Wednesday, 12 December 2012
You may have noticed I haven't been blogging recently (or probably not - my life clearly doesn't revolve around it, I certainly wouldn't expect yours to...), but I did have an absolutely fabulous opportunity to visit the House of Bollinger a while back, and write it up for Civilian (the brand spanking new online luxury lifestyle magazine started by my good friend Mark C O'Flaherty)...
You can read all about it here
Friday, 28 September 2012
It’s just coming up to two years since I started this blog. In fact it will be two years to the day next Monday since I uploaded my first proper post, the very first sentence of which ended “as I write this, it is bleak outside”. And while, at the precise moment of writing this particular sentence, the sun has actually come out over Dalston and is shining through my window, bleak is certainly what the weather has been this past couple of days, and still is over much of the country. Bleak being to put it mildly.
That first proper blog post was about wild mushrooms, and what a bumper year it was for them in 2010. So far in 2012 I haven’t had an opportunity to go out foraging, but from what I hear this is certainly not a bumper year, nor anything like one. Like the widespread flooding of the last couple of days - according to the lady from the Environment Agency I heard interviewed on the radio earlier today (speaking on the subject of floods, not mushrooms) – this is almost certainly down to the unusual pattern of this whole year’s weather, swinging, as it has between drought and deluge (although that’s not exclusive to this year).
Those same weather conditions will almost certainly have an effect on the availability (and therefore, obviously, price) of game birds, which like the birds in my own back garden, if my own observations are anything to go by, will have struggled to breed successfully. Although I have yet to read any reports of the grouse season – which, like wild mushrooms, was a bumper one in 2010, and again in 2011 – certainly the pre-season forecasts were, at best, mixed. I’ve not yet been down to Theobalds to check out their prices on grouse this year, but I doubt they’re knocking them out at a fiver a piece like they were a couple of Christmases back, and the cheapest I’ve seen elsewhere have been the best part of twice that.
So it seems that autumn’s arrived, but that the prospects of tucking into at least some of the produce that makes this such a great time of year for a cook – or an eater – are as bleak as the weather. But don’t worry – the changing seasons in the kitchen are about how you cook as much as precisely what you cook. And grouse notwithstanding, there are always bargains to be had. Cheap cuts of meat are the best for stews, and the passing of summer sees the return of stewing season, which is some considerable compensation in my book…
As it happens though, we have yet to move on to big, hearty, autumnal stews, but we have started roasting again. Not that we ever entirely gave it up. It was still distinctly Indian summery the Sunday before last when we went for a walk down to the Columbia Road flower market and came back via the Brazilian butchers on Mare Street. That I’ve long intended to visit. Long intended to but never previously got round to, mainly through laziness or lack of decisiveness, of course, as in all things. But at least in part because of ethical doubts about importing meat from Brazil. The food miles for one thing, the destruction of the rain forest for another, what with its global environmental impact and local genocidal ones. That’s more issues than I’m necessarily looking for on my plate. So it’s something of an irony, then that I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment when the Brazilian butcher told me that he sources his beef from Scotland.
On reflection though, that is an eminently good thing – not least because Scottish beef deserves its reputation as among the best in the world. Not, I would add the best. That is an absurd claim, made by far too many people from far too many parts of the globe, for any of them to be definitively (or even at all) correct. A bit like the existence of God then – although at least in the case of beef we can legitimately make an evidence based although still, obviously, entirely subjective judgment, and declare one or other type of beef to be our personal favourite. Although I would make two observations about any attempt to do so: 1. I really don’t see the point; and 2. People making any such claim, in my experience, almost invariably come from the place of which the claim is being made. Coincidence? Hmmm….
Anyway, back to the Brazilian butcher and his Scottish beef. I didn’t ask him where he thought the world’s best beef came from, but I did have to ask him what some of the cuts of meat he had listed on his board, or laid on his slab actually were, because although the meat may have been Scottish, the butchery and some of the terminology, was clearly wholly Brazilian. The particular cut I was most interested in was a brick like slab of meat, fat and bone, that he simply identified as rib, and which definitely counted as one of those bargains I referred to earlier, coming in at just £3.50 a kilo.
It was a very similar cut to the more familiar although still not commonly seen British or American short ribs, or the middle rib I wrote about here, but cut on a different angle, with the ribs passing diagonally rather than perpendicularly through the joint. Whatever, at that price it was far too much of a bargain to resist, so we took home the whole slab, which came to almost exactly a kilo. Or about £3.49’s worth.
As it was a Sunday, we decided a straightforward roast was the obvious way to cook it. And as it was so similar to middle rib, I took my previous experience with that as the starting point for my method. As I said at the end of my post on middle rib, the next time I cooked it I would modify my normal roasting method to reduce the ‘sizzle’ time, either browning the joint more thoroughly than normal on the stove top before transferring to a cool oven for long gentle roasting, or browning normally before transferring to a very hot oven but immediately turning it down. I chose the latter.
