Green Chilli Apple Crumble Pie

Green Chilli Apple Crumble Pie

Wotchers!

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I tend to get side-tracked a lot when browsing the internet, and the inspiration for this week’s recipe is the result of just such a wandering.

Apple and cheese is a classic combination, and together with some smoked ham is one of my favourite toasted sandwiches. But that’s another story. In Yorkshire, it is traditional for Wensleydale cheese to be served alongside slices of apple pie, and a saying dating back over 250 years tells us

‘An apple pie without the cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze.’

An alternative to serving cheese alongside, is to bake it into the pastry, where it rounds out the flavour of the apple deliciously, without being obvious.

The recipe today pushes this a little bit further by adding green chillies to the apple mixture, and is an adaptation of one served at Chile Pies and Ice Cream, in San Francisco.

Although I found several versions of the pie online, after baking it as per the original, I decided that it needed tinkering with (sorry Chile Pies and Ice Cream!) and the results are below. I was unable to find the roasted chillies specified in the original recipe (Confession: I didn’t even look), so I went with fresh chillies and de-seeded them, which I found gave a real freshness and just enough of a hint of heat without swamping everything. Adding the zest of the lemon as well as the juice really brings out the apple flavour and I’ve reduced the amount of spices, which I found too strong in the original. Even with almost double the original amount of cheese in the pastry, the flavour is not too much, so if you want to go really cheesy, maybe add some grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, and as always, the dry mustard powder really rounds out the flavour. The walnuts in the crumble tended to burn very easily, so I swapped them for oats which I love for their nutty crunchiness.

Bramley Apples are fabulous for this recipe. For anyone who is unlucky enough not to be familiar with them, they are a specialist cooking apple grown in the UK. When cooked, they hold their shape until touched, whereupon the apple pieces dissolve into a froth of apple snow, literally melting in the mouth (if that is possible with hot food). If you’re unable to find any Bramley Apples, use a sharp dessert apple such as Braeburn, which will hold its shape and not release too much juice – which means you might want to reduce/omit the cornflour in the filling. Also, reduce the oven temperature to 180°C, 160°C Fan and cook a little longer.

Green Chilli Apple Crumble Pie

Pastry
50g lard
50g unsalted butter
80g strong, tasty cheddar
200g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
ice water to mix

Filling
35g brown sugar
100g caster sugar
30g cornflour
¼ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
zest & juice of ½ a lemon
2 Bramley Apples
2 green chillis

Crumble
20g butter
20g lard
20g light Muscovado sugar
60g plain flour
Pinch of salt
40g steel rolled oats

  • Cheese Pastry
    • Put the lard, butter and flour into a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
    • Roughly chop the cheese and add to the mixture.
    • Pulse 3 or 4 times to break up the cheese.
    • Slowly add the ice water, one tablespoon at a time, until the mixture comes together in a ball.
    • Tip out the pastry and knead a few times until smooth.
    • Wrap in plastic and place in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.
    • After 30 minutes, remove from the fridge and roll out to about 5mm.
    • Grease two 20cm loose-bottomed tart tins and line with the pastry. Alternatively, make individual tarts.
  • Filling
    • Mix the sugars, cornflour and spices in a bowl and set aside.
    • Grate in the lemon zest and stir.
    • Peel and de-seed the chillis and chop finely.
    • Peel, core and chop the apples into small slices.
    • Put the chopped apples into a bowl and toss in the lemon juice.
    • Scatter over the chillis.
    • Sprinkle the sugar and spice mixture over the apples and chillis and stir gently to combine.
    • Divide the filling between the tarts.
  • Crumble
    • Put the butter, lard, sugar and flour into a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
    • Tip the mixture into a bowl and stir in the oats.
    • Sprinkle over the apple fillings.
  • To Bake
    • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180ºC Fan.
    • Put the tart tins onto a baking sheet, preferably one with a raised edge, as there might be some overflowing of juices.
    • Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the baking sheet around 180 degrees and bake for a further 15-20 minutes. For individual tarts, begin baking the same way, but cook for just 10 minutes after turning the baking sheet.
    • Cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the tins and cool on a wire rack.
  • Serve warm with pouring cream

Trimmings Tart

Trimmings Tart

Wotchers!

