Italian/New York Meatballs

Italian/New York Meatballs

I make meatballs fairly regularly: Italian ones with garlic and herbs in tomato sauce, Thai ones with ginger, chilli and lime in a broth and Scandinavian ones with nutmeg and white pepper in a sour cream sauce. These are just the basics; there are so many variations, I feel I could spend my life making delicious meatballs without serving the same ones twice. And I haven’t even mentioned the accompaniments: pasta, noodles, potatoes or bread? I feel a whole series of blog posts coming on.

When a recipe I spotted recently promised to give me Italian-style meatballs like they make in New York, I couldn’t wait to try them. The meatballs proposed by chef Stephen Harris in the Telegraph are, as he says, quick to make and to cook. While they are not the best I’ve made, they’re pretty good and do conjure up that New York/Italian vibe.

Ingredients

For 2 people

  • 500g beef mince
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves (optional)
  • 1 ½ tbsp olive oil and some for drizzling
  • 100g baby spinach
  • 1 x 400g tin tomatoes
  • About 30g parmesan and a squeeze of lemon

Method

  • In a bowl mix the mince with about 5 pinches of salt and the thyme leaves if using
  • Roll the mince between your palms into 10 x 50g balls
  • Heat half a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan and gently fry the meatballs, turning them until they’re brown all over. They will not yet be cooked through to the middle
  • Remove the balls to a plate and heat another half tablespoon of oil in the pan and add the spinach leaves, cooking them until wilted
  • Add the tomatoes, bring to the boil and stir in a little more salt
  • Add the meatballs, turn down to a simmer and cook. If you’re using an Aga, you don’t need to cover them: just place the pan in the simmering oven for about half an hour or longer if you need to. If using a conventional hob, loosely cover the tin (with a lid or some scrunched up foil) and simmer for about 10 minutes
  • Drizzle with a little olive oil, add a squeeze of lemon and serve with grilled ciabatta (see below) and a rocket salad

Grilled ciabatta

  • Split half a ciabatta lengthways
  • Take a ridged griddle pan if you have one (or a regular frying pan if you don’t) and pre-heat it in the roasting oven
  • Place it on the boiling plate and add your ciabatta slices and toast on both sides
  • Rub the pieces of ciabatta with the cut sides of two halved cloves of garlic and drizzle over some olive oil

If I was making these again, I’d add breadcrumbs soaked for half an hour in milk to the meat mixture. I find this makes the meatball texture softer and less rubbery. But that’s for another day. In the meantime, these will do fine.

Slow-Cooked Chicken

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A friend came to supper the other day who said he had exactly the same Aga as mine. He confessed he didn’t think he and his wife made the best use of theirs and proceeded to ask me some questions. I was surprised to find they didn’t even know what the ovens were for: they only used the roasting and baking ovens (although they didn’t know this is what they’re called) and the simmering oven for warming plates. They didn’t use the warming oven at all! I told him they needed to buy an Aga book and that I’d read my Mary Berry one, which came free with my Aga, from cover to cover. He said they had the book but hadn’t bothered to read it.  In their defence, they “inherited” their Aga when moving into their house whereas I made a deliberate choice to become an Aga owner and cook and saw it as a kind of project. It made me realise there are people out there who didn’t choose to have an Aga but have got one by default and that they might find blogs like mine useful.

I was sorry therefore that the supper I cooked for our friend and his parents, old friends of my husband’s family, was not one of my best. I wanted to use up the pheasant breasts I still had in my freezer and found this recipe. It looked and smelled delicious and tasted good, but the meat was a little rubbery and dry. I find this happens with chicken breasts too and I don’t know what the answer is. What is more, I chose the recipe because it was a slow braise, which in my opinion ought to have ensured tender, succulent meat. On reflection, I think breasts, whether of the pheasant or chicken variety, should not be cooked for very long, so my suggestion for adapting this recipe for the Aga would be only to cook it (in the simmering oven of course) for the initial 45 minutes.

Legs and thighs, on the other hand, lend themselves to slower cooking. The dish in the photo above is braised chicken pappardelle. I got the recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Guardian column, and you will see he provides two further slow-cooked chicken recipes. I pounced on the article when I saw it, as I always do when I see the words “slow-cooked”; I immediately think “Aga simmering oven”. I have now made all three recipes and they’re all superb, but today I’m going to tell you how I made the one above in the Aga.

