Chicken a l’estragon

I don’t normally give French names to dishes I chuck together, but apart from the fact that this is very French-inspired, ‘estragon’ is such a good word. And it always makes me think of Waiting for Godot, a play I’ve never seen but which is quite famous.

Of course ‘tarragon’ is also a lovely word. Quite apart from the sound of it, it lends itself to the pun ‘Catherine of Tarragon’ (try and work that into a conversation). And is very nearly arrogant.

Cut chicken breasts into chunks. Oil and season them, then brown them in a hot pan (make sure they’re just about cooked through). Set the chicken aside and soften some shallots with butter in the same pan. Take most of the shallots out and put them with the chicken. Pour some Noilly Prat and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc into the pan and reduce down, scraping up the nice brown bits off the bottom. When there’s not much wine left, put in a little chopped tarragon (not too much, it’s quite a strong flavour) and double cream. Bring to the boil. Put the chicken back in the pan and warm through.

Obviously any old white wine would be fine, and you could either use all wine or all vermouth and that would probably work too, but this is what I did.

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simple pleasures

A good-quality chicken breast, sliced nearly through and opened out like a book. Oil it and place it between two sheets of clingfilm, then beat it flat with a rolling pin. It doesn’t have to be carpaccio thin, just flat enough to cook through quickly.

Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and salt and cook on a hot ridged frying pan. Just wait until the thin parts of the meat turn opaque before turning over and leaving for about a minute. Sprinkle the chicken with a little lemon juice and put on a plate to rest for two or three minutes.

Eat it, including the juices that have collected on the plate, with a few green leaves topped with olive oil and freshly grated parmesan. And a glass of nice white wine.

Scallops with serrano ham and sherry

Based loosely on ‘angels on horseback’ and a Spanish dish. No pictures, I’m afraid.

Mix up a little olive oil, lemon juice and pepper. Dip each scallop in the mix and wrap it in a narrow strip of ham. Fry the hammy scallops until just done. Deglaze the pan with dry sherry and pour over the scallops.

I actually cooked it in a frying pan on the barbecue, but only because the kitchen is so hot at the moment.

It was a tad too salty but delicious. A thinner-cut, less salty ham (prosciutto, if you don’t mind dropping the Spanish theme) would probably sort that out.

World Cup food blogging – Sweden

I’ve been trying to keep optimistic about England’s chances in the World Cup, but it’s not easy. Michael Owen was the only forward in the squad with a history of scoring lots of goals, so that injury is a real blow. Crouch actually did OK today in midfield areas, but I just don’t think he’s a real goalscorer. At least Rooney gave a couple of reminders of just how good he is. But mainly: we still haven’t seen a performance of conviction or cohesion from the team as a whole. As long as they’re still in the competition, there’s a chance that they’ll suddenly get their act together, but at the moment it feels like they’re just limping from one crisis to the next.

Anyway. The food blogging. I didn’t fancy herring or akvavit, so I poked around on the web and found a recipe for pepparkakor (ginger biscuits). I just don’t get why Americans insist on measuring everything in cups. I mean, flour – OK, although I’d still personally prefer to measure it by weight. But butter? Why would you measure butter by volume? They turned out quite nice, a bit like gingernuts. Apparently they improve if you leave them for a bit, as well. I doubled the quantity of spices, because it just didn’t seem very much, and they certainly aren’t overpoweringly gingery.

World Cup food blogging – Trinidad and Tobago

Thankfully, we did manage to beat T&T, despite the fact that Peter Crouch just isn’t good enough to play for England and Sven seems to have sucked all the creativity out of the players like some Swedish football-vampyr.

Anyway, I cooked some Trini food today to mark the occasion. The recipe was from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian Cookbook which I think is excellent despite being non-veggy myself. The idea was something caled ‘doubles’, which is a Trinidadian fast food consisting of chickpeas in a sandwich between two deep-fried flatbreads (like puri). The breads are called ‘fry bakes’ in Trinidad, apparently, because they’re fried instead of baked. I didn’t feel like deep-frying bread today, so I made some T&T-style roti instead.

There were actually two Trinidadian chickpea recipes in the book; both are obviously based on Indian food, but the one I did was probably the less distinctively T&T of the two. The other one used rather un-Indian ingredients like thyme and chives; this one was made with chickpeas, onion, garlic, green chillies, tinned tomato, cumin, coriander, ground ginger, curry powder and turmeric.

The roti were made from half-and-half plain flour and bread flour, some baking powder, water, and a smidge of turmeric for colour.

