Thursday, 28 May 2009

Eggplant Parmigiana

Eggplant Parmigiana is a traditional Italian dish, and it is one of my favorites. Containing fresh eggplant (also known as aubergine in England and Europe), rich tomato sauce and delicious Italian cheese, it makes a wonderful vegetarian main course, although I often serve it as a side dish or as part of a pasta and salad buffet. It is one of those dishes that will improve with keeping, so you can make it ahead of time and/or feel quite confident about keeping the leftovers for up to three days covered in the fridge.

For me it was the perfect dish – except for one problem. I was the only person in our house that liked it. My husband really only ate it to be polite, and my son point blank refused. You see, traditional Eggplant Parmigiana contains lots of canned chopped tomatoes, which neither of them liked, and my son insisted he just could not stand eggplant.

It always seemed a shame to make a big dish of something no one but me enjoyed, even though as I mentioned before it does keep really well. Having said that, it is one of my favorites and I wanted to make it more often. So I got to thinking one day - perhaps if I could change the traditional recipe I was following, I might be able to create something with the wonderful taste of the original, but without the ingredients my family did not like. Of course, it was impossible to eliminate the eggplant from the recipe, being the main ingredient of the dish as it is. However, I was pretty sure it was actually more the chopped tomatoes that were putting my son off, as eggplant really does not taste much of anything. It is a vegetable that mainly picks up the flavors of the ingredients you use with it.

It took a couple attempts, but eventually I came up with a version of the recipe that was an incredible success. We all loved it, and my son enjoyed it so much that he decided he does like eggplant after all, much to my great delight. It’s gone from being a dish I rarely made to one that I make at least every couple of weeks.

As with all layered dishes, the amount of ingredients you need can differ slightly depending on the size of your casserole dishes. Also eggplants can vary wildly in size, from quite small to really very large indeed. In general I would say you want about three medium eggplants or four small ones. If you end up with extra ingredients, just layer them in a small individual serving casserole dish, cook it in the oven with the large one (for slightly less time), cool it down and store it in the fridge or freeze it for a quick supper for one. It is also really easy to double the recipe and make an extra casserole to freeze or share.

Before you start, you will need a large rectangular or oval casserole pan, about two to three inches deep. You will also need a deep sauté pan and a medium non-stick frying pan to make this recipe.

It is important to choose fresh, ripe, firm eggplants. One they get soft eggplants really do not taste nice at all. Be sure to use a smooth spaghetti sauce if your family feels the same way as mine about chopped tomatoes, and I really encourage you to use the optional basic pesto, as it gives the dish an amazing depth of flavor.

You will need:-

3 - 4 eggplants, washed and sliced long-ways in medium slices
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic
1 – 750 ml jar ready-prepared smooth spaghetti sauce
(I like Dolmio Light)
1 vegetable stock cube
2 tablespoons basil pesto (optional)
a couple of handfuls of fresh basil leaves, taken off their stems
5 ounces Parmigiana Regianno cheese, grated
2 eggs, beaten

Preheat your oven to 350℉ or about 170℃.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in the sauté pan and gently fry the onion over medium heat until it begins to go translucent. Grate the garlic into the pan, lower the heat and add the jar of spaghetti sauce. Crumble in the stock cube and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the basil pesto if using. Simmer the sauce gently for about twenty minutes, stirring from time to time.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a frying pan and gently fry the eggplant slices in batches for about two minutes on each side. Remove and set aside as they are done. You will need to add a bit more of the oil from time to time. Don’t get carried away though as eggplants will absorb as much oil as you give them - hence my recommendation for a non-stick pan!

Now you are ready for the assembly. Make sure you have your grated cheese and basil to hand. Mix one third of the cheese with the beaten eggs and set aside. Now you can begin to layer the ingredients in the casserole dish as follows:-

Place a layer of eggplant on the bottom and cover with a little more than a third of the tomato sauce and one third of the cheese. Scatter some basil leaves over top. Repeat the layers once more. Now place a final (third) layer of eggplant over top and coat it with a very thin layer of the tomato sauce. Pour the egg and cheese mixture you set aside over top of the whole casserole, spreading it out with a spoon gently so that it reaches the edges (without spilling over).

