Category Archives: food

Quick and cheesy veggie lasagne

Another recipe of mine which will win no prizes for authenticity, so if you’re an Italian food purist, avert your eyes now!

For the rest this is a perennial home favourite which looks great, is very satisfying and simple to involve kids in its preparation.

Ingredients

* Cheese: Firm mozzarella and/or mild cheddar

* Dry lasagne pasta sheets (those which don’t need pre-cooking)

* 1 bottle of passata

* 1 tin of chopped tomatoes

* 2 medium onions

* 4 cloves of garlic

* 1 bag of Quorn mince or mixed vegetables including courgettes, peppers & mushrooms

* 1/2 cube vegetable stock

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees centigrade.

First the tomato-based sauce. Dice the onions and saute in a good splash of olive oil, sprinkling with some salt and dried oregano or basil. Crumble in half a stock cube and add a glug of water to dissolve it. If you’re going for mince, add the Quorn mince now and cook on a medium heat.

If you’re not using mince slice the vegetables and set to one side.

Crush the garlic and stir into the pan, cook for a minute then add the passata followed by the tinned tomato. Leave to simmer stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile prepare the cheese. I prefer to use the firm long blocks of mozzarella, the balls in bags of water are too soft for this recipe in my experience. Slice the blocks or grate the cheddar.

Check the tomato sauce and season to taste, remembering that the cheese will add more salt to the final flavours.

In a large baking dish line the bottom with pasta sheets, trying to avoid too much overlap. Now spread some of the tomato sauce onto this layer – you want it to be about half a centimetre of sauce. If you’re using them, lay vegetable slices over this. Then add a layer of cheese – not too much, only enough to cover about half of the surface area, it will spread as it melts.

Add another layer of pasta, another layer of sauce, vegetables if used, then more cheese. Continue until the dish can’t hold any more.

At the top you have a choice, you can go crunchy or soft. For a crunchy top add a final layer of pasta sheets then add cheese to this. For a softer finish just top the final sauce layer with cheese. I always use a mix of mozzarella and grated cheddar.

Bake in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, checking after 25 minutes to make sure the top isn’t burning. It’s ready when the pasta sheets are soft.

Tips:

* You can add torn basil leaves or chunks of fresh garlic in the layers to add more flavour.

* If using vegetables try to slice them so that they will cook evenly.

* Spreading on the tomato sauce hot from the pan helps the pasta sheets cook quickly.

* This is a great left-overs dish. To stop it drying out reheat in the oven under foil with a splash of milk under there.

A method for making pizza

Pizza Crust Closeup
Crust on a recent home-made pizza chez Kitcat

I cannot claim that this method for pizza is authentic, handed down from Italians over the generations. I don’t even promise that you’ll like it. But it is what works for me.

It started about five years ago when my wife, observing that I was pretty good at making bread, suggested that I try my hand at pizza. This seemed like a huge culinary leap to me and my first searches for recipes revealed a level of pizza cooking snobbery that was quite off-putting. Could a humble home oven deliver the goods?

I think it can. This method has evolved over the years as I have gleaned more hints and ideas from newspapers, cook books and dozens of food blogs. It has also been informed by pizza tasting across Europe and North America, especially New York, Rome and Venice. The glaring ommissions in my foreign pizza tasting are undoubtedly Naples and Chicago, but I have had to make do.

The only equipment I think essential to this method is a pizza stone. This is a piece of ceramic you bake the pizza on in your oven – it helps deliver a crisp crust and sufficient heat to cook the whole thing through. They are very cheap and my one from Argos has lasted years.

As for the matter of toppings – this is fraught territory. This method will get you as far as a basic Margherita. If you want to do more, then here are some ideas from the list of favoured toppings in my household:

  • Tinned tuna, fresh garlic, red onion and black olives
  • Mushrooms, peppers and onions
  • Marinated anchovies, onions and olives
  • Pepperoni or ham, peppers and mushrooms

I find less is more with pizza toppings, but that’s just my taste.

To make about 15 pizzas you will need:

  • Olive oil
  • 1kg Strong white flour (Type ‘0’ is best)
  • 3 cups of warm water (1 part boiling to 2 parts cold)
  • Yeast
  • 900g Mozzarella cheese
  • 1 x medium onion (very finely diced)
  • 4-5 large cloves of garlic
  • 2 x 680g bottles of Passata (sieved tomato)
  • Oregano (dried)
  • Basil (fresh)

Put the pizza stone on the top shelf of your oven and crank the oven up to maximum temperature. If you can, close all the doors and windows in your kitchen so that it stays warm.

Depending on the type of yeast you have, you may need to activate it. Follow the directions on your yeast to make enough for 1kg of flour. Splash some olive oil into a bowl so that the sides are coated.

In another bowl put in the flour less 2 cups which you can save for later. Add a splash of olive oil, salt and if you have instant yeast add it too, then mix. Now gradually add the warm water whilst stirring with a wooden spoon.

Depending on your flour you may not need all the water, or you may need a smidgeon more so that the mix is one coherent ball that’s not too wet, not too dry and it holds together.

