Chicken Tagine with Prunes and Apricots

For my leaving do (yes, I changed jobs) my work colleagues got me something I was dying to get my hands on – a tagine. This clay pot is a lovely blue addition to my kitchen and, I hope, will allow me to make more and more of these fragrant and aromatic Moroccan stews. I will spare you the history of the tagine itself, let it be sufficient to say that it comes from North Africa and it comprises two parts: a base unit, which is flat and circular and looks like a big bowl, and a lid, usually of a conical shape and with a hole at the top, which sits on top of the base during cooking.

The shape of the tagine means the steam only has the small hole at the top to escape, thus stewing the meat even further and making it extremely tender and succulent. If you have never tried a tagine dish before, then maybe you should. The flavour and the smell of the ingredients are concentrated inside the base, so that when the conical lid is removed, you are hit with a wall of aroma unique in its kind.

The recipe below comes from one of the episodes of the Hairy Bikers – Mama knows best TV series, although the person who provided the recipe is actually a woman by the name of Nassira Jmil. I have, as usual, slightly adapted it, mostly to conform it to my taste, but all of the credit goes to her for a truly vibrant and fruity dish.

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Ingredients

  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • few sprigs of coriander, finely chopped
  • small bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 5 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • pinch of saffron
  • 8 x corn fed chicken thighs, skin removed but bone on
  • 1 chicken stock cube
  • 300g dried prunes
  • 300g dried apricots
  • 6 tbsp golden caster sugar
  • handful of almonds, roughly chopped
  • salt & pepper
  • olive oil

Method

  1. Start by marinating the meat. This could be done for as little as two hours or, even better, overnight. Put half of the chopped onions and garlic in a bowl, then add a good glug of olive oil, half of the coriander and half of the parsley. Top with the lemon juice, 1 tsp each of ground ginger and cinnamon, the turmeric and salt and pepper. Put the chicken thighs in the bowl and rub the marinade on them. Cover with clingfilm and leave until needed.
  2. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
  3. Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan, then fry the chicken thighs until golden on both sides. Set aside.
  4. Put some olive oil and the leftover onion, garlic and ginger in the tagine dish, then top with the chicken thighs. Season with some black pepper and the rest of the cinnamon, then add a splash of water. Crumble the stock cubes on top, add the saffron, then top the tagine with its lid and put in the oven for at least one hour or until tender. Check your meat after one hour as you don’t want it to dry out.
  5. In the meantime, prepare your fruit. In two separate saucepans, tumble the apricots and the prunes, then fill with water and sprinkle half of the sugar into each. Simmer over a low heat until very tender, then drain and set aside.
  6. Once the meat in the tagine is ready, remove from the oven and add the soft apricots and prunes. Sprinkle with the chopped almonds and some parsley or coriander.

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Tagliatelle With Mushrooms & Mint

Traditionally, mushrooms work well with either garlic, cream, thyme, Marsala – or even a combination of the four. This time, let me suggest a slightly more unusual pairing: mushrooms and mint. Despite being skeptic myself at first, I have to say this idea, as proposed in the latest issue of the La Cucina Italiana food magazine, is one to keep. The mint, with its sharp and pungent flavour and smell, perfectly complements and offsets the darker and more earthy tones of the mushrooms. The Parmesan flakes and the walnuts, casually scattered on top, add both texture and little pockets of saltiness and roundness.

The original recipe asked for porcini mushrooms. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to come across fresh porcini mushrooms anywhere so far, so had to use chestnut ones instead, which worked just as well. Enjoy this dish on a cold winter day as pure and blissful comfort food.

