French Onion Soup

When our kids were 5, 8 and 11 we took long service leave, rented a chalet in the French Alps and skied for three months.

Timewise it fitted in perfectly between a posting in Malaysia and a posting in South Africa. We bought a car in London after spending Xmas with my family and drove over, packed to the gunnels with ski gear. Our chalet was on the outskirts of Megève – large and comfortable with an open fire.

The kids had left school in Kuala Lumpur just before Christmas and  were due to start in Pretoria after Easter. We were worried they might get behind, but two adults playing schools with three children for a couple of hours each day meant they got ahead.

They had never been on skis, but by the time we left, they skied like demons, leaving us behind. When we were snowed in for a few days we played Monopoly, Scrabble and Mastermind. When large blocks of ice fell off the roof the kids built an igloo, with a little help from Matthew. We went ice skating and watched the annual husky dog races. Everyone has fond memories of that holiday.

Five year old David fell in love with snails. When we were back in Australia later that year he asked the waiter in a Pizza Hut “Do you have escargots?”  The waiter, looking somewhat puzzled, said: “What mate? We’ve got pizzas and salads here mate.”

Most days we had lunch in the chalet: deux baguettes with a selection of cheeses, cold meats and patés. Occasionally we stopped for lunch on the ski slopes, where onion soup was invariably on the menu.

1½ kilos onions, halved then thinly sliced
60g butter and 1 Tbs oil
½ tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 Tbs flour
2 litres beef or chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine
12-16 slices French bread sliced 2 cm thick
300g coarsely grated Gruyere or Emmental cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 Tbs dry sherry or brandy

In a large saucepan, cook onions in butter and oil over low heat, stirring often and with a lid for about 15 mins, or until soft. Best to use a heavy-bottomed non-stick pan as there is a tendency to stick with this recipe.

Add sugar and salt and raise the heat to moderate. Cook for 30-40 mins, stirring often, or until deep golden brown. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add stock and wine slowly, stirring. Simmer, covered for 30-40 minutes. Cool then refrigerate until ready to serve – preferably overnight. Reheat, add sherry or brandy and salt and pepper to taste.

Top bread slices with grated cheese and grill until golden and cheese is bubbling. Ladle soup into bowls and place one or two slices of bread on each serving.

Serves 6-8

Crispy Pork Belly with Mashed Pumpkin & Wilted Spinach

Osteria Francescana, a restaurant in Modena with three Michelin stars, was named best restaurant in the world in 2016 and again in 2018. We were in the neighbourhood in late summer 2018, but you need to book months ahead and we hadn’t.

Chef-owner Massimo Bottura also runs a bistro in Modena called Franceschetta 58, so we decided to try and get a reservation for their three course 25 Euro lunch. We arrived in Modena late Sunday morning and while Matthew double parked I dashed in to book a table for one o’clock. There were only two spaces left, at a long thin table for eight where patrons sit on bar stools with other guests. Perfecto, I said, in my best Italian.

A couple of hours wandering around the Sunday markets allowed us to work up an appetite. As we were finishing our meal, which was excellent, a lady sitting next to Matthew, whose son was next to me, asked where we were from and how we had ended up at the restaurant. By her accent she was obviously American. I told her I had watched a Netflix documentary called Chef’s Table and one of the episodes was on Massimo Bottura. Actually, I said, his wife is American. Yes I know, she said, that’s me.

Lara told us a bit about her life in Modena and maintaining the high standards of a world-renowned restaurant. Then she recommended some places to eat well in the region. Today’s blog is my take on the main course we had that day. Simple, but a great combination of flavours.

800g-1kg boneless pork belly with skin
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
½ tsp each cumin and fennel seeds
½ cup water
500g pumpkin, peeled and cubed
1 packet baby spinach leaves
Butter, salt and freshly ground black pepper
Balsamic glaze

Pour boiling water over the pork, then pat dry with paper towels and leave in the fridge overnight, uncovered, to dry out.

Preheat oven to 150°C. Pat pork dry again with paper towels. Using a very sharp knife, score skin all over. Place pork in a roasting pan, rub oil over the skin, then sprinkle with salt and seeds. Pour water around the pork, cover with foil, then roast for two hours. Check from time to time and add a dash more water if it dries up.

Turn oven up to 220°C, remove foil and continue to cook for about half an hour, or until pork skin is crispy. If liked, add some parboiled potatoes drizzled with a little oil, to the pan for this last half hour. Cut pork into portions and serve with the pumpkin, the spinach and a drizzle of balsamic glaze. Pass the potatoes separately.

Pumpkin: cook in boiling, salted water for 15-20 mins or until tender. Drain then mash thoroughly, adding butter and seasoning to taste. A shake of ground nutmeg goes well. For a more intense flavour roast the pumpkin rather than boiling it.

Spinach: place in a small frying pan with a knob of butter. Stir fry until wilted, then season to taste.

Serves 6

 

 

Layered Fruit Jelly

This dessert can be made with fresh or frozen fruit, or a mixture of the two and is popular with all ages. Quantities will depend on the size of your mold. Mine holds 1½ litres and I used frozen raspberries, mangoes, blueberries and fresh kiwi fruit.

Red fruit such as raspberries or strawberries
Yellow fruit such as mangoes, peaches or nectarines
Purple fruit such as seedless black grapes or blueberries
Green fruit such as seedless green grapes or kiwi fruit
2 packets yellow or green jelly e.g. pineapple, mango, lemon or lime
1 rounded tsp gelatine powder

Cut strawberries into halves or quarters. Cut up mango, peaches or nectarines and kiwi. Leave blueberries and grapes whole.

Layer the fruit in the mold starting with the red fruit and keeping each colour separate. You will need a cup or so of each fruit. I used frozen raspberries, then frozen mango cubes, frozen blueberries and lastly fresh kiwi cubes.

Most jellies say to use half boiling water and half cold, but for this recipe use all boiling water. The jellies I bought said to use 250mls boiling water and 200mls cold water per packet. So for two that’s a total of 900mls of water. I reduced this to 750mls boiling water and mixed the gelatine powder into the jelly powder before adding the water. Mix well until dissolved, then pour carefully into the mold until it comes to the top of the fruit. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.

To serve, dip the mold into very hot water for about 30 seconds, then tip out onto a serving platter. Put back in the fridge if you’re not going to serve it immediately.

Serves 8-10

Variations: use just two fruits and alternate them, so you get two layers of each. Use white wine or fruit juice (heated) in place of some of the water in the jellies.

Pan-Fried Fish with Baba Ganoush & Caper & Olive Salsa

Baba Ganoush is a delicious Middle Eastern dip to serve with pita bread or pita bread toasts. It also goes well with some starters or main courses. Try it with smoked salmon. Or with today’s pan-fried fish.

The recipe makes more Baba Ganoush than you will need for this recipe which serves 2. Keep the rest and serve it as a dip. For a gluten-free version of this recipe leave out the flour.

Baba Ganoush:
500g eggplants (2 or 3)
1 large or 2 smaller cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbs olive oil
lemon juice and salt, to taste
Pinch of ground cumin
2 Tbs mayonnaise
1 small pot Greek-style plain yoghurt
Fish:
2 portions of firm-fleshed white fish
2 tsp plain flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Good pinch ground cumin
2 tsp olive oil
2 tsp butter
Salsa:
1 Tbs capers, drained
1 Tbs chopped green or black olives
1 Tbs chopped parsley
1-2 anchovies, chopped
½ small red chilli, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
Lemon juice to taste
To serve:
Extra Virgin olive oil

Baba Ganoush: If possible, barbecue the eggplants over charcoal which gives the dip a distinctive, smoky flavour. Or cook them under a hot grill on both sides, until they collapse and the skins are black and blistered. You can also cook them in an oven at 180°C for about half an hour.

When cool enough to handle, cut in  half lengthwise and scrape out the flesh, discarding the skins. Chop flesh finely by hand, then add remaining ingredients. Using the food processor makes it too smooth, so best done by hand. If there’s time you can chill it for several hours or overnight for flavours to develop.

Fish: Mix flour with salt, pepper and cumin and coat the fish. Heat oil and butter in a frying pan and cook fish till golden on both sides.

Salsa: Mix all ingredients together.

To serve, place 2-3 Tbs Baba Ganoush in the middle of 2 serving plates (you will have some left over to use as a dip). Place a piece of fish on top. Top with the salsa, then drizzle a little oil around the edge.

Serves 2

 

Asparagus with Caper & Egg Dressing

Asparagus is delicious served hot with melted butter or cold with mayonnaise. This sauce goes a step further, being a Hollandaise sauce with a few extra additions. The sauce also goes well with ham or poached eggs.

4 egg yolks
4 Tbs white wine vinegar
2 Tbs water
1 tsp hot English mustard
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp smoked paprika
2 hard boiled eggs, finely chopped
100ml cream
2 Tbs capers, drained and chopped
2 Tbs finely chopped parsley
5 or 6 asparagus spears per person
Extra parsley leaves and Extra Virgin Olive oil to garnish

Place egg yolks, vinegar, water, mustard, salt and paprika in the top of a double boiler, or in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Using electric beaters, whisk the sauce until it doubles in volume. Remove from the heat and fold in the hard boiled eggs, cream, capers and parsley.

