Culinary Chatter: Don’t cook your goose, cook your fruit.

This time of year, the miserable January, where most of us are on the health kick and trying to stave off the cold by diving into salads when all we want are casseroles.  I find myself craving dessert after dinner more when it’s the bleak midwinter, which is fine, but how do I satisfy a sweet tooth during the week (weekends are where such delights as crumbles  and cake are allowed) and when just a piece of fruit won’t cut the mustard.

Fresh fruit is fabulous – don’t think I’ve gone so far against the hideous ‘wellness’ cult led by Paltrow and Avansino that I now even reject one of life’s simplest and healthiest puds -but I think, why limit yourself to just eating it out of hand? There is life beyond the smoothie. (and I say that as a massive smoothie fiend; so much so I think I ought to own shares in a banana plantation and be on the direct mailing list of Sainsbury’s Basics frozen mixed berries suppliers)

Of course, nothing beats the evocative saccharine burst of a ripe English strawberry in June, or the joy of sinking your teeth into the juicy flesh of a ripe pear, nectarine or peach, or the re-assuring crunch of an apple,  but much of the fruit we buy over here, especially during January is out of season so therefore flown in from all four corners of the earth and mostly tasteless and so hard it could be used as war ammunition. We want to eat more fruit, we should eat more fruit (unless you’re one of the truly delusional ‘wellness/clean eating’ lot who seems to believe it’s bad for you now) and if all we have are Belgian pears, South African plums and Egyptian strawberries, we may as well find ways or restoring that ripe taste to make it feel more pleasurable and less of a punishment.

Of course, some fruit is only edible cooked – cranberries and quinces are just two such examples, along with British classics rhubarb and gooseberries – but cooking often will breathe new life into seemingly lifeless specimens. Poached pears are seen as a simple yet luxurious winter dessert in an age where many of us have forgotten what a truly ripe, fresh one tastes like. We all know what crumbles and pies can do for fruit so I don’t need to harp on too much there (but IMO you’ve never lived if you’ve not tried Nigella Lawson’s plum and amaretti crumble, or her strawberry, vanilla and almond one. Both bring summery ripeness to the hardest, sourest imported offenders.)

So I’ve been experimenting with new and exciting ways with fruit without adding needless calories for quite some time now. In the summer, I discovered the delight of grilled peaches (and underripe ones, which are usually what you find on the shelf anyway even in the summer months, work best here as they hold their shape and you wouldn’t know once they’ve seen the fierce heat of a hot grill or the smoking embers of a barbecue as the heat brings out their luscious sweet summeriness) at a friend’s barbecue and as a result got a bit hooked on them for a while, eating them several times a week.

I’m amazed how common fresh apricots seem to be nowadays – I love them dried but never have been convinced by eating them raw, finding them fibrous and bland. A few minutes under a hot grill will change all of that and they taste like apricots SHOULD – just like their bagged, dried brethren only juicier. Like their peach (or nectarine) relatives, they do not need any adornment save for perhaps some fat free Greek yoghurt or fromage frais and a light frosting of granulated sweetener.

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Stone fruit is one of the worst offenders for being barely-edible billiard balls, but show them to a barbecue or hot grill/broiler and restores the lusciousness and fragrance back to unyielding peaches and nectarines. If you’re going to a barbecue or throwing one this coming summer, have some punnets of peaches on hand for a quick dessert. Trust me.

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Stone fruit is one of the worst offenders for being nothing more than edible billiard balls even in season. The grill works its magic and will make it taste as it should. Peaches and nectarines are simply wonderful thrown on the barbecue.
 I couldn’t eat a fresh apricot but cannot get enough of grilled ones.

 

Alternatively, poaching can also restore the taste of summer to peaches - here are Nigella Lawson's divine Mint Julep Peaches.
Alternatively, poaching can also restore the taste of summer to peaches or plums – one of my (many) favourite recipes of Nigella Lawson – her divine Mint Julep Peaches.

This week I made an impromptu dessert with two apples and two plums out the fruit bowl, cutting them into medium-sized pieces (halving the plums) and roasting them with just a light sheen of oil and pinch of cinnamon at 200 degrees C for 11 minutes until lightly scorched. The apples, which weren’t that bad fresh (but one was quite shrivelled and past its best for eating raw), seemed to be sprung back into fragrant, perfumed life and tasted far better than Sainsbury’s pitiful Basics bagged offerings had any right to be. The oven once more had performed a miracle.

Roasted apples and plums - far, far more than the sum of its parts.
Roasted apples and plums – far, far more than the sum of its parts.

