A couple of ways to cook potatoes


Pommes de Terre Bonne Femme & Gratin Dauphinois
(Bonne Femme front left, Gratin Dauphinois back right)

In the UK, we tend to boil, mash, roast or make chips from spuds but not do much else. Trust the French to make them more interesting! Two of the easiest preparations, both pretty similar, are Gratin Dauphinois and Pommes de terres bonne femme. The first is vegetarian (not vegan) but is chock-full of cream (I did say it was French) so isn’t one for everyday, and the second is healthy with a good blast of chicken stock so isn’t suitable for veggies. Both work best with waxy potatoes, or at least not especially floury ones, and this kind of recipe is why waxy potatoes are much more common in Francophone countries than in the UK. Both dishes need at least two layers of sliced potatoes but preferably not more than four, since the browned and crisped outsides are the best bit, and they are both great accompaniments to a steak or other simple cutlet and serve two.

Gratin Dauphinois.

Generously butter the inside of an oven-safe container, approximately 5 inches wide by 8 inches long (or equivalent area) and at least two inches deep. I use an enamelled cast iron dish, as this gets very hot itself and helps to cook the underside of the potatoes and crisp them up, but a ceramic dish is fine provided it can handle high temperatures. Set the oven temperature at gas mark 8, 450°F or 232°C.

Slice two medium sized potatoes thinly and put a layer to cover the bottom of the dish. Grind some fresh pepper and nutmeg and sprinkle with a little salt, a little chopped garlic and pour some double cream thinly. Add another layer of potato and cover again with salt, pepper, nutmeg and garlic. Repeat until all the potato is used and finish with a topping of cream.

Put the dish in the oven for 35 minutes. The potatoes should come out with a deep golden brown colour. When sliced open, the cream inside will have formed a semi-solid ‘cheese’, caking the slices of potato together. Serve in wedges. Because this is so rich, it really helps to have a leafy salad with a tangy vinaigrette on the side to cut through the richness. If you wanted to serve just the potatoes and salad alone, add a little cheese on the top of each layer of potatoes before putting them in the oven in order to make a main course out of it.

Pommes de terres bonne femme

This means “goodwife’s potatoes” and illustrates the virtues of making simple ingredients very good indeed. Given how easy this is to make, it really tastes special and is a regular in our house.

As above, grease the inside of the container. As this is using chicken stock, chicken fat would be an appropriate fat to use, but butter or oil would also be fine. Slice two potatoes and also a shallot or half an onion. Lay the potato slices in the dish and then a layer of onions and some salt and pepper. Continue until all the potato is used and top up with chicken stock, allowing a quarter inch clearance at the top. Put into a hot oven and cook, this time for about 45 minutes, until the potatoes have a deep brown colour and most of the liquid has evaporated – there should still be a little, thickened liquid at the end of cooking. If the potatoes are still swimming in stock, put them back in the oven for another five to ten minutes to let the liquid cook down.

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Soba noodles with coriander, lime and chillis


Soba noodles with lime and chillies

This is a really easy Asian-style (by no means “authentic”) noodle dish, that is quick to prepare, can be served vegetarian or omnivorous and can be served hot as a main meal or cold as a packed lunch. And it is fantastic. This serves two.

Dry fry a small handful of cashews to get a bit of colour on them – take care as they easily burn. Chop up a little cooked chicken or pork, if preferred.

Mix together:
Pumpkin seed butter (available from health food shops), or smooth peanut butter, two tablespoons.
Juice of two limes.
Hot chillis, two or three.
Sesame oil, one teaspoon.
Soy sauce, two teaspoons.
Coriander leaf, small bunch, chopped
One large or two small cloves of garlic, finely chopped, grated or crushed.
One large or two small spring onions, roughly chopped.
Handful of sezchuan peppers, roasted and ground (optional but very good)

If the pumpkin seed butter is used, the sauce will keep an attractive, rich, deep green, colour – peanut butter and it’ll be a muddy brown, but still taste great. The sauce will probably be a bit too thick, in which case add a little water – or chicken stock if it’s handy.

With all of these ingredients, experiment with proportions and taste the finished sauce to check it’s right for your own preference. If it’s too sour, add a pinch of brown sugar. As it’s going to be added to the noodles, it should taste a bit too salty and spicy on its own, particularly if it’s going to be served cold. Add more soy and chilli if necessary.

Take one small bundle of dried soba noodles (for preference, other Asian noodles would do) and add to boiling water and cook according to the instructions – usually only a few minutes.

If serving as a hot meal, simply drain the noodles and mix with the sauce, cashews and chicken (if using) and serve immediately.

