Saturday 16 February 2008

Delia: Who's Being Cheated?

You have to laugh! Delia's gone ahead and done it - launched her new 'Delia Cheats' initiative, the advance publicity for which was what prompted my 'Dishing Delia' post of a couple of weeks ago....and, quite frankly, now I can see it for what it is I can only find it funny.

The poor woman was hauled into the studio to do an interview about it all for The Today Programme, this morning, and even though the interviewer treated her gently, she ended up somewhat mauled and took refuge in claiming to be merely a poor, simple cook who couldn't possibly be expected to have opinions about things like organic food or global warming, or complicated stuff like that. It was all rather inarticulate blah, frankly, that left one feeling that she hadn't been briefed very well by her own PR people, and towards the end she even appeared to be taking on Mother Teresa's mantle, and claiming a mission in life to feed the disadvantaged poor .......or something along those lines. If you want to hear it for yourself, it's available online to listen to at The Delia Interview.

Anyway, in an idle moment later in the day I felt prompted to go and have a look at what this new dawn in cooking actually comprised, and I had a look on the web at the list of things which are now part of the 'Delia Cheats' cooking revolution. Or do I mean revelation? I was left feeling confused on two counts: firstly, because it was difficult to see how you could think of things like Soy Sauce, or Potted Shrimps, or Lentils as 'shortcuts' in any way. Shortcuts to what? I mean....they're not 'shortcuts', they just are what they are. And, in fact, I would have said that soy sauce is a staple ingredient in any decently stocked pantry, rather than any kind of 'cheat'; and the same could be said for a whole host of other items in the list. And secondly, it was difficult to understand the list in the light of what Mother Delia had said in her interview - it hardly sat well with the concept of assisting the disadvantaged poor, who's budget seems unlikely to stretch to organic chocolate, ready rolled pastry, and coconut milk! Comparing the interview with the website left me wondering whether Delia had actually even read the book that she'd put her name to!

But then, of course, light dawned. This isn't anything to do with cooking, or with helping the disadvantaged
poor, or with educating people who can't cook. It's just a sales promotion for a collection of a whole lot of branded goods. No more, no less. No different from Valentina Harris putting her face on the side of packs of Ratafia biscuits, or Gordon Ramsay's features adorning the windows of the Threshers off-licences. Except that in their enthusiasm for giving the initiative as much welly as they can, Delia's marketing people have got a little carried away in this instance, and are presenting it as a whole new way of cooking. Whoops........

No wonder Delia sounded embarrassed and inarticulate when forced to try and explain it all.

It's an unfortunate choice of name, too. Because, of course, 'to cheat' is a transitive takes an object. 'Cheating' isn't a victimless process; if you're cheating, you're cheating somebody. So, who exactly is it that's being cheated, here? Not the manufacturers or the retailers or the publisher, that's for sure; arguably, the people in front of whom the food is being placed, presumably on the mendacious basis that it's all been home-cooked; but actually, I think it's most probably the poor innocents who've been fooled by the marketing blurb, and have actually bought the book and the ingredients it promotes.

What was that lovely line from the late Linda Smith, in describing Feng Shui? " The ancient Chinese art of parting simpletons from their money". Seems to me like Delia's just continuing with an age-old process.......

Tonight's Dinner:

Tart Shells, filled with Chicken Livers and Mushrooms, in a Cream, Ginger & Sherry Sauce.

Risotto with Spinach, Asparagus and Polpette.

Mango Souffle Glacé with fresh Raspberries.

Thursday 14 February 2008

Recipe: Potato & Chervil Pie

Having been so damning about Potatoes in my comments on their International Year, it may be from a sense of guilt that I'm now including this recipe - although it's just as likely that thoughts about potato-based dishes have got the gastric juices flowing, and I've been forcefully reminded of this particular recipe, which has to be the best - bar none - recipe for potatoes that I've ever come across. Served hot, as an accompaniment to roast meat of any kind, the texture is unctuous and luxurious, with the combined subtle flavours of Chervil and Garlic acting as a foil to the crisp buttery quality of the crust.....but eaten cold, the next day, when some mysterious alchemy has knitted the flavours and textures together in an even more complex structure then before, this is quite simply manna from Heaven. A slice sneaked cold from the fridge, as you wait for the kettle to boil for early morning tea on the morning after the dinner party of the night before, will have you sighing with pleasure at quite just how good it is!

The two most important things to remember about this recipe are that the potato slices must not be washed or even rinsed, as this will remove the starch which is fundamental to the way the potatoes blend with the cream; and, secondly, that however difficult it may be to come by, you really do need Chervil for this recipe to do itself justice. If you absolutely can't source any, then I suppose a smaller quantity of blandly-flavoured parsley could be substituted - but the end result will very definitely be a compromise from what it could and should have been!