A semi-regular supper I cook is roasted pork tenderloin with fruit from Chowhound, which roasts the lean meat alongside sliced pears and figs (though I’ve rung the changes and cooked it with apples, plums and peaches depending on what’s in the house) as the ‘vegetable’ side. It works so well that you don’t even need to steam or boil some extra greens, and I always do far more fruit than the recipe suggests.

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Roast Pork Tenderloin with seasonal fruit – you don’t need a veg side as the fruit, heady with its own sweetness plus the savoury pork juices is more than up to the task.

There are so many ways to cook fruit that it’s impossible to go through them all here, but I will try and come up with some new and exciting ways to do this. I’m also currently looking at many ways to use those out-of-season plums; and maybe even bring a new twist on a modern deli-counter/antipasti classic using the humble strawberry…the sky’s the limit.

So next time you’re out trying to get your five a day, and you’re bored of either waiting for stuff to ripen in your fruit bowl, or sick of making smoothies, have a think to see what you can do to make eating fruit just that little bit more interesting….promise it’s worth it.

T x

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A Tray Of Roasted Fruit

This is scarcely a recipe; probably not worth even publishing, but I’m going to do it anyway.

I’m expanding on my current pash for trying to bring the taste of summer in bleakest January in an upcoming Culinary Chatter post – the art of cooking fruit. Fresh fruit, in season and ripe is unrivalled and fabulous, but I just think we may as well make those air miles and foreign grower’s work worthwhile by zhuzhing up the out-of-season imported produce on much of our supermarket shelves this time of year.

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Maybe a 'bowl of roasted fruit hidden under fromage frais' was more appropiate...greed overtook common sense here.
Maybe a ‘bowl of roasted fruit hidden under fromage frais’ was more appropiate…greed overtook common sense here.

Roasted vegetables are one of the simplest and most delicious side dishes (or as a meal on their own) and some veg tastes far better roasted than raw – bell peppers and tomatoes are a great example, whilst squashes suit roasting far better than steaming or boiling to truly bring out their candied nutty sweetness. So I thought, why not apply the same concept to fruit – like a hot fruit salad, if you will.

Plus, for people who think I publish way too many cake recipes, this is a dessert or breakfast naturally low in refined sugars and fat (you will need a light coating of oil to help them roast rather than bake though) for all of you on the ‘New year, new me’ kick. Roasting probably counts as ‘processed’ so probably not for the hardcore clean eaters. Good. I don’t want to please Avansino in any way.

I have not given a specific weight of fruit here, as it depends on how big your roasting implement is. I am going to be bossy about this – just make sure you avoid the glass dish and use a metal baking tray with low sides to conduct heat sufficiently and allow steam to escape. Just look at the size of your tray and make sure you don’t over crowd it. Also you need a hot oven. 200 degrees C at least. Anything lower is baking.

An earlier attempt at this, made from just two small Sainsbury's basics apples and two hard foreign plums. The frosty topping is Splenda. Perhaps a better illustration than the others..
An earlier attempt at this, made from just two small Sainsbury’s basics apples and two hard foreign plums. The frosty topping is Splenda. Perhaps a better illustration than the others..

Feel free to season the fruit as your heart desires, I use that old favourite cinnamon plus some black pepper – nutmeg would be good, or even, for those of a more deviant persuasion, smoked sea salt. You can sugar it if you wish, but I see no need as the roasting will concentrate the natural sugars within and plus I like any residual tartness.

Finally, sorry about the dreadful photos, I’d already loaded the fruit into a bowl and dumped fromage frais on top  before I realised I needed to photograph it for the blog, ideally of the tray, as the title suggests. Oh well. You can see the selection of fruits I used and how they look after the blast in the oven. I had the entire trayful to myself (it’s fruit, the fromage frais was fat free and they were only sweetened with a sprinkle of Splenda, so I think I was allowed), but would easily stretch to two as a light simple dessert or as a good, healthy yet hearty breakfast.

 

Roasted Fruit

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Serves 1 greedy person as a reasonably guilt-free dessert or breakfast, or 2 more restrained eaters.

A selection of fruit, the less ripe the better as it’ll hold its shape – I use a mixture of apples, bananas, nectarines and plums as well as some hulled strawberries. You will want enough to cover the tray without crowding it.

1 tbsp oil

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

Shake black pepper (optional)

Fat free fromage frais, to serve with (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees C (fan)/220C.
  2. Chop fruit into fairly even pieces, for denser fruit e.g apples and bananas, cut smaller than juicier ones such as stone fruit which can take just being halved, and strawberries are best left whole, halved if they’re really big. If you’re using aforementioned stone fruit, and they’re really unyielding, leave stones in. This will help them keep their shape too.
  3. Place on baking tray and coat with the oil, smush the fruit together to ensure every piece has a thin sheen.  Sprinkle with cinnamon and pepper, if using.
  4. Roast for 10-15 minutes until browned well. Roast too long and more watery fruit will collapse into mush.
  5. Serve in bowls with a sprinkle of granulated sweetener/sugar and plain fat free yoghurt or fromage frais.

