Paris, Venice and Florence

My honeymoon was AWESOME. The wedding was brilliant, being on holiday with my very best friend who I love very much was brilliant, and the food was BRILLIANT.

A brief photographic journal:

Courgette (zucchini) flowers with courgettes, tomatoes and lettuce. I love this photo, it makes me want to EAT IT ALL.

food

Soupe a l’oignon, in Montmatre. This is the best soup I have ever tasted. I made the waitress get the recipe from the chef. It involved a lot of cheese.

onion soup

The fish market in Venice.

fish market

fish market

Pizza

pizza

The mercato centrale in Florence

mercato centrale

mercato centrale

Ribollita, Florence bread and bean soup, from Gozzi.

ribolita

Tuscan antipasti from Il Gatto e La Volpe, in Florence.

antipasti

Bistecca alla Fiorentina from Il Latini

bistecca alla fiorentina

Ice cream!

a fool with ice cream

The Hogster, who was thrilled to have us home.

unhappy cat

Low-Fat Fish Pie

fish pie

Fish pie is a bit of a struggle in my house because Mr B doesn’t like prawns or smoked haddock and will not countenance the inclusion of peas or hard boiled eggs. If it were up to me, I would include all those things. You, of course, can do if you wish. Instead I include spinach, which goes very nicely with fish, and have peas on the side.

This is a good low-fat version – no cream or cheese, but very tasty nevertheless.

Ingredients
Serves 4

About 700g mixed uncooked fish – choose from cod, haddock (smoked or unsmoked), Pollack, salmon, John Dory. Include prawns if you like them.
½ pint milk (skimmed milk for lower fat)
1 leek, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
A large bunch of spinach
2 tablespoons cornflour
A small handful of parsley, finely chopped
A knob of butter

1kg/2lbs floury potatoes like King Edwards or Desiree
Some more milk
Salt and pepper

The Cooking

First peel and potatoes and put them on to boil in some salted water. This should take about 15/20 minutes.

Meanwhile you need to poach the fish in the milk. In a non-stick pan, heat up the ½ pint of milk and the mixed fish (excepting prawns if already cooked) and let it simmer on a low heat for about 8 minutes or until the fish breaks up and flakes easily. Drain the fish, keeping the milk. Break up the fish into chunks – but be gentle, you don’t want to mash it up.

Put the oven on to pre-heat at 180C/360F.

In the same pan as you did the fish (you could use another pan, this just saves on washing up), melt the knob of butter and gently fry the leak and onion until they are soft but not browned (takes about 4 minutes).

Pour a little of the milk into a mug and mix it with the cornflour. Mix together the fish, leaks, onions and all the milk including the cornflour bit. Add a little salt and pepper and the parsley. Pour the mixture into your pie dish. Scatter the spinach on top of the mixture.

By now the potatoes should be done, so drain and mash them with a little milk (and butter if you like). Don’t make it too wet as it will absorb liquid from the pie filling. Once mashed, spoon it over the spinach-topped pie mixture, covering it evenly. Using a fork, drag the tines along the top of the potatoes in rows to make ridges – this is so that it crisps up nicely in the oven.

Pop the whole lot in the oven and in about 10 or 15 minutes the top will have hopefully gone a nice crispy brown. It’s ready! Serve with peas.

fish pie

Beef Stroganoff

Bit of a retro classic this one, and very simple to do for a quick weeknight dinner. You could go posh and use an expensive steak but there’s no need really. I’d rather use a cheaper cut here where its flavour is encouraged by the cream and mushrooms and save an expensive steak for a special occasion.

Ingredients
Serves 2

However much steak you like. I did 250g of frying steak for 2 people.
About 200g mushrooms, sliced (I used frozen pre-sliced ssshhhhhhhh don’t tell anyone)
1 small onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
100g soured cream or creme fraiche (low fat for those of that persuasion)
1tspn mustard
A large splash of sherry or vermouth or white wine
Salt and black pepper
1 tbspn oil

Rice to serve. You know how to make rice.

The Cooking

Heat up the oil in a frying pan and gently fry the sliced onion and mushrooms for 3 or 4 minutes. Slice the steak into strips (I don’t know why strips, this just seems to be how stroganoff is and who am I to say different?). Add the garlic, fry for another minute, then add the steak. Turn up the heat and fry for 5 or so minutes until it’s got a bit of colour. Add the mustard, the salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper.

Put the rice on now.

