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July, 2014

  1. Spice 6 – Vanilla – Madagascan spicy vanilla chicken

    July 22, 2014 by sarah

    Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices after saffron. It is a ubiquitous flavour in many sweet dishes – ice cream, custard – and yet under valued in savoury ones. So this post is hopefully going part of the way to address that and demystify the savoury uses of this delectable and exotic spice. It has a soft, sweet aroma and flavour which pairs so well with desserts and cakes. Vanilla also holds a  very special place in my heart as the vast majority of it comes from Madagascar where I spent a year as a child and on a return trip 20 years later, I met my future husband. From that trip I brought back half a kilo of the valuable beans, smuggled inside a smelly sleeping bag as the export limit was so tiny. I only have half a dozen of those beans left sadly; a good excuse to go back. But these days real vanilla is easily available. Please never use the ‘essence’, but a good quality extract is essential in baking.

    Vanilla beans are actually the pods of a climbing orchid native to Central America, though 75% of the world production is now in Madagascar. Vanilla growing is a labour intensive and slow process; the flowers must be pollinated by hand, the green pods must be harvested by hand and cured in the sun over several days, raised to high temperatures and ‘sweated’ in cloth to achieve the complex balance of sugars and aromatics, then dried and straightened out for several weeks.


    Look for fragrant, very dark brown, almost black pods that are slightly wrinkled, but still supple, with a slightly oily, shiny surface. Length is an indication of quality – 15-20 centimetres is best. If there are white fibre like crystals on the surface of the pods, this is a sign of extra quality. Store vanilla pods in an airtight container in a cool dark cupboard and it will still be good after a few years. Prepare the pods by splitting down the length, opening out the inside of the pod where the seeds are and using the back of the knife to scrape down the length. Add the seeds and pod for flavouring. You can reuse the pods by rinsing well after infusing the milk or cream base and leave to dry for a few days; add the dried pod to a jar of sugar for homemade vanilla sugar. I store my pods in a jar with a little sugar in the bottom; whenever I open the jar, I have to stick my nose right in and take a deep breath.


    We ate versions of this dish nearly every day on our trip around Northern Madagascar. I have upped the spice a little and although it is the main vanilla growing region in the world, I don’t think any versions we had in Madagascar actually had vanilla in it. Missing a trick. Vanilla also goes well with seafood and a typical dish would be lobster or prawns with a vanilla sauce.

    Madagascan Spicy Vanilla Chicken

    8 chicken thighs, boned and skinned (or a jointed jungle fowl)
    1 medium sized onion, chopped finely
    1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
    1 medium heat chili or a teaspoon of cheats chili from a jar
    thumb sized amount of fresh ginger, grated
    1 vanilla pod
    400ml tin of coconut milk
    4 tablespoon grated coconut (if you have it, could try dessicated coconut)
    handful of fresh tomatoes chopped or half a tin of chopped tomatoes
    chili powder
    Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan and when hot fry the chicken until brown on all sides. When done remove from the pan and rest on a plate. Fry the onion, garlic, ginger and chopped chili with a teaspoon of salt until translucent and soft. Add some chili powder to taste (depends how hot you like it and how hot your chili powder is) and stir for a minute.
    Put the chicken back into the pan with the onion mixture and add the coconut milk, grated coconut and tomatoes. Split the vanilla bean length ways and scrape out the seeds, adding the seeds and remains of the bean to the pan. Give everything a good stir; top up with water if necessary so that the chicken is just covered.
    Put a lid on the pan, bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.
    Remove the lid and taste; adjust seasoning as required. Cook for another 10 minutes with the lid off.
    Serve over white rice with a wedge of lime.

  2. On quiches and tarts

    July 17, 2014 by sarah

    I make a quiche – or the posh word for one, a tart – about twice a month. If you buy the pastry it can be surprisingly quick to make. I make my own pastry every now and then to keep my hand in but there is nothing wrong with bought pastry for an everyday quiche. Making quiches is how I overcame my fear of making pastry. They also freeze well so I tend to make a medium sized one that lasts the two of us two nights of dinners (any longer and I get fed up) and the spare pastry makes another 2 to 4 mini quiches which I freeze for lunches. Makes a perfect light dinner with a green salad and possibly some new potatoes if we are extra hungry.

    There is a huge variety of fillings and combinations that can go into your quiche, just try to use something that doesn’t give out too much moisture as it cooks otherwise you will end up with a very soggy quiche – yuck! There is nothing worse than wet quiche and soggy pastry. So that means avoiding spinach and other greens in the filling and if you use vegetables like mushrooms or courgettes then pre-cook them to drive off some of the moisture. Here are some alternative filling suggestions:

    • smoked salmon and asparagus or purple sprouting broccoli – also nice if you replace the cream with creme fraiche
    • pancetta or smoked bacon and strong cheese such as cheddar or Gruyere – classic quiche Lorraine
    • oven roasted cherry tomatoes (or the sunblush semi-dried ones), basil and Parmesan
    • red onion and three cheese – caramelise some red onions in a frying pan
    • leek and cheese – soften leeks in butter, choose a strong cheese like Gruyere
    • poached salmon and new potatoes – again creme fraiche would be good in the filling and perhaps some herbs
    • fig and blue cheese – halved or quartered fresh figs, good amount of a good blue cheese

    What is your favourite filling?


