Chicken and lamb brochettes

Now it is definitely summer, summer food is required. Grilled meats and salads are much more palatable than roasts and slow-cooked dishes. Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern flavours and colours seem so much more appealing.

These brochettes were simple enough to do. The lamb ones were made with lamb neck fillet marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, salt, dried thyme and Aleppo pepper flakes and the chicken ones were marinated in rose harissa paste, tomato ketchup and lemon juice.

As you can see, both meats were threaded onto skewers with pieces of red, yellow and green peppers and cooked on a plancha.

They were served with a simple couscous salad. The couscous was soaked in boiling water until fluffy and flavoured with olive oil, lemon juice, chopped mint, golden sultanas and a variety of different types of tomatoes.

Panzanella (well, sort of)

Roast chicken, fried potatoes and panzanella

I don’t usually have the right sort of stale bread to make panzanella, neither do I usually have a glut of tomatoes but at the weekend, I had both.

Panzanella is a bread and tomato salad from Tuscany which uses up stale bread brilliantly.

There seems to be any number of recipes, not unusual with Italian food, but the essential ingredients, apart from the bread and tomatoes, appear to be olive oil, vinegar, garlic, basil, something salty like capers, onions and black pepper. Cucumber is often included, as are anchovies and peppers, either fresh or preserved in some way.

There is so much variation

I used a mixture of chopped red, yellow and green tomatoes, chopped shallots and garlic, some finely chopped green chilli, chopped pickled mild red peppers, chopped green olives, olive oil and red wine vinegar, which I mixed together with salt and pepper and chunks of stale sourdough bread and left to macerate in the fridge for a few hours before adding a handful of torn basil leaves before serving.

It can be eaten by itself, but I thought that it would be a great side dish for a simple roast chicken and some fried potatoes.

Fings ain’t wot they used to be

Ah, nostalgia, that fuzzy feeling of a past that was simpler, more noble and in every way better than today. Fings ain’t wot they used to be, but, we should ask, were they ever?

All societies seem to have myths of an earlier period, an age where gods walked the earth and where life was better. The Greeks are probably the exemplar of this for Europeans; they described a sequence of five distinct Ages of Man, in which the Golden Age was first, followed in sequence, by the Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and then (their) present Age of Iron, which they saw as a period of decline.

In every way, the past was seen as better than the dull old here and now.

We seem to be living through a period where nostalgia for a more glorious past is gripping the nation. 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and is also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which marked the beginning of Operation Overlord, the Battle of Normandy, which led to the final defeat of Nazi Germany.

These anniversaries are seen as being important events in the history of our nation, which they were, but not necessarily in the way that some might imagine. Britain emerged from the Great War impoverished and in debt to the USA and went through a period of soul-searching and political and economic upheaval that left the nation ill-equipped to deal with the resurgence of Germany and the rise of totalitarian governments elsewhere in Europe.

We survived the Second World War and emerged, once again, victorious and even more in debt to the USA.

From then on, Britain found it difficult to maintain the illusion of Great Power status with the demands of our economic position at home.

If we look at Britain in detail, what we see in economic and industrial terms is a constant decline since the last quarter of the 19th century, linked to a parallel slipping away of Great Power status.

Anyway, I am really looking a little bit closer to the present at the moment.

Since 2008, we have seen a period of economic recession across Europe that has brought nations close to economic collapse and has seen an accompanying rise in political movements that are in stark opposition to the European political mainstream. These parties have different agendas that in many ways cannot be reconciled into any kind of common programme, but there are themes that they share; opposition to European integration, distrust of political elites, nationalism, opposition to immigration, anti-Muslim attitudes, distrust of multi-culturalism, repatriation of political power from the centre and (mainly) right-wing populism.

It is my contention that all of these ideas and attitudes are driven by a poisonous nostalgia, a belief in a golden age where each nation was in some intangible way Better Than It Is Now.

The problem is that rational argument cannot defeat nostalgia. People believe what they want to believe, not what evidence tells them is true. We see this in the UK where many voters are turning to UKIP as an alternative to the established parties. Most people don’t actually know what UKIP stands for, apart from getting the UK out of the EU, but that hardly seems to matter. In some way, UKIP represents a Golden Age, when Britain was “free” and bestrode the globe as the victor of Two World Wars (and even One World Cup), and did so without any involvement of foreign Johnnies from Brussels (or Luxembourg) with funny names and dangerous ideas about European cooperation and integration.

UKIP tells us that the UK would be better-off outside the EU. This is, of course, impossible to refute because we do not have a control version of the UK that never joined the EU to compare with, but it has become a very persuasive argument for many people. As far as I can see, it is fanciful nostalgia for a past that never existed. Britain was not a global trading colossus in the decades after 1945 and before accession to the then Common Market. The late 1950s and 1960s saw a series of economic crises in the UK. Living standards declined. I would argue that membership of the Common Market/EEC/EU has been more beneficial to the UK than anyone could possibly imagine.

In any case, this is about nostalgia, not economics. Our current government is nostalgic too. It wants to turn the clock back to the days before the Welfare State, before comprehensive education and before social housing.

Those of us old enough to have lived through those days, or who have parents who did, should be able to see through this particular piece of political conjuring, but do we? Nostalgia is getting in the way again.

It would appear that we want to believe that the past was better, even though the evidence tells us otherwise. Our memories play us false.

There are powerful emotional drivers for nostalgia; fear of the unknown, mistrust of the present, a feeling of being out of control, unhappiness and a dislike of change.

The problem is that those emotional states were always there. I can remember my parents and other adults, in the 1960s, talking about the war years in nostalgic terms. I am sure that during the war, people looked back to an earlier age in similar glowing terms. Mind you, you have to have some pretty powerful issues around change and progress to look back on the Home Front with any degree of fondness.