For one 26 cm, deep pie.

Ingredients: one quantity of Shortcrust Pastry, made with 8 oz Butter, 10 oz plain Flour, a generous pinch of Salt, and 50 ml cold Water; 5 medium-sized Potatoes ( a waxy variety, that won't collapse as it cooks); 1 sheet of ready-made Puff Pastry; 250 ml Milk; 250 ml Cream; 1 Garlic Clove, minced; a quantity of Fresh Chervil, chopped finely so that it is equivalent to a Cup measure (before being chopped this will be a sizable amount - probably the equivalent to the capacity of 2 pint jugs); 1 Egg Yolk + 1/4 cup of Milk, to glaze the top of the pie; Salt & Pepper.


1. Pre-heat the oven to 190 degrees C.

2. Grease a 26 cm false-bottomed flan tin, and line the base and sides of it with the Shortcrust Pastry. Set aside in the fridge to rest as you cook the Potatoes.

3. Peel the Potatoes and slice them into 1/8" slices - the broadest setting on the mandolin is generally about right for this. Place in a large pan, add the Garlic and seasoning, then add the Milk. Over medium heat, bring the liquid just to the boil, then allow it to cook for ten minutes, making sure it doesn't come to a full boil. After ten minutes, add the Cream, and continue the process for a further twenty minutes, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon to ensure the Potatoes don't stick to the base of the pan.

4. Line the pastry shell with baking weights and bake in the pre-heated oven - ten minutes with the weights in, followed by eight minutes with them out - until the shell is crisp and golden. Lower the oven temperature to 180 degrees C.

5. Fill the Pastry Shell with layers of Potato, alternating them with thin layers of chopped Chervil and a sprinkling of Salt & Pepper; use a slotted spoon as you remove the Potatoes from their pan, so that most of the liquid remains in the pan and doesn't swamp the pie.

6. Make a lid for the pie with the sheet of Puff Pastry. Brush this with the glaze of beaten Egg Yolk mixed with Milk, and make a four or five cuts in the top of the pie to allow steam to evaporate during cooking. Bake for 60 minutes in the pre-heated oven until the top is puffed and golden brown; if it needs longer to achieve this, then give it longer, the filling won't hurt in the process.

Keep warm in plate-warming oven until you're ready to serve it.


Wednesday 13 February 2008

The Year of The Potato....

Believe it: 2008 is officially The International Year of The Potato, as I discovered earlier this week. Doubtless, great excitement has been engendered in Potato World by this development - King Edwards throwing their hats in the air as far as the eye can see - but, frankly, I can't myself get too worked up about the subject

Potatoes - let's face it - just do not deserve the attention.

In many ways, I've always rather liked them: Gratin Daupinoise, with cream and cheese; Bacon & Potato Hotpot; Potatoes roast in Duck Fat, or sliced very thinly and fried to a crisp in Butter. All. Deeply. Delicious! But, then, why wouldn't they be? Cream and Cheese and Butter and Bacon and Duck Fat are all full of glorious flavours. Take them away, however, and what are you left with, apart from a texture and a shape? Not much, is the answer.

And it seems that when it comes down to it, the Potato People (the growers, I mean, not the King Edwards with their hats) don't seem to disagree. On the website for the International Year of the Potato there is no appearance anywhere of the words 'flavour' or 'taste'. Nowhere.
And, looking further afield, the website for 'America's Favorite Vegetable' falsely suggested they had something called a flavor profile for potatoes secreted within the inner recesses of the website - except that clicking on the relevant link instead brought up something called 'Potato Power...Kid-tested healthful recipes'....with no mention of 'flavor' anywhere to be seen. I was encouraged by the Kid-tested bit, though - at least it gives those poor puppies a bit of a rest!

The French. As the inventors of Pommes Anna, and Pommes Maximes, and Pommes Duchesse, not to mention the glorious Gratin Dauphinoise......and,of course, given their position as Defenders of the Faith of all things culinary.....for sure they would have chapter and verse on Potatoes and flavour. Um.....nope. The french nonpareil online potato resource,, listed in agonising detail 22 different characteristics of every potato in their list, all the way from 'précocité de maturation' through to 'résisitance de nématodes' - but without a single reference anywhere to either 'gôut' or 'saveur'.

The British Potato Council took a depressingly similar approach, and on their website it's possible to search on no less than 42 characteristics of every potato under the sun - however, neither 'flavour' nor 'taste' featured anywhere in the options. Somehow not relevant, it seems.

My final resource, to check in desperation, was the Dutch Potato growers. The Dutch are fond of potatoes. They keep out the cold as it sweeps in from the North Sea in midwinter. Surely, surely the Dutch will understand potatoes from a flavour-related standpoint?

