Sunday, 2 March 2014

An easily forgotten, any-meal staple

Ah, mardi gras, it's that time of year when people like to party and rediscover the theatre of the absurd...

The third breakfast
A play with few words and even less action
The scene: a suburban kitchen.

Act 1
A middle-aged man appears wearing lycra. He carefully makes himself a large bowl of porridge, three slices of wholesome brown toast and a café au lait. Then he puts a Beethoven piano concerto on the CD player and settles down to eat. His breakfast consumed, he dons a helmet, mounts an expensive-looking drop-handle-bar bicycle and rides out of the kitchen – almost colliding with a dishevelled middle-aged women in pyjamas. She grunts a greeting, as he disappears stage left.

Act 2
Left alone in the kitchen, the woman makes herself two double espressos and drinks them as if chain smoking, becoming more alert with every sip. She switches off the music and replaces it with a radio drama of rural life. Then she proceeds to spend two hours doing the previous day’s prize crossword. By now it is lunchtime. She eats a large bowl of muesli and two slices of the brown wholesome toast.

Act 3
The kitchen clock now shows 1.00 pm. A sullen teenage boy clad only in pants enters stage right. He yawns and then belches loudly. The man cycles back into the kitchen, considerably redder than before, almost colliding with the boy.

Man: I need something to nom on. Fast.
Boy (standing forlorn at bread bin): Someone’s eaten all the bread.
Woman: Look at this great clue. “Toast Schubert, Brahms and Liszt – cheers! (10)”.
Man: We could cook some pasta.
Boy: But I want breakfast.
Woman: The answer’s “bruschetta”.
Man: There’s no substitute for bread, is there?
Boy (in “mockney” accent): I bet you blahdy idiot fools ate all my pancake mixture from yesterday too.
All in unison: Of course, pancakes!

They rise rapidly out of their solitary dysfunctionality and bustle together, taking turns to fry pancakes for each other and eat them… with lashings of maple syrup (in honour of a distant relative). No words can be discerned. Just friendly murmurs, contented humming and noisy chomping.

From a recent production...

You can't beat the classic lemon and sugar...

... unless it's nutella

... or blueberry jam and crème fraîche

... or small, fat and drenched in maple syrup.

A recipe inspired by the play
Takes just 5 minutes in theory to get your first pancake. Then it's up to you whether to cook more or to eat as you go.

8 oz of flour
1 pint of milk
2 eggs
pinch of salt
tiny blob of butter to fry first pancake
non-stick pan essential

Chuck all the ingredients into a large jug.

Stir into an unappetising lumpy mixture.

Whizz it with a hand blender and you'll have some lovely smooth pancake mixture.

Heat the pan until very hot indeed. Chuck in the little blob of butter, which will smoke and sizzle if the pan is ready.  Pour in a small quantity of batter and immediately tip the pan around so that it spreads. When the sides are starting to go brown and curl up slightly, it's ready to toss (if you're brave) or turn (if you're not). The second side will need even less cooking than the first.

Yes, it's as simple as that. Well, maybe not quite. Some people say you should leave the batter to rest, but I've never really noticed the difference. Others add melted butter to the batter (why bother?) or use different proportions (why not?). Some like 'em fat (American-style). Some like 'em thin (French style). Some like 'em in between (British style). The only absolute is that the first one is always the hardest and often goes wrong (think scrambled omelette). Just make sure the pan is hot, experiment and enjoy. Once you get proficient, you'll even be able to write an absurd play in pancake mixture (very slowly) and – for added absurdity – eat it as you go.

Joke of the day 
What did the wooden spoon say to the flour, egg and milk?
I’m going to beat the crêpe out of you.

Rhetorical question of the day?
Why does mardi gras sound so much more fun than Shrove Tuesday?

Tip of the day
Pancakes really can be a life-saver. When you've got almost nothing in the fridge, you can knock up a two-course meal in just five minutes: cheese followed by nutella... all you need is red wine to make a very bad migraine. Oh, and apparently a handful of snow in the batter is magic. But maybe not if it's gathered from city streets.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Risotto made easy

I know you can’t believe everything you find on the Internet, but get a load of this article that I recently came across! Truly amazing…

By our whistle-blower in Naples, Buffoni Fiat Tipo di Montalbano

Can you trust a recipe from a country where the politicians bunga bunga, the wine bottles dress to hula-hula and even the ecclesiastical monuments are incapable of standing upright? This is the question the world is asking following today’s startling revelations that risotto can be made with almost no effort at all.