Right off the bat I’m going to admit that this is not an original recipe, but it IS one of my absolute favourite Christmas dishes. In fact, I like it so much, I make it even when it isn’t Christmas – it makes a fab meal all by itself, especially when served alongside some crunchy stuffing! My (English as opposed to Dutch) sister-in-law made it years ago and I managed to pry the recipe out of her clutches long enough to make a copy – The Precious! It’s from an old Prima magazine, and I’m sharing it today as a suggestion to making your Christmas that little bit easier and a whole lot tastier.

To my mind, one of the best things about the traditional Christmas turkey meal isn’t the bird itself, it’s all the trimmings that go with it: bacon rolls, chipolata sausages, stuffing, chestnuts, cranberries, etc. However, on probably the most stressful day of the year foodwise, you don’t really want to be juggling all these itty-bitty bits on top of everything else, so here’s a fabulous and delicious solution: Trimmings Tart. All the traditional Christmas trimmings gathered together in a kind of savoury Tarte Tatin, with a balsamic caramel glaze and topped with crumbly, buttery, walnut pastry.

Make it ahead of time and all it requires on the day is 20-25 minutes to cook the pastry and heat the filling – you could do that while the turkey was resting. Turn onto a plate to serve and cover any crumbly edges with rosemary sprigs – it’s what I did! When I turned the tart out this morning, I forgot to loosen the pastry from the edge of the pan (not that the original recipe tells you to do that!), and so it didn’t all come out smoothly. I’ve got to be honest, I actually toyed with the idea of dashing to the supermarket at 10am and buying more ingredients to make another one. But then I thought: No, hang on  – what it this was Christmas Day? No shops open to fall back on, so some improvisation would be in order. And let’s be honest here, it’s going to be on the table for all of five minutes before people are ripping into it like a monkey on a cupcake, so no need to agonise over presentation too much. The original serving suggestion does actually include sprigs of rosemary, admittedly not quite as many as I used, but I think they make it look very Christmas-wreathy.

The glaze is dark due to the balsamic vinegar, but I quite like that as it makes the red of the cranberries really pop. Feel free to use white balsamic if you can get it, or a mild wine vinegar to lighten things up. Use any mushrooms you like, but chestnut mushrooms won’t have lots of black juice oozing out, and will keep their texture. Fresh chestnuts are wonderful and give great texture to the forcemeat, but a little time-consuming to peel and cook. If you know you won’t be using them in anything else, you could buy them ready-prepared. Try and get good quality, lean bacon for the bacon rolls – otherwise there’s more faffing about trimming off the excess fat. Extra cranberries can be made into sauce with just a little sugar and water. Don’t roll your pastry too thin – there’s a hefty number of ingredients to support once the tart is turned out. This quantity makes just about a perfect amount of pastry for a 24cm tart.

Trimmings Tart

Walnut Pastry
225g plain flour
112g butter
60g walnuts
1 large egg yolk
water

Forcemeat
30g butter
1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
85g lean smoked bacon
85g chestnut mushrooms
85g smooth liver pate
60g fresh breadcrumbs
1tbs fresh thyme
1tbs snipped fresh chives
85g cooked, peeled chestnuts

To finish
16 round shallots
30g butter
1tbs vegetable oil
3tbs light muscovado sugar
2tbs balsamic vinegar
4tbs water
16 rashers of rindless smoked bacon
16 chipolata sausages
A handful of fresh cranberries
rosemary to garnish

