Thursday, 25 August 2011

Cooking my Way through Summer...

So, after four years and approximately four hundred bottles of very cheap wine, I have officially graduated from the education system. Thrown into the real world with little more to keep me warm than an extremely expensive certificate, a massive chunk of debt and a variety of cardboard boxes crammed with broken mugs and cutlery; the unavoidable truth is, my life has changed beyond all recognition.

I mean, what is it about being a student? For a few years it is perfectly acceptable to drink yourself silly on whichever night of the week you please, falling into bed as those only a couple of years older are returning from a long day at the office.  It is quite normal for the iron to wallow in the darkness of the kitchen cupboard, never to witness the light of day, let alone to touch a garment of clothing. And that sinking feeling when the only clean pair of underwear is of the bikini variety is oh-so familiar. But, when they are in supply, it is the only time that you would even consider going out in public in a pair of said knickers. All be it for fancy dress and under the cover of darkness, but I still feel that away from the madness of the student union this would be considered just plain mad.

So, now, after four years of dodging library fines, playing pub golf, and cooking in a kitchen that, despite containing a ridiculous amount of food, left a lot to be desired, I am no longer a student. This, after giving myself an internal high five for actually gaining a degree, and signalling the start of a time when I can spend even more of my hard earned dollar on food, I was extremely worried at the prospect of my precious Topshop discount being ripped from my grasp, along with 50p bus fares and the chance of a nice lie-in 4 days a week.

However, despite my fears, finishing University did not come with anything near the bump I was imagining. Far from lying in my bed at night pining over the loss of my youth, in the weeks following my departure from Sheffield, I have skidded my way around a very muddy Glastonbury, spent a lovely weekend camping in Wales and sunned myself in the South of France.

And I have cooked. A lot. Predictably, aside from the usual excitements that holidays bring (inspecting tan lines, feeling smug when you hear of rain at home...) the food is always one of the things that I look forward to the most. And the last couple of months have been a foodies dream. At Glastonbury, whatever nosh we wanted to nibble on could be found at the stalls surrounding the mud bath that was the Other Stage. In Wales, we conjured up steak and chips and full English breakfast on a tiny disposable barbeque, protected in Blue Peter type fashion from the extremely summery Welsh rain. And, in France, food was the central point at which each sun soaked day revolved.

On our holidays food is taken almost as seriously as it is by Greg Wallace and John Torrode in front of the MasterChef cameras. Although, far from cooking ‘not getting tougher than this’, the fresh, sun drenched French ingredients made cooking delicious food easier than ever. Huge, fragrant, juicy peaches, the freshest and meatiest prawns and amazing fish were the true flavours of our holiday. The peaches roasted on the Barbeque with rosé and bay leaves, or steeped in orange scented syrup and served with light and fluffy brioche French toast and creamy fromage blanc. The prawns thrown quickly onto the barbeque and then served bejewelling rich and spicy paella or with a fresh and zingy chicory and radish salad, tossed in a rich and fiery mustard dressing. Salmon cooked in parcels with gorgeous tomatoes, lemon and garlic. And even a rich and creamy dish of the French alpine classic, Tartiflette, served up for summer with roasted chicken and a crisp salad.

C’était magnifique. And that is the most French I have spoken since I finished my degree...


Although probably a dish more suited to a fireside table in the Alps than a scorching patio in near Perpignan, this is still one of my absolute favourite French dishes. Not one for those on a diet, although if you are attempting to squeeze into a bikini of your own the cream could be swapped for the same quantity of crème fraiche.

4 medium waxy potatoes
2 cloves of garlic (finely chopped)
1 large onion, sliced
300g smoked streaky bacon or pancetta (cubed)
100 ml double cream
2tbsp crème fraiche
A handful of reblochon cheese, grated. (If you cannot find Reblochon, a light sprinkling of parmesan will do!)

Before you begin, preheat the oven to 220oc and lightly grease a large pie dish or tin.

 Peel and slice the potatoes to about 1cm thick, before cooking in a pan of boiling, salted water for around 5 minutes or until they are just tender. Drain, being careful not to break the slices and return to the pan.

In a large frying pan fry the bacon in a little olive oil, until just beginning to turn golden. Add the sliced onion and garlic and fry until the onion is soft and the bacon is crispy.

Gently mix the potatoes, onion and bacon mixture, cream and crème fraiche in the saucepan until just combined, being careful not to turn the mixture into mashed potato!

Season well and transfer to the greased dish.

Cover with the cheese and bake in the preheated oven for around 35-40 minutes or until the top is bubbling and lightly browned.

Serve with roast chicken and a green salad, dressed with a sharp mustard dressing. Delicious.

