Gastrobabble

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


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Grill. Ooze. Crunch.

I blame Bertha. I firmly lay the blame at her door.

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This was entirely down to her. She was the reason that I didn’t go out running and instead inhaled this with some red wine and my own company. Sunshine brings the crunch and crisp of a rather different nature than the colder months. Cucumbers in gin; warm crisps in the park; the crunch of ice cubes in a sweating glass. This is the crunch that we are familiar with when we attempt to convince ourselves that we enjoy visibly sweating at every turn.

The crisp of the encroaching months is a very different beast indeed. It is the sound of a fork breaking into the shiny golden top of a pie; the crunch of new autumn apples; and the crackle of chicken burnished golden in the oven.

Let’s add another to that pantheon. I saw Chef a few weeks ago and have been obsessed with American-style grilled sandwiches ever since. Bread that is brushed with butter and crisps up when fried. Crisp without and tender within, cheese, caramelised onion and spinach oozing out. Ideal for a solitary meal, those nights where you have only yourself to please.

Grilled cheese

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The spinach here is purely because I tend to have spinach in the fridge. Sautéing leeks along with the onions would also be most agreeable. As would a mixture of dried and fresh mushrooms.

Two slices of white bread
50g mature cheddar
50g emmenthal (other nutty hard cheeses also good here)
Dried thyme
Two small onions
A garlic clove
Two handfuls of spinach
Butter

Start by gently frying the sliced onions with a generous slug of olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme. Cook on a gentle heat for 20-30 minutes until soft, golden and sweet. Fold in the spinach to wilt and then decant into a bowl to mix with the grated cheese. Butter the bread and assemble your sandwich with the buttered sides on the outside. Place back into the pan on a medium to high heat and fry until golden outside and until the cheese melts. Serve with a napkin ready as this is not a knife and fork scenario.

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Being spoiled by the ambassador

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Old dog, new tricks. I’ve performed my baking party piece before of turning chocolate bars into swiss rolls (I’m the Sugar Messiah. Urgh gross, never call me that). Today, I’m going full-blown gateaux (which is what my first full-length, high-octane, action feature-film is going to be called).

My induction into baking was induced by an impulse purchase of St Nigella’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess. It’s not one of the most highly used baking tomes in my arsenal but it’s one of the most beloved. The spine is closer to broken than cracked; dollops of butter and batter adorn the pages; and miniature snowdrifts of flour and sugar flurry out of the pages whenever I open my copy. It’s worth reading for the writing alone; it is a paean to the joys, comforts and love of baking for your Dear Ones. Ever since reading it for the first time, over a decade ago, her recipe for her Nutella Cake has been indelibly burnt onto my mental retina.

So when it came time to make a 30th birthday cake recently, I decided to act upon my recent obsession with double cream enriched cream cheese frosting and make a Nigella-Nutella (Nitella? Nugella?) inspired cake which morphed into a cakey-ode to everybody’s favourite Christmas chocolate, the Ferrero Rocher.

Rocher Cake

Okay. First off. I know that’s a LOT of cream but despite that, counterintuitively, this feels like a very light cake. The sponge is moist and on the verge of falling apart. The addition of whipped double cream to the cream cheese frosting adds a frothy lightness which is absent from the comforting denseness of normal cream cheese frosting. The sponge is based on my go-to chocolate cake recipe, taken from The Hummingbird Bakery’s recipe for Brooklyn Blackout Cake. The fatty moreish frosting is an adaptation of the frosting used in Nigella Lawson’s chocolate Guinness cake.

Ingredients

Sponge
100g softened butter
260g caster sugar
2 large eggs
45g cocoa powder
¾ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt
170g plain flour
200ml double cream
Frangelico or hazelnut extract

Icing
300g full-fat cream cheese
100g softened butter
100ml double cream
200g icing sugar
Frangelico or hazelnut extract

Decoration
Ferrero Rochers
Cocoa powder
Crumbled shortbread
Chopped and toasted hazelnuts

Method

Pre-heat your oven to 170c / gas mark 5 and grease and line two 20in round cake tins.

