Gastrobabble

A quest for gastro-liberation, an excuse to buy more cookbooks…


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A variation on a theme

So listen, I know that I started this whole food challenge thing because I wanted to break out of a cooking rut.

However, sometimes a little comfort isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes, the well-worn tread of the familiar is soothing in its predictability. Sometimes you just want to feel like you’re on home ground when you feel that everything else around you is adrift.

Much of the cooking that I’ve been doing lately has centred around a variation on a theme. Lots of roast chickens; bubbling pots of stock; stickily caramelised roast vegetables; and lentil salads, glistening with mustard and lemon juice. I’m not going to patronise you readers – I am sure you don’t need another roast chicken recipe or lecture on the joys of stock making.

However, what I will do is talk about two lentil things that I make quite frequently because they require little thought or planning. Honestly, this is genuine store cupboard stuff – none of that “I always keep nam pla and galangal in the pantry” nonsense. (I actually do but that’s besides the point…) What I love about these recipes is that you can make it with whatever you’ve got hanging about the kitchen. You can dress it up or go frugal; either will satisfy. Best of all, make it once and you won’t have to consult the recipe again. Make it again slightly differently every time, you’ll refine and improve it every time. Who knows, before long you might feel ready to venture out onto choppy waters again.

Lentil & tomato soup

This was the first soup I ever made and I was overjoyed at how easy it was to make. Since then, I’ve experimented with different variations: a sweet and spicy version studded with slices of chorizo; invigorating earthy spiciness with toasted cumin seeds undercut with cider vinegar; a version rich with red wine and lardons; and a straightforward, hearty version made with roasted tomatoes, homemade chicken stock and leftover roast chicken. Also, this freezes incredibly well – make twice the amount you want to eat, it won’t entail any extra effort on your part.

1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes

1 mug lentils (green, red or puy, take your pick – cooking time will vary according to what type you choose)

an onion, chopped

a few cloves of garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon chilli flakes

vinegar (again any type will do – I have used sushi vinegar in a pinch before)

salt & pepper

olive oil

Heat up a glug of olive oil in a large saucepan and gently fry the onion, garlic, cumin and chilli flakes until translucent and soft. Add in a generous mug of your lentil of choice and continue frying for another minute or so. Increase the heat and add in a large slug of vinegar, let it bubble and reduce down for about a minute before adding the can of tomatoes. Fill the empty can halfway with tap water and swoosh out the remains into the saucepan. Bring the soup to the boil and then immediately reduce the heat to the lowest simmer. Let it cook for as long as the lentils need (be careful with red lentils, you don’t want them to overcook into a mush. My preferred lentil is the green lentil, it will retain a nutty bite and provide nice texture to the soup). Season to taste before serving.

Variations

Try it with either bacon, lardons or chorizo (added in when frying the onions and garlic) or leftover roast chicken (added in to warm through before serving).

For a more luxe version, ditch the canned tomatoes. Try roasting tomatoes and garlic to intensify their sweetness and bolster with homemade chicken stock. This marries well with the substitution of finely chopped chilli, smoked paprika and ground coriander.

Roasted sweet potato and lentil salad

This recipe is actually a request for my Library Wife. She came to visit this weekend and knowing how much she likes my roast chicken, I decided to treat her to my new favourite salad. This salad works well with any roastable vegetables you have to hand but what makes it really sing is the vinaigrette which is an adaptation of the classic French vinaigrette.

a generous mugful of green lentils

1 large sweet potato

a few cloves of garlic

salad leaves, washed and torn

fine beans, lightly boiled

a lemon

mustard (wholegrain, French or English – again your choice)

vinegar (I like cider but again, anything apart from malt will do)

extra virgin olive oil

salt & papper

Preheat your oven to 180c/gas mark 5.

Peel and dice your sweet potato into large chunks. Toss into a roasting tin with the cloves of garlic (skin still on), the lemon (halved), olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes or so – you want the sweet potato to be tender and starting to crisp on the corners and edges.

