Friday 7 February 2014

Michelle and Eme and a Very UnBritish Stew

That's Eme at the end of the table, back for her fourth time. That's Michelle, second on the left. And that's the stew behind the salmon and under the salad. I know, awful shot.

This was largely a congregation of female neighbours, corralled by Eme and Michelle. I wanted to try out the Caponata I'd had in Sicily last year. They agreed. It's simple, one-pot, peasant cooking.

A real departure from my usual slow cooked British fare; this is anything but. Caponata shouldn't work for me, containing as it does many things I don't really like: aubergine, olives, capers, celery. But bizarrely, once combined in this simple tomato sweet and sour (agrodolce) sauce: frickin' loverly. The Italians insist on calling this a stew but you can't clump stew can you? Stew flows... or kludges.

I first tasted it in the Michelin starred La Madia in October 2014. It was a complete revelation. One of those dishes you wouldn't have if you knew the ingredients. But then, I am a little conservative in my food tastes. I know! I wish I could be one of those people who can throw capers on, say, spam and cherries, flash fry them and polish them off while pontificating eloquently and with style; people who can munch through bacon rind, gristle, apple cores. Can't be done.

I served my caponata with a simple piece of pan fried salmon and a dashing of red pepper vinegar. Oh, and that poxy basil leaf.

One of the big differences between cooks casual and keen is the hot pan. That should read HOT PAN. Many seem scared of heat. Lots of people ask me how I get the fish crispy on the outside and soft inside. The secret, you guessed, is the HOT PAN. You should feel the heat on your face. The oil/butter should be turning golden brown and hazing like a childhood summer afternoon. The fish skin should sssssssizzle when it hits the pan. three quarters of the time should be skin side down, then flip for maybe another minute to crisp and brown the other side. Serve quickly. The fish will continue to cook.

Caponata (Sweet & Sour Aubergine Stew)
This is my version of Carluccio's recipe.

Serves 6 as a main or maybe 10 as a starter
1 large onion, diced
4 celery stalks, including leaves, diced like the onion
5 tbsp olive oil
aubergines, diced into little regular, half inch chunks.
1 tbsp salted capers, soaked in water for 10 minutes, then drained
20 green olives, stoned
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
50g concentrated tomato paste
Blanche the onion and celery in lightly salted water for three minutes, then drain.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the aubergine chunks and fry until brown and tender. Add the onion, celery and all the remaining ingredients. Stir well, then cover and cook for about 10 minutes. No lid? Make a cartouche. Should the sauce look too dry, add a tablespoon or two of water during cooking. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Maybe add some more vinegar or sugar.

Better pics of the hosts. This is the main course: braised lamb with beetroot, kale and Yorkshires.

Sarah, a new neighbour, and actually from Yorkshire, said these were the best puddings she'd ever had.

How did the lamb go down?

Thursday 6 February 2014

Warm Winter Puddings - Dates and Walnuts

Pudding. PUDDING! For this is no dessert. This is a British pud: warming, sticky, rich with dried fruit (kinda), life-affirming, friendly, hopefully not too heavy. A bit like the cardiganed autodidact at your favourite pub. The one who buys you a pint of dark and lays a reassuring hand on your shoulder. Life's not that bad: he says, in his Falstaffian brogue as he taps out his rough shag on his shoe. And you believe him. OK, enough. No, this is a Northern European creation. This would never have made it in the Med. Try rowing your trireme after eating one. 

Pudding originally meant a small sack of meat, like black pudding (or Michael Gove). The origin is disputed. Maybe from old French: boudin. Or, more convincingly I think, from proto-German. Puddek is Low German sausage. Puduc is an Old English wart. Ew. Anyway, at some point, as with mince pies, the meat disappeared and we were left with cloth bags of sugar, flour, fat and dried fruit to be boiled or steamed... or baked like the one above... which does away with the bag and just uses a pudding mould.

You will need little pudding moulds for this. Disregard the pretentious dariole. There is something very satisfying about that little squat shape. These boys need to be buttered.

OK, so three elements: pud, sauce and cream. Nothing challenging at all in any of this.

Walnut and Date Pudding.
This owes a lot (ahem) to Flicky Cloake's recipe in her Guardian column.

Serves 6.

175g dried dates, stoned and roughly chopped

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

300ml boiling water
 AND/OR water + rum/brandy etc.
50g unsalted butter, softened

80g golden caster sugar

80g dark muscovado sugar
eggs, beaten

175g flour
1 tsp baking powder

Big pinch of ground cloves
 and/or allspice and/or cinnamon
75g walnuts pieces (smaller than halves. Smash them up if needs be.)
Put the dates and bicarb in a dish and cover with the boiling water. You can use some rum or brandy too if you like. The alcohol will all burn off in the oven. Well, probably. Try it on your kids. If they get drunk, it didn't. Leave the dates to soften while you prepare the rest of the pudding. 

