Hello, it’s been a while. Rest assured I’ve been cooking and have plenty to share with you, but somehow I have not got around to doing it yet. My youngest son has got me into sourdough baking, which I am enjoying far more than I ever expected. It’s challenging though and while my loaves are improving, I’m not ready to write about it yet.
Today I want to tell you about ragù: I’ve been experimenting a little with it lately. Ragù simply means meat sauce and I suspect in Italy it’s one of those dishes for which there are as many recipes as there are cooks. Here we tend to call it “bolognese sauce”, “spaghetti bolognese” being one of this country’s most popular dishes, despite the fact that in Bologna they always serve their ragù with tagliatelle and never spaghetti.
I’m sure you all have your favourite ragù/bolognese recipe. I wrote about mine here, as it’s used to make Tamasin Day-Lewis’s lasagne, but recently I’ve made some adjustments to it to make it work better in the Aga. I felt the finished sauce contained a little too much liquid; one of the best Aga tips I’ve been given is to use less liquid than a recipe prescribes because in an Aga there’s no evaporation. It’s why Aga dishes are always so deliciously succulent and moist. The result of my tweaks is a thicker sauce and I’m very pleased with it. I’ve also been making another ragù recipe which my eldest son recommended to me; it’s incredibly simple and delicious and comes from The Silver Spoon, the English edition of the bestselling Italian cookbook, Il Cucchiaio D’Argento. I own the Italian version, a Christmas present from my sons, but for some reason it doesn’t contain this specific recipe. You will see that the addition of garlic to this recipe is optional. I used to think garlic was essential to ragù but it turns out Italians often don’t add it. I urge you to try this recipe without; I was surprised at how flavourful it was. The wine is also optional but I confess I have only ever made this version with wine.
I have only used minced beef in these two recipes but you can use half beef/half pork or veal. Ragù is also delicious with the addition of a little crumbled up Italian sausage. It must be a proper Italian one though, for reasons of both flavour and texture.
Anyway, here are the two ragù recipes for you, with quantities adjusted to make them work well in the Aga.
(Sorry, not sure how many people this large quantity will serve, but I’d say at least 10)
1 kg minced beef (not extra lean: you need the fat for flavour)
2 onions, chopped
3 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tbs olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp tomato purée
100ml white wine
Take a large casserole or saucepan and heat the oil and butter in it on the simmering plate
Add the onions and stir until coated in the oil and butter
Cover and place in the simmering oven for 10 minutes or so before stirring in the carrots and celery and returning to the simmering oven until all the vegetables (the soffritto) are soft
Place the pan on the boiling plate, stir in the crushed garlic and add the mince and some salt and pepper
Stir it in while breaking it up with your wooden spoon. You could also use a fork
Once the meat is brown all over move the pan to the simmering plate
Add the tomato purée, bay leaves and milk and simmer for about 5 minutes before adding the wine
After another 5 minutes of simmering, stir in the passata, cover and place in the simmering oven and cook for a minimum of 3 hours. You can always add a little water if it looks dry but it probably won’t. I sometimes uncover it for an hour or so towards the end
Serve with tagliatelle (or spaghetti as in my photo above), which has been tossed with the ragù in the pan, and lots of grated parmesan
2 tbsps olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stick, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 clove garlic, crushed (optional)
250g minced beef
1 tbsp concentrated tomato purée
120ml dry white wine (optional)
Gently heat the butter and olive oil in a heavy based saucepan on the simmering plate and add the onion. Cover and cook in the simmering oven for 10-15 minutes until translucent
Add the carrot and celery and cover and cook for a further 20 minutes or until all the vegetables are soft
Stir in the crushed garlic, if using, and then add the steak, with your pan on the boiling plate, breaking it up with a wooden spoon and perhaps a fork too
Cook for a few minutes until all the pinkness of the meat has gone
Remove to the simmering plate and stir in the tomato purée
Stir in the wine, if using. If not, stir in the equivalent quantity (120ml) of water
Season with salt and pepper and bring it up to the boil and if it’s looking dry add some more water: perhaps another 100ml
Cover and transfer to the simmering oven and cook for a minimum of three hours, adding more water if you think it needs it. This also applies if you added wine initially
Many years ago my sister-in-law gave me The Silver Palate Cookbook for my birthday. It was written by two American women who had opened a shop in New York selling various foodstuffs and gourmet take-away dishes which they prepared themselves. The shop was a huge success as was this book of its recipes, which gave the owner the sense they were cooking restaurant food in their own homes, but without too much hassle. It felt cool to own this book.
