BOOK REVIEW: The Ultimate Student Cookbook by Fiona Beckett (with student cooks)

Remember those penniless days in your awkwardly furnished room, all your crockery under your bed, your toothbrush in the front garden and having no idea how to use the cooker? I remember them vividly as I am living those days right this very second.

Sadly, my actual student days are long gone and my misplaced possessions, hectic life and frugal existence are the result of a house move, a new (but dodgy) cooker and a blood sucking solicitor rather than too many school nights out on the sauce.

The Ultimate Student Cookbook, written by Fiona Beckett, author of the bestselling student cookbook series Beyond Baked Beans and forwarded by an interestingly chosen Heston Blumenthal, is intended for those off to uni whether they are a total cooking novice.

Happily void of anything that requires a crushed crisp topping, The Ultimate Student Cookbook did however contain my arch-nemesis, the (deep breath in) spaghetti bolog-bloody-naise, although they (who are they?) tell me that many people do actually eat and enjoy this wrong, wrong, wrong pasta and sauce combination. I stared at my "think of a happy place" poster and I got over it.

Far from a gastronomic extravaganza, this book is just great for wallet friendly, superbly nutritious food with lots of pulses, pastas, one-pots and veggies. Perfect mid-week meals for all. Some of the recipes that caught my eye were Sad Unloved Vegetable Soup (one of my end of week use-upper staples), Broccoli Chilli and Garlic Pasta, Spiced Sweet Potato Pepper and Aubergine Bake and something rather interesting involving hair drying, yes hair drying, a duck.

Also handy is that the book is peppered throughout with lots of tips and a good section at the front with information on how to set up a kitchen and the equipment you’ll need, where to shop and on a budget, healthy eating and a fab section on “how not to poison your mates”. For those interested in honing in on their cookery skills there are mini-masterclasses on achieving the perfect mash, cooking a steak and making pizza bases and ice cream.

The book is sectioned into quick and easy meals for 1 or 2, cheap and tasty meals for 3, 4 & more, flashy, show-off recipes and finally, yummy puds, cakes and cocktails.

This cookbook is what it is and it does it well. Whilst it may not appeal directly to the discerning foodies reading this blog (ahem), it would make a good gift for the young whipper snappers in your life off to uni this year.

Of course as this is targeted to an audience of which 99.9%* will belong to a social networking site of some sort, the book also has portals in Facebook, Twitter @studentscancook as well as the (desperatly in need of a redesign and rebuild) website

Available from at £7 (RRP £10).

This copy was kindly send to my by the nice folk at Absolute Press to review.
*ok, I made that up but it's something like that isn't it? You want stats - go Google.

Pollo Alla Cacciatora, dog-eared cookbooks and oven baptisms

Everyone has those abused pages in their cookbooks, the ones that are really dog-eared, spattered, marked, sketched on. One of my worst ones is the page for Pollo Alla Cacciatora, Hunter’s Chicken Stew, from Jamie Oliver’s Italy book. This is one of the few recipes that I follow consistently and don’t meddle with as I am often tempted to do. It's available here on his website and I think it's the best recipe I've come across for it.

I love it so much I decided to brake in my new oven with this recipe. Why I put so much thought into what I should cook first in it–like some sort of good luck ritual–I don’t know, some sort of foodie neurosis or something. I am a superstitious weirdo though, always touching wood and making the sign to ward off the evil eye behind my back. That’s what a Catholic upbringing does to you I say.

Anyway, this dish is perfect if you have to cook en mass. The tomatoes are so tasty and perfect with potatoes (I really like those knobbly, odd-looking Anya ones which I roast skin on with olive oil and sea salt) or mopped with a heap of good bread.

Great quality chicken (thighs, drumsticks and legs to keep the cost down and the taste up) is the key to this dish as are the anchovy fillets. I left them out once and what a mistaka-to-makea. Anchovies do something quite magical to tomatoes when they disintegrate into them.

David Sykes big food

I love these photographic food compositions from David Sykes. The cheese is gym socks and check out the egg balloons!

Via Swissmiss

Food for thought

So Julie and Julia, a film about a food blogger has recently been released and today I open the paper to find an article about food blogging, albeit a rather unflattering but hilarious report on NHS catering.

We are the PR companies' new best friends and (some) restaurants and producers are inviting us in with open arms. "Proper" food journalists eye us with suspicion. Interesting to see where all this food blogging is going huh?

Anyway, is an entertaining blog about "the ramblings of a poor sod forced to spend months in traction in an NHS hospital" from which we get to share his daily run-ins with NHS food and try to help him identify what is on the plate. It 'ain't easy. Get well soon fella.

