Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Not much of a summer, hell of a (chorizo) burger...

Apologies.  I’ve been rather neglecting this blog of late.  Other stuff (you know, life…) just seems to keep getting in the way.  It’s been almost three weeks since I posted anything, and over a week since I started writing this, I just haven’t had the consecutive hours spare over the past eight days to sit down, finish it and get it posted.  Well, here goes…

It’s been a funny old summer.  Saturday, down here in London, started off a bit cloudy, turned into a proper, hot, high summer’s day for a couple of hours in the late morning (‘cracking the flags’ as my late, great, grandmother would have said), turned torrential (‘stair rods’ to my gran) by lunchtime, before finally clearing up into a balmy August evening.  Sunday we had friends over for lunch, ate in the garden and stayed outside around the table all afternoon and far into the evening.  This morning, as I write (on Tuesday), it’s stair rods again, out of a cold, bleakly leaden sky.  More reminiscent of October than August.  This has been pretty typical.  So typical it turns out, that I now read that this has been the coolest summer since 1993.  Hardly 1816, perhaps, but still pretty bloody rubbish.

So much for global warming, eh?  Except, no, not really, because remember this damp and chilly summer followed on from an unusually hot, dry, spring.  And every model of global warming I’m aware of projects messed up weather patterns as becoming the norm.  And even if ‘coolest since 1993’ scarcely counts as freak weather, then I think Hurricane Irene narrowly failing to lay waste to New York City, but inundating Vermont (Vermont! Hurricanes!) probably does.  Messed up at the very least.  Although almost certainly NOT God’s direct intervention in U.S domestic politics.

Anyway, I’m glad, at least, that it was last summer and not this one, that we had our kitchen refitted.  That became – as these things tend to – a gruelling epic of frustration and endurance: a job scheduled for a couple of weeks stretching out to occupy several months, for the most part of which we had no functioning kitchen at all.  As you can imagine, that was quite stressful.  Fortunately, that part of that summer (i.e. almost all of it) was a period of almost unbroken good weather, allowing us to make near constant use of the barbeque that lives on our tiny roof terrace (in fact the flat roof of the bathroom).  This summer that would not have been nearly as reliable or congenial.

Still, we’ve eaten out there a few times this year, most recently on one of those occasions on which the urge for a decent burger overwhelmed me.  As sometimes it does.  There’s nothing like a decent burger, and sometimes nothing else will do.  Unfortunately that’s precisely what most commercially available burgers are: nothing like a decent burger, and no kind of substitute for one. 

For some people a burger is just a quarter pound of minced beef, shaped into a disc and griddles, fried or flame grilled.  Nothing wrong with that and it’s by no means just lazy cooks and philistines who’d advocate the straight beef burger, plenty of serious burger aficionados would too.  Burger purists for whom it’s all about the beef.  And if the beef is really good, who am I to say they’re wrong.  Except if the beef really is that good.  I think I’d rather have it as a steak.  Or maybe, at a stretch, minced but uncooked, in the form of steak tartare.

For me, as it happens, a decent burger starts off it’s life as something you might happily serve uncooked as a variation on steak tartare – the beef cut with finely chopped red onion, garlic and chilli, a dash of Tabasco, salt and pepper, obviously, perhaps some fresh parsley, or even a little coriander.  If I was intending to serve it without the application of heat, though, I would choose a different, rather finer, and leaner cut of meat (fillet steak would be conventional, although I might tend towards rump, or even experiment with a more interesting cut like hanger steak, or veal skirt) than I would for a burger, and mince – or, rather, chop – it myself. 

For a burger supermarket mince is fine.  But not the extra lean variety.  You need fat both to bind the patty and to bond and blend the flavours.  If you can only get the extra lean mince, then you’ll definitely need something fatty to add to your burger mix – pork mince, finely chopped streaky bacon, pancetta or lardons, or as I have here, chorizo (not that I started off with extra lean mince.  No sir.)