Add the large splash of sherry or equivalent, let it sizzle for a minute, then turn down the heat and let it simmer. If it’s a bit dry, add some water.

Let it simmer for about 10 minutes, then add the cream or creme fraiche and bring it back up to a simmer. Once the rice is done, it should all be ready. Serve it up. Simple.

Classic Lemon Cheesecake

cheesecake

I’d never made a cheesecake before, but it was really easy. I combined bits from two recipes I have according to what I thought would taste best and and it worked well.

Ingredients

For the base:
About 10 digestive biscuits
About 25g butter

For the filling:
700g cream cheese (Philadelphia is good)
150g sugar
Grated rind and the juice of half a lemon
1tsp vanilla essence
3 eggs, beaten

The Cooking

You need a deep cake tin approximately 8 inches/20cm. Grease it well with butter and then you need to put it on some foil and press the foil all around the sides of the tin. This is so that when you place the cake in water (which you will) the water won’t seep into the cake tin and the cake.

Pre-heat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas mark 3. Get a large roasting tin and fill it with water to a depth of about an inch. Put the roasting tray of water into the oven. This is a bain-marie.

Now bash up the biscuits. Put them in a plastic bag and hit them with a blunt instrument. Try not to do yourself an injury. Cut up the butter finely and mix it with the biscuit crumbs with your fingers until it’s all mixed in and there are no big lumps of butter. Alternatively, just whizz the whole biscuits and butter in the mixer for a minute.

Press the crushed biscuits into the bottom of the cake tin in an even layer.

Now beat together the cream cheese, lemon juice and rind, sugar and vanilla essense. When it is smooth, add the egg a bit at a time, whisking it through so it is all smooth. I used a handheld blender.

Pour the mixture into the cake tin on top of the biscuits. Put the cake tin, protected by the foil, into the bain-marie. Bake it for about an hour, then turn the oven off and let it sit in the oven for another 45 minutes or so. Take it out, let it cool, then gently remove it from the tin, running a knife around the edge to loosen it if you need to.

Chill it well before serving, and you can make it look pretty by sprinkling some icing sugar over the top. My mother in law liked this cake very much.

Chicken Pilaf

Chicken pilaf

This is a very simple one-pot dinner that only takes half an hour to make. You can adapt it to your own tastes by using whatever herbs and spices take your fancy – just use this as a base recipe and improvise. It’s also low-fat and well-balanced. What more could you ask?

Ingredients
Serves 2

4 chicken pieces – drumsticks, thighs, or breasts (cube the breasts if you like).
Basmati rice. I used a large mugfull for two people.
Chicken stock – twice the amount of rice, so I used two mugfulls. If you have fresh stock, use that. If not, a stock cube will do.
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Peas, frozen or fresh. However much you like.
A tablespoon of oil/butter

The Cooking

You need a wide-bottomed pan that has a lid. Heat up the oil and/or butter in the pan until it’s good and hot. Fry the chicken on all sides so they get some nice colouring – they don’t have to be cooked through, just a bit browned. Take chicken out of the pan and set it aside.

Now add the onion and fry until it’s just turning golden. Add the garlic, fry for another minute and then add the rice and chicken. Give it a good stir for a minute or so, so that the rice absorbs all the juices, and then add the stock. If you’re adding herbs and/or spices, do so now. Tarragon, thyme, cumin, parsley and coriander would all work well (although not all at the same time. That would be madness). Turn the heat down, put the lid on the pan and leave it for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes the stock should be mostly absorbed and the rice and chicken cooked – check to make sure, and add the peas. Cook for another 3 or 4 minutes, have a taste and add salt if you think it needs it. That’s it! Serve it up and eat it. Very nice.

How To Make Butter

butter

I made butter! How brilliant is that? You can get some cream… and turn it into butter. In your house. It’s like magic!

Why would you bother making your own butter? Well, firstly because you know what goes into it – it’s great lesson on how our food happens (kids LOVE making butter). And secondly, because it’s fun to make stuff. Making butter gives me cooking joy! Butter!

Ingredients

Double cream. That’s it!

I gather that double cream is not widely available in the US/other foreign parts so if you are there get the cream with the highest butterfat you can. Double cream has a 48% butterfat content and the closest in the US seems to be heavy or whipping cream, which is 30-40% butterfat.

If you want to add salt, you can. However much you like. Mix it in after the buttermilk and fat have separated but before you squeeze and pat it.