Carefully place the casserole in the oven and bake for 45 minutes to an hour until the eggplant is tender when you slide a knife into it. The egg and cheese topping should be nicely browned. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for five to ten minutes before serving.


Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Recipe Evolution

I love cooking, and one of the things I enjoy most is watching how my favourite recipes evolve over the years. I don’t feel that I am ever “finished” with a recipe, even when I believe it is good enough to share or publish. I take great pleasure in adding an ingredient here or tweaking a recipe there, especially when it develops into something even more delicious than when I made it originally.

I remember when I was learning to cook, we were always exhorted to “stick to the recipe” if we wanted to get good results. To be fair, when it comes to baking, until you are very experienced this is definitely a good idea. Baking is like alchemy – if you get the balance of ingredients wrong, failure is just about guaranteed. But once you get the hang of it, even playing with recipes for baked goods can be very satisfying and successful. In terms of recipes for main courses, there is a lot you can get away with in terms of substitution and rather than being discouraged, I feel creativity should be positively encouraged.

My shepherd’s pie recipe for example, which originally was very traditional, is currently evolving. By changing the tomato based gravy I have used for years into one based on beef stock, and adding a tablespoon of tomato paste and a glug of red wine, my recipe has taken on a depth of flavour that is much more satisfying. Similarly, I recently turned a pear tart recipe into a raspberry and almond tart that was much more delicious than its original incarnation. I changed the composition of the crust, incorporating ground almonds in it, and put a layer of jam between the pastry and the filling that was absolutely scrumptious. I also used flaked almonds in the topping. Next time I plan to go back to the pears, but change the recipe as I did for the raspberries. I’m sure it will be an equally successful experiment.

Playing around with a recipe does take courage. There is something particularly awful about trying to cook or bake something and having it not turn out. Even if it means you get taken out to dinner instead, the seemingly wasted time and ingredients can be soul destroying. However, I would argue that neither the time nor the ingredients are truly wasted if it eventually leads to the discovery of a new and different - or better - recipe.

There are, however, two cardinal rules to recipe evolution. The first is never to experiment if it is an important meal, or one that you are serving to guests. This is just way too stressful. In fact, it took more bitter experiences than I would have expected to teach me that you should never, ever prepare a new recipe for the first time in these circumstances. Far better to serve an old favourite to your guests, even if they have eaten it many times before, than risk the public humiliation of the failure of a new one – no matter how high your self-esteem is or how close a friends your guests are. Following on from this is the second rule. Never become so attached to your dish that if it fails, you take it personally. Mistakes are to be learned from in the kitchen just as much as in other areas of life. Just as it is hard to become a well-rounded person without making mistakes, if you never make any mistakes in the kitchen, you are unlikely to develop into the best cook you can be.

Cooking can bring huge pleasure into your life and into the lives of your family and friends when they enjoy the food you have made, but it is hard for you to fully enjoy cooking though if you feel you must follow the recipe to the letter every time and lack the courage to experiment. One of the easiest ways to encourage yourself to experiment, particularly in these difficult economic times, is challenging yourself to create meals with ingredients you already have in your fridge and store cupboard, even if they don’t immediately seem like things that might go together. It’s amazing how a grain like rice or couscous can bring together seemingly incompatible vegetables, or how the addition of an ingredient like basil pesto can lift a meal from ordinary to extraordinary.

One of the things that can interfere with experimentation is the old ideas we have stuck in our heads. I vividly remember an advertisement when I was a child in which the actress said, “I still bake cakes, but I’ve stopped licking the spoon – and look at me!” (She was incredibly svelte, so much so that I doubt she actually ever ate anything she baked. It must have been an advertisement for a diet aid.) As a result, I subconsciously became very careful not to do much tasting in the kitchen, for fear of overeating. Experience has taught me, however, that tasting during the cooking process is incredibly important. You don’t have to taste huge portions, but you must taste what you are cooking at least a couple of times during the cooking process. However, I do have to say that licking the spoon while baking cakes is totally unnecessary (although it can be a great deal of fun) as it really will not give you any idea how the finished product is actually going to taste. In terms of savoury dishes though, tasting is integral.

