Friday, 26 July 2013

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream

I can't think of a recipe that stirs more emotion among cooks than home-made chicken soup. I reckon that's because it's one of the world's favourite comfort foods, and a jealously guarded childhood memory for anyone with the slightest sense of nostalgia.

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream
A silken chicken soup with nutmeg, cream, thyme and parsley.

How you like your chicken soup is likely to have everything to do with the dish tenderly handed to you by your mother in your most miserable, tired and sick moments as a youngster.

If you're Jewish, for example, you might fall to the floor in a dead faint at the thought of an intensely flavoured broth with bobbing little kneidlach. Restorative clear broths with noodles, lime, lemon grass and fish sauce may be your idea of heaven if you were raised in many places in Asia, while lemon and rice are essential ingredients for Greeks (and other children of the eastern Mediterranean) who grew up inhaling their mothers' avgolemono-style soups.  Or you might have a passion for creamy Mexican-style soups with sweetcorn and abundant toppings of avocado, grated cheese, chilli, lime and coriander.

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream
A little cornflour gives this chicken soup a silky texture.

I've made countless pots of chicken soup for my family over the past two decades, and this recipe is the result. It's is a homely, creamy soup, crammed with vegetables. It's thick and silken, but not at all gloopy, and it has a lovely intense chickeny taste, which can only be achieved by patiently making a good stock from the bones of the bird.

I admit this is a long recipe, that it has a lot of ingredients, and that it takes time to make, but I promise you won't be disappointed by the result. (If you just don't have time to faff around, you might like to try my Quick, Thick Chicken Soup, Using the Remains of the Roast.)

Potatoes and other veggies are the thickening agents in my chicken soup, but I always add a little slaked cornflour towards the end because I find that this - quite magically - gives the soup an agreeable silken texture.  Nutmeg is an essential ingredient, and so is fresh cream.

Like most soups and stews, this tastes better the next day, after its flavours have had a chance to mingle and deepen. I'd recommend, if you're making this for a special occasion, that you prepare it a day ahead, but please refrigerate it overnight during the summer months.  Chicken soup left out in the heat can turn in a flash into a vile witch's cauldron.

You can make this with a whole chicken, or use the remains of your roast (see my Cook's Notes, below, about freezing chicken carcasses).  If you are using a fresh chicken, you need not add the poached chicken breasts, because you will use the meat you've stripped away from the whole bird.

The stock below appears in the 'Basic Recipes' section of my cookbook Scrumptious Food for Family and Friends, and is reproduced here courtesy of Random House Struik.

I always add a packet of chicken wings to my stock pot, as they help to create a good rich stock (and by that I mean one that jellies overnight in the fridge).

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream

For the stock:
a large free-range chicken, trimmed of excess fat, OR the remains of your roasts (see Cook's Notes, below)
8 chicken wings
3 litres water, or enough to cover the chicken to a depth of 7 cm
1 cup (250 ml) white wine
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) sea salt
1 large onion, skin on, quartered
2 leeks, trimmed, rinsed and sliced
3 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, thickly sliced
6 stalks flat-leaf parsley
3 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tsp (5 ml) black peppercorns

For the soup:
2 Tbsp (30 ml) butter
1 Tbsp (15 ml) olive oil
3 onions, peeled and sliced
3 leeks, white and pale green parts only, sliced
3 large carrots, peeled and sliced
2 sticks celery, sliced
a large sprig of thyme
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
salt and milled black pepper
6 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
1½ cups (375 ml) milk
5 skinless chicken breasts (omit these if you've used a whole fresh chicken for your stock; see recipe)
1 Tbsp (15 ml) cornflour, or more, if necessary (see recipe)
1 cup (250 ml) cream
freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
a little lemon juice
freshly chopped curly-leaf parsley, to serve

Begin with the stock. Place the whole chicken (or carcasses) and the wings into a large stock pot and add the water, wine and salt. Bring gently to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Skim off all the grey foam as it rises.

Now add all the remaining stock ingredients and bring back up to the boil. Cover with a tilted lid, turn down the heat and simmer gently – the water should remain at a calm burble – for two hours, topping up with more water if necessary.

