Cheat’s Sourdough

I love sourdough; the smell as it bakes, the way it looks as it comes out of the oven, the deep, tangy taste of it. What’s not to love?

Well… There’s all the palaver around looking after your starter. The feeding, the disposing of half the volume night after night, the mess it makes, the sheer amount of dedication it takes. If you don’t work, or your children have grown up and left home, or you don’t spend your life running from appointment to commitment then all of this is probably no problem. If, however, like so many of us your day is full from the second you wake up until the minute you finally get to sit down sometime in the late evening, who has the time or the inclination?

Thankfully, there are ways to get all the benefits of sourdough without having to endure the drawbacks. Purists may be horrified, and I’m not above being judgemental about people taking shortcuts myself, but the fact that you make your own bread is always a cause for celebration and when the results are this good your only critic will be yourself.

This cheat’s sourdough is made just like a regular sourdough, with a starter. The starter used here though is like your fiercely independent eldest child, it doesn’t need mollycoddling yet it will always be there when you need it and it will never let you down.

I also bake this sourdough a little differently, using a casserole just like this one:

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All will become clear when you read the method, so let’s get going…


RECIPE 

For the starter:

100g strong white flour

100g organic rye flour

3/4 tsp dried yeast

250ml organic dry cider (or water)

100ml of refrigerated starter (see method below)

For the dough:

400g strong white flour

3/4 tsp dried yeast

1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt

200ml water


METHOD

The first time you make this, the evening before you bake your loaf you will need to make your starter.

Combine all the starter ingredients in a large bowl, stirring with a spoon until thoroughly combined. I like to use organic dry cider in my starter because it adds more flavour and the sugar in it feeds the yeast, you can still use water though and you will not be disappointed.

Cover your starter with cling film and leave in your kitchen overnight.

In the morning your sourdough starter should have significantly increased in volume, will look bubbly and smell tangy. Get a small jam jar or similar (something with a lid) and spoon approximately 100ml of the starter into it; put the jar to one side for now.

Now add the dough ingredients to your remaining starter, in the same bowl. Curl your fingers into a claw and mix thoroughly, it will be very sticky to begin with but keep on pulling and combining for a few minutes and it will get firmer. Lightly flour a work surface and tip the dough out onto it. Knead thoroughly for ten minutes or so, until the dough is firm and silky; you will need to use more flour as you work your dough but don’t overdo it. Your hands will probably be sticky with dough, to clean them simply sprinkle some flour on your hands and rub them together, the dough will come off easily.

*Tip: I have a dough hook for my stand mixer and I have used it a lot to knead my dough rather than getting my hands dirty. It has never really worked as well as kneading by hand though so I don’t use it any more. The advantage of kneading by hand is that you can feel what the dough is doing, and somehow it just makes a better loaf.

If you do want to use a dough hook on your mixer just be careful not to overwork your dough, knead for 5-7 minutes only.

Lightly oil a very large bowl, just use a teaspoon or so of olive oil and rub it around with your fingers – all you are trying to do is ensure that your dough doesn’t stick to the bowl as it rises. Tear off a small twist of dough and add it to the 100ml of starter that you spooned into your jar earlier. Put the lid on the jar and put it in the back of your fridge.

*Tip: The jar that you have just put into your fridge will be an important part of every loaf that you make from now on. It will keep for months without needing any attention, and if it is left for so long that it starts to look a bit mangy just give it a stir to recombine everything. The jar contains a huge a huge amount of flavour which will be transferred to every loaf that you make in future, and the more you use it the better that flavour will be.

From now on, whenever you make your starter tip the entire contents of the jar into it, not forgetting to replenish the jar with starter and a twist of dough in the morning.

Shape your dough into a rough ball and place it into the oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to sit at room temperature for anything between 1 and 3 hours, until it has at least doubled in size.

