Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Cook’

Going Khoo-Khoo for la Gastronomie Française

In a few days time I am leaving the windswept wet isles of Great Britain behind me in the woosh of a high-speed train all the way from London to Avignon in the South of France. I am practically delirious with anticipation, already envisaging my stripy blue and white t-shirt set amongst the rolling Provence countryside with a little black beret to match; spending my long sweaty journeys on the tube with teach-yourself-French flowing firmly into my ears; playing old French favourites Piaf and Trénet around my home; and now, super-indulging in la bonne vie of ultimate gastronomic excellence: French cuisine.

I don’t know all that much about French cuisine, being firmly inducted as I am into the Spanish school of cookery, but I do have one exeedingly pleasing French cookbook on my book shelves, and even that one I bought more for the fine pictures of Paris than through any hope of mastering French gastronomy. However, as technique goes, Rachel Khoo‘s Little Paris Kitchen certainly makes things less intimidating, and opening the book up for the first time in months, I set about creating a weekend fully loaded with French delights.

You’ll have to excuse what follows as being something more of a pictorial indulgence than an ingredient-by-ingredient recipe rehash. While I will try to stay faithful to Khoo’s recipes where I can (and of course reminding Daily Norm readers that the recipes are entirely her copyright, and of course urging you to buy her picture-perfect book ;-)), or otherwise link up to them where I can find them already published online, this post is really an unapologetic celebration of food, of the beauty of ingredients, of fresh produce, of flavour combinations and of the results that can be achieved through a toil in the kitchen.


So first up was a simple Gratin au poisson fumé, a rather simple little light lunch to make, once you master the creamy rich béchamel sauce. It’s also a great way to use up odds and ends from your fridge. For the béchamel, you need to melt 30g of butter in a large pan over a medium heat, adding 30g of plain flower and beating hard until it becomes a smooth paste. Take off the heat, leaving to cool for a couple of minutes, before gradually whisking in 500ml of milk. Place back on a medium heat, add 1/4 peeled onion, a clove and a bay leaf and simmer for 10 minutes, whisking frequently. Finish by removing the onion, clove and bay leaf and seasoning with a little salt, white pepper (if poss) and a pinch of nutmeg. Then  it’s just a case of mixing this with around 750g of cooked, sliced baby potatoes, 200g of smoked haddock or other smoked fish, a handful of chopped parsely and sprinkling a handful of comté or gruyere on top and then popping into the oven or 200 mins at 180C. Serve with a fresh salad to cut through that creamy, cheesy sauce. I sprinkled my bake with a little pimento (you can take the boy out of Spain, but not Spain out of the boy…).

DSC01661 DSC01665

An alternative use of the béchamel is to mix it with 300g of cooked macaroni, and placing that in the oven with a load of cheese sprinkled on top – it makes an awesome macaroni cheese which easily beats the supermarket favourites thanks to Khoo’s welcome addition of aromatic flavourings in the sauce.

My macaroni

My macaroni

Onto the plat principal, which in anticipation of our voyage south just had to be a fresh summery fish dish. I wanted to make Khoo’s Trout en papillote dish, but failing to find any trout stocked in my local fishmongers, settled on a freshwater char, which I gather is a close cousin of Monsieur Le Truite. I did however opt for the en papillote technique, the masterful and easy method of cooking fish efficiently, ensuring that the moisture and flavour is all locked in and doesn’t escape the dark cavernous entrails of an oven.

My Char and her fellow ingredients pre-papillotte

My Char and her fellow ingredients pre-papillote

Basically, all you need to do is take one trout per person (or one large char did it for the two of us), and rub its insides with a marinade of the grated zest of one lemon, salt, pepper and 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Then fill the fish’s belly with finely chopped fennel, and rest slices of almost cooked baby potatoes alongside the fish (sufficient for the number of people the fish will serve). Then that’s it – lie the fish & co. on a large piece of baking paper and seal closed ensuring that those juices can’t get out – and if you’re wondering how this should be done, check out Rachel Khoo demonstrating herself! I served the fish with a good dollop of thick creamy crème fraîche and a little salad by way of pretence that I am in fact very healthy (and pigs will fly etc etc). The fish was unctuous, tasty, moist and so beautiful to look at – well before it was cooked anyway. 



