Phoebe’s Recipe for Happiness

Phoebe’s Recipe For Happiness

Phoebe, the heroine of my 50th book, A Wife Worth Investing In, is passionate about cooking. In particular, she is passionate about cooking for those she loves, serving up the kind of food that they adore, getting great satisfaction from watching their evident enjoyment. Phoebe has no truck with food that is all style over substance, the type that looks pretty on the plate but delivers zero flavour, or that doesn’t satisfy your appetite. She’d never dream of putting a dish in front of you that required her to plate up using tweezers, or that was made from a recipe that sounded more like a scientific formula. No dehydrated tomatoes, chocolate soil, asparagus foam, or nasturtium powder for Phoebe’s dinner guests, just hearty, delicious plates of food that look, smell and taste great.

Funnily enough, that’s exactly the kind of food that I love to cook and eat too, as you’ll know if you follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I didn’t have the wordcount to include any of Phoebe’s recipes in the book – like my research for every book, I reckon I used about five percent in the end – but that doesn’t mean it’s wasted. So just for fun, I thought I’d put together one of Phoebe’s favourite menus (based on one of mine) and share it with you.

First though, a disclaimer. I am a keen amateur cook not a professional chef. The following recipes are as accurate as I can make them but they haven’t spent three months being perfected in a development kitchen, so the results might not be fool proof. Save for the dessert, I’ve deliberately not included precise measures, so the recipes should be viewed as a starting point and open to adaptation, which is much more fun anyway.

Starter – Ouefs Cocotte

The first time I had this simple baked egg dish was in a lovely little bistro in Paris, in Place Sainte-Catherine, where Rue de Rivoli runs into Rue Saint Antoine. It was September and there were no free tables inside but it was still pleasantly warm, so I sat outside on the terrace looking out onto the little square. I’d never heard of ouefs cocotte but I love eggs and am quite adventurous when it comes to food, so I ordered it. It is the simplest of recipes, and yet one of the most delicious. I’ve eaten it in various restaurants and made it myself countless times since, varying the recipe to include such ingredients as goats cheese, spinach, bacon or chorizo, but time and again I go back to the basic formula I sampled that first time. If you’ve never tried this recipe, you couldn’t find an easier and tastier way of turning humble eggs into  posh nosh!

One egg is enough per person as a starter, but it’s never enough for me, so I always serve two. You can make this in one big dish, but individual ovenproof ramekins are better if you have them.

First brush the inside of each ramekin with melted butter, making sure it covers all the surface. Alternatively, you can simply melt a knob of butter in each in the microwave, and swirl it around.

Next, crumble in some blue cheese. Don’t overdo it, a little goes a long way – I use about a tablespoon in each. You can use other cheese but crumbly rather than melty works best.

Next, gently place a raw egg on top. I find if you crack it into a teacup or small jug it’s less likely to break. Use really fresh free range eggs, they are much more robust and obviously much tastier.

Then pour over single cream (not low fat, there’s nothing low fat about this dish) so it just covers the whites but the yolk is sticking out. And season well.

Pre-heat the oven to 190C. The ouefs need to cook in a bain marie so place the ramekins, uncovered, in a large ovenproof tray and pour in boiling water so that it comes about half-way up the sides – it’s easier to do this when the tray is actually on the oven shelf.

And cook. This is the slightly tricky bit. If you like really runny eggs, it takes about 8 minutes (though most recipes say less, I’ve always found less results in raw). I cook them for between 10 and 11 minutes, so that they’re just on the turn.

Serve with toast fingers or ciabatta or any good bread, eat with relish (and a spoon!) and don’t think about the calories.

Fish Course – Salmon Carpaccio

The first carpaccio I ever had was beef, not salmon, famously a creation of Harry’s Bar in Venice. It was August, the middle of a heatwave in France. I was staying at the most rustic of rustic gites in St Remy, the kind where the land lady charges you for towels and sheets. Every day the temperature got hotter and hotter, and the only air conditioning was an open window, which also let the mosquitos in. The heat didn’t stop me cycling and walking, astonishingly, but it meant I spent a small fortune on water, perhaps even more than I spent on wine (no, that’s just rubbish!). One day it was too hot even for me to contemplate activity, so I found a shady spot in a café on the main square and had a hearty lunch instead. I chose a plate of beef carpaccio, the thinly sliced raw beef hanging over the side of the plate, served with a mound of chips (I had been doing a LOT of exercise). But you need good quality fillet of beef to make it, and where I live in the sticks, fresh fillet of beef is very difficult to get. Salmon fillet, on the other hand, is in plentiful supply. This carpaccio recipe is simplicity itself.

Slice a fresh, pin boned salmon fillet at an angle as thinly as you can manage (if the slices are too thick, put them between two sheets of clingfilm or greaseproof paper and bash them flat). Place the slices on a platter. Dot the plate with halves of cherry tomatoes, and if you can get a heritage variety, then all the better. Deseed a chilli of the mild variety (so not Scotch Bonnet!) and cut up into tiny pieces. Scatter it artistically over the salmon. Then make a nice little mixture of fresh herbs, whatever you have, of the soft kind (as opposed to woody) – basil, chervil, parsley, a little bit of tarragon, mint, dill, whatever. Do more artistic scattering.