Collezione by man at M&S
The first leak (from a source said to be a Collezione man) confirmed a long-standing rumour that Arborio and other expensive versions of short-grain rice are another food-industry scam. Research at an out-of-town branch of a well-known evil empire reveals that perfectly serviceable short-grain pudding rice is available for only 99p, while near-identical own-brand “risotto rice” is on sale at whopping £1.19. “Go foccacia yourself,” a Tesco manager was allegedly heard to whisper, when our undercover reporter questioned the pricing policy.

Plucky little Gorganzola
Even more staggering, it emerges from cookbooks available on the open market in Italy that any cheese will do. Generations of celebrity chefs have, it seems, hoodwinked the world's public into believing that purse-raping, nostril-assaulting, baby-calf-murdering parmigiano reggiano is essential for a good risotto. Yet it turns out that many cheap vegetarian cheeses are simply delicious.

Indeed, goat is not baaaad at all, especially when combined with grated courgette and toasted pine kernels. Gorganzola, cheddar and even the product labelled only as “cheese” (selected British supermarkets only) are also perfectly acceptable. Delia Smith was unavailable for comment today, but a waiter at a ‘Jamie’s Italian’ outlet was seen brandishing a 1-metre pepper grinder in an aggressive manner.

Stirro ma non troppo
“We like our women chained to a hot stove,” said no official Italian government spokesperson today. “Or topless on daytime television,” he didn’t add. And so to the most shocking revelation of all, namely, that the sacred ritual of adding stock one ladleful at a time and stirring until your arm hurts is utterly pointless. You can simply add all the liquid at once, turn the heat down and bunga off to dance around the leaning tower of Pisa with a nice glass of chianti, while your risotto cooks itself.

Update: Buffoni Fiat Tipo di Montalbano is now resident in Sheremetyevo Airport, near Moscow

Here's a recipe that the article inspired.

Easy-peasy-cheesy risotto
Takes about 45 mins and serves 4. You can halve the quantities, but it will still take the same amount of time, so why would you (see 'Tip of the week' below)?

Ingredients for the basic version
  • Olive oil
  • A large knob of butter
  • 2 biggish onions ­– chopped
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic – crushed or chopped
  • 400 grammes of risotto rice
  • 2 glasses of white wine (or water)
  • 1.1 litres of hot water
  • A stock cube or two
  • Herbs (optional)
  • Two or three large handfuls of frozen peas (optional)
  • 100 grammes of cheese
  • Another large knob of butter
  • Salt ’n pepper to taste 
Melt the first knob of butter – with the oil – over a medium heat in a large saucepan. Fry the onions gently for 10 to 15 minutes or until transparent and soft. Add the garlic and fry a couple of minutes more. Now add the rice and let it sizzle for two minutes. Next pour in the wine (if using) and breathe in the delicious smell as the alcohol starts to evaporate, before adding the hot water and corresponding quantity of stock cube/powder. You can add dried herbs now too, if you like. Put the lid on, turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and go read a book for 20 minutes, coming back to stir occasionally. (If using peas, add them after 15 minutes or so and temporarily turn up the heat a little so that your risotto comes straight back to a simmer.) When the rice is nice and soft, take it off the heat, stir in the cheese, second knob of butter and salt’n pepper. Leave to stand for a minute or two before nomming greedily with extra grated cheese on top if wished.

Variations on the basic version
Additions to risotto fall into three main camps.
  1. Hard things that need lots of cooking and that you need to add with (or soon after) the onions, before the rice goes in. These include: celery, squash, celeriac, beetroot (makes for a fab colour).
  2. Soft things that need to be added shortly before the end of cooking (like the peas in the above recipe). These include: spinach, cherry tomatoes and grated courgette.
  3. Things that need to be cooked separately (or bought cooked) and added almost at the very end. These include: mushrooms, roasted Mediterranean vegetables and seafood (fishy risottos are nicer without cheese in my view).

This one has red onions, squab (see 1), spinach (see 2) and mushrooms (see 3). 

