Thursday, 13 May 2010

Potato and Chorizo Quesadillas

Recently I was left home alone with the kids for a week, which I think is a little harsh as the children were my husband's idea. I needed, therefore, to cook things that are quick and child-friendly without being so dull as to leave me feeling miserable and lonely and trapped in a land of mini baby-bel, petit-filous and chicken nuggets. Hence the quesadilla.

Quesadillas as standard in your Mexican restaurant contain cheese and onion. But they can be much more than that. They can contain anything and are lovely with cheese and parma ham or jamon de serrano.

Ingredients (quantities to taste)
Wheat tortillas
Boiled potatoes, sliced (I used pre-cooked vac-packed and they were fine)
Chorizo (for children, make sure it is a sweet not spicy chorizo)
Frozen peas
Parsley, chopped
Vegetable oil

Peel the papery skin from the chorizo and cut into 1cm slices. Dry-fry the chorizo over a medium heat until they begin to release their paprika-scented oil, then add the sliced potatoes. Fry together, adding a little oil if necessary, until the potatoes are nicely browned, then add the peas. When the peas are cooked sprinkle on the parsley and remove from the heat.
Add the filling and a handful of cheese to your tortilla, then fold it in half. Give it a little press with the flat of your hand so that it is less likely to lose its filling when you turn it over. Toast it on both sides in a clean, lightly oiled frying pan. This takes a minute or less each side on a medium heat - watch it like a hawk!
Quesadillas are perfect party food as guests can add their own filling combos and toast them themselves.

Friday, 23 April 2010

The Cocktails That Keep Me Sane

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met my husband.  It was 1995 and I waitressed in a bar called the Aquarius 51, at the top of the Manulife Centre skyscraper in Toronto. It's now called Panorama.  I earned from tips the most money I have ever made - and I had no idea how rich I was - I went from living on a student grant to this and just assumed that this was what life was like when you were working.  It was when I started craving a microwaved baked potato with cheese that I realised that I hadn't eaten in for six months, including breakfast.  And then I started to wonder whether that was normal.

Well, cocktails in 1995, it was like the dark ages.  Everyone was ordering Mai Tais, Tequila Sunrises, Strawberry Daiquiris.  Basically anything colourful with fruit juice.  Even I liked Strawberry Daiquiris! The only decent cocktails I remember anyone ordering were martinis and "The Godfather" (see below). Upon returning to Britain, we had a long phase of margaritas. Then along came Sex and the City and the Cosmopolitan.  Tastes changed, and we welcomed with open arms the Mojito and the Caiparinha. And the Whisky Sour.

So here I am, in suburbia, and in a country where most pubs will give you an inch of Vermouth over ice if you ask them for a Martini.  And I console myself with the fact that I can get a cocktail as good as anywhere right here in my house.  All you need is a shaker, ice, ingredients and a copy of Larousse Cocktails.


1 shot scotch whisky (I suggest Famous Grouse as a good base for all whisky cocktails unless otherwise specified)
1 shot amaretto 

Serve over ice in a rocks (short) glass

Whisky Sour

1 shot whisky
1/2 shot sugar syrup (available as gomme syrup in Waitrose or dissolve 100g sugar in 50 ml water, cool, bottle and keep in the fridge)
1/2 shot fresh lemon juice

Shake with plenty of ice then strain into a rocks glass.  Optionally serve with a maraschino cherry.


1 shot vodka
1 shot triple sec/cointreau/grand marnier
1 shot lime juice
2 shots cranberry juice
strip of orange peel 3/4 an inch wide, three inches long, so finely cut as to be zest only, avoiding pith.

Shake liquid ingredients in a shaker with plenty ice.  Strain into a martini glass. Fold the orange peel sharply and wipe the zest that it exudes around the rim of the glass.  Optionally (and I saw this done to great effect in the Octagon Bar in Dublin (owned by U2)), take a cigarette lighter, light it, fold/squeeze the peel before the flame so that the zest shoots through the flame and falls, caramelized, into your willing cocktail.  Practice this in private. Drink wearing heels.

Caiparinha (kai-par-een-ya)

1 lime, quartered
2 shots cachaca white rum
2 tsp caster sugar

Crush the lime in a rocks glass with the sugar.  Add a couple of cubes of ice and the rum, stir and serve.


Kahlua (or Tia Maria)
Baileys Irish Cream
Grand Marnier (or Cointreau)

I give no measures here because this is hand poured. What you are aiming for is three separate stripes of booze in a shot glass.  Start by pouring a third of a glass of Kahlua.  Then take a dry teaspoon and carefully hold it face down inside the glass so that the tip of the spoon is at the junction of the top of the Kahlua and the glass, touching the side of the glass.  Slowly, gently, trickle Baileys down the back of the spoon - if you are doing it slowly enough it will float on top of the Kahlua without mixing.  Leave a centimetre or so at the top and put your spoon at the junction of the top of the Baileys and the glass.  Pour the Grand Marnier, slowly, gently, down the back of the teaspoon.  It will float on top of the Baileys.   Tastes like Christmas.

