Mushrooms with Taleggio and Tomato Sauce

My friend Jane made this for our Reading Group recently and it was so delicious that I immediately asked for the recipe. It is gloriously quick and easy to put together yet tastes rich and complex. It really does take 10 minutes to assemble and only 15 minutes in the oven, so it’s on the table in under 30 minutes. Make a green salad while it’s in the oven and you have the perfect mid-week vegetarian supper, lunch or, with a starter and dessert, dinner.

The recipe originally came from the Waitrose magazine, and there is a more complicated version in Ottolenghi’s Plenty, as well as a number of other variants online. I made it with sage, as I didn’t have any thyme, and can report that thyme tastes better. If you had some home-made tomato sauce to hand then that would be good here. The only problem with using passata is what you do with the rest of the carton, as I never seem to think of another suitable recipe to make before it starts going mouldy – any ideas?

Quantities here are for two but can easily be multiplied as required.

150g passata
2 large portabella or field mushrooms
100g Taleggio
a few sprigs of thyme
2 small slices of sourdough (or ciabatta)
1 tbsp olive oil

Heat the oven to 200ºC Fan/220º C/Gas mark 7. Pour the passata into an ovenproof dish. Trim the stalks of the mushrooms and wipe the caps (you can peel them if they are damaged, but I rarely find this is necessary). Place them on the passata, stalk side up.

Slice the Taleggio and divide between the two mushrooms. Strip the thyme leaves from the stems and scatter the leaves over.

Tear the bread into small pieces into a bowl and toss with the olive oil. Scatter over the dish and bake in the oven for 15 minutes until the cheese has melted, oozing into the sauce, and the bread is golden.

There, I told you it was easy!


Salade Niçoise

I can’t quite believe I haven’t already posted a recipe for salade Niçoise, as I must have made it every summer since I was a teenager. Deciding on what exactly should or should not be in a salade Niçoise is a contentious issue: while Simon Hopkinson thinks that tuna is redundant but includes green beans and artichoke hearts, Rowley Leigh says that the salad shouldn’t have any cooked vegetables in it. My salade Niçoise has evolved from the version I learnt from my mother, which had hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, green beans, tomato, tuna and black olives served on a bed of lettuce. I now tend to include anchovies, and variously cucumber, red pepper, spring onions and/or capers. See below for a vegetarian variant of the salad too.

Finding the sort of really ripe, flavourful tomatoes that you can buy as a matter of course in the south of France is always a challenge unless you grow your own. I find large slicing tomatoes (like Jack Hawkins) better for this than regular ones, and you can sometimes get good heritage varieties in supermarkets now as well as at farmers’ markets. I have specified ridge cucumber as they are less watery; if you’re using a standard cucumber it’s worth scooping out the seeds before you chop it.  I don’t always pit the olives, though your guests will thank you if you do. I can see that cheap tinned tuna brings little to the taste or texture of the salad, but since discovering tuna bottled in oil I have become more enthusiastic about it – feel free to omit or include as you wish.

A vegetarian version can be made by leaving out the tuna and anchovies, in which case I would add some artichoke hearts (I’m not a big fan, but several recipes include them) as well as a red pepper and capers which, along with the black olives, will give the salty tang and layers of flavour you want. I’m not sure it will quite qualify as an authentic salade Niçoise, but it will be a delicious lunch.

In any case, this recipe has no pretensions to being an authentic, perfect or definitive version – it’s just what I like to eat for lunch on a sunny day, ideally sitting in the shade with a glass of chilled rosé. It looks particularly good laid out on a large platter, with good bread alongside.

For 4

4 eggs
4 new potatoes
120g green beans
200g ripe tomatoes
½ ridge cucumber
1 jar of tuna (optional)
4 spring onions
6-8 anchovy fillets
1 tbsp capers
75-100g black olives
Little Gem or other leaves to serve
A handful of parsley and/or basil

1 clove garlic
1 rounded tsp dijon mustard
2 tsps red wine vinegar
5 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
salt & black pepper

Salade NicoisePut on a small pan of water to boil. Prick the egg shells at the broad end and, when the water reaches the boil, lower them into the pan, turn the heat down to a simmer and put the timer on for 8 minutes. While they’re cooking, top and tail the green beans. Wash the salad leaves – this time I used a combination of Little Gem and a few leaves of red chicory – spin to get rid of any excess water, and pop them in the fridge to stay crisp. As soon as the eggs are done, scoop them out into a colander and run under the cold tap to stop them cooking. Bring the water back to a simmer and cook the beans for 4-5 minutes. Tip them into a sieve, run under cold water (which will help keep them bright green) and set aside to drain.

