We’re slowly adjusting to being empty nesters. Mind you, university terms are not that long and our youngest will be home for the Christmas holidays in just a few weeks. One thing I’m struggling with though, is reducing the amount of food I buy: I keep overestimating how much we’ll need. I imagine that just when I’ve got it right, it will be time to step up the quantities again for the family returning home for Christmas. And so it is that yesterday I suddenly remembered the San Marzano plum tomatoes I’d bought and not used. I don’t keep tomatoes in the fridge because they lose their flavour. This means they need to be used within a few days of purchase. My tomatoes were fine but starting to feel a bit squidgy; it was time to make a pasta sauce. Pasta with a really good homemade tomato sauce is one of my favourite dishes to eat. We probably had it at least once a week when my children were growing up and I still make it often. I have tried lots of different recipes over the years. The one I probably make the most is this one by Felicity Cloake. But sometimes I just make it up as I go along according to what I have in the cupboard and yesterday I decided to make a sauce using roast tomatoes, based on my friend Kate Percy’s from her book Go Faster Food (you don’t have to be an endurance athlete to enjoy her recipes: I’m certainly not one). Roasting tomatoes is a great way to use them up when they’re past their best and it also intensifies the flavour of disappointingly insipid ones.
- 3 x San Marzano tomatoes (or other plum tomatoes)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 250ml passata
- Pinch chilli flakes (optional)
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- 1 bay leaf
- Glug of red wine vinegar
- ½ tsp dried basil (or a couple of stalks of fresh basil if you have it)
- 250g spaghetti or pasta of your choice
- (Pre-heat conventional (fan) oven to 140ºC or 170º if you’re in a hurry)
- Place the tomatoes on a baking tray lined with bake-o-glide
- Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper
- Sprinkle lightly with sugar
- Place in the simmering oven for 3-4 hours until shrivelled and the aroma is intense
- Tip the roasted tomatoes and all the residual juices from the tray into a saucepan or small casserole
- Squash the tomatoes down a bit with a wooden spoon, add the passata, garlic, bay leaf, chilli flakes, a little more olive oil, red wine vinegar and basil
- Bring to simmering point on the simmering plate and transfer to the simmering oven for an hour or two for the flavours to meld and the sauce to thicken. You can leave it uncovered if you want it to thicken in less time than that
- (Or simmer covered on a conventional hob at low temperature for half an hour to an hour, removing the lid towards the end if you feel it’s not thick enough)
- Meanwhile cook the spaghetti until it’s al dente
- Check the sauce for seasoning and toss the drained pasta in it
- Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan
The photo above shows the badge on the front of my beloved Aga. It’s a shiny brand new badge because the old one melted. Having owned an Aga for eleven years, a few months ago I had the brainwave of purchasing some hooks for the Aga rail from which I could hang oven gloves and towels. What I did not realise is that if you hang things in the middle of the rail in front of the badge, it will get hot and melt onto the glove or towel, as you can see here:
I contacted Aga who told me that owners are warned about this upon purchasing their new oven. I have no reason to doubt this but as a conscientious reader of instruction books I was surprised that I seemed to have forgotten about this particular tip. Anyway, it’s too late now. I had to accept that a gauntlet I’d hung from one of my lovely new hooks had melted into the badge, ruining both.
I’m telling you this as a warning so that you don’t make the same mistake. I have now moved the hooks to each end of the rail like so:
I can’t think why I didn’t think to do it this way from the outset because it looks better.
By the way, I bought the hooks at our local Kitchens Cookshop. It’s the only place I’ve managed to find some with a wide enough gauge to fit the Aga rail.
Before you all shout “it’s much too early to think about Christmas”, I agree with you. Except when it comes to cooking. There are things you can prepare to get ahead and things you simply must make weeks, or even months, beforehand.
For me the Christmas/New Year period is not really a time for trying out new recipes. It gets so busy with the house full and lots of comings and goings that I prefer to stick to tried and tested recipes. We all have our traditions and my family is no exception; our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals do not vary much from year to year. Then for a few days after that most meals comprise leftovers in some form or other. During the whole Christmas period last year there were never fewer than 5 of us in the house and most days we were 7 or 8 with a maximum of 12 of us sitting round the table for the Christmas turkey. In recent years we’ve also stayed at home on New Year’s Eve instead of going to a party and I’ve cooked a special dinner. One year I splashed out on a whole beef fillet which was so popular it has now become our traditional New Year’s Eve meal.
