Sweets For My Sweet

It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m in the mood for a bit of sweetness making and believe it or not, it starts with a vegetable.

I used to think there were only two kinds of fudge. The rubbery chewy soft toffee kind, found in pick ‘n’ mix selections and the hit and miss homemade kind. But today I discovered a third kind with a mystery ingredient and a guarantee to be, all hit and no miss so long as I follow the instructions.

I’m a big fan of the Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache cook book by Harry Eastwood,  she has a way of putting vegetables into the heart of a cake but surely not parsnips into fudge? But then what could possibly go wrong surrounded by such fail safe ingredients as condensed milk, fresh vanilla, ethically traded of course, a mountain of sugar, a finger of butter and time on my hands? Besides what’s Valentine’s day without a little mystery and an element of surprise?

At first it all looks so simple but this is a fastidious recipe for Vanilla Parsnip Fudge. You can’t be slapdash. To get the right result you have to stick with it all the way, checking the time for the right amount of stirring and in the right order.  Even checking for the right kind of noises is important so you know you’re treating it just right. I did as I was told with lots of gentle but persistent stirring and kindly thoughts to keep it on the move. Too much heat too soon and the whole thing could crystallise prematurely or burn badly. When it’s all stirred up (about forty long minutes plus three extra bonus minutes) it has to be left to rest for an hour. So even then you can’t be sure how it’s all going to turn out.

Two hours later and this fudge is truly-madly-deeply-lovely with just a hint of something earthly that you can’t quite put your finger on. Love’s labours have turned golden goo into pure gold. Imagine fresh snow and that little bit of crisp resistance you feel as you cup your hands to make a snowball. Well that pretty much describes what happened in my mouth as I crunched into the first piece. The sugar hit dissolved and released a sublime vanillary buttery creaminess teasing my taste buds into a delirious frenzy.  And the parsnip has found it’s true soul bound together with sugar, milk and vanilla and I am bound, dangerously wanting more. I must get a grip.  All this sweetness is not good for one; it has to be shared or worse given away. For a nanosecond I did wonder if my Sweet Heart truly deserved this ‘gift from the gods’; of course he’s worth a box of fudge on Valentine’s Day but who other than Moi is more deserving after all the devotion that went into making it?

Take: 200g peeled and cubed parsnip, 450g caster sugar, 30g unsalted butter, 335g condensed milk, half tspn salt, 1 vanilla pod, split lengthways and seeds scraped out.

1. Use 22cm shallow, square baking tin, cover base with baking parchment. Grease lightly.

2. Cover the parsnips with water in a medium sized saucepan. Boil until cooked soft. Discard water and whizz into a fine puree so there are no lumps.

3. Put all ingredients into a small non-stick pan over a low heat and stir with a wooden spoon until sugar and condensed milk are well combined, so there are no gritty grains of sugar at the bottom or sides of the pan. This could take up to 15 minutes and it’s no good trying to rush it. This stage is crucial to the success of the recipe and must be given the time it needs. Behaving aggressively with the mixture and forcing it into a premature boil will crystallise it. This is a pretty word for very ugly bad-tempered, tantrum fudge. (Harry’s words not mine.)

4. Once all the sugar grains have dissolved turn up the heat a fraction (and I really mean the minutest amount) and get ready to stir gently for the next 25 minutes, exactly. Set the timer. (See what I mean about being fastidious.)

5. Make sure you move the wooden spoon continually over the whole base as well as into the corners in a patient, thorough motion. You can expect to hear a slight sizzle which is where the sugar mixture has marginally overheated; it is perfectly healthy. If, on the other hand you a hear a big hiss (the likes of which you might expect from tugging hard on the tail of a cat), it’s definitely time to turn down the heat and be ashamed of your hastiness.

6. The sort of sound you should expect to hear when making fudge include: a soft thud from the large bubbles bursting lethargically at the surface, and the distant hissing song of the lazy fudge on the bottom of the pan when your spoon turns it in its sleep. (I didn’t make this up.)

