Mad about Madhur

Sometimes I really, really love my job. Being a pen for hire has its drawbacks – recently I’ve had some tedious times writing about ridiculously expensive wallpaper for a footballers’ magazine, not to mention compiling some “fun facts about nudism” for a rather low-rent women’s mag – but tomorrow I’m interviewing Madhur Jaffrey.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 50 years, Madhur Jaffrey is to Indian food what Julia Child was to French, in that she made it accessible and inviting for Western home cooks (“servantless”, I think Julia would have called them). She’s written more than 30 books – mostly on food – and is still a powerhouse of energy at nearly 80. She’s also an acclaimed actress and is sometimes credited for introducing Ismail Merchant to James Ivory (in whose films she often starred).

So I am hugely excited about this, but a bit daunted all the same. What would you ask Madhur Jaffrey if you had the chance? Go on, here’s your opportunity…

Random Recipe Challenge #2: Shakshuka

The Boy Wonder and I rarely cook together these days unless we’ve got people over. Even then, we tend to separate out courses, so one of us can be sorting out one part of the dinner while the other puts the Small Girl to bed/sweeps the toys off the floor/pours the drinks. We always eat together – and increasingly with the Small Girl, who has learned to clink glasses and say ‘cheers’ as a result – but cooking together isn’t always practical. However I got all inspired when I read last month’s post by Louise at Please Do Not Feed The Animals, who enlisted the help of her husband when it came to Belleau Kitchen’s first Random Recipe Challenge. Louise’s ‘Perfect Date Night’ post was so lovely that I felt we should follow in their footsteps.
The rules for Random Recipe Challenge #2 are to choose the 18th book on your cookbook shelves, then pick a recipe at random. Book 18 in our case turned out to be Plenty (aka the second Ottolenghi book), which was quite apt as the BW had given it to me for Christmas. The BW isn’t big on following instructions (or taking orders), so he baulked a bit when I said we had to cook whatever page fell open first. His face dropped even further when that turned out to be chard and saffron omelettes, so rather than open divorce proceedings we flicked the pages again and landed on Shakshuka.

Shakshuka, from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
This is a very simple dish, similar in style to piperade. It seemed to take us ages (we went out to the garden to pick the peppers and herbs, then we decided to have a glass of wine, then the phone went…) but we had a really nice time doing it. Our coriander plant has long since bolted so I used flatleaf parsley instead, and we didn’t have any saffron or bay leaves. Quantities below are for four – we halved it – and ate it with chunks of bread.

1/2 tsp cumin seeds
180ml light olive oil
2 large onions, sliced
2 red and 2 yellow peppers, cut into 2cm strips
4tsp muscovado sugar
2 bay leaves
6 thyme sprigs, leaves picked and chopped
2tbsp chopped parsley
2tbsp chopped coriander, plus extra to garnish
6 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/2tsp saffron threads
pinch of cayenne pepper
up to 250ml water
8 free-range eggs
salt and black pepper

In a very large pan dry-roast the cumin seeds on high heat for two minutes. Add the oil and saute the onions for five minutes, then add the peppers, sugar and herbs and cook for another 5-10 minutes until well coloured.
Add the tomatoes, saffron, cayenne and some salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Add water during this time to get the consistency of pasta sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning – “it should be potent and flavoursome”. This sauce can be done well in advance.
Make indentations in the sauce mix (either in this pan or in four small frying pans) and carefully break an egg into each one. Sprinkle with salt and cover, then cook on a very gentle heat for 10 minutes, or until the eggs are just set. Sprinkle with coriander and serve.

Sweet sweet Friday: Italian Cinnamon Biscuits

In theory, one of the good things about freelancing is that you can work from home, as and when it suits. Mix freelancing with working for someone else (oh, and having a small person to look after) and you quickly realise that working when it suits means working late at night when you’d much rather be in bed.