NB: If you've used a whole fresh chicken to make your stock, fish it out of the pot after about 45 minutes and cut away the chicken breasts, using a sharp knife. Set these to one side. Return the chicken to the pot, wait 20 minutes or so, then take it out again and cut off the thighs and drumsticks. Let these cool, strip off all the cooked flesh and set aside. Put the leg bones and skin, and what's left of the chicken, back into the pot and carry on simmering the stock. These steps prevent the chicken flesh from cooking to a mush.

Let the stock cool a little, then strain it into a large clean bowl through a sieve lined with a fine cloth (a laundered napkin or a brand-new kitchen cloth is ideal). Discard the solids. Skim the fat off the top of the stock, or refrigerate it overnight and then lift off the fat.

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream
In the meantime, get started on the vegetables. Heat the butter and olive oil in a large pot (I use my wok, because it is so good for frying veggies) and add the onions, leeks, carrots, celery and thyme sprig. Cook over a medium heat until just softened (about 6-7 minutes), then add the garlic and cook for another minute, without letting the garlic brown. Add the potatoes, milk and a few ladles of hot stock - it doesn't matter if the stock hasn't finished boiling. The liquid should just cover the vegetables.

NB: If you used chicken carcasses and not a whole chicken to make your stock, push the deboned chicken breasts into the bed of vegetables (after you've added the liquid) so they can poach gently. Once they're just cooked through, remove them and set them aside, covered, on a plate.

Season with a little salt and pepper, and turn the heat down to a gentle bubble. Cook gently for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes and carrots are just soft.

Transfer the vegetables and liquid to your rinsed-out stock pot and top up with more hot stock. How much you add depends on the volume of vegetables, but as a rule of thumb, the amount of liquid in the pot should be about double the volume of vegetables. Simmer the soup for a further 10 minutes, or until the potato cubes are on the point of collapse.

Remove the sprig of thyme and, using a stick blender or liquidiser, whizz the soup until it's beautifully smooth and fine. Patiently skim any foam off the top, then add the cream. Now mix the cornflour to a thinnish paste with a little water, and gently whisk this into the soup. Cook, stirring constantly, over a medium heat, for a few minutes. If the soup seems too thick, thin it down with more stock or milk. If it is too thin for your liking, mix up another batch of cornflour paste and dribble it into the pot until the soup if of the consistency you desire.

Shred the chicken meat you've set aside and add it to the soup pot. (Don't be tempted to liquidise any of the chicken bits, as this will ruin the soup's texture). Season generously with salt and plenty of milled pepper.

Simmer the soup for a few more minutes, or until the shredded chicken has heated through. Now, using the fine teeth of a grater, rasp the nutmeg into the soup. I usually use about a third of a whole nutmeg, but this is up to you.  If you're using powdered nutmeg, add it just a pinch at a time, or until you're happy with the taste.

Immediately before you serve the soup, add a spritz or two of fresh lemon juice, to taste. This puts a little spring in its step!

Pour into warmed bowls, scatter with parsley and serve with bread or rolls.

Makes about 3 litres of soup.

Cook’s Notes, and stock tips:
  • If you often roast chickens, or buy ready-roasted ones, save their carcasses for an epic chicken soup by freezing them in a large plastic bag. I often make a stock with four carcasses I've 'saved' over a fortnight. There's no need to defrost them before you put them into the stock. 
  • Another way to create a really deep-flavoured stock (and tender poached chicken to use in another dish) is to simmer a carcass and wings for two hours, as described in the recipe, then add a whole, new chicken, and let that simmer for another hour, or until cooked through.
  • For an extra-rich stock, you can lightly fry all the vegetables, herbs, spices and carcass bones in a mixture of hot olive oil and butter before you add the water and whole chicken. For warm colour, add a few roughly chopped tomatoes.
  • A good way to clarify and de-fat a stock is to use chef Heston Blumenthal’s method: freeze the stock in a round bowl, then place it in a big sieve or colander lined with several layers of kitchen paper. Set the sieve over a large bowl. As the stock thaws and drips into the bowl, the fat and impurities stay behind on the paper.
  • If you’d like a really intense-tasting stock, put the pot back on the stove and simmer, uncovered, until the liquid has reduced by half. Store, covered, in the fridge for up to 3 days, or freeze in lidded plastic containers or clingfilm-covered ice trays for up to 3 months.
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Friday, 19 July 2013

Gado-Gado: hot & cold salad with a spicy peanut sauce

My version of Gado-Gado is one of only a handful of recipes in my cookbook that isn't accompanied by a photograph. This was not for lack of trying: we prepared a gorgeous platter for the shoot, but the pictures were so disappointing that they were booted out of the book.

