Monday, 30 April 2012

I've got a Paella dish and I'm gonna use it (eventually...)

I got a paella pan for Christmas.  A proper 40cm diameter, dimple bottomed steel dish that, I’m ashamed to say has done nothing since but hang decoratively on the kitchen wall.  At least it hadn’t, until yesterday.  At last, almost a full four months into the new year, I can hold my head up.  My burden of shame is lifted.

Actually, to be fair, there are a couple of good reasons why the paella pan hadn’t been given a run out before.  Firstly, there aren’t that many occasions in any given four month period for which a 9 raciones paella pan genuinely provides the answer to the culinary question ‘what’s the right tool for this job?’  Secondly, my small Hackney kitchen doesn’t contain one of those big, swanky range cookers with the giant central ring, so getting a proper distribution of heat under a 16 inch pan is a bit of a trick.  I had actually been waiting for an opportunity to get out on the roof terrace and light a fire in the barbecue to use as a heat source, but not having had an appropriate occasion during the March heat wave, the weather since the turn of April has been, to say the least, unconducive.

Still, sooner or later a paella pan on the wall has to be put to use, and the visit of Becca’s family on the occasion of her mother’s birthday provided the kick in the pants to make it happen.  Regardless of weather or issues of heat distribution.

Originally we’d been thinking of a seafood paella, but the distinctly unsummery aspect to the weather, combined with the happenstance of picking up a fistful of fine pork products from Garcias on Portobello Road inspired a last minute change of plan.  Along with the chorizo and morcilla from Garcia’s I decided that chicken and wild rabbit from Theobalds (my favourite, and many times previously mentioned butcher) would provide the meat of my paella.  Which, I do believe – save for the absence of snails – made it a much more ‘authentic’ (dread word!) paella valenciana than the more familiar, indeed pretty much ubiquitous, seafood version.

Authentic, schmauthentic, as regular readers will know to be my attitude, but one distinct advantage to returning  the paella to it’s pastoral peasant (as opposed to littoral tourist) roots, does turn out to be economic.  Clams and prawns (of the sustainable North Atlantic variety, certainly) ain’t cheap, by anyone’s standards; wild rabbits at £4.50 each and a bag of six fat free range chicken wings at a quid twenty six, I think really are.  Even the fancy Spanish goods didn’t bump the price up very far – two chorizo piccante at a quid and a bit each, and two fabulously gnarled looking smoked morcilla for about the same, kept the cost of the feature meat content for a generously proportioned and celebratory meal for six hearty appetites (with plenty leftover) to comfortably under a tenner.

As it happens, I spent rather more than that.  When the butcher showed me what looked like a pretty scrawny (and, it must be said, somewhat Bacon-esque) rabbit carcass I decided to take two, and as well as the chicken wings I took a bag of six thighs too, but when I came to put all my ingredients together it became immediately apparent that it wasn’t all going to fit in the pan, so I’m left with the best part of a rabbit and all the chicken thighs for meals to come.  In fact, what with the left over paella as well, I shouldn’t need to be doing any significant shopping this week at all.

To make my paella, first I portioned my rabbit – a simple job of smiting it into chunky bits with my cleaver (maybe a little Polanski-esque too...), then put it in a bowl to marinade, using the earthy, woody flavours of rosemary, sage, thyme and bay to complement its own gamy flavour, plus crushed garlic and chilli, a sprinkle of sumac, the juice and zest of half a lemon, plenty of salt and pepper and a good slug of olive oil.  I also marinaded the chicken wings, in a slightly lighter, zestier marinade, heavier on the lemon, lighter on the hard herbs (only thyme) and sprinkling sweet paprika instead of sumac.

While the meat was marinating, I thawed a litre of chicken stock out of the freezer, and coarsely sliced a bulb of fennel, a red pepper, a red onion, cut a courgette and a handful of mini portabella mushrooms into big chunks and thickly sliced my chorizo and morcilla. 

When ready to start cooking (about an hour or so before aiming to sit down) I started by browning first the rabbit pieces, then the chicken wings.  The meat browned and set aside I added the fennel, pepper and onion to the pan, along with a bit of finely sliced garlic and chilli and a light sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves, and cooked – effectively stir frying - till starting to soften, then I added the chorizo.  A couple of minutes later the mushrooms, courgette and morcilla went in.  A couple of minutes after that I returned the main meat to the pan and threw in a big splash (the best part of a glass) of white wine (to deglaze the pan as much as anything else).

Once the sizzle of the wine had settled and I’d given everything a good stir together, loosening any bits stuck to the base of the pan, I sprinkled the rice evenly over the pan.  The rule of thumb would be to allow about 75g per person, but to a great extent just let yourself be guided by how much space you have in the pan – I probably didn’t use much over 65g a head, and that proved to be plenty with all the other good things in the pan.

