Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hot pepper rouille

This red pepper sauce comes from Saha: A chef's journey through Lebanon and Syria, . I'm not sure if the original rouille is a French borrowing from the Levant, or a Levantine borrowing from France, but either way it goes well not just with fish stews but with just about anything else.

2 red peppers
250 g potatoes
300 ml water
5 cloves garlic
2 hot red chillies
juice of 1 lemon
150 ml olive oil

  1. If you can get peeled peppers, just remove any seeds and chop them. Otherwise, put the whole peppers in an oven dish and roast gently for at least half an hour at about 160oC. Then pop them into a plastic bag, seal, and leave to cool for 15 minutes or so before peeling them. Remove the seeds, chop the flesh and proceed.
  2. Peel and quarter the potatoes, peel and chop the garlic, seed and chop the chillies. Put in a saucepan with the water, bring to the boil, cover, reduce heat to minimum and cook until the potatoes are soft. (About half an hour.) If necessary, add more water, but by the end the pan should be almost dry.
  3. Strain the potatoes, garlic and chillies of any liquid, then put into a liquidiser with the lemon juice and the peppers, and whiz to a puree.
  4. With the liquidiser still running, dribble in the oil until it has all been incorporated.
  5. Season with salt and pepper.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Roast goose

This is the second time I've made roast goose for Christmas. It's a really easy meat to cook. The fat on the outside stops it from drying out, and the meat is tasty and tender, and quite lean. The recipe I've used both times is from Gordon Ramsey, and involves zesting lemons and limes, rubbing the zest onto the skin, then stuffing the cavity with the fruit and with some fresh herbs. However, I'm beginning to suspect that the purpose of this is just to fool the diners into thinking that the cook bears more responsibility for the end result than he really does. I don't think the fruit and herbs make much difference at all to the flavour, so next time round I will just be seasoning the skin with salt and pepper before roasting the bird.

5 kg goose

  1. Heat the oven to 240oC (220oC fan).
  2. Remove the giblets and any loose pads of fat from the bird, dry the outside and inside, and score the skin lightly in a criss-cross pattern. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  3. Place the goose on a trivet or wire rack, over a large baking tray.
  4. Cook for 10 minutes, turn the oven down to 190oC (170oC fan), and cook for a further 140 minutes. Baste the bird with some of the fatfrom the baking tray every 30 minutes, and strain the excess fat off into a heatproof bowl. (You will get about 1 litre of fat from your goose. Strain it and keep it for roasting potatoes in.)
  5. After the goose has been in the oven for 90 minutes, cover with tinfoil to stop it from getting too brown.
  6. Once the cooking time is complete, remove the goose from the oven, and leave to rest for 20 minutes before carving.

Cooking times
Allow 30 minutes per kg of goose (including the 10 minutes of 'hot oven' time in your total).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Steamed carp with ginger


500g grass carp
4 spring onions
1 inch cube of ginger
1 tsp salt
4 tablespoons rice wine
1/2 tsp pepper
2 tablespoons sesame oil

  1. Scale and gut the carp (this may have been done already), wash well in plenty of cold water, cut off the head and tail, and cut the body into steaks. (Or alternatively, fillet the carp. There are excellent step by step instructions on how to do this, including detailed photos, at
  2. Finely chop the ginger, slice the spring onion, and mix with the carp and all the other ingredients in a large bowl. Leave to marinade for 30 minutes.
  3. Steam for 12 minutes over a high heat. (The best way to do this is probably in a wok, on a plate supported on a bamboo steaming rack and covered with a lid.)

Pleasure or pain?
Cooking sometimes feels like a complicated form of masochism, and this was certainly the case with our Christmas Eve meal this year. A few weeks before Christmas, when I was still in Italy, I got an excited email from my mum saying they had carp in the Polish shop round the corner, and should she order a couple. Then a week later I got another email saying that she was having second thoughts about the carp, having spoken to my sister, who had told her it was "gelatinous and fleshy and really disgusting" and had put her off it.

I always like the opportunity of cooking and eating something new, but didn't fancy the idea of producing a meal for a house full of carp refuseniks, so we cut the order down to one and I promised to do something Chinese with it and make some other dishes too. I decided to fillet the carp and steam it with ginger and some other light seasonings. Apart from disguising its 'carpiness' from some of my less adventurous diners, this also meant I could remove the fish's "mud vein". On the plus side, it wasn't too difficult - carp is a big fish and it was fairly easy to fillet. On the minus side, after about 15 minutes of amateur fishmongery I was left with around 300g of fillet from a 1.2 kg fish. I don't think I'd wasted too much, just that the fish's head, tail, bones, skin and mud vein make up about 3/4 of its weight.

The end result was fine, but hard for me to judge whether it was a success, heavily flavoured as it was with mutual resentment. If I get carp again, I think I'll just slice it into steaks and let people deal with the skin and mud vein themselves. And anyone who complains can just choke on their fishbones.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Roast venison haunch in bacon

There's a bit of debate about whether marinading venison is necessary or not, but I don't have enough experience of buying or cooking it to add anything to this, other than to say that marinading is the safe option. If the meat is young and tender, the marinade won't do it any harm, and if you don't marinade an older piece of meat it may end up very dry. Anyway, this came out really well - the meat was tender and juicy and slightly pink in the middle.

This recipe is a bit of a hybrid, drawing on Raining Sideways for the marinade, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for the roasting, with the usual adjustments which come from road-testing any recipe.

