Asian fish parcels

Lunch today was this simple yet special dish of fish with rice and pak choi. It tasted really zingy, fresh and light after all the rich festive food we’ve been indulging in over the last couple of weeks. It is probably the recipe we have used most from Lindsey Bareham’s excellent cookbook The Fish Store, which not only contains great recipes for fish, but also lots of her family’s other favourite dishes for chicken, lamb, vegetables and puddings – do treat yourself if you haven’t already got it.

Asian fish parcels served

This is a great recipe to have in your repertoire if your New Year’s resolutions include eating fish more regularly for a healthy diet. It works with any white fish – we usually use haddock or hake – and the foil parcels can be prepared ahead ready to pop into the oven 15 minutes or so before you want to eat, so it’s perfect for entertaining. With rice and pak choi already in the parcel with the fish, it is also really easy to serve – and as Lindsey Bareham points out, there is very little washing up!

Irene tends to cook this for us, and has adapted the original recipe, blanching the pak choi first to bring out its flavour, adding some fresh chilli and tweaking the seasonings. Like her mother, she follows the Indonesian tradition of not salting the rice, so that it acts as a plain foil to the strong flavours of the sauce served with it. If you don’t have ketjap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) in the cupboard then just use 4 tbsps of ordinary soy sauce. You can use left-over cooked rice for this, in which case you will need about 250-300g, and if it is cold when you start, the parcels will need an extra 5 minutes in the oven. These quantities are for two; you will need two pieces of tin foil about 65cm x 35cm for the parcels.

150g basmati rice
2 small cloves garlic
pinch of salt
1.5 tbsp toasted sesame oil
3.5 tbsp Kikkoman soy sauce
½ tbsp ketjap manis
5cm knob of garlic
1 green chilli
2 small pak choi (about 150g)
2 white fish fillets (about 300g total)

Preheat the oven to 230° C. Put the rice into a small pan, rinse under cold running water, drain and add enough water to come to the first joint of your index finger above the rice. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, when you should be able to hear that the water has been absorbed, there will be little holes in top of the rice and you won’t be able to see any water. Once it has reached this stage, turn off the heat and leave the pan covered on the cooling hotplate so that the rice absorbs the last of the moisture to give you dry, fluffy rice.

Trim the pak choi and slice across into three. Put into a steamer and blanch the stems for 2 minutes and the leaves for 1 minute. Run briefly under the cold tap to stop it cooking, and leave to drain. We find the pak choi tastier if it is cooked through, but you can omit this step if you like your veg a little crunchier.

Peel the cloves of garlic and crush with a pinch of salt. Whisk together with 1 tbsp of the sesame oil and the soy sauce(s). Peel and grate the ginger. Trim, deseed and slice the green chilli.

Lay out your two sheets of foil, and drizzle the remaining sesame oil over the centre of each. You can put both portions into one (slightly larger) parcel if you want to save foil, as we did today, though individual parcels are nicer, especially if you are cooking for guests. Sprinkle a quarter of the sliced chilli over each piece. Then divide the rice between the two parcels, fluffing up the grains with a fork if necessary. Add half the ginger and the pak choi.

Asian fish parcels 3

Then top with the fish fillets, the rest of the ginger (including any juice from grating it), and the rest of the sliced chilli. Finally, whisk the sauce again and pour it over.

Asian fish parcel 3

Fold the edges of the parcel and seal carefully, avoiding pulling the foil tight.

Place the parcels on a baking sheet and cook in the hot oven for 15 minutes (or 20 minutes if you have used cold cooked rice). If you make one larger parcel it will need an extra 2-3 minutes to cook. You can open a parcel and check that the fish is opaque through to the bottom of the thickest part of the fillet to be sure that it’s cooked through.

You can serve the parcels just as they are, but we find it easier to eat if you scoop the contents onto the plate – they slide out easily with the encouragement of a large serving spoon.  The rice absorbs the delicious flavours of the soy sauce and toasted sesame oil, and the fish stays beautifully moist – it is really delicious.