It seemed to work. I preheated the oven to about 250, whacked in the joint, - first marinaded in a dry rub of crushed satr anise, English mustard powder, salt and pepper, then well browned on all sides and propped up in its roasting dish by two halves of onion and four quarters of beetroot freshly pulled from the garden and briefly blanched - closed the oven door and turned the dial down almost as low as it would go. To around 140 (as I’ve said before, my oven - which I love - is not the most modern, and has no truck with all this newfangled, Heston style roasting for 5 hours at 60 degrees malarkey. Not that I’m taking sides, and as regular readers of this blog will be aware, I’m all in favour of long, slow cooking. But still, if the process being described as ‘roasting’ doesn’t involve the exposure of the thing being cooked to intense heat for at least some of its cooking time, then I’m not really sure what the word ‘roast’ actually means. Call me old fashioned. And, while I’m on the subject, if your oven’s stuck at 60 degrees for five or six hours cooking your beef, how are you meant to cook all the other things you might want to go with your beef? Things like Yorkshire pud or roast potatoes that need a good hot oven? Fine for those with two ovens, obviously, but how many of us have two ovens?
My method is of course much less scientific than anything Heston would countenance. I’m really not at all sure how accurate the temperature settings on my old oven are – although I have an oven thermometer it is so difficult to read in the gloomy light of the oven that I never bother - and I know nothing at all about its rate of cooling. All I can tell you is that when I checked my joint after just half an hour it was looking pretty good, so I took it out, and closer inspection on the board appeared to confirm that. After a good half an hours resting time, I carved it – into big chunks, this is not a slicing joint – and indeed it was just the right shade of pink.
Thursday, 20 September 2012
I guess it’s time to finish off those plums. You remember the plums, the ones from my friend Lindsay’s tree? The ones I made into two kinds of sauce to go with duck (or stir fried pork and beef since), and chutney, and a tart (that I still have to write up)? And, as I promised, jam?
This was, I have to admit, the first time I’ve ever made jam, so I won’t pretend to be an expert, but will instead point you in the direction of someone who seems to be. I did a fair bit of research, and pretty much all the recipes I found were, broadly speaking, much the same - I settled on the Cottage Smallholder’s version though because I liked both the simplicity of the recipe itself and the clarity of its description. Also because it had a variation specifically for ‘barely ripe’ plums, which was exactly what I was working with. And although the plums they were talking about were apparently Wild Plums, their picture of them did look just like mine (stop sniggering at the back there…)
I won’t bother reproducing the recipe here - just click on the link, - as I followed it pretty much line for line, and I wouldn’t want to even give the impression that I was claiming any kind of authorship. The one twist of my own that I added on this occasion was throwing in a single pod of star anise and a two inch length of cinnamon stick, for an added hint of spice. By and large, I’d have to say it wasn’t at all bad for a first attempt at jam making - coming out as it did, above all, really plummy - but there are a few things I’d experiment with changing next time.
Firstly, the amount of sugar used. This was pretty standard in all the recipes I found, at equal weights of fruit and sugar. In fact I used rather lower proportion of sugar than that, two 1 kilo bags of regular granulated for 2.3 kg of plums. Still the finished jam was a little bit on the sweet side for my – and particularly Becca’s tastes. Next time I’ll reduce the sugar content even further, perhaps as far as two parts sugar to 3 of fruit (which would have been about 1.5kg of sugar in this case). I’ll also add the juice, and maybe the zest, of a lemon or two, just for added zing and a touch of tartness.
I used regular sugar rather than preserving sugar and followed the tip that appears in the comments section below the recipe for adding pectin by cracking a handful of plum stones and tying them up in a muslin bag which you then drop in the pan with the plums for the natural pectin in the plum stone kernels to act as the setting agent. That was if anything too successful – personally I feel home made jam should be distinctly runny, mine is set firm. I used about a dozen cracked stones in my muslin bag. Next time I’d make it a half dozen.