Beat together the butter and sugar until pale and creamy, before adding the eggs one at a time. Once fully combined, add in the cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate and salt and mix again. Add in half of the flour and cream and combine before adding the remaining flour and cream. Add in 2 tablespoons of Frangelico or one teaspoon of hazelnut extract to taste (if you’d like a stronger hazelnut flavour, add more!)

Divide the mixture between the two tins and bake in the middle of the oven for 25-30mins, until an inserted knife comes out cleanly. Leave to cool in the tins for 15 minutes before unmoulding onto cooling racks.

Whilst the cakes are cooling, make the icing by firstly beating together the butter until soft and creamy. Add in the cream cheese and slowly mix in, be careful not to overmix as it will warm up and go a bit runny. Alternately add in the icing sugar and double cream and whisk until the icing takes on a whipped consistency. Finally add in Frangelico or hazelnut extract to taste – you want a stronger hazelnut flavour in the icing so be generous! I used approximately 5 or 6 tablespoons of Frangelico.

Sandwich together the two sponges with half of the quantity of the icing and use the rest for the topping. Dust with cocoa powder and decorate with Ferrero Rochers.

Variation
A nice addition to mimic the flavour and texture of Ferrero Rochers would be to also add in a layer of Nutella in the middle with the frosting and then to crumble shortbread and chopped hazelnuts on top instead of cocoa powder.


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From slow to fast now, like a gastronomic foxtrot. Weeknight dinners which are fuelled by the need to feed your dearest ones quickly whilst getting drowsy on sloe gin and strawberries should be the kind of thing that you construct whilst blathering away at the kitchen counter. This was inspired by a BBC Good Food recipe.

Having a two-week old aubergine in my fridge instead of a jar of roasted aubergine deterred me not. Pierce your aubergine and char it on an open flame on your cooker. Once the flesh is soft and gives to a gentle poke of the finger, peel off the blistered skin and mash the flesh with two teaspoons of tahini; the juice of half a lemon; a scant teaspoon of dried chilli flakes; and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Mix in 75g of crumbled feta and a handful of chopped mint. On two toasted wholemeal pittas, scrape on a coating of tomato purée before topping with the aubergine and feta mix. Crumble on some more feta before grilling on a medium heat for 10 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil and top with basil before serving. By then it’ll be time to top up your gin and scarf down your pitta pizza whilst not skipping a beat in conversation. Good work.


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Adagio

Were you to ask any of my dearest ones to describe me in a handful of adjectives, I’m not sure that ‘quick’ would number amongst them. Sure, I can come up with a ropey pun or single-entendre at speed. I’ve been known to tumble over my words from time to time. I tend towards speed rather than sloth when in a car. But I am still a girl who didn’t make it past stage three of the beep test in PE at school; I gave up on any instruments which required me to read notation because I couldn’t read and play fast enough; and I’ve only just begrudgingly realised how much I love the music of Taylor Swift. However, this weekend’s cooking has proven to me that haste isn’t the virtuous child.

Slow-cooking is geriatric in terms of gastronomic fads. It was the sort of thing that was being championed by The Guardian when I was but a zygote. However, being wedded to roast chicken as my roast of choice and also only becoming a fan of lamb in recent years, it’s taken me a while to get here. The unrelenting heat of an oven on a low-gas mark does that thing to meat that being fiercely sun-beaten on holiday does to you. It just relaxes. Positively oozes off the bone and pours itself into your gob.

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Slow-roast Moroccan lamb with aubergine and chickpea stew

Look, I’ve said “Moroccan” but I have no idea whether that’s accurate or not. That’s just what I had in mind when I was raiding my spice cupboard. I knew I wanted that fierce kiss of heat and the arresting hit of cumin running through the whole thing. To my way of thinking, my mind is led towards Morocco. Indulge me and my wonky geography.

