Friday, 24 September 2010

Excuse this short intermission while I go and have a baby...

... although I am right at this very moment (while quietly and stoically contracting) making a green tomato ketchup as promised for comparison with the one I made the other week; I'll be back with notes on how it goes. The ketchup, not the birth. It's not that kind of blog.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Plum sauce

There’s a Nigel Slater recipe from Kitchen Diaries that I’ve tried three or four times now and never quite managed to crack. The one where he roasts Fragola grapes around the pork for the entire roasting time and somehow ends up with sweet grape-scented jus instead of shrivelled black raisins. I’ve tried a number of different methods, including cooking on a lower temperature and covering the tin with foil, chucking the grapes in later in the process, hiding them under the meat and so on, but have always ended up simply chucking out the burnt debris, carefully deglazing the pan and throwing in more fresh grapes as I do so and squishing them down. It always ends up delicious, but I’m damned if I can see how he does it his way.

I bought a piece of bone-in pork shoulder from the butcher at the weekend and had in mind the same kind of fruity accompaniment, although, instead of grapes, I had some under-ripe plums which needed encouragement of some kind. I also enjoyed the grape-based sauce from the other week, but wanted something with a more Chinese-y aspect. It was a bit of experimentation, but here you go.

Sweat a chopped onion and carrot in a pan in some butter until translucent and soft. Stir in 1-2 tsp flour and let it cook out. Add a good wine glass of red wine, stir in and allow to thicken then add around 300ml chicken stock. I then added a couple of star anise, a merest hint of cinnamon and reduced it by half. I stoned a good handful of plums, halved them and added them to the sauce with a little fresh ginger. Simmer the sauce until the plums collapse, then press through a sieve, scraping the underside with a wooden spoon to collect all the plum flesh. Pour back into the pan and adjust the seasoning – you may even need to add a little sugar, depending on the ripeness (or not) of the plums. You’re aiming for a rich deep flavour with a subtle spice in the background from the star anise.

We had some of the sauce with the roast pork and roast potatoes and some sauteed kale, but it was even better the next day reheated and poured over diced leftover pork stir-fried with green beans and aubergine and tossed with noodles. When you reheat the sauce for this, you might want to increase the Chinese spices and add a little chilli.

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Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Oh Delia…

Have you seen the new Waitrose/Delia advert? The one for Braised meatballs in goulasch sauce? We-ell, I don’t mean to be picky and I do try to avoid a bandwagon when I see one rumbling along, but – I have some issues… Because I am by nature a thorough and inquisitive being on your behalf, I made this recipe the other night – just from watching the ad on the TV (and, I have to admit, using a smattering of common sense), then I compared it to the written recipe online.

The balance between television and reality is a tricky one. You have to make the recipe sound and look easy, accessible, quick, yet still shove in all the salient factors such as prime ingredients, cooking time and so on. Obviously in the written recipe – available of course online – you can go into much more detail – y’know, those tricky details that enable you to get the dish right. It’s the disparity between the two that does my head in.

Point number 1: Delia rolls the ready-made meatballs in a tbsp seasoned flour, partly, I would suggest for a good crust on them during the browning process and partly because the flour stuck to the meatballs will also help thicken the sauce later on. All sound kitchen science so far. So why, then, does the advert and recipe then have her brushing in (what looks like considerably more than) the remaining tbsp seasoned flour into the pot for the sauce? The end result would be actual glue – particularly as the only other liquid added is from the 400g can of tomatoes. Which brings me to Point number 2:

Point number 2: (You see – consistency and logic right there – why am I not on Waitrose ads? I do exactly what I say…) No stock, no water – that’s it. Just a can of chopped tomatoes fighting for its liquid life against a tbsp (or more) of flour and an hour and a half’s cooking time…

When I made this, I chucked in my tomatoes after browning the meatballs and it isn’t very much liquid at all, particularly after you’ve braised the meatballs until completely cooked through. You would end up, not forgetting the thickening effects of the flour, with a very dry dish. Like meatballs with some tomato paste smeared around them. Because smeary tomato paste isn’t my thing, I added 250ml or so beef stock and then simmered the lot on the hob with a lid semi-covering the pan for around 35 mins.

Let’s think about this: the meatballs, whether you cook them very slowly on the hob with a lid semi-covering the pot like I did, or in a 140C oven like Delia, are going to cook very slowly and the sauce will reduce and thicken, such is the magical alchemy of cookery. That’s what you’re trying to achieve through the low temperature – so what’s the bloody flour doing in there as a thickener?? And how can there be enough liquid for 3-4 people from one 400g can? I used one can and the stock for just two of us and after a shorter simmering time I had a perfectly reduced but only just adequate amount of sauce to coat the meatballs and the pasta to accompany. Whatever way I look at this, the combination of unnecessary flour and not enough liquid is making my head hurt, so let’s move on.