The Cooking

“Cooking” is a bit of a misnomer. All you need to do is pour the cream into a container that you can seal tight = a (clean) jam jar, or bottle, or tupperware. And then shake it. For AGES.

At first it’ll slosh about, and then it’ll get thicker and seem like it’s not doing anything (but it is). Persevere – it should take anything from 10 minutes to three quarters of an hour. Shake it, shake it, shake it like a polaroid picture. Shake it above your head, shake it down by your knees, roll it along the ground, work those triceps.

Eventually, suddenly, you’ll hear a slosh. The fat and the buttermilk has separated. Hurrah! Now you need to rid the fat of all the buttermilk. Drain the liquid off (but keep it, it’s useful for making other things) and then rinse the butter throughly. Keep rinsing until the water runs completely clear, and then squeeze the butter. I just squeezed the butter in my hands, but you could use some muslin or cheesecloth, which would be less messy. More buttermilk will come out and it’s important to get it all out because if there’s any left in it can cause the butter to go rancid.

Use the back of a wooden spoon or spatula to shape and pat the butter, draining any more of the liquid that comes out in the process. Wrap it in grease-proof paper and ta-dah! Home-made butter!

Roast Pork Belly with Braised Puy lentils

Pork belly is so ridiculously easy I can’t believe I don’t do it more. Granted, there’s a lot of fat on it, but it’s really tasty fat – not the unpleasantly rubbery kind you can sometimes get on chops, but part soft, part crunchy really good stuff. And the fat bastes the meat as it’s cooking, making it sweet and tender and NOM.

The lentils are also simple and the mashed potatoes… well, you know how to make mashed potatoes.

Ingredients
Pork belly. However much you need to feed however many people you’re cooking for. Use the power of your eyes to judge when you buy it.

Puy lentils – about a cup’s worth for two people – multiply as necessary.
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
3 or 4 sage leaves
A little oil
About 1 pint of stock – meat, chicken or vegetable, it’s up to you. I used ham stock as that’s what I had in and it matched the pork.

The Cooking

First preheat the oven to about 170C/340F. Rub some salt on the skin of the pork, put it on a roasting tray and put it in the oven. Leave it for 2 and a half hours THAT’S IT. That is all you have to do. The meat will become tender and sweet and the skin will become lovely crackling. This is the world’s easiest cut of meat to cook, I swear.

About 40 minutes before the 2 and a half hours is up, roughly chop up the onion, garlic and sage leaves and heat up a splash of oil in a saucepan. Fry the onion until it’s just turning golden and then add the lentils and garlic. Fry for another couple of minutes and then add half the stock. Bring it up to the simmer and then just let it gently bubble away for half an hour, stirring occasionally. If it dries out, add more of the stock. Have a taste and if it needs salt and pepper, add it. Make sure it’s not too salty because pork is naturally salty anyway.

While the lentils are simmering, make the mashed potatoes if you’re having them.

Once the pork is done, take it out of the oven, let it relax for a few minutes and then cut it into hefty slices. Artfully arrange it on the lentils so it looks extra-nice and serve. Classy, tasty food.

Mussels in Cider and Cream Sauce

mussels

As you can see, I served my mussels in cider with linguini. You could too, or just have it on its own with some bread to mop up the sauce. It’s not pretty food, hence the rather messy composure of the photo – sorry – but I assure you it tastes amazing. And I find it’s not worth trying to get the mussels out with a knife and fork – dive in and use your hands. It’s hands-on food. Rar.

Ingredients
Serves 2

About 300g mussels, alive
A knob of butter
1/2 an onion, or a couple of shallots
1 clove garlic
About 100ml cider
2 or 3 tablespoons double cream

The Cooking

First, clean your mussels. Wash them and throw away any that don’t close when you tap them sharply. Pull out their “beards”. I always used to assume that this “beard” was trapped seaweed but it turns out it’s actually called the mussel’s byssus, and the mussel manufactures it itself in order to attach itself to rocks. Pretty cool.

Chop the onion/shallots and garlic finely. Melt the butter in a saucepan large enough to accomodate all the mussels. Gently fry the onions for a couple of minutes and then add the garlic. Fry for another minute or so, and then pour in the cider. Once the cider is bubbling away, put the mussels in and put the lid on tightly.

Give it a good shake every minute or so for 3 or 4 minutes, by which time the mussels will probably all be open and cooked.

