Monday, March 29, 2010

Baba Ghanoush - Comfort Food

I find it fascinating that concepts of 'comfort food' can differ so wildly between people.  That 'comfort' has such a varying meaning dependent on which particular need one is looking to fulfill and how we then translate that into food.  For some, chocolate (predominantly milk rich) provides the ultimate hug if they are feeling somewhat low.  For others, a large dish of fish or cottage pie with its rich pillows of potato topping is what they crave to dive into in times of need.  Starchy and milky dishes seem to feature high on the menu for some (and no, I won't dabble with any tinpot theories of seeking the comfort of our mother's milk), whereas others seem to favour a steaming bowl of goodness either in vegetable or fruit form.

Feeling rather fatigued and hungry after a rare late night out (made even later by the clocks springing forward) without supper, lunchtime found me seeking the silky and unctuous stroking that only one of my favourite dishes can guarantee - baba ghanoush.  This Arabic dish based on roasted or grilled aubergines, has cousins known as mutababal in the Levant and patlican salatasi in Turkey, both of which have variations of seasonings although the main ingredient and method remains the same.  Research indicates that to be truly authentic, baba ghanoush should include flat-leaf parsley.  Sadly, hunger got the better of me after a long, brisk walk and so I simply went with the ingredients that my fridge and cupboards could offer.

Baba Ghanoush (my version)
2 aubergines
3 unpeeled garlic cloves
1/2 - 1tsp ground cumin
squeeze of lemon juice
salt to taste

1. Preheat your oven to 200C.  Stab the aubergines a few times with a fork - this prevents them from exploding in the oven.  Pop them in the oven with the whole garlic cloves in a dish until they are soft, approximately 30 minutes.
2. When they are cool, cut the aubergines in half and scoop the flesh into a food processor (if you'd prefer a stiffer dish, put the flesh in a colander to allow any liquid to drain.  I was too hungry!).  Squeeze the garlic from they're papery coats into the processor.  Add a squeeze of lemon juice, the ground cumin and a good grinding of salt.  Whizz until you have a smooth puree.

That's it.  Simple, fairly quick and delicious to dive into when one is in need of comfort.

(p.s I'm aware that it's not the most visually appealing of dishes but the taste more than compensates for the lack of aesthetics).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fish Pie

Living alone has rendered me somewhat of a lazy cook, as demonstrated by my lack of posts.  I rarely take the time and care to create something overly tempting or complicated for myself, and I certainly never try new recipes out if they are only to feed one.  I was delighted therefore to have an opportunity to try a twist on an old favourite for two very dear friends.  It was a terribly wet and cold evening and so a warming but informal fish pie was the perfect dish - and something that I would not go to the bother of making for just me.  The whole process, from selecting ingredients, to skinning fish whilst my dear friend Peter mashed celeriac, warmed my soul and reminded me just how much I relish the challenge of adapting recipes and nurturing others by providing a meal.

Fish Pie (serves four) adapted from Sophie Dahl's recipe in December's Observer Food Monthly

for the topping
1 large celeriac
salt and pepper

for the pie
700-800g fish fillets (I used a mixture of undyed smoked haddock and pollack)
200g large, cooked and peeled prawns
600ml milk
2 bay leaves
four black peppercorns
olive oil
one small onion, chopped
2 leeks, white part only, finely chopped
handful of peas, defrosted if frozen
3tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 tbp soya margarine (or butter)
3tbsp cornflour or arrowroot
white wine

1. Peel the celeriac and cut into chunks.  Boil under tender.
2. Drain, return to the pan with a splash of milk and mash with vigour (you can use a blender if you prefer a smoother topping).  Season and set aside.
3. Preheat your oven to 200C.
3. Place the fish in a large, flat pan, cover with milk.  Add the bay leaves and peppercorns.  Poach for four minutes (you may need to do this in two batches).  Remove the fish, pour the milk into a jug.  When the fish is cool, remove any skin and check for bones, flaking the fish with your hands as you go.  Rinse the prawns and add them to your fishy mix.
4. Heat a splash of oil in a frying pan and sweat the onion and leeks without allowing them to catch and go brown.  When soft, remove from the heat and stir in the peas and parsley.
5. In a large pan, melt the margarine on a low heat and stir in the cornflour or arrowroot mixed with a little of the milk to make a paste.  Slowly pour in the rest of the milk and increase the heat whilst continually stirring until you have a thick sauce.  Add the fish, vegetable mix and a good slug of white wine.  Season (go steady on the salt).
6. Pour the mixture into a deep baking dish.  Cover with the celeriac mash.
7. Pop in the oven for 20 minutes.

And perhaps it's about time that I started to nurture myself a little more frequently.  Hmmm.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Spiked Scrambled Eggs

January in London, with its interminable dark and dank cloak that suffocates and oppresses, is not a month that I enjoy.  Certainly not this year as the uncertainty of my working and financial future lies before me as a gaping abyss and threatens to cripple the few vestiges of professional confidence I've managed to salvage after redundancy.  The relentless rain and a fear of spending money seem to be keeping me prisoner in my flat and in danger of descending into a routine of rituals and habits within which I feel safe, food included.

