Wednesday 1 April 2015

The twelve ingredients of my life

I almost called this '12 essential ingredients'  but that would have meant justifying the term 'essential. Meaning what exactly? Why am I getting all 'lifestyle magazine'? Why have I spent hours Photoshopping? If it's real essentials where's the flour and eggs? If it's luxury additions then what're onions doing there. And why only twelve? It's not even Christmas so what's with the 'best of' theme? Look, let's calm down and stop being all bloody meta.

So these are the ingredients of my life. I kinda like the folksy grandiloquence of it (not a sentence I thought I'd write today). It's the sort of title that Nigel Slater would get away with and he's not done so badly. Anyway, shall we begin?

You know, sometimes I write this stuff and I figure: it's OK, they'll know it's ironic, me being a [deleted] and everything. And then people take me seriously. Don't.

These are the elements that I use most often; that I would miss most; that I would not do without. Hell, maybe I just want to gush. Some may balk at the inclusion of vanilla over, say, garlic, or rosemary over basil, thyme and parsley. And where are the chillies, the spirits and the tomatoes? I had to leave out haddock, bacon, foie gras, brill and Holtwhite's almond croissants. Well all such lists are spurious and predicated on a set of very unreal circumstances but are ultimately created to spark debate, preferably over a meal with friends. Or online... with undue aggression. I also spend a lot of time reading about ingredients: history and use, and wanted to share some of the questions that prompted that research. Why, for instance, is pepper a staple condiment and not cumin or coriander? I'm inviting you to tell me why you agree or disagree and what your list would include.

1. Salt. Specifically Maldon salt. While we in the West may consider this the most ubiquitous of condiments, remember in the East, salt is rarely found on the dining table. They use fermented soy, oyster or fish (like the Romans) to deliver a sodium hit. Salt is essential to life. We crave it. We used to pay ourselves in it (hence: salary). 

Seasoning is one of the key differences between good food and great. This means salt, and usually more of it than we're told is good for us. Of course, if you regularly cook from scratch you do avoid all that hidden sodium in tinned food and microwave meals. Something well seasoned would be too salty if you added any more. You should season as you go, because tasting as you cook is essential (but bizarrely, so many people don't). 

Maldon is what to reach for when all those U.S. recipes call for 'kosher salt'. I use it so often, I confess I'm at a loss with table salt. I tend to salt by feel at first, knowing how big a pinch for my bread dough or... hell, look it's salt, it's in everything. My family tell me I have a very salty palate, which worries me. How should a cook season something - if not to their own taste, what?

Maldon crystals are light and crunchy, and occasionally diamond sharp, so I use it on the top of my rosemary focaccia that I serve at the start of almost every supper club meal.

Pepper drupes
2. Black pepperBlack pepper is the cooked and dried unripened 'drupe' of the pepper plant; they turn white when ripe. So why is it the only spice to be on every table? Black pepper berries are native to Southeast Asia, long valued as both a flavouring and a medicine  It was taken up by the Romans as a cheaper alternative to long pepper, the condiment of the plebeians. The taste spread to the proles and then among the empire and via the Persians, Arabs, Italians and Spanish, to the rest of the world. It's now the most commonly traded spice. 

Black pepper was hugely valued. So much so that in medieval Europe, the merchant class would wear bags of it around their necks, not as a medicine but as an aromatic display of wealth.

I adore black pepper - possibly too much. It has to be freshly milled. It's the volatile oils and other aromatic compounds from the freshly cracked corns that gives pepper its hit and these quickly degrade (oxidise) when exposed to air.

My love of pepper has definitely been passed down. I knew that Etien insists on having it on chips but only recently did I watch him grinding it onto toast. Why didn't I think of that? Why is that even weird?

3. Lemon. If could chose where to die it might be in a lemon grove. When life gives you lemons... say thank you very much and hope they're from Amalfi. Why wouldn't you want these fantastically versatile and delicious fruit? Bizarre saying.

A greenish tinge is OK (it doesn't mean unripe) but avoid the pallid yellow of age and brown patches. Look for deep yellow. Waxed lemons are cheaper because they keep longer but the price is an imprisoned zest. Purchase only for juice. And bottled juice is an obscenity but surely if you know that you wouldn't be reading this?

Juice for acidity; zest, finely grated, for lemon flavour. Acidity is one of our five tastes (arguably six, now fattiness is vying for inclusion). Cleansing and quenching, lemon juice improves most fruit and veg dishes, used like salt to intensify the flavour. 

The zest is where the flavour is incidentally. I was rather shocked to discover that neither my wife nor eldest son knew this. Why did they think I've been grating the stuff into biscuits and cakes then? Lemon and vanilla is a great but often overlooked combo.

Simple lemonade is one of life's great pleasures. That uninhibited mix of sweet and sour coupled with fresh citrus. The best I've tasted was made by Belinda, using this excellent recipe.

