Magret de Canard –

I’ve been spending the past few weeks in the south-west of France between Bordeaux and Bergerac with my wife and daughter.  We are staying in a great house in the town of Duras which we got for a bargain price as we booked for a good stretch of time during the low season month of November.

I used to work for a French company and lived for a time in Paris in the early part of the Millennium.  Due to my job, I spent the best part of the past 11 years to-ing and fro-ing between Paris and wherever else I was in the world.

Despite being English by birth, I guess you could say that I have become a bit of a francophile.  Although I have had some of the most frustrating (and amusing!) experience during my many visits to France, I am constantly delighted by something new that I always seem to find in France, french people, the culture or the cuisine.

The South West of France always makes me think of delicious duck, from the salty confit legs, to the buttery fois gras to the duck fat that seems to find it’s way into everything that is cooked in the region.  In my opinion, the finest duck in the world comes from this area along with some of the best ways to cook it.

I have eaten Magret du Canard many times throughout France, but staying in this region, with a well equipped kitchen gives me the chance to try my hand at cooking it.

Duck is a very rich meat, so needs something fruity and sour to accompany it, classically this has been orange or cherries, but I like to use what is available locally and paired my version with a pear and shallot sauce which had enough of the sweet and sourness to cut through the oily, rich duck.

I served this accompanied with some braised red cabbage sautéed in (dairy free – sacrilege I know!) butter, pepper and balsamic vinegar and some potatoes cubed and put in the oven with a twist of salt & pepper, thyme and some of the duck fat from the breasts as they were beginning to cook (a LOT comes out!).

Serves: 2 (and a 1/2  as a hungry toddler snaffled some of this!).

Ingredients

2 x 300g duck breasts – if you can, get the ones from the fois gras ducks.

salt and pepper

1 pear, chopped into slices

1 shallot, finely diced and previously softened in 25g butter (dairy free for us, but the naughty stuff works oh so well…)

1 glass of nice red wine

a little chicken stock

To serve:

3 medium potatoes cubed into 1cm chunks

3 sprigs of thyme

salt and pepper

1/2 head small red cabbage

balsamic vinegar

30g butter (dairy free once again if you have toddlers or other difficult type allergy people!)

Method

1) First for the cabbage, shred the cabbage finely and place in some boiling, salted water for 3 minutes.

2) Drain the cabbage and run the colander under cold water to stop the cooking.

3) Preheat oven to 200c and place cubed potatoes and thyme in a baking tray.  Season with salt and pepper and have ready near hob.

4) Place a medium frying pan on hob on a medium heat.

5) Season duck breasts with salt and pepper both sides and score the skin of the duck deeply into the fat in a diamond pattern, but avoid cutting the meat.

6) Place the duck into the pan, skin side down.  It will begin to release it’s fat, as soon as there is around 5 good tablespoons full, place this into the potatoes tray and give them a good swirl around in the fat.

7) Place the tray of potatoes and duck fat in the hot oven on the top shelf.

8) Keep the duck cooking skin side down for around a further 7-8 minutes.  Check that the skin is not burning every now and then, it should be going a delicious golden as more and more fat renders from it.

9) Turn the duck breast to go meat side down in the hot fat for 1 minute.  Take the duck from the frying pan and place in  a second baking tray and  in the hot oven for 5 or6 minutes if you like nice pink duck.  Longer if you prefer it grey(!).

10) Pour off the hot duck fat into a cup (save it as it is so good to cook other stuff in) and deglaze the pan with the glass of red wine.  Scrape around to blend in any crusty bits of duck.

11) add the previously softened shallots and pears and gently bubble.  Add enough chicken stock to form a good consistency sauce

12) In a separate pan, melt butter and add balsamic vinegar.  Sautee the cabbage in this until hot and add a good shake of black pepper.

13) Take duck from oven and let rest for 5 minutes.  Take potatoes out of oven and keep warm.

14) Slice duck at a diagonal angle and place slices on warm plate with potatoes and cabbage.

15) Spoon pear sauce over duck in a nice thick line and serve immediately with a hearty Bon Apetit!

Bondi Breakfast Smoothie

After a few days (or weeks…) of excess I often like to moderate my intake of blatantly bad food by having a really simple and healthy breakfast. Whilst living in Sydney for 5 or so years, I really got into smoothies, particularly at breakfast time. There are so many fresh juice bars and stands, that grabbing one on the run is too easy. They are quick, packed with fruit and protein and leave you feeling fuller than you would think liquid could.

I haven’t seen so many places providing this type of breakfast fare in UK or Europe, fortunately, making them at home is easy too and a great way to start the day.

Serves: 1 large or two small

Ingredients

250ml soy milk (oat, rice or even skim cows milk are fine too!)
1 banana
Handful of really ripe strawberries, raspberries or blueberries (these could even be frozen)
Around 6-8 ice cubes
2-3 tablespoons of muesli
1 teaspoon of manuka (or other) honey

Method

1. Put all ingredients in a good blender
2. Blitz in pulse mode for around 45 seconds or so till you end up with a good even slush like consistency
3. Pour into glass and drink whilst feeling virtuous.

Tip: if you have kids that need supplements like probiotics, omega 3 oil, iron tonic, etc then this is a great thing to sneak these things into.

The Best Roast Potatoes

Normally I like quick and simple to prepare dishes that look really difficult.

I find that the best roast potatoes tend to be almost the opposite of this; they need some careful and time-consuming prep to produce in essence something simple.

However the results are well worth it – nothing goes better with a British Sunday lunch than great roasties, soft and fluffy in the middle and oh so crisp on the outside. The treat of stealing one fresh from the oven whilst waiting for the rest of the lunch to come together is a guilty pleasure indeed…

The secret to this dish is to use a large enough baking tray so that you can get a good layer of fat and that the potatoes have enough space to move around.

Make plenty as if any are left (unlikely) they are not bad cold, sprinkled with sea salt and cracked pepper and dipped in mayonnaise.

Serves: 4-6

Ingredients

12-14 medium potatoes (marfona or other floury variety)
Goose fat or beef dripping sufficient to give around 3-5mm depth in your chosen roasting tin.
Sea salt

Method

1. Peel potatoes and cut them into decent size chunks. (tip: this is a great job to get someone else to do!)
2. Preheat oven to around 200c.
3. Parboil potatoes in a large pan of salted water for around 4 or 5 minutes.
4. In the meantime, place the goose fat or beef dripping in the roasting tin and place in the hot oven.
5. Drain potatoes and return them to pan away from the hob. Keep the hob on high as you will need it again in a second
6. Place lid on pan of drained potatoes and shake them vigorously for 5 seconds to rough them up a bit. Place to one side. Take great care and use tea towels with this as everything is very hot and if your grasps not good and firm, it is easy to end up covered in hotter than he’ll potatoes.
7. Take roasting tin from oven and place on your hot hob.
8. The oil will be smoking so you need to work quickly (but carefully as everything is hideously hot) and place the roughed up potatoes into the roasting tin on the hob. The potatoes should sizzle.
9. Whilst the potatoes are still sizzling on the hob, turn them around so they are well covered in the hot oil.
10. Return the tin to the hot oven and roast for around 40 minutes. Halfway through cooking, turn the potatoes again.
11. Take out from oven and drain the roasties on absorbent paper, sprinkle with salt and serve.

Brioche Bread & Butter Pudding with Chocolate

It was my brother in law’s birthday a couple of months ago. Unfortunately for him, the day of his birth, September 11 is now far better known for other reasons, in fact he was 21 the day the planes struck the world trade centre so his special day became a bit of an irrelevance.

However, this year I cooked dinner for him and finished off the meal with a twist on traditional bread and butter pudding. I like how in this recipe there is a great partnership between the buttery brioches, creamy custard, bitter chocolate, sweet prunes and lifted by a far more adult slug of ameretto.

Apologies to my gluten, wheat and dairy intolerant followers (and daughter!) in advance for this recipe…

Serves: 8-10 portions (this is very rich, so small is better!)

