Zucchini Gratin

Don’t run screaming from the virtual room, just because I said the word “Gratin” again! this is a very different animal altogether. Serve it with lamb. Or beef. Or chicken tagine, a recipe I promise to post sometime soon. Actually, you can eat it just like that with rice. This just gave me another idea for a vegetarian, but meaty tasting One Dish Wonder gratin that you will not be able to escape either. Now to the grating gratin:

  • 2 medium zucchini
  • 1 big handful of mint leaves
  • 2 handful breadcrumbs
  • plenty of good olive oil
  • salt
  • plenty of black pepper
  • garlic, if you want
  • feta, if you like

You may have noticed that this is not one of these exact grams of everything recipes. It’s more of an instinctive cooking thing. Just chuck it together and it will turn out great, I promise. Unless you’re completely talentless and then maybe knitting?

Slice your zucchini into nice biggish slices. Obviously the amount you will need depends on your gratin dish, so use your brain. (am I becoming grumpy?) Now salt your zucchini. How much salt do you need? My trick is to salt, wait 3 minutes, then take a bite. If that’s how salty you want it, you’re good. If not add more salt, toss about again and try one more bite in another 3 minutes. IF you’ve screwed up the first time around and the zucchini are much too salty, fret not. Quickly wash the veg and dry them and start over.

Chop the mint (or in fact any other herb you fancy) and mix it with the breadcrumbs (I’m using Italian Pan Grattato), some salt and black pepper. Taste the thing and you’ll know whether its what you like. Now I made this dish as an accompaniment to a highly flavoured lamb, so there’s no garlic. If you’re serving it with something lighter, I’d recommend the addition of a tablespoon of chopped garlic to the breadcrumbs.

Layer the zucchini in an attractive way in your lightly oiled gratin dish. Easier said than done. If all fails, just toss them into the dish. It’s always better to pretend you intended a creative mess than to fail in attractive layering! Anyway, the taste will be good no matter what the thing looks like. Just so you know, you don’t need to wash your zucchini slices or pat them dry. Life’s just too short for it. Generously pepper your beautifully layered zucchini and very generously salt them. If you have feta cheese in the chiller and you feel so inclined, crumb some over your gratin before you cover it all with bread crumbs.

Pour good olive oil in a thin, but magnanimous long stream over the entire dish, so the crumbs are pretty much soaked. Put it into a 180ºC ovenand roast for about 20 minutes. Then turn on the grill, if you have one and just brown the gratin. If your grill doesn’t do a half power setting, I recommend that you crouch nest to it the whole time the grill is on. And I’m not joking. You don’t want to burn the thing at the last minute!

Leek & Ham Gratin

Gratins have gone completely out of fashion. I guess it’s a kind of a 1950s Hausfrau dish and together with stuffed vegetables, it’s gone off and retired. Which is terrible, really, because a good well made gratin is a wonderful dish. Served with rice or potatoes it makes an entire meal and is just deeply satisfying to eat. If you’re not so much of a ham person, you can use smoked turkey slice, air dried beef or smoked salmon, which would work very nicely with the leek we are making today.

Eddie and I made one last night and it left us completely happy, full, but not stuffed. For good measure I’ll throw in my infallible roast potatoes. They are a bit of a dietitian’s nightmare, but a gourmet’s dream. Think duck fat and you know where this is going. Both these dishes can go into the oven sort of together, so after prepping it’s no work at all. Make it in the afternoon and It’ll take all of 45 minutes in the evening and you’ll be ready.

The secret to a good gratin is a properly cooked vegetable and a good béchamel and I can teach you how to get both right. I usually make the béchamel last minute, just before I douse my vegetables with it. It’s much easier to use when it’s hot and it really is so very fast to make. Here’s my oh so German Organisational Chart, which will tell you what order to make things in:

  • Boil the vegetable
  • Infuse the milk
  • Blanch the potatoes
  • Butter the dish
  • Wrap the vegetables
  • Strain the infused milk
  • Make the béchamel
  • Finish the dish
  • Finish the potatoes

The Vegetables:

Now what I really wanted to use was witlof, endive or chicory, which is of course the same thing with three different names, but it’s damn hard to find here in Malaysia, so I used leeks instead. You will need the Aussie or European variety, which is thicker and has a much larger white part. You could do make it with the thin local variety, but you will end up with quite a bit of ham, so it may be too strong.

In fact you can make this dish with any vegetable that is not too fibrous and that can be wrapped. Wedges or quarters of a small Chinese cabbage would do very well too and they will be much cheaper than the bloomin’ Aussie leeks. Here’ what you need to boil the leeks:

  • 2-3 thick leeks
  • water to cover
  • rough sea salt

Yes, that’s it. Nothing else is needed. Cut your leeks into 10cm/4″ pieces. You should get about 5-6 nice pieces. Count 2 pieces per person and you should be fine, unless everyone is feeling very hungry. Put the leeks in a pot deep enough to hold them in one layer and that allow the leeks to be completely covered with water. I actually used a gratin dish. Cover the leeks with water and start the boil. Add a generous amount of salt. Taste your water; the leeks will be about as salty as the water, so you know how you would like it to taste. Let that guide you, but make sure your salt has completely dissolved before you add more!