4. Rosemary. I fear that I use too much of this woody herb - more than thyme, parsley, coriander, basil or mint. Easily. Sometimes I just roll it between my palms and enjoy the aroma. It has to be freshly picked so there are at least eight bushes in my garden, many sadly denuded since I started the supper club so I'm planting more this spring. Rosemary adds a floral uplift to many dishes and is an essential constituent of my warm spiced nuts. I add it to roast lamb and pork, to gravies, especially port based ones and to the crust of my lamb racks.

5. Butter. The term we use when something has an appealingly soft and unctuous mouth feel is 'buttery'. A product of the cooler, non tropical areas of the world where cool milk can be churned into butter and buttermilk. If you haven't tried already, you should make your own. There is something nigh on miraculous about the proccess. Add some full fat milk to a bottle and shake it. Suddenly, after half an hour of splashy splashy you hear a dull splat. You've made butter!

It's recently suffered a PR boost too. Nutritionists now admit that butter had an undeserved bum rap since the 70s. To be honest I wouldn't care. Butter is my nicotine. Even if it does kill me at least I enjoyed the ride, my demise eased by all that pale yellow, creamy goodness.

Butter is one of the differences between domestic and restaurant food. Chefs will add a big chunk when pan frying anything, basting continuously. That brown crust, that golden glow: butter. The reason Michelin starred mashed potato is so delicious in because it's often mixed 1:1 with butter.

Almost everything is improved by butter, sweet or savoury. No? You've watched that scene in Last Tango in Paris?

Brown butter is perhaps the best smell in the world. Its French name sounds sexier: beurre noisette. Gently heat butter until it turns a pale brown. Have some cold water ready to place the pan in for the first few times. It's like making caramel: deep brown may make you frown but you don't come back from black. Brown butter can be used to improve many cakes and biscuits that ask for melted butter. I always use it in friands.

Butter is a rock at 4°C, soft at 20°C and a liquid by 35°C. This means we can use the physical properties of butter to make and shape and mould. Oil is oil is oil but you can build with butter. Talking of pastry  - has anyone tried replacing the water in their pastry with vodka. Seriously. The alcohol makes the dough soft but then completely evaporates in the oven leading to a super crisp crust. I will report back.

6. Vinegar. Essential to pickle and preserve but even more so to add acidity to dishes that would otherwise bask in blandness. A key ingredient in ketchup and brown sauce and salad dressing. Apart from the acidity, vinegar is a source of sourness, which may be on the unpopular side of the tracks but is nevertheless essential to a balanced palate.

The picture is of A l'Olivier fruit vinegars; I lionised them last yearI regularly buy a dozen bottles and prance with joy at their arrival (so undignified). They add a depth of flavour to my sauces, gravies and invariably to my purées. Beetroot is much improved with a dash of the raspberry, tomato sauce can take a bit of the red pepper and where would my fig and walnut dressing be without the figue?

7. Alliums. Yes all alliums. You wouldn't expect me to chose between onions and shallots surely? You wouldn't be that cruel. Can I sneak garlic by too? Onions are the world's savoury base. Arguably the only truly global ingredient, they are the largest crop by area,  harvested in over 150 countries and feature in the oldest known recipe books - Sumarian clay tablets. Onions R us. 

People who tell you they don't like onions are kidding themselves - they eat them daily if they eat at all. There are many 'oniony' tastes, from the kick in the back of the head, eye watering, crisp, sulphuric bite of the raw to the gooey, melting, astonishingly sweet of the slow roasted. And in-between the mild umami hum of the sweated golden and the almost acrid satisfaction of the slightly burned - often found atop the hot plancher in a burger van. Choowan uniuns wiv dat'? I do thanks.

Odd then that they are so neglected - always seen as the backdrop when they are actually the stage. I try to highlight them. I do a roast onion tart with 12 hour roast puree topped with fried onions, sometimes with a garnish of parmesan or goats cheese. Onion fondue has been a recent surprise hit - a triple allium hit at that - with many guests asking for the recipe. I'll often roast a shallot as a side dish, especially with beef but often with mushrooms. Add some golden onions to soft polenta, cool and griddle for an up-flavoured fried slice and an excellent carb bed for all meats.

8. Vanilla. Pod and paste. Second in spice expense only to saffron. 

Funny really that we describe something bland or everyday as vanilla. Familiarity really has bred contempt. But try taking the seeds out and eat it then. Ice cream would taste of milk, custard of eggs. The pods pictured are Mexican which is where it all started until the French nicked it and started production in Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros Islands. Vanilla means 'little pod or sheath' in Spanish - the same Latin root as vagina actually.

