Monday, 26 January 2015

Cassoulet - a #FlavourfromFrance

Don't get me wrong, I'm still loving the Welsh coast in all its bleak winter majesty - crashing waves, frosty mornings, howling winds, lashing rain - well may be I'm not 'loving' so much as enduring the howling wind and the lashing rain - but it is very COLD, and while I wouldn't say I was a sun worshipper, there comes a point when wearing 6 layers and still having to wrap a blanket round yourself to keep warm gets a bit tiresome. So I was delighted to be offered an opportunity to distract myself and think "France", and particularly all things French cuisine, and cook a French dish as part of Inntravel's #FlavourFromFrance campaign.

I am a huge fan of France, particularly the South West Mediterranean departement of Languedoc Rousillon, and specifically the area around Perpignan where I lived for a year as a student and have spent many happy, sun-drenched, heat-soaked weeks since I was 16, most recently last summer on our fabulous family holiday

Only natural, then, that my thoughts would head south west, and with the Welsh weather at its cold, damp grimmest, to that French peasant staple, Cassoulet.

Cassoulet is not for vegetarians, and it's certainly not for the calorie conscious. The whole point of this dish is that it's warming and sustaining. Don't even think about a low fat version or, heaven forbid, some sort of tofu affair...It's not really for anyone who doesn't relish the thought of meat and beans, for that is what it is, but no less delicious for it. This may be peasant food, but to my mind, it just sings (albeit in a rather gitane-infused baritone) of Le Midi - in any weather: we ate a tinned version while we were camping outside Prades last year, and even the tinned 'convenience version' was delicious. I meant to bring some home with me for those evenings when you need a quick fix, but we ended up eating the tins on our way home, so much did we enjoy them... I did, however, come home with some lovely nets of dried haricot beans, packaged in convenient 'family cassoulet' servings.

I started out intending to follow a recipe by Raymond Blanc, but was thwarted by a lack of confit duck legs in my part of west Wales. Luckily, my friends at Llwynhelyg Farm Shop came to my rescue with fresh duck legs, and my Cassoulet journey developed, with reference to various sources, into this magnificent dinner. 

I can't pretend this is truly authentic - apart from anything else, my last minute use of sundried tomato and mascarpone pasta sauce in place of sundried tomato paste (on the basis that the former was available, the latter not!) and good quality pork chipolatas in place of garlicky saucisse de Toulouse (ditto) puts paid to that. You need to start this the day before if you're using dried haricots because they need to be soaked, and you need to devote a good 5 hours to it on the day of cooking and eating. That's not to say you can't do anything else at the same time, but it's more involved than you might think a dish of meat and beans might be. Furthermore, I didn't stir it the requisite 7 times as tradition dictates. But as Felicity Cloake puts it so eloquently, tradition probably had nothing better to do than stand around stirring a pot of cassoulet. For my own part, I prepped a kilo of marmalade oranges, did the ironing and wrote most of this blog post...

So I include the recipe here, and, you'll see that for one lucky reader, I also have a competition to win a voucher for Cafe Rouge. This is my first time using Rafflecopter, so be gentle with me!


Serves around 10

500g dried haricot beans, soaked for at least 12 hours
1 onion, peeled and whole
1 head of garlic, unpeeled and whole, plus 4 cloves
1 bay leaf
a couple of sprigs of thyme
3 black peppercorns
200g smoked streaky bacon, chopped into small pieces
a pot of duck fat or rapeseed oil
2 duck legs (drumsticks & thighs)
500g belly of pork, derinded and chopped into cubes; if on the bone, take the bone out as part of the cubing process and reserve
300g good quality sausages (garlicky, Toulouse sausages if available)
1 tbsp sundried tomato & mascarpone stir through pasta sauce or sundried tomato paste
120g breadcrumbs

You'll also need a medium sized frying pan and a big casserole with a lid.

Start by draining the beans well, then placing in the casserole with the onion, garlic head (but NOT the 4 additional cloves) the thyme, bay leaf, the peppercorns and the bacon lardons.

Bring to the boil then cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours.

