Thursday, 26 January 2012

Polenta, roasted vegetables and peppered parmesan crisps

Ahh, pretty no? I had to stop and take a moment while I was prepping the veg for this dish. The leftovers caught my eye. Those autumnal colours do brighten up a chilly January kitchen.

Anyway, supper:

One last blog before I skip off to Portugal tomorrow for sun, sea and as many of those delicious little custard tarts as I can cram into my greedy little suitcase. Delish!

I've been experimenting with vegetarian dishes recently, partly to take advantage of all the lovely winter vegetables around, and partly because I seem to be having rather a lot of vegetarians over for dinner. I hadn't realised quite how much I rely on fish to be the centrepiece of a meal until I was tasked with avoiding it. I like that this polenta has drama in the vivid colours of the squash, rocket and beetroot. And having the lot laid out on a board makes it feel more casual, which is right for the kind of meal that I have with close friends.

I used the Crown Prince variety of squash for this, which hides a wonderful surprise. Below the misleadingly drab blue-grey skin it has vibrant orange flesh, really beautiful. The black pepper and parmesan crisps scattered on top aren't strictly necessary but they add crunch and intense little bursts of flavour.

Feeds 4
~ for the roasted vegetables
1 small Crown Prince squash (about 450g)
3 raw beetroot (about 200g)
2 small red onions
3 tbsp olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper

~ for the polenta
200g fine polenta
1 litre water
1/2 tsp salt
50g butter
65g grated cheese (I used a 50/50 mix of parmesan and taleggio)
a pinch of ground white pepper

~ for the parmesan crisps
50g grated parmesan
a very large pinch of black pepper

a big handful of rocket (arugula)
2 tsp of fresh picked thyme leaves

1) Start with the roasted vegetables: Peel the squash and chop into cubes roughly 2x2cm, then wash the beetroot and chop into similarly sized chunks. Toss in the lemon juice and oil, season lightly with salt and pepper, and bake in a roasting tin for 20 minutes at 425f/220c/gas mark 7, then chop the onions into slim wedges and continue to bake for a further 25 minutes.

2) While the vegetables are cooking get on with the polenta by bringing the water, salt and half the butter to a simmer in a large pot, then slowly adding the polenta in a fine stream, stirring all the time. Continue to simmer over a low heat for 35 minutes, stirring often to prevent it sticking to the bottom. The polenta should be thickened but still soft at this point. If it starts to dry out too much, add a cup of water. When cooked, stir through the rest of the butter, the cheese and the white pepper.

3) To make the crisps, scatter the grated parmesan evenly over a silicone sheet, or lightly oiled greaseproof paper, and bake at 400f/200c/gas mark 6 for 5 minutes, until golden but not browned. After cooling for five minutes, crumble into crisp pieces with your fingers.

4) To serve, spoon the polenta over a board (or onto plates), scatter over the vegetables and any roasting juices, then the rocket and thyme. Tuck the parmesan crisps in between the veg, and eat while hot or warm.

Soggy biscuits

For the biscuit-a-holic in your life.

I wish I'd found these brilliant cushions before Christmas, they would make excellent gifts for people with children. Designer Nikki McWilliams showcased these little beauties off at the Top Drawer trade show here in London a couple of weeks ago.  I think they hit just the right nostalgic note, riding the same wave of golden childhood memories that have made retro sweeties so popular for the past few years.  Best accessorised with a tea stained sofa...

Monday, 23 January 2012

An ultra rich chocolate & orange fudge cake

A dense, super-chocolately fudge cake for those occasions when only something completely indulgent will do.

It was the birthday of a good friend last weekend, her 33rd. She has a one year old and hasn't been out of the house alone with her partner since November. I offered my (inept) babysitting skills to let them out for the night, and took this chocolate cake to make up for the poor quality childcare.

My child care experience amounts to one instance when I was fifteen - the boy was six. He took one look at me and knew he had the upper hand. We were up till 11pm as he laid waste to the house while I trailed behind him with a dustpan and brush. Thankfully little Elliot was an angel, and even when he was up, was still a total pleasure to be with. Except when he chewed my ear. I could have done without that.

