Sunday, 19 December 2010

Stuffed squid and mussels

We had non meat eating friends for dinner the other day, and that’s fine.  Unlike some other keen carnivores, and many chefs, I have no problem with vegetarians at all.  Why should I?  After all, if you’re a vegetarian because you don’t like meat, then that’s unarguable, a simple question of taste.  I may not agree but I can’t say you’re wrong, and even if you are, it’s no skin off my nose.  All the more meat for me.  If you’re a vegetarian because you care about the welfare of the animals that are bred and raised to be killed for us to eat, then I’m not going to argue with you because I can’t fault your motives, and could only wish that more people who do eat meat felt the same.  As I’ve said before though, I happen to believe you have more sway over the meat industry by participating as an ethical meat consumer than you do as a conscientious abstainer.  If, on the other hand, you don’t eat meat because of the environmental impact of meat production – if you are, I believe the term is, an ecotarian – then I can’t argue with you because you are almost certainly right.  The environmental cost of the meat industry required to maintain current consumption in a global population of six billion and rising is almost certainly unsustainable, but that’s a problem the scale of which goes way beyond the scope of this blog (and applies to many other industries).

A problem that does very much lie within the scope of this blog, however, is what to have for dinner.  Particularly when your guests don’t eat meat and it’s all bleak and midwintery outside, and every instinct cries out for hearty stews, or roast meats with roast potatoes, parsnips and carrots, all swimming in gravy.  It must be much easier being a non meat eater in summer.

Fortunately these non meat eaters do eat fish, so I decided to stuff a couple of good, big, meaty squid, and pot roast them.  All instincts assuaged (and no worries about sustainability, either).  

Stuffed squid (for 5 in this case)

2 medium large squid tubes (about 600g each in weight, 8-10 inch in length)
1kg mussels (or about 6-8 per person, scrubbed and cleaned and any that remain open, or with broken shells, discarded)

for the stuffing:
The tentacles and trimmed wings from the squid (cut into manageable pieces, dice to match the other elements below if you like, but I like to keep the pieces bigger, and the tentacles tentacle-y, but some people, I know, are squeamish…)
Equal parts red onion, red pepper, fennel, mushroom (I used ½ an onion, about ¼ of a bulb of fennel, 1/3 of a red pepper, 1 large open cap mushroom, but those proportions will depend entirely on the variable size of each), all diced small but not fine.
160g rice (I used basmati, but a risotto or paella rice would do the job)
3 anchovy fillets
fresh chilli and garlic, finely sliced
a sprinkle of raisins
a sprinkle of pine nuts
a pinch of saffron (or half a teaspoon of turmeric if you don’t have saffron)
½ glass white wine
200ml fish stock

for the tomato sauce:
½ onion, finely chopped
2 anchovy fillets
fresh chilli and garlic, finely sliced
2/3 tin of chopped tomatoes
100ml fish stock
1 glass white wine

For the stuffing you’re basically making a risotto, or paella, so the technique is pretty much as described here.  In order to keep flavours concentrated (and as a happy but honestly unintended consequence, to reduce washing up) I always like to do as much of the cooking of a single dish as possible in the same pot, which in this case means you have two options.  Either to cook the rice stuffing in the same dish you’ll be using to pot roast the squid (a shallow, lidded Le Creuset casserole, in my case) while cooking up the tomato sauce in a separate pan, which is what I did; or to cook the rice, and then the sauce in the same pan before transferring to the dish in which you’ll cook the squid.  The latter will take slightly longer, due to working consecutively rather than concurrently on the stuffing and the sauce, but the tomato sauce doesn’t take long, and you can be stuffing the squid and starting that cooking while it’s coming together, so there’s not much in it.  The decision on which way to go will probably be dependent on the suitability of the available pans or dishes.

The other option, if neither you nor your guests were vegetarian, would be to add something meaty to the stuffing.  Chorizo, black pudding, smoked bacon or pancetta all go really well with squid and all or any would make a tasty addition to the stuffing – in which case I’d leave out the anchovies, raisins and pine nuts, but you wouldn’t have to.  It would also be fine in that case, to use chicken stock instead of fish, but again, either would do.

