Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Roasted sardines on toast (and other fishy tales...)

Since we have moved, we have been eating rather a lot of fish. This comes as something of a surprise seeing as we are nowhere near the sea. It is usually when I am by the sea that I get an increased urge to cook fish. Up until recently, we've cooked and eaten fish on a regular basis but I have to confess that my repertoire of fish recipes is embarrassingly slim. I make a mean fish pie. My fishcakes are pretty good too and come in a variety of guises from the very tasty smoked mackerel fish cakes to the more traditional white fish and parsley variety. Cod and salmon fillets are bought and cooked regularly whether in an Italian-inspired sauce or with a more Oriental twist. However, I tend to stick to the basics. I'm not overly adventurous when it comes to the type of fish that I cook. I'm stuck on those old favourites even though I know they may not always be the most sustainable of species.

I have to confess to one of my culinary fears. Fear of the fish counter. I kid you not.

Indeed, it is with a mix of fear and excitement that I approach the fish counter in the local fishmonger or supermarket. I feel all brave and think I'll see what looks good and choose something a little... out of my comfort zone. But then, just as the red mullet looks me in the eye, I hear myself saying 'a couple of salmon fillets please'. Oh the shame...

But all this has changed. Well... slightly. Deciding that I needed to put an end to this fishy nonsense, I requested (and received) a fishy cookery book for my birthday. I wanted one not only with recipes, but also one that educated me on the creatures that lurk beneath the waves. The book I received is Mitch Tonks' book which is imaginatively entitled 'Fish'.  It is exactly the sort of book I'd been looking for. A page is dedicated to each fish detailing the flavour profile of the fish, its habitat, what time of year it is at its best and other such interesting facts. Not too much information - just enough. Mitch then gives two or three recipes for each one. The recipes are really varied - a mix of the classics and some more daring suggestions like the fabulous-looking mackerel tagine. The photos are inspiring and I love all the extra information of the fishing industry, including mini interviews with various fishermen. Interesting as well as useful. The only criticism I have is that there are some potentially 'important' fish missing from the book: trout and plaice to name a couple.

Enough of a sales pitch though. This book certainly got me inspired and feeling brave enough to walk boldly into my new fishmonger and face his fish counter head on. And what a helpful fishmonger he was - plenty of advice and hand-holding later and I walked out clutching a parcel of gilthead bream. I cooked it up later that evening following ideas I'd gleaned from the new book and was extremely pleased with the result.

Feeling highly successful, I then decided that we needed to christen our new fish kettle which we received as a wedding present. Our area is well-known for the local trout - the rivers are teaming with them. I adore trout and purchased two of the shiny beauties. We stuffed their bellies with soft herbs and then let them steam away happily for around 20 minutes. They were cooked to perfection and we felt virtuous having prepared such a healthy supper. So successful that we repeated this meal at the weekend. This time though, my husband also picked up a couple of large sardines (pilchards??) at the same time, planning to serve them as a starter.

I 'fished' around on the internet (oh the wit!) trying to find a suitable recipe using ingredients we had to hand and knowing that these little fish could handle strong flavours. I've usually eaten them when they've been cooked on the barbecue and we were debating griddling them when I found this simple recipe from Gordon Ramsay. We adapted it slightly and were impressed with the extremely tasty results.

Roasted sardines on toast

Ingredients (per person):
1 large sardine (or a couple of smaller ones), as fresh as can be
handful of cherry tomatoes
sprig of rosemary
clove of garlic
bread - we used baguette, Gordon used ciabatta but any crusty bread would be nice
olive oil

1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Scale the sardines by running them under a cold tap and rubbing slightly with your fingers. Gut sardines if desired (we did as they were rather large).

2. Put sardines and tomatoes in a roasting tin, season well with salt and pepper, drizzle over a good splodge of olive oil and then scatter rosemary on top.

3. Roast in oven for 10 minutes until sardines are cooked and skin is crisp.

4. Meanwhile, heat a griddle pan until smoking. Slice bread into thick slice/s. Cut garlic clove in half and rub over both sides of bread. Drizzle with olive oil and toast in the pan on both sides until ever-so-slightly charred.

5. Cut the heads of the sardines and lay sardine/s on top of the toast with the tomatoes. Drizzle with the juices from the roasting tin.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chocolate fudge cake

We've been enjoying a week's 'holiday' at home, exploring our new area. We can't quite believe that we actually live in such a beautiful part of the country and that we don't have to traipse back to London on a Sunday night. Our dog thinks he is in heaven and loves the walks round here - we love them too especially as it gives us an excuse to raid the hedgerows for blackberries, sloes and other goodies. I'll try not to bombard you with too many blackberry and apple recipes but do watch out for a few coming this way.

