The Perfect Potato Salad

potato salad

I remain ever optimistic that spring, never mind summer, is just around the corner. Warm light evenings, the smell of barbecues in the air, Pimms on the patio, all the indicators of warm weather for many. But for me, I know it’s summer when it’s time to make potato salad.

Mister North and I grew up on potato salad. Family picnics and barbecues always involved a big salad bowl of it designed to last several days out. But because our mum makes the best potato salad possible, it never lasted more than one meal with the last chunk of spud highly prized.

Since we started blogging, I’ve debated whether to share this family secret with you all, but since pretty much every person who has ever tried a batch of the potato salad made the North/South Food way has asked for the recipe, I’ve decided the time has come. The secret is a little bit of milk in with the mayonnaise. Before you raise your brows, it lightens the mayo so that it coats the potatoes better and thus makes the salad creamier without being greasy or overwhelming.

I’ve grown up making this so I never weigh anything so I’m giving you a description not a list.

The Perfect Potato Salad: intended to serve 4

  • 1 kg of salad potatoes such as Charlottes
  • 2 heaped tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 2 scallions or handful dill, chopped
  • 2 big gherkins, chopped (optional)
  • salt and pepper

You can make this with any potato really, but a firm waxy salad potato like a Charlotte is perfect. Sainsbury’s Basic Salad Potatoes at a quid a bag are simply the ones too knobbly and bobbly to make it to the Taste the Difference range. Cut your potatoes into quarters and leave the skin on. Boil for about 8 minutes or until al dente. You do not want a floury fluffy potato here so don’t overcook.

I flit between two types of potato salad, either a slightly Germanic one with lashings of chopped dill and gherkins or a more Irish version with chopped scallions. Both are delicious. I find the dill version a better basis for a meal and the scallion one a side dish.

If you are doing scallions, slice both the green and white while the potatoes are cooking. Place them in the colander you’ll use to drain the potatoes and then empty the pan of boiling water and potatoes over them. This blanches them and stops them being too oniony. Allow everything to cool for about 30 minutes.

Boil the kettle and fill a mug half full of boiling water. Place your tablespoon in it and allow it to heat up slightly. Then scoop out your mayonnaise into another mug or small bowl. Measure out half a tablespoon of milk. I use semi skimmed. You could use full fat. Mix well. You’re looking for a consistency slightly thicker than double cream, but still suitable for pouring. Add the other half tablespoon if needed (if you use the oddly textured Hellmanns, you probably will.)

Pour the mayo dressing over the still very slightly warm potatoes and the blanched scallions and mix well so it coats well. If you’re using dill instead, add it and the gherkins at this stage. Serve the salad and watch the bowl empty rapidly. My suggestion is to make a lot more than you need. There is never enough…

Malted Milk Crème Brûlée

creme brulee

Life has been extremely busy recently and days and hours have been whizzing by in a blur. I’ve been enjoying it immensely, but I’m not used to the pace and I crave quiet and familiarity to keep me grounded. I need a break from the newness and novelty and seek comfort in things I know well, especially with food.

Simplicity doesn’t have to mean denial though. You can make classics eternally interesting with quality ingredients and care. It can be mashed potato beaten with butter and hot milk until silky soft and smooth or the boiled egg cooked with a perfectly gooey yolk and fingers of toast just the right golden shade or a cup of tea drawn with fresh boiling water and proper tea leaves in your favourite cup. It’s the sum of its parts more than anything else.

At times like this, my greatest indulgence is crème brûlée. Combining how easy it is to make with the contrast between the crisp sugar shell and the smooth cream custard inside, it always hits the spot for me. I’m not an enormous fan of making this classic dessert too fussy, but I’ve always found the utterly simple vanilla version slightly lacking something. Inspired by the way that the malt powder in my recent Paris Buns deepened the flavour without dominating, I decided to use it instead of my albeit brilliant homemade vanilla extract.

Malted Milk Crème Brûlée (makes 2 large or 4 small, adapted from Felicity Cloake’s Perfect)

  • 300ml double cream
  • 2 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 3 tablespoons malt powder (I used Horlicks)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons demerara sugar

Heat the oven to 150℃. Place two ramekins in a deep oven proof dish. Beat the egg yolks and the caster sugar together until they form a slightly airy mix. Pour the cream into a saucepan and heat over a medium heat until just boiling. Pour over the Horlicks powder in a heatproof bowl and stir well. Then add into it into the egg yolk mix. Transferring it from the pan to a bowl will cool the cream just enough to make sure the eggs don’t curdle. Make sure it is evenly mixed and voila, you have custard!

