Escargots de Bourgogne

It’s a bit of a weird tradition, but my mother used to serve either snails or frog’s legs in garlic butter for our New Year’s Eve starter. In hindsight, it’s probably a good idea to fill everyone up with lashings of butter before they start the serious drinking. It’s a tradition I am going to revive for my own New Year’s 2020, the first year I will be home for the evening in about 15 years! The great thing about snails is that you can make it all in advance and just push it into the oven on the night. The other added advantage is the wonderful smell that will permeate the house and make the neighbours jealous. I did a trial run at our friend’s house a few days ago, so here’s the recipe.

I use these little ceramic 6 snail pans, which you should be able to buy cheaply online, or from a professional catering supplier. These come from FKF in Kuala Lumpur and are by far not as expensive as they look. https://www.fkfhotelsupply.com.my/

Snails in Garlic Butter

  • 36 prepared snails (you can buy a perfectly decent 12 dozen can online and freeze whatever you are not using)
  • 220g unsalted butter
  • 25g / 1 heaped Tbsp chopped garlic
  • 15ml / 1½ Tbsp lemon juice
  • 12g / 2 heaped Tbsp chopped parsley
  • 7g / 1 heaped Tbsp finely sliced celery leaf stalks
  • 15g / 2 Tbsp chopped shallots
  • 8g /1½ tsp salt
  • pepper to taste
  • 6 Tbsp lightly seasoned breadcrumbs

This recipe will give you exactly enough garlic butter for the snails, provided you use traditional ceramic trays to prepare your snails in. If you are using snail shells, you will need about 30% more garlic butter. I have used canned snails, but feel free to use fresh ones if you know what to do and have the determination to do it.

Leave the butter out to come to room temperature. Properly softened butter will make your life a lot easier. Chop the garlic really fine, without turning it into a paste. The same goes for the parsley. Celery leaf is quite bitter, so I prefer to use just the stalks, finely sliced. I don’t chop the shallot either but dice it really fine.

Beat the softened butter to fluff it up, then beat in all the ingredients. You will want to check the seasoning. Your butter should be quite salty, but not ridiculously so. Remember that salt dissolved much more slowly in butter than in liquid, so leave it to stand a while before you taste it, or you might be in for a rude awakening later.

Drain and rinse your snails, then dry them on kitchen paper. They don’t need to be completely dry. I sometimes boil them up in a little court bouillon, but it’s not entirely necessary. Put a half a teaspoon of the garlic butter into the bottom of every little hole in your ceramic snail tray, place a snail into each and top with one more teaspoon of garlic butter. The snails do not need to be completely covered, or completely inside the indentation, so don’t worry how the thing looks like at this stage.

You can do this in advance and then keep the trays in the chiller until you need them, but they will also happily wait at room temperature for an hour or so. Pre-heat your oven to 180ºC and bake the snails until they bubble furiously, about 15-25 minutes, depending on whether the snails were cold or not. It’s quite hard to overcook them, so make sure they are properly heated.

Put about a tablespoonful of breadcrumbs all over each tray, turn the oven to grill setting and grill until the top is nicely browned. I like to mix my breadcrumbs with a little chopped garlic and parsley, as well as a bit of salt and black pepper, but again, it’s not entirely necessary, as long as you salted the butter properly. Eat while hot, but try not to burn your lips, these things are boiling hot!

A Christmas Jam

This year we decided to give some homemade jams and cookies to our friends for Christmas. If you haven’t received yours, you’re either not our friend, or we just haven’t made enough yet. It’s quite an undertaking and over the last two weeks I have made 6 types of cookies and 5 types of jam, which translates into hours of stirring, piping and packing. Although I like all the jams I made, the one that is most Christmassy is the apricot, citrus & cranberry one I’m going to share with you today.

If you find the idea of making jam daunting and dread the mere thought of having to sterilise jars, let me assure you that you won’t have to. There is nothing quite as good as a homemade jam. it’s the one thing that is sure to impress visitors. “I made some scones and here’s some jam I made to go with it” just casually mentioned will make most people shrivel of inadequacy.

How do you achieve this casual feeling of superiority? Follow this recipe:

Apricot, Citrus & Cranberry Jam

The idea was to make a jam that tastes like Christmas, but without adding spices and I think I’ve succeeded. At least that’s what my friends tell me, but then they’re all very kind.

makes about 2 litres of jam

  • 500g dried apricots
  • 500g dried cranberries
  • zest & juice of 2 oranges
  • zest & juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 litre water
  • 1kg caster sugar (no, it won’t be too sweet!)
  • 20g pectin powder (you can get that online, or from a good baking shop)

Cut the apricots into 1cm dice, put them into a pot and mix them with the whole dried cranberries. Zest the lemons and oranges into the pot. Juice the lemons and oranges and strain the juice over the fruit mix. Add 1 litre water and bring the whole thing to a boil. Do not add the sugar at this point!

