Sunday, April 26, 2009

The joy of a fish-finger sandwich

I recently had lunch in a rather good pub in the village of Welwyn in Hertfordshire. The Wellington had a fairly extensive menu featuring all the gastropub classics alongside a few more adventurous choices. On this occasion however I was transfixed by a particular item on the menu. Although my mind kept telling me that I should order the fish pie packed with monkfish and pollock and smoked haddock or the aromatic slow roast pork belly, my heart kept coming back to the same dish. It was wholly inappropriate in so many ways. Yet I couldn't get it out of my head.

The dish that took my fancy that Saturday lunchtime wasn't a slow-cooked stew or even a classic Cesar salad. No folks. I'm (slightly) ashamed to admit that it was... a fish finger sandwich. Described on the menu as 'the chef's treat', I knew I wouldn't be happy unless I ordered it.

The humble fish-finger sandwich holds a place in my heart and takes me back to my student days when it was a regular feature on the menu. The perfect snack late after a night at the pub, the ideal speedy lunch when running out to a lecture, the tasty cheap and cheerful option when student overdraft has been maxed to the limit.

The Wellington had tarted the fish finger sandwich up a little. The bread was rather better than the humble white sliced staple of student days and the tangy tomato relish and homemade tartare sauce were extremely welcome additions. And there was cheese too. My student sandwiches always had cheese.

Sadly I didn't photograph the sandwich but it certainly hit the spot. Last week though, I found I couldn't get the sandwich out of my mind. One lunchtime I found myself strangely lurking in the freezer section of my local corner store. Next thing I knew I was back at home and the fish fingers were cooking under the grill. A quick smear of cream cheese and ketchup plus a few leaves of little gem and I was again in fish-finger heaven.

It felt a bit naughty. I wasn't sure that I'd confess my sin... But it was just too good not to share!

I know that all us food bloggers love to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients but I wonder just how many of you have similar guilty pleasures such as this?!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Leftover chicken hash

Perhaps not the most appealing title to this post. I tried to think of a more enticing name for this delicious way with leftover roast chicken but my imagination eluded me! I'm not exactly sure what constitutes a 'hash' and when I try to search on the internet, I simply get guided to information on cannabis. For those concerned, I can assure you that this dish is 100% legal!

Basically, what I understand by a culinary 'hash' is a dish involving left-overs which is thrown together rather haphazardly - a mish mash, or hash I suppose!

This particular dish is closely based on a dish in Nigella's Christmas book. Her recipe is one for leftover turkey and came to her via her agent. I cooked it up at Christmas with one of my nephews as sous-chef and it was a huge hit. When recently I found myself with lots of leftover chicken and most of the other key ingredients, I decided to cook it up again.

The important thing about this dish is that it is entirely flexible - you can use whatever you may have knocking about in the fridge. I'd suggest that they key elements are the peppers, flaked almonds, olives and Parmesan. The rest you can meddle with 'till your heart is content. My recipe deviates somewhat from Nigella's - she uses soured cream whilst I only had creme fraiche. I added courgettes and, at Christmas, added some frozen peas.

Quantity wise this is equally adaptable. At Christmas I made this for a crowd of eight. Last week I made it into a speedy supper for one. Nigella gives precise measurements but in the spirit of the 'throw it together' nature of the dish, I've tried to keep it simple with handfuls and mugfuls. No matter that your hands are bigger or smaller than mine - the recipe is a flexible one!

Chicken hash
Modified from 'Ed's Victorious Turkey Hash' from 'Nigella's Christmas'

Ingredients to serve two

handful of flaked almonds
Knob of butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 stick of celery, chopped
2 red peppers, cored and chopped into chunks
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped or crushed
2-3 generous handfuls of cold shredded chicken
generous handful of pitted lack olives, roughly chopped
1 courgette, sliced in half lengthways and sliced into half-moons
2 tbsp creme fraiche or soured cream
2 tbsp chicken stock or hot water if you can't be bothered!
1 large egg
few dashes of Tabasco sauce
Handful of flaked Parmesan cheese
handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Toast the almonds in a hot dry pan and remove to a plate until needed.