The marinade
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
1 small onion
1 bottle of dry white wine
1 large bunch of parsley
1 teaspoon of juniper berries
1 dash of white wine vinegar
1 splosh of olive oil

The meat
1.5 kg rolled haunch of venison
salt and black pepper
3 large sprigs of rosemary
12 rashers streaky bacon
(butcher's string, if your haunch is not wrapped)

The gravy
½ glass red wine
250ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon of redcurrant jelly

Day 1: marinading
If your venison comes rolled up in a little string sock, then carefully remove the sock (and keep it for later), unroll the haunch, place in a large bowl and cover with the marinade ingredients. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave in the fridge for 24 hours.

Day 2: roasting
  1. Preheat the oven to 220oC.
  2. Season the haunch, place the rosemary sprigs inside it, roll it up tightly and hold it together with a couple of skewers. If your haunch came with a sock, then slip it a little way over the meat, cover the topside of the roll with streaky bacon, then roll the sock up to cover it, removing the skewers as you go.(If your haunch did not come with a sock, then cover the joint with the bacon, and tie it up with butcher's string to hold it in place.)
  3. Roast the joint in a roasting tray for 20 minutes to brown.
  4. Turn down the oven to 170oC, and roast for a further 12 minutes per 0.5 kg for medium-rare. (So a further 36 minutes for a 1.5 kg joint.)
  5. Remove the meat from the tin, cover with foil and leave in a warm place to rest for 20 minutes. (For roasting times for a larger joint, see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Guardian article.)
  6. In the meantime, make the gravy. Put the tin with its juices over a low heat, and deglaze with the wine, stirring well and scraping up any bits of caramelised meat stuck to the bottom of the tin. Add the stock, turn up the heat and boil to reduce and concentrate the sauce, stir in the redcurrant jelly, taste and add salt if necessary.

I was trying to think of something pithy and funny to write about the following poster (spotted on Princes St in Edinburgh), but I think it speaks for itself.

RBS, of course, is the Royal Bank of Scotland, which went bust and was then nationalised in all but name. One wonders what "facts of finance" it has been teaching to children. What next? Sex education being taught by convicted rapists?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fried matzo

I have an unofficial rule on my blog that anything on it has to have been cooked by me. However, this is the first thing that Sammy has learnt to cook all on his own, so I think it deserves an exception to be made for it. I remember my grandma (and my mum) making this for me when I was a kid, so seeing Sammy make it brings back happy memories.

1 piece of matzo
1 egg
oil for frying

  1. Break the matzo into large pieces, place in a colander and sprinkle with a little water to soften it up.
  2. Beat one egg in a bowl with a little salt, and add the matzo pieces to it.
  3. Heat the oil in a non-stick pan, and pour the matzo and egg mixture into it. When it is cooked underneath, flip it over, cook for a few seconds more and serve.

Unleavened bread

Breakfast is sometimes a bit of a problem, so we were really relieved to find "pane azzimo" in the local supermarket. That's just Italian for "unleavened bread", and is identical to matzo (although without all the Beth Din stamp tomfoolery). At some point I may even have a go at making unleavened bread, although first I have to track down a recipe which doesn't involve a long trek through the desert and across the bed of the Red Sea.

Fried purple artichokes

I didn't think I would be doing quite so much deep-frying in Italy, but I have a real weakness for anything battered and fried. I saw these beautiful purple artichokes on the fruit and veg stall at Bagni's little twice-weekly market and asked the market lady what the best way to cook them was. She gave me a slightly dismissive list of possible methods, but this was the one that appealed to me so I quizzed her a bit further.

4 purple artichokes
1 lemon
2 eggs
olive oil


  1. Remove the stalks and all the tough outer leaves from the artichokes. (Don't be a miser here. If you're in doubt about whether a leaf is too tough or not, then it probably is.)
  2. Cut off the tips of the artichokes. (Again, be brutal.)
  3. Quarter the artichokes lengthwise, and run your finger down the inside to check for spikes. If there are any then just trim them off.
  4. Put the artichoke quarters in a large bowl of cold water into which you have squeezed the juice of 1 lemon.
  5. Drain the artichokes but not too thoroughly - a bit of water will help make the flour stick to them.
  6. Coat each of the artichoke pieces in plenty of flour then dip them in beaten egg, making sure they are completely covered.
  7. Heat a large pan with plenty of olive oil. Don't let the oil get too hot, or the eggy batter will burn but the artichokes won't cook. When the oil is hot enough, fry the artichoke pieces in batches, turning when they are cooked underneath.
  8. Remove the cooked artichoke from the oil, drain and serve with some lemon quarters. They should be crispy and light on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside.

Cardoon Schnitzel

"He stared balefully at the half-empty bottle of Scotch on the coffee table, and the bottle glanced dismissively back at him. Only he and the bottle knew how tired he felt, and neither of them was about to tell. The lurid pinks and violets of a Los Angeles dawn were beginning to bleed over the horizon, but Cardoon Schnitzel's mood remained unremittingly dark. His latest case was proving harder than he had expected, and he was beginning to wonder if his formidable powers of detection had finally met their match."

cardoon stalks
olive oil

Steam the cardoon until tender, drain and leave to dry for 10 minutes or so.
Coat the cardoon in seasoned flour, then dip in beaten egg, then coat in breadcrumbs.
Fry in plenty of oil until golden brown.