Simmer the jam until the apricots are just soft. You don’t want the fruit to fall apart. It will take about 45minutes to an hour. Now mix the pectin powder with the sugar. Make sure this is very well and evenly mixed, or you will end up with lumps of gel in your jam, which is not an attractive thing.

Have all your jars washed, dried and ready. Stir the sugar & pectin into the jam and bring to a rolling boil for just one minute. Turn off the heat and immediately fill your jars with the jam. Close the lids tightly, trying not to burn yourself. The jam is so hat at this point that it will automatically sterilise your jars, so there is no need to boil them first, or steam them.

I have used this system for years and never had a problem with any of my jams. They literally keep for years! We have eaten 5 year old jam and live to tell the tale.

NOTE:          It is perfectly possible to make the jam without pectin. It won’t gel as nicely, but the flavour will be the same. If you can’t find pectin, reduce the amount of water to 600ml for a stiffer jam, but make sure your jam doesn’t burn at the bottom of the pot.

Minestrone Soup

I’ve bemoaned the lack of interest in soup before, but I’ll say it again: A good soup is deeply gratifying to make, heartwarming to eat, soul supporting to digest and furthermore it is an excellent indicator of a cook’s abilities . In a soup, especially a clear one, there is no hiding. All your flaws, lazy ass cut corner ways and lack of basic talent will be painfully visible. So if you’re an indifferent cook, now is the time to learn. Fortunately making stocks and soups really isn’t rocket science. Start by looking up the basics: Taking Stock and Making It.

If you are going to make minestrone, there is really no way around making stock first. Cubes will be a terrible idea and a Campbell packet, though serviceable for sauces and even cream soups just won’t cut it in a minestra. Minestrone comes from “minestrare”, “to administer” in the sense of serving a restorative, which is of course where the word restaurant comes from.

She ain’t no looker, but boy does she have taste!

Makes enough soup for a starter for 6, or lunch for 4

  • 1.2l good chicken stock
  • Parmesan rind, at least the size of half your palm
  • olive oil for frying
  • 100g sliced baby carrots
  • 100g sliced celery
  • 100g diced beans
  • 180g diced brown onion
  • 150g cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 can cannellini beans, drained and washed
  • 3 Tbsp simple tomato sauce or ½ can diced tomatoes
  • salt & black pepper
  • grated parmesan and ground black pepper to serve

There are as many recipes for minestrone as there are people in Italy, so feel free to substitute celery for broccoli, onion for leek and pearl barley for beans. As long as your stock is a good one, your soup won’t suffer.

Your chicken stock should not be too fat, but a light covering of grease is not a bad thing. As far as the parmesan rind is concerned, peel off any wax covering and grate whatever usable cheese can be grated off. You really need only the rind. It’s not a disaster if you don’t have one, but try and keep all your old parmesan rinds from now on. They keep in the chiller for half a year at least and you can freeze them if you like. It will change the texture, but not the flavour, which is what we are after. It’s this parmesan rind that will give our soup a smell and flavour I remember from childhood. (Nostalgia setting in)

Bring the stock to a light simmer, add the parmesan rind and keep the stock simmering for 20 minutes to half an hour. I taste my stock and see whether it needs to be reduced or not. If it does, I leave the pot open, if it doesn’t, I partially cover it with a lid.

What size you dice your vegetables is really up to you, just don’t cut a superfine brunoise. This is a country soup. Beans are of course not really diced, but just sliced the same length as the other dice. I found some organic baby carrots, so rather than peeling them, I scraped the rind off and cut them into rounds. Continuing on the country soup theme, I picked the thinner branches of celery and just sliced them. These little Chitose tomatoes you can get from Isetan in KL are sweet and ripe, which is ideal. If you can’t find ripe tomatoes, lightly salt and sugar your cut tomatoes and leave them to marinate at room temperature for about half and hour, then use them together with the juice they have produced.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast iron pot (if you have one) and fry the onion and carrots in it for about two minutes. Make sure they don’t brown. Add the celery and fry for another minute. Now add the beans and fry for one more minute. Strain the stock into the vegetables, add the simple tomato sauce (or your half can of diced tomatoes. and simmer for about 15-20 minutes. While the stock is simmering, drain the cannellini beans and wash them under running water.

A word about canned beans; I found these canned beans to be of better quality than any of the dried beans I could buy and cook here in Malaysia, so it’s not just about convenience, but also about taste. One drawback is the fact that they can’t be boiled for very long, or they will fall apart, so they won’t add much starch to your soup. But they are wonderfully tender and taste as a bean should taste.

Feel free to use dried beans and boil them to tender loveliness, if you like, I’m sticking to my cheating ways. Oh, and if you can’t find cannellini beans, borlotti will do just as nicely. Just please don’t use red kidney beans. Reserve those for your Mexican Chilli.

This soup is not one that should have crunchy vegetables in it, so simmer until they are soft, then add the beans. If you are making the soup to serve later, don’t add the tomatoes until you have reheated the minestrone. They just need two to three minutes to heat through and soften lightly.