Braised Chicken Pappardelle

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken legs (thighs and drumsticks)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 3 carrots, cut into 1.5cm chunks
  • 1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5g thyme sprigs
  • 500g vegetable stock
  • 50g anchovies in oil, drained and finely chopped
  • 400g pappardelle (I used a good quality dried one)
  • 40g rocket leaves

Method

  • Put the chicken in a bowl and toss with the oil, a quarter teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of black pepper
  • Put a large, heavy-based casserole for which you have a lid on the simmering plate.  Sear the legs for ten minutes, turning them once, until the skin is dark golden brown, then remove from the pan.
  • Add the carrots, onion, bay leaves and thyme to the pan and cook until softened. You could do this in the simmering oven of course. Stir in the garlic and cook for a further minute
  • Return the chicken to the pan and add the stock, anchovies and a good grind of black pepper. Cover and cook in the simmering oven for at least an hour but two would be better
  • Lift out the chicken from the pot and bring everything to the boil on either the simmering or boiling plate and cook until the liquid is reduced to about 300ml
  • Meanwhile pull all the meat off the chicken bones in chunks or, as I prefer, shreds, and discard the bones and the thyme
  • Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions until al dente and drain
  • Add the chicken and pasta to the reduced sauce and vegetables and mix well
  • Divide between four plates or pasta bowls, layering with rocket leaves as you go
  • Drizzle with olive oil and serve

Summer “Cooking”

Maybe I’m just making excuses to be lazy but the summer weather means I haven’t felt much like baking or cooking recently.  It hasn’t even been consistently hot and sunny but here in Bristol, even on the wet, grey days, it’s been muggy: not the sort of weather conducive to standing next to a hot oven for a few hours.

The solution is either to get your husband to barbecue or to prepare salads and light dishes requiring minimal cooking time.  I have managed to achieve both of these and thought I’d share with you some of the recipes we’ve enjoyed.

First up, this courgette tart, which was an excellent way of using up some superb homegrown courgettes a friend had given us.  The recipe is by Rose Prince and appeared in the Saturday Telegraph magazine a couple of weeks ago.  You will see that she recommends making your own rough puff pastry but I went for second best and used shop bought pure butter puff pastry.  I was not that successful at getting my courgettes to form “ribbons” but it didn’t matter that much.

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Next, burgers.  This was a very last minute supper.  It was a lovely warm evening and so we shelved our original supper plans and youngest son popped to Waitrose to buy some ground beef (not too lean) and burger buns.  All I do to make burgers is add ground black pepper and an egg, mix well and shape.  I don’t add onion or salt or garlic.  This way you can really taste the beef and get additional flavours from the sauces and other toppings you serve alongside (eg gherkins, ketchup, bbq sauce, mustard, cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes).  Sometimes we sandwich our burgers in ciabatta but, to be honest, the regular burger buns with sesame seeds work perfectly.  On this occasion, in addition to the toppings listed above, I found some red Romano peppers in the fridge which I halved, deseeded, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt for my husband to grill on the barbecue.  J invited his friend round to join us and by the time we were ready to eat it was nearly dark so we lit some candles and tucked in.  Impromptu evenings like this are very often the most enjoyable.

Once again, my latest favourite cookbook, Honey and Co., came up trumps when I wanted a simple fish recipe the other Friday.  The recipe in the book used sea bream but I could only get sea bass fillets; I doubt there’s much difference.  I just roasted the fish fillets (one each) in the Aga roasting oven for 8-9 minutes with a little olive oil and seasoning and squirted on some lemon juice at the end.  The salad ingredients are as follows (for 4 people):

  • 4 small Lebanese cucumbers or 1 long one
  • 250g red grapes
  • 4 sprigs fresh mint, leaves picked and chopped
  • 1 small bunch dill, fronds picked and chopped
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 200g pain yoghurt (I used Greek style)

Peel the cucumber to create a zebra-striped effect, slice in half lengthways and use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds.  Chop into crescents and place in a large bowl.  Wash and halve the grapes and add with the chopped herbs.  Season with the lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil and mix well.  Spread two tablespoons of yoghurt on each plate and pile some salad on top, ready for the fish when it’s cooked.  Et voilà.

Salade Niçoise

Salade Niçoise is one of my favourite summer salads.  On summer holidays in France I would always order it.  But what is it exactly?

Last weekend I decided to make it when my son W and his fiancée were home, but realised I’d never used a recipe and always just made it up as I went along.  Browsing some of my cookery books, magazine cuttings and Google, I realised that there were many different versions of this salad.  I consulted Twitter too: there were as many people declaring potatoes were definitely not to be added as there were those who insisted on them.  What to do?  The wonderful Felicity Cloake had of course done the research in this article in her “How to make the perfect” series, but her “perfect” recipe was not my perfect one.  In reading about the salad, I was surprised at how many chefs, including Felicity, did not include tuna.  For me, this salad is one of the best vehicles for tinned tuna.  I was also surprised that green beans were not a regular addition.  I liked the raw broad bean idea but it would be more time consuming for this fairly lazy cook.  (I also didn’t skin or deseed my tomatoes: what of it?)

In conclusion, there doesn’t seem to be a an agreed upon, universal recipe for Salade Niçoise but what does it matter?  Make a salad with the the ingredients you like and which you have to hand.  On this particular occasion, mine was made with new potatoes which I added to the vinaigrette (some say mustard is a no no but I’m not one of them) while still warm, green beans, cooked and refreshed in cold water, tomatoes, tinned tuna, black olives, anchovies (essential) and hard boiled eggs.  I also added cucumber but this was a mistake: too watery.  It may not have been authentic, but with crusty ciabatta to mop up the dressing, it made for a delicious Saturday lunch.  And next time I make it, it might well be completely different.