To serve as a packed lunch, as I do frequently, drain the cooked noodles and rinse them in a colander or sieve under cold water for twenty seconds or so. This gets rid of excess starch so they won’t glue together in a block. Put the drained noodles in a small serving tub, cover with the sauce and top with cashews and, if using, meat. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Mix the noodles into the sauce just before serving cold.

Basic risotto


Chicken and mushroom risotto

Ingredients, to feed two people:

1 Onion
Light olive oil
1 cup of risotto rice (Arborio is the most commonly sold)
Good glug of white wine or vermouth (optional)
1 and half pints of stock
Butter
Salt
Parsley
Parmesan cheese

Some notes on the ingredients:

This is for a basic risotto, and many of the ingredients vary according to the kind of risotto being made. For instance, some risottos will use red wine instead of white, and use a lot more of it in place of some of the stock. Fish and seafood risottos don’t (traditionally) have any cheese or butter. The exact kind of rice varies in Italy but it doesn’t really matter in terms of making something good to eat as long as it’s a risotto type; long grain rice is not suitable as it doesn’t have enough starch to make the ‘sauce’, and pudding rice would dissolve into mush so that’s no good either.

It’s worth spending the extra on proper risotto rice as the whole meal is very cheap, when you consider that it stretches out a bowl of rice into an entire meal without much else required. In fact, one thing to beware of is overloading the dish with too many ingredients. The point of a risotto is well flavoured rice with perhaps a few nice things added – which brings us to the stock. You can make a risotto with stock from a stock cube but a homemade stock is far superior. Proper risotto alla Milenese uses beef stock but, for our purposes, making a general purpose risotto to which a variety of ingredients can be added, a chicken stock is best (unless you’re vegetarian, of course, in which case there are some pretty decent vegetarian pre-made stocks, or else Marigold bouillon powder) and it happens to be something I make regularly.

Method:

1. Cut the onion and slowly sauté it in a big saucepan, in enough olive oil to stop it burning, until it’s soft but not browned.

2. Heat your stock in another pan – you will need to add this hot to the rice in a few moments.

3. Add a good pat of butter to the onions, then add the rice and stir it round. The idea, here, is to coat the rice in the butter, onion and oil mixture and get the grains very lightly toasted but – again – not browned. Keep the heat low.

4. Add the wine or vermouth, if using, and stir round. Increase the heat to boil off the alcohol and then start adding the stock a few spoonfuls at a time (obviously, if not using the alcohol, just start adding the stock and then increase the heat) and a scant teaspoon of salt.

5. Use a wooden spoon to bash the rice round the pan, adding another couple of spoonfuls of stock as each previous batch evaporates. The point of this is to knock some of the starch out of the rice into the liquid, which makes a sauce, so don’t skip it. Once half the liquid has been added, you can add the rest all at once. Put some more water in the stock pan to re-heat, in case it’s needed.

6. Turn down the heat and let it simmer, stirring and checking every now and again and adding the hot water if the risotto looks in danger of boiling dry. After about 20 – 30 minutes, the rice should be soft enough to eat but still with enough texture to give it bite and there should still be enough liquid for there to be a bit of a sauce around the grains.

7. To serve, turn off the heat, add another pat of butter, check the seasoning and sprinkle with some chopped parsley (flat leaf for preference) and some grated or shaved parmesan. Buon appetito!

Apologies if going into such detail has made this look tricky – it’s really easy and is one of my standbys for when I can’t be bothered doing anything more involved.

Variations.

If you have roasted a chicken and made the stock from the carcase, you may have some chicken meat left over. Add no more than a handful of this, chopped up into small pieces near the end of cooking.

A few frozen peas can be added near the end. Likewise, when asparagus is in season and cheap (around June), you can add the cooked and chopped vegetable just before serving – this goes particularly well with chicken.

Another great addition is mushroom, chopped and fried. Again, this goes well with chicken (but don’t’ try them all together or you’ll end up with no better than a “Mr Creosote” bucket of ingredients!).

To make a courgette risotto, chop a single courgette into small dice and add it just before adding the liquids.

Adding a little saffron with the stock gives a subtle flavour and a lovely yellow colour. Because saffron is quite subtle, it is nice to do this when making the basic risotto as a side dish to grilled meat or vegetables.

A real treat is to use truffle oil. This is wickedly expensive to buy but you only use a few drops in each bowl of risotto just before serving – if you are using this, it would be profligate to add any other extra ingredients, other than those in the basic recipe (a small handful of fried wild mushrooms would go well, though).

Basic chicken stock


Ingedients:

1 Onion
Carcass of a chicken, roasted or raw, meat stripped from it.
Light oil, or chicken fat
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
1 bay leaf
Small handful of parsley (this is good for using up thick stems)

Intensively reared birds have very little flavour – the bones have grown far too quickly – so this is both an incentive to buy a good free range animal and a way of getting more value from it. Don’t add salt or pepper during cooking. Salt is unnecessary at this stage and you are better able to control the amount in the final dish if you use it directly into that dish, while pepper is simply better added fresh when you cook.

