Monday, 30 January 2012

I'm in print!

Much excitement the other day when I finally took delivery of the latest issue of the prestigious, if not exactly widely available food quarterly, Fire & Knives, because I have a piece in it!  With a picture of me, and everything!

The piece is an essay on the subject of food nostalgia, which started off in life as part of the introduction to my blog post about chorizo burgers back in the summer of last year.  Ah, remember the summer of last year?  No?  Perhaps because we scarcely had one, much as we are currently scarcely having a winter.  So much for nostalgia in these days of global warming, eh?  

The main thrust of the piece was how certain foods, most obviously, perhaps, fish and chips, but in this instance burgers, will always suffer in comparison with cherished childhood memories, regardless of whether or not the actual example of that food being remembered was in any way objectively superior.  The Proustian madeleine of my article was a burger bar - or more specifically the trays of relishes therein - in Manchester, and therefore remembered only vaguely from the perspective of an under seven.  As it turns out my Dad identified the burger bar in question as the Canadian Charcoal Pit on Burton Road, and said the chances are that its burgers were indeed objectively superior to most burgers you are likely to have come across, and indeed quite possibly still are, as it is still there, having now expanded into a small chain across the Manchester area.  Rather gratifyingly, I had an e-mail from Tim Hayward, proprietor and editor of F&K, to say he'd had a text message from a reader, correctly identifying the place and for whom it was also a cherished first burger experience, describing them as 'awesome', apparently.  Which was nice.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Aloha again!

Those of you who read my last post attentively, and can do very basic maths, will have noted that our meal of pasta con le sarde left us with 3 sardines (or, possibly, ‘aloha’ – Alohas? Alohi?).  These were fresh enough, and pretty enough that I really wanted to keep them in as near to their natural state as possible, so I decided not to cook them, but to just lightly cure them.  I simply filleted them, and marinaded the fillets, for a day, in the juice of one orange and one lemon, with the zest of each, some finely sliced red onion, a fresh bayleaf and a handful of torn parsley leaves (coriander would work well, if you have it), a sprinkling of mustard and fennel seeds, a few peppercorns a little salt and a glug of olive oil. 

Come the evening, I boiled up some new potatoes and made a warm salad of the fish, potato, chicory, celery and capers, with the onion from the marinade. I shook the orange and lemon juice from the marinade up with some olive oil to make a dressing and poured it over.  It was a delicious and, I have to say, rather beautiful dish.

Because, as I’ve said, this fish was so very fresh and pretty, and because the fillets were, if big by sardine standards, still small, I chose to cold marinade on this occasion, so the fish was only lightly cured, even after a whole day in citrus juice.  If you prefer your cured fish to a bit more ‘cooked’, and a bit less sushi-y, you can either up the acidity of the marinade with wine or sherry vinegar, or simply put your marinade together in a pan, heat it up and pour it over the fish hot – as in my previously written up version – done then with herring but equally applicable to sardines, mackerel, sea bass – whatever firm fleshed fish looks freshest on the fishmonger’s slab, really.

Friday, 20 January 2012


That greeting/title may be misleading, because Hawaii is not the island I have in mind as I write, it’s Sicily.  I’ve been watching Sicily Unpacked on BBC2, a series in which Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon travel around that island, giving each other, and us, a guided tour of its cuisine and its art history respectively.  You may well have reservations about the format, and it’s potential for annoyance - two successful, wealthy and, it might not be unfair to suggest, somewhat vain men, gadding smugly about Sicily in a big Maserati, showing off to each other, at the licence payer’s expense, and no doubt being handsomely paid for the privilege – and I couldn’t necessarily blame you, but nevertheless, as far as its subject matter goes – Sicily, art and food – its intersections with the interests of this household at least, draw a venn diagram that closely resembles a bullseye.

