Thursday, February 24, 2011

Blueberry Clafouti

This week some forty-odd years ago a child was born. He was one of those boys who played fair, and who looked out for the kids on the margins. A natural leader, he captained teams and ran youth groups; still in his teens, a baby boy was named after him.

While at uni, he lived with his grandparents. After his grandmother died, he spent an evening with his grandfather every week and talked about the racing results. Even now, at the helm of a law firm and with three kids of his own, he finds time for the lonely and marginalised. He balances commercial work with advocacy work, and stays in touch with all sorts of difficult people, seeing them not as problems, but as human.

At home, he loves to host and will find any excuse for bubbles. He remembers what people like to drink, and always has the right bottle in the house. A natural conservative, he's nevertheless open to madcap ideas and big adventures; every few years he drags his wife and young children across the world to catch up with old friends or to see something new.

He's the sort of man who gets up in the night with a crying baby; who changes nappies and packs the nappy bag; and who leaves his wife to sleep while he gives the kids breakfast. As much as he likes a girl in frilly knickers and high heels, he married a birkie wearing cotton tailed short haired feminist. Like my relatives, I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was my jokes, perhaps it was the cooking; whatever it was, it seems to work.

In gratitude to my gentle, thoughtful, generous, compassionate, kind and loving husband, I got up early on his birthday to make him breakfast. It had to be easy, because a morning person I am certainly not. I staggered into the kitchen, threw a few ingredients into a food processor and banged them in the oven; half an hour later, we celebrated with blueberry clafouti.

My husband's qualities are myriad; he was even born during blueberry season. Although clafouti is delicious with other berries, pitted cherries, quartered plums or other stone fruit, it is absolutely marvellous with blueberries. May he have many happy returns!

Blueberry Clafouti

- enough unsalted butter to grease the dish
- 2 punnets blueberries, or 1 cup berries or quartered stone fruit
- 4 eggs
- 1¼ cups plus 1 tsp plain flour
- 1¼ cups low fat milk
- 1 tbs sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 24cm porcelain tart dish.

Place the fruit in a bowl, and gently toss it with 1 tsp flour.

Place the other ingredients into a food processor or blender. Whizz until all is light and frothy. Pour the batter into the greased dish, then scatter with the blueberries or other fruit.

Slip into the oven, and bake for 30 minutes or until it is puffed and golden. Serve immediately.

Tweaked from a recipe by Mollie Katzen in Still Life with Menu.

(Local: blueberries, eggs, milk. Not local: butter, sugar, flour, vanilla essence.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Goats Cheese Puff

Every now and then one needs something truly rich and celebratory for no particular reason at all. And sometimes one needs this midweek; that is, without planning or shopping or meticulous preparation.

The following recipe is fast becoming one of our more luxurious staples. Decadent souls that we are, we always have goats cheese and parmesan in the fridge; they sit there for weeks until needed. Our chickens provide us with an abundance of eggs, and thyme, of course, grows in the garden. With ingredients to hand, the dish takes ten minutes to prepare and another ten to cook. Thus while my little wild things watch a Maurice Sendak animation, I can assemble and cook a sublime golden puff, whip up a salad – perhaps zucchini –, set out good bread, pour out the wine and dinner, my friends, is served.

Last night Grandpa joined us. After finishing the last morsel, he sighed, then waggled his finger at my very little children. 'When you move out,' he said, 'life will be expensive. This sort of meal costs a fortune in a restaurant, so you'd better start saving!'. My children looked at him blankly; they know, you see, how easy it is – my seven year old makes this under supervision, and we are all very proud of her.

The photograph shows the puff partially deflated. If you're not photographing your food before dinner (and I rather hope you are not), insist everyone sits up at the table just before it is ready so you can whisk it out of the oven and present it, in all its golden glory, before it sinks.

The foodies among us will recognise it as a simple flourless soufflé, but since so many people are scared of soufflés we will call it puff.

Goats Cheese Puff

- unsalted butter
- 3 eggs, at room temperature
- 150g soft goats cheese (I use Meredith Dairy chévre)
- 60g grated parmesan
- 1 tbs milk
- 5 or so stems thyme, leaves picked and chopped to make a scant tablespoon

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Grease a large ovenproof soup bowl with the butter.

Separate the eggs, placing the whites into a large stainless steel bowl*, and the yolks into another largish bowl. Lightly break up the yolks with a fork, then mash the goats cheese into the yolks. Add the milk, the thyme and two thirds of the parmesan to the cheesy yolks, and mix well.

Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks, then fold them into the mixture. Scrape into the soup bowl, and sprinkle with the remaining parmesan. Slip into the oven for twelve or so minutes. It is cooked when the centre is goldenly puffed and the insides are creamy, not liquid. You can check by opening the puff with a metal spoon. If you can see liquid, slip it back into the oven for a few more minutes.

Serve immediately. Enough for three or four – it's very rich.

Adapted from a recipe in the delightful Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater.