For my burger mix on this occasion I took a 400g pack of mince, and added 100g of cooking chorizo, half a smallish red onion, one big fat clove of garlic and about half a thumbnail’s length each of both red and green chilli – all finely chopped.  I stirred and kneaded all the ingredients together in a bowl with salt and pepper, just a splash of Tabasco and a dribble of olive oil to help it all bind.  Then I formed the mix into a tight ball and put it in the fridge for a couple of hours.  It’s important to make up your burger mix far enough ahead of time for all the flavours to get to work on each other.

Once I’d lit the barbecue and was waiting for it to reach cooking temperature, I took the mix back out of the fridge and cut the ball in half.  One half went back into the fridge to form the basis of a quick pasta sauce the following day, the second half was further subdivided and shaped into two thick patties.  I’m a firm believer in a burger being shaped more like a flattened ball than a thick coaster.  Between an inch and an inch and a half thick is about right: thick enough to keep it pink in the middle if that’s how you want it (and I do), not too thick that eating it presents a logistical challenge.  Anything less than and you may as well go to Burger King I’m afraid…

Make sure the grill (or your griddle or frying pan if you’re cooking on the stove top) is good and hot – you want to ensure a loud sizzle and some good charring on the outside.  As for cooking time, err on the side of underdone – if it’s too bloody for you or your guests’ tastes, then you can always put it back on the heat if you need to; once it’s overdone, it’s overdone.

For me, tomato, red onion and sliced gherkin are essential to the burger experience.  A crunchy lettuce leaf is a good option.  A good bun, obviously, with some substance, but not too crusty.  Both mustard and ketchup, apart from anything else, an either/or would be an impossible situation to put yourself in.  Kind of like a fast food Sophie’s Choice.  Fancier sauces like sweetcorn relish or garlic mayo risk gilding the lily, mainly, it has to be said, in a good way.  But if the burger’s good - as this chorizo burger really, really, was – then you don’t want too much crammed into the bun with it to smother it’s flavour.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

To Poach a Chicken

I’ve long intended to poach a chicken.  Many people whose opinions I trust keep telling me it’s a really good way to cook it.  Easy, economical, and above all tasty.  But until last week I’d never quite managed to summon the enthusiasm.  Perhaps, having the surname Roach, it’s rhyme that’s always put me off.  Maybe a deeply subconscious memory of the meaningless primary school playground taunt of ‘Roacher the Poacher lay behind my reluctance.  Perhaps even now, so many years later, and so entirely irrelevantly, I still didn’t want to lend that taunt so much as a retrospective shred of meaning.

Rather more plausibly, it would have been because, for all that an Italian Bollito Misto, a French Pot au Feu or a Spanish Cocido are all very fine and deeply appealing things, and I love a good ham, I can’t quite get away from an instinctive feeling that there is something essentially unappetising about the idea of boiling meat.  It just seems wrong, or at the very best a poor fourth choice, when you have the options to roast, grill or stew.  And I know that stewing essentially involves cooking the meat by boiling, but come on, it’s not really the same, is it?

In particular, although undoubtedly intrinsically entwined with the more general aversion, I think the principle reason I’ve always fought shy of boiling my bird is that I do love the skin.  Crispy, salty golden chicken skin is the best bit of a roast for me, or of fried chicken for that matter.  Even when I casserole a chicken I always leave the skin on and brown it well before I add any fluid, so I know the crunchy bits are in there, underlaying the rich, sweet sauce.  Any way of cooking a chicken where you just end up discarding the skin seems a waste, a missed opportunity.

Still, I do recognise that there are those of you who, for reasons of personal preference or dietary necessity disregard the chicken’s skin.  I do not judge you for it.  Really I don’t.  Although, if I’m brutally honest, I cannot deny that there is a small, ungenerous, portion of my soul that can’t help but think somewhat disdainfully that you and your boiled chicken probably deserve each other.

On the other hand, call it poaching rather than boiling then not only does it sound a lot better, but also somehow more suitable for summer cooking.  So when the good weather finally returned, having gone AWOL for most of the summer up till now, and that return coincided with an urge to eat chicken, it finally seemed like the right time to poach.

First thing to say is that poaching is without a doubt the easiest way to cook a whole chicken – short, perhaps of just leaving your shopping in the car, in the full sun on a summer’s day in, say, Seville.  Which I probably wouldn’t recommend.  Roasting a chicken is hardly going down a salt mine either, but with poaching you don’t even have any of that tiresome seasoning inside and out to slog your way through.  And you really don’t need to worry about oven temperature or timings either. 

Just chuck the bird in a pan big enough to contain it and allow you to cover it with water, throw in your veg – no hard and fast rule here, just carry on as it you’re making a stock from the carcass of a previously roast chicken.  I used an onion, half a leek, a carrot, a stick of celery and – in a departure from my usual stock making practice, at the suggestion of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall in his Meat book - a tomato.  Cut them up or leave them whole, depending on your mood.  Add aromatics – again, whatever you like/have to hand, peppercorns, fennel seeds, bay leaves, sprigs of rosemary and/or thyme, some cloves of garlic, a lemon.  Fill the pan with water to just cover the chicken and put it on a low heat, with a lid on.  Let it come slowly to the gentlest of simmers (i.e. hardly simmering at all) and leave it there for an hour or so (maybe up to an hour and a half for a really big chicken.  Turn off the heat.  Leave the chicken to cool in its stock, or check for doneness by simply picking it up by the scaly end of one of its legs.  If the rest of the chicken simply falls off the leg then it’s done.  If not, leave it in the slowly cooling water and it will continue to gently cook away.  If it is done, you can still leave it in the stock without needing to worry too much about overcooking it, because it can’t dry out.  Take it out straight away and serve it hot, or leave it to cool either in or out of the pot – it’s all good, whatever suits you.  Like I say - it’s easy.

I removed my chicken from the pot when it was, just about, cool enough to handle.  This was roughly two hours, maybe a little more, after having first lit the gas under the pan of cold water.  First thing to do was pull off the skin, the hardest part of which was trying not to imagine how crisp and golden and delicious it would have been had I roasted it.  By all means then you could carve the meat from the carcass, but it’s easier, and somehow more appropriate, just to pull it away with a fork, or a spoon, or, as I did, just with fingers.  It really is that soft and tender, and falls off the bone more readily than any roasted bird I’ve come across.

I pulled off about half the meat and tossed it, still warm, into a simple salad of leaves from the garden, served up with some courgette – also from the veg patch – just sliced and sautéed in olive oil with a little garlic, salt and pepper, and a potato salad that Becca had made earlier, of baby new potatoes, celery and spring onions, green olives and capers in a vinaigrette.

Compared to roast, the poaced chicken lacked in nothing – apart from that skin – indeed, as I’ve suggested, it was softer and more tender than any but the very softest, most tender roast chicken I’ve ever had.  Also, perhaps more significantly different, was the extent to which the flesh was infused with the flavours of the aromatics from the pot – far more than a roast chicken will absorb its seasoning.  Next time I poach - and there will definitely be a next time, probably soon – I’m going to try with a whole load of lemons, four or five, maybe half a dozen.  I have a feeling that might just make the best, lemoniest, lemon chicken ever.

The rest of the meat filled sandwiches for lunch over the next couple of days, and, with some bacon and mushrooms, went into a sneaky creamy, parmesanny, sauce for some tagliatelle for a quick supper for myself (Becca was, like the cat, away, and I was the mouse, playing with dairy…).

Best of all, perhaps, it garnished some sorrel soup.  The same sorrel soup I’d been intending to make, if not for quite as long as I’d been meaning to poach a chicken, but for long enough.

Sorrel soup

If not the best thing about poaching a chicken, then certainly the thing about it that most makes life easy, is that you are cooking your chicken, and making a stock from it’s carcass all at the same time.  Incidentally, to further enhance its virtues of economy (not only financial, but of time, effort, energy and foodmass), I’m pretty sure you could make another batch of good stock from the bones once you’d stripped them bare, but my freezer is chocker at the moment, mainly with various stocks, so I’m ashamed to admit the bare bones of my chicken’s carcass went into the bin.

