Asparagus Time

Spargelzeit in May is one of the two times each year that the normally reserved Germans get very excited about food. At this time of year the reason is asparagus, or to be more exact white asparagus. In Ireland we see very little of this wonderful vegetable except for some very sorry dried out specimens from Peru or Kenya. These are not the real thing, so I would urge you to try them if you’re in Germany or anywhere in central Europe at this time or get someone to bring a kilo or two home. Once you’ve tasted good fresh white asparagus, I think you might find it hard to get too excited about the green variety.

It is best to buy you asparagus directly from the grower or at least in the market. It really should be picked that morning. When you buy it, go for spears that are a little thicker than your thumb. Make sure the bottoms are not cracked as this is a sure sign they are drying out. Normally the spears should be kept damp by the seller. When you get them make sure to wrap them up tight. If you can, spinkle a little water on the them first. You can then store them for a day or two in the fridge.

To cook, you need to peel the stalks generously first, using a vegetable peeler. It’s best to lay them flat when doing this as they can easily snap. Trim the ends and reserve. There are purpose-designed asparagus pots, in which the asparagus is cooked standing up, and these are your best bet. However if you don’t have one a large frying pan is fine. Cook in lightly salted water until tender. You can also put a pinch of sugar in the water if you find the taste a little bitter. Don’t be tempted to cook the asparagus al dente as this leaves the bottoms of the stalks very tough and stringy, as well as not cooking out the bitterness. However, overcooking means you have wasted your money. You should aim for fork-tender.

There is any number of weird and wonderful recipes for asparagus (link ) but in my opinon, the simplest such as with butter and parmesan, or with hollandaise and a poached egg are the best. You can use the ends of the stalks and any broken spears as the basis for a delicious soup along the lines of Broccoli Stalk Soup .

By the way the other time the Germans get so excited about food, is in the autumn when the wild mushrooms start to come in.

Moroccan Carrot Salad

Moroccan Carrot Salad

The unusual thing about Moroccan and other North African salads is that the ingredients are cooked first, allowed to cool and then assembled into a salad. This probably has to do with climate. However, once the initial reluctance has been overcome, one quickly realises that this preparation method allows more complex flavours to be achieved. The Germans also have quite a few salads based on cooked vegetables such as french beans and of course their fantastic potato salads. This carrot salad is delicious and the lemon juice in the dressing acts as the perfect foil to the sweetness of the carrots.

Summary

Makes: 4 good portions
Preparation: 20mins
Cooking: 20 mins

Ingredients

500g
2/3 tsp
1 clove
1
1/3 tsp
1 tbsp
1 tbsp
Good quality carrots
Cumin seeds
Garlic
Small lemon
Caster sugar
Good olive oil
Coriander (chopped)
Sea salt

Method

Boil the carrots whole in lightly salted water until tender, which should take about 20 minutes. Try to use nice sweet carrots but if you’re having difficulty finding these, you can add a teaspoon of sugar to the water. When cooked, drain the carrots and leave to cool.

Meanwhile roast the cumin seeds in a dry pan for a couple of minutes over a low heat. You can tell they’re ready by the fragrance and the start of a colour change. Remove from the pan and grind in a mortar and pestle. Peel the garlic and chop very roughly. Add to the cumin with about ½ teaspoon of salt. Pound and grind until a paste is formed. Add the lemon juice, sugar and olive oil and mix.

When the carrots are cool, slice thinly, discarding the tops and tails. Add the dressing and coriander. Toss the mixture and add a litttle salt if needed. Leave to stand for few minutes to let the flavours integrate. You can make the salad ahead of time and store in the fridge but it shoud be served at room temperature.

Tangia

This Moroccan recipe for cooking lamb shank is quite delicious and practically cooks itself. According to Sam Clark in Casa Moro, this Marrakech speciality is very popular during Ramadan, when it cooks slowly in the hot ashes around the hamman or steam bath, waiting paitently to be devoured once the sun goes down! In addition to tasting great, lamb shanks are also really cheap. Like a lot of the cheaper cuts, they are particularly suited to slow cooking as in this dish, which cooks over six hours.

Note: This also works well with shoulder of lamb cut into a few smaller pieces.

Summary

Makes: 4 portions
Preparation: 30mins
Cooking: 6 hours

Ingredients

4
2
2
1 tbsp
1-2 bulbs
3 tbsp
100g
Lamb shanks on the bone
Preserved lemons
Onions
Cumin seeds
Garlic
Coriander (chopped)
Butter (soft)
A little water
Salt
Pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Place the cumin in a dry pan and heat gently until it releases it aroma, then grind. Remove the flesh from the preserved lemons, chop roughly and wash off excess salt. Peel the onions and chop roughly. Take the skins off the garlic cloves and chop each into two or three pieces. Place the onions, garlic, cumin, coriander and preserved lemon into a food processor and whizz. Add the butter and some salt and pepper. Add just enough of the water to make the mixture into a thick paste.