It seems not. Their website also was conspicuously unencumbered with any references to 'taste' or 'flavour'. But they did at least invite questions; so, I asked. "What about flavour?"

"Oh", they said. "Taste is a subjective thing, so it would be incorrect to refer to it in rating the quality of different potatoes."

Ah. So, as long as we know how large and nematode-resistant these arguably tasteless tubers are likely to be, then that's all we need to know, eh? Forget the flavour thing entirely.

Lumme! It's one way of looking at comestibles, I suppose - but for heavens sake, don't tell Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker!

Tonight's Dinner:

Salmon Parfait.

Lamb Shanks, roast with Garlic & Rosemary; Lentils and Leeks, infused with Thyme

Tartes aux Citron.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Recipe: Chicken Liver Kebabs with Juniper

This is a canapé recipe. I'm not sure how canapés are considered, these days - and I suspect (and fear) from their increasingly rare appearance as a pre-prandial offering at dinner parties that they're in danger of being written off as too mannered for today's informal dining style. This would be a shame, I think. Partly because canapés occupy a place in my heart, and I recall with fondness the days - and nights - professionally spent churning out regiments of the things, serried ranks of them, for corporate events, and wedding receptions and birthday parties might sound like madness, but in fact it was a deeply satisfying process.

More importantly, though, canapés, if they're good, are very good! They have to be, given how hard they have to work. Only one mouthful each, and that's their single chance to make any impression at all. In one bite they have to stop you in your tracks.......flavour-bomb, sensation on the tongue, combination of textures and tastes....the best ones should stop the flow of small talk and have you reaching hurriedly for another before the tray is wafted away and out of reach.

These miniature kebabs were always one of my favourites, and I think they score highly against all of the criteria listed above: the combination of fresh grape along with cooked Bacon, Sage and Juniper is both surprising and delicious! Definitely worth the effort.....

Makes 24 canapés.

Ingredients: 275g Chicken Livers; 400g streaky Bacon, rindless (either 12 wide rashers, which can be cut in half lengthwise to make 24 strips, or else 24 very narrow rashers which are sometimes available these days) ; 24 medium sized Sage Leaves; 10 Juniper Berries, ground small in a cleaned coffee grinder; Black Pepper; 24 seedless Black Grapes.


1. Pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees C.

2. Lay out all of the 24 Bacon Rashers in rows on the worktop. If they are uneven in thickness, lay them with the wide end pointing towards you (this is the end on which you'll place the stuffing, and which will end up at the centre of the rolled Bacon).

3. On the end nearest to you of each rasher place a Sage Leaf, and top this with a teaspoon-sized piece of Chicken Liver. Over the top of the Chicken Liver sprinkle a little crushed Juniper and a grinding of Black Pepper. Then, roll each rasher up to make a neat roll, and secure each one with a small wooden cocktail stick.

4. Put all of the Bacon rolls on a baking sheet, and place in the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes. Half way through this time, turn them over to ensure that they cook evenly.

5. After 15 minutes, take the Bacon Rolls out of the oven, and let them cool slightly before you replace the short wooden sticks with longer wooden skewers for serving (about 4" long is best); push the skewer right through the roll, with about an inch of skewer exposed on the far side. On this exposed bit of skewer, spear a seedless Grape.

Serve either hot or cold. Amazingly good, either way.....

Monday 11 February 2008

Les Mutilés de la Cuisine.......

Cooking is a dangerous business!

Today, I'm reminded of this fact every time I wince as I press inadvertently against the blister on the end of my left index finger - and wonder what breakdown in synapse activity precluded the brain from recognising yesterday afternoon that liquid caramel is a very hot substance, and that to wipe it with my finger from the edge of the ramekin into which it was being poured was a deeply stupid thing to do. Brain caught up reasonably quickly, but only as the direct result of the pain registering in a different part of the frontal cortex. Fortunately, the wound had no significant effect on my enjoyment later in the day of the cointreau-infused Panna Cotta, served with blackberries macerated in Amaretto, which had been the reason for the caramel in the first place.....

But it did get me musing, in a resigned fashion, on various of the battle scars - self-inflicted, needless to say - that have been appropriated over the years in the name of Dinner. It's impossible to count the small ones: insignificant burns from reaching into a furnace-hot oven to test the done-ness of a roast, for example, or the myriad grazes from over-enthusiastic graters, or nicks from a slice-too-far with the Sabatier. And, in any event, these are the stuff of ephemera; forgotten and gone without trace within a matter of days. But there are some more memorable ones in there, too ....the recollection of some of which can cause a wince even now. The time I managed to stab myself in the left hand whilst struggling to de-stone an Avocado with a paring knife, was one such occasion, and although the scar eventually healed and disappeared, the general area of the wound used to ache rather, from time to time, for ages afterwards.

