Blah, blah, blah

It's February. Blah, blah, blah.

I am currently:
  • bored to death of my sleeping bag coat
  • trawling through travel websites for an elusive sunny getaway
  • ordering English lavender, chillies and chives from Seed Savers Exchange hoping this will only make spring come sooner
  • reading Barbara Kingsolver's excellent Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and wishing I could exchange my roof deck for a vegetable garden
  • feverishly cooking my way through Jamie Oliver's "winter" section of Jamie at Home
I feel that if I can make it through the weekend, I might just show February who's boss.

My final bullet-point brings me to a lovely little pasta dish that is easily conjured, even on a weeknight. My refrigerator has been bursting at the seams with leeks. I cleaned, trimmed and sliced them into submission last night, braised them in wine, vegetable stock and topped them with Parma ham to make a savory, lip-smacking pasta sauce.

Jamie uses fresh lasagna sheets to make a cheat's pappardelle, but I didn't have any in, so I used linguini. This is also called slow-braise, but it only takes 30 minutes. Hooray!

The key to this "slap-you-round-the-face" flavor, as Jamie calls it, is not only the marriage of leeks, pork, wine and garlic, but the toasted bread crumb and porcini mushroom topping. This is called pangrattato, or a bread crumb topping in Italian. Toasted with garlic and rosemary in a hot pan, this crunchy, earthy finish sets the whole dish on fire. It might just be warm enough to chase February away.

Pasta with Slow-Braised Leeks and Crispy Porcini Pangrattato
Adapted from "Jamie at Home" by Jamie Oliver
Serves 4-6

5 big leeks, trimmed and washed
olive oil
3 tbsp of butter
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
a few sprigs of fresh thyme leaves
a small wineglass of white wine
sea salt and black pepper
2 cups of good quality vegetable or chicken stock
12 slices of Parma ham or other local alternative
1 pack of dried linguine noodles OR 1 pack of fresh lasagna sheets
2 handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan cheese

for the pangrattato
a small handful of dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 a ciabatta bread, preferably stale and cut into chunks
olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
a sprig of fresh rosemary

Halve the leeks lengthways and cut them at an angle in 1/2 inch slices. Heat a wide saucepan and add a splash of olive oil and 1 tbsp of butter. When you hear a gentle sizzle, add the garlic, thyme leaves and leeks. Move them around so every piece is coated in the oil. Pour in the wine, season with pepper and stir in the stock. Lay the slices of ham over the leeks and cover with a lid. Cook gently for 25-30 minutes. Once the leeks are tender, take the pan off the heat.

Make the pangrattato by whizzing the mushrooms and bread together with a little salt and pepper in a food processor- it should be the consistency of breadcrumbs when you're done. Head a generous glug of olive oil in a pan and add the rosemary and garlic cloves. Let them cook for a minute, infusing all of their beautiful flavor into the oil. Add the breadcrumbs and fry until golden and crispy, turning regularly and being careful not to burn. Remove them and let them cool.

Cook your pasta according to the package- if you're using fresh, flour the lasagna sheets and cut the pasta into wide ribbons and cook in boiling salted water for 2 minutes.

Remove the Parma ham from the leek saucepan and slice it up then stir it back into the leeks. Season it (mine needed some salt at this point, but not too much) and then add the rest of the butter and the Parmesan. When the pasta is finished, add it to the sauce with a little cooking water. Serve it hot with the pangrattato sprinkled on top and some fresh thyme leaves.

Leave the rest of the topping on the side so people can help themselves.


Blues and leftovers

It is important to sometimes splurge on a Monday. Mondays are notorious for blues and leftovers, but I managed to wipe both of these away with a night filled with baked Camembert, coq au vin and a wicked chocolate pistachio cake.

When my Aunt and Uncle cancelled their trip to Chicago because of the impending blizzard, I was left with a clean house, a chocolate cake, a fridge full of chicken and stinky Camembert. I knew I needed to capitalize on all of the above and immediately invited my colleague, Holly, to join me for a last minute dinner and trashy TV. We share a guilty obsession with The Bachelor, and I knew we could whip this little supper up before Brad Womack started handing out roses.

The chocolate pistachio cake was waiting patiently as I walked through the door. I achieved a small victory when I managed to dissuade Martin from digging into it the night before.

This a flour-less cake that uses the ground pistachios instead of flour. It's rich and dense and best of all, topped with chartreuse shards of my favorite nut, the pistachio.

You can serve it with some pistachio gelato, but I opted for a little mascarpone cheese whipped with some orange zest. Please note: I can't take credit for the attempt at professional food styling below- credit is due to Holly Lignelli.

