Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bish Bash Bosh Braai

Our much loved friend from South Africa has been intermittently staying with us and so we thought "what better excuse to have a party?" The work on our garden, already delayed by a week or so, was due to be completed that day and so an al fresco evening appeared to be a super June idea. The gardeners' (Bish, Bash and Bosh) perceptions of deadlines were rather at odds with ours however and so they were power washing the patio and hastily packing up (only to return again - twice) as the first guests arrived. M was wiping down chairs, J was frantically lighting the braai whilst I was hoovering up detruis from dust sheets.

"Glass of wine anyone?" Hell yes.

The mozzarella and tomato canapes were out, the chicken had been marinating all day, J's lamb burgers were good to go and I had a made a petit pois and cheese quiche and a blueberry cake to boot (J's favourite fruit so I couldn't resist), so let the eating commence!

Tomato, Honey and Mustard Madness (a marinade for 1kg of chicken pieces)
8 (yes 8!) tbsp tomato ketchup (only Heinz will do)
4 tbsp clear honey
2 tbsp worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard

Mix everything together, season to taste and pour over the chicken pieces. Roll the chicken around with abandon and leave to marinade for as long as you dare.

(I have never heard so many "hmmmms" of pleasure elicited from a marinade. J's dictum that ketchup is the secret ingredient in the recipe of happiness is once more proven to be true).

Petit Pois and Crumbly Cheese Tart (requires a 23cm round, 4cm deep flan dish)
Easy pastry;
8oz plain flour, sifted
4oz chilled unsalted butter, diced
1/2 tsp salt
1 medium egg, beaten

Filling; (and yes, it is!)
3oz petit pois, either fresh or defrosted frozen peas
6oz crumbly cheese (e.g. Lancashire or Wendsleydale)
200ml tub creme fraiche
2 medium eggs
100ml milk
bunch of chives, chopped plus two whole chive leaves

For the pastry;
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas 6. Tip the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and whiz briefly. Add the egg and blitz until small clumps form. Remove, form into a ball and wrap in clingfilm. Chill in the fridge for at least 30mins.
Roll the pastry out on a floured surface to fit the flan dish. Prick the base and chill for another 30mins.
Bake the pastry case blind for 15mins (i.e. pop some foil and baking beans/rice into the dish). Remove the foil and beans and bake for a further 5mins. Cool slightly and reduce the oven to 190C/gas 5.

Scatter the peas over the pastry case and crumble the cheese on top. Whisk together the eggs, creme fraiche, milk, chopped chives and season. Pour over the peas and cheese and top with the remainding two chives (or more if you're feeling artistic). Bake for 30-35mins until the filling has puffed up and has a golden brown colour.

Blueberry and Almond Cake
(requires an 18-20cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin, greased and lined for ease of removal)
150g blueberries
125g self-raising flour
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g golden caster sugar
4 medium eggs, separated
1tsp almond extract
125g ground almonds
golf-sized ball of marzipan

Preheat oven to 180C.gas 4. Rinse the blueberries, pat dry and dredge in 1tsp of the flour.
Cream the butter and 175g of the sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks (as ever, alternating with a spoon of flour to avoid curdling) and the almond extract. Gently stir in the flour.
Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form and then gradually whisk in the remainding 25g sugar. Stir in the ground almonds.
Use a metal spoon to fold in a quarter of the whisked mixture into the creamed mixture then fold in the rest. Break the marzipan up and roll into little balls. Drop into the cake mixture and gently fold in. Spoon into the cake tin and level the surface.
Scatter the floured blueberries over the top and bake in the oven for approx 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre, emerges clean.
Leave to cool in the tin for 10 mins and then turn out.

Serve with cream and a smile.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Portobella Prawn Sandwich

It was hot, I had been walking all afternoon and I craved something meaty that I could eat with my hands and really get my teeth into. If I could eat bread and red meat, a toothsome burger in a pillowy white bap would push the button, however one quick trip to the shops later and I decided on this digestible alternative.