Roasted chestnuts

This isn't really a recipe, but there's something so magical about roasted chestnuts that I thought I should mention them on the blog. Apart from being delicious, they provide kids with a great excuse for playing about with an otherwise forbidden open fire.

When we arrived in Bagni di Lucca in October there were sweet chestnuts lying around all over the place. They come in little pods of 3 or 4, and are protected by a viciously spiky shell, which is much more forbidding than the leathery coat which protects the horse chestnut. We haven't actually gathered any (and I think they need to be dried or at lest matured in some way before eating), but the quality of the ones we've bought is way anything I've managed to buy in the UK or Spain, with mouldy ones or ones which consist almost entirely of skin being the rare exception. I suspect that the problem is inadequate storage of the nuts.

I don't have any tips, other than to pass on something which Sammy pointed out to me. It's best to cut them across the way rather than from top to bottom, as they open up better this way while roasting.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Deep-fried green tomatoes

I've been keen to make the most of my time in Italy to improve my Italian, and have therefore been taking every opportunity for conversation. I've already had more conversations than I would have thought possible about the relative merits of different types of wood for burning in open fires as compared to stoves. (You don't want anything which will explode or give off too much smoke in a fireplace, so apparently chestnut is out.) And I think the Jehovah's Witnesses who visited me last week were rather surprised when I eagerly bounded to the garden gate and started talking to them about the history of the treatment of the Jehovah's Witnesses during World War Two. Unfortunately, after a few minutes they made their excuses and left.

Anyway, another good topic of conversation is food. I first heard about these deep-fried tomatoes in my Italian class and was intrigued. Then this morning I saw some nice green salad tomatoes in the local shop and thought I'd give it a try. I had a long chat with the woman behind me in the queue about how thickly they should be cut, how runny the batter should be, and whether it is best made with sparkling water or with beer.

I'm not sure how easy it will be to get tomatoes like this in the UK. In Spain and Italy, green tomatoes like this are sold for salads, although people usually avoid the ones that are totally green. For this dish, I think the greener the better.

3 large, green tomatoes
2 eggs
1 cup of plain flour
cold sparkling water
2 teaspoons of salt
vegetable oil for deep frying

Slice the tomatoes into thickish slices (a little less than 1 cm, I guess) and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt
Make the batter by gently beating two eggs, then adding about a cup of plain flour, before thinning out with some cold sparkling water. (I know this is terribly vague. This is basically just a deep-frying batter. I don't measure these things - and neither should you!)
Heat plenty of oil in a deep-frying pan.
Coat the tomato slices in the batter, and fry in batches. The oil should not be too hot, or the batter will cook on the outside before the tomatoes are cooked on the inside.
Cook the slices for a couple of minutes, then turn over and cook for a further 2 minutes.
Remove to a plate, sprinkle with the 2nd teaspoon of salt and allow to cool for a couple of minutes or so before serving.

Frying tonight
Bagni di Lucca, where we are staying, is close to the town of Barga, in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany. Many of Scotland's Italian community have their origins here, and connections with the old country remain strong. Every summer, when Italo-Scottish chipshop owners and their families head to Barga for the summer, Barga holds a "fish and chip" festival. This is always viewed as a bit of an oddity, and there is an assumption in Scotland that the Barga locals must be appalled by what their expatriate cousins do for a living in Scotland. However, if this local recipe is anything to go by, then I doubt that anyone was particularly surprised. After all, if you will deep-fry a tomato, then why not do the same to fish and chips?

Super lager

I was trying to think of a way of shoehorning this into a piece with a recipe in it, but in the end I decided it merited an entry of its own.

I don't know if anyone remembers the great Tennent's "Japanese style lager" advert from back in the 1990s (or before?). At the time, Japanese lagers were all the rage. (I have to admit I had a weakness for Saporro, which was sold in a neat can which looked like a metal beer barrel.) I had always assumed this was a piece of self-mocking fiction, but have now realised that this really reflected Tennent's desire to rebrand themselves. They may not have managed it in Tokyo, but they seem to have done the trick in Italy. I spotted this bottle of Tennent's:

... in the company of this roast pig ...

There's something very amusing about the idea that sophisticated Italian beer connoisseurs are unknowingly sharing their tipple with Scottish tramps. And something slightly chastening about the thought that my liking for Saporro may well have put me in the drinking company of Japanese down-and-outs.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Meatballs with porcini

This is another recipe from Maxine Clark’s “Flavours of Tuscany”, as always slightly altered. My kids had rejected the porcini option on my pizzas and had also avoided them in the rabbit stew, but I was determined to smuggle them in somehow and meatballs seemed the ideal vehicle.

250g each of minced pork and beef (500g in total)
a handful of dried porcini, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, and finely chopped
1 egg
4 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon of salt

250 ml of passata (sieved tomato)
1 glass of red wine
fresh basil


  1. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  2. Remove bowl from fridge, shape the mixture into small balls, and fry in batches until browned all over.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the wine to boiling and simmer for a few minutes to remove the alcohol. Then add the passata and a little salt.
  4. Add the meatballs to the tomato sauce, cover and cook over a low heat for another 10 minutes (there should be enough sauce to coat the meatballs, but not much more).
  5. Before serving, spring with a handful of finely chopped basil leaves.