Then I added about two thirds of my stock (pre heated, of course) and a splash more wine, and stirred and turned to try and get as much of the rice as possible submerged (don’t be tempted to try and achieve that particular aim by simply flooding the pan – a paella doesn’t need to be ‘kept thirsty’ like a risotto, with the stock added almost grudgingly a ladleful at a time, but you still don’t want to swamp it).  Once that’s done, traditionally the thing to do would be simply leave it to bubble away till the rice is cooked and a golden to burnt-toasty crust formed on the base.  However, with the pan being too big for my hob, and the single ring heat source being substantially off centre as a result, I did have to keep both turning the pan and moving its contents around within it.  Not so constantly that I was unable to join the others at the table for a tapas-y first course of Jamon de Serrano, salchichon and pimientos de padron, quickly fried in just a very little olive oil and generously sprinkled in sea salt.

By the time we’d finished playing padron roulette (on this occasion only one of the peppers proved even mildly spicy, far short of the one in ten lurking heat bombs of legend – a legend Becca’s father for one views with more than a degree of scepticism), a bit over half an hour or so, and a couple of top-ups after the first addition of stock to the pan, we had ourselves a pretty damn authentic, full on Valencian peasant style paella ready to serve up.  A generous sprinkle of roughly chopped parsley over the top, a simple salad of little gem and pea shoots on the side, the cork popped on a good bottle of rioja, and we were good to go.  This was a properly rustic dinner, rich, dark and earthy, the rabbit densely gamey and, along with the chicken wings, demanding picking up and gnawing from the bone.  Not a dish for the over decorous.  Not a problem for us.

Happy birthday Becca’s Mum, and thanks again to my own and my Dad for the pan.

Friday, 27 April 2012

My fish stew (or Bouillabaisse-ish, if you like)

I hate to be a bore, but this weather, eh?  We’d just got all geared up for summer after the hottest March ever, braced ourselves for drought, and then April comes along with not just showers but torrential rain, thunder and lightning, hail, snow, gale force winds and all kinds of meteorological whoopass.  And sunny spells.  I wouldn’t say you hardly know what to wear – wrap up warm under a sturdy waterproof, obviously - but knowing what to eat is a bit of a dilemma.  Jersey Royals and asparagus are with us, but it really doesn’t feel like a time for potato salads, let alone firing up the Barbie – unlike this time last year (one of the advantages of keeping a blog is having a record of these things).  And yet, much as we love ‘em, a hearty wintery stew would feel like a retreat into darker days and so quite the opposite of comforting, which would not just be wrong, but unfair to the stew.  But yet again, look out of the window at the slate grey skies, and listen to the wind rattling the rain battered panes, and a stew feels like just about the only appropriate thing.

So how about a fish stew?  Fish because it always at least hints at something light and summery, stew, well, for the reason’s outlined above.  And because, of course, a good fish stew is damned tasty at any time of the year.

Fish, of course, these days is no longer the cheap option it once was – for good if unfortunate reasons.  However, even today, one of the great things about a fish stew is that it’s a great way of making a wonderful meal out of the least regarded, cheapest (if not ugliest) fish on the slab.  Indeed a proper fisherman’s stew is made out of all the bits of the catch that don’t sell at - or it’s not even worth his while taking to - the market.  Essentially the fish you can’t give away – not that you’d guess that from a check of the prices charged for bouillabaisse in its ‘home’ port of Marseille.  Canadian writer Taras Grescoe, in his book Bottomfeeder (essential, if not particularly appetising, reading for anyone interested in the good but unfortunate reasons for the exorbitant price of fish these days) claims you can’t now get bouillabaisse in a Marseille restaurant for less than €50, and while by means of a little Googling I did manage to dig up a menu from a well recommended restaurant offering it for as little as €47(!), it’s still really quite a lot for, as Grescoe points, out a dish originally made from unsaleable fish, sea water and stale bread.