Simmer the leeks until they are very, very tender, but not falling apart. This should take about 30 minutes from the time the water has started to boil. It depends on the size and age of your leeks, so use a small knife to try pierce them after 20/25 minutes. One word of advice; don’t use a pot that’s too deep, or you’ll have trouble getting your leeks out in one piece. Leeks are slippery things, so be careful. Once they slip out of their layers, it’s impossible to put them back together again, so proceed with utmost caution. Have I said that you need to be careful?

Once the leeks are cooked, take them off the heat and leave them to cool at room temperature. This will take about an hour. You CAN use the leeks right away, but they will be much nicer after another hour in their brine.

The Béchamel:

  • 600ml full fat milk
  • ½ a small onion
  • 2 small bay leaves
  • nutmeg to taste
  • 25g butter
  • 25g plain flour, sifted
  • juice of ¼ lemon
  • salt & white pepper to taste

Cut the onion into big pieces. Put the milk into a saucepan, add the onion and bay leaves to the milk, grate a little nutmeg into the milk and bring to a boil. Once the milk starts to boil reduce the heart and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes. Strain the milk into a measuring jug. You should have almost exactly 500ml of infused milk. If it is a little less, just top it up with fresh milk.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then add the flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. You should do this on relatively low heat, to prevent the flour from taking on any colour. Keep stirring to cook your roux (that’s what this is called) through its three stages; smooth, powdery, smooth. This will take about 5-10 minutes. Once done, switch to a small whisk and slowly add the milk. I like to do this bit by bit, whisking each addition of milk to a smooth paste. But that’s because I’m lazy to strain the finished sauce, so I do my best to avoid lumps right from the beginning.

This is the “powdery” stage of the roux, where the flour looks a little raw and uncooked. To get a béchamel that doesn’t taste floury without being cooked for a long period of time, cook this stage out of the roux and stir until it starts to look creamy again. It’s a simple trick and it doesn’t take very long at all. I don’t know many people who still make roux at home, which is a bit of a shame. It comes in very handy and it keeps quite well. You just stir it from time to time, until it has cooled down and the put it into a tub and keep it in the chiller. It can go straight from the chiller into soups or sauces that need thickening a little.

All you need to do now is adjust the seasoning of your béchamel. I actually add an additional little knob of butter to the finished sauce, but you don’t have to do that if you want to keep things healthier. I also like to add a squeeze of lemon to it before I salt it. Be careful and salt it slowly. The butter and the fat in the milk take a little longer to absorb the salt, so if you salt too fast, you may end up with a salty sauce. At first it will seem okay, but when you taste it again 15 minutes later, it’s gone salty. So go slow. remember also that you have ham in this dish, so a light salting will go a long way.

Poireaux au Gratin

enough for 2-3 people

  • 6 pieces of soft, simmered leeks
  • 6 slices of Parma ham (or Serrano ham, or smoked salmon, or whatever rocks your boat)
  • 500ml béchamel
  • a handful of grated cheese (I’m using cheddar and parmesan, about 50/50)
  • freshly grated nutmeg

Just follow the instructions in the slideshow above. Heat your oven to 180ºC and bake on a high shelf for about 30 minutes. If you follow my instructions for the béchamel, you will get a smooth sauce of just the right consistency. I hate stodgy, thick béchamel, so I always make mine much lighter than most people.

It’s a delicious mess.

The Super Potato

Any gratin, in fact any dish at all is always greatly improved by the addition of the Super Potato It’s such a good thing that I have written a post just for the Super Potato, so check it out right here: The Super Potato

The Super Potato

for 2 people you will need:

  • 2 big potatoes
  • 2 Tbsp duck fat or lard
  • fine salt
  • rough sea salt

There is nothing at all to these potatoes, but once you have had the patience to prepare them, you will be rewarded with the best potatoes you’ve ever eaten!

Peel your potatoes and slice them into thick slices. Keep the sliced potatoes in water until you need them. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and blanch your potatoes in the bubbling water for exactly five minutes. The potatoes do not need to be fully cooked, so whether you slice them into rounds or into big cubes, just blanch for 5 minutes and not more.

Drain the potatoes and rinse under running water to stop them from cooking. Heat your oven to 180ºC. Drain the potatoes well, heat the duck fat in a cast iron dish and toss the potatoes in the fat to coat evenly. Try and keep the potatoes in one layer, as much as you can. A little overlap will be fine, but you don’t want to complete layers of potato, because then they won’t roast very well.

Stick the potatoes in the oven and roast for 20 minutes before turning them around. Roast another 20 minutes until golden brown, sprinkle with rough sea salt and serve piping hot.

