Thursday, July 31, 2008

A battered roasting tin

One of the mysteries of cooking is how apparently poor equipment can sometimes work particularly well. In Simple French Food, Richard Olney recalls how the doyenne of the beurre blanc -- a tricky sauce to get right -- used to operate in a tiny kitchen with a battered enamel saucepan. Here in France, we have hopeless, worn, thin roasting tins; yet somehow they produce excellent roast potatoes, which never stick.

The ingredients must have something to do with it. The potatoes, red-skinned, are waxy and flavoursome. Also, this time, I did blanche them, bringing them to the boil in a pan of water and allowing them to bubble for a minute. The purpose was not to soften them or to roughen the edges, but simply to remove the surface starch. Then, with an hour's cooking time to go, I removed the chicken from the tin, tipped in the potatoes and stirred them round with a little more olive oil, and put the chicken back on top. As in the previous recipes, I removed the chicken when done, allowed it to rest, and returned the potatoes to the top shelf of the oven at full heat until they had absorbed the sauce and had browned. They did not stick.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Spare ribs, slow roasted

We had spare ribs on Saturday. A 750g rack provided enough for three people.

There are marinade recipes here and here. This time, I used about 3tbsps of tomato ketchup, a dstsp of soy sauce, a tbsp of sunflower oil, two cloves of garlic crushed with salt, and the juice of half a lemon. I spooned the marinade over the meat, which I left out in a roasting tin covered with foil for a couple of hours.

As I have written before, this cut of pork benefits from slow cooking. It remains juicy; and there is the additional benefit that the marinade does not burn.

I put the roasting tin -- foil removed -- on the lowest shelf of the oven, set at gas mark S/130C, and left it for three and a half hours, turning the meat a few times. I let the meat rest out of the oven for 10 minutes before carving it into separate ribs.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Potatoes, cream and cheese

This is a version of gratin dauphinois. The cheese transforms it into a -- very rich -- main course. It also introduces acidity to the dish. Simmering in milk and cream, potatoes soften quickly, but with cheese there as well they can retain their crunch for a long time. Even if you slice them thinly, you may find that you need to cook the dish for a good hour and a half. For 4.

Small knob of butter
700g Charlotte or similar new potatoes
1 clove garlic, chopped
150g Gruyere or other hard cheese
250ml double cream
Pinch of nutmeg

Butter a gratin dish. Scrape or peel the potatoes, according to taste, and slice them thinly. Layer them in the dish with the cheese and the chopped garlic. (Add salt if you like, but remember that the cheese is salty.) Pour over the cream, and grate over a little nutmeg.

Bake in the oven, starting at gas mark 4/180C and turning down the heat after 30 minutes or so if you think that the dish is bubbling too vigorously.

You may think, before you put the dish in the oven, that it does not contain enough liquid and that the top potatoes are not submerged. Wait until it starts simmering. You will probably find that more liquid has materialised. If not, pour over a little milk.

Cook until the potatoes are soft, and sitting in thickened liquid.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Chicken and vinegar

Another chicken recipe -- a version of this one. I think I liked it even better. The sauce, while given piquancy by the vinegar, is not as sharp as the one containing tomatoes, and it gets a glossy richness from the butter. The chicken tenderises through slow cooking in the liquid, even though the pan is uncovered. For 4.

4 chicken thighs and 4 drumsticks
1tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
150ml red or white wine vinegar
200ml chicken stock
Rosemary and/or bay (optional)
20g butter, cut into cubes and kept in the fridge

Warm the olive oil in a heavy casserole or frying pan, large enough to contain the chicken in one layer, over a gentle heat. (Do not use a seasoned frying pan, because the vinegar will de-season it.) Sprinkle the chicken pieces with a little salt, and brown them slowly, starting skin side down, for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Throw in the garlic, and when it has softened a little in the fat, pour in the vinegar, scraping at any stuck bits of chicken. Throw in the herbs, if using. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the vinegar has almost all evaporated. (Timings will vary -- the process took about 30 minutes when I did it.) Pour in the stock, and carry on simmering the stew gently, turning the chicken occasionally, until the liquid has reduced by about half. Check the seasoning.

Remove from the heat, and transfer a thigh and a drumstick to each of four warmed plates. Stir the chilled butter into the sauce, and spoon the sauce over the chicken.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Late night chicken sandwich

The times when you are most grateful for store-cupboard standbys are when you get home at 9 p.m. after a few drinks.

My local Turkish supermarket stocks Turkish brands of grilled vegetables, such as aubergines and courgettes, in sunflower oil. I also had some leftover chicken, from the spatchcocked recipe. I spread each of two slices of bread with a tsp of harissa and a tsp of mayonnaise on top, making a kind of rouille. I scattered over the chicken, and then slices of grilled aubergine. Two open sandwiches. They hit the spot.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Spatchcocked chicken

Spatchcocking a chicken enables you to lay it flat on a barbecue. There is less point in the procedure if you are going to cook the bird in the oven; but it's nice to introduce a bit of variety from time to time.

