Thursday, 24 December 2009

'Twas the night before Christmas...

And, for now, we are repleat,
But tomorrow dawns a special day,
For those that love to eat.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Butchers of distinction

My Dad and I had the pleasure of spending Christmas Eve two years ago preparing a magnificent five bird roast: A wood cock, within a partridge, within a duck, within a corn-fed chicken, within a goose. The method is well documented elsewhere, so I'll let our pictures do the talking. If you are so inclined, you can view the full set here.
Balfe Junior takes on bird number 1.
Balfe Senior goes straight in for the goose, and makes light work of it too...

Taking shape... Our de-boned goose, legs akimbo, and a duck in the background, heading for the same fate.

A dab hand with a needle and thread.

Excellent craftsmanship. Mr Fearnley Whittingstall would be proud.

A very tasty terrine, made from all the off cuts. Just like Nigel's.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Crunch time

Only two days remaining to hit the shops before the big day is upon us... But that doesn't have to mean fighting your way through the smellies section at Selfridges. As well as my Christmas Chutney, this year, I'm also filling my stockings with cereal, so to speak. My very own granola.

All the ingredients are available in supermarkets, health food shops, and lots of local convenience stores. I got mine from the very lovely Unpackaged in Clerkenwell, where you get good products, a strong dose of nostalgia (great at this time of year), and a warm sense of ethical well being all thrown in to the deal. Definitely beats braving the crowds on Oxford Street.

Christmas Granola

I used Bill Granger's recipe for cinnamon crunch muesli as the basis for this, and so far it's worked out really well. Aside from the cranberries the key addition is candied clementines. You might be able to buy these in some shops, but even if not, they're simple to make, although you need to do so in advance. If you make extra, you can use them to infuse cream for home-made truffles, decorate cakes or tarts, dip in chocolate as festive treats, or just hang them on your tree.

All the rich flavours of the dried fruit, nuts and spices make this granola great sprinkled over yogurt, poached fruits, or even ice cream, although unless you wake up very hungry - unlikely at this time of year - you'll do well to manage a whole bowl full for breakfast. As with many of these seasonal recipes, it also fills the house with wonderful scents of Christmas as you're baking...

Makes enough for 15 or more small servings

For the candied clementines
100g caster sugar
2 clementines, cut into thin (3mm) slices

a handful cloves

For the granola
125g unsalted butter
40g dark brown sugar

2 tsp honey
2 tsp cinnamon

half a nutmeg, grated
300g rolled oats
a handful flaked almonds

a handful pumpkin seeds
150g mixed nuts - brazils, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc, roughly chopped

75g dried cranberries
75g dried sultanas

First, make the candied clementine; ideally you want to leave these to dry out over night, so do this the day before if you remember. Make a stock syrup by dissolving the sugar in enough water to cover by twice the volume, and bring to the boil. I also added half a dozen cloves to infuse as it was heating. Reduce the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Slice your clementines, removing any pips as you go. Remove from the heat, and add the orange slices to your syrup, and leave them to soak for ten minutes. Preheat the oven to 50 degrees C.

Remove, and place on a baking tray, lined with baking parchment. Stud a few cloves in each slice, then leave to dry out in the oven for a good few hours, as long as you can really. Switch the oven off, and leave it over night. Remove the cloves, and cut each slice into four or more pieces.

Pre heat the oven to 160 degrees C. Melt the butter, sugar, honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a large pan. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat, and add the oats, seeds, almond flakes and nuts. Stir well so everything is coated with a slight gloss from the butter.

Transfer to a baking try lined with parchment, and spread out evenly. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes, stirring once or twice, and checking it's doneness as you go. When it starts the oats start to go golden brown, it's ready. Remove from the oven, stir in the clementine pieces, cranberries and sultanas, and leave to cool completely before storing. It'll keep in an air tight container for a good couple of weeks.

Monday, 14 December 2009

On the eve of Christmas

Sunday 13th December: The day that the spirit of Christmas swept it's way through the door at For Those That Love To Eat HQ. We had designated it our day to celebrate, Norwegian style, as if it were the 24th...