You can roast these potatoes at the bottom of the oven while you roast something else at the top. They are very forgiving. If there is a lot of duck fat left after roasting, you may want to drain most of it to prevent the potatoes from becoming too oily. They will not get soggy, but they will slowly absorb all the fat in the dish…

The Perfect Steamed Egg

The old fashioned coffee shops in Malaysia produce a kind of buffet lunch, in which they line up big trays of all kinds of different prepared foods. There can be literally dozens of different dishes and you just go and load your plate of rice with whatever you fancy, pay what will probably amount to less than 10 ringgit and eat your fill. It’s called “Economy Rice” and that’s exactly what it is. A delicious, freshly prepared meal for less than US$3.

One of the dishes that will often feature is steamed egg. It’s smooth and creamy and light, a bit like a savoury custard, which is exactly what it is. It’s simple and like many really simple dishes, it is difficult to get right. Too much heat and it bubbles up like a soufflé, only to fall back full of holes and water logged when it cools. Too low a heat and you’ll end up with a thick, rubbery skin on your eggs and no one wants a rubbery skin on their eggs.

But if you follow a few simple rules and use my tried and tested proportions, you will get it right first time around, I promise. And believe me, it will be worth it! There’s just one more thing… You will need the right equipment for steaming. There’s unfortunately no two ways about it. So here’s what you need:

A bowl that will hold 500ml in a shallow layer. I use a Le Creuset ceramic dish I bought in the sale for far too much money, but you can use literally anything at all and it does not need to be oven proof. Just make sure it doesn’t leach deadly chemicals when it heats up. Glass is safe, ceramic is safe, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near plastic.

As for the steamer, you can go completely classic and use the bamboo steamer basket and lid. It looks great, works extremely well and has the added advantage that the lid does not drip water into your egg.

Or you can inherit a glamorous stainless steel AMC steamer pot from your mother-in-law who bought it from the direct selling lady in the 1970’s, when pots were still made of thick, durable no nonsense material, so that no handle has chipped or corner dented.

So now we are all set, let’s begin!

Chinese Steamed Egg

  • 150ml strained egg (you’ll need 4 eggs)
  • 350ml chicken or other stock
  • 2 drops sesame oil to line the bowl
  • NO salt, NO pepper!
  • about 2 Tbsp chopped spring onion

You absolutely need to measure your egg and use only 150ml. Whisk the eggs just to break them up and stir them through a fine strainer into a measuring jug. Top up with 350ml stock and stir to mix. Do not salt or in any way flavour your eggs. The topping sauce will be highly flavoured and more than enough to make this a delicious dish.

If you don’t have stock, you can easily replace it. Here are two options:

Flavoured water – mix 350ml water with 1 tablespoon oyster sauce and 1 teaspoon soy sauce.

Quick stock – Soak 1 handful of ikan bilis (dried anchovies) in a bowl of water for 10 minutes, dry on paper towels, fry 2 slices of ginger in 1 tabespoon oil, add the ikan bilis and fry for 3 minutes, then pour in 500ml water. Simmer for 15 minutes, strain and you’re ready!

For the topping sauce:
  • 1 Tbsp duck fat, lard or shallot oil
  • 1 Tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp Tamari
  • 1 dash Maggi Seasoning
  • ½ Tbsp Chinese rice wine (optional)

You can make this perfectly well without the Tamari or Maggi Seasoning, but it will be so much better with it. The rice wine is really optional. I use it if the other dishes I make are lightly flavoured, but if it;s something strong, like sweet sour pork, I leave it out. (Eddie’s recipe for what I consider to be the very best sweet sour pork is coming soon, so watch out for it).

Get Steaming:

Heat the water in your steamer, whether that’s a wok or a stacked steamer. Put two drops of sesame oil into your steaming container and oil the container with this oil. Place your steaming container into the steamer and pour in the egg mix. This way you won’t spill any on the way to the steamer. Cover the lid and don’t look at it for 5 minutes. Now gently open the lid, tilting it towards the edge of the steamer, so that any water condensed in the lid will drip past the steaming eggs and not into them.

Wriggle your top part of the steamer or your bamboo basket to see how your eggs are doing. The steaming time depends very much on the temperature of your water, the temperature of the eggs and the stock and a myriad other things, so don’t trust a timer, or the time it took the last time you made the eggs, so keep opening the lid and wriggling the steaming eggs. If the eggs seem not to be sticking to the sides, it means you are no where near done, so keep steaming. Don’t lower the heat, you will need a good steam. Just open the lid carefully every minute and check on your eggs. Do not slacken, or you may find a bloated mess in your bowl.

Once the middle is properly wriggly, your eggs are done. Now the good news is that you can take the whole steaming contraption off the heat and just leave the eggs in there while you finish whatever other dishes you are planning on serving. It will stay nice and warm and not overcook.

Just before serving, reheat the sauce if necessary (I don’t usually bother) and pour it all over the steamed eggs, sprinkle the spring onion over and serve. When you take the first scoop of eggs, you will think there is too much sauce, but once you’re on the last scoop, you will be thankful for it.

