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Garlicky Tomato and Fennel Gratin

Introduction:

Did you know that the term gratin originally referred to the crust that adhered to the cooking receptacle and was scraped off? Its derivation is from the French word gratté which means scraped or scratched.

Now a gratin is more commonly referred to when describing the  golden crust that forms on the surface of a dish when it is browned in the oven or put under a grill. A gratin is also associated with toppings of cheese, breadcrumbs or egg and breadcrumbs. As a method it’s a great way to protect the food underneath the crust from overcooking or drying out, whilst creating an intense flavour, and sometimes crunchy texture, on top.

This gratin is a French classic (although it wouldn’t look out of place in Italy) using the combination of ripened tomatoes, the wonderfully aniseed-like fennel and of course being of Gallic origin, garlic. It is topped off with a crunchy and cheesy topping which wowed my other half and two ankle biters.

 

Serves: 4 as a side or 2 as a main.   |   Preparation:  20 minutes   |   Cooking: 35 minutes

 

Ingredients:

For the filling:    
1kg Fennel bulbs | Note that the total yield of fennel will be less once the core, stems and outer layer have been removed.
1 Large Red onion | Thinly sliced.
½kg Ripened tomatoes | Use nice ripe tomatoes such as a Roma or a  beefsteak tomato. No need to use heirloom or anything similarly luxuriant.
2 cloves Garlic | Crushed.
4 tbsp.  Olive oil |

For the topping:    
60g Coarse bread crumbs | I make my own. For this recipe I used multigrain bread blitzed in a food processor until the breadcrumbs were coarse. White bread can be used.
70g Grana Padano cheese | This cheese is not as strong as Reggiano Parmesan, but still adds a strong bitey edge to the topping. Ensure that it is made in Italy if you want great flavour.
1 small lemon Lemon zest | Grated.
1 clove Garlic | Crushed.

 

 

How To:

Preheat your oven to 200 deg. C (400 deg. F). Put the kettle on to boil. Take a 21 cm square gratin dish and grease it with butter or olive oil.

To prepare the fennel remove the stems, fronds and any tired looking outer layers. Remove any tough core at the bottom of the fennel bulb. Cut the fennel length ways and then thinly slice.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a low to medium heat. Add the onion and soften for about 4 or 5 minutes. It’s important not to brown the onion as browning will impart a deep caramelised flavour that doesn’t work with this dish. Now add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add the fennel and cook this until it has softened and has taken on a golden hue. This should take about 7 to 10 minutes.

The kettle should have boiled by now. Take the tomatoes and carefully score the bases with a cross. I do this with a small sharp paring knife. Put the tomatoes in a bowl and pour over the hot water from the kettle. Leave for about 25 seconds and then remove the tomatoes carefully and plunge them into a bowl of cold water (with ice). If the tomatoes were ripe the skins will be gagging to be removed. Peel the tomatoes, roughly chop them and add them to the fennel and onion. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft. Season and taste; as French chefs will tell you “taste, taste, taste!”

For the topping add the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, lemon zest and crushed garlic to a bowl. Mix with that fine tool they call the hand.

Line the gratin dish with the cooked vegetables and evenly sprinkle the gratin topping over them. Put the gratin in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the topping looks golden brown (easier to see with white breadcrumbs) and has a crispy texture. Serve immediately. Bon appétit!

 

Notes:

–        I served this with a pan fried pork loin chops (these have the characteristic T-bone shape).

Jerusalem Artichoke Purée with Truffle Oil

Introduction:

Ever come across ‘experts’ gesticulating over their food to the degree that you want them just to enjoy eating it rather than go through what sometimes can be seen as some elaborate mating ritual…mmm, yes, I can detect a mmm, subtle hint of toasted melon with a mmm, yes underlying palate of macerated yak droppings, nicely finished with a yes…mmm, let me cogitate further…mmm, yes a definite nuance of tea-smoked elderflower. Not bad for a piece of toast, hey?

I have, in the past, often struggled to take seriously those that described their food as ‘earthy’. I mean who did their research? Some poor student chef gulping down handfuls of sodden earth under the careful direction of their mentor,

Does it remind you of anything?

The student is thinking ‘yes, death’ but says

yes chef, truffle, mushroom, carrots…so earthy.

In essence I jest. I now, in my infinite wisdom (ahem), completely understand that food is very subjective and in particular in how we try to describe taste, flavour, texture and smell. So, for example, I can now really detect the similarities between the ‘smell’ of the earth and the term ‘earthy’ that describes the ‘flavour’ of many root vegetables, tubers and fungi that originate from within the earth; or very close to it.