The tree fills the room with the scent of pine, as if we lived in the middle of a Scandinavian forest, not an arterial East End bus route. We wrap it in fairy lights, place presents underneath, and balance gingerbread snowmen and clove-studded clementines between it's branches. Our friends have arrived, and a long, plentiful evening of food, wine and festive cheer lay ahead of us. As we raise a glass to one-another's health, Judy Garland serenades us from the stereo. Here's to the start of our Merry Little Christmas. All that's missing is an open fire...

A bright winter salad

This vibrant, lively-looking dish was inspired jointly by Nigel Slater's ever-reliable column in the Observer, and Philippa Davies' exceptional Christmas menu at Mudchute Kitchen. Whilst Nigel pairs his down to little more than celeriac, red cabbage and some citrus, Philippa opts for the inclusion of duck, plenty of herbs and a balsamic dressing.

Mine is something of a half way house. It's by no means as austere as Nigel's minimalist effort, yet it's a different beast entirely to the Mudchute creation. Principally, there is no meat – there will be plenty of that in the next course - so instead, I roast chunks of winter squash with cinnamon and nutmeg, almost to the point of caramelising. This gives the salad a nutty richness and smooth, buttery textures to contrast with the crisp shards of red cabbage. More bight comes from finely sliced fennel. The little aniseed flavour that comes through is balanced with sweet citrus from slices of orange, peppery rocket, toasted walnuts and scattered with ruby jewels of pomegranite.

With more colours than a tin-full of Quality Streets, it sums up everything a festive starter should be; light and crisp yet still indulgent, with enough flavour to perk up the taste buds in anticipation of what's next to come. And when you're lucky enough to get all the flavours on one fork full, it really does taste exactly like Christmas.

Serves six as a starter, two or three as a main

a small winter squash or pumpkin, peeled and cut into chunks

ground cinnamon


a fennel bulb, sliced as thinly a you possibly can

a quarter of a red cabbage, shredded

two oranges, plus the juice of half another

a bag of rocket leaves

a handful walnuts, toasted

the seeds of one pomegranite

a tbsp cider vinegar

2 tbsps olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Scatter the squash on a baking tray, turn them in olive oil, season, and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon and freshly-grated nutmeg. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, until the tips of the corners have crisped and taken on a dark brown colour.

Meanwhile, slice the cabbage and fennel, either by hand or with a mandolin, and toss together in a large bowl. Zest the oranges, and add the bowl. Slice the off the skin, and slice the flesh across the segments so you have a series of orange disks, and add to the bowl, along with the rocket, walnut, and pomegranite. Season, and toss together the olive, vinegar, and orange juice. Serve immediately.

Roast rib of beef with bernaise sauce, potatoes roast in duck fat, braised red cabbage

If there is ever a day when when I have to choose my last supper, my decision would likely look something like this. In my kitchen, beef is served rare - Bloody as hell, as Vincent's waiter put it in Pulp Fiction – and this is no exception. The meat is massaged with olive oil, and covered in coarse ground pepper, before being seared in a hot griddle pan for three minutes on each side. After that, it goes into a hot oven, say 180, for another 15 minutes. Only when it is removed is it seasoned with salt, as sits for it's five minutes of rest before carving. The bone will have browned, and the outlying seams of fat will have begun to render, but in the centre the meat will still be soft and red-pink.

The trick with the potatoes is to par-boil them, almost until they fall apart, then add to a tray full of hot duck fat, along with rosemary, salt, pepper, and heads of garlic, sliced through the centre, across the cloves.

The cabbage gives a fruity addition to the plate, braised for a good hour or more in red wine and balsamic, with a few dots of butter, slices of pear and a single cinnamon stick to keep it company.

It's a rich plateful, to which some fresh, bouncy watercress leaves are a welcome addition. With a pot of warm bernaise sauce in the centre of the table, this is about as indulgent as a main course gets, and in my opinion, it couldn't be better.

Chocolate and apricot tart with vanilla yogurt and rose petals

Quite how we managed this, I'm not entirely sure. But manage it we did, and second helpings too. It's a wonderfully decadent dish, which calls out for yogurt, as opposed to cream, to cut through the rich chocolate. The rose petals add a ceremonious touch, and also fill the air with perfume as you're about to take your first bight. Dark chocolate heaven on a plate.