Gado-Gado: a hot & cold salad with a spicy peanut sauce
An intriguing combinaton of warm & cold ingredients and a  
a spicy peanut sauce make this dish a winner for big gatherings.

This was no fault of the photographer, I hasten to add. The problem was that the dish looked curiously garish, and rather dated in the sense that it was reminiscent of those eager trays of crudités so popular at 1980s parties.

(The idea of fresh veggies accompanied by chilled dips was a good one, for its time, but the truth is that there are only so many raw celery and carrot batons you can eat before you have to plant your face in a beckoning bowl of brandied chicken liver paté.)
Gado-Gado: a hot & cold salad with a spicy peanut sauce
Choose beautiful shining fresh ingredients for this dish, cook them to 
perfection, and your guests will flatten every platter. 

The pictures on this page are ones I snapped when I was testing this recipe. I admit they look as gaudy as a carnival, but I hope that won't put you off trying this delicious and intriguing dish.

Gado-Gado was suggested to me by my friend, clever cook and brilliant thrower-of-parties Judy Levy, as my manuscript raced towards its deadline. Judy didn't give me a recipe, but she described the dish to me in detail over coffee, and I raced home - with a visit to the supermarket on the way - to make it.

I couldn't settle on any of the Gado-Gados I googled, because each one was so different from the next, so in the end I slammed my laptop shut and raced downstairs to suck a recipe out of my thumb.

Because some of the veggies in my Gado-Gado need to be boiled, this recipe requires some planning and careful timing (see my Cook's Notes, below). However, I think you'll find this is worth the effort: it's an interesting and abundant dish to serve for a large gathering, and it makes the very best of fresh seasonal vegetables. There's no need slavishly to follow my list of ingredients: choose what ever looks most bright and snappy on the day.

Gado-Gado is often served with a topping of crisp prawn crackers, but every time I make it this way I find an apologetic pile of these tucked into the shadows by guests too polite to say they don't like these dry fishy clouds.


(Recipe courtesy of Random House Struik)

This delicious and unusual dish of cooked vegetables, crisp salad ingredients and boiled eggs smothered with a piping-hot, spicy peanut sauce is my take on Gado-Gado, a dish popular all over Indonesia. There are many variations of this recipe, so feel free to make it your own by adding any other seasonal vegetables you fancy: mung bean sprouts, radishes, baby mielies, shredded Chinese cabbage, and so on. 

24 new potatoes
6 large carrots, peeled and cut into batons
1 small head of cauliflower, broken into florets
500 g slim green beans, topped and tailed
6 extra-large free-range eggs
2 cos lettuces
1 large English cucumber
500 g ripe cherry tomatoes
a packet of shrimp crackers (optional)

For the sauce: 
 2 cups (500 ml) roasted, salted peanuts
about 1½ cups (375 ml) hot water (see recipe)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3 Tbsp (45 ml) grated fresh ginger
5 spring onions, white parts only, sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, finely sliced
2 small dried chillies, chopped (or more, to taste)
3 Tbsp (45 ml) sunflower or olive oil
1 x 400 ml tin coconut milk
½ tsp (2.5 ml) turmeric
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
2 tsp (10 ml) fish sauce (optional)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) grated palm sugar (or 1 Tbsp brown sugar)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) Kikkoman soy sauce
2 Tbsp (30 ml) lime juice, fresh or bottled

First make the sauce. Rinse the peanuts under cold running water for 30 seconds to remove excess salt. Using a blender or mini food processor, grind the peanuts to a wet, slightly chunky paste, adding just enough hot water (about 1½  cups) to help the blades turn freely. Tip the peanut paste into a bowl, leaving 3 Tbsp (45 ml) behind in the blender. Put the garlic, ginger, spring onions, lemongrass and chillies into the blender and process to a fairly fine paste, adding a little oil if necessary.

Fry the spice paste in oil over a medium heat for 2 minutes. Stir in the reserved peanut paste and all the remaining sauce ingredients, turn down the heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes. If the sauce bubbles volcanically, whisk in a little hot water to thin it. Season to taste and add a little more lime juice if you think it needs it.

