Archive for October, 2011

October 30, 2011

Snack tactics

Oh the dilemma! It’s a Saturday evening, 6ish, and you’re cooking dinner, hanging out in the kitchen and a bottle of Prosecco jumps out of the fridge and into your arms. Or perhaps it’s late aftrnoon in late summer and you are accosted by a bottle of pink, an icy but seductive fino or chilled Beaujolais. All of a sudden, somehow, the evening has begun.

Now, being a smart, erudite sort, but not one to deny simple pleasures, you catch yourself thinking that perhaps a snack would be good: you know, so that little glass doesn’t rush straight to one’s head. Of course, no host wants to desecrate the civil hopes of the food that is to come by offering a some factory-made snack. And yet, already cooking, taking on some extra culinary work at that point would take all the fizz out of the aperitif. Nuts to it, we say.

Take some plain, mixed nuts (cashews, pecans, Brazils, hazelnuts, almonds, say…) and toast them in a large frying pan for around 5 minutes, making sure they don’t burn. When they’re hot, add a tablespoon of olive oil, a couple of large piches of salt, a little ground back pepper, a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, a teaspoon or so of paprika and maybe half a teaspoon of smoked paprika. (You can adjust these amounts as much as you want, depending on how many nuts you have and to your own personal preference). Mix the spices into the nuts, heat for 5 minutes more, leave to cool for 5 minutes and serve. Easy.

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October 26, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Socca crepe of roast squash, caramelised red onion, kale and pine nuts, with tomato coriander salsa and goat’s cheese cream

A Cotter special, taken from For the Love of Food.

Let’s look at that long recipe title again: Socca, squash, onion, kale, pine nuts, coriander, tomato, goat’s cheese, cream. Seems like a lot of ingredients, doesn’t it? And yes, in some ways it is. Put simply, however, this is just a stuffed pancake. The pancake is southern French thing made from gram (chickpea) flour – which usually puts you in mind of Indian recipes. It would be possible, though not quite as heartwarming, to make the pancake from wholemeal flour, or any kind of flour really, as long as it will form a thickish crepe that you can fold without breaking and yet also become a little crisped up too.

The filling is a neat combination of flavours and textures. The root notes are the sweetness of the squash and onion. The greens then cut through this and add some textural rough edges, while the pine nuts add an occasional, miniature bit of bite. The goat’s cheese cream is, essentially, a tangy dressing that helps cut through sweetness and the salsa brings some zip – just in case the rest is in danger of becoming cloying in the mouth. A recipe where every ingredient knows it’s job. And it’s a looker too!

October 6, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Pinto beans with slow-roast tomatoes and goats cheese

Thursday 15 September

Before the recipe, a quick word about trust and cooking, as it brings some influence to bear on our pinto beans with slow-roast tomatoes and goats cheese.

Trust in the food we eat is one of the most natural, early, primal, comforting, rewarding, continuing experiences we have in life. Hopefully. It’s learned, hopefully, as a baby, with the first food coming straight from our mothers themselves. Then we learn to trust again, as the foods we are provided with begin to vary and as we begin to choose from different options ourselves. Our palates, hopefully, develop in a comforting, safe environment – little wonder many people have a strong emotional attachment to the notion that their mum, grannie, dad, auntie, next door neighbour… whoever… could make food more comforting than anyone else. That’s not always true, of course, but it’s a widely held experience. Even if your childhood carers were useless cooks you will have found some way of trusting that the food you ate could do its job of nourishing you. It’s probably one of the reasons McDonalds et al like to get to kids early and give gifts with the meal – that equation of food plus treat plus fun plus comfort is a powerful one that will hold into adulthood.

We carry this into later life. A favourite restaurant? Probably a new variant of that McDonalds equation – a place you can go back to, where you can trust that the food will provide what you’re looking for, where you don’t have to worry, where you can relax. A favourite recipe book? It’ll be one you can turn to that has instructions you trust, where, miraculously, you can follow it step by step and what goes onto the plate bears comparison with the picture on the page and brings a smile to your friends or family.

It’s when you start going off piste, turning to a new recipe book, visiting a new restaurant with unfamiliar dishes and, specifically for us, making a recipe up for yourself, that trust often disappears and food becomes a little more fraught. Just as someone with a limited diet and palate might get nervous when presented with a plate of unusual ingredients, so a decent cook can lose the plot completely when asked to deviate from their usual repertoire.

So why all this preamble? Well, it’s to explain how a rather tasty and comforting dish like pinto beans with slow-roast tomatoes and goats cheese can come about, off the top of your head, without being scary. Let’s trace the genesis:

We wanted a dish of some savoury beans, because we like that kind of thing from time to time. A quick flick through some favourite recipe books brought no inspiration, for some reason. There were recipes for borlotti beans, butter beans, recipes we’d already tried… but nothing new or for pinto beans. No matter. Pinto beans are pretty much like borlotti beans and one recipe suggested (I think we’ve done it before) cooking the beans then grating the zest of a lemon into them to pep them up. So, okay let’s do that. Beans, cooked and drained, kept warm, plus lemon zest, hmm, a clove of crushed garlic and a tablespoon of olive oil? Well, oil plus garlic plus lemon is pretty much a vinaigrette, so that should work. Season. Add some parsley for a little freshness? Okay. And what about a chopped red chilli? Beans and chilli? That’s common. Okay. Done.

