The House Party

It is sadly an altogether too rare delight that my housemates and I manage to be in the house all at the same time of an evening. Despite the fact we have lived together for the past 4 months, we very rarely seem to manage to all be there at the same time. This may have something to do with the fact that I work during the day, Mark Francis works during the evening and Clare Balding works whenever she can/has to. When we do find ourselves in the house together, it is usually either early in the morning standing in our bedroom doorways clad in dressing gowns for a quick 10 min chat, or occasionally at about midnight, when we all traipse in from our various social activities to share the gossip we know about those still at the university. Hence the fact that a dinner together is practically unheard of. When we discovered we all happened not to have prior social commitments on the same evening, that evening became a social occasion in itself. I hit up Aldi, Clare Balding brought the Prosecco and Mark Francis brought… himself. We decided we would make one course each: CB the starter, myself the main and MF the dessert. I feel each course reflected our different cooking styles…

We began with a classic combination of melon, prosciutto, Parmesan, rocket and balsamic. It was delicious. Sometimes just combining good quality ingredients together is all you need to make a really good dish. (Plus look how pretty it is!)

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I, of course, went to the other extreme: simplicity was not the aim in my dish. I made lamb neck fillets with a harissa pine nut crust, roasted veg and raisin-studded couscous, a thickened tagine-style sauce, sautéed spinach and a mint raita.

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The highlight of the meal was inevitably the pizza, sorry, ‘pudding’. Unfortunately by this point the novelty of cooking had worn off, and we were all more interested in watching Christmas adverts on YouTube and listening to 100 year old recordings of castrati sounding incredibly bad. Mark Francis did his best though, and made beautiful looking (slightly pizza-esque) individual strawberry tarte tatins with grated white chocolate. These managed to be not too sweet and full of luscious strawberry flavour: like a fruit-filled strawberry ice cream. However he was too impatient to actually wait for the tarts to cook… As Mary Berry would say (and I know my housemates are fans) the tarts most definitely had rather soggy bottoms.

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Confusing the Palate

Confusing the Palate

Once again I have been possibly slightly unwittingly coerced by my friends to cook for them in what can only be described as basic cooking conditions. This time it was marginally easier, only 4 to cook for, no dietary restrictions and a more free day leading up to it. Plus I had further enticement as the three dinner guests agreed to match my menu with wines for each course. As per usual the menu was possibly a little obsessively planned – excel, timetable, price itemised shopping list….. If only I gave my degree this much attention.

Unfortunately that day the time I had allotted to finishing my coursework so I felt slightly better about jet setting to the Isle of Man on choir tour ( yes we did fly and it was a very exciting tour) was spent trying in Vain to save my degree, I accidentally wiped my computer hard drive, hopefully this can be remedied – watch this space. Most people in this circumstance would most likely be in hysterics, alleviating anger by throwing heavy objects at the wall, or immediately degrading from their degree and moving to anguished exile in Siberia to escape the pain of the disappearance of half a years worth of coursework. I’m afraid I did none of these things. The excitement of cooking a dinner party made up if my favourite foods, with some of my favourite people and a copious amount of good wine somehow managed to inspire such a cloud of optimism – I am still living in the sphere of it and am still convinced this will be ok- my mother on the other hand is despairing, possibly mostly at my casual attitude….
Anyway back to dinner – if anything can distract me from a possible career ending mistake it would be confit chicken, truffle jus, peanut butter parfait…. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We began with prosecco and walkers crisps. However these wakers crisps tasted especially good because I’d stolen them from the snack basket of the current bane of my life, the college fundraising campaign. If you have ever had to persuade people to give you money when they are trying it tell you that they’ve just been made redundant/had a baby/ bought a house so can’t afford it right now you will understand the soul draining experience that is telephone campaign. (Disclaimer – the crisps were meant for workers like me so it wasn’t so much stealing)

 I wanted to challenge our taste buds by starting with a sweet course and ending with a savoury while still trying maintain some sort of style and complexity within my ‘having to reboot the oven every 15mins’ limitations. So we began with a Roasted tomato and caramelised onion Tarte Tatin with Ricotta quenelle. This is a surprisingly easy dish, particularly with the aid of Lakeland disposable foil pudding dishes – effectively the basis of this meal.

