Saturday 27 February 2016

Cod with holy basil, roasted in a paper bag

Not a hint of dryness. Cod at the table (hence funny candle light) with charred Romaine in a lemon vinaigrette,
slow roasted toms and sweet pickled fennel. The fennel roast potatoes came later.

Holy or Thai basil
The joy of cooking in a paper bag - or en papillotte as the French insist on calling it - is the opening. All the aromas are captured, to be released in a steamy plume of aplomb, under the noses of guests. It normally elicits a reaction; a nice piece of table theatre. The other advantage of cooking fish with this technique is it maximises moistness. The fish should come out a tad off translucence, just flaking. It's a very forgiving way to cook too, although timing is still critical, but not like with pan frying. You can also do this for lots of people whereas I would never attempt to pan fry twelve fillets!

This a variation of Salmon en papillote, one of the most popular dishes we do. Cod needs different treatment however as it's a much more tender fish. Too hot an oven will tighten up the fish, squeezing out essential moisture, leading to a dry, tough, fillet surrounded by juice.

It's a dish that maximises the virtues of aromatic ingredients so I'm using lemon and holy basil, also known as Thai basil. This is widely available. Waitrose seems to always have stock. Holy basil, with its distinctive purple stems, is sweeter, more delicate and even more aromatic than the usual green basil. The purple is, ahem, also prettier on the reveal.

If you're cooking for family, or guests you don't really care for, you can use one big paper bag for all the fish. This is a faff saver but does mean you take time to plate up. The fish can get cold. At the supper club we do individual bags, brought to table with a wedge of charred Romaine lettuce dowsed in a lemon vinaigrette and some slow roasted tomatoes. I don't sauce this dish; the tomato juices and the vinaigrette bring enough. I also don't want to overpower this subtle fish.

Cod with holy basil, in a paper bag.

I love the colours of this
Allow at least a 300g portion of skinless cod loin per person. UK supermarkets will be useless for your needs, sorry. Even the wet fish counter will struggle to sell you a decent sized cod fillet... and if they do, they will charge you plenty. The pre-portioned fish on the cold shelves simply isn't fresh enough in my opinion. Just look at how long a 'sell by' they have. And remember, fresh fish doesn't smell. You need a fishmonger. Check for bones by running your fingers into the flesh. You might need to tweezer a few out.

Tear off an A3 size of baking paper and fold in the middle. Place the fillet near the fold and drizzle with a good, neutral oil - rice bran, groundnut etc. You can use olive oil of course, if you want an olive oil favour - I don't. season well with sea salt - but no pepper. Place on two thin slices of lemon and two sprigs of holy basil, enough to cover the whole fillet (as pictured). Fold the paper over and start to fold the sides in, one small fold over the other, securing the end with a few twists. It will look a little like a paper Cornish pasty. This should create a leak proof bag which will puff up. If in doubt, secure the edges with wooden pegs. Place the bags on a baking tray. It doesn't matter if the bags overlap but not the fillets inside should have some air around them. Use two trays rather than overcrowding.

Cook for 12 minutes in a 180°C oven. The fish will continue to cook inside the bag and on the plates, if they're hot.

Lemon vinaigrette
Enough for at least eight
I'm going to include my recipe for lemon vinaigrette but I'm aware that it involves a few esoteric ingredients, not least my own home made, extra zingy lemon syrup. I'm doing this partly for my own benefit - this blog started as, and remains, my own cooking reference.

Over a bowl, to preserve the lemon oils, zest one large lemon. Add the squeezed juice. Now add: a big pinch of sea salt, a twist of black pepper, two tablespoons of A l'Olivier citron pamplemousse vinegar, a tablespoon of lemon syrup, four tablespoons of rape seed oil (or groundnut) and two teaspoons of Dijon mustard. Whisk well before transferring to a bottle. Shake well before using.

Roasted tomato soup

This is my Sunday supplement shot
I've always thought most soup recipes were pretty dumb. I mean the concept, rather than the actual recipe. With soup, the name is the recipe right? Guess what's in pea and ham soup... or watercress... or, simplest of all... tomato? As long as you have a blender, you add the main ingredient to some kind of stock and flick the switch. Soup!

So, predictably, this is a very simple, one oven, one pot dish. You don't even use a liquid, just the main ingredient.