This week has been all about late nights, which has made me realise two things. Firstly, I’ve become much better at working when I’d rather be sleeping. Secondly, I’m not much good in the kitchen after hours. Last night, after finally finishing off an urgent (and incredibly boring) job, I decided to celebrate by making a birthday cake for a friend. Overtiredness made me overconfident, which meant that I didn’t worry too much when a slightly acrid smell started emanating from the oven. As the smell grew stronger I realised that most of the cake had escaped the tin and was now cooking burning on the oven floor. This is not a relaxing, sleep-inducing discovery to make after 11pm, especially when you have used the last egg and most of the butter. Please, don’t try this at home yourselves.

But do join in the fab new challenge from Dom at Belleau Kitchen, in which he asks participants to pick a recipe at random from their cookbook collections. Here’s what I chose…

Italian Cinnamon Biscuits – Biscotti alla cannella
I have to confess I wasn’t too random about the choice of book – it’s our wedding anniversary on Sunday and the Boy Wonder gave me The Silver Spoon as a present some four years ago. I’ve never made anything from it, despite referring to it regularly. Now, I have no idea if these turned out how they were supposed to. I ended up adding an extra tablespoon of olive oil because I didn’t think the mixture was going to come together. They aren’t the prettiest biscuit, but the flavour is good. At this point in the week, that’s good enough for me!  But I’d love to know if this is what they’re supposed to be like. Can you help?

250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
5Tbsp olive oil
130g caster sugar
grated zest of a lemon
ground cinnamon, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 200C. Grease a baking sheet with butter and dust with flour.
Sift the flour into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in the oil, then add the sugar and lemon zest. Mix well, then leave to stand for 20 minutes. Shape into walnut sized balls, flatten slightly and place on the prepared tray. Dust with cinnamon, then bake for about 20 minutes. Leave to cool slightly on the tray for a few minutes, then cool completely on a rack. Go to bed, exhausted.

Our daily bread

It’s the third week of 2011 and I have stopped buying bread. Well, I do have an emergency loaf in the freezer, but I am no longer a prisoner to the over-priced and not-that-great French bakery around the corner and I can smugly avoid the bread aisle at the supermarket. I haven’t gotten around to growing the sourdough starter yet (sorry Dom!), but definitely feel back in the swing of breadmaking.

These robust loaves have become our daily bread. They’re quick to make, have a good crust, a nice crumb and turn into excellent toast. The recipe comes from Stephanie Alexander’s The Cooks Companion, one of my most-used books for both recipe and reference purposes.

Country-style Crusty Bread
I have to thank my sister Marion for the baking paper technique described below – much easier than fluffing about with flour-covered teatowels and the like. This makes two loaves, so you have one to eat today and one to freeze.

800g unbleached strong flour
200g wholemeal strong flour
1Tbsp instant dried yeast
1Tbsp fine salt
2Tbsp olive oil
600ml lukewarm water

Put everything into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix on low speed until you have a smooth but not sticky dough (about 8 minutes). If you don’t have a mixer, prepare to knead for about 15-20 minutes.
Divide dough in half (I weigh it to be sure) and put each half into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with tea towels and leave until doubled, about one hour.
Knock back and knead each piece for a couple of minutes, then return to bowls and let rise again for about 30 minutes, covered with tea towels again.
Gently form each piece into a loaf (“like a fat cigar,” Stephanie says) and place on a liberally floured piece of baking paper. Allow to rise for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220C, with a heavy baking tray inside. Carefully lift the baking paper and loaves onto the hot tray and bake for about 20 minutes, then turn over and bake for another five minutes (you can remove the baking paper at this point). The base of each loaf should sound hollow when tapped. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.

Lucky old me and the UKFBA

I was feeling very cross and out-of-sorts yesterday morning and nothing was going right. I stomped down to the letterbox expecting a slew of bills – and discovered a nice surprise instead.

One of my daily online must-dos is visiting I’ve Blogged on the UK Food Bloggers Association website. It’s how I’ve discovered lots of great blogs and made some lovely blog friends. It’s also how this crisp new River Cottage Diary 2011 ended up in my letterbox. Janice (aka Farmersgirl), who set up I’ve Blogged, organised a giveaway to celebrate having 100 members – and lucky old me won it.

So thank you Janice, thank you UKFBA and thank you to everyone who posts on I’ve Blogged. You’re an important part of my day (especially when I’ve got the grumps)…