Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eating my fill

I think I've cooked less this Christmas than I ever have before, thanks to a combination of being invited to eat out, and having goodies brought to me (thank you all - you know who you are, and you know how much I enjoyed it all). On Christmas day night we had last year's pudding, doused  liberally with extra brandy and steamed for two hours. It was a great success - except that because Harvey wasn't here, we couldn't get the brandy to flame up around it (he was always in charge of that and got it right).
But one thing I did manage to make, or at any rate assemble, was a new kind of mince pie. Last year Ali had given me some of her mistressly home-made Christmas mincemeat, but because of the upheavals back then I hadn't used much of it, and still had plenty left. It's as different from bought mincemeat as magnificent home-made marmalade is from its supermarket equivalent.

I love Christmas mince pies, but while I'll happily eat the ones with sweet short pastry when I'm given them, I've always preferred them made with flaky pastry and served warm. This year I came up with a new idea that suited me perfectly. I bought little ready-made filo pastry cases from Tony Gamboni, carefully filled them with Ali's mincemeat and heated them up gently in the oven. But when I went to take a photo I discovered I'd used all the cases, so I'll get some more when the deli reopens and put a photo in later. We had them for lunch after our gathering for Harvey's plaque, and I made some more for myself on Christmas Eve. You keep the cases and mincemeat separate until you need them, so they're perfect for extra visitors.

Another very simple Christmas treat I've got used to is buying the Italian Christmas bread, panettone, and toasting slices of it for breakfast.  It's like a slightly solider brioche with crystallised peel and dried fruit, and the first time I had it was the year Harvey and I had Christmas dinner at Lake Como, when they served it as the last of six courses.
           This year I didn't have it on Christmas morning because I was going down the road for fruit and croissants, first with Paul's home-smoked salmon and then with Lesley's jam. But I've been happily tucking in ever since. One medium panettone lasts a long time if you keep it in the fridge, and the last of it makes amazing bread and butter pudding.
           On Wednesday I went up the coast to friends at their beautiful beach house for the afternoon and dinner outside (it was the last fine day). We had their home-smoked kahawai made into pate, and barbecued Middle Eastern spicy lamb fillets. I took the dessert - berries and lemon mousse (see that post too), which I decorated with more dried strawberries. I used all the pretty heart-shaped pieces, and kept the little side bits for myself. This morning I had them piled on toasted and buttered panettone, and it was absolute bliss, halfway between fruit and jam.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Moreish mayonnaise

Home-made mayonnaise comes in really handy at this time of year. The asparagus will soon be finished, so it's good to make the most of it. Then there's potato salad - those lovely little Jersey Bennes make a really good one - and mayonnaise is great for that too, or for any kind of salmon.
          The classic Julia Child recipe - not the tricky hand-made one, but the one you make in the food processor (she says it works much better than a blender for this) - makes quite a lot, and last week I wanted less, so I just adapted the recipe slightly and it worked fine.

Food processor mayonnaise (after Julia Child)
1 egg and 1 yolk
Process these together in the blender for a minute.

Pinch of dry mustard
1/4 tsp salt
Fresh lemon juice and/or wine vinegar

With the machine running, add the mustard, salt, and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.

1 cup best quality salad oil (you can also use olive oil, but I think a lighter oil tastes better, though it must be fresh, not old. I used canola.)
More salt, pepper, and lemon juice or vinegar as needed

Put the oil in a jug. With the machine running, start adding the oil in a stream of droplets, until you've used half the oil and the mayonnaise is very thick. Thin it out with lemon juice or vinegar, then continue with the oil until the whole cup has gone in. Taste and season carefully with more salt, pepper, and lemon juice or vinegar if required.

The way these very basic ingredients turn into such gloriously thick, glossy, delectable stuff always strikes me as a kind of kitchen magic. Bon appetit!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Essence of strawberries

I wanted to make something special but very simple for a dinner tonight. Harriet Harcourt's blog Fridge Pie has an astonishing recipe for pink peppercorn meringues, lime curd and dried strawberries. I'll make the whole thing one day, but for tonight, all I wanted was the dried strawberries.
           The recipe is really simple, it just takes a little time. Preheat the oven to 100C (or a little lower fan forced - I put mine at 90C). Slice 250g strawberries into thin slices. I used large ones, and got two heart-shaped centre slices and two side bits out of each strawberry. Place a sheet of baking paper on an oven tray and lay out the strawberry slices on it. Sprinkle them with 3 teaspoons of caster sugar. 

