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.