While the beans are simmering, heat the frying pan and add a tablespoon of duck fat or rapeseed oil. Start by frying off the duck legs - as you do this you'll render out a lot of duck fat which, if you didn't have any duck fat to start with, will add richness when you fry the next bits of meat. When they skin is crispy and golden and the meat is on the way to being cooked, remove from the pan, then fry the sausages and the belly of pork - including any bones you removed during the cubing process. Make sure the meat is all well browned.

Drain any fat from the pan and set aside for part 2.

Once the meat is cool enough to handle, slice up the sausages into chunks.

[At this point, I also started to take the meat off the duck legs but I think this was a mistake. Next time, I'll strip the meat off the duck legs after the dish is finished. If you do stri[ the duck meat at this stage, remember to reserve the bones to pop back in to the casserole for the second half of cooking]

When the beans have finished their simmer, remove the whole onion, the thyme, peppercorns (if you can find them) and bay leaf and discard. 

Set up a colander over a big bowl, then drain the beans and bacon, reserving the liquid, and set aside.

Turn on the oven to 140C.

Finely chop the 4 remaining garlic cloves and crush with a good pinch of sea salt before scraping into a small bowl.

Squeeze the simmered garlic flesh out of their skins and into the bowl with the uncooked, crushed garlic, add the tomato paste plus 2-3 tablespoons of duck fat (or use the fat you set aside from earlier frying - and just don't think about your arteries OK?) and mix it all together to a paste.

Wipe out the casserole if necessary, and smear half the garlicky tomatoey paste over the bottom of the casserole. Add the beans and bacon, then the meat, keeping back half the sausage slices.

Pour the reserved cooking liquid from the beans back over the contents of the casserole till it's all just covered, and bring to the boil.

While the casserole is coming back to the boil, put the frying pan back on the stove with any remain duck fat or a tablespoon of rapeseed oil, and briefly fry the bread crumbs.

When the contents of the  casserole have come to the boil, sprinkle about a quarter of the breadcrumbs over the top, replace the lid and pop into the oven for a couple of hours. Every half hour or so, remove the casserole, stir in the breadcrumbs and add another quarter of crumbs on top. 

Serve in bowls with the rest of the sausage on top - crusty bread perhaps, or a salad of winter leaves would go well. Or in our case, savoy cabbage!

Good luck with the competition too!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, 23 January 2015

Don't judge a soup by its colour...

Last Saturday we were at a wedding where the starter for the post ceremony lunch was soup. I can be quite suspicious of soup produced in big kitchens, having too often been presented with something that's just too pretty and too smooth to be convincingly 'home made' despite the exhortations on the menu. It might be mussied up with swirls of sour cream, croutons, basil leaves, crispy pancetta, but the soup itself can be disappointingly bland, and sport a frankly dubious texture that smacks of unnatural additions (whatever they might be).

You see, I am a child of soup - frugal soups, chunky soups, left over soups where the original pot stays on the stove and is added to over the course of a few days, so that what might have started out as carrot (mostly) soup will, 3 days later, have effortlessly morphed into something approximating "leek-broccoli-and-chicken-but-don't-tell-your-father-about-the-broccoli"... Soup is part of my psyche, but as a result of my soup education (the whole process of making stock, the addition of any veg that's to hand), soup is not always pretty. In fact, a pretty soup is something to be eyed with a certain caution as unlikely to be of any nutritional value whatsoever. Pah.

I've moved some way from this position myself, and can see the benefit of producing soup that sings of wheat fields ripening in the sun, or luscious tomatoes warm from the vine rather than appearing to have been dredged up from the bottom of a canal somewhere, especially if you're trying to encourage kids to embrace soup, but I guess what I'm saying is that I am OK with ugly soup - and I hope you are too, because you'll need to be to enjoy this one (nothing like building something up is there?!)

So back to the wedding, and the menu announcing "Butternut squash, chickpea and spinach soup". I had my doubts, but it was truly delicious - sustaining, nutty from the chickpeas, flavoursome. There had been no attempt to 'pretty it up' yet it came, green-flecked bowlfuls of turmeric golden warmth. Just the thing after a couple of hours in a freezing churchyard and a tot of sherry... 