Variations:

There are many variations to this steamed egg dish:

Salted Egg and/or Century Egg: You can chop some salted eggs, or century eggs or both into the bottom of the bowl before pouring the egg mix in. In this case, reduce the soy sauce in your topping sauce to just one tablespoon.

Dried Prawns: Soak a handful of dried prawns in hot water for 15 minutes, drain and sprinkle into the bottom of your steaming bowl before pouring in the eggs. Again reduce the soy sauce for the topping to one tablespoon and use only a half tablespoon of duck fat. If you want to be fancy, you can fry half of the dried soaked prawns in duck fat and top your egg with them.

Minced Meat: This is going to turn the dish into a bit of a main course, if you serve it with rice. Mix 100g minced pork or minced chicken with half a tablespoon soaked dried prawns, add your topping sauce mix to the minced meat and prawn mix and spread this in the bottom of your bowl. Pour as much of the egg mix over as will fit and steam. Serve topped with chopped spring onion and fried shallots.

Travelling in my Head

Airports are empty, planes are a cause for concern and travel is a long way away. Once it comes back, it may have lost that last shred of glamour it still held if you were lucky enough to be anywhere near the nose of the plane. I for one miss being on those planes. I particularly like the journey to Europe, the complete disconnection for a precious 12 hours from the world below, the calm efficiency of the crew on an airliner hurtling through the sky towards a different world.

And here I am, sparkling conversationalist despite the jet lag.

I am looking through the photos on my phone reaching back to May 2015 when, as so often our dear friends John and Marie cooked us dinner. Well, Marie cooked and John ate. Many a times we have paid them back so very poorly for their effort, falling asleep at the table, having foolishly believed that we would exist and sparkle past 9pm on the day of our arrival when jet lag drags the brain from your head and puts it to bed in the room next door.

Marie, apart from being an artist is an instinctive cook. She produces great food out of her tiny, tiny kitchen and seems to do it effortlessly. If you’re a cook yourself, home or professional, you will know that the operative word here is “seems”, because all cooking is thought and effort and at least as much perspiration as inspiration.

So I am reliving the evening, travelling in my head to their lovely flat on Rue Crozatier, with the view of blue sky Paris in the late afternoon from a small balcony, the last heat of a mild May giving way to an asphalt scented breeze promising a cool evening. We would each have a glass of champagne, or better still an interesting crémant that John would have found on one of his trips as a travel writer to start the evening. I would describe us as sipping, but then we are really not the sipping types and one bottle would have quickly followed the next. We are neither of us rich, but bubbles and good wine are not expensive in Paris, a city where wine, like bread or good butter is a necessity, not a luxury.

The Baron Rouge, our local dive just a short walk down the road will fill you off a plastic gallon bottle of wine straight from the cask and though it won’t be a Château Margaux, it won’t strip your throat or rot your gut. The égalité and fraternité fought for during the revolution extends at least in part to the consumption of wine and grand-mère will have her pot of rosé with her dinner, even on a small state pension.

I believe it was Truman Capote who said that on a plane there are only two emotions; Boredom and Terror. He forgot Anticipation.

Eddie’s Lap Mei Fan

There are a lot of places in town that claim to make the best Lap Mei Fan, but my vote goes to the one that Eddie makes. I don’t know whether it’s the most authentic, but it hits all the right spots, as far as I’m concerned. Now before I get started on Eddie’s recipe, let me first take a minute to explain what Lap Mei fan actually is, just in case you have no idea.

Our not beautifully arranged home version of the classic

Lap Mei Fan is a one pot dish of preserved meats and rice. There are many different ways of making it, from just steaming the meats on top of rice and serving it with simple soy sauce to this, our slightly more elaborate way. If you want to serve it to guests, you can arrange the meats neatly on top of your freshly fluffed up rice, add blanched green vegetables to the sides and sprinkle chopped spring onions over the lot. But when we do it just for ourselves at home, we prefer this very homely messy all-in-a-pot way.

The basics for two people:

This is what you are going to need to make it. You can buy the meats and sausages in the pork section of any good Malaysian supermarket, but if you want the really good stuff, you might want to roam around China Town (that’s the area around Central Market here in Kuala Lumpur), or go visit the Eu Yan Sang shop at Shaw Parade. Traditionally, one uses an air-dried duck leg, but we used a duck breast for this one. Lap cheong is that red dried sausage and yun chang (my favourite thing) is the dark one, make with duck liver. It’s all delicious! You are going to have to soak the sausages and the meat and they will turn an unsightly dull white. Don’t worry about that. It will resolve itself when they are cooked.

