Chili-con-Carne for even the most hardened chilli-phobe (and chilli-lover!)

Chili con Carne IllustrationOne of my friends has, despite my best efforts, a persistent and downright pesky lack of tolerance for heat. A whiff of even the mildest serrano chilli or teensiest pinch of cayenne has him running for the water trough with steam coming out of his ears. After one memorable lunch when I presented him with a chicken kebab which I promised was only mildly spiced but that had him nearly in tears, he has developed a healthy suspicion of my definition of ‘hot’.  On a cold and blustery afternoon when I was preparing to cook for 6 people whose spice preference ranged from ‘zero’ to ‘eyeball-meltingly-hot’ this recipe was developed with him in mind, having all the delicious warmth and spicing of a traditional chili, but with none of the actual – erm – chilli! It’s perfect not just for chilli-phobe adults but also kids whose palates have yet to adjust and appreciate the searing burn of fire.

Although fabulously tasty by itself, I accompany this chili with a super-spicy salsa, to be dolloped on each bite, or stirred in to taste at the table, to add fire strictly for those who wish for it. At the heart of the salsa are tomatillos – sharp green fruits that look like a cross between unripe green tomatoes and the papery lantern-wrapped physalis – but these are hard to find if you don’t spend your spare time frequenting chilli festivals (or growing your own under glass), so you can happily substitute nice ripe tomatoes, and just add a little extra vinegar or some lime juice to give it bite.  The ‘finishing butter’ adds a delicious richness and also limey freshness at the end, especially for those who are eschewing the salsa. Dried anchos are the key to the stew’s smokey depth and yes – I know they are technically a chilli – but this classification is misleading: they have the same heat punch of a bell pepper, which is essentially what they are! Pork skin may seem an odd addition to a stew (and is totally optional), but it melts down and vanishes during the long slow cooking, leaving a gorgeous richness and lending extra body to the sauce, and as pork shoulder in the piece almost always comes skin-on it seems a crime to waste it by omitting it.
Read on for the scrummy recipe……

Chicken, ham, leek and cheese pancake bake

Chicken, ham, leek and cheese pancake bakeI racked my brains trying to think of a way to photograph this in a manner which conveys its utter deliciousness, but somehow soft, slippery, filled pancakes with copious amounts of creamy gooey sauce just don’t photograph all that well (and tend to fall apart a bit when you take them out of the dish), so I hope you’ll take my word for it when I assure you that this tastes sooo much better than it looks!

This is a simple yet indulgent dish perfect for either lunch or supper, and despite the fact that it uses rather more pans than I normally want to utilise for a weeknight dinner, it is extremely quick to prepare.  To save on washing up I confess I often use shop-bought pancakes (not something I’d dream of using for a dessert, but somehow perfectly okay in a savoury bake); but if time is not against you, you could of course make your own – I suggest a half quantity of Delia Smith’s foolproof recipe.  A punchy, sharp cheddar and proper smoky ham are essential here to stop the dish being simply soft creamy goo.

Chicken, ham, leek and cheese pancake bake
Serves 4

8 pancakes (shop-bought or homemade)
8 thin slices smoked ham
a large knob of butter
5 thin leeks, trimmed, sliced & rinsed
1/2 tsp mace
125g cream cheese
1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard
125g mature cheddar cheese, grated
2 cooked chicken breasts, roughly chopped
250g creme fraiche
Handful of parmesan, grated

Preheat your oven to 200˚C/Gas 6. Melt the butter in a large frying pan, add the leeks and sweat gently until they are tender. Stir in the mace, cream cheese, mustard and two-thirds of the grated cheddar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Take off the heat, stir in the cooked diced chicken and set aside.

Mix the creme fraiche and remaining grated cheddar in a small saucepan, and heat gently, stirring regularly until the creme fraiche has thinned and the cheese is almost all melted, then season with salt & pepper

Take your pancakes and lay a slice of ham on each. Spread an eighth of the leek mixture in a line down the centre of the pancake, then roll the pancake in a cigar shape around the filling. Place each rolled pancake into an ovenproof dish in which they will fit quite snugly, then pour over the creme fraiche mixture. Grind over some black pepper and scatter with parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes until golden on top and bubbling underneath. Serve with crusty bread (the ‘crusty’ is important as this dish is all soft and tender – you need some crunch!) and a green salad to cut the richness.