Portobella Prawn Sandwich
(serves one hungry lady)

zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1dsp runny honey (I used lavender honey)
soy sauce (or tamari for avoiders of wheat)
3tbsp wholegrain mustard
2 large Portobella (field) mushrooms
200g tiger prawns (pre-cooked for extra speed)
1/2 hass avocado, sliced
salad leaves

Mix the lemon zest and juice with the honey, a generous shaking of soy sauce and the mustard. Season with black pepper to your liking and pour over the prawns and leave to marinate.
Meanwhile, get a griddle or grill very hot. Remove the stem from the mushrooms and brush both sides of the caps with a little sesame oil. Grill each side until cooked.
Remove the mushrooms and if using a griddle pan, briefly toss in the prawns to heat them through (or flash fry in a non-stick frying pan).
Put one mushroom on a plate, cap side down and fill with as many prawns as you can. Top with a couple of slices of avocado and some leaves. Top with the other mushroom and drizzle with any remainder dressing.

Accompany with any prawns that oozed out of the mushroom sandwich and some extra salad leaves to mop up the juices.

N.B. I had a few spears of asparagus that needed eating and so had griddled them along with the mushrooms and prawns. The dressing suprisingly really added to the char-grilled asparagus and I'll definitely dress it that way again. I do love it when one happens upon flavour combinations by accident.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Vegetable Indulgence

The past few weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind - sister's wedding (thank goodness the cake J and I made was a moist success), followed by a quick jaunt over to Paris and then to the Charantes (bonjour maman et papa) and then back to London and a day at the gee-gees (or Royal Ascot to give it it's right and proper title). All of which is a protracted explanation for the recent dearth of blogging. And cooking.

The summer is J's busiest period with work and so I often have days and nights on my own whilst he is running shows, doing deals, glad-handing celebs etc. Although I adore cooking for others, for some reason I never seem to create anything exciting for just me. A couple of weeks away from my pans, pots and spatulas however have left me itching to don my apron, wield a knife and to get cracking. And the dishes of choice? J being out is the perfect excuse to resort to my natural veggie inclinations and to revel in the sumptuous sensations of aubergines, the zingy flavours of lemons and the climactic crunch of carrots (note to self - must get out more).

For me aubergines will forever conjure up images of exotic lands, air heavy with the smell of spices and the sun pricking at one's skin. Difficult to imagine when one is in the local greengrocer I grant you, but there is something of an indulgence about this fantastic vegetable. When roasted, its smoky character and silky texture make the aubergine an earthy pleasure.

So my Friday night of vegetable pleasure consisted of my version of moutabal (aubergine dip from the Lebanon) and a zingy carrot and courgette salad. Eaten with nothing other than chicory leaves, a glass of crisp white Burgundy and accompanied by the soothing tones of Jack Johnson.

CB's Moutabal
pinch of saffron stems
1 aubergine
1 clove of garlic in its skin
1 dsp light tahini
1 lemon
glug of olive oil

Infuse the saffron in a little hot water and leave whilst you prepare the aubergine.
Prick the skin of the aubergine to avoid any explosions and hold over a gas flame with tongs or put under a very hot grill, turning often until the skin is charred and the vegetable feels soft to the touch (about 25-30 minutes). This gives a wonderful, smoky flavour so don't be afraid to let it really char.
If using the grill, pop the clove of garlic under the grill at the same time and allow to soften.
Leave the aubergine to cool then strip the skin away and place the soft flesh into a blender. Squeeze the garlic from its skin into the blender and add the tahini, zest of the whole lemon and the juice of half of it along with a drizzle of oil. Add the saffron with its water, season and blitz until a smooth paste is formed. In the absence of a blender, mash everything with a fork.

The addition of saffron is not authentic by any means but I find it adds to the earthy character of the dish and also adds a certain jolly colour.