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Ingredients

  • 500g chestnut mushrooms
  • 250g tagliatelle pasta (fresh or dried)
  • 6 walnut halves
  • 2 shallots
  • about 70g Parmesan, finely grated
  • 1 lemon, zest of
  • 10 leaves of mint
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper

Method

  1. Start by cleaning the mushrooms and slicing them fairly finely. Set aside. Finely chop the walnut halves, then set aside. Finely chop the shallots and add to a large frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil.
  2. Finely chop the mint leaves, then mix with the lemon zest and set aside.
  3. Sautée the shallots over a medium heat for a couple of minutes, until slightly golden and translucent, then add the mushroom slices and cook down for a good 7 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, put a large pan of salted boiling water over high heat and throw in the tagliatelle. Cook them according to the packet instructions (I love them al dente and I think they work better this way for this recipe).
  5. Once the mushrooms have cooked down and they have yielded their water, increase the heat under the pan and let that boil off. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, then add the mint and lemon zest mixture. Cook for exactly one minute, then remove from the heat.
  6. Sprinkle the grated Parmesan over the bottom of another non-stick frying pan (I have indicated 70g above, but the quantity might vary according to what size pan you use), then set that over a medium heat and let it melt to a golden slab. Remove from the heat after a couple of minutes or you will burn the cheese. Let it cool in the pan, then use a rubber spatula to remove it from the pan and break it into shards.
  7. Once the pasta is cooked as you like it, drain it and toss the tagliatelle in the pan with the mushroom sauce. Tumble it onto a serving dish and sprinkle with the walnuts and the Parmesan shards. Serve immediately.

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Goat’s Cheese, Red Onion and Caraway Seed Tart

The peculiar thing about this tart is the presence of caraway seeds in the filling. Otherwise, this would be only a (still delicious) caramelised onion and goat’s cheese tart. The combination of caraway seeds, balsamic vinegar and the natural sugars contained in the onions is just scrummy. The onion are slowly cooked and reduced down to a jam consistency, which also provides an added texture for the tart. Balsamic vinegar adds a sharp edge to the onion marmalade, which is in turn offset by the goat’s cheese. The spice seems to be bringing all the ingredients together. The recipe comes from an episode of The Incredible Spice Men, a TV series where two Indian chefs demonstrate how incorporating spices in your daily meals can be both easy and tasty. I have to say I am not a particular fan of this series, but this recipe stuck into my mind as I love balsamic vinegar and I was curious to try adding caraway seeds (I spice I had never cooked with before) to the ensemble.

The spices should be ground, possibly in a mortal. Use a coffee grinder if you don’t have one, or use them whole if you do not happen to own any of the above. Remember, however, to toast them before using them as the heat from a dry pan helps release the natural oils contained in the seeds and increases their aroma. As for the pastry, please feel free to use your favourite pastry recipe here. The one I used is the one as per original recipe, where the addition of lard to the usual butter & flour mixture provides for extra crumbliness. Last note, I have reduced the amount of sugar used in the onion marmalade as I thought the overall result was a bit too sweet.

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Ingredients (for the shortcrust pastry)

  • 225g plain flour
  • 75g chilled butter, cubed
  • 75g chilled lard, cubed

Ingredients (for the filling)

  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 800g red onions, finely sliced
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp caraway seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan
  • 80ml balsamic vinegar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 200ml double cream
  • 200g soft goat’s cheese

Method

  1. To make the pastry, you can either put the chilled fats in a bowl and add the flour with a pinch of salt, then rub the butter and lard in or you can whiz the three ingredients in a food processor. Once the dry ingredients have been combined, slowly work in 4-6 tbsp of icy cold water to bring the pastry together. Knead it until smooth, then wrap it in clingfilm and chill it for 20 minutes.
  2. Take the pastry out of the fridge, turn it onto a slightly floured surface and roll it out to a circle big enough to line a 23cm fluted tart tin. Gently press the pastry into the creases, then use the prongs of a fork to prick the base, cover it in clingfilm and chill for a further 30 minutes.
  3. In the meantime, get started with the onion marmalade. Heat a large frying pan and add a drizzle of olive oil and the unsalted butter. Stir in the onions, season with salt and pepper, turn the heat down to medium and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Sprinkle in the sugar and stir again, ensuring the sugar melts with the heat and mixes with the onions. Cook the onions for about 10-15 minutes, until the onions have released their juices.
  4. Pre-heat your oven to 190C, then remove the pastry case from the fridge and blind bake for 15 minutes. Remove the parchments and beans and set the pastry case aside.
  5. Increase the heat under the pan with the onions and cook for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the juices have reduced. Add the caraway seeds and follow with the balsamic vinegar, then leave on the heat for another 3-4 minutes for it to go back to a jam consistency. Remove from the heat and let it cool slightly. Increase the oven temperature to 200C.
  6. To complete the filling, beat the eggs and the cream in a jug or bowl. Mix in the onion marmalade, then pour into the pastry case. Arrange the goat’s cheese slices on top, then bake for 30-35 minutes until the filling is set and browned on top. Remove from the oven and garnish with some chopped parsley.