When my children were young I used the book mainly for its baking recipes. There was a period when almost weekly I made the chocolate chip cookies as an after school treat for my sons and their friends. I still make the glazed lemon cake, at his request, for my eldest son’s birthday (he’s 31!)
I don’t think I’m unusual in that I sometimes forget about the cookbooks I own. It doesn’t mean I no longer like them and nor do I ever get rid of books (I’m looking at you, Marie Kondo). I love returning to old favourites and it only takes a newspaper food column or blog post to jog my memory and renew my fondness for a book or recipe.
Which is exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago when Debora Robertson wrote a post on her website entitled “You should make Chicken Marbella, you know” and I was prompted to get my Silver Palate book out again. The recipe in the book uses four small chickens (weighing 2 1/2 lbs each), quartered, giving 16 sixteen pieces. This was too much for my purposes (a small family supper) so I scaled down. I could have jointed a chicken but decided to use eight free-range chicken thighs (skin on, bone in) instead. This is what I did:
(This dish involves marinating so start it several hours ahead or even better: the night before)
8 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 tsps dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
4-5 tbsps red wine vinegar
4-5 tbsps olive oil
10-12 pitted prunes
16 pitted green olives
2 tbsps capers with a bit of juice
3 bay leaves
2 tbsps brown sugar
100ml white wine
2 tbsps (approx) chopped flatleaf parsley
In a large bowl or dish combine the chicken thighs, garlic, oregano, seasoning, vinegar, oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice and bay leaves. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for a few hours or overnight
To bring it up to room temperature, take the chicken out of the fridge about an hour before you want to cook it
Arrange the chicken and other ingredients in the small Aga roasting tin (or any tin measuring approx 32 x 21 cms) spooning the marinade around and over the chicken
Sprinkle over the sugar and pour in the white wine
Bake in the roasting oven for about 45 minutes. Or, if you have time, start it off in there for 15-20 minutes and then move to the simmering oven to finishing cooking slowly, allowing the chicken to become supremely tender and sticky and the flavours to develop, until you’re ready to eat
Sprinkle with the chopped parsley to serve
We ate ours with wholegrain basmati rice and green beans. Broccoli or a green salad would also go well.
Having consumed during the Christmas period one massive turkey, a Norwegian spiced pork belly, a baked ham and a venison casserole, we are craving vegetables in this house. Sprouts, red cabbage, salads and lots of fruit also featured heavily on the menu but meat predominated. I’m not saying we’re going in for Veganuaray or any other New Year trend; it’s about needing to reset our dietary priorities. This month I’m going to cook without meat during the week but we’ll continue to have a roast or other meat dish on Sundays.
With this in mind I was delighted to pore over one of my Christmas presents from my sons: Joe Trivelli’s book, The Modern Italian Cook. I confess I was not familiar with Trivelli, who is head chef of the River Café, but I am glad to have been introduced. And Diana Henry, whose recipes you know I love, gave it a mention in her Telegraph column. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.
It’s a beautiful book and I want to make everything in it but so far I’ve only got as far as making one of the dishes twice, first as a starter on New Year’s Eve and then last night we had it as our main meal with some fresh bread to mop up the juices. The recipe works well in the Aga.
Jerusalem artichokes with fennel and peas
Serves 4 (or 6 as a starter)
500g Jerusalem artichokes
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed
½ large or 1 small red onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
500g frozen peas
10 mint leaves
2 parsley sprigs or a handful of chopped parsley
Sea salt, black pepper and extra virgin olive oil
Peel the artichokes and cut into wedges. Keep under water to stop them discolouring.
Remove any stringy-looking outer parts of the fennel and cut into thin wedges. Toss in some lemon juice to prevent them discolouring
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a heavy-based, wide pan with a lid and sweat the onion with a pinch of salt. You could place the pan in the simmering oven at this point
Once the onion is soft add the garlic and a minute or two later the fennel. Stew with the lid on for five minutes (or longer if you put it in the simmering oven)
Add the Jerusalem artichokes, peas and some black pepper and continue to stew. Trivelli says to do this for 10 minutes over a low heat but my artichokes needed a lot longer than this (in the simmering oven) before they were soft. In fact, to try to speed things up I put the pan in the baking oven for a while. And Trivelli is right to say that Jerusalem artichokes cook unevenly: I found that when some wedges were soft and tender, others were still hard. But your patience will be rewarded, I promise you
Once your artichokes are cooked, check the seasoning, add your herbs and stir them through with some extra virgin olive oil
For me Christmas is not the time for trying out new recipes so our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals don’t change much from year to year. When I was growing up (in England) with my Norwegian mother and English father we celebrated Christmas the Norwegian way on Christmas Eve and the English way on Christmas Day. This meant my brother and I could open our presents on Christmas Eve and our friends were rather jealous. The evening would begin with dinner and then we’d sit round the Christmas tree for the present opening. I’ve never opened presents on Christmas Day so I don’t know what it’s like but I can tell you there is something magical about doing it by candlelight when it’s dark outside.