  • Put the flour, butter, walnuts and egg yolk into a food processor and blitz. Depending on the moisture in the flour and butter, the yolk might be enough to bind it together. If not, use 1-2 tbs cold water until it comes together in a ball.
  • Knead the dough smooth, then cover in plastic and chill in the fridge.
  • Peel the onion and garlic and chop them finely in a food processor.
  • Melt the butter in a pan and cook the onions and garlic until softened.
  • Chop the bacon in the food processor, then add to the pan and cook for a few minutes.
  • Chop the mushrooms in the food processor, then add to the pan and cook for a few minutes to release the moisture.
  • When the mixture seems dry, tip it into a mixing bowl
  • Add the breadcrumbs, pate, chopped chestnuts and herbs and mix thoroughly.
  • Make the mixture up into balls using a tablespoon or a small ice-cream scoop to measure.
  • Pour boiling water over the shallots and leave for 2 minutes. This makes them easier to peel.
  • Peel the shallots and cook in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain. Dry.
  • Roll the bacon up and secure with cocktail sticks.
  • Grill the sausages and bacon rolls.
  • Heat the butter and oil in a pan and gently fry the shallots until golden. NB This should be the pan you will use to bake the tart, so make sure it has an oven-proof handle or one that can be removed. Alternatively, when the shallots are cooked, tip them and the glaze into a cake/tart tin.
  • Add the sugar, balsamic and water to make the glaze and cook for a further 5 minutes until the liquid has reduced and thickened. Remove from the heat.
  • Arrange the forcemeat balls, bacon rolls and sausages in the pan with the shallots.
  • Add the cranberries to fill any gaps.  Allow the filling to cool.

NB If you’re making the tart ahead of time, then stop here. Cover the filling with clingfilm and keep in the fridge until required.

To bake and serve:

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Roll out the chilled pastry until just large enough to cover the filling.
  • Lay the pastry over the filling and tuck round the sides.
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes until the pastry is crisp and golden.
  • Set the cooked tart aside for 10 minutes to cool slightly.
  • Run a knife round the edge of the pastry to make sure it isn’t stuck to the pan.
  • Place a plate over the pastry and carefully flip the pan over to turn out the tart.
  • Gently lift the pan off, checking that none of the filling has stuck. If it has, use a slice to ease it from the pan and place it neatly back into its place on the tart.
  • Cover up any pastry/filling disasters Garnish the tart with sprigs of rosemary.

Magic Porridge

Blackcurrant Magic Porridge and Strawberry/Rhubarb Magic Porridge

Wotchers!

A couple of weeks ago when I was overcome with indecision over what my next blog post might be, I turned to Twitter for suggestions, and this ultimately led to the post about Japanese Cotton-soft Cheesecake, as it seemed to satisfy a number of requests. However there were a couple of requests that weren’t helped by that post, and they were for something to help with rhubarb glut, and one from a Mum who wanted to make something with her son who was unable to eat eggs. I felt bad about disappointing these two people, but hopefully this post will go some way to set things to rights.

At various times recently, I’ve made a decision to try and rehabilitate some dish from my past which the mere thought of induces shudders of horror e.g. Ratatouille, and this week it’s the turn of semolina pudding. Still to be tackled is traditional porridge *shudder* <— see?

Semolina pudding was a staple of school lunches in the ’70s, usually served hot with a blob of sweet red (unidentifiable flavour-wise beyond colour) jelly-jam. The method of consumption was usually either to swirl the jam into the hot semolina for a ripple of pink sweetness throughout the bowl, or to save it for one decadent rewarding mouthful after having eaten all of the surrounding hot pudding. Semolina was comfort food. Stick-to-your-ribs filling. Quickly prepared and fantastically economical. And, to me at least, incredibly dull.

Traditionally in the UK, semolina pudding is made by heating milk in a saucepan, sprinkling over dry semolina and stirring it in until thickened (about 10 minutes) then adding sugar and cinnamon. A richer form might have eggs and/or butter whisked in, then be baked in a buttered dish in the oven for a further 30-40 minutes. Still very dull, though.

Until, that is, I spotted this recipe. It’s definitely a Baltic recipe, being most popular in Estonia, Finland and Sweden, and there are also versions scattered through Europe and Russia. It can be eaten hot or cold, in winter or summer, for breakfast or for pudding. Traditionally made with any tart fruit juice, it is known as klappgröt (folded porridge), vispgröt (whipped porridge) or trollgröt (magic porridge) in Swedish, also vispipuuro (Finnish name) or mannavaht (Estonian name). So of course of all of these names, I chose Magic Porridge – who wouldn’t want to eat something with the word ‘Magic’ in its name? Think of the delicious summer breakfasts, packed with fresh berries, that can be snuck (yes of course it’s a word!) into children under such a tempting title!