RECIPE: Ciambelle al Vino (wine biscuits)

Remember those little savory tarallini that I featured a little while back? These are sweet biscuits based on similar ingredients but much easier to make and handle as they are larger. These biscuits have a lovely aroma of wine and the olive oil makes them really crumbly and crunchy. I love dunking them in a glass of marsala wine if you fancy an alternative and boozy afternoon tea.

Makes about 30 biscuits

500g plain flour
200g sugar
100ml olive oil (avoid the really strong extra virgin variety)
100ml marsala wine
pinch salt
2tsp baking powder
Plus extra sugar for dipping

Preheat the oven at 180°C

Pop all of the ingredients into a big bowl and mix together until it makes a soft, plyable dough. A little water may be required if the mixture is too dry but be careful not to make it too moist.

In a shallow dish pour out a layer of sugar, ready to dip the biscuits in.

Take a piece of the dough in your hand and roll into a sausage about 1.5cm thick and 10cm long. Softly squeeze the ends together to make a circle and dip one side into the sugar and lightly press. Transfer onto a baking tray lined with baking paper.

Bake for about 15 minutes until lightly golden.

These only taste good cold when the flavour of the oil is less intense so be patient!

The second chicken ever sent to me

The only other chicken I have ever had sent to me was the one sent when I was born. It’s an Italian custom to be given a live chicken on the birth a child. Us living in England made no difference, we were gifted one regardless. The clucking chicken remained in the holed cardboard box for a few hours while my father, a bit of a softie, sat with it in the shed, bottling up the courage to kill it.

When it was apparent that my father was going to wuss out and release the chicken free across the park over the road, the Italian women in the kitchen–with their firm but agile hands at the ready for plucking and gutting–rolled their eyes at him and one of them grabbed the chicken from the box and gave it a quick and efficient crack at the neck. Better than being mauled by a fox over the park anyway.

Abel & Cole sent me a (free) free range chicken, luckily this time it was already killed, prepared with the giblets inside and surprisingly packed in a polystyrene box with frozen packs around it. Not terribly eco on the surface of it but it is reusable and handy if you are not in and the bird has to stay fresh for a few hours on your doorstep.

For £9.12 you get a 1.7kg bird from a chicken cooperative in Devon, made up of a few free-range farms. Mine was from the Merrifield Farm, and labelled rainforest-friendly which is a bit odd, but I guess that means it was not fed on rainforest destroying soya rather than raveshing the not so famous Devon rainforest.

Yup, this costs more than the price-tempting offers at the supermarket where you can pick up a bird (or two) for well under a fiver. But as skint as I am at the moment, I will never buy the water pumped, anemic chickens, reared in terrible conditions and will always opt for a quality, tasty free range bird. I rarely buy chicken pieces and never just the expensive breasts, I always plump for a whole bird because in my household of two, a decent weight bird is brought back, cut into pieces, trimmed and individually packed for the freezer and will provide us with 3-5 meals and is defiantly more cost effective. The Abel & Cole chicken had the same treatment:

This then gives me convenient, ready prepped pieces for mid-week (oh, yes, check my organised bad self). Typically, I use the breasts whole and marinated or flattened with a meat mallet and bread crumbed and fried. If we are being really frugal I cut them into a plethora of dishes like curries or stir fries, one fat breast off a decent bird is sometimes enough for two with everything else.

Legs are roasted with lemon, garlic and spiked with thyme or made into a tasty cacciatore stew.

And then you get a carcass and giblets! A carrot, celery, bay leaf and onion and you have a brilliant stock for an endless amount of recipes. If the stock comes out particularly well, I push the carrot, celery and onion through a sieve to puree and pour back into the stock with some finely shredded greens. Tiny little herbed pork meatballs are browned in a frying pan then cooked in the stock and then served with bread balls scattered on the top – the classic Italian Wedding Soup and cure for all ailments.

For this particular A&C chicken, I decided to grill the breast pieces in a recipe from the fabulous new Eagle cookbook, in a simple marinade of lemon, chilli, fresh oregano and black pepper with a touch of truffle oil to taste test this bird.

It was good but to be honest no different to many other good quality free range chickens I’ve tried. It sat happily in the middle of being a tasty, well textured meat, succulent and tender but I would expect that from the price. The chicken felt really firm and muscly when I was portioning it up and must have had some decent exercise.

So yeah, I think the pricier but better chickens are well worth it and if you don’t live near a source or it’s inconvenient to get hold of a free range chicken then Abel & Cole may be a solution for you if you want one delivered or added to your order if you already get a veg box from them.

But to be honest, as this chicken simply met my expectations and I can easily get good free range birds locally, and probably for a smidge cheaper, I’ll personally be sticking with those.

RECIPE: I Was Wrong Orange Flower Tiramisu

It's ok to break rules if you were the one to set them, isn’t it? Or does it just make you a lousy, dirty, stinking hypocrite?