Last weekend we celebrated my husband's birthday and I thought it only fitting to bake a cake. I asked him to choose a flavour and he plumped for chocolate. Not very original admittedly, but you can't really ever go wrong with a good slice of chocolate cake. This recipe is one that I've baked numerous times and I love it. I may even have blogged it before... The cake itself isn't especially elaborate or sophisticated - a simple chocolatey sponge - but the chocolate fudge icing is quite a different matter. It is still very simple but it is totally delicious, particularly if you have a very sweet tooth like me.

This is the cake to bake when you want a sweet chocoately treat - not an elegant, dark chocolate sophisticated bake but the sort of cake that disappears far too quickly. Popular with children as well as adults, it is a winner!

I chose to decorate the top with some of my favourite chocolates but you could get far more creative here. Smarties are always bright and jolly and I have once piped a birthday message on top with melted white chocolate. Pink sugar roses are nice too if you feel like something more girly.

I took the recipe from one of my mother's cook books - I think a Prue Leith one - but I can't be sure.

Chocolate Fudge Cake

3 tbsp cocoa powder
3 tbsp warm water
225g soft margarine
225g golden caster sugar (or normal is fine)
4 eggs
1tsp vanilla essence
225g self-raising flour

For the icing:

175g butter
6tbsp water
225g golden caster sugar (or normal is fine)
100g drinking chocolate powder
350g icing sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 175C. Line and grease a 9 inch cake tin (mine was actually 8 3/4 inch and worked fine).

2. Blend together the cocoa and warm water.

3. Cream the margarine and sugar until light and fluffy.

4. Add eggs, cocoa mixture and vanilla and mix together until combined. Gradually fold in the flour a little at a time until combined. Pour into prepared cake tin.

5. Bake for 50-60 minutes until cake springs back when finger lightly pressed in the middle. Cool on a wire rack.

Boiling the butter, sugar and water for the chocolate fudge icing

6. Whilst the cake is cooling, prepare the scrumptious icing. Heat the butter and 6 tbsp water and caster sugar in a pan until it starts to boil. Boil for a minute or so before adding the drinking chocolate and icing sugar. Remove from heat and beat until smooth (this is easier if you have sieved the icing sugar but I didn't bother). Leave to cool.

7. Once cake it cool, carefully slice in half. Sandwich together with icing and then smother the top and sides with more icing. Decorate as you wish.

8. Devour!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A day in the life of an Aga

As I've already mentioned, our new house has an Aga in the kitchen. The news has been met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation from my husband and I, wedded as we are to the happy combination of gas hob and electric oven. I've always loved the idea of an Aga but have, at the same time, been slightly wary of the reality. No set temperatures, a permanently hot kitchen, no cooking smells to warn you when your cake is starting to burn... On the other hand, I love to see dogs snuggling up to the Aga after a wet and wild walk on a chilly winter day. I love to see sheets carefully folded on the Aga knowing that they will require no ironing. And I love the concept of popping a casserole in the simmering oven and leaving it for hours, knowing it will come to no harm.

Keen to have a go at befriending our new appliance, we decided to visit our local Aga store in search of tips. We were interested to discover that the store held a varied programme of events, cooking demonstrations and classes. I was particularly drawn to a class entitled 'A Day in the Life of an Aga' and yet more delighted when I discovered that it only cost £7.50 to attend (prices seem to vary according to location).

Aga toast: crisp on the outside and soft in the middle

So, on Tuesday night, the two of us turned up at the Aga shop eager to learn whatever we could about Aga cookery. I am pleased to report that it may well prove to be the best £15 ever spent! The evening was ably hosted by Marcia Poole who started by asking each of us to describe our Aga situation. There was an audible gasp from the audience when we mentioned that we had a solid fuel fired Aga and we felt a little more nervous about what we are letting ourselves in for. Oil or gas-fired would definitely be simpler it seems...

Marcia then set to work showing us how to get the best from the Aga. What followed was quite miraculous and highlighted the versatility of Aga cooking. Although she was using a four-door Aga, she did most of the cooking in the roasting and simmering ovens so that those of us with a mere two doors didn't feel too left out. At the peak of her performance she managed to have the following items cooking simultaneously in the ovens: a full English breakfast, a roast chicken, a plum crumble, sweet potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, white sauce for the cauliflower, rice, shortbread, a vegetable curry, an apple sponge cake, two salmon steaks and a quiche. All these items were cooking along happily yet the Aga didn't look as though it was doing a thing. For good measure she also whipped up some Chelsea buns and cooked drop scones and a stir-fry on the hot plates.

