinding of whole white peppercorns. When it comes out I like a thin drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a scattering of rocket leaves and it leaves me very full indeed. My wife is more spartan and likes hers cooked just as a pizza base with the tomato sauce, and when it comes out she shaves fresh parmesan onto it and scatters rocket leaves over the top. Whatever toppings you prefer, the base and sauce will lift it to a whole new dimension.

This bit will take two people: remove your pre-heated baking tray from the oven – using oven gloves as it will be fiercely hot. Gently and carefully slide the pizza, on its parchment, onto the hot baking tray; we do this by having one person holding the edge of the hot baking tray level with the surface on which the pizza is sitting while the other person gently slides it on to the tray. Cook in the hottest part of your oven for 5-10 minutes – keep an eye on it as it cooks quickly. If your pizza looks like mine below then I want to come to your house!

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Both the dough and sauce are easily scaled up, just exactly double or treble the ingredients, nothing else changes. If you don’t manage to prepare your dough and sauce the previous evening, don’t despair. Just give them as much time as you can and they will still taste great – your dough will need a minimum of two hours to develop enough strength and it will be fine to use, you just won’t get the same depth of flavour.

I also make my own mozzarella – but that’s a subject for another day…