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Walnut biscuits

Try these light walnut biscuits if you can’t face another mince pie or chunk of Christmas cake but still want something sweet with your coffee or alongside a fruity or creamy dessert. They went down well with clementine salad and clementine semifreddo at a friend’s New Year’s Eve dinner.

This started as a recipe for Hazelnut Crescents given to me many years ago by the Hungarian mother of a Canadian friend. The original hazelnut biscuits are possibly even more delicious than this walnut version, but I had ground walnuts that needed eating and the substitution was a success. I increased the amount of ground nuts and reduced the quantity of flour to make them nuttier, which improves the taste at the expense of making them slightly more fragile. I think this is an acceptable trade off (especially as the cook gets to ‘tidy-up’ any broken ones) but if you prefer a more robust biscuit, then revert to the original ½ cup of nuts to 1 cup of flour (US cups, so 60g and 140g respectively). I’ve dialled down the sugar and vanilla a bit too – use the larger quantity of vanilla if you are fond of it. The original recipe used half-and-half butter and lard as the fat, which makes for a shorter biscuit, but I never have lard in the house these days so have defaulted to using only butter.

These are half the original quantities and, as you can see, still made around 36 biscuits – enough to feed a crowd, especially as I think the biscuits are supposed to be smaller and more crescent shaped, so this could make more: I clearly need to perfect my shaping technique. The biscuits keep well in an airtight tin, though they are very more-ish.

115g butter
85g sugar
½-1 tsp vanilla
110g ground walnuts (or hazelnuts)
90g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
icing sugar to serve

Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper, and heat the oven to 150° F. Cream the butter with the sugar until it is light and fluffy. Making these is quickest in a stand mixer but easy enough with a hand-held mixer or a good old wooden spoon too. Add the ground walnuts (or hazelnuts) and then the flour bit by bit. Finally add the salt and vanilla and mix until it all comes together. Turn out the mixture onto a floured bench and knead into a fat log.

Then divide the biscuit dough, first into four and then cutting each quarter into 9 or even 12 pieces. Shape each little piece into a crescent by rolling it into a thin torpedo shape between your palms and then curving the ends together as you place it on the prepared baking tray. Leave space between the biscuits as they expand in the oven.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until they are golden brown, switching the trays round after ten minutes so that they cook evenly. Leave them to cool a little on their trays before moving them to a cooling rack and dusting with icing sugar.

Spicy peanut and vegetable stew

Here’s an easy and tasty vegetable stew for supper on a cold weeknight. It started life as Maafe tigidigi, a recipe from Timbuktu, which was adapted by Alicia Weston of Bags of Taste, an inspiring initiative that provides free cookery courses to people who need to learn how to eat well on a low budget. I saw an article about the organisation in Delicious magazine, and thought it was a great idea – and I liked the sound of the recipe too.

The original recipe uses okra rather than courgette, but I am not fond of okra, and using courgettes instead worked fine, though they are less authentic and don’t have quite the same texture. I’m sure you could ring the changes on the other vegetables too. The peanut butter makes it really tasty and satisfying. I guess you could serve it with some roasted peanuts sprinkled on top for crunch, but to be honest it doesn’t really need anything extra.

These quantities serve 2 – or provide two comforting suppers for one person (it will keep for up to 3 days in the fridge) – with rice.

3 tbsp peanut butter
2 tsp tomato purée
350ml hot water
175g courgette
½ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp ground fennel
good grinding of black pepper
½ tsp chilli powder
1 bay leaf
1 stock cube or 2 tsp Marigold bouillon
150g sweet potato
100g carrots
½ red pepper
1 celery stick (about 60g)

Measure the peanut butter and tomato purée into a medium saucepan and gradually mix in the hot water using a wooden spoon until they are well blended. Halve the courgette lengthways (unless it is small), and slice it fairly thinly.