Carrot and Courgette Salad
1 courgette, grated
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
approx 50g pack of fresh peas
pine nuts (approx 2tbsp depending on how much you like them)
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 red chili, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
1/2 - 1tsp orange blossom water
juice 1/2 lemon
bunch of mint leaves, chopped

Mix the courgette and carrots in a bowl. Briefly cook the peas in simmering water until just tender but retain a bite (approx 3-4 minutes). Drain, cool and add to the vegetables.
Toast the pine nuts and cumin seeds in a non-stick pan, taking care that they don't burn. Sprinkle over the carrot mixture.
Whisk the dressing ingredients together, season to taste and then pour over the salad.

Both recipes make enough for a starter or side dish for two to three people.

A simple, healthy and flavoursome meal perfect for a summer evening of self-indulgence. Talking of which, these are the cute green shoes that sang to me today so I just had to give them a new home. I like my shoes like I like my meals - green.

Monday, June 05, 2006

1st June 2005 - a right royal affair

I am fortunate enough to have experienced some incredibly memorable meals in my life. The night at Nobu when my virgin tastebuds exploded with their first tasting of blackened cod, where the wine chosen by my host just happened to be from the exact small parcel of Sancerre which I had helped to make the year before in the Loire.

My first oysters, perched up amongst the painted stars that twinkle over the seafood bar of Grand Central Station in New York. My first (and last) steamed snail in a tiny but exquisite Japanese restaurant in Paris. The spankingly fresh and perfectly cooked seafood in The Cod Father in Camps Bay (South Africa). The juiciest crayfish on a braai in Hermanus, cooked by J on our first lengthy holiday together.

However, somewhat bizarrely, one of the most memorable meals that I've ever been involved with is one which I did not eat. The one which precipitated a wee meltdown a year ago and prompted my decision to make a career, indeed life change.

As you can imagine, this was no ordinary evening. It had been in the offing for at least three years. A private, royal fundraising event and boy, were the stakes high and expectations were even higher. And the one individual who was ultimately responsible, who coaxed and cajoled trustees, elicited donations, was aiming for a further £1million and had to swallow the foul-mouthed screams of a royal aid...... was, of course, me.

1st June 2005 was one of the most peculiar nights of my life, and if you were to tempt me with a few glasses of something expensive and fizzy, a few details may escape, such as the septuagenariann millionaire who offered me job of a somewhat dubious and personal nature. Other elements however are far too sensitive to be blogged and I'm afraid that I'm not prepared to discover the fate of those who contravene the official secrets act, even for you, my dearest reader. However details I can divulge are....

The venue: Clarence House
The hosts: HRH The Prince of Wales and the future Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla to you and I)
The guests: donors who had given up to £1million and those with the ability to give in excess of £100,000
The aim: to raise another £1million to re-open a royal palace

For three years I had worked on guest lists, cultivated people to the point of eliciting donations, persuading Lords to access their contact networks and yet, unlike any other dinner party I have ever thrown, the food was the very last thing on my mind.

So what did the guests eventually eat? Unusually there were no canapes which which to soak up the flowing champagne. And trust me, a late royal party tends to heighten tensions and encourage the bubbles to flow. But the menu read as follows:

Steamed Norfolk asparagus in puff pastry with a poached egg and white truffle butter

Highgrove Home Farm Aberdeen angus beef rib with red wine jus, potato and leek gratin

Highgrove red fruit sorbet with blackcurrant bavarois and sablee biscuits

Sadly I cannot report how perfectly the asparagus was executed, how succulent the beef and how delicately the dessert was performed, as despite protestations from guests on the night, we, 'the hired help' were not encouraged to sit for dinner.

Ultimately the evening was a success. It raised a decent sum of money directly, indirectly a fairly substantial amount can be attributed to that night and because the Prince of Wales had gained confidence in the charity, the venue of his mother's 80th birthday party was decided that evening.

But perhaps more poignantly for me, I have realised that this was an evening which was to decide my future. I don't want to plan dinner parties where the food is an afterthought. I want to plan my evenings, indeed my life, around food, around times and occasions with friends which embrace partnerships, both gastronomic and personal. I want to be creative, to have the freedom to think, to be listened to, not to be shouted at. Oh, and to make the occasional fairy cake.

Maybe this fundraising lark was not for me. Life was, and still is, ready for a change.