Wednesday, 21 December 2011

One pot pollack steaks and rice: Meat free comfort food. Cheap, lazy and a little bit paella-ish

This time of year, with the nights drawing in some time around early afternoon, both the present and the future looking inescapably bleak, and the ghost of Christmas imminent haunting every waking (and sleeping) hour, it’s very easy to resort to meaty comfort foods for every meal - big hearty stews, shepherd’s pies, sausage casseroles and pot roasts.  And why not?  Comfort food’s called comfort food for a reason, and we all need a bit of that on these cold dark evenings.  But, as Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has been seeking to prove recently, comfort doesn’t necessarily have to be meaty.  He’s right, of course, as I’ve said before, and as his River Cottage sidekick, and my own former colleague, Tim Maddams, reminded me in a recent Facebook message, reflexively falling back on meat is a lazy option for anyone who considers themselves in any way an adventurous cook.  Still, as anyone who’s familiar with this blog (or even just glanced through its archive) will know, we do find big lumps of meat particular comforting in our house.

Still. To meet HFW and Tim half way, here’s a very quick, easy, cheap, convenient and thoroughly comforting dish for a cold, dark evening, made entirely without meat, even if it does feature big meaty fish steaks.  And even if was conceived almost entirely out of laziness on my part.

I’d originally been thinking of making a fish stew, but my girlfriend of the time (this was many years ago) cancelled our dinner date.  Which was probably just as well as I’d left it late getting to the fishmonger’s stall on Brixton market, and the two Pollack steaks I’d been able to pick up there weren’t, on their own, going to make for a very interesting stew.   Cooking just for myself, as it turned out, I couldn’t have been bothered with anything as elaborate as a bouillabaisse anyway (not that a fish stew need be elaborate to be good), and decided I’d just simply cook the fish, and serve it with rice – probably, although I don’t recall this as a specific detail, simply to save myself the effort of peeling spuds. 

As I had a fish stock I’d made earlier, in preparation for the stew, already in my fridge, it was hardly a leap of creative genius to think of cooking the rice in fish stock rather than water, for added flavour, and then it was purely a matter of saving myself washing up to think why not cook the fish steaks in the same pan?  Why not indeed.  So I simply placed them on top of the rice and stock as it simmered away.  Other than that, all I did was add a dash of turmeric to the rice and stock, for a bit of colour.  And it turned out memorably good.

I’ve since developed the idea (if idea’s not too grand a word) into something that a bit more closely resembles a kind of quick and easy paella by simply slicing some red onion, red pepper and/or fennel and frying that in the pan in a generous slug of olive oil with a grind of black pepper and a pinch of salt, till it’s just starting to soften before sprinkling over a teaspoon of turmeric and stirring thoroughly to get a good even coating of the bright yellow spice (by all means use saffron instead if you want to go for something more paella like, but I like to keep this non fancy, and cheap).  Then I add the rice, and throw in half a glass of vermouth (if you have it, white wine if not, or even a sherry, but only the palest, driest fino, or, ideally manzanilla) and stir the rice and veg until the liquid’s been absorbed or evaporated, before pouring in the stock (add the stock hot, this does mean an extra pan to wash, but do that immediately and it really will need little more than rinsing out).  Just add all – or at least most, see below - the stock in one go, as if boiling the rice in water, or making a paella, rather than adding a ladleful at a time and constantly stirring, as for risotto – this will work even if using risotto rice.  I give it one good stir, then cover and leave it simmering gently for at least ten minutes before lifting the lid again to add the fish.

Exact timings will vary depending on the quantities you’re using and the type of rice.  Basmati, which is what I first used will cook through quicker than paella or any of the various types of risotto rice, but will take a little longer than it would were you simply boiling it in water, as you’ll want to be cooking it at a rather lower simmer.  For basmati, add the fish at ten minutes and check the rice as you do so.  You may need to add more liquid at this point (you can hold back a little of the hot stock for this, or simply use water from the kettle) if it’s all been absorbed – you want to see a little residual liquid above the surface of the rice, and copious steam.  Put the lid back on.

