Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Grilled Sardines: Obrigado for the memory...

Having spent much of the past couple of months moaning about the weather, it’s a very enjoyable duty to redress the balance and celebrate the glorious end of May we’ve been enjoying down in this part of the World.  It’s been positively Mediterranean, and it would be criminal not to make the most of it by eating plenty of fresh fish.  And firing up the barbeque.

There are few things simpler and more satisfying in life than a good grilled sardine – which may have a great deal to do with the fact that there are few things in life more redolent of a balmy evening in Spain or Portugal.  Or West London: My sister used to live in Trellick Tower, the iconic Erno Goldfinger designed block that looms over the top of Golborne Road, close to the foot of which is a Portuguese community centre.  Or at least there was – I don’t know if it’s still there, but I certainly hope so.  The Portuguese community is, thank god, because with them come the fabulous, and justifiably famous Lisboa Patisserie - home of the best Pasteis de Nata in London, if not the world (I say that, I can’t possibly know, never having even been to Lisbon) - and the only slightly less fabulous, but considerably less famous (and therefore less rammed) Oporto patisserie and deli over the road.  Anyway, back when my sister lived there, it was a rare evening in the summer months that the aroma of char-grilling sardines wasn’t wafting up to the 27th floor from the front yard of the community centre below, and if I close my eyes I can still smell it now.  And I know some people have a problem with the smell of cooking fish, particularly oily fish like sardines or mackerel (which you can of course get round by simply not cooking them), but I don’t, and I mean that in an entirely good way.  Proust can keep his madeleines, I’ll take sardines sizzling over charcoal every time (or if it has to be a cake, then a pastel de nata).

Of course, like anything that’s redolent of a particular time and place, it’s never quite the same when you do it yourself in the here and now, but it is still damned good, and, as I said, really couldn’t be simpler.  The two most (indeed only) crucial things are that your sardines are good and fresh and your grill good and hot.  Pretty much everything else takes care of itself.  Season your fish simply with salt and pepper, a bit of olive oil.  Marinate them (but only briefly) in lemon juice with a bit of the zest grated over if you like, but it’s not necessary.  Keep it simple.  And make sure you have a decent metal fish slice or spatula – I seem to have mislaid mine and my tongs (otherwise one of my favourite implements, if you don’t have a decent pair I highly recommend investing in some) left rather more sardine seared to the grill that I’d have liked.  But never mind, it’s not a delicate, elegant kind of dish, and if the fish ends up in bits on your plate it may be a disappointment but it’s not the end of the world.  Just close your eyes and savour the aroma.

On this occasion I served it up with what some people might call an Iberian style warm potato salad, but I’d call jersey royals tossed with fried chorizo and pine nuts, and a handful of chopped parsley, and a simple but brightly refreshing salad of tomato, cucumber and red onion.  It was both delicious and a fitting way to celebrate the return of the sun to our lives.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Rabbit (redux) Pie (whatever 'redux' means...)

As I said in my last post, the excess wild rabbit and chicken thighs that I’d bought for but been unable to cram into the pan for Becca’s mum’s birthday paella kept us going the whole of the following week.  I’d covered the paella itself, a rabbit stew/ragu and chicken thighs roasted with red peppers, which took us to the middle of the week, and again as I said, next up would be rabbit and chicken pie.

I do, I have to say, like a pie.  I like a pie in pretty much any form a pie comes, from pork to shepherd’s, via fish and even, arguably (although I do have my doubts) pizza pie.  Actually, if I’m honest, not even arguably.   While pizza and pie may be etymologically related, a pizza is plainly not a pie in any sense that matters.  The English word ‘pie’ (and I’m making a linguistic distinction here, not a culinary one), while clearly loosely defined, surely has to denote a dish in which the feature item is covered, whether that be by pastry (most commonly), potato or meringue (not that I mean to imply that potato and meringue should ever be interchangeable as pie covers…).  A pizza just doesn’t fit that definition, notwithstanding calzone, which does admittedly, superficially at least, have a lot in common with a pasty.  But is a pasty a pie?  I suppose (for some reason I can’t readily explain, somewhat grudgingly) so, although it really doesn’t feel like a pie to me, whereas, oddly, an empanada does – which just goes to show that it’s all quite arbitrary.  Which I guess, in turn, would indicate that if other people want to talk about pizza pies, than I should just shrug and let them get on with it.  Even if they are wrong.