2. Melt butter and oil in the pan and add the onions, peppers, celery and courgettes. Cook over a medium heat for around 10 minutes until nicely softened. Stir from time to time.

3. Add in the garlic and give a good stir. Cook for a minute or so before adding the chicken. Cook until piping hot - about 10 minutes. Season with pepper and a little salt (remember that the olives and parmesan are salty).

4. Add the toasted almonds and olives to the pan and stir to combine.

5. Whisk together the cream, stock and egg and then pour over the top of the hash. Quickly stir it all together to mix and combine and then shake in Tabasco sauce to taste.

6. Just before you remove from heat, shave over a generous helping of Parmesan and stir until it starts to melt. Sprinkle the chopped parsley over the top just before serving.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Chocolate and wine matching

With Easter just around the corner, culinary thoughts may well be turning towards chocolate. On Sunday, the Easter Bunny will hopefully arrive bringing chocolate eggs, rabbits, truffles and other scrumptious goodies.

There are people who claim not to like chocolate. This is something that I've never been able to understand though I frequently wish that I fell into that category (...I'd be a great deal less rotund). However, I have to tell you that over the past few days I have been suffering rather from chocolate excess. Yesterday I found myself unable to even look at a chocolate.

Shocking, isn't it?

The reason for my sudden chocolate aversion is due entirely to over-indulgence. On Saturday I hosted a chocolate and wine matching workshop for work and have been munching on the sublime leftover chocolates ever since. They were amazingly good (especially the salted pralines) but deeply intense and 'serious' chocolates. I've definitely eaten too many.

However, for the greater good, I have decided to post about chocolate despite my current aversion. Or rather, I've decided to post about matching chocolate and wine. It isn't an obvious combination certainly. In fact, in many cases, the combination can be downright disastrous. Chocolate's delicious melty texture coats the palate, making is tough for any wine to get through. The intense flavour of good quality chocolate plus the high sugar content of some render the brown stuff even less wine-friendly.

However, all is not lost! There are wines which can work with chocolate (and chocolates for that matter).

My tips, for those who are interested, are as follows:

1. Fortified wines often work best. The extra alcohol stands up to the texture and intensity of chocolate. There are plenty to choose from. My top choice might be a Malmsey Madeira which works particularly well with any chocolate dessert featuring nuts.

Sherry is another good choice - choose either a sweet oloroso (oloroso dulce) or for ultimate decadence, try a Pedro Ximenez poured over chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Divine.

Port can work - I've had chilled tawny port alongside many a chocolate torte and the match is reasonable.

Look too at fortified reds from the South of France - Banyuls or Maury for example. For me, these work well with chocolate deserts featuring red fruits.

2. The Muscat grape is your friend. Or rather, it is chocolate's friend. In most of its forms actually. Of course, the deep and sticky fortified raisined muscats from Rutherglen in Australia work a treat but you can go off-piste here too. A real winner from our tasting at the weekend was a light and frothy Moscato d'Asti. This fun and frivolous Italian classic is especially good with white chocolate (not that there is such a thing per se) and also with creamy milk chocolate truffles. It would also be worth a try with a light and airy milk chocolate mousse.

3. Sparkling Shiraz is not for everyone but I've met many who really enjoy it alongside a slice of chocolate cake. Certainly better than a glass of dry Champagne to accompany the cake at a birthday party.

4. Finally, it is important to know which wines to avoid when serving up your chocolate-fest. Avoid anything dry or tannic - ideally you need as much if not more sweetness in the wine as in the dessert. A dry, tannic red will be stripped of its fruit by a mere mouthful of chocolate. Avoid classic dessert wines such as Sauternes - save these lighter, creamy puddings or even blue cheese.

With that, I wish you all an extremely Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Bakewell Tart

I've been quite busy in the kitchen over the past few days and I've struggled to decide what to post first. I've gone for the sweet option first of course - I am known for my sweet tooth and this is certainly sweet.

In fact, it is almost offensively sweet. This is because I decided to ice my bakewell tart in true
Mr Kipling fashion. If you like things a little less sweet, you could serve it topped with toasted flaked almonds and serve it warm with a dollop of custard.