War memorials
I’ve always been intrigued by war memorials in Scotland, with their long lists of the local dead in the First World War, and their somewhat shorter lists for the Second World War. In small villages in the highlands and islands, where levels of recruitment to Scottish infantry regiments were high, the numbers of dead in the First World War must have represented a huge proportion of the active male population, and it is hard to read through the names and not think of the families which were decimated as a result.

In Italy, commemorating the two world wars of the 20th century has been more difficult. The First World War, at least in Italy’s collective political consciousness, was a war which Italy lost, despite technically ending up on the winning side. The war was never particularly popular with the Italian people, and her war dead of approximately 1 million brought only minimal territorial gains along the border with the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The First World War memorials in Bagni di Lucca date from the Fascist period, who were pretty quick off the mark. This one, with the simple legend “Ponte a Serraglio. To her sons who fell for the Fatherland” was erected in 1923, only a year after Mussolini seized power.

Bagni di Lucca does not appear to have any ‘official’ memorials to Italy’s dead in the Second World War, although there must surely have been significant numbers, given Italy’s involvement in the North African, Eastern and Balkan theatres. The nearest thing is a statue of a local carabiniere who was executed by the Germans. He had offered himself up to the occupying forces when they had threatened to carry out mass reprisals for a partisan operation. However, this is celebrated as an act of individual heroism, with an emphasis on the carabiniere’s innocence of the act to which he confessed.

More controversial are plaques like the following, which commemorates the imprisonment, torture and murder of 13 local partisans by the Nazi-Fascists (a term which stresses the complicity of Italian Fascism with the crimes committed in German-occupied Italy.)

This plaque is fixed on the wall of an interesting building on Via Serraglio, and can just be seen directly above the car in the photo below. The plaque on the left commemorates a now-forgotten “English writer and animal lover” who apparently stayed in the building for a few months back in 1905.

Green beans

Before I got to Bagni di Lucca, I was looking forward to shopping in the local market every Wednesday and Saturday. As it turns out, the ‘market’ is actually just a couple of large fruit and veg stalls, a rosticceria stand, a deli stand (where I bought my porcini) and a slightly odd assortment of hardware and clothes. I got some great green beans at one of the veg stalls. In the UK, green beans are almost always prohibitively expensive and never seem to taste that great so I’ve given up buying them. These ones were absolutely perfect. I just steamed them and dressed them with plenty of olive oil, some lemon juice and some salt.

The walk to market was also good.

Coniglio alla cacciatora: rabbit with tomato and wild mushrooms

For the last four years we’ve been spending September to June in Cadiz and July and August in Edinburgh, but this year we decided to break with tradition and spend the autumn in Tuscany. We’ve rented a house in Bagni di Lucca, about 20 miles north of Lucca up the Lima valley. Before going, I had a quick browse in the local bookshop and bought a copy of “Flavours of Tuscany” by Maxine Clarke. It’s beautifully illustrated, the recipes are not too fussy, and there aren’t too many of them. I’ve only been here for a week, but I’ve already cooked half a dozen things from it, all of which have turned out well.

1 large rabbit, jointed
½ bottle of red wine
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
a handful of springs of fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon of salt
olive oil
a handful of dried porcini mushrooms
1 kg of fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons of tomato puree
100g whole black olives
fresh parsley


  1. Put the rabbit pieces in a large bowl with the wine, garlic, rosemary and salt. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours (and overnight if you have time).
  2. Put the dried porcini in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave for half an hour, then remove the mushrooms, keeping the liquid for later.
  3. Remove the rabbit pieces from the marinade, keeping the marinade liquid for later, and setting aside the rabbit’s liver.
  4. In a large pot, heat plenty of olive oil, fry the rabbit pieces quickly to brown them, then add the marinade liquid, the tomatoes, the tomato puree and the porcini. If necessary, add enough of the mushroom liquid so that the rabbit pieces are just covered.
  5. Bring to the boil then simmer very gently for two hours until the rabbit is completely tender.
  6. Quickly pan-fry the liver and put on a separate plate.
  7. Serve with plenty of crusty bread.

Wild mushrooms

Fresh porcini are only just starting to appear in shops and restaurants as I write this (early October), but I bought some dried ones at the little market. I’m not sure what the going rate for porcini is in the UK, but these were just under 20 euros the kilo, which works out at about 2 euros for 100g. This might sound expensive, but if you remember that the dried mushrooms bulk up when soaked and that they have a lot of flavour, then they’re not such a luxury item. 50g or less is enough to add plenty of flavour or character to quite a large dish (25g if you’re cooking for one or two), so this works out at about 25 cents worth of porcini per person.

Safety tip
The taxi driver who brought us from Pisa to Bagni di Lucca was a keen mushroom collector and told me that you should always disturb any piles of leaves with a long stick before putting your hand into them to pick mushrooms, just in case there are any adders lurking in them.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pak choi with oyster sauce

Until I had my neither cooked nor raw insight, I was never quite sure what to do with pak choi. This is really simple, but effective. The key to it is that the green parts of the leaves should be slightly singed, while the white stems should still be crunchy and fresh, creating a nice contrast of textures and flavours. If you don't like oyster sauce, or it's against your principles, then you could use some light soy sauce and a little sesame oil instead.