Pour the custard into the ramekins, leaving a bit of space at the top. Then fill the oven proof dish with cold water until it comes about 2/3s of the way up the dishes. This makes a water bath or bain marie and it cooks the custard gently so it stays wobblingly soft and yielding instead of omelette like. Bake for about 40 minutes and allow to cool at room temperature. You can then keep them in the fridge until needed.

horlicks brulee

Once cooled, sprinkle the top of the custard with the demerara sugar and blast under a very hot grill for about 5 minutes until blistered and melted or use a cook’s blowtorch for even more fun. Cool down again for about 10 minutes and the sugar will have formed a glistening crust that just cries out to be shattered with a spoon and eaten alongside the smooth creamy sweet custard with gusto. I won’t judge you at all if you run your finger round the dish to finish it all off…

This was the best crème brûlée I’ve made (and I’ve made a few, believe me!) The malt powder enhanced the natural sweetness of the cream and everything felt even more creamy and more luxurious than normal. Simple and classic but with just enough of a twist to be relevant. It’ll soothe even the most stressful day.

Paris Buns

3 buns

Baked goods have become very complicated these days. Cakes are 7 layered wonders, iced to Sistine Chapel like standards. Cupcakes have wacky flavourings and enough frosting to get lost in. Breads have starters from 500 years ago that require the kind of nurturing of a pet. It gets quite exhausting. Faced with so much choice, I’ve had a yen for something very simple. And nothing gets more simple than the staple of the Belfast bakery when I was a child, the Paris Bun.

Sweet bready cakes the size of your fist, they were little mounds of total simplicity, only jazzed up by a scattering of crisp pearled sugar on top. Some might even say they are a bit dull, but I loved them. Similarly comforting as a Rich Tea biscuit or a malted milk, they go quietly and unobstrusively with a cup of tea mid afternoon. No one outside of Northern Ireland and the west coast of Scotland seems to have known their un-showy charms and it was frankly a devil to get a recipe for them. I’ve ended up cobbling something together from three or four bits and bobs on ex-pat forums, adding my own twist in the shape of malt powder to give them a slight richness and flavour. Despite all that, they were very easy to make.

Paris Buns: makes 12

  • 115g butter
  • 125g sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Horlicks or other malt powder (optional)
  • 2 eggs
  • 150g plain unsweetened yoghurt or buttermilk
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 250g plain flour
  • 2  teaspoons baking powder
  • Pearl sugar to scatter

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the Horlicks powder and the baking soda and mix well. Crack the eggs in and pour in the yoghurt. Mix until a batter forms. It will look slightly curdled, but this is fine.

Sift in the flour and the baking powder and mix until the batter becomes a soft dough that pulls away from the sides and forms a lump in the middle of the bowl. Don’t overmix.

Place dessertspoonfuls of the mix on a baking paper covered tray. Paris Buns are traditionally a smooth domed shape with a slight point on the top which looks quite bosom like, so try and make these smooth and slightly more upright as they will spread while cooking. Scatter with pearled sugar and then bake at 220℃ for about 12 minutes. They should be a golden sun kissed colour rather than actually brown. Cool on a wire rack.

I was as pleased as punch with these. Paris buns could be a bit dry in my memory but the yoghurt in these makes them very soft and the malt powder gives them a stickier crumb with a beautiful glossiness. I had one with a cup of Suki Belfast Brew tea and it was the perfect combination. If you like your baked goods simple, do give these a try. They are so quick and delicious, you’ll understand why things that work well in Belfast are described as ‘wee buns’….

PS: I have no idea why they are called Paris buns. I suspect the shape might be supposed to look like the Eiffel tower. If you really squint…

Tadpoles in the Hole

toad in the hole

It’s been cold and grey recently with even snow on the ground and a chill in the air and I’ve wanted warm, filling food, rich with carbs and comfort to see me through. A recent trip to Waitrose to get ox cheek from their butchery counter to make Mister North’s famous tongue and cheek pudding also resulted in the purchase of a lovely jar of beef dripping and so my mind immediately thought of Yorkshire puddings or a proper toad in the hole. But sadly my house was sausage-less and I thought such delights would have to wait for another day when I suddenly thought ‘could you make it with meatballs instead?’

My dinner companion assured me that would work very nicely indeed and because he’s wittier than me, named it Tadpoles in the Hole before I’d even rolled my sleeves up to roll the meatballs. How could you not want to eat a meal with a name like that? The oven went on to get lovely and hot to make sure my batter rose well and I turned my attention to the meatballs.

