Home-Made Chilli Oil

I am always looking for ways to get more flavour into my food, one of the easiest ways is to carefully choose which oil you cook with. That subject deserves an essay all its own, suffice to say that when cooking anything spicy – whether it is from Italy, Thailand or anywhere in-between – chilli oil can add even more zing to your meals.

I have always found store-bought flavoured oils to be either insipid or rough, whereas what I need from a flavoured oil is character with subtlety. Beware though: this chilli oil can be fierce, nothing subtle here! It is easily diluted though, so if you want the character that it brings but aren’t too keen on obvious heat just add a few drops to the pan with your regular oil.

I find this works extremely well as a drizzle on a pizza straight from the oven, tossed through drained pasta, or used on its own as a cooking oil in place of regular oil. When you cook, make the first question you ask yourself: ‘which oil shall I use?’ and you will soon find endless ways to use this oil.

The quantities used in the recipe are extremely flexible; I tend to make this in 200ml batches and store it in a cool, dark cupboard. It will keep for ages if you follow the instructions, and as it ages it develops more heat and, bizarrely, more subtlety.

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RECIPE 

150ml olive oil

30 red birds-eye chillies, finely sliced, seeds left in

1 tbsp dried chilli flakes


METHOD

First, sterilise your chosen jar or bottle, and its lid: heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1 and wash your jar and lid in hot soapy water, rinse and let them dry out in the warmed oven. When you take them out to use them, keep your grubby fingers away from the insides of the lid and jar or you will undo your good work.

To ensure that you make exactly the right amount, put the sliced birds-eye chillies and dried chillies in your chosen jar, then top up with regular olive oil until the jar is very nearly full. Empty the entire contents of the jar into a small saucepan and gently warm the oil for a few minutes until the pan is too hot to touch. Leave it to cool for ten minutes or so, then put the chilli oil back into your jar. You can use it immediately, but when it has been infusing for a couple of weeks it is an absolute knockout.

Vanilla Extract

First, a word of warning: never, Never, NEVER buy vanilla essence. It’s a nasty chemical substitute for the real thing.

Second: make your own vanilla extract. It is ridiculously simple and involves nothing more than two ingredients. Even the most pure and expensive commercially-produced vanilla extract contains a number of additional elements, including sugar. You don’t need them in your life. What you DO need are two kinds of vanilla extract: made with vodka for a clean vanilla taste, and made with dark rum for a darker, more complex caramel flavour. Experiment with both kinds in your baking and you will soon be turning out cakes so good you would swear they had been made by Mary Berry.

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RECIPE – makes 100ml

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

100ml of vodka or dark rum


METHOD 

It doesn’t get any easier than this: put both halves of the split vanilla pod into a 100ml bottle (the exact size is largely immaterial, anything between 50ml and 120ml will produce perfect vanilla extract). Top up with the vodka or rum, then put the lid on and set it aside for at least a month. It will last for as long as you need it to, but if my experience is anything to go by you will use it up pretty quickly once you discover just how good it is.

Carrot Puree with Star Anise

If you eat in a high-quality restaurant, or watch cooking competitions such as Masterchef you will be familiar with the smears and piped blobs of pureed vegetables used to add visual and flavour interest to dishes. It is easy to dismiss such fancies as pretentious twaddle that have no place on your own dining room table, but actually – used judiciously – they really can enhance a dish, and they are quite simple to make.

This particular puree is excellent alongside beef or salmon, and I have also used it as an accompaniment to cottage pie. Use it sparingly as it is quite intense, but delicious nonetheless.

Making things like this makes me smile, if only because I get to use the small copper sauce pans we picked up for a song at a car-boot sale!

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RECIPE – serves 4 as a garnish

3 medium carrots, finely sliced

40g unsalted butter

100ml vegetable stock

1 star anise

2 tbsp double cream


METHOD 

Melt the butter in a large pan and add the carrots. Cook in the butter for five minutes until just starting to soften and the butter is thick and juicy with carrot, then add the vegetable stock and star anise. Simmer for fifteen minutes until the stock has reduced and the carrots are meltingly soft. Add the double cream, stir thoroughly then tip into a blender and blitz until it is very smooth.

Tip into a coarse sieve and push the puree through it into a small saucepan, this will ensure that the puree has no lumps. Check and adjust the seasoning, and warm thoroughly before serving.

How you serve it is up to you, if you are dressing a plate for a dinner party then let your imagination guide you, but if it is for a midweek dinner just serve a dollop on the side of the plate – there’s a time and a place for pretentious twaddle!