Now, anyone for cheese?

Chocolate and apricot tart

It's fair to say that where desserts are concerned, you can't go far wrong with anything that involves chocolate. Make that some of the finest chocolate available, and your margin for error is decreased further still. In this case, the chocolate is from one of my current favourite food shops, Leila's, on Arnold Circus, where it sits stacked on the counter in huge ebony slabs. Chunks are hacked off and sold by weight, allowing you to conveniently round up your order meaning there's a little extra to nibble on.

I look on as a piece almost the size of my fist is prized off, using the kind of knife that would make a samurai butcher jealous. I tuck my chocolate swag into my backpack, and head home... This chocolate is destined for fine things.

In an effort to do justice to this fine chocolate, I turn to one of my key culinary influences, Moro, and their recipe for chocolate and apricot tart. In my short time there, I saw it made many times, but never plucked up the courage to ask for a go myself. I'm by no means the best baker on earth, and I'm always slightly weary of taking on the role of pastry chef - I worry that dishes like this require precision and exactitude, which are easily overlooked in the home kitchen. Having said that, the recipe was easy to follow, and even my pastry case - the bit I was most worried about - turned out well; crisp and 'short' with a light, not-too-crumbly texture.
One of the best things about this dessert is the way the chocolate is offset by the apricot. At Moro, they use a lebanese apricot paste called amradeen, but using dried apricot, as I did, is a good substitute. You could use apricot jam, although you might want to add lemon juice, as the tartness of the fruit is important in cutting through the rich chocolate flavour.

It's a recipe in stages, so not one to attempt in a hurry, but will certainly go down well if you are looking for a dessert to impress. I made it for an early Christmas dinner for friends, and judging by everyone's second helpings, I'd have to accept that it went down pretty well.

Chocolate and apricot tart
Serves at least 6, if not 8, depending on how greedy your guests are.

For the sweet pastry
Makes enough to line a 24cm pastry case
140g plain flour
30g icing sugar
75g chilled, unsalted butter, cut into chunks
one egg yolk

For the apricot mixture
180g dried apricots
4 tbsps water
the juice of two lemons

For the chocolate filling
150g of good quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
2 egg yolks
50g caster sugar

To serve
yogurt or creme fraiche
edible rose petals (optional, but a very nice touch if you can find them)

First, make the pastry. In a mixing bowl, rub the butter and flour together between your fingers until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Apparently the trick is to be light-fingered, and to keep the butter as cool as you can. If it feel it starting to soften between your fingers, put the bowl in the fridge for five minutes. Add the egg yolk and combine to form a stiff dough. If it is too dry, add the tiniest splash of milk, but don't over do it. Form into a ball, wrap in cling film, and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

Meanwhile, make the apricot jam. Chop dried apricots as finely as you can - in a processor if you have one (I don't) - and simmer for five minutes or more in a pan with water and lemon juice. It should reduce to a thick sauce, and have a tart taste. If you are a perfectionist, you could blend the mixture to form a smooth paste, but I don't mind some small chunks. Set aside.

Heat the oven to 220 degrees C. Once the pastry has chilled for an hour, remove from the fridge and grate it into the pastry case, pushing it evenly into the sides and base. The cold dough will be quite hard, so grating is a better method than rolling. Prick the base, and bake for 10-15 minutes, until it's just golden. Remove from the oven and set aside. After cooling for 10 minutes or so, trim off any pastry that has risen over the edge of the case tin, and then coat the base and sides of the pastry with a layer of the apricot mixture. Reduce the oven temperature to 180 degrees C.

Melt the butter and chocolate together over a bain marie of simmering water. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar until they're pale, light and fluffy. Fold in the chocolate and butter, one third at a time, then pour into the pastry case.

Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the chocolate filling has formed a thin crust. There should still be a slight wobble in the centre.

