The weather was stunning last week, sunny with bright blue skies and first blossom on my cherry trees. Everything looked absolutely normal from up here on the hill, the water of the estuary and Cardigan Bay beyond glistening and twinkling, very beautiful. Easter weekend and the following week are usually a mad-house, with tourists flooding in, eating ice creams, munching chips and catching unsuspecting crabs from the jetty, with the beach crammed with families, wind-breaks and sand castles. By contrast, the silence continues to be truly deafening. The lock-down continues to be observed, and face masks, visors and latex gloves are increasingly commonplace. I continue to play with my new cooking regime, and it is an interesting challenge that amuses me, but although the tone is light, the reality is very much on my mind.
On Friday I made myself a lamb shawarma on the bbq, along with two sausages and a couple of chicken thighs. I kept the sausages for brunch on Sunday, dipped cold into Levi Roots Reggae Reggae sauce (we all have our vices!). I used the chicken thighs, beautifully smokey, to make a chicken Caesar salad. I cheated. I have never actually summoned up the courage to make my own Caesar salad dressing, and always buy the Cardini bottle version. Fortunately for me, the Aberdyfi Village Stores sells it, so I was able to slosh it all over the place as usual. I like my chicken Caesar salad with Romaine lettuce, salted anchovies and wedges of par-boiled egg, as well as little cubed crutons painted with olive oil and done under the grill. I forgot to take a photo.
Pan-fried plaice fillet with capers, served with creamed leeks, lemon zest, peas and bacon pieces, and some shallow-fried semi-circular “chips.” I love the distinctive flavour of plaice, subtle but unmistakeable. I find that any cooking method other than poaching works a treat. Poaching drains the flavour and does nothing for the texture, whereas frying, grilling or roasting all lend real depth to the flavour and firm up the texture.
Normally I would dredge the fish in egg and then flour, but I am short of both so just fried it directly in butter with a scattering of capers, allowing the butter to go brown and nutty. The creamed leek part of the meal is so easy. The bacon bits are gently fried in a little butter, the leeks, peas and lemon zest are added and left soften in a lidded saucepan for a few minutes before adding a splash of wine and a good slosh of single cream. Heat gently until nearly ready to serve and then raise the heat to bubble the wine and cream, which will thicken it up. I rarely eat chips at home, because I don’t have room in my kitchen for a deep fat fryer, and I am a bit wary of a pan of boiling oil in my kitchen, but my Mum used to do the following, something that was very like a chip but shallow-fried. A spud is sliced into oval discs about 1cm thick, and these can be halved into semicircles. These are parboiled for 5 minutes, during which time about 2-3cm (1 inch) of cooking oil is heated. To test if it is hot enough, put in one of the slices, and if that starts to sizzle, put the rest in. If they have been par-boiled they take about five minutes after the heat has come back up to sizzling strength.
I love all types of fish, but it is remarkably difficult to get hold of here, which seems mad for two neighbouring seaside villages. The only local supplier of fish is excellent, usually operating in Aberdovey between Easter and October (when the weather allows him to go out in his boat), but obviously has a limited variety of stock, confined to what he can catch locally. At the moment, of course, he is closed for the duration. Vacuum-packed salmon, cod and haddock are usually available in the small supermarkets, but anything else is rather beyond their scope. I got into the habit of buying my seafood in the Chester and Wrexham areas when over in my father’s direction and returning them here to put in the freezer, and today’s plaice fillet was bought elsewhere and frozen down, but obviously that’s not practical right now. I am still eating my way through the freezer, but when I have enough space I will see if I can buy online from specialist seafood suppliers, although if other online food shopping is anything to go by, that may be impossible.