In a nutshell, cook 30g of semolina in about 400ml of tart fruit puree/juice with a little sugar, then when it is cold, whip it to a froth with electric beaters or a stand mixer. As the air is beaten into the mixture, the colour will lighten and the texture become, whilst not exactly mousse-like, then certainly like a thick fruit fool – but with no dairy! The rhubarb and strawberry was delicious, but I thought the blackcurrant version sublime. It would seem that the tart-er the fruit, the better it contrasts and cuts through the semolina’s more dense texture.

Left overnight, in the fridge, the mixture will settle and thicken up, but can quickly and easily be re-whipped into a lighter texture when required

 I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to successfully rehabilitate traditional porridge (*more shuddering in horror*), but in terms of semolina pudding, Magic Porridge has certainly done the trick!

Magic Porridge

250g sharp-tasting fruit, fresh or frozen [1]
sugar to taste
30g dry semolina
water

  • Put the fruit and four tablespoons of water into a saucepan over a very low heat.
  • Cover and let simmer for 10 minutes until the juice is flowing and the fruit is soft.
  • Mash to a puree or use a stick blender.
  • Sweeten to taste. It’s best left on the sharp side. For children, a little extra can be added when it’s served for both sweetness and crunch.
  • Measure the puree. Add water to make a total of 400ml.
  • Return to the pan and heat through.
  • Sprinkle in the dry semolina and stir.
  • Continue cooking over a low heat, stirring to prevent it catching on the pan bottom, for 15 minutes or until the mixture has thickened and the semolina grains have softened.
  • Pour into a bowl and cover with cling film to prevent a skin forming.
  • When cold, whip the mixture into a light froth using either a stand mixture or an electric whisk.
  • Serve with extra puree, sugar, milk or cream if liked.

[1] I used blackcurrants for one batch and then a mixture of rhubarb and strawberries in the other.


Luxury Mince Pies

Mince Pies

Wotchers!

Just to complete the hat-trick, now that you’ve made your Candied Peel and used it to rustle up some Guilt-Free Mincemeat, it’s time to bake some Mince Pies! Of course, you can use a jar of your favourite brand too – it’s all good – just don’t BUY mince pies! They’re never as good as home made.

Now to my mind, mince pies come in two sizes. There’s the small, Christmas party/buffet size – gone in a couple of bites, no need for a plate, more of an appetiser/nibble. One of the down-sides of this size of mince pie, however, is the danger of not rolling the pastry thin enough, resulting in thick, claggy pastry forming the greater part of the pie. Due in part to the difficulty in making such small pies and also to eliminate the danger of the filling bursting out, there’s a tendency to err too much on the side of caution, and consequently they frequently contain just a miniscule amount of mincemeat inside.

Then there’s the mince pie made in a bun tin, which is much more my kind of pie – larger, more substantial, easier to shape, fill and decorate. As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really have a sweet tooth – but Christmas isn’t Christmas without a mince pie, so I like to eat just one, but make it an extra special one.

Many moons ago, I found a recipe by Jocelyn Dimbleby for Deluxe Mince Pies – it was in a little paperback book entitled Cooking For Christmas that I borrowed from a friend. This decadent confection had a short, orange-flavoured pastry and topped the mincemeat with a tiny amount of sweetened cream cheese – so that when the pie was cooked ( or indeed warmed just prior to serving), the cheese-cake-like mixture melted and mingled with the rich mincemeat to make a very indulgent mouthful. I thought they were amazing.

I’ve since managed to track down a copy for myself *vaguely scans the bookshelves* – OK, so I’m not 100% sure where exactly my copy IS at the moment, but I do have a copy somewhere! It must be popular, because it’s also ‘out there’ on various web pages if you search.

ANYHOO – I was eager to see how the Guilt-Free Mincemeat performed in my favourite mince pie recipe, so I rustled up some test pies with great anticipation. Alas, I was disappointed. The pastry was frustratingly difficult to work with, and when cooked, was overly sweet, too greasy  and very fragile – too fragile to hold the shape of the pies.