Becca and I went to Catania a couple of years ago, and although the series has yet to cover that part of the island, I’m sure when it does it will heavily feature the old fish market there, which is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever visited, and the source of some of the finest seafood I’ve ever eaten.  My only regret from our trip to Catania (apart from the night we got locked out of our pensione, but that’s another story) was that we weren’t self catering, and I couldn’t buy and cook any of the market’s produce.  That was a small but exquisite torture, and it’s been an ambition of mine since to return to the area, rent out a big villa, with a large group of friends and fellow seafood enthusiasts, and spend a week or two just eating our way through the market.  Anyone care to join us?

As I say, Locatelli and Graham-Dixon have yet to feature the fish market at Catania, but they have certainly featured fish, and duly inspired, and full of my own reminiscences and hankerings, I paid a visit to my own fishmonger, The Fishery, in Stoke Newington – which isn’t exactly Catania, but it is that sadly increasingly rare thing, a proper local fishmonger – and not a fancy, fashionable, boutiquey one charging extortionate prices for not necessarily top grade fish.  If you do have a decent local fishmonger, please do make a point of using it – if you don’t, you may soon find you no longer have one to use.

The day I visited the Fishery, my mind on sardines, which had been the freshest, and therefore best, item on offer to Locatelli at the Palermo fish market on consecutive days (due apparently to storms limiting the catch), they had a fish I’d never seen before which resembled a large, and rather beautiful sardine, with a delicate lemon yellow stripe.  The fishmonger told me it was an “Aloha”, apparently (although subsequently Googling ‘aloha’ and ‘fish’ came up with nothing, so I may have misheard), and he wasn’t – unusually – sure where it was from, but he guessed the Carribean, which would have been my guess too.  Wherever it was from, it had clearly got to Stoke Newington quickly, because it was very fresh – firm fleshed, bright eyed and shiny of scale.  I took six.

I used three of them to do my own version of a pasta dish that Locatelli had made on the show, a dish that reflects the ancient Arab influence on Sicilian cuisine.  He called it ‘Pasta con le sarde’, or pasta with sardines, which I rather like the simplicity of but doesn’t, perhaps, quite do the dish justice.  I made it by and large the same way he did, with one exception:  He used a great clump of ‘finocchietto selvatico di montagne , the wild mountain fennel that grows everywhere on the island to flavour his pasta cooking water, and used a couple of ladles full of that water as the only added liquid for his sauce.  Funnily enough, there is no mountain fennel growing wild around Dalston, so I skipped that part and added a glass or so of vermouth (or you could use white wine, or sherry) to the sauce instead.  I will, though, try cooking my pasta in fennel stalk flavoured water when next an appropriate opportunity arises.

Pasta con le sarde:
3 sardines (or ‘aloha’), filleted, the fillets cut in half
A handful of pine nuts
A handful of raisins
2 anchovy fillets
Fresh red chilli, or a pinch of dried chilli flakes
Half an onion
Tomato puree
Glass of vermouth (or white wine or sherry)

Long thin pasta (I used linguine)

Start by putting your pasta water on to boil – this is one of those dishes you can do from scratch in the time it takes the pan to come to the boil and the pasta to cook (certainly if you’re a deft filleter, or you might want to fillet the sardines ahead of time, or have the fishmonger do that bit for you). 

Fillet your sardines and halve the fillets cross ways.  Chop your onion and your anchovy fillets.  Finely slice your chilli (if you’re using fresh) and your garlic.

Heat a large frying pan and toss the pine nuts into it dry, as soon as they are showing the first sign of colour add the raisins, a good generous glug of olive oil and the anchovies.  Add a grind of pepper, but no salt (the anchovies should supply that – you can add more at the end if needed).  Allow to cook gently for a minute or two for the anchovies to break down and really flavour the oil and the pine nuts and raisins.  Then add the garlic, chilli and onion.  Again, cook for a minute or two toll the onion starts to soften and go translucent, then stir in a good dessert spoon or so of tomato puree.  Stir it all together.  Then add your sardines.  Another minute or so, then add the wine.  Let it all simmer gently while your pasta cooks.

