One of the things I have learned over the last eight weeks is that cooking is a lot more relaxing if I stop trying to follow recipes precisely. I have always been one of those cooks tied to precise recipes, with all the kitchen instruments for weighing, measuring and otherwise reproducing the exact instructions provided by chefs in recipe books, be they British, American or Australian. I have a few time-honoured dishes that I have either invented or adapted for my own needs, and those I have always been happy just make up as I go along, but generally I have usually had a recipe book open somewhere nearby. During lockdown that has all seemed too much like hard work, and I have been going with the flow with most of the meals that I’ve cooked recently. It has been a case of adding a bit of this, a glug of that, and a splash more of the other, adjusting flavours as I go. I’m also a lot more relaxed about throwing ingredients together that I have never put together in a particular dish before, or making up new dishes from leftovers. Those aspects of lockdown cooking have been fairly liberating.
Mum’s chicken, spinach and mushroom pancake. This is a recipe of my mother’s. It took me a while to start cooking Mum’s recipes again after we lost her, but it feels good to revive some of the things I loved but always relied on her to cook. Mum didn’t actually use spinach in her recipe, but I have a pack that needs using up, and I adore spinach, so in it went. I am sure that Mum would have approved. This is an immensely filling dish. I make one decent-sized pancake and make nothing to accompany it. I would have done it before, but I ran out of flour. Miraculously, I was able to pick up a bag the last time I went shopping (one of two that were left).
Having banged on above about being liberated from precise measurements, pancakes are simply not a suck-it-and-see item. The relative proportions are important. Hence, for four people, 200g plain flour, 370ml milk, 2 large eggs, lightly beaten, 1 tbsp vegetable oil and a pinch of salt. The eggs and milk are whisked together with the oil, then poured into the flour and whisk lightly, ignoring small lumps. After a couple of failures on the pancake front, I was told that being careful not to over-whisk the batter was important, and that leaving the batter in the fridge for a couple of hours, giving it a final stir before using, would increase the possibility of success. I’ve never had one fail on me since, but I have to pay real attention to not putting excessive batter into the pan, which makes the pancake too thick. A thick pancake results in something really stodgy, where it really needs to be light. Part of the trick is to make sure that the pan is hot enough to melt the butter or heat through the oil, but not so hot that the moment the pancake batter hits the pan it starts to set. It needs time to reach the sides of the pan and spread properly before the heat is turned up to allow it to set. I let it set well on one side before using a big wooden spatula to flip it.
To make the filling, mushrooms, spring onions and garlic were tossed in oil until they began to give off a wonderful aroma, a handful of spinach leaves were thrown in, a hard boiled egg was chopped up and thrown in (an essential in Mum’s version), leftover roast chicken was added, and some stock and crème fraîche (traditionally double cream, but the crème fraîche needed using up) were stirred in, together with some leftover tarragon and a big handful of parsley. Last time I did this I remember thinking that the filling need to be rather oozier than the one I made, because of course the pancake itself is dry, and requires a bit of liquid to balance it. I was therefore careful not to simmer off too much of the stock and cream.
The filling is added to the pancake, heaped in a line up the middle. The pancake is folded to cover the filling, and then turned so that the edges are secured underneath. Cheese is grated over the top (in my case a mix of Cheddar and Emmental) and it goes under the grill until melting. Anything that has fallen out of the pancake during the perilous transfer to grill pan and then to plate can be served to the side of the pancake. I scattered over some fresh marjoram leaves to provide an aromatic edge, which was wonderful. Leftover filling can be used on toast for lunch, or served on a baked potato.
Leftovers: beef mince, aubergine and cheese. It doesn’t look like a thing of beauty, but it worked so well. I had a small pot in the freezer labelled simply “beef base, needs tomato,” indicating that it had been cooked with onions and was available as a base for something that doesn’t have tomato, like cottage pie, or something that does, like lasagne. I also had half an aubergine that needed using, and some time ago had bought, as an experiment, a pack of sliced mozzarella that I hadn’t broached. I’ve never had mozzarella in slices before and was very uncertain about it, but it had a long use-by date, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.
So I added whizzed up toms and sun-dried tomato pesto, fried some garlic, orange chillis (on the change from green to red), fresh oregano, fresh mint and mushrooms and stirred them into to the mince, and at the last moment added the rest of the spinach, about half of the pack (so quite a lot) and stirred it in. A good shake of dark soy sauce gave it some additional richness. Leftover heaven! I topped it with an overlapping layer of the mozzarella supplemented by a small amount of grated cheddar in case the mozzarella was tasteless. Next, a layer of aubergine slices was arranged on top and finished off with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. I lobbed it in the oven for 30 minutes on a medium heat, removing it when the mince mix was bubbling.
