The great Saturday clear out

The kitchen was a disaster zone, what with re-painting and stuff going on all around. Food planning as you have seen, had fallen off the radar, with meals out, and too often taken on the run. So a look in the ‘fridge revealed any amount of ‘left-overs’ that needed attention and a couple of hours of serious food bashing.
First the chicken left overs: very substantial and a valuable carcass. So, meat stripped and back in the ‘fridge the carcass goes in the stew pot with the ends of leeks, some garlic, a diced chunk of the lurking celeriac, carrots, a nub end of fennel that has been making chunky salads, and a handful of fresh and dried herbs. Now, I’m thinking, if I can just get enough stock for a big vegetable soup and a risotto … Oh, and the French beans, I stick half in a sieve to steam over the stock, ready for a salad: forward planning or what.
There are two approaches I think to veg soup – the refined ‘cream of’ variety, and I had plenty of carrots say to do carrot and coriander, or the chunky, stand up your spoon version, like a minestrone, with or without pasta. I had so many bits and bobs of veg that I decided on the latter.
So I started chopping for sweating leeks, carrots, onion, mushrooms, bits of sundry peppers; then dicing potato, celeriac; shredding some red baggage, and top/tailing the rest of the French beans. Everything in little boxes ready for the stock. Then veg to sweat, added stock and cook a bit more, then add the ‘boiling’ veg such as the potatoes which we don’t want to overcook, and finally the cabbage and beans. I beefed up the stock just a bit with a sprinkle of Marigold meaning I could leave out salt altogether, added lots of pepper and took off the heat the instant the vegetables were nearly cooked. Furthermore, I also plunged the pan into a sinkful of cold water, stirring every now and then to get the heat down as quickly as possible: this is soup for reheating, and we don’t want overcooked mush.
Now, whilst doing all that chopping I also prepped the risotto – the leeks, peppers and a bit of carrot just remained to be sweated off, some chorizo sliced and the rice added and the stirring commenced. I honestly believe that a good risotto simply means hard labour with almost constant stirring (though I use a wooden spatula to lift the rice from the pan, rather than a spoon which bashes it about too much). The home made hot stock works a treat and near the end I add the frozen peas, although baby frozen broad beans are great too, and a quite excessive amount of the left over chicken which has been diced into mouth bite bits. Finally butter, cheese and a five minute rest.
Of course I had sorted out all the other lurking things in the ‘fridge, so a chunky salad went on the table with the chicken dish, the forth in a row this week!


The Basque take on the chicken challenge

What’s with the menu planning this week, if it ain’t an ocean of fish, we get a farmyard of birds, and chickens anywhere we look to eat. This time though we’d left the meal to our host, naturally, of a delightful dinner that, as usual in her hands, managed to be serious scoff and wine without any of the social drawbacks of pompous, patronising guests or attempts at country house posh service. So, just great company and perfect food.
Starter – which vanished in a trice I noticed – was a decorous plate of salami, Parmesan and slow roasted tomatoes of unctuous sweetness and moorishness. It really was a little platter of such simplicity – although the tomatoes no doubt took hours of slow cooking – that got the taste buds slavering in anticipation and the food notes – all Mediterranean – should have given us a clue to the next course.
The one dish meal, in the ubiquitous Le Crueset (passim) – turned out to be Basque chicken. I don’t know the recipe, but it seemed like a chicken paella ie the rice was slow cooked in the pan in the oven, with brown long grain rice still with a bite and yet wonderfully moist from the sauce. The chicken had been carefully portioned – no bones I think judging from the other plates – and the whole cooked with chorizo, peppers, olives, tomatoes and whole segments of orange, complete with peel. I suspect the blessed Delia at work here.
Seconds for the greedy, then attempts to eat the Gorgonzola that went wonderfully with the wine, brought back from its chateau just a few weeks ago by other guests.
Real pudding – well a cake of such denseness and taste that a slice needed the fresh orange and grapefruit slices to meliorate its richness, and the blob of creme fraiche went down well too.
Perfect then on every count? You bet.

Tasty roast on the run then toast on the lap

Straight off the train and only time for a rushed late lunch. Him indoors had roasted a handsome fowl the night before that had full happiness – and potential flavour – credentials – organic, free range. Generous chunks went on some handy leaves and a shared box of M&S pasta salad grabbed at the station. Very nice too, but what was the hint of flavour on the bird I asked? Lime pickle apparently – a not too hot one, generously slathered over the bird with the usual oiling and seasoning.
So, unwittingly we had a revisit to the Nandos of the night before, but much better.
It was such a late lunch that supper was a slice and a half each of Welsh rarebit, not even any more salad: sometimes enough is enough. Apparently “The spelling “Welsh rarebit” is a humourless euphemism” seems odd to me!

Did my chicken die happy?

Another cross country travel, with the usual Great Western delays meaning a grabbed hot sandwich of unmentionable grossness. I was running an afternoon into evening meeting that included two muslims making their Ramadan fast, so 6.37 pm assumed some importance and everyone indulging in a sugar rush of M&S goodies. That still left me with the usual late night problem: what to eat this late in Luton?
Everyone said chicken at Nandos, and I have been pleasantly surprised there before. It does grilled chicken, sloshed in their own peri peri sauce that ranges from tasty to very hot. That’s pretty much it in various combos.
I chose a simple half chicken, medium sauce and two sides: that’s coleslaw and chips in everyday parlance. It took about 15 minutes and arrived piping hot and didn’t take long to eat. A bottle of Stormhoek Pinotage 2006 held its own against the flavour. And the whole bill around 20 quid. What’s not to like?
Well, my chicken’s life causes me a bit of concern. The website says all the birds are fresh, never frozen. That would suggest they haven’t come too far, so low food miles – though the whole of Europe is within range of a ‘fridge lorry. But what of their lifestyle? There’s absolutely no option to buy-up and choose a free range or even organic bird. And since Nandos make no claims, we must assume the worst: intensively farmed, very short lived birds. Not very happy ones.
So do I boycott Nandos for ever? Do we need to inspire a MacDonald’s like customer revolt? Maybe, but I’ve other battles on my plate. Wouldn’t it be better for Nandos to come clean and say: it’ll cost you £XX more to know your chicken had a happy life. Who wouldn’t want to pay?