All wrapped and ready to go

All wrapped and ready to go

The less beautiful but delicious finished dish

The less beautiful but delicious finished dish

Finally, les desserts, and I went for two French classics which, while a little technical, are made pleasingly approachable in Khoo’s book. The first was Îles flottantes (floating islands), which I can very handily give you a link to to save me trying to unsuccessfully summarise what are three fairly complex processes to make this well-worth-the-effort delicious dessert. I first had some floating islands – unctuous soft meringue floating in a creamy vanilla custard soup – at La Bofinger in the Marais in Paris. After making may way through an indulgent multi-tiered mountain of oysters and seafood, this seemed easily the most decadent way to close a French meal, and now having made it myself, I am delighted to have so easily mastered what is surely one of life’s most decadent of desserts. I particularly love Khoo’s almond praline touch – sprinkled on top this gives the subtle eggyness of the meringue extra sugar and a much needed crunch.

DSC01702 DSC01700

For dessert number two (made the following day I might add – we’re not that greedy), I decided to indulge cataclysmically, with a creamy, ambrosial champagne based dessert, perfect to accompany the glasses of champagne which were already bubbling away in the hands of my partner and I by way of celebration of our fourth anniversary. Rachel Khoo’s ultimately delicious Sabayon de Champagne avec fraises just had to be the winner of the weekend. It was quite simple to make, and way too simple to eat – we finished off this exquisite elixir in mere seconds, but it was worth those few mouthfulls of pleasure.

Anniversary champagne

Anniversary champagne

To create this delight, simply whisk 4 egg yolks with 25g of sugar over a bain marie (heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water) until the mixture is thick and pale yellow in colour. Then add 100ml of champagne and whisk until the sabayon is very thick and foamy – this takes around 5-10 minutes, and you know when it’s done when you draw a shape in the mix and it stays put. Then simply pour into bowls and serve with stawberries. Oooo la la what a summer’s delight!

DSC01719 DSC01720

Vive le France! We’re coming to get you!

For more details of Rachel Khoo’s cuisine check out her BBC series page.


Bologna: La Grassa – Phenomenal food without a Spaghetti Bolognese in sight

I’m going to pardon myself inadvance of a post which will be an unapologetic engorgement upon food glorious food. Bologna is after all the city that brought us Spaghetti Bolognese, tagliatelle, tortellini and mortadella among other Italian favourites. In fact, without Bologna, half of your standard Italian restaurant menu would disappear. And true to form, the city whose third and perhaps most appropriate epithet is La Grassa – the fat – delivered, delivered and delivered again. We made no plans, instead opting to wander into restaurants randomly as they took our fancy. And yet on every occasion we were surprised, enthralled and deeply satisfied by one consistently high quality meal after another. No wonder then that Mr Artusi, great master of culinary arts once wrote, “When you hear about Bologna’s cuisine, make a bow, for it deserves it”. I could eat in Bologna for ever – it may make me grassa, but hell, it’s worth it.

So where to begin. Well, breakfast I guess, a multi-coloured kaleidoscope of colour, as fresh ingredients collided into a cocktail of fruits and meats, soft greasy breads and sweet spongey cakes, all succulently fresh, strawberries as red as La Rossa herself, and mortadella, straight from the manufacturers, limply reclining across our plate. And we didn’t have to go far either. Breakfast was served upon our little terrace at the faultlessly stylish, centrally located  Art Hotel Novecento, a perfect start to each of our four days in Bologna.

Next, lunch. We stumbled upon this place, Banca del Vino (Via Mantana), on the outskirts of the rough and tumble of Bologna’s ghetto. Here the pizza was amongst the best I have had in Italy. So fresh, so thin and crispy, with a plate of soft silky parma ham served on the side, so that it could be added to the richly endorsed buffalo mozzarella pizza at will. In the meantime, my partner sampled the delights of an equally fresh, thickly cut home-smoked salmon, with a palate-pleasing glass of local white wine on the side. This was rounded off with a rich chocolate parfait with accompanying white chocolate chunks.

Our first dinner was at the stylish Trattoria Battibecco (Via Battibecco, 4), found down a tiny side street, just off the Piazza Galileo. The food was highly stylised and delicately balanced. I started with the Sformatino di ricotta con cuore di bacon e zucchine su crema di nocciole, a kind of ricotta-enrichend risotto cake, with courgette, bacon and the cream of nuts. Gamberoni rossi in padella leggermente piccanti con cous cous all’ananas was to follow for mains – lightly cooked prawns with pineapple couscous and a chilli hot sauce to balance, while for dessert, a semifreddo with cherry chocolate and a strawberry on the side foretold of the spectacular dinners which were to come.