Bake for an hour, or until dry. I found it worked best to turn each slice over carefully when the top side was dry, and leave them in for another 10-15 minutes to dry off the other side. 

When they're cool,. lift them off carefully and leave on a rack.

They leave little strawberry ghosts behind on the paper.
         We ate these entirely by themselves, after the cheese, but they'd also be very good alongside strawberry ice-cream, or on top of tarts... They look beautiful and give a burst of pure, intense strawberry flavour. There were three left, so naturally I ate them while I wrote this.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas pudding advisory

On 28 November last year I  wrote about our Christmas and making the pudding, and Deborah commented: "I'm hoping that next year you will put a Public Service Advisory on your blog, telling us it's time to make our puddings, and linking to this post."
          I'm sorry, I didn't think about it until today, but there's still time to make a pudding if you do it soon - it will taste fine, I sometimes didn't get around to making ours until early December.
          But I'm not making one this year. I don't, of course, feel festive anyway, as readers of this and my Elsewoman blog will understand. But in any case there's no need to make a pudding, as I still have the one I made last year sitting in the fridge - we never ate it then.           
           I was a little anxious about whether it would be okay, but I checked it today and it's fine.

So I and the friends joining me in the evening of Christmas Day, in time to watch the Queen's Message, as we've always done, will definitely have it this year. Provided I remember to make sure there's enough brandy, and put it on in time to steam for two hours.... 
        And we'll raise a toast to Harvey (it won't be the first that day) before we eat it. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Strawberries and salted lemons

My friend Jane P. brought me this clever strawberry huller from New York, and it works brilliantly. Last Saturday I hulled a whole lot of luscious little red critters ready to cut in half and steep in bitter orange liqueur for dessert.

But three of them - one each - were enormous, and deserved a different fate. I'd already taken their stalks out, so I couldn't easily dip their pointy ends in melted chocolate. Instead I used the chocolate to fill the holes in their tops. Not only do they look good, but you get more chocolate this way.

This week called for sterner stuff. Today I went to a friend's for lunch (my boursin with her French bread, a lovely light orange and chicken salad, strawberries, and her firmish, superbly chewy/melty brownies), to get our strength up for the afternoon's task: preserving lemons.
      I'm very keen on preserved lemons, but they're very expensive to buy, and often the bought ones have vinegar added, which is not good. They're one of the few preserves I'm happy to make. All you do is:
- Collect jars with lids - the mouths should be wide enough to push in a whole smallish lemon, and you'll want the jars big enough to get in around six lemons each - and put them and their lids through a hot dishwash cycle while you prepare the lemons. Make sure to keep the jars and lids matched.
- Get hold of enough smallish, firm, evenly yellow lemons (our Karori New World had really good ones this week, but they're even better fresh from the tree, if you've got one - mine is bravely struggling to survive).
- Either collect enough big juicy easy-to-squeeze lemons for juice to fill your jars, or cheat (as we did) and buy freshly squeezed lemon juice by the litre.
- Have ready about half a cup of salt for each jar, and enough olive oil to put a very thin layer over the top of each jar.
- Take off the stems and stem ends and cut the lemons almost in half lengthwise through the pointy end, then almost in half again the other way (so you get four quarters, still joined at the stem end)
- Put all the salt in a deep bowl and push each cut lemon into it, so that the salt goes up inside and more or less evenly coats each cut surface.
- Shake out any excess, or scrape it out with a teaspoon. (Of course if you're meant to be on a low-salt diet, you shouldn't make or eat these at all.)
- Push the lemons as tightly as possible into the jars - you can split some up into halves or quarters to fill awkward side gaps.
- Fill the jars carefully with juice, almost to the top. (My friend Ali says that instead, if you're patient, you can leave the jars in the pantry (not the fridge - see second comment below) and within a few days the lemons will have made lots of juice of their own, so then you just need to top the jars up - but we weren't patient.)
- Pour a very thin layer of olive oil over the top of each jar.
- Wipe the rims to get rid of salt, put the lids on, and tighten them.
- Leave the jars for at least four weeks. Once they've been opened, store them in the fridge.
- Eat the lemon skins (you're supposed to discard the flesh, but I often don't bother, I just eat that too) with grilled chicken, steak, chops, or fish, or use in salads. The salty lemony oily juice is delicious used sparingly in salad dressings or Middle Eastern stews or couscous. 
     Some recipes say you can use brine instead of juice, but this doesn't really work, they don't taste nearly as good. Our jars didn't look beautiful because the lemon juice was cloudy, not clear, and we weren't aiming for A & P prize quality, but I'm sure they'll taste fine.