In my case, in this instance, briefly, what I did was this:  melted the anchovy fillets in olive oil in my shallow casserole, added a nub of fresh red chilli pepper and a clove of garlic, both finely sliced, then threw in the chopped squid bits and cooked till it had turned opaque and just started to colour.  At that point I added the diced onion, fennel and pepper, continued cooking till they softened, then the pine nuts, raisins and chopped mushrooms.  A minute later I added the rice, the wine and the saffron, stirred it all together and let it cook down for another couple of minutes and then added the stock. 10 to 15 minutes of simmering gently under a lid will do to cook the rice.

In the meantime in a separate pan I melted another couple of anchovy fillets with garlic and chilli, then softened the finely chopped onion, added the tomatoes, the stock, and brought it all to a gentle simmer for, again, 10 to 15 minutes.

Once the rice was cooked I spooned the stuffing into the squid tubes, making sure to push it right down to fill them to their ends.  I was left over with just about enough of the stuffing mix to put into Tupperware and store in the fridge for a single portion squid risotto lunch, as a bonus.  I added a splash of olive oil into the pan I’d spooned the rice out of, and still on the stove top, I fried the squid tubes gently on all sides, taking care not to spill too much of the stuffing, until just starting to show a little colour.  Then I poured over the tomato sauce, covered with a lid and put in the oven, at around 180, for about 25 – 30 minutes.  Test the squid at around 25, by just pushing a fork or a skewer into its flesh, if it slides in easily, without resistance, it’s done and you’ve no need to worry about rubberiness.  If it doesn’t, then just give it a few minutes more (you don’t want to overcook it), although you might well want to add an extra splash of white wine at that point, to make sure there’s no risk of things drying out.

When the squid is done, remove it from the dish and set aside, somewhere warm, cover with foil if you like.  Return the dish to the stove top, add a glass of wine to the tomato sauce and bring it up to a lively simmer before throwing in the mussels and covering with the lid.  These will take just about three minutes or so – you know when they’re done when the shells open up.  If the majority have opened and  just a few remain stubbornly closed, pick those out and discard them, they’re no good (with mussels, as with clams and other bivalves, if they stay open when you clean them, discard them; if they stay closed when you cook them, do the same – that way you and you’re guests should be fine).  Stir the open mussels and the sauce together, make sure they get well mixed.

While the mussels were cooking I sliced my squid into portions, then rearranged them in the dish with the mussels to bring to the table, and serve – a thick ring of stuffed squid per person surrounded by mussels, with some good chunky bread on the side to mop up the sauce.

We’d started the meal with a thick and warming leek and potato soup, finished it off with a juicy apple pie, dusted in brown sugar and cinnamon.  There seemed to be no marked shortfall of the requisite wintery heartiness.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Pork shanks, prunes and apple in cider

Lamb shanks have been something of a staple of mine, which I’m slightly surprised not to have covered on this blog yet*, which is perhaps as well because lamb shanks would mark me out as being stuck in the 90s.  Being stuck in a gastro pub in the nineties, apparently, whereas the pork belly I roasted a couple of weeks ago puts me in a gastro pub in the noughties.  What will be the defining gastro pub cut of meat for the present decade has yet to be decided (presumably we need to agree on what we’re going to call the decade itself first.  Teenies?  Sheesh.  Noughties was bad enough), but my current bet, for what that’s worth, would be on veal osso buco, which all of a sudden seems to be ubiquitous on any butcher’s slab with any pretence to either quality or fashionability.  Or, if not osso buco, then maybe, in a mash up of the best bits of the previous two decades, pork shanks, which have also apparently appeared out of nowhere in the past couple of months.

Now I have to admit I don’t know precisely what a pork shank is.  Or rather, I know what a pork shank is, I just don’t know precisely what distinguishes one from a ham hock, which is undoubtedly cut from the same part of the pig (the lower leg).  Google suggests variously that shank and hock are entirely synonymous; that a hock is a cured shank; or that the shank is the whole lower part of the leg (called, excitingly, stinco, in Italian), of which the hock is itself the lower part.  Even Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, and his essential Meat book – generally my bible in all things carnal (not THAT kind of carnal…) – lets me down by referring only to hocks.  From my own hands on experience I would suggest that the items I was sold as pork shanks were in fact the same as uncured ham hocks stripped of their blanket of skin and fat.