Melanzane alla Parmigiana (aubergine in parmesan cheese). One of my favourites and one of my occasional vegetarian dishes. Perhaps surprisingly I can buy aubergines locally. I didn’t have the right ingredients for a classic Melanzane alla Parmigiana in the fridge, but this alternative version worked remarkably well. The main ingredients missing were mozzarella, which is wonderful in this dish, and fresh basil for the topping. I replaced the basil with bottled basil pesto, added in blobs as I built up the layers in the ovenproof dish (which I will do in the future, as it worked brilliantly), and added fresh oregano on top, and replaced the mozzarella with leftover feta (which gives a very welcome touch of brightness and freshness to the dish) and cheddar. It wasn’t as great as mozzarella, but it was pretty good. Fortunately, I had plenty of Parmesan, purchased on my last shopping trip. It is cooked in two parts.
First, the sauce. I put some halved tomatoes in boiling water for a couple of minutes, plunging them into cold water to remove the skins. Then the garlic and onions are sautéed in olive oil until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. The tomatoes, garlic, onions and, in my case, a big glug of Big Tom are whizzed up in the food processor and poured into a pan. Next, finely sliced fresh chilli or dried chilli flakes, and some serious grindings of black pepper are added to the mix. The resulting sauce is then simmered for around 15-20 minutes. At this point pre-heat the oven to Gas 6/200C/390F.
Second, the aubergine needs to be cooked. Slice the glossy, dark-skinned aubergines into disks about 5mm-1cm thick. Pour some seasoned flour into a bowl and toss the aubergine in the flour. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan, making sure that the oil is very hot so that the flour stays on the aubergine and it cooks quickly rather than sucking up all the oil. Fry til golden-brown on both sides and drain on kitchen paper and allow to cool.
The final stage is to layer the aubergine with the sauce, blobs of basil pesto (if using) and cheeses in alternating layers in an ovenproof dish. First the aubergine, then the tomato sauce and pesto, then the mozzarella and parmesan if you have it, or other cheeses if you don’t, pushed down into the sauce, followed by the next layer of sliced aubergine. You simply repeat the layers until you reach the top layer of aubergine. Add a thin layer of the sauce, cheese and a good sprinkling of parmesan. If you want added texture, you can mix the parmesan with breadcrumbs, which is what I did tonight. If you have no fresh herbs to serve when it comes out of the oven, you might want to sprinkle some dried herbs in with the breadcrumbs. Then pop it in the oven for around 25 minutes, but keep checking towards the end of the cooking time to make sure that it comes out when bubbly and golden brown, before the top burns. Serve with fresh basil on top, or whatever you have as an equivalent. I put one lot of oregano on top before I put it into the oven, because I like them crispy, and another lot of fresh just prior to serving.
It is difficult to retrieve a portion from the oven dish tidily, and it looks like a disorganized heap on the plate (at least, it does the way I do it), but the flavours are great. I served it with a small salad of diced cucumber and tomato in a little gem leaf, with ground fennel seed over the top, a serious hit of black pepper and sea salt, and a French vinaigrette dressing based on tarragon vinegar. The tarragon vinegar is simply made by stuffing a pack of fresh tarragon into a big bottle of white wine vinegar and resting for a couple of weeks for the flavours to develop. Tarragon is usually available from the Tywyn Spar, which almost always has an excellent selection of fresh herbs. Feta would have been a good addition but I needed the last bit in the fridge for the melanzane itself.
I often serve this as an accompaniment to another dish when I’m cooking for more than one; it works very well as a side dish with just about any meat or white fish dish. I made nearly double what I needed and will be having the remainder with as an accompaniment to Tortilla Española later in the week.
Another version of this dish adds crisped Parma ham layer to the last layer of aubergine, which then has the rest of the top level added to it as above. Alternatively, the same combination of vegetable ingredients are also very good when finely chopped or roughly whizzed in a food processor and used as a sauce over pasta, with or without meatballs, with the cheese dotted here and there, and baked or grilled until the cheese melts.