Speaking of setting, the cold plate trick for testing the setting point of jams and jellies has never worked for me. This is where you put a plate in the fridge and test for setting by drop a blob of your boiling jam/jelly onto the cold plate, put it back in the fridge for a minute or so, then prod it with your finger. If set the surface of your blob should wrinkle. I have always just ended up with two cold plates covered in sticky smears, not a sign of a wrinkle, and eventually just gone with gut instinct that if the jam/jelly hasn’t been boiling long enough and hard enough to set now, then it never will. And if anything, every time my jam/jelly has, if anything come out erring on the side of oversetting. My medlar jelly in particular – delicious though it was (and still is, just one jar left now…) – could have made a powerball. I don’t know if this indicates that my fridge just doesn’t get as cold as it claims to, but I don’t think so – it seems satisfactorily chilly in every other regard. Maybe I should just get myself a jam thermometer. Or trust to instinct, like I do with most other aspects of cooking…
One last point – as I said, one of the key things that attracted me to the Cottage Smallholder’s recipe was that it seemed simple. And it was. The other impression I got from reading it was that – apart from the steeping of the fruit in sugar over night – it was pretty quick. It wasn’t. The only mention of timing in the recipe is 8-10 minutes of continued rapid boiling, rather skipping over the ‘bring to the boil’ bit. Well, in my experience, bringing over 4kg of combined fruit and sugar to the boil in the first place takes a long time. A really long time. After all, you don’t want to turn your biggest, fiercest gas burner on full under the pan, because that’ll just burn the fruit and sugar at the bottom before the heats even got to the top. And then, the recipe says, once the jam’s reached setting point, at that stage you just carefully remove the plum stones with a slotted spoon as they float to the surface, as if that was the work of a moment. Again, it’s not. When you’re working with 2.3kg of small plums, that’s a good twenty minutes worth of prodding and poking (because my plum stones, at least, weren’t cooperative enough to just ‘float up to the surface’) and scooping on it’s own. So I’d recommend starting that process before you’re even wondering whether or not your jam’s reached setting point. All in all, I can tell from the timestamps on the photos I took, it was a full three hours from putting the sugar and fruit into the pan to putting lids on jars of jam. Working with smaller quantities, scooping stones sooner and more efficiently, and having more confidence in your gut telling you that setting point’s been reached even if your cold plate isn’t wrinkling will reduce that time considerably, but still. Leave yourself a full morning (or afternoon or evening).
And that just leaves the tart. But in the mean time, here's a tasty bit of crumpet (with a dollop of plum jam)...
Monday, 17 September 2012
The last couple of posts have been on stuff to do with plums, lots of plums (and there’s still jam and tart to come…), but I wouldn’t want you to go away with the idea that this blog is all, and only, about plums these days. Of course it’s not. And of course this time of year, the end of the summer and beginning of autumn, is famously the most abundant time ofyear for all sorts of fruit and veg – not to mention wild mushrooms and game.
While it may not be a common feature of the traditional English harvest festival, one of the conspicuous highlights of this time of year round here – here being Dalston, with its many Turkish shops, - is the abundance, and perfect plump ripeness, of fresh figs. They are, it’s true, available through much of the rest of the year too, these days, but between now and Christmas is the only time they are ever worth buying, and right about this time, from mid August and throughout September, is best of all. And one of the things that reminds me to be thankful that we live in Dalston, with its many Turkish shops, in any one of which you can buy four figs for a pound. A rather better deal than the in no way superior looking figs I came across in Fortnum and Masons the other day - having an hour to kill in Piccadilly - being sold for a pound fifty a piece (or four for six pounds).
A perfectly ripe fig is of course, a beautiful and lusciously tempting thing, with its velveteen soft, purple skin and yielding, crimson insides. It’s easy to see why it has such strong associations with decadence and, mainly, sex. Although whether or not the experience of eating one is ever actually erotic, I’m not so sure. Speaking for myself, of course. Clearly one of the defining features of eroticism is that every individual finds it where they will, and there’s no point trying to say they’re wrong. If a fig turns you on – or wearing a ball gag or nappy for that matter – who am I to argue that there’s nothing erotic about it. Speaking for myself, as I am, I’d say pretty much anything loses its erotic potential once that relentless enthusiast for all things erotic - and, particularly, symbolic – DH Lawrence has had done with it…
Like plums, figs are used as direct slang for intimate body parts. Unlike plums, or anything else I can think of, for that matter, figs have been commonly used as slang for both male and female parts, which is a bit weird but nowhere near as weird as the sex life of the fig itself – if one can use the term sex life for the reproductive mechanism of a plant. The fruit is in fact an inverted flower, which depends on a particular kind of wasp (of which there is a matching species for each distinct species of fig, and for whom the dependency is mutual) to pollinate it, and within which the female wasp, having pollinated it and laid her eggs within it, dies, and is consumed. It seems to me that once you know that, any erotic charge that the fig still holds is of a pretty dark, one might say Cronenbergian hue…
Nevertheless, and putting to the back of your mind that every time you eat a fig you’re eating a dead wasp mother (but don’t worry, the lifecycles of the two organisms are, thankfully, synchronised in such a way that there will be no wasp larvae present in any edible fig), a perfectly ripe fig is not only a beautiful and tempting thing, but a sublimely delicious one. Eat them on their own, with a drizzle of honey or maple syrup. Or, as I did recently, make a salad of quartered figs, wedges of peach and shredded parma or Serrano ham. Again, a light drizzle of maple syrup to dress it, and you have yourself a lusciously decadent and delicious – if not downright erotic – lunch , or better still, breakfast, dish.
