Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Family time & the art of relaxed eating

I've learned as well anyone might during the last few years, just how precious family time is. The last year has been tough on my own family.  In the past, I've been quite privileged to have worked in some comparatively balanced working environments as a researcher in the public sectors. The difference between this and running your own business is quite a shock to the system.  Oh what I'd give for 30 days paid annual leave (never mind a rather slick 37.5 hour salaried week).

Anyway, back on topic, family time and the art of relaxed eating... it's such a joy when it comes together, so I thought I'd share this successful menu, hopefully for some inspiration and practical tips to aid a few more relaxed family get togethers at home. I don't think there is anything particularly clever or challenging about this menu. It's more of case of some lovely dishes that just go beautifully together.

I've got quite a big family these days (probably as I'm now properly middle-aged!). I was struggling to find a booking for fourteen people locally that could offer that Mediterranean and Middle Eastern relaxed style of food (that would taste awesome of course).  And family groups can differ so much in their eating preferences these days, then add a decent cohort of vegetarians and other varieties of fussy eaters, it becomes a bit of a culinary minefield.  Chilli spice is off the table due to little appetites and a hiatus hernia. 

When I worked at Ottolenghi during a couple of stages, I remember thinking that the deli looked like his books come to life. Beautiful, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, nourishing and that aubergine salad.. to this day, it continues to astound me with flavour and texture. There was always a piece of perfectly cooked beef and fish, surrounded by stunning salads piled high like colourful little mountains. Then I remembered I had leftover stock in the freezer. So that was that, I would cook for everyone and for the first time in ages I was very excited about it.

I've been eyeing a few recipes in Simon Hopkinson's The Good Cook lately, so I decided to usurp Ottolenghi's aubergine dish for Hopkinson's.  The Good Cook recipe is passed on from his friend, with Simon claiming it was the best aubergine dish he ever had. So that was going on the menu. I also had a delicious salad a couple of weeks ago, from Wendy Swetnam, a talented vegetarian chef who was doing a bit of cooking at new local cafe, Cowherd.  I'm not normally one for putting fruit in my savoury food, but radish, apple and fennel are seriously good together.

My lovely stepmum agreed to help and we made enough to feed twenty or more people. You could easily cut some dishes out from the menu.  After all, I had the benefit of some prepped stock in my freezer, but then that shouldn't stop you doing exactly the same. Arancini are far less fiddly to make than cauliflower cheese bonbons, if you want to save some time.  And both can be prepped in advance and even frozen.  We had a great family dinner and I spent very little time in the kitchen, and got to be with my family.  Just how it should be!

The Menu

Arancini with leek & Montagnolo Affine*
Cauliflower cheese bonbons*
Roast sirloin of Cheshire beef
Scrumpy braised gammon with roasted mustard glaze*
Jumbo king prawns with garlic, lime & chilli (deseeded)*

Aubergine salad with garlic, parsley & feta*
Rocket salad with pear & Grana Moravia (vegetarian hard cheese)
Fennel, radish & apple salad with parsley, lemon, maple & sumac
Mozzarella & basil salad with balsamic
Artichoke hearts with sun dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, capers & olives
Greek salad & marinated olives
Roasted sweet peppers stuffed with mozzarella & basil
Guacamole & red pepper humous

Local artisan bread
Cheese board
Pavlova with berries, mango & passionfruit*

Recipes*, Cooking Tips & Suppliers

Arancini with Leek & Montagnolo

First up, let's talk arancini! Possibly in my top three love your leftovers recipes. For a start, you get a fabulous first meal of delicious risotto. I always make more, just so I know I will have enough to make these gorgeous little crispy sticky balls.  I decided to reduce the phaff of stuffing them with mozzarella, and made a leek and blue cheese risotto with Montagnolo Affine, a divine vegetarian soft blue cheese from Epicerie Ludo. They tell me it's their bestseller, which is no surprise at all!

6 large leeks with green tops, sliced into 5mm rings
2 crushed garlic cloves
4 sprigs of thyme
800g risotto rice
2 litre of good quality veg stock
280g Montagnolo Affine
Pomace oil
Panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs
2-3 free range eggs

Serves 4 for dinner, then makes approx 40 arancini balls

  1. Heat 50ml of pomace oil in pan, add sliced leeks and cook until start to soften.  Then add garlic and thyme.  Cook gently for a few minutes.
  2. Next add rice, and a little more oil if needed.  The rice should be shiny from the oil and not sticking at all.  Then start adding stock, a ladle or two at a time.  Keep stirring and adding stock until rice is cooked (al dente of course) and there is a medium thick porridge like consistency.  It should be nice and creamy.
  3. Finally add the crumbled blue cheese, remove from heat and stir until all the cheese has melted.  Serve risotto immediately.  Set aside leftovers to cool and refrigerate overnight.
  4. The leftover risotto will be quite firm and perfect for rolling into small tangerine sized balls.  Lay on greaseproof tray. 
  5. Fill medium sized pan with oil for deep frying and start heating (but keep an eye on it).  Set up three bowls.  Whisk 2 or 3 eggs into one bowl. Half fill the next bowl with plain flour and a pinch or two of salt and the remaining one with panko breadcrumbs. Roll the risotto ball into the flour then coat in egg, and then panko. Lay back on tray. COOK'S TIP: If you are making the bonbons too, prep them also to this stage, so you can do all the frying at the same time.
  6. Deep fry balls in batches of five or six, until golden brown. Personally, I prefer to deep fry something quite quickly (so not too golden brown) and finish cooking in the oven, to make it less greasy. Drain and cool the balls on kitchen paper. If preparing prior, refrigerate or freeze at this stage, once completely cooled. They crisp up again perfectly in the oven, on about 180 (170 fan) for 10-12 minutes.