Cooking is mostly about applying heat to food, in order to soften the muscle or fibre, to make it easier to eat. Of course, this often makes it tastier too: charring and caramelising natural sugars. But modern cooking, increasingly, is about removing water from food. Take away the wet stuff to leave more of the flavour particles. Yes, that is the technical term. With British tomatoes this step is essential. Cooking with toms is one of the times I regret living on this slate grey, rain slanted island. We don't get Spanish sun or the Italian heat and our veg hates us for it. It sulks on the vine, refusing to bloom. It's like a truculent Goth, sat in its bedroom, curtains closed to a soundtrack of Nine Inch Nails; refusing to wear the bright clothing; the summer wardrobe. UK tomatoes suck. We've all had the radiant red stuff yeah? For me, usually in a  nothing-special cafe in Italy. The fruit so ripe and sun vibrant that the juice is pink, let alone the flesh. Supermarkets make things worse by picking the toms too early, when still green - easier for transport.

So, sat in England in February the only way to make our native toms sing is to remove the water: to roast them. Bung in some additional flavour too, maybe three or four garlic cloves and/or a sprinkle of thyme leaves. But not too much; this is all about the tomato. Simple, sweet, astringent.

So take a bunch of vine tomatoes, about half a kilo of plum or vittoria. Buy the darkest, reddest fruit you can find. and place them vine down in a shallow roasting tray. Why vine down? Because there's flavour in them there stems and I want to infuse the oil while it bakes. Glug over at least 200ml of olive oil; a good slick. Now sprinkle over a couple of diced shallots and give the whole tray a good shower of black pepper and sea salt. Finally, about 30g of sugar.

Bake in the oven for two hours at 150°C. You want to soften not colour. Now pluck the toms off the vine, they will come away very easily. Put toms, the oily, roasting juices and the soft shallot into a blender. Don't put the garlic in, unless you want garlic soup. Blend until smooth. You may still need to sieve out pips and bits of skin. I don't as I am blessed with a Vitamix, the destroyer of worlds.

Add a dash of double cream, to taste. Too much and it will taste like Heinz (and then, why did we bother?), not enough and it will be tart. Season with salt and possibly more sugar. This will make enough for four people, perhaps.

I serve with a tablespoon of cream and some drops of basil oil. If you're feeling adventurous, try frying some basil leaves, for about ten seconds. I often use this as an amuse bouche as the acidity starts up your mouth for the meal to come.

These only look orange because of the lighting in the Dining Club.

English custard... in under six minutes.

All hail English custard.

Honestly. Proper, rich, creamy, English custard. Somehow milk and egg yolks combine with vanilla to make the most delicious food balm known to humanity. Custard restores sanity in a world of stress and taxes. Who doesn't love it? Who doesn't hate making it? 

Well, no longer. I can make it in under six minutes, perfectly, every time. I've done this at least a dozen times now. With witnesses. I've even timed it on the last few occasions to ensure no false claims. You will need a food temperature probe though. Look, it's not big deal. I saw one for nine pounds last time I went to CostCo.
Yes, I know it's nice. But...

Normally a recipe will tell you to add milk to sugar and egg yolks and then slowly... SLOWLY, stirring constantly, increase the heat until the mixture thickens to a custard. Invariably what happens is you stir, stir, stir over too low a heat for an hour with no material change, until frustration and tedium compels you to whack the heat up too high and within seconds you have sweet milk and scrambled eggs. You throw the split mix away in sweary pique while reaching for the cheat's tin of Ambrosia.

First some science. Custard thickens because the yolks change their physical form around 65°C and are firmly set by 80°C. However, sugar will inhibit this setting. We all know this from peering into hard boiled eggs. In a custard you are trying to take this change half way and then stop it, blending the thickening yolk into the sweetened milk to make a sauce. Too far and the egg will separate out into solid particles. Not enough and you have... well, milk and wet egg.

The classic recipes were conceived when we had no way of knowing, accurately, the temperature of the mix. But now we do. So why, I wondered, don't I heat up the milk and sugar quickly, almost to the setting point of the yolks and THEN add them? No more endless stirring. 

It works. Well why wouldn't it? And seriously, in under six minutes. And this is not some tricksy Jamie Oliver style timing, where you have already spent ten minutes weighing all the ingredients and laying out a damp tea towel (for some reason Jamie seems to have slippery bowls). This is six minutes from wanting custard to eating custard. Presuming you're in the kitchen when you want it. If you're in the street, you're knackered.