Where was I?  Oh yes, pies.  One of the things I love most about a pie, is the transformative effect a pastry lid has on a stew.  Not in the sense of making something good out of something not, of turning base metal into gold, no, not at all.  I love a stew too, as even halfway regular readers of this blog will know.  Transformative in the sense of turning one good thing into another, entirely different and equally good thing.  And perhaps the most miraculous effect of this transformation is that it makes it not only OK, but almost obligatory to have chips with your stew.  Pie and mash is all very well, and of course, properly traditional in this part of the world (East London).  But it’s not pie and chips, is it?  And sorry, your pearly highnesses, pie and chips wins every time.

And turning a stew into a pie is so easy, it’s one of those things that every time I do it, I wonder why I don’t more often.  You can of course make your own pastry, and good on you if you do, but I don’t.  As I explained way back in the early days of writing this blog, making pastry was one of the tasks I came away from restaurant cheffing with no inclination to ever do again – or rather a positive inclination to never do again.  Much as I understand that there are people out there who find it positively therapeutic.  And much as I’m sure that the best of the pastry made by those people who make it for therapy (or just because they are more diligent cooks than me) is way better than the stuff I can buy in the shops is, I’ve also eaten enough bad home made pastry in my life to know that it’s by no means guaranteed.  And particularly when it comes to puff pastry, which is tricky as well as (very) laborious to make, the shop bought stuff is easily good enough for the benefit in saved time and effort to more than outweigh the loss of brownie points.  Even the cheaper, non butter version that Becca’s allergies insist I use.

Anyway, by all means, make your pastry, or buy it ready made.  I’ll be content just making my stew, as described briefly but in I’m sure enough detail here (if you feel the need of a more detailed stew making break down, then basically pretty much every stew will be a variation on the one described here).  Ideally, make the stew a day or two, or three as on this occasion, in advance and leave to sit in the fridge, miraculously accumulating and condensing flavour the way a stew does given time.  Over the course of the three days since I’d made it I’d also added the meat from the two roasted chicken thighs left over from dinner on one of those days, and finally a handful of batons of carrot, just blanched in rabbit stock, allowed to cool in that stock, and added to the stew stock and all.  When you’re nearly ready to put your pie together bring the stew out of the fridge in time to come back to something like room temperature in its pie dish.  Put the oven on and let it get up to temperature, around 200.  While the oven’s heating roll out your pastry (this should be done straight out of the fridge) and lay it over the stew in the pie dish.  If you like, use the pastry off cuts to make decorative chickens and bunny rabbits to stick on your pie crust, but there’s no real need.  If nobody’s allergic, brush your pastry with a glaze of beaten egg yolk, to give it colour and shine, I rub a little extra virgin olive oil into mine instead.

Bake your pie for about 40 minutes, or until the pastry’s thoroughly risen and appears to be cooked through (you can always raise it to peek underneath – an advantage of a lid only pie as opposed to a full case pie.

While the pie’s in the oven, do your chips.  I favour par-boiling, first, then frying – as described in more detail here – partly on account of not owning a deep fat fryer and having to cook them in batches, in my wok, in relatively shallow (sunflower) oil, but also on account of how the finished chips taste.  More effort, I know, but I really do think the finished result is worth it – even if you do have a deep fat fryer.

Pie and chips.  Did I mention I like a pie?  And chips?  And it was every bit as satisfying both as I’d been looking forward to, and as only something really simple can be.

And not only that, there was still enough of the stew left over at the end for one last pasta sauce the next day.  With the addition of a sliced chorizo (again left over from the weekend), some cherry tomatoes, halved, and a fistful of green olives, halved and pitted, and served with linguine it made a quite distinctively different and possibly even more delicious dinner than the rabbit ragu and penne of earlier in the week.  A fine way to bid farewell to our rabbit.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Run rabbit (and chicken) run, run, run...

As I said in my last post, when shopping for Becca’s Mum’s birthday paella, I rather over bought.  I didn’t over spend, I hasten to reiterate, everything was a bargain, and most of it just plain cheap – I just bought more than we needed, or indeed could come close to fitting in the pan.  Actually pretty easily done on a trip to Theobalds  Not to worry though, nothing whatsoever went to waste, it just meant I didn’t need to do any proper shopping for a week.  And that week we ate fantastically well.