But what about the topping? Well, baked beans come in a tomato sauce, so what about tomato? Okay, but how do you make it a bit posher? Hmm, slow roast halved tomatoes on a very low heat for a couple of hours until they’re semi-dried. We’ve seen this done in another recipe somewhere, so okay, yes. And what about that third constituent ingredient that brings things all together? Well, who hasn’t sprinkled grated cheese on their baked beans? And goats cheese is great with tomatoes – and, since they’re in the oven we could put the goats cheese on top of the tomatoes…

And so… there’s nothing in this recipe that is strange, out of the ordinary or particularly unexpected. All of it is variants of other things we know and trust. And yet it was completely made up, from the top of our little hungry heads. And it tasted delicious.

Trust: bring it into the kitchen now. It’s a vital ingredient.

October 5, 2011

Tuesday-night suppers – the stir fry

I’ve mentioned previously that many of the dishes we post in the ‘Last Night’s Dinner’ section of this blog are the interesting ones – the ones that make use of gorgeous seasonal ingredients, or that make a pretty picture on the plate, or are worked up to some extent: a weekend meal rather than a Tuesday-night supper.

But that’s only half true. Our cooking at ETP towers varies little from weekday to weekend, mainly because at the moment yours truly doesn’t quite work a standard Monday to Friday 9 to 5 week. It’s also because even after a busy day’s work we enjoy a little kitchen prep and cooking as a way to relax. Why completely give that up during the week if you can help it?

That’s a privileged position, however, and there are times of course when you don’t want to think about cooking; when easy fall-backs become a practical necessity. For some people that’s once a week, for others almost every evening.

At these times we often resort to one-pot cooking to create a big bowl of health – for example our own signature dishes of butter beans, greens and peppers in a spicy tomato sauce, or spicy ‘Spanish’ chickpeas (recipes we may reveal in the fullness of time). This is basic stuff: take a big pot, fry an onion, add in some veg, chuck in some tomatoes, add spices, top with water and leave to simmer down. A hob-cooked stew, by any other name. You hardly have to think about making these and they’re so difficult to ruin.

I’ve heard that many carnivores resort to Spaghetti Bolognese and stir fries for a quick weekday meal. Well, we don’t eat much pasta here, but a stir fry, such as the one pictured, does hit the mark. The beauty is that we don’t have to think too much about how to cook the ingredients. Simple innit? But is a good stir fry as basic as one-pot cooking?

Well, it can be: if you use straight-to-wok noodles and throw all the veg in at the same time. Typically, however, and without wishing to turn a simple stir fry into a culinary challenge, I do now think a little extra effort can help.

Take the tofu in our Stir-fried tofu with broccoli, mushrooms and rice (above). Throwing chunks of even a firm tofu straight into the wok with the other veg will cause it to break up into a mush. Much better to fry it separately first for 5 minutes each side, then add it to the wok at the last minute. And the broccoli? To avoid tough stems it’s much better to steam it for 5 minutes before it hits the wok, too. So that’s two extra pans, but not a lot of extra thought. And it really does mean your stir fry will be a much more enjoyable Tuesday-night supper.

October 3, 2011

Deep purple

Early autumn has been the time for collecting blackberries and sloes along the tracks and wooded paths that run beside the creek where we live. With the sloes we’ve made some sloe gin, obviously, while bags of blackberries have ended up in the freezer to be drawn from whenever we feel drawn to them in the depths of winter. Blackberry and apple pies beckon. A walk along the very same tracks this last weekend found the brambles bare again: while the weather has been unseasonably warm, it’s a sure sign that the colder weather is on its way. A good job we made those foraging trips when we did.

October 3, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Spiced halloumi with a warm Puy lentil, spinach and beetroot salad

Warm salads are the perfect choice for months when the seasons are changing. Maybe it’s the ability to take some veg from one season and lighten it up, or load it down, with some from the next.

This salad – I say salad, though it’s almost a stew, is a Denis Cotter recipe from For the Love of Food – a book we’ve used a few times in this blog. See it here, it’s great. Oh, and go and visit Denis’s restaurant in Cork – it won’t let you down. Have a look, here.

So, I won’t give the recipe in full but, basically… the slices of halloumi are marinated briefly in chillis, cumin and lime zest; the beetroot roasted, with a sprinkle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar; the lentils cooked with sprigs of thyme and garlic; serve with lentils on a bed of spinach with the halloumi on top.

And can you spot our variation? Yep, we had no spinach so we steamed some greens and ran them through the lentils. Twas fine indeed.