Vox pops of the week
I went out and about to ask several risotto ingredients how they were feeling...

Risotto à la Raffle
Tip of the week

It’s worth cooking more risotto than you need just so that you can have it refried with an egg on top for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner on subsequent days (known as risotto à la Raffle after its inventor). Put a little oil or butter in a non-stick frying pan, turn up the heat quite high and fry your left-over risotto until the cheese in it goes brown and crispy (stirring and turning occasionally to maximise the browning of the cheese). When nearly done, quickly fry or poach and egg to serve on top, making sure the yellow stays deliciously runny.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Lasagne – British style

As requested, I have been carrying out some research into lasagne (lasagna in the singular) and was delighted to find the following scholarly article. So delighted, in fact that it inspired me to create a recipe...

A short history of lasagne eating in the British Isles
by Quentin T. Meatball, BSc, NVQ level 3

Way back when, some time in the late 1960s, the exotic dish of lasagne started to penetrate the British popular consciousness. Pronounced “lass-sag-knee” [1] by the non-cognoscenti, it initially appeared on the red-and-white-checked tablecloths Italian eateries (then known as “Trattoriae” or “Spaghetti Houses”) and was soon adopted in households of a more discerning palate – especially in the Home Counties.

Rarely encountered in the same kitchen cupboard as the more popular dehydrated staples of the day, such as Butterscotch Angel Delight, Vesta Chicken Supreme and the ubiquitous Smash [2], the original egg or spinach pasta sheets were both difficult to source and time-consuming to deploy. Indeed lasagne was considered a dish for a special occasion, as the sheets had to be boiled in batches, painstakingly peeled apart from each other and cooled before the ritual layering could occur. By then, so much gin and tonic had invariably been consumed that the whole project was frequently abandoned in favour of beans on toast à la Islington (q.v.) and a snooze on the sofa in front of Dad’s Army repeats.

Exhibit 1: A photograph of the last person in the UK to find lasagne sophisticated.

The first major breakthrough occurred almost overnight when, in the mid-1970s, the magical words “no pre-cooking required” started appearing on packets. Suddenly the delights of lasagne were available to the massed proletariat. Over the next decade, new recipes proliferated in homes and restaurants. Exotic vegetarian varieties, such as spinach and mushroom or ricotta appeared alongside the traditional B&B [3], as well as less palatable pescatarian experiments involving salmon or mixed seafood.[4]

Alas, however, the status of lasagne declined steadily throughout the 90s and noughties. During these dark decades, it was frequently to be found loitering, frozen, in the ready-meal isles of Iceland and Lidl, or worse, in loucher public houses, lying in a pool of indeterminate yellow fat that had seeped from an adjacent heap of allegedly chipped potatoes.

Exhibit 2: A postcard from a British-resident lasagne sheet to his mother.

The nadir [5] came with the horsemeat scandal of 2013 and jokes such as: “Has that lasagne got bolo-neighs sauce in it?” or “What’s the salt and Shergar content of this ready meal?” Today the situation remains whoaful. One would like to conclude that the only way is up for this once-proud delicacy.

A recipe for jokin’[6] lasagne
Well, think again Quentin T. Meatball. For I can go lower. I have devised a recipe for instant lasagne. Just add hot water. OK, not quite. But no peeling, boiling or metal knives are required. And it only takes 30 mins from start to finish.

Ingredients (serves 2)
One tin of brown or green lentils
One jar of pasta sauce (spicy is surprisingly good)
One medium carton of sour cream, crème fraîche or cream
50–100g of pre-grated cheese
 6–8 sheets of lasagne
Butter or oil to grease a small oven dish (deep enough to accommodate several layers).

1.     Heat the over to about 180C (or whatever temperature is suggested on the lasagne packet).
2.     Drain your lentils and mix with the pasta sauce in a suitable bowl.
3.     Grease your tin.
4.     Spoon a layer of red sauce into the bottom.

5.     Put a sheet or two of lasagne on top, snapping it into bits and sticking them on like a jigsaw – doesn’t have to be perfect and you can stuff odd bits down the side (a bit like brushing dust under a carpet).

6.     Spread a layer of creamy stuff on top – carefully so as not to upset the mosaic you’ve just constructed. Season with salt’n pepper. Add a little cheese if you’re feeling flush.