Luck Of The Irish: Quick Porter Cake

If you said to me 10-15 years ago that my favourite cake would be a fruit one, I’d probably retch and tell you to eff off. As a kid I would steer clear of anything baked with dried fruit – the strong spicy smell used to turn my stomach – mince pies, hot cross buns, spotted dick, Christmas cake, plain fruit cake, teacakes, Christmas pudding…you name it. If I was ever served bread-and-butter pudding I’d pick out the sultanas – raisins and sultanas were only good for putting on your cereal or eating in handfuls as far as my fussy childhood self was concerned….funny how times change.

Irish cuisine is somewhat overlooked in this country – we all know soda bread and Irish stew for example, or maybe barmbrack loaves, and even some of us know what colcannon is. (I sometimes keep the lurid rust-hued curiosity red lemonade in the drinks cabinet just for its aesthetic value as opposed to taste) But there’s many other traditional foods beloved by the green nation that have passed most of us by.  For example this bake I’m sharing with you – I certainly had never heard of porter cake until the middle of last year, finding one in the Irish section of my local Tesco and then googling it.

So what is it? Well, it’s a fruit cake, made with porter, a lighter form of stout, which of course is most famously made by that bordering-on-stereotypical brand, Guinnness. Most recipes also suggest Beamish brand as another good alternative. It is also a kind of boiled fruit cake, which sounds pretty unappetising but actually, this obscure method makes the cake-making process much easier – no steeping-for-hours and no creaming required, the pan does all the work and you’re guaranteed a moist cake. I touched upon this in my Christmas cake recipe.

I will put up a ‘proper’ porter cake in due course; this one, as the title suggests, is quick – and it’s also vegan and dairy free. I adapted my much-loved tea loaf recipe (which I probably should also put up) for this, and to make it even easier, you don’t even need scales. You just need a mug – think your average white coffee or tea holder – anything that’ll hold at least 200-250ml of liquid. I promise you this somewhat lazy, imprecise method of measurement works.

I’ve listed dark brown soft sugar as it’s cheaper and more commonplace (ie most good corner shops sell it) than dark muscovado, which would offer an even more robust flavour, and personally I’d prefer to use that – but  you can use as much or as little as you like as of course the fruit itself is sweet. It’s totally according to your taste – I used the full mug (admittedly packed down a bit) when testing and I think it was probably a little too much, so three quarters or maybe two-thirds of a mug would suffice, but it is entirely your choice. You could even add a teaspoon of black treacle if you have that lying around..

When I say line the loaf tin, I mean place a sheet across that hangs over the sides (makes it easier to lift out the tin!)

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Easiest way to line a loaf tin in my book!

Initially once cooled you’ll be horrified at the slightly tacky, hard crust that forms, but trust me, it slices beautifully with a serrated bread knife and is moist on the inside and full of flavour (and probably fantastic toasted for breakfast). I know this time of year, most of us are on a health kick, and a rich fruit cake (or not as this contains NO eggs or butter) is the last thing on our minds, but it’s a nice thing to have (that’s not too sinful – no larded-on frosting either)  sitting around at the weekend, it keeps well like all fruit cakes providing you store it correctly and you can just have a thinner slice if you’re really watching the calories. I firmly believe in all things in moderation!

You won’t find you have some weird fruity beery concoction either, the dark stout just lends a ghost of intensity that lurks in the background, letting the wintry treacliness of the dark sugar, spice and fruit shine. After all, it’s a common component in the Christmas pud.

Quick Porter Cake

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You will need one bog standard, medium sized tea or coffee mug. No big Starbucks-style affairs or dainty bone china please.

1 x mug mixed dried fruit

3./4-1 x mug dark brown soft sugar (use less if you like your fruit cakes less sweet)

1.5 tsps mixed spice

1 x 440ml can Guinness or any stout/porter, such as Beamish. If using a bottle that’s bigger, just measure out this amount.