Old ideas can interfere with your creativity too. If you allow yourself to be caught in the trap of believing that certain foods can never be combined, you will struggle to develop as a cook. Although I cannot profess to be a fan of recipes that push the boundaries too far (I have no desire to taste the bacon and egg ice cream developed by chef Heston Blumenthal for example), I do think you have to think outside the box if you ever want to move beyond the basics in the kitchen. Similarly, it is important not to restrict yourself to serving certain foods at certain times. Salads can be delicious for dinner and sandwiches are definitely not just for lunch anymore. I love recipes like those developed by Rachael Ray – the ones she calls BLD recipes – for things that can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Also, don’t let yourself get stuck in a rut. For example, roast chicken is not just for Sunday dinner, it is actually an easy and delicious meal any night of the week.

I think the key to recipe evolution is not just the courage to experiment, but also the patience to accept that, particularly if you are trying to develop a recipe from scratch, it may take several attempts before you achieve a result you are one hundred percent happy with it. And to be honest, once you really get comfortable in the kitchen, I am sure you will find just as I do that you are never really finished tweaking recipes or playing around with ingredients. After all, that is half the fun of cooking. So go on, get in the kitchen and experiment a bit! You’ll be very glad you did.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Delicious Season

The British love summer. No matter what the weather, you will find us outside enjoying all the highlights of the season – and all the delicious food and drink that goes with them.

Depending on who you are and what part of England you are from, the season takes on a different shape. To be fair, most of the events of the iconic “Season” do take place in London, but summer anywhere in England is a festival of outdoor events – from performances of Shakespeare in the gardens of stately homes to garden parties and outdoor concerts. Many of these events involve sitting on the grass and sharing a picnic. This is somewhat ironic as traditionally British summers can rather disappointing – but being British we carry on regardless, opening up our brollies (umbrellas) and continuing to enjoy both the food and the entertainment.

There are many different foods and drinks traditionally associated with summer in England – and often with particular summer events. Strawberries and cream are almost as much a part of Wimbledon as the tennis, and champagne and Ladies’ Day at Ascot are forever intertwined. Tea on the lawn anywhere is a great summer treat – and by tea I mean proper afternoon tea with cakes, and scones with jam and cream. From the very start of the events of the summer season, which many would even argue starts with the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in April, delicious food and drink sit alongside tradition all throughout our green and pleasant land.

Champagne is a huge part of the summer experience, as is another traditional British drink, Pimms. Pimms is an alcoholic spirit that we mix with lemonade (in England lemonade is actually a fizzy drink more akin to Sprite or 7-Up than to lemonade made with lemons). The resulting drinks are then garnished with fruit and slices of cucumber. Whether you go to the iconic Chelsea Flower Show, Ascot or to Wimbledon, there are always champagne bars and Pimms bars ready to welcome you. In fact, it could definitely be said that champagne and Pimms are to summer events in England what ice-cold beer is to baseball in North America.

The Tennis Championships at Wimbledon are a huge part of the British summer. Attending Wimbledon is a bit of an accomplishment in itself as tickets are allocated by ballot. You have to apply for months in advance, and although entering a competition just to get the opportunity to pay for a very expensive ticket might seem a bit odd, it is definitely worth the trouble to see some fabulous tennis and to enjoy an afternoon of sitting in the sunshine (please God). If you are lucky enough to attend, it is definitely part of the experience to eat strawberries and cream. Of course, they are extortionately priced strawberries and the serving is not generous, but it is something you really need to do to fully immerse yourself in the Wimbledon experience. In fact, if you tell a true Brit you have been to Wimbledon, the first question out of their mouth is unlikely to be how the tennis was – and much more likely to be whether you enjoyed the strawberries and cream there!

As I mentioned before, ironically for a country that is notorious for cool, wet summers, we British are brilliant at picnics. Whether we pack our own or buy one ready made up, picnics are a part of most summer events. Pages and pages of magazines in the UK are dedicated to picnics this time of year, and recipes abound for new and different sandwiches, terrines, salads and desserts. Grocery stores stock lots of picnic food, from tiny meat pies and seafood tarts to salads. If, however, you have cash to spare, you can order a picnic from Fortnum and Mason in London. They prepare bespoke gourmet picnics for collection from their London store. Other famous stores and restaurants offer a similar service. Packaged in glorious wicker hampers and containing everything from vintage champagne to smoked salmon and caviar, these picnics are a far cry from the sandwiches and chips we enjoyed on picnics as children.