Pink is in a hating phase at the moment, and although she tried it, rejected it, but Blue wolfed down his bowlful and declared it delicious. So much so that when I ventured to ask what kind of soup I should make for tea a few days ago, he suggested that I recreate it. I misjudged the quantities of spinach required to provide the green flecking and ended up with something approaching pond sludge in colour, but it's really good - and got the Blue seal of approval too.

This makes a huge vat of ugly but delicious and nutritious soup - enough to keep the world and his dog fed for at least a week, I'd say, so you might want to think in advance about freezing some!

Otherwise, enjoy - whilst doing something to distract you from the colour if necessary...

Butternut squash, chickpea and spinach soup

2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
750g peeled, chopped butternut squash
2 * 400g tins of chickpeas, drained
1 tsp each of cumin & turmeric
1/4 tsp cinammon
2 litres of hot chicken (or veg) stock - I made mine with 3 Knorr stock pots which I love in the absence of proper stock
450g spinach leaves, washed

Put the onions in a large pan, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or so. Keep and eye on it and if it dries out before the onion is softened, add a splash more water.

Add the squash and the spices, cook over a gentle heat for a minute or so, then tip in the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 15-20 mins until the squash is tender.

Chuck in the spinach and stir for a couple of minutes (there's a lot of spinach so you need to incorporate it into the liquid to get it all to wilt!)

Once the spinach is wilted, add a grind of black pepper and a pinch of salt if needed, then blitz and serve.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The '30g' Salad

No, it's not a solitary, meagre 30g of salad, but what I thought I might rather catchily call a '30g' salad if, you guessed it, I used 30g of all the ingredients. As you'll see, though, it didn't quite work like that, partly because 30g of chick peas just seemed to measily, but I managed a pretty delicious lunch based on 30g or multiples thereof.

And yes, I am trying to lose some weight, and yes, along with the rest of the world, I'm regretting the excesses of Christmas. My clothes are getting too tight, and frankly, I need to shed a few pounds because I can't afford to buy new clothes. Also, there's a small matter of a 25 year school reunion coming up. 25 years. Since I left school (if it was 25 years since I'd started school, I wouldn't be feeling so positively old about it all). And while I am perfectly happy with who I am & what I look like (mostly) these days, I have a definite sense of impending assessment. I know that it absolutely shouldn't matter one jot what my erstwhile classmates think of me these days - but deep down (actually, not that deep down), I do.

There's also the small matter of aging (as evidenced by the 25 year reunion issue) and the fact that I want to remain healthy and fit for a good long while - and no one else is going to do that for me.

So while I'm not jumping on any particular dietary bandwagon (been there, done that, mostly failed miserably), I'm trying to eat a bit better, embrace the leafy greens in my life. Count a few calories and do more exercise. Lock down the peanut butter. 

Salad can be a bit tedious, truth be told, and so I've had to re-approach the subject with a bit of imagination. Of course, salad doesn't have to mean 'leaves', but I am quite fond of leaves provided they are punchy in terms of flavour and texture. I love good watercress - used to eat armfuls of it in Hampshire where it's native and readily available. Rocket is also something I'm partial to, and I'm looking forward to the summer to get some of our own salad growing again. In the meantime, I'm always on the look out for other interesting leaves. Kale is very much the leaf of the moment, and Florette Salad are producing baby kale as a new leaf, and have a website for lots of interesting baby kale recipes to try out - leafy greens are so good for you and if they pack a flavour punch too as I suspect a good baby kale leaf should, well that's pretty much sold it to me.

Anyway, I couldn't find any baby kale out here on the edge of the western world (the supply chain obviously hasn't got this far yet!), so I made this salad with watercress, spinach and rocket which is one of my favourite combos. As & when baby kale hits Cardigan (or we get some growing in the garden) I'll try it in this. Chick peas are one of my favourite pulses, and a bit of tuna fish is good for a protein hit. And do check out the pomegranate molasses in the dressing!

Just a little note - the dressing is for a much larger bowlful of salad - possibly for 4 people, I'd say, while the salad ingredients here are for one. So use about 3 tsp of the dressing for your plateful of salad and save the rest for another lunchtime.

And if you were interested, or following the 5:2 diet, this plateful comes to 240 calories. Not bad.