Just before serving, gently reheat your soup, add the tomatoes and simmer very gently for 2 minutes and you are ready to eat! Serve this with chunky bread and a bowl of freshly grated parmesan. I’ve also served this with Taleggio toast or even pesto bruschetta. See the note below.

Hausfrauen Ratschlag

Minestrone makes a great One Dish Lunch or even a light dinner. Here’s a few tips on what you can do to make your soup more substantial:

  1. Once you have fried the vegetables, dust one tablespoon of flour over and stir it in. Fry for 30 seconds, then add the stock. Increase the bean content from one to two cans and simmer an additional 5-10 minutes after adding the beans, to allow some of them to break up a little. (Don’t turn it into mash, though!)
  2. Slice a nice, thick piece of bread, butter or oil both sides lightly and toast, then spread one side with a little pesto, place it into your soup plate or bowl, grate parmesan on the bread and pour the minestrone over it all.
  3. Cut a few Italian sausages into thick rounds and boil them in your soup. Count about half a sausage per person.
  4. If you’re feeling really greedy, do all the above.

Peanut Butter Cookies

When I told Eddie I was going to make peanut butter cookies, he objected, saying he didn’t really like them. Well, he’s eaten half the batch, so never listen to what the children say! I haven’t made cookies in a while, so I had quite forgotten what quantity of dough I needed to fill the two trays I’m normally happy to make and ended up with twice as many cookies as we really needed. Well, no one really needs cookies, do they? But as far as unnecessary cookies go, these are really good ones.

I made the first batch without putting a peanut on top and to be honest, I also slightly overbaked them, so now I know what to do and your will be perfect. I used Skippy Crunchy Peanut Butter to make mine, but if you want to be healthy, you could use organic peanut butter. Or you could just not make cookies…

Makes about 60 cookies of 17g each

  • 200g butter
  • 200g crunchy peanut butter
  • 120g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 120g soft brown sugar
  • 300g flour
  • 1g salt
  • 2.5g (1tsp) baking powder
  • 4.5g (1½tsp)  baking soda

Leave your butter out for a good hour before you start. I dice mine and chuck it into the bowl of the stand mixer and cover it with those handy plastic covers that come with the bowls. Don’t worry about the butter getting too soft. This dough is so soft, you will need to chill it for a good while before you can shape it anyway. Once the butter is soft, add the peanut butter and sugars. Using the paddle attachment, cream the dough until it is really light and fluffy, then add the eggs one by one.

Sift the flour with the baking soda and baking powder, add the salt and stir it into the butter mixture, then chill for at least two hours. I actually make the dough a day before I shape it. I take out the butter before showering in the morning, then quickly make the dough after my coffee and scrape it into a bowl and leave it for the next morning. Nothing softens your hands quite like rolling 60 peanut butter balls in the morning.

Form 17g balls of the dough (I use my scales to do this, but then I’m a bit OCDC), flatten them and then score them with a fork. All of this is easier said then done, because in our Malaysian climate the dough melts super fast, so you may need to return it to the chiller at intervals. I basically rolled and flattened one sheet of 15 cookies, well spaces as they expand quite enthusiastically, then stuck it in the chiller while I made another tray, by which time they were just ready to be stored and peanut decorated.

It’s a good idea to put the read to bake cookies into the freezer for half an hour before baking them, It will help them keep their shape. Bake at 170ºC-175ºC for 10 minutes, then turn off the oven, open the door and leave the cookies to dry out in the oven. If you’re doing them in batches, just finish the whole lot, then return all the trays to the oven after you have turned it off. Do NOT exceed 175ºC, or your cookies will turn out like mine. Overbaked.

Half batch for 30 cookies:

  • 100g butter
  • 100g crunchy peanut butter
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 60g soft brown sugar
  • 150g flour
  • 0.5g salt
  • 1.3g (½ tsp) baking powder
  • 2.3g (½ heaped tsp)  baking soda

Baked Chicken with Black Olives

This is one of those dishes you can very quickly throw together if you have only an hour to cook. Even if you don’t have readymade tomato sauce, you can cheat and I’ll show you how. Just please don’t go out and buy tomato sauce in a jar. There simply isn’t a good one. So what you will need is:

  • 4 chicken thighs, or 2 whole chicken legs cut into 2 (well, 4, but you see what I mean)
  • 4 slices of Parma or Serrano Ham (or smoked cheese slices, if you’re not the porky type)
  • 300ml simple tomato sauce A Simple Tomato Sauce
  • 1 big brown onion
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • 1 glass white wine, about 125ml. More if you drink some.
  • 1 handful black olives
  • 1 handful sweet basil leaves
  • 1 handful breadcrumbs
  • salt & black pepper
  • plenty of good olive oil

I like to buy a whole chicken, because the quality of the pre-cut chicken is often very dubious. I portion the chicken up myself, so I have the carcass for soup and the breasts and wings to go in the freezer for another day. But for this recipe I didn’t have the time, so I bought 4 thighs in the shop. If you prefer to use cheese instead of the ham, get deboned chicken. It will be easier to eat. The cheese version is very good, especially if you can get hold of smoked scamorza. Just don’t try anything stupid, like using turkey slice…

Cut your onion into wedges, about 12 wedges to the onion, meaning you halve it, the cut the half in half lengthwise and then cut each half into thirds. Makes perfect sense, I know. Now crush and peel the garlic cloves. Use 5 for the sauce and chop the remaining 3 fine for the breadcrumbs. Here’s what I mean:

We are making a flavoured breadcrumb mix to sprinkle of top of our chicken. Just chop garlic and basil together, mix with pepper, salt and breadcrumbs and you’re done.