Whatever the precise definition and/or distinction, a hock or a shank, be it from a pig or a lamb (or veal osso buco for that matter) is a knobbly lump of meat on the bone of the lower leg, fatty and gelatinous but also formed of well exercised muscle so fibrous and sinewy too.  That makes it sound unappealing, but cooked long and slow till it falls softly off the bone, it’s full of sweet flavour and meltingly tender.  On this occasion I combined my shanks with two classically bistro-y companions to pork – prunes and apples – and braised it gently in good cider (Weston’s organic in this case, from Sainsburys so widely available).

2 pork shanks
10-12 dried prunes
2 apples
1 onion
500ml good dry cider
1 clove garlic, a little fresh chilli
6 - 8 sage leaves

First you’ll need to soak your prunes by covering them with boiling water in a bowl or pan, and leaving to stand for at least a couple of hours.
When the prunes are soaked and ready, brown the shanks in a big casserole.
Finely chop the garlic and chilli, peel and slice the onion into chunky wedges, throw them in the pot with the meat.

Peel and core the apples, cut them into quarter wedges, then 1/8s .  Once the onions are soft and starting to colour, throw the apples in the pot, let them cook for a couple of minutes, then add the prunes and pour over the cider.
Bring to a simmer, cover the casserole and put it in the oven at around 150 for about three hours.
Serve with mash.

* I will, I promise, cover lamb shanks sooner or later, either slow braised in beer or wine, which follows the same basic method as above (except without the prunes and apples and with wine or beer instead of cider, obviously) or my previously posted recipes for oxtail or cheeks; or pot roasted in my own approximation of kleftiko, next time I’m feeling exercised about the notion of ‘authenticity’ I dare say…

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Risotto. So shoot me.

As I was saying about authenticity, it’s all very well, but it’s no reason in itself not to do things differently.  Risotto is a case in point.  The way I do a risotto, the way, I would venture, that most British people will do a risotto, would make a purist throw up their hands in horror (or some other wildly exaggerated gesture, you know, what with being Italian and all…).  And I’m okay with that, because, not only do I happen to think that my risotto is perfectly good regardless of what anyone else thinks, but because the way I, we, generally eat a risotto is different too. 

In traditional Italian cuisine a meal is made up of many courses, and even within a single course, the component parts will tend to be served separately, so that the main meat course is likely to consist of, say, a breaded chicken escalope on a plate on its own, followed by a plate of veg, whereas of course in Britain we pile everything on the same plate, and – even in a foodie household like this one - there is seldom more than one course to a regular weekday dinner.  So whereas a traditional risotto, for a traditional Italian meal, will be but a single component in a greater whole, in Britain – or at least in my house – the chances are that bowl of risotto is the whole.  It is, basically, dinner in it’s own right, probably just with a bowl of salad on the side.  So it makes sense that a traditional ‘pure’ Italian risotto is a simple, plain dish, an elegantly minimalist concoction of rice cooked in stock, with just one or two added ingredients to raise it above the level of a side dish – parmesan usually, maybe with asparagus, or porcini, or saffron.  Always ‘or’, not ‘and’ for the true purist.  While a ‘British’ risotto will appear to that same horrified purist to contain half the contents of the fridge.  They’ll think it looks like a dog’s dinner, but it’s not.  It’s just dinner.

That said, before you go chucking half the contents of the fridge into your risotto pan, you need to know how to make a good risotto in the first place.  And if you want it to be ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’, then just don’t chuck anything else in there…

This is how I do a basic risotto (to serve 4):

320g risotto rice (arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano, which is entirely a matter of personal taste)
olive oil
1 glass white wine 
6 shallots (or 1 onion – or a mix of onion and celery, see below) finely chopped

2 large cloves of garlic, finely sliced
Leaves stripped from several sprigs of thyme
4 rashers smoked streaky bacon or pancetta (or approx 60g diced pancetta)*
salt & pepper*
1 litre good flavoursome stock - chicken stock would be standard, but obviously not if your cooking for vegetarians - most importantly, it must be hot 
1 big handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley

* the bacon is optional – obviously if you’re cooking for vegetarians leave it out, or for some seafood recipes, but smoky bacon  goes really well with squid, octopus etc if you’re using that (or you could even use finely diced chorizo, but use less as it is more strongly flavoured).  If you do use it, bear in mind you probably won’t need to add any extra salt.

butternut squash soffritto with celery
Saute the bacon in a casserole dish or heavy bottomed saucepan, then add some olive oil and throw in the shallots (or onion, celery etc), garlic and thyme, and cook till soft and translucent.  This is your soffritto, remember?  Add more oil if it’s all been absorbed - you need to be able to see it bubbling a little.  Give a good grind of black pepper at this point.

Turn the heat down a little and add the rice.  Cook gently for a minute or two, stirring it until the rice has absorbed all the oil and any juices, then pour in the wine.  Adjust the heat so it’s just gently simmering, give it a good stir and let it cook until all the wine has been absorbed, then start adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, allowing each ladleful to be absorbed before adding the next.  Keep stirring regularly but you don’t need to stand over it all the time. 

After about 35 - 40 minutes you should have used up about 2/3-3/4 of the stock, and the rice should be just about cooked, depending on your preference for how much bite there is left in it (personally I like the grains to remain distinct and reasonably al dente, some prefer a gloopier, rice pudding type consistency – there is no right or wrong).  Taste test it and give it more or less time and stock according to your preference.  When you think it is done, add another splash of wine and one last ladleful of stock, and stir thoroughly until the stock and wine are just absorbed, this should give you a smooth, moist, creamy texture, regardless of how al dente or otherwise you like your rice.  Check the seasoning, adding salt or pepper to taste, throw in the parsley and stir it through, then your risotto is ready to serve.

coming together
Traditionally, and if you’re not cooking for someone with dairy allergies, you’d use butter or butter and oil instead of just olive oil, and add an extra knob of butter and a good handful of freshly grated parmesan right at the end, along with the extra splash of wine and last ladle of stock

That’s a basic risotto, and you do it just like that (with or without the bacon) regardless of what you want to add to it, and you can add pretty much whatever you want.  The point in the cooking at which you add whatever it is that you want, would depend on what it was and how long it would need to cook.

For example:
Butternut squash risotto:
Ingredients exactly as above, using half an onion and a couple of sticks of celery for the soffritto (the flavour of celery goes well with the sweetness of the squash), plus a butternut squash, obviously, a few sage leaves and a handful of chesnut mushrooms.

Peel the squash and cut it in half lengthways, then across just above the seed cavities.  Scoop out the seed cavities and cut the scooped out ends of the squash into wedges about a centimetre and a half across at the thick end.  While preparing your risotto you want to roast these in the oven with some sage, a couple of whole cloves of garlic and a sprinkling of fennel or cumin seeds (at about 180 for about 30 minutes).  Cut the solid ends of the squash into small dice, of about half a centimetre.  Depending on the size and proportions of your squash, you may well not need all the solid ends of it to be diced small – you basically need a similar volume, or maybe half as much again as you have of shallots (or onion).  If, as you probably will, you have excess squash, cut the remainder into big chunks and roast it with the wedges from the hollow ends of squash.

The technique for cooking the risotto is also exactly the same as above, except I’d add some chopped sage leaves as well as or instead of the thyme, and throw in the diced squash between the shallots and the rice and cook for a couple of minutes, then adding the mushrooms (thickly sliced, or diced, depending on how big the whole mushroom is) just before the rice goes in.  Everything else is the same, until you add the roasted wedges of squash on top of the finished risotto in the bowl.

Whatever you put in your risotto the secrets to it are always the same:
The quality of the stock you use.
Be generous with the olive oil (and/or butter) – if in doubt, add a little more.
Keep your risotto thirsty – add the stock a little at a time and make sure it’s absorbed before adding more.
Keep stirring – regularly, not constantly.  It doesn’t matter if you get a little bit of rice stuck to the pan, in fact I think a bit of golden brown on the bottom of the pan is good for the flavour – particularly if you use the stock and a your wooden spoon to redissolve it when you add each ladleful.