Now get the veggies ready. Cook them, one type at a time, in plenty of briskly boiling salted water until just tender, but nowhere near mushy. New potatoes take about 20 minutes, carrot batons 7 minutes, cauliflower florets 5 minutes and green beans 4 minutes. Refresh the carrots, cauliflower and beans under cold running water as they come out of the pot. Pat the vegetables dry, arrange in groups on a tray and cover with clingfilm until needed. Hard boil the eggs in simmering water for 9–10 minutes and cool completely under a running tap.

Arrange the cos lettuce leaves on a large platter. Halve the cucumber lengthways, scrape out the seeds and cut into crescents. Cut the tomatoes in half crossways. Peel the eggs and cut lengthways into six wedges. Arrange the cooked and raw vegetables, in groups, on top of the lettuce, and tuck in the egg wedges. Heat the peanut sauce and drizzle it, piping-hot, over the vegetables (or pass it round in a jug). Top with a scattering of shrimp crackers.

Serves 8-10.

Cook’s Notes 
This is particularly delicious when the vegetables are warm. Prepare them all in advance as described above, then quickly reheat them in a very hot oven, on a baking tray covered with foil, for 5–6 minutes before arranging them on top of the salad ingredients. If you don’t have a fairly powerful blender, use 1 cup (250 ml) of chunky peanut butter instead of whole salted peanuts.

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Saturday, 13 July 2013

My Hot Caprese Tart, and the agony of revisiting older blog posts

This beautiful picture is the work of Michael Le Grange, who is responsible for the images in my cookbook.  I'm in awe of his skills as a specialist food photographer, especially as I've recently spent many hours sifting through the older posts on my blog in a frenzied outburst of housekeepery.

Hot Caprese Tart on Phyllo Pastry
Hot Caprese Tart on Phyllo Pastry. Image by Michael Le Grange,
© Random House Struik 
This hasn't been a pleasant exercise: I've cringed seeing the amateurish quality of the fuzzy photographs I posted when I started this blog six years ago. At the time, I could afford only the cheapest little point-and-click, and I really didn't appreciate the importance of a good image when it comes to food bloggery.  In fact, I was so wet behind the ears in 2007, when I started this blog, that I posted many recipes without any photographs at all. A good example is the recipe for my mum's legendary Asparagus Tart.

My first impulse, as I started my clean-up, was to delete all my earlier blogposts on the grounds that they are severely embarrassing. (This humiliation is amplified when someone finds a recipe and eagerly staples a dreadful photograph of mine to their 'Favourite Recipes' board on Pinterest.)

However, as I worked through the posts, I discovered many favourite recipes I'd entirely forgotten about: my late mother-in-law's lovely Almond Tart, for instance, and my mum's gorgeous Ginger-Glazed Shortbread.  Then there are those older recipes written in great detail that I'd never attempt these days because I don't have the time: Old-Fashioned Quince Paste is one example.

After some hand-wringing, I decided to let the older blogposts stand. Not only have I rediscovered recipes that gave me enormous pleasure at the time I wrote about them, but I've also revisited happy times in my life.

I've never kept a written diary (mostly because my handwriting as a left-hander is so appalling that I can't decipher a word) but I'm an ardent fan of diaries, coming as I do from a long line of South African women diarists.

My great-great grandmother, Charlotte
Moor (née Moodie), was a prolific diarist
My ancestor Sophia Pigot, for example, wrote a famous diary when she arrived in South Africa as a wide-eyed girl in a family party of 1820 settlers.  Charlotte Mary St. Clair Moodie, my great-great grandmother (left), was a poet and novelist whose extensive journals about the Boer War and her travails as a mother and farmer were privately published by my family a few years ago  Her daughter, my great-aunt Shirley Moor, kept a wonderfully fierce and endearing diary (now in the Campbell Collections), which I spent many months transcribing and annotating in the mid-Nineties.

My mum, novelist Jenny Hobbs, also has a stash of hand-written diaries from her teen years, written in exercise books stuffed with tickets, postcards, ribbons and similar 1950s ephemera.

As the daughter of these indefatigable women, I'm a bit ashamed that I've never kept a pen-and-paper diary to pass on.  All I can offer is this food blog, warts and all.

Perhaps some time in the future - in 30 years' time, for example, when I'm sitting drooling in a wheelchair and sucking cauliflower cheese through a tube  - I'll read fondly through my blogposts, marvelling at a time when my children still wanted to live at home, and I had the time and inclination to make Half-Candied Kumquats Dipped in Dark Chocolate.

