Thursday, 27 August 2009

Butter beans with tuna and anchovy sauce

This is my fail-safe dish that I return to again and again when I'm tired, need cheering up or just can't be bothered to cook anything that takes longer than five minutes. It saw me through my late teens, university years and nowadays I still eat it at least once a week. It's so simple, yet unbelievably tasty - despite containing anchovy and tuna it doesn't taste at all 'fishy' but has a really deep savoury flavour with an 'umami' bite. All you need to do is open a few storecupboard cans, heat some good oil and chop up some parsley. Don't worry if the amount of oil used seems excessive - you need it all to bind the sauce together.

The other day I made this for my good friend R who has to follow a very restricted diet (no wheat/yeast/sugar etc) and it really put a smile on her face. Not only is this dish really good for you (it's choc full of good omega oils) it also has the bonus of not tasting like you're depriving yourself of anything. Hurrah!

Serves 1

You will need:

200g tin tuna steak in spring water/brine
6 tinned anchovy fillets in oil
400g tin butter beans rinsed and drained
3 tbsp organic rapeseed oil (or use extra virgin olive oil)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 good handfuls roughly chopped parsley

Gently heat the oil in a saucepan, then add the anchovy fillets. 'Melt' them over a low heat, gently prodding with a wooden spoon until they fall apart and go mushy. Add the tuna, mash in with your wooden spoon. Heat through until bubbling, then grind in as much black pepper as you can handle. I like it nice and peppery - about 1 heaped tsp of pepper (or 30 grinds of a big pepper mill). Add the drained butterbeans and stir until everything is heated through. Just before serving, add the chopped parsley and mix in.

This sauce is also ruddy marvellous with pasta - choose nice fat tubey shapes like rigatoni or penne.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Brownies and Blondies

Last weekend I thought it would be a hoot to sell dark and white chocolate brownies at The Green Man Festival dressed up as an air hostess. And why not? Lots of people go in costume. It was a great way to combine selling delicious home-baked cakes, meeting all sorts of different people and wearing something a little crazy! (I even made a fake oxygen mask and a friend designed proper airline logos). At first, people stared a lot. Then they came over gradually and tried the brownies. They loved them! I totally sold out. Lots of people asked for 'under-the-counter' versions...but were turned away. After all, if a brownie tastes this good, why on earth do you need to put naughty substances in it?

I made three flavours: plain dark chocolate, dark chocolate with salted almond butter caramel and white chocolate with pecan nuts. The first two versions were based on my friend Charlotte's killer brownie recipe where you replace flour with ground almonds. And the blondies are based on a recipe by Jill Dupleix, but I've added almonds to them to make them more chewy. I am very fussy about brownies: they simply have to be intensely chocolatey, not at all dry and not overwhelmed with the taste of nuts. So here they won't be disappointed.

Dark chocolate brownies: makes 18 medium-sized

You will need:

375g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids, preferably Fairtrade and/or organic)
375g butter
400g unrefined caster sugar
6 medium free range eggs
4 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder - again, Fairtrade and/or organic
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
250g ground almonds
1 double espresso-worth of strong coffee

Preheat the oven to 180C. Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl, set over a pan of cold water and bring the water to the boil (bain marie). Turn the heat down to a low simmer and stir the mixture occasionally with a spoon until the chocolate and butter melt. Put the bowl to one side to let cool for a couple of minutes.
Whizz the sugar, eggs, cocoa and bicarb in a food mixer or with an electric whisk, until frothy. Add this to the chocolate mixture, then stir in the ground almonds, the melted chocolate and the coffee.
Pour mixture into a large baking tray lined with greaseproof baking parchment and bake for roughly 30 minutes, depending on how deep your baking tray is, how fierce your oven is and how squidgy you want the brownies to be.

When you take the tray out of the oven, place it on a wire rack to cool down completely. Do not attempt to cut the brownies up until they have cooled completely - otherwise they might fall apart! Keeps well in a Tupperware container for 4 - 6 days.

Dark chocolate and salted caramel almond brownies (very naughty, oh so good!)

These are gobsmackingly good - the buttery salted caramel adds a wonderful edge. Simply not for sharing. Makes 18 medium sized.