Ingredients

1 good brioche loaf sliced or 4-6 small brioches sliced
1/2 a vanilla pod or best vanilla essence
2 eggs
4 egg yolks
350 ml of half fat milk
300 ml of single cream
120g of soft brown sugar
150g of best dark chocolate – 70% cocoa solids or better
Around 10 prunes
A good handful of pecans
A shot of ameretto liqueur
Sufficient butter to butter brioche slices
Sugar to sprinkle on top of pudding.

method

1. Put eggs in a bowl and mix with electric blender until slightly foamy and paler in co our.
2. Melt 100g of your chocolate in microwave with a tablespoonful or two of the milk. Do 15 second bursts and keep checking until just melted and combined with the milk.
3. Pour a little of chocolate in with eggs and combine with mixer. Then gradually add the rest whilst mixing constantly.
4. Put milk, cream, a few pecans crushed and the vanilla pod (or essence) in a large pan and bring really slowly to a simmer. Again, keep a good eye on it, as it starts to boil remove from the heat and let it cool somewhat.
5 Strain milk into egg/choc mixture and combine again with blender – if the milk is too hot and you don’t mix rapidly, then you will have a disaster!
6. Add your slug of ameretto. This is now your chocolate custard to use in pudding.
7. Chop remainder of chocolate, prunes and pecans into small chunks.
8. Butter brioche slices and place in a good size (20-25cm square?) baking dish. Between each layer of brioche, sprinkle in bits of the chocolate/prune/pecan mixture.
9. Once brioche is used or dish is full, pour in chocolate custard over the whole thing making sure the top layer of bread is well moistened with the custard mixture.
10. Sprinkle with sugar and leave for 30 mins or so (longer is fine) before baking.
11. Bake at 160c (fan oven) for 20-30 mins. The baking dish should be placed in a deep baking tray with some water in it to creat a Bain Marie whilst cooking.
12. Serve with some extra thick single cream.

Fig & Pecan Beer Bread

I reecently attended a cookery course as everything I have learnt about cooking has been from informal sources – consequently, I have no ‘proper’ techniques and a lot of bad habits!

The course was a great experience: spending all day learning and cooking, getting the chance to experiment and to ask an expert chef teacher all manner of questions.  My teacher was called Hannah and was trained by Prue Leith.  She was a good mixture of tough and fun that suited me very well.

One of the first things we worked on was bread and techniques for baking many different sorts of loaves.  I have only used a bread machine to this point and had ruled out in my head ever making it by hand (too slow and old fashioned…).  I am now a convert to the more traditional methods, but I can see how this could be adapted to a machine – you won’t get such a pretty plait loaf though!

This loaf works fantastically well served with blue cheese or a nice, rich homemade pate.  My father in-law will not however mix ‘sweet and salt’and had his slices with butter and jam which seemd to suit him very well.

Serves: Makes 1 large loaf

Ingredients

60g butter

2 tsp light muscavado sugar

300ml bitter beer or ale (I used Theakston’s Old Peculiar, but any silly named dark English beer will work!)

1 egg, beaten

10g fast action dried yeast (or 20g fresh yeast)

2 tsp salt

225g strong white flour

225g of wholemeal flour

40g chopped dried figs

40g chopped pecans

To glaze – 1 Tbsp of honey

Method

  1. Place sugar and beer in a pan and heat until bubbling, then boil fast for 1 minute or so.
  2. Take beer mixture off heat and add the butter to it to melt.
  3. Place flours, salt and yeast into a large bowl. Make sure you have been very accurate with the measurements of the dry ingredients (less important for liquid), this is the best tip for breadmaking!
  4. After the beer mixture has cooled a little more, add the beaten egg and cool to the temperature of a newborn baby’s bath water (hey, I am a daddy!).
  5. Add around 2/3 of your liquid egg/beer/butter to the dry ingredients.  Get your hands in and work this into a nice soft dough.  You may need to add more of your liquids to get the right consistency.
  6. Get the dough onto a floured work surface and knead it for 10 minutes or so (a surprisingly good work out…).  You will know that you have kneaded enough when the dough springs back slowly when you lighly place your fingertip to it.
  7. Place dough in an oiled bag in a warm place to prove until it has doubled in size).  This should take between 30 mins to an hour depending on temperature, flour used, age of yeast, which way the wind is blowing, etc…
  8. Take dough out of bag and knock it back with a couple of gentle punches.
  9. Add your figs and pecans and knead them in well for a couple of minutes.
  10. Shape the loaf into your chosen form – a plait gets lots of ooos and ahhhhhs.  Place on an oild baking sheet or tin and loosely cover in oiled cling film.
  11. Place in warm place again and let rise until pillowy and nearly doubled in size – around 40 mins.
  12. Place loaf carefully into preheated 200C oven for 15 minutes.
  13. Take out loaf and brush with honey. Place back in oven for anoth 10 minutes or so.  Loaf is done when it sounds hollow when knocked and it feels light for it’s size.