7.     Add another layer of lasagne and another layer of the red stuff.
8.     Repeat until your tin is full or your sauces all used up.
9.     Sprinkle the cheese on top.
10. Cook for about 20 minutes (or as instructed on the lasagne packet), until brown and bubbly on top and soft inside (stick a sharp knife through to check).

10 and a half. Eat and enjoy. The cream will probably have curdled a bit, but even this is surprisingly nice.

But if you’re feeling more authentic…
Make your own béchamel sauce, as described here (well-seasoned with nutmeg), construct your own tomato-meat filling and grate your own parmesan to bubble on top. To feed four people (or one person four times): you’ll need about a pint of the white stuff; red sauce made with a couple of onions, two tins of tomatoes and some additional veg and/or mince (horse or cow to taste); just over a packet of pasta sheets; and up to 100g of cheese.

My personal favourite is a red filling made with dried mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, aubergine and red wine with slices of goats cheese on top.

Apparently, “proper” (ie non-British) lasagne is quite dry. To obtain that effect you have to go easy on the sauce and heavy on the pasta sheets, but then you risk the pasta not softening in the oven. What the hell, I like it quite sloppy, anyway.

To be honest, the proportions don’t really matter. I like to start with a layer of red and finish with a layer of white and alternate strictly in between, but hay, why not let your imagination canter free across the culinary plains?

Tip of the day: Truth be known, lasagne is still a bit of a faff for a whole family. But it’s a surprisingly practical option for one person, as you can make a small one with bits of left-over sauce (try curry if you’re feeling fusiony), any old past-its-sell-by creamy stuff lying around in the fridge and top it with dried up cheese of any variety.

Wikipedia meatballs of the day: Jokin’ over, this is real. I reckon someone’s avin’ a larff, though.” Could it be Quentin T. Meatball?

On the origins of lasagne… “A third theory proposed that the dish is a development of the 14th century English recipe 'Loseyn' as described in The Forme of Cury, a cook book in use during the reign of Richard II.”

[1] Cf the exotic new breakfast cereal that appeared around the same time: “Mew-ess-lee”.
[2] For the benefit of Martians and the young, a form of instant mashed potato.
[3] Bolognese & béchamel.
[4] The Grauniad continues to plough this fertile furrow of innovation with a recent recipe for haggis lasagne.
[5] Neigh, dear?
[6] A Wenglish (form of pidgin English spoken in South Wales) term meaning ersatz.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Three alternatives to ketchup and spaghetti

Well, it’s the end of the month again. Worse, it’s exam time. So not only do you lack money. You also have little time. Hence this frugal blog post: no pictures, no poems and no-pennies recipes (almost) – written as I wait for my apple tart to cook.

Of course, when I were a lass, ketchup and spaghetti was what we ate at such times, shivering in shared houses as the mould crept across the ceiling. Aye, it were look-chérie!

But I understand that the youth of today have more exotic tastes, so here are three alternatives:
  • Ketchup and rice
  • Dog food
  • Ketchup and string.

Only kidding. After all dog food and string have become so expensive these days. Here are my real suggestions.

1. Pasta, pesto and baked beans
This is one of my favourite meals, so it’s more of a reminder than a recipe. The proportions roughly are 125g of pasta, a quarter of a small jar of pesto and a half a standard can of Heinz per person. And if you have the misfortune to be a student in a country where there are no Heinz beans… well, scour the Internet until you find someone like the wonderful Clarence from Clarence and Cripps, who imports and dispatches them at astonishingly reasonable rates.

2. Pasta, butter and grated cheese
Another classic. Foodie types may witter on about half-parmesan-half-pecorino, but I think bog-standard, bagged’ngrated, industrial Emmental works best. The trick is to put plenty of butter, salt and pepper ­­– and to stir your drained pasta with the butter and cheese back on the heat ever-so-briefly to make sure the cheese melts. Amounts of everything to be determined by instinct and availability.

3. Love-hate spaghetti (aka pasta with marmite… and butter of course)
Yes, it sounds disgusting even to marmite lovers, but domestic goddess, Nigella said it worked – and it does. Shame her reputation has taken a bit of bashing this last week, but that was for substances other than yeasty spreads. The trick again is plenty of butter. Nigella suggests 50 grammes of butter for 375 gees of pasta, but I usually put at least 25 grammes for one serving of spag, with a small spoonful of marmite. The method is to melt the butter in a saucepan, then to stir in the marmite and mix, before chucking in the pasta and stirring it around. Add nothing more for sheer heaven on a plate.

