Eating for pleasure

I don't know about you, but thinly sliced potatoes baked in cream until bubbly have the power to woo me any time of the day. There's something downright sexy about a potato dauphinoise or cheesy potato gratin. Served along side roast lamb or beef and you've got the makings of a truly glorious Sunday meal.

This version requires no addition of cheese and allegedly comes from a 19th century Swedish missionary named Jansson who founded a sect in Illinois, of all places. Where the story turns interesting is that this particular sect forbade eating for pleasure, yet this was the one dish he refused to give up. If that were true, then this seductive dish could lure any man or woman to yield to desire.

The addition of anchovies adds a serious depth of flavor and they literally melt while cooking, leaving behind nothing but a piquant bite to the humble potato.

I know I'm rather obsessed with serving anything and everything with a green salad, particularly one with a zingy, mustardy, vinaigrette that cuts right through anything rich that you're serving it with, but this dish is supper in itself. You don't need to make it as an accompaniment to meat, and it's perfect with a little salad on the side.

If you believe the story of Jansson, he served this as a midnight snack after late night opera performances. Trust me. You don't need anyone to break into a ballad to enjoy this.

Jansson's Temptation
Adapted from Living and Eating by John Pawson and Annie Bell
Serves 2

2 very large potatoes or 4 medium potatoes, peeled and finely sliced into chips
1 large onion, peeled, halved and finely sliced into half moons
1 can of anchovies in oil plus 2 teaspoons of the oil
1 tbs unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups double cream
1/2 cup vegetable stock
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a small to medium gratin dish (see picture) with the butter. Lay half of the potatoes in the dish. Scatter the onions over the potatoes and then lay the anchovies over the onions.

Top with the remaining potatoes. Mix together the cream, stock and season with pepper.

Pour the liquid over the potatoes to half cover them. Spoon the anchovy oil over the potatoes and cover with foil.

Bake for 30 minutes and then remove the foil and bake for another 25 -30 minutes until the top potatoes are golden brown and crisp and the sauce is bubbling up along the sides.


Chicken out

Risotto is at the top of my list for mid-week suppers. I love nothing more than standing at the stove (glass of wine in hand of course) and stirring the plump arborio, coaxing each grain until its starches yield a creamy sauce. I've made risotto so often that I can quite happily go through the motions whilst my mind drifts to the day that has just passed.

I want to spend a moment on risotto as I feel it deserves nothing less, and a basic risotto recipe is the canvas for many beautiful dishes. Risotto can be made so many different ways, and I urge you to seek out your favorite combination. First, there is rice itself. Italians lean towards arborio, vialone nano or carnaroli, but arborio seems to be the easiest to find in the US and the UK.

Perhaps you could start with Risotto Milanese or one of my all time favorites Risi e Bisi... aka rice and peas. I'm not sure what can go wrong when you combine peas, pancetta, butter and parmesan. Who cares if there's rice in there somewhere? The best recipe I've found is from a cookbook my friend Liz gave me called Just Like Mother Used to Make. It is simple and divine.

Many an Italian will tell you how to and when to add the stock and wine, how much to stir, how little to stir.... everyone has an opinion. I've found through many a trial and little error that if you stand over it and stir it until there is no more liquid at the bottom of your pan when you pass a wooden spoon through it- it's time to add more stock. Again, refer to a basic recipe when attempting your first risotto.

The recipe I wanted to share with you is a little bit more than just another risotto. It's not particularly authentic, in fact it's from an Englishman. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall runs River Cottage in beautiful Dorset, England. Several years ago, he ran a campaign called "Chicken Out" to impress upon the UK public why we should buy free-range poultry and more importantly, why we should care about how our food is raised before it reaches the table. I'm happy to say that the "farm to table" philosophy seems to be a global phenomenon, but there is still much to be done. Whenever I get on my tiny soap box on this subject, I hear people raise the issue of money.

Here is one way to make those few extra dollars our pounds you spend on a free-range bird stretch to two or three meals, including a roast chicken dinner, a tasty risotto that could feed an army, any number of soups OR delicious leftover chicken sandwiches. I promise it will be the tastiest bird you'll ever eat. Don't feel obliged to make your own stock, but I can testify that doing so will make a huge and tasty difference to any soup or risotto.

Firstly, roast a chicken. Roast it any way you like, but I prefer to season it liberally with salt and pepper and rub the skin with butter. Simple as that. If you're being adventurous, add a 1/2 glass of white wine to the pan, add some herbs like tarragon or parsley, stuff it with a lemon and some garlic. Throw some small potatoes in the pan to roast with the chicken- the world is your oyster.

Roast in an oven at 425F for about an hour or hour and a half until the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and thigh. A great tip from the Barefoot Contessa urges us not to follow outdated instructions. Test the temperature of your chicken and take it out when it reaches 140F (and juices are clear as above). Let it rest under foil for about 20 minutes and it will continue to cook to perfection.

