25 August 2016

Persian lamb & vegetable stew - worth every second it is in the oven!

The blame for this recipe lies fairly and squarely with my birthday.  You see, I was lucky enough to be given "The Saffron Tales" by Yasmin Khan, which fired up my already well established liking for and curiosity about Persian - or Iranian - cuisine.  As you'll probably have gathered, I really like lamb and saffron and pomegranate molasses is no stranger to my ingredients cupboard, plus I love using fresh herbs in my cooking, so I was part way there already.

Having lapped up every word of the recipe book, my imagination had been captured.  I wanted to make something for dinner that would encapsulate some of the cooking techniques and flavours I had read about.  Right up there on that list was lamb, which was a fine if somewhat expensive place to start.  However, I discovered that Asda do a bag of frozen diced lamb which gave sufficient quantity for the right price.  I just hoped that the quality would be good enough!  (Which, as it turned out, it was!).

Dried limes at a market in Bahrain c/o Wikipedia
The second essential was that this dish should include Iranian dried limes.  I was SO curious about these little black apparently hollow little ping-pong-ball-alikes.  I really like lime - which helps - and using these odd little creatures was a curiosity all of its own. What would they smell like? (Vaguely liquorice-like).  What do they taste like?  (Aside from the obvious citrus effect, I have never tasted anything quite like them to be able to give you a "tastes like" point of reference).  What effect would they have on a stew?  (A quite incredible and delicious effect, as it happens!).  So they had to be done.

The third essential was that this stew had to use fresh herbs and lots of them.  I'd seen the Gormeh Sabzi, which is a stew made almost exclusively from an assortment of herbs such as parsley, leek, coriander and fenugreek which looked great, but I was a bit nervous about diving straight into a herb stew.  I felt that something a bit more familiar - meat with vegetables and herbs - would be a little less of a challenge to the family.

As a result, I incorporated the best bits of two recipes in order to make this one.  I took the cooking instructions for the lamb from this recipe from House to Home and took the vegetable and herb influences, along with the dried lime cooking advice, from this Ottolenghi recipe.

My only regret was that they both used turmeric instead of saffron, but hey - you can't have it all and turmeric is so good for you!

So it turned into a three stage, three hour process.  Oh boy but it was worth it, though. Each stage is achieved relatively easily and if you do all your chopping and peeling to begin with, that makes the process a whole lot easier.

I was so curious to taste the gravy at the end of the first hour and a half of cooking, as the soft herbs had all gone into the pot for this stage.  Mmmmnn, I could easily have just thickened that gravy and eaten the lamb as it was.  It was tender, the gravy was delicious and the herbs had amalgamated with the spices (turmeric, cumin, chilli) into incredible layers of exotic flavour.  You can only imagine how butter soft the lamb was by the end of three hours!  I had to resist though, as the dried limes had yet to be included.

Now nobody had mentioned how, even though you poke a thousand holes into each dried lime - to let the gravy in and the flavour out - they insist on bobbing about on the top of the casserole's contents and will NOT submit to being submerged.  In the end, I decided to give the contents a stir at 45 minutes, in the hope that they would have softened enough to sink.  They did - so there's a tip for you!

With the addition of the vegetables - and most especially the butternut squash - the gravy began to sweeten somewhat.  (Yes, I did have a taste at the 45 minute mark - well, it was for research purposes as much as anything).  Now the interesting thing is that with the addition of the lime juice (you squeeze each lime against the side of the casserole dish before removing it) which is gloriously flavoured and mahogany coloured, it doesn't wipe out that sweetness.  Yes, there is a citrussy element to the flavour of the dried lime, but it just adds another layer to an already multi-flavour layered concoction, without knocking any particular flavour out of the melange.  Their astringency also has the effect of cutting through the richness of the fatty (no matter how hard you trim it, it's still fatty) lamb.  I am seriously impressed with these dried Iranian limes and can't wait to use them again - perhaps in some rice to accompany a curry.

The final three flourishes - some chopped fresh tomato, currants soaked in lemon juice (I hadn't been able to source any barberries) and the very last minute addition of spinach leaves - were sufficient to just add a freshness to the dish.  So often, casseroles cooked long and slow can become a little muddy-flavoured as they progress.  Not this one - and with the last minute additions, it makes sure of it.

Tasting the stew as it progressed through all the different stages was a real education in flavour development and I encourage you to do the same.  I think by doing so, you will understand how each ingredient is working with the others a lot better than just sampling the end result.

I wasn't brave enough to attempt the traditional Tahdig (golden saffron flavoured rice that forms a crisp crust in the making), I'll leave that for another day.  Instead, I served the stew with simply cooked white basmati rice and a hearty dollop of plain yoghurt.