Meanwhile, cook your lentils in salted water for 25 minutes so that they retain some bite. Drain and place back in the saucepan.

For the dressing, combine a two tablespoons of mustard with the juice of the roasted lemon, the roasted garlic cloves, a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, a teaspoon of sugar and two tablespoons of vinegar. Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of salt. Taste and adjust to your own preferences. Toss the roasted sweet potato and lentils with the dressing before serving atop a green salad.

Variations

The versions of this salad are dependent on the contents of my weekly vegetable box. I have made these with baby new potatoes, boiled until they are soft enough to crush with your thumb; leftover bits of aubergine and peppers hanging around in the fridge; or a butternut squash, roasted with plenty of cumin and chilli flakes.

If you want to make a more luxurious version, cubes of salty feta or rich goats cheese and a sprinkling of toasted seeds would not go amiss.

One final thing. This is the perfect lunchbox salad. I almost never make salad as a packed lunch thing. It inevitably gets soggy if you dress it and if you don’t dress it, well what’s the point of eating it? Make it with just the lentils and vegetables, add in your chicken or cheese and omit the leaves. It occurs to me that you could make a bastardised Nicoise version of this with baby new potatoes, flaked canned tuna, chopped black olives and a boiled egg.

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I like beer butts and I cannot lie

One of the reasons why I started this food resolution was to try and push myself out of my gastronomic comfort zone.

Well readers, I certainly did that today.

I’ll just give you a moment, as you probably want to do a double take on that.

Yep? Welcome back.

This, dear readers, is beer butt chicken and whilst it looks like a gross violation (it felt a little like a gross violation too, if I’m completely honest) it is worth the experiment.

I’m a roast chicken fanatic. Not only does it appeal to my stock-making-obsession but it is the most versatile, easy and satisfying thing to make in the world. What’s not to love? A mere five minutes of preparation and a few hours of waiting (and beadily eyeing the oven timer) will result in a burnished and bronzed bird, ready to be paired with a crisp green salad; roast potatoes; billowing clouds of mash; encased between a soft, floury bap; the list is endless.

For as long as I’ve been roasting a chicken, I’ve always stuck to the same winning formula: lemon and garlic up the bum, olive oil on the breast (no sniggering at the back there). It takes a lot for me to deviate from this winning formula but Jamie Oliver’s beer butt chicken intrigued me sufficiently to sacrifice my usual Sunday roast chicken.

Unfortunately, amusing an experiment as this was, it hasn’t toppled the classic roast chicken from its pedestal in my heart. But that is not to say that you shouldn’t give it a try (if not for the novelty value of seeing a chicken primly perched upright in your oven). The beer performs the same function as the lemon in a classic roast chicken, keeping the meat beautifully tender and moist (even the notoriously arid chicken breast). Neither myself or my Fabulous Taste-Tester could discern any contribution of flavour from the beer (to this end, I’d be tempted to swap the beer for Coca-Cola, would it produce a caramelised aroma?). The saving grace of this recipe is the spice rub.

The smoky sweetness of this particular spice rub recalls Cajun flavours but the addition of fennel seeds brings a more complex note to proceedings. Consider me a spice rub convert, not only does it bring a beautiful intensity of flavour but the oil and brown sugar crisps the skin up perfectly. Try out the spice rub and drift off into a reverie of how well it would marry with hot coals and a cold beer. Preferably not a beer which you have had to extricate from a chicken carcass.

Beer butt chicken

taken from Jamie’s America by Jamie Oliver

1 medium or large chicken (a small chicken will, I fear, not accomodate a beer can)

a 400ml can of beer

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon chilli powder

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 tablespoon brown sugar

salt and pepper

olive oil

Preheat your oven to 200c/gas mark 6.

Start by creating your spice rub. I feel a little silly for even telling you how to make the spice rub as the method is implied within the name. All the spices go into a mortar and pestle together, mix and crush so that the seeds release their flavour. Add in olive oil and seasoning to create a paste. Et voila, a spice rub to bathe your chicken in.