Serves 4
2 large tomatoes
Thyme
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 onions
1tbsp butter
Bay leaf
2 tbsp sugar + 2tbsp sugar
Salt
Pepper
Drop vanilla essence
White wine vinegar (I shamefully had to use fish and chip vinegar)
Ready rolled puff pastry

Roast the tomatoes, cut in half and garlic still in its skin with a drizzle of olive oil, pinch of salt and thyme leaves for about 10-15mins at 180oC.
Meanwhile chop the onions and then sweat over a medium heat in the butter with a good sprinkling of salt (add water if the onions look like they will burn).
When translucent add the bay leaf, a splash of vinegar, pepper, drop of vanilla and half the sugar. When sticky and caramelised, set aside.
Finally melt the remaining sugar with 2tbsp water till a golden amber colour .
Place 1tsp caramel in the base of 4 foil pudding pots. Top with the tomatoes, flat side down and a garlic clove, squeezed out of its skin. Then add a spoonful of onions. Finally top with a disk of puff pastry.
Bake in the oven for 15 min or until golden – turn over – make a quenelle with a spoon of ricotta and serve.

The main used one of my favourite ingredients. I can’t stress enough how amazing a few drops of truffle oil is in most dishes! Some of the best examples include in mash potatoes, mushroom risotto, in butter for steak or even (if you’re feeling adventurous) white truffle and black pepper ice cream with strawberries. It is most definitely worth the £3.99 I paid for it – this bottle is going to last me for about a year, even the smell of it is pretty satisfying.
Other than the truffle oil, all the ingredients in this main are pretty cheap which just goes to show that you don’t need to spend a lot to throw a great dinner party (this is one of the many tips I tend to shout at the TV screen when watching Come Dine with Me, along with why do you start cooking when your guests arrive???). I do agree that you can taste a great cut of organic meat, especially with steak where the better the quality the less you have to do to it, I barely cook mine, BUT I used sainsbury’s basics chicken leg pieces for this dish, at the grand total of 4 for £2.69, and it came out absolutely beautifully.
So here it is Confit Chicken leg, buttered cabbage with nutmeg, butternut squash dauphinoise, toasted hazelnuts and truffle jus. Again relatively easy, just prep the hazelnuts, chicken, dauphinoise and chop the cabbage in advance and you can pretty much just leave it to cook while you can go and drink with your guests (take notes Come dine with me contestants).

Serves 4
For the Chicken
4 chicken legs
2l sunflower/vegetable oil
1tsp truffle oil
8-10 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
few sprigs of thyme
50g sea salt flakes
pepper
For the Cabbage
1 savoy cabbage
2tbsp water
50g salted butter
pinch of nutmeg
pepper
For the Jus
1-2tsp truffle oil
1 stock cube
small knob of butter
rosemary
2 garlic cloves
sprig thyme
bay leaf
pepper
splash lemon juice
For the Dauphinoise
1 butternut squash
pepper
8 cloves or so garlic
sea salt flakes
thyme
bay leaf
300ml cream
(milk)
For the Hazlenuts
100g blanched hazlenuts finely chopped (or bashed)

Rub the chicken with the salt, crushed garlic cloves, pepper and herbs, set aside for about an hour or so. Meanwhile toast the hazelnuts in a dry saucepan over a medium heat NB keep tossing to try and prevent burning, set aside.
Chop the squash into slices and layer in a shallow dish, studding every couple of layers with garlic cloves, a good sprinkling of salt and some pepper and the herbs. Pour over the cream, you may need a bit of milk to bring the cream/milk to the same level as the top layer of the squash, alternatively you can top this up with cream, the dish will be more stodgy but richer and really delicious.
Chop the cabbage into strips (the best way to do this is cut out the centre and chop all the sides into strips). Place into a saucepan with the butter, water, nutmeg and pepper, set aside.
Wash most of the salt off the chicken, reserving the herbs, half of the garlic and about 5-10g of the salt (this is approximate, the idea is you need a bit left). Place in a shallow dish and cover the chicken and herbs etc with the oils.
Put the chicken in the oven at 150oC for about an hour and a half. Forty minutes before you want to eat put the squash in the oven, when ready the squash should be starting to brown on top.
Meanwhile for the jus, chop the garlic and place in a small saucepan with the butter and sauté for 2-3mins. Pour over the lemon juice and add the herbs and 250ml water. Add the stock cube and stir to dissolve over a medium heat. Reduce to about half then add the truffle oil. Remove from the heat.
5mins before you want to eat, put the cabbage on the heat and cover, cook for 5mins and then remove from the heat.
To serve, place a handful of cabbage in the middle of the plate, top with a chicken leg and sprinkle with hazelnuts, finally spoon over some jus. Serve the dauphinoise separately, trust me a normal sized portion may not be enough for each person.