Christmas Chutney

The only reason this is called a Christmas chutney is because this is the time of year that I make it – a great big pot of it. It easily lasts a year if stored somewhere cool and dark, and once opened a jar will safely last a month in the fridge – though to be absolutely honest a jar did once get lost in the depths of my fridge for I don’t know how many months and it was still delicious – and safe to eat – after all that time. That shouldn’t be surprising, this is, after all, a pickle. In fact it is quite similar to a very well known high street brand of pickle, but better, of course.

I like giving home-made edible presents at Christmas: sloe gin, shortbread, biscuits for cheese and this chutney are ever-present elements of a small, home-made gift hamper. I don’t think there is a better present that you can give; after all, what can be more precious than giving someone your time, thought and energy?

I am indebted to Nigella Lawson for this recipe. It came from ‘Nigella Christmas’ and as is usual with Nigella’s recipes it is perfect just as she wrote it.

You will need a sufficient number of jars in which to store this chutney; the sizes don’t really matter, you can re-use old jam jars if you wish or use small Kilner jars. A jam funnel is useful for getting the chutney into the jars cleanly, and you will also need wax discs to put on top of the chutney before putting the lids on.

The longer this chutney is allowed to sit in the cupboard, the better it will be!

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RECIPE – makes around 2.25 litres

750g cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped into small pieces

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

500g fresh or frozen cranberries (thaw them if frozen)

250g soft, pitted dates, each cut into six pieces

2 clementines or satsumas

400g golden caster sugar

1 tsp whole cloves, finely ground in a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder

1 heaped tsp ground ginger

1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

500ml white wine vinegar

2 tsp sea salt flakes (or 1 tsp table salt)


METHOD 

Put the apples, onion, cranberries and dates into a large pan, then grate the zest of the clementines/satsumas over the top, squeeze in the juice then scrape out the pulp, chop it finely and add to the pan. The pectin in the pulp helps the chutney to thicken up.

Add the sugar, ground cloves, ginger, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and salt, then pour in the vinegar. Give it a good stir and turn on the heat. At this point your chutney will look something like this:

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Bring it to the boil then reduce it to a gentle simmer and let it bubble away, uncovered for about an hour until you have a dark, thick, sticky mass of deliciousness.

While the chutney is doing its thing, sterilise your jars and lids: heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1 and wash your jars and lids in hot soapy water, rinse and let them dry out in the warmed oven. When you take them out to use them, keep your grubby fingers away from the insides of the lids and jars or you will undo your good work.

When the chutney is ready to put into the jars, while it and the jars are still warm, fill the jars to within 5mm of the top, place a wax disc on top and put the lid on. Allow it to cool completely; the warm air in the jar will contract as it cools and provide you with a sterile vacuum which allows your chutney to last without spoiling.

Quick and Easy Flaky Pastry

I fancied making a pie yesterday, so I set out shopping in the morning and was quite perplexed to find that in all the shops I visited not a single one stocked any blocks of all-butter puff pastry. Now, a block of ready-made all-butter puff pastry is one of the few processed ingredients that I am happy to use, but though they all had the ready-rolled stuff it’s not quite the same.

I make rough-puff pastry quite a lot, but it does take a fair bit of time and attention – to be more accurate, you need to be around at various times during the day to roll and turn the pastry between chilling it. I didn’t have that freedom yesterday, but I really fancied that pie…

The answer was this: a super-quick and stupidly easy way to make flaky pastry. It doesn’t rise anywhere near as much as puff, but it laminates beautifully and is incredibly buttery. You do need to work quickly though, keeping the butter very cold is the key to success here so follow the instructions closely.


RECIPE – makes 450g of pastry

225g plain flour, sifted

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

170g unsalted butter

120 ml water


METHOD 

One hour before you will make the pastry, put the flour, butter and water in the freezer. Keep an eye on the water as it might freeze solid, which you don’t want. What you DO want are ice-cold ingredients.

Sift the flour and salt into a large, cold mixing bowl. Using the large holes of a cheese grater, quickly grate the butter into the flour – as fast as you can so that it doesn’t have time to warm up. Using a knife, stir the butter and flour around until each strand of butter is coated with flour and the butter is spread evenly throughout the flour. Add the ice-cold water and use the knife to bind the pastry together; a good way to do this is to act as if you are cutting with the knife, dragging the blade through the mixture three or four times, then giving the bowl a quarter turn and dragging the blade through another three or four times, until the water is all taken up with the flour. Once again, you need to move quickly while the mixture is ice cold.

Turn the pastry out onto a lightly floured surface and bring it together into a ball. Try to minimise the amount that you handle it, because you don’t want the butter strands to melt together, and handling pastry too much tends to make it tough.

Roll the pastry out into a long oblong, then fold one third of it into the centre of the pastry, and then fold the other third over the top of that. Wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes or until you need to use it, at which point you can roll it out and use it as you would a ready-made pastry.