When I married my husband I was fully expecting to leave the Norwegian Christmas Eve behind but he loved this way of doing it with all the cosiness and candles and insisted we kept the tradition going. I’m so glad we did because our children have always loved it, partly because it makes their Christmas a little bit different from their friends’.
Christmas Eve: Herrings
Our Christmas Eve meal always starts with Norwegian pickled herrings. We buy them from the Christmas Bazaar held every November in the The Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Rotherhithe, London. When she was younger, my mother used to spend a couple of days with friends in London helping to prepare these for sale at the bazaar. She doesn’t do that anymore so my sons have accepted the mission of going along on the Saturday of the bazaar and purchasing a few jars of this most delicious food. I haven’t managed to join them yet but intend to go along one year, if only for the waffles, cake and coffee on offer inside the church! We eat the herrings on rye bread accompanied by ice cold Linie Aquavit straight from the freezer and cold lager. So delicious.
Our Norwegian Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve: Spiced Pork Belly
There is more than one traditional Christmas Eve meal in Norway. On the West coast they have cod cooked in a special way. It is bought very fresh, cut into steaks, put in salted water overnight to tighten the flesh and then poached. It is served with melted butter and lots of chopped parsley and plain boiled carrots and potatoes. Perhaps surprisingly, Norwegians always drink red wine and not white with this dish. My mother’s family always had reindeer for their Christmas Eve meal but spiced pork belly, popular as a Christmas dish on the south coast of Norway where my grandfather was from, would also form part of their festive fare. We have made pork belly our traditional Hardy family Christmas Eve dish. I make it according to my grandmother’s recipe, passed to me by my mother, who has given me permission to share it with you here.
You will need:
Pork belly (you decide how much, depending on how many people you are feeding, but remember, it tastes just as good cold so any leftovers will not go to waste) with the skin removed (I get my butcher to do this) but the fat – very important this – left on
Ground ginger, salt, mustard powder and white pepper. I’m not giving you quantities except to say: be generous
The day before you want to serve the belly score the layer of fat with a sharp knife and rub lots of white pepper, ground ginger, mustard powder and salt into it on both sides and wrap it in clingfilm
Place it in the fridge fat side down for at least 24 hours
On Christmas Eve in the morning take the belly out of the fridge and let it come up to room temperature
Sprinkle on some more salt
Choose a roasting tin (I always use the large Aga roasting tin because I tend to cook a whole belly), remove the clingfilm and place the meat in the tin, fat side down
Add about a cupful of water and cover with foil
Hang the tin on the second or third set of runners of the roasting oven, taking care that the foil doesn’t tear as you slide it in
After twenty minutes take it out, remove the foil, turn the pork over and add a little more water if it looks dry
Slide the tin onto the floor of the simmering oven and leave it there for the rest of the day, checking the water level every now and then. It will be cooked and delicious after five hours but even better and falling off the bone after eight or nine
I serve it with spiced red cabbage and roast potatoes, having made a divinely spicy and gingery gravy by adding some wine and sour cream to the meat juices.
I could be wrong but I get the impression fewer people are doing a roast on Sundays these days. Some of my emptynester friends say they only bother when their offspring return home or if they have guests. Even after my youngest went off to university last year I continued to cook a Sunday roast, partly because it’s the one occasion each week when we haul my frail and elderly mother-in-law upstairs from her flat below to join us and partly because, well, it’s delicious. My children tell me they’ve always enjoyed the weekly ritual and this pleases me because it means it’s worth the (not necessarily huge) effort. When I was pottering about in my kitchen, one recent Sunday morning, it struck me that one doesn’t have to spend very long preparing the roast and that simple does not have to mean dull. And of course if you are too busy during the day pursuing the leisure activity of your choice, you and your family can have this meal in the evening rather than try to fit it in at lunchtime.
So this post is about proving that it needn’t be hugely time-consuming or arduous and outlining how I made roast chicken and apple crumble in two hours flat. It is also to show you that not all Aga cooking is long and slow, which is not to say that slow roasting isn’t an excellent way of making the most of an Aga: you can put your joint of meat in the simmering oven before bed on Saturday night or bright and early on Sunday morning and have meltingly tender meat for lunch or supper on Sunday. I did this recently with a pork belly and it was one of the best roasts we’ve ever had.