And that last point, about a bit of golden brown burn on the bottom of the pan, is a perfect illustration of my broader point about ‘authenticity’.  After all, to a risotto purist, the rice burning to the bottom of the pan is the greatest disaster to befall mankind since Noah’s flood, whereas, just across the Western Mediterranean, the crispy golden crust on the base is the very essence of a traditional and authentic paella.  But, and here I risk getting myself shot in parts of Italy or Spain, a risotto and a paella are essentially the same thing.  It’s rice cooked in stock with extra stuff thrown in.  And exactly what gets thrown in, or quite precisely how you choose to cook it, doesn’t change the essential nature of what it is.  So if you want to keep stirring your paella to avoid the build up of a crust, or get lazy with your risotto and end up with a few crunchy golden grains of rice, then that’s okay.  You’re not wrong any more than a traditional purist, be they Valenciano or Milanese, are right.  It’s all a matter of personal taste.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Sausages. Oh, yes. And Mash.

With three inches of snow on the ground and the nation, as a consequence, at a complete standstill, what else is there to do but to hunker down at home, pull the cork out of a bottle of something red and heartwarming, and build up your reserves of comfort.  What is generally referred to as comfort food, regular reader’s will have noticed, is a recurring theme of this blog, although I’m not, personally, a fan of the term itself.  Comfort, to me implies a palliative effect, and, by extension, the corollary presence of some degree of distress.  You know, I don’t actually count feeling a bit peckish as a form of genuine distress, and if you do, then, frankly, you need to toughen up.  Indulgent food, then?  Well maybe, except the word indulgence carries connotations either of puritan disapproval, or, whether you disapprove of it or not, of an unnecessary and extravagant treat.  Either way, oysters and champagne at Grand Central Station might count as an indulgence, oxtail stew (or braised ox cheeks, or pork and beans for that matter…) at home, to me, doesn’t.  So I think I’ll just choose to call it nice food, thank you.  And in this current wintery weather, what could be nicer (or more comforting, or indulgent, whatever…) than sausages and mash.

As it happens, I was in my local Italian deli – Gallo Nero II on Stoke Newington High Street the other day (before the snows came), and the people next to me asked for some of their special pork and fennel sausages.  I’d already been covetously eyeing the tray behind the meat counter, and that tipped me over the edge – I couldn’t resist asking for some too.  These are pricey sausages – the six I asked for came to almost eight quid, but they are hefty too.  Bigger and meatier than your average sausages - so much so that those six, casseroled, will do the two of us for two dinners, first as the casserole itself, served up with mash (of course), and then as the basis for a pasta sauce – so although it might be pushing the limits of indulgence, it’s not so very wildly extravagant, once in a while.  And they are the best sausages I know.

Because they’re so good I keep the casserole simple.  Just brown the sausages gently in my shallow casserole, then chuck in chunky wedges of fennel and red onion, some garlic, a touch of chilli, a little fresh thyme and salt and pepper.  Soften the onion and fennel, then pour over enough wine (I used red this time, but white will work, or even cider - but that adds an extra fruity element that these sausages don’t really need, but by all means experiment with whatever sausages you’re using) to just about half the depth of the sausages, throw in a bay leaf, bring it to a gentle simmer and put it in the oven.  About 30 – 40 minutes at 180 will do it, or longer and lower if you have the time, which will produce a greater depth of flavour.  Unlike say, ox cheeks or pork and beans, though, it’s not a case of putting it in and forgetting about it for pretty much ever.  This can cook for too long.  An hour at around 150 is probably ideal, although if you do what I did and pop out for a trip to the shops, which ends up taking much longer than you’d expected, and it gets about an hour and a half, it’s not (quite) a disaster.  In fact, flavour wise, it’s great - the onion and fennel having almost melted and caramelized, their flavour intense, their texture luxurious.  Aesthetically, though, I have to admit it’s no triumph, everything cooked to the same deep mahogany colour and the rendered fat from the sausages separated from the winey sauce and laying on top as a clear and glistening (but very tasty) oil slick.