As you can imagine from the exotic contents of some picnic baskets, not all picnics are a casual affair. At Royal Ascot, the iconic week long horse race meeting held in June, there is an area specifically designated for people to eat picnics they have brought, and another where you can collect prepared gourmet picnics ordered in advance. Last year on Ladies’ Day at Ascot, I enjoyed a three-course picnic with champagne – sitting at a picnic table wearing a designer dress and hat! It was a meal that would not have been out of place served at a five star restaurant, although of course all the dishes were chilled. We began with asparagus served in vinaigrette, followed by a seafood terrine and tiny seafood tarts. Dessert was a glorious raspberry concoction I have still not managed to duplicate. Similarly, one of the picnics I enjoyed most was a black tie picnic about fifteen years ago at Chartwell, the former home of Sir Winston Churchill, when we ate out under the stars, drank champagne and danced on the lawn to the sounds of a Big Band.

All is not lost, however, if you do not fancy a picnic. Most of the summer events and festivals also have temporary locations of gourmet restaurants, or meals prepared by chefs available on site. The Chelsea Flower Show offers two excellent restaurants; there are also restaurants at Henley (the music and arts festival), and at Wimbledon where you can enjoy a proper three-course meal with fine wines.

I believe that summer is the most delicious season of all to visit this wonderful country. There are a huge number of events to attend and whatever your choice you are sure to be well entertained. Long weekend afternoons spent enjoying strawberries and cream on the lawn drift into lazy evenings picnicking in the garden of a stately home or in a park, listening to a concert or watching a play. It’s terribly civilised, and totally scrumptious!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Raspberry Almond Tart

When we had dinner at one of our favourite restaurants on Sunday evening, the dessert I chose was Almond Raspberry Tart. It was delicious, and reminded me of a Pear Tart that I often make - with the exception of the fact it was made with raspberries of course. When I mentioned this to my husband, he suggested I might be able to make my own version of the delicious dessert I was eating. Always one for a challenge, I decided to have a go. Although I made quite a few changes to my pear tart recipe, it only took one attempt, and the results were wonderful - if I do say so myself!

For the crust:-

125 grams cold butter, diced in small cubes
200 grams plain (all-purpose) flour
50 grams ground almonds
2 tablespoons caster or granulated (white) sugar
(vanilla sugar is lovely if you have it)
2 - 3 tablespoons milk

For the filling:-

2 - 3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

40 grams butter, melted
100 grams white sugar
90 grams ground almonds
10 grams plain flour
1 egg, plus one egg yolk, lightly beaten together
3 tablespoons half fat crème fraîche
1 tablespoon Amaretto liqueur
1 teaspoon almond flavouring
1 cup fresh raspberries, washed and drained

For the topping:-
1/4 cup flaked almonds
1 - 2 tablespoons white sugar

To make the pastry, blend together the butter, flour, ground almonds and sugar until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. You can do this in a mixer or food processor or with a pastry cutter. Now gradually add the milk, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the mixture just begins to cling together and you can form it into a ball. (You may not need the whole 3 tablespoons of milk.)

Dust your hands with a little flour and press the mixture into a fairly deep 10 inch (25 centimeter) round pie plate, working the pastry up the sides until you have formed a proper crust. (There is nothing to stop you rolling this pastry out if you want to, but I’m not a big fan of rolling pastry out, so I simply press it into the pan.)

Place the raspberry jam in a microwaveable bowl and very carefully on a low heat setting microwave the jam for about thirty seconds or until it is of an almost pourable consistency. Using a pastry brush, brush the jam over the bottom of the crust, covering it completely. Set the pastry case aside.