Nigella's Summer Staple

Juice of 5 limes
1 bottle Asti Spumante

Mix in a large jug with plenty of ice.  It tastes like a Margarita but has much less alcohol - perfect for long summer barbecues where you want a drink with a kick that doesn't get you too drunk.

I Admit It. I Shop At Aldi.

It was my family that got me started on Aldi.  Every time I complimented some foodstuff they brought out, there was an intake of breath, and a smug "Aldi: 69p".  By extension:  Gillian, you are paying too much for your food with this fancy Tesco of yours.

So I tried it.  I went to Aldi in Camberley. I even went to Lidl, opposite, and Lidl, I can confirm, is rubbish.  But Aldi was the Thai curry kit that got me.  In the veg section, in a little plastic bag, a fresh chilli, garlic, lemon grass, fresh coriander root and fresh galangal.  69p.  Bloody hell.  Bloody marvellous.  

Aldi is a German company and perhaps because of this they are very strong on continental cured meats and continental style chocolate - all for bargain prices.  Their fruit and veg is always excellent quality because if it isn't in season they don't stock it - because it wouldn't be cheap.

Shopping at Aldi can be frustrating - they don't feel obliged to stock everything - so I have to go elsewhere for my nappies, my herbs, my strong white flour.  But it can be an adventure - you never know what they are going to stock next - in the frozen section I am addicted to their huge juicy scallops, their 4 inch shell on raw prawns, but I've steered clear of their three bird roast (a humming-bird inside a swan inside an ostrich or some such like). Today in their non food section, which changes at a bewildering pace, you can kit yourself out with everything you would need for a weekend hiking in the rainy Lake District.  From the waterproofs to the boots to the Kendal Mint Cake.  Another week it's wet-suits.  Another, sewing machines.

So I was delighted when the Waitrose in Birch Hill was replaced with Aldi.  I'm not allowed to shop in Waitrose because I get over-enthusiastic and once spent £200 on one meal.  For four.  I go to Waitrose Wokingham occasionally because it's the only place that sells Cachaca, that Brazilian rum for caiparhinas and see here a list of my favourite cocktails.  

But back to Aldi.  I like that their senior staff can do all tasks.  So if the tills get busy, their (cute) store manager will open up another one and start scanning the bar codes himself.  If it's quiet, he'll stack shelves or pick up a mop.  I think this must be excellent for process improvement.  If the chairs are the wrong height for the tills or whatever, you can bet that will be sorted out pretty quick if the store managers have to sit at them.

So Aldi, I salute you.  I love that I can find unusual and exotic ingredients, fling them into my trolley on a whim, and still spend half of what I would have at Tesco.  We'll never be monogamous, but you'll always have a place in my heart.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Apricot Syrup Cake

Spring has finally sprung here in Bracknell, and across the town you can hear the lawns being mown and the barbeques being dusted off.

I particularly like making Greek food for alfresco eating, so tomorrow we are having moussaka with Greek salad followed by this almondy, orangey apricot syrup cake.

The recipe that follows is a never-fail wonder that has a sweet, fragrant moistness bestowed by the syrup.
This cake is not like anything you can buy in the shops. It is best made the day before you will eat it.

125g butter
220g caster sugar (I use golden for preference)
250ml natural yoghurt
3 eggs, separated
1 tsp orange zest
125g plain flour
125g fine semolina
2 tsp baking powder
60g ground almonds
80ml milk
1 tin apricots (I use Tesco Breakfast Apricots, 175g drained weight).

220g caster sugar (golden again if you have it)
The juice of the orange you zested,made up to 250ml with water

Preheat your oven to 180C.
Either butter or spray with oil an 8-9 inch square loose-bottomed tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar, then beat in your egg yolks one by one. Mix in the yoghurt and orange zest. Sift in the flour, baking powder and semolina, then add the almonds and milk.

In another bowl (and here you will be glad if you have a hand held electric mixer rather than an expensive KitchenAid, as you can work two bowls at once), whisk your egg whites to the soft peak stage.

Add a generous spoonful of your egg whites to the cake mixture to lighten it, then gently fold in the rest of the egg whites with a metal spoon.

Tip your cake mixture into the tin, then add your apricots evenly across the cake, poking them down into the batter one by one. They will sink to the bottom as it cooks.

Put your cake tin onto a small baking sheet as it may leak slightly - this is quite a light mixture, the into the oven for 50 minutes to an hour. It is done when the centre is slightly springy to the touch, or when an inserted skewer comes out clean.

While the cake is cooking you can get on with your syrup. Gently heat the sugar and orange water mixture together, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Then bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes. When your cake comes out of the oven, bring your syrup back up to the boil and (carefully!) pour it over your cake. Don't be alarmed when you have a small lake of syrup pooling over your cake, it will all be absorbed, and any that leaks through will be caught by the baking tray.