Thursday, 6 September 2012
Even after having had two goes at making a sauce for a pair of roasted duck breasts, that still left a lot of plums to get through. My plan for the greenest of them had always been chutney. Not unlike the similarly green tomato chutney that was the subject of one of my very first posts on this blog. The technique was pretty much exactly as described for that, although I left out the turmeric, which didn’t really seem a necessary or appropriate complement to the plums. I also notice that in the two years (two years!) since I wrote that post I have become rather more of a purist in the spice toasting department. I now toast the whole seeds in the dry pan prior to pounding them to a powder with pestle and mortar, rather than vice versa. How much difference that makes to the flavour of the finished dish I couldn’t really say – marginal would probably be about right, but it does reduce the chances of over toasting, i.e. burning, the spices and ending up with something acrid and bitter rather than warmly flavour enhancing. It’s also possible that it – again marginally – makes the pestle&mortaring easier, so given that it’s not actually any more hassle (although it does, admittedly, take a minute or two longer) you really may as well. It does slightly change the order of events – as before, I now start by toasting spice seeds, but then they’re removed to be pounded, and the chutney cooking itself starts with the garlic, chilli and onions softening gently in oil - in the same pan, you may as well make use of any residual flavour the spice toasting as left behind. Then I add the powdered spices to the onion as it cooks. It’s not a radical change.
Green Plum Chutney
1kg green plums
4 small onions (about 400g)
150ml cider vinegar
Chilli (dried or fresh)
Spice seeds – black pepper, coriander, mustard, cumin, fennel etc, toasted and pounded together with rock salt
Stone and quarter the plums; peel and dice the onions small; finely slice the garlic and chilli (as usual I’m leaving quantities of those to you and your taste – I use plenty).
Soften the onion, garlic and chilli in a little oil (I used olive, but sunflower, groundnut etc is fine), sprinkle with the spices, add the plums and cook till starting to soften, then add the raisins. Cook a little more and add the vinegar. Keep cooking till the consistency’s suitably gloopy and the vinegar’s eye-watering punch has mellowed. Spoon into sterilised jars. Serve with tangy cheddar cheese (assuming you don’t have a dairy allergy – sorry Becca) or a pork pie.
Ah. Pork pies. I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again: I do like a pork pie. I’ve also said before that I was definitely going to make one myself, one day. That day has yet to come. I do now, though, have the good fortune to find myself working a day or two a week down at Borough Market – probably London’s (and presumably the UK’s) biggest and best food market – as part of my day (or more often evening) job for Borough Wines. Our stall is almost directly opposite Mrs King’s pie stall, and Mrs King, it has to be said, does make exceedingly good pies. They are that rare thing these days – a pork pie that actually tastes of pork. And with proper crispy, crumbly pastry, and jelly and everything. Mrs King’s pies inspire me to make my own, while simultaneously raising the question ‘why bother?’. So far, I admit, the question comfortably trumps the inspiration…
Tuesday, 4 September 2012
Last week my good friend Lindsay sent a plea for help. The plum tree in her back garden was so overladen with fruit that it represented a danger to itself and others, and was in need of a radical plum-ectomy. Of course I was happy to help out. We spent a thoroughly entertaining couple of hours teetering on precariously propped ladders, poking at out of reach branches with long sticks, and showering small children with plums of every stage of development from rock hard to mouldering mush. At the end of the morning I came home with three large bags, filled with plums of all stages of development save the last.
The contents of the three bags had been sorted, into thoroughly unripe, not quite ripe, and ripe and ready to eat. The latter went straight into the fruit bowl, of course; the others, of each of which there was a far greater quantity, demanded rather more thought. Not that it really took a huge amount of either effort or intelligence to come up with the following thoughts: chutney; jam; tart and sauce.
And once I’d come up with plum sauce, it was scarcely an intuitive leap of genius to get to roast duck, either, and as luck would have it they happen to have duck breasts at half price in Sainsburys at the moment. Which was, as the man from The Fast Show would say, nice.
Roast duck breasts, with or without a plum sauce is one of those things that I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t written up here already – to the extent that I did several searches through my blog history, before being entirely convinced. Mainly because a roast duck breast is one of those things – not unlike a pork tenderloin fillet, and for similar reasons – that is so quick and easy to do you can knock it together on a weekday evening after getting home from work, and yet produces a meal that is not only delicious, but feels like a rather luxurious treat. And when the duck breasts themselves are half price – which they do quite often seem to be, at our local Sainsburys at least - it’s not too pricey either. Not cheap, but, I think, worth it in a way that buying individual chicken breasts, never, ever is. Not least because individual chicken breasts are, frankly, pretty uninspiring slabs of meat, so much less tasty, or versatile, than the same chicken’s own very much cheaper legs, while a duck breast, with its luscious layer of fat and crispable skin, really is a prime cut.
Another advantage of the roast duck breast - and, again something it shares with the pork tenderloin – although not relevant on this particular occasion, is that it’s something that’s very easily scale-able. It really is one of those few things that’s as do-able for two as it is for twenty – and it’s scarcely more work for a larger number, it’s just a matter of the size of your pan/s.
Here and now though, it was just a dinner for two. Which obviously meant that the sauce for it wasn’t going to make much of a dent in our current glut of plums, but never mind. Perhaps in acknowledgement of that fact, I ended up making not one, but two plum sauces to go with my duck, thereby getting through twice the number of plums. I say perhaps, but that’s a lie – the truth is that I just wasn’t happy with the first sauce. Not that there was anything wrong with it, as a sauce, it just wasn’t right for the dish I had in mind, being too intense and concentrated. It would have smothered the duck. So I made a lighter, looser sauce – basically a compote - to go over the duck, and served the first sauce on the side like a ketchup.