Maybe it’s my own tastes that have changed, but I was still convinced that the mince pies could be amazing if only the pastry could be improved. So I headed to the kitchen to experiment and finally came up with the recipe below. You might think it a bit of a faff to bother tweaking pastry, but I really wanted the WHOLE mince pie to be delicious to eat, and not just the filling. The bonus is that, now I have a great sweet shortcrust variation, I shall be using this pastry again in other sweet bakes. For those interested in the reasoning behind the ingredient choices I made:

Butter: For flavour – 50% of the fat content. All-butter pastry tastes great, but it is extremely rich and very delicate once cooked.
Lard: 50% of the fat content. All-lard pastry is very hard and crusty and sometimes has something of an aftertaste, but tempered with the butter, makes for a deliciously crisp crust that holds its shape well.
Another reason for using the pure fats listed above, is ease of removal from the tins. I’ve used pastry made with hydrogenated oils and blended fats and been plagued with having bakes stick to the tins. They never have when I’ve used ‘pure’ fats. Just sayin’……
Sugar: For sweetness – although it’s a good deal less than in traditional sweet shortcrust.
Almonds: For crunch and crispness. They lighten the pastry and help keep it crisp.
Orange zest and juice: Makes for a lovely orange flavour to the pastry that really compliments the citrus in the mincemeat. I’ve opted to use orange juice as the sole liquid to bring the pastry together.

I also reduced the amount of sugar and added lemon juice to the cream cheese mixture to bring out the flavour of the mincemeat. It’s amazing how a little bit of lemon can lift the flavour of a whole dish. Feel free to omit the cream cheese topping – the mince pies will still be awesome! 😀

Luxury Mince Pies

Makes 12 deep and decadent mince pies (plus 3-4 small ‘cooks perks’ pies) 😉

Orange and Almond Shortcrust pastry
200g plain flour
50g unsalted butter
50g lard
50g caster sugar
50g ground almonds [1]
juice and zest of 1-2 oranges [2]

500g of mincemeat (or 1 batch of Guilt-Free Mincemeat)

Cream Cheese Luxury Topping (optional)
200g cream cheese
zest and juice of 1 lemon
icing sugar

milk & caster sugar to glaze

  • Put the flour into a food processor fitted with a blade.
  • Cut the fats into 1cm cubes and add to the food processor.
  • Blitz until mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Add the sugar and ground almonds and pulse a couple of times to mix.
  • Add the zest of both oranges and the juice of one and run the mixer to combine. I the mixture doesn’t come together into a ball by itself, squeeze the juice from the second orange and add gradually, pausing between each addition, until the mix comes together.
  • Wrap the ball of dough in plastic and chill for at least 30 minutes.
  • Make the cream cheese topping (if using)
    • Beat the cream cheese in a bowl or using a mixer until smooth.
    • Add the zest of the lemon.
    • Add half the lemon juice and mix until combined. You don’t want the mix to get either too sharp or too runny.
    • Sweeten to taste with icing sugar. Don’t add too much – 2-3 heaped tablespoons is plenty. Just enough to take the edge off the lemon flavour without making it too sweet.
  • When the pastry is suitably chilled, remove from the fridge, cut it in two and return half to the fridge. Why? It’s much easier to work with a smaller piece of pastry than a larger. You want to be able to roll this pastry nice and thin, but if you’re flinging around a huge sheet of the stuff, there’s going to be tears (and you can read that two ways!).
  • Roll the pastry thinly (3mm-ish) and cut out the bases of your pies. Make the circles of pastry large enough to fill the whole base of the tin and overlap the rim by about 1cm. Make sure your tin is well greased and lay in the pastry circles. NB Be careful not to accidentally push holes in the pastry when you’re easing it into the tins. Re-roll the trimmings if required.
  • Put 1tbs of mincemeat filling into each pie and pressdown.
  • Spoon 1tsp cream cheese topping onto the mincemeat.
  • Put the tray of pies into the fridge while you roll out the rest of the pastry and cut the lids. Make sure the lids are large enough to overlap the holes by about 1cm.
  • Wet the edges of the lids and press them onto the pies. Make sure the edges are well sealed by pressing firmly. You can make pretty crimping patterns by using the tines of a fork, but I like to make a nice, neat plain edge by using a plain, round cutter once the lids are on and in the tin (which is why the bases and lids need to be cut on the large side). As well as making the pies nice and neat, it seals the lids onto the pastry bases and helps prevent the filling from oozing out.
  • Brush the tops with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar. The milk will brown the pastry and the sugar will melt and form a lovely crunchy top layer.
  • Cut a small slit in the top to let out steam.
  • Bake in a hot oven – 200°C, 180°C Fan – for 15-18 minutes until golden brown.
  • Gently tip out of the tin and set to cool on a wire rack.
  • Best served warm.