Before straining off the pasta add a ladleful of its cooking water to the sauce.  Check the seasoning at this point, and add salt if you feel the need – I doubt it.  Then add the drained pasta to the sauce in the pan, and stir it all through, with another grind of black pepper and some chopped parsley. 

Serve it up, with or without a sprinkling of mollica (breadcrumbs sautéed in olive oil – a simpler version of the pangrattata from the Jamie Oliver cauliflower risotto recipe I featured recently) – but preferably with.  It might not be, as Graham Dixon claimed of Locatelli’s version, the finest pasta dish you’ve ever tasted, but I’m pretty sure it’ll rank well up there.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Purple Risotto

In my last post I described roasting middle rib of beef, this, obviously, left us with a couple of rib bones, and – as I mentioned in passing in that last post – of course bones = stock.  Also as mentioned, I’d served my roast ribs with pickled red cabbage, which had left me with half a head of red cabbage.  Given how well red cabbage works as an accompaniment to beef, it occurred to me to use the rest of the cabbage with at least some of the beefy stock I made from the ribs.  So I made a red cabbage risotto, which not only neatly combined the two, but also addressed the one area where risotto does rather let itself down: it’s tendency to look a little bland.  For all their virtues - and they are many, and cherished – most risotti do come out somewhere in the magnolia area of the colour chart.  Not with red cabbage in them they don’t... 

I started by toasting pine nuts in the dry pan, then added a little olive oil, a handful of shredded bacon (or you could substitute that for a couple of chopped anchovy fillets) and a sprinkling of raisins (or chopped dried apricots would also be good).  Then I stirred in the cabbage, onion (I used red onion too, just to keep with the colour theme.  As for quantities, for the two of us - although it would have been enough for three, or even four as a starter or light lunch - a quarter of a head of red cabbage and half an onion seemed good) and a finely sliced clove of garlic, cooked till starting to soften, then added the rice, wine (red instead of the usual white) and my beef stock following the normal routine.  It turned out both delicious and very pretty.

Obviously you could do a veggie version of this dish by leaving out the bacon and using vegetable stock.  Of course, that way you’d miss out on the beef/cabbage combo that suggested it to me in the first place, but I’m sure it would still be delicious (particularly if you were still allowed the anchovies in place of the bacon), and perhaps above all, it would still come out that lovely, and unusual, deep purple colour.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

New Adventures in Beef: Middle Rib

I’ve discovered a new cut of beef.  At least new to me – I’m not claiming to have discovered a part of the cow previously unknown to culinary science.  We went to the Stoke Newington farmer’s market at the weekend for the first time in an age – I’m normally working Saturdays, and if I’m not it’s usually because we have other plans – and we were at the organic butchers van buying half a dozen sausages in a half hearted (in my case, perhaps, more than Becca’s) spirit of January frugality, when my eye was drawn to something labeled Middle Rib of beef.  This was a cut of meat clearly related to short ribs, which I have had, and cooked before, except the sections of rib were longer, and, I suspect cut from further down, closer to the belly of the beast.  Compared to short ribs – also known as Jacob’s ladder - the whole thing was both thinner, and fattier, if you see what I mean.  Basically a flat, streaky slab of fat and meat, with a couple of ribs going through it.  Not unlike a portion of bone-in pork belly.  Except these bones were four great big cow ribs, each a couple of inches wide.

Ideal for slow roasting, the organic butcher said, and it puffs right up as it cooks.  I was already picturing it, and internally slavering slightly at the pictures in my head, so I couldn’t not take it, and we had him cut the four bone slab in half and went home with two ribs' worth of it.  And it was in keeping with a January spirit of frugality at just £7 a kilo, even at organic farmer’s market prices.  Some might argue that a large part of the little bit over a kilo we walked away with was made up of bone and fat, and, of course, they’d be right.  Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bargain.  Fat = flavour.  Bones = stock.  All good.