  • 1.5 cups of fragrant rice
  • 2 lap cheong
  • 2 yun chang
  • 1 dried duck breast or leg
  • 1 tsp chopped garlic
  • ½ Tbsp chopped shallots
  • 1 Tbsp chopped ginger
  • 1 Tbsp minced dried shrimp
  • 500ml pork or chicken stock
  • 1 ½ Tbsp sesame oil
For the flavouring sauce:
Make sure you use good quality sauces.
  • ½ Tbsp oyster sauce
  • ½ Tbsp light soy sauce
  • ½ Tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp Shaoshing wine
  • 1 pinch of sugar

Put the sausages and duck into a large bowl and pour boiling water over it all. Make sure the meats are completely submerged. Leave to sit for 10 minutes, then pick out the meats and pour the water away. If you want the duck leg to be softer, simmer it in water for 15 minutes. If you find that your sausages and duck are too big, cut them in half, but do not cut into pieces.

Soak the dried prawns in hot water for 10 minutes, drain and mince.

Put the sesame oil into a cast iron pot or a claypot and fry the shallot and garlic in it until soft and fragrant, then add the ginger and minced dried prawns and fry for another 2 minutes. Add the dry rice and fry for 3 minutes. Pour in the flavouring sauce and stir in to coat evenly.

Now pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Place the lap cheong on top and simmer uncovered until the bubbles reduce, about 4-5 minutes. Place the rest of the meats on top, reduce the fire to low and cover the pot. Simmer for 10 minutes, turn off the heat and leave to quell up for another 15 minutes. Do NOT open the lid at any time during this process!

Open your pot, take out the meats, fluff up the rice, cut the meats into bite sized portions and place it back on the rice. Sprinkle with chopped spring onion and serve!

It doesn’t look like much, but once you taste it, I promise you will be hooked.

The Plainest of Cakes

Having been extremely slack in our backing and cooking and candlestick making over the last week, we found there is NO cake in the house. Not even a cookie crumb is to be found, which on a Sunday is a fairly sad state of affairs. So one has to start off by making a nice cup of tea and leaving a block of butter to defrost. Now the plainest of cakes is a simple quatre quarts, four quarters: 250g butter, 250g sugar, 250g flour and 4 eggs. Which is what I was going to make. But then I dug out an old Aussie cookbook and thought I’d give this slight variation a try.

I am of course gravely tempted to meddle with the recipe and add olive oil to it, or swap the milk for ricotta and use semolina instead of flour. But Eddie has tasked me with making this SIMPLE cake, so simple cake it is:

Plain Butter Cake

Ingredients and a Pot of Tea
  • 250g butter
  • 220g caster sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence
  • 3 eggs
  • 325g flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 15g baking powder
  • 160ml milk

Now, making a simple cake is not really simple at all. Because there is so little in it, you have no leeway for error. But fret not, follow me dilligently and you’ll get it right! First of all, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature. This is important. If your eggs are cold and your butter is warm, the mix will split when you whisk the eggs in. So take everything out of cupboards and chillers an hour before you start on your cake. Heat your oven a half hour before you are going to bake. Set the oven to 180ºC and check the temperature every now and again.

Here’s the butter and sugar properly whisked.

Use your trusty stand mixer, drop the whole block of nicely soft butter into the bowl, attach the whisk, add the vanilla essence and let it whizz around. Here my autocorrect tells me that it’s “whiz”, not “whizz”, but I ask you; seriously? Which one looks more whizzy? There!

Back to the butter that is being whizzed. You want the butter to fluff up nice and easy. I find that the organic and artisanal butters don’t do as well as the plain, good commercial ones. LeGall and Pamplie are great for eating, but I don’t find they give the best butter cakes, so I use President, or Lurpak or Bridel, which do very well.

Then you add in egg by egg. Break each egg into a small bowl, turn off the mixer and then slipping the egg into the batter, turn the machine back on and whisk until it is incorporated properly. Repeat until all the eggs have been added.

Now add about half the flour and whisk it in. Add half the milk and whisk again. Repeat with the other half of flour and milk and you’re done.

Next step, bake for 45 minutes, or until the cake is just done. Stick a small knife into the middle of the cake and if it comes out clean, take the cake out. If you bake it for too long, the cake will be dry, so you’re better off with a cake with a few too many cut in it than a dry cake.

The cake is baked

So that’s it! A really simple, delicious cake. Eat it with a bit of whipped cream or some ice cream, or just with your tea.

Caviar & the Soviet Ambassador

Most of my life has been the humdrum kind. It’s been a good life, but you know, work, travel, dinners; not the stuff of legends. And then there are a few episodes so unlikely that I’m not sure they were real. An unlikely friendship with Blofeld, or more correctly Charles Gray, the actor who played him. Dinner with Sherlock Holmes in London in the eighties when Jeremy Brett was playing him one last time at Wyndham’s. But those are stories for another day. The first of these most unlikely events happened when I was still a teenager in Luxembourg.

Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union when I went to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin at the cinémathèque in Luxembourg City. The Russian ambassador, who I found out later was something of a movie buff decided to not only attend the screening, but to bring vodka and pound tins of caviar for everyone there and that’s where I first met him.