Last year I told you about my Christmas cake and Christmas pudding and I wrote a post about the Norwegian apple cake we always have on Christmas Eve. In the coming weeks I plan to write up a few more of my Christmas recipes and tell you how I’ve adapted them for Aga cooking. I’m starting with braised red cabbage because it’s a delicious accompaniment to many winter dishes and there’s no reason you shouldn’t cook and enjoy it right now. It also freezes brilliantly: I nearly always do this and then defrost it and zap it in the microwave on the day I plan to serve it. This recipe is based on one by Delia Smith.
Braised Red Cabbage
(Pre-heat conventional oven to 150ºC)
- 1 red cabbage
- 1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- About ¼ of a whole nutmeg, grated
- About ¼ tsp ground cinnammon (optional)
- About ¼ tsp ground cloves (optional)
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 10 g butter
- Salt and pepper
- Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage, quarter it and remove the hard stalk
- Shred each quarter but not too finely
- Place the cabbage in a casserole and mix in the apple, onion, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper, nutmeg and other spices if using.
- Pour over the wine vinegar and dot with the butter
- Cover with a lid and place it in the simmering oven for at least four hours; as ever though, it will come to no harm in your Aga if left for longer than that. (Conventional oven: 1½ to 2 hours.)
- Take it out and give it a stir every now and then. It is done when it is tender
Take one red cabbage
And a cooking apple, garlic, onion, nutmeg…
Cut in half then quarter
Add spices, seasoning, apple, onion, garlic, sugar, red wine vinegar
Dot with butter
Four hours later…
My husband was in London recently and on a whim, bought a black truffle that had just arrived in a new Italian Deli on the King’s Road and brought it home; he adores truffle. It was expensive (about £7) but you don’t need very much and can make it last for several meals. I wasn’t sure I could do it justice at first but the beauty of this small black nugget of earthy flavour is that you don’t actually have to do anything to it for it to enhance a meal. What made it really expensive was the Affetta Tartufi I bought (see photo below)! I’m always interested in quality when buying for my kitchen.
I made mushroom risotto one night: my husband acted the Italian waiter and with “pennacchio” shaved some of the truffle onto our bowls: delicious.
Then last night I cooked chicken forestière and again, we shaved truffle onto the finished dish. We don’t cook as seasonally as we used to, do we? But I do like to try. For example, I wouldn’t dream of using strawberries in December, even if they were available to buy in the supermarket. I also only cook asparagus when the British version is in season in May/June.
Chicken forestière, with its wild and chestnut mushrooms, feels like the perfect autumnal supper so I’m going to tell you how to make it here (adapted from a Diana Henry – who else? – recipe from her book A Bird in the Hand for my AGA):
- 8 chicken thighs or 4 chicken legs, skin on, bone in
- 20g dried wild mushrooms
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, halved and sliced
- 75ml Madeira (or if you don’t have any, sherry would work)
- A couple of carrots, cut into batons
- 175ml of chicken stock
- 150ml double cream
- 150g whole button or quartered chestnut mushrooms
- 1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour over 50ml boiling water. Leave to soak for about 20 minutes
- Meanwhile, season the chicken and heat a sauté pan on the simmering plate and place the chicken in it in a single layer. No need to add oil at this stage.
- Brown the chicken on both sides, taking care not turn the pieces over until they can easily be moved, or the skin will tear
- Remove the chicken from the pan and put it in a dish
- Pour the chicken fat into a frying pan and put this to one side
- Add the tablespoon of oil to the sauté pan and cook the onions (slowly in the simmering oven if you like) until soft
- Deglaze the pan with the madeira and add the carrots, stock, wild mushrooms and their soaking liquor
- Bring to the boil, cover and cook for 10 minutes on the simmering plate or if you have time for 30 minutes in the simmering oven
- Return the chicken to the pan with any juices that have run out of it. Cover and cook, choosing the simmering oven if you have plenty of time (an hour or more) or a hotter oven if you are in a hurry. I wouldn’t leave it in the roasting oven for more than 15 minutes. You could start if off there and then finish it off in the simmering oven
- Stir in the cream and return to the simmering oven for at least 10 minutes with the lid off
- Now place your frying pan on the boiling plate to heat the chicken fat and cook the mushrooms briskly until they are golden brown. Season and add to the chicken, stirring gently to combine everything
- Taste for seasoning and scatter over the chopped parsley
- The addition of the shaved truffle to individual servings is recommended but not essential
We had ours with steamed new potatoes, broccoli and green beans.