It really doesn't describe the dish sufficiently to call it a simple "stew", as being English that evokes thoughts of thick gravy and dumplings.  However, I'm hoping that the "Persian" in the name will stop such thoughts in their tracks and send you down more exotic lines of thought!

As my first even half-serious voyage into Persian (Iranian) cuisine, I'm feeling quite satisfied that I did it some justice.  I just hope you will feel the same way.


Ingredients :

2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used rapeseed)
500g diced lamb
1 large onion, diced
pinch of sea salt
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
half a tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp tomato puree
20g fresh coriander, roughly chopped
10g fresh dill, roughly chopped
10g fresh tarragon, roughly chopped
1 litre of lamb stock, made using two stock cubes
1 whole red chilli, pierced all over
4 dried limes, pierced all over
1 large waxy potato, peeled and diced very small
1 small butternut squash, peeled and diced
4-5 mushrooms, quartered
3 vine ripened tomatoes, pips removed and chopped
15g barberries or alternatively currants soaked in lemon juice
a large handful of baby spinach leaves.

Method :

Pre-heat your oven to 140degC/275degF/Gas 1.

Heat the vegetable oil (I used rapeseed) over a high heat in a large frying pan until almost smoky hot.  Add the lamb (gently!) and sear on at least two sides.  Using a slotted spoon remove the lamb to a lidded casserole dish.

Reduce the heat under the frying pan to moderate and add the onion, sea salt, garlic, turmeric and cumin seeds.  Fry until the onion is transparent and just beginning to caramelise but stir often to prevent the turmeric from burning on the bottom of the pan.

Add the tomato puree and stir through.  Cook on for another 3-4 minutes, until the ingredients are well combined.

Gently stir in the lamb stock and add the three fresh herbs.

Decant the mixture into the casserole dish, give everything a stir, whisper some words of encouragement and put the lid on.  Place the casserole dish into the oven and forget about it for the next hour and a half.

Remove the casserole dish from the oven and remove the lid.  Give the contents a stir and have a taste of the cooking liquid, to check for seasoning and to admire how it tastes at this early stage - seriously lovely.

Add the red chilli, the dried limes (which will insist on bobbing around on the surface, because they're so light), potato, butternut squash and mushrooms and stir through.

Replace the lid and put the casserole dish back into the oven for another hour.

At the end of that hour, retrieve the casserole dish and remove the lid.  Stir in the tomatoes and barberries or currants.  Replace, uncovered, in the oven for the remaining half an hour.  (The sauce is fairly thin and of a broth-like consistency, but amazingly flavoured.  If you prefer your sauce thicker, simply stir in a little cornflour mixed with water at this stage, which will thicken the sauce).

Ultimately, once you have finally removed the casserole dish from the oven (and cooked some white rice to go with it), stir in a big handful of baby spinach leaves and serve along with the cooked white rice and a healthy big dollop of plain yoghurt.

Tuck in!

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24 May 2016

Chicken with mushrooms - the name belies the flavour!

It sounds so simple that it is hard to believe it could be so tasty.  However, never underestimate the power of a tablespoonful of vinegar to the flavour of a dish!

I was looking for a simple, no frills, mid week chicken dish that could be served with a couple of different vegetables, to balance up the low veggie dishes that were already on the menu plan.  As ever, when feeling a lack of inspiration, I turned to my recipe bible - www.bbcgoodfood.com.  Flicking through the dozens of recipes, I recognised one that I'd liked on a previous occasion but hadn't got around to cooking yet - the chicken with mushrooms.  For all that the name sounds singularly uninspiring, the photograph alongside looked really quite enticing.  Nice golden fillets of chicken with mushrooms and green peas in a light and not creamy, sauce.  It looked perfect for the job.

I had to make some alterations to the original recipe though, as I wasn't going to pay for pancetta (so I used Asda's misshapes smoked bacon for cooking), nor a bottle of white wine vinegar that I might not use again for months (so I used sherry vinegar, which I had already got).  

I also didn't bother with dirtying a bowl by dredging the chicken with flour (which would probably have stuck to the pan and burned anyway) and solved the problem of a too-thin sauce by adding just two teaspoonfuls of Bisto Best roast chicken gravy granules.  All three of these changes worked perfectly, so hence the recipe appears in its altered form in this blog.  If I didn't write down what I did, I just know I'd forget when it came to the next time!  However, if you want to stick to the named ingredients in the original recipe, you go right ahead - it's fine by me.