Put the pan over medium heat, add the courgette with the spices, bay leaf and stock cube or Marigold powder, stirring well. I used a mild chilli powder and the stew was spicy enough for me, but you can up the heat if you wish by using hotter chilli or a fresh red chilli if you have one. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

While it is simmering, peel the sweet potato and carrot and cut them into large chunks. De-seed the red pepper and cut it into chunks. Trim the celery and cut it into 2 cm slices on the diagonal. Add the chopped vegetables to the sauce, bring back to a simmer, then cover and cook over a low heat for 20-30 minutes until all the vegetables are tender.

Meanwhile, cook some rice – I used wholegrain basmati, which I find takes about 20 minutes – and serve with the stew.

 

 

Baked Squash with leeks

I saw a wonderful display of squash outside a greengrocers the other day and couldn’t resist buying a couple. Rather than chop them up and roast them, I thought it would be nice to cook them whole. An internet search threw up a recipe for Squash stuffed with leeks by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which turned out to be in his River Cottage Veg Everyday cookbook, which I actually have on my shelf. It is ideal for enjoying small acorn or harlequin squash that are around now, but you could serve one larger squash between two people, remembering to give it more time in the oven (another 10-20 minutes at a guess).

The leeks are sweated in a little butter, then a little mustard, cream and gruyère added to give an unctuous filling which makes a nice contrast with the soft orange squash. I have tweaked the recipe by halving the quantity of cheese (to make it a big less rich) and adding nutmeg. I also used goat’s cream, as I happened to have some, which worked well, and you could use a hard goat’s cheese rather than the Gruyère. I think blue cheese might be worth trying too.

Aside from the slight fiddle of preparing the squash – much aided by making sure your knife is nice and sharp – this is a very straightforward recipe. Just right for an autumnal lunch this weekend. Quantities are for two people. I forgot to take a photograph of the finished dish, so I will try to remedy that next time I make it, as I am sure it will be back on the menu soon.

15g butter
1 large leek
½ teaspoon English mustard
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
30g Gruyère
2 small squash (about 400g each)
2 sprigs of thyme
Salt, black pepper & nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 190ºC/Gas mark 5. Trim the leek and slice it finely. Heat a good nut of butter in a saucepan over medium heat and add the leeks, stirring them about. Once they start to cook, turn the heat down, cover the pan and cook very gently for about 10 minutes, until very soft. Grate the cheese and stir it into the leeks with the mustard and crème fraîche. Season the mixture well with salt, pepper and a grating of nutmeg, remembering that the squash won’t have any seasoning.

Cut a small slice off the base of each squash so it will stand up securely. Using a strong knife and a steady hand cut a cone out of the top of the squash to make a lid. I found that trying to cut a flat slice was more tricky and didn’t go through to the centre of the squash. Put the lids on one side, and use a small knife and a teaspoon to scrape out all the seeds and fibres.

Spoon the leek mixture into the two squash, leaving a little room for the filling to bubble away,  and pop a sprig of thyme into each one. Replace the squash lids and stand the squash on a large baking tray.

Bake for 50 minutes, and then poke a knife into the flesh inside to check that the squash is nice and tender. Serve in solitary glory, though a crunchy salad (chicory and watercress?) might be nice before or afterwards.

Aubergines, Chickpeas, Walnuts & Dates

Ten days ago I was lucky enough to be given Diana Henry’s book Simple: Effortless food, big flavours, and I have been obsessively cooking my way through it ever since. It really lives up to the promise of the title: lots of recipes that are simple enough to tackle when you’re  tired after a busy day, yet taste good enough to revive you – or fool guests into thinking you have been slaving over a hot stove for hours. I’m also delighted to find that Diana Henry has lots of recipes on her website (as well as those behind the Telegraph’s paywall) if you want to check them out before you commit to buying a book.