When it came to cooking time I preheated the oven to good and hot (about 240C) in my usual manner, heating up the roasting tray with it.  While the oven was heating I scored the skin side of the joint, and, with my pestle and mortar, ground together a handful of peppercorns and rocksalt with a single star anise pod, which I then rubbed well into the scored skin along with a good teaspoonful of English mustard powder. 

I took the roasting dish out of the oven once it was sizzling hot, then put it over a flame on the stovetop, lightly oiled it and placed the joint into it, skin side down to sear for just a minute or two, just until it really started to smell like roast beef.  Then I flipped the joint in the tray and returned it to the oven.  After about fifteen minutes I turned the oven right down as far as it would go (which on my oven is about 130C) and opened the door, partly to help the heat escape, partly to check on the progress of the joint.  It had already, as promised, puffed right up – so that the inch and a half deep slab that had gone in, was now at least twice that, probably more like four inches deep.  It looked, and smelled, fantastic.  I wafted the door a few times to dissipate heat, put the roasting dish onto the lowest, therefore coolest, shelf, and then closed it up again and left it for about an hour and ten, so it had had just about an hour and a half in total.  As it turned out, that might just, as you’ll see below, have been a few minutes too many for perfectly done.

I took it out and left the meat to rest, foil covered while I turned up the oven temperature again to get some colour into the veg that had been roasting above the meat for the second half of it’s time in the oven.  Meanwhile I made a gravy in the roasting dish, having scooped out several dessert spoons of fat, then added a good splash of wine (vermouth in fact, as I didn’t have any white wine open) and a dash of stock (duck in this case) from the fridge.

After half an hour’s rest, I sliced the rib joint in half between the two ribs, and served them up, one big slab of meat, fat, bone and beef crackling per plate, along with the roast veg, and that ever faithful friend of roast beef, pickled red cabbage.  It was delicious, if not elegant.  The meat was tender, although it was tricky to cut – proper serrated steak knives would be recommended – the problem being the awkwardness of the meat relative to the rib rather than toughness.  The fat had rendered to succulent tenderness and really absorbed the flavours of the rub, with the star anise in particular coming through seductively.  Still though, I have to admit, it would be a tough plate to sell to anyone who wasn’t keen on fat.  Not that that’s a problem in this house.

It was, I have to say, a very satisfying dish for two fat loving carnivores, such as Becca and myself.  I wouldn’t, though, say that I was a hundred percent satisfied with it.  The meat was arguably slightly overdone, although with a cut like this, it’s a fine judgement.  Certainly it was cooked well beyond the shade of pink (a pretty deep crimson) I’d normally be aiming for on a roasting joint, but on such a fatty cut that would never be my intention.  Cook the flesh rare in this case and the underdone fat would render the whole thing inedible.  And with so much fat surrounding it, the flesh is in little danger of drying out through overcooking (certainly not in this case).  Nevertheless, next time I’d be looking to experiment with cooking times and temperatures with the aim of getting the fat to the required state of near rendition, with a little more red blood still held in the meat.  The options would be to simply reduce the times while retaining the method described above; to turn the oven down as soon as the meat goes in, so it starts sizzling hot, but is cooling from the off; or to go the whole hog and do all the browning of the skin side in a pan on the stove and then transferring to oven heated only to 130, and checking it from about an hour and twenty or so (although I suspect by this method it would benefit from at least a couple of hours).  Never mind, that just makes a perfect excuse for having middle rib of beef at least twice more.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Cauliflower Every Day 2: Cauli risotto (ai cavolfiori)

I know I said in my previous post that if I ate cauliflower every day its appeal would soon wane, but a couple of days consecutive cauli eating doesn’t begin to approach that point.  Which is good, because just half the head of a good sized cauliflower made enough curry for the two of us, with enough left over for a light lunch for one the next day.  Leaving the other half for a second dinner, which gave me a chance to try out this Jamie Oliver recipe, for risotto ai cavolfiori, taken from his Italy book.  You can think what you like about Jamie Oliver – and, like coriander I can fully understand why he’s not to everyone’s taste – but even back in his most annoying, cheeky chappie, bish bash bosh, scooter riding geezer ‘Naked Chef’ (FFS) phase, I always felt that the food, and his approach to cooking it, was spot on.  In fact that might, ultimately, have been the most annoying thing about him, even then, which was saying something.