The keys to this recipe's deliciousness are as follows :

a)  the cooking of the chicken.  You must make sure that your chicken gains a lovely golden hue before you add liquid.  This is the real foundation of your dish's flavour.

b)  the bacon.  Don't be tempted to leave out the bacon.  The flavour profile needs it's intense savouriness and saltiness - but be careful about the addition of sea salt, just a tiny pinch!

c)  the vinegar.  The addition of the vinegar gives a lovely tang of acidity to the sauce.  Not as much as sweet and sour, but enough to give it a lift above a straight gravy.

d)  the late addition of the fresh parsley.  Don't be tempted to chuck it in early.  The sauce needs the freshness of the just wilted parsley.

e)  the reduction of the liquid in the sauce.   Don't be tempted to hurry it along and serve before the sauce has had a chance to reduce by half to two thirds.  It makes SUCH a difference to the intensity of the flavour!  Taste the sauce as you go along and you will see what I mean.

This is one of those recipes that is as good a mid week family dinner as it is a relaxed dinner with friends.  The flavour is so much more than its title!


Ingredients :

1 tbsp olive oil
3 rashers thick cut smoked back bacon, diced
2 large eschalion shallots or 4-5 small shallots, chopped
150g button mushrooms, halved
2 chicken breasts, each cut in half lengthways to create 2 thinner fillets
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
250ml warm water, containing 1 low salt chicken stock cube
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 tsp Bisto Best chicken gravy granules
1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
50g frozen peas.

Method :

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan, then add the bacon and shallots. Cook over a moderate heat until the shallots are softened, all the liquid has left the bacon and it has begun to turn golden.

Add the button mushrooms and continue to fry, stirring regularly, until the mushrooms have begun to soften.

Remove the bacon, shallots & mushrooms from the pan using a slotted spoon and reserve to keep warm.

Increase the heat under the pan and add the chicken breast fillets and season with sea salt & freshly ground black pepper. Leave them undisturbed to gain a lovely golden colour, then flip them over, season and cook the other side in identical fashion.

Once both sides are deliciously golden, return the bacon, shallots & mushrooms to the pan.

Add the water, stock cube (broken into pieces) and vinegar and stir gently until everything is combined. Bring to a steady simmer and cook for a further 15 or so minutes, turning the chicken half way through.

Once the liquid has reduced by half, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly then add the gravy granules and stir quickly to prevent them clumping. Return the pan to the heat and cook, stirring, until the sauce has thickened.

Add the fresh parsley and frozen peas and taste the sauce to check the seasoning. Add a little more if necessary. Bring back up to simmering point, turn the chicken once and cook until the peas are tender but have not lost their fresh green colour.

Serve with new potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

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22 May 2016

Quick cheesy scrambled eggs

This is one of my "hit and run" style of blog posts, that covers something I've made for myself - either breakfast, or lunch - that was too good not to share.

This quick cheesy scrambled egg in a toasted pitta bread breakfast is one such.  I didn't have my "proper" camera to hand, so snapped a picture with my camera phone.  This is why it's not a great picture - but it's enough to give you the idea.

It's a simple enough concept - an egg, scrambled, with grated cheese melted in and put into a pitta bread.  However, it's not a stovetop job, it's a microwave job.

Super-easy, super-quick and you're left with a mug, a fork and a knife to wash up.  As you can see, I didn't even bother to dirty a plate.   Perfect.  


Ingredients :

1 large or very large egg
a small handful of grated cheese (I used Red Leicester, but any hard cheese is good)
a small knob of butter
1 tsp cream, if you've got it (not essential)
small pinch of sea salt and black pepper
Plus :
whatever you're serving it with - pitta bread, toast, bacon, whatever you like.

Method :

Crack the egg into a robust and microwave safe coffee mug.

Add the seasoning and cream (if you're using cream) and whisk them together with your fork.

Add the butter and grated cheese and stir lightly.

Place into the microwave and give it 30 seconds on full power.  Remove and give the contents a good old whisk with your fork again.

Replace and give it 15 seconds on full power.  Remove and whisk again.  Now, depending upon the power of your microwave, your egg will either be ready, or you'll need to give it small increments (say 5-10 seconds) further cooking until it reaches the consistency you like.

I recommend you remove it from the microwave when the egg is still a little bit underdone, as it will continue to cook even once it's on the plate!

In the meantime, you can have toasted a pitta bread, or made some toast, or if you're going very a la carte, even made some bacon earlier.  Serve up the egg with an extra sprinkle of sea salt and black pepper if you like that - and dig in!

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19 May 2016

Mead - *hic* - yep, it's alcoholic and good for you!