And if you have the misfortune to be a student in a country where there is no marmite… well, Clarence stocks it.

Quiz question of the week
Q: How do you tell when you have passed definitively from the old world to the new?
A: When you use the term “care package” to describe the box of beans and chocolate hobnobs your mother sends you. Still, better than calling it a “tuck parcel”, I suppose.

Tip of the week
If your apple tart burns slightly while you are writing a blog, simply sprinkle it with icing sugar and no one will know. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Cullen skink

Scotland has given so much to the world: bagpipes, man-skirts and Michael Gove to name just a few examples. My personal favourite, though, is cullen skink, the comfortingly creamy smoked-haddock soup. So imagine my joy when I heard about the recent rediscovery of a Robbie Burns poem dedicated to the delicacy! Of course, this juvenile verse lacks the polish of his classics, ‘To a Mouse’, ‘To a Louse’ and even ‘Address to a Haggis’. But it captures my feelings about cullen skink quite uncannily.

To a soup
On drinking a bowl of cullen skink

The best laid ’cipes o’ mams an’ men
Gang aft a-gley
But “a finer soup than the skink o’ Cullen”?
Tha’ I canna say.

Tatties an’ alliums, thou art blest
When mashit wi’ milk in the soup that’s best –
All cozyin’ up tae the fish so yeller
(I ken, I ken, ’tis a blastit smeller).

Cawl, chowder, bouillabaisse,
Minestrone, wonton… och, they’re less
Than home’s auldest kindness o’ cup.
Aye, life tastes better when I thee sup!

O cullen skink,
Ye may wel stink
O’ smokit wee haddock fishies.
But pleasure ye spread
An’ put worries ta bed,
Wen steamin’ in ma ikea china dishies.

Leekie all a’cock,
Teacek o’ tunnock,
Girders wrought intae irn bru,
Haggis, porridge, deep frite marsbar too…
Ium! We hae meat and we can eat.
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
More! We hae skink and we can drink
God’s culinary comfort blanket.

Enough bad poetry. Bring on the recipe…

Takes: about 40 mins
Serves: three as a main course if you’re generous with the bread


About 400 grammes of smoked haddock fillets (preferably not the bright yellow kind, despite what the poem says) – or other smoked white fish

Something from the allium family (one medium-sized onion or two leeks – or possibly even a small bunch of spring onions)

Two biggish tatties (that’s potatoes to us Sassenachs)

A generous knob of butter

About 300 ml of water (OK I admit it, I usually use half white wine, half water)

About 500 ml of milk (OK, I admit it, I usually use half cream, half milk)

Something green like a bit of chopped parsley, chives or tarragon (optional)

Salt (probably not much, as smoked fish can be salty) and pepper

Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over low heat. Meanwhile, chop up the onion. (If using leeks, remove the tough outer layers and the topmost ends, slice up what’s left and wash off any grit.) Then fry the onion bits (or leeks) gently in the butter for about ten minutes, so that they go translucent and soft without going brown.

While the onions are cooking, put the fish in a small saucepan, cover with the cold water and bring to the boil. After a couple of minutes’ simmering, the fish should be cooked – that is, opaque, and easy to flake and skin. Take the fish out of the water (but don’t throw this precious cooking liquid away), remove the skin and flake it up with a fork.

You should still have time to scrub your two potatoes and cut them into 1–1.5 cm cubes before the onions have finished cooking. If not, hoots mon!, they just can fry a little longer.

Once the onions are cooked, add the potato cubes, stir them round and fry for a minute or two. Now add the cooking liquid from the haddock, bring back to the boil, put the lid on and simmer until the potatoes are well mashable (about 25 mins).

Now add the milk (and/or crème fraîche or sour cream) and bring back to the boil.

At this point, you’re pretty much done. You can either bung in the flaked haddock and mash the whole lot with a masher or you can liquidise the mixture with a hand blender, before stirring in the haddock. 

But I think good old Felicity Cloake has got it just right in her Guardian column. She takes out a large spoonful of potato and onion and replaces it with half the haddock, before blending. Then she stirs in the reserved potato and haddock bits to give some pleasing lumps.