Vegetable Stock

There really is no secret to creating great-tasting dishes; if you use good-quality ingredients and cook them well, then finish with a sympathetic garnish, you are already 80% of the way there. To raise a dish from the great to the fantastic you will need to find the final 20% though, and that’s where getting the basics right really counts.

If you start your dish with a great home-made tomato sauce or stock the results can be unbelievable. Suddenly, restaurant-quality food will start to emerge from your kitchen. There is a reason that professional chefs of any quality never use stock cubes or powders and it is for this reason that this, of all the recipes I will ever publish, is without a doubt the most useful and most important.

Sure, it takes a little time to make a great stock, but apart from the five minutes it takes to roughly chop the ingredients you can spend all that time doing something else – like sitting down with a cuppa and reading a book.

Try and find dried limes in the international section of your local supermarket, they are cheap as chips and add a whole other dimension of flavour. Just pop them in whole, or crush them in your hands.

I make two versions of this stock, a dark stock for use with heavier, darker stews and soups, and a light version for use making soups such as minestrone and tomato, and risottos, where a dark coloured stock would adversely affect the look of the finished dish. To make the lighter version simply omit the mushrooms and make sure you remove the skin from the onion.


RECIPE – makes approximately 1.5 litres

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried thyme

2 bay leaves

1 large onion, unpeeled, roughly chopped

1 leek, well rinsed, chopped

5 medium organic carrots, unpeeled, chopped

1 large orange sweet potato, unpeeled, roughly chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

5 dried shiitake mushrooms

3 litres water

1 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

2 dried limes (optional, but awesome)


METHOD 

Heat the oil in a large stock pot and add the dried herbs and bay leaves while you start chopping the veg. As you chop each ingredient, toss it straight into the pot and agitate it to get the oil and herbs coating everything. Add the shiitake mushrooms whole, then cover the whole thing with a cartouche and cook over a gentle heat for twenty minutes.

The smaller you chop your vegetables the more flavour you will generally be able to extract; don’t overdo it though, root vegetables only need to go as small as 1/2 cm cubes while the leek, onion and celery only need to be 5mm thick at a minimum. Take as long as you have, and if you’re in a hurry don’t worry about it.

*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.

After twenty minutes remove the cartouche, add the water and fish sauce and bring to the boil, then simmer very gently for between 60 and 90 minutes. The long, slow cooking is crucial to extract maximum flavour and nutrients from the vegetables.

Strain and remove all the vegetable matter and you now have a basic vegetable stock; the real test is that it should make a delicious broth when seasoned with salt – good enough to drink out of a mug and leave you wanting more. At this point you can use it as it is in any recipe that calls for stock, or you can reduce it further, concentrating the flavour and storing it in the fridge for later use.

Tomato Salsa

Delicious. That was my lovely wife’s verdict on this bright and zingy salsa. You might think that she has to say that, but we have a deal: if something isn’t right she has to tell me, that’s the only way I can get better. She won’t mince her words, so if she says it is delicious you can bet that it is.

This is a great accompaniment to Mexican and South American dishes – fajitas, tortillas, chilli – and is also good for barbecues and as a dip for tortilla chips.

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RECIPE – feeds 4 as a side

1 long red chilli, de-seeded and roughly chopped

1 long green chilli, de-seeded and roughly chopped

4 spring onions, trimmed and roughly chopped

4 ripe tomatoes, de-seeded and roughly chopped

red wine vinegar

1/2 cucumber, de-seeded and finely chopped

1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and finely chopped

1 red pepper, de-seeded and finely chopped

1 or 2 limes, and the zest of one

chopped fresh coriander leaves to garnish


METHOD

Prepare all the ingredients.

Put the chillies, spring onions and tomatoes in a food processor with some salt and pepper and blitz until finely chopped. Tip into a sieve and leave for a few minutes to let the excess moisture run out, then tip out into a large bowl, check the seasoning, then add a good glug of red wine vinegar. Stir thoroughly, then add the finely chopped cucumber and peppers, and the zest of one lime. Stir thoroughly then add the juice of one lime.

Now it is time to taste and adjust the flavours. As required, add more red wine vinegar, salt and pepper and lime juice until the flavours are nicely balanced. Add them each a little at a time, you can always add more if required but you can’t take it out again.

When it tastes just how you like it, set aside until you are ready to eat. It is best to leave it for at least 30 minutes so the flavours can fully develop. Just before serving, add the chopped coriander to garnish, and stir through.