Method:

1. Roughly chop the onion and slowly fry it in a big saucepan or pressure cooker, stirring occasionally until it has a good colour. If you have roasted the chicken, you will have chicken fat to use as the frying medium, which will add yet more chicken flavour; otherwise, use a light vegetable oil.

2. Add the chicken carcass, cut or torn up into small pieces and brown these. If you are using a raw carcass, this will need more cooking than an already cooked one.

3. Add water to cover and then all the other ingredients – the carrot, celery and herbs. Bring to the boil.

4. Remove any dark-coloured froth with a slotted spoon and discard – this gets rid of tiny impurities that make the broth cloudy and can taint the flavour. If you want the stock to be very clear (for instance, if it is being used for a clear chicken broth), occasionally add a few spoons of cold water to get a few more of the impurities to form into the froth and skim this as it forms.

5. The liquid now just needs to extract all the flavour from the ingredients so either put a lid on the saucepan and place it on a very low heat for an hour or so, or put the lid on the pressure cooker and raise it to pressure for about twenty minutes.

6. Strain the stock into bowls (I usually get about two good-sized bowls from a medium sized chicken. Cover and let cool and put in the fridge as soon as possible. Use within three days or freeze.

You should also end up with a thin layer of chicken fat on top of the bowl, which helps to act as a seal against bacteria so leave it in place until you come to use either stock or the fat itself. Once chilled, this layer can be lifted off nearly entire and either used in cooking (it has a good flavour itself, when fresh) or discarded.

Braised Cabbage


Braised cabbage

No really! Don’t look away. This is one of the simplest things it is possible to cook but, when done well, it has an almost alchemical ability to transmute into culinary gold.

In spring and early summer, you can use spring cabbage which only needs washing and can be served whole if you prefer but, for the rest of the year, any dark green leaf will do – savoy, cavalo nero, kale or chard (the last two take slightly longer to cook).

Put a large pan on to a high heat with about an inch / inch and a half of slightly salted water, with a lid on until it reaches a rolling boil.

In the meantime, wash the leaves, remembering that they’ll shrink a little so be generous with the amounts, remove any thick ribs from the cabbage leaves (avoid pre-cut bags of kale sold in supermarkets as the ribs are almost impossible to remove) and rip the leaves into bite-sized pieces. When the water is hot put the leaves into the water and put the lid back on. Keep the heat on as high as you can. After three minutes stir the leaves round to make sure they all cook evenly, add a touch more boiling water if they’ve boiled completely dry, and put the lid back on for another minute (or three if kale or chard).

It’s almost done. Drain the leaves in a colander, and put them back in the pan with a knob of butter and a few grinds of fresh black pepper (be generous). A touch of sea salt, a quick stir round and serve immediately, preferably in warm bowls.

That’s it. It doesn’t sound like a gourmet food but it is.

Papas Arrugadas with Mojo Sauce (vegetarian starter or side dish)


A deceptively simple starter from Lanzarote that is utterly addictive, this is described as “Canarian wrinkly potatoes with red and green pepper (mojo) sauces“.

The sauces need to be pre-prepared and this makes a huge batch but since they last well in the fridge, since they go with almost anything and since they are utterly addictive, this is not a problem.

Peel and chop one small bulb (yes, bulb) of garlic. Take two thick slices of bread, remove the crust and discard and tear the rest into bits. Take a tablespoon of cumin seeds, dry fry them and grind to a powder (or just take a tablespoon of pre-ground cumin powder, if you must). Add 1 large tea-spoon of sea-salt. Divide this mixture in half – it’s going to make both sauces.

For the red sauce, add one or two teaspoons of paprika and one deseeded and chopped red pepper to one half of the mix. Put the lot in a blender and grind until smooth, adding a tablespoon of white wine or cider vinegar and enough olive oil to make the mix smooth. Adjust the flavouring and consistancy with more vinegar and oil if necessary.

For the green sauce, take the other half of the mix and add a chopped, deseeded green pepper and a large bunch of coriander herb. Blend and add vinegar and olive oil as per the red sauce.

The potatoes are, properly, Canarian black potatoes but jersey royals will do just fine.

Wash the potatoes well but leave the skin on them and put them in water with half a lemon and a handful of salt and leave to steep for an hour. Throw out the water and the lemon and add half a cupful of rock salt and half-fill the pan with water. Simmer for twenty minutes and then empty the water. Put the pan on a very low heat and dry the potatoes, giving the pan a shake every now and again to stop them sticking and evenly cook until the skin goes wrinkly. Now they’re ready to eat, with relish(es)!