These days of course, following all his campaigning work on improving the diet of this and other nations, particularly in our schools, Jamie’s approaching the status of a national treasure.  And he probably won’t even count as our most annoying national treasure either – this being a nation that treasures Bruce Forsyth.  And I have to say, speaking personally, it’s not just for his contribution to school dinners that we should appreciate young James, even if it is grudgingly (and in my case I have to say it’s not): simply being the anti-Gordon Ramsay is reason enough to embrace him.  I’d also have to add his recent book and TV series on British food, which, for all its roast beef and union jack imagery, and Jamie’s own Essex laddishness, turned out to be an open hearted celebration of the contribution made to what we call British cuisine by the many and varied immigrant communities that have come to call Britain home over the centuries.  For that, as for so many other things he’s done over the years, I find myself unreservedly saying ‘good on yer, Jamie.’  Even if I would prefer it if you didn’t address me as ‘Geez’…

That, of course is by the by.  Back to cauliflower: I particularly liked the sound of this risotto recipe, not just because it was a new, non cheesy (Jamie of course does include parmesan, I simply leave it out – you are free to do either, if not allergic) thing to do with cauliflower, but it also gave an excuse to use the word ‘cavolfiore’ which, even by Italian standards is a particularly lovely word.  Perhaps more relevantly I also liked the efficiency of the recipe, using the chopped cauliflower stalk as part of the onion/shallot base for the risotto, and part cooking the florets just by steeping them in the hot stock.

I also loved the sound of the ‘pangrattata’ bit – the anchovy & chilli breadcrumbs, giving crunch and added spiky flavour to a dish that otherwise might risk being bland.  And even though I fried it a bit beyond the ideal golden brown to something more like burnt umber on account of leaving the pan over a low flame when I thought I’d turned it off, this proved to be no disappointment, and is something I’ll definitely be adopting as a regular user up of slightly stale bread from now on.

I followed the recipe pretty much as written, using my own technique for the basic risotto (‘risotto bianco’) which, of course, skips the parmesan, although I did add a crushed clove of garlic to the breadcrumb mix, because why wouldn’t you?  It was thoroughly delicious, and as comfort food goes, I’d suggest it was potentially somewhere right up there with cauliflower cheese.  And that is really saying something.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Cauliflower Every Day 1: Cauli curry

So, farewell then 2011, hello and welcome 2012, and a happy new year to all my readers.  Many of you, I’m sure, will be feeling somewhat meated out – as is traditional at this time of year.  Some of you may even have made resolutions to eat less meat this month, this year, or for ever more.  Or even none at all.  For you then, and following on from the meat free comfort food theme of my last post of last year, I thought it was time to write up one of my favourite veggie meals – the cauliflower curry, a picture of which I’d used to illustrate my post written back in September in response to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s book/TV/Guardian column exhortations to eat Veg Every Day.  I won’t re-cover that ground other than to endorse again his broad principle while retaining the reservations I expressed at the time.  I will add one thing: I thought then, and still do, that “Veg Every Day” is a duff title.  Surely most of us – even the most carnivorous of most us – would generally manage to consume some vegetable item every day anyway, even without giving it much thought.  Anyone who generally didn’t, would be considered something of a freaky eater, surely?

Anyway, cauliflower.  I love cauliflower, but because the default setting for me, as I suspect for most of us, when it comes to cauliflower remains cauliflower cheese – for me, not only one of the most comforting of all comfort foods, but the most evocative of specifically maternal comfort - I seldom pick one up.  I should more often, and not only to appease Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (I have to admit, much as I love it, if I ate cauliflower every day I think its appeal would soon wane), but because to smother a cauliflower in cheese sauce is far from the most interesting thing you can do with it.  Although it does remain almost certainly the most comforting – as long as you’re not allergic to dairy products, of course.  