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Ingredients

For the lamb

a shoulder of lamb (approx 1kg)

two cloves of smoked garlic

fennel seeds

cumin

paprika

salt and pepper

oil

For the stew:

two romano peppers

two aubergines

a red onion

two cloves of smoked garlic

cumin

chilli flakes

paprika

cayenne pepper

a stick of cinnamon

a bay leaf

sugar

red wine

a can of chickpeas

two cans of chopped tomatoes

tomato puree

sriarcha sauce

a bunch of mint

lemons

Preheat your oven to gas mark 3 / 170c and make sure your lamb is room temperature before you throw it into the oven (you know this already, I KNOW. Sorry for backseat driving in your kitchen). Prepare your spice rub by crushing your garlic in a pestle and mortar with some sea salt. Add in the rest of your spices (I know, I haven’t included quantities. I tend to be bold and heavy-handed on the cumin and chilli. You just want the lamb to get an intensely savoury crust so don’t worry too much.) Combine with a generous glug of oil and smear over the lamb. Put it in to roast for 35 minutes, after which add in a mug of boiling water. You’ll want to roast it for three hours now, turning and basting every hour with the juices from the tin. Add in more boiling water if towards the last hour it all evaporates. After three hours, remove from the oven and let it rest for ten minutes. Don’t throw away the juices, that’s going into the stew.

Speaking of…

For the stew, start by charring the peppers on an open flame (I just stick them directly on the hob. Remember to pierce the peppers with a knife so that they don’t explode.) It’ll take about ten minutes for each pepper; you want to aim for blistered skin which is blackened in patches and for the pepper to be softened. In the meantime, roughly chop the onion and crush the garlic and gently fry in oil along with the spices and plenty of seasoning. Chop up the peppers and add into the pan. Chop the aubergines into generous chunks (bearing in mind that they shrink when cooking) and add in. Fry for a further ten minutes until everything is fully acquainted and coated in the happy mix of oil and spices. Deglaze your pan with a glass of red wine and then add in the two tins of chopped tomatoes. Stir to combine and then add in sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Throw in your cinnamon stick and bay leaf and leave to simmer for an hour. After an hour, add in the drained tin of chickpeas and simmer for a further half an hour, by which point the chickpeas should be soft and the aubergine should have imparted a silkiness to the whole thing. Add tomato puree to thicken and sriarcha sauce for that garlicky-tomatoey-chilli thing that it uniquely has. Once the lamb is out of the oven, add in the juices from the roasting tin. Just before serving, mix in chopped mint. Serve with a wedge of lemon and couscous or pitta bread.


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Cari on

I am a reformed creature of habit. Recently, I’ve been craving novelty. Seeking out the thrill of the new; the unknown; the untested. I never used to understand people who endeavoured to eat somewhere different every time they ventured out for dinner. If you find something that satiates your hunger and slake your thirst, why risk the search? However, sometimes your craving wanders back home. And this, to my tongue, tastes like home.

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Cari ga (Vietnamese chicken curry)
Bear with me here but my favourite way of serving this curry is with vermicelli noodles and a fresh herb salad. I know it seems anathema to forego the traditional sundries when you have a curry but it balances out the richness of this curry and makes it into a much lighter meal. On the other hand, if you want the sundries, steamed white rice or a crispy baguette are still authentic.

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Ingredients
4 chicken thighs
1 onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 knob of ginger
1 large chilli
2 bird’s eye chillies
2 stalks of lemongrass
4 carrots
2 sweet potatoes
1 can coconut milk
Curry or madras powder
Bay leaf or kaffir lime leaf
Fish sauce
Light brown sugar

To serve
Vermicelli rice noodles
Shredded iceberg lettuce
Coriander
Cucumber slices
Lemon wedges
Sriracha chilli sauce

Start by heating up some vegetable or sunflower oil in a large saucepan or sautee pan. Once the oil is hot, place the chicken thighs skin down and fry to seal and caramelise all sides. Whilst you are doing this, finely chop the ginger, garlic, onion, chilli and one stalk of lemongrass. Once the chicken is nicely browned, remove the pieces from the pan and add in the onion, garlic, ginger, chilli and lemongrass to fry and soften gently.

