Dan Dan Noodles

Sunday morning saw me up and alert early for once and off to Brixton’s Farmers’ Market. I was hoping to pick up some rhubarb, but it might be a little early in the season for it here in London. I did however pick up some venison mince in all its rich ruby red glory. The low fat content and good quality appealed to me, but I had no firm plans on what to do with it.

I meandered home and sat down with a coffee and a fresh pretzel from the market to read the Observer Food Monthly, chuckling to myself at their amazement that people, especially chefs, ever eat alone when I espied a recipe for Dan-Dan noodles that looked like it would work perfectly with my venison mince. These could be described as the Chinese equivalent of spaghetti bolognese, since they combine noodles and meat, but with a delicious warming chili kick. I first had them at the fabulous Baozi Inn in Chinatown, but despite loving them, I had never thought to make them myself. I have no idea if this Jamie Oliver recipe is authentic or not but it gave me something to work with…

1 beef or chicken stock cube

500g minced beef

2 tbs runny honey

300g wheat noodles

4 handfuls of mixed green veg(Chinese cabbage, sprouting broccoli, bok choi, spinach)

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and very finely chopped

3 tbs dark soy sauce

2 tsp freshly ground Szechuan pepper

5 tbs good-quality chilli oil (see below)

2 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced

1 lime, quartered, to serve

Crumble your stock cube into a large pan of water and get it on the heat. Add the beef to a dry pan and, on a medium to high heat, keep moving it around until it’s golden and crunchy, which will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Pour away any excess fat, then add the honey and toss until all the mince is nicely coated. Cook for about 30 seconds, then take the pan off the heat.

Stir your noodles into the boiling stock and move them about a bit so they don’t stick together. Cook according to the packet instructions. Shred your cabbage into 1cm strips, quarter your bok choi and snap up the broccoli spears. When the noodles have 1 minute to go, throw in the prepared greens to blanch them. Drain the whole lot in a colander, reserving a mugful of the cooking water. Tip your noodles, veg and the water back into the hot pan.

Add your garlic, soy sauce, Szechuan pepper and chilli oil. Give it all a good mix with tongs and divide among 4 bowls. Sprinkle over the crunchy beef , finish with a scattering of spring onions and serve each dish with a lime quarter to squeeze over.

Once I got over the irony of the recipe being for 4 people in an article about eating alone, I used Marigold Bouillon powder to make the stock as it is easier to measure for one person than a stockcube. I left the honey out because frankly sweetened savoury dishes give me the heebie-jeebies and I didn’t have any bok choi, so I substituted some curly kale instead. Apart from the fact I also reduced the amount of chili oil hugely, the rest of the recipe was pretty similar.

The venison mince dry fried beautifully, becoming deliciously crumbly in the pan on a high heat, due to the lack of the usual watery fat you get in regular beef mince. Beef or pork mince would have needed draining and more cooking to achieve the right texture to go with the noodles. I misread the recipe slightly and stupidly only reserved a cupful (or 120ml) of the cooking liquid rather than the mugful suggested, meaning my finished dish had very little liquid, but this didn’t spoil it in anyway. It was still a delicious combination of soft slurpy noodles with crumbly nuggets of full flavoured meat, crunchy leaf vegetables and the refreshing chili kick you would expect from Szechuan food.

On top of that, it created very little washing up and is a marvellously quick recipe for using up the last little bits of cabbage or broccoli lurking in the back of your fridge. All in all, a perfect one person meal, especially as you can customise the chili to your own level each time, which is just the ticket on a cold winter day!

The Ultimate Roast Potato?

I am almost comically stereotypically Irish in my love of potatoes. I always keep a bag of spuds in the house and few things tickle me more than having a new potato recipe to try. Unsurprisingly one of my favourite cook books is The Humble Spud and I intend to eat my way through every recipe possible in it.

While thinking about the Christmas dinner, my eye was drawn to the page with Roast Potatoes with Sesame Seeds, more commonly known to particularly to Americans as Hasselback Potatoes. These are basically a potato prepared for roasting as normal, but cut 3/4 of the way through with a knife to resemble a tuberous stegosaurus before being roasted in the oven as normal.

These ornate little spuds require no par-boiling or even peeling, shaking, coating with flour or semolina or any other trick of the trade to crisp them right up. They fan out gently in the high heat of an oven to create a gorgeously golden, extra crispy roastie thanks to the increased surface area due to the extra splits in the spud. They take no longer to prepare than the average potato for roasting, and if you place your potato in a spoon to cut it, you will stop yourself slicing right through it.

I have prepared these twice in advance of the Christmas dinner. First time round I placed them in a plastic bag and shaken in oil and seasoning, then placed in a roasting tray of hot oil and cooked for about 40 minutes in a 220 C oven, they crisp up  beautifully even without tthe magic addition of goose fat. Second time, I just wanted to double check they hadn’t been a crispy figment of my imagination… and I was not disappointed in any way!

I made these a focal point of the Christmas meal, using my mum’s plentiful stash of goose fat to make these even crispier and melt in the mouth. I didn’t add the sesame seeds suggested in the recipe to add some extra crunch as I forgot on the day. I certainly be experimenting with topping these with parmesan or garlic or chili throughout the year. Any other suggestions would be gratefully received!

Spot the spud just by the gravy...