At last I’ve found a successful recipe for tarte tatin. For some reason until last weekend my attempts at this dessert were disappointing: either they collapsed on being turned out or the sugar didn’t dissolve to make a sufficiently yummy caramel syrup. The recipe which worked for me on Sunday is by Raymond Blanc and is surprisingly easy and straightforward, which is a joy because I find recipes by great chefs are often, well, chef-y, involving lots of complicated steps and therefore not for a simple home cook like me. How could I resist a recipe allowing me to use bought pastry (the trick of freezing the rolled out disc was a revelation) and to keep the peel on the apples?
There is more than one story about how this upside down apple tart recipe came about. The one I choose to believe tells how Stéphanie Tatin (who, with her sister, ran the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron in France) was making an apple pie one busy day and left the apples and sugar for too long until there was a smell of burning. She tried to rescue the pudding by putting the pastry on top of the apples and placing the whole pan in the oven to finish off. She turned out the tart and served it to her guests who, to her surprise, loved it!
Pre-heat conventional oven to 180ºC
You will need an 8″ tarte tatin tin like this:
- 8-12 dessert apples (I used Braeburn)
- 3 tbsp water
- 100g caster sugar
- 60g cold, unsalted butter, diced
- 30g unsalted butter, melted (by placing it in a small bowl towards the back of the Aga)
- 250g-300g all butter puff pastry (shop-bought!) rolled to about 3mm thick and cut into a disc slightly larger than the diameter of the base of the tin, pricked with a fork and frozen
- Place the water in the tin and sprinkle over the sugar; leave for 2 minutes to allow the water to absorb the sugar
- On a medium heat/the Aga simmering plate cook the syrup until it’s a pale golden caramel. The heat of the simmering plate might be a bit fierce and you don’t want the caramel to get too dark so you could slow this stage down by placing the tin in the simmering oven while you prepare the apples
- Cut the apples in half horizontally and core them. Slice off the rounded tops and bottoms so that the apples can sit flat in the tin
- Stir the diced butter into the caramel syrup until it’s melted
- Sit the apples, with the middles uppermost, in the tin in a single layer, packing them in as tightly as possible. Press them down with your hands as you go
- Brush the apples with the melted butter and place the tin on a baking tray and in the baking oven for 30 minutes
- Remove the tin and place the disc of pastry on top. Tuck the sides in if you can and prick a few holes in it with a sharp knife to allow the steam to escape. Return to the oven for about 40 minutes until the pastry is crisp and golden brown
- Leave in the tin for about an hour to cool (although I can confirm 15 minutes is enough: I was short of time) before turning it out and serving warm with cream or ice cream. Monsieur Blanc says it can also be made the day before, refrigerated and then reheated.
For the first time in the eleven years I’ve owned an Aga, the engineer who came to service mine last week was not able to carry out the work. It was my fault: Aga advises owners to turn it off 24 hours before the service but I in my infinite wisdom thought the evening before would be soon enough, forgetting that this year’s appointment was at the early hour of 8am. I did not realise that it would not have cooled down enough by then for the engineer to work on. I am telling you this so that you can learn from my mistake. Another tip is to lift up the lids and open all the doors to help it cool down more quickly.
If like me you have no other oven, you have to plan cold meals for when your Aga is switched off. (Mine takes about 5 hours to come back to full temperature; newer ones might be quicker; older ones possibly much slower.) I have the perfect recipe for such times, especially if it’s summer: ceviche. Ceviche is a South American dish of marinated raw fish or seafood. This one is ceviche de sierra by Diana Henry and is packed full of all the Mexican flavours I love, including chillies, lime and coriander.