Serve with creamy yogurt, and a sprinkling of rose petals.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A time for feasting

My first true taste of Christmas this year came last weekend, at the inaugural Festive Feast For Those That Love to Eat, which took place at Mudchute Kitchen

Whilst at the backbone of the menu were Christmas staples, such as chesnuts, roast ham, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, the end result was a spread of vibrant, earthy, dishes that were undisputedly representative of what Mudchute Kitchen is all about.
I've tried my hand at home-smoking before, but still got immense pleasure from preparing the appetiser of potted mackerel on toast. Returning to the smoke house to retrieve the fish, after the scent of burning embers have permeated their flesh for almost 12 hours, was quite a thrill; Eight butterflied fish, sat glistening in the soft, December sunlight. 
The flesh was then flaked into chunks, seasoned with pepper and paprika, and potted with home-smoked clarified butter. Spread roughly onto hot, toasted soda bread, it's the essence of simple cooking that allows the ingredients to do the work for you.  

The centre piece of the main course, for the carnivores at least, was a huge leg of ham, studded with cloves, and glazed in Philippa's home-made Seville orange marmalade. The ham is boiled with bay, stock veg, peppercorns, and garden herbs, then roast outdoors in the wood oven, giving a wonderfully caramelised coating to the meat, and a slick of thick, sticky sauce. 
As well as a celeriac gratin, with blue cheese and walnuts, there was a spread of salads including a sumptuous platter of warm, earthy beetroots, accompanied by lentils and goats cheese, all subtly swapping flavours as they melted into one another; crisp, zingy 'pickled' cucumber with dill, fennel tops, and shallots; a parsnip remoulade, moistened with a light creme fraiche dressing, sweetened with honey and dates, and topped with fresh chesnuts; a show-stopping bowlful of pears, wood-roasted with butter and cinnamon, and nestled in a bed of watercress. 
For dessert there was a huge rice pudding, given a middle-eastern twist with cardamon, orange, cinnamon and rose petals. Finally we served platefuls of Persian candy floss, called pashman (that's the phonetic spelling - apologies in advance to any Iranian readers) - long strands of pure white spun sugar, with a subtle hazelnut-vanilla flavour, that has to be seen - and tasted - to be believed. It also happens to look like Santa Claus' beard, which rounded off our non-traditional take on Christmas dinner.   

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Fruitful labour

My presents are preserved this year... Or at least some of them are. In an effort to sidestep the high street, I've decided to give chutney and other home-made goodies to my nearest and dearest this Christmas.

I've made variations on this recipe for a few years now. I think it's based on one from Delia Smith's Complete Cookery book - obviously before she decided that life was too short to chop an onion. It actually doesn't take that long anyway, and besides, whilst it slowly splutters on the hob, you get to enjoy the warming scents of autumn fruits and Christmas spices that fill the house.

This chutney is quite rich, so if you can, it's best to leave it a couple of weeks - or even more - before opening so the flavours mellow and muddle together. After that, it's perfect on toast, sitting atop melted mature cheddar, as an accompaniment to a terrine or pork pies, or dabbed on a slice of roast ham as you laze around on boxing day.

Spiced Christmas Chutney

Makes 4 or 5 jars

a tbsp olive oil
two onions, peeled and finely chopped
two cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
a cinnamon stick
a thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely chopped
a bay leaf
four tbsp balsamic vinegar
a handful (say 100g) dark muscavado sugar
an orange or clementine, studded with half a dozen cloves
a dozen or more plums, stoned and quartered
two apples, cored and cut into chunks
a good handful sultanas or raisins
a handful cranberries
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed sauce pan, and add the onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon stick and bay. Cook on a moderate heat for five minutes until the onions begin to soften. Keep stirring so they don't catch. Add the balsamic and the sugar and stir so it dissolves. The onions should begin to caramelise. After a couple of minutes, add the plums, apples, orange, sultanas and cranberries, plus a pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper. Stir well to combine.

Turn the heat down and cook for another 20 minutes, stirring regularly until the fruit pieces are beginning to break down. If the mixture ever looks too dry, add a splash of water, or orange juice.

Clean your jars thoroughly, and allow to drain. Boil the kettle and as soon as it's boiled, fill the jars with boiling water. After a moment, pour the water out, and allow the remaining water to evaporate for a minute before filling with the hot chutney. Seal the jars with a lid to form a vacuum - this will allow the chutney to stay fresh in the cupboard for a good six months or so if it remains unopened.