Point number 3: The peppers. Again, I suspect this is more to do with the televisual aspect of it all, but if I’m watching the recipe on the TV and it shows Delia chucking in sodding great quartered lumps of green peppers, I’m going to be inclined to think that’s what’s got to be done. Never mind that there isn’t enough liquid (I know, I know – I can’t leave it alone) to cook such enormous pieces to succulent tenderness properly, why – aesthetically speaking – would you want them so large and not, say, chopped much smaller? Check the online recipe and they’re to be cut into 2.5cm dice: not quite the same, I think you’ll agree. Um – and I’d be surprised if they’d cook to tenderness in just half an hour in a 140C oven, but I’m prepared to be proved wrong.

Just for the record, I actually threw in some chopped field mushrooms in with the onions at the beginning of the recipe for depth of flavour. Really good addition. And I also didn’t have any green peppers to hand, but you’ll have to trust me on this one.

Point number 4: The half-fat crème fraiche addition at the end really annoys me. First, if it’s a goulasch sauce why wouldn’t you just advocate sour cream which is more traditional? Second, why the half-fat? It’s a healthy recipe – why the fuss over the calories in a mere swirl of dairy at the end? All that implies is that the main body of the recipe is unhealthily full of fat and there needs to be calorie-cutting to counteract it? It doesn’t make sense.

Point number 5: This is an eternal bugbear of mine, this anointing the cooked pasta with olive oil after it’s cooked. Please please don’t do this unless you have to hold the pasta for more than a minute before serving. All the addition of oil achieves is separating the pasta ribbons and prevents them sticking to each other, which is absolutely desirable if you’ve got to keep them hanging around. But if you’re saucing straight onto the pasta because – let’s face it - you’re reasonably intelligent and the meatballs are done and just begging to be spooned over the pasta, oiling them beforehand just means the sauce slides off the pasta instead of coating it. So the end result is oily Teflon pasta and a sauce that will have nothing to do with it, no matter how hard you twirl your fork of pasta in the bottom of the bowl. You may argue it’s to stick the poppy seeds to the pasta, but then I would argue back that you could just as easily sprinkle the poppy seeds over the top of the dish and avoid unpleasantly gritty pasta. Your call.

I notice that the online recipe is ‘adapted’ from Delia’s Winter Collection. I know Delia claims every single one of her recipes is tested by single-cell amoeba to ensure that even the dullest amongst us could not get it wrong but, personally speaking as someone who worked for a long time on professional recipe writing, I think this is lazy recipe writing of the worst kind: no logic, no common sense and no examination of the whys and wherefores. Just an assumption that, because it’s Delia, it has to be right. And just sometimes, it’s not.

PS: Just while we're on the topic of lazy, rubbish recipe writing on t'telly I managed to catch the edition of Jamie's Kitchen where he makes the ketchup. Well - there's no mention of 350ml water and he just chucks everything in at the beginning and then reduces like buggery until the consistency is right. My question is: what do you do? Do you faithfully follow the book or do you go with the flow off the TV programme. Readers, in the spirit of self-sacrifice I shall cook a green tomato ketchup with the latter instructions and let you know. It's enough to try the patience, etc etc...

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Cooked out

Yesterday was one of those days of almost surreal completion.

9am: Breakfast was a sausage sandwich and a near-perfect cafetière of freshly-ground coffee. This may not sound exceptional, but the bread was home-made, the sausages were pretty good and I savour my coffee when I actually have it these days. It’s my favourite breakfast and one I find actually very difficult to beat. So a gustatorily (?) perfect start.

11.15am I went on to BBC iPlayer to find the BBC4 documentary In Other Words that I missed last month, only to find it’s no longer available (why – why – do they do this? Why can’t they just bloody archive everything?) Instead I found a really rather fascinating documentary narrated by Dr Andrew Hussey on the culinary history of France, from Louis IV right up to present day. I was hooked throughout.

12.30pm  I made ketchup from the pounds of tomatoes now decorating my kitchen windowsill in a spectrum of colour. I did this last year, following the recipe in Jamie’s Kitchen as the combination of herbs, spices and vegetables works really well. What I had utterly and completely forgotten was that a) last year I doubled the recipe to two kg of tomatoes, which made at least 3-4 jars of ketchup – this year I made it with just 1kg and it boiled down to just the one jar and b) it takes all bloody afternoon to reduce so 5 hours of kitchen time were diligently spent on the one sodding jar of admittedly delicious sauce. A somewhat disproportionate result but one we shall treasure, I’m sure.

NB: I really do recommend the recipe, but he does make the classic mistake of not mentioning how very long both reductions take - I suspect in the interests of not putting your average servantless domestic cook off making it. So you might as well factor it in for a rainy afternoon and be patient with it: the first reduction can take 2 hours, the second at least an hour.

