March 5, 2009

It’s the most versatile herb in the kitchen and the most retro.  We keep thinking we’re too cool for it, but back it comes, never to be forgotten.  And did you know that the Romans used it as a breath freshener before orgies?

Now is it’s time.

Actually, any time is its time what with supermarkets, but now is the time to get your own seeds, bung them in a pot of compost and leave the pot on a windowsill to germinate. Then plant the seedlings out and you’ve got your very own crop.

Or if you’re too lazy for that, as I am, do what everyone else does. Buy a bunch down the corner shop. But please, please, don’t keep the parsley in a glass of water on your kitchen window. The water ends up green and smells vile  (though not as bad as daffodil water, that really does smell of sewers) and the parsley stems go soggy and the whole thing is absolutely disgusting. No. Don’t do that. Put the glass of water in your fridge, or wrap the fronds of parsley in foil or clingfilm and put them in the fridge like that. They’ll keep so much longer and stay crisp and fresh. After a week they shouldn’t be there anyway; you should have used them up.

Parsley works with everything. It goes in soups, stews, stocks,  and salads. If it’s cooked food, then the parsley is added right at the very end, so that it keeps its nutrients (vitamins C and A and iron) and the kitchen is full of that fresh scent, like beech woods after rain.

Put it in Tabbouleh. Put it in Italian Salsa Verde. Put it in Baba Ghanoush. Or best yet and most retro of all, put it in Parsley Sauce.

You remember parsley sauce, don’t you? You must have had it at school. It made the driest fishcake almost edible and you could drown the lumps in your mashed potato in the thick creamy stuff, flecked with pale green. I predict a big return through 2009 for parsley sauce: it’s nostalgic, reminiscent of the nursery, simple and cheap to make.

Here’s how. It’s basically like any white sauce, but the one essential thing is to totally pulverise the parsley before you add it in, so that any ghost of shape has been hammered out of it and it lies on your kitchen surface like damp aromatic moss.

Parsley Sauce (enough for about 4 people)
2 tbs butter
2 tbs plain flour
400ml milk
4tbs parsley, finely chopped (you can use some of the stalk too)
salt, pepper

Gently melt the butter over as low heat. Stir in the flour with a wooden spoon to make a pale yellow paste and let that heat for a minute or two. The flour gets cooked, but not browned.

Then the fun part. Begin to add the milk, little by little, slowly does it, stirring all the time. At some point, when the paste is becoming the consistency of sauce, you may want to move over from a spoon to a whisk.

Once all the milk is added, let the sauce come to the boil and simmer gently for up to 5 minutes, by which time it will be thick and creamy. If it’s too thick for pouring, add in a little more milk.

Take off the heat. Stir in the parsley, the salt and pepper, and then inundate those boiled potatoes.

NB. You can ring the changes with any or all of these: grated nutmeg; a teaspoon of Dijon mustard; lemon juice, just a dash; cream, about a tablespoonful.


Pasteis de Nata

November 21, 2008


Which I’ve found variously translated as cream tarts, custard tarts, or by’s translation service as ‘you graze of cream’. Which I suppose you do and it is and…well anyway they’re delicious.

I was given my first one ever by A (of good bike bad bike) earlier this week. It had a thin light shell of crisp pastry and a cool rich filling. It was so good that I wanted to make my own. So I researched a bit and found out that this was a pastel de nata  (pasteis being the plural). I then unearthed an old Sunday supplement with a likely recipe and found another couple on the Internet. It looked like I had it all sorted.

And then I got stuck. The recipes varied wildly. Some said a very low oven and some a roastingly hot one. Some said you had to cook the tarts for a maximum of 10 minutes and absolutely no more, while some said to give them a good 20.  Ditto with the amount of cream, milk and egg yolks in the custard. One called for vanilla pods, but there was no way I was splashing out on those at £3.99 a pop from my local supermarket. Essence of same would have to do. And far, far worse, nowhere could I find the little foil tart cases that seemed to be essential.

My difficulties were compounded by the fact I’ve moved flat recently and found there are various basic utensils we don’t have – I’d assumed they were kind of generic to kitchens. But no, in some places there are no rolling pins, so you have to use an Absolut vodka bottle; and neither is there always a sieve, which is why the icing sugar on the tarts pictured above has fallen in clumps.

What did I do? I made a cup of tea. That cheered me up and once cheered I could come to a decision. Which was that I would use my instincts, and improvise. A muffin tray would do instead of tart cases (and having decided that I promptly found a recipe that said it was essential to use one). I only had one muffin tray, so I would make 2 batches of tarts and try out a different cooking time on each one. As for the cream vs milk ratio dilemma, well I’d go for richness.

What I ended up with didn’t look much like the tartlet I had first tasted. But then, when I examined closely the pictures that went with other recipes, neither did they. These were puffier, more haphazard, more obviously home-cooked pasteis. But no matter. They tasted great, light but splendidly rich.

Pasteis de Nata
makes about 12

500g unrolled puff pastry
200ml milk
350ml double cream
4 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
50g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 long strip of lemon peel
ground cinnamon
icing sugar

Set the oven to 200C. (In the end my vote is for more heat less time. Trying to cook these at 150C as one recipe suggested, left the pastry almost raw on the inside).

Roll out the pastry to into an oblong about .25cm thick. Then coil it up like a Swiss Roll. It doesn’t have to be too tight. I found it helped if you sealed the long edge with a little water to stop it uncoiling.


Cut the pastry into 3cm coils.


Wet your fingers lightly and press your thumb into the centre of the coil and then begin to shape the pastry into little cups. Recipes said the cups need to be about .3cm thick, but I just went as thin as I could go, and it worked. You should make about 12.


Put the cups into muffin cases and chill (them, not you). 

Place all the custard ingredients into a saucepan, off the heat – the milk, cream, yolks, sugar, flour, lemon peel and maybe a pinch of salt. Whisk them up well. Cautiously turn on the heat and cook the custard until it becomes really thick, whisking all the time so that you don’t end up with scrambled eggs.

Spoon 1- 1.5 tbs of custard into each pastry cup. Cook the tarts for a little over ten minutes. My oven is fan-assisted though, so they may take longer in a conventional oven. Tastes vary over how brown the custard should become, but the pastry itself definitely needs to look golden at the edges.

Cool the tarts and remove from the muffin tin carefully – I went round the edges first with a sharp knife and then used a dessert spoon to lift them out.

Dredge them with cinnamon and icing sugar.