Now since I had done a sweet starter I decided to counter expectations with a salty dessert based on the american classic snack, a PBJ sandwich. My sister will tell you how obsessed I am with peanut butter, so much so that she promised to make me a giant peanut butter cup in lieu of a cake for my 18th birthday (if you’re reading this it’s 3 years down the line and I’m still waiting on that). When we went to America the excitement of every single chocolate bar having a version in peanut butter not to mention every restaurant meal. While in San Francisco last year I remember having a peanut butter cheesecake slice for lunch rather than the more nutritious savoury burritos my friends have. I do try and limit my addiction as too much of a good thing (at least in this case) would make me end up morbidly obese, but since I got to choose the menu for this party, it was inevitably included. This isn’t for everyone (my haribo addicted dinner partner would’ve preferred a sweeter dessert) but for me it encapsulates heaven


Peanut butter parfait, cookie crumbs, chocolate squares and homemade strawberry jam
Makes 6
For the parfait
200g peanut butter
300g cream cheese
75g sugar
vanilla extract
200ml cream
3/4 sachet powdered gelatine
1 packet chocolate chip cookies
50g butter
For the chocolate squares
masking tape
dark chocolate (60% or more)
For the jam
400g strawberries
150g sugar
1 sachet powdered gelatine
black pepper
vanilla extract

Beat together the peanut butter, cream cheese, sugar and vanilla extract. Add the sugar, beat, then whisk together the gelatine and cream to combine before adding to the mix and beating further. Meanwhile make the cookies into crumbs, best done in a food processor. grease 6 pudding dishes (see above) well and then cover in cookie crumbs. (the best way to do this is place a large spoonful in the bottom and then pour out, turning as you do to cover all the sides). Fill the moulds with parfait and leave to set in the fridge. Reserve the remaining cookie crumbs
Meanwhile make a grid on a parchment lined tray with the masking tape. Melt the chocolate and spread over the grid, leave at room temperature to set, when still soft but not liquid, peel off the masking tape carefully, you should be left with perfect chocolate squares, place in the fridge to set.
Macerate (cover) the chopped strawberries in the sugar and black pepper. After about 30mins, place over a medium heat and liquids using a hand held blender. Bring to the boil and simmer for 3-5mins. Add the gelatine and stir to dissolve, leave to cool. Ideally you would then put this in a piping bag, I didn’t have one 😦
To serve, place a chocolate square on the plate, release the parfait and place on top, finish with a second chocolate square. Use the piping bag to pipe dots of jam around this (again I couldn’t do this) and scatter with cookie crumbs.

 

For finishing touches to the perfect evening, add wine and good company.

The Great French Adventure

The Great French Adventure
Rose Wine, garlic and other stories
            This summer I went on yet another choir tour (well choir tour is a relative term, it was more a cookery holiday with the odd bit of singing). I don’t think you can ask for much more than the gorgeous weather of the south of France, great company and a massive kitchen completely at my disposal. Luckily the choir was one to a part so they were quite lenient when I would spend most rehearsals leaving mid song saying ‘just got to check on the cookies’. (I think the fact they got to eat the cookie dough may have helped a little bit) All in all it was a rather good set up, the four singers (plus 2 extra tag alongs) and our hosts, all welcome recipients of my experimentations (even if they often turned out not necessarily as planned). Plus a huge herb garden, which I’m sure any chef will tell you is one of the ultimate luxuries, to be able to go out and pick anything you feel like adding to the dish. On top of all this we were able to give a little back with a small number of concerts we managed to fit in around the swimming, eating and cooking.
            My mantra in France was garlic, butter and cream, from there you couldn’t go much wrong. I would spend most days getting up and dragging people to the boulongerie/patisserie for some of the best croissant I have ever tasted (well it was France), before getting started on a routine of cooking with intermittent rehearsals. Of course I always had willing helpers (especially on the washing up front which was a godsend), the soprano was particularly talented at chopping garlic, the bass successfully whipped about 10 egg whites before I found the electric whisk and the tenor had a moment of spiritual revelation over whipping cream.  (There was also the time I set them shelling pistachios – I was not popular..) Then in the evening (sometimes following a concert), we would sit down to an aperitif (usually rose wine a la region though thanks to my influence Campari later made an appearance) followed by a three-course meal. Of course I made some obvious choices, the pea pesto for instance, but I also got to have a go at gazpacho (a little heavy on the garlic, what wasn’t) and snails. My favourite dessert I made that week was lemon meringue pie, although I learnt a few things
1.     Let the lemon curd cool completely before pouring in the pastry cases
2.     Don’t forget about the pastry cases in the oven – they will burn
3.     Cook the lemon curd for longer than you think (mine was liquid)
4.     Sage makes quite a nice addition to the curd
Another big fail of the week was the last night beef. We had a concert so I was determined that I would slow cook the beef in red wine, however I had failed to take into account that the cut we had bought had very little fat on it so the beef came out of the oven old and tough, luckily the amount of herbs I had shoved in the pot meant it tasted good even if the texture was wrong – note to self fat=tender.
            Another not so much fail, but definite disaster moment was the fish. There were eleven of us eating so I had bought 3 large fillets of some unidentifiable white fish which after flouring and seasoning, I fried using a large flat pan on the stove. Unfortunately not only did the kitchen fill with smoke which made my turning down of a cigarette earlier in the evening seem pointless, but also I almost set myself on fire several times. Is it bad that my first thought at this point was not ‘I almost died’ but ‘what will they do without an alto’…..
            Two of the more exciting desserts were the rhubarb tarte tatin and the peach clafoutis. The tarte tatin was simple. I made a caramel using about 3tbsp sugar and a knob of butter, 1tbsp of honey, a split vanilla pod, large sprinkling of salt and some cinnamon and ginger. Then I placed raw rhubarb into the pan before covering the whole thing with a sheet of puff pastry. I cooked for about 15-25mins or until the top was brown at 140oC, then I let it cool. I served this with an orange and basil infused custard. Once you’ve made custard you realise how surprisingly easy it is. You can add any flavour by infusing it in the cream that you heat up (here orange peel, vanilla seeds and basil), then you need lots of egg yolks, sugar whisked up and the key when you combine these two mixtures is just to heat it over a very low heat and don’t stop stirring. It will feel like it takes forever and you will want to leave it, but don’t. If you need to go to the loo, turn it off, if you need to check on a cake, turn it off, but whatever you do don’t leave it unattended.

