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Self improvement

​This week I’ve had TIME on my hands.

I’m staying with my parents in the balmy south of France and am taking full advantage of mother’s large, sun-soaked kitchen. There’s so much workspace for me to make a mess over.

On our first amble down to the local supermarket, this little display caught my eye.

Octopus is one of my very FAVOURITE things to eat, so I decided this was the time to grapple with one. The nice lady behind the fish counter helped us to pick one out and off I merrily went.

It turns out that preparing an octopus is FOOLPROOF but STINKY. I have learned a few things:

  1. Never defrost an octopus in a rubber container, especially one that belongs to somebody else. Rubber retains a bad smell like nobody’s business.

  2. Never defrost an octopus in the same room as drying laundry, especially with clothes belonging to someone else.

  3. While cooking an octopus, always open a WINDOW.

My recipe is loosely based on the classic provençale octopus stew. Just as well it was so delicious - mother was much more forgiving about the pungent odours than she could have been.

To get firmly back in her good books, and to save some cash on stocking filler presents, I thought I’d use up some more of my luxurious free time making some home made chocolates.

Doing my last concert of the year, last weekend, I met a chocolate enthusiast: a man from deepest south-west France who makes his own chocolate truffles. He brought some to our rehearsal for everyone to try (excellent for coating the vocal chords) and I cornered him at the end of the day to ask him for his recipes, as they were DELICIOUS. He was delighted, and waxed lyrical about the importance of quality ingredients, tempering, and endless ganache variations. I studiously took notes.

Mum’s favourite are chocolate covered citrus peels, so I thought I’d have a go at those too. I also made an earl grey infused ganache as Brother number 1 loves all things tea-related.

Here are some things I learned:

  1. Tempering chocolate is not as hard as it sounds.

  2. Using dark brown sugar to candy your citrus peels means they go black. They still taste good but don’t look as pretty.

  3. Storing chocolates without greaseproof paper to separate them makes them sweat, and, again, look less pretty.

  4. It’s important to find a good HIDING PLACE for your chocolates if you want them to last until Christmas.

So. Here are my self-improvement recipes for this week. You’ll need time, patience, and an octopus.

Provençale octopus stew

Serves 4, 30 minutes prep time, 12 defrosting time plus 3 hours cooking/cooling

main / perennial / show off / party (what a party!) / fish / gluten free / dairy free / detox

​A spicy, show-stopping, succulent stew.

The main thing here is the octopus, obviously. It’s probably not something you see every day in your local corner shop. If you can find a whole, frozen octopus, GET IT. They’re cleaned, tenderised and ready to go. When you defrost it, I’d recommend doing it in a covered pan in the fridge, or outside if you can. This should keep any odours locked away. Once it’s defrosted all you have to do is simmer it for two hours in water and it’s done. Literally.

IF however you are feeling brave and wish to grapple with a fresh octopus, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. It needs to be tenderised before cooking, otherwise it will be rubbery. In the southern mediterranean, young men get their ripped bodies from endlessly bashing the poor beasts against the rocks, no doubt. In a more domestic environment, people swear by bashing them with a hammer for hours on end, or throwing it against the side of the sink. Presumably you need a big sink. The easiest thing would be to freeze it yourself (if your sure it hasn’t already been frozen), but you still need to clean out the head and remove the beak and the eyes beforehand. Yep, the eyes.

I’ll let you find a vid on youtube for that.

* Octopus - 1, about 1.5kg, defrosted and cleaned*

* Onion - 1 large, peeled and diced

* Olive oil

* Garlic - 3 cloves, peeled and sliced

* Tomatoes - 2 x 400g tins or 4 large beef tomatoes

* Provencal herbs - I used 1 tbsp each of finely chopped fresh rosemary, oregano and thyme

* Saffron - a pinch

* Sugar - 1 tsp

* Salt - 1 tsp

* Cayenne pepper - 1/2 tsp

* White wine - a glass

* Potatoes - 4 medium, diced

* Fennel - 1 large bulb, cut into 8 wedges

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and drop in the octopus. Bring to a simmer, cover the pan and leave for two hours. OPEN A WINDOW.