If you've read this far down, you surely must want the recipe.

This is an effortless and delicious dish for brunch or lunch, and one of my favourite recipes for feeding a crowd. You can read more about this dish here, if you can bear the embarrassing photographs.

Hot Caprese Tart

A classic Italian salad transformed into a ‘pizza’, albeit one with a base of crisp phyllo pastry. Children who might turn up their noses at a Caprese salad, that sublime combination of ripe tomatoes, milky mozzarella and peppery fresh basil, are surprisingly enthusiastic when they see it presented in a form they know and love. Double this recipe if there are children at the table.

6 sheets phyllo pastry
8 Tbsp (120 ml/120 g) butter
5 Tbsp (75 ml) finely grated Parmesan cheese
8 ripe tomatoes
600 g mozzarella
flaky sea salt and milled black pepper
a small bunch of fresh basil, leaves picked
3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive oil

Heat the oven to 170°C. Unroll the phyllo pastry on a board and keep covered with a damp cloth. Melt the butter in a saucepan or the microwave. Start by brushing the bottom and sides of a non-stick baking sheet, then line it with a sheet of phyllo pastry, allowing the edges to drape over the rim. Brush the phyllo layer generously with butter and sprinkle with a tablespoon of Parmesan. Add another sheet of phyllo and continue layering, brushing and sprinkling until you have used up all 6 sheets. Trim any ragged edges and round off the corners with a pair of scissors.

Thinly slice the tomatoes and the mozzarella and arrange the slices, alternately, in overlapping rows on the pastry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake at 170° C for 10-15 minutes, or until the pastry is crisp and golden, and the cheese melted. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with basil leaves and drizzle with the olive oil. Cut into eight squares and serve immediately.

Serves 8 as a starter or side dish.

Cook’s Notes: Make the phyllo pastry base up to 6 hours in advance, but cover it tightly with several sheets of clingfilm so it doesn’t dry out. Slice the cheese and keep covered. The tomatoes should be sliced at the last minute.

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Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Peppercorn Chicken with Chilli & Mint

Here's my latest MasterChef recipe, the second in a series of four recipes I've developed for Woolworths, food sponsors of the latest South African series.

Peppercorn Chicken with Chilli & Mint
Tender, mint-infused chicken breasts with a sticky-sweet honey and soy glaze
I was stumped by this week’s mystery-box ingredients (see the list at the bottom of this page). The spices in the list hinted loudly at a home-made Chinese five-spice powder, while coconut and soy sauce confirmed the Asian theme. But, oddly, there was no acidifying agent (such as lime or rice vinegar) in the ingredients list, and my first three recipe attempts were disappointing flops.

Peppercorn Chicken with Chilli & Mint
These are some of the ingredients I had to work with.
Picture courtesy of Woolworths.
In the end, I decided to focus on my favourite flavours in the list, and to combine them in a simple dish of succulent chicken breasts infused with fresh mint and chilli, and coated with rainbow peppercorns and a honey/soy sauce glaze.  Mint, peppercorns and chicken are an unusual combination – but why not?

The only tricky part about this recipe is making sure the chicken is perfectly cooked. This is not as easy as it sounds, because the one end of a bone-in chicken breast is considerably thicker than the other. How long your chicken will take to cook depends, of course, on the size of the pieces.  I always cut a deep slit into the thickest part of the breast, then prise it open to check that it's cooked to the bone.  Any sign of pinkness in the juices, and I put it back in the oven for another few minutes.

Finally, this year, it’s not just bloggers getting the chance to get creative in the kitchen along with MasterChef and Woolies. Create a recipe with the same ingredients used each week by the Woolworths Masterchef Competition bloggers and you could win one of fourteen R1000 Woolies gift cards, or the (very!) grand prize of a R10 000 gift card. Head over to the Woolworths Masterchef Hub for more info and T&Cs.

My first recipe for Woolies/Masterchef:  Slow-Roasted Leg of Lamb with a Basil Walnut Sauce 

Peppercorn Chicken with Chilli & Mint

4 large free-range chicken breasts, on the bone
flaky sea salt
20g (half a cup, closely packed) fresh mint leaves
2 fresh red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
4 Tbsp (60 ml) olive oil
4 Tbsp  (60 ml) honey
2 Tbsp (30 ml) light soy sauce
2 tsp (10 ml) rainbow peppercorns, coarsely crushed

Heat the oven to 180 ºC. Put the mint leaves, chillies and olive oil in the jug attachment of a stick blender and whizz to a fairly fine pesto.