Immigration is one of the big issues for the reactionary forces we see today, but the issues they raise are exactly the same issues that have always been raised over immigration. Yes, new people arrive, but new people have always arrived. Over time, they end up fitting in. The problem is that the people who instinctively oppose immigration don’t seem to want to recognise this. They just want to oppose it regardless. They are afraid of change and retreat into some nostalgic fairyland.

So, nostalgia. What can I say? I see nostalgia as the most powerful weapon in the armoury of the reactionary, it plays upon fears and allows people to retreat from the present and wallow in some imaginary happy time. The reactionary politicians of today know how this works, they don’t really have to work hard at convincing people. Nostalgia does the work for them. Nigel Farage, the British Pierre Poujade, doesn’t have any answers to the perceived problems of Britain. There is no reason why he should, because the problems are largely imaginary. National problems are themselves an exercise in nostalgia.

Quail biriyani

Surprisingly, there are plenty of recipes for quails in Indian cuisine, and a biriyani seems as popular as anything else.

I’ve written about quails in the past and I think that cooking them with rice is a good way to go, because it stops them drying out.

For this recipe I made a marinade with Greek yoghurt and a teaspoonful each of Kashmiri chilli powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, ground turmeric and ground cardamom seeds, plus salt and black pepper.

I cut the quails in half and marinated them overnight.

Before cooking the rice, I fried the quails in hot sunflower oil until they were coloured on the outside, but not cooked through.

In a separate oven-proof pan, I heated up more oil and frieda piece of cinnamon stick, a couple of dried bayleaves, a black cardamom and four or five whole cloves for a couple of minutes before adding a finely chopped red onion.

When this was coloured and softened, I added in a tablespoonful of garlic and ginger paste and fried this for a minute or two longer and then added in a pinch of saffron threads, salt, black pepper and a curry masala made from a teaspoon each of ground cumin, ground coriander, ground turmeric, a ready-made garam masala and Kashmiri chilli.

Then, once this was frying, I added a couple of diced tomatoes and a measuring cupful of Basmati rice.

Once the rice was coated, I added two cupfuls of hot water and simmered the rice on the hob for a few minutes.

Then, I added the partly-cooked quails and the rest of the marinade, covered the pan and put it in a 150C oven for about 30 minutes before taking it out again.

At this point, the rice was done, so I stirred in some chopped fresh coriander and left it on one side while I boiled a few quail’s eggs.

These were used to garnish the dish, together with more coriander.

Chicken breast with duxelles stuffing

I wanted to use up the caul fat left over from making sheftalia last weekend, so I decided to use it as a wrapper for roasted chicken breasts.

Chicken breasts generally don’t roast very well, they dry out, so we usually find ways of adding extra fat to lubricate the meat, and use stuffings to keep the insides moist.

The classic stuffing for chicken, in my opinion is a duxelles mixture. This is made by slowly frying finely diced shallots, mushrooms and herbs in butter, to reduce the amount of liquid and to concentrate the flavours. My duxelles mixture used chestnut mushrooms, parsley and shallots, with the addition of crushed garlic, salt, pepper and a small quantity of Rabelais spice mixture.

When this was cooled, I used it to stuff trimmed and opened out chicken breasts, which I then wrapped in caul fat, to make a tight package.

These were roasted for about 30 minutes in the oven at 180C and then left to rest while I made a sauce with the pan juices, some white wine and single cream.

The chicken was really moist, but cooked all the way through, and the stuffing remained inside the meat. The effect was pretty nice to look at and tasted really good, with a lovely pronounced mushroom flavour.

Coffee panna cotta

I am getting quite obsessed with panna cotta at the moment, mainly because it is actually easy to make and because it is just such a lovely thing to eat.

This coffee one was made by heating 600ml of double cream with four tablespoons of golden caster sugar and a large cup of strong espresso coffee, made in a Moka Express hob-top pot.

When this was hot and just about at boiling point, I removed it from the heat and added a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Once cooled slightly, I strained the cream and coffee mixture into a bowl and whisked in four sheets of gelatine that had been softened in cold water and squeezed dry.

This was then poured into dariole moulds and put in the fridge for about six hours to set.

The coffee syrup was another cup of strong espresso reduced in a saucepan with two tablespoons of golden syrup and allowed to cool.

Sheftalia

Sheftalia are a kind of sausage really, but they are made using caul fat rather than a sausage casing made from the intestines.

Caul fat is the lacy fat that comes from pigs and sheep and which is found around their internal organs.

You can buy it from a good butcher and might need soaking in vinegared water, but mine was fine as it was.

The filling for sheftalia can be pork, lamb or beef, but I think that pork is best.

I mixed 500g minced pork with two small chopped red onions, a handful of chopped parsley, salt, black pepper and a flat teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

Then, I made small sausage shapes with the filling and wrapped these in small squares of caul fat.

The fat holds everything together and sticks to itself.

The quantities I used gave me enough for 15 sheftalia and they don’t really take very long to make at all. At this stage, you could freeze them to be used at a future date.

Ideally you would cook the sheftalia over hot charcoal on a barbecue for a smoky flavour but I used a hot ridged griddle on the hob. The caul fat lubricates the meat and prevents the little sausages from sticking to the pan. You need to turn them during the cooking process so that they colour evenly.

I served the cooked sheftalia on a bed of shredded lettuce and white cabbage dressed with olive oil, sliced tomatoes and lemon wedges. They were garnished with more chopped red onion and parsley.

Sheftalia

To accompany this, there were warm pitta breads, hummous and tzatziki.

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