Meanwhile prepare the sauce. Fry the onion in a glug of olive oil in a large saucepan until softened. Add the garlic and stir for a few minutes. Next, add all the ingredients except the potatoes and fennel, bring to a healthy simmer and leave to reduce for an hour or so. After about an hour, steal a few ladles of cooking liquid from the octopus and add to the sauce. Stir well, cover and simmer some more on a low heat.

When the octopus has been cooking for two hours, remove from the heat and drain (you could reserve the cooking liquid here to make a lovely seafood risotto or soup). Leave to cool for about half an hour.

Add the potatoes and fennel to the sauce and simmer for another half hour.

When the octopus is cool enough to handle, cut each tentacle from the body, as close to the top as you can. Roughly chop the rest of the flesh and head. Remove any gelatinous parts from the tentacles with your hands, without tearing off the suckers. If this is too icky for you, you could place the tentacles under a very hot grill for five minutes which would do the job instead, and give you a nice crispy finish.

You can do everything up to this point in advance if you like.

Finally add the octopus to the sauce a simmer for a few minutes to heat through. Serve in a bowl, presenting the tentacles on top for maximum effect.

btw - this tomato stew would be lovely for all sorts of things - try poaching fish filets for a few minutes in the finished sauce, or making a hearty chicken thigh stew by simmering the chicken for a couple of hours along with it.

Chocolate dipped citrus peel

dessert / party / gluten free / show off / date night / perennial / vegetarian

Store your chocolates in a cool, dry place in an airtight container, with a piece of greaseproof paper between each layer. They’ll keep for up to a month.

* Oranges - 2, washed

* Grapefruit - 1, washed

* Dark chocolate - 300g (you will have some tempered chocolate left over)

This was my first attempt at this, so I would do a few things differently next time. I’ve added those in…lucky you. You may be wondering why my fruit is black. The only sugar I had enough of at the time was dark brown soft sugar, which creates a dark brown sugar syrup and therefore dark brown fruit rather than pretty christmassy colours. Oh well. What it does add is a deeper, gooier caramelised flavour.

Start by preparing the fruit. Make four vertical cuts with a knife through the skin of each fruit, just touching the flesh. Carefully peel off each quarter of the skin, using your thumb to tease it away from the pith and flesh. Cut each quarter into long strips about 1cm wide. Then cut any extra pith (especially on the thicker grapefruit) from the outer peel, leaving you with strips about half a cm thick.

The next stage is to remove the bitterness from the peel. As grapefruit is more bitter than orange, it needs a more thorough treatment. Place the grapefruit peels in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and leave to bubble for three minutes. Then strain the peel, re-cover with fresh cold water and repeat. You need to do this a total of six times for the grapefruit and three times for the orange. So after three repetitions with the grapefruit you can add the orange peels to the pan. All clear?

Once you’ve repeated this six times, bring 400ml of water to the boil with 400g of sugar. I added a glug of slow gin at this point for a little extra kick. You could add cinnamon or cloves for a bit of spice. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add the peel. Bring to a very low simmer and leave for two hours.

By this time, the peel should be very soft and the syrup will have thickened. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool before placing it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, carefully strain the peel using a slotted spoon, conserving the syrup for use in other desserts or cocktails (coming soon). Lay the pieces on a wire rack to dry. Make sure to put some greaseproof paper underneath to catch the dripping syrup. Depending on how warm your kitchen is, you might need to wait up to 24 hours for the peel to dry out. Alternatively you could speed up the process by placing them in the oven on a very low setting.

Once the peel is completely dry, it’s ready to be chocolate dipped.

First you need to temper the chocolate. This means that your finished product will be shiny and glossy. Hooray.

Roughly chop 3/4 of the chocolate and finely chop the remaining 1/4. Place the roughly chopped chocolate into a heatproof bowl over a pan of hot but not boiling water. Make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Heat over a low heat and stir the chocolate until it’s completely melted.