Season the breasts lightly with salt. Slide your fingertips under the skin on top of the breasts, breaking the fine membrane as you go to create a pouch. Take half the mint paste and spread it evenly under the breast skin (reserve the remaining mixture). Pull the breast skin back into place.

Cut a deep horizontal slash into the fleshiest part of each breast, and rub the remaining paste into the slashes. Set aside for an hour, or until you’re ready to cook the breasts.

Place the breasts skin-side up in a roasting pan, cover them lightly with tin foil or baking paper and roast for 25-30 minutes, or until they are just cooked through. Drain any excess fat from the pan.

Warm the honey until it’s runny, then stir in the soy sauce.  Drizzle this mixture all over the chicken breasts – and don’t worry if it slides off into the pan. Press the crushed peppercorns onto the skin of the breast.

Peppercorn Chicken with Chilli & Mint
Drizzle the glaze over the partly cooked breasts before  returning them to the oven.
Turn the oven grill on to its highest setting and place the roasting pan on a middle shelf, not too close to the element.  Grill the breasts for 5-8 minutes, basting them every few minutes with the honey-soy glaze.  Watch them like a hawk, as the honey burns quickly.

When the skin is golden and beginning to blister, remove the chicken breasts from oven and let them rest for 5 minutes.

Cut the breasts into pieces and drizzle over any pan juices.

Serve hot, with wedges of lemon.

Serves 4.

Here is the list of ingredients I was given to work with (I was also allowed to add salt, pepper and oil to my 'mystery box'):

Light soy sauce
Star anise
Fennel seeds
Three colour peppercorns

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Saturday, 6 July 2013

Comforting Fish Cakes with Moroccan Flavours

Fresh fish of any sort is my idea of a fine feast, but often I feel thwarted in my efforts to eat more of it. First, no one in my family really likes fish, unless it's battered and deep fried. Second, good fresh fish is ruinously expensive in Cape Town, and so is good quality tinned and smoked fish. Third (and this is not a grumble), I no longer buy - or feature on this blog -  any threatened or vulnerable species of fish or shellfish, using the SASSI database as my guide.

Comforting Fish Cakes with Moroccan Flavours
Crusty hot fish cakes, lightly spiced with North African flavours, and served with lemon
wedges and a cool yoghurty dipping sauce.
Buying and cooking with sustainable ocean species is rather limiting, and while I'm determined to support SASSI's initiative, I must admit sorely to missing eating the beautiful, spanking-fresh linefish I enjoyed so much as a child -  beautiful, springy, snow-white kabeljou in particular.  Prawns drenched in garlic, chilli, lemons and butter are - sob! - another no-no, but more about that in a future blog post.

Snoek, yellowtail, dorado, angelfish and hake are still green-listed, so I buy a side of one of these about once a week.  I usually bake or grill the fish, eat some of it for lunch with salad, and then refrigerate the leftovers for making fish cakes the next day.  Oddly enough, some members of my family are willing to eat fish cakes, especially if they're made - as all good homely fish cakes are - with mashed potato.

Comforting Fish Cakes with Moroccan Flavours
A blend of North African flavours gives these fish cakes a lovely flavour.
Here is my recipe for fish cakes spiced with some fragrant Moroccan flavours.You can add any combination of aromatic ingredients you like, of course, to this very basic formula, but there is something about the warming spices of North Africa that makes these very moreish.

These are quite lightly spiced, because I want the cakes to taste of fish, but  feel free to add more heat and perfume if you'd like your fish cakes to pack a punch.

And if you're in a tearing hurry, please use instant mashed potato.  The sky will not fall on your head, and I doubt anyone will notice the difference.  If you go this route, however, be sure to make up the instant mash powder with a little less boiling water than is specified on the packet, so it is of the same stiff consistency as proper mash. You can also used tinned butter beans as an alternative to mash - here's my recipe for easy tuna fish cakes with beans.

