Fish suppers, chocolate cake and more, selected from Appetite and Tender Vol II as part of Observer Food Monthly's celebration of Nigel Slater's first 20 years at the Observer
• The final part of this series appears tomorrow
A tart for lunch, supper or a party
A large, thin tart is perfect crowd food. You can serve it in long fingers or neat little squares, or as a cut-and-come-again thing. If you are making more than one, get the filling done before and the pastry ready to roll and you're laughing. Especially if you use ready-rolled puff pastry. But I do think this sort of food works well for weekend lunch, too. Of course it is the marriage of cheese and crisp pastry that really rings my bell. Add some sweetly incandescent golden onions and I am ready to pop my cork. Any onion - sweet white, red, even leeks, and any melting cheese - Taleggio, camembert, fontina, will do the trick here; you want something oozing and molten with the crisp pastry and buttery onions.
This is something to serve on those occasions when you are not sure whether your friends are expecting something substantial or just a snack.
Enough for 4 as a light lunch, or 12 as nibbles
onions 6 small to medium
butter a thick slice, about 50g
puff pastry 200g or thereabouts
Taleggio, or similar semi-soft cheese 120g
thyme enough leaves to make a little pile in your palm
Peel the onions, cut them in half from stem to root, then into thick segments. Put them into a shallow pan with the butter and leave over a moderate to low heat until they are soft. Let them take their time. They need to be translucent, golden and sticky. This only comes with slow cooking and it is pointless to try and hurry it. The actual timing will depend on the type of onion (some contain more water than others) but you can expect them to take a good 30 minutes.
Set the oven at 220C/gas mark 7. If you are using a sheet of ready-rolled pastry, simply unroll it on to a lightly floured baking sheet. If you are using a block of pastry, roll it out into a rectangle (or square or round) no thicker than a 10p piece.
Score a border 2cm in from each edge and prick all over with a fork.
Tip the onions on to the pastry, pushing them almost, but not quite, to the border. Brush the rim with some of the onion butter. Slice the cheese thinly, then break it up into small pieces, tucking it in among the onions. Scatter over the thyme. Bake until the pastry is golden and puffed and the onions browning - 15-20 minutes.
A leek and Taleggio tart As above, but with leeks. The essential point is not to let the leeks colour too much - they turn bitter when even slightly charred, so you may find you need a little more butter. I find it helps to put a piece of greaseproof paper and a lid over the leeks while they are cooking, to stop them browning.
An onion and camembert tart I have used brie, too. Both work and give a deeply savoury, melting result.
A tomato and basil tart Something for summer and autumn. Spread a thick layer of pesto on the puff pastry, then cover it with thin, though not too thin, slices of tomato. Lots of black pepper and sea salt, then bake till crisp and golden.
A mushroom and Taleggio tart Toss mushrooms - one variety, such as chanterelle, chestnut or field, or a mixture - in olive oil. Add a crushed clove or two of garlic, some herbs, such as thyme or oregano, and some salt and black pepper. Fry them with a generous amount of butter - by which I mean enough to cover the bottom of the pan - till tender and golden, then scatter them over the pastry. Tuck in the cheese - you will need about half as much again as in the blueprint above - and drizzle with some of the butter you cooked the mushrooms in.
A pancetta and onion tart I think there are two ways you could go about this. I have added chopped pancetta - about the size of Dolly Mixtures - to the cooked onions as the tart goes in the oven, but I have also had success (if that's what you call it when every last crumb gets eaten) with scattering thin slices of pancetta, cut into pieces the size of a postage stamp, over the onions before I tuck in some camembert or brie.
A red onion and parmesan tart You get that wonderful sweetness with red onions so redolent of contemporary Italian cooking, and they work well, as you might imagine, with the depth of savour you get from parmesan cheese. Cook the onions as above, spread them over the pastry, cover them with a thick layer of grated parmesan (some thyme would be good here, too) and bake as above. Be generous with the cheese.
A solitary and utterly luxurious fish supper
A deeply delicious and satisfying fish supper. Nevertheless, you will need some bread to mop up the garlicky juice and, as this is not a filling meal, a pudding of some sort to follow.