Drain the mussels, reserving the cooking liquid. Put the cidery cooking liquid back into the pan and turn up the heat. Add the cream and simmer the liquid until it’s reduced and thickened a little.

To serve, pour the creamy liquid back over the mussels and mix with cooked pasta if you’re having it with that. Eat eat eat!

Roast pork loin stuffed with pinenuts, lemon and sage and wrapped in parma ham

Pork loin

How posh does that look? And yet, it only took me 40 minutes to make and all cooks in the oven at the same time – no saucepans to wash up, nice and easy. Pork is quite lean so this is also low-fat. Positively good for you.

Pork, lemon and sage work well together with the pinenuts for texture and contrast. I made it with roasted parsnips, carrots and red onions because they all release sugars and are quite sweet when roasted and so counteract the sharpness of the lemon with the pork. The whole thing balances very well.

Ingredients
Serves 2

1 pork tenderloin
A handful of pinenuts
The grated zest of half an unwaxed lemon (make sure it is unwaxed, otherwise you’re eating wax. Who wants that?)
4 or 5 sage leaves
2 or 3 slices of parma ham or proscuitto

Veg for roasting. I recommend any of the following: parsnips, swede, red onions, red peppers, carrots, squash.

The Cooking

Pre-heat the oven to 190C/370F.

First do your prep – peel and slice the veg into appropriately-sized pieces according to how you want them. Put them in a roasting tray, sprinkle them with salt and drizzle with olive oil and give it a shake so they’re all evenly covered.

Grate the lemon rind, but make sure that you don’t also grate the pith (white bit) because that’s bitter. Put the pinenuts in a plastic bag and bash them with a heavy implement (a can of beans or a rolling pin will do). Chop the sage leaves finely. Mix these three ingredients together.

Slice the pork loin almost but not completely in half lengthwise and open it out butterfly-style. Put the stuffing mix in the middle of the opened-out loin and close it up again, encasing the stuffing.

Now lie the parma ham out flat on the chopping board, put the pork loin on top and roll the pork up in the ham. It’ll be thus:

pork loin in parma ham

Pop it onto the roasting tray and put everything in the oven. After 15 minutes, give the veg a shake and turn over the pork. After another 15 minutes, it should all be done.

Slice the pork into medalions to make it look pretty. Serve it up. Tasty.

Pickled Onions

Pickled onions

Pickled onions! I’m making jars of pickled onions as Christmas gifts – they’re cheap to make, involve no actual cooking, and are always appreciated by those who like them (although of course you need to check that your intended recipient wouldn’t turn green at the thought of them). They need to be made now as they need time to mature, but once ready will keep for many months. You can use old jam jars for the rustic version, or do them nicely in kilner jars (as above). Giving them personal labels is a nice touch too.

The process takes a couple of days but you only need to be actually doing something for about an hour of that time.

Ingredients

Pickling onions or shallots.
Pickling vinegar (malt vinegar)
225g Sea Salt (not table salt)
2.8 litres/ 4 pints Water
Pickling spices. You can either just buy ready-selected pickling spices or you can put together a teaspoon each of mace, cinnamon, allspice berries, black peppercorns and 4 cloves and 1 chilli.

The Cooking

First, a note: don’t use copper or iron pans for this – the acid reacts with the metal which spoils the colour and flavour. Also, you need to sterilise your jars in order to avoid the pickles going mouldy. This is quite simple – wash them in hot soapy water and then dry them in the oven on a low heat.

Okay, to begin with you need to brine the onions. Heat the salt and water slowly until the salt has dissolved. Allow this to cool and meanwhile peel the onions. You can make them easier to peel by plunging the skin-on onions into boiling water for one minute (although to be honest, I didn’t bother. I just peeled them). Once cooled and peeled, prick the onions to allow the liquid to soak into them and put the onions in the cooled brine.

Put some kind of weight on top of the onions to make sure they’re all submerged in the brine – I used a plate with a mug full of water on top. Now you simply set it aside for a couple of days and go about your business.

After a couple of days, drain the onions and pat them dry. Pack them into your steralised jars and pour over the vinegar and sprinkle in a couple of teaspoons of the mixed pickling spices. That’s it! Ta dah!

After 4 weeks or so they should be mature enough to be edible, but you may want to wait a couple of months to be sure. Eat them yourself with some strong cheddar, or stick a bow on the jar and give them to your dad as a present. Dads love pickled onions.