At my house, a roast chicken is unparalleled as a Sunday supper. As you can see, my dog thinks so as well. Serve with a green salad and some tasty wine.

When your first meal is satisfyingly resting in your belly, remove EVERY SCRAP of meat from the chicken carcass and refrigerate.

Don't throw away the carcass. Use it to make a simple stock:

Chicken Stock
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's "Chicken Out" Program on Channel 4

1 cooked chicken carcass
the neck and giblets from the chicken, if you have them, but not the liver
1-2 onions, chopped roughly
2 bay leaves
1-2 large carrots, chopped roughly
3-4 celery sticks
1/2 a large leek, chopped roughly
sprig of thyme
parsley stalks
a few black peppercorns
1.5 litres of water (6 1/2 cups or 1.5 quarts)

Place the carcass in a pan, cutting it up if you need to, and add the rest of the ingredients. Pour over the water and bring to a boil. Let it simmer, uncovered for about 3 hours, topping up the water once or twice.

Pass it through a sieve and let it cool, removing the layer of fat that will solidify at the top.

The risotto that results from the roast chicken is deeply satisfying and brings new meaning to leftovers. To place it in front of someone is like a bear hug or a big thank you. I've made it many times, most memorably in Lima, Peru for our very good friend, Bod, to thank him for letting us sleep in his bed after hiking the Inca Trail. Enough said.

Roast Chicken Risotto with Sweet Corn
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's "Chicken Out" Program on Channel 4
Serves 4 with leftovers

1.5 litres or 1.5 quarts of chicken stock
3 tbsp butter
1 small onion, finely diced
1 1/2 cups risotto rice
1 glass of white wine
1 cup of sweet corn, fresh if you have it, but frozen or canned will do
grated parmesan cheese and a little more butter to finish
salt and freshly ground pepper
handful of parsley, chopped

Firstly, place your stock in a pan and heat it to where it's just simmering. Don't let it boil and evaporate while your risotto cooks.

Melt your butter in a heavy bottomed pan and add the onion, letting it sweat down until it's soft but not colored. On medium-high heat, add the rice and stir constantly for a minute, letting the grains absorb the butter from the onions. Again, don't let it color. Add your wine and stir until it's absorbed into the rice. This is when you start adding your stock, ladle by ladle, letting each one absorb completely until adding the next.

You want the rice to be done, but al dente and not mushy. Just before you add your last ladle of stock, add the sweet corn. Just before it's finished, add the leftover chicken and make sure it's heated all the way through.

When it's ready, add the butter, parmesan, seasoning and parsley. Stir it all through, tasting as you go to make sure the seasoning is right.

Serve with another green salad.


Clean and fresh

Personally, I'm not one for new year's resolutions. Sure, I could give up the addictively spicy corn nuts from Whole Foods that I can't seem to get enough of and my husband can't stand to see me crunch. By the end of January, I can't remember what I've said I would do or wouldn't do and life swiftly kicks me into February.

I once gave up coffee for lent, something I've never adhered to, and everyone around me suffered. There is not enough tea in this world to keep me sharp and raring to go in the morning, in fact, it often puts me to sleep. One thing that I do require in the month of January is a return to clean and fresh ingredients that pair nicely with a pilates class or two. After all the holiday pie pans are put well out of reach, I often lean towards fish, particularly something steamed with enough flavor to keep it interesting.

I'm not sure authentically Asian this dish is, but I adore Southeast-Asian cuisine that combines hot, sweet, salt and sour in one zingy bite. This combination's praises are sung by chef Tom Kime, who I was lucky enough to take a class from in London. I have several of his dishes on my "to-make" list, particularly ones I adored on our trip to Vietnam, and the flavors he brings in his dishes are amazing.

The salmon I used in the dish below can be substituted for any fish you prefer. Halibut is nice, and cod is always lovely, if you can get it from a sustainable source.

I adapted this recipe from Bon Appetit's December issue. It is a great base recipe and you can adapt it in many ways. If I'm feeling particularly pure, I steam some fish like this with nothing more than a dash of sesame oil, soy sauce, some lime juice and some minced fresh ginger. Once it's ready to serve, top with some spring onions and you're ready to go.

Salmon with Hoisin, Orange and Bok Choy
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves 2

2 x 5-6 oz salmon fillets
2 heads of bok choy, cut into 6 pieces lengthwise
2 tbsp fresh orange juice
1/2 tsp grated orange peel
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
4 green onions, thinly sliced
handful of coriander, some leaves left whole and the rest chopped
1 tsp cracked coriander seeds

Preheat your oven to 425F. Lay out two 12 inch square of aluminum foil and put one bok choy on each to create a bed for your fish. Lay the fish fillets on top. Crack your coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle or bash them up in a plastic bag with a rolling pin. Combine orange juice, lime juice, orange peel, hoisin sauce, 1/2 of the green onions and sesame oil. Sprinkle the fish with a little salt and the coriander seeds. Top each of the fillets with the sauce and top with cilantro.