Jerusalem artichokes exude that ‘earthiness’ and when looking at food pairing you cannot go wrong with looking at similar ‘earthy’ food types. I have recently discovered the complete and utter affinity that the ‘earthiness’ of truffle (in this case as truffle oil) has with Jerusalem artichoke.

The recipe below is for a Jerusalem artichoke purée which is a wonderfully creamy and citrusy concoction. On its own it can complement many meat dishes, and although the truffle oil is optional, if you have any then please indulge as it takes the purée to another level. If you are very well positioned in life then shavings of black truffle would be Utopian.

For a great insight in to the origins and characteristics of the humble Jerusalem artichoke (or sunchoke) then check out the post ‘Jerusalem Artichoke aka Sunchokes’ on Duck and Roses.

 

Serves: A few plus some for freezing   |   Preparation:  30 minutes   |   Cooking: 45-60  minutes

 

Ingredients:

1.5kg Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) | Unpeeled. Ensure they have been scrubbed clean in cold water if you have just picked them.
300ml Grapeseed oil | You can use groundnut oil or any oil that has a neutral flavour.
50g Butter | I use Lescure French butter, but any good butter is great.
From 5 medium lemons Lemon juice | Squeezed and pip-free.
To season Sea salt | According to taste – You can always adjust at the end.
500ml  Water |
40ml Single cream | Milk fat content of about 35%.
10ml White or black truffle oil |

 

 

How To:

Ensure that your artichokes are completely dirt free as we are cooking these with their skins on. Cut the artichokes into small pieces and boil in hot water for 1 minute and then drain (just to remove any lingering dirt).

Put the oil in a heavy based pan and warm on a low heat. Add the artichokes, butter, lemon juice, salt, and water, and stir. Cover the pan with a lid and gently cook the artichokes for about 45 minutes to an hour, until very soft.  Once soft, stir in the cream. Process the artichoke mix in a food processor until very smooth. Now push the purée through a fine sieve – this will separate out all of the skin, and result in a silky smooth purée. Now add the truffle oil (optional) and stir until mixed in.

The purée can be chilled and then gently warmed up before serving. It also keeps well if frozen – if you do freeze it ensure that you defrost it slowly in the fridge and then warm very gently before serving.

 

Notes:

  • Great served with red meat dishes, such as lamb shanks, or smothered on vegetables. As an example I steamed some cauliflower until al dente and then baked it in a medium hot oven covered in the artichoke purée.
  • Celeriac is another great ‘earthy’ root that can be used instead of Jerusalem artichoke. Sometimes when I’m feeling fruity I combine the two.

Pickled Baby Octopus

Introduction:

Diving for the illusive Jules Verne cephalopod, the monster of the deep, and probably twenty thousand leagues above (and below) what I should be diving for, I was suddenly attracted by a mysterious wailing; a wailing that dreamily emanated from a distant island, a tropical oasis in the midst of the ocean. Unnerved and helpless I drifted towards the haunting sound, and as my vision focused in on it’s source I became aware that this island was a fantasy adorned with a veritable feast of all my favourite marine delights: lobster, sea trout, banana prawns, oysters, monkfish, sea urchins, snapper, Atlantic salmon, sardines, octopus, mussels…the list was endless. With only metres to spare before landing on this paradise, I was swept away by an unknown of the deep, taken down and down into a helical vortex only to emerge moments later sat in a café and wondering how I can introduce the next recipe on the blog…

And as I struggled to introduce the majestic recipe for pickled octopus, my mind wandered and suddenly I found myself diving for the illusive…

 

Serves: A few as nibbles   |   Preparation:  30 minutes  |   Cooking:  2 hours + 2 days marinating

 

Ingredients:

1 kg Baby octopus – cleaned | Most baby octopus is already cleaned when bought.

For the Marinade
350ml  Extra virgin olive oil |
2 cloves Garlic | Finely sliced.
250ml Red wine vinegar | A good quality aged vinegar is ideal.
80ml Sherry vinegar | This is very flavoursome vinegar, adored by French chefs in particular.
2 tsp. Dried oregano | Fresh doesn’t impart as much flavour.
2 tsp. Lemon juice | Freshly squeezed.
2 pieces Lemon zest | Each piece about 5cm x 1cm.
4 Szechuan peppercorns | Crushed.
8 Black peppercorns | Coarsely ground.
A drizzle Extra virgin olive oil | A drizzle to coat the octopus.

 

 

How To:

I have written a post about Cooking Octopus, Squid and Cuttlefish and the science behind it. I recommend giving it a whirl if you are interested as to why this is cooked for so long.

Preheat your oven to 90 deg C (195 deg F) – it’s essential to use an oven thermometer as if the temperature is too high the octopus will over-cook.