Blend together all the remaining filling ingredients except the raspberries until smooth. At this point you have a choice. You can very carefully fold the raspberries into the filling mixture and then very carefully pour the filling into the pie plate OR you can pour half the filling mixture into the pastry case, arrange the raspberries over top, and then pour the remaining filling mixture over the raspberries. The latter is the fiddly, time consuming option but it gives much better results as the first option can cause the raspberries to fall to pieces leaving the resulting tart delicious, but not very pretty to look at.

Mix together the flaked almonds and sugar and sprinkle them over top of the tart. Bake at 160 C (fan oven - 350 F normal oven) for about twenty minutes and then turn the oven back to about 150 C (300 F) and cook for another five to fifteen minutes, depending on your oven. The filling should be well set when the tart is cooked and it should be a lovely golden colour. You have to really watch this tart to make sure it does not over brown. I also always turn the pie plate half way through cooking to ensure it browns evenly.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit before serving. This is delicious served with good vanilla ice cream.

Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for about twenty-four hours.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Great Muffin Debate

I remember when I first came to England twenty years ago, people were aghast that I ate muffins for breakfast. Coming from somewhere that a muffin was something that usually contained bran or oats and was good for you, I found this very confusing. Confusing, that was, until not long after I arrived when a colleague at work offered me a muffin one afternoon. When I accepted, I was presented with a muffin shaped chocolate cake full of chocolate chips.

I was flabbergasted. As far as I was concerned, this was no muffin; it was a (very large) cupcake. It had no icing, but it was incredibly sweet. In my opinion its flavor and texture could only be described as cake, albeit a very dry version of one. Of course, I said nothing, but the penny began to drop. No wonder people were taken aback by my professing to like muffins for breakfast. Even I would struggle to eat something like the chocolate extravaganza I had been presented with early in the morning. In fact, I was finding it kind of hard to eat it at three o’clock in the afternoon.

You see, it bore no similarity to any sort of muffin I had ever had before. My idea of a muffin was banana bran, or oatmeal blueberry or carrot, not death by chocolate. So I decided to check out some “muffin” recipes in British cookbooks. I found it very hard to located even one, and when I did, it was for something very similar to what I had eaten at work.

Not long after that I was in the grocery store and noticed a package labeled “blueberry muffins”. As I had not been able to find actual blueberries for sale, this perplexed me a bit. I was tempted though, so I bought them, intending to have one for breakfast the next morning. I was really looking forward to my muffin, and the telltale blue dots in it looked delicious. However, my first bite confirmed that I was definitely eating a cake. Not only that, but the blueberries were not like any I had ever eaten before. They were like little lumps of blue sugar. (I found out later they were dried blueberries.) Again, this was something I would definitely have labeled a cupcake.

When I began to discuss this with other folks, suggesting that muffins here in England might more appropriately be labeled cupcakes, most people responded rather angrily. “Cupcakes are American,” most insisted. “These are muffins.” Being Canadian at the time I was a bit upset. I really did not think America had the franchise on cupcakes - although I had eaten many a delicious one in the States. My Mom used to make me some gorgeous cupcakes to take into primary school when it was my birthday and she was one hundred percent Canadian. Frankly I didn’t think cupcakes had a nationality.

So I decided to fight fire with fire and begin to bake some of my own favourite muffin recipes. I started with Raisin Bran Muffins. I whipped up a recipe and decided to test it on my friends, offering them round with a cup of tea one afternoon. Although most liked the taste of my offerings, there was a lot of shock going round the table. “These are not muffins; they’re not sweet” they insisted. So later that same week, I baked some devil’s food cupcakes and repeated the experiment. “Wow, great muffins,” was the consensus. At this point, I was tempted to find a wall to bang my head against but I refrained.

Over the years though, things have changed. Chefs like Nigella Lawson have made cupcakes fashionable in England – and by this I mean the lovely little cakes that are what I think of as cupcakes. I’ve managed to find some peace about the issue as well. When I want muffins, I make my own. My husband and son are happy to eat muffins for breakfast – and when we have guests I just make sure there is another choice on offer as well – although more often than not most of them enjoy my muffin recipes. They like my cupcakes too, and I know what they mean when they ask me to make my chocolate muffins with white icing for dessert.