Ethiopian chicken curry (Doro Wat). The Ethiopian national dish is a top favourite of mine, a very simple one-pot meal. It is made with berbere spices. The Co-Op in Tywyn does a Bart tin of berbere spice mix, but it is also easy to buy online. My favourite blend is sold by a third party on Amazon. Berbere is basically made up of chilli, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, cloves, allspice, paprika, carom, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and black pepper. Seeds and pods, rather than ground spices, are used wherever possible. It has a warm, aromatic punch with a bit of heat, and this permeates whatever is cooked with it, especially when marinated overnight. As well as chicken, it is traditionally made with hard boiled egg, which is spectacularly good. The soft but solid texture and blandness of the egg is a wonderful contrast to the rest of the curry’s textures and its rich flavours. I chucked in a couple of dehydrated limes and some okra into mine, because I love them, but they are not part of the traditional recipe. I also had some aubergine left over from the melanzane alla parmagiana, so that was also thrown in, chopped, and fried with the onions. This is a slowly cooked dish, so I do it in the slow cooker (pre-heated for half an hour on high and then dropped to low), but it can be done in a casserole dish on a very low heat on the hob just as easily.
I use bone-in chicken thighs because I like the flavour, but I remove the skin beforehand and render it down for frying the onions. It’s a simple dish if, as I do, one avoids making one’s own berbere spice mix and Niter Kibbeh (spice-infused clarified butter, although it’s on my to-do list because it looks wonderful). First the chicken is marinated in the berbere spice mix with olive oil, sea/rock salt, sliced ginger, crushed garlic and lemon juice overnight.
When ready to cook, heat some olive oil in a frying pan, chop an onion, some garlic and sliced ginger and fry it. When it has heated through and is just beginning to brown, tip it into the pot with a small glass of white wine, a spoon of honey and enough stock to create a sauce. Into the frying pan, add the marinated chicken thighs and allow the entire dish to heat gently, turning to ensure that both sides are warmed through, and then tip into the slow cooker or casserole. If it is in the slow cooker, and you are using four thighs that you have warmed through in the frying pan, five hours on low will do fine. If you are heating on the hob, two hours on a very low setting should be fine. This allows all the flavours to mature and blend.
Traditionally Doro Wat is served with very thin flat-bread called injera. It would probably work well with rice or cous cous too. I am a complete salad addict, so love this served with a fresh green salad, with feta when I have any (unfortunately used up now), as many herbs as possible, with a major mint component. I also made my usual Greek yogurt, mint and cucumber mix to serve alongside it.
I made two batches, one for me and one for the freezer.
Multi-national tapas: Tortilla española and melanzane alla parmigiana. In England a Spanish Omelette is often made with mixed veg, and is very good, nowadays usually referred to as a frittata and great for using up leftovers, but the traditional version in Spain, where my family lived in the 1970s, is made just with potatoes and onions, which is what I have done here. In Spain tortilla española (pronounced torteelya espanyola) is eaten hot, warm or cold, and all work for me, usually served with herb salad but here with leftover melanzane. They are often served in cake-like slices as tapas, which are eaten either singly as quick snacks or with other tapas to make up a meal. If I am cooking for more than one, I like to make them small in diameter but thick in depth, which is how they were served where I lived. Every time I make one I am propelled back in time nearly four decades to the hills beyond Barcelona, where we spent many summer weekends riding horses or collecting blackberries in the sunny, dry and deeply aromatic countryside, wrapping up our activities with a deep slice of freshly made warm tortilla, at least 3 inches thick, before returning to the city.
Whether you slice or dice your spuds is a matter of personal choice. I slice them because I like the laminated texture that it creates. They are parboiled for around 5 minutes and drained in a sieve until all the steam escapes. Again, dicing or slicing onions is down to personal preference. I like them sliced, and quite thickly so that the onion retains its texture. The onions are fried (with garlic if using). The parboiled potato slices are then browned. Eggs are whisked together lightly. The egg mix is simply seasoned with salt and pepper. You can either tip the onions and potatoes into the egg mix and pour into the pan, or mix the potatoes and onions in the pan and pour the egg over the top. The more onion and spud you have, the less egg you need to fill the pan, but you still need enough to cover the contents. But more egg makes it more of an omelette. It’s a matter of preference. Milk can be added to make the egg go further, but the resulting tortilla is blander.