I can for the life of me not remember his name, but do remember that I had never seen anyone drink quite so much vodka quite so fast. He had his staff trained to stand behind him, so he could turn around to get an iced vodka, down one glass quickly and turn around with another. We talked cinema, Russian movies and editing techniques, of which I had more opinion than knowledge. He seemed to like me (not in the way you might think, I can assure you) and from then on, I got invited to the embassy and to screenings at the cinémathèque quite regularly. I remember the phone ringing at home and someone with seemed like a caricature Russian accent say: “His excellency would like to send you something. The driver will drop it off in an hour, if that’s okay?” and two pound tins of caviar and a bottle of Moskovskaya would make their way to us. The legal drinking age then, at least in Luxembourg was 16, so he wasn’t breaking any laws, plying a teenager with strong liquor.

Eating caviar by the spoonful right out of a pound tin is an experience I don’t think I’ll ever have again. Nowadays we are happy to spread a little of it on blinis and make our 60g tins stretch and even then, it is an expensive undertaking. SoImagine my surprise when a good friend called to say she had some caviar and would we like a couple of tins? There’s a treat to brighten up one’s lock-down days! Happiness is a blini and a tin of caviar and I’m going to tell you how to achieve one half of it, the cheap one; buckwheat blinis.

Buckwheat Blinis

makes about 30 blinis, plus extra for testing & eating.

  • 70g plain flour
  • 30g buckwheat flour
  • 1 tsp instant dried yeast
  • 1/3 level tsp salt
  • white pepper
  • 1 small eggs
  • 180-200ml cold milk

Make the blinis:

Mix the flours with the salt, dried instant yeast and white pepper. Dig a well in the middle and break the eggs into it. Add half of the milk and stir to make a thick dough. As the dough thickens, keep adding more and more of the milk. In this way you will avoid forming flour lumps in your dough. When all the milk has been added, you should have a dough that is thick, but just runny enough to be poured blini shaped into a pan. Use a teaspoon for this. You should need to lightly tap the the tip of the spoon into the pan to create a neat circle. Now if your finished blini has a darker circle around the rim, you’re a star! If not, try adding a little water to make your dough thinner.

On Vodka – A Personal Opinion

All opinions are of course personal, unless they are public, in which case they are not opinions at all. Do you remember the days when vodka was Russian, or possibly Polish and it all had a flavour. Then came the triple, quadruple distilling gimmick, which ensured that all and any flavour was resolutely removed from the bottle and we were left drinking “Purity”. Now, if I want purity, I’ll have some water, but when I have vodka, I want it to taste of something. Otherwise one might as well order a vat of pure ethanol from the lab and dilute it with water. I have a sneaking suspicion that indifferent base ingredients, a fancy bottle and an expensive marketing campaign hoodwinked consumers into believing that taste was no longer necessary.

So give me a Stolichnaya, a Moskovskaya or even a Smirnoff over a wet goose any day!

Sorrento Lemon Cake

Lemons over Positano

You may think it impossible to make Sorrento lemon cake without those spindle lemons from Sorrento, but you are mistaken. The lemons have a flavour and a smell we here in Malaysia are very used to. It’s a smell more than a taste and you can smell it as soon as you crush the leaves. It’s like a lighter version of our daun limau perut, the kaffir lime leaves, so with some cunning and a little patience you can fake it. The trick is to stay subtle, you just want to enhance the lemon flavour. As soon as you can taste the kaffir lime leaf clearly, you’ve overdone it. The motto is: “Don’t give the game away!”

I actually found this recipe in the FT Weekend Travel section, in an article by Rebecca Rose, who visited the lemon farm of the Aceto family. I have changed quite a few things and I’m not sure my interpretation of the icing is correct, but it works. Most importantly, it’s easy to make and it was very well received by our guests.

Moist and beautifully lemony

For the cake:

  • 8 single kaffir lime leaves
  • 250g caster sugar
  • zest of 3 big lemons
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 80ml olive oil
  • 100g salted butter at room temperature
  • 125ml full cream milk
  • 200g plain flour (not cake flour!)
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • Unsalted butter to butter the pie tin

Start the night before, if you can. Wash and crush the kaffir lime leaves in your hand, then bury them in the sugar. Cover with cling film and leave at room temperature until the next morning.

Start on your cake: Pre-heat your oven to 175ºC. Butter your pie dish very well! I am using a lovely old copper dish I acquired in France. It’s 22.5cm across (about 9″) and 4.5cm high, so any 9 ” pan should do. Just make sure it is higher than your standard pie dish. The FT recipe calls for the pan to be buttered and floured, but I don’t like the powderiness of that, so I’d rather take my chances with the cake sticking or breaking.

Put the egg yolks into one bowl and the egg whites into another bowl. Hopefully the manufacturer of your stand mixer will have supplied you with two bowls. Grate the lemon zest into the egg yolks and using the blade attachment, whisk them until they are lightly fluffed up, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and whisk for another 5 minutes, to cream up the eggs. Now pour in the olive oil and the butter, then the milk. Sift the flour. Check that the sugar has completely dissolved before adding the flour spoon by spoon to the batter.