You will be following the brownie recipe above, but first you need to make the salted caramel.

100g flaked almonds
100g golden caster sugar
50g salted organic butter
1/2 tsp sea salt, plus extra for sprinkling

First lightly toast the almonds in a dry frying pan over a medium heat, taking care to stir them regularly so that they don't burn. This will take about 3 minutes, and when you can smell that lovely nutty almond smell and see the nuts turning a light brown they are ready. Spread them out on a layer of non-stick baking parchment, and lay on a heatproof surface. Then put the sugar, butter and salt in a non-stick frying pan and add 4 tablespoons of water. Bring everything to the boil, then turn the heat to medium and stir frequently. Watch like a hawk as it bubbles away, and keep stirring to ensure that some bits don't caramelise before others. When the mixture begins to look creamy, you're nearly there:

You want the mixture to turn a light brown colour - this will take anything between 5 and 9 minutes. Then QUICKLY pour the mixture over the almonds - don't dally because the caramel solidifies instantly. Sprinkle over an extra pinch of sea salt. Leave it to cool down, then shatter into pieces holding a knife with the blade pointing downwards. You might want to do this over a chopping board so you don't dent your surfaces!

The result:

Now make the same brownie mixture as the recipe above. When the mixture is ready to be tipped into the baking tray, add half the salted caramel almond chunks into the mix, and sprinkle a few on top.

When the brownies are cooked and have cooled completely, decorate the brownies with the remaining chunks of salted caramel. Keeps well in a Tupperware container for 4 - 6 days.

White chocolate and pecan blondies: makes 18 medium sized

Never tried a blondie? They are yummy: really fudgey and with a lovely mellow vanilla taste. Pecans are essential - their sweetness really complements the vanilla and white chocolate. Don't worry - these blondies are not too sweet.

100g pecan nuts
200g organic white plain flour
60g ground almonds
400g white Belgian cooking chocolate
200g golden Fairtrade caster sugar
250g organic butter
4 medium organic eggs
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 pinches salt

Line a baking tray with greaseproof baking parchment. Preheat oven to 180C. Chop the chocolate on a board with a sharp knife until you have pieces like large chocolate chips. Roughly chop the pecans. Melt the butter and half the chocolate slowly together over a bain mairie (a heatproof bowl set over simmering water), whisking with a balloon whisk until melted. Put aside to cool down slightly for a few minutes.

Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract. When the chocolate/butter mixture has cooled down a bit, add the egg and sugar mixture to it and whisk together. Sift in the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt, add the ground almonds and stir, then add the remaining chopped chocolate and pecan nuts. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking tray, smooth down the top with a spatula and bake for about 22 minutes or until the top is set and a nice golden brown colour. Allow to cool in the tray and then cut into squares. Keeps well in a Tupperware container for 4 days.

Friday, 14 August 2009

VBites: Oh Heather...

Yesterday, a friend and I travelled to Hove to visit a friend and her two children. We needed coffee and cake. Where to go? It's always a conundrum when you have a buggy, a 2-month-old baby and a boisterous 2-year-old. She suggested 'VBites', the newly-opened vegan restaurant on the seafront, which is the new venture from Heather Mills-McCartney. Vegan food served up by ex 'Lady Mucca'? Hmm, I thought. But then I remembered reading an intriguing review in the Guardian newspaper not so long ago which spoke of decent lattes and surprisingly palatable vegan meat substitutes. The reviewer (Polly Vernon) really wanted to hate it, but she didn't. I was itching with curiosity - would we see Heather reclining at the bar? My friend had caught sight of her on previous visits...

We arrived at a newly-converted seafront building that used to be home to an old fish and chip shop. It looked a little bit like an Alpine chalet from a distance. There was a posh sports car parked outside. I wondered if this might be Heather's. Long-gone were the deep fat fryers: in their place was a modern open-plan kitchen and a room with a kaiten sushi conveyor belt whizzing round pretty cupcakes and flapjacks under plastic domes. In an adjoining room, the ceiling over the bar area was prettily dotted with pinprick LED lights. We sat at a funky pale wooden table and reclined against beautiful cushions. The staff were young and good looking. They smiled a lot. The atmosphere was buzzy; bright light flooded in through the windows. But no Heather to be seen.