Crack open your can of beer and drink about half the can (or, in my case, present it to your flatmate who will kindly take one for the team and drink the wretched stuff for you). Pop this can into the middle of a roasting tin and ready yourself for the next part. Lower your chicken down onto the beer can so that it sits securely and firmly atop it. Take a moment to recover yourself and then proceed to liberally baste the chicken in your spice rub. Depending on the size of your chicken, it will take roughly 1 hour and 10 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes to cook. (For reference, I used a medium sized chicken and roasted it for 1 hour and 10 minutes. I feel that it could have done with possibly just one hour, so just keep checking!)

Have a serving dish to hand, as you will need to slide your chicken (in a rather undignified manner) off the beer can and onto a plate. Serve with a crisp green salad or spiced sweet potato wedges.


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Captain Sweetheart

Be still my lightly beaten heart! Valentine’s Day massively appeals to my kitsch sensibilities (“If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitschen” ho ho ho). Also my enduring love of any national holiday (being English was in no way an impediment to my celebrating Thanksgiving).

So with that in mind, I started thinking about what tooth-ache inducing, heart-melting treats I could conjure up for the festival devoted to Eros. A trip to the splendid Jane Asher Sugarcraft shop in South Kensington and years of collecting have culminated in an impressive selection of heart-shaped baking accoutrements. The dilemma of what to bake was solved when I happened across Bakerella’s recipe for pillow cookies.

Pillow cookies are as comforting and sumptuous as the name suggests. A pillow cookie is essentially a cookie giving a brownie a big hug. A pillow cookie is perfect for Valentine’s Day because once you bite into the chocolate-chip cookie exterior, you meet the melting heart of a brownie.


Taking inspiration from Bakerella, I adapted the recipe and used a combination of my favourite, fool-proof recipes for both cookies and brownies. I daresay that using packet-mix brownies will work but that may be because you’ve never tried Nigel Slater’s brownies yet.

I have never made anything which meets with such universal approval and sighs of joy as Nigel Slater’s best brownie. It is fudgey and dense and just oozes on the tongue. When you look at the ingredient list, you’ll see why – it’s all eggs (4 of them! Count them!), melted chocolate and sugar. I seem to never have golden caster sugar in the house and a trip to my local Londis furnishes me with only Bourneville chocolate but despite this, the recipe never suffers. I can only imagine what this would be like with more sophisticated ingredients.

As for the cookie mixture which cloudily envelopes the chocolate squidge within, use your favourite recipe. I plumped for the basic cookie dough recipe from 1 Dough, 50 Cookies with added chopped chocolate. Were I to make this again, I’d opt for a recipe with brown sugar which makes for a chewier cookie. But really, chewy or doughy, this cookie tastes sweeter when it’s shared.

 

Pillow Cookies

adapted from Bakerella, Nigel Slater and 1 Dough, 50 Cookies.

 

 

for the cookie dough

225g softened butter

140g caster sugar

1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

280g plain flour

pinch of salt

50g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

 

for the brownies

300g caster sugar

250g softened butter

200g dark chocolate

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

60g flour

60g cocoa

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

 

Start by making your brownies as these will need to cool down and set before you can easily cut them up into petite chunks, ready to be pillowed. Preheat your oven to 180c/gas mark 4. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy and then set aside. Melt your chocolate (lazy cook that I am, I find the microwave is perfectly fine, no need to fiddle about with a bain marie. If your chocolate gets a bit scorched, worry not, give it a vigorous stir and proceed as normal.)

Add a third of the beaten eggs to the butter and sugar mixture and combine thoroughly. Repeat until the eggs are completely combined. Sift all the remaining dry ingredients (flour, cocoa and baking powder) together and beat into the butter, sugar and eggs. Finally, add in the melted chocolate and stir. Your brownie batter should be thick, glossy and irresistible to any stray bowl-lickers in the vicinity. Pour into a greased and lined baking tin and bake for 20-25 minutes.