Be warned: this cake smells amazing in the kitchen - the scent of chocolate and orange zest was so intoxicating that I almost cracked and ate a piece before taking it to my friend's. Tut tut.

Feeds 12

~for the cake
100g soft butter
220g caster sugar
2 large eggs
the juice of an orange, made up to 250ml with whole milk
1 tbsp cider vinegar
the grated rind of an orange
100g melted dark chocolate
15g cocoa powder
300g self-raising flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

~for the chocolate ganache frosting
350g dark chocolate
100g butter
200ml sour cream
2 tbsp Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
the rind of an orange

1) Preheat the oven to 350f/180c/gas mark 4. Now to make the cake: whisk together the butter and sugar for one minute, then add the rest of the cake ingredients in the following order, whisking for a minute between each addition: eggs, orange juice and eggs, vinegar, orange rind. Finally stir in the melted chocolate, then sift over the flour, bicarb and cocoa and fold in.

2) Lightly oil two 20cm round silicone cake tins, and divide the mixture equally between them. Bake in the centre of the oven for 30-35 minutes, checking after 30 minutes with a toothpick to see if they are still wet in the centre. If they are, give them the remainder of the cooking time. Leave to cool while you make the frosting.

3) Allow the chocolate and butter to melt together in a bain marie, then remove from the heat and briefly stir in the sour cream and orange liqueur, trying not to overwork the mixture. Now take one of the cakes and place on a dish or cake stand, and spread a third of the chocolate ganache over the cake. The ganache should come right up to the edges of the cake. Then pop the other cake on top, flat side up (it makes the cake neater), and dollop the rest of the ganache on top. I find it easiest to use a round ended knife, like a butter knife, to smooth the topping over the top and sides. Try to work fairly quickly, as the chocolate will start to set if you're working in a cold kitchen.

4) Grate the orange zest over the top of the cake while it's still warm, and wait until completely set before slicing.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Diamonds are a girl's best friend

It's hard not to be excited about the Diamond Jubilee in June -not only do we get an extra day off work (hooray!) but there are all sorts of Queeny bits and bobs gracing our shelves in the lead up.

I love this wind-up musical Jubilee biscuit tin from Fortnum and Mason which plays a twinkly nursery version of God Save the Queen. Marvellous stuff. I discovered it whilst hunting for a classy biscuit gift for my partners' aunt, who is kindly lending us her apartment in Portugal next weekend (and requested a delivery of PG Tips). You can take the girl out of Britain, but...

It has a proper old world feel to the metal tin - like a toy from childhood - and the biscuits are a suitably trad Cornish clotted cream digestive. Plus you've gotta love a dancing lion/unicorn combo haven't you?

Makes me come over all teary eyed for her Maj it does. Sniff sniff. Gawd bless her!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

B-logging into the new year

Happy new year! Apologies for the lengthy silence, I was struck down with an unwelcome bout of festive flu and have since been luxuriating in the wonderousness of my own full health. Sometimes it's enough just to feel normal again...

People keep asking what my favourite Christmas present was this year, so here it is: a grow-your-own wild mushroom kit, imaginatively gifted by my other half (thanks lovely x)

The kit consisted of three types of plug, each impregnated with a different mushroom mycelium (the spore that mushrooms grow from). To grow the mushrooms, all we had to do was insert the plugs into freshly cut logs, drilling holes and then knocking in the plugs with a hammer, before sealing with a protective log wax.

Drilling holes for the plugs
Adding the mushroom mycelium
Sealing the surface with wax to prevent contamination
We foraged three lengths of freshly cut oak from a nearby wood that had been cut back, which we plugged and are now settling in under a bush in the garden.  With luck, I will have a bounty of shitake, oyster and lion's mane mushrooms sometime around Autumn.

It's a lengthy wait I'll admit, but half the fun was putting it all together and waiting for it to grow. Who says you have to choose between delayed gratification and instant pleasure?
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