 

Middle Eastern Cooking

Pomegranates have been featuring regularly in our meals at home recently and this week I read this about their possible anti-ageing properties, which was interesting and encouraging.  And the great Ottolenghi gives us these useful tips about them.  I love his books, Plenty and Plenty More, which my sons gave me for Christmas the year before last, but it is true that the recipes are often quite complicated with long lists of ingredients.  This is fine if you have time and the inclination but there are days when you have neither but still want to eat well.  This is where two other favourite Middle Eastern recipe books of mine come in: Persiana and my newest book, Honey & Co.  I have cooked quite a few things from the latter in the last few weeks and every single one has been a gem and just right for summer (such as it is) eating.

I commend one to you in particular which is so good I made it twice in a week.  It’s:

Pomegranate Molasses Chicken with Bulgar Wheat Salad

Ingredients

  • 8 skinless, boneless chicken thigh fillets

(serves 4)

Marinade

  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 green chilli, deseeded and sliced
  • 3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper

For the salad

  • 200g bulgar wheat
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 200ml boiling water
  • 50g shelled pistachios, roasted and coarsely chopped (half reserved to sprinkle on top)
  • 75g currants
  • 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 50g fresh pomegranate seeds (1 tbsp reserved to sprinkle over the top)
  • 1 small bunch mint, roughly chopped
  • 1 small bunch flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped

Method

  • Mix the marinade ingredients together and use to coat the chicken all over.  Cover and keep in the fridge for a minimum of 2 hours to marinate.  You can do this overnight.
  • Preheat conventional oven to 200ºc/180ºc fan
  • Place the bulgar wheat in a large serving bowl/dish with the salt and oil, pour over the boiling water and cover with cling film for 5 minutes
  • Uncover and fluff up the bulgar using a fork
  • Add all the remaining ingredients except those you have reserved to use as garnish, and stir well
  • Place the chicken thighs on a large roasting tray lined with bake-o-glide and season with salt and pepper (non Aga users: fry on the hob for a few minutes each side and finish off in the oven)
  • Roast near the top of the roasting oven for about 30 minutes, turning them over halfway through
  • Serve the chicken on top of the salad and sprinkle with the reserved pistachios and pomegranate seeds

 

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Supper à Deux

Last Saturday evening our youngest son was heading out to a party.   I like to think we’re old hands at matters teenage so we trod carefully and got away with asking a few questions, which elicited the following: it was local, so he could walk to it, and was being hosted by two of his school friends.  We were also told he and others would be gathering at a friend’s house beforehand and walking to the party together.

We’ve been here before of course, my husband and I.  The difference is that when our older boys went to parties, there was always at least one left behind who, depending on his age at the time, needed some sort of attention from us.  Since our third son left home to seek his fortune (well, first to go to university and now London to try out various jobs) our life has been undergoing subtle change.  We’re very gradually becoming accustomed to just the two of us sitting down to eat together, but it’s still quite a rare thing because my husband tends to be away two nights a week in London.  And we won’t be proper emptynesters until we can go to sleep without listening out for the key in the door announcing that someone has arrived home safely.

So that he could dash off to meet his friends on Saturday without going hungry, the boy ate a large, late lunch.  Once he’d gone, I set about preparing this pasta dish which I’d found on the BBC website.  It was the first time I’d cooked anything by Darina Allen, but it was delicious and I’ll definitely make it again and seek out more of her recipes.  I halved the quantities and, I confess, DID NOT peel the tomatoes, but I did deseed them.  I hate fiddly cooking jobs.  I’m probably rather a lazy cook.  I also left the rosemary out.  Get me.  Oh, and we didn’t have parmesan with it either.

Darina Allen’s Penne with Tomatoes, Chorizo and Cream

Ingredients

  • 450g penne pasta
  • 25g butter
  • 1 tsp finely chopped rosemary
  • 700g fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • sugar, pinch of
  • 175-225g chorizo
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • 125-175ml cream
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped flatleaf parsley
  • 4 tbsp freshly grated parmesan, to serve (optional)

Method

  • Melt the butter in a saucepan on the simmering plate, add the chopped rosemary and diced tomatoes
  • Season with salt, pepper and sugar
  • Cook in the simmering oven until the tomatoes have just begun to soften into a sauce
  • Chop the chorizo into small chunks, say 5x5mm, and add to the pan with the chilli flakes
  • Add the cream and two tablespoons of the parsley, and allow to bubble for 3-4 minutes on the simmering plate, stirring frequently until the cream has reduced by half.  Keep this warm in the simmering oven
  • Cook the pasta (on the boiling plate) until al dente, drain and stir into the sauce
  • Sprinkle with the remaining parsley

We also ate some of the Bordeaux Quay focaccia I’d bought at Whiteladies Road Market in the morning, which probably made the meal somewhat carb heavy but hey, it was Saturday night and we thought we’d live a little.  We drank a glass or two of Rioja too!