I must have spent most of my adult life (probably some of my childhood too) banging on about how certain dishes should not be tampered with. Tiramisu is one of those dishes that I have seen mutilated with all manner of bonkers ingredients, flipping the switch on my fiery Italian temperament quicker than a Kwik Fit fitter.

One evening over dinner with friends, one of them casually commented that something like orange may be a nice addition to the purist and proper tiramisu I was serving. The red flush had travelled halfway up my cheeks when the onset of my narrow minded rant was interrupted with the thought that “actually, that may be quite nice”.

Recipe serves 6 handsomely

2 very fresh organic egg yolks
4 tablespoons of vanilla sugar (chuck a few used vanilla pods in a jar of sugar and let it infuse until you need it) or 4 tablespoons of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.
2 tbs orange flower water
500g marscapone cheese
a little milk if needed
200ml espresso coffee (cold)
100ml orange juice
40 savoiardi biscuits
6 tablespoons marsala wine
cocoa powder
grated zest of an orange

In a decent sized bowl, beat the egg, sugar (and vanilla extract if using) together. Fold in the marscapone, orange flower water and if you need to loosen the mixture a bit (not too much!) add a splash or two of milk. The mixture should be thick but easy to spread.

In another bowl, combine the coffee, marsala and orange juice. Dip half the biscuits in the liquid for a second or two each so it saturates and line the base of a shallow dish. Cover with half of the marscapone mixture, then repeat the coffee and biscuit layer but this time, for a bit of texture, make sure the coffee mixture does not saturate the biscuit fully. Top with the remaining marscapone, dust with cocoa powder and finally grate orange zest on the top.

Being the stubborn old fool I am, I don’t like admitting when I’m wrong but yeah, I was wrong and this was absolutely delicious, giving the tiramisu another dimension and a really refreshing taste which lightens a typically heavy dessert. Perfect post dinner.

(But hell will freeze over before you catch me substituting marsala with Tia Maria and topping with dessicated coconut or anything. I haven’t come along that far!)

BOOK REVIEW: The Eagle Cookbook, recipes from the original gastropub by David Eyre and The Eagle Chefs

Did you know that there were male and female fennel bulbs? The males are flatter and the female bulbs are fatter and have more flavour. So you should choose the females.

You may have already known this but to me this was some sort of miraculous revelation, because it will change the way I shop for life. Well for fennel anyway. Look, I even bought a male and female to test and you know what? They were right!

Priceless little nuggets of pure gold like this are scattered around The Eagle Cookbook, facts about the region the dish is from, specific ingredients, seasonal information, technical cooking information where necessary, where to spend your money and when not to be silly. Each recipe is briefly introduced with either something useful or interesting. Most cookbooks do this to some extent but I’ve never come across such useful information delivered as if it were bellowed across the kitchen floor during a busy service from a passionate and helpful chef.

Actually, the tone of voice throughout this book is very politely matter of fact. No flouncing or pouncing, no ego, just incredibly well written with a refreshing get-in-the-kitchen gusto.

I want to cook everything in this. The ingredients sing to me; chorizo, truffles, lemons, peas, chilli, artichoke and dishes that make me drool like belly pork stew with peas and saffron, asturian pork and butter beans, egg fettucini with ricotta, peas and smoked pancetta. Big, big flavours that are sensibly executed. This is not a cookbook to gather dust on the shelf or for special occasion use. Most of the recipes deliver everyday luxury for people who value a decent meal at the end of the day.

The first thing I cooked from it was the simple Spaghetti with Roasted Fennel, Lemon and Chilli, using, as they recommend and I also champion, the De Cecco brand of pasta (eyes rolling everywhere… yes, I know I bang on about it but seriously, life is too short for tosh pasta). I really loved it. Really zingy lemon and capers, softened by the fennel and then brought back up with a chilli pinch. A pasta dish and a half.

Recipes are sectioned into soups, salads, meals on toast, eggs for dinner, pasta, rice, fish, meat and side dishes. It may be worth mentioning that there are no desserts in this book, but who cares? I don't, just give me another serving of that spaghetti for afters.

The design of the book is spot on. Clear, well considered typography and brought to life with well-seasoned, smoky pub colours and atmospheric photography. The food photography itself does the dishes justice without over hamming the styling. No strategically placed cutlery here.

The Eagle was apparently the first gastropub on the scene in 1991 in Farringdon, the result of a cheap lease deal and the keen eyes of Micheal Belben and David Eyre. The Eagle Cookbook is a totally redesigned and updated edition of their popular 2000 book, Big Flavours and Rough Edges (now out of print?), to reflect the influence of the chefs working there since.

Should you buy this book? If the ingredients mentioned talk your language, I’d say so. My copy is currently on my bedside table. As for more pubs serving food like this, well I’ll raise a pint to that.

Available from £13.12 (£20 RRP)

Thanks to Absolute Press for providing me with this copy for reviewing.