An inserted fork, knife or skewer should still not come out completely cleanly – remember that your brownies will continue baking with residual heat once they come out of the oven and you want them to be underbaked to retain that fudginess. (Also note that you will be rebaking these inside the cookie as well, so better to underbake than overbake!) Leave the tray to cool completely, for approximately an hour, before cutting into small squares approximately 2.5cm x 2.5cm.

Whilst you are waiting for your brownies to cool, you can get on with making your cookie dough. Start by creaming together the butter, sugar and vanilla extract. Add the egg yolk and keep beating until smooth and fully combined. Sift in the flour and mix until it forms a soft and pliable dough. Finally, add in your chopped chocolate (don’t worry about chopping it too uniformly, the combination of shards and chunks makes for a more interesting texture). Chill the cookie dough until you are ready to assemble your pillow cookies.

To assemble a pillow cookie, start by scooping out a walnut-sized lump of dough. Roll into a ball and flatten out into a small, thickish disc. Place a small square of brownie in the middle and pull up the sides of the dough, making a cup-shape around the brownie. Seal the brownie in with another scoop of dough, pressing the edges down and pinching so that the cookie dough completely envelopes the brownie. (Your completed raw pillow cookie should be roughly the size of a large egg – bear in mind that these will rapidly expand in the oven!) Place on a non-stick baking sheet, making sure to space the cookies at least 5cm apart. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until lightly golden in a preheated oven at 180c/gas mark 4. If you wish to indulge your shamelessly kitsch side, leave the cookies to cool for about 15 minutes before using a large heart-shaped cookie cutter to turn these into sweetheart cookies.

 


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Crouching tofu, mincing pig

Chuc mung nam moi!*

I hope you all took the welcome opportunity to scoff some dim sum this weekend to celebrate the ushering in of the year of the rabbit:

(Yeah. Okay, I just wanted an excuse to post a picture of a ridiculous angora bunny. Look at it!! It’s like a enormous, rotund ball of candyfloss adorableness. I just want to squeeze one until it becomes a puff of smoke!)

ANYWAY.

Being the massive organised nerd that I am, I decided to combine the opportunity to make my first food resolution from February’s book (Jamie’s America) and to completely go overboard with a Lunar New Year feast.



(top to bottom: sesame and honey glazed ribs; gingered tofu and aubergine stir fry; sher ping pancakes)

For the uninitiated and intrigued, sher ping pancakes are essentially giganticised versions of Chinese fried dumplings that are commonly served as dim sum. Now, I love dim sum as much as the next greedy person (possibly more) but I do have a slight problem with them. They’re not for those who want a sated appetite and for a wanton glutton like me, that inevitably leads to bowling home to make Marmite toast as ballast before bedtime.

Sher ping pancakes present the perfect compromise – all that yummy dim sum goodness but in a format the size of your face. Additional bonus: this is one of those magical recipes which conjures the illusion of a masterchef when indeed, all you’ve done is knock up a simple dough and scrunched a few ingredients together to constitute your filling. You might be mildly dubious as I was (this broke gastro-territory for me – it didn’t involve tinned tomatoes or stock for one thing…) but give it a try and wonder at the alchemy of this recipe.

For a truly celebratory feast though, a stack of (admittedly impressive looking) pancakes wouldn’t be enough. On the similarly impressive-but-easy tip, came my sesame and honey glazed ribs and to temper the richness, a gingered tofu and aubergine stir-fry with steamed rice.