Place the lamb shanks into a large ovenproof dish or pot. Cover well with the paste. Cut some baking paper to a size a little bigger than the pot. Place this on the lamb and press down firmly to seal the space so that no steam can escape. Seal the pot with foil and if you have a lid place this on top. The whole idea is that the container is well sealed so that the meat can cook in the steam and its own juices.

Place into the oven and after 5 minutes reduce the temperature to 140ºC. Now just wait 5 to 6 hours and let the oven do the work. At this stage the meat will be falling off the bone.

Enjoy with some flat bread or couscous and some Moroccan Carrot Salad

Yoghurt

We’re now being told by scientists what our ancestors have known for thousands of years: namely, that live natural yoghurt is really good for you. It doesn’t really matter if you spell it yoghurt, yogurt, yoghourt or even joghurt, it’s healthy, tasty and we should eat more of it. The best bit is that you can make it at home for a fraction of the shop price with almost no effort at all. Once you have the base natural yoghurt you can flavour anyway you wish.

Yoghurt

To make 1.5 litres of natural yoghurt you need to start with 2 litres of milk and a 150g pot of live yoghurt. You can pick any brand you like as long as it contains live cultures. Since the resulting yoghurt will resemble the taste of the starter pot, it makes sense to pick one you like the flavour of. The beauty of making your own yoghurt is that the last 150g of the current batch can serve as the starter for the next. You can keep doing this until you find the flavour changing or experience difficulties getting the yoghurt to set. Low-fat milk is OK if you want but the results are better with normal milk. Some people even add cream!

Take the starter pot out of the fridge. Pour the milk into a large saucepan. The pan should not be more than one third full, in order to avoid the milk spilling all over the stove when it boils. Putting enough water to cover the bottom of the pan in first seems to help keep the milk from catching, but unless the pan is teflon-coated, you’ll still have a little scrubbing to do afterwards. Bring the milk to a boil and immediately reduce the heat very low, so that the milk barely simmers. Let the volume reduce to about 1.5 litres, which should take about 1 hour. Skim any thick skin that forms according to your own preferences: some cultures actually prize the bits of skin in the yoghurt. Transfer to a clean ceramic or glass bowl and let cool, again removing any thick skin.

Sterilise 2 750ml jars in a lowish (about 125°C) for 20 minutes of so. Leave to cool so that you can handle them. Judging when the milk has cooled sufficiently is the only tricky part of making yoghurt. If it’s still too warm it will kill the yoghurt culture and if it’s too cold, the yoghurt will take forever to set. Generally a little over body temperature is a good target. If you hold the bowl in your hands and it feels only barely warm, then that’s good. Other people say that once they can comfortably hold their finger in the milk for 10 seconds then it’s at the right temperature. You can even consult the literature and measure the perfect temperature using a thermometer! Anyway, I find that it takes about an hour at room temperature.

Add the starter yoghurt and stir well. Pour into the jars, wrap these up snug in a warm place for about 8 hours or overnight. The airing cupboard or hot press is suitable and an old sleeping bag works well for keeping the heat in. Next morning transfer the jars to the fridge. You can leave the yoghurt longer if you prefer a tarter taste. The yoghurt will keep for around 2 weeks.

Crème fraîche

The tangy taste of crème fraîche makes it very versatile in the kitchen. If you can’t get your hands on some, it is possible to make a pretty good substitute in a similar manner to yoghurt. Bring 250ml of whipping cream (about 40% fat) to a boil and let bubble for a 30 seconds or so. Let it cool to just over body temperature and add about 30g of live yoghurt. Stir well and transfer to a sterilised jar. Place in a warm place for 24 hours and then keep in the fridge. It is not quite as thick or tangy as real crème fraîche but it’s still a good substitute and will keep for around 2 weeks.

Caramelised Walnuts

I loved these tasty walnut snacks when I was based in China and used to bring home plenty. However, even large reserves eventually run out, so I had to come up with some way of getting my fix. I reckoned they couldn’t be that difficult to make, so I started to look around. I found this recipe in one of Ken Hom’s cookbooks and have been very satisfied with the results.