Anyway, I already a good quantity (about 3 litres) of really good tasty stock, so there seemed no excuse whatsoever not to make soup out of the (still) ongoing sorrel surplus.  Particularly as, in the spirit of things, it’s almost ridiculously quick and easy.  Just soften some onion, leeks or both, or both and some celery (I used one onion, half a leek - the white end of the same leek the green end of which had gone into the cooking pot with the chicken the day before - and a big stick of celery) in olive oil in a pan, with just a hint of garlic (one small clove, finely sliced), salt and pepper.  Once soft, pour in a litre of stock.  Bring to a gentle simmer for just a few minutes then turn off the heat.  Add a big bunch (about 100g, very roughly) of sorrel (chopped, also very roughly) to the pan and blitz with a blender till smooth.

This soup was delicious, and a perfectly good lunch or starter on its own, but just to jazz it up, and make it a little more substantial for a late supper, I garnished it with some diced and sautéed chorizo and shredded chicken warmed through in the paprika-y oil from the chorizo.  It was, if I say so myself, a nice touch.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Chicken Provencale-ish

I threw this dish together for dinner just a few days after the pork belly, red pepper and red onion dish that I wrote up in my last post, and it didn’t occur to me until we sat down and started eating quite how similar it was.  And it it didn’t occur to me in the sense of ‘oh no, I’m repeating myself, how boring have I, and our meals, become?’, but in the sense of a very mildly startling reminder of how much variety you can get from really rather minor variations on the same basic techniques and ingredients.

Okay, so substituting chicken for pork belly is something of a step-shift.  Whatever a step-shift might actually be.  And although both dishes would fall somewhere between the general category headings of ‘casserole’ and ‘pot roast’, this one was cooked quite quickly in a relatively hot oven (and in fact could be done entirely on the stove top), instead of slowly, and in stages.  But still, in terms of differences in what I actually did, really very little changed from one dish to the other.

I can, and will list those differences.  The instructions would read exactly as for (the second) the pork belly dish described here, but:

Use chicken, not pork belly.   By all means joint a whole chicken, but this is one of those dishes where those supermarket packs of mixed thighs and drumsticks come in really handy, and make this a really quick and easy dinner to throw together on getting home from work.  Which is what I did.

Leave the star anise and the vinegar out of the marinade – although, to be honest, either or both could quite happily go back in. Particularly, I would suggest the vinegar, although I’d be inclined to reduce the quantity, probably by about half, as you don’t have the fattiness of the pork belly for it to cut through.  Throw in a bayleaf or two instead.

Turn the oven up.  By all means you can do this low and slow, but it won’t make the same difference to the final outcome as it would with the pork belly, and in the same spirit as above, of making this dish something quick and easy, 45 minutes at 200 will be fine, and means you can roast some potatoes to serve alongside at the same time.  If you didn’t want to roast potatoes, it would cook just as well, in about the same time, on the stove top.  Lid on in both cases, of course.

Add two or three good big tomatoes - halved or even quartered if they’re really good and big.  Chuck these in about half way through.  The tomatoes, along with the other veg and juices from the chicken should produce enough of a sauce, but by all means add a splash of white wine if you feel you need to.  Just a splash mind.  And as you have tomato, you rerally may as well add basil.  Just tear a bunch of leaves and scatter them over just before you serve.

The fact that essentially you’re not cooking your chicken in a booze based sauce is one of the key features that distinguishes this dish from the ‘poulet basquish’ dish I’ve done before, in that case cooked in cider.  Otherwise, of course, the two dishes have much in common, as with the pork belly though, the small changes make a big difference.  The tomato and basil, combined with the pepper and onion, give this version a distinctly Provencale taste, at least to my mind.  Provencale-ish, perhaps.  Although I didn’t, you could certainly throw in a handful of black olives if you felt like it, for even more of a taste of the Med.  And crack open a bottle of Rose to drink with it, which we did.  Ah, summer!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Pork Belly Summertime Blues

You might think pork belly is a big old fatty slab of meat for eating in the summer months when we tend towards main course salads, fish or maybe chicken.  But I’m looking out of the window right now and watching the rain teem down from a leaden sky and I don’t know about you, but I’m really not feeling all that salady.  Anyway, I really don’t think I could possibly go a whole three months without a pork belly fix, which was probably what was mainly going through my mind the other day when I picked up a slab of belly from the butchers.  The weather then, by the way, was pretty non committal – not as soggily dismal as today, nor as gloriously hot, bright and shimmery as yesterday or the day before.  Never mind – back to the meat: as is my wont, I got a piece a little over a kilo in weight, for just about a fiver, cut it in half and used it for two meals.