I used turkey mince for mine as it was the first draw on my game of freezer roulette, but any relatively lean meat would work well. I mixed the meat with some breadcrumbs and added lemon zest and tarragon as I had both to hand, but your seasonings here are only limited by your imagination. Some chilli would have been just the ticket here actually and I do love black olives and parmesan in a meatball. Whatever you go for, roll your meatballs nice and small so you get one in every bite of batter and chill for at least half an hour first. You’ll also need to leave your batter to sit for about this long so plan ahead slightly and then this is a very simple dish to assemble and cook.

It also works fabulously well with a caramelised onion gravy which if you have a bit of extra time to spare, but is extremely good served naked as well. I tend to slow cook a big batch of onions at a time and then freeze them in portions so you don’t need to wait on them turning sticky sweet and golden every time you need them.

Tadpoles in the Hole (serves 4)

For the meatballs:

  • 250g lean mince
  • 125g breadcrumbs
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 25g chopped tarragon
  • salt and pepper
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 egg, beaten

For the batter:

  • 200g plain flour
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 150ml milk
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 2 tablespoon beef dripping

For the gravy:

  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 25g butter
  • pinch demarara sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 300ml stock (vegetable or animal, depending on your meat choice)
  • 100ml vermouth or wine (replace with more stock if you don’t have any)
  • generous dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • seasoning

Start with your onions for the gravy. Slice them into half moons and cook in the butter on a low heat for about 30 minutes on a low heat or until soft and just starting to colour. If there is liquid coming off them, drain it and keep for the gravy as it’s pure onion flavour. Add in the sugar and leave to cook for about another 45 minutes. They need no attention (I went off and watched an episode of Breaking Bad which meant I wouldn’t have noticed the kitchen going on fire) but to properly caramelise an onion til jammy and golden takes time. If you do extra, they freeze well and take only a few seconds in a microwave to defrost.

Try not to become utterly fixated by the do it yourself meth trade while your onions are cooking, and start on your batter instead. Resting it really does make a difference, making it much lighter and fluffier and rise better. I presume this is something to do with the gluten. But I like to think it’s a reward for patience. The batter is easy, put everything but the beef dripping into a bowl and mix til the consistency of double cream. The odd slight bump in the batter doesn’t matter as mixing it too much can make it flop. Leave to rest on the worktop til needed.

Your meatballs also like a rest before dinner and are similarly simple. I love rolling them, I find it very relaxing and the longer you chill them for the less they fall apart when cooking. They are so easy to make, it’s also worth doing a freezer batch while you’re there. Basically put everything but the egg in a bowl and mash together well with your hands to combine everything. Then add the egg a bit at a time, making sure the mix isn’t too wet and mix well. Then roll about a fork’s worth at a time into a meatball and chill til needed. Doing them with this proportion of breadcrumbs makes them very light and stretches the meat a longer way making this great value.

raw meatballs

When you’re ready to eat, put the meatballs in your dish and add the dripping and heat for at least ten minutes or until it is smoking hot. Hot fat may be mildly terrifying, but it’s the secret of a pillowy billowing batter. Pour your batter in carefully from the edge so you don’t cause the meatballs to float and pop into the oven as fast as possible and leave it to cook for 40 minutes. On pain of death, don’t open your oven door again before then or you’ll end up with a giant pancake with meatballs poking out forlornly.

Make your gravy about 10 minutes before by adding the plain flour to the buttery onions and cook til quite dry. Then add in the warm stock, including those onion juices and the wine if using, and stir until it starts to thicken. Season and add the Worcestershire sauce. Add more liquid if you like it less thick. This gravy can be adapted to be veggie or vegan if you use oil and tamari instead if you need a meat free gravy at some point.

When your tadpoles are completely cooked and the hole is puffy and golden and slightly quivering with its own self importance, serve big slices of it with lashing of gravy and heaps of peas (garden or mushy) on the side and give fervent thanks for cold weather. As comforting as eating a hot water bottle, this is deliciously decadent with the meat to batter ratio and a great twist on a old favourite. It’s just as well we’ve got a north wind coming in…

portion

 

Brixton Caldo Verde

I love soup. Warming, nourishing, easy to make and very useful for using up bits and bobs in your fridge, it’s a very useful addition to any cook’s repetoire. Some soups are just a delicious dinner and rarely thought of again, but some are classics that end up defining a nation and becoming famous outside their home. Vichyoisse, gazpacho, tom yum, minestrone, we all know and love them. But one that deserves to be on that roll call is the Portuguese staple caldo verde or ‘green broth’.

Originally published at Brixton Blog…

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