Mix your 300ml simple tomato sauce with 100ml water to thin it out a bit. If you don’t have this sauce, just blend one can of whole peeled tomatoes and add a tablespoon of tomato paste to it, then blend to mix. It will still be delicious, trust me. Now salt and pepper the chicken, heat olive oil in a flat, preferably cast iron pan or tray and fry the chicken in it until it’s nice and golden brown. Take it out and leave to cool.

Don’t rinse or wipe the pan, even if you have a few burnt bits in it. Just toss the 5 crushed garlic cloves into the hot oil and fry for just 30 seconds. it should be so hot that the garlic browns instantly. Do not reduce the heat and add all the onions to the pan. Stir, stir and then leave them to brown just lightly. If you stir all the time, they won’t brown, if you don’t stir at all, they’ll burn. you get the idea. Once the onions look good and smell great, pour in the wine you haven’t drunk and let it sizzle to reduce it to a thick honey like consistency.

Now pour your thinned out tomato sauce, or your thickened, blended can of tomatoes in and let this simmer for just a minute. You don’t want the onions to go mushy. They should retain a good texture. I sometimes deglaze with a little red wine vinegar before I add the wine and toss the onions in the vinegar to give them a nice sour edge.

Add the olives before or after, it doesn’t make that much difference. Wrap each piece of chicken with a slice of ham. I say wrap, but its more like cover and tuck the ends under. Place into the sauce. If you’re using cheese, put the chicken into the an first, then cover with (definitely non-Kraft) cheese slices.

Pour a generous amount of olive oil over the chicken and sprinkle as much of the breadcrumbs over as you like. You can make this in the morning, or even the day before and keep it in the chiller, then add the breadcrumbs just before putting it into the oven. It’s a great Sunday Lunch dish! Bake at 180ºC for about 30 minutes. You will need more time in the oven if the dish comes from the chiller. If you watch it closely, you can see when it’s ready. You want the middle of the pan to be bubbling lightly. That’s the point from which you will need another 10 minutes.

You don’t need the breadcrumbs to be dark brown, just lightly toasted is good enough. I serve this with a simple bowl of pasta to which I add a very generous amount of butter. Add a salad and you have a great meal!

Not a Japanese Potato Salad

I thought I had to point this out. Possibly because the only potato salad one is likely to order in any restaurant here in KL is a Potato Salada, which really is more like mashed potatoes with Japanese Kewpie mayo thrown in for good measure. Don’t get me wrong; Japanese potato salad is a very good thing in its own right, but it’s just that; its own thing. If you’ve grown up in a pretty Germanic family (sorry, mother), “ein guter Kartoffelsalat” was what you got on a summer Sunday, either with thickly sliced cooked ham, or Wienerwürstchen.

This recipe isn’t exactly the traditional one I grew up with. It’s my very own, personal and improved version for a new millennium and I think it’s pretty good. Creamy potatoes that don’t fall apart, a mayonnaise with a good amount of zing to it and of course gherkins, boiled chopped egg and crunchy shallots. Capers are allowed, but sliced cocktail sausages are completely verboten! You’re allowed to eat them on the side, but they can’t be added (explain that to anyone!). If you’re in any way teutonic, you will remember eating these straight out of the jar, still dripping with briny, smoked preservative juices.

This is the kind of shallot I’m talking about

For Chef Christian’s Teutonic Potato Salad you will need:

  • 600g small new potatoes (waxy is the word)
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • ½ espresso spoon sea salt
  • about 8 small cocktail gherkins (cornichons)
  • 1 medium shallot
  • about 12 chives (1-2 spring onions will do too)
  • 1 boiled egg

For the mayonnaise:

  • 1 egg yolk, preferably fresh
  • 1 level tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 200ml canola oil
  • 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • salt
  • white pepper
  • a pinch of sugar

A word about potatoes. If you live in a potato country, you will easily be able to find out which potatoes to buy. We want waxy ones, not starchy ones (we keep those for our Japanese Salada), so

Put your washed, but unpeeled potatoes into a steamer filled with water and turn on the heat. I like to steam my potatoes from cold, so they heat up slowly as the water starts to boil. I find it gives a more even texture, as the outside doesn’t steam at full blast while the inside is trying to catch up. It should take about 15 minutes from the time you see steam for your potatoes to cook in this way, but do check every now and again. We want perfectly cooked potatoes, not raw ones and not falling apart ones either. It is a German recipe, after all! I recommend you cut one potato in half when you think they are done and eat it. It’s really the only way to know whether you got it right. Now immediately take the steamed potatoes out and spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet, making sure they do not touch. Place them somewhere cool that is not the chiller.

It will take about 20 minutes before the potatoes are cool enough to comfortably peel, so that’s enough time to make the dressing and the mayonnaise. If you are wondering what I am talking about; we are going to make a first, simple dressing to coat our potatoes with while they are still warm. This will salt them and add that olive oil depth to the potatoes while still leaving our mayonnaise nice and clean tasting. So just quickly whisk the olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt together, then peel the potatoes, cut them into 4 (6, if they are bigger) and put them into a bowl. Don’t use your serving bowl for this, because tossing the potato salad is a messy business and we want a clean bowl to go to the table, ja? Pour the dressing over the still warm potatoes and gently mix. You may find that some of the dressing pools at the bottom of the bowl, but if you give the potatoes a good stir every ten minutes or so, it will soon all be absorbed.

Now make a mayonnaise with the ingredients listed above. If you have no idea how to do this, you’re probably not the only one. Fortunately my previous post tells you how to, so just follow this link Mayonnaise, or the link at the bottom of this post. It’s really not that difficult, so please don’t just buy mayonnaise in a jar.

Now it’s time to put it all together: Cut the chives into about 1cm pieces and add all but one tablespoon (that’s for decoration) to the potatoes. Now peel and chop your boiled egg and keep it aside. Cut the gherkins into small dice, or just chop them, if you’re not feeling German today and add these to the potatoes as well. Now add about two third of the mayonnaise to the potatoes and gently mix in. See if you like it that way and then add as much mayo as you like to your salad. Transfer the potato salad to a clean serving bowl, spoon the chopped egg around the edges and sprinkle the chives (do chives sprinkle?) over the middle. Serve.

Note: There is a reason I chop the chives, then eggs, then gherkins in that order. That way, I don’t need to clean my chopping board in between! A bit of chives on the egg is fine and a bit of egg and chives on the gherkins is fine too. Doesn’t work the other way around!

You can serve this potato salad with boiled Vienna sausages or go all out and be truly German (or was that Austrian) and serve it with Schnitzel One Man’s Schnitzel… whatever you decide, I can promise you it will be delicious!

Mayonnaise

The very first thing you need to do is to throw that jar of mayonnaise away. Yeah, it’s not bad, but it doesn’t taste anything like a real mayonnaise. I have never understood why anyone would buy mayo in a jar, when it can be made in 5 minutes with a few ingredients most people have in their kitchen at anyway. And it won’t split either, if you follow a few simple tricks. So let’s get started.

To make mayonnaise, you will need:

  • 1 egg yolk, preferably fresh
  • 1 level tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 200ml canola oil
  • 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • salt
  • white pepper
  • a pinch of sugar

And that’s it. Start by mixing the egg yolk with the mustard in a bowl. Leave this to stand for a minute. This is trick #1 to get a good stable emulsion going. And just in case you didn’t realise it, mayonnaise is the ultimate emulsion sauce, in which oil droplets are suspended in a cloud of egg yolk. How much oil can you pour into one yolk before it gives up and can’t take it anymore? According to Harold McGee, the God of kitchen science, it should easily hold 24 litres, but even he only tested the theory to 2.5 litres. No matter how much it is, there is very little likelihood of your mayo splitting because you added too much oil. Now that’s comforting to know. (You don’t have to take my word for it either: http://www.vendian.org/envelope/dir1/mayo.html#:~:text=Still%2C%20there%20is%20one%20reason,emulsify%202%20cups%20of%20oil.)

Now the advice to pour the oil in a slow, steady stream has fortunately been debunked, because it is a recipe for disaster. Instead (and this is trick#2), pour a little bit of oil into the egg mustard mix and then whisk it in until you get a smooth emulsion. Continue in the same way. Every time you add oil, you can add a little more than the time before and by the end of it, you could pour a decent oil slick on the emulsion and then whisk it in without any danger of the thing splitting. But of course it’s better not to try how far you can push this idea.

Pour, whisk, pour whisk until about 150ml of your 200ml oil has been used up. You should have quite a stiff mayo by now. This is the point at which I add the vinegar and that’s trick #3. Many recipes tell you to add the vinegar at the beginning, but that makes it harder to get that first all important emulsion going. The vinegar will make your mayonnaise much thinner, but fret not. Just keep adding the rest of the oil and your mayo will stiffen up again.

The last thing for you to do is to season. One word of advice here: Salt slowly and in little steps, then wait for 2 minutes, whisk again and taste. Reason? Salt takes much longer to dissolve in oil than in water, so if you season, taste and season again, you’ll think all is well, but five minutes later your mayo will have become inedibly salty. I use white pepper because I don’t like the black spots of milled pepper, but the choice is yours! The sugar really helps bring out the flavour without actually making the mayo sweet, but again, the choice is yours. The choice of vinegar is a personal one. I use white or red wine, but you could use champagne vinegar. I like cider vinegar in my mayo as well, because it gives a nice earthy flavour. Balsamic on the other hand is a very bad idea, as it most often is.

As for the quantity of vinegar, you will need to adjust this, depending on the acidity of the vinegar you are using, but a tablespoonful is normally just fine.

One last word about oil; if you think olive oil will make a better mayo, you are very much mistaken. You can replace 10%-20% of the total oil with a more flavourful thing, but tread with caution. I like to stay with a clean, mostly flavourless oil, because what was an attractive depth in an olive oil soon becomes cloying or unpleasantly sharp in a mayonnaise. As for Truffle oil, it’s a disgusting awful thing at the best of times and the thought of it in a mayonnaise positively makes me retch, but hey; there’s no accounting for taste.

A Simple Tomato Sauce

There is no such thing as a “real” Italian tomato sauce. Unless you define it as any tomato sauce made in Italy or by Italians, which of course means that I don’t stand a chance in hell. I find all this emphasis on something being “real” mostly a waste of time and space. It is good to understand the origins of a dish, to see how it has evolved over time and distance and how one dish (or sauce) is being translated into many version. (FYI, I ripped the picture of the pasta from the net, as I forgot to take one. Sorry.)

Although I’m not Italian, I have some Italian family and many childhood friends who were first generation Italian immigrants to Luxembourg and I very clearly remember the cooking. My friend’s grandmother, used to making Amatriciana with guanciale, a cured and dried pork cheek for most of her life, discovered the smoked Speck from Luxembourg and from then on much preferred to use that for the smoky flavour it imparted. Who am I to call her change of heart at such a late time in life a departure from reality?

Hotel Restaurant Italia opened 2 years before I was born, has been and still is one of the best Italian restaurants I have ever eaten in.
And I say this after many years of travelling in Italy. Don’t expect fine dining, it still tastes just like when nonna was in the kitchen.

When you travel through Italy, or look at recipes in books, you notice that as you travel south and the country becomes poorer, the tomato sauce becomes ever more basic. Out goes the guanciale, the carrot and celery and what you are left with is the simplest of sauces made with the best possible base ingredients.

My version here is the most basic and my absolute favourite. Eddie and I make up a quick batch and just eat it with pasta or polenta, simply dressed with a touch of virgin olive oil, a few fresh basil leaves and some grated pecorino. I keep small batches in the freezer and also use them as a base for many other sauces and soups. I will do a series of dishes based on this sauce and I will post a few over the next few weeks. It’s perfect if you make filled pasta, as it doesn’t overpower the taste of the filling.

On word of warning: We are starting with 1.2kg canned tomatoes and end up with 600ml of sauce. At 50% the wastage is rather shocking, but there are things you can do to reduce or even completely eliminate the wastage and I will tell you all the tricks as we make the sauce, but honestly, once you taste the result, you won’t mind the wastage at all.

A Simple Tomato Sauce

makes about 600ml when strained

  • 3 x 400g tins of whole tomatoes in tomato juice
  • 100g chopped onion, about 1 small brown onion
  • 50g chopped garlic, about ¾ of a head of garlic
  • 3 Tbsp good olive oil
  • 1 long sprig fresh rosemary (1 tsp dried, f you can’t find fresh, but do try)
  • 1 small handful fresh thyme (or 2 tsp dried)
  • 2 fresh (or dried) bay leaves
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Open your tomato tins (don’t throw the tins away), stick a pair of scissors into the tin and cut the tomatoes into pieces. If you want a higher yield of sauce, blend the tomatoes with their juice before you start cooking. Your onions and garlic can be chopped medium and irregular, if you are going to strain, because you will be throwing them away anyway.

If (and this is the easiest way to get a lot more sauce for your buck) you should choose to keep the onions and garlic in the finished sauce, you will need to chop them at least medium, but best fine. Now that this is clear, heat two generous tablespoons of olive oil in a cast iron pot and fry the onions at medium heat for a good five minutes. Add the garlic and fry for another five minutes on medium. If you see that onions or garlic are starting to brown, lower the heat.

Now add your canned tomatoes and stir. Fill one of the cans about ¾ full of water and swirl it around to dissolve whatever tomato was left in there, then pour this into the second tin and repeat, then into the third. You get the idea. Don’t waste any of that precious tomato. One more word about the tomatoes. If you buy crap canned tomatoes, you will end up with crap sauce. This is not to say that the most expensive are the best. I for one give the expensive organic tomatoes in the environmentally conscious dull can a wide berth. All the ones I have tried are better suited for composting.

Stick your herbs into the sauce, add about a teaspoon or two of rough sea salt and a good grind of black pepper and sit back for an hour and a half. Note that you WILL need to stir the sauce every now and again, or it will burn its bottom. Make sure your sauce is simmering. You don’t want it rolling, but you don’t want it “just under a simmer” either! If is doesn’t lightly splash the wall behind your cooker, you’re not doing it right. If it gets too thick, add water, but make sure to simmer it for at least an hour. And a half.