Cost: Pastry only £1.50 (using ground almonds & 2 oranges, December 2011)

[1] If you want to make this pastry nut-free, then just omit the ground almonds. It’ll not have the same crunch, but still be an improvement on plain shortcrust.

[2] This vagueness is due to the juiciness of the oranges and the water content of the flour – two oranges should definitely be juicy enough though.


Coconut Gingerbread Cakes

Coconut Gingerbread Cakes

Wotchers!

Gingerbread is such a classic teatime treat – and I’m a huge fan of classics! – it’s just that I don’t usually feel very inspired when I hear the word ‘gingerbread’. I think of a treacle-dark cake, rich, sticky and aromatic with ginger – sounds yum, no? – but the main thing that springs to mind is….a brick slab!

It probably goes back to the large, family bakes of my childhood, where the cake-of-the-week was kept wrapped in foil in a tin and slowly chiseled away at during the week until it was all gone. There wouldn’t be another cake until this cake had been eaten, and it used to lurk in the tin in all its brickiness, standing between me and… any other baked treat. The chances were high that it would eventually be replaced with something equally heavy and fruity – but that new cake’s attraction would be, initially at any rate, mostly due to the fact that it wasn’t the gingerbread.

The image of heaviness and brick-like shape has lurked in my culinary memory ever since – which is a shame because what it SHOULD bring to mind is crisp winter nights, spiciness and fireworks, treacle-richness and bonfires. So I thought I should try and rehabilitate it, and bring it up to date. Ironically, I achieved this by referring to a recipe over 165 years old, from Miss Eliza Acton.

Heroines of Cooking: Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Acton (1799 – 1859)

Originally a poet, Eliza Acton is considered by many to be the first to write a cookery book as we would recognise it today. Her Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) was the first to separate a list of ingredients from the methodology, and was aimed specifically at small households. Additionally, the author’s observations on potential problems and recommendations for subtle variations were included, illustrating Eliza’s personal experience with the recipes, unlike many of her contemporaries and cookery authors that were to follow. It was an immediate success and remained in print for almost 60 years. She was to write only one other book The English Bread Book (1857), in which her strong views against the adulteration and processing of food would still be being echoed by Doris Grant almost a century later.

After several experimental baking batches, here is Eliza’s recipe for Coconut Gingerbread Cakes, scaled down to a manageable quantity. Baked in a mini muffin tin, the recipe makes approximately 24 bite -sized cakes with all the dark richness of traditional gingerbread, with the added coconut giving both a lighter texture and more complex flavour. Fresh coconut is a little time consuming to prepare, but very much worth the effort.

Coconut Gingerbread Cakes – Makes 24

75g plain flour
75g ground rice
2 tsp ground ginger
grated rind of 1 lemon
110g treacle
40g butter
40g dark brown soft sugar
80g fresh grated coconut

  • Mix flour, ground rice, ginger and lemon rind in a bowl and set aside.
  • Put the treacle, sugar and butter into a saucepan and heat gently until the butter is melted and the sugar dissolved. Remove from the heat.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the warm treacle mixture and stir to combined. Stir in the coconut and then set mixture aside to cool.
  • Heat oven to 120°C, 100°C Fan.
  • Divide cooled mixture into 20g pieces, roll into a ball and drop into greased mini-muffin cups.
  • Bake for 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
  • Keeps very well in an airtight box/tin.

Cost: £1.37 (August 2011)


Ratatouille



Ratatouille

Wotchers!