So, roti and chickpeas. Have ’em with some mango chutney and pepper sauce. I rolled my roti into a burrito-y thing, which was messy (though delicious), but I didn’t get a picture of the rolled version.

Bomb-sniffing flowers

Scientists in Denmark, the US and Canada have all been working on producing a genetically-engineered plant whose flowers will come up red instead of white in the presence of underground explosives. The idea, of course, is that you can use them to to test for the presence of landmines by dropping the seeds from the air and seeing what colour the flowers are when they come up.

Apart from the benefits if the technology works (and the rampant symbolism), this is the kind of project that the genetic engineers needed to come up with at the start of the technology to help sell it to the public. It would take a very hard person, however suspicious they were of science, to oppose a cheap new mine-detection technology.

Instead, of course, despite all the publicity about how GM products were going to end third-world hunger, reinvigorate medicine and who knows what else, the first major products were herbicide-resistent crops, allowing farmers to use even more toxic chemicals in the quest for ever-more intensive crop production. Personally I think that most of the opposition to GM food is incoherent, illogical and based entirely on prejudice, but I still can’t feel very positive about Round-up Ready soybeans.

via Metafilter; photo from and presumably ©

Menu drollery

An Indian takeaway menu put through my door had this:

This elaborate form of cooking involves baking layers of meat or vegetables such that the flavours and aromas enthuse the rice; enhanced with saffron and spices.

Which reminded me of a couple of phonetic attempts at English from a menu in Spain. Since I can speak, read or write no languages other than my own, I always feel a bit embarrassed finding amusement in other people’s broken English, but these are just fabulous:

Fraid in bredcams praws

Could mits

Figgy Dowdy, Sussex Pond Pudding and English food

I got back to England to find, appropriately enough, that some food blogs, English or otherwise, celebrated St George’s Day (Apr 23rd) by cooking English puddings, cakes, biscuits and other sugariness.

Why British food has such a bad reputation, and whether it’s deserved, is a question for another day. One kind of British food that has always been easy to defend is the baking; and one of the nice things about it is that it seems to be a genuinely popular tradition. Despite the good work done by Tea Shoppes in the Lake District, to a large extent, the cake-making tradition of Bakewell tarts, fruit cakes, tea cakes, spice cakes, lemon drizzle cakes, oatmeal biscuits [etc etc] is passed on through local charity cake sales and coffee mornings. I almost feel moved to make some parkin. Mmmm, parkin.

Another British tradition that is perhaps less lively is the steamed suet pudding. And yes, that is indeed a dessert made with beef fat and steamed. With central heating, we just don’t have the same appetite for piles of calorific stodge any more. But excitingly, two food bloggers tried particularly noteworthy steamed puddings: Sussex Pond Pudding (which I’ve wanted to try for some time) and Figgy-dowdy (particularly vital reading for fans of the Patrick O’Brian novels). Both of those bloggers do a far better job of explaining the dishes than I could.

A round-up of other entries can be found at Becks & Posh.

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Seville! City of tiny platesful of food!

The food has indeed been yummy. Garlic prawns, morcilla (the local version of black pudding), scrambled eggs with garlic shoots and ham, etc etc. I haven’t been getting my 5 servings of fruit and vegetable a day, mind you. Even if you count bread and breadsticklets as seperate vegetables. The trouble is, you order a half portion of ham or prawns or something and they bring loads of bread with it, and that’s pretty much a reasonable meal. Being Easter, it’s also the city of men in pointy hats. With, on the one hand, men in loafers, neat blue jeans, smart shirts, cashmere jumpers tied around their shoulders and designer sunglasses, and on the other, long parades of people in penitential hoods marching through the streets, it feels a bit like turning up to a party and realising no one told you the dresscode was ’80s or KKK’.

I can’t quite get around the sheer number of people taking part in the parades. Each one seems to have hundreds of participants, in pointy hoods carrying candles, in floppy hoods carrying crosses, a few carrying incense or the main figures of Christ or the Virgin, and a largish band to play dirges and thump drums. Since each church in Seville has a parade, and there are a lot of churches in Seville, it must represent a significant proportion of the city population every year. I’m sure the degree of real religious feeling varies – it seems like it’s as much an expression of local tradition now as a display of penitence – but a lot of it must be heartfelt. It gives me the creeps rather. An upbringing in a country where people who deny the literal truth of the resurrection get chosen as bishops is no preparation for mass displays of fervour.

On Maundy Thursday, lots of women appeared wearing mantillas. And dark glasses.

Trivia of the day: one of the statues of the Virgin is called the Macarena, after the area of Seville where the church is, many Seville women get named Macarena after the Virgin; the cheesy pop classic is named after one of these women.