The tortilla is made in a small frying pan or skillet. The traditional method is to cook it through on the hob, very slowly. When the top is still a little runny, slide it onto a plate, place the empty frying pan over the top and flip the two together so that the undercooked top lands on the bottom of the frying pan. This will create an evenly cooked tortilla. When ready, just a few minutes later when you think the base will be golden, slide the omelette out on to the plate. Job done!
I had a slice warm with the leftover melanzane alla parmigiana from Monday, heated through in the oven. Two tapas-type portions, and boy did I enjoy it. Anything tomato-based goes well with anything egg-based, with textures and flavours offering good contrast to one another. In Cataluña square slices are served in French-style bread, the classic Bocadillo de Tortilla Española. My school was a lovely old pink villa on the outskirts of Barcelona, and its tiny tuckshop sold the some of the best Bocadillo de Tortilla in the city. The rest of the tortilla will be breakfast tomorrow instead of my usual toast, and my evening meal on Friday.
Burger in a bun with toppings. Burgers are so personal. I like mine made of plain, good quality mince, lightly seasoned, with an egg to bind it together, and left for at least half an hour to consolidate in the fridge, so that it doesn’t fall apart. Other people like onions, Worcester sauce and/or herbs in theirs, even a cheese filling. Whatever the component parts, the beef must be of very good quality. Accessorizing a burger with sauces, relishes, pickles, salad etc, is even more of a matter of individual preference. I like mine with pickled gherkins, French’s American mustard, Heinz tomato ketchup, and raw onion slices, usually in a super-fresh soft or crispy white bun (mine came out of the freezer, but still not bad). Part of me knows that it is completely disgusting but oh, it works so well! This is my most guilty food secret, but fortunately I only fancy it very rarely. I sometimes have a salad on the side to alleviate some of the guilt, but today it was pure self-indulgence. I placed the burger in my George Foreman grill to cook, and the rest is just a matter of assembly. It is the ultimate fast food, very oozy and messy, which is usually my idea of hell! But for some truly bizarre reason it is heavenly.
Today was a total abdication of cooking responsibilities, even worse than yesterday’s in terms of effort expended, but a lot healthier. I had cold tortilla española with a green salad liberally accessorized with Fragata olives stuffed with lemon (which I am trying to mete out as I only have two cans left), capers and salted anchovies. I ate early as I had skipped my usual slice of morning toast and was walking in the sand dunes for over three hours, coming back hungry. The sun was still shining and was gloriously warm, and it was wonderful to sit outdoors eating my tortilla and salad with a glass of chilled Chablis in the sun. Bliss.
This week’s conclusions:
- Although proper cooking is excellent and rewarding, even when dumbed down for the available ingredients, it turns out that sometimes a burger in a bun is just what’s really needed.
- Substitutions really are excellent. I’m beginning to get into the swing of it, and although I was really not enjoying having to substitute perfectly matched ingredients for whatever happened to be in the fridge, I have found that some of my substitutions have given a real lift to dishes that I had never considered changing.
- Store cupboard spices and herbs change the way anything tastes. You could have a freezer full of nothing but chicken, but if you also had a cupboard with a good mix of herbs and spices you could change how it tastes every day of the week and never get bored.
- Making enough for two or more meals has been a life-saver. I love cooking, but it’s time consuming to do it every day, and making enough for later in the week or depositing in the freezer really lightens the load
- Milk, cream, egg whites and soft cheese like Brie and Perl Wen can be frozen. Cheese doesn’t ripen any further when you take it out of the freezer, so it has to be perfect when you decide to freeze it down.
- Thanks to Jan for this thought. If vegetables begin to look sad and old, or you simply have an excess of them, they can be frozen down for making sauces and soups later.
- And thanks to Lisa for this thought. If elderly or excess vegetables are compatible they can be made into a sauce there and then in the blender and then and frozen down to be used over pasta or as a base for casseroles and stews later.
- I miss fish!