This cake goes marvellously well with Greek food, but is equally welcome with an afternoon cup of coffee.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Spanish Omelette (Tortilla)

Now the good señoras of Spain would blanch at the method I am about to describe. The traditional method is to slice raw potato into small thin slivers and fry them gently in a lot of olive oil until they are softly cooked. But I haven't the patience and my method is just as tasty and lower in fat and faff. I do agree with the Spanish, however, that the only acceptable addition to a tortilla is onion. If you must use peppers or mushrooms or some other godawful ingredient, call it a frittata, your recipe is not welcome in the land of the tortilla.

Incidentally, the word "Tortillera" in Spanish means omelette seller, but it also means lesbian, somewhere in the region of "Dyke". But the Spanish lesbians have not reclaimed this vocabulary for their own in the way that our gays and lesbians are proud to be dykes and queers. So if you have call to call a Spanish lady a "Tortillera",make sure she's selling omelettes.

Just as pancakes are all about the pan, so it is true for omelettes. You need a 7 or 8 inch non stick pan for this, and I recommend the Tefal Jamie Oliver pans you can get from Bentalls, which survive my dishwasher admirably.

These ingredients can be increased proportionally depending on the size of your pan - but don't use a pan greater than 10 inches unless you have Iberian genes from both sides of the family - it's just too hard to handle.

5 Large Fresh Eggs, beaten with Salt and Pepper

Potatoes (e.g. Desirée or Maris Piper) (300g)
A large white onion, sliced finely.
Plenty of olive oil (extra virgin but not your best grassy green)

Peel and boil your potatoes (chopped into evenly sized chunks) until they are not quite done - you need them to retain their shape. Drain them in a colander and allow them to cool to the point that you can handle them comfortably. They will also dry out a little at this time and this will enable them to absorb more oil and flavour.

Meanwhile, gently fry your onions in your omelette pan with olive oil and a little salt, until softened but not browned. Switch off the heat.

Slice your potatoes as thinly as you dare and fry them on a gentle heat mixed with the onions, adding oil as necessary and turning them periodially until most of the potatoes have delicious chewy brown bits.

Turn the heat down to its lowest level and add your eggs. If your pan doesn't look full enough quickly beat up another egg and add it to the pan.

The omelette should begin to solidify at the edges and here the magic begins, with a wooden or non-stick spatula start lifting up the edges of the omelette and tilting the pan so that the uncooked egg can run underneath the cooked omelette. It's OK if the omelette breaks slightly as you do this, it will all come together at the end.

When you have only the thinnest layer of uncooked egg on top, try to loosen the omelette at the edges with your spatula. Take a clean dinner plate and place it face down on top of your pan, then invert the lot so that the omelette is now on the plate. It helps to do this over a clean draining board if you're not feeling confident. Now is the time to check your frying pan and scrape off any bits that have stuck (you either needed more oil or you need a new pan), add a bit more olive oil if necessary and slide the omelette from the plate back into the pan,so that the uncooked side is now on the bottom. Another few minutes and your omelette will be done - if in doubt poke it in the middle with a knife to check that it is cooked through.

The flavour of the omelette will improve if you let it cool a little before serving with crusty bread and a salad. If you have any left over this is a good lunchbox meal, although the potatoes will discolour after a day.

¡Buen provecho!

The Freshest Eggs in Town

The freshest eggs in town are also the cheapest, at £2.50 a dozen for large free range eggs.

They are available from the egg lady in Bracknell Market (under the old 3M building,open Fridays and Saturdays), who also has a line in cake decorations of all descriptions. To get on her good side, bring your own empty egg boxes.

The eggs' provenance is Bottle Lane, at the north west extreme of Bracknell. They come in large or extra large, which is lucky because a tip for successful cake baking is to always use large eggs.

A fresh egg can be identified by placing it unopened in a glass of water - if it lies horizontally it is fresh, if it stands in a vertical position it is greater than a week old, and if it floats, well, it's not in the first flush of youth. This is because the shell is porous - moisture will evaporate from the egg and an air pocket will form between the outer membrane of the egg and its shell.

Upon opening you will see that the yolk of a fresh egg stands proud, much of the white has a thick consistency and forms a raised circle on the plate, surrounded by a layer of more liquid white. As an egg ages, its yolk will be flat and there will be no distinct circle of white - the yolk will be lolling in a thin liquid.

The Bottle Lane eggs are the freshest I have seen - they haven't spent any time on the road or loitering in a supermarket warehouse - and their white is so thick that the thing practically stays egg shaped when you crack it into a bowl.

For this reason they are superb for poaching or frying - no need for cheaty chef's rings as the egg will retain a good shape in the pan. Scrambling and omelettes also benefit from a fresh egg. To improve your scrambled eggs, add more yolks than whites, say three yolks and two whites per person, and freeze the remaining whites for meringues.

When eggs are a week or so old they are good for hard boiling - the air between the shell and the egg's membrane makes them easier to peel.

Eggs old and young can be used for baking and quiches, however all eggs should be used before they are three weeks old. I don't refrigerate my eggs as many recipes require them at room temperature, and I'm just not organised and patient enough to wait.

Recipe: Spanish Omelette (Tortilla)