If you’re ever in Seville, I’d definitely recommend the Real Alcazar, the Islamic/Renaissance palace started by the Almohads, and continued both in the Moorish and classical styles by the Spanish kings after the reconquest. It has large and rather lovely gardens which are almost as good as the palace itself. It’s a kind of second-rate version of Alhambra, but Alhambra sets such a high standard that second-rate is pretty good. I’ve always loved the idea of a house built around a central courtyard, but of course in Britain you wouldn’t be building a shady oasis, you’d be building a dingy hole that, at best, spent much of the year acting as a windbreak.

Government ‘harassment’

I came across an animal liberation website which stated that “government harassment of activists has continued to increase this year”. Harassment in this case seemed to mainly consist of people being convicted of arson, criminal damage, blackmail and so on. Describing that as ‘harassment’ just seems so… whiny. Sometimes it’s right to decide that you know better than the law, and that the claims of morality are more important. But if you’re going to knowingly break the law in support of what you believe is a noble cause, you can hardly claim ‘harassment’ when the criminal justice system does its thing.

I also find the focus on animal testing peculiar since, for me, the hundreds of milions of chickens raised intensively every year are a much bigger animal welfare issue than the two or three million animals used in testing.

FWIW: I support suitably regulated animal testing and eat meat, but I do try and only buy organically-raised chicken and pork.

Salsa di Speck

I made spaghetti with a speck sauce today. Speck is a kind of Germano-Italian lightly smoked dry-cured ham. Similar to prosciutto, but the smoking just gives it a slightly different flavour.

Anyway, the recipe was from Gastronomy of Italy by Anna del Conte, a book I would generally recommend. Not that I’ve tried any of the competition.

Cut the speck into strips. Saute it in some butter for a few minutes, then add some ground saffron and black pepper, stir for a mintue or so, and add a splash of white wine. When the wine has almost boiled away, add a little cream, bring to the boil, and take off the heat.

When the pasta is cooked, add to the pan with the sauce, stir-fry it for a minute to heat it up and mix it through, add a generous amount of parmesan, and serve.

The ham, parmesan and cream make it rather carbonara-ish, but using speck instead of pancetta and the addition of the saffron just make it a bit different and a touch more sophisticated. Yummy.

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Homemade bacon

I’ve been enjoying Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Big Book Of Meat. It’s incredibly thorough in giving you all the information you need to understand how to buy, prepare and cook meat for the best results; even without any recipes it would be worth owning. I’ve just tried his recipe for curing your own bacon.

Basically, you make a cure mix of salt, sugar, bay, juniper and black pepper, and rub it into a piece of pork belly once a day for five days, pouring off any liquid that gets pulled out of the meat. And that’s it. If you also include saltpetre, it keeps it pink, but I didn’t bother with that. I’m using chunks of it in a beef and Guinness stew – HFW is very keen on the importance of adding bacon to stews – but I fried a couple of scraps to see what it was like, and apart from going white when cooked it tasted just like proper, high quality bacon. Presumably if I’d used saltpetre it would have stayed pink. This is my lump of bacon with a lump cut off it:


I forgot to say: one of the less important things I like about the HFW book is that all the measurements are in metric. In this country, we’ve theoretically been moving to the metric system for the past 40 years, and still everyone uses a mishmash of units – feet and inches for people’s heights, metres for building specs, miles for road distances, pints for beer – and it’s ridiculous. We should just get our collective act together and stop whinging about it. Food is sold in metric units anyway, by law, so why do all cookbooks still have two sets of quantities in all the recipes?

Burns Night

I’m convinced that Burns Night is Scotland’s practical joke on the world. If you were writing a list of three ways to spoil a perfectly good dinner party, it would be hard to beat:

1) serve haggis and swedes
2) recite incomprehensible poetry
3) have bagpipe music

No wonder people drink whisky with it – it’s the only thing strong enough to dull the pain.

RSPCA ‘Freedom Food’

I was reading about meat labelling in The River Cottage Meat Book (which I’d recommend, so far, though I haven’t actually tried any of the recipes yet). He mentioned that meat labelled as ‘RSPCA Monitored Freedom Food‘ wasn’t, as you might expect, free range – just produced with slightly more regard for animal welfare than the legal minimum requirements for intensive farming. Which was a bit of a blow since I was just preparing to cook a Freedom chicken, bought in the assumption that it would be, if anything, a step up from ‘free range’.

I can see the argument for the RSPCA giving approval to some intensively farmed chickens. Intensive chickens account for 98% of the birds reared in the UK, and the RSPCA has to engage with the industry somehow; encouraging the producers to treat their birds slightly less badly is a good start.