You need waxy salad potatoes for this recipe – Charlottes, Maris Peer or Pink Fir Apples if you can get them. Unless you are using up left-over cooked potatoes, wash the potatoes and cut in half if large. Bring another pan of water to the boil, add the potatoes and cook for 15-20 minutes until tender to the point of a knife. Drain and leave the cool.

To make the dressing, crush the garlic in a garlic press (or with a knife on a board using a little salt). In a small bowl or jar, mix together with the mustard, wine vinegar and some salt & freshly ground black pepper, then whisk in the olive oil (or just pour in, put the lid on and shake if you are using a jar) until it is all emulsified and a glorious sunny yellow from the mustard. Everything up to this point can be done ahead of time if you wish.

Shell the eggs when they are cool enough to handle, and cut each one in half – the yolks should be only just set and deep yellow (not those nasty over-cooked, grey-ringed yolks reminiscent of school salads). Cut the tomatoes into chunks, discarding the seeds if watery. Trim the end of the cucumber and scoop out the central seeds if necessary. Cut into quarters lengthwise and then into chunks. If you are using them, thinly slice the spring onions and red pepper. Cut the potatoes into fork-sized chunks. Finely chop the herb(s).

When you are ready to assemble the salad, lay the lettuce out on the platter or plate and arrange the potatoes, beans, tomato and cucumber on top. If using the tuna, drain it thoroughly from the oil (or brine) it has been preserved in, and distribute it in chunks over the vegetables. Arrange the halved hard-boiled eggs and tear the anchovy fillets (if using) over them. I sometimes get fancy and arrange them in criss-crosses over the eggs, which looks pretty, but is far from essential. Add any other vegetables you are using, and then scatter the black olives and capers over the top. Drizzle the dressing over everything, and finish with the chopped herbs.

À table, mes amis!

Stem Ginger Cake

IMG_4357With a long walk on Friday and a trip to Compton Verney yesterday, I had two picnics to cater for this week, so my thoughts turned to cake. Picnics are one of my favourite things – I still have a vivid memory of an idyllic picnic many summers ago in a field full of buttercups by a stream, with my brothers and some family friends. My favourite alfresco meals include something other than sandwiches (good though these can be): yesterday we had boxes of lightly dressed lentil salad, a bag of lettuce washed and kept fresh in a little cooler bag, crisp radishes, hard-boiled (but only just – 8 minutes) eggs and a couple of pink satin slices of prosciutto, cheese, apples – and of course ginger cake!

Ginger cake (or gingerbread) is a traditional picnic staple: it keeps well – indeed improves with keeping for a day or two – travels well and is delicious eaten with an apple and some crumbly Lancashire or Cheshire cheese in the fresh air with an appetite sharpened by walking. Mind you, it is equally welcome with a mug of tea by the fire on a cold winter’s day.

I spent an enjoyable half-hour reading ginger cake recipes – from Constance Spry’s Belvoir Ginger Cake and everyday gingerbread (‘suitable for nursery tea’) to Delia Smith’s more genteel stem ginger cake. In the end I went back to Nigel Slater’s Double Ginger Cake from his first Kitchen Diaries, albeit with some alterations: I replaced some of the golden syrup with treacle to give that distinctive gingerbread taste and used spelt flour and baking powder as I didn’t have any self-raising flour. The method is easy, as it doesn’t require creaming the butter and sugar, and I particularly like his inclusion of stem ginger in syrup, which some traditional recipes omit. The result was entirely satisfactory – the three of us on our walk managed to polish off a large chunk without any trouble, and I was very happy to eat it again with Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire and an apple at the end of yesterday’s picnic.

This recipe makes a large cake, which filled a 21 cm square by 5 cm high baking tin. Nigel Slater says the recipe is enough for eight, but I cut it into 20 generous square pieces, so even if some people can manage two I reckon it feeds 10-12 comfortably.

250g spelt flour
3 tsps baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsps ground ginger
half tsp ground cinnamon
a pinch of salt
120g golden syrup
80g treacle
2 tbsps of the ginger syrup
125g butter
3 large lumps of stem ginger
2 heaped tbsps sultanas
125g muscovado sugar
2 eggs
240 ml milk

Line the tin with baking parchment and put the oven on to warm at 180ºC/Gas 4. Start by sifting the flour and other dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl, making sure they are well combined. Measure the two syrups, treacle and butter into a small pan and warm over a low heat. Dice the ginger and add it too, followed by the sultanas and sugar. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring it until all is incorporated, then take off the heat.

Measure out the milk in a measuring jug, then break in the eggs and beat gently to mix together.  Pour the contents of the saucepan into the flour and stir with a large silicone spatula. Add the milk and eggs and stir the sloppy mixture until you can’t see any flour.