On this particular Sunday I took the bird out of the fridge about an hour before I wanted to cook it, to let it come up to room temperature, and then, having popped out to buy the Sunday papers, I started on the lunch preparation. I roasted the potatoes around the chicken. They absorbed the buttery garlicky juices and the flavour and texture were superb. I love them done this way (and it saves time and washing-up) but they were not crisp. If you want crisp, you’ll have to par-boil them for 5 minutes and then roast them in very hot duck or goose fat in a tin on the floor of the roasting oven for about thirty minutes.
1 whole free-range chicken weighing about 1.5kg
Several (quantity up to you but a minimum of 8) garlic cloves, unpeeled
Potatoes: one or two per person, peeled and chopped into large chunks. I used these red potatoes on this occasion but any variety will do. In the summer I use new potatoes: just halve the larger ones and there’s no need to peel them
Place your chicken in a roasting tin with enough room around it for the potatoes
Spread butter generously all over the bird and sprinkle with the herb sea salt or if you don’t have any, just salt and pepper
Place one garlic clove and one bay leaf in the cavity
Slide the tin onto the second rung of the roasting oven and leave it there for 20 minutes before removing it, basting it with the buttery juices and placing the potatoes and remaining garlic cloves and bay leaves around it, turning them to coat them in the butter too
Return the tin to the roasting oven, this time on the fourth rung, for about an hour. Half way through, turn the potatoes and give the chicken another baste
The chicken is done when a thigh is pierced with a sharp knife and the juices run clear
Remove the bird to a large plate or board, keeping it near the Aga and maybe covering it with a clean tea-towel. Discard the garlic and bay leaves and place the potatoes in a serving dish in the simmering oven to keep warm while you make some gravy
All I do for this is deglaze the roasting tin with some white wine on the simmering plate and then pour all of this through a sieve into a small pan to bubble away for a few minutes, adding more wine or some stock and whatever else you fancy: for example, you could whisk in a little crème fraîche. Decant this into a small jug and keep it warm on the back of the Aga while you get everyone to the table and find someone to carve your bird
I will leave the choice of accompanying vegetables to you but the other day I served ours with steamed Savoy cabbage tossed with a little butter and lots of black pepper added
You can be making this while the chicken is roasting. This is the basic recipe; feel free to add cinnamon and/or some raisins to the apples; or reduce the amount of apple by 25 per cent and replace with blackberries when in season.
4-5 cooking apples
110g/4oz unsalted butter
110g/4oz plain flour
110g/4oz ground almonds
110g/4oz golden caster sugar plus an extra heaped tablespoon
A heaped dessert spoon of demerara
First make the crumble by placing the butter, flour, almonds and sugar in a large bowl and using your fingertips to rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. You can of course do this in a food processor
Peel and slice the apples, putting the slices straight into the dish you want to bake the crumble in. Add some lemon juice to stop the apples from turning brown
Sprinkle the crumble mixture on top, smooth it over and then press it down with the back of a spoon
To finish, run a fork lightly over the surface and sprinkle over the demerara
Bake in the baking oven, with the rack on the fourth rung, for about half an hour until golden brown on top and the apples feel soft when a knife is inserted into them
My sons gave me two cookery books for my birthday. My daugher-in-law looked a bit sceptical and asked if I was sure they were what I wanted (I do have quite a few already), but I assured her it was. I had dropped a few (many) hints in the run-up to my birthday. One of the books was Diana Henry’s new one, How to Eat a Peach, which is a beautiful collection of menus rather than recipes; it’s also a sort of memoir, an account of the places she’s travelled to since she was a teenager, and where she discovered all the dishes she loves to cook and eat. I have already cooked a few of the recipes from the book, although I haven’t yet put together a whole menu. The first thing I made was this braised pork, which I pounced on because I knew it would be perfect for the AGA simmering oven. I adjusted the quantities because there were only four of us eating and off I went.