Today however I decided to make some changes and, after an injection of sunshine via a sykpe chat with my wonderful friend in the Seychelles, I took heed of Lucy's words and am going to try to 'be kind to myself'.  I will make plans to see friends rather than hiding away, I will escalate the (in)offensive on alerting contacts to my availability and I will soothe my tastebuds and mood by investing more time and love into my food.  I will nurture rather then feed myself - body and soul.  Or at least that's the theory.

So, on this freezing Monday lunchtime which saw me with a raging hunger (and yes, I am still going for the burn at the gym almost daily!) and an impending cold (thank you dear nephews), I decided upon a rare treat of scrambled eggs on a gluten-free but no less comforting muffin substitute of grilled portobello mushrooms.  Of course, being me, I cannot allow a meal to pass without an injection of greenery and a twist of some description, hence my strange but good version of scrambled eggs.

Spiked Scrambled Eggs (serves 1)
2 eggs
splash of fino sherry
large handful of baby spinach leaves
salt and pepper

1. Whisk the eggs, adding a splash of sherry.
2. Tear the leaves into small pieces and add to the merry egg mix.  Stir well and season as you see fit.
3. Heat a non-stick pan (or if you like the taste of butter and prefer to cook in a normal pan, warm a pan and melt a good sized nub of butter until melted).  Pour in the egg mix and stir regularly until the eggs are truly scrambled (I remove the pan from the heat after a couple of minutes but continue to stir - this prevents the eggs from suddenly veering from pillow perfection to a rubbery mess).

Serve on toasted English muffins (as in what the savoury patties we used to know as muffins rather than the toothsome, sweet American buns for which we now commonly use the term).  Or if you prefer or have to avoid gluten, tip the egg onto chargrilled large, flat mushrooms.

Serve with a glass of tomato juice and a good dollop of ketchup and your vitamin and nutritional needs are met.  And, whilst it doesn't come close to a real bear hug, I certainly felt cared for just that little bit more.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gluten and Dairy Free Double Chocolate Cookies

2009 ended on something of a sour note.  Not only was I made redundant but managed to slip on ice and break my right elbow, and yes, you guessed it, I'm right handed.  Suddenly my default mechanisms for lifting my mood were very limited.  Not only could I not write and struggled to type, or 'go for the burn' at the gym but nor could I bake myself a positive mental pie.  This was the first festive season for years that I had not reveled in knocking up batches of mince pies, baking dozens of Christmas biscuits or creating comforting casseroles.  I had to resort to buying sad little packs of pre-sliced vegetables so I could at least make soup with a hand-held liquidiser.  Thank goodness for pre-chopped ginger and chillies!

This winter feels especially cruel as Jack Frost has his icy talons gripped firmly around Europe and we are battling against unforgiving winds, dangerous black ice and blasts of snow.  It is at times a struggle to venture outdoors (other than to slide to the gym in my wellies) and this afternoon I succumbed to the need to hibernate but also to bake a pleasing, chocolatey treat and to test my fast-healing arm out.  If I can bake, I can tackle 2010 with relish and succeed.  And so much the better if it's a treat does not contain gluten or dairy and so one in which I can personally indulge.

As the pleasing, biscuity aromas leaked from the oven, I sighed with pleasure and thought '2010 may indeed be a year full of challenges and uncertainty, but I will survive.  And enjoy life.  Chocolate and all.'

So, here follows an indulgent recipe for gluten and dairy free double chocolate cookies, adapted from the ridiculously tempting 'the hummingbird bakery cookbook' that a dear friend gave me for Christmas.  Bake, breathe and consume.  And enjoy the start of a new year and whatever it may hold.

Gluten and Dairy Free Double Chocolate Cookies
(makes 6-7 large cookies)
25g soya margarine
225g dark chocolate - 125g roughly broken, remainder 100g chopped in a food processor
1 medium egg
85g light muscovado sugar
42.5g gluten free flour (I used what I had which amounted to half quantity each of rice and tapioca flours)
1/4tsp salt
1/4tsp gluten free baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 170C/gas 3.  Line a baking sheet with baking parchment.
2. Put the margarine and 125g of roughly broken chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a small saucepan of just simmering water.  Ensure that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.  Leave until it has all melted and has a smooth appearance.  Allow to cool a little.
3. Beat the egg and the sugar until well combined.  Slowly beat in the chocolate/margarine mixture until jolly well mixed.
4. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder and gradually stir into the chocolate mixture, ensuring it is well combined.
5. Stir the remaining, finely chopped 100g of chocolate into the mixture until well mixed.
6. Spoon roughly equal amounts of the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet (I made seven), ensuring they are evenly spaced as they will spread.  Bake in the oven for anything between 10-15 minutes - checking regularly after 10 minutes.  You are aiming for a glossy finish and cracks to appear on the top.
7. Remove from the oven and leave to cool somewhat on the baking sheet.  Transfer to a wire cooling rack after around 5-10 minutes.

If this virgin batch were not potentially headed for young mouths, I would have added a few teaspoons of dried chili flakes and next time I will reduce the amount of sugar and increase that of salt.  They'd also work with some salted pecan nuts thrown in and....... I shall stop there else will spoil the subject of a future blog!

And there will be more to come.  This is going to be the year of food, blogging and lots of changes.  2010 here I come!