Pour the mixture into the lined tin and bake for 35 minutes , when a wooden skewer poked into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Put the tin on a rack and leave to cool. If you can resist trying some straight away, wrap in clean greaseproof, waxed paper or foil and leave it to improve for a day or two – or just wrap the whole tin and take it to your picnic.

May the sun shine on all your picnics!


Chicory gratin

Known in Dutch as Witlof met ham en kaas, this is Irene’s comfort food – the dish her mother makes for her when she goes to visit. These quantities will make lunch or supper for four, needing only some boiled potatoes or crusty bread to mop up the sauce. You could have some green beans or salad alongside too, though that would not be traditional, or serve it as a side dish with roast pork. The dish can be assembled in advance, just leaving the final baking in the oven until just before dinner.

You can, of course, also omit the ham to make an equally delicious chicory gratin for a vegetarian meal (use vegetarian cheese if preferred).

In the UK we tend to eat chicory raw in salad, but it has an excellent and distinctive flavour when cooked, and is a good foil to game or meat. There is an excellent Constance Spry recipe for braised chicory as an accompaniment to pheasant which I should also post.

4 large or 8 small heads of chicory
30g butter, plus extra for buttering the dish
1 onion
1 clove garlic (optional)
2 tbsps vermouth
30g plain flour
250 ml vegetable stock (or milk if preferred)
100 ml single cream
100g gruyere or mature Gouda or Cheddar cheese
8 thin slices of ham, preferably dry-cured

Bring a pan of water to the boil. Trim the root ends of the chicory and cut them in half lengthwise if they are large. Blanch in the boiling water for 8 minutes and then empty into a colander to drain.

Heat the oven to 180 C. Chop the onion finely. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and over low heat cook the onion gently until it is really soft, without letting it colour. Finely chop the garlic and add it to the onion after a few minutes.

When it is soft, add a good splash of vermouth to the pan and let it bubble up for a minute or two. Then sprinkle over the flour, stir thoroughly into the buttery onion and cook for a few minutes until the flour starts to look and smell biscuity. Meanwhile, heat the stock (or milk) to a simmer. Over medium heat pour the hot stock onto the roux and stir like mad with a wooden spoon or whisk, until the mixture is smooth. Turn the heat down and cook gently, stirring regularly and reaching right to the edges of the pan so that the sauce doesn’t catch. After about 10 minutes the sauce should be smooth and quite thick.

Pour in the cream, stirring. Grate the cheese, stir half into the sauce and heat for a moment to melt it. Check the seasoning, adding salt, pepper and freshly-grated nutmeg to taste. Set aside. Butter a shallow ovenproof gratin dish.

Squeeze the drained chicory to get rid of as much liquid as possible. Wrap each chicory (or half head) in a piece of ham and arrange in the gratin dish. Pour over the cheese sauce and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Put into the pre-heated oven and bake for about 30-35 minutes until the sauce starts to bubble. If you have prepared the dish in advance and it is cold it will need a bit longer in the oven. If necessary flash it under the grill to brown the cheese.

Serve with boiled potatoes, and green beans or salad if you wish.

Lemon Posset

This is such a simple recipe, in which lemon juice and heat, by a sort of alchemy, transform cream into a delicately set and delicious dessert.  It is easy enough to make for a Friday night supper but easily grand enough for guests, especially when dressed up with raspberries or redcurrants and served with crisp biscuits.

A posset was originally a hot drink made from hot milk curdled with wine or ale, and spiced with nutmeg or cinnamon. This modern incarnation is more like a syllabub, but quicker and easier to make.

Making the posset takes barely 10 minutes, but you do need to allow about three hours for it to chill in the fridge. These quantities are for 4 but can easily be divided or multiplied.

300ml double cream
75g caster sugar
zest & juice of 1 lemon

Bring the double cream and sugar slowly to the boil in a saucepan and simmer for 3 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to cool a little. Whisk in the lemon juice and zest. Pour into 4 ramekins, leaving room enough room to add a few raspberries or redcurrants to garnish if you wish, and put in the fridge to chill and thicken for about three hours.

Serve alone, or with raspberries or redcurrants and crisp shortbread-type biscuits – lemon, almond or hazelnut biscuits all work well.

Hazelnut Cake

Jeremy Lee’s king of puddings column in the Guardian’s cook supplement had become a highlight of my Saturday, much mourned since its disappearance when the supplement metamorphosed into Feast recently. I haven’t actually cooked his recipes that often (lest I lose all semblance of a waistline), just salivated over how delicious and comforting they sounded. However this cake sounded just too tempting to be savoured only in the mind.

I made a smaller cake than the original (which used 5 eggs rather than 3 – just scale up if you have more cake-lovers to feed). I used a big bag of excellent toasted and ground hazelnuts, found in the kosher section of my supermarket (alas they only have them around passover, but I stock up), rather than roasting and grinding them myself. This only takes a little longer, though, and the taste will be even better, so don’t worry if you can’t find ground hazelnuts.  As suggested, I served it with cream; raspberries or some lightly stewed plums would be great alongside it too if you want to serve it for pudding.