Again, times for cooking the fish will vary depending on how thick the steaks are cut.  But it really shouldn’t take much over five or six minutes, seven if the steaks are particularly thick, or the controls on your stove are fine enough to achieve a particularly gentle simmer.  Perhaps as much as eight in the case of both.  I would turn the steaks after three to four minutes, taking the opportunity to check the rice again.  Again, if need be, you can add more liquid, or just re-cover the pan and leave cooking for another two to three minutes.  Or, if the rice is, or very nearly is, done to your satisfaction at this point, just turn off the heat and let the residual heat and steam finish off the cooking of both fish and rice.  This should take no more than another five minutes. 

If you’re using paella or risotto rice, which take longer to cook just leave it longer, say 15 to twenty minutes before adding the fish.  The only trick to cooking this dish is gauging the right moment, about 5 to 7 minutes before the rice will be cooked to perfection, to add your fish.  But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be exact – the fish will be cooked gently in a moist environment, so you don’t need to worry too much about overcooking or drying out, and you can always take out your fish when it’s done and keep the rice on the heat a few extra minutes at the end to finish it off.  

Monday, 12 December 2011

This is insane. Or just plain dishonest.

I was in Sainsburys the other day and saw this:

Yes that’s a bottle of wine, a red from Cahors.  Buy one of them, it’ll cost you £11.99.  Buy two and that’ll be a round tenner.  As in two quid cheaper for two than one on it’s own would be.  Who’s going to be fooled by that?  Who will really believe they are getting wine genuinely worth twenty four quid in return for just ten?  Surely even in a world in which people have become blandly accustomed to supermarket BOGOF promotions, the notion that Sainsburys are going to not just give you one item free when you buy one at full price, but will actually charge you less for the one you do pay for, presumably, for doing them the favour of taking another one off their hands, is absurd.  I mean, come on Mr Sainsbury, what’s wrong with this wine that you want rid of it so badly?

Clearly the stated full price is, at best, notional.  At worst it’s flat out dishonest.  And I’m afraid I have to go with worst in this case.  And it is indeed the worst kind of dishonesty – in the sense of ‘worst’ being the most rubbish.  Dishonesty so cack handedly blatant that the only people who could possibly be fooled are those not paying attention.  It’s the people doing their shopping distractedly – maybe people yakking on their mobile phones, but also perhaps young mothers with kids in tow - whose eyes take in the fact that this wine is on special offer without actually reading the details and pick up a single bottle, not noticing the extortionate price they’ve been charged for it until they get home that I feel sorry for.   The mothers at least, the mobile phone yakkers not so much…

Them and, indeed, the wine producers, who are almost certainly getting thoroughly screwed over by Sainsburys on cost to allow them the margin to dick about so comprehensively with the retail price.  Obviously I don’t know the details of the specific bit of business behind this particular deal, but have no doubt that it will be based on them producing twice the wine at half the price, which is bad for the wine makers, and ultimately bad for us – assuming we actually like and appreciate wine - because the wine simply will not, can not, be the best that they could make it in those circumstances.   I may not know much about making wine, but I do know that doubling volume, while cutting production costs is not the way to improve your product.  And, if we like and appreciate wine, why should we want the people who make it to gain neither profit nor satisfaction from doing so?  It seems to me we should want to encourage wine makers to make the best wine they can, not discourage them from making wine at all.

The one bunch of people you can be sure that this apparent largesse on Sainsburys part will turn out not to be bad for, will be Sainsburys themselves.  They, after all, choose the price.  Nobody is forcing them to give away a second bottle of wine at a negative price.  Which of course they’re not anyway.  The ‘real’ price of this wine will undoubtedly be closer to the £5 a bottle that two bottles works out at than that plainly spurious £11.99.  My guess would be that at £5 a pop it will probably turn out to be excellent value, indeed I’d think it most likely that this would turn out to be something you’d think was pretty good for six quid, OK but unremarkable at seven.  That is, as I say, just a guess, but I’d be amazed if it proved far wrong.  So you might well argue that two for a tenner is a bargain, and that’s good for us, the wine buying public. 