4 small heads of pak choi
4 tablespoons of oyster sauce
vegetable oil

  1. Remove any tired-looking outer leaves from the pak choi, and cut any larger leaves in half lengthwise.
  2. In a wok or large frying pan, heat a little vegetable oil until it starts to smoke. (As for most stir-fries, the oil is not really a cooking medium as such, just a way of stopping the ingredients from sticking.)
  3. Add the pak choi and cook over a high flame for a couple of minutes.
  4. Drizzle the oyster sauce over the pak choi and serve.

Chicken with cucumber in a garlic and vinegar sauce

My love affair with cooked cucumber continues. This is a really simple dish, with just a few, clear flavours. The idea of using vinegar was inspired by pickled cucumbers.

500g of chicken breast
4 cloves of garlic
1-inch piece of ginger
6 spring onions
1 cucumber
4 tablespoons of white wine
2 tablespoons of rice vinegar
2 tablespoons of light soy sauce
vegetable oil

  1. Peel and chop the garlic and ginger. Top and tail the spring onions (removing only the very ends) and cut into 1cm sections. Cut the ends off the cucumber, and cut the cucumber into 3 or 4 segments crosswise. Cut each segment lengthwise into slices - neither wafer-thin nor too thick - discarding the outside slice on each side to reduce the amount of cucumber skin. Then cut the pile of slices in half, lengthwise to give you narrow rectangles. Trim any fat off the chicken breasts, then cut into thinnish slices.
  2. Heat the wine in a small saucepan to boil off the alcohol, then remove from the heat and add the vinegar and soy sauce.
  3. Heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok until it is smoking hot, then add the chicken and stir-fry until it is just done. (It should be cooked but still juicy - not dry.) Remove the chicken to a bowl.
  4. Pour away any oil left in the wok, wipe clean then add a little fresh vegetable oil (a couple of teaspoons), and heat until smoking hot. Add the garlic and ginger, fry for a few seconds, then add the sliced cucumber and spring onions and stir-fry until the cucumber pieces are hot. (Take care not to overcook them. The cucumber should still taste crunchy and fresh.)
  5. Return the chicken to the wok, together with any juices which have collected in the bowl, add the sauce ingredients and cook over a high flame for a few seconds until the sauce has heated through. Serve with noodles or rice.

Stir-fried mangetout and peppers with noodles

This is now my second cooking session with my sister Annie. Last week we made a coffee cake, and this week Annie decided to do a vegetable stir fry, which fitted in quite well with my current obsession with perfecting some of my basic Chinese techniques. Annie wanted a stir-fry with a sauce, so I made the sauce separately to stop turning the vegetables soggy, and added it at the last moment.

2 peppers
100g mange tout
3 cloves of garlic
1-inch piece of ginger
vegetable oil
8 tablespoons (2 fl oz) white wine
8 tablespoons (2 fl oz) vegetable stock
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons of cornflour mixed with 4 teaspoons of cold water
400g fresh noodles

  1. Cut the peppers into strips (not too thin) and remove any seeds and white flesh.
  2. Peel and chop the garlic and ginger.
  3. Mix the wine, stock and soy sauce in a small pan, bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes until the alcohol has evaporated.
  4. Add the diluted cornflour and stir well until the sauce has thickened.
  5. Heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok until it starts to smoke, add the garlic and ginger, fry for a few seconds, then add the peppers and mange tout.
  6. Stir-fry for another couple of minutes, making sure that the vegetablese are still crunchy.
  7. Add the fresh noodles to the wok and continue stir-frying until the noodles are hot.
  8. Pour the sauce over the vegetable and noodle mixture, and serve.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Stir-fried cucumber

Sometimes you eat something which makes you rethink really basic food categories. I've always known that the Chinese cooked cucumber, but it was only when I had some pork with cucumber and black mushrooms at the Wing Sing Inn that I realized that the description is not quite accurate. This, together with the potato salad I had, finally enabled me to understand every Chinese cookery writer's sneering comments about overcooked European vegetables. There is a whole way of cooking vegetables in Chinese cuisine which, in European terms, is really halfway between 'raw' and 'cooked'. I decided to apply my newfound insight to a cucumber, and was pretty pleased with the result.


1 large cucumber
6 small spring onions
3 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of light soy sauce
vegetable oil

  1. Cut the ends off the cucumber, and cut the cucumber into 3 or 4 segments crosswise.
  2. Cut each segment lengthwise into slices - neither wafer-thin nor too thick - discarding the outside slice on each side to reduce the amount of cucumber skin. Then cut the pile of slices in half, lengthwise to give you narrow rectangles.
  3. Peel the garlic cloves, squash with the side of a large knife,then chop.
  4. Cut the spring onions into 1cm lengths, using all but the very leafiest end.
  5. In a wok, heat a little vegetable oil until it is smoking, add the garlic and spring onion and fry for a few seconds before addding the cucumber slices.
  6. Stir-fry until the cucumber pieces are all hot, but taking care not to overcook them. The cucumber should still taste crunchy and fresh.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Spanish-Scottish meatballs

We are what we eat, as the old saying goes. Well, my kids are half-Spanish and half-Scottish, so I thought I would try giving my meatballs a Spanish-Scottish twist. The Spanish influence here takes the form of a good dose of paprika, while the Scottish element is provided by the oatmeal.

750g minced beef
1 beaten egg
3 tbsp of oatmeal
4 tsp of smoked paprika
1/2 tsp of salt
a few drops of chilli sauce

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl.
  2. Shape the mixture into walnut-sized balls, fry until well-browned on all sides, then finish cooking for another 10 minutes or so in tomato sauce.
  3. Serve with pasta or rice.