This satisfying combination of aubergines, chickpeas, walnuts & dates has the most wonderful tahini dressing, which I am planning to use for lots of other grain-and-vegetable salads in the near future. Aleppo pepper is also known as Turkish pul biber, which I found in Waitrose, but you can substitute a mixture of cayenne and paprika if you can’t find it – or don’t want another container in your spice drawer. The original recipe had a little date syrup drizzled over the dish at the end, which I omitted (though I did wonder about using pomegranate molasses instead). This is a perfect recipe for the sunny but autumnal weather we’ve been having in London, when you want something warm and reasonably substantial yet with the flavours of warmer climes.

These are the quantities for 4. As I was cooking just for me, I made it using a third of the quantity and had enough for one generous portion, plus a side for the next day, when it was just as delicious. The first day I served it on a bed of rocket, and second time round with quinoa and salad – the quinoa was particularly good with it. Henry recommends serving it with couscous or alongside lamb or grilled mackerel.

3 aubergines (about 750g)
3 smallish onions
6 tbsp olive oil
3 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp pul biber/Aleppo pepper
salt & pepper
400g can chickpeas
squeeze of lemon juice
half a small packet of coriander leaves
5 Medjool dates
15g walnuts

Dressing:
50ml tahini
50ml extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
4 tbsp Greek yoghurt
juice of ½ lemon

Heat the oven to 190ºC/Gas mark 5. Cut the aubergines across into fat slices and then halve the larger slices. Peel the onions and cut them vertically into wedges. Put both into a large roasting tin and mix together with all but 1 tbsp of the olive oil, the cumin, pul biber, salt and pepper. Roast for 35-40 minutes, turning everything about half way through.

Put all the dressing ingredients into a small blender or a bowl with 50ml of water and either blitz or whisk until it’s thoroughly blended and the consistency of thick cream. Check the seasoning, adding more lemon if necessary.

Pit and chop the dates, roughly chop the walnuts and toast them for a few minutes in a hot frying pan if you have the energy (I didn’t). Pick the coriander leaves off the stems and chop.

Five minutes before the aubergines are ready heat the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil in a pan. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and heat them through in the oil for a few minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and tip onto a serving platter – over rocket, couscous or quinoa if you wish. Spoon the cumin-roast aubergines and onions on top, generously drizzle with the dressing, then scatter over the coriander, dates and walnuts.

And there you have a delicious, exotic dinner on the table in 45 minutes, of which at least half can be spent reading the paper or, in my case, doing your piano practice.

A perfect chocolate cake

In my book, this is a perfect chocolate cake: dense, moist, made with good dark chocolate and delectable eaten with a spoonful of whipped or clotted cream. As a child I would have preferred Felicity Cloake’s perfect chocolate cake, with its fluffier crumb and chocolate buttercream filling; no doubt my nieces and nephews would agree.  However, these days I find buttercream too sweet and sickly, preferring my cake unadorned, not too sweet and tasting of dark chocolate rather than cocoa.

I have been making this chocolate cake since 1983 when I acquired Arabella Boxer’s The Sunday Times Complete Cook Book. It became my bible, back before Nigel Slater, Nigella and Ottolenghi had started publishing, let alone entered my kitchen bookshelves. I have found Boxer’s recipes to be reliable and in impeccable taste, though somewhat more formal and classically English or French than much of the food I cook now. It is structured as a cookery course, with sections on different techniques such as braising or grilling. The section on menus for different occasions – with contributions from other cooks such as Antonio Carluccio and Claudio Roden (though Boxer’s own suggestions are generally more practical) – is particularly useful for a cook still learning to entertain. The book is now available very cheaply online, so treat yourself.