Take a clean tea towel and dust it thoroughly with plain flour. Gently roll your risen dough out of the bowl and onto the tea towel, be careful so you don’t knock too much air out of your dough and ensure you have used enough flour so it doesn’t stick. The dough has a tendency to spread out, to minimise this I roll the sides of the tea towel up and prop pepper grinders, small mugs and anything else I can find underneath the rolls to contain the dough and encourage it to rise upwards. Dust the top of the dough with more flour and lay another clean tea towel gently over the top. Leave for another hour or so at room temperature for its final rise.

*Tip: You can use a round banetton to hold your dough for its final rise, but it always seemed that no matter how much I dusted the inside with flour the dough always stuck somewhere, tore a hole in the dough and let the air escape. I have never had that problem using the tea towel method.

Put your casserole, with its lid on, in the oven; also put a small baking tray in the bottom of the oven. Heat your oven to 230C/ gas 8. Leave your oven long enough that it gets fully hot.

When ready to bake, using oven gloves remove the casserole from the oven and close the oven door. It never fails to amaze me how many people take the time to heat their oven and then leave the door open while they are mucking around doing other things, while all the heat is escaping into the kitchen. Again using oven gloves, remove the lid from the casserole and lightly dust the inside of the casserole with plain flour. Gently and carefully, but quickly, lift the tea towel holding your fully risen dough, place it into the casserole and gently roll the dough out of the tea towel and into the casserole. You may need to give the casserole a very delicate shake to level the dough, if you do then be gentle. Once again using oven gloves – yes, I am labouring this point but you only have to pick up a red-hot piece of metal with your bare hands once for it to stay with you forever – put the casserole lid back on and carefully place the casserole back into the oven. Bake for 25 minutes.

Oven gloves time again… Remove the casserole from the oven, close the oven door, remove the casserole lid and have a look at your dough. You should emit a gasp of admiration at the beautiful thing that you see.

Fill a glass with cold water, open the oven and quickly pour the water into the small baking tray that you put in the oven earlier, quickly put the casserole back into the oven, this time without its lid, and close the oven door. This will create steam in your oven which will give you a beautifully dark and crisp crust. Bake for a further 15 -20 minutes.

When you remove the casserole from the oven this time, tip it upside down and your beautiful loaf should fall straight out. Tap the bottom of the loaf and it should sound hollow; if so, it is done, so let it cool completely on a wire rack.

*Tip: Until I became experienced at making bread, instructions such as ‘tap it and if it sounds hollow it is done’ used to infuriate me. What does that actually mean? How hollow should it sound? What does hollow even sound like?

A foolproof way to determine if your bread is cooked is to use an instant read thermometer, or meat thermometer. Pierce the bread through the bottom and get the probe into the middle of the loaf, if it reads at least 90C then your loaf is fully cooked. Eventually you will know what hollow sounds like and you can dispense with the thermometer.

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Your finished loaf should look something like this. Believe me, it tastes even better than it looks.

The Ultimate Victoria Sandwich

If you want to upset a member of the Women’s Institute, show them this recipe and method. It does everything ‘wrong’, and yet the result is the lightest, fluffiest, BIGGEST Victoria sandwich you will ever make.

Using duck eggs takes this cake to a whole new level of flavour, they definitely are the best eggs to use when baking. Apparently the ratio of volumes between the egg white and yolk is different in a duck egg, and they are slightly larger than a large hens egg thus giving you a bigger cake, but all that matters to me is flavour and this cake delivers it in spades.

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 this cake 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 

4 duck eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

golden caster sugar – the same weight as the eggs

Lurpak unsalted spreadable butter – the same weight as the eggs

self-raising flour – the same weight as the eggs

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of fine salt

2 tbsp milk (approx)

For the filling:

250-300 ml double cream

1 jar raspberry jam or compote

1-2 tsp icing sugar


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4. I find it is normally best not to use a fan oven when baking cakes as it can dry out the top before the middle is cooked.