More theatrical was the occasion in the Larzac with the Tarte Tatin, which somehow managed to send a wave of hot caramel face-wards as the tarte was unmoulded onto its serving plate, giving rise to a muffled exclamation followed by a ghastly silence - all of which caused some consternation in the dining room next door. Medical treatment on that occasion was deemed advisable, in the shape of immediate bed-rest for the cook, in the company of a soothing bottle of armagnac. Whilst everybody else got on with demolishing the Tarte Tatin, before you ask. And in fact the medicinal effects of armagnac are close to miraculous, since there was no need for any remedial plastic surgery, after all.

Most dramatic of all, though was the time in Greece when preparing a Chinese dinner, and the largest knife in the set slid gently off the marble counter, just slowly enough to be seen and for the reflexes to kick in and to try to catch it. Bad idea. Blade pointing downwards against unprotected fingers. Which drew back in the realisation that they'd just been cut, leaving the knife to continue its fall, directly onto the bare foot below. (NB: even in Mediterranean climes in the middle of a hot summer, cooking whilst barefoot is not advisable; one learns these things by empirical method.)
Old Greek houses in the Cyclades tend to have lots of uneven , whitewashed walls, and by the time the first dinner guests arrived, the sight of said walls generously marked with bloodied handprints caused an outcry - well, you try standing on one foot to bandage the other one without leaning on the wall for balance, with a hand which also happens to be wounded, whilst bleeding generously over every surface in sight! Amidst the scenes of carnage, the house was otherwise deserted, apart from a large knife in the middle of a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, left there as the walking wounded had limped in the direction of the local doctor. It was only when he looked worried and started muttering about the advisability of going by boat to Syros to consult the 'specialist' there, that the true seriousness of the situation kicked in: a mercy flight to London followed pronto, straight to an operating table in St Stephen's, followed by four months in plaster as the severed tendons knitted themselves back together!

I'd like to be able to say one lives and learns, but I'm afraid my blister from yesterday's caramel suggests otherwise. Oh, least I can say one lives.....the learning will have to take place in its own time.

And that large knife, by the way, is still excellent for chopping herbs!

Tonight's Dinner:

Cold Beef Salad, in Horseradish Cream

Lamb 'Bitoks', with a Paprika Sauce; Leeks sautéed in Butter.

Andalusian Tarts

Sunday 10 February 2008

Recipe: Apple & Blackberry Pies

A contemporary take on a true classic. In practice, I suppose it's a hybrid between the base of a tarte aux pommes and an english apple pie - but the use of phyllo pastry and of Splenda (as an option) rather than sugar combine to make it a very low-carb version of the old recipe, as well as introducing a few more flavours into the mix.

For two.

Ingredients: 3 sheets of phyllo pastry, each 6" x 12"; 3 oz Butter; 1/4 cup Slivered Almonds; 3 Apples (Pink Lady is best, or Braeburn or Gala - something that will keep its shape and not entirely collapse when cooked); 10 good-sized Blackberries; 1 tablespoon Cognac or Rum; 1/3 cup of Sugar (or Splenda); juice and grated rind of 1 Lemon; 1 teaspoon Ground Cinnamon.


1. Melt 1 oz of the Butter and use it to brush two of the sheets of Phyllo. Make two Phyllo tart shells in the usual way, but in this instance, sprinkle a layer of slivered Almonds between the two layers of Phyllo that you use to make the shell - they will toast as the pastry cooks, and give the finished pie a good crisp base. Leave the oven on when you take out the blind-baked shells, as you'll need it later to cook the completed pies.

2. Peel, core and dice the Apples - the dice should be about 1 cm each. Cook in a covered pan over a low heat until they have cooked through and have started to lose their shape - ten to fifteen minutes in total; check and stir occasionally during this stage, as they have a tendency to catch if not watched!

3. To the cooked Apple, add the remaining Butter, Cognac (or Rum), Lemon juice & rind, Cinnamon, and Sugar (or Splenda). Mix these together thoroughly, and raise the heat under the pan as you continue to cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until it has reduced to a thick consistency, which might take another ten minutes at most.

4. Divide the Apple mixture between the two tart shells, and press five Blackberries into the mixture in each shell, arranged roughly evenly within the tart shell.

5. Brush the remaining sheet of Phyllo with the last of the melted Butter, cut in two, and use each half to make a lid for each of the pies. In the centre of each lid, cut a small cross, and fold back the corners to leave a small square opening in the top of each pie.

6. Bake the pies in the oven (which should still be at 200 degrees C) until nicely browned on the surface, which should be about twenty minutes in total.

Serve either warm or cold. Delicious either way, and particularly with a dollop of whipped cream!