Retro chicken hits the spot – 40 years on

It says that Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World was published in 1967, which is probably when I bought it. But he’d started writing in the Sunday Times before that and in those days (pre-Murdoch and its many rightward swings) I was an avid reader. So, it may have been even earlier when I made my first dish of chicken cacciatore, and it’s been recycled ever since, as basic a dish for chicken as doing a stir fry.
Of course it’s never the same every time you cook it, partly because you never mean to cook it: I mean, who would serve such a retro dish these days? Us of course.
I can’t check the great man’s recipe ‘cos it’s in a box of books whilst the conservatory is painted, but they all have the same thrust. Take large retro Le Creuset casserole (without handle type). Brown off the chicken – it can be a whole one in eight pieces, whole breasts, pieces eg chopped breast and thigh, any combination will do. As usual, don’t be tempted to use cheap and nasty for this, it’ll just be stringy and chewy, but a top of the range, corn fed organic is over the top, it’s subtlety will simply be lost. Set chicken aside. Then soften onion and an excess of garlic, adding red and green pepper, again slices, chunks, whatever. Add the chicken back into the pan and give a good glug of red wine, boil most off.
Now to tomatoes: some no doubt suggest the real thing but here it’s a waste of effort (considerable to peel the things) and you don’t get the taste. Napolina is the brand for my money, a bit more than the own brands (13p for a tin of tomatoes, who you kidding?) but a great taste. And you need tomato paste as well.
Somehow I always end up with more sauce than it needs, but don’t worry too much, any left over will make an instant pasta dish.
Now for flavouring: basil is a must, and lots of freshly chopped parsley. You can add chopped mushrooms, or a dash of mushroom ketchup. If you’ve used cheap tomatoes you may need a hint of sugar, and a glug of balsamic if the wine didn’t enrich enough. Lots of seasoning too. I am sure there’s a refined version of this to be had in Italy where each delicate flavour settles on the palate, but in 60’s Britain we needed impact, so go for it.
Finally, cook off in a medium oven: you want the chicken to be intensely flavoured and the sauce rich and reduced. Whether you add black olives before you put it in the oven, or 20 minutes from the end is a matter of taste again, as is stoned or not. I love the rich olive taste so it’s stones in, and straight in for me and watch the fillings.
What to eat with it? A mash of some sorts is great in the winter: potato and celeriac, creamed potato. For a Saturday lunch how about baked potato? Even chips: my first experience of casserole and chips was in a French restaurant in Stratford upon Avon circa 1966 and it quite blew me away.
Pasta if obvious is good, but something that’s going to catch the sauce, so shells or penne rather than long straight stuff. And us last night? Dietary steamed veg, cauliflower, tiny carrots and broccoli. Great.

Lip smacking leftovers

We noted earlier that the organic chicken hadn’t lived up to its potential when roasted. It needed a second chance. So yesterday it was stripped from the carcass and every bit of bone and skin went into the stockpot with carrots and onions, bay leaves (home dried), peppercorns and water. Forgotten about on a bubbling boil for a couple of hours it yielded some excellent stock.
Happy Dryw (the dog) got a carrot or two.
In the weekly shop there were four fresh sweetcorns, most surprisingly au naturel and not vacuum packed to within an inch of their lives. The corns were stripped (just use a large, very sharp knife to cut the kernels off the corn) into the stock. I added a couple of teaspoons of Marigold organic vegetable stock for colour and taste. Ten minutes of boiling and I thickened a little with two teaspoons (heaped) of cornflour stirred into half a big tub of yoghourt until smooth. (You could use cream or fromage frais but that diet thing …)
Into the bubbling soup with the chopped chicken – there was quite a lot – and a quick cook through. It needed quite a bit more seasoning.
The result, significantly better than the same dish made with just any old chicken and frozen sweetcorn (something we have done regularly). Goes to show, again, what goes in the pot in terms of quality, comes out.
Big bowls were followed by a small slice of Mediterranean vegetable tart (shop), with plenty in the fridge for later lunches. So, in the end, chicken did good.

Flat pack bread – the result

So proof of the pudding – in this case the bread – is in the eating. And the Ikea loaf in the box has passed with flying colours.
First this morning it made toast. Now any bread this substantial is going to make quite a slice and this was no exception, but it became crisp and chewy with a good bite. Not quite the long taste of a sourdough, but interesting enough and fine with peanut butter and home made lime marmalade – separately that is.
Tonight we had it with a selection of cheeses and it again was good – not overpowering, but interesting and moorish.
So, it does work. And I expect it to improve with age over the next few days – if it lasts that long….
The rest of supper was an organic chicken roasted with fresh herbs on a bed of thinly sliced fennel. Great taste, tough to eat. The roasted vegetables were refreshed with half a tin of tomatoes, and there were steamed red potatoes. Altogether good, if disappointing, expensive bird. The left overs had better be good.