*Plastic bowls are porous and always contain traces of fat; egg whites will not whisk if they come into contact with fat, so plastic bowls are no good. Aluminium bowls turn the whites grey, and copper bowls are wildly expensive. Thus, egg whites must be whisked in stainless steel bowls. Having said that, although whites will slide down the side of a glass bowl, if you don't have a stainless steel or copper bowl, glass will do.

(Local: eggs, goats cheese, thyme, milk. Not local: butter, parmesan.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Zucchini Salad

When I think finger food, I think kiddie food: corn on the cob, cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks. But lately I have noticed that my adult friends seem to love getting their hands dirty, too. When it's asparagus season, no one can help but snaffle a spear and whiffle it up*; and now it's time for zucchini. I serve a simple zucchini salad night after night, and it seems few can resist picking up ribbons of zucchini and, heads tilted back, delicate necks exposed, coiling them into their mouths. It's like eating grapes on a Roman couch, only there's no nubile young slave at the ready, more's the pity.

The picking up, the coiling, the draping, the swallowing, the licking of the lips, the sucking of the fingers – the eroticism of zucchini is surprising. Alas, not only do we lack slaves, but young children are present and we can go no further.

The recipe which follows is ridiculously simple – so simple I'm embarrassed to write it down – but there are two tricks. The first is to use really young, firm zucchini, when the flavour is mild and the seeds immature. The other is to slice the zucchini very thinly. I use a vegetable peeler and, by running it down the length of the zucchini, get long pretty ribbons tumbled over the plate.

When the zucchini are this fresh and sliced so thin, they need nothing more than the most basic dressing: lemon juice, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Even so, for a change I sometimes add slivers of parmesan, also shaved with a veggie peeler; or basil leaves, torn over the salad just before serving. From a mother's point of view, the parmesan is particularly effective: even zucchini hating youngsters will sometimes eat a ribbon when they can wrap it around a hefty shard of cheese.

*Incidentally, the correct way to eat asparagus is, in fact, with one's fingers.

Zucchini Salad

- small firm zucchini
- olive oil
- lemon juice
- basil leaves (optional)
- parmesan (optional)
- salt

Hold the zucchini over a large plate. Using a vegetable peeler, peel it into ribbons which tumble onto the plate.

Drizzle with olive oil and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Season to taste. If you wish, sprinkle with torn basil leaves or slivers of parmesan.

Serve immediately.

(Local: zucchini, lemon, olive oil, basil. Not local: salt, parmesan.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chocolate Zucchini Loaf

In principle, I hate masking vegetables. I think they are beautiful, delicious and healthy, so I present them in simple forms over and over and over again, and expect my kids to eat them until they like them.

In practice, some veggies defeat me. Take zucchini. We have a zucchini glut, but no matter how delicately it is prepared, I cannot get my two younger children, in particular my four year old, to eat it. Against my principles, I have begun shredding zucchini and hiding it in the base of pasta sauce, and have discovered this has its rewards. The philistines gobble it up, and my seven year old, who is in on the secret, sniggers and rolls her eyes at me through each such meal; such bonding is special, in its own way.

Yet my four year old loves to cook. She loves chocolate, and she loves cake, and I began wondering what would happen if we made a chocolate zucchini cake. On the weekend, we needed an activity, so we gave it a go.

Together, we measured ingredients. Together, we grated zucchini and together, we mixed it in. To my astonishment, despite the highly visible bright green shreds of zucchini she not only tried the cake but loved it. Further, having discovered zucchini is not such a big deal, she later ate some in a couscous salad with only a very little fuss.

Yet again I have learned that my principles are bunk. A little masking, a little fun with a vegetable, and life is so much easier – even at arsenic hour, aka dinnertime.

Chocolate Zucchini Loaf

- 125g fair trade* 70% cocoa** chocolate
- 3 eggs
- 2 cups white sugar
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups grated zucchini (about 2 medium, or 1 large, or ½ a gigantic one...)
- 1 tsp vanilla essence
- 2 cups plain flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground cloves

Preheat the oven to 175°C. Grease two 10cm x 23cm (9x5in) loaf pans and line with baking paper.

Break up about 30g chocolate and place it into a shallow cup. Zap it in the microwave, removing regularly to stir, until it's just melted. Place the rest of the chocolate into a food processor, and pulse-chop it into small chunks. (Alternatively, you can chop it with a good heavy knife; or, of course, you can just use chocolate chips, but it's hard to find fair trade chocolate chips and the history of chocolate is a history of exploitation, so this is why I do what I do.)

Break the eggs into a large bowl, and whisk. Add the chocolate, sugar, oil, zucchini and vanilla essence, and mix well.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, the baking soda and the spices. Whisk to combine. Stir in the chopped chocolate, then turn the contents of this bowl into the other. Quickly and gently fold everything together, then pour and scrape the batter into the tins.

Bake for an hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin for twenty minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack. Serve warm or cold. This loaf keeps well; it is still very moist the next day.

The recipe is all over the internet; I tweaked one of the many versions found at

* Because, you know, those people work really hard and their children should get to go to school.

** If you have a sweet tooth, use chocolate with a lower cocoa ratio.

(Local: eggs, zucchini. Not local: everything else.)