Make the dressing. I use a jar with a lid rather than a jug with a whisk, it’s much easier. You need a generous teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a pinch of salt and pepper, then one part good wine vinegar or cider vinegar to three parts extra virgin olive oil (or you can replace with walnut or hazelnut oil). Shake vigorously until it emulsifies. Pour it over the carpaccio and serve with lemon wedges.

Main Course – Shin of Beef

I love hearty stews of all kinds, classic beef Boeuf bourguignon, pot roasted rabbit and civet of pork being long-term favourites. I first came across what I’d call Grand-Mère cooking in Bordeaux one October when I had pot-au-feu, a slow-cooked daube made traditionally with cheaper cuts of meat or older birds. Shin of beef is one of those trendily frugal ingredients that came back into fashion a few years ago, and which seemed to feature on every cookery programme for a time, before ceding the limelight to sweetbreads (not my kind of thing at all). This recipe was inspired by a Tom Kerridge version and adapted by me – because I never follow any recipe to the letter!

The most important stage is to marinade the beef, the longer the better – up to two days, in fact, is ideal. You need boneless shin (in one piece not cubed). Simply cover it in a lot of good red wine, cover the bowl, put it in the fridge and forget about it.

When you’re ready to cook, drain the beef and pat it dry, reserving the marinade liquid. Brown the meat on a high heat in an ovenproof dish  in oil – rapeseed is best, but olive oil is fine. Remove the beef, then saute chopped carrots, a little onion and celery in the same pan on a lower heat for about ten minutes until they are soft but not burnt. Put the beef back in. Pour in the red wine from the marinade and add whole baby onions or shallots, some beef stock, bay leaves, a couple of cloves (the spice, not garlic), some fresh thyme, and season. Cook at 160C for up to three hours, until the beef is really tender and falling apart. You can then go the extra mile of sieving the gravy and reducing it, but frankly I prefer rustic, and just remove the cloves, bay and the thyme.

I like to serve this with a mash of some sort – add butter, double cream and pepper or flavour with truffle oil, or some crumbled goat’s cheese if you like. I make the mash in advance and use the hand mixer to beat it smooth (that way you can call it pomme purée and impress your guests). Then I put it in an ovenproof dish and cook in the same oven with the beef for about half an hour until it goes brown on top. Yummy.

Dessert – Cherry Clafoutis

Clafoutis takes me straight back to the Dordogne region of France where I’ve spent many, many happy summers walking the long distance Grande Randonnée routes – or more accurately, I should say munching my way along them. The food in the Dordogne is generous and hearty and features every part of the duck you can imagine, and some you maybe don’t want to. Magret de canard (breast of duck) with pommes Sarladaise is ubiquitous and a little boring. Confit of duck leg in cassoulet is one of my all-time favourite dishes. You might find the idea of eating duck’s gizzards a bit off-putting, but trust me, Salade Gesiers de Canard is delicious – pan fried gizzards with some form of lettuce, croutons, and a raspberry dressing. Cou farcis (stuffed neck, it sounds so much better in French) looks rather like a sausage and is usually stuffed with fois gras – I know, I know, completely wrong on one level but on another completely delicious.

A set menu in the Dordogne nearly always has four courses, including a soup and a cheese, so by the time you get to dessert you’d think you’d be looking for something light. Then they produce clafoutis and you magically find room for something a bit heavier. It’s essentially a set custard batter dotted with fruit, whatever is in season, but it’s an extremely rich set custard, and if you’re lucky the fruit has been steeped in booze. The first one I had was plum (steeped in red wine) but I’ve had prunes in Armagnac and rhubarb in gin!

So, how to make it. First prepare the fruit. Stone the cherries and cut them in half, then soak them in Kirsch (or whatever liqueur you wish) for an hour or two. Dried cherries work brilliantly for this dish, they really soak up the booze, but you can use fresh and I once used tinned. When you think they’re drunk enough drain them, and I leave it to your discretion what to do with the remaining liquor.

Next, you need a flan dish. Don’t make the mistake of using one with a loose bottom as I did once, because the batter will leak out. Smear it in lots of butter.

Now make the batter. This takes a lot of beating so I don’t recommend you do it by hand. Use a hand mixer or a stand is even better. My recipe was adapted from Raymond Blanc, but it’s pretty much the same as every recipe I’ve ever read for clafoutis, and it’s all in the mixing.

In a pan, melt 70g of unsalted butter. Leave it to cool.

Whisk 90g castor sugar with 3 eggs and 1 egg yolk until the mixture is frothy.

Add in a teaspoon of vanilla extract, a pinch of salt and the zest of a lemon, then slowly add in 100g plain flour.

Mix 160g whole milk and 160g whipping cream into the melted butter and then slowly whisk this in to the mix. You should have quite a thin batter.

Spread the cherries out in the bottom of the flan dish. Pour over the batter. Bake at 180C for 30-35 minutes until it’s brown on top. Leave it to cool down to room temperature – it will probably sag a bit, but that’s fine. Then sprinkle with icing sugar, cut into slices and serve with ice cream.

Et voilà! Dinner is served.

If you are brave enough to try any of these recipes, I’d love to hear how they turn out (provided I haven’t poisoned you). And if you’d like me to blog more recipes from my collection of hundreds and thousands (recipes not the topping), then I’d love to know what you’d be interested in.

Bon Appétit.

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