Yes, Mead!  That apparently old style alcoholic drink that used to be sold by Merrydown in this country, but appears to have fallen off the map.  That elixir of life for Norsemen down the ages, who by all accounts had a great liking for the stuff (and who wouldn't!).  I gather, also, that it is a stalwart of many a Renaissance Fayre over the pond in the U.S. and perhaps even Canada.

I can remember my parents, way back in the seventies and one Christmas, producing a bottle of Merrydown Mead and being cock-a-hoop that they'd found some.  As I was knee-high to a grasshopper at the time, I didn't get to taste any but their happiness at having found it was testament to its popularity (at the time).

As time went on, it seems to have fallen by the wayside as so many good things often do. However, there does seem to be something of a resurgence going on - and in home brewing terms.  Now my hubby is a bit keen on dallying about with demijohns and hydrometers, but it was the news that Mead contains a significant number (by which I mean SHEDLOADS) of probiotics, that tipped the balance for us.  We're all into probiotics in this house as my use of Kefir (a fermented milk drink) and liking for Kombucha (have yet to try fermenting this one), along with the use of goat milk (unfermented, this time) seem to have made a significant difference to my irritable bowel syndrome.  Have a read of this piece here, for more information on that happy side of Mead.

Chicken in a Mead and mustard cream sauce
This being, primarily, a food blog, I think it is important to underline the very good work that our Mead has been doing in the cooking department.  My pork with parsnips and Mead was unbelievably good, the chicken in a Mead and mustard cream sauce was just out of this world and hubby has mounted an armed perimeter guard around the freezer since I made my rhubarb & mead semifreddo, with rhubarb & mead compote.  So, you see, Mead is not just for warming your cockles on a chilly night!

So as hubby is the Master Brewer in our house, I shall turn the remainder of this blog post - and the recipe of course - over to him.

There really is no magic involved in Mead, it is quite simply a combination of good quality honey, brewer's yeast and water, left to ferment.  The better the honey you use, the better the mead will be, so take care not to get any of the honey blends, as some will contain a sugar syrup.

You can flavour your Mead by adding raisins, spices such as cinnamon and cloves, or any number of other botanicals such as elderflowers, juniper berries and sweet herbs into the first demijohn. It is also possible to make a fruit Mead (called a melomel) by adding fruit (peaches, pineapple, oranges, rhubarb or whatever you want) into the second demijohn. (We haven't tried this one yet!).

As regards the yeast required, baking yeast just won't do, so put that back in the fridge before we go any further.  Brewers yeast (or wine making yeast) is what you want - as it is better at converting sugar to alcohol.  Champagne yeast is the very best and I found mine on Amazon.  Generally, one sachet of yeast is 5g although they can differ.  However 5g of yeast is the amount I use in this recipe.

You might be wondering what use the lemon juice is put to, but apparently it helps to wake the yeast up and kickstarts the fermentation process.  Sounds likely!

Yes, you do need some specialised equipment for the task, but really, not much of it!  Two 5 litre demijohns are a must, together with a length of silicone tubing, an airlock and bung, a large bottle brush for cleaning everything and a good selection of glass bottles to carry the final product.  I've found that Grolsch bottles - being swing-topped - are great.  It is an easy matter to obtain corks with which to seal wine bottles and these are great when storing the Mead for any length of time.  A hydrometer is useful if you want to check the alcohol content by any other means than "have I got a headache" when you wake up in the morning.

There are lots of ways to sterilise glass, the easiest of which is to use a sterilising solution. I use one called "Bruclense" which is easy to use and leaves no chemical residue once rinsed. There are other solutions which are sold to sterilise babies' bottles that do the same job. If you hate the idea of chemicals though, just wash the glass well, rinse thoroughly and then put into an oven at 110 degrees celcius for ten minutes.

Having assembled your small collection of equipment, you'll be raring to go - so here's the recipe.

MEAD   (makes approx. 4.5 litres)

Ingredients :

1,200 - 1,500g of runny honey (depending on how sweet you want the finished mead)
1 sachet (5g approx.) of brewing or wine yeast (I use champagne yeast)
1 lemon, juice only
5 litres of water.

Method :

In a saucepan, add the honey to 1 litre of the water and warm it up so that the honey dissolves.  Make sure not to let the mixture boil, just get it warm enough to be pourable.

Once dissolved, cover and leave to cool to room temperature before pouring it into a clean, sterilised 5 litre demijohn along with the lemon juice, the brewing yeast and then top the demijohn up with the remaining water, leaving a 5 cm air gap at the top.  An initial hydrometer reading can be taken at this stage if you're into that kind of thing.

Seal the demijohn with an airlock and bung and leave in a dark place for around 30 days to ferment.