Comforting Fish Cakes with Moroccan Flavours

2 cups (500 ml) cooked flaked white fish
olive oil, for frying
a small onion, peeled and very finely chopped
2 tsp (10 ml) crushed fresh garlic
2 tsp (10 ml) finely grated fresh ginger
2 cups (500 ml) mashed potato, at room temperature
1 extra-large free-range egg
½ tsp (2.5 ml) cinnamon
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp (5 ml) ground coriander
1 tsp (5 ml) good quality paprika
2 tsp (10 ml) cumin
4 Tbsp (60 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley
salt and milled black pepper
5 Tbsp (75 ml) flour, for dusting

To serve: 
lemon wedges or finely chopped preserved lemons
a cool dipping sauce, such as a mixture of half-and-half mayonnaise and yoghurt, or this lemony mixture, or a vibrant chermoula-style dip

Heat the oven to 160 ºC.  Carefully sift through the flaked fish with your fingertips to remove every small bone, then place the fish in a large mixing bowl.

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and add the onion. Fry for two minutes, until it just begins to soften, and then stir in the garlic and ginger. Cook for another minute, then tip this mixture into the bowl containing the fish.  Don't cook the onion mixture for too long - the onion should retain a slight crunch, and the garlic and ginger should be heated just long enough to remove any raw burniness.

Add all the remaining ingredients apart from the flour and mix well, using your hands.  Season to taste with salt and milled black pepper.

Comforting Fish Cakes with Moroccan Flavours
Shape the cakes by rotating them quickly and lightly between the
palms of your hands.  It helps to flour your hands!
Pinch off pieces of the mixture - the size is up to you - and roll them into balls. Now flatten the balls and shape them into neat cakes by rotating them between your palms, as shown in the picture, left.  It helps to flour your hands while you're doing this.

Put the flour onto a plate and lightly roll each cake over in the flour. Shake well to remove any excess - they should be lightly dusted.

Heat 3 Tbsp (45 ml) of olive oil in a large frying pan, over a medium-high heat. Fry the cakes on both sides, in batches, placing them in a circle around the edges of the pan, as shown in the picture below.  (Arranging the cakes like this allow you to flip them over in the order in which they were placed in the pan.)
Comforting Fish Cakes with Moroccan Flavours
Always fry small cakes in a circle, so you can flip them over in the
order in which you put them in the pan

They are ready to flip over when the underside is golden brown and crusty.  Place the cooked fish cakes in the oven to heat right through while you fry the rest.

Serve hot with lemon wedges or chopped preserved lemons, and a dipping sauce of your choice.

Makes about 30 small fish cakes, or 15 bigger ones. 

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Friday, 5 July 2013

Low-Carb Mediterranean Chicken 'Sandwich'

Glistening, jewel-bright Mediterranean ingredients form the filling for this 'sandwich' of flash-cooked chicken breasts. This is a lovely lunch if you're on a low-carb regime or you're diabetic.

You can serve this as an 'open' sandwich, or place another griddled chicken breast
on top (see picture, below) .

I've featured many low-carb recipes on this blog, because I love this way of eating. You can see a selection of 30 of my original dishes here, and read more about the contentious but popular Tim Noakes low-carb regime in this blogpost.

The double-decker version of my low-carb chicken 'sandwich' .
This easy recipe is most delicious, crammed as it is with all sorts of Mediterranean flavours. You can pack anything you like between the breasts - when I make this dish, I raid my local deli counter and buy small quantities of anything that takes my fancy.  Bacon would be good, and perhaps some avocado, or sliced boiled eggs, or any of the high-fat foods encouraged on regimes of this sort.

You can make this in a jiffy if you cook the chicken breasts in a sandwich press. To find out how to do this - and why it's such a quick and sneaky way of cooking for kids - click here.

This recipe serves one.

Low-Carb Mediterranean Chicken 'Sandwich'

2 free-range, skinless chicken breasts
salt and milled black pepper
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil, for frying
5 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 Tbsp (15 ml) lemon juice
4 calamata olives, pitted and halved
3 small preserved artichoke hearts, halved lengthway
3 Tbsp (45 ml) crumbled feta cheese
a white anchovy fillet [optional, and to taste]
a few rocket or watercress leaves
extra olive oil for drizzling

Heat a ridged griddle pan or frying pan until it is very hot. Place the breasts between two sheets of clingfilm or baking paper and, using a rolling pin, lightly flatten them so they are of an even thickness at both ends.  Season with salt and black pepper.