Spicy plum ketchup:
1 small onion (or shallot)
good red wine or sherry vinegar
1/2 star anise
I finely chopped the onion, a clove of garlic and about a little fingernail’s worth of fresh chilli and put them, with a good slug of olive oil, in a small saucepan over a lowish heat. Using a pestle and mortar a crushed a handful of black peppercorns, the star anise and a pinch of rock salt into powder and sprinkled it in with the onion. While the onion was softening, I took a handful of plums – choosing a pretty random mix of ripenesses - halved and stoned them before adding to the pan once the onion was soft and translucent. I allowed them to cook for about 10-15 minutes, till softening but still holding their shape, then added a good dash of the pomegranate and vinegar – probably about a dessertspoon of each. Then I allowed the pan to simmer gently, for about another 15 minutes or so, till the liquid was reduced by maybe as much as a third, and the vinegar had lost its sting.
Then I checked for seasoning. It had plenty, along with the tang of the vinegar, the sweetness of plums and pomegranate and a distinct hit of chilli heat. That was the point that I decided that my original plan, to coat the duck breasts in this sauce, might need to be rethought. This sauce was good, but it was not the right sauce - there was just a bit too much going on.
Fortunately, I’d been making the sauce in advance, so it was no problem just to set the pan aside for the sauce to cool, before blitzing it down to ketchup consistency - about 200ml worth, and a lovely, purpley/chocolatey colour - for a dipping sauce, leaving plenty of time to make up another sauce to pour over the duck. A very quick, easy and tasty sauce, but nevertheless, one that wouldn’t overwhelm the duck.
Very mildly spicy plum compote:
Citrus zest (Satsuma and lemon in this case, or orange)
Splash of gin
Pinch of mixed spice
Again, I picked a handful of plums of varying degrees of ripeness and halved and stoned them. I put them in a pan with just a smear of olive oil in the bottom to discourage sticking and gently started to cook them. Meanwhile I used a veg peeler to shave a couple of good strips of zest each from a lemon and a Satsuma and threw those into the pan, along with the juice squeezed from half the lemon. I sprinkled the plums with just a pinch of the spice mix I’d prepared for making the plum chutney I’ll write up in my next post, but which consisted of salt, pepper and toasted fennel, coriander, cumin and mustard seeds, all crushed to a fine powder with pestle and mortar – allspice, cloves and cinnamon could go in there too, if you want, or indeed instead, but the key thing, rather than the specific spices used in this instance, was to keep the spicing light. Then I added a good slug of gin and let everything cook together gently until the plums were soft but still plum shaped, and the gin and juices had reduced to a nice light syrup – literally no more than 10-15 minutes. And that was that. All ready to be spooned over the duck.
Roast duck breasts
Salt, pepper, star anise
Score the skin of the duck breasts, trying not to slice right through the fat to the flesh below (but it’s not a disaster if the odd score does go all the way through. Using a pestle and mortar, pound together a good pinch of rocksalt, a couple of dozen or so peppercorns and a star anise, and rub the resulting powder into the scored skin side of the breasts, rubbing any excess into the flesh side for good measure.
Get a metal handled (or otherwise oven proof) frying pan good and hot and sear the breasts, skin side down until crusted a dark golden brown. Then turn the breasts in the pan and transer, skin side now up, to the oven, preheated to 180-200. Roast for 10-12 minutes depending on the thickness of the breasts and the rareness you like. Maybe as much as 15 minutes if you or your guests are squeamish about pink running juices. Neither Becca nor I are (squeamish that is), you probably won’t be surprised to hear, but, unlike many alleged experts, I wouldn’t presume to sneer at anyone who preferred their duck, lamb or steak well done. Different strokes and all that. I was at a restaurant once with a work colleague who sent her lamb chops back three times to get it cooked beyond pink – and while I happen to share the chef’s opinion on the optimum degree of doneness for a lamb cutlet, I couldn’t understand his (or her – but I bet it was a him) dogged refusal to cook it any discernable degree further to suit the tastes of a paying customer. That’s just arrogant and rude.
After taking the duck breasts out of the oven leave to rest for a good ten to fifteen minutes (you could even make the second plum sauce while the meat relaxes) before serving. I like to slice them before plating up, but by all means serve them whole if you prefer (different strokes etc). I spooned the compote over the sliced breasts and then I’m afraid I drizzled the spicy plum ketchup over and around the meat. Given my time again I’d just spoon a single big blob onto the side of the plate like proper ketchup.
As the oven was on anyway I roasted up some potato, celery carrots and four giant cloves of garlic, with a handful of spring onions thrown into the roasting dish when I opened the oven to remove the duck.
The rest of the spicy plum ketchup - that which did not get drizzled (sorry) - is in a pot in the fridge. It's already made an excellent dipping sauce for a delicious Vietnamese style pork belly stir fry that Becca made.