Fermentation should, initially, be quite vigorous (more than one bloop per second) but after 30 days or so, the airlock should be bubbling only very slowly (a bloop every ten seconds or so).  This is time to carefully rack the mead into another clean sterilised demijohn, taking care to leave the sediment behind in the original one.  (Racking = decanting).  Racking can be a tricky procedure and I suggest that you visit YouTube to get a good sense of how it is done.   You can take the opportunity to top up with water to the full 5 litres, if you wish. Now is also the time to take a second hydrometer reading, which will give you an idea of the alcohol content at that moment.  Mine was 13.5%.

This is also the stage at which any botanicals or fruits can be added.  For my second batch of mead, I've used half a cinnamon stick and a few juniper berries but there are all manner of extra flavours that would work very well too.  Replace the airlock and bung and leave the whole thing for another 30 days to clear before racking into clean, sterilised bottles.

The mead can be drunk at this stage but the longer it is left in the bottles, the better it becomes. Six months is a good time to wait but it should keep for much longer than that if all of your equipment was sterilised and scrupulously clean.


18 May 2016

Cheesy Ham and Potato bake - a trip back in time

Oh I only wish I could show you how excited I am by this dish - and how completely stuffed but happy I was by the time I'd eaten it.  You see, it took me back to years ago when I would spend a week at my cousin's house and then she would spend a week at ours.  Happy days!  My aunt would cook dinners like this - comforting, kids' dinners of potatoes and cheese.

A Facebook friend was responsible for the inspiration for this dish, though.  She posted photographs of a very similar thing, but with sliced potatoes instead of chunks, that instantly reminded me of this sort of meal and how much I liked it.  Her recipe was very much made for adults though, being a version of scalloped potatoes and using garlic, much more double cream and some creme fraiche.

So I looked at various recipes and tried to recall the way my Aunt's dinner looked and tasted - and this is the result.  No, it won't win any awards for gastronomy but I suspect it could win a few where reminiscence is concerned!

It really is simplicity itself.  Par-boiled potatoes are mixed with diced ham, sliced spring onions and a good, thick and cheesy sauce seasoned with English mustard powder and nutmeg.  Cover with cheese and bake in the oven.  I love dishes that have a great payoff for minimum effort - and this is definitely one of those.

You can tinker about with the recipe as much as you like, to your own preference, too.  Add peas or sweetcorn, use a cooked supermarket ham hock for the meat instead of sliced ham - just shred the meat before you add it.  Add the chopped chives to the cheese sauce.  Maybe adultify it a little by adding garlic granules to the sauce.  All manner of tinkering about could go on!

I served mine in two ways - I served mine simply with a baked tomato.  For my son, I cooked some sausages and gave him some raw tomato that had been tossed with chives as growing boys need their protein and he doesn't like cooked tomato.  Oh boy, it was so good!


Ingredients :

4-5 medium sized potatoes, peeled and diced into half inch pieces
4 spring onions, sliced
10-15g salted butter
2 tbsp plain flour
300ml skimmed milk (you may not need it all)
100ml double cream
1 tsp plain Philadelphia cream cheese
a scant pinch of sea salt
a good pinch of ground black pepper
a quarter tsp of grated nutmeg
1 tsp English mustard powder
250g of mixed cheeses, grated (I used Gouda and mature Cheddar)
200g thick sliced ham, cut into half inch pieces
30g of grated cheese (I used Red Leicester)
chopped chives to serve.

Method :

Place the potato dice into a saucepan with salted water and bring to a boil. Cook for 1-2 minutes until just slightly softened, then drain and tip the potato into the baking dish.

Slice the spring onions and add them to the potato in the baking dish.

In a non-stick pan, melt the butter and once melted, add the flour and stir well. Cook over a moderate heat for 1-2 minutes, then add a little milk and remove the pan from the heat. Stir the milk into the butter/flour mixture until lump free, then return to a reduced heat and add a little more milk. Stir that in and add the cream, cream cheese, seasoning, nutmeg and mustard powder and stir through.

As the sauce heats, make sure to keep stirring to prevent it from catching on the bottom of the pan. You need a fairly thick sauce at this stage, you can always add more milk once the cheese is melted, if necessary.

Add the mixed grated cheese and remove from the heat as it melts. You need the sauce to be fairly thick, but still of pouring consistency. When you are happy with the sauce, plate it on one side.

Add the ham pieces to the potato/onion mixture and stir through. Pour the cheese sauce over and give a light stir, just to make sure the sauce is right the way through the potatoes. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and place into a pre-heated oven at 180degF/350degC/Gas 4 for 45 mins or until the potatoes are soft and cooked through.

Sprinkle with chopped chives for colour and serve.

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