I just think the choice of branding – ‘Freedom Food’ – is a real misjudgement, because I think most people will see it and assume it means ‘free range’, just as I did when I glanced at the chicken label. The concept of ‘free range’ chicken is devalued enough, without weakening it further. I basically feel I was misled by the packaging, and not in a way which benefits animal welfare. In future, I’m just not buying chicken or pork from the supermarket unless it’s organic. That seems to be the only labelling scheme that means anything.

Rewarding recipes – pasta with garlic, anchovies and capers

The more I cook, I the more I think of recipes in terms of the amount of work involved relative to the result – not just in terms of how good the food tastes, but how much the people you serve it to appreciate it. Two examples of things that score very badly on this score – lasagne and Caesar salad. Lasagne takes hours and, though it’s very nice, everyone makes it, it has no novelty value and no-one gets that excited by being served it. Caesar salad is one of the world’s great recipes, but it doesn’t look much; it just looks like a green salad with croutons. The time it takes to make it properly gets you no credit at all.

‘Rewarding recipes’ are the opposite – piss-easy but impressive. No 1 is a pasta recipe.

Put some pasta on to cook. Spaghetti would be fine. With about three or four minutes to go, heat olive oil and put in some crushed garlic, then when the smell rises from the pan (i.e almost immediately) add chopped anchovies and capers. Leave it to cook gently for a minute or two; and that’s your sauce.

It’s the anchovy and garlic that are the key ingredients; you could omit the capers or add some tuna. Fresh parsley is also an excellent addition. Serve with a nice white wine.

Lots of people dislike anchovies or capers or both, so you can’t give this to everyone. In a sense that’s what’s good about the recipe – the flavours are really grown-up, so it tastes much more sophisticated than a lot of these ten-minute foods.

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Stuffing update

My apricot, cherry and almond stuffing worked out well. If anything it slightly removed the need for cranberry sauce – the sour cherries have a similar fruity/sour thing going on, so you don’t really need both.

Today I shall mostly be making wild mushroom soup.

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Anyone need a good stuffing?

I’ve made like, really a lot.

But it should freeze OK. One batch is a chestnut stuffing from a Good Housekeeping book (sausagemeat, onion, celery, chestnut mushrooms, breadcrumbs, herbs, chestnuts, egg and brandy), which I’ve made before and is nice. The other is my own invention – sausagemeat with onion, dried apricots, dried sour cherries, egg, brandy and a little mixed spice. On Christmas Day I’ll let you know how it turned out.

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Folk Wisdom

Wine then beer makes you feel queer;
beer then wine makes you feel fine.

What do we learn from this? Well, by the immutable laws of rhyme, it’s obviously OK to drink anything you want all evening – tequila, cherry brandy, raki, Bailey’s – as long as you finish it up with a glass of wine.

It’s probably also OK to finish on sherry. Aquavit might be a mistake.

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the coolest use of Flickr EVER!!

Sorry for the exaggeration marks.

But it is pretty cool. It seems to be this guy‘s idea, but this is the recipe I’m most tempted to try:

You need to click on either the link or the photo above to see why it’s such a fab idea. I’m almost tempted to try doing one of these myself.

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spare ribs

I’m not even going to try to give quantities, since I just sloshed things into a bowl, so if you’ve never cooked ribs this might not be the recipe to start with. On the other hand, it is the kind of forgiving food where sloshing things into a bowl works quite well.

Like all of these rib recipes, the base of the marinade is soy and honey – quite a lot of each. I used Japanese (light) soy sauce, honey, lots of finely chopped/coarsely grated ginger, a few cloves of crushed garlic, a generous squirt of tomato puree, some dark rum, West Indian pepper sauce and smoked paprika.

I think this is nicer with smaller ribs rather than the huge meaty kind. Marinade them for a few hours, then cook in a roasting pan with the marinade for about 1h 40m at 160C. After 45 mins, turn the ribs over. With 10m to go, pour off and reserve the marinade and juices to use as a sauce for those who want it. Stir the ribs around so they’re all piled up and can brown all over.

Eat. It’s good to gnaw the meat off a bone from time to time.

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Purple Potatoes

I bought some Salad Blue potatoes at Borough Market the other day, and just ate them (roasted). I was surprised by how disconcerting I found the violet-coloured flesh. After a few mouthfuls, you get used to it, but at first, they look really unappetising. They just tasted like potatoes, though. If anything, they were on the bland side. Next time I buy heritage potatoes, I’ll pick them on the basis of flavour rather than novelty colour-scheme.

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