Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Ranelagh Kitchen Diaries - part one

I suppose I should apologise really as I think this post marks the longest period of time that I have left Gastrolad without any type of update. I didn't even manage some sort of sarcastic Christmas list like last year or make a desperate attempt to shoehorn some seasonal recipes onto the blog two weeks too late as I've done in previous years.

The reasons? Well, I was very busy in December with professional matters and a sustained period of boozing, which tends to get in the way of blog posting. I also went away during the week before Christmas and spent a very enjoyable time swanking about in a series of five star hotels in several Swiss ski resorts. This trip was on behalf of The Arbuturian and so you will be able to read all about it soon enough.

Finally, I think that having got my first piece in to a national food magazine I spent a good deal of time basking in that glory; telling all and sundry about my new status as a professional food writer! So, in a familiar story, I'd forgotten my roots and cast aside the blog in favour of the bright lights of Delicious Magazine! Fear not though reader because I have come to my senses and remembered that it was this blog that got me there in the first place.

In terms of posts for this coming year, I've been inspired by Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, both volumes of which I found lounging around at home over Christmas. I spent an enjoyable couple of hours dipping in and out of each book and realised that I could do something similar here.

I actually do a lot of cooking that never makes it on to the blog: I don't buy ready meals and I don't work long enough hours to deny me the chance to cook most evenings. Therefore, I thought I would try and document some of what I cook on a weekly basis and stick it up here.

I am aware that I have previously had these ideas for new posts, which last for a week or two before falling my the wayside. I will try my best to do better this time around, no guarantees though! Here goes...

31st December 2013 - New Year's Eve

VD and I were invited round to a good friend's on NYE with the instructions to bring a dessert. Normally I wouldn't agonise for too long about what to make, but I knew my long standing dessert rival Dr M would be there with her killer Pavlova, so I had to produce something half decent or risk being upstaged. Dr M is the most talented pastry chef I know and while I'm not completely sure what her medical skills are like (adequate I assume), her baking is top class!

In the end it was to the south of France and a prune and armagnac tart that I turned to. Prunes aren't always a crowd pleaser, but I bloody love 'em, and when soaked in armagnac, placed on a bed of soft, spongy frangipane and baked in a crisp pastry shell they make for a brilliant dessert.

Prune and Armagnac tart

One blind baked sweet pastry tart case (there's already a recipe here on the blog - make it up to stage 7)
250g prunes
3 tbsp Armagnac
125g ground almonds
2 eggs, beaten
100g butter
125g caster sugar
60g flour

  1. Start off the day before you want to make the dessert by soaking the prunes in the Armagnac. Its best if you leave them overnight, but try to make sure they get at least a couple of hours to allow them to absorb as much of the booze as possible.
  2. While you tart case is blind baking you can make the frangipane. Start of by creaming together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Then still mixing (ideally use an electric whisk or food mixer, but elbow grease will so) add the beaten egg a little at a time. If you are worried about the mixture curdling, which can happen, add a spoonful of the flour along with each eggy addition.
  3. Once the egg is incorporated gently mix in the ground almonds and remaining flour. If the almonds haven't soaked up all the armagnac add this to the mixture at this stage too. You should now have a smooth, slightly glossy almond frangipane with a droppable texture, i.e. like a thick cake batter.
  4. Once the pastry case has blind baked add the frangipane mixture, making sure it is evenly distributed in the the case and then smooth down using a palette knife or spatula. Now add the soaked prunes to the frangipane, arranging them however you like. I went for concentric circles, but the world of tart decoration is your oyster!
  5. Bake in the oven at 160 C for 35 to 40 minutes, by which time the frangipane will be an appetising golden brown. Serve with cream, clotted cream, ice-cream or even yoghurt if you are feeling frugal.

Stage 4 - before the oven

Foolishly I didn't take a picture of the tart when it came out of the oven, but rest assured it looked great and tasted just as good. If you're wondering who won the dessert-off I can't quite recall, so lets assume it was me - Pavlova's a summer dessert anyway!

1st January 2014 - New Year's Day

Foolishly I had agreed to take the hit and relieve everyone's New Year's Day ennui with a lunch party round at mine. Cruelly I had forced VD out into the rain the previous afternoon to buy in the supplies, so all I had to to do was knock together the food.

Easy enough normally, but not with a killer headache brought on by Nick and Jen's large supply of engagement champagne (congrats guys) and my genetic predisposition to hangovers. A little aside here, but I have inherited my Dad's vulnerability to hangovers, something that he has yet to grow out of. When he went to visit VD's family in Belfast in the summer, so taken was he with the local craic he didn't manage to get out of bed the next day and missed the open top bus tour down the Falls Road!

Anyway, lunch was chicken braised with sherry and cream, new potatoes and savoy cabbage, followed by leftover prune tart, Viennetta and choc ices. The chicken recipe is one I adapted from Heston Blumenthal At Home. His version requires a bit more faffing about than New Year's Day demands, but a cut down version was easy enough.

Essentially, you brown some chicken thighs in butter and olive oil, then remove them from the pan and soften some onion and garlic in the same fat. Next, add a wine glass of sherry, bring to the boil and cook off the alcohol, before adding chicken stock and double cream. Then reduce the liquid for ten minutes at a medium simmer. Finally you add the chicken back to the pan, put the whole lot in the oven at a low heat (150-160C) for an hour and serve. Optional extras include pancetta, mushrooms and whatever herbs you fancy: tarragon would be my choice, but thyme would work well too.

If you require a more professional recipe here is Heston's via

Sunday 5th January 2014

VD, generous to a fault as she is, bought far more cabbage and potatoes than seven people could possibly hope to eat in one setting when I sent her to the shops on New Year's Eve. Consequently, to start 2014 with a bang (quite literally) we spent the first week of the year eating the diet of a 19th century Russian peasant.

Cabbage and potatoes might seem unpromising but there are plenty of things you can make with them other than soup...ok, maybe not plenty, but I did make a fantastic cabbage and potato bake, inspired by an Antonio Carluccio recipe. So good was it I would happily make it during times of plenty and not just when forced to!

Cabbage and potato bake

Serves 2-3 as a main (maybe 4 if you're stingy)

3 large baking potatoes, peeled and finely sliced
Half a Savoy Cabbage, outer leaves removed and shredded
300g soft cheese, cut into 1cm slices - I used brie because I am cheap, but the original recipe says Taleggio
Salt and Pepper

Heat oven to 200C

  1. Using two pans of boiling water cook both the potatoes and cabbage for three to four minutes each, then drain and in the case of the cabbage, dry thoroughly. If you have a tea towel to hand you can use this to wring it out, but I just used a potato masher to try and squeeze out as much excess moisture as possible.
  2. Lightly butter a baking dish, then add half the potatoes and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Now add the cabbage on top of the potatoes and arrange half the cheese on top of the cabbage, season once more, especially with plenty of black pepper.
  4. Finally, add the remaining potatoes and top with the cheese and a few modest nuggets of butter.
  5. Place into the hot oven and cook for 30-35 minutes. 
Perfect with a green salad for a frugalish dinner with no hint of a gulag whatsoever!

Tuesday 7th January

At a loose end with nowt else to do after work but start a blog post and eat yet more cabbage for dinner - this time in a pasta sauce with some bacon, garlic, grana padano and pine nuts - I made a loaf of soda bread. The recipe was one of my own from back in the good old days of 2011 when the blog was in its infancy and can be found here.

Shite pic, but tasty loaf. See you next week!

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