'30g' Salad

For the salad
30g bagged watercress, spinach and rocket salad - or use a combination of your favourite leaves
30g sliced raw mushroom
30g sliced raw red pepper
60g drained chick peas
60g (drained weight) tuna in spring water

For the dressing
3 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp pomegranate molasses
1 tsp harissa paste
1 tbsp rapeseed oil

Combine the salad ingredients on a plate or in a bowl, and put any leftovers in the fridge straight away in appropriate storage containers to prevent more 'accidentally' slipping on to your plate.

Stir together the dressing ingredients.

Drizzle about 3 tsp of the dressing over your plateful of salad.


By the way, this doesn't mean that there won't be any more cake here, there just might be a bit less. At least until after 28th February...

This post was sponsored by Florette Salad

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Breakfast at Bordeaux Quay, Bristol

Taking kids out for a meal is part of the growing up process - for you as an individual, with your partner moving from being a couple to being a family, and for the children - a rite of passage that starts from the first time you struggle out with the buggy, nappy bag bulging, desperate to prove that 'nothing has changed' and then sit there breastfeeding under a napkin for the entire time while your food goes cold... It's one of those things that just keeps popping up on the agenda and as the little darlings get older, there's more and more to negotiate. Working out where to go so there's something that the children will eat. Taking a stand and going where you want to go, determined to prove that if they are hungry they will eat, and then enduring the embarrassment of the food flicking, the under the table sulking or, if you're really lucky, the complete and highly vocal refusal to eat any of THAT DIS-GUS-TING stuff, Mummy... 

As they get older, you let the children you think you've trained so well to enjoy good quality sophisticated food choose where you go - and end up in Pizza Hut trying not to balk as they pile an obscene amount of sugary sweets onto ice cream at the equally obscene 'help yourself' ice cream factory (if you haven't been there, just don't ask). And even as they get older, more grown up, become more fun, taking the kids out is still something of a minefield. You just NEVER know what's going to happen. Someone told me recently of leaving Honey and Co, revered Middle Eastern cafe, practically in tears because her kids had started flicking orange juice around the place...

For rather complicated reasons, we ended up in the Premier Inn Bristol Haymarket on Saturday night. A 'trailer trash' evening of take out pizza, Top Gear on BBC3 (the only thing on TV that late that we could consider allowing the kids to watch) and, for the Husband and I, wine in 18.7cl (i.e.small) bottles in our family room followed.  After a much better night's sleep than I'd anticipated (ie despite late pizza and sharing a room with the kids), we were refreshed and ready for the finest breakfast Bristol could offer us.

Graced with a beautiful blue sky and sunshine we sauntered down to the docks where, the Husband advised, we would find a great breakfast. I'm afraid I don't have any photos of Bristol on this glorious morning, but take it from me, it was lovely, the morning light reflecting off the stately buildings, very similar to Newcastle and Edinburgh in architectural style. Unfortunately, the establishment the Husband was intent on breakfasting at, the Mud Dock Cycleworks Cafe, was definitely closed when we pitched up, and with no indication of when it might open (if at all) we headed round the corner and spied Bordeaux Quay over the bridge, basking in the morning sunshine...

The name seemed vaguely familiar and we decided to give it a go. Plus Pink, who had refused a banana in the hotel room, had begun a constant grumble about how hungry she was and it was starting to get a little wearing.

Turns out it was a great choice: we got a prime window table in this habourside establishment, and warmed by the sun, we struggled with the menu - in the best possible way. "How many slices of toast would the full English come with?" was Blue's concern. Turns out he wanted enough to be able to have a bacon and sausage sandwich but he wanted more than just the sandwich. As long as the full English came with more than 1 bit of toast, his wildest breakfast dreams could be fulfilled. Pink just didn't want mushrooms, the Husband wouldn't tell me what he was having, in an attempt to force my hand without knowing what I might be missing out on, and I was torn between something sophisticated, possibly involving smoked salmon, or a plate of pork based products...

In the end, we had 2 full English breakfasts (one without mushrooms) for the kids, I had a vegetarian breakfast with bacon (because really, why wouldn't you?), and the Husband had a sausage ciabatta.

