June 24th 2013 – Spag Bol

Cyprus, late 60s.  I was a kid, a forces ‘brat’ and my Dad was in the RAF.  It was idyllic on so many levels.  My earliest food memories come from there, eating fish mezzeh on the harbour front in Paphos, watching the resident pelicans and fishing boats bobbing around or listening to my Mum talking about buying chickens (‘this one here?, kill it now’) in the market.  There was octopus too, but I can’t remember a single meal served to me with this at home.  Perhaps Mum and Dad kept it to themselves or perhaps my memory is failing me.  I doubt it wasn’t good.

The other food I remember I ate in little tavernas as we drove around the island, visiting ruins and abbeys.  As I write this, picture flashes keep going off and I hope I can reclaim them at a later date – a toenail ripped off going down a slide on the beach in Famagusta?, saving a boy from drowning (or so I thought) and his Dad thinking I was the one in trouble, my dog (it was never really my dog) Bengo being thrown in the sea to teach it to swim by my Dad and so much more.

I remember often eating Spaghetti Bolognese in these roadside tavernas.  I wouldn’t have cheese on it in (tasted of sick, apparently, so wasn’t the tasteless Spaghetti cheese sold in Belgian supermarkets) but eat it I did.  This started a life-long obsession with the dish.  I remember my Dad taking hours making it the day before it was needed, leaving it over night to develop its flavours and to also let the orangey-fat congeal so it could be removed easily.  It was the first dish I cooked for everyone in a shared student house in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Mum dictating the recipe down the phone, me frantically taking notes.

I’m not obsessionally authentic either, I’ve never been to Bologna and never eaten it in a top restaurant.   I believe, for example, that spaghetti is not correct, but it is spaghetti which I grew up with.  I don’t like the (optional) addition of chicken livers or dried mushrooms and I won’t, despite the advertising steer, put Worcester Sauce in it.  No, I keep it simple and it works for me.  I did once make it partly with oxtail too, as suggested by Heston, but this is a bit of a faff and though rather good and interesting, not necessary for a staple.

The main ingredient is time, the main objective is colour (deep flavour follows as a consequence) and the main enemy, liquid.  Don’t cover the pan, ever.  You want to drive off all liquid during the cooking process, consolidating and concentrating the flavours.  I hate a Spag Bol with watery orange on the plate.

Here are the main ingredients:


I chop the carrot, celery, onion and garlic in a food processor.  Do it by hand if want.  Go reasonably fine, I hate seeing bits of carrot in the finished sauce.  Fry gently in some olive oil until all the moisture has gone and the colour is getting dark.  There is a fine line between dark and caramalised (this is the slow cooking which gives depths of flavour to the sauce) and burnt.  Be careful.  This can take 45 minutes.


Now add the pork/veal mixture, about a pound and a half (700g).  Cook slowly for 30 minutes, breaking up lumps.  You will see the oil/fat separating, keep going.  Add upwards of half a bottle of red wine, it’ll probably have had a glass taken out of it already.  Keep cooking to drive off the alcohol and most of the liquid.

Add the little tin of tomato purée.  Mix well.  You may not see any traces of vegetables now, perhaps a trace of carrot.  Keep cooking, you want to build up flavour and caramalise the mixture a little.  The little pieces of vegetables should now be invisible.  Squash any obdurate carrot.

You may decide not to do this, but I now add half a pot of Knorr ‘Beef stockpot’.  You know the ones, they are in little plastic pots and are jelly-like.  Cook and stir, until all is incorporated.

Finish the red wine.

Add some water, not too little, not too much (this is not a stew/soup).  Continue to cook slowly for an hour (I told you it was a slow process), you may want do this a couple of times, resting the sauce between additions overnight.  There won’t be as much fat as in my Dad’s day.  It will become almost glossy as you stir from time to time.


When you want to eat, adjust the seasoning.  Pepper will be needed, possibly a little salt.  Always add a little of the wine you have used and reheat thoroughly.

You want a moist, non-watery sauce to dress your pasta and because you have taken your time to develop flavour, you won’t need your pasta with loads of sauce.  A little goes a long way.  Have whatever pasta you like, but for me it’s spaghetti, but buy a good brand and don’t waste your money on the ‘fresh’ stuff.  Unless you like making it yourself but I’m yet to be convinced.  I’d rather mow the lawn…

As for cheese – the best Parmesan you can buy.  Don’t stint here.  A little wonderful cheese (and grate your own) has more flavour and less calories than a big bag of ready-grated budget crap.