Chocolate-Pistachio Cake
Adapted from How To Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson
Serves 10-12

for the cake:
5 oz bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup sugar
5 ounces pistachios (not-salted)
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp soft unsalted butter
6 large eggs, separated
1/2 lemon
pinch of salt
9-inch springform pan lined with parchment or wax paper and buttered

for the ganache icing;
5 oz bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp heavy cream
drop of orange-flower water (optional)
2-4 tbsp coarsely chopped pistachios

Preheat oven to 375F
Melt the chocolate in the microwave or double boiler.

Process 1/4 cup of the sugar with the pistachios until they are like dust. Add the butter and the 1/4 cup of sugar and process until smooth. Add the egg yolks one at a time, pulsing after each, then, with the motor running, slowly pour in the melted and cooled chocolate.

Wipe the inside of a bowl with the lemon 1/2 and in it, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt. When peaks form, slowly add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar until glossy and firm.

Add a big dollop to the cake batter in the processor and pulse a couple of times to lighten it. A third at a time, add the cake batter to the whites and fold in gently but firmly.

Pour the mix into the prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes. Then turn down the oven to 350F and bake for a further 20-25 minutes or until cooked.

When the cake is ready, it should be coming away from the sides. Leave it to cool for 15 minutes and before un-molding. Don't ice it until it's completely cold.

for the icing:
Break the chocolate into a heavy-bottomed saucepan with the cream and orange flower water if you're using it. If this breaks, let it cool slightly and add a little more cream and it should come back to a glossy icing you intended. When it's melted, start whisking and when it's thick enough to coat, pour it over the cake on its plate. Let it run down the sides and sprinkle the cake with the chopped pistachios.

As Holly helped me prep our chopped onions, bacon and mushrooms for Nigel Slater's Coq au Riesling, we plucked the wafting Camembert from the fridge and cracked open a bottle of wine.

Baked Camembert
I removed it from it's wooden box, placed it on some aluminum foil and quickly scored the top of the rind with 6 swift slices. I stuffed a garlic clove into each and drizzled some truffle oil in each hole. I decided not to be mean with the truffle oil and was rewarded for this decision.

After wrapping it up like a pressie, it received 10 minutes in a 350F oven. If you've done this before or are planning on trying this, as I would urge you to do, keep checking the cheese after 10 minutes. The objective is NOT to produce a pool of hot cheese, which can easily happen if left too long. It should simply ooze when prodded by your knife before you spread it onto some french bread. You can also try this with a little fig jam if you're going for something a bit sweeter. We opted for fig jam on the side rather than cooking it. In my house, truffles trump any challenger.

If you're used to making a coq au vin that takes hours, this is a real find. Once your prep is out of the way, it takes about 30 minutes and is every bit as intoxicating as you'd hope it would be- the wine/cream combo is understandably swoon-worthy.

This serves two, but I find by keeping the sauce as is and just adding more chicken joints, you can feed 4-6 easily. The sauce that is leftover can and SHOULD be tossed with pasta and more fresh parsley the day after. I dare say I like it the second day better than the first.

Coq Au Riesling
Adapted from Real Food by Nigel Slater
Serves 2

3 tbsp butter
a tbsp of olive oil
100 g streaky bacon or pancetta, diced
2 small onions, peeled and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
4 joints of free range chicken on the bone
2 handfuls of small brown mushrooms (your choice) roughly chopped - keep some whole
2 cups Riesling or other medium-dry white wine
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
small handful of chopped parsley

Melt the butter in a heavy based casserole dish and pour in the oil. Cook the diced bacon or pancetta and let it color a little, then add the onions and garlic. Leave to cook over moderate heat until the onions have softened but not yet colored. Scoop the bacon and onions out with a draining spoon and leave the cooking juices in the pot. Add the chicken and let them brown lightly on all sides. Use moderate heat here and add more oil or butter if it's browning too much.

Add the mushrooms and continue cooking for a few more minutes, then return the bacon and onions. Turn up the heat, pour in the wine and bring to the boil. Turn it down to simmer and cook everything at a gentle simmer for 25 minutes, turning the chicken from time to time.

Lift the chicken out of the pan and pour in the cream. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the chopped parsley. Continue cooking at an enthusiastic bubble to let the cream thicken slightly. Return the chicken to the pan and make sure it's thoroughly hot and the sauce has the thickness of heavy cream.

Serve with a crisp green salad and some french bread to mop up the juices not forgetting to leave some of the sauce for pasta the following day. You won't regret your restraint.