7. The contents in the pan will gradually get more suntanned and you will know that you have arrived at your destination (in the glass elevator) when you reach a blonde butterscotch colour after the time is up. (Must be some kind of sugar zenith.) The texture should be thick but not heavy.

8. Remove the fudge from the heat and beat it for 3 minutes exactly which will thicken the fudge and start to set it. If you find that it is becoming too heavy before the whole 3 minutes are up, stop beating. This means it’s ready. (Phew.)

9. Pour the fudge carefully into the tin. It will be setting very fast at this stage so it’s a good idea to have a palette knife to hand as well as the wooden spoon. Pat the surface of the fudge with a rubber spatula to smooth over the top. Set it aside for at least an hour to cool. Cut into 5cm squares and serve, or store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. (Trust me you won’t be able to keep it for 2 weeks unless you lock it up and throw away the key.)



Eating Humble Pie

Turning a much loved traditional meat dish like cottage pie into a vegetarian option is likely to leave the meat eater feeling short changed. And that’s usually because the substitute ‘meat’ content feels and tastes the same as the topping because the gravy disappears into all the layers, homogenises all the flavours and turns it into something like baby food.

Florencia Clifford’s recipe for Lentil Cottage Pie from her book Feeding Orchids to the Slugs raises the bar and turns an old English favourite into a multi-cultural dish with ingredients from all over the world whilst firmly rooted in some very British vegetables. The recipe comes in two parts. It’s starts with Braised Lentils, a dish that is a complete meal or make a lot and keep some to use as the base for the Cottage Pie.

Braised Lentils. Flo recommends Puy lentils because they are more flavoursome than other lentils and keep their texture. Puy lentils come from a particular place in southern central part of France (the French are very precious about this fact, and rightly so) and are considered to be the Rolls Royce of lentils and probably the only lentil you’ll find served as an accompaniment in top restaurants.

Take: 345g Puy lentils, 1 large onion peeled and sliced, 1 carrot chopped in chunks, 3 celery stalks chopped in chunks, 1 red chilli, finely chopped small, 3 cloves of garlic, chopped, 3 Bay leaves, a bunch of parsley, a glass of white wine or light beer (optional), 1/3rd cup of Tamari sauce, 2 tbsp oilive oil, 1/2 tsp of cumin seed, 500ml home made strong vegetable stock. Flo’s recipe includes 2 cloves and 1/2 tsp of smoked paprika but she suggests you leave these out if you’re using the lentils for a cottage pie.

Toast the lentils in a pan over heat to bring out the flavour, set aside. Heat oil in a large pan add cumin seeds, cloves and onions. Cook gently until the onion is transparent. Add garlic, carrots, celery and chilli, cover and allow to sweat on a low heat. Next add lentils, paprika and wine/beer, mix well and simmer to allow the liquid to evaporate. Add Tamari. Pour enough stock to cover lentils and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Slow cooking is important, so as not to shock the gentle flavourings. Add bay leaves and half the parsley. Lower heat and simmer until lentils are cooked but not overly cooked, check at 15 minutes and thereafter in short intervals. When cooked remove cloves and add rest of the parsley.

Serve as a meal or side dish to fish or chicken or take it to the next level and turn it into Flo’s Lentil Cottage Pie.

To make the topping any root vegetable or combination works, experiment or go with favourites. Traditional cottage pie is beef, or lamb (shepherd’s pie) with mashed potatoes on top, grilled to make a crispy topping then serve with a green vegetable like peas or cabbage.

I chose parsnip and sweet potato for contrasting colours and textures placed as two separate layers. Celeriac and potato mixed together would work or a mash up of different root vegetables. Add butter or olive oil to the vegetables when mashing, this will hold the texture and flavours together and give structure to the pie. Use a shallow or a deep pie dish, it all depends on what you prefer. I went for a deep layer effect to make the most of the contrasting colours. Finish in a medium hot oven for about twenty minutes.

This dish is right up there on my list of comfort foods and as a complete meal in one very yummy. I’ve named my version the gourmand’s lentil layer pie due to the posh lentils and layers (your could have several vegetable layers if you were feeling up to the challenge . . . and more than three pans).