Bolognese sauce teaches us so much.  Without care and time, the same ingredients can be combined into an awful mess.  Roughly chopped onions, beef mince, tins of tomatoes and a splash of wine you wouldn’t drink.  I don’t want this and neither shall I eat it.  Care for your Bolognese ingredients, care for the people around you.  Give them time to develop their relationships with you and each other.  Don’t rush.  Get the best from them and life becomes so much better.

© Bob Cavanagh, 2013, http://www.deliciouslydifferent.be

February 24th 2013 – Dexter Beef Short-Ribs on a cold Sunday

February continues and the last few days have been horribly cold on the Market and we have been grateful that our regular customers braved the conditions.  It would have been wrong to have let them down by staying at home ourselves, tempting though it was.  The North wind certainly has not helped, but I should’ve seen it coming.  This weekend saw the annual ‘Grand Feu’ and for the three years I have lived here it has always been bitterly cold.  Each January a team made up of our neighbour, a local farmer and a couple of other strong-arms, come around the village collecting the Christmas trees in a big tractor-pulled trailer.  They’ve been doing it for years and are always in high-spirits.  I suspect Peket is involved.  The trees are then taken a nearby field.  For the last few weeks I have also been watching people who missed the ‘Grande Collecte’ dragging trees to the field along the road in front of the Market on Saturdays.

It is a real social occasion and much of the village comes along the Grand Feu, at least those of us who value an occasion to get together.  There is a Peket (a sort of flavoured gin) tent which does a good trade, I prefer the lemon one.  Naturally there are sausages too and this, along with the 7pm start ensures that there is a wide age range at the fire.  There are no Pompiers (fireman) in attendance, something which couldn’t happen in the UK.  There is also no drunken boistrousness either despite the availability of alcohol.

The fire is lit and rapidly the deadwood catches fire, tongues of red, amber and yellow leap into the night sky and it all feels very primeval.  And so it should, it is an old ceremony and is meant to chase away the spirits of winter and call to the warmer weather ahead.  This year it was a real battle of the elements as it started to snow.

As I look out the garden there is a good covering of snow, the chickens are staying in their house and the bird-feeders are busy.  Chaffinches, Blackbirds, Sparrows, a Robin and a Wren busily mop up the droppings from choosy Tits.  I have seen Blue, Great and Marsh Tits as well as Nuthatches and Tree Creepers at the feeder this winter, nothing exotic but lovely to watch nonetheless.

All this cold makes me glad that I have some short-ribs in the oven.  The couple of hours they need simmering away is just enough time to write this.  And joy of joys, it isn’t just any old beef, but Dexter beef from Carl the butcher at the Goods Shed, Canterbury.  We are over there once a month on our buying trip and always come back with wonderful and fairly priced English meat from him.  I have based the recipe on one of Mark Sargeant’s but have left out the star anise (probably would use it with lesser meat), changed the soy sauce for Watkins’ Mushroom Ketchup and although a Dubbel or Tripel Westmalle would have been excellent, I drank them yesterday.  As a consequence I have used The Black Isle Brewery’s organic Hibernator Oatmeal Stout.  Most organic beer is quite frankly horrid, but not from there.  Apparently hops don’t like being grown organically and the best malted brewing barley is not organically grown, at least in reasonable quantity.  You wouldn’t guess this with the Hibernator.  Delicious.

Beef Short-Ribs
Serves 4 well.

You will need a roasting tray and a oven-proof casserole.  I use a deep roasting tin and cover with foil.

1 kg short-ribs

Some seasoned flour

1 large onion, 2 large carrots and 5 good-sized cloves of garlic, all roughly chopped

A little vegetable oil, 3 tablespoons or so

2 teaspoons tomato purée

A litre of good, dark beer

A litre of beef stock.  I use 2 Knorr rich beef stock pots.

Half a bottle of Mushroom Ketchup

Preheat the oven to 220°C.  Lightly coat the ribs in the seasoned flour and roast in the oven until they take on a good colour.  If you don’t dilly-dally this should give you enough time to do the next bit.