Meanwhile, cook the asparagus in shallow boiling water in a frying pan, for 4-5 mins or until al dente. Drain on paper towels.

Serve the sauce warm over the asparagus. Any leftover sauce goes well cold with ham or cold asparagus.

Serves 4-6

 

Sweet and Sour Pork or Chicken

Growing up in the UK, the only foreign food we were exposed to was Chinese, bought as a takeaway for special occasions, or when my mother was too busy to cook. Occasionally we went to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate one of my parents’ birthdays. Sweet and Sour Pork was always one of the dishes we chose.

This Chinese food was not very authentic, but at the time we loved it. In some parts of Britain Chinese restaurants served chips with everything, in order to keep the locals happy. Maybe they still do.

When our kids were growing up they loved the Sweet and Sour Pork I made at home, although they preferred it made with chicken. The recipe works well with either and I make it when I feel like a bit of nostalgic comfort food. The original recipe came from the Australian Women’s Weekly Chinese Cookbook.

500g lean pork or boneless chicken thighs
1 Tbs soy sauce
1 egg yolk
1 Tbs cornflour
1 red capsicum
1 green capsicum
1 medium onion
3 canned pineapple rings
½ cup cornflour, extra
Vegetable oil for frying
2 cloves garlic
Sauce:
3 Tbs vinegar
3 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs tomato ketchup
4 Tbs water
½ tsp salt
2 tsp cornflour

Mix soy sauce, egg yolk and cornflour. Add chicken or pork cut into 2.5cm cubes, cover and leave aside while you prepare the other ingredients. Seed peppers and cut into 2.5cm squares. Peel onion and cut into eighths, then separate into slices, cut pineapple into cubes.

Add extra cornflour to chicken or pork and mix well. Heat about 2.5cm oil in a wok or large frying pan and fry chicken or pork pieces for 4-5 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Drop them into the hot oil one at a time. Remove and drain on paper towels. Pour off oil, leaving about 1 Tbs. Add crushed garlic, peppers and onion and cook over high heat, stirring, for 3 mins. Add chicken or pork, pineapple and the sauce and stir until it thickens and boils. Serve with plain boiled rice.

Serves 4-6

Scandinavian Potato and Salmon Casserole

A couple of years ago we went husky dog sledding for a few days in northern Finland, near the Russian border. We stayed in a timber house by a frozen lake, miles from anywhere.

Each evening, after a few hours of sledding, we dined with the couple who ran the place. This delicious potato and salmon casserole was served one evening and I asked for the recipe. Our hostess explained that there are variations of this dish all over Scandinavia. Everyone makes it the way their mother made it and the only common ingredients are potatoes, salmon and dill. Quantities are flexible and the recipe can easily be adjusted to feed more people, so nobody measures the ingredients. In the frozen north they use a lot of frozen vegetables in winter, although we visited a big supermarket in the closest town, Kajani, which had pretty much everything.

This is a holiday for anyone who likes an adventure. While it was very cold outside, we were well rugged up and cosy in the house at night. Twenty-eight dogs lived outside in kennels, while three lived in the house, because they were elderly or unwell. My favourite, Serek, a handsome black dog with a white ruff, was convalescing from a tummy upset. He wouldn’t come near us when we arrived, but by the time we left he was up on the bed watching us pack our suitcases.

Each morning 28 dogs started howling “Please take me” but we were only able to take fourteen each day. Daylight was from 9.30 am till about 3.30 pm, so we went sledding from about 11 till 2pm. On return we got changed before trudging through the snow for about 50 metres to the sauna hut, where we spent an hour or so in our birthday suits, thawing out and sipping cold beer. Our host said he had made a hole in the ice so we could jump into the lake after the sauna, to cool off. We declined.

Soon after our return home we bought a golden retriever puppy and named him Serek, in the sure knowledge that nobody else in the doggy park would be calling out that name.

About 400g salmon (fresh, tinned, smoked, or a combination)
About 600g potatoes, peeled
2-3 handfuls fresh spinach or use one packet of frozen spinach
1 onion, chopped finely
1 Tbs butter or oil or a bit of each
100g bacon or prosciutto, chopped (optional)
2 Tbs chopped fresh dill (or use parsley or tarragon)
1½ cups grated cheese (cheddar or anything that needs using up)
About 1 cup cream (depends a bit on the weight and variety of the potatoes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

If using fresh salmon, remove skin and any bones and cut into 2cm cubes. Drain canned salmon. Boil potatoes in boiling salted water until cooked, but not overcooked. Cool then slice about 1cm thick. Fry onion in butter or oil until soft but not brown, adding the bacon or prosciutto (if using) after the first minute or two.