Roasted with borlotti beans, Spanish style:

Further to the question of pork belly’s suitability for the summer months, I think it’s pertinent to point out that one of the best and most memorable pork belly moments I’ve ever had was in a bar/restaurant in Seville.  Admittedly we were in Seville in the springtime, but it was in the middle of an unseasonal heatwave, and believe me, anything considered a heatwave in Seville, regardless of the season, is HOT.

This dish of roast pork belly served on a bed of borlotti beans now seems to be a staple of modern tapas restaurants of the kind that I’m delighted to see springing up all over London these days, and a certain kind of Italian place, currently highly fashionable, particularly in Soho, places like Polpo, or Bocca di Lupo, specializing in ‘small plates’ – although there’s nothing inherently small about this plate.  It’s on the menu at Brawn, too – another ‘small’ plate place in my very own Hackney, although given that that’s Columbia Road, Hackney, that doesn’t necessarily make it any less cutting edge fashionable than Soho - and my guess is that it’d be a good bet to become one of the signature gastro pub dishes of the teenies.

First roast your pork, as discussed here before.

While the pork is roasting, do your beans.  First soften some red onion (half a big one or a whole small one, sliced) in a heavy bottomed, lidded pan, in olive oil, with plenty of garlic (two big cloves, finely sliced) and maybe just a hint of chilli.  Be generous with the olive oil.  Add the beans (ideally fresh, but tinned are fine if fresh is not available.  Or dried, soaked over the night before), add enough good flavoured stock (probably preferably, but not necessarily, chicken) to half cover.  Simmer gently for just about ten minutes if using canned beans (which means you can do the whole thing not even while the pork is roasting, but while it’s resting after having come out of the oven), or until the beans are cooked to your preference if using fresh or rehydrated (I like mine to still retain quite a nutty bite, there’s nothing technically wrong with you if you like them cooked to mush.  Well, maybe a little).  When ready to serve stir through a generous handful of very roughly chopped, or torn, flat leaf parsley.

Serve, as I did, with rosemary roast potatoes cooked alongside the meat, or, if you want the meal to be lighter and more summery, then perhaps with just a crisp, fresh, leafy salad.  But keep it simple.

If you are lucky enough to have access to fresh borlotti beans in sufficient quantities, you might even want to dispense with the roast pork altogether, and make the beans the feature item in their own right.  Because as well as being perhaps the world’s most beautiful foodstuff, they are also fantastically delicious, and quite substantial enough to stand up for themselves, either as a starter or a light lunch.  In which case, I’d tend to add some bacon, lardon or pancetta to the pan ahead of the onion, and definitely cook the beans al dente.  Serve with a simple salad of leaves, with at least a few peppery ones like rocket.

Casseroled with red onions and peppers

This is all about the marinade, which would be great if for nothing else but the fact that it makes it really, really easy to do.  As it happens it makes it really, really tasty, too.  It’s essentially an occidental, Spanishy version of the oriental style dish I’ve described here before.

Cut your pork belly into big chunks, and put it in a non reactive dish or plastic bowl or container.  Mash up a couple of good chunky cloves of garlic and half a thumb’s length of fresh red chilli (this is the one task I use a garlic press for, or you can use the flat of a heavy bladed knife and salt on your board, if you want to get all cheffy) and rub them into the meat.  Pound up a star anise and a good handful of black peppercorns with a pinch of  sea salt with a pestle and mortar and rub that in too.  Feel free to add or substitute fennel or aniseed for the star anise – or indeed coriander or cumin or anything else that takes your fancy, but I really do feel that the aniseedy part of the flavour spectrum is where you want to be with your pork, particularly in the summer months.  There’s a brightness to those flavours that really lifts and lightens, cutting through the meats fattiness.  Finally pour over a good slug of olive oil, and vinegar.  Use a good sherry or cider vinegar, either will do, and be generous with it.  At least a couple of tablespoons.  Don’t worry about making your meat vinegary – you won’t, and even if you did, your vinegar should be tasty enough for that not to be a bad thing.  You really want to be using a vinegar you can happily drink from an espresso cup without pulling a face.  If you’re not, invest in some.  It’s a small outlay that goes a long way.