Ahh ratatouille – back in the ’80s it sounded so exotic and foreign and glamourous! – Hey, I come from a small, rural town near the Welsh borders – we had to get our glamour where we could.

Back to the reminiscing….

Unfortunately, what sounded so appetising rarely lived up to expectation and for years the mere mention of the word would bring up memories of a soggy vegetable stew of bitter lumps of aubergine cotton wool and courgette mush with indigestion-inducing semi-raw peppers in watery tomato juice. So a few years ago, I got to thinking that I might give it another try and see if I couldn’t make something that might banish the horrors of yesteryear – after all, I loved all the individual components, so I reasoned that it shouldn’t be that difficult to combine them into a delicious whole.

The first book I turned to was the fabulous European Peasant Cookery by Elisabeth Luard. She notes that, as with many traditional dishes, there are almost as many variations as there are households that prepare it, each with its own justification as to why their version is the best. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of this southern French classic are pretty straightforward: using only those vegetables that can be found at their best in the gardens of Provence will do. Also, the dish should not be a stew, rather a marriage of cooked vegetables. The theory sounded good, but her recipe seemed to lack something, and so I turned to the recipe of another favourite cook, one relatively unknown in the UK – Madeleine Kamman. Madame Kamman has enjoyed most of her professional success in the United States, but she was born, and learned her craft, in France. Her recipe is the one that I have followed most closely, the only alterations being to reduce the quantity made to a manageable amount, so the wary might not be put off with having to prepare mountains of vegetables.

The dish is a wonderful riot of summer colours – reds, greens, yellows and neutrals – each colour represented by two different vegetables:

  • Reds: red capsicum peppers and tomatoes
  • Greens: green capsicum peppers and green courgettes
  • Yellows: yellow capsicum peppers and yellow courgettes
  • Neutrals: onions and aubergines

Each ingredient is prepared separately and the dish only comes together at the end. Once prepared, the vegetables can sit quite happily in the fridge if time constraints don’t allow you to prepare all the vegetables at the same time. This is a dish to be enjoyed on lazy summer days but the preparation should also be relaxing. For a start I sit down, switch on Radio 4 Extra (comedy and drama) and get so absorbed in listening that before I know it, the vegetables are all done. Find something that you enjoy listening to as well and the time will just fly by. Some of the instructions might seem a bit fussy, but the effort is well worth it, I assure you. The flavors are amazing.

The aim is to get the vegetables all of a similar size and their textures as close to each other as possible, which is why each vegetable needs its own degree of cooking time, and how you (hopefully) avoid the cotton wool/chewy/mush combo that haunted my dreams for so many years.

This will happily keep in the fridge for several days. If I have a free afternoon – because more vegetables WILL mean longer prep time – I will make a triple batch and enjoy several days of meals consisting solely of a bowl of ratatouille and a hunk of crusty bread. It’s that good.

Ratatouille

1 large aubergine
salt
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 yellow pepper
2 green courgettes
2 yellow courgettes
6 large plum tomatoes – vine-ripened for preference
1 large onion
4 tbs olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
salt & pepper

Equipment
sharp knife
chopping board
sieve
plastic bowls
wooden spoon
deep, heavy pan