Grease a casserole dish then layer up the ingredients, starting with potatoes and ending with potatoes topped with cheese. Season as you go, then drizzle over the cream. While the layers will vary according to the size of your dish I put half the potatoes, then half the salmon and dill, followed by a sprinkling of cheese and fried onion, then seasoning. Then all the spinach (chopped if leaves are large), the rest of the salmon, dill and onion, the remaining potatoes and cheese and lastly the cream.

Bake for 40 minutes at 180°C or until golden brown on top. Serve with a salad or green vegetable.

Serves 4

Variations: 

  • use frozen peas or broad beans instead of spinach
  • add a layer of sliced or quartered hard-boiled eggs
  • use a cup or so of white (Béchamel) sauce instead of cream
  • add a few prawns
  • use ham instead of bacon

Filipino Chicken Curry

This quick and easy curry is not too spicy, making it ideal for a family meal which includes kids.

It reminds me of the simple curries my mother used to make using ready-made curry powder, rather than all the different spices. Serve with steamed rice and chutney.

1 kg boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbs curry powder or paste, or to taste
1 can coconut milk
1 can tomatoes (diced or whole)
1 Tbs sugar

Cut chicken into 2cm chunks and season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large frying pan and gently fry the onion and garlic for a few minutes until soft but not brown. Add curry powder or paste and the chicken and continue to fry, stirring, for 2-3 minutes or until chicken is starting to colour.

Add coconut milk, tomatoes (chop them if they aren’t already) and sugar. Simmer for 20-30 minutes or until chicken is tender and sauce has thickened. If the sauce is getting too thick before the chicken is ready add a small dash of water. Serve with steamed rice and chutney.

Serves 6-8

Harissa Carrots

Since the first of his seven cookbooks hit the shelves in 2008, Yotam Ottolenghi has brought vegetables to a whole new level.

This recipe from his latest book Simple is a real winner.  He sprinkles fresh pomegranate seeds over the carrots just before serving, but I didn’t have any. They’re still delicious just as they are.

Who would think the humble carrot could taste so amazing?

2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp honey
2 Tbs Harissa (or another chilli paste such as Sriracha)*
20g unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbs olive oil
¾ tsp salt
1 kg baby carrots (or regular carrots cut in halves lengthwise)
To serve:
Juice of ½ a lemon
1-2 Tbs chopped coriander leaves
Seeds from 1 pomegranate (optional)

Preheat oven to 200°C. In a large bowl mix the cumin, honey, harissa, butter, oil and salt. Add the carrots, mix well, then spread out in one layer on a shallow baking tray lined with baking paper. Roast for 25-35 minutes, or until cooked al dente and beginning to brown a bit.

To serve, drizzle with the lemon juice and sprinkle with the coriander and pomegranate seeds, if using. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Serves 6-8

* use less chilli paste if you don’t like things hot and/or you’re serving kids

Fiona’s Gluten Free Chocolate Cake

My friend Fiona follows a gluten-free diet. I love the nutty texture of her Gluten Free Chocolate Cake which keeps her sane when she’s studying for law exams.

Today’s recipe is adapted from Fiona’s. I’ve adjusted the quantities slightly, adding less sugar and a bit more chocolate and nuts. I’ve also added a topping of unsweetened cocoa powder, an idea from one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s chocolate cake recipes.

I served the cake as a dessert, with whipped cream and some cumquats I preserved a year ago, but it’s perfectly delicious just as it is, with a cuppa. As a dessert you could also serve it with berries or a ball of coffee ice cream.


250g dark chocolate
250g butter
250g almond meal*
4 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
½ tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
To serve:
About 2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
Candied oranges or cumquats or fresh berries
Whipped cream

Preheat oven to 180°C. Heat butter in a saucepan and when melted add the chocolate, broken into squares and turn off the heat. As chocolate melts, stir to combine. Mix in egg yolks, then sugar, almond meal, salt and baking powder. In a large bowl whip egg whites with electric beaters until soft peaks form. Scrape in the chocolate mixture, in two lots, gently using a spatula to thoroughly combine.

Scrape mixture into a greased and bottom-lined 22cm round cake tin and smooth the top. Bake for 35-45 minutes. Check after 35 minutes. When ready cake will feel firm on top and a skewer inserted in the middle will come out clean. If you have a fan-forced oven you may find the cake is ready in just over half an hour, as mine was. Chocolate cakes are best under-cooked rather than over-cooked.

When cool, remove cake from tin and cover the top with cocoa powder, using a sieve. Serve cake with berries and whipped cream or just as it is.

Serves 12-16

* buy almond meal or make your own by blitzing nuts in food processor until they resemble breadcrumbs. I used half bought and half I made using unskinned almonds. If you don’t have any almonds substitute walnuts, pecans, pine nuts or even a mixture.