Using the whisk attachment, whisk your egg whites to soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, lift one third under the batter first, before adding one more third and finally the last third. Make sure you have mixed the batter thoroughly, so scrape the bottom of your bowl and scrape down the sides for a final mix.

For the icing:

  • juice of 3 big lemons
  • 200g icing sugar
  • 1 kaffir lime leaf

Make this while your cake is in the oven and heat it up quickly, just after you have taken the cake out. It’s not really an icing, but more of a soaking liquid. Boil the icing sugar with the lemon juice and the kaffir lime leaf until it is light golden, about 5 minutes. Fish out the leaf and spoon the juice over the hot cake and let it be soaked up. You will have a lot of liquid, but don’t worry, the cake can soak it all up. Make sure you spoon some over the sides as well. It will keep your cake nice and moist and prevent it from drying up.

You can eat the cake just like that, but for dinner parties, I like to serve it with a generous bowl of freshly whipped Crème Chantilly.

For the Crème Chantilly (enough for 4 people):

  • 200ml whipping cream
  • 1-2 Tbsp caster sugar, depending on how sweet you want it.
  • vanilla extract, or the beans of ¼ vanilla pod

Whisk the cream until it starts to thicken, then add the sugar and keep whisking until you have soft peaks. Add the vanilla just before you switch the machine off, if you are using extract. If you are scraping a bean, add it right at the beginning.

Hausfrauen Ratschlag

If you have leftover cake and you want to keep it for a few days, you will need to refrigerate it. A round cake on a round plate is quite cumbersome in the chiller, so I slice my cake up and transfer it to a plastic lock-lock box (that’s one of those with a clip-shut lid). I put the cake on the lid itself and then use the box as a cover. that way it is easy to remove the slices. You can even leave the cake whole and carefully slice it right on the lid.

Simple trick to store your cake
The box as a cover

Blanquette d’Agneau

Eddie and I had a little dinner party yesterday and I made a great French classic, Blanquette d’Agneau, lamb in a creamy white sauce. It’s probably one of the simplest things to make, it keeps in the chiller for 3 days and in fact improves with age, it freezes extremely well and is hardly any work at all, so it’s really the perfect dinner party dish.

Eddie made fresh egg white pasta to go with this, as well as a tray of roast broccolini and mushrooms and I’ll tell you how to do all of that. Of course you can buy pasta ready made, or just serve steamed potatoes with the blanquette, which is the classic accompaniment. Toss the steamed potatoes in butter and chives, or chopped spring onion and you’ll have some very happy guests.

It’s a whopping big pot full. Noodles at the side there.

Let’s start our recipe. This will serve 8 people, which is 2 more than we had yesterday, but as I said, it freezes well, so Eddie and I will enjoy it second time in a month or so.

  • 1.6kg lamb leg or shoulder
  • 1200ml chicken stock
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 3 carrots
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 branches rosemary
  • 60g butter
  • 60g flour
  • 3 Tbsp crème fraîche
  • 1.5 egg yolk
  • Salt & white pepper

Before you throw up your hands and give up because of the chicken stock, you have many options to replace it with! Water alone will do fine. The addition of a stock cube will improve things and a tetrapack of Campbell’s Best will not put you to shame at all! I’ve tried all sorts of other ready packed stocks, from “organic” to “professional”, but I’ll put my money on this one. Don’t buy two, just lengthen this one litre with 200ml water. If you are opting to use just water, chuck a few extra vegetables into your pot. A branch of celery, an onion and maybe a leek will not be amiss. You can pick these out again after you’ve simmered your blanquette, or you can just serve the whole lot together.

Start by cutting your lamb into 1.5″ cubes. Don’t worry too much about the sizes not being the same and if your lamb leg is frozen, see the Hausfrauen Ratschlag below. Peel your carrots and cut them into big, thick slices. If you want to be anal about it like me, cut the thick top end into 1″ slices and then gradually increase the size as you cut to the thin end, where your last chunk should be 1.5″. Now you’re set to start the cooking.

Heat half a tablespoon of butter and half a tablespoon of olive oil in a cast iron pot. You can use any old pot, but you really should invest in a nice cast iron pot. They cost a fortune, but they will be with you for the rest of your life and if you are lucky enough to have children, they will take them off your hands once your cooking days are over. Watch out for the sales, as you can often pick up a Le Creuset or a Staub pot at 50% discount. It will still leave you a grand poorer.

This baby has been with me in Luxembourg, Paris, London, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. I bought it when I was 16, so it’s been with me for 40 years. At the time I bought it, cost me every penny I had, but it is a purchase I’ve never regretted. It is now battered and dented, but it behaves very well indeed.

By now your butter will have burned. Which you must prevent at all costs. Wash and dry the lamb if you can be bothered and if not, just pour off the blood and get on with it. You want to just seal the lamb pieces without browning them.