Apple crumble cake

We had to bring Carmela's birthday forward this year, as on her actual birthday we will be in Italy, where we won't know anyone. As a result, once again she will be having two birthdays. In addition to the customary chocolate cake, I decided to make an apple cake for the adults, as I had been gifted a bag of cooking apples. Having made this, I'm not sure why there aren't more crumble cakes.

For the cake
juice of 1 lemon
4 small cooking apples
1 tsp ground cinnamon
200g caster sugar
200g butter or margarine
200g self-raising flour
4 medium eggs

For the crumble
1 tsp ground cinnamon
50g caster sugar
50g butter or margarine
50g self-raising flour

  1. Grease and line a springform tin, and set the oven to 180oC.
  2. Peel and core the apples, cut them into very thin slices, place in a bowl, just cover with cold water, and add the lemon juice.
  3. Mix all the crumble ingredients together, and rub gently with your fingertips until it has the texture of rough breadcrumbs.
  4. Put the remaining sugar (200g) and the eggs in a large bowl, and beat very thoroughly, until you can leave a trail on the surface of the mixture.
  5. Meanwhile, gently melt the butter or margarine, turning off the heat while there are still some solid lumps left in it, stir and leave to sit for a few minutes.
  6. Pour the melted butter or margarine into the sugar and egg mixture, sift in the remaining flour (200g) and fold into the mixture gently.
  7. Strain the apple pieces.
  8. Pour half of the mixture into the tin, then add a layer of apple slices, then add the rest of the mixture and another layer of slices. Top with the crumble mixture.
  9. Bake for 45 minutes.

Tease Me
The original recipe for this comes from the Waitrose site. My only concern when I came across it was that it implied that a lot of beating was required: 10 minutes with an electric mixer, no less, with dire warnings of the consequences of failing to obey this instruction. As I don't have an electric mixer at the moment, I had to do this by hand. I put "Tease Me" by Chaka Demus & Pliers, put on my fake Jamaican accent, got whisking, and in well under 10 minutes the mix was looking perfect. I know that some day my kids will forbid me to do this, and leave me muttering under my breath about "political correctness gone mad", but in the meantime:

Woman your love is like
Burning fire inna me soul,
Woman tease me
Till me lose control.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lonesome kitchen blues

I have to admit I have been slightly struggling in the kitchen over the last few months. I've had to contend with a miniature kitchen, no oven, and separation from my cookery library. I'm now back in a good-sized kitchen, with a working oven (although still no cookery books), but I've realised that the most essential ingredient of all for good cooking is people.

I'm not about to start extolling the virtues of anthropophagy; I just need people in my kitchen! I love having someone to sit and chat to while I'm cooking and I need the spur you get from cooking for appreciative diners. While retreating into the kitchen to prepare supper in silence sometimes sounds attractive, on balance I much prefer company.

My kids are now 7 and 5, and are just getting to the stage where they can read a simple recipe and even handle the occasional sharp knife. I'm hoping they will both share my enthusiasm for cooking and help me banish my lonely kitchen blues forever. In the meantime, guys, please just hang out in the kitchen.

Courgettes with noodles

As Joni Mitchell so rightly said, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. Fortunately, a big yellow taxi has not taken away my old (wo)man, but I am mourning my cookery books. After smugly preening myself on my independence, I realise that I want them, I need them and I may even love them. (Sorry Elvis.) Unfortunately my books are in a box somewhere in San Fernando, while I am in a kitchen in Edinburgh where my inspiration is running low. I have even got to the point of checking FedEx rates for sending 30kg boxes across Europe.

However, every cloud has a silver lining, and at least I have had time to perfect my vegetable stir-fries. I have worked out a couple of things over the summer (with the help of regular dining at the Wing Sing). Tonight and for one night only I share these gems with you my little darlings. (I did say the lack of cookery books was getting to me.) So here are my three rules of vegetable stir-fries:
  1. Sometimes less is more.
  2. The secret is in the chopping.
  3. High flame for short time.
Stir-fries are often ruined by throwing together an ill-considered collection of vegetables which share just one thing in common: they were at the bottom of the fridge when you were deciding what to cook and will probably be thrown away if they don't get eaten tonight. The vegetables themselves are unlikely to achieve a harmonious combination. (Broccoli and beansprouts, anyone? Carrots and cauliflower?) And they will almost certainly take different lengths of time to cook, so unless you are careful you will have an unappetising mixture of randomly assorted overcooked and undercooked vegetables in your wok.

The other sure way of ruining a stir-fry is by not chopping the ingredients properly. There is a bit of a misconception that Chinese cooking involves chopping everything very finely. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the key when stir-frying is to cut the ingredients small enough that they will cook quickly over a high heat, while keeping them large enough that they still have some bite and texture left at the end. If you cut the ingredients too small they will give out too much liquid and will start to stew rather than fry.

And the third way of ruining a stir-fry is by cooking it for too long. (Unfortunately, if you've got the wrong mix of ingredients or cut them to the wrong size, then you will probably end up having to do just this to avoid having raw ingredients.) If you've got the right mix of ingredients and have cut them to the right size (and haven't overloaded your wok) then you should be able to stir-fry them in a couple of minutes.

With all this in mind, here is my recipe for a very simple stir-fry involving just one main ingredient.