Enjoy fresh and warm with Dolcelatte cheese or toasted with a rich duck liver pate.

Pinenut & Wasabi Crusted Rack Of Lamb

When I was a lot younger than I am now, I used to dislike meat with bones in and particularly Lamb. I think this was partly as a result of having a vegetarian mother who was not keen of cooking meat. When she did cook meat, she liked to ensure that there was no possibility of any food poisoning from the meat. Consequently, this meant that there was absolutely no pinkness, moisture or flavor in the meat!

My tastes have changed and I remember being given pink lamb by my sister when I was in my late teens. I didn’t like the look of it but, keen to be polite tried a mouthful. I honestly expected that I would have to spit it out, but…

I loved it. Suddenly i knew what all the fuss about getting to know your butcher was about and cooking stuff just so.

Since that time I have never looked back and enjoyed meat medium rare.

This dish is really quick and easy to cook and is great served with either a green salad and jacket potato for a quick family supper, or you could do some green beans and Boulangere potatoes for a great dinner party dish.

Serves: 4

Ingredients

2 racks of lamb – these must be French trimmed.
100g butter
4 Tbsp breadcrumbs (gluten free is fine)
3-4 tsp good Wasabi
3 Tbsp fresh mint
1-2 Tbsp fresh Thyme
125g pine nuts

Method

1. Check your racks of lamb to ensure that all of the fat has been trimmed from it and the bones showing are clean. If not, get busy with a small sharp knife.
2. To make the crust, whizz together all ingredients except lamb with stick blender or in food processor. Whizz until they are combined and smooth.
3. Using your hands, pat the crust onto the top of the lamb.
4. Chill in the fridge for 40 mins or freezer for 10 mins.
5. Place racks onto a baking sheet and into a preheated oven at 200c.
6. Cook for 15-20 mins for lamb to still be pink in the middle.
7. Rest meat for 5-10 mins under foil and cut into thick slices with 1 bone per slice.

Serve and accept the accolades.

Classic Italian Ragu (works well for under 5s too!)

My daughter, like most kids does not like to eat her five portions of veg a day.  She does however love pasta with meat sauce.

So, always firm in my belief that something really tasty will always be eaten I give you my take on a classic Italian ragu that is more that good enough for the grown ups – just remember to save a bit for the kids.

Serves: enough for 10-12 portions

Ingredients

500g minced veal
500g minced pork ( you can just use 1kg of any old minced meat, but try this mix if you can)
2 onions finely chopped
4 cloves garlic minced
2 Tbsp oil
2 cans plum tomatoes
500ml good quality veal (or beef or chicken) stock
2 carrots grated
I courgette grated
8 rashers smoked streaky bacon, finely chopped
4 large Tbsp chopped fresh basil
Salt and pepper

Plenty if freshly grated Parmesan to serve

Method

1.  Place onion in pan with oil and gently soften without browning. This will take around 8 mins on a low heat with lid on.
2. Add minced garlic and cook for 2 mins
3. Place onion and garlic in a bowl and place chopped bacon in pan on gentle heat until fat begins to render.
4. Add minced meats to pan in small batches and gently brown.
5. once brown, turn out onto bowl with onion and garlic.
6. Put grated courgette and carrot in pan and fry until it begins to soften.
7. Add meat/onion mixture  back to pan and stir together for a few minutes until well combined
8. Add tomatoes and stock to the pan and bring to the boil.  Once boiled, turn down heat and simmer for around an hour. Keep an eye on the pan to ensure it does not go dry and stir every now and then.
9. Once Ragu looks thick and glorious, stir through basil and season to taste.

Serve with your favourite pasta, plenty of good parmesan and either apple juice or a nice chianti (depending on whether you are dining with plastic bibs or candlelight)…