Add the olive oil to the pan and fry both the breasts and the cherry tomatoes (cut side down) for 3-5 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through and the tomatoes are lightly charred.  The time it will take to cook the breasts will depend on how cold they are to begin with, and their thickness.

Splash the lemon juice into the pan, leave for 15 seconds, then remove the breasts and tomatoes from the heat and let them rest for 3 minutes.

Arrange the fillings of your choice, in layers, over the bottom breast..

Arrange the filling ingredients, in layers, between the cooked breasts, sprinkle lightly with olive oil and season to taste with more salt and pepper. Push a skewer through the middle of the 'sandwich' to hold everything together and serve immediately.

Serves 1.

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Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Warm Duck Salad with Crackly-Topped Beetroot

There are not many surprises in a domestic kitchen when you've spent several decades cooking the same thing over and over. This one, however, astonished and delighted me: if you roast small par-cooked beetroot that are still attached to thumb-length leaf stalks, those stalks will dry out over an hour or so into lovely, sweet twigs with a most satisfying crunch.

Here, I've combined the crackly-topped beetroot with warm slices of rosy duck, some dark salad leaves and a scattering of dried cranberries to make a winter salad of great simplicity.

Duck breasts are eye-wateringly expensive, so I don't often buy them, but this recipe won't ruin your budget because you can stretch just two breasts between four people.

I never boil beetroot because I don't like the way all the ruby-red goodness leaches into the water, but I have to admit that I'm often infuriated at how long it takes to roast even small beetroot to a state of tender, sweet and slightly shrunken deliciousness.

When I was making this salad, I took a shortcut and blasted them in the microwave oven before roasting them.  I've never tried this before, but it worked very well, and it slashed the roasting time by at least an hour. (Thank you to my friends Mark and Julie Stevenson for showing me their method!)

You could make a complicated dressing, perhaps with some spicy or citrussy or sweet element (such as pomegranate syrup) to drizzle over this salad, but I think a spritz of lemon juice and a lick of grassy olive oil is all that is needed to bring out the earthy, metallic flavours of duck, rocket, watercress, spinach and beetroot.

Dried cranberries are available at most supermarkets and health shops; this is also good with a mixture of dried cherries and goji berries.

Warm Duck Salad with Crackly-Topped Beetroot

8 young beetroot, leaves still attached
extra-virgin olive oil, for sprinkling and dressing
flaky sea salt and milled black pepper
2 large boneless duck breasts, skin on
mixed dark salad leaves - rocket, watercress and baby spinach (enough for four people)
1/3 cup (80 ml) soft dried cranberries
6 spring onions, white and pale green parts only, finely sliced
a large lemon

Heat the oven to 190 ºC and switch on the fan.  Trim off the leafy tops of the beetroot, leaving stalks 6 cm long attached to each one. Place them in a small ovenproof dish and cover loosely with clingfilm.  Microwave the beetroot on high for 12 minutes. Drain off any liquid, drizzle with two or three tablespoons of olive oil and season generously with salt and milled black pepper. Toss well so everything is coated.

Roast the beetroot, uncovered, for 45 to 60 minutes, or until they are very tender and somewhat shrunken, and the stalks are crisp.

In the meantime, lightly season the duck skin with salt and pepper. Place the duck breasts, skin side down, in a cold frying pan. Turn on the flame under the pan to its lowest setting, and cook the breasts slowly and gently for 10 minutes, without disturbing them. This long heating process will help to render the fat.

Drain off most of the fat (keep it for roasting potatoes!), turn up the heat under the pan to medium high and fry the duck breasts skin-side down for another 4-5 minutes, or until the skin is very crisp and golden.  Flip the breasts over in the pan, turn down the heat a little and fry them for another 4-6 minutes, or until they are cooked, but still slightly rosy in the middle. Don't be afraid to cut a sneaky slit into the thickest part of the breast to check for doneness - you will lose a little juice this way, but this is a lesser evil than tough, overdone duck.

Remove the breasts from the heat, put them on a plate, cover them loosely with tin foil and let them rest for five minutes.

Make a bed of salad leaves on a large platter. Cut the duck into slices and slice the beetroot in half lengthways.  Arrange the duck slices and beetroot on top of the greens and scatter with the dried cranberries and spring onion slices

Squeeze the lemon over the salad and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Season the salad with salt and milled black pepper, to taste, and serve immediately.

Serves 4. 

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