Garnish with green stuff and eat with crusty bread or toast. Life will immediately seem better.

Tip of the day
You can give your cullen skink some fancy new-world name like "smoked haddock chowder", but it will immediately cease to be comfort food. Same goes for Frenchifying. Hachis parmentier and riz au lait are simply nowhere near as feel-good as shepherd's pie or rice pudding.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The adventures of Super-Veg

Everyone knows that an ordinary tin of tomatoes and an ordinary any vegetable will make, when combined, an acceptable pasta sauce. But there is something you can add to an ordinary tin of tomatoes to turn it into the most delectable pasta sauce ever. Is it a herb? Is it a grain? No, it’s a super-vegetable.

From mountain rescue to bleeding radiators...

From snatching ordinary any vegetables from the jaws of evil predators...

To tackling bad-ass books...

Super-Veg has some very special powers. But when he’s done saving the world, he flies away home to a Simple Sicilian peasant existence (also known as Norma life).

Seriously, though, aubergines (or are they “eggplants” where you live?) do have some wondrous properties. Almost meaty at times, they are capable of absorbing huge quantities of olive oil when fried – or of shrinking to about half their original size when roasted. Curiously too, they taste nicest when burned and served with tomatoes… hence these two recipes for pasta alla Norma (aka "simple Sicilian spaghetti").

Recipe 1: pasta alla Norma
Takes about half an hour and makes three or four servings.

  • 1 to 2 aubergines
  •  2 or 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tin of tomatoes (400g)
  • 1 slab of feta cheese (200g)
  •  Olive oil for frying
  • Salt and pepper for seasoning
  • Basil or oregano for extra flavour (optional)
  • Pasta to serve

Slice up your aubergines. Jamie Oliver reckons they should be this shape and I tend to agree (but I’ve no idea why it's better than rounds).

Put a generous sploosh of olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan, heat until very hot and fry your aubergine slices on both sides until your smoke alarm goes off. Honestly, they really do taste nicer burned.

You’ll probably need two or three rounds of frying to get through all the slices, adding oil each time (although they do start to release oil once cooked). Be careful when you add more oil and slices, as – if the pan is hot enough – the little blighters will start spitting at you. Also, the second batch will probably cook a lot faster than the first.

Once all your slices are fried, let the pan cool down, while you chop up the garlic. Add more oil if there’s none left in the pan and fry the chopped garlic gently for a couple of minutes (You may be able to do this off the heat if you get them in the pan before it cools down completely. On the other hand, if you’re impatient and add it too soon, your garlic will burn – and unlike aubergines, garlic definitely doesn’t improve when browned.)

Now add the tin of tomatoes and simmer gently for about five minutes, still on a lowish-to-medium heat. If you’re using dried herbs add a sprinkling of them now and stir in. Meanwhile, cut up your feta cheese into cubes or crumble it roughly.

 Add the singed aubergine slices to the pan and stir them around. Cook for another couple of minutes until they’re hot again, then add the feta and fresh herbs (if using). Stir to break up the cheese, heat through and season to taste with pepper and possibly a little salt (depending on how salty your feta is).

Add to pasta for a truly delectable experience.

Recipe 2: Even simpler Sicilian
Takes about an hour and makes three or four servings.

As above.

This version is, truth be known, slightly less yummy and takes up to twice the time, compared with the first recipe. But it’s easier on your smoke-alarm batteries, kinder on your neighbours’ eardrums and doesn’t spit at you. Also, you can go tackle a bad-ass book, while it’s cooking (but do keep an eye on it, just in case).

Heat your oven to about 200 degrees centigrade. Chop your aubergine into cubes, place in an oven-proof tray, sploosh with olive oil, stir to coat and put in the oven. After about 15 minutes take it out, give it a stir and maybe add another sploosh of oil if the cubes are looking dry.

After another 15 minutes, add the garlic – finely sliced (don’t ask me why, it’s nicer sliced than chopped if roasted) – and stir, before putting back in the oven. The cubes of aubergine should be browning nicely by now.