4 medium-sized courgettes
6 spring onions
3 cloves of garlic
1 large piece of ginger
sunflower oil for frying
4 tablespoons of oyster sauce
1 tablespoon of sesame oil
300g of 'straight to wok' noodles

  1. Wash the courgettes and cut the ends off. Top and tail the spring onions and cut into 1/2 cm sections. Peel and finely chop the garlic and onion. Take the noodles out of their packet and separate them out a little so that they don't form a block.
  2. Cut the courgettes into 3 sections (about 2 inches in length), then cut each section lengthwise into slices about the width of a pencil, and cut each slice into batons (again, the width of a pencil).
  3. Heat a little vegetable oil (sunflower, peanut whatever) in the wok, and when it is hot chuck in the garlic and ginger, stir for a few seconds, and add the courgettes and the spring onion. Cook over a high flame for about two minutes, stirring and tossing the contents from the wok from time to time. (The courgettes should still be a bit crunchy. If you're worried and think they need more cooking then they probably don't!)
  4. Add the noodles to the wok and continue to cook for another 20-30 seconds until the noodles have heated through.
  5. Drizzle the oyster sauce and sesame oil over the contents of the wok and serve.
As they say in China: "Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon."

Coffee sandwich cake

My cake repertoire is pretty limited, so when my sister Annie said she'd like me to help her make a cake to take to her birthday party I was pleased both to be able to spend some time with her and to expand my range of cakes. Annie decided she wanted to make a coffee cake so I had a look on the internet and found a suitable recipe on the BBC. Needless to say, we didn't follow it to the letter (for the simple reason that I don't have an electric mixer at present), so the main change was to replace the use of the mix with conservative use of a bain marie together with a bit of stirring and whisking. The result was surprisingly successful, and another reminder of how easy it is to become over-dependent on technology. (If you want to see the original recipe, you can find it here.)



150g caster sugar
150g butter or margarine
3 eggs
150g self raising flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 coffee cup of espresso coffee

225g icing sugar
100g butter or margarine
strawberry jam


The cake
  1. Preheat the oven at 160C, 325 F,gas 3. Line the bottom of a medium-sized springform cake tin (8") with greaseproof paper and grease the bottom and sides.
  2. Add the sugar and the butter to a bowl, heat very gently in a bain marie (by placing the bowl in a large saucepan with some water at the bottom), and once the butter has softened mix very well with a fork or a whisk.
  3. Beat the eggs with a fork and then add them gradually to the mixture with 1 tbsp of flour each time, mixing with a whisl. Make sure you don't use all the flour.
  4. Add the rest of the flour and the baking powder to the mixture and whisk it in gently.
  5. Add half of the coffee to the mixture, and whisk it in. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 40-45 minute.
The icing
  1. Meanwhile repeat the bain marie process with the butter and the icing sugar, and mix very well with a fork.
  2. Gradually add the remaining coffee to the butter and icing sugar.

Putting the cake together
  1. When the cake is done, allow it to cool for 20 minutes or so, and carefully remove it from its tin. With a large, sharp knife (an 8" cook's knife, for example), carefully cut the cake in half, crosswise, so you have two, equally sized cakes.
  2. Place one of the halves cut side up on a plate, and spread with plenty of jam. (4-6 tablespoons)
  3. Gently place the other half cut side down on top of the jammy half, then cover it with the icing. Leave to cool in the fridge.
For Annie
I haven't included a picture of Annie in this post for the very simple reason that she didn't want me to. I just hope you enjoy the cake as much as I enjoyed making it with you. Happy birthday.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Plum crumble

When I was a child growing up in Stirling, there was a pear tree, an apple tree and a plum tree in our fairly small back garden. The apples were a now rare variety known as Stirling Castle which were quite tart - halfway towards being a cooking apple - The pears were inedibly woody but the plums were Victoria and were delicious. Unfortunately, one year the crop was so large that the poor little tree literally snapped in half under the weight of the fruit. I saw some Victoria plums in the greengrocer's the other day and they looked, felt and smelt exactly like the ones I remember from my childhood, so I decided to make some plum crumble with them.

the filling
750g plums
3 tablespoons of demerara sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon

the crumble
250g plain flour
150g butter or margarine
100g demerara sugar
50g rolled oats
50g almonds (either ground or slivers)

  1. Stone and halve the plums. If they are a little hard, then stew them in a saucepan for a few minutes with the sugar and cinnamon. If they are already very ripe then this is not necessary. Put the plums in a medium-sized ovenproof dish.
  2. In a large bowl, mix the butter or margarine with the flour, sugar, oats and almonds, and rub gently between your hands until it has the texture of fine breadcrumbs.
  3. Cover the plums with the crumble mixture and bake for 30 minutes in an oven preheated to 190oC.
Proportions and preferences
Sometimes in life it's best to be left wanting more, and I think this definitely applies here. You should be left with the feeling that if only there had been a little more of the crumbly topping then it would have been perfect: if you don't have that feeling, then there was probably too much topping and not enough fruit.

Apart from the crumble:fruit ratio, the other big issue when making crumble is how cooked the fruit should be. For soft fruits (ripe plums, blackberries and that kind of thing) I don't think the fruit benefits from pre-cooking as it will already be soft and juicy from the oven. However, if you're making apple or rhubarb crumble then the fruit is definitely improved by being stewed for a few minutes before having the topping added and being baked.