Dust a work top with some of the reserved flour. Knead the dough using the heel of your hands to stretch it. Keep adding flour to the worktop if you find part of the dough still sticky. Give it all a good knead but don’t overdo it – just enough so that it holds together and isn’t sticky any more when you stretch it with your heel.

Form a ball with the dough and place it in the oiled bowl. Roll the dough so it’s completely coated with olive oil. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and leave it in a warm part of the kitchen. It will need 30-45 minutes to rise sufficiently.

Meanwhile you can start making the tomato sauce. In a good sized heavy pot cover the base with olive oil and put in the onion. You want the onion to have been cut very finely so that it almost melts into the oil. Cook on a low heat, stirring occasionally so that the onion softens but doesn brown. When soft add a sprinkle of salt and crushed garlic cloves. Stir and cook for a few more minutes then add the two bottles of passata. Cook on a medium low heat until simmering, stirring occassionally. Taste and add salt as needed, you may also need to sweeten slightly depending on the passata – I like to use about a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses for sweetening. Gently cook the sauce for another five or ten minutes then turn off the heat and cover.

If you still have time you can prepare the toppings you want to use. For mozzarella, if you have bought blocks rather than the balls, slice the blocks in half lengthwise then chop into slices 5mm thick. For mozzarella balls, remove them from the water they are packed in and gently squeeze the excess liquid from them. You can then just tear them up for use on your pizzas.

Once the dough has risen you are ready to start making pizza. Take a small chunk of dough: More than a golf ball but less than a cricket ball in size. Make sure to keep the rest of the dough covered while you are working otherwise it will dry out.

Roll the dough between yours hands until it has formed an even ball shape. Then on a work surface dusted with flour begin to press the dough into a pizza shape. Depending on your energy and patience you can either do it all by hand or use a rolling pin to achieve the desired size and thinness. Be sure to keep dusting the work surface and turning the dough over so it doesn’t stick and is even.

Carefully remove the pizza stone from the oven and lay the rolled dough onto it. The stone will immediately start cooking things so you need to move quickly now!

Use a ladle to place some tomato sauce onto the dough. Use the back of the ladle to spread it across the dough. You want it to be fairly thin right up to about 1cm from the edges – depending on how much crust you like.

Now sprinkle on dried oregano, add chunks of mozzarella, some torn leaves of fresh basil and if desired, your additional toppings. Put the whole lot on the stone back into the oven.

Now is your chance to make up the next piece of dough and have a sip of wine!

Avoid opening the oven to check on things if possible. The key to a good crust is keeping the oven and the pizza stone as hot as you can, so work fast and avoid having the stone out of the oven for long.

The pizza is ready when the edge of the crust is brown and the cheese starts to bubble. You don’t want to leave it too long or the cheese hardens. Remove the pizza stone and, as long as there were no holes in your dough, the pizza should easily slide off onto a serving dish. Enjoy!

Veggie toppings on one of my home-made pizzas

Friccassee de Poulet with Balsamic Vinegar

A few years ago it was another hot summer Sunday and I was planning something like a quick chicken teriyaki for lunch. But my mother-in-law dropped in and that would have to change. No, not the start to a joke, but the beginning of my falling in love with Provençal cooking all over again.

Usually my wife and I eat Japanese vegetarian food for our everyday meals, and a bit of decent quality organic meat for one weekend meal. But my Polish mother-in-law really finds Japanese a bit too strange for her tastes. No problem, I had plenty of good organic chicken in the freezer after overbuying for a BBQ.

I’m not sure why but I pulled down my yellow Provençal cookbook of shame. I say of shame because it is in English. Many years ago I bought it in a  shop in Avignon where both English and French versions were available. Despite French being my mother tongue the culinary terminology scared me into getting the English copy and I still regret it to this day. Silly really, especially as I’ve only used one recipe for ratatouille from there in all this time. (You can get the book from Amazon France in French or English)

Anyway, for reasons unexplained I reached for the Provençal book and flicked through thinking of something that I would enjoy cooking and everyone would enjoy eating. Well with only one chicken recipe in the book the choice was made!

Based on my own memories of Friccassees past I made some changes to the recipe which made it a bit more rustic. I served it with mashed potatoes (using a splash of milk and white pepper) and a green salad.

Many Friccassee recipes are extraordinarily involved. This recipe is straightforward and easy giving you a delicious country dish in under 40 minutes.

Don’t be scared by the vinegar in this recipe, it works. Just make sure you have a good balsamic vinegar which isn’t too tart, there should be some sweetness to its flavour.

Ingredients

1 chicken (1.8-2Kgs)

5 leeks

500ml double cream

200ml balsamic vinegar

4 shallots

8-10 crimini mushrooms (small portobello)

50g butter

1. Cut the chicken into eight pieces and lightly brown in a large pan using the butter. When the chicken has become golden brown, put in a dish to one side, discarding any remaining butter from the pan.

2. Finely chop the shallots and sweat them in the pan for a few minutes until they are becoming translucent.

3. Return the chicken to the pan along with sliced mushrooms and pour over the vinegar. While reducing the vinegar by half over a medium heat turn the chicken a few times to ensure even absorption.