Whole baked pumpkin with Comté & cream

Whole baked pumpkin with cheese & creamPumpkins are, of course, most closely associated with Hallowe’en but just as puppies are for life not just for Christmas, so I believe that pumpkins, gourds and squashes should be celebrated for much longer than a single candy-fuelled day of ghosts, ghouls and dressing up like a slutty witch (c’mon – have you seen the sort of costumes marketed at women these days?).  Most of the pumpkin/squash/gourd (for brevity’s sake I’ll just say ‘pumpkin’ from now on) genus Cucurbita is in season from the end of September until mid-December and during those months I wolf down as many as I can – I hated pumpkin as a kid, and as an adult I’m making up for lost time with this gorgeous fruit-cum-vegetable that skates the boundary between sweet and savoury.

Pumpkins are at their very best when baked – a high, prolonged heat makes the flesh meltingly tender and turns its sugary flavour into something more mellow and savoury.  Combine that with a heapload of dairy (in this case both cream and cheese) and you have heaven in a spoonful – sweet, savoury, rich, creamy, tangy – all at once.  This is another of my super-indulgent seasonal dishes (like my unctuous sauce for sprouting broccoli) that I only do once or twice a year, as the calorie count is through the roof, but believe me, it’s worth every gram of fat.  In theory this is a soup, although that hardly does justice to the rib-sticking nature of the feast involved – use your spoon to crape tender pumpkin flesh through a sea of creamy goo for every mouthful, and have some good hearty bread to go with it – wholewheat or spelt are best – you can smear spoonfuls of pumpkin on the bread and then dunk in the centre for the ultimate treat.  It’s easiest (and quickest) to do individual pumpkins for everyone, but you can also do one show-stopping large pumpkin for 4-6 people, in which case it will need to be cooked for much longer and serving is a bit messier.

Whole baked pumpkin with Comté & cream

Per person:
1 x 900g-1kg pumpkin (for a main course; go much smaller for a starter portion)
100g Comté or Gruyère cheese, grated (the nuttiness works well with the sweet pumpkin)
75-100ml double cream
salt, pepper, nutmeg

1. Preheat your oven to 200˚C/fan180˚/Gas 6.
2. Just as if you were making a carved pumpkin/jack-o-lantern, use a very sharp knife to cut a small lid from the pumpkin and use a large spoon to scrape out all the seeds (bake or fry them with chilli & salt for delicious pre-pumpkin nibbles) and any excessively stringy flesh.  Trim the flesh from the lid so it’s no more than 1.5cm deep, finely chop the spare pumpkin flesh and throw it into the cavity.  Add the cream, grated cheese and plenty of salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.  The pumpkin should be around three-quarters full (adjust the quantities to suit your pumpkin – they all vary!).
3. Replace the lid and place your pumpkin(s) on a foil-lined baking sheet in the middle of the oven and bake for around 1 hour.  To test if the pumpkin is cooked, lift the lid and carefully poke the flesh with a small knife – it should sink in as easily as into butter.  Serve whole in shallow bowls, so as to catch any spillage whilst eating.

Lasagne of Wild Mushroom Ragu with Pecorino and Porcini sauce

Lasagne of Wild Mushroom Ragu with Pecorino & Porcini sauceThis is a gorgeously indulgent dish, full of rich earthy flavours and textures. For the best result, the ragu should be made with a mixture of wild mushrooms, such as Ceps, oyster mushrooms and Enoki), however these can be expensive and/or hard to get hold of depending on the season. A mixture of chestnut and large flat mushrooms would work well as an alternative, I wouldn’t bother with those polystyrene globules sold variously as ‘white mushrooms’ or ‘closed cup mushrooms’ as they have next to no flavour. You’ll still get a good depth of mushroomyness with the more commonly available varieties, as the dried porcini added to both ragu and sauce pack quite a punch, and they’re readily available in supermarkets; in fact I always have them in the storecupboard, ready to pep up any stew, risotto or soup which needs extra oomph.

Random foodie know-how: The white sauce in Lasagne is traditionally a béchamel sauce, but the Pecorino & Porcini sauce in this recipe is technically a velouté. The difference? Although both sauces begin with a classic roux (butter and flour gently heated together to make a thickening paste into which a hot liquid is then stirred), a velouté is made with stock – in this case the liquid from steeping the dried mushrooms – whereas a Béchamel is made with milk.

Anyway, on with the recipe