Every autumn kids in Stirling used to come and 'scrump' our apples. They would knock on the front door and ask if they could come through and have some apples, but it was understood that if you refused then they'd come over the wall and help themselves anyway. The 'scrumpers' came from the top of the town - the working class area at the top of the hill, which corresponds to the old town before it expanded in the late 19th century, while we 'scrumpees' lived in the King's Park, which was the posh area built when the town expanded in the Victorian period. Thinking about it now, it seems that this scrumping was the embodiment of a tense social relationship which combined a mixture of patronage, obligation, resentment and intimidation.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wing Sing Inn

I try to steer clear of restaurant reviews, and I certainly have no intention of turning my blog into a platform for my dubious opinions about other people's cooking. (I prefer to keep it as a platform for writing about my own dubious cooking.) However, when you find yourself fantasizing about a restaurant when you are away, and visiting it as often as you can when you are back, then maybe it's time to give it a mention.

The Wing Sing Inn (147-149 Dundee St, Edinburgh, 0131 228 6668) specializes in northern Chinese food, and caters primarily for an Asian clientele.

I have to admit that I am not a Chinese food specialist, and I suspect that our ordering was a little idiosyncratic and far from authentic. After beginning with hot and sour soup, we ordered some shredded potato with fried chilli from the cold (kickshaw) options. (I think the shredded potato is blanched but not for long enough to remove its crunch, then served with a dressing. In other words, the potato is still slightly 'raw' from a western point of view. However, it is absolutely delicious. I've now eaten it three or four times at the Wing Sing, and I'm planning to track down a recipe for it and have a bash at reproducing it. Watch this space.)

Next up were some hot and spicy crabs. These are individual velvet crabs (I think) which are fried with chillies and garlic. After picking all the available meat out of the shells and claws, I discovered I could actually crunch through the claws and shells, too.

Spicy fried crab

Staying with the spicy, fried theme, we ordered szechuan fried chicken. This was a large plate of small portions of chicken leg and wing, with the bone in, fried with szechuan peppers and chillies. The szechuan pepper tingles rather than burns, although it also builds, and by the end of the dish my tongue was comfortably numb, as Pink Floyd might say.

Spicy Szechuan chicken

We finished up with some yu-hung aubergine (stewed aubergine with minced pork) which was delicious. It's always a good sign when a restaurant dish makes you rething the way you cook an ingredient at home, and this one has definitely changed my approach to aubergines. (A lot of the dishes in the 'vegetable' section actually contain meat, but the last time I visited Wing Sing with a vegetarian, the chef was quite happy to adapt the aubergine by removing the pork.)

As always, I came away with a slight feeling of regret that the meal was over and I hadn't managed to eat all the things I wanted to on the menu. So if anyone fancies some shredded pig maw with spring onions in chilli oil (cold), some salt and pepper frog legs, or just some simple braised spare ribs with potatoes, please bear me in mind!

Spicy Spanish lady

Beetroot mash

I love mashed potato, but I'm not quite willing to serve it up as the centrepiece of a meal. However, turning it shocking pink by adding some beetroot to it somehow seemed to make it more able to take the limelight. The end result is a bit like a solid version of borscht, the cold Russian beetroot soup served with a dollop of sour cream.

6 medium-sized potatoes
4 cooked beetroot
2 tablespoons of cream cheese

  1. Peel and quarter the potatoes and boil in lightly salted water until completely cooked. Strain into a bowl, retaining the cooking water.
  2. Chop the beetroot into small pieces, and add to the cooked potatoes, together with the cream cheese.
  3. Mash the potato and beetroot mixture, adding as much of the retained cooking water as necessary to create a light texture. Season with salt and pepper.

Thank the Lord for vegetarians!
One of my less appealing traits is a fairly deeply entrenched prejudice against vegetarians. My official line is that it is merely fussiness elevated to the level of ideology, a cry for attention which should be firmly ignored. However, like many bigots I also preface my ravings with the claim that "many of my best friends are ...", and in this case it really is true. Despite my hostility to vegetarianism as a creed, I like having vegetarian guests for supper and am grateful to them for inspiring me to be a little more adventurous in my vegetable cooking. No vegetarians = no pink mashed potato.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chicken kebabs

Spain (or at least Cadiz) has a surprisingly primitive barbecue culture. For somewhere where the weather is reliably good for 6 months of the year and intermittently so for the other 6 months, I can never understand why there is not much tradition of outdoor cooking and that most gaditanos limit their barbecues to tossing some sardines onto a grill.

Despite this, a lot of Spansh food is actually well-suited to barbecues, and these little chicken kebabs are really just my version of the pinchitos de pollo which are commonly found in both butchers' and restaurants.

1 kg of chicken breast
4 teaspoons of mild curry powder
4 tablespoons of sunflower oil

  1. Cut the chicken breast into large chunks.
  2. Mix the curry powder and sunflower oil in a large bowl, cover the chicken chunks in the mixture, cover with clingfilm and marinade in the fridge for at least 4 hours.
  3. Thread the chicken chunks onto wooden skewers (3 or 4 pieces per skewer) and cook over a hot barbecue.
  4. Serve in a hot tortilla wrap (toasted over the barbie), with some salad and sauce.

Playing with fire
No doubt this defies every rule in the health and safety manual, but I think kids should be allowed to barbecue too. Here is Carmela expertly placing some kebabs and sausages on the grill.

And here is grillmeister Sammy, checking to see whether the flames have died down yet.