Enough for 1, with crusty white bread
butter sweet, pale and unsalted, as always
scallops as many as you fancy, but I suggest about 4 large ones
garlic sweet, juicy and young 1 large clove, peeled and chopped
parsley a small palmful or so, chopped, but not too finely
Take a small shallow pan, one that is light enough to pick up and shake, then melt enough butter in it to cover the bottom thinly. Let it sizzle and froth over a high heat. When the foam subsides and the butter falls silent, lower in the wobbly, glistening scallops and let them cook (they will spit at you) for 2 or 3 minutes, until a sticky, golden crust has formed on the underside. Turn them, let them colour underneath, then whip them out on to a warm plate, throw out the browned butter and put in some more, sweet and fresh. Then, as it froths, add the crushed garlic, swirl the pan quickly around, toss in the parsley and tip it all, sweetly frothing, over the scallops. Now eat up.
a 30-minute fish supper
Sometimes you just want huge, chalky white flakes of fish and a mound of fluffy potato. It is difficult to think of cod and mash as being an expensive supper but that is what it has become. I must say I like haddock almost as much as cod. In fact, any thick fillet of white fish appeals to me when it has been cooked in butter in a hot oven till its flesh is as white as snow and full of juice. How much you enjoy the result will, I think, depend almost entirely on the quality of the fish - by which I mean its freshness and flavour - and whether you get the timing right. The trick is to ignore the clock and to cook the fish only until a flake of its flesh will come easily away from the skin and bone when you pull it. Simple as that.
potatoes a large, floury one per person
butter a thick slice for cooking the fish and another for the mashed potato
cod or haddock a thick piece, about 200g, per person
lemon a quarter per person
Peel the potatoes and cut them into halves or quarters, depending on their size. Drop them into boiling salted water and let them cook till tender to the point of a knife. You can expect this to take about 15-20 minutes, depending on the variety of potato.
Meanwhile, get the oven good and hot. It should be at least 200C/gas mark 6.
Put a thin pool of olive oil - just enough to cover the bottom - into a metal-handled frying pan or a roasting tin. Warm the oil over a moderate heat, then slide in a thick slice of butter. The butter will bubble, then foam, and this is when you should lower in your piece of fish. Do this skin-side down.
Tweak the temperature so that the bubbles surrounding the fish are lively but not so excited that the butter burns. Leave the fish, without nudging or turning, for a minute or so. Lift it gently to check how it is coming on. You want the skin to be touched with pale gold. Now turn the fish over with a fish slice or palette knife, crumble over some sea salt and black pepper and put it in the hot oven.
Bake until the fish is opaque, juicy and will come away easily from the skin and bone. Test it for readiness by gently tweaking a flake. You will find the thickest piece of fish, about 200g in weight, will take about 8 minutes.
Drain the potatoes, mash them with a potato masher and beat in the butter. How far you go with this depends on how much washing up you feel like doing but I believe the fluffiest mash is that which spends a minute in an electric mixer armed with a beater attachment. Serve the mash with the roast fish and some lemon for squeezing over.
With a soothing butter sauce Sometimes I like to swap the clean, biting addition of lemon with my fish for something richer. A butter sauce, thickened with egg yolks and rescued from cloying with lemon juice, is my first choice. There is something quietly perfect about a forkful of white fish, a bit of steamed or mashed potato and a trickle of hollandaise sauce. I know there are those purists who screech that you should always use a reduction of white wine vinegar rather than lemon juice in a classically made hollandaise. Well, I prefer lemon in mine, so they can just shut up.
With an uplifting green and piquant sauce A blender salsa verde is another idea. The piquancy of the capers and the saltiness of the anchovy are singularly appropriate with white fish. My basic recipe is to whiz all or most of the following in the blender: the leaves from a large bunch of flat-leaf parsley and a few sprigs of mint, 6 anchovy fillets, a couple of cloves of garlic, a spoonful of Dijon mustard, a couple of tablespoons of capers and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Now pour in enough olive oil to reduce it all to a lumpy slurry the colour of that green stuff that floats on the pond in summer. Taste and check; you might find you want it with more mustard or lemon.