4. Stir in all the cream and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove the white meat and continue cooking the legs until done, around 10 minutes.

5. Cut the leeks into 10cm (4 inch) lengths, discarding the loose, dark green leaves at the top. Cook in salted water, cooling in ice water when done.

6. In a serving dish lay out the leeks topped with your chicken which should have taken on a gorgeous brown from the vinegar.

7. Keep simmering the sauce until it has reduced a bit further then pour it hot over the chicken and serve.

Although I’ve played with his recipe, I can’t argue with Christian Etienne’s advice: “Serve this dish with a good wine.”

We had it with a wine which never fails to please during the summer months, Rosé d’Anjou.

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Bob Blumer’s Beetrot Salad Recipe

Bob Blumer (a.k.a The Surreal Gourmet) came into my cooking life thanks to my cousin Sophie who gave me his wonderful book “Off The Eaten Path“.

I’ve always enjoyed beetroots but I know that many don’t so when I saw a recipe called “Gee, your beet smells terrific” I had to give it a try. It all comes down to roasting the beets which is a brilliant idea. It makes complete sense given how beets are packed with natural sugars, yet I’ve never seen this suggested anywhere before. Everyone who has this salad is stunned when I say the beets were roasted – they taste good.

There are so many clever flavour combinations packed in here so I haven’t modified his recipe much, just tweaked a few quantities.

Ingredients

3 medium size beets (tops removed)

3 teaspoons walnut oil

2 teaspoons good balsamic vinegar

3 teaspoons freshly squeezed orange juice

2 teaspoons fresh tarragon (finely chopped, stems discarded)

50g strong, crumbly French goats cheese (diced into 1/8-inch cubes)

3 tablespoons toasted walnuts (to toast just pop nuts in the oven until starting to brown and get them out quick as they’ll burn in a blink)

1-2 Belgian endives

salt & black pepper to taste

  • Place the beetroots whole, unskinned on a rack to bake at 200 C for 1.5-2 hours. Use foil to catch the drippings below. (Increase time if beets are big)
  • Remove beetroots from the oven to cool. Don’t worry about the exterior blackening, the inside is wonderfully tender and sweet.
  • Once cool peel with your hands and then finely dice the beetroots.
  • Combine all the remaining ingredients in a bowl adding nuts and cheese last before gently mixing.
  • For fancy presentation or as an entree spoon the mixture into whole washed endive leaves. Alternatively use just 1 endive and chop the leaves into 2 inch lengths and mix into the salad.

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Grandmother’s Classic French Dressing

My father’s mother was a wonderful cook. She revelled in cooking delicious French and English foods. Sunday lunches tended to centre around divinely roasted joints with superb gravies. She also loved to set all sorts of pleasures in aspic, asparagus being a favourite since the days when she used to have them fresh from her own garden.

There’s no doubt she took a huge amount of pride in her cooking and so there was more than a hint of rivalry with my mother. Though I can’t be sure I think more than once she would note down recipes ever so slightly incomplete so that her version would always taste better. She wouldn’t have been the first cook to jealously guard her secrets!

One famous family story is of the first Christmas my mother took on cooking duties. Buried in the kitchen for two days my mother wanted to be absolutely certain that she impressed. Being French-Canadian she naturally decided to cook a giant turkey.  This was before turkey had become as popular in the UK as it is now. So after some research a beast was procured which had been selected with some considerable deliberation from a specialist farm.

On Christmas day my mother was exhausted but proud as she emerged from the kitchen with the huge, golden turkey and placed it on a table laden with stuffing and home-made cranberry sauce. It was at this point that my grandmother made it known that she only ate goose for Christmas.UN peacekeepers nearly had to be called in at this juncture.

Goose is still popular in France for Christmas but I’ve not yet had the opportunity to taste it and I certainly never had the courage to ask my mother to cook it.

Whatever my mother was cooking I wanted to be involved in the preparation. I don’t know if this began because my hunger drove me to be as close as possible to the food or out of genuine curiosity. One of the first things I was permitted to make was salad dressing as it involved no dangerous implements.

My father taught me the dressing his mother had taught him. I fairly sure my grandmother showed me herself a few times also. In fact it’s less of a recipe and more a rule of thumb which leaves great flexibility depending on what will be in the salad and your mood.

The only way to mix this sort of dressing is by vigourous shaking so keep an old jam jar for this purpose.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

Vinegar (balsamic, sherry, cider)

Dijon mustard

Brown sugar or honey

  • The basic dressing consists of a 3:1 ratio of olive oil to vinegar. This needs to be played with a bit if the vinegar is sharp. I tend to use balsamic or cider vinegar but sherry or red wine vinegars are good too.
  • For every unit of vinegar you want one teaspoon of Dijon mustard. I’ve noticed that some mustards are getting more vinegary so you may need to make adjustments.
  • For every unit of vinegar you also want 1.5-2 teaspoons of sugar or honey depending on your taste.
  • Season with salt and pepper, then shake well.
  • My grandmother often liked to add a dash of Worcester sauce. Freshly crushed garlic is also very welcome in this dressing.