    Goats Cheese and Aspargus Tart

    320g pack shortcrust pastry – leave out of the fridge for 10 minutes so easier to use.
    150ml single cream (double cream or creme fraiche can be substituted, in which case I would reduce the amount and increase the milk to compensate for the extra richness)
    150ml milk
    4 whole eggs
    100g asparagus tips – blanched or steamed until just cooked, allow to cool.
    100-150g pack of soft/fresh goats cheese, usually in a mini log
    Makes a 20cm diameter and 2 mini quiches – you need loose bottomed flan tins with deep sides (the cheap ones tend to be too shallow)
    Use the pastry to line the flan tins. Try not to stretch the pastry as you bring it up the sides of the tin otherwise it can get very thin and holey. Press the pastry into the corners and fluting of the tins – a ball of left over pastry is perfect for this. Trim the edges by rolling a rolling pin over the top of the tin so the pastry is cut on the edge of the tin. Then go around the edge of the tin and with your fingers gently push the pastry up the side of the tin so it sits a few millimetres higher than it. Prick the base all over with a fork (this stops the pastry bubbling). Put the pastry lined tins in the fridge for at least half an hour. If you can’t spare the time then pop them in the freezer for 10 minutes.
    Preheat the oven to 200º C/fan 180ºC.
    Bake the pastry cases blind for 20-25 minutes. To do this, cut out a square of baking parchment a few inches larger than the tin, scrunch up the paper, flatten out and scrunch again. Flatten out the paper and lay over the pastry, fill with ceramic baking beans, dried pulses or even copper coins. Doing this cooks the base so you don’t get a soggy bottom and the baking beans stop the sides from collapsing. 
    Remove the paper and baking beans and return to the oven for another 5 minutes. Take out of the oven and with a pastry brush, brush the pastry with one of the eggs (beaten) and return to the oven for 1-2 minutes. This egg layer means your pastry bottom really will not go soggy. Thank you Raymond Blanc for this tip!
    Turn the oven down to 160 ºC/fan 140 ºc.
    In a jug, beat together the eggs (and any remaining from the one used to coat the pastry), milk and cream with a generous amount of seasoning and some fresh herbs if available.
    In the pre-cooked pastry case, evenly spread the asparagus tips and slices of the cheese. Pour over the egg/milk mixture and carefully put in the oven on a middle shelf. Do not spill any egg mixture over the edge of the pastry case otherwise it will be impossible to get out.
    Cook at this lower temperature for 20-25 minutes for the individual tarts and 25-30 minutes for the larger tart. The centre of the tart should be just set but still have a little wobble. Cool the quiche in the tin for at least 15 minutes before removing and eating.

  3. Rhubarb semifreddo

    July 3, 2014 by sarah

    Here is another recipe that uses up eggs. Can you tell that we have an egg glut at the moment? I also didn’t realise that chickens love rhubarb leaves. I wonder if it makes the eggs taste of rhubarb? Anyone noticed? Rhubarb leaves are supposedly toxic due the high levels of oxalates they contain, but either birds excrete oxalates in a different way to mammals or the chickens are slowly poisoning themselves. I have had to resort to netting the plants to prevent the chickens getting to them; for their sake and the poor rhubarb plants!

    This recipe is delectable, especially enjoyed on a lovely sunny evening like today. It tastes like rhubarb and custard in the most unctuous, dreamy state imaginable. Once served, it is cold but not icy like ice cream can be; all the better for taking large bites of. I like to serve this dessert with roasted rhubarb. Roasting the rhubarb means it keeps it shape and dries it slightly so it is not soupy like stewed rhubarb can be. Cut the rhubarb into 2cm lengths, lay single depth on a roasting tray or dish, sprinkle with caster sugar and roast in a medium oven for about 20-30 minutes. Enjoy!


    500g rhubarb
    120g caster sugar
    2 egg yolks
    2 tablespoons elderflower cordial
    250ml double or whipping cream
    Chop half the rhubarb finely and add to a pan with 100g of caster sugar plus the elderflower cordial. Bring to simmer and with lid off cook until very soft. Puree with potato masher or hand blender or pushing through a sieve. The other half of the rhubarb cut into 2cm lengths and arrange in singe layer on a baking dish, sprinkle with couple tablespoons sugar, cook in oven until soft (about 180 C for 3o-40 minutes). Leave to cool and then store in a ceramic or glass dish in the fridge until ready to serve the semifreddo.
    Make the sabayon base: in bowl over a pan of gently bubbling water, whisk the egg yolks and 20g caster sugar until light and fluffy and pale. They should triple in volume. Take off heat and allow to cool.
    In another bowl whisk the cream to soft peaks then fold in the pureed rhubarb and sabayon.
    Line a 2 lb loaf tin with two layers of cling film. Pour in the creamy mixture. If you have left over meringues or almond biscuits, crumble over the top. Fold over the cling to seal the surface of the semifreddo and place the tin into a carrier bag. Put in the freezer for at least 4 hours, ideally over night. When you want to serve, put the tin in the fridge for half an hour, turn out onto a plate and serve with the roasted rhubarb.