This cake is simpler to make than our much loved hazelnut and raspberry birthday cake, or this hazelnut cake, making it suitable for less momentous celebrations: small triumphs or a weekend treat.

210g hazelnuts, whole or ground
3 eggs, separated
120g caster sugar, plus 1 dstsp
60g butter
zest of 1/2 lemon

Heat the oven to 170° C. If you are using whole hazelnuts, put them on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 5-10 minutes (keep a close eye on them) until they are brown and the skins are coming off. Tip into a clean tea towel and rub off as much of the skins as possible, then grind to a coarse meal in a food processor.

Line an 18cm cake tin (or similar) with baking parchment. Melt the butter in a small pan.

Separate the eggs and beat the 120g sugar into the yolk using a wire whisk, until they are pale and foamy, stopping when you can write your initial with the trail from the whisk. Using a clean whisk, beat the egg whites until they are stiff, then add the extra dessertspoon of sugar and beat again.

Fold one third of the egg whites into the yolk mixture, then add half the hazelnuts, amalgamating them lightly and swiftly. I use a large silicone spatula for this, which makes easy work of incorporating all the mixture. Follow this with another third of egg whites, and the rest of the hazelnuts. Finally fold in the last of the egg whites, the melted butter and lemon zest until all is amalgamated.

Pour into the prepared tin and bake in the pre-heated oven for around 30 minutes. Use a wooden skewer to check that it is done before turning out onto a wire rack to cool. Allegedly, it will keep for a couple of days in a tin…

Roast red peppers stuffed with lentils

Straightforward to make, satisfying, a foretaste of summer and good for you – what more do you want? Oh, and it can easily be vegan, so this is altogether a useful recipe to have in your repertoire. I added some goat’s cheese, but I’m sure the dish would have been just as tasty without it. The recipe was inspired by one of those Waitrose recipes on cards that I glance at but rarely get round to cooking.

However, as my recipe books have been in boxes while I am having some work done in my flat, I was looking for new ideas for supper that wouldn’t tax my already rather frazzled brain. I love both red peppers and lentils, so this jumped out at me. You could make it with ordinary red (or yellow) peppers, which might hold a bit more filling than these long thin romano peppers, though these do look nice and have a good flavour.

I’m not that fond of the sharp taste of sun-dried tomatoes, so just used cherry tomatoes instead, as the cheese would be adding some piquancy. However, I would recommend keeping the sun-dried tomatoes for depth of flavour if you’re not going to add cheese. The recipe specified a pack of ready-cooked lentils, which may  be useful if you’re short of time, but lentils are so quick and easy to cook that it never seems worth buying them pre-cooked, and I often have leftover cooked lentils in the fridge.

2 large red peppers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 leek
2 garlic cloves
3 sprigs thyme
1 tbsp capers
4 cherry or sun-dried tomatoes
100g lentils (or 200g cooked lentils)
1 tbsp lemon juice
grating of lemon rind
handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
50g goat’s cheese (optional)
30g pistachios

Preheat the oven to 200° C, gas mark 6. Start by putting the lentils on to cook (unless you’re using ready-cooked ones). Rinse and cover with around double the amount of cold water, adding a bay leaf and a clove of garlic if you have them and are feeling fancy. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for around 15-25 minutes, checking regularly after 15 minutes as you need them to be just done, not mushy. Just tip up some extra water if they seem to be getting dry before they are tender. The cooking time given on packets of lentils is often too long in my experience, though this will obviously vary according to the variety and age of the lentils (the longer they’ve been in the packet, the longer they may take to cook).

Then halve the peppers through the stalks; don’t remove the stalks, as I did on auto-pilot, since they help the peppers to hold their shape in the oven. Carefully remove all the seeds and pith. Brush lightly with a third of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Put the peppers on a baking tray lined with greaseproof or baking parchment and roast for 20 minutes.

Slice the leek, finely chop the garlic and pick the leaves off the sprigs of thyme. Heat the remaining olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and gently fry the leeks, garlic and thyme for 10 minutes. Stir regularly and be ready to turn the heat down if the leeks or garlic show any sign of catching – you want them to be soft and golden with no bitter brown edges. Chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan with the capers and cooked lentils. When the lentils are ready, drain them and tip into the frying pan too. Stir everything together and cook for a further 5 minutes before adding the lemon juice, zest, parsley and pistachios.

By now the peppers should be done. Spoon the lentil filling into the peppers and top with the goat’s cheese if you are using it. Put back into the oven for 5 minutes. Serve with a green salad.