As I’ve said before, and you might well have noticed anyway, Becca and I are not exactly deterred by a bit of fat, and this was utterly delicious served up with mash and a couple of heads of little gem lettuce, sprinkled with cumin and fennel seeds and fried in, I admit, a little bit of the sausage fat (you could use olive oil).  Two sausages each was plenty, leaving the other two in the pan with enough of the sauce to be put in the fridge to await being turned into a pasta sauce a night or two later, with the addition of a handful or two of halved cherry tomatoes and chesnut mushrooms, and served with gnocchi made from the leftover mash.
A more aesthetically successful version of sausage and mash was the one I did a few weeks ago, that I posted as a picture but hadn’t time to write up.  My blog stats tell me that’s been one of my most popular postings, which I’m not sure how to take.  Does it mean that people just like to look at pictures of food and would rather not be bothered with all these tedious words?  In which case am I wasting my time?  Or does it just mean that the people who read my blog are the kind of people who really like sausage and mash?  In which case they’re my kind of people.  I prefer to believe it’s the latter.

That sausage casserole was made in much the same way as the above, but using garlic and chilli sausages from the farmer’s market.  These were damned good sausages, but not in the same league (for flavour or heftiness) as the fennel ones from Gallo Nero.  Just really good ordinary sausages.  Hence the addition of a few more featured flavours going into the casserole, including pears, also from the farmer’s market and just short of perfect eating ripeness - which, in the way of all pears (including avocados, which I know aren’t, but in this respect may as well be), they would undoubtedly have reached for about half an hour around 3a.m. on a Tuesday, before turning to mush - and beans for added substance.

Again, brown the sausages to start, add onions and red peppers (more thinly sliced in this case than the wedges of onion and fennel) along with garlic, chilli, thyme, salt & pepper, then mushrooms and finally the pears, peeled and cut into wedges.  Cook all together for just a couple of minutes, then add cannellini (or butter) beans (half a tin was enough for two), a bay leaf and enough cider to just cover.  Again, put it in the oven for half an hour at 180, or an hour at 150.  Again serve with mash.  Again, delicious.

Mash:  King of carbs.

King of carbs?  It’s a bold claim.  There’s bread, of course - staff of life and all that.  And the Italians and their many –ophiles, would no doubt put in a strong claim for pasta.  I’m quite sure that well over half the World’s population would vote for rice, which just goes to show that democracy’s never really going to work, if you ask me.  Even within the world of potato (a magical world, rather like Homer Simpson’s Land of chocolate, except made of potato, obviously) the popular phone-in vote would probably go to the chip, but I tend to think of the chip of more of a flash prince, a regent perhaps, to mash’s kingly stolidity.  Mash has gravitas.  I don’t know, maybe it’s the snow outside: if Good King Wenceslas was a carb, he’d be mash.

And by mash, I mean mash – not pommes puree or mouselline.  I wouldn’t thank you (sorry, Mark) for any mash made up of half potato half butter and half cream (yes, I know that’s three halves, and that’s just about how far removed from reality these fancy mashes are, in my opinion, and mash, if nothing else, should be real, earthbound food).  I want to be able to tell that my mash is made of potato, and if that means finding the odd lump, then bring it on.  I’m not scared.  In fact I’d go so far as to say, I actually like the odd lump.  I like texture.  As a character in one of my several unpublished novels once said on my behalf: “Why puree a vegetable when you have teeth?”

Not that I’m a purist, or some kind of mash fascist (that would be grossly hypocritical of me).  Make your mash as you like it.  At home, due to Becca’s dairy allergy, obviously, I mash with extra virgin olive oil, but when I’m cooking for other, non allergic people, I’ll mix it with butter and crème fraiche.  And I’m perfectly happy to mix my potato with other root vegetables - sweet potatoes, celeriac, swede or parsnips, are all good – even occasionally something that grows above the ground, in the case of cauliflower.  I usually throw a stalk of rosemary and/or four or five peeled garlic cloves in the pan with the potatoes, for extra flavour.

And that’s one of the great things about mash, it’s variety and versatility, and the fact that you can (and should) make too much of it and turn the leftovers into great new things – all the variations on bubble and squeak, potato cakes, gnocchi - which you just can’t do with chips.  OK, I was joking to start with, but now I’m convinced.  Mash gets my nomination for king of carbs.  We’ll incorporate gnocchi to get the pasta lovers onside, and the campaign kicks off right here…