Life is too short to fight something you can’t change and as long as folks enjoy what I cook, I guess I have nothing to complain about. But please, if I ever ask you for a muffin, don’t give me one of those huge death by chocolate extravaganzas!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Cashew Nut Stir Fry

I have an organic vegetable box delivered from time to time, and this week’s was an absolute cornucopia of delights. Fresh red onions, carrots, asparagus and peppers sat waiting to be united in deliciousness. Of course, one of the best ways to cook fresh vegetables is lightly, serving them while they are still fairly crisp - and one of the easiest ways to do this is in a stir fry. We are still trying to eat less meat, so I decided to incorporate our favourite nuts in this recipe, both for reasons of nutrition and taste. It was very much a thrown together dinner, but the results were scrumptious.

I’ve listed ingredients for two, but the quantities are very generous. You can easily increase or decrease quantities as required. You can use olive oil instead of sesame oil if you prefer, but it really is worth using the sesame oil for its wonderful flavour.

about 2 tablespoons of sesame oil
2 “nests” of medium noodles
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 generous handful of white mushrooms, sliced
1 red pepper, sliced in thin strips
3 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
a handful of asparagus, each piece cut in two or three
4 tablespoons Thai sweet chili sauce
5 tablespoons of soy sauce
a handful of roasted, salted cashew nuts

Cook the noodles in boiling water according to package directions. When cooked, drain and toss in about 2 teaspoons of sesame oil. Set aside.

Heat the rest of the sesame oil in a large frying pan or wok until it is nearly smoking. Add the onions and mushrooms and stir fry for a couple seconds. Then add the carrots and red pepper. Stir fry for a few minutes. Add the asparagus and continue to stir fry until all the vegetables are tender crisp (about five minutes).

Stir in the Thai sweet chili sauce and the soy sauce, tossing to coat the vegetables. Add the noodles and cashews to the pan, stirring to coat with the sauce and heat through.

Divide the mixture between two bowls (or three if you are not as greedy as we are!) and enjoy.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Asparagus Omelette

I went through a phase of making a lot of omelettes but then I stopped for a while, forgetting how easy and delicious they are. I make my omelettes slightly differently, using a broiler or grill to finish them off. I find it makes them nice and puffy and also avoids the stress of having to turn them. The other thing I do is use three eggs. I know that might not be considered health conscious but it sure makes them taste good, and means they are definitely a meal in themselves. And in the words of Rachael Ray, they are a BLD dish - something you can have for breakfast, lunch or dinner!

Delicious and nutritious asparagus is in season now so you can probably buy it locally - which makes good sense environmentally and in terms of good health. Having said that, I’d buy asparagus out of season to make this omelette because it is so delicious.

Try using different cheeses in your omelettes for variety. I used Cerne Abbas this time, which I got from my favourite local cheese shop, Grey’s in Pangbourne. Cerne Abbas is an artisanale cheese made in a small British village, but you can definitely substitute cheddar or another cheese of your choice if there is none available.

For each omelette you need:-

1 teaspoon mild olive oil
3 eggs
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon dehydrated onion
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
salt and pepper
5 - 6 small spears of asparagus, very lightly steamed (they should still be almost crunchy)
1/4 of a red pepper, sliced in fairly thin slices (steam it along with the asparagus)
1 handful cheese

Heat the olive oil in an oven safe medium non-stick frying pan with a non-metal handle. Beat the eggs, milk, onion, parsley and seasonings together in a bowl.

Preheat the grill or broiler to medium.

When the pan is hot, add the egg mixture. Cook for minute or so, pulling the mixture away from the edges of the pan with a heat proof spatula or egg turner as it cooks and tipping the pan so more egg fills in the gaps that are left.

Sprinkle the cheese and red pepper over top of the whole omelette, and then lay the asparagus over half of it. Continue to cook, lifting the edges of the omelette occasionally to make sure it is just browning and not burning.

When the top begins to look a bit dryer and the bottom is nicely brown, place the frying pan under the grill or broiler. The omelette should puff up (it will fall when you take it out from under the grill). Watch the omelette constantly or it will burn. When it is golden brown, remove it from the grill and flip half the omelette over like in the photograph above. Slide it on to a plate carefully and serve.