My very favourite Paella

Again , this is a dish not entirely at home deep in the mountains of Southern France. However, the rich smokiness of this one pan wonder, bursting with exciting flavours and textures of prawns, chorizo, muscles and pretty much whatever else can be found in the fridge, means it is an absolute treat of a summer dish. And, bringing back memories of a glorious 6 months spent in the home of Paella last year, Valencia, I make absolutely no apology for its inclusion here. Perfect for sharing in the sun, it can even be cooked atop a barbeque, if you are lucky enough to have a pan large (and heatproof) enough!

Olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 chorizo sausage, cubed
2 red peppers, deseeded and chopped
2-3 chicken breasts, diced
400g seafood mix (mussels, clams, squid, or whatever you fancy!)
Around 1.5 litre chicken or vegetable stock
300g paella rice
1 tbsp smoked paprika
A pinch of saffron (Or, if you are a little strapped for cash like me, a sprinkle more paprika.)
A small bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
2 lemons
12 large shell-on prawns, barbequed for a few minutes

In a large heavy-based saucepan, fry the onions in a big glug of olive oil until soft. Add the garlic and chorizo, and fry for about 10 minutes, or until the rich fiery oil is seeping out of the chorizo and everything is beginning to colour slightly.

Add the chicken, peppers and spices and fry for another 10 minutes, or until the vegetables have begun to soften.

Add the rice and toss around the pan until it is coated in all the delicious spices and oils.

Add around 1 litre of the stock and stir until all the flavours are nicely incorporated. Bring to the boil and then stir continually for about 15 minutes, adding more stock if it is starting to look a bit dry. Add the seafood and stir to ensure that every corner of the dish benefits from all of their beautiful flavour.

Reduce the heat and leave the paella to simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender and the edges of the dish are browned and crusty (being careful not to go part browned to burnt!) Don’t be afraid of this prospect, this is my absolute favourite part of the paella and the crunch is an amazing contrast to the softness of rice and meat.

Season very well with salt and pepper and stir in the parsley. Add a large squeeze of lemon.
Decorate with lemon wedges and the large prawns, before allowing everyone to dig in!

Salmon parcels with tomatoes, lemon and olives.

Simple and truly delicious, these easy envelopes of tin foil (or, when in France “papillotes”!) are bursting with the freshest summer flavours you can get. Go mad, mix it up a bit and replace the tomatoes and olives with anything from fennel, par-cooked new potatoes and fennel seeds, to an oriental feast of lime, ginger, chilli and pak choi. And, as a good way to counteract the rich cream and bacon in the tartiflette, on top of all manner of other holiday sins, the parcels are super healthy to boot.

4 salmon fillets
4 tomatoes
4 cloves garlic
2 lemons
Small glass white wine
Olive oil
100g green olives
4 Bay leaves
Salt and pepper

Slice the tomatoes and lay in the centre of a large square of tin foil, before seasoning well and sprinkling with a little olive oil.

Layer on a few slices of lemon and a sprinkling of the olives. Season once more and sprinkle over a splash more of olive oil and white wine and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Lay the salmon on top of this delicious, flavour making bed and season the fillet well. Add the bay leaf and fold the tin foil to make a tight parcel around the salmon.

Bake in the oven or throw on the barbeque for about 20 minutes, or until the salmon is the palest pink and flaky.

The peaches in the South of France are simply to die for. Still warm for the baking sun and bursting with sweet and aromatic juices, they are the perfect poolside treat. Baked with rose and bay the aromatic flavours are intensified, whilst they are the perfect companion to the lightest French toast. Gorgeous.

Peaches baked in Rosé and Bay

5 ripe peaches
5 bay leaves
1 small glass rose
5 Tbsp sugar

Preheat the oven to 200oc.

Halve and stone the peaches and lay in a large square of tin foil.

Sprinkle over a large splash over rose and a tablespoon of sugar. Add the bay leaf and fold the parcel to conceal the peaches. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the peaches are tender

Brioche French Toast with Peaches and Plums in Orange Syrup

6 brioche rolls, or thick slices of brioche loaf
3 eggs
6 tbsp milk
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract, or even better, vanilla paste
3 ripe peaches
5 ripe plums
1 orange
Small glass of rosé
2 tbsp sugar
Natural yoghurt or crème fraîche to serve.

Preheat the oven to 180oc.

 To make the peach and plum compote, place the stoned and halved fruit into a roasting tin (the peaches may 
need cutting a little smaller, just make sure all the fruit is roughly the same size!).

Sprinkle with the sugar a few strips of the zest of the orange (Do this with a vegetable peeler, being sure not to peel the bitter white pith.) Squeeze in the juice of the orange; add a few tablespoons of the wine and cover 
the dish with tin foil.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 25-30 minutes.

For the fluffiest French toast; whisk the eggs, milk and vanilla in a large bowl before soaking the halved brioche rolls or slices in the mixture.

Fry in a little butter for around 3 minutes on each side, or until the toast is crisp and golden. Sprinkle with a little sugar if wished and serve with the compote and a spoonful of yoghurt.

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