I usually ask my butcher to do the spatchcocking (or to joint a chicken), because I am so rubbish at it. Yesterday, I managed it myself, without serious mishap. You cut along both sides of the backbone with poultry shears or a very sharp knife, and remove it. Then you lay the chicken breast side up, and flatten it out with your hand. I marinated my chicken: I scattered over it (both sides) three cloves of garlic that I had crushed with some salt; I squeezed over the juice of a lime, added a few glugs of olive oil, grated over some more salt, and threw over a couple of sprigs of rosemary. (I would have added pepper, and perhaps chilli, had I not foreseen objections.) I left the chicken for a few hours in the roasting tin, covered with foil.

I scraped and sliced some new potatoes about 0.5cms thick, and transferred them to a bowl of cold water.

As spatchcocked chicken is designed to be grilled (at quite a fierce heat), I roasted it at a higher setting than I use for roast chicken. I pre-heated the oven to gas mark 9/240C, drained the potatoes, transferred the chicken to a plate, tipped the potatoes into the tin and stirred them with some more olive oil, put back the chicken on top, and put the tin into the oven, which I turned down to 7/220C. After 30 minutes, I turned down the oven to 4/180C, basted the chicken, and cooked it for a further 45 minutes (it was a 1.75kg bird). The risk in using this high temperature is drying out the breast; but I got away with it.

I took out the chicken, and allowed it to rest for 20 minutes on a plate sitting in the grill section above my oven. Meanwhile, I stirred the potatoes, returning them to the oven to crisp at gas mark 8/230C. (I had cooked the chicken on the middle shelf, which I moved up a level for the potatoes.)

Potatoes that have not been blanched or parboiled before roasting are inclined to stick. If you like crispy scrapings, you might consider this a bonus.

I have written this recipe in response to a request for dishes using non-battery chickens from Kate on A Merrier World. My chicken was a Label Anglais, about which you can read more information here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


All sorts of exotic fruit and vegetables have come into fashion in the past 20 years. But not plantain. You do not see it on the menus of trendy restaurants or gastropubs. Probably it has failed to make the breakthrough because it is a little one-dimensional: perfectly pleasant, but less interesting than a banana. However, fried and served with chilli sauce and rice, it offers a decent lunch from time to time.

Plantains look unappetising in the shops, because with their blackened skins they appear to be overripe. (Many of my local shops sell bananas in that state too.) But you find when you peel them that the flesh is unharmed. Blackened skin indicates readiness. (The ones in the picture would need to be kept for a bit.)

Having written recently about couscous, I decided to fry my plantains in a couscous coating rather than in breadcrumbs. Naively, I thought that because the couscous was pre-cooked, I would not have to do anything to it before frying. That was a mistake.

I cut each plantain into three crosswise, and cut each portion lengthwise into three slices. I had a plate of flour, a shallow bowl of beaten egg, and a plate of couscous, and I coated the plantains in the usual way: roll them in the flour, roll them in the egg, roll them in the couscous (or breadcrumbs). The couscous (or breadcrumbs) soon turns soggy: one needs to refresh it with a new, dry batch. Because of sticky fingers, one cannot get the slices uniformly coated: it does not matter. I laid them on plates, and put them in the fridge for half an hour to allow the coating to firm up.

I poured about two-thirds of a bottle of sunflower oil into a saucepan, to a depth of about 5cms, and heated it gently, until a little cube of bread sizzled in it. I fried my plantains in batches, and kept the cooked ones on kitchen towels on a plate in a heated but switched-off oven.

They were somewhat crunchy. Not unpleasant; but next time I shall soak the couscous first.

Monday, July 07, 2008

La graine and le mulet

My latest New Statesman column was prompted by the film Couscous (La graine and le mulet), a vivid and affecting study of an Algerian family living in the French port of Sete. The point I try to make is that couscous, meaning both the grains and the feast, resonates as a film title in a way that few other food names would.

Most of the couscous we buy is, unlike the grains Souad prepares in the film, pre-cooked. We do not have to steam it for an hour or so, but simply to soak it. What I used to do was put it into an oven dish, pour over boiling water to moisten but not to drown the grains, cover the dish, and transfer it to the oven for five minutes (at any temperature). A few weeks ago, I checked the instructions on a Ferrero packet, and discovered a method I now prefer.

You put your couscous (about 75g for each person is a decent amount) into a measuring jug. Check the level. Tip the couscous back into a bowl. Pour water into the jug to the same level; transfer the water to a saucepan with a little salt and about a tbsp of olive oil for each 150g of grains; bring the contents of the pan to the boil; tip in the couscous and make sure all the grains are soaked; cover and leave for five minutes. Stir through the couscous with a fork.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Carrots and cumin

Carrots continue to arrive in the vegetable box, demanding summery recipes. I am not particularly keen on grated carrot in salads, and am far happier with spicy dishes, such as this one or the following.

5 carrots
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp cumin seeds
Cayenne pepper, to taste
A little salt

Put the cumin into a small saucepan over a gentle flame, and cook until toasted. Grind in a mortar or electric mill.

Cut the carrots into batons. Put water into a saucepan to a depth of 0.5cms, bring to the boil, and throw in the carrots with the oil, cumin, cayenne, and salt. Cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until just tender, adding a little more water from time to time if necessary. Uncover the pan, turn up the heat, and cook until the liquid has evaporated; you will need to stir the contents at the end, as the carrots are left with a coating of spicy oil.