There was also a plum tart for dessert, but I’ll write that up in a separate post.
Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Having spent so much of this year having a bit of a moan about the weather, I feel rather bad about having had nothing to say (on the blog at least) since the summer came good, but what with a week’s holiday, the Olympics and starting a new job since last I posted, I don’t seem to have much time to cook, let alone write it up. I certainly haven’t been cooking very much that’s new, and although that makes for less interesting blogging, it really isn’t a problem. Innovation is all very well, and there’s always a place, indeed a need, for it – but old favourites are good too. After all, revered as the likes of Ferran Adria and Rene Redzepi are, there’s nothing the world of foodiness loves more than culinary tradition (to the point of tedious dogma, at times, it must be said, but still…), and you simply wouldn’t get culinary tradition without the repetition of old favourites. Where would we be if every Greek grandma felt under pressure to deconstruct her Kleftiko, if every Marsellaise fishwife couldn’t serve up a fish stew because the family have had bouillabaisse before. Sorry, I know I’ve said all this before too, but it is, appropriately enough, an old favourite topic of mine…
Becca and I had dinner in the garden earlier this week – the first time, I think, that we’ve eaten al fresco at home this year. I served up a variation on a dish so old and favourite that I’ve already written up two distinct versions of it before – once with asparagus, once with beans and beetroot. I make no apologies for that, because the steak salad is so good on so many levels. Three at least: It’s a great way to make dense red meat into a light summery meal; it makes a little meat go a long way; and it’s ideally made with those lesser known - every bit as tasty, but mysteriously much cheaper than the regular - cuts of steak, known variously as flank, feather, skirt, hanger or butcher’s steak, so it’s doubly cheap. Oh, and it’s thoroughly delicious.
This version was as simple as can be – another great reason for doing it. And quick, too – and the last thing you want to be doing on those rare occasions we have the chance to eat out in the garden in this country is spend hours sweating away in the kitchen, pushing your culinary envelope. Just new potatoes and green beans, tossed in a mustardy, lemony vinaigrette, with a few fine shavings of garlic and fresh chilli, fennel fronds and celery leaves, with a 330g feather steak (a whole £3.30’s worth for the two of us), salted, peppered, seared and rested, then sliced into thin strips and laid over the top. Served with a crunchy salad of celery, tomato, cucumber and fennel. Eaten outside in the last of the evening sunshine with a chilled bottle of light and fruity red.
Try as I might, I really can’t imagine I’m likely to get bored of that any time soon…
Thursday, 26 July 2012
Summer seems to have arrived at last, at least it has here in London – just in time for the Olympics - and I find myself committed to writing up a recipe for stew. Bleedin’ typical. Still, as stews go, it’s pretty light and summery, and with it’s combination of paprika dusted chicken livers and butter beans it has a distinct hint of Spain about it too, which works for me any time of year, but summer and Spain do go together in my mind (even if the best times to actually go there are undoubtedly spring and autumn).
In my previous post on chicken livers I’d described dusting the trimmed livers in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and plenty of paprika (hot or sweet, the choice is yours, personally I switch randomly entirely dependent on mood or mere whim), and frying them till crisp and just starting to char at the edges on the outside, still delicately pink and tender on the inside, then using half the batch in a salad, and setting half aside in a bowl in the fridge to use in a stew for the next day. Overlooking the fact that that I posted that over a week ago, imagine that it is now that ‘next day’, and time for chicken liver stew. Which really couldn’t be quicker, easier, or much more delicious.
First take the bowl of chicken livers out of the fridge, along with a few rashers of streaky bacon (or pancetta) – a couple per person. You’ll also need onions, mushrooms and a tin of beans – butter beans are my preference, for size, flavour, consistency, and a properly Spanish feel, but cannellini are a perfectly good substitute. Or chickpeas work well too, and bring a different, perhaps more Moorish character to the dish. If you want to throw in red pepper, fennel, or celery, as well as the onion, then go ahead – but the combination of liver bacon and onions is so good, and so classic, I tend to keep it pretty simple. A little garlic and a bit of fresh chilli, a splash or two of wine and/or stock, seasoning and herbs, and that’s it.
Just start by frying your bacon, chopped to roughly postage stamp sized pieces, then add the onions with fine sliced garlic and fresh chilli (entirely optional and variable on whether you dusted in hot or sweet paprika) and hard herbs – thyme, and ideally a few sage leaves (sage goes wonderfully with all forms of liver), cook till softening, then add the mushrooms. Cook a couple of minutes more, till the mushrooms are just coloured, then tip in your beans. Add a glass of wine and a ladle or two of chicken stock (or all wine if you have no stock to hand, or vice versa – although that seems less likely, somehow…), cover the pan and simmer it all together gently till the onions are fully soft and the beans have just a little bite left in them. Then add your chicken livers and basically just warm them through. Scatter with fresh parsley. It’s all done in about 20 minutes.