The food, almost all of which was cooed in (rather than on) the Aga

This is the trick to successful Aga cookery. Using the ovens as much possible and keeping the lids down in order to keep the heat in. Root vegetables should be started on the hot boiling plate and then should be drained of their water and transferred in their saucepans to the simmering oven where they happily steam away slowly until you are ready for them. The beauty of the simmering oven is that it is very hard to overcook things - you can do the veg ahead of time and stow them out of sight in the oven until your roast is ready. No last minute stress getting hot and bothered over pans of boiling veg! The Aga ovens are deceptive too - they go back a long way and you can fit a surprising number of pans inside. Marcia had six saucepans in the simmering oven at one point.

The simmering oven containing six pans

Another favourite 'trick' she showed us was how to cook a fatless ' fried' egg on the cooler of the two hot plates. You take a sheet of bake-o-glide, crack an egg into the middle and then put the lid down over the egg. In a few minutes, lift the lid to find a perfectly cooked egg without the need for oil or butter. Toasted sandwiches can be made this way too.

'Fried' breakfast with no added fat

We watched in awe as she raced through the method for cooking perfect rice and pasta and listed carefully when she explained that Aga casseroles need less liquid than usual. I was particularly interested in the way she cooked her quiche - no need for blind baking as you can fill a raw pastry case and place it on the floor of the Aga ensuring a perfectly crisp pastry on the bottom.

After the whirlwind session we were allowed to sample the food - delicious, all of it - and had a chance to ask further questions. We'd learnt a huge amount in a short space of time and returned home totally sold on Aga cookery and ownership and dying to get our Aga up and running (we are currently waiting for a chimney sweep to come and clean the flue and check it over as it hasn't been used in an age).

Drop scones cooking directly on the simmering plate
We are slightly dismayed to find that our Aga does not come with the standard bits of Aga equipment and it looks as though we are going to have to start saving as the roasting tins, kettle and toast rack are fairly essential (and not exactly cheap). The Aga saucepans are cleverly designed to stack on top of each other in the ovens to make most use of the space and certainly a desirable extra but sadly a little expensive for us (and we do have very good new pans which can go in the ovens).

Overall, we are more excited than ever about the Aga and, with a little practice, firmly believe that cooking on it will be a great pleasure. If you own an Aga, or are thinking of intalling one, I would thoroughly reccomend the in-store classes. This was a basic class for 'beginners' really but could be a useful refresher for seasoned Aga cooks. However, there are many other sessions to choose from including classes on baking and cooking the Christmas lunch!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Berry gratin

Just a quick little post about a rather scrumptious pud I whipped up last week. It had been a sunny, summery day and we decided upon a last-of-the-season barbecue. I had a craving for something sweet to finish with and happened to have some raspberries sitting in the fridge. The hedgerows round us are bursting with blackberries so I whipped out to pick a few of those to mix with the raspberries and then took to the internet in search of a quick recipe that would fit the bill.

Before the grilling!

I had in mind a rather delicious dessert I've enjoyed in France a few times - berries baked in a runny custard mixture which is then flashed under the grill to create a slightly crisp top layer. Very simple and completely delicious.

I looked at quite a few recipes - most involved ingredients I didn't have to hand. But then I landed upon a spectacularly simple recipe from La Tartine Gourmande. It took moments to prepare and only a few minutes under the grill to cook. It tasted just as I was hoping and I know I'll be making it again. The subtle flavour of cardamon is a real winner and compliments the berries just beautifully.

As I am rather greedy, I have to confess to making this recipe for just two people in rather large ramekins. As such it took a little longer to cook...

I won't reprint the recipe here as you can find it here with photos far more beautiful than mine (...it was dark, I was in a rush to eat it!).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rosemary and black olive soda bread

As one of our wedding presents, we were lucky enough to receive a bread maker. I was absolutely thrilled. Successful bread baking is an art that has long eluded me and despite people waxing lyrical about the stress-reducing powers of kneading bread, I just can't get enthusiastic about it. I love the idea of it all but when it comes to the process, I just find myself if a sticky mess. I'm usually left feeling rather disappointed with an equally disappointing (and frankly indigestible) loaf in my hand.

Fellow bloggers may well feel I'm letting the side down and that I should persevere. But I'm afraid that now I have my lovely bread machine, it may take me a while to get back in the bread-making saddle. There are many other people making wonderful bread so I shall leave it to them for now.

I have, however, had more success with soda bread which is far easier to make. I love the slightly different texture and find it goes brilliantly with hearty autumn soups or toasted and spread with a really good marmalade.