And, of course, Marseille being France, and bouillabaisse being a jewel in its cultural, let alone culinary crown, you can’t get away with mentioning it without that mouldy old chesnut, the whole tedious authenticity debate cropping up.  Again.  They (that is, the Marseillais, or more particularly a cabal of Marseillais restaurateurs) even have a charter – for which thanks again to Grescoe for bringing it to my attention.  A charter which, rather marvellously starts with the statement that “It is not possible to standardize cooking”, before, obviously, going on to do exactly that.  Nonsense, plainly, but I’m not sure I’d go as far as the ‘Bouillabaisse Milkshake’ offered at Marseille restaurant Une Table, au Sud by Lionel Levy, a chef originally from Toulouse (brave man).  Nor get as snotty about it as Clare MacDonald of MacDonald in the recipe for Bouillabaisse Escossaise in her book Delicious Fish, in which she pronounces herself not at all sorry that it’s not “proper bouillabaisse ” because she finds “Mediterranean fish are pretty drab at the best of times, over endowed with bones, and this fish soup is far nicer, made with the delicious fish caught in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the North Sea.”  Which merely leads me to wonder why she bothered calling it Bouillabaisse Escossaise in the first place.  Why not just fish soup?  Or stew, which is what I’ll call mine.

Like Ms (or Baroness, if she insists) McDonald though, mine was, on this occasion made with fillets of fish from the Atlantic or the North Sea  (or probably more accurately, the English channel), Pollack and whiting to be precise, two fish that, if not exactly fishmongers scraps, remain thoroughly reasonably priced for the excellent reason that their stocks, and the fishing methods used to catch them, are largely sustainable.  Although, that said, in double checking their status for the purpose of this blog post, I discovered that I had bought them fresh at the one time of the year (their spawning season, January-April in the case of pollack, March-April for whiting) that they’re best left in peace.  But never mind, from next week (at time of writing) you’re in the clear. 

Unlike her, though, I would never claim that my fish stew was far nicer than any bouillabaisse, although I’m sure it will be nicer than some.  That said, some of my fish stews will be nicer than some of my other fish stews, because, like most things, I make it slightly different every time*, depending on mood, ingredients to hand and what fish looks best on the fishmongers slab (which is always the approach to take when planning a fishy dinner).  I also have to say it has not been my experience that Mediterranean fish are drab either (particularly not, most memorably from the fish market in Catania in Sicily), but that’s a whole other issue.

My fish stew (or Bouillabaisse-ish, if you like)

White fish fillets (half and half Pollack and whiting on this occasion)
Fish stock
Vermouth (or any white wine will do)
New potatoes
Aromatic veg: red pepper, red onion, fennel**, celery
Fresh red chilli
Fresh hard herbs: thyme, rosemary, sage
Fresh soft herbs: Basil, parsley, the young yellow leaves from the celery heart

Cut your fish fillets into small portion sizes, lay them in a shallow dish and sprinkle with salt, pepper and the zest of half a lemon, then pour over the lemon’s juice  and a glass of vermouth (or wine).

Peel your potatoes and cut them in half (I prefer to do that lengthways, for purely aesthetic reasons), put them in a pan and just cover with cold fish stock***, bring to the boil and cook for 10 minutes, then strain the hot stock off into a bowl or big jug.

Meanwhile roughly slice your aromatic veg, and throw them into a big heavy based pot or casserole, along with the hard herbs, garlic and chilli – all chopped reasonably fine and cook them gently in plenty of olive oil, till softening. 

Peel, deseed and roughly chop your tomatoes (allow 1 averagely big tomato per person), and add them to the pot along with the mushrooms (I favour chestnut mushrooms, halved or quartered depending on size)

Once the tomato has just started to collapse, add the potatoes along with the stock they were partly cooked in, and a glass of vermouth (or wine).
Cook till the potatoes are just about fully cooked, then add your fish, cover for just a couple of minutes till the fish is cooked through, sprinkle over the soft herbs and serve in deep dished plates or shallow bowls, with chunks of good bread on the side.

*The differences on this occasion were:

*  We where at Becca’s family home for the weekend, and there was simply no fennel to be had at Waitrose in Henley (which would never happen at the TFC in Dalston), so I just left it out, but compensated by adding some lightly pestled fennel seeds along with the hard herbs.

**  If you have bought whole fish and filleted them yourself, you can simply make a stock from their bones (or if you got the fishmonger to fillet them for you and asked for the fish ‘frames’).  If not, then if you’re like me there is always either fish stock, or fish skeletons, probably both, in your freezer.  If neither is the case, you’ve just got fillets of fish and no means to make or thaw out a fish stock then never mind.  Just par boil the potatoes in well salted water (it should taste like sea water – which is what the fishermen of Marseille would have used for the original bouillabaisse), and use a little of that, and plenty of the vermouth as the liquid for your stew.  It’ll be a little less fishy, a good bit more winey, and just as delicious, just in a different way.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Springtime for… pork shoulder in a fruity stew

Half way through April now – sorry I haven’t been updating the blog much recently, but real life does have a habit of getting in the way – and spring, I guess is in full swing now.  Although in many ways it doesn’t really feel that way, perhaps on account of all the news bulletins being full of drought stories, when, that is, they’re not full of stories of half the country being brought to grinding halt by snow (as predicted right here, people!).  Although perhaps we’ve become accustomed to seeing sinister patterns and isolating freak abnormalities in our weather - and extrapolating day to day weather into climate - whereas in fact it’s perfectly ordinary, unremarkable and indeed characteristic of spring time that the weather might swing from high summer one day to midwinter the next.  Not, I hasten to add, that I’m sceptical about climate change, let alone in denial.  Unlike this idiot.

