Cooking for beginners - Chicken two ways and an apple cake

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Blue cheese dressing, salad, toasted bread, chicken strips and hummus dip

Some weeks ago over our regular mezze lunch at our favourite little Iranian restaurant Manoush in Bayswater (very friendly service, delicious food, and we always get huge portions because we are regulars, or maybe because the waiter has a crush on my friend, sometimes he actually forgets to bring my food or drink altogether) in Bayswater with my friend I came up with this fantastic idea. At least I think I did, it may have been my friend, but I'm totally taking the credit.

My friend is not the greatest of cooks. Putting it mildly (in case she reads this). She is just generally not the world's most practical person. I have put together her flat-pack furniture and she's the one with the engineering degree for God's sakes. She's the person you really wouldn't want as your survival buddy on a desert island. A great friend and inspiring company if your want to discuss science, acupuncture, politics, spirituality or relationships. Building huts, cracking open coconuts, fishing with sticks, lighting fires with flints. Not so much.

She also reads books by first reading the last couple of pages and then she just randomly reads a few pages here and there and that's it. She's done. I've never seen anything like it. I think I read in a Paul Auster book that when you read you should pay each word as much attention as the author has done when writing them down. I think I didn't manage to finish the book because apart from that one quote I actually had no idea what was going on. Despite having carefully read each word so far.

So back to cooking troubles. Into aid rides Arctic Cloudberry with her trusted pans and pots and some chicken thighs. My friend sometimes comes over for lunch on a Sunday anyway, so why not cook the lunch together so she can learn in a safe, fun and encouraging environment. I promised not to whack her in the head with a pan if it all goes horribly wrong.

And I hoped she would not whack me in the head with a pan if I got too bossy. She is a very nonviolent person, which is good as I can't guarantee to completely quench my natural bossyness.

My friend has a couple of nice dishes in her repertoire. She makes a very delicious salmon flan and a great chilli con quorn which I personally have witnessed. I thought she also did a nice baked cod, but when I asked her about it now, she said it was an absolute disaster.

I asked her what she would like to learn to cook, and she said chicken. She has been very scared of salmonella and campylobacter and has therefore not ever cooked chicken at home. I put together a little list of tips on how to safely cook chicken. Having had campylobacter once (not from own cooking) and  knowing how awful it is, I'm always very cautious when handling and cooking chicken.

And we both thought you can't really live in England respectably without knowing how to do nice roast potatoes.

Dessert wise I think she's also slightly limited. I was once cooking us lunch and she was supposed to bring the dessert. Her mum had just taught her to make a Swiss roll and she had managed to get it right on her own once, she told me very proudly. That time though it all fell to pieces somehow, maybe even literally. No details were communicated, but no Swiss roll was introduced and we happily finished our meal with some chocolates and strawberries and never mentioned the Swiss roll again.

So I decided that we'd bake a cake together. I have this easy robust recipe that I have never managed to mess up and I'm not the world's greatest baker. It includes sour cream which keeps it moist and juicy. I have made it with blueberries, but it works great with apple too. Original recipe is here. Or use pear or mango or whatever the hell you like, go crazy, it's a great cake!

This is the menu we cooked - not because it is a great combination of things but because it worked as a great curriculum for learning some basics.

Hummus (just because we both love hummus, who doesn't love hummus?)
Fried chicken strips with basil salad (because my friend needed to learn how to fry chicken)
Blue cheese salad dressing (because I had some lovely blue cheese)
Toasted baguette slices (to migrate the hummus from bowl to mouth with, baguette was shop bought though. I think bread baking is some way off for her)

Lemon and herb chicken with feta and bell pepper (lovely easy but impressive looking and delicious chicken main course)
Roast potatoes with Greek herbs (must know how to do if want to call oneself woman, just kidding)

Apple cake (forget about the Swiss roll)
Ice-Cream (shop-bought, because she has worked in an ice-cream kiosk and can do the perfect ice-cream balls, so worked as a confidence booster, also fab with the warm cake)

We had a fun time cooking. Whilst frying the chicken she exclaimed excitedly "I'm frying chicken!" in manner of someone jumping out of a plane screaming "I'm flying".

Hummus

Easy and delicious hummus decorated with chickpeas, parsley, olive oil and parsley

400g can of canned chickpeas (drained, reserve the liquid)
2 tablespoons tahini
1 garlic clove, crushed (you can leave it out if you have a hot date planned)
½ teaspoon of ground cumin (optional)
½ teaspoon of salt
3 tablespoons of olive oil (plus extra for drizzling)
3-4 tablespoon  of chickpea liquid or water
1/2 freshly squeezed lemon
Ground paprika (optional for decoration)
Parsley leaves (optional for decoration)

Drain the chickpeas reserving some of the liquid and tip into the food processor. Add the tahini, crushed or minced garlic, oil, salt, lemon juice and some of the reserved chickpea liquid (or water). Turn on the food processor and run until smooth adding liquid / water if it looks too thick. Process less if you like it crunchy or more if you like it smooth. Obviously.

Drizzle with some olive oil, decorate with a few whole chickpeas. Sprinkle with paprika and fresh parsley.

Blue cheese dip or salad dressing (serves 2)

Blue cheese and yoghurt salad dressing or dip

1 heaped tablespoon of blue cheese (Stilton or similar)
3 tablespoons of Greek yoghurt
1-2 tablespoons of milk

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix with a fork until smooth.

You can do this also with feta, goat cheese or other soft cheese if you're not a fan of blue cheese. Serve as a dip or salad dressing.



Pan-fried Chicken strips (serves 2)

Pan-fried chicken strips with herbs and lemon

1 tablespoon of oil
3 chicken thigh fillets (boneless and skinless)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/3 teaspoon of black pepper
1 teaspoon of dried herbs (you can use a dried mediterranean herb mix, provencal herb mix or just dried basil or oregano)
Juice of half a lemon

Cut the chicken thigh fillets into finger sized strips with scissors. Heat oil in a frying pan. Add the chicken strips, salt, black pepper and whatever herb you are using. Fry on medium to high heat until nice and brown outside and done all the way through. When you cut a piece into two, it should cut easily and not be opaque / pink inside.

Once the chicken is cooked squeeze half a lemon on top.

Serving suggestions
- Serve on top of a bed of salad with tomatoes, cucumber, avocado and fresh basil
- Cook some pasta, add a couple of spoons of pesto and the chicken.
- Stir fry a ready made vegetable stir-fry mix and add the cooked chicken to the vegetables and serve with basmati rice

Easy herby roast potatoes (serves 2)


Best roast potatoes with greek herbs5-6 large roasting potatoes
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp of pepper
4 tablespoons of oil
1-2 tsp of mixed herbs
Preheat oven to 200C

Peel the potatoes and cut into about 1 inch chunks. Par-boil in lightly salted water for about 5-10 minutes until the potatoes have softened but are not completely done. Drain the potatoes in a colander and tip onto an oven tray.

Drizzle over the olive oil, season with salt and pepper and herbs and mix with hands so that all potatoes are nicely covered with oil on all sides. Pop into the oven. After about 30 flip the potatoes over so that they brown evenly on both sides.

Once crispy and brown on the outside take out and serve immediately. This will take about 40 minutes.


Herby Chicken with feta and lemon (serves 4)

Baked chicken thighs with feta cheese, lemon, herbs and peppers

1kg boneless chicken thigh fillets (you can use breast fillet, but I find thigh tastier and less dry)
1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dry)
1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano (or 1 tsp dry)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt (feta will add more salt)
1/2-1 tsp pepper
Zest and juice of half a large lemon

1/2 red and 1/2 yellow bell pepper
1 cup cubed feta

Place the chicken in a bowl (remove any extra bits of fat with scissors). Add the herbs (you can use other herbs if you like, a herb mix or basil for instance), oil, salt, pepper and lemon zest and juice. Rub it all over the chicken pieces and refrigerate to marinate for a couple of hours if you have time. But you can also cook immediately.

Place in an oven dish, top with strips of bell pepper, I had red and orange, and feta cubes. Bake in 200C oven for about 40-50 min until the chicken is cooked through.

Fail-safe Apple cake

Juicy apple cake with honeycomb ice-cream
175g soft room temperature butter
175g caster sugar
3 eggs
225g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla paste
140 ml sour cream
2 apples (soft & sweet, golden delicious or similar) (you can use 150g of blueberries instead of the apple)

Preheat the oven to fan 160C. Butter a loose-based 22cm round cake tin and line the bottom with non-stick baking paper buttering the paper also.

Put the butter and sugar in a bowl and beat with an electric hand beater until lighter in colour, about 3 minutes (at this stage you can't overbeat). Break the eggs to a glass or bowl and add one at a time beating lightly just to incorporate (don't overbeat). Mix in the sour cream and the vanilla.

Once the sour cream and the vanilla are incorporated get rid of the electric beater. Mix the flour and baking powder in a bowl and mix into the batter with a spoon until everything is mixed well.

Peel and core the apples and cut into small cubes. Fold in the chopped apple into the cake mix and pour the mix in the prepared cake tin and spread it level.

Bake for 40-50 minutes until it is risen, feels firm to the touch and springs back when lightly pressed. It shouldn't stick to a toothpick or knife when inserted. Cool for 20 minutes, then take out of the tin and peel off the paper lining in the bottom. Serve warm with ice-cream or leave to cool and serve with warm custard.

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