Well, yes, but also no.  Why not just price the wine honestly, Mr Sainsbury?  Don’t try and fool us into believing we’re getting a better deal than we are, and let us decide how many bottles we wish to buy.   And do you always have to push the wine makers into producing the volume to allow you to sell twice as many bottles at a lower price, rather than allowing them to produce a lower volume of a better, more interesting wine that we’d be happy to buy less of but at a higher price?*

I should of course, at this point, declare an interest.  My day job is in the wine trade, working for, if not strictly speaking a small, local independent wine shop, then an independent chain of shops that is much smaller and altogether more localized than it was at this time last year – circumstances for which I do not, incidentally, hold the supermarkets solely and entirely to blame.  I normally refrain from writing about wine on this blog, partly because of the obvious potential conflict of interests, and for the sake of my own independence, but also, and mainly, because it’s hard enough finding time and space to get down all that I have to say about the food, without getting started on the wine.  But this post really isn’t about wine, it’s about supermarket pricing policies – and the example here is Sainsburys, but this is not just about them, either - and what this example of a bottle (or two) of wine reveals about them.  Because if we recognize the inherent dishonesty in the pricing of this one item, why should we presume that everything else in the store is honestly and fairly priced?  Maybe (and that’s a heavily ironic ‘maybe’) we shouldn’t.

* Actually, to be fair to Mr Sainsbury, the answer to that second question is basically ‘yes’.  That’s just the way supermarket scale economics works, and why you’ll always be able to find more interesting wines in small independent wine merchants.  The more interesting and unusual wines, almost by definition  come from small producers with limited production, and they simply cannot supply in the kinds of volume that the supermarkets require to stock their many thousands of miles of collective shelf space.

Hello Denmark!

I've been translated into Danish!

I know in these days of Babel Fish and Google translate this is no big deal (and probably makes very little sense), but still.  It's nice.

Tak Danmark!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Remember membrillo?

 No sooner, it seems, do I write about the long awaited arrival of Autumn, than Christmas lumbers into view.  Now I know this is as much to do with my recent slackness in updating this blog as it is to do with the late onset of Autumn, and nothing whatsoever to do with the early arrival of Christmas, which only appears to come round quicker every year, but still…  Anyway, if you’re here looking for Christmas ideas, then I’ll refer you to my post last Christmas posts from January , right now I still have autumn to get out of the way.  As, incidentally, does the weather – for all that as I write, Scotland is to all intents and purposes being blown away (a scenario that will doubtless please many, on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall) by the fiercest winds this century – so fierce they have their own Wikipedia entry.  Already!  Making ‘Bawbag’ official.  Kind of -  down here in the South, although it is admittedly a bit blowy right now, we are still in the throes of what is technically a drought.  It really has hardly rained at all this autumn.  And we’ve had three, maybe four days you could properly call chilly.  And we’re almost a third of the way through December!  At the risk of banging on, that’s not right is it?  SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.

Anyway, back to food.  Quinces.  Remember?  I’d made jelly, and was about to make membrillo.  It went like this.  Again, I simply followed that recipe and it came out fine, so I have little to add in terms of advice, other than do it: both the jelly and the membrillo (or quince cheese, if you must).  It really is so easy, and so very tasty.  The one comment I would make is that living as I do (and wouldn’t change for the world) with someone who can’t eat cheese, the opportunities for the consumption of membrillo might appear limited, but that just means it lasts longer.  I made my slab over three weeks ago now and took half of it, along with a big wedge of manchego to a dinner party hosted by our good friends Edgar and Lindsay.  A large part of the rest remains in our fridge, wrapped in greaseproof paper and sealed in a Tupperware container and will keep there perfectly happily for months, or even up to a year, I’m told, not that it stands even the slightest chance of remaining undevoured that long.  I would observe that as it matures, the flavour develops an increasingly strong hint of banana, but that’s the only difference I’ve noticed so far.  And I have no problem with banana.

Although membrillo is naturally and traditionally paired with manchego, what with being Spanish and all, it is worth bearing in mind that manchego is not the only cheese.  Not even in Spain.  I have found that it pairs particularly well with a nice crumbly Lancashire cheese (which pretty much by definition means it will go equally well with Caerphilly, Wensleydale and any other mildish, crumbly white cheese).  And the jelly too.  And of course you don’t need cheese at all, both the membrillo and the jelly will sit very happily on a plate with cold meats, pates or a good old pork pie. 

Ah.  Pork pie.  One of those combinations of words I cannot write, say, or even think without my mouth starting to water just a little bit.  I have long intended to get round to making one of my own, so much so that it’s an annual event, an essential part, indeed, of my own personal advent calender to wake up one day and realize that I’m not going to have time to make one for this Christmas either, again.  We are now rapidly approaching that day for this year.  Damn it.