Ceviche de Sierra
- 4 fillets extremely fresh mackerel, bream or sea bass, skin removed
- 3 limes
- 1 shallot, very finely sliced
- 1 large, ripe avocado
- 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 red and 1 green chilli, halved, deseeded and finely chopped
- 10g bunch coriander, leaves only, roughly chopped
- 3-4 tbsp pomegranate seeds
- Slice the fish into broad strips
- Put them into a dish with the juice of two limes and the shallot
- Halve the avocado, remove the stone and slice the flesh
- Peel the skin from each slice, then put them into a shallow serving bowl or on a plate
- Season and toss in the juice of the third lime
- Add the fish and shallot, oil, chilli and coriander and toss gently together
- Sprinkle on the pomegranate seeds and serve
This summer our second son is getting married. The excitement is building in the family – it’s the first wedding – and we are all busy in our different ways with preparations. Busiest of all are our daughter-in-law to be and her parents but now that his Part III architecture exams and coursework are out of the way, our son has also got stuck in. He’s been painting signs and designing and printing menus and orders of service. His super-efficient future wife has drawn up lists and rotas so that we all know what we’re doing in the build up to the day. The wedding will be in a church near her family home in Cornwall and the reception in a marquee in the garden. We have rented a cottage nearby so that we can be on hand to help and also have a holiday afterwards. Our son has chosen his brothers as the best men and all being well, they have sorted out a speech and who will deliver it (maybe it will be all three of them, I don’t yet know) and who will be responsible for the ring. Our youngest son is going to read a poem at the service and one of the bride’s sisters will be giving a reading.
My husband has chosen the wines (a tough job but someone’s got to do it, he says) with the help of willing tasters like me: a light and fruity Pinot Noir (Villa Maria Cellar Selection) from Majestic Wine Merchants; a Sauvignon Blanc (Cloudy Bay) from Avery’s, Bristol; and champagne from Waitrose. The caterers are booked, so we’re nearly set.
Every single one of us will be in the marquee on the day before the wedding, laying tables and decorating it with flowers. The logistics of getting everyone to Cornwall have been complicated but we seem to have cracked that now: youngest son will be arriving there on the eve of the wedding from a week’s walking and camping on the Isle of Arran and my sisters-in-law are going to ensure that my somewhat frail 92 year old mother-in-law gets there too.
We haven’t had a “whole family” holiday for three years so I’m looking forward to this one, even though it will not involve much lazing around. It’s a very happy occasion and a great excuse for us all to be together. I’m sure we will eat out (seafood please!) but I will also cook some meals in our rented kitchen. I want to keep these as simple as possible (nothing new there!). I will miss my Aga of course and hope I haven’t forgotten how to cook on a conventional cooker.
I’ve made this delicious chicken dish by Annie Bell a couple of times recently. It is one I can imagine making in Cornwall, provided the kitchen is equipped with big enough roasting tins.
Serves 6 (I made it first for 4 and then for 3, using two pieces of chicken per person and scaling down the other ingredients)
For the chicken
- 2 lemons
- 150ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 2 heaped tsps za’atar
- 2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
- 1.8-2kg free-range chicken thighs and drumsticks
- 50g pine nuts
For the aubergine yoghurt
- 2 aubergines
- 1 small or ½ garlic clove, crushed
- 150g natural Greek yoghurt
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus an extra couple of tbsp to serve
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander, plus extra to serve
- Slice one of the lemons, discarding the ends, and juice the other. Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, onion, za’atar, cinnamon and sliced lemon in a large dish. Add the chicken pieces and coat thoroughly with the marinade. Cover and chill for several hours or overnight.
- For the aubergine yoghurt, preheat a conventional oven to 220ºC. Prick the aubergines all over with a skewer to stop them bursting, and roast for 45-60 minutes (in the Aga roasting oven) until wrinkled, blackened and soft, then leave to cool.
- Cut off the ends, peel off the skin, halve lengthways and coarsely chop
- Place the flesh in a sieve and press out the excess liquid using the back of a large spoon
- Briefly whizz to a coarse purée with the garlic and some salt in a food processor
- Transfer to a bowl and stir in the yoghurt, olive oil, lemon juice and parsley or coriander. Drizzle over the extra oil and scatter over some more herbs. Set aside
- If you’ve turned it off, switch your oven back on to 220ºC
- Season the chicken pieces and arrange, skin side up in a single layer in two roasting tins (the large Aga ones)
- Option: if you have space you could add halved new potatoes to the tins. I did this
- Drizzle the marinade over everything and tuck the lemon slices in between
- Roast (in the Aga roasting oven) for about 45 minutes, swapping the tins round halfway through and sprinkling over the pine nuts after 15 minutes (I forgot to do this the second time I made this dish; it was still delicious but I recommend you try to remember them)
- Serve with the yoghurt sauce and a green salad
The chicken in its marinade
Yoghurt and aubergine sauce
A simple green salad in vinaigrette