Sher ping pancakes

adapted from Jamie’s America by Jamie Oliver

Another thing I forgot to mention whilst I was extolling the virtues of this recipe – it’s wonderfully versatile. Not a fan of pig in your pancakes? Chopped raw prawn and chives would work just as beautifully. What about minced beef infused with dried chilli and sweetened with honey? Much as I’m not a fan of minced chicken, I imagine that this would be equally marvellous with the grated zest of a lemon and ginger. These pancakes press all the buttons that fast food has the monopoly on. Substantial parcels which are flavoursome and juicy within, hot and crisp without.

for the dough

450g white bread flour

225ml water

4 tablespoons sunflower oil

salt and pepper

for the filling

250g minced pork

thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely grated

two garlic cloves, minced or finely grated

three spring onions, finely chopped

quarter of a large leek, finely shredded (white and green)

packet of coriander, finely chopped (stalks and leaves)

salt and pepper

for the dipping sauce

soy sauce

rice vinegar or sushi vinegar (white wine or cider vinegar will suffice otherwise)

chilli sauce (srirarcha if you can get it, Tobasco otherwise)

juice of half a lime

To start with, prepare the dough for the pancakes by combining all the ingredients together in a large bowl and combining with a fork. Once the dough starts to come together, briefly knead it to fully combine and leave covered with a clean tea towel until needed.

Similarly, combine all the ingredients of the filling together in a large bowl using your hands to ensure that it is all evenly combined. The further you make this mixture in advance, the better this will taste as the ingredients will have had time to get to know one another and really mingle in together. An hour, if you are pressed for time (or just impatient for dinner) should do. Cover your mixture with clingfilm and refrigerate until needed.

Now for the assembling. Jamie recommends making the pancakes in advance and chilling prior to cooking. Having made the pancakes without chilling prior to cooking and with, I can safely reassure you that it makes no difference. In fact, I found it easier to make and cook the pancakes as I went along.

On a floured surface, roll your dough (which should have risen nicely) into a long sausage shape. Divide into eight pieces using a sharp knife. Form your dough into a palm-sized disc and place a heaped tablespoon of the filling into the middle. Wrap your pancake by pulling the sides in together so that they completely cover the filling and meet at the top of the parcel. Give it a twist to seal and then compress into a pancake by pressing down using your palm. You want to make the pancakes fairly flat, perhaps around 2cm in thickness so that they cook all the way through without the dough scorching.

To cook, heat a large non-stick frying pan and add a little oil (I found that cooking spray was perfect for this as you want to avoid greasiness and get these nice and dryly crisp). Place your pancake in the pan, cooking until golden brown on both sides. It should take approximately 4 minutes per side to cook your pancakes all the way through. Of course, if you’re not sure, take a hit for the team and crack one open to check. As it’s already open, you might as well test it out. Chef privileges and all.

Soy sauce on its own would make an excellent accompaniment to the pancakes but a dipping sauce infused with the garlicky heat and spice of srirarcha chilli sauce; the sweetness of sushi vinegar; and the bright zing of lime juice lift these pancakes into the sublime.

Sesame and honey glazed ribs

I appropriated this glaze from Nigella Lawson’s recipe for cocktail sausages – the combination of sesame oil, soy sauce and honey combines to make a stickily delectable glaze for sausages and ribs alike. It benefits from additions which you may add on a whim. The fiery intensity of a chopped bird’s-eye chilli or minced ginger would be welcome bedfellows. Substituting maple syrup for the honey would impart a subtle smokiness which would pair well with a big juicy banger (steady on…)

500g pork ribs

2 generous tablespoons of honey

2 tablespoons of sesame oil

6 tablespoons of dark soy sauce

sesame seeds (optional)

Combine your ingredients for the glaze and marinate the ribs for as long as possible. Again, an hour seemed to be sufficient but the more time you have, the better.

Preheat your oven to 200c and bring this down to 170c once you put the ribs into the oven. Roast for 35-40 minutes, until the marinade has coalesced into a bubbling treacly glaze. Scatter with sesame seeds and serve whilst hot.

Gingered tofu and aubergine stir fry

adapted from Ching-He Huang’s recipe for ginger sweet tofu

Tofu is one of those things that people feel very strongly about. The wobbly jelly texture and milky blandness of it are quite often the reason why it’s so maligned (apart from it’s credit-card hippy associations). Marinading the tofu before cooking helps to combat the blandness that it can suffer from. Be fearless with your seasoning and flavour choices, it will take to strong and robust flavours well.