Braised Pork with Ginger and Star Anise
For the pork
About 1tbsp groundnut or vegetable oil
1kg pork shoulder, cut into 3cm cubes
200g shallots, sliced
20g fresh root ginger, peeled and finely grated
5 garlic cloves, finely grated or crushed
5 tbsps kecap manis
3 tbsps light soy sauce
11/2 tbsps tamarind paste
400ml chicken stock
1 star anise
2 medium-hot chillies, halved, deseeded and finely chopped
2 birds’ eye chillies, left whole
For the crispy fried shallots
Groundnut or vegetable oil
100g shallots, finely sliced
Sea salt flakes
Spread the pork out on a large baking tray, lined with bake-o-glide and drizzle with the oil
Place on the top rung or on the floor of the roasting oven for 10 minutes, then remove it, turn the meat over and return the tray to the roasting oven for about 5 minutes. Your aim is to have golden brown pieces of pork; you’re not trying to turn it dark brown
Meanwhileget on with your shallots. Heat a tablespoon or two of oil in the casserole you want to braise your pork in. Do this on the simmering plate. Add the shallots, turn them over in the oil, put the lid on and transfer the casserole to the simmering oven for about 15 minutes until they are soft and golden
Stir the garlic and ginger in and return the pork to the pan along with the kecap manis, soy sauce, tamarind and stock
Bring to the boil on the boiling or simmering plate, add the star anise and all the chillies and place your casserole, uncovered, in the simmering oven for about 3 hours but, as I’m sure you know, when slow cooking in the Aga simmering oven the timing is not crucial as long as you end up with meltingly tender meat
Remove the star anise and the whole chillies
Meanwhile make the crispy fried shallots by heating about 2cm of oil in a small pan on the simmering plate. Add the shallots and fry, moving them around, until they are crisp and golden. Remove with a slotted spoon to a sheet of kitchen towel on a plate and sprinkle with salt
If the liquid around the pork is not thick and glossy and seems a bit thin, remove the pork with a slotted spoon to a dish and keep it warm in the simmering oven. Boil the liquid for a while on the boiling or simmering plate until it’s reduced and then return the pork to the pan to heat through
Serve the pork with the crispy fried shallots sprinkled over. We ate ours with rice and stir-fried pak choi
I made a few mince pies this week. They’re now in the freezer but I might get them out this weekend as my youngest son is returning home from university and I think he’ll appreciate them. Apart from that and the Christmas cake, I haven’t done a huge amount of Christmas preparation but now that it’s December I will be getting my act together. I have had to postpone my plan to write up some of my Christmas recipes because I don’t have any decent photos to accompany them. I will aim to take lots of photos during this Christmas period so that I can write up the recipes in good time for Christmas 2018.
Meanwhile the Sunday roast continues to happen in our house and last Sunday it was gigot boulangère. If ever there was a dish that lends itself perfectly to Aga cooking, this is the one. If you love lamb and love boulangère potatoes, then this is one for you. On Sunday morning, after a cup of tea in bed with the papers on my iPad, I got up at 8 to prepare this dish. My neighbours may have caught a glimpse of me fetching some rosemary and nearly catching my death in my garden in my dressing gown. In less than an hour though lunch was in the oven, to be more or less ignored until we were ready to eat it at 2pm.
1 leg of lamb weighing about 2.4kg
2 onions, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper
100ml white wine
Pound the peeled garlic with 1 tsp salt flakes (I use Maldon sea salt) in a pestle and mortar until you have a rough paste
Add 1 tbsp olive oil and about 1 tbsp chopped rosemary to this
Give it a stir and season
Drizzle some olive oil into the bottom of your large Aga roasting tin, which you have lined with bake-o-glide
Peel and thinly slice the potatoes. At this point many cooks would tell you to use a mandolin, but I don’t possess one so I use a nice sharp knife
Cover the base of the tin with a layer of potatoes followed by the onion slices, chopped rosemary and some seasoning and then the remaining potato slices
Pour over the white wine
Stab the leg of lamb all over with the point of a sharp knife and then rub in the garlic and rosemary paste you made at the start, massaging it into the slits you’ve made
Lay the lamb on top of the potatoes and hang the roasting tin on the third set of runners in the roasting oven and cook for 45 minutes
Transfer to the simmering oven for at least 4 hours but, as always, longer is fine, if not better
To serve, place the lamb on a large dish or board for carving, and the potatoes in a dish with all the juices. I put a bowl of redcurrant jelly on the table. Some mint sauce would have been nice too
Pound garlic with salt and add chopped rosemary, olive oil and pepper to make a rough paste
Layer slide potatoes with sliced onions, chopped rosemary and seasoning
Rub the paste into the lamb and place it on top of the potatoes
The cooked boulangère potatoes
Conventional cooking: pre-heat the oven to 200ºC and cook the potatoes for about an hour before placing the lamb on top and roasting it for about 15 minutes per 500g depending on how you like it done.
There were only three of us for lunch on Sunday so I asked my butcher, Ruby and White, to give me just half a leg of lamb, as you will see in the above photos. I halved the quantities of the other ingredients and used the small Aga roasting tin.