Tartare Sauce

Those who read this blog with any regularity will know that I am a dedicated advocate of making every element of a meal myself. I have tried my hand at tomato ketchup, brown sauce, making my own cheese, mayonnaise… anything and everything in fact – if it can be made in a home kitchen then I will give it a go. It’s not because I am some kind of zealot who treats his body as a temple and refuses to eat anything made in a factory – well, okay, to a large degree I am extremely distrustful of processed food of any kind – but the main reason is that I enjoy making new things, and also because when you make something yourself you can adjust its flavour to make it taste exactly how you want it to. There is also the fact that every time you make something new then you can learn something from it. If you want to become a good cook then whatever else you do there is no substitute for actual cooking.

You might wonder whether it’s worth going to the effort of making something as basic as tartare sauce when there are perfectly acceptable jars of it lining supermarket shelves all around the world. If you’re wondering that then you’re reading the wrong blog! Like everything else that you make by hand, the difference between home-made and shop-bought is like night and day. This is dead easy, quick and inexpensive, and because you will probably have more than you need you can store leftovers in the fridge for up to a week.

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RECIPE – feeds 6 people easily

3 medium large cornichons (pickled gherkins)

1 heaped tbsp capers, drained

4 anchovy fillets in oil, drained

a small bunch of flat leaf parsley, leaves and stalks roughly torn

1 lemon, zest and juice

200g mayonnaise

extra-virgin olive oil


METHOD

Put the cornichons, capers, anchovies, parsley and the zest of the lemon in a food processor (or, at a push, a blender), with half the lemon juice and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Blitz until you have a rough paste, if you like a little more texture in your sauce stop blitzing when it reaches your desired consistency. Add a little more olive oil if necessary.

Put the mayonnaise in a large bowl, then add the blitzed paste to it. Mix well and taste, adding as much of the remaining lemon juice as you wish so that it is as tart as you like it.

I have not specified that you make your own mayonnaise here, that is a blog post that will come in the future. This tastes great with shop-bought mayo, and because you are dealing with such strong flavours there is little benefit to be gained from making your own, unless you want to and then you can brag about it.

Hummus – Quick and Easy

A Lebanese classic, hummus is – in theory – quick and easy to make. Actually, it is quick and easy to make, so quite why I have had the misfortune to taste some of the most disgusting muck on the planet masquerading as hummus is beyond me. Admittedly, the disgusting stuff is found on supermarket shelves, alongside some quite superb hummus. Once you have made your own though there can be no going back: you know exactly what you are going to get, you know exactly what goes in to it, and you can tweak the proportions of the ingredients to get it exactly how you like it.

This version is not authentic Lebanese hummus, but it is close, and started life as a recipe courtesy of Sabrina Ghayour and her wonderful book ‘Persiana’. Consider the ingredient quantities specified as a starting point, and if you don’t want to make quite so much just reduce the quantities of everything in proportion. You might be surprised at how much salt you need, just add it little by little until it is just as you like it.

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RECIPE – feeds a crowd

3 tins of chickpeas, reserve the liquid from 1 1/2 tins

6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

3 lemons, juice only

4 tbsp tahini

sea salt

paprika to garnish (optional)


METHOD

Put the chickpeas, garlic, tahini, half the olive oil, half the chickpea liquid and half the lemon juice in a food processor and pulse a few times to break the chickpeas down and roughly mix the ingredients.

Empty it in to a large mixing bowl, and using a fork to vigorously mix it together gradually add the olive oil and then some of the chickpea liquid and lemon juice until the consistency is loose but not sloppy, while the texture remains rough – unless you prefer it very smooth like shop-bought, in which case get mashing!

Now start tasting: gradually add the sea salt, a pinch at a time and tasting as you go. Likewise, add more lemon juice if you think it needs it. Your aim is to get a balance of smoky flavour from the garlic, that the salt will accentuate, while bringing out the sharpness of the lemon juice. If your hummus gets a little too loose then a little more tahini will thicken it again, as well as adding more depth of flavour. Adjust gradually and taste it after every addition and you will end up with the most delicious hummus you have ever had, and all in around ten minutes.

Thai Green Curry Paste

The difference between home-made curry paste and a shop-bought jar is – literally – the difference between night and day. The flavours in home-made are more intense, more bright and just more interesting.

This freezes really well and will last 3 months in a freezer or up to 3 weeks in a fridge, so you can make a double quantity to save time in the future.


RECIPE – makes roughly enough for 8 people

6 medium green chillies, de-seeded and roughly chopped

2 banana shallots, peeled and roughly chopped

a large 2 inch knob of fresh ginger

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a small bunch of fresh coriander, stalks and roots attached

2 fresh lemongrass stalks, peeled and finely chopped

1 lime, zest finely grated and juice

8 kaffir lime leaves, shredded

1 inch of fresh galangal, or 1 tbsp of jarred

1 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed in a mortar and pestle

2 tsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

3 tbsp vegetable oil


METHOD

Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and blitz to a smooth paste. Use immediately or store in a jar in the fridge for up to 3 weeks or freeze for up to 3 months.