2 x mugs self-raising flour (use regular, wholemeal SR or a mix of both; though I think all-wholemeal would make a very heavy cake)

  1. Preheat oven to 160 degrees C (fan) or 180C regular. Grease and line a 2lb/900g loaf tin.
  2. In a small saucepan, put the fruit, sugar and spice, before pouring over the stout. Bring to the boil.
  3. Briefly boil then simmer for 10 minutes until reduced slightly. The fruit should swell and absorb some of this fragrant sweet liquor.
  4. After the fruit is plumped up with beer, remove from heat and cool slightly, about 15 minutes.
  5. Add in the 2 mugs flour and stir well to combine but careful to not over-mix. It makes a batter with a soft dropping-ish consistency.
  6. Pour the wintry-scented, manilla-toned batter into the loaf pan, quickly smoothing the top and bake for one hour (but check after 45 minutes if your oven’s on the fiercer side) or until a cake tester (toothpick, cocktail stick, raw spaghetti) comes out clean.
  7. Leave to cool completely before slicing into fat raisin-studded slices. Enjoy on it’s own with a cup of preferably Irish tea or with some butter. Sláinte!

New Year New Me: Sausage and Vegetable Pasta Risottata

Please forgive the slap-inducing title, and happy new year!

Most of us in January will be changing our eating habits after the excess of Christmas. I myself am moving to a more austere means of food buying and cooking, but trying to keep things healthy as unfortunately, the downside of festive frivolity, whether we like it or not, is the figure on the scales going up.

This recipe, whilst not exactly the last word in clean and healthy eating (packs a few syns), was borne out of a forage through the freezer and a desire to use up what I have in keeping with my drive to be more austere – I found a partially-opened pack of Cumberland sausages and rather than go straight for the obligatory bangers and mash, I decided to keep things simple and to one cooking pot.

One pot pasta dishes are perfect for the harried mid-week cook as they reduce washing up and don’t take too much time. And if you’re screaming in horror at the sheer audacity of attaching ‘healthy’ to the dreaded carbs, just remember Slimming World allows pasta as a free food because it’s a grain.

Anyway, this came together via my holy trinity of culinary inspirations – Jack Monroe, the queen of austere yet nutritious cooking, Nigella Lawson whose pasta risotto was the baseline for this, and Italian-American YouTuber Laura Vitale, whose one-pot sausagemeat pasta is a much-made favourite of mine.

Nigella assured us that this method of cooking pasta is, or was in 2012 at least, ‘scicosso’, or very fashionable in Italy. Instead of the pancetta of her recipe, I used the sausages, squeezed from their skins (which was the basis of Laura Vitale’s dish) and browned them off in the pan like mince. Instead of the peas, I went for 160g mixed frozen vegetables (though I think you can get away with pushing it up to 240g as 80g is one of your 5-a-day and the eventual result made 3 servings, possibly even 4 depending on greed) instead of peas just for more colour, and, just because it was there on the side, the spices from a finished jar of pickled gherkins as I had to drain them out and it seemed a shame to throw out the fragrant bundle of mustard seeds, dill and onions so I threw that in to boot. But please don’t go out and buy some gherkins especially! I just happened to have it and it’ll be just as good without. I also added a splash of port, but any fortified wine will do – Marsala’s musky depth would be ideal, or even any leftover Christmas sherry. Or vermouth. Again, look at what you’ve got. That’s the beauty of these types of dishes.

The pasta I had to hand was some rather nice bronze-die gnochette purchased from a local farm shop before Christmas, but any short-cut pasta will do nicely – orzo is the obvious one, or even the humble and now largely-looked-down-upon macaroni. The point of this recipe is to make use of whatever you’ve got to hand.  I have to confess, I didn’t need to and really shouldn’t, finish it with butter or some garlicky Boursin cheese, but depending on how many you’re feeding, I think in bleak, cold January, you can forgive yourself a touch of decadence.

Sausage and Veg Pasta Risottata

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Serves: 2 very hungry adults, but really can easily feed 3-4 less greedy people.

6 sausages, any you like, squeezed from their skins

The spices drained from a pickled gherkin  jar (optional)

Generous splash port/vermouth/Marsala

2 tbsp oil

160g mixed frozen veg (If you want to make this go even further boost it to 240g)

250g short cut pasta, such as pennette, orzo, macaroni or gnochette

625ml boiling water

Knob butter

2tbsp Boursin cheese

  1. Heat oil in pan over medium-high heat.
  2. Add sausage meat and brown as for mince, breaking up with your wooden spoon; making sure it’s cooked through, for about 10 minutes.
  3. Add the drained gherkin spices if using.
  4. Splash in the port or whatever fortified wine you have and let come to a bubble and reduce slightly.
  5. Add vegetables and cook for a few minutes or until the frozen look leaves them.
  6. Add pasta shapes and stir to combine.
  7. Cover with boiling water (if it makes life easier, the water volume is also 2.5 American cup measures) and turn heat down. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Leave to simmer for 10-15 minutes, check on it a couple of times and give a stir to prevent sticking and to see if it requires more water.
  9. When it’s ready, the pasta should be soft and starchy, having absorbed all the water.
  10. Beat in butter and Boursin cheese and serve into waiting, preferably warmed bowls.