Line the base of two 20cm (8 inch) diameter, 4.5cm (2 inch) deep cake tins with parchment and lightly grease the sides.

Weigh the eggs, in their shells – write the weight down! I guarantee that one day you will be distracted by something and the weight that you had in your head will disappear. Maybe it’s my age, but once bitten twice shy…

The established way of making a Victoria Sandwich is to combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl, mix them together until just combined then bake. That method works fine, gives a great cake and is certainly quicker than the way that I do it, but in back to back tests among family and friends the method below was the winner.

Break the eggs into a large bowl together with the vanilla extract and, preferably using a stand mixer, whisk the eggs. When you think you’ve whisked them for long enough, whisk them some more. And some more. Keep going… you will end up with a froth which is several times bigger than the original volume of the eggs. Don’t be afraid to whisk at high speed for ten minutes or more, all you are doing is forcing air in and it is this air which will give your cake most of its lift.

While whisking the eggs, weigh out the golden caster sugar, self-raising flour and spreadable butter, each to the same weight as the eggs. Add the sugar to the whisked eggs and whisk at high speed for a couple of minutes.

Now add the spreadable butter, together with a couple of tablespoons of the flour which well help to prevent the mixture curdling. Whisk again for a minute or so at high speed until fully combined.

Now sieve the flour and baking powder into the mix, together with a pinch of salt, and with the mixer on its lowest speed combine the flour into the mix slowly and carefully until it is just combined. Have a couple of tablespoons of milk (any kind) at your side and add whatever quantity is required to keep the consistency of your cake mix at a dropping consistency – in other words a consistency that will drop gracefully off a wooden spoon, not stick to it in a big lump or run straight off like a liquid.

Now divide your mix equally between your prepared cake tins…

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…ensuring the top is fairly smooth. There’s no need to be pernickety about it, the mixture will rise and smooth out minor differences. Bake in the centre of the oven for 25-30 mins until well risen…

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…look at that, they have doubled in size. The cake should be just starting to come away from the sides of the cake tin, as you can see above, and a gentle pat on the top of the cake should reveal it to be soft but set. There should be no need to insert a skewer to check the middle.

Allow the cakes to cool in their tins for about 5 mins, when you should be able to handle the tins without using oven gloves. Run a knife around the inside of the cake tin to ensure nothing will stick and then turn each cake out into your hand. Bear in mind that you will want the best looking top on your cake, and also bear in mind that cooling on a rack will leave lines in your cake. So, select which will be the top of your cake and ensure that surface sits uppermost from the cooling rack; the bottom half of the cake should sit on its top. That sounds a little confusing, so to clarify – when you assemble your cake the most pleasing arrangement is to have a little ‘waist’ in the middle, presuming that your cake tins have a slight angle to their sides. To achieve the waist, you put the bottom half upside down so the narrowest part is uppermost, and the top half should sit right way up so its narrowest part is at the bottom. You will see this effect in the picture of the finished cake, below.

Some like to trim the sides of the cake so they are perfectly straight. If I were presenting it in a competition I might do that, but I think it is a waste of perfectly good cake so who cares if the sides look imperfect – they taste wonderful.

Once the cakes are fully cooled, whip 250-300ml of double cream until it is stiff – be careful not to go too far or you will end up with butter. Spread the entire jar of jam or compote on top of the bottom half in an even layer, pushing it toward but not quite reaching the edge, it will creep there on its own when the cake is fully assembled. Now using a pallet knife or spatula carefully lay the whipped cream on top of the jam, ensuring the two layers don’t mix and once again pushing it out almost to the edge in a thick, even layer. Don’t be stingy with your filling – make it thick and indulgent. Make this a BIG cake!

Now carefully place the top cake half on to the cream, ensuring the cake is level on top, doesn’t lean and is aligned parallel all the way around. Using a small sieve, dust the top of the cake with icing sugar, present, and eat!

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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.