Thursday, January 27, 2011

Flatbreads in the Indian manner and Udon with shepherd's pie filling

I have travelled a fair bit, and have found my way pretty well in a fair old cross mix of countries. Often leaning back on those travels when hunger rears its regular head, and in my humble opinion there's nothing quite like a whiff of nostalgia to loosen up the appetite. One country I've never been to (shame on me) is India, but that will change sooner rather than later with an impending wedding invitation not too far off. With the recent news of this, and a little bit of bread experimentation the past couple of days, a kind of a flatbread naan number was born. Nothing new in the sense of rolling out some dough and slapping it into a super hot oven I know, but such fun to play with a variety of toppings and see the creations puff in seconds before your very eyes. 

There was a dinner I had a few years back a couple of hours outside Napoli. Now, I tend to remember most meals, and this one I certainly do for this singular reason. Just the crispy, salty pizza-like flatbread we were deluged with before our food proper came to the table, this was why that restaurant existed I'm sure. I'll be damned if I can remember what I actually ordered that night, but those pillows of slightly charred crust were to die for. Dribbling in terrific olive oil, and almost too much great sea salt, but not quite, and cooked in seconds in a fabulously hot wood fired oven, they were for sure the best part of that adventure by a long way.

So therein lies a flash of the reason why, but the rest of this meal of mine is best left to a matter of necessity. Shepherd's pie base left over from the other day was sure to make a great sauce for pasta. Alas no pasta in the cupboard, but a pack of jolly expensive udon filled in the gap instead. I'm going to get hung drawn and quartered by my Japanese friends for this, but they made for a pretty outstanding substitute for the missing pasta... I shall remember that dish in the same way the flatbreads will continue to make an appearance at home...

These are slightly lighter than typical curry house naan breads but an equally delicious accompaniment to any Japanese dishes you might be knocking up! Don’t be tempted to overbake them because they will be dry and hard. They are best eaten straight out of the oven while still warm. If you are making them ahead, slightly under-bake them, then just before serving, sprinkle with water and finish under the grill

Makes 10-12

500g strong white flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tblsp caster sugar
1 tsp fine sea salt
7g sachet easy-blend dried yeast
200ml natural yoghurt
2 tblsp groundnut oil

For the toppings
Sesame, kalonji, cumin or poppyseeds, freshly chopped garlic and coriander
Melted butter, for brushing

Sift the strong white flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Stir through the sugar, salt and dried yeast, then make a well in the middle. Whisk the natural yoghurt and groundnut oil together and pour into the well. Add 150ml tepid water, then mix everything together to make a soft dough. If the dough seems dry, add a little more tepid water. Knead well for about 8-10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7. Place a roasting tin half-filled with water at the bottom of the oven. This will create moisture, which will prevent the naans drying out during baking. Punch down the dough, then divide into 10-12 equal portions. Flatten and shape the portions into teardrop shapes, spreading the dough with the tips of your fingers. Transfer to lightly greased baking sheets.

Sprinkle your choice of toppings over the naan breads, pressing them gently into the dough. Brush the surface with the melted butter, then bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes, turning halfway, or until the naans are risen and cooked.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Smothered spinach and black bean burritos

As Superbowl XLV appears over the horizon (11 days and a counting) the thoughts of game day snacks seem to be at the forefront of my event planning from here on in. There needn't be any pressure to out perform yourself on a day like this - taking the easy route is forgiven for most of what you serve, although I'm personally making sure I'm putting all I have into my chilli while allowing dishes as below slip as quietly as possible into the repertoire.

This will serve 4, but that's just a silly quantity to consider really.

250g creamed spinach with 1 cup sweetcorn kernels
Cooking-oil spray
1 can (15 oz.) black beans
1 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cumin
4 large (burrito-size) flour tortillas
1 jar (16 oz.) salsa (hotter the better)
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Fold the sweetcorn into the spinach, stir in the black beans, chilli powder, garlic powder and cumin.

Meanwhile, spray a 13-by-9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish with cooking oil spray. Set the dish aside. Rinse the black beans, and set them aside to drain.

Assemble the burritos: Place 1 flour tortilla in the prepared baking dish. Spoon half of the spinach mixture into the middle of the tortilla, and wrap, tucking both ends under burrito-style. Place the folded burrito seam-side down at one end of the baking dish. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.

Pour the salsa over the burritos, and spread the salsa to coat them evenly. Cover the dish with microwave-safe plastic wrap, and fold a corner back to make a vent. Place the dish in the microwave, and cook, on high, until heated through, about 4 to 6 minutes, stopping to rotate the dish after 2 minutes.