Here’s something that might annoy you slightly. Once the sauce has simmered, you want to add another can of water to it. You don’t have to, but believe me, it will make straining the sauce ever so much easier! Now a word about the strainer; ideally, you want one of those wholey numbers, not one of the meshy ones. They may be a little hard to come by and if you can’t find one, just use a wide mesh one. Here’s the reason: If the mesh is too fine, you will end up with tomato water and all your pulpy goodness will be in the sieve. You want the pulp, but not the onion, or the seeds, or the skins. Easy, right!

Oh and do resist the temptation to “just blend it”. It would be a disastrous mistake, believe me. If you want to make a blended sauce, you need to make it differently. Pour your strained sauce into a new, smaller pot and bring it back to a simmer. You will see the oil rising to the top. That’s a good thing, in fact it is your indicator of whether the sauce is done or not. As the sauce thickens, the oil will emulsify into the sauce and no longer separate, even after you have stirred it. That’s when your sauce is ready!

The biggest mistake you could make would be to skim the oil off the top, because you would be throwing away a lot of flavour. Don’t adjust the seasoning until the very end, after you have finished the sauce. You will most probably find that you don’t need a lot of extra salt or pepper. So there we are! Our sauce is done. It will keep quite happily in the chiller for a week or more, or frozen for a year or more, as long as it is in an airtight container that is filled pretty much to the top.

There are so many variations to this sauce, even in its basic form, I don’t quite know where to start. If I am making it to use as a base for a meat ragù, I rinse out the tomato cans with a whole can of red wine instead of water. For a quick and simple seafood pasta, I boil my pasta and while it is boiling, I toss some prawns, squid and clams in olive oil and garlic, deglaze with white wine, add chopped fresh chervil or marjoram, then chuck in the pasta, plate it and top it with a tablespoonful of my sauce. The complete recipe for that is coming up as soon as I get time to cook.

Macaroni Cheese

You’ll be laughing and telling me that no one needs a recipe to make macaroni cheese. But this is a special one! Somewhere between a liquid Japanese style one and my good old sliceable Luxembourg one. Oh, and I’m actually lying, it’s not macaroni at all, but penne. Reason being that I had a lot of penne in the pantry (which is really the wet kitchen part of the kitchen). So instead of going to buy more dry pasta, i.e. macaroni, I decided to save the world and use the existing penne instead.

Don’t be daunted by the long list of ingredients. It’s mostly stuff to flavour your custard mix with. I say custard, because that’s really what it is; a savoury custard held together by pasta. I have used pancetta for this, but if you are non-porky, or non-meaty, you could use the ever useful smoked salmon, or even fine diced portobello mushrooms tossed in a bit of garlic. In fact even if you leave the meat/fish/mushroom part out altogether, it will still be perfectly delicious. If you’re vegan, I can’t help you as far as this recipe is concerned.

The question of whether macaroni & cheese is Italian or not really depends on your definition of macaroni cheese. I believe the current version was popularised by The Kraft Cheese Company (Kraft and Cheese being a contradiction in terms), but a pasta and cheese casserole type dish was first mentioned in 14th century in the Italian cookbook, Liber de Coquina and in the English cookbook The Forme of Cury (?!) all of which I have learnt from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macaroni_and_cheese, which as so often provides a truly interesting read.

A Macaroni Cheese that is really a Penne al Forno

If you look closely you will see that there are actually 2 different types of penne. As I said, it’s from the bottom of the cupboard.
  • 400g penne
  • 600ml cream
  • 400ml milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 thick slices of pancetta (about 4mm each)
  • 1 brown onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed and roughly chopped
  • 1 sprig sage
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 1 small sprig rosemary
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • white pepper (black if you prefer)
  • 25g butter, plus extra for buttering the dish
  • 80g Emmenthal cheese
  • 80g Gruyere cheese
  • 5 Tbsp breadcrumbs

A word about quantities; I used an oval ovenproof dish that holds about 2 litres, so the quantities are just right for that dish. There is an easy way to find out how much pasta and sauce you are going to need: Fill the dish you are planning to use halfway full of dry pasta. That’s what you will need. Now fill the dish with water and measure that. Divide by two and that’s the amount of cream/milk mix you will need. And if like me you hate the idea of throwing perfectly good water away, use the measuring water to boil your pasta.

The main difference between my mac&cheese and most others is that I flavour the custard mix before I start. I find it gives so much more depth of flavour that it is really worth the bother: Chop the onion and the garlic roughly, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan big enough to hold the milk and cream and fry on medium heat until the onions are translucent. This will take about ten minutes. If you are scared the garlic might brown or burn, add it a little later, but make sure all the sharp garlic smell is gone. What you are looking for is that creamy roast garlic flavour, not sharpness.