Prepare a pan of boiling water and add the cleaned octopus.  Blanch for 20 seconds and then immediately remove from the water. Add to a dry pan, cover the pan with a lid and then put in the oven for 2 hours, regularly checking the temperature of the oven.

To prepare the marinade, add all the ingredients to a bowl and then stir gently to disperse; we are not looking to emulsify the oil and other liquids, however.

Remove the octopus from the oven and drain the juice. The juice (or jus) is quite gelatinous and extremely flavoursome. It can be reduced to a very rich sauce or used to flavour other sauces or soups. I usually freeze it for later use.

Let the octopus cool for 10 minutes and then carefully add it to the marinade. Gently coat the octopus in the marinade, cover the bowl with cling film and then refrigerate for two days. This allows for the pickling process to occur and means that the octopus becomes infused with those lovely herby and zesty flavours.

After two days remove the octopus from the fridge and if the marinade has set just allow it to come to room temperature so that it liquefies. Pick out and eat the octopus.

Notes:

  • Great served on a platter as an appetiser.

SMashing Lemon Drizzle Cake

Introduction:

This is a cracking little cake which has not only wowed people at gatherings but is also gluten free, which is a great asset to have up one’s sleeve. The credit for the recipe goes to the River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s hugely successful project and television series. However, recipes for lemon drizzle cakes are abound and so one is never too sure where a recipe actually originated.

The secret ingredient for this wonderfully moist cake is mashed potato. This does seems quite an innovative, and dare I say aberrant, ingredient to use in a sweet cake, but when you think about it nobody would blink twice at carrot cake. The potato contributes to the cake’s moist texture, without imparting any ‘potatoey’ flavour. Almond meal is used instead of flour. The lemon syrup that is drizzled over the cake provides a great balance of sweetness and sharpness.

 

Serves: 12 or so   |   Preparation:  20-30 minutes   |   Cooking: 25-45 minutes

 

Ingredients:

175g Unsalted butter | I use Lescure French butter, but that’s just a personal preference.
200g Caster sugar | White or golden caster sugar can be used.
4 large Eggs | Free range.
200g Almond meal | I have used bought almond meal, and also blanched almonds that I have ground myself – either will do.
2 tsp. Baking powder | Baking powder is usually a mix of sodium bicarbonate and an acid. When the baking powder is heated the bicarbonate and acid react to produce carbon dioxide, which is the gas that causes the cake to rise.
250g Mashed potato | Boil potatoes, such as Desiree or Sebago. When soft push through a potato ricer and allow to cool. Don’t add any salt, milk, cream or butter.
From 3 lemons Lemon zest | Finely grated.

For the lemon drizzle
From 2 lemons Lemon juice | Squeeze ‘em well.
75g Caster sugar |

 

 

How To:

I have made this cake using the electric mixer method and the manual ‘by hand’ method. Both produced fantastic results, so the decision on which to use is probably down to whether you have an electric mixer or not – wow, sometimes I feel like the Einstein of the food world.

Firstly preheat your oven to 180 deg C. Line a 23cm spring-form cake tin with baking parchment, and grease the side with butter.

Using an electric mixer: Beat the butter and sugar for about 5 minutes, until soft. Then add one egg with about a tablespoon of the almond meal. When beaten in repeat the process with the other 3 eggs. Now add the rest of the almond meal and the baking powder and beat until mixed. Add the mashed potato, beat until mixed and then finally add the lemon zest, and again beat until mixed.

Using the hand method: Soften the butter slightly and then add to a bowl with the sugar. Beat with a wooden spoon until soft and fluffy. Carefully add one egg and a tablespoon of almond meal and beat really well to prevent curdling. Repeat with the other 3 eggs. Stir the baking powder in to the rest of the almond meal and then fold both into the mixture. Then fold in the mashed potato and finally the lemon zest.

Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and pop it in the oven. Now, I have had variations in cooking time, so check after 25 minutes and then use a skewer to test every few minutes (when ready the skewer will be clean after prodding the cake). It usually takes about 40 minutes for me.

Once out of the oven prepare the syrup. Add the sugar to the lemon juice and stir a couple of times ensuring that not all of the sugar has dissolved. Whilst still warm pierce the cake with a skewer, about two-thirds the way into the cake i.e. not through to the base. Evenly pour the lemon syrup over the cake, and watch it seep in. By not completely dissolving the sugar you should end up with some crystalline sugar at the top of the cake, by design. Let the cake cool before removing from the cake tin. Dig in.

Notes:

  • Keep in a sealed container at room temperature to keep in the moisture. Should keep a few days, but in reality will only be in existence for a couple.