IMG_4549The simplicity of the method mean that this chocolate cake can be produced within an hour or so and uses ingredients that are probably in your cupboard (or definitely available in the corner store). You do not need beaters to cream the mixture, nor to remember a complicated list of ingredients. I have adapted the quantities to fit my tin and slightly reduce the proportion of eggs, also making it a very easy recipe to remember. It will work in any shape tin, or foil container, of the right size and I have made it successfully with all sorts of dark chocolate from corner-shop Bournville to posh 85% chocolate. It will keep for a couple of days in the tin wrapped in foil, if you have that sort of willpower, and will survive being transported like that for a picnic. So it’s a very handy recipe to have up your sleeve for cooking on holiday or when you have unexpected guests for tea.

Enough chat: here’s how to make 8 portions of chocolate happiness.

100g dark chocolate
100g unsalted butter
2 eggs
150g caster sugar
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
100g plain flour (or 70/30 flour and ground almonds)
whipped cream to serve

Break up the chocolate and put in a heatproof bowl over a pan of just simmering water, with the unsalted butter cut into cubes. Allow them to melt together then stir and take off the heat as soon as the mixture is smooth. Leave to cool – Boxer says for an hour, but I’ve never been organised enough to leave it for that long, and it has always worked fine.

Set the oven to heat to 175 C/Gas Mark 4. Grease and line the base of an 18cm cake tin or similar. Beat the eggs in a bowl and beat in the sugar, salt and vanilla extract (if using – Boxer doesn’t). Stir in the melted chocolate mixture, then fold in the flour lightly but thoroughly. If you want to gild the lily, and you have some ground almonds, then you can use a mixture of flour and almonds, which makes it a little more dense and moist.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and spread evenly. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed, and is starting to come away from the sides. If you test it, the centre should still be moist.

Leave to cool in the tin. Serve in slices or squares with whipped cream, and berries if you wish. If you want to serve a chocolate cake for dessert, I think Lucy Boyd’s Chocolate and Almond Cake is a better candidate, whereas this is the perfect chocolate cake for morning coffee or afternoon tea.

 

Greengage and Almond Cake

This cake was inspired by some lovely greengages we found in a greengrocer in Totnes, near where we are staying on holiday. There weren’t quite enough to simply poach them, and I didn’t have a tart tin or any plain flour, so a greengage frangipane tart was out.  What I made instead was a Victoria sponge with half the flour replaced with ground almonds, flavoured with the grated zest of an orange and the greengages arranged on top as if it were a tart.

The result was a moist light sponge crowned with juicy greengages – it was delicious served for dessert with whipped cream, and I am looking forward to another slice with our coffee tomorrow morning.

I used a tip I saw in a recipe for the French quartre quarts cake, which is to put a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven. The resulting steamy atmosphere is said to make the cake particularly light – and on the evidence of this cake I will be doing it again. Sometimes the constraints of a holiday home kitchen, without all one’s usual ingredients and equipment, can lead to happy discoveries!

100g butter
100g caster sugar
2 large eggs
70g ground almonds
70g self-raising flour
Grated zest of an orange
8 greengages

Take the butter and eggs out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before you start cooking so they can come to room temperature. My eggs weighed 70g each – if yours are a different size simply adjust the other quantities accordingly.

Grease and line the base of a 18 cm sponge tin. Preheat the oven to 170ºC Fan/190ºC, with a baking tin half full of hot water in it (this is not advisable, or necessary, in a gas oven). Wash the greengages, take out the stones and cut them into quarters.

9A8040B1-78B8-47AC-B638-E1B26C6337EE
Greengage and almond cake ready to go in the oven

Cream the butter with a wooden spoon, add the sugar and beat until light and pale. Beat in the eggs one at a time, with a good scoop of flour, until well blended. Fold in the remaining flour, the ground almonds and orange zest. You can of course do all of this in the mixer if you are at home – or in a particularly well-equipped holiday cottage. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the greengages in a circular pattern on top.

Greengage and almond cake
Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown, and the sponge springs back when lightly pressed. Leave to cool in the tin. Serve just warm with whipped cream. A glass of orange muscat dessert wine would go very well, too.