Beat together the butter and caster sugar until fluffy, beat in the 
muscovado and then the eggs, a little at a time. Having a food mixer here is a godsend, or be prepared for cramping forearms and flapping bingo wings (Not me obv, I am incredibly lithe). Creaming muscovado is no fun. Stir in the flour, baking powder, cloves (and other spices if using) and a pinch of salt until well combined, and then add the dates and their soaking liquid. Finally add the walnuts. Mix well.

Pour into the BUTTERED moulds. NO MORE than three quarters full. If you do, it'll bubble over and be lost to the oven gods.

Bake at 180°C for around 25 mins, until well risen and springy to the touch. If in doubt go under rather than over. You want these babies moist. No one will mind eating a little undercooked batter. Turn out onto a plate and leave under the mould until required. They stay hot for at least ten minutes. 

Salted Caramel Sauce.
Best to use a pan that doesn't have a dark interior so you can see the colour of your caramel. Even better if the pan is heavy. Thin walled pans can lead to black sugar at the sides that can taint the sauce. But don't worry too much. But if you do worry too much, brush down the sides of the pan with water and a pastry brush.

250g caster sugar
5 tablespoons water
200ml double cream
100g butter

Heat the sugar and water SLOWLY until the sugar has dissolved. Then on a big heat until the mix becomes a golden brown caramel. This is anything over 160°C but closer to 180°C. If you don't have a probe or a sugar thermometer, just keep a close eye. You want deep golden brown. Dark brown is bad here. Black is death.

Carefully! Take the caramel pan off the heat. Let cool for a minute and then whisk in the cream and butter. Carefully, because that sugar will burn like napalm. It will look like everything's gone horrifically wrong for a while but weep not. Return the pan to the heat, have faith and keep stirring. You will be rewarded with a thick, glossy sauce. Now you add as much salt as you want. Or none at all. Warning: this stuff is culinary crack cocaine. You'll be pouring it on everything.

Vanilla Marscapone Cream
Because there's not quite enough fat in double cream. lightly whisk 300ml double cream and then add the same volume of marscapone and a tablespoon of icing sugar. Add some vanilla seeds, either from a pod or two or a paste (I have a half kilo jar in the fridge these days!). Whip this until gently stiff then place in the fridge to firm up.

A word about vanilla. DON'T buy pods from supermarkets. I've seen these selling for as much as £2 per pod. If you are going to use vanilla in any quantity buy it on-line I use the pastes. They keep for months in the fridge.

To Serve. You don't really need me to tell you this? Turn out the puddings. They really shouldn't stick. If they have, try and make it look deliberate. Pour the hot caramel sauce over. Serve the cream on the side. Too close and it will die in the hot sugar lava.

If you're stooopid, you could try making quenelles. See the one in the picture? That took about 20 goes.

This bloke makes it look easy. It's not.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Extraordinary wines but a problem with presentation

Ian and Marion returned with another of their gang of Keble School parents. This time they also brought the finest collection of Grand Cru wines I've ever seen assembled. Now I don't normally drink AT ALL in the kitchen but I have a real weakness for good Burgundy so when they offered me a slurp, I accepted. I've found that even a glass of wine can affect my timings. Invariably there are eight things happening at once during service and a wine mind only allows me to deal with seven of them.

Even more unusually, as the party left around midnight, Rohin asked me to join them for drinks at his place. What a gent. Of course I accepted.

Shocking head the next morning.

I should explain that the TV screen in the corner of this (and many other) pictures is linked to my music system, it shows the track playing - and allows selection of others. It's not Homes Under the Hammer left on by mistake (putting that on at all would be a mistake!).

That's my slow braised lamb shanks in a white port and rosemary gravy with Jerusalem artichoke puree, Yorkshires, kale and creamed leeks, which I made. And a bottle of 2007 Pontet Canet, which I didn't. Parker gave that wine 91-94 points.

But the evening was not without its problems. See below.

The starter was an issue. A new idea of mine: smoked mackerel salad with bitter leaf, grapefruit and home-made sweet pickles. The flavour was excellent but LOOK AT IT! Has someone run over a green hedgehog? And those pickles on the rim? What was I thinking? That wasn't how I pictured it.  I'm really not keen on over-fussing; preferring simple but pretty. But how do you make a fish salad pretty?