This delicious treat has its roots in Derbyshire - a pastry case houses a rich frangipane and layer of raspberry or cherry jam. This version, taken from an old 'Simply Delicious' recipe card (no longer in existence as far as I can tell) incorporates marzipan into the frangipane, making it especially rich, moist and gooey.

The dedicated amongst you will no doubt make your own pastry, in which case you could flavour it with almonds perhaps. I cheated and used good quality ready-made from the chiller section of the supermarket. There were no complaints!

Bakewell Tart
Serves 6-8


8oz shortcrust pastry
4tbsp raspberry or cherry jam (or another flavour of your choice)
1 oz ground almonds
3oz butter, cubed
10oz marzipan, cubed
2 large eggs (organic and free-range preferably)
approx 3 oz icing sugar
5 glace cherries (or real cherries if you have them)

1. Preheat the oven to 200C. Line an 8 inch loose-based flan tin with the pastry and prick the base with a fork.

2. Spread the jam all over the pastry base.

3. In a food processor, blitz together the almonds, marzipan, butter and eggs until you have a smooth batter. Pour the mixture into the pastry case.

4. Bake in the oven for approx 30 minutes until golden and firm to the touch. Leave to cool before removing from the flan tin. Chill for 1/2 hour until firm.

5. Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and mix with 2-3 tsp warm water to make a fairly thin icing (mine was a little too thick). Spread over the top of the tart and decorate with cherries. Leave to set for around an hour prior to serving.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Excuses, excuses

I've been an exceptionally bad blogger over the past month. I can only apologise. Life seems to have got in the way. I could offer a whole ream of excuses... Too much work, too little time, a holiday, the flower-sender, illness, a broken fridge... All I will say is that I endeavour to be better in April. Spring is in the air and I'm feeling inspired and ready for action in the kitchen once more.

In case you are concerned that I've not been eating this month, I have a few culinary highlights to share. I've been lucky enough to have been cooked for several times this month. Particularly enjoyable was a visit home to the Isle of Wight and a dish of boiled mutton with caper and onion sauce.

This old-fashioned dish made its way onto the table due to my father. This is a surprise as he rarely takes much interest in the cooking - he can just about fry a rasher of bacon but that is about his limit. Fortunately, my mother more than makes up for it by being a wonderful cook. Anyway, he had heard through a friend in the pub (!) that there was good mutton available at the local farmers' market. He was reminded of a dish he used to enjoy at a golf club in Liverpool in his younger days (he is now in his eighties) and had his heart set on my mother recreating this flavour of his youth!

My poor mother. The recipe that she found was one of the most time-consuming, labour-intensive recipes imaginable. When we greedily devoured the finished dish and declared it delicious, she didn't know whether to be pleased or not. She certainly didn't want to have to make it again in a hurry.

It was the first time I'd eaten mutton and I really enjoyed it - the flavour wasn't as strong as I'd imagined and the meat was perfectly moist. The onion and caper sauce went beautifully too - well done Mum!

A couple of weeks ago, I was also treated to a deliciously good lamb curry cooked by the flower-sender. What was unusual about this curry is that it was cooked in the oven in the same way as one might cook a casserole. I've not cooked a curry this way before but it was extremely good.

Other highlights of the month included a lovely day spent at Borough Market - we bought a good-looking joint of venison which I marinated in red wine and crushed juniper berries before sealing in a hot pan and roasting briefly in the oven. Served with dauphinoise potatoes, it was very flavoursome but a little on the tough side.

Finally, I must mention the picnic I enjoyed with my niece and nephew a couple of weekends ago. It was a glorious sunny day and so I planned to pick up some goodies in M&S before taking them to Battersea Park for a feast of cheese, cold meats, dips, olives, fruit and chocolate biscuits. No cooking involved - I didn't have time. Upon their arrival, I asked my niece to name her favourite picnic food so that I could be sure to include it in our feast.

Her reply: 'chocolate-covered strawberries'!

Not quite what I had in mind. As I opened my mouth to tell her that we couldn't have her favourite item, I realised that we could make our own before heading off to the park. The children loved dipping the enormous strawberries in the melted chocolate and waiting for them to set on the greaseproof paper. The out-of-season strawberries tasted all the better for their coating of chocolate

Here's to being a better blogger in April - lots of deliciousness heading this way soon!