In your casserole, fry the onions, carrots and garlic in the oil until they are nicely browned and then add a tablespoon of the flour and the tomato purée.  Cook for a few minutes and stir.  Add the liquids, not all at once but slowly, continuing to stir.  Take the ribs out the oven and add to the casserole, along with any juices.  Lower the oven to 150°C and put in the covered pot.

You now have a couple of hours to get on with the housework or whatever else needs doing.  Take the dog out for a walk?  Too cold today..  Brrr.

Take out the casserole and remove the ribs.  They should be tender by now.  If not, return to the oven for another 15 minutes of so and check again.

If you wish, try and skim off some of the fat.  You may need to let the casserole cool a bit first.  Alternatively, throw in a handful of ice cubes.  Fat should congeal around them (I use this technique when making a navarin of lamb) and then you can remove it easily.  As you are now going to reduce the sauce by half the extra water won’t matter.

As indicated, reduce the sauce by half, strain out the vegetables and adjust the seasoning.  You should have a good coating consistency; if not reduce a bit more.  Put the ribs back in, coat well and return to the oven for a quarter of an hour.

Mashed potato is called for and by wife will insist on braised chicons too.  No matter, I love them, but secretly.  I’ll resist sprouts but if I had some spring greens these would be great.  Or sprouting broccoli but it’s too early.   Serve with horseradish sauce too, and although I think English mustard is a bit too aggressive for this, Dijon would be good.

© Bob Cavanagh, 2013, http://www.deliciouslydifferent.be

February 19th 2013 – Chile con Carne

Spring now seems to be putting out its first few tentative feelers.  Marie-Rose is especially pleased as the daffodil bulbs I planted last year are budding up nicely next to the pond.  I did plant others in another spot the year before but apart from some green leaves they did nothing.  Marie-Rose says I planted them too deeply but she comes from near Vielsalm in the Ardennes so what does she know about daffodils?  Anyway, I planted these a bit shallower and coincidentally they are thriving.
A friend came over for the weekend and we took advantage of the better weather to go for some good walks.  I love the chavées (hollewegs or sunken paths) which are ancient paths dug into the gentle hills through the Brabant and further afield.  I remember when I was young and for a few years collected just bursting twigs during this time and put them in a jam jar with some water.  Watching them rapidly unfold indoors was a delight and to this day I know the names, both common and latin, of many trees from the leaves.  I also used to ‘grow’ carrots too, placing the top of a carrot in a saucer of water and watching the delicate fronds unfurl.  Sadly I can’t interest my kids in this and am sadden by the thought that the simple delight and wonder of nature coming to life again holds no magic for them.  But they have a Wii, at least at their mother’s house.  Like eyesore trampolines, the Wii is not welcome here.
The girls are having some friends over this weekend and have requested my Chile con Carne.  Every cloud etc.  Needless to say you can use what you like instead of the beef, just adapt the cooking times. I also like the sot-l’y-laisse de dinde for this and for many currys which you can pick up in supermarkets like Champion.
Chile con Carne
Serves 6

1 kg beef.  Boneless, this can be some standard carbonade beef.  Chop it into 1 cm cubish pieces.  Or strips.  Or whatever you think will go into your mouth easily.

4 – 6 ancho chillies.  If you like it really hot then replace one of them with a habanero.  I find 4 anchos sufficient for most Belgians’ taste.

1 onion, chopped.

2 cloves of chopped garlic

2 tablespoons white lard or use any cooking oil you happen to have

2 teaspoons of ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano

1 finely chopped onion

Salt and pepper

2 standard sized tins of rinsed, cooked, red kidney beans.

Put the beef in a pan, add water to cover and simmer until tender.  An hour should do it.  Remove any scum that might form.  Drain.
Meanwhile, toast the chillis gently in a dry pan until they soften and become a bit translucent and reddish.  Put in a bowl, cover with hot water and leave for 30 minutes.
Now drain the chillis (reserving the soaking liquid!), discard stems and seeds from the them and purée coarsely with the onion and garlic.  You will need some of the soaking liquid to help this along and perhaps later on as well.
Heat the fat or oil in a biggish separate pan and add the chilli purée.  Cook for 5 minutes stirring as you go.
Add the beef, oregano, cumin.  Simmer gently for another hour, covered.  Taste and check for seasoning.
Add the beans and simmer for another 15 minutes.  Add some of soaking liquid if it appears too dry.  You don’t want sloppy, mind.
Serve with rice and whatever else you fancy.  Sour cream and chopped spring onions?
© Bob Cavanagh, 2013, http://www.deliciouslydifferent.be