Apart from the leftover paella itself, which was enough for a light lunch for two or a hearty dinner for one (as it became for Becca on one of the evenings I was working in the week), we had the best part of a whole rabbit, jointed and already browned, six fat chicken thighs and plenty of cooking chorizo.

A tub of rabbit meat, a bowl of rabbit bones
The first thing to be done was make something of the rabbit.  Or rather two inter-related things, a stew of the meat and a stock of the bones.  So the day after the birthday feast I pulled all I could of the rabbit meat from the rabbit bones, put the bones in a stockpot of water with the regular veg, herbs and spices to simmer into a rich gamey stock, while making a basic stew of the meat with some shredded bacon, coarsely chopped onion, fennel and celery, a good splash of white wine and (added later in the whole process) the first few ladlefuls of stock from the pan.

Dinner that night was a simple pasta dish with a sauce made with cherry tomatoes, fried till soft, then a couple of ladles of the rabbit stew and a bit of extra stock added to the pan, tossed together with some penne.  A ribbony pasta, like pappardelle or broad tagliatelle - which one might argue to be something of a tautology - would undoubtedly have been more traditional, and perhaps more appropriate, but the principle culinary object of the day was throwing together something easy out of what we had to hand and that was penne.  And you know what?  It was perfectly good.

The bulk of the rabbit stew, and the stock, went into the fridge.  The next day we’d be due a change from rabbit, and it would be the turn of the chicken thighs.  My original idea had been to roast them with onions and sherry, a wonderfully simple and tasty dish, I believe of my own devising, which I have yet to post on this blog (although it has obvious things in common with the dish described here, it’s an open roast rather than a lidded casserole, and I will write it up one day, I promise).  But, disastrously (I say ‘disastrously’, but that’s speaking very relatively), the only sherry in the house was half a half bottle of 30 (thirty!) year old palo cortado which for all that it’s a ridiculous bargain even at around £18 for a half bottle – it is 30 years old after all – is not something you cook with.  Not even if it wasn’t a gift from your favourite aunt.  So in keeping with the theme for the week, I instead took a look at what we did have in the house and let my decision making be guided by that.  Which turned out to be red peppers, of the long pointy variety widely and cheaply available at the Turkish stores round here – or usually at a pound for a big bowl full in not always ropey condition on Ridley Road market.  And of which, like pretty much everything else intended for the paella, I had bought twice as much as I needed. 

The obvious thing to do with chicken thighs and red pepper perhaps was a Sicilian, Basque or maybe Provencale type stew, and very good that would have been too.  But I decided, more or less on a whim, and still with my onion and sherry dish in mind, to experiment with roasting the peppers whole in the dish with the chicken thighs, and some onion.  That may not have been a particularly wild or daring experiment, but I have to say it turned out to be a very successful one.  And again, very simple.

I simply marinated the chicken in the usual mix of crushed garlic, chilli, lemon juice and zest, olive oil, salt, pepper and herbs (sage and thyme), then browned them well in my stove proof cast iron roasting dish, lay the peppers between them, giving them a good turn in the juices, and tucked wedges of red onion, simply peeled and cut lengthways into sixths, into the remaining gaps.  ThenI transferred to the oven, at around 200, for about half an hour.

At the same time, but in another dish, I roasted some jersey royals and carrots that were slender enough to leave whole (having first been steamed over the potatoes as they were par-boiling), as much for aesthetic coherence with the whole peppers as anything, along with a few cloves of garlic.

The resulting plateful was one of the tastiest and most aesthetically pleasing roast chicken dishes I’ve ever had, while at the same time being one of the simplest.  There wasn’t even any need to think about making a gravy, the juices from the chicken and the red peppers making a thoroughly delectable sweet sauce in the roasting tray all by themselves.

Two chicken thighs apiece for Becca and me was plenty for dinner, and left two thighs over to be added to the rabbit stew for the thing I’d been most looking forward to ever since I’d realised the extent of our paella overstock.  Possibly what I’d been deliberately, but subconsciously, planning even before that, back at the point of making decisions in Theobalds.  The next step in our use-em-up program would be rabbit and chicken pie.  For which you’ll have to wait till my next post…