Leftovers heaven. The mozzarella was delightfully stretchy, and between that and the cheddar the cheese layer had a really nice flavour and texture. The mince mix, with a bit of this and a bit of that lobbed in, was deeelish. I take no credit for it – lobbing in random ingredients and hoping for the best was a roll of the dice, but I’m glad I remember what the ingredients were. I decanted part of it from the earthenware bowl into a pasta bowl, keeping the rest for later in the week. I ate it without accompaniment, but salad would be a good fresh counterpart, balancing the richness.
Hake, asparagus and baby new potatoes with Hollandaise sauce. This is not an easy dish to pull together single-handed if you haven’t done it many times before (and even then I had to engage in emergency salvage of the Hollandaise on this occasion). Each of the component parts is very easy, but each is absolutely time critical, so getting it all to the plate in perfect condition is tricky.
This is also the least healthy main course meal on the planet. It’s definitely a special occasion dish. This was not a special occasion, but having found a piece two pieces of hake in the freezer during the last defrost, I was dying to do something particularly nice with one of them, as I love hake. As asparagus and new potatoes have also come into season, and the three are wonderful with Hollandaise, I blew caution to the winds and went for it.
I halved the frozen hake with a chopper, as it was a big bit, returning the other half to the freezer. When it had defrosted and just before cooking I dragged the hake in seasoned flour. The hake is cooked skin-sized down in butter with a little olive oil to stop the butter burning when it is on a high heat. The cooking time depends on the size of the piece of fish. Mine was quite small, so was done in three minutes on quite a high heat on the skin side to ensure that it crisps up (loads of flavour in the hake skin) and then flipped for another two minutes. A good amount of butter is useful for basting the fish as you cook it.
Steamed asparagus is gorgeous at the moment and I was able to get a bag of nice large ones that are only ever worth eating at this time of year, when they are tender and packed with flavour. It has been far too complicated to worry about concentrating on seasonal ingredients during lockdown, but it was a treat to be able to do so on this occasion. I also steamed the baby new potatoes, which were lovely.
Hollandaise is probably the world’s unhealthiest sauce, consisting mainly of egg yolks and butter. I described it a couple of weeks ago, in conjunction with poached salmon. It consists of a reduced vinegar, lemon juice and white wine base, in which shallot, bay and peppercorns provide the flavour. This is tipped hot into a bain marie and stirred into a small cube of butter, and when the butter has melted an egg yolk (or more, depending on how many are eating) is added, and mixed in. More cubes of butter are added until it thickens up. Perfect with asparagus on its own (with a poached egg if fancied) or with a fish dish like this one. I like this dish with lots of black pepper ground over the top. I don’t need a recipe for it, but I do recommend you finding one if this is your first attempt, as the ingredients, quantities and techniques (there are different approaches to choose from) are important.
You don’t need fish or baby new potatoes to serve top quality asparagus with Hollandaise. Asparagus and Hollandaise are a marriage made in heaven, particularly if you are not seriously hungry, or are looking for a starter. If you’re not vegetarian, wrapping the asparagus in Parma or Serrano ham and griddling rather than steaming it is wonderful.
Brie and oregano on toast. I was running around like a headless chicken all day, and by the time it came to cooking, I wasn’t particularly hungry and just didn’t want to bother. Happily, I was in possession of a luscious triangle of Brie that I had had sitting in the warm all day, and had reached that perfect state of gooey, soft, creamy, deliciousness that defines a really good Brie. On a slice of toasted rustic bread (just a Co-Op white cob, but very nice), with a light scattering of oregano over the top, and some ground black pepper, nothing could have been better, especially when accompanied by a rather delicious glass of white wine.
Aberdovey lamb chop with new potatoes in butter and chives, accompanied by mint sauce and a herb salad. Today was simple food, very fresh. A griddled lamb chop from the Aberdovey butcher was topped with freshly made mint and caper sauce and accompanied by chopped new potatoes and chopped spring onion, chopped chives and tossed in butter. A salad wrapped it up. Simple, fresh, lots of flavours. The salad was my usual mix of shop-bought and home-grown: shop-bought tarragon, salad tomato, red chilli, capers, feta and little gem lettuce, plus home-grown buckler leafed sorrel, lovage, marjoram and parsley. The last of my current batch of mustard vinaigrette went into it.