Make sure you keep the lid on the simmering lamb. This is vital if you want to have enough sauce in the end. While your lamb is simmering, you can make the roux and mix the crème fraîche. Both are super easy and fast. First the roux:

For a just nicely thickened stock, you will need 60g of butter and 60g of flour. I find that the standard ratio of 100g flour per litre i.e. 10% of the liquid by weight is vastly too much. So I go for 5% or 60g flour for 1.2 litre stock. Butter and flour are always at the same ratio, so you don’t need to think about that.
Melt the butter, but don’t brown it and try keep it at a lowish temperature, add the flour and stir vigorously, making sure there are no bits that don’t get moved, because they will brown. A white roux is just quick fried, but I prefer a blond roux, so I cook it through its three stages. First it will look smooth, then it will become slightly powdery and after that, it’s going to be smooth again, which is when you stop. Take it off the heat, but keep stirring for a while, to make sure nothing burns. If you are too lazy to make roux, check out the Hausfrauen Ratschlag below.

Put the crème fraîche into a bowl, add an egg yolk (and a half) and stir it in. If you are finishing the blanquette later, or the next day, just keep your crème fraîche egg yolk mix covered in the chiller. Add this just a few minutes before you serve the blanquette and it will taste much fresher. If you can’t find crème fraîche, see below for tips.

Once your lamb is cooked, turnoff the heat and let cook for a ten minutes. Now gently pick out all the meat and carrot and put it into a bowl. The fresh rosemary will have shed its needles all over the stew. You can pick them all out, like I do, or just leave them in. Strain the stock into another pot and bring it back to a simmer. Add the roux spoonful by spoonful until you reach the consistency you want. It should be just fine, but better be safe than sorry. Put the lamb and carrots into the pot you want to serve them in. pour the sauce over and set aside until you need it. This is the point at which you can chill or freeze the blanquette.

Just before serving reheat your lamb blanquette. Make sure the meat is properly hot, then turn down the heat and add the crème fraîche egg yolk mix. Let it come to a small simmer, but don’t boil it, or the egg will scramble. Serve. The addition of the roux prevents the egg yolk from curdling immediately, so you can simmer it without danger.

Egg White Pasta

  • 320g plain flour
  • 80g semolina
  • 180g egg white
  • 1 level tsp salt

Leave the dough to rest for an hour, then roll it out in a pasta machine to the thickness you want. On my Marcato Atlas, we roll it to #7, which is quite thin. Dust your pasta sheets well and cut them into any shape you like. I think pappardelle work very well with blanquette. Boil them for about two minutes, put them into a big bowl, add a generous cut of butter and a chopped herb of your choice. My choice is usually chervil.

Roast Broccolini & Mushrooms

This is super easy; just blanch the whole broccolini for 2 minutes, then drop them into an ice bath. Toss the mushrooms with olive oil, salt and black pepper lightly, arrange it all in a shallow tray and make this easy sauce to go over:

  • 50g butter
  • 2 Tbsp capers
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 1 Tbsp fresh thyme
  • salt & black pepper

Chop the garlic roughly, chop the capers and the thyme and although I do all that separately, you could very conveniently chop it all together. Melt the butter in a saucepan and sweat the garlic for a minute without browning it, then add the capers and thyme and stir for a minute. If you chopped all together, just sweat it all together. Salt and pepper lightly and spoon over the vegetables. Bake for 20 minutes in a 180ºC oven.

Good food and good friends make for a great evening. And when you have prepared all your food in advance, you will be able to enjoy the time with your friends without having to run around the kitchen. The roast vegetables will happily wait, the blanquette can be ready and all can be on the table while you quickly boil up the pasta. Carry your big bowl of buttered pasta to the table, sit down and forget the world for a short while.

Hausfrauen Ratschlag

I like to buy a whole boneless leg of lamb and I like to buy it frozen, because most so-called chilled lamb in this country has been frozen before and then defrosted and if it hasn’t, you have no idea when it was shipped and how old it really is. So I buy frozen and if I have the time, I defrost over 2 days in the chiller.

What if the lamb is frozen solid and you want to cook it NOW? Fret not! Leave the lamb out for 2 hours. Our Malaysian temperature will have defrosted it enough for you to use a sharp knife to cut it. And if you want to make half a recipe, cut the lamb in half and return one of the pieces to the freezer. Double freezing the little defrosted part is not going to kill anyone. Cut what you need into 1.5″ pieces while it’s still frozen and it will defrost much faster, as long as you put it into a tray in one layer. Cover with cling film to prevent it from drying out.

I’m too lazy to make roux, what do I do? Let the 60g butter come to room temperature and sieve 60g flour into it, then mix to a homogeneous paste. In fact it is a good idea to always have a bit of this “beurre manié” in the chiller. Add it bit by bit to your stock and whisk it in.

I can’t find crème fraîche! Replace it with sour cream. If that can’t be found either, use whipping cream and slowly add a tablespoon of lemon juice to it. This will thicken the cream and acidify it.