1 pack of firm tofu, diced

1 medium aubergine, diced

thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely grated or minced

2 spring onions, finely sliced

1 bird’s-eye chilli, finely sliced

4 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

cooking spray (or vegetable oil)

Combine the grated ginger, soy sauce and sugar to create the marinade and combine with the cubed tofu and spring onions. Marinade for as long as possible (again, an hour seems to be the minimum to allow the flavours to mingle and deepen).

Once you’re ready to cook, heat a wok and spray with cooking spray. (Aubergines tend to greedily soak up oil, so I find that cooking spray yields enough grease to cook without weighing down the dish). Add in your cubed aubergine and fry until soft and golden (don’t worry if you get charred bits, they’ll be the best bits!) Add in your tofu and marinade, cooking through until everything is piping hot and the marinade has reduced slightly. Serve with steamed jasmine rice and lashings of good fortune for the new year.

*That’s “Happy new year” to those readers who aren’t fluent in Vietnamese. Or in using Google Translate.


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It’s Wednesday, it’s bisi-ness time

OK. So I’ve got to confess something. I ran a little late with my food resolution this month.

What’s that?

Well, yes…

…Yes, I know it was my first month doing the food challenges but I did tell you how I felt about resolutions.

Anyway, three days late it may be but Mama’s risi e bisi is more than worth the wait.

I’d never heard of risi e bisi before (initially I’d confused it with ossobuco – why you may ask? They’re both Italian dishes with rhyming names. Yes, that’s my level. Really.) Whenever I’d mentioned it to friends (quite a few who are hip and knowledgable gastronauts), they were similarly ignorant of this wonderous dish. You may consider the Leon version a more wholesome and healthier cousin of risotto but originally it started out life in Venice as a thick soup made with arborio rice, fresh seasonal peas and pancetta.

This nuttier, granola-eating, sandal-wearing version that I’m hawking today is by no means the black sheep of great Italian rice dishes. Bastardised it may be but by god, it’s wickedly good. In essence, it is built much along the same lines as risotto. Sauteed onions, cooked until soft, sweet and translucent. Cubes of smokey pancetta, gently fried until the fat renders. Now throw in your brown rice and mix throughly until the grains are all glossy with the pancetta fat. Just imagine how good it’s going to taste already.

A brief intermission.

Now, you probably don’t want another person harping on about the glory of homemade stock to you. You’ve heard it all before, haven’t you? A stock cube does the same job. Ye-es. Sort of. It’s ultra-savoury and has that umami thing going on but real stock is so much more than that. Not to get too Domestic Goddess on you but stock making is home. (My flatmate would reluctantly have to agree with you. Mainly because more often that not, she returns home of an evening to find a merrily gurgling pot on the stove with an unidentifiable carcass bobbing about in it.) Like the smell of baking, there is something about the warm aroma of stock which is the olfactory equivalent of a hug.

Make a big batch and freeze it in little plastic takeaway boxes. The stewing and soupy universe will be yours. Elaborate-looking noodle soups worthy of Japanese restaurants lie at your frozen fingertips. The best thing? All this smugness and glowing halo of domesticity is shockingly easy. Throw your carcass (bones, skin, gristle – no room for fussiness here) into a large pan with a few vegetables (the classics being carrot, onion and a stick of celery – I’ve made do with broccoli stems and spring onions before). Garnish with a bay leaf and a few whole peppercorns. Cover with cold water, bring up to the boil and then simmer gently for an hour or so. Strain once cooled and refrigerate or freeze.

End intermission.