Leftovers (beef mince with aubergine and cheese topping) #2. This second helping of a meal that I cooked earlier in the week heated up beautifully in the oven. I spooned the leftovers out of the bigger earthenware dish into a small one, so that the topping still partially covered the mince mix, although the aubergine and cheese were a bit tangled so that the covering was not absolutely complete. It didn’t seem to matter much, the result being a good crispy topping and a moist sauce beneath. I am having a love affair with aubergines at the moment. I had forgotten how wonderful they are. I served it with a herb salad, and it made me happy 🙂
Sea bream with salad and sautéed potatoes. I rushed into Dai’s Shed just before they closed, whilst slathering anti-bacterial gel all over my hands, and to my sincere delight was offered a sea bream. It made my week. Even better, I didn’t have to de-scale it myself! Oh the gratitude. It’s not a nice job (I always end up absolutely covered in scales), and it was so lovely to have it done on my behalf. Thank you! It is such a long time since I’ve had sea bream. Such a treat. Dai caught a lot of sea bass last year, which was beautiful, but I had actually forgotten how good sea bream is. I hope that he catches many more, because I could see this becoming a sea bream summer 🙂
My main priority was to ensure that I didn’t mess it around and risk disguising any of the flavour, so this was an immensely simple dish. I invented this approach for some of the sea bass last year, and it worked so well with the bream. I par-boiled the last of the British Lilly spuds, and fried some onion, garlic and herbs. The spud is placed on top of the onion and herbs on the bottom of a baking dish, and the fish is laid on top. The head remains on to contribute to the flavours in the bottom of the pan, and the gutting cavity can be stuffed with parsley, lemon, onion, sliced fennel, herbs, whatever you fancy. My fish was too big for my pan, so I chopped off the tail and laid it alongside. A mixture of white wine and stock are poured over the top, just to cover the veg. It takes about 30 minutes on gas 4 for the fish to reach the right stage, and is flipped over half way through.
The fish is then put under the grill for a few minutes each side whilst the spuds are left to finish off in the baking dish. By cooking the fish in the oven over a stock and vegetable base, the fish remains moist, very like steaming. Finishing it off under the grill gives it crispness and helps firm it up a little whilst retaining the moisture and the firm but tender texture.
The juice from the bottom of the baking dish can be used to make a sauce, which is what I did. The sauce is made with butter, capers and lemon juice, and the pan juices, all heated through until they start to bubble. A lot of chopped parsley is then chucked in. This is cooled off with a little warm water to stabilize it, and an egg yolk is stirred in. This thickens the sauce, and if it is too thick just add more water.
When the fish skin was nice and crispy, bubbling slightly, I took it out of the grill, chopped off the head and lobbed that into a pan for making fish stock a bit later. I served the fish very simply with the oven cooked potatoes and a bit of salad, with the sauce. By the time the bream made it to the plate, via baking dish and grill pan, it was looking very battered (how do restaurants do it), but the flavour was out of this world. It is very easy to eat on the bone by slicing down the middle of each side. The side bones are large and don’t detach from the spine in a hurry, so you can simply fold the fish off the skeleton before turning it. Super. I served it with the potato, the sauce and a small side salad. I kept the bones, head and tail, and the vegetables and herbs in the baking dish to make stock.
However you like to cook your fish, do not neglect to try sea bream if it comes your way. It is superb.
- Last week’s roast chicken proved its value as a base for other meals both last week and this week. The remainders, having been sliced up and put in the freezer, stretched to another two meals this week – the chicken and mushroom pancake and the hot and sour soup. Including the roast itself, that was five meals in total.
- Fresh marjoram and oregano are very easy to buy in garden centres, and give a real edge to many dishes. They have a wonderful aromatic quality that works well with so chicken, pork, fish and mushrooms but I find that they work well with cheese too and is superb in salads. I imagine that this type of aromatic, savoury flavour would also be absolutely perfect with eggs – for example in a quiche, scrambled egg or omelette. It is worth looking up species that are particularly noted for their flavour.
- Sea bream, asparagus, new potatoes and last week’s crab have reminded me how great seasonal ingredients are.
- When cooking with egg yolks, egg whites are left over. They freeze perfectly, so don’t need to go to waste if you don’t have an immediate use for them.
- Sea bream rocks.