Summary

Makes: Portion for sharing
Preparation: 2 hours drying time
Cooking: 5 mins + deep frying

Ingredients

100g

1 tbsp

Walnut halves
Caster sugar
Sesame seeds

Method

Boil some water in a saucepan. Place the walnut halves into the water and boil for about 5 minutes to remove any trace of bitterness. If your walnuts are quite fresh, you can reduce this time: it’s really a matter of taste. Drain the walnuts and put into a shallow bowl. Immediately, sprinkle generously with sugar and toss the nuts about to ensure they are well covered. Lift the nuts gently from the bowl letting any excess sugar fall off and place on a non-stick baking sheet or similar to dry for at least 2 hours.

Place the sesame seeds in a dry pan over a low heat. Shake the pan occasionally. As soon as you can see the beginnings of smoke and a toasted smell, empty the seeds into a small bowl to stop the roasting.

When ready to cook the walnuts, heat enough oil to allow deep frying in a wok. You will need a skimmer or similar to lift the walnuts out of the hot oil. The traditional Chinese kind works best. The oil needs to be hot enough to allow the walnuts to sizzle but not so hot that they burn immediately. Test with a single walnut. When ready place the first batch of nuts into the oil. Push around a little to allow all sides to be cooked. They cook pretty fast: about 15 seconds, so pay attention! It is important only to cook as many walnuts as you can lift out in one go, otherwise the remaining nuts will burn. If using the Chinese skimmer, you can place it in the wok first, sort of like a basket and then lift out everything very easily. Remove the walnuts from the oil as soon as they are golden and place on a non-stick baking tray or a very lightly oiled plate. Try to arrange the walnuts in a single layer and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Continue until all the nuts have been fried.

Then see if you can resist the temptation to eat them all in one sitting!

Chicken Savoyarde

Chicken Savoyarde

Anna’s best friend calls this ‘Gavin’s Chicken’, but unfortunately I can take no credit whatsoever for this fantastic dish, which I found in Tamasin Day Lewis’ great book Good Tempered Food. She herself gives the credit to others. Who cares, for it is delicious and rich, and its two-stage preparation makes it an ideal dish for dinner parties. I was never quite sure where the name came from, but while cooking it recently, it did occur to me that the sauce bears a certain resemblance to the cheese fondues from the Savoy regions of France, Switzerland and Italy. The dish also includes copious quantities of that other great chicken enhancer: tarragon. Although there is a little preparation involved, it’s all pretty straightforward and can be split over two days and all-in-all makes for a stress-free special meal.

Use a free-range or organic chicken if you can: you’ll notice the difference.

Summary

Makes: 6 generous portions
Preparation: 20 mins (x3)
Cooking: 1¾ hrs + 25 mins (x2)

Ingredients

Chicken 

1
2
2
3 sticks
2
2
2
2 sprigs
6

Sauce

50g
50g
400ml
300ml
250ml
100g
1 tbsp
50g

 

Topping

50g
25g

 

Chicken (about 2kg)
Onions
Carrots
Celery
Leeks
Cloves
Bay leaves
Thyme
Peppercorns
Salt
Butter
Flour
Poaching stock
Dry white wine
Double cream
Gruyère cheese (grated)
Dijon mustard
Tarragon leaves (chopped)
Salt
Pepper

 

Breadcrumbs
Parmesan (finely grated)
Olive oil

Method

First we’ll poach the chicken. Place the chicken breast up in a large pot for which you have a lid. Chop the carrots and celery very roughly. Half the onions lengthwise and peel. Stick one of the onion pieces with the cloves. Top and tail the leek, chop into large pieces and wash thoroughly to remove any grit. Arrange the vegetables, with the bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns around the chicken. Add some salt but don’t overdo it: you can always add a little later but you can’t get it out again! Fill with cold water until the chicken is just covered. Put on a high heat and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat, put on the lid and simmer very gently for about 1½ hours. During the early stages you may need to skim a little scum from the top of the liquid.

After cooking, carefully lift the chicken out of the pot and leave to cool on a large plate. It will almost be falling apart and I find that two fish slices or pan turners work best. Pour the poaching stock through a fine sieve into a large clean bowl and leave to cool also. Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, take the meat off the carcass, disarding the skin and any sinews. It’s easiest to use your fingers. You should be aiming for large bite-sized pieces. Except for the breasts, which you’ll need to cut into smaller pieces, this is the size that will naturally come away. If continuing the next day, place the chicken pieces in a bowl, cover with cling film and put in the fridge. Remove the fat from the stock with a fat separator or with absorbent kitchen paper towels. You’ll probably end up with over 2 litres of stock. Reserve 400ml for the next stage and keep the rest for making soups, risottos etc. The stock will keep for several days in the fridge and for months if frozen promptly.