Now pour the cream and milk into the saucepan, add the sage, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and white pepper and bring to just about boiling point. Salt lightly, turn off the heat and leave to infuse while you do the rest of the stuff.

Heat a large pot of water, salt is with about a tablespoon of sea salt and boil your penne in it until just slightly undercooked. Drain and spread on a large baking tray in a single layer. Put it under the aircon to cool quickly. Do NOT wash it in running water, we want all the starch that is on the pasta.

Slice the pancetta into lardons and quickly fry it in a little olive oil. Don’t let it crisp up, so once you hear the first crackling sound, turn off the heat. Grate both cheeses and mix them together. Butter your dish generously.

Beat the eggs lightly, check that your milk/cream mix isn’t hot anymore and stir the eggs into it. Now strain the whole thing into a jug, which will make for easy pouring later. I like to add the eggs before straining because it makes for a smoother mix.

Divide your penne roughly into three and put one third at the bottom of your dish. Try to get it spread out as evenly as you can. Scatter about a little less than a third of the cheese over the pasta, then scatter half the fried pancetta over. Now pour enough custard mix to wet the pasta thoroughly without drowning it. Repeat with the next third of the penne, using up the rest of the pancetta. You won’t need any for the top layer. Finish with another layer of pasta and cheese, the pour the rest of the cream mix over it. Press down gently to make sure all the penne are coated with the mix. Now sprinkle the breadcrumbs over and dot with the butter.

I am supposed to have some nice pictures of all the stages of filling the tray with the penne and the pouring of the cream, etc. but I ended up rushing and then forgot. You could assemble the dish an hour or two before baking it, but the texture of the penne will suffer, so it really is best to do it last minute. Unless you are very organised and chill the penne and custard thoroughly in the fridge, quickly assemble and then return the dish to the chiller, then top it with breadcrumbs just before you shove it into the oven. That will work, but you will need to add 10 extra minutes to your baking time.

Bake at 180ºC for about 30 minutes. You should see the mix bubbling at the side. Turn on the grill to get a nice crust on top, but try not to burn the thing. Take out of the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes before serving. I find that the flavour is much better if it is not scorching hot. But then I think the same about soups and for some people heat is the all important factor.

I am going to try and do a version of this dish in which you do not need to boil the pasta! A kind of “TV Dinner” Macaroni Cheese, so give me a while to experiment and come up with a workable system. We’ll talk again…

Flaxseed Loaf

It’s a Sunday morning and I see that there isn’t much bread left in the freezer, so I decide to make some nice plain white bread. But of course while rummaging through the cupboard, I find that we have bought far too much flaxseed (something to do with yoga. Don’t ask…), but there it is a kilo of flaxseed languishing in the dark of the cupboard. Out goes the idea of a nice white loaf and in comes a flaxseed loaf. I actually have no idea what that is going to taste like, but hey, it’s bread, how wrong can it go?

I made this rather large loaf in my tin with a lid, but without putting the lid on. it’s a large tin, so if you are using a normal cake tin, I suggest you halve the recipe.

No, it’s not burnt!

One sandwich loaf (my tin: L 26cm, W 10cm, D 8cm, about 2 litres)

For the Poolish:

  • 150g organic plain flour
  • 15g dried yeast
  • 150ml water

Mix yeast and flour, stir in the water with a fork. Stir vigorously to make a smooth dough, then cover and leave to rise for 30 minutes. This is the fun part, because once you have assembled all your ingredients and got this poolish going, you can make a nice cup of coffee and read the newspaper until the thing has risen. Just make sure you cover the bowl, so the dough doesn’t dry out on the top.

For the Loaf:

  • 400g organic plain flour
  • 100g whole flaxseeds
  • 20g wheatgerm (optional, replace with an additional 20g flour)
  • 15g fine sea salt
  • 35g Moscovado or other dark sugar
  • 300ml water

Put the flaxseed and wheatgerm into a blender or food processor and blitz to a fine flour. Don’t worry if it isn’t evenly ground, it will add texture. Mix the flours, salt and sugar well. Knock back the starter, add the flour mix and start the mixer on first speed. Slowly pour in the water and once the dough has come together, increase the speed to level 2 and knead for 20 minutes.

While the dough is being kneaded, butter your tin and sift about a half tablespoon of four into it. Tilt, twist and tap the tin to cover all the surfaces with the flour, which should stick to your buttered tin quite nicely, showing up all the places that you forgot to butter properly.

Scrape the dough out of the bowl directly into the tin. Wet your hands repeatedly and push the dough into the tin as evenly as you can. Sift some flour on top and leave to rise leave for 30-35 minutes until the dough has risen well above the tin.

While the loaf is rising, heat your oven as high as it will go. When the loaf is ready, gingerly transport it to the oven, close the door and reduce the heat to 220ºC. Leave to bake for 35 minutes.

It turned out pretty tasty, so I’m going to add this one to my bread repertoire! One and a half hours to get a nice, fresh, healthy loaf; I think it’s time well invested. Especially since 80 minutes of this time involve doing nothing at all!