I can't vouch for anyone else's meal because no one was sharing, but my breakfast was delicious. 2 lovely organic eggs, grilled tomatoes, hash browns, crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, lovely big mushrooms and some lovely bacon, plus really really delicious homemade baked beans. The coffee was great too as was the hot chocolate the kids had. Judging by the clean plates, everyone else enjoyed their breakfast too - although I should mention one ting: the Husband's sausage ciabatta came with salad. A fairly standard leafy salad. It was just wrong. So the plates were all clean - APART from the salad. Sorry, Bordeaux Quay, but, please - why?

It wasn't cheap - to take the 4 of us for breakfast was £50.00, give or take, but the Husband and I reflected that actually taking the kids out for breakfast is quite a good option, rather than lunch, which can be rushed, or dinner when if you get it on the wrong day, or too late, they can be tired and grumbly, and not fancy what's on the menu. In fact, breakfast is a very non-threatening meal to take kids out for. They'll be hungry, and really, there's bound to be something they want to eat. As well as the breakfasts we had, Bordeaux Quay offered pancakes, toast, muesli or granola, croissants etc. And provided no one's had a terrible night's sleep, the darlings will be full of perky fun and entertaining conversation (if you're still at the breastfeeding under a napkin - or not under a napkin - stage, believe me, it does happen eventually!). It's possibly the perfect meal to enjoy in public with children.

It was also a lovely treat, and meant we didn't have to fork out for lunch at Bristol Zoo where we spent an enjoyable few hours in the sunshine...

Friday, 16 January 2015

Slow Cooker Chicken Curry

My love affair with the slow cooker continues, although this is the first time I've had it out since Christmas. But I fancy a curry feast this evening - the Husband's been away all week and Pink has had a night away with school so this evening will feel celebratory, with all of us back in the fold. All of us except Fred the dog who is spending the weekend in kennels while we travel back to England early tomorrow morning for a wedding. But he wouldn't enjoy this Butter Chicken Curry, and anyway, he had a jolly good walk on the beach this morning so I feel my conscience is relatively clear. Honest.

But before I start feeling guilty again about the dog, let's get back to the feelings of warmth and satisfaction I derive from having all of us (well., nearly all of us... I'm so sorry Fred...) under one roof at the end of the week, sitting at the table and sharing a meal together. By getting the main event in the slow cooker earlier today, it means I can mess about with dahl and possibly even some flatbreads later on and turn a simple curry into a feast.

Some of you will notice that I managed to sneak some pomegranate molasses in here. I'm feeling dreadfully guilty (not only about the dog) that despite enthusiastic encouragement from some quarters, I still have most of a bottle of the stuff mouldering in the cupboard. I wondered if it would do anything to the flavour of this curry beyond adding the sweetness that the sugar I used it in place of was supposed to do, and indeed there is a very subtle and rather pleasant tang to the concoction. Nothing earthshattering, but, you know, nice.

You need to get this into the slow cooker on low at least 5-6 hours before you want to eat, but it'll happily do its thang all day if you're out of the house. This is based on a recipe from the 'Ultimate Slow Cooker' book which I totally love. As well as my general tinkering, the original recipe includes a large red chilli which you de-seed and chop up with the onions ginger and garlic. 

Slow Cooker Butter Chicken

2 onions, peeled and each cut into 4
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
4cm piece of root ginger, peeled and halved
1 tbsp sunflower oil
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 3-4 pieces
25g unsalted butter
1 tsp each of cumin seeds and fennel seeds, crushed
4 cardamom pods, bashed up
1 tsp each of ground turneric and smoked paprika
1/4 tsp ground cinammon
300ml chicken stock
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses (or you could use soft brown sugar)
sea salt

5 tbsp double cream or plain yoghurt depending how decadent you are feeling 
2 tbsp flaked almonds, toasted
a good handful of roughly chopped coriander leaves

Pre-heat the slow cooker as per instructions.

Start by finely chopping (I use a food processor) the onions, garlic and ginger.

Heat the sunflower oil in a large frying pan and brown off the chicken pieces in batches on quite a high heat. When each batch is browned, remove from the pan and set aside on a plate lined with kitchen towel.

Reduce the heat, add the butter to the pan and when it's melted, add the onion mixture to the pan.

Cook gently till it starts to colour, then tip in the crush seeds, cardamom pods and the ground spices and cook for a further minute, stirring.