Let's leave it at that There are some things it is best not to meddle with too much, and I think this is one of them.
Chocolate chip hazelnut cake with chocolate cinnamon butter cream
I like birthday cake. I love making them and, if truth be told, I rather enjoy receiving them, too. This is my first choice for such an occasion, a nutty sponge cake rich with chocolate nibs and a dark chocolate and cinnamon frosting. I serve it in appropriately thin slices.
Enough for 10-12
golden caster sugar 250g
shelled hazelnuts 75g
dark chocolate 120g
large eggs 4
self-raising flour 125g
ground cinnamon ½ tsp
strong espresso 4 tsp
For the spiced chocolate butter cream
dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) 250g
ground cinnamon a knifepoint
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Line the base of a 20-21cm loose-bottomed, deep cake tin with baking parchment. Cut the butter into small chunks and put it with the sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer, then beat till white and fluffy. Toast the hazelnuts in a dry pan over a moderate heat, then rub them in a tea towel until most of the skins have flaked off. There is really no need to be too pernickety about this, you just want most of the skins removed. Grind the nuts to a coarse powder, less fine than ground almonds but finer than they would be if you chopped them by hand. Chop the chocolate into what looks like coarse gravel.
Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them gently. Slowly add them to the butter and sugar mixture, beating all the time - it may curdle slightly but it doesn't matter. Stop the machine. Tip in half the ground nuts and half the flour, beat briefly and at a slow speed, stop the machine again, then add the rest, together with the chopped chocolate and cinnamon, and mix briefly. Gently fold in the espresso, taking care not to knock the air from the mixture, then scoop into the lined cake tin. Smooth the top and bake for 35-45 minutes, covering the cake with foil for the last 10 minutes if it is colouring too quickly. Remove the cake from the oven and test with a skewer - you want it to come out moist but clean, without any uncooked cake mixture clinging to it. Leave the cake to cool a little in its tin before turning out on to a cooling rack and peeling off the paper from its bottom.
To make the chocolate butter cream, snap the chocolate into small pieces and let it melt in a small bowl balanced over a pan of simmering water (the water should not touch the bottom of the bowl). Leave to melt, with little or no stirring, then add the butter, cut into small pieces, and the spice. Stir till the butter has melted. Leave to cool until the mixture is thick enough to spread. (I sometimes impatiently put mine in the fridge for about 15 minutes.) Spread the chocolate cream over the top of the cake, decorate as the whim takes you and leave for an hour or so before cutting.
From Tender II
Little fig and blackberry pies
Here is the softest pastry for the juiciest of fruit pies. Don't be tempted to roll it thinly. Cut the pastry into four and pat each piece out lightly, pushing it into the corners of the baking tins. Spoon in the filling, then fold the pastry lightly over the top. Sharp cream or thick yoghurt on the side would be appropriate but not necessary.
Enough for 4
For the pastry
plain flour 230g
icing sugar 50g, plus a little for dusting
egg yolk 1 large
For the filling
large figs 4
blackberry or redcurrant jelly 4 tbsp, melted
lemon juice of ½
ground hazelnuts 60g
You will also need
four deep tartlet tins about 9cm x 4cm
Put the flour into a mixing bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips, then mix in the icing sugar and the egg yolk. Bring the dough together and squeeze it into a round, then roll it into a short, fat log before putting it in the fridge for half an hour to chill. I find this pastry works well in the food processor too; first blitz the flour and butter, then mix briefly with the sugar and egg yolk.
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Rinse the fruit, roughly chop the figs, and toss with the melted jelly, lemon juice and ground hazelnuts.
Cut the pastry into four. Flatten each piece on a floured board and use to line the tart tins, leaving the excess pastry overhanging the edges. Pile the filling into the tart cases, then loosely fold over the pastry. It should not meet in the centre, but instead leave a gap through which the fruit is visible.
Place the tarts on a baking sheet and bake for 30-35 minutes or so, till the pastry is dark biscuit coloured and the fruit is bubbling. Dust with a little icing sugar and eat warm or cool.
From Tender II
Buy Tender Vols I and II from the Guardian Bookshop
Photo: A tart for lunch, supper or a party. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin