48 Hours With Leon

About a year ago, I discovered what I consider to be the holy grail of cookbooks. No, it’s not written by Julia Child, and no, it has nothing to do with silver spoons or the joys of cooking. I am talking, instead, about Allegra McEvedy’s Leon: Ingredients & Recipes. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Allegra and her pals Henry and John founded the infamous London chain in 2004, along with the idea that “food can be both lovely and good for you.” In essence, Leon’s commitment is to making fast and comforting food, but with healthy ingredients and even healthier doses of love. From a cooking perspective, it’s a nice, philosophical place to start, and all one has to do is thumb through the recipes in the second half of the book to see these guys aren’t fooling around—this stuff looks good. But it’s the first half that knocked me off my feet the first time I laid eyes on the book.

Without sounding too obsessed, the ingredients section is something to behold. Not only is it informative, it is outright comprehensive, covering everything from seasonality to meat cuts to vegetable families to simple substitutions for spices and herbs. What’s more, the book includes a map of world cheeses, a pull-out wall chart of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and stickers. (Yes, stickers.) With its colorful, scrap book-inspired design, it’s ostensibly an activity book for adults. Consider yourself lucky if someone gets this for you as a birthday or holiday gift.

All the gushing aside (you’d think Leon hired me to write all this praise), the recipes are pretty top-notch. I’ve only made two dishes so far, but both left my senses sated. (Which is more than I can say for a lot of things.) Also, I’ve discovered something that’s made me happier than expected: their method for making couscous is near, if not perfect. While it’s somewhat disheartening to discover your own way of making couscous has been completely off the mark—no wonder it always turned out so hard and grainy!—it is a relief to be able to right the wrongs of your culinary past.

After a very lazy Sunday spent all day in my PJs, drinking tea and talking to my flatmate, I decided the least I could do was cook something good. I’d been planning on making a chicken dish, having left two fillets to defrost earlier in the day, but didn’t want to revert to my usual Stir-Fry Standby. It just didn’t feel like one of those nights. In the process of easing off my illness, I felt a craving for comfort food, or something akin to it, so I opened up my Leon book and lo and behold, found a recipe that not only triggered my taste buds, but contained an ingredients list almost completely made up of things I already had. Score, score, and score.

The following recipe is not only a treat to smell and taste, but is also extremely easy. Not that I’m not up to challenges, but on lazy—not to mention sick-fueled—days, sometimes all I want is to cook without fuss (hence things like the Stir-Fry Standby). It also contains that brilliant, aforementioned method for making outstanding couscous, which can be used independently of the dish, of course. It should be noted since I was making this for myself, I halved nearly everything in the recipe (except the garlic, because you can never have too much, right? and the ingredients for the couscous, including the couscous—the more the merrier!). Also, I did not make the garlicky tomatoes the book recommends, since I didn’t have any tomatoes on hand, but I’ll include them in the recipe, since they probably make a wonderful accompaniment (roasted tomatoes became one of my favorite things to make over the summer). And finally, I didn’t garnish my dish—bad, I know—but only because I didn’t have the recommended ingredients laying about. I’m all about adaptation, and am of the opinion that just because you don’t have something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re prohibited from making a dish, or that your dish will suffer.

John and Katie’s (not too) Spicy Chicken Couscous

Ingredients:

  • 4 chicken breasts, skin cut off, cut into big chunks*
  • 2 tsp. dried chilli flakes
  • a few hefty pinches of ground cinnamon
  • 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • about 8 tbsp. of olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. good curry powder (I use the mild stuff, cos I’m a wimp)
  • about 8 handfuls of couscous
  • 2 heaped tbsp. of butter
  • 2 handfuls of raisins or sultanas (optional—I didn’t use them)
  • 500 ml/2 cups chicken stock
  • salt
  • pine nuts, mint leaves, coriander/cilantro, and lemon, to serve

For the tomatoes:

  • 6 ripe plum tomatoes, cut in halves (I’m pretty sure vine tomatoes would work well here, too)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

*A note on the chicken: if you’ve a carnivore, eat this as is. However, if you’re a vegetarian, I’m almost 100% sure this would taste great with tofu. You could also probably replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock, and get the same effect with the couscous. Worth a test, anyway!

  1. Preheat the oven to 220ºC/430ºF/gas mark 7.
  2. In a small bowl, mix the chilli flakes, cinnamon, garlic, salt, 4 tbsp. of the olive oil, and curry powder together. Coat your chicken pieces with it, then leave them in an ovenproof dish to marinate, 20 minutes or so.
  3. If you’re making the tomatoes, here’s what you do: mix the garlic and oil for the tomatoes together. Lay the tomato halves on a baking tray (the book recommends it be thick-bottomed; you also might want to cover it in parchment paper or foil to keep everything from getting too greasy/messy) and “anoint” (this is what the book actually says!) with the garlic/oil mix. Season liberally. (If you’re not making the tomatoes, skip this step, obviously, and go read a book or watch TV for 10 minutes while your chicken marinates.)
  4. About halfway into the marinating process, make your near-perfect couscous: put the couscous and sultanas/raisins (if using) into a medium-sized, heatproof bowl and stir with the remaining 4 tbsp. olive oil, completely coating the grains. Cover with the chicken stock, then lay a tea towel over the bowl and leave the couscous to do its thang for 5 minutes.
  5. When the couscous is finished, fluff it with a fork, then pour it into the dish with the chicken. Mix everything around, pushing the sultanas/raisins below the surface, since they can burn. You’ll want the couscous to be coated in the marinade, as well. Dot the top with the knobs of butter (for the record, I completely forgot to do this, but it still tasted good) and cook on the upper shelf for 25 minutes, putting the tomato tray on the shelf underneath.
  6. If you’re using pine nuts as a garnish, toast them. Then, when everything is done, scatter on top, along with the chopped mint, coriander/cilantro, and squeeze of lemon.
  7. Plate and serve with the tomatoes. Voila!

When it’s all finished, it will look like this (but better, because my camera is old):

There are so many things to love about this dish, but one of the best parts is how the couscous gets a bit crusty in the oven, so it tastes slightly breaded during the actual eating process. Also, even though I made half of the recommended amount, I had enough for lunch the next day, which gave me something to smile about in work.

I was so pleased with how dinner turned out on Sunday, in fact, that I decided to give Leon another go on Monday. With some salmon defrosting during the day, I bought some ingredients to do up a really good piece of fish that night. I’ve a go-to recipe for white fish, involving orange juice and tarragon, but it didn’t necessarily sit right with the salmon, so I’ve been on the hunt for other ways to spruce the little fella up since. The following seemed simple enough (and it was, oh how it was), so I thought I’d give it a try. Couldn’t hurt, right?

One confession before the recipe: I have a problem with buying fresh herbs. It’s not an aversion, per se, but I’ve often found myself buying little bags of the stuff, only to use the contents for one dish and then watch as the rest withers away in the fridge. One day, I’ll live somewhere with a roof garden, and I’ll grow my own in a nicer climate, but until that happens, and until I start using herbs more regularly (as I do with spices, for instance), I’ll probably substitute dried for fresh. A bad habit, I know, but one that is more feasible for my dwindling bank account.

Mushroom, Shallot, and Tarragon Fish

Ingredients:

  • 250 g/about 9 oz. mushrooms, like shiitake, button, oyster, chestnut (the book says to “avoid field mushrooms, as they make everything go blackish-grey”)
  • 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 shallots, sliced (I used 2, since I was only making one piece of fish)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 glass of white wine (optional; I omitted it, and everything turned out fine)
  • 1 tbsp. capers, whole if small, chopped if big (optional; I also omitted these, and again, everything turned out fine)
  • a small handful of tarragon, chopped
  • a big handful of parsley, chopped
  • 4 x 180 g/6 oz. portions of fish of your choice (I used one portion of fish, since I was just feeding myself, so if you’re like me, just adjust the portions of everything else to suit)
  • a shot of Noilly Prat vermouth (really optional; I almost never have proper liquor on hand, and it’s so expensive to buy for one dish)
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/gas mark 7.
  2. Slice or cut up all the mushrooms, and slice the shallots.
  3. Heat up 2 tbsp. of the olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the shallots and garlic for a minute or two, until the shallots are slightly softened. Toss in the mushrooms and some seasoning, and sauté everything for a couple of minutes until softened. If using the wine, pour it in the frying pan, and let it sizzle/reduce/be scientific for a minute or two. While the wine does its thing, throw in the capers (if using) and herbs (if not using the wine, do this after the mushrooms and shallots soften). Stir everything for 30 seconds, then take off the heat. Add the remaining tbsp. of olive oil, stir, then check the seasoning.*
  4. Leon has its own method for cooking fish, which I will now describe as it pertains to this recipe: lay out however many pieces of foil will equal the number of fish you’re cooking (you’ll want these to be big enough to fold over and encompass the fish fully, much like a full-body sleeping bag); splash a bit of olive oil on the foil piece(s) and season it/them with salt and pepper; place the fish skin-side down on each of the individual foil pieces, then season it/them heavily with salt and pepper; top each fish with the mushroom/shallot mixture, then fold the foil over to meet the edge (this should resemble a taco); now seal the bottom and the side so that the fish is encased in its own parcel. Repeat with each fish packet. If using, add the vermouth through the top hole; if not, just seal the top, and you’re ready to bake!
  5. Put the fish parcel(s) on a baking tray and leave in the oven for 15 minutes. The foil should puff out, but don’t worry if it doesn’t completely.
  6. Once ready, serve the fish parcels with a slice of lemon and squeeze the juice onto the fish once the parcels (or sole parcel) are opened. Voila!

This is how mine looked. I served it with that near-perfect couscous I keep going on about:

I guess you can’t really see the fish, but it’s there! While the flavors didn’t quite mix the way I’d hoped, it was still a pretty damn good piece of fish. I will continue on my journey to find the best way to cook salmon, though I’ve an inkling it has to do with a barbecue sauce marinade…

*If you have any of this left over, spoon it over the top of some couscous, and then mix it in. You can thank me later.

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