  • Prepare the aubergines. Peel the aubergines and cut into 2cm slices. Cut the slices into 2cm cubes. Put cubes into a sieve and scatter with 1-2tbs salt. Toss to ensure even coating. Leave to stand for 30 minutes to draw out the excess moisture. Discard liquid. Rinse and dry the aubergine pieces. Set aside.
  • Prepare the peppers by removing the skin and the seeds. To skin the peppers, char them over a gas flame until blackened, then pop into a plastic bag and seal by twisting the neck of the bag around and tucking it underneath. After about 30 minutes, you can then slip the skins off quite easily. You can char the peppers one at a time, but I can quite easily fit three peppers at once around one of the gas burners on my stove top. No need to hold them on the end of a fork or anything – put them directly onto the flame and turn them around as they blacken. This is a little time consuming, but by far the best method – and believe me, I have tried them all. Putting the peppers under a grill or in the oven makes the peppers too soft once they have steamed in the plastic bag, and my blowtorch isn’t large enough to get a nice, black char without having to be refilled. NB Don’t rinse the peeled peppers, as you will wash away that lovely smoky flavour. Discard skin and seeds. Cut peppers into 2cm squares and set aside.
  • Prepare the tomatoes. Using a sharp knife, cut out the hard core of the tomatoes, then cut a small cross in the skin at the base of each. Put tomatoes into a bowl and pour over boiling water. The heat will cause the tomatoes to swell slightly, and thanks to the cuts made, the skin will start to split. Drain the tomatoes by pouring the contents of the bowl onto a sieve over the sink. Place the sieve over the now empty bowl and slip off the tomato skins. With a sharp knife, cut the tomatoes in half horizontally around their middle and press out all of the seeds so that they fall into the sieve. Put the flesh of the tomatoes on one side. When all of the seeds have been removed, cut the flesh of the tomatoes into 2cm squares. Set aside.
  • Using a wooden spoon, press the juice from the seeds collected in the sieve into the bowl below. Depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes, this might be quite a lot of liquid. Set aside.
  • Prepare the onion. Peel onion and chop into 2cm pieces. Set aside.
  • Prepare the courgettes. Slice into 2cm slices. If larger that 4cm in diameter, quarter the slices. Set aside.
  • Prepare the garlic. Peel garlic and chop finely with a knife. Set aside.
  • Prepare the parsley. Remove parsley leaves from stalks. Set aside.

With all the preparation done, now it’s time to cook the vegetables

  • Pour 2tbs olive oil into a deep, heavy pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and fry until golden brown, stirring. Add the parsley – it will crackle and spit – then add the chopped onions. Keep the onions stirred until they are translucent and softened – about 10 minutes. Empty the pan into a bowl and set aside.
  • Add the remainder of the olive oil and, when heated, toss in the aubergine. The aubergine will suck up the oil – but don’t be tempted to add more oil. Keep moving the aubergine pieces around the pan and then, when they have begun to brown and caramelise, they will eventually release the oil they absorbed.
  • Add the chopped courgette – green and yellow – and continue to stir them around for a few minutes, until slightly softened.
  • Return the onion mixture to the pan, and finally add in the prepared tomatoes and peppers and turn the heat down to low.
  • Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and turn the vegetables together gently. Too rough, and the vegetables will start to break apart.
  • Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain out any juices. Add these to the tomato juice from earlier and pour this liquid into a small saucepan over a high heat. Boil rapidly until thickened and reduced to 1/3 of its original volume. Pour back over the softened vegetables and stir gently to combine. There should be just enough liquid to coat.
  • Cover and leave overnight to let the flavours develop. A cool place will do, otherwise place in the fridge. Make sure the dish is returned to room temperature before serving.

Serving suggestion: This can be eaten as an accompaniment to a light main dish – omelettes/ham/cheese/quiche – but my favourite is just to eat it by itself. Served at room temperature with some warm, crusty bread or wholemeal toast – the contrast of the dry crunch with the plump and softened vegetables is amazing.

Cost: About £5.00 using vegetables from the local farm shop (July, 2011)


First Post!

Wotchers!

Welcome to my food blog.

I’m hoping to share some awesome recipes, handy hints and tips and delicious menu ideas that I use on a regular basis in cooking for my family and friends.

I love a bargain, and feeding my family for pence rather than pounds is always a challenge – so there will be tasty morsels that don’t break the budget, as well as suggestions of what to do with those odd items you pick up because they were on special.

A key part of this budget-busting approach will be some great ideas for what to do with Déjà Food (aka leftovers) – I prefer to think of them as advance preparation for the next meal, rather than remnants of a previous one – and if half my ingredients are already prepared, then its going to be less work for me to do. Win!

I’m a huge fan of traditional recipes, especially from the British Isles, and believe we could do a lot worse than look to recipes from times gone by for delicious inspiration. Maybe even revive a long-lost dish for enjoyment today!

Along the way, I’d like to introduce you to some of the many (nowadays) unsung heroines (and occasional heroes) of cooking that have inspired me, and share some of their amazing recipes with you.