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon cheese evenly on top of each burrito to garnish. Serve at once. Chilled beer. TV. Football.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A romantic chicken salad, not forgetting the vinaigrette

The next big date flagged up with a huge red star on the calendar (apart from Superbowl weekend of course, which is marked in blue and yellow highlighters by the way) clearly has to be Valentine's Day. An occasion to have yourself legally robbed, both of cash and guilt, and put each and every one of us under the pressure we rarely would give to an enemy of the state while persuading them to reveal where they've hidden the big bombs.

Why cook at home and go to all that effort and mess rather than take the bother out to your favourite restaurant (which will be mercillesly jacking their prices up for the joy of the occasion)? Where is the fun in actually cooking at home, creating something to be proud of, watch it eaten (hopefully) and reaping the benefits of that warm fuzzy feeling of acomplishment. Who actually does this sort of nonsense anymore? There can be precious few of us left who really, trully and honestly want to cook for a loved one, making them happy through nourishment... Well stop right there daddy'o, we all should...Each and every one of us can make a wee difference in our kitchens, and trust me here, even if stuffed up, the effort goes a long long way at home.

The first time a girl cooked for me on, ironically it had to be on Valentine’s day, was when I was 16. Her parents were out of town, well I think that's what she told me. She dressed up a set of foot stools in her living room and built a fire in the fireplace.

For dinner, she made us each an enormous salad—a bowl piled high with spinach leaves, grilled chicken, walnuts, either dried cranberries or raisins I think and a cheese of one form or another, hopefully it was a goat's.

I do recall she wasn’t much of a cook, and was incredibly nervous about making everything perfect. So nervous, in fact, that she forgot to put any description of a dressing on our salads. It was close to awful; each mouthful was a chore to swallow, each bite crackled like the log fire, and every time I dug in for another forkful, the poor thing had to be accompanied by a coy smile or acknowledgment towards her efforts.

If I was you, I'd be thinking along the lines of something as straight forward as this (don't forget the dressing) for your love this Valentine's, well that or book your favourite over-priced restaurant as soon as you possibly can.

Jerusalem artichokes provide carbohydrates and starch in this all-in-one salad. I think it is ideal for a light lunch and it leaves you with just enough room for a quick dessert. If you’re short of time, of course you can leave out the hassle of the deep-fried onion rings, but they do give a nice bit of crunch to the salad.

This will serve 4 as a starter, or a cosy generous 2 on its' own.

400g Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed and washed
2 tblsp olive oil
4 free-range chicken breasts, with skin on
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A few knobs of butter
150g baby spinach leaves, washed

For the vinaigrette
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
50ml sherry vinegar
150ml olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of caster sugar

For the onion rings
1 medium onion, peeled, cut horizontally and separated into rings
125g plain flour, plus 1 tblsp extra for dusting
30g corn flour
½ tsp fine sea salt
300ml light beer (or soda water)
Groundnut oil, for deep-frying

First, cook the Jerusalem artichokes. Boil them with their skin on in a pan of salted water until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, after about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the vinaigrette. Mix the chopped shallot, vinegar and oil together in a small bowl and season to taste with the salt, pepper and sugar. Set aside and allow the flavours to infuse.

When tender, drain the Jerusalem artichokes and leave to cool slightly. Heat a frying pan with the oil until hot. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and fry, skin-side down, for 3-4 minutes until the skin is golden brown and crisp. Turn over the breasts to cook the other side for another 3-4 minutes. Add a few knobs of butter and as it begins to foam, spoon over the butter to baste the chicken breasts. The thickest part of the breasts should feel firm when cooked through. Remove from the pan and leave to rest.

Cut the Jerusalem artichokes into thick slices. In the same pan that you cooked the chicken, melt a few more knobs of butter and add the artichoke slices. Fry for a few minutes each side until golden brown at the sides. Remove from the pan and keep warm.

To make the onion rings, sift the flour, corn flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Using a balloon whisk, mix in the beer or soda until the batter is just smooth.

Heat a deep-fat fryer or a heavy-based saucepan with about 15cm of groundnut oil until hot. (A small piece of bread dropped into it should sizzle immediately and float to the surface.) Deep-fry the onion rings a few at a time. Dust them lightly with flour then lightly coat in the batter. Gently drop the rings into the hot oil and fry until golden brown on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper and repeat with the remaining onion rings.

Toss the baby spinach and Jerusalem artichokes with some vinaigrette, then divide on to individual plates. Thickly slice the chicken breasts and place on top of the leaves. Scatter over the onion rings and drizzle more vinaigrette. Serve at once.