Pinch and fold all of the edges until the fish is sealed in the aluminum foil. Place the packets on a baking tray and bake for 15 minutes. Check to see the fish is done to your liking and serve.

You can serve some rice on the side or soba noodles, but I like to eat it just as it is.


Slowly for a change

Whenever I'm traveling and leaving the boys by themselves, I always stock the fridge with a few nice leftovers and some easy-to-make dishes. Tonight we're due to get the biggest snowfall of the year, one that will make tomorrow's travels a challenge at best. If I'm honest, I'd love nothing more than to stay right here in wintry (yes wintry, not wintery) Chicago and see flake fall upon flake. Pants tucked into boots, we'd make our way to the street where everyone moves slowly for a change.

Some of my best childhood memories include a good old-fashioned snow day when the sleds were brought down from the garage wall and we headed to our local hill for hours of fun. Once inside, the cocoa would be poured into our special mugs (marshmallows required) and we would thaw by the fire.

Instead of thinking of the impending hustle and bustle that tomorrow morning will bring, I thought a nice big pot of beef stew would warm us through and leave enough to sustain Martin and Indy until I return.

My Aunt and Uncle were due to join us tonight, but they quite cleverly decided to drive south before the snow rushed in. We missed spending the evening with them, but decided leftover stew was better than no stew at all.

I adore this stew recipe for several reasons, but mainly because you do not have to brown the meat before popping it into the oven. You simply saute the onions with the sage, coat the beef in seasoned flour and add it all to the pot. It saves an untold amount of time and it can be in the oven and bubbling away in no time. You can make this with whatever root vegetables you prefer.

Whenever I'm making a weekday supper for guests, or in this case, just for the two of us, I want a few little nibbles that are easy to prepare, a one pot dish for the main event and a tasty dessert. It has to be something I can prepare before hand and pull out of the oven when we're ready to eat, rather than doing all the hard work after guests arrive.

For tonight's dinner, I kept our pre-dinner nibbles simple but special. I bought two adorable button-sized goat cheeses and marinated them in lemon zest, dried red chili, garlic and rosemary and extra virgin olive oil. I bathed them like little children over the course of an hour or so and kept turning them in the oil to coat them evenly. You could also put them in a little bell jar and cover completely with olive oil and keep until you're ready to use them, but this worked nicely.

Served with some marinated olives and mushrooms, it was a perfect start with a glass of wine.

All you need with this beef stew is a hunk of fresh French bread, warmed slowly in the oven, to soak up all the lovely juices. I'm always a sucker for a mustardy vinaigrette and some butter lettuces, but don't let me talk you into another step if you're not up for salad. Meat, potatoes, veggies and a thick red wine sauce are all a winter's night requires.

Don't forget that you can add any of your favorite vegetables to this recipe, the following are just suggestions.

Wintry Beef Stew
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's Jools' Favourite Beef Stew
Serves 4

2 lbs stewing beef cut into 2 inch pieces
olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
handful of sage leaves
flour to dust the beef pieces
2 parsnips, peeled and quartered
4 carrots peeled and halved or baby carrots, peeled
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into to cubes
1 lb small potatoes (I used fingerling potatoes)
handful of sunchokes (jerusalem artichokes) peeled and halved
1/2 bottle of red wine
1 1/4 cups of vegetable broth (you can use beef broth if you'd like but I think the red wine makes it rich enough)
2 tbsp tomato puree
zest of one lemon
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
handful of rosemary, leaves picked and roughly chopped

Preheat your oven to 300F. In a large casserole pan that is good for the stove top and oven, add the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the onions and sage leaves until translucent (about 3-4 minutes). While they are cooking, coat the beef in seasoned flour and add to the pan once the onions are ready.

Add the tomato puree, all of the vegetables, wine and stock and stir together to combine well. Season generously with salt and pepper and bring the mixture to a boil on the stovetop. Once it comes to a boil, put the lid on and put it in the oven. Cook for about 3-4 hours until the beef is completely tender (this will depend on how fresh your beef is.) Test it by taking a piece of beef out and mashing it with a fork. If it falls apart easily, it's finished.

If you want to keep this warm in the oven until you're ready to eat, just lower the temperature to 225F. When you're ready to serve, combine the lemon zest, chopped garlic and rosemary and sprinkle on top. Just like the gremolata (this time with rosemary instead of parsley) I topped my cassoulet with, this last minute injection of flavor will make the dish sing.

For a final indulgence, try this superb dessert from one of my favorite cookbooks, Living & Eating by John Pawson and Annie Bell.

Simply scoop your favorite vanilla ice cream or gelato (in this case, I used Ciao Bella Tahitian vanilla gelato) and top with a shot of espresso. The ice cream needs to be frozen solid and the espresso piping hot. It's a grown-ups version of an ice cream float.

Tomorrow morning I'll be wishing that shot of espresso was waiting for me as I contemplate a snowy trek to the airport.