Serve just with good bread and a salad on a summery day, or with mash, or maybe colcannon if the weather calls for more hearty, comforty sort of eating.
Tuesday, 24 July 2012
|Me, communing with ducks. A bit like Eduardo Sousa (but rest assured none of the ducks in this picture were subsequently killed for their livers)|
When I was searching out items to link to on my last post I came across a couple of things that got me thinking. Thinking among other things that the issues they raised merited rather more than just being hidden away behind embedded links, that might or might not be clicked on. So, rather than just posting the links and passing on, and at the risk of going back over ground that you may well have covered yourself having clicked on my previous post, here are a few of my thoughts prompted by two of those linked items:
The first was this one, which I came across while searching for articles on the ethics of foie gras production, that would illuminate the issue without being too revolting – after all, I was seeking to turn people on to the delights of chicken livers, not put them off eating all together. What I hadn’t been expecting to come across was something that made me think again about foie gras, and make me really want to try some – of admittedly a very rare and no doubt terrifyingly expensive kind (there is no indication of how and where you might be able to purchase it on the Pateria de Sousa website, let alone a pricelist). Even if you are – not unreasonably - unwilling to have your views on foie gras modified by the example of a product you have next to no chance of ever sampling, I would still urge you to click on the link and check out Dan Barber’s “foie gras parable” – because not only is it an extraordinary and intriguing tale, entertainingly told, I have to admit that by the end I also found it genuinely moving and, although it’s a word I’m not generally wont to use, actually inspiring. And not just in the sense that it inspired me to think again about foie gras in particular, but for what it has to say more generally about animal welfare in farming, and even food production as a whole.
If, of all things, foie gras can be produced with such respect for the welfare of – even love for – the geese involved, and for the environment in which they, and the farmer, live, then surely there is hope for us all. And I’m not just talking about those who hanker for guilt free foie gras, or even just about those of us who do genuinely care about the ethics of food production, but ultimately, actually, everyone, because we all depend on the farming industry to produce our food. Even those very few people among us who don’t directly, who manage to be 100% self sufficient, do still rely on an environment profoundly affected by the farming industry.
Further, the fact that the foie gras produced in this way is so good, not in spite of the focus of attention being on the welfare of the goose and it’s environment, but as a direct result of it, is a truly beautiful thing. An inspiring thing. And, I think, the thing that turns the story into a parable.
Now I’m not so naïve to believe that Eduardo Sousa’s methods can be applied across world farming; that every livestock farmer will ever have either the time or the inclination to lie down with his flocks and whisper sweet nothings in their ears; that the lives of all domesticated animals reared for meat can be made so attractive that wild members of their species voluntarily come and join them. Nor am I likely to be convinced that foie gras, or any other part of the goose for that matter, produced by his methods is ever going to be anything other than a prohibitively expensive luxury, available only to a very few. But still, there are wider reaching lessons to be drawn from Dan Barber’s parable, lessons that apply to all animal husbandry, to all farming.
There’s even a lesson that applies more generally than that: a lesson about ethics generally, or perhaps more particularly about how we view the world. Too many people, too much of the time tend to reduce all issues to black/white; right/wrong. The real world is more complex than that, and if an issue as apparently black and white as the ethics of foie gras production (foie gras: clearly bad, on animal welfare grounds) can turn out to have such a massive grey area (some foie gras, it turns out: not just good, but the highest welfare meat product you’re ever likely to encounter…) then what does that tell us about all the other, more obviously fuzzy, areas of ethical debate, that people still tend to polarise? Don’t polarise, that’s what – think, and think again. Just like the veal issue.
The other link that got me thinking was this one, about the impact of asparagus farming for overseas markets in Peru. It seems our taste for out of season asparagus is, literally, draining Peru dry. Which just goes to illustrate that the current trend for seasonality and local produce is based on more than foodie faddism (which is not to claim that all its proponents are more than mere foodie faddists). Although, in light of my comments in the paragraph above, one does also have to take into account the benefits of $450 million annual export revenue for a country as poor as Peru, and the 10,000 jobs the asparagus industry has created in one of the very poorest parts of that poor country. See, it can be tricky, living in the grey areas - so I’ll leave it entirely up to you whether or not to purchase Peruvian asparagus from your local mega mart. On balance, personally, I won’t be.
I did say I’d be writing up more things to do with chicken liver on my next post – that’ll have to wait. In the mean time, here’s a picture to keep you going…
Wednesday, 11 July 2012
A month and more has passed since last I posted, making June 2012 the first month since I started this blog to come and go without a single word from me. There’s no obvious excuse: yes, I’ve been busy, but I’ve been busy before, and I’m sure many others out there in the ‘sphere have been busier and still managed to blog regularly. I think the problem has been, as much as a lack of time, a lack of inspiration – I do try to keep my posts seasonal, and the past month has been so depressingly unseasonal it’s been hard to come up with anything appropriate, either to write about, or for dinner for that matter.