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Apple & Cinnamon Cake

Let’s face it, it’s getting colder, the days are lasting less and less and Christmas is only round the corner. Autumn, if not winter, has already arrived. What best way to face it than with a nice, warm, comforting and soothing cake? Apples are in season, so they provide a cheap and tasty base to work with. Cinnamon is a natural pairing for apples and helps boost their natural flavour, not to mention evoke that conforting and warming Christmas-y feeling.

The cake is very easy to whip up. If you have a freestanding mixer, you can just put everything in there. Otherwise, use a handheld one and a bowl.

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Ingredients

  • 175g unsalted butter, softened
  • 175g light muscovado sugar
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 270g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 4 eating apples (I actually used 3 and a half)
  • 2 tsp apricot jam (to glaze)
  • 1 tsp demerara sugar

Method

  1. Line the bottom and butter the sides of a 20cm round cake tin. Pre-heat your oven to 190C.
  2. In a freestanding mixer, cream together the butter and the sugar, then gradually beat in the eggs, adding a tablespoon of flour if the mixture curdles.
  3. Add the vanilla extract, then the rest of the flour, followed by the bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and cinnamon. Once thoroughly combined, spread the mixture into the prepared tin.
  4. Now prepare your apples. Halve them all, then core them and peel them. Run the prongs of a fork on the back of each half or use a knife to slightly score the surface, then arrange on top of the cake.
  5. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until golden, puffed up and cooked through. Check with a skewer.
  6. Take the cake out of the oven and brush with the apricot jam. Sprinkle the demerara sugar on top, then serve with some custard or vanilla ice-cream.

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Chocolate Chess Cake

Remember last season of the GBBO when they asked them to make hidden design cakes on their very first episode? This is where this cake comes from. If you’re feeling overindulgent and wants to faff about in the kitchen a bit, then this is the right dessert for you. It might look complicated, but really it is just a matter of piping circles of cake batter and then assembling it all together. As easy as pie – or cake, you choose.

The name obviously derives from the effect you get once you cut into it, although I have to say it looks astonishing even whole. I used Cadbury flakes for the decoration on top as I still don’t know how to temper chocolate (but will make up for it soon!), but feel free to use all sorts of decoration. Whatever you do, please use a decent white chocolate here. I am now a convert of Black’s as their white chocolate contains real vanilla beans and tastes amazing. I tried it in an apricot and white chocolate tray bake and it was delicious.

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Ingredients (for the sponge mixture)

  • 350g unsalted butter, softened
  • 350g golden caster sugar
  • 1 tsp creme de cacao blanc liqueur
  • 6 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 350g self raising flour (or about 330g plain flour with the addition of bicarb and baking powder)
  • pinch of salt
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 4 tbsp milk

Ingredients (for the white chocolate ganache)

  • 175g white chocolate, finely chopped
  • 125ml whipping cream
  • 50g unsalted butter

Ingredients (for the dark chocolate ganache)

  • 300g dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • 300ml whipping cream
  • 1 packet of Cadbury flakes