Whatever its causes, the current state of the climate – sorry, the weather – makes it tricky to plan ahead when it comes to deciding what’s for dinner, having no way of knowing whether tomorrow will be a porridge for breakfast or a salad on the roof terrace for lunch kind of a day.  So what’s called for at this time of year are things that are versatile in the meals that we can make from them – things like fish, for instance, or the chicken I’ve covered in my last couple of posts.  Or we just say, to hell with it, we don’t seem to have had pork for a long time (hard to believe for regular followers of this blog as that may be) and that’s a nice looking piece of boneless pork shoulder reduced to a bargain price, let’s have that.  Which is what I did last week.  That said, I did consider the weather when it came to deciding how to cook it.

I could just have roasted it, of course, and I’m quite sure that would have been both delicious, and weather appropriate – when is roast pork ever not seasonally appropriate (apart from Passover, obviously, or Ramadan…)?  But I had some fruit – an orange and a couple of apples just starting to go soft in the bowl, so I decided a fruity pork stew would be just the thing – big and hearty enough should the day turn out bitter and bleak; bright and fresh flavoured enough should it be bright and sparkly.

I started by chopping my joint into big chunks, rough cubes a good couple of inches or more a side.  Then I put them into a bowl and grated the zest of my orange over them, then added crushed garlic and chilli, a teaspoonful each of paprika and sumac and a generous sprinkling of fennel seeds, black peppercorns and sea salt, gently pounded with pestle and mortar, the juice of the orange and a good glug of olive oil, rubbed it all together and put the bowl in the fridge to marinate overnight.  The precise ingredients and proportions for your marinade is, of course, optional, being entirely up to you and the contents of your store cupboard, as indeed is the overnight thing.  If you’re cooking for tonight then just give it as long as you can, but in that case don’t refrigerate it, the action of the marinade will be speeded up at room temperature.

When you’re ready to start to cook (and precisely when that might be in relation to when you’re going to eat is again optional – from a minimum of two hours to a whole day or more before, the longer, within reason, the better.  Whenever it is though, hopefully you’ll have had the opportunity to remove the marinading meat from the fridge, if that’s where it’s been, long enough ahead to come back up to room temperature) then start by gently browning the meat in a big, solid casserole.  While the meat is browning roughly chop a carrot, an onion and a stick or two of celery (I cut my onion into slim wedges and my carrot into batons, but exactly how you chop is up to you), and throw them in once the pork has taken on some colour (with pork I just tend to add the veg to the meat in the pan, rather than removing the meat and adding back later on – mainly because I’m not looking to get the same kind of deep colour on pork as I would be on red meat or chicken skin, so I start at a lower temperature, rather than with the heat up high then turning it down).  Throw in a bay leaf, too and maybe some sage leaves or thyme.  Once the veg is starting to soften perceptibly, pour over any remaining liquid from the marinade, and enough cider to just about two thirds cover (this doesn’t need to be precise, but be careful not to drown your dish), bring to a gentle simmer and transfer to a low oven.

How low, and therefore how long for depends very much, like the marinating, on how long you’ve got, and to a certain extent on how many people your cooking for and therefore the sheer volume of stew we’re dealing with.  About 170 for an hour and a half to two hours would probably do it at a pinch.  150 for two to three would be better.  And in an ideal world, 130, or even lower for three, four or even five for a big pot in a good low oven.  Basically as long as you’ve got at as low as you can, until the meat can be cut with a spoon and the fat’s turned to an unctuously sweet, slightly sticky jelly.  And preferably, as ever with a stew, the day before you were planning on serving it.

Whichever, about half an hour before your stew’s due to serve (or when you start reheating it if you did do it the day before), gently fry up some thickly sliced (or halved if they’re small) mushrooms and a couple of apples peeled, cored and cut into lengthwise quarters, then eighths.  Get a bit of golden colour into the apple wedges then add them and the mushrooms to the stew – checking the seasoning at this point, and the liquid level, you might want to top up with a little extra cider or a splash of stock at this point – for the final half hour or so of simmering.

I’d serve with mash on a more wintery kind of spring day, perhaps mash with a dessert spoon of mustard stirred through it, or with rice, perhaps, of a springier evening.

This recipe would work equally well with pork belly too.