Get stuffed…

The cold and icy weather has made me less than enthused about going out to shop this week at the market, so it was with delight I espied a particularly splendid Savoy cabbage in the local Tesco Express on offer for 50 pence. Since I had some lamb mince and some leftover tomato sauce in the fridge, I could whip up some stuffed cabbage leaves for a wholesome hearty winter dinner with ease!

Stuffed cabbage leaves are a popular dish throughout most of Europe. I’m not sure that mine would be considered particularly authentic, but they are utterly delicious and very quick and easy to make, especially as I had leftover cooked mince from the previous evening and the sauce already made, but neither of these stages is difficult or time consuming if done from scratch.

While the cabbage leaves were blanching quickly in a pan of water at a rolling boil, I added some cinnamon, sweet paprika, allspice and garlic to the cooked mince, before allowing the leaves to cool slightly on a tea-towel. At this point, I removed the thick stem with a sharp knife to make the leaves easier to fold.

Two dessertspoons of cooked cold mince later, the leaves were ready to roll. I rolled them from the cut section toward the top of the leaf and then set the leaf into the cold non-stick pan with the join underneath, repeating until I had filled the pan nicely. I topped the leaves with some leftover home-made and home-grown slow roast tomato sauce, added in two or three small ice-cubes of chicken stock from the freezer to help steam the leaves, added the lid and placed in the oven to cook for about 20-25 minutes at 200°C until cooked through with a slight bite. I then served them with some mashed potato I had leftover from the previous night. They are also excellent with rice.

I had some difficulty lifting these out of the pan without them unrolling slightly, but I think that was more to do my being too lazy to find a fishslice than anything else, but it does mean they look slightly dishevelled in the dish! Aside from this minor aesthetic crisis, the cabbage leaves were excellent. The cabbage itself was full of flavour after all the frost of the past few weeks, the meat was a delicious mix of sweet lamb and warm spices and the tomato sauce and chicken stock had mingled to create a rich flavourful sauce to anoint the creamy mash. It was a warming hearty meal without being heavy and well worth the slightly old fashioned boarding house smell the cooking cabbage created in my flat!

I love stuffed cabbage leaves for their quickness and versatility. They are an excellent vehicle for leftovers and make an attractive meal for either meat eaters or vegetarians depending what you stuff them with. Your imagination is the only restriction with this lovely dish!

Going for goat

After all the rich roasts and traditional tastes of Christmas and with snow and ice on the ground outside, it was no wonder the curry goat recipe in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat book caught our eye over the New Year weekend…a bit of fire and spice seemed the perfect antidote to festive indulgence!

Luckily there was goat in the freezer awaiting its moment of glory and the rest of the ingredients seemed fairly easy to find. Fenugreek was easily obtained from the fabulous spice and herb selection at The Bear, but we had slightly more difficulty finding fresh chillies of any sort elsewhere. We decided to use a mixture of dried chillies and hot sauce instead and headed home to get warm, either in front of the fire or by chillies…

I have never cooked curry goat before, so I have no idea how this recipe measures up to any other, but preparing the meat was fairly straightforward. I dry roasted the first five spices on the list in a frying pan and then ground them in a pestle and mortar. The inclusion of the cinnamon stick made this a slightly more time consuming process than anticipated and I felt it might have been better to use a blender or spice mill to get it even enough not to have to pick bits out when eating the curry, but this seemed like a minor issue, especially compared to how good it all smelt!

I added the ground spices (omitting the turmeric as I can’t stand the stuff), a chopped onion and the wet ingredients to make the marinade. Since it is deepest winter, I used a can of good quality plum tomatoes rather than the feeble specimens available at this time of year. To add some extra summer flavour I added 2 tablespoons of hot sauce and several soaked several chipotle chillies to the mix, reserving the liquor, and mixed everything well with my hands before leaving to marinade for several hours.

Once the meat had had time to infuse and relax (around 5 hours), I scraped as much of the tomato and onion mix of the pieces of goat as possible and browned the meat in batches in the ghee in a large Le Creuset on the hob and setting aside, before softening the remaining tomato and onion mix for 5 or 10 minutes. Making sure the goat was clean of the tomato and onion mix was fiddly and it was essential to keep a close eye on the browning pieces to make sure the remaining onion didn’t burn. After softening the vegetables, I deglazed the pan with water and added the meat back in, leaving it all to cook slowly on the hob for the next 3 or so hours, heading out to the pub to escape the oh-so tempting smells in the kitchen!

Returning home, we found the goat well cooked, but with quite a layer of grease from both the goat and the ghee. While the rice was cooking, I skimmed as much of the oil off the top of the curry as I could and added in the chopped fresh coriander to cook off the soapy flavour it can have, before serving the curry goat with freshly boiled long grain rice.

The curry was delicious with rich warming flavours and a good proportion of sauce to meat. However the goat was a little bit tough which might have been because we didn’t marinade it long enough (we forgot to do it overnight as recommended) or just because goat can be that way inclined, but after gnawing on the bones and enjoying an extra treat of the sweet succulent marrow inside them, it didn’t really matter as it was so delicious. I will definitely be making this again, but I would omit some of the black peppercorns and definitely use the Scotch Bonnet chillies to add more nuance to the heat of the curry. It would also be fantastic with some spinach type leaves cooked in, but I have a feeling it will become a favourite no matter what!