I scanned the vegan menu. There were carnivorous substitutes on offer with strange faux meat names such as 'chicky', 'hammy' and 'rashers'. I was a bit afraid of what 'fishy' might entail. I opted instead for a cappuccino made with oat milk and an almond and plum cake. My friend (who has a myriad of dietary restrictions) attempted to order a sugar-free cake - if such a thing exists, surely this was the place to find one, as the menu advertised all kinds of dairy/wheat/sugar-free options. The waiter wasn't certain they had anything sugar-free that day. But he didn't seem to know one way or the other, to be honest. She ordered chips instead and asked for houmous. Surely not such an outlandish request in a vegan restaurant? But no, houmous wasn't available either. How perplexing. The chips were brought over almost immediately. They were definitely oven chips - they had that very specific 'oven chip' taste and were lukewarm. So far, not so good. Our coffees still hadn't arrived. We saw them on a tray, forlorn and cooling on the bar, where five staff were chatting amongst themselves. I was tempted to jump up and get them myself, but then the cake arrived. It was pretty, but looked like someone had already taken a bite out of it:

Sadly it tasted of...nothing much at all. It had a gluey texture and a faint aroma of wallpaper paste. Not even a hint of plum. We ploughed on with it, hoping it would improve. "Should have known a vegan cake wouldn't taste the same," remarked my friend. Our coffees eventually arrived. My oat milk cappuccino wasn't as scary as it sounds: the coffee tasted like a decent blend, but it wasn't very warm. Baby L's ice cream was the tastiest option, but when I asked at the bar for a paper cup to rescue his half-chewed cornet, I was told to go and ask in the adjoining room as 'they weren't in charge of the takeaway service'. I was a bit shocked: four staff idling and chatting at the bar, telling me to go and do the fetching myself. If Heather had been in residence, I'm pretty certain this wouldn't have happened.

So come on, Ms Mills: we loved the look of the restaurant. It was vibrant, fun, stylish and child-friendly. But why so many staff all standing around doing nothing? And have a word with your chefs, will you? Vegan food can be delicious - I often cook it myself. But why are you serving oven chips? I can eat those at home, but I don't expect to be offered these in a restaurant that prides itself on fresh, healthy eating. Tsk!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Beautiful bread

If I was marooned on a desert island with a choice of one dish to eat until the end of my days, I would probably go for a crusty loaf of white bread with a pat of very salty butter. I would be content to eat this every day of my life. I am obsessed with anything bread-like. It's ironic that I sometimes have an intolerance to wheat - but, as a nutritionist once told me, your body craves what's bad for you. And in my case, bread is like my heroin. Not just any bread, mind. I crave well made, rustic loaves with a knobbly crust. Stuff that's hand made - not the pale anaemic sliced 'breads' you get in plastic wrap. Incidentally, bread that is made by hand with natural ingredients rises slowly with no addition of chemicals, so it's easier to digest and is better for you.

In fact, so deep runs my obsession with good bread that I might get hit by a car one day (but let's not tempt fate!) just crossing the road to look into a bakery window. I spend many a happy moment paused in front of my local one, drooling at the sight of challah, sourdough and multigrain. I even have its number on speed-dial, and I get anxious if they sell out of croissants at the weekend.

Last year, I decided to learn how to make my own bread. My husband and I spent a very happy day having a baking lesson with two lovely ladies: Liz Weisberg and Rachel Duffield at The Lighthouse Bakery School in West Sussex. They were totally inspirational, not to mention hardcore: did you know that a professional baker's day BEGINS at 3am? Despite this alarming fact, they demonstrated to us that breadmaking is a wonderfully creative and therapeutic process, worth staying at home for once in a while. We carted around 20 loaves of bread home that day - to me, this was as exciting as winning the lottery. Once we had eaten our way through all of it, I began to make my own bread. This was the first loaf, a simple wholemeal:

We continued to make our own bread at home whenever we had a moment, and it's a passion that has just taken on a life of its own. Recently I decided to learn how to make the 'king' of breads: the sourdough. This bread takes an awfully long time to make, but it rewards you with its wonderful tangy taste and crusty top. If you get it right, it tastes just like bread from a posh artisanal market, and when it bakes it smells like the aroma wafting out of a French 'boulangerie'.