The cauliflower has a particular affinity for Middle Eastern and South Asian spices, and also, peculiarly, for being dyed bright yellow – as in piccalilli.  My cauliflower curry recipe fully exploits both affinities, although if you don’t like the flavour of turmeric, or simply don’t have any in your spice cupboard right now, you can serve it up au naturel.  I do think, however, that as pretty as raw cauliflower is, once cooked it can look kind of anaemic without any colour enhancement at all*.

Cauliflower Curry:

Garam masala 
Garlic, finely sliced
Red chilli, finely sliced
Ginger, finely chopped
Cauliflower head, broken into large florets
Red onion
Leek (or fennel) - Optional

Start your curry by making up your own spice mix.  You can call it that, or by all means call it home made garam masala – which is, I believe essentially the same phrase in Hindi.  Precisely what goes into a garam masala is entirely up to you and the contents of your spice cupboard, as it is a generic term with no single definitive recipe.  Or rather, more likely, as many single definitive recipes as there are grandmothers in the Indian sub-continent.  Which is a lot.  In my case, on this occasion, it contained black peppercorns, coriander, fennel, nigella and mustard seeds, toasted in the pan and pounded into a powder with the pestle and mortar along with a little hot paprika and cinnamon bark.  It really should, of course, contain cumin, if nothing else, but if, as I did on this occasion, you suddenly realize afterwards that you forgot to add any, don’t panic, just add whole cumin seeds when you come to cook your curry anyway, that’s good too.  In fact, even if you hadn’t forgotten to include cumin in your garam, you might like to throw in a sprinkling of whole seeds anyway for aesthetic and textural interest, maybe some fennel seeds too.

If you’re a perfectionist you will probably want to follow the standard advice when it comes to toasting the seeds for your spice mix, and do each component spice separately in the pan, one at a time on account of them taking different times to toast.  I am not a perfectionist and add them all to the pan together, but staggered in order of size, largest first, leaving a few seconds of toasting time for each before adding the next smallest item – quite how many seconds depending on the discrepancy in size.  This method, obviously, relies on guesswork but it seems to work.

Once you have your spices toasted and powdered, you’re ready to make your curry.  Heat the pan (toasting the forgotten cumin seeds in it as it heats, if you need to) then add a little oil, some chopped garlic, ginger and sliced red chillies.  Allow those flavours to infuse the oil for a few seconds before adding thickly sliced red onion (on this occasion in fact I had half a red onion and half a leek in the fridge, so I used onion and leek, as you might have noticed from the pictures, but just onion is fine, or you might also add fennel to the mix if you had some of that lying around) and a teaspoonful each of your own spice mix and turmeric.  Stir thoroughly to coat the onion in the spices and cook for a few minutes till starting to soften, then add the cauliflower.  Again, cook for a few minutes before adding mushrooms, and just a minute or so more before adding a cup of stock (I used Marigold instant on this occasion, but obviously if you have any homemade chicken, pheasant or other light stock to hand use that).  Cover the pan and allow to simmer away, for just 10 – 15 minutes – handily, just about as long as it takes you to cook your rice.

A variation on this recipe, and the one featured in the pictures below, another picture of which that I used to illustrate the HFW post, would be the addition of potatoes.  The method used there would be to cook up some new potatoes in your stock till almost done, and then add them, along with the stock at the same point you add just the stock in the recipe above.  In both variations, finishing the dish with a handful of coriander leaves and stalks, roughly torn from the bunch is good, as long as you like coriander.  Which I know not everyone does.

* I feel the need to point out here that this endorsement of colouring cauliflower does NOT, in any way, extend to that other frequently dyed bright yellow commodity, smoked haddock.  I love smoked haddock.  I despise chrome yellow smoked haddock.  It is an abomination.