The star of this dish is an unlikely hero. It’s the equivalent of Steve Buscemi in terms of culinary ingredients. Pops up in everything good and great, you know you’ve encountered it before but can’t quite place your finger on it. Stock is the unsung hero of the day as far as this risi e bisi is concerned. As I had made the braised pork rigatoni a few nights previously, I ventured into the uncharted waters of pork stock. The depth of flavour and sweetness that the slow-roasted rib-bones had was unlike anything I’d ever encountered before (perhaps only rivalled by the violently red stock made with prawns’ heads). All the flavour of the dish rests upon the stock – hence the Knorr-bashing intermission earlier. Honestly, use a stock cube and you’ll still love this dish – use your own stock and you’ll be the one who ends up stealing hearts.

Notes on variation: I can’t resist it. It’s pathological. I appear to be unable to follow a recipe to the letter. I added half a finely shredded leek to the dish as it had just arrived in my vegetable box and I dorkily got excited as we’ve never received leeks before. (Oh poor little middle-class girl!) What with the sweetness of the stock and the peas, I was worried about the dish being a bit too cloying so I added the juice of half a lemon to cut through and add a zingy top note.

Serving suggestion: Some shavings of parmesan are most welcome. Don’t feel bad about it. Just think – you could have made risotto, with the butter, the wine and the heap of parmesan. You’re practically being spartan with risi e bisi. Besides, you’re going to serve it alongside some vibrant and crisp little gem leaves and that’s one of your five a day taken care of. Remember to reserve one leaf at the end to mop up the juices. Don’t judge – you know you do the same when no-one else is looking.


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Braising hell!

I’ve had a particularly spooksome week:

(Who knew that crazy ballerinas with lesbian-tenancies could be so malevolent and terrifying?)

(Just sheer, skin-crawling, insidious creeps. I’ve only just started to sleep through the night again. Without the light on. Actual fact.)

Let’s not even venture near the bizarro-world that is my private life this week. That is a oddball vortex that I don’t wish upon anyone.

SO.

When it came time to make my third of my food challenges, I was confronted with more nightmare territory: butchering up ribs. It went a bit 127 Hours for a brief time in my kitchen, I can tell you that readers.

Had I been more organised and less blindly optimistic, I would have realised that my lack of a cleaver and my puny lady-sized upper-arm strength would be massively inadequate for snapping pork ribs into dinky 5cm bits. But being the blind optimist that I am, the silver lining of this whole sorry tale is that I have learnt that raw bone marrow is not a pretty thing to look at. So, leaving my ribs uncleaved, I soldiered on (slightly dubiously) with Leon’s braised pork rigatoni recipe.

Despite the long cooking time (definitely not weekday dinner territory) and the trauma with the aborted cleaving attempt, I can tell you that this is worth it. This will change how you think about pasta and already, it feels like any other pasta dish will fall short of the benchmark that this has now set.

You start with pork ribs, paprika, oil and garlic and an excuse to use a Le Creuset casserole dish (should you be lucky enough to own one). Slow roast your ribs so that the meat is browned and crisped on the outside and sizzling with the heat of the paprika. Add in stock and tinned tomatoes until the meat is so meltingly tender that it falls off the bone. Finally, the coup de grace – dried pasta added just before the end, so that it soaks up the rich and silky sauce resulting from the tomatoes, stock and meat juices simmering down.

What you have when you finally remove your dish from the oven is pure comfort. It’s the kind of food that you daren’t eat whilst wearing white and that you will definitely and surreptitiously pick at every time you wander back into the kitchen. It’s not much to look at, I admit but I fell upon this like an arid traveller upon an oasis and I’m not sure how much of it was to do with the spicy waft emanating tantalisingly from my oven for hours or just my general greed. Know this, I am a girl who rarely eats things without a side salad, vegetables or accompaniments of some sort. I ate this in bowlfuls, on its own, in silent raptures and didn’t think once of how it would be better with a crisp side salad. That’s how good this is.

Note: The aubergine obsessive in me will throw meaningful glances at you for your go at this recipe because, well, I cannot think of anything that cannot be enhanced by the presence of aubergine. You know that silkiness that comes with adding aubergines into curries and stews? And that Baba-Ganoush-smokiness from a roasted aubergine? That right there, is why you should add aubergine to this.