Our second dinner was at the Ristorante Ciacco (Via San Simone), another off-street secret which we stumbled upon having escaped the more tourist-focused affairs of the central Piazzas and cheaper offerings of the university quarter. Here we were treated to an innovation of ice cream, as almost every dish was served with some form of welcomingly-cool ice cream accompaniment. With my warm foie gras, an ice cream flavoured with orange and thyme provided both a sweet and sharp contrast to the rich meaty flavour of the foie, while my partner’s starter (a prawn and scallop club sandwich) was similarly accompanied with an ice cream of wholegrain mustard. For main course, I was treated to a dish of monkfish with liquorice flavoured ice cream – while the monkfish was, inevitably, a little lacking in flavour, the liquorice gave a punch to the dish, helped out in this objective by a light salad of finely sliced fennel. Unsurprisingly, there were innovative ice creams aplenty on the dessert menu, but we instead opted for a white chocolate parfait, accompanied by a vivid green fresh-mint coulis.

Our third dinner was at the super cute Ristorante Teresina di Fuggetta Sebastiano (Via Oberdan, 4), not so much on a side street as much as in a side alleyway – the tables were artfully squeezed in between one leaning old palazzo and another, and the affect was truly cosy and unique, and the later addition of a harp player added a further garnish of romance to the air. Sadly I neglected to take any photos capable of public consumption – the wine caused significant blurring on the old camera – damn that tempting Sangiovese! However the food was super-tempting too. We started with a pea and mint garnished prawn dish, followed by a succulent steak tagliata accompanied by rosemary potatoes. Dessert was a creme caramel of sorts, which my partner declared, with some audacity (clearly bolstered by the Sangiovese) to be better than mine! He was clearly drunk.

Our final instalment of Bolognese dining (as if there was any space left in our significantly lined stomachs by now) was the Ristorante Cesarina (Via Santa Stefano), a more traditional affair, set in the heart of one of Bologna’s most beautiful squares. What this place lacked in innovation, it excelled in traditional cuisine cooked with excellence. We’re talking stuffed Zucchini flowers, faultlessly grilled seafood and all washed down with a mega-strong bottle of Sangiovese. But never mind all of that. The starter I had was simply mind-blowing. I mean, we’re talking a world-stopped-turning moment of culinary ephiphany. And we’re only talking ravioli – and a pumpkin ravioli at that (and from the photo, it doesn’t look all that much either). But OMG, I can’t even begin to explain how good that pasta was – perfectly al dente, giving way to a salty-sweet pumpkin centre topped with a buttery sauce and – the crowning glory – a kind of marzipan/ caramalised/ honeycomb crumb which just set my mouth alight. If I could get the recipe for that dish and bring it back to the UK I could retire early.

It tasted so much better than it looks.

So there you go, a food explosion well worthy of all the fuss. There is no doubt in my mind that Bologna lives up to its reputation of food capital of Italy. And it’s not just the restaurants either. A short walk off the Piazza Maggiore, and you find yourself on the quaint Via Pescherie Vecchie, where a bustling food market continues to thrive and tempt passers by with the fragrant scent of ripe fruits, sea-fresh fish and sweet juicy cold meats. Meanwhile, head to any half-descent cafe, and we’re talking an affogato worth writing home about.

All this talk of food has made me hungry. I’m off to raid my nearest Italian deli. Hey, it’s not Bologna, but I will leave that crowning glory firmly where it belongs, carefully rested upon Bologna’s culinary pinnacle, amongst the perfect colonnades, the cinema under the stars and the perfectly leaning red-bricked towers. Bologna La Grassa, La Dotta, La Rossa: Te adoro.

All photos are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2012 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved.