After another 10 minutes, the aubergine should be well browned and the garlic cooked. Now add the tomatoes and dried herbs if using. Heat through in the oven for about 5 minutes. Then stir in the feta (cubed or crumbled) and fresh herbs (if using) and pop back in the oven. After another 5 minutes, it should all be hot, the feta should have melted in and you can eat it with pasta, just like before.

Tip of the week
Aubergine (and mushrooms for that matter) can be diced up nice and small and fried with onions to create a kind of student version of mincemeat – which you can use as the base for chilli sin carne or faux Bolognese sauce. Ideal for those evenings when you just can't look another lentil in the eye.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A cheesy saga

Once, two siblings of the brassica (aka cabbage) family were living a bucolic existence. She was complex and beautiful – fractal even at times.


Unashamedly romanesco, she also had rather intellectual leanings – given her rustic background.

He was sturdier and simpler, with a taste for far less challenging pursuits.

But despite their differences, they were family, they were organic and everything in the garden was lovely. Sometimes life really was a bed of roses.

Other times were just green and idyllic.

Then one day they both drowned – deliciously – in cheese sauce. The end.

The magic moral of this tragic tale is that even cauliflower and broccoli become heavenly when coated in cheese sauce. The same goes for that most horrid of pastas: macaroni. The weird thing is that cauliflower and macaroni taste yummier in cheese sauce than regular nice foods do. The trick is to go heavy on the sauce, light on the stuff inside it and generous with the browning on top. Here’s how you make the sauce.

Cheese sauce
Takes about 15 minutes and coats enough pasta and/or vegetables for about three main-course servings.

  • 2 ounces or 100 grammes of butter
  • 2 ounces or 100 grammes of plain flour
  • 1 pint (an ye olde worlde British pint, which is 20 fluid ounces) or just over half a litre of milk
  • 4 ounces or 200 grammes of grated cheese (as strong as possible) – plus an extra ounce or two to give your dish a brown, bubbling topping… mmmm
  • salt, pepper and optional spoonful of mustard to taste

Melt the butter on a low to medium heat.

Stir in the flour to make a paste and cook gently for a minute or two.

Now pour in a sploosh of milk and stir into the paste until it’s smooth again. Now pour in another sploosh and repeat. Repeat again. And again.

Carrying on doing this until all the milk is absorbed and the mixture is too liquid to be called sauce. This is fairly tedious, especially at the beginning. Sometimes at the beginning too, the paste gets thicker before it gets thinner (some science-defying kitchen magic that I don’t quite understand). But towards the end each sploosh is easy and quick.

Once the milk is all in the pan, heat gently stirring occasionally – or heat more vigorously stirring all the time – until the sauce thickens. Then simmer gently for a minute or so.

Now, like a good fifties housewife, you know how to make a white sauce. Or, as we know it in foodier, less housewifely times béchamel sauce (of lasagne fame).

You can turn your béchamel into cheese sauce by stirring in the grated cheese (and some mustard if you like). Or you can turn it into parsley sauce by mixing in – you guessed it – chopped parsley. Or simply grate in some nutmeg for a slightly sophisticated flavour. But only cheese sauce can be used to make cauliflower or macaroni cheese, which you do as follows…

Take some vegetables or macaroni. The one-pint-of-milk sauce recipe is enough for a large cauliflower (ordinary or romanesco) and a stump of broccoli. Or it will do 300 grammes of macaroni. Alternatively 200 grammes of macaroni and a stump of broccoli will make broccaroni cheese, which is a healthy compromise. The method is obvious, but I’ll tell you anyway.

Cook your florets of vegetables and/or macaroni in boiling water (save time by doing it while you make your sauce). Timings are about 5 minutes for broccoli, up to 10 minutes for cauliflower (depends on how big you make your florets) and as on the packet for the pasta. Then put them in an ovenproof dish, pour over the sauce, stir to mix/coat if necessary and top with the additional grated cheese (and breadcrumbs if you want to add a bit of crunch). Heat in a hot oven for about 15 to 20 minutes. Or bubble under the grill for about 5 mins, keeping a watchful eye over it.

Thank you for being a saucier’s apprentice.

In next week’s brassic classic…
Marcel Sprout goes in search of the Turnip Perdu.

Tip of the week
Speed up your sauce-making and reduce the likelihood of lumps by heating the milk first. And if it does go lumpy, simply deploy the magic wand that is your hand blender.