Vanilla and brown butter is a scent from the gods. Never throw the deseeded pods away; they should be stored in sugar or syrup (see below). Pod, paste and extract are all good. I use vast amounts of paste so I buy in half kilo tubs. Avoid essences, they aren't vanilla but some evil concoction and buy pods on line if you can plan it. They come at a tenth of the cost.

9. Parmesan. The king of cheese. Part of the grana family of cheeses, so named because of its grainy texture. Famously buried by Pepys during the great fire of London due to its cost. A hard cheese made only from milk from grass fed (no silage) cows that graze around the  towns of Parma and Reggio. The cows must be drug free and their milk less than 24 hours old. True parmesan - and there is only one - can be aged 18, 22 or 30+ months with flavours ranging from banana, wood, hazelnuts and even mint. The most aged cheese will cost around £36 a kilo.

Apart from judicious sprinkling in most things mushroomy (not the velouté), I use parmesan in my (surprise!) parmesan thins. A fabulous thin, crisp biscuit that's perfect with wine. A recipe gifted me by my friend Bee.

Incidentally, if you've ever thought that offence to humanity that is dried, grated parmesan smells suspiciously of vomit, you'd be correct. Parmesan and sick have high levels of butyric acid which gives both that specific pungency.

10. Truffle paste. Of course in another life (the one where I'm rather more successful and right now am hosting drinks for the president of the world at my Amalfi coast clifftop house, olive farm and lemon grove) this would be white truffles, flown from Alba but alas not. But this is wonderful stuff. Leave a jar open in the kitchen for a few minutes and my truffle-phobic eldest son will start complaining in his bedroom. That pungency is what we pay for. I add some to most of my mushroom dishes and most often to the restaurant's much requested amuse bouche velouté.

11. Syrups. I have, at any one time, five stock syrups in my fridge. They all start the same way, as a 1:1 (in weight) water and sugar mix, brought slowly to the boil. Slowly because you don't want the water to boil before the sugar's fully dissolved. I then add flavouring. It's an easy way to add interest to desserts. Add some interest to icing sugar. Whizz some up with fruit, push through a sieve and you have a very quick sauce with unexpected flavour notes. Aside from plain, here are my four  frequent flyers:
  • Mint. Blanch the mint first, stem and all and pack a bottle with the herb. Great mixed with red wine vinegar as a dressing for salty cheeses such as feta. Good in cocktails obviously - mojitos, caipirinhas and juleps.
  • Vanilla. All those seed-scraped pods. Stash them in some syrup. I add a dash to my rhubarb sorbet.
  • Citrus. finely peel the zest from several lemons and oranges. This is so useful as a glaze and instead of apricot jam in baking. 
  • Spiced. Probably my most used - most recently to poach plums and cherries which impart a superb purple colour that you can then reuse. I add lemon grass, zest and verbena, orange zest, cinnamon sticks,star anise, all colour of peppercorns bar green, cardamom and cloves. Strangely, when people ask me "Oh, what's that I can taste?" It's usually cloves. They're not quite familiar enough are they? I always pour some spiced syrup in my pineapple and lime ice.
It's also the basis for Dr Sutton's Winter Warmer but the exact formulation is family only.

12. Stock. The rhythm guitar of the kitchen band. Sure everyone notices the top notes of Mick Taylor but its the foot-tapping chug of Ronnie Wood that makes the body of the song. No. it's more like the secret boyfriend you had at school. You get on really well but you don't want to be seen in public. It's not a looker is it?

Home made stock is a thing of wonder just as much as shop bought is a disgrace. Stock cubes should be illegal. I'll let you in on a secret. If you do use stock cubes - I might pretend that you I like you but I won't really. It's like telling me you once had a puppy and you used to punch it in the face. Most often and whenever professionalism demands, I'll be able to overlook it but at some point we'll get drunk together and then I'll have to bring it up. You'll get defensive; I'll get annoyed. I'll tell you you're better than that; you'll tell me I'm not your dad. It'll end badly and loudly  Just make some proper frickin' stock. Oh, and those new foiled blobs of nonsense that Marco's flogging - forget it. Them's stock cubes by stealth. You're fooling no one Mr White. Stock takes time and effort. Good. Some things should. There's no quick fix. Perhaps someone should point this out to the greedy grocer and the sneery Australian (and lend them a wedge for that bloody door while you're at it).

Just be careful with the celery. I think, embarrassed at their calorie paucity they make up by being overgenerous with flavour when boiled. A little celery is a good thing, but do you actually want something where it dominates?

The trick to clear stock, to be used as a shimmering broth or consommé is two fold. Firstly chill the strained stock so the fats and oils rise to the surface. These can be skimmed for use or refuse. The remaining liquid, or jelly as it should be, is whisked with a couple of egg whites per litre (one quart) of stock along with the crushed egg shells (yes, really). Bring to the simmer very slowly. A 'raft' of eggwhite will form, trapping any particles. Beneath this scum cloud will be a clear liquid.

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