Here's how I did it. I made a natural leaven (or 'starter') from legendary baker Dan Lepard's book 'The Handmade Loaf'. You basically put flour, water, raisins and natural yoghurt in a jar and let the mixture ferment over 6 days, discarding most of it each day and topping it up with flour and water. By the end of the week, you have a bubbling batter that makes noises when you put your ear to it!

Then I made a 'sponge' the night before I wanted to make the actual loaf, and used a very good sourdough recipe from the blog Chocolate & Zucchini. This involves making a new batter using some of your starter mixed with more flour and water, and you leave it overnight. In the morning, you have this:

I then followed the rest of the recipe on Chocolate & Zucchini. First thing in the morning, you make a dough, leave it to rest so that it expands, knock it back a couple of times, leave it to rest again and then when it has nearly tripled in size (usually 10 hours later) it's time to bake:

The strange (yet wonderful) thing about the recipe is that it tells you to bake the bread in an oven crockpot with the lid on. I wasn't confident that the crust would crisp up and brown properly, as I usually place the dough directly onto a bread stone, but I decided to trust the recipe. And it worked beautifully, as you can see here:

When I took pot out of the oven and took the lid off, I was so happy I let out a little shriek. And it tasted a-mazing. Little things, eh?

Monday, 3 August 2009

Theo Randall at the InterContinental

Would you just look at the beauty of this bread selection? Ok, the photo is a little murky, but to me, this bread is a thing of marvel. I love good bread to the point of nerdiness (when I'm not eating it, I'm thinking about it or baking my own) and I think the sign of a good restaurant can be judged on the quality of its bread basket (or platter)! I partook of this bodacious bread assortment at Theo Randall's Italian establishment at Park Lane's InterContinental Hotel at the weekend (it's simply called 'Theo Randall'). This isn't somewhere you'd usually find me - The InterContinental seems to be the roaming ground for lizardy tanned foreign millionaires and their frumpy wives en voyage - but the occasion was a special one and I had been meaning to check out Theo Randall's cooking for some time after I ate a very special slab of his chocolate cake at the London Taste festival last year. I'm also a bit of a fan of Theo Randall's TV appearances on Good Food's Market Kitchen (a show that continues to amaze me with its gawky dreadfulness, but it is compulsive, trashy viewing nonetheless). Theo always trumps the other chefs on the show with his unpretentious and intelligent use of ingredients without being an overbearing egomaniac.

So: the bread assortment was a dreamy selection of juicy, garlicky foccacia festooned with big crunchy salt crystals, partnered with slices of a tomato-rubbed chargrilled sourdough. By George, it was good. We hadn't even ordered the plate - it was plonked alluringly down on the table while we ordered our drinks. The meal just got better and better from that moment on, but I won't bore you with the details of every dish we ate...but I think the sharing dessert platter is worth mentioning. Again, a thing of rare beauty: four outstanding puds all bamboozling you for attention - an outrageously tangy Amalfi lemon tart, a grappa-soaked creamy panacotta, a dense, fudgy chocolate cake with mascarpone and a delectable ball of vanilla ice cream doused in espresso. Behold:

We finished the entire plateful in two minutes flat. There were three of us, after all. Every mouthful nearly made me go dizzy. The man knows how to make a good pud, that's for sure.

Another thing worth mentioning: as you might have guessed, 'Theo Randall' is quite a high-end establishment, and my husband and I aren't really used to frequenting such glamorous surroundings. But we were immediately put at ease: the staff were friendly in a non-overbearing way - and our lovely waitress even gave me a posh cake box in a glossy cardboard carrier bag for me to take my bread leftovers home with me. Without rolling her eyes disapprovingly and tutting! (Waste not, want not). Theo Randall himself was cooking in the restaurant - I saw his head briefly peep through the kitchen windows. This was really exciting in itself: a celebrity chef who could actually be bothered to turn up to his own restaurant and put in the hard graft, unlike some who are too busy doing book signings and TV shows across the pond to even know what the inside of their restaurants look like. Now there's a thing!

Many thanks to my mother-in-law for such a fantastic dinner.