I discovered this particular recipe in a Weight Watchers cookbook. Don't let that put you off - it works brilliantly and tastes fantastic. Today it is chilly, damp and distinctly autumnal and a wedge of this bread went very nicely with a bowl of butternut squash soup.

Rosemary and olive soda bread
Makes 6 wedges

200g self raising flour
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
30g pitted black olives
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary plus a few small sprigs to decorate
100g low fat natural yoghurt

1. Preheat the oven to 200C.

2. Sift the flour, salt and bicarb into a mixing bowl and stir in the olives and chopped rosemary.

3. Mix the yoghurt with 3 tablespoons of water and then add to the flour mixture. Stir with a table knife to bring the dough together into a clean ball. You may need to add a little more water to achieve this.

3. Lightly grease a baking tray and then press the dough out into a 15cm/6 inch disk on the tray. Mark into six wedges with a knife, taking care not to cut all the way through. Stick a rosemary sprig into each each 'wedge'.

4. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack before cutting into wedges and enjoying!

Notes - this is best eaten on the day it is made. However, it does freeze well.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Aga saga

I've had a fairly serious break from blogging. The past 18 months have seen some fairly serious changes in my life and, to be honest, I haven't much had the time (or inclination) for my blog. First there was the flower-sender. We met just 19 months ago, were engaged after four months and in May we got married...

Prior to the wedding, we took stock and decided that we both needed to lose weight. We've lost over 6 stone between us and I am feeling decidedly lighter on my feet. Our diet is certainly much healthier but, fear not, I still enjoy the occasional treat! For some reason, I didn't much feel like blogging during this period. I wish I had though as I miss having all my recipes in one place for reference.

In the midst of the wedding preparations, Sinbad arrived. Deeply naughty, very cute and completely lovable, we were totally unprepared for the chaos that comes with an eight week old puppy. We wouldn't have it any other way though and he is now a fully-fledged member of our pack.

Whilst all this was going on, we decided it would be a good idea to move house. I've lost count of the number people who told me that moving house is one of the most stressful things one can do and was I really sure that getting married, changing job and moving house all in the same year was a good idea. I suspect they may have had a point. Particularly as we were moving to a whole new area. From start to finish the process took almost a year but I'm pleased to say that we've finally sold my London flat and are now renting a house in a chocolate-box village in the Cotswolds.

In London I woke to the sound of planes coming in to land and opened my curtains to the charming view of a brick wall. Now I wake to the sound of silence and open my curtains to this...

The trees in the garden are laden with apples, pears and plums. I finally feel like I can breathe out after all the mahem of the past year. Above all, I feel reinvigorated and newly inspired. I can't wait to gather in the autumn produce from the garden, forage in the hedgerows which are laden with blackberries and sloes and install myself in the kitchen.

The kitchen. The new kitchen. It is twice the size of the London one, plus it opens out onto a large dining area. It is a proper, sociable kitchen which is flooded with light. I look out onto the garden. Installed in the 1970's, it is not the most attractive kitchen in the world but I love the feeling of space.

There is however, one rather large problem standing between me and a coruncopia of culinary delights. Let me introduce our Aga...

Many people dream of a kitchen with a range such as this. Until we moved here, I considered myself one of them. What could be nicer than a permenantly warm stove? The heart of the home. I pictured myself as domestic goddess extraordinaire gliding around the Aga with the dog at my feet, casserole in the bottom oven simmering away. Life would be good.

But then I realised that I didn't actually know how to use an Aga. It couldn't be too complicated, surely. My husband kindly gave me a book on the subject for my birthday. I read that the secret to successful Aga cooking seems to lie in never opening the top lids and investing in a whole new set of expensive pans. Not good.

I'm being unfair. This isn't really the case. I'm certainly not buying new pans just yet (especially as we were lucky enough to receive some extremely smart ones as a wedding present). But I do need to learn the Aga way of cooking. It is different. I find that I am allowed to open the lids and cook on the top after all. I just have to understand that when the lids are open, I'm losing heat from the ovens. The 80:20 rule is apparantly what I need to follow. 80% of cooking should be done in the ovens, a mere 20% on top. Follow this 'rule' and I will, so I'm told, learn to love my Aga. I don't doubt it. Anyone I've ever met who has one is completely wedded to it. I suspect I will be too in due course.

We are lucky enough that there is another oven to use as a backup and we're waiting for the temperature to drop a little before we fire up the Aga. I'm excited about the challenge and looking forward to sharing the results of my efforts here. I hope you'll enjoy reading about them!