Then put your marinading meat in the fridge and leave it there for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight.

When you’re ready to cook, heat up a suitably sized lidded casserole on the stove top and gently brown your meat.  While that’s happening cut a red pepper and a red onion into chunky wedges and when your happy with the colour of your meat, throw these into the pot.  Cook on the stove top until the onion and pepper are just starting to soften, then cover the pot and transfer to the oven (pour over any remaining marinade before you do so - you don't want to waste any of that good flavour).  The longer you’ve got, the lower the temperature you can cook it at, the better.  About 150 for two hours is okay, 130 for three is better.  Or you can do it in stages – I prepared mine in advance and put it in to the oven for the cool phase of the belly roast above – so about 45 minutes, starting hot but cooling to 150, then set it aside for a couple of days before putting it back in and bringing it gently up to 130 for another couple of hours.  The thing to bear in mind that at every stage from the marinating onwards, the flavours will only get better the more time you give them.

When we finally got round to eating it we served it with basmati rice studded with nigella seed.  That’s the spice, nothing to do with that Nigella, let alone her seed (I daren’t allow myself to imagine).  I do find rice needs something added to give it a bit of added flavour, otherwise it just seems a little featureless to me.  Maybe that’s just down to my Irish heritage, and a genetically imprinted pro-potato agenda…  A sprinkling of nigella, which has a flavour vaguely reminiscent of the smell of frying onions, tossed into the pan with the rice makes all the difference.

My top tip for cooking rice, apart the addition of nigella seed, is let Becca do it, because she has a real knack for getting it perfectly light and fluffy every time, but, for what it’s worth, assuming you’re prepared to accept advice on cooking rice from a self confessed potato partisan, here are some more universally applicable tips:

1.     Choose basmati.  It really is worth the extra.
2.     Don’t cook too much of it - this is where I tend to go wrong, but get it right and it helps to balance out the extra you’ve spent on the basmati.  A traditional British tea mug (half a pint), filled up to where you’d fill it with tea, is just about spot on for two.  I have a tendency to drink tea by the gallon of a morning, so favour big mugs, overfilled, which may help to explain my tendency to overdo the quantity of rice.
3.     Rinse the rice briefly to remove excess starch.  Just run it under the cold tap in a sieve, gently shaking it for half a minute or so - if you remember.  I normally forget, but to be honest, if you are using basmati, it doesn’t make much odds.  That’s one of basmati’s great advantages.
4.     Put the rice in a pan (preferably one with a glass lid), with a sprinkling of nigella seeds, or a preserved lemon, cut into halves, and just a pinch of salt.
5.     Boil the kettle and fill the mug you measured out your rice in to the brim this time, pour that over the rice, then add a splash (maybe another quarter mug) more.
6.     Swill the pan so the rice spreads itself evenly over the base, cover with a lid and put it on the heat.  Bring to a gentle boil and keep it there until the all the water has been absorbed/evaporated.  At this point it should be done.  Check it.  If it’s still a little nutty, add a splash more water from the kettle and put the lid back on and cook till that’s gone too. If it’s good, stir it vigorously with a fork to fluff it, and serve.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Hooray for Channel 4

Those good people at the Channel4 food website have chosen Food Is Good as one of their 10 best "gluten free and allergy friendly food blogs".  Which is nice.

I do feel a bit of a fraud because not only do they describe me as giving 'the chef's perspective', but this blog is, of course, only allergy friendly as an accident of circumstance.  Although I suppose, in the broader scheme of things that's probably true of all the others - after all, no one plans to be allergic.  Anyway, it's nice to be recognised, and I'm very grateful.  To the people at Channel 4, and most of all to Becca, without whom none of this would have been possible, in a very real sense.

Do check out the feature here, and please visit my fellow top tenners, particularly if you're seeking out gluten free recipes.