Pour in the chicken stock and add the tomato puree, pomegranate molasses and a good pinch of sea salt, and bring to the boil.

Tip the chicken into the slow cooker and pour the sauce in on top of it, pressing the chicken down so it's covered.

Replace the lid on the crock pot and cook on a low setting for 5-7 hours. When ready to serve, stir in the cream and serve with the toasted almonds and coriander sprinkled over the top.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Hot Smoky B*****d Chilli Sauce

So back to the routine...

Kids back to school, snow, BT being rubbish and reducing my broadband service to the point where I think it must be provided by a couple of indolent pixies sauntering up and down a rather frayed piece of string. We've had weather like you wouldn't believe - hail, snow, rain and wind - my goodness, the wind is something to behold - and that was just 5 minutes ago...

As you may imagine, cooking has been of the utilitarian, comfort food variety recently, and also of the 'using up the left over leftovers' (if you catch my drift) variety. Nothing new or exciting has graced our plates as far as what I've produced from the oven or stove, but what has kept culinary stagnation at bay has been the introduction of Hot Smoky Bastard Chilli Sauce to our table.

putting a tingle into our tacos...

I came across this delight via a friend who happened to mention it on her Facebook page. I'm a sucker for a good chilli sauce, and was keen to try.

Having pestered said friend for details and been put in touch with Mr Hot Smoky Bastard himself, I was able to collect 2 prized bottles (one for the Husband as 'a Christmas present' - on the strict understanding that it be shared - and one for another relation, although as we haven't seen them yet, I'm seriously thinking of unwrapping the second bottle from the Christmas paper and keeping it, such is the rate at which the first bottle is disappearing) from a location outside Cardigan a couple of days before Christmas. It had the feel of an illicit trade - small bottles of exclusive sauce brought from Leicestershire to the wild west coast of Wales, bottles given out to those who'd asked, exchanged for coins of the realm...

But enough - this is not rum smuggling from days of yore, or even anything slightly dodgy, much as I occasionally wish my incredibly middle of the road life might be. It's simply getting hold of some darn good chilli sauce. You see, in order to get the kids interested in more exotic food, I've steered away from using chilli in cooking, adding depth of flavour with smoked paprika and concentrating on getting them to try things. But while this has worked for the kids, the Husband and I miss our chilli hit, so I'm always on the look out for something to hit the spot. In fact, my strategy has worked and both kids are now ready to take on more chilli, but that doesn't remove my desire for chilli sauce. Oh no.

 I'm not just looking for heat mind, but interest too, and this bad boy has bags of both. It's not 'blow your ears off' hot (which is fine by me, just to be clear), but the sweet smokiness combined with a tingly afterburn is bang on.

We deployed it to great effect with the Boxing Day leftovers, and it's been a key feature of our table ever since.  Handmade in small batches, this is a sauce to seek out.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Come to my beach...

Come to my beach. 

As the sun is creeping up the valley, leave your 'to do' list, your rancour, your arguments, your fanaticism, behind. 

Step out onto the strand and breathe.

Come to my beach as the waves roll onto the shore, as the sand shifts, the pebbles chatter, the gulls wheel.

Feel the breeze on your cheeks, taste the salt on your tongue. Feel infinitessimally small and yet deeply cherished - for you are part of this place too.

Come to my beach and know that whether my God or your God created it, or whether it is simply the result of a happy scientific coincidence, this is a beautiful place, a place that is real, a place without hate, and that we are the same, you and I.

The power here is not laced with bitterness and cynicism, it does not come with kalashnikovs, with rhetoric, with disrespect or death threats. There is no reluctant respect here earned through cross words, secrets or lies, but a power and respect that comes from simply being as it should be. There is no side to the sea, no hidden agenda. It flows to the rhythm of the world.

Come to my beach and tell me your story. I'll tell you mine. Perhaps we'll find that we're not so different. 

As the sea whispers along the sand and the shells shift with every silky stroke, know that the universe is infinite. As the stones jostle with the movement of the water, know that working together without acrimony, without self, would achieve so much more in this beautiful world. We can disagree, we can believe different things, but surely, surely we can find common ground and move forward?

Come to my beach and leave the madness behind, yet return to the world restored and resolved to move forward in peace.

Come to my beach.