Eating España, again – Part I: One starter and two mains

Ever the diplomat, and clearly qualified for a high powered job in the Foreign Office, whenever a country get’s a bit of bad press, I try to do my bit to remind all the cynics out there that despite financial plight, banking crises, and the incessant need for multi-billion euro bailouts from reticent cash-strapped neighbours, the culture which made these economically shaky countries great survives through the monetary meltdown. This is no more so than in my beloved Spain, where the great flavours and platos ricos were born from poverty, using basic and cheap ingredients which, when combined, produce a flavour sensation which captures in its aroma, colour and savour the very essence of that culturally diverse country. Consequently, just like I did for poor old Greece a few weeks ago, I’ve returned to my London kitchen, and cooked up a feast in honour of Spain’s great gastronomic heritage.

Here are just a few dishes I tried out over the weekend. In this post I’m going to share three great savoury dishes from apple-lush Asturia, seafood-filled Catalonia and the once-moorish highly spiced lands of Andalucia. Later in the week, I’m moving on to the sweet stuff, when I’ll share a traditional Santiago almond cake, and some divinely Sevillan orange-burst creme-caramels.

Centollo a la sidra (Baked crab with cider)

This recipe takes its inspiration from the Asturias region of Spain, where Cider is the drink of choice and sidrerias can be found in every town and village. My take is in turn based on the recipe by Claudia Roden in her fantastic book, The Food of Spain: A Celebration (Penguin, 2012) so all credit must go to her. These little ramekin filled dishes make a perfect starter or, as I did, served as a light lunch with a little side salad. In Asturias, they make this filling and stuff it back inside the shell of their txangurro spider crabs. While not attempting any such culinary craftsmanship, I paid homage to their skills by serving my dish in a mini le creuset pot with a little crab shell on the side, just for decoration (you eat with your eyes before your mouth etc etc).

To make your own crab dish (whatsoever you may chose to stuff it in) take a chopped medium onion which should be sauteed over a low heat until soft. Add to it one peeled and chopped tomato, a pinch of chilli powder (or cayenne pepper) and another pinch of salt and cook over a medium heat for around 8 minutes. Next take a fillet of cod (around 150-250 g depending on how many ramekins you want to fill) and cook for about 5 minutes or until it begins to flake, turning it once. Flake the cooked fish and add 250g of cooked white and dark crab meat, 175ml of dry cider and 2 tablespoons of chopped flat-leaf parsley. Cook for around a minute. Oil 4 small ramekins or two big mini casseroles (like mine) and spoon the mixture in. Sprinkle with fresh breadcrumbs, a few blobs of butter and place under the grill until the breadcrumbs are browned. It’s probably best you leave the ramekins to cool for a couple of minutes once they come out of the grill before you serve them!

Fideuada del señorito – (smoked) seafood pasta

This is a pasta dish straight from the gutsy seafood-filled region of Catalonia, and brought to my attention, once again, by Claudia Roden although once again, I’ve gone my own way with it and shaken it up a bit (sorry Claudia). The dish, for no apparent reason, translates as “of the young gentleman”, perhaps because the short pieces of pasta and shelled prawns make the dish particularly easy for young senoritos and senoritas to eat. Either way its truly delicious for us adults too. You should service it with a good blob of alioli (garlic mayonnaise). If you can’t be bothered to make you own mayo, just add crushed garlic to shop bought mayonnaise. Mine is thick and yellow because I made it with extra virgin olive oil straight from a vineyard next to my Partner’s family home in Tuscany (yes yes, I know, it’s not Spain) so well worth the rather tedious effort of making it from scratch.

My alioli

To make the pasta, heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan (or paella pan if you have one). Cook around 400g of cubed smoked haddock (Claudia Roden uses monkfish, but I didn’t have any to hand – I adore smoked haddock and loved the results in this dish – it gives a subtle smokey flavour which works amazingly well with the alioli on the side) and cook on a medium heat for around 3-5 minutes. Next add 4-6 baby squids, sliced into rings, cooking for a further couple of minutes before adding a dozen or so peeled king prawns and an equal number of scallops. Cook until the prawns are nice and pink (1-2 mins). Place all the cooked seafood to one side in a separate dish, keeping it warm. Preserve any liquid. Using the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and stir in 1-2 crushed cloves of garlic. Just before the garlic colours, add 3 chopped tomatoes, 1 heaped teaspoon of pimenton dulce (or sweet paprika), a little salt and a good pinch of saffron threads (and at this point pause and indulge in the aroma of Spain, a warm mediterranean evening wafting past your nose, a magical culinary noche brought to life in your kitchen, wherever it may be). Sorry, where was I… ah yes, The tomato will quickly thicken so at this point I added 120ml of oloroso dry sherry (although dry white wine will work too). Wait for that to reduce down, cooking for around 10 minutes.