Heat the chicken stock from the previous stage. For the sauce, melt the butter in a pan over a lowish heat. Add the flour and cook gently for a few minutes to make a roux. Don’t let the mixture colour at all. I find it easiest to do the next stage off the heat at first but some prefer to keep the low heat going. Pour the stock slowly into the roux and keep stirring to stop any lumps forming. Don’t panic if it looks a little lumpy: just slow down or stop the pouring and increase the stiring until things are smooth again. When you have added all the stock there should be a nice shine to the sauce. Add the wine and cream. Increase the heat and stir until the sauce has thickened nicely. When the sauce is starting to bubble, stir in the grated gruyère cheese, mustard and tarragon. Adjust the seasoning and let bubble away gently for 15mins.

Place the chicken in a buttered oven-proof dish and pour the sauce over it. You can prepare this several hours ahead. When it’s time for dinner, heat the oven to 200°C, mix the breadcrumbs, parmesan and a little olive oil (just enough to bind the mixture) and sprinkle over the top of the chicken and sauce. Place the dish in the oven and cook for about 25mins until bubbling and the breadcrumb mix golden.

Serve with some new potatoes and green vegetables, such as fine beans. Enjoy!

Pinocchio, Ranelagh Dublin

Pinocchio is a small and very friendly cafe-cum-restaurant at the Luas station in Ranelagh. It is one of our favourite spots for a cup of excellent coffee and a panino, with the added advantage of getting cooking tips from demonstrations on screens strategically placed around the room. It offers good quality and value for money for this kind of food. We’d seen that they had expanded the menu and are now offering restaurant dishes at lunchtime and in the evening. One recent Sunday evening, we decided to try it out.

Our first reaction was that prices were too high. The waiter informed us that several dishes on the menu were not available. I noticed that the missing dishes were the same as on two previous occasions when I had just ordered coffee and a panino. If there are going to be difficulties with availability, it would be better to use a smaller daily or weekly menu and be able to offer all of the dishes.

We ordered a large mixed antipasto dish at €16 to share. This was good but the accompanying bread was past its best and had been heated in an attempt to disguise the fact. For mains we ordered Penne alla Desperado, essentially a slight variation on Penne alla Arrabbiata, at €15.90, which was quite good and Ravioloni with butter and sage at €16.90, which was also good. However, the prices are way too high, especially for the pasta dishes. The ingredients for the Penne dish can’t have cost more than €1 at retail and the dish certainly doesn’t have much labour input. It is difficult to see how a price of €15.90 can be justified. Most main courses were in the mid-twenties.

Washed down with 4 glasses of very ordinary red wine at €5 per glass, the bill came to a much too high €68.80. While I appreciate getting real Italian food in Dublin, I’m afraid the prices will have to drop considerably before I go for dinner again.

Pinocchio website

Broccoli Stalk Soup

Ever wondered what to do with those leftover broccoli stalks when your recipe only calls for the florets? Well, as befits the times we are currently experiencing, this simple soup gives you a delicious means of doing so. Despite the humble ingredients, the soup is rich tasting and sophisticated enough to serve at any dinner party. One supermarket chain near us gives customers a small hacksaw to chop the stalks from broccoli crowns. It’s a bit like people only wanting chicken breasts and discarding the legs and wings. So far, I haven’t plucked up the courage the ask the shop if I could take stalks off their hands.

I’ve left the type of stock up to yourself. If you want a vegetarian version, use a vegetable stock: otherwise use a nice chicken stock. If you can’t get crème fraîche, you can use sour cream. I have specified white pepper, but this is mainly for aesthetic reasons, as this does not leave specks in the finished soup but don’t worry too much if you’ve only got black pepper: the flavour won’t be affected.

Note: You can also make a similar soup from cauliflower or asparagus stalks.

Summary

Makes: 4 generous portions
Preparation: 5 mins
Cooking: 20 mins

Ingredients

4
1 litre
25g
Broccoli stalks (about 500g)
Stock
Butter
Salt
Fresh white pepper
Crème fraîche
Chives to garnish

Method

Trim the dry ends and cut the stalks into small chunks. Place in a medium saucepan with the stock and add the butter. Crack a little white pepper into the pan. If you know that your stock is not salty you can add a little salt now, but it’s better to leave the main seasoning until the end.

Cover the pan and bring to the boil. Then turn down the heat and simmer gently until the broccoli is soft (about 20 mins). Liquidise the soup and adjust the seasoning. A tablespoon of white wine vinegar can also be added to give more depth. Put back on the heat to bring up the temperature for serving.

Serve in warmed bowls with a blob of crème fraîche, which helps to cut the richness, and garnish with chopped chives.

Here’s a link to a delicious chilled version for the summer.