            The peach clafoutis was a new dessert I’d always seen but never made, it’s a sort of giant, thick baked pancake. The key here is not to undercook it, add vanilla extract and lots of sugar on top to brulee the top. To make the pancake mix, you heat 125ml cream, 125ml milk in a pan with vanilla extract/ any flavours you would like in it (here I added a little bay leaf). Beat 4 eggs and 170g sugar together, then fold in 3 tbsp flour. Add the cooled milk/cream mix and whisk together. Halve peaches and place facing up in a dish (they add a lovely sourness within the sweet batter). Pour over the batter and dot butter over the top. Cook for 20mins at 180oC, take out of the oven and sprinkle over sugar, put in the oven for a further 10mins till the top has browned slightly. The custard I served with this was grand marnier flavour. For this I added grand marnier at the final stage, when I was slowly cooking the final product so that all the alcohol didn’t evaporate. Unfortunately at 9 in the morning when I decided to make this some of the alcohol did come off, I don’t advise starting the day steaming grand marnier, especially if you then have wine with lunch….. We also found with this custard that the grand marnier appeared to strengthen with age, when we had the leftovers the next day for lunch it was a lot more alcoholic than it had seemed the night before….
            By the end of the night, we were usually singing loudly (it was a good thing we could all actually sing) a wide variety of pieces. We managed to go from Rule Britannia in four part harmony, to a memorable rendition of you’re the one that I want from Grease complete with dancing, to Bruckner motets. We did ask some of the locals on the final night if our singing had disturbed at 1 in the morning, luckily the immediate neighbours assured us that they had enjoyed it and it was an advertisement for our concert rather than a deterrent. Luckily plying them with red onion and goats cheese tart was another factor in appeasing the neighbours.
            If anything can make a kitchen smell amazing, it is slow cooking caramelised onions. All you have to do is finely slice red onions and put in a pan with garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper, vinegar, butter and sugar and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally till you get a lovely concoction of sweet smelling, sticky onions. Use this to top a sheet of puff pastry and add slices of goats cheese and you have heaven on earth. The French get a lot right.
            In fact other things the French clearly got right as seen from this holiday choir tour.
1.     Garlic (it basically makes you feel better however much you’ve eaten, dunk, sung)
2.     Croissant
3.     Lunch should take at least 2 hours, dinner 4
4.     Even the most basic ingredients in supermarkets should be nice
5.     Butter and Cream make everything better
6.     Baguettes really do make the best sort of bread
7.     Homemade pate is divine, flavours don’t have to be traditional and it doesn’t need to look pretty (e.g fig, chestnut, pepper..)
8.     Wine co-operatives are such a good idea (where anyone who earns a vineyard, donates their grapes to one co-operative, who make the wine and the profit is split. The community then fill up jerry cans from petrol pumps and it is cheaper, nicer and better for everyone)
9.     A little wine at every meal is so much better than England’s binge drinking society
10. If it’s not in season you will find it had to get hold of, even in a supermarket
11. Champagne and macaroons are the answer to everything