Add around 300g (for 2-3 people) of spaghetti, broken into 3-4cm pieces to the tomato mixture, making sure it is well coated. Then add around a pint of boiling chicken stock and add back the cooked seafood, stirring it into the pasta/ tomato mix. Cook until the pasta is al dente. This should use up all the stock, but add a little more if the liquid dries up before the pasta is cooked. The dish should be moist when its finished.

And that’s it! Serve with some sprinkled parsley and a good dollop of alioli – the mixture of smoked fish and pimenton with delicate seafood and a pungent winey tomato sauce is to die for, I promise. Oh and don’t forget to give the whole thing a good squeeze of lemon juice – the acid cuts across the strong salty smokeyness perfectly.

Pollo en pepitoria (Chicken in a mildly spiced saffron, pine nut and almond sauce)

Last up it’s down to the Med and the region of Andalucia where the influence of 700 years of Islamic rule can still be felt from the rafting voices and spasmodic dancing of gypsy culture emanating from Seville, to the use of mild moroccan spices in their food. This dish is no exception. It was first cooked for me by my mother, who in turn got it from chef Rick Stein, who in turn nicked it from Australian chef Luke Mangan who opened a restaurant specialising in a mixture of Spanish and Moorish cuisine. Despite this chinese-whisper-like chain of chefs, all of whom have no doubt made changes here and there, the dish is nonetheless emblematic of Southern spanish cooking, with its warm aromatic spices and plentiful use of almonds. Moreover, the use of a “picada”, that is a nutty paste stirred into the chicken, is popular across the whole of the Iberian peninsula.

Start off by hard boiling two large eggs for 10 minutes. You’ll need these later. Allow them to cool and then peel off the shell.

Next deal with your chicken. Some people will use a whole chicken, in which case they’ll chop up and use the legs, wings, breasts etc. I only really like chicken breasts and am not therefore much help on how to use these other bits of the bird – but you can. I use four chicken breasts. Cut these into fairly large pieces (probably three from each breast) so they remain moist.

My spices: they smell as good as they look

Onto spices. Lightly crush approximately 10 cardamom pods and remove the seeds from inside (this is fairly tedious but worth it, I promise). Discard the shells and add the seeds to a pestle and mortar into which should also go 1/2 teaspoon of coriander seeds, 1/2 teaspoon saffron strands, 2 cloves, 1 cm piece of cinnamon stick, 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg and around 10 peppercorns. Grind to a fine powder and enjoy the aromas while you’re doing so.

Now heat around 4 tablespoons of oil in a casserole. Add two peeled whole garlic cloves and a slice of white bread. Fry on both sides until golden. Transfer to a food processor. Now season the chicken lightly and fry until golden on the sides. Remove and set aside. Now in another tablespoon of oil, add 1 large onion, finely chopped and fry lightly until soft and sweetened but not brown. Stir in the spices, cooking for 1 minute and then stir in 200ml of dry oloroso (or other) sherry or white wine and 200ml of chicken stock. Return the chicken to the pan with 2 bay leaves, a handful of raisins or dates (these are my addition, but are optional) and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for around 20 minutes (40 minutes is probably necessary for chicken legs etc).

In the meantime heat a frying pan and dry roast 40g pine nuts for 1 minute and 40g blanched almonds for 2 minutes. Leave to cool. Add the nuts and the yolks from the hardboiled eggs to the bread in the food processor along with 10-12 tablespoons of cooking liquid from the chicken. Grind to a paste (this is the “picada”). Chop 20g more of blanched almonds to sprinkle over the dish at the end.

Once the chicken is cooked, stir in the picada paste and simmer for a couple of minutes longer until thickened. Stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice approx and make sure your seasoning is on course. Finally, in a separate pan, stir fry those remaining chopped almonds for a couple of minutes in a little oil until golden. Serve your chicken with the sauce and sprinkle the almonds on the top with some parsley.

OK, we’re done. Three dishes bringing the flavours and character of Spain directly into your house. On second thoughts maybe this post isn’t so helpful to the Spanish economy after all – once these amazing cooking aromas fill your home, you’ll have no need to go on holiday again!