In the meantime, peel and chop the carrots and sweet potato into large chunks (as though for a roast). Once the contents of the pan are cooked and fragrant, add in a tablespoon of curry powder, bay leaf and the chicken. Mix to distribute the spices and add in the coconut milk. Bring to the boil and add in the remaining vegetables, lemongrass stalk and whole bird’s eye chillies. Add fish sauce and sugar to taste and simmer until the carrots and sweet potatoes are tender. Serve with noodles and salad and a simple dipping sauce of salt, pepper, lemon juice and sriracha sauce.


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If you’ve never been enamoured of gnocchi because you’ve always found it too doughy and stodgy, you’ve never had homemade gnocchi. I too, dear readers, was once like you: suspicious of the plump little dumplings which look suspiciously like Adipose. Make it once and you’ll be converted, it’s idiotically easy: mashed boiled potatoes made into a dough with flour and egg and then fleetingly cooked before being enveloped in whatever flavours come to hand. I used Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe (skipping out the oven-drying-out phase and using plain flour in lieu of ’00’ grade flour) and they still turned out like fluffy little spuddy pillows. If that doesn’t entice you, then you’re clearly a lost cause.


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Kho blimey

That pun doesn’t really work unless you know what this is:

Thit kho, is what it is. And what it is, is caramelised pork belly, stewed with spices in coconut juice.

There’s nothing in that preceding sentence that I dislike (apart from the slightly odd syntax.)

This is yet another dish which is redolent of my childhood. It’s the sort of everyday cooking which is an unsung hero of Vietnamese food. Like congee, this is the sort of recipe which you find variants of across South-East Asia. Like any other stew, this is an adaptable recipe. If pork belly isn’t your thing (well, if pork belly isn’t your thing, frankly, we can forget being friends) substitute for chunks of fried tofu; mackerel; salmon steaks; or chicken wings and thighs. Add some hard-boiled eggs in if you’re feeling saucy.

Thit kho

A few notes: like all stew recipes, the variations are endless. If you can’t get hold of coconut juice (which is the clear liquid from the middle of a coconut), plain water will do nicely. Don’t be tempted to substitute with coconut milk. These are different beasts entirely. I’ve specified brown sugar which imparts a deeper, more complex note to the caramel but white sugar works just as well. I’ve opted for cinnamon as my spice of choice but any combination of szechuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves or five spice would do as well. Finally, Chinese rice wine is the traditional choice for this dish but any white spirit or wine will do just as well.

pork belly slices, chopped into large chunks

brown sugar

1 can of coconut juice

nuoc mam (Thai fish sauce)

rice wine

bird’s eye chillies

a cinnamon stick

an onion

a few cloves of garlic

two spring onions, sliced into large pieces

olive oil

Finely chop the garlic and slice the onions and gently fry in some olive oil until golden and caramelised. Remove from the pan and put to one side. In a large pan or wok, heat up two tablespoons of oil and add in two tablespoons of sugar. Once the sugar has melted and browned, carefully add in the pork belly. The idea is to coat the meat in the caramel and seal to get a lovely brown coating. Drain off any excess oil and add in the pre-fried onions and garlic and the spring onions as well.

Cover with the coconut juice (or water), add in one or two bird’s eye chillies (according to taste and bravery) and your spices and simmer on a gentle heat for 45-60 minutes. Keep checking and adding more liquid if needed. The result should be a dark brown, treacly sauce and meat which falls apart on the fork. Serve with steamed rice and either slices of pineapple or cucumber.