Method

  1. Line and grease 3 x 20cm Victoria sponge round cake tins. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
  2. Make up the sponge mixture by creaming the butter and the sugar together, then slowly adding the eggs one tablespoon at a time and adding a bit of flour if you see the mixture curdling. If it does curdle, don’t worry. Just add the rest of the flour in and give it a good beating (a freestanding mixer is best for this) to obtain a creamy and smooth consistence. Add the cacao liqueur and slowly fold in the rest of the flour.
  3. Transfer half of the  mixture (yes, I weighed it) to another bowl. Sift the cocoa into it, then add 2 tbsp milk. Mix to combine.
  4. Add the rest of the milk (2 tbsp) to the rest of the ‘white’ mixture, then also mix to combine.
  5. Now, transfer each mixture into a piping bag fitted with no tube, then snip off the ends of both piping bags and get ready.
  6. Starting with the chocolate mixture, pipe a ring around the edges of one of the tins, then grab the plain mixture and pipe another smaller ring just inside that one. Continue alternating the chocolate and the vanilla mixture until you have covered the whole bottom of the cake tin. Ensure the rings are touching when you pipe them. Repeat the process for the second cake tin, but invert the order of chocolate and plain mixture for the third one.
  7. Bake the sponges for 25 minutes, or until golden and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven, let them cool slightly, then invert onto a wire rack and let them cool completely.
  8. In the meantime, make the white chocolate ganache by melting the butter in the cream over a low heat, then folding in the white chocolate and stirring until smooth. Also make the dark chocolate ganache by heating the cream up in a saucepan, then transferring it into the bowl with the chocolate. Let it stand for a couple of minutes, then stir to melt the chocolate and let it cool.
  9. To assemble your cake, set one of the sponges with the outer chocolate ring upside down on a cake stand/platter, then top with half of the cooled white chocolate ganache. Top with the outer plain ring, then spread the rest of the white chocolate ganache. Cover with the last chocolate outer ring sponge. Cover the top and the sides with the dark chocolate ganache, ensuring the surface is smooth. Crumble the flakes on top of the cake. Slice for a dramatic effect.

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Beef Stroganoff

Many of you might not know this, but I lived in Russia for about 6 months of my life. It was a unique experience and, had I been as food aware as I am now, I would have probably wanted to taste this dish in its homeland. Beef Stroganoff is a failry modern invention, with the recipe dating back only to the beginning of the 19th century. Even so, however, it looks like the original recipe from the Stroganoff family was little but a polished older Russian recipe. Count Pavel Stroganoff, in particular, well renowned for his love of food and entertainment at the court of Alexander III, seems to be the author of the recipe and the latter was already included in an 1871 edition of a popular Russia cookbook.

Although varied in content according to the source one decided to quote, the recipe seems to contain some staples: beef, onions, sour cream (although some versions swear by normal cream) and mustard. The addition of mushrooms meets criticism and applause alike, depending on what upbringing one might have had. The classical accompaniment, moreover, seems to be finely cut potato chips, although rice and/or noodles are also a strong favourite.

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Ingredients

  • 500g fillet or rump steak, trimmed
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 1 tsp tomato puree
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 150ml soured cream
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Method

  1. First of all, prepare the meat. Place the steaks between two sheets of oiled cling film and beat with a rolling pin to flatten and tenderize the meat. If you’re using braising or/stew steaks, skip this step. Cut the meat into thin strips, approximately 5cm long.
  2. Heat the oil and half the butter in a large and shallow frying pan, then fry the beef over a high heat for 2 minutes or until browned. Remove the strips of beef from the pan using a slotted spoon, thus leaving any juices behind.
  3. Melt the remaining butter in the pan and add the onion slices. Gently fry them for 10 minutes, until soft.
  4. Sprinkle over the flour, then stir that in. Follow with the tomato puree, mustard, lemon juice and soured cream. Return the beef to the pan and stir until combined and slightly reduced. Season with salt & pepper, then scatter over some parsley and serve.

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