Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Kitsch hen tips

Unusually, for a being with such confident knife skills, there is one kitchen instrument that strikes terror in the heart of BSG - not to mention that of his intrepid sidekick, moi: the Japanese mandolin. Far from it being a sweet-sounding instrument that might be played at a tea ceremony, it is one rather of death to the fingertips. Not only does it sound like some kind of venomous snake, it is deadly sharp and even has a part called the ‘blade mouth’ – if there ever was a scarier piece of cuisine kit I’ve yet to meet it; at least a meat cleaver states its intention from the off.

So, one fine day, a borage-flower blue dome of spring sky hanging overhead, peaceful and unbroken by even a scratch of aeroplane vapour, I decided to face the fear. We were making celeriac remoulade, which is not only one of my favourite things but I also happened to be making it with the best people imaginable: this was my hen do and, even better, not a fluffy handcuff in sight. In his light and airy establishment, succinctly named The Kitchen, Thierry Laborde, our host and teacher (and self-confessed king of the risotto) was giving us a master class on the canapé. What a perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon.


There it was, the table top guillotine, its blade glinting in the sun, flashing its razor-sharp smile, daring me to use it.

“Don’t press too ‘ard”, warned Thierry.

There was no danger of that. Even as I moved the considerable piece of celeriac in downward motions, it was clear that the mandolin was a beast that needed an authoritative grip. That was not mine. Quaking with fear, I quickly switched to the far more time-consuming practice of thinly slicing and julienning the warty root with my trusty knife – very satisfying, but rather one to try if you had all afternoon; a grater did the lion’s share of the job, though produced a rather less crunchy end product. I could hear my cooking companion, Zo, sigh with relief as I put the thing down: this was a party after all, there was champagne* to be had and I was probably supposed to be smiling – the mandolin had required complete concentration and I’d probably have ended up in A&E. Thankfully, no harm was done to any digits, and I’m pretty sure there’s an attachment on our wish-list food processor that does away with any need for a second encounter…

Atop our perfect - even if we do say so ourselves - celeriac nest in its very neat pastry case (no, we didn’t have that much time on our hands – these were premade), we sat half a perfectly hard-boiled quail’s egg and a tiny leaf of parsley. Not quite the toasted pitta and dip you barely have time to throw in a bowl after a day at the office but very dainty nonetheless. It was all starting to feel rather Good Housekeeping; that is, until Thierry instructed us on making our fishcakes by rolling them into little balls between our hands when the champagne kicked in and the double entendres really took off.

They must get it all the time…

By the time we got to crab and granny smith apple (delicious!) quenelles on melba-toast boats the class had stormed the lesson and I think the maestro was already daydreaming up his next risotto. If this had been a beauty contest, I’m not sure my offerings would have passed, but they tasted great.

Celeriac remoulade

To make this, all you need to do is grate or finely chop the celeriac into strips (about a quarter would serve two easily as a salad.)

Mix in a bowl with a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise and some Dijon mustard (wholegrain is delicious) and a good twist of salt and pepper.

Et voila!

If you want to top with a quail’s egg, a la Thierry, here’s a top tip for peeling the little varmints:

After cooling in cold water, leave the cooked eggs in malt vinegar for a few hours – the vinegar is too mild to taint the flavour and the shells will soften and peel off easily. Magic.

*The Kitchen are licensed – bliss!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Macaroni cheese please

There are plenty of things in life that one doesn’t need but that one wants, a case in point being the yoghurt maker that the BSG has added to our wedding list…I think our kitchen is one white good short of a showroom already (I’m also rather excited at this extension of his repertoire.) Other objects are completely necessary but equally unexciting, such as the ironing board on the very same list. Then there are the things that there is no need or desire for, things that are destined to be clutter, items found throughout mail-order catalogues and languishing among the badly-cut final pages of weekend newspaper supplements.

The appendix, of which I am now a proud ex-owner, seems to be the body’s version of aforementioned clutter. Apart from its great propensity to rupture at any given point, rendering its holder very unwell or worse, its function is long extinct along with our grass-chomping days: an evolutionary hangover, as my friend Caz puts it. As it turns out, they are as ugly as they are useless, so I am glad I never got to meet mine.

Hospital fare is not much to write home or anywhere else about, so I didn’t (odd, in an institution so geared towards mending, that nutrition is not given more thought). Suffice it to say that powdered mashed potato and beige plastic have their special place in the world.

The first night there, not knowing quite what the problem was, I was lulled into peaceful sanctuary in my cubicle, shrouded by a light green curtain, floating, like the Water-Rat in his boat beneath a weeping willow (or perhaps that was the Morphine). By night number two I was fully aware that hospitals, like aeroplanes, are places in which you barely snatch at sleep, aware of continuous ambient noise and fighting a losing battle to get comfortable. Once you’ve had the required procedure, its high time to ditch the IV and surgery socks, and hot foot it out of there. For 3 days I was foiled in my attempts at meeting release requirements – quite enough time to work up a healthy appetite.

The BSG, as well as dodging hostile scrums of agency nurses on the ward in order to keep me company, welcomed me home with the most comforting, unctuous, loving supper I could have ever dreamed of. It took me back to nursery days of scrapes, hugs, teatimes and stories. I’m not sure if it’s the macaroni, a building stuff of childhood classrooms, glued to paper, sprayed gold and strung onto necklaces as much as it was eaten, or the cheese, the lovely, warm, oozy cheese that makes this dish so, so right. And there have to be tomatoes on the golden crusty top. And plenty of ketchup alongside.I am definitely on the mend.

Macaroni Cheese

Serves 4 (no harm in making too much though)

110g macaroni

20g butter

20g plain flour

pinch of cayenne pepper

half teaspoon of mustard powder

425 ml milk

170g strong cheddar

20g parmesan

3 rashers of unsmoked bacon, diced

half an onion, diced

1 large sliced or a handful of halved cherry tomatoes

Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta in plenty of rapidly boiling water (so it stays moving and doesn’t stick) until just tender

Melt the butter in a pan, add the flour, cayenne pepper and mustard powder. Stir and cook the roux for a minute or so, before adding the milk, stirring all the time until boiling. Then simmer for a couple of minutes, it should thicken, but stir out the lumps. Stir in the cheese, keeping a bit for the top.

Fry the bacon bits and sweat the onion in a pan.

Add the macaroni to the cheese, the bacon and onion and mix well. Season to taste and put into a shallow, ovenproof dish, topping with the rest of the cheese and the sliced tomatoes.

Bake in an oven (about 180 degrees) for 25 minutes or until golden and bubbling on top.