February 12th 2013 – Duck and Rice

Last year was the first year that we had some moorhens breeding on our pond.  They did well, producing two broods.  Perhaps they felt reassured by the presence of the chickens, French for moorhen being ‘Water Chicken’ or Poule d’eau.  I think the constant supply of food in the chicken run was more of a factor and in fact the special grain feed for egg-laying birds proved so effective that two broods were raised.  The garden is safe enough too, being patrolled by Cooper, our Jack Russell and the cat, Violette.  Both seem to understand that both types of chickens are not food for them and leave them be.

Over the last couple of days a pair of mallards or colverts have tried to take up residence.  They will not succeed as Cooper and the chicken alliance chase them away remorselessly.  Watching this led me to think about ducks I have eaten…

Years ago, when I lived in Huanchaco, on the north coast of Peru near Trujillo, it was traditional to eat Arroz con Pato for Sunday lunch and there were two famous countryside restaurants called Don Pato and Don Pato 2.  Unfortunately the duck was verging on inedible but the rice was fantastic.  The main flavour components are black beer, lots of fresh coriander and aji amarillo, the golden-yellow flavouring chilli of Peru.  It is not overhot and is one of my favourite cooking chillis.  These three may seem like odd bedfellows but It really is a quite magical combination.  I hardly ever make it with duck now unless I’ve got some confit du canard to hand, prefering to use a good chicken or better still, a guinea-fowl or pintade.

I remember one day I was having a drink at a friend’s house in Lima when we ran out of beer.  No matter we thought, that’s what the corner shop or bodega is for.  So we went out and on our way to the shop we remembered that the next day was election day and in Peru there is a ley seca or ‘dry law’ the day before so that people can make their choice in a sober state.  Unfortunately that meant that the bodega would not be able to sell us any beer.  Nevermind said Clive and he walked up to the shopkeeper and explained that his wife’s family was staying with him from Piura (another northern city, not far from Trujillo) and they were making Arroz con Pato.  Satisfied that the dark beer was to be used for cooking, and not drinking purposes, the shop keeper happily sold us a few bottles.  A good job family gatherings, when they do occur, are large gatherings and need a lot of beer for the rice.

Cooking rice used to be a real struggle for me, but now I just follow Simon Hopkinson’s advice.  Use top quality basmati, never wash the rice, and use the same volume or weight of rice to one and a half of liquid.  A steaming method as I have used below should give you beautiful, dry rice.

Arroz Con Pato/Pollo/Gallina de Guinea

Serves 4

Preheat the oven to 150° C  You will need a deep pan with a well-fitting lid.  I use a piece of foil between pan and lid to ensure the fit.

3 tablespoons of any cooking oil

1 chicken or pintade, cut into serving pieces.  If like me you don’t value the white meat just use 4 legs and thighs.  Keep the skin on.

1 finely chopped onion

4 crushed garlic cloves

2 fresh Aji Amarillo chillis, finely chopped or 2 from a jar or a tablespoon of paste.  You could try soaking a couple of dried chillis in hot water too.

A good bunch, about 50g of fresh coriander, well chopped

1 teaspoon ground cumin

250g long-grain rice, preferably basmati

375g (yes, I weigh it) of half chicken stock, half black beer.  I use Eddie Gadd’s Black Pearl Oyster Stout, if you’re in Belgium it would be worthwhile seeking out Ellezelloise Hercule Stout.  The mix should be hot.

125g peas, cooked if fresh, frozen are just fine.

Fry the chicken pieces gently until well coloured and almost cooked.  Remove from the pan.

Fry the onion and garlic gently in the remaining oil and fat until softened but not coloured, and then add the chillis and cumin.  Cook, stirring for a few moments.  Add the coriander and mix well.

Add now the rice, stirring to make sure every grain is coated.  Add the stock/beer and bring to a simmer.  Stir in the peas and put the chicken pieces on top.  Put on the lid and place in the oven.
After 20 minutes turn off the oven, remove pot from the oven, fork through gently and put back in the oven with the lid on.  Leave for another 10 minutes (or more – the dish is quite forgiving).
© Bob Cavanagh, 2013, http://www.deliciouslydifferent.be