Cauliflower Cheese Bonbons

I first served these for the England home game during the Six Nations rugby, with a tomato and 'nam prik' chutney. I've been obsessed with making savoury bonbons ever since Tom Whitaker served up crab bonbons with some fish during our MasterChef stint. These little beauties had barely been up for a fortnight on my Six Nations menu posters, when a neighbouring (more famous chef) was cooking them on TV that following Sunday. Well you know what they say about imitation, flattery and all that!  He used goat cheese, which you could too and it might be easier to work with. But my OH is less than keen on goaty produce, so I stuck to simple soft cheese.

1 medium cauliflower
500g full fat soft cheese
150g Applewood smoked cheese, grated
1 tsp English mustard
Pinch of salt & white pepper
Pomace oil
Panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs
2-3 free range eggs

Makes approx 40 bonbons

  1. Cut the cauliflower into small florets. I found the trickiest part was getting the cauliflower florets the right size.  Whatever the widest point of the piece is, this will be the diameter of your ball, so aim to cut florets no wider than one inch.
  2. Mix the cream cheese, grated cheese and mustard in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Set up three bowls.  Whisk 2 or 3 eggs into one bowl. Half fill the next bowl with plain flour and a pinch or two of salt and the remaining one with panko breadcrumbs.
  4. Take a small ball size of cheese mix and push a cauli floret into middle. Roll the cheese to make a ball and fully cover the cauliflower. You may need more cheese to do this. Roll in the flour, then dip in the egg and then panko. Set onto a tray with greaseproof paper.
  5. Deep fry balls in batches of five or six, until golden brown. As with the arancini, I prefer to deep fry something quite quickly and finish cooking in the oven, especially if I'm not serving it immediately. Drain and cool the bonbons on kitchen paper. If preparing prior, refrigerate or freeze at this stage, once completely cooled. They crisp up again perfectly in the oven, on about 180 (170 fan), for 12 minutes.

For the roast sirloin of Cheshire beef, I seasoned and pan roasted a 900g sirloin from Frosty butcher. Twenty minutes in a medium oven, then same again resting. My beef loving brother in law thought it was perfectly cooked. Not bad for a vegetarian I thought.

The scrumpy braised gammon with roasted mustard glaze was leftover from making croque monsieurs at the pub during the Six Nations.  I braised the gammon in scrumpy cider, with onion, leek, celery, five spice, cloves and cinnamon for about two hours. I then mixed some honey and mustard for the glaze, and roasted in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes.

I source my seafood from Out of The Blue, and their jumbo sized tail on king prawns are really good quality.  I marinated them in juice of two fresh limes, 1 crushed garlic clove and finely sliced deseeded chilli (I couldn't help myself - how can one not use chilli), then skewered them into threes. A quick blast on both sides under a hot grill just before serving. Of all the dishes, these flew off the plate the fastest. No chilli allowed. Pah!

Simon Hopkinson's
Aubergine salad with garlic, parsley & feta

Blimey this dish was good. Bit fiddly, but also a strangely relaxing task. Ingredients are simple enough, as per the title with some good quality virgin olive oil and salt. I used three medium aubergines (Hopkinson recommends using the long thinner variety). You score in a circle around the top, just below the skin and then at 3cm intervals down the sides. I put them under a medium grill, turning occasionally until the skin changed colour and the aubergine was quite soft (but not blackened in the same way you would for babaganoush). Leave to cool.

In a bowl add one crushed clove of garlic, mixed with 1/2 cup of olive oil, a large handful of fresh chopped parsley and a pinch of salt. Set aside while you peel the aubergines. If using bigger aubergines like I did, cut them lengthways in half, keeping half the stem top on each piece. Then peel the skin away and lay the the aubergine on a big plate. Cover the plate with a single layer of the pieces of aubergine, then cover with the garlic and parsley mixture and crumble feta over the top.  The flavours infuse if you set aside, but don't serve straight from the fridge as these kinds of flavours work best at room temperature.

Michel Roux's
Pavlova with berries, mango & passionfruit

Of course it was amazing! A) because it's Michel Roux's recipe (well his wife's actually) and B) because it was made by my teen daughter, a bit of a patisserie chef in the making (once she's had a money making career - her words, not mine).

I don't think I need to detail the recipe, as it's a simple French style meringue. Keep the double cream softly whipped and I used alphonso mango puree for extra sauciness (fresh ones aren't great at the moment), along with fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and passionfruit (which are great at the moment).

All of the other vegetables, fruits and other ingredients were bought locally in Chorlton. We are incredibly lucky to have Elliotts Fruit and Veg in our precinct, a proper greengrocers with an eye for seasonal and delicious specials. I also picked up a selection of bread (and cheese) from Ludo's. Their baguettes are almost famous and you can order to pick up fresh and warm from the oven, simply by tweeting them. Almost worth tolerating trolls on Twitter just for that.

Artichoke hearts in olive oil are my favourite vegetable cheat for antipasto. I roasted some peppers and added a mix of sundried tomatoes, olives and capers.

The salad recipes are as simple as their names suggest, but big on flavour. I got someone to bring me a new supply of sumac powder from Ottolenghi's deli. Don't worry if you can't get hold of it easily. Substitute with some pomegranate molasses (pick up in any Asian grocers) and just omit the maple syrup.

Then sit back and enjoy! :0)