Nevertheless, I must try – and do – better. And will promise to at least make an effort not to go on too tediously about the bloody weather. Apologies in advance for my inevitable failure on that particular score. Bloody weather, blah, blah…
My last post featured the barbeque, and I’m somewhat torn between picking up where I left off in a - dare I say characteristically British? - spirit of bugger the weather, and not wishing to do anything that’s only going to further rub in the absence of suitable barbequing conditions - given that chances are that as you read this it’ll be all grey, gloomy and distinctly soggy outside, as indeed it is as I write. This dilemma though is neatly resolved by a scan through my recently accumulated food pics which reveals that the few times this year I’ve had the means, motive and opportunity to throw together something explicitly summery, either on the barbeque or not, it has inevitably featured asparagus. And as we are at best, in the dying if not already dead days of this year’s asparagus season (I’m talking British asparagus here, obviously – it seems to be Peruvian asparagus season all year round – how? – but that doesn’t count) then any write ups of those meals will have to wait till next spring. In the mean time, I guess I’ll stick to things that are sort of a bit summery, but also quite hearty and warming.
Like a warm chicken liver salad, for instance.
Now I love chicken livers. Properly, seriously, love them. To the extent that it is an enduring mystery to me how come they’ve not featured more heavily on this blog – or indeed (hardly, having been mentioned only in passing) at all. Maybe it’s because whenever we do have them I’m always in too much of a hurry to eat them to take any decent pictures – which might or might not explain the quality of the pictures accompanying this particular post (or my blog in general, come to mention it…).
Anyway, finally, let’s talk about chicken livers: not only are they utterly delicious, they are cheap, versatile, and both quick and very simple to prepare. What’s not to like? When considering poultry livers considered to be delicacies, most people’s minds will turn automatically to foie gras, but without even considering the ethics of its production, for me the fabulous richness that is the basis of foie gras’ appeal, is also its limiting factor, both in terms of its moreishness (perhaps just as well considering its exorbitant price) and perhaps more significantly its versatility. And for those reasons alone – again without factoring in ethics, or cost – if forced to choose, I’d take chicken livers over foie gras, without any real sense of a dilemma. You wouldn’t actually have to force me. Add ethics to the equation, not to mention relative costs, and you’d have pretty much the dictionary definition of a ‘no brainer’ (although if I were ever to be offered any of the foie gras Dan Barber talks about rather marvellously here it might just change my mind…).
Also, and sorry to mention it again, but they’re just the thing for this dubiously summery and thoroughly unpredictable weather we’ve been having, being the perfect basis of a main course salad, either hot or cold, or a light and quick stew. Or of course you could use them to make a pate (which given the soft, buttery texture they start off with could really hardly be easier, being, at its simplest just a question of mashing them with a fork) which would be ideal for taking on a picnic – if anyone’s been on one of those this year…
Pretty much whatever I’m going to end up doing with them, I start off by preparing them in the same way, which I have to admit is another appealing thing about them. This is the method I devised (if that’s not too grand a word) to recreate at home the meze dish served at the Real Greek years ago (and I daresay to this day, but since it became a chain, no doubt not to the same delicious effect). This is simply to dust the livers in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika (use the sweet, or smoked/hot entirely depending on personal taste, or mood – I generally favour sweet so as not to overpower the delicate flavour of the livers, but sometimes feel in the mood for a little more spice) and fry quickly till the outsides have gained a lightly crunchy crust and the insides are still just pink. The only trick to any of this is trimming the livers of any stringy bits of sinew, and, above all, to make sure you’ve properly drained them of any of the blood and general gloop they come packed with. You want them dusted in flour before frying, not coated in a gluey paste. The whole process takes about ten minutes including no more than a couple of minutes a side frying time, and will have prepared enough livers for a couple of main meals for the two of us, so normally when I take the livers out of the pan I’ll set half aside to cool before being put in the fridge for tomorrow, half to be used for tonight.
And normally the first night’s dish is a salad. The simplest thing to do of course is just throw the livers together with a few leaves – chicory has a particular affinity, something to do with the contrast of the bitterness and crunch of the leaves with the sweet softness of the livers, I guess – but I usually include a couple of other things that just go so well with the livers it seems a criminal waste not to: pretty much always shredded bacon, because I always have bacon on hand (and why wouldn’t you?); very often avocado, depending on whether we have one that’s anything remotely like ripe; occasionally some black pudding or morcilla.
Usually I’ll mix the warm livers (and bacon) with cold leaves, dress with a sweetish sherry vinegar vinaigrette, and serve with sautéed potatoes on the side, but if the evening’s a particularly bleak disappointment – or you’re doing this at another time of year when chilly evenings are more seasonal – then you can obviously make the whole thing a hot salad by sautéing your leaves too – another thing chicory has a particular affinity for, although gem hearts are good too, just split lengthways and cooked in a lightly olive oiled pan with the cut surfaces down till they start to caramelise. If it’s a hot salad, I’ll generally just toss it all together, potatoes and all.
The following night I’ll generally turn the remaining livers into a stew: I’ll write that up in more detail in my next post.