If you have a food thermometer, you can use it here to monitor when the chocolate reaches 55 degrees C. If not, test the temperature by placing your stirring spoon against your bottom lip - when it feels a little hotter than your lip, it’s probably about right (yes, the safest way is to use a thermometer).

At this point, remove the chocolate from the heat and pour about a third of it into a separate bowl to set aside. Next, stir in the remaining 1/4 of finely chopped chocolate to the larger part of melted chocolate. This should lower the temperature to about 28 degrees C. Finally pour in the remaining bowl of chocolate to bring up the temperature again (about 31 degrees C).

This SHOULD leave you with beautifully tempered chocolate. You need to work quickly now, before the chocolate starts to thicken.

To dip the peel, simply immerse 2/3 of each piece into the melted chocolate using your fingers. Use a spoon to wipe off any excess chocolate before laying the peel out to dry on a clean piece of greaseproof paper.

Earl grey infused chocolate truffles

Makes about 20 chocolates

dessert / party / gluten free / show off / date night / perennial / vegetarian

In this recipe I don’t use tempered chocolate to coat the ganache. If you sprinkle the chocolate with cocoa powder, they’ll look just as pretty. The important thing is to use excellent quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa) and fresh organic cream.

* Dark chocolate - 330g (this includes enough chocolate to coat the truffle recipe below too)

* Double cream - 100ml

* Earl grey tea bags - 2

* Cocoa powder - a generous dusting

Start by finely chopping 130g of the chocolate. Place in a heat proof bowl and set aside.

Then prepare your chilling dish. You need a tupperware box or a plastic box of about 15cm by 20cm, lined with greaseproof paper.

Next, bring the cream to a very low simmer in a small pan with the tea bags, stirring often. Squeeze the tea bags with a spoon to release more of the flavour.

Discard the tea bags, then pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and stir continuously until all of the chocolate is melted. Pour the ganache into your prepared tin and place in the fridge to chill for at least an hour.

When you’re ready to coat your truffles, melt the remaining chocolate in a heat proof bowl over a pan of steaming but not boiling water. Make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Stir until all of the chocolate is melted.

Remove your ganache from the fridge. Use a knife to gently separate the sides of the ganache from the tupper. Next, turn the tupper upside down onto a plate or a chopping board. The ganache should fall out in one piece. Flip over the ganache and peel off the greaseproof paper, then use a long, sharp knife to cut the ganache into truffle sized squares. Wash the knife in hot water every few cuts to keep a clean line.

Using a fork and a spoon, coat the ganache squares in the melted chocolate. I use the spoon to push a square onto the fork, then submerge the fork into the melted chocolate. Once the chocolate level gets a bit lower, you might need to use the spoon to coat the top of the ganache when it’s sitting in chocolate. Lightly wipe the excess chocolate from the bottom of the truffle against the side of the bowl before placing to set on a clean piece of greaseproof paper.

Every few truffles, lightly dust their surface with cocoa powder. To do this, put a teaspoon of cocoa powder into a sieve and shake over the chocolates.

Chestnut and chocolate ganache

Makes about 20 chocolates

dessert / party / gluten free / show off / date night / perennial / hands free / vegetarian

Another ganache recipe for a truffle variation. You’ll need the rest of the melted chocolate from the above recipe to coat them.

* Dark chocolate - 100g

* Double cream - 60ml

* Chestnut puree - 3 tbsp

Start by finely chopping the chocolate. Place in a heat proof bowl and set aside.

Next prepare your chilling dish. You need a small tupperware box or plastic container of about 15cm by 15cm. Line the base with greaseproof paper.

Next, bring the cream to a very low simmer in a small pan. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and stir continuously until all of the chocolate is melted. Add the chestnut puree and stir briefly to combine. Pour the ganache into your prepared tin and place in the fridge to chill for at least an hour.

Repeat the chocolate coating process described above.


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