1.30pm It’s not really a lunch worth writing home about but I enjoyed it: Take one slice of bread and toast. Sauté/steam some purple sprouting broccoli and when nearly done, chuck in some olives and halved cherry tomatoes. Pile onto the bread, tear up some mozzarella and melt in the oven. Drizzle over some extra virgin and some chilli flakes if you like. Lovely.

3.30pm Watched Julie & Julia on DVD and found myself wishing fervently they could have just made the whole film about Julia Child with Meryl Streep and forgotten the vapid, whinging Julie Powell story which added nothing and detracted much. She’s not a human being that comes across as worth knowing (and you might note I made mention of the same after reading the follow-up Cleaving). But it did make me long to go back to Paris and to cook. Luckily the latter scenario was still in hand by the time the film finished.

7.30pm A Goan chicken curry, rich with coconut and tamarind. I threw in some pineapple in a rebellious pro-Empire gesture and didn’t regret it. But I would draw the line at sultanas.

9pm: Another food doc on BBC4 with Andrew Hussey, this time on the food of the North West. As in lobscouse, chips, pies, tripe and so on. Striding around Blackpool like some Scouse Charles Campion, he’s a good presenter, but his background as a cultural historian could have given more insights into the consequences of the Industrial Revolution on our culinary heritage. The highlight was  the World Pie Eating Champion – an old guy probably called Stan who dutifully followed Hussey round Wigan, clearly having been promised more pies. He got them in the end – he seemed to have a lower jaw that just unhinged to swallow said pie. Extraordinary.

Today I’m going to actually get out of the house. Out and about in society, nice and easy, that’s the way.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

You mean you have to watch and read at the same time…

Took myself off to Brixton’s Ritzy cinema yesterday for the second instalment of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. As per last time, right up until the opening sequence rolled, it was just me and my choice of Swedish-themed snack alone in the room (last time it was smoked mackerel and cucumber pickle on rye bread; this time chilled cucumber and yoghurt soup – I must post the recipe). However, the discerning South London public trickled in – a father and son, a mother and perhaps her son (I hadn’t had it down as a family movie but perhaps they’d already seen Scott Pilgrim vs The World) and two teenage girls, whose presence  both a tad surprised but also somewhat reassured me that the youth of today would choose the Swedish version over the soon-to-be-rubbish American version.

Hey-ho: the film started rolling and it was only when it was perhaps a good five minutes in that it dawned on any of us that we hadn’t magically been converted to fluent Swedish speakers by a secret mind-boring laser projected from the screen, but in fact they had inserted the Swedish-only version of the film without the subtitles. I have to say at this point, I was quite happy trying to deduce what was going on using body language cues, the odd glimmer of recognition when the Swedish was similar to German and leaving the rest to a mixture of memory and imagination. I’m not sure it wouldn’t have gotten a little wearing after a while but as a cerebral experiment I was prepared to give it a go.

Anyway, up gets the older man and turns to the back of the room and yells up ‘This is what they did last time – used the wrong film without the subtitles. Oy – change the film.’ (Just take a moment to ponder the size of the Swedish-speaking demographic in Brixton that would result in the cinema managers actually deciding it would be good to hold a copy of an unsubtitled version. Just in case…)

There’s much British murmuring at this – agreement combined with a certain wariness at his forthrightness at demanding what may be a more satisfactory outcome for the paying customer – and then one of the teenage girls had a lightbulb moment: ‘Hang on’, she said ‘Do you mean there’s meant to be, like, language, up on screen and stuff?’

The guy looks at her (in my head it’s a gimlet stare) and replies ‘Unless you speak Swedish.’ I chimed in (because I do like to contribute) ‘Because we’re all fluent…’ She looks unsure. You can sense she’s struggling with some fundamental flaw in our argument. ‘But, like, d’you mean you have to, like, watch and read at the same time?’ Again with the gimlet stare. ‘Yes that’s the general idea of subtitles.’ Huge sigh. ‘But I might as well just read the books.’

At this point I realise that all of us are struggling with the desire to turn around and goggle at them for one or all of the following reasons: there are actually two people in the world who have not read the books (myself speaking as a former bookseller); who don’t have a clue what the films are about; or that they are not yet released in English. (And at this point I’d like to give you another point to ponder – these two girls have wandered into a Swedish language film, the second of a trilogy, of their own volition and pocket but clearly without any idea of what they were seeing, despite the publicity surrounding both the books and the films.)

There’s much whispered discussion amongst them both. Clearly to ‘watch and read’ might be a multi-task too far. I silently gave them five minutes of re-booted film before they walked, blighting my initial favourable impression. They lasted three. But the film was jolly good.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The language of Guugu Yimithirr


Never say you don’t learn anything on this blog. Read and marvel at the language of Guugu Yimithirr from North Queensland