Six minute English custard.
Serves one - so long as you don't tell your family. Around 400ml depending on how much cream you add at the end.

In a jug, measure 250ml of full fat milk. To the jug add 130g caster sugar. Put this in a  nice heavy pan on a medium burner, full heat. The amount of heat is important. Don't burn the milk. I use this one. If you're electric, you're on your own.

I cleaned this specially for the photo.
While the sugary milk is heating, break four large egg yolks into the jug and give them a quick whisk. Keep the whites for something else. Now use your probe to check the temperature of the milk. It's probably around 65°C (150F) unless you are very cack handed with eggs. When the milk gets to between 72 - 75°C (160-167F), pour the yolks in and whisk briskly. Now turn the heat down to half and stir with a wooden spoon. Keep the surface smooth, it helps you to spot the tell tale bubbles of doom.

Within two minutes the custards should start to thicken to the classic 'coat the back of a spoon' condition. If it doesn't, call me and we'll talk it through. Bubbles will alert you that you're at splitting stage. Now stir in 100ml (or more) of double cream. (heavy cream for our American friends). This lowers the heat and stops the eggs scrambling.

For clarification: I don't mean bubble as in boil, bubbles in custard start to appear around 80°C (175F). But I've taken custard well above 85°C without it splitting.

Add a teaspoon full of vanilla paste/extract or scrape the seeds out of a pod (and bung in the scraped pod to infuse until you serve) and heat gently. A perfectionist/proper chef would now strain it to remove any yolky precipitate. I leave that to your conscious.

That's it. We're done. You can now sit on the sofa with a pan of custard, licking it off the wooden spoon like some kind of desperate, middle aged hobo. I'm saying you can; it's not a recommendation. Personally, I never would.

You could also whisk in a couple of teaspoons of cornflour slaked in a little cold water. This will allow you to reheat the custard (what custard!?) without fear of splitting.

Another idea is to stir in 80g of the best cocoa powder you can find to make hot chocolate custard. There are few things finer.

Or... you could chill it and then churn it into ice cream. There's a thought.

Friday 19 February 2016

Flatbreads... fast and not necessarily flat

Home made fennel flat breads... made with yeast.

Making flat breads has become a common endeavour in our house. I think it started with pizza bases to which Etien added some crushed fennel seeds. After discovering how delicious this was, our only option was to make more. OK, apparently the Sicilians have been doing this for a couple of thousand years but I like to believe we were the fennel seed flatbread pioneers of Palmers Green.

I'm amazed at how flour mixed with water, salt, a dab of oil and then fried can be so damn delicious. And with tiny tweaks in the ratios of flour to water and oil the outcome is manifold; from chapattis to tortilla, naan to farl, pitta to piadina.

The strange thing is, despite there being a huge variety of flat bread around the world, many of which are hugely popular in the UK, we seem to have lost our connection with own flat breads. There is of course, the diminutive muffin. But is that a bread? Technically I suppose but it seems a little lacking when put next to the Scottish bannock or the Irish soda. But when did you last tuck into a farl of bannock? There was a long tradition of baking barley breads and oatcakes which has all but disappeared. While researching (OK, lazily leafing through Google returns) I found this quite wonderful book.

Another strange thing about flat breads is that they sometimes, paradoxically, aren't that flat; many include leavening agents such as bicarbonate of soda or yeast.

Flat bread is fast to make. How fast? About as long as it took me to write this sentence  OK, not really but not far off. Ten minutes tops. You can make flatbread literally with just your hands and a hot rock - and in fact, all over the globe, people do. These are perfect for children, as no matter what kind of mess they make... there will be something edible at the end. Send your kids to school with lunch bread pockets they made themselves.

The joy of these is their flexibility  You can add so many different flavourings: fennel seeds, black pepper, nigella seeds, poppy seeds, black and white sesame, dried or fresh chillies, crushed cumin seeds, rosemary, thyme... You get the idea? You can also use flavoured oils.

The other joy is the cost. This will doubtless be the cheapest recipe I ever endorse. The bread pictured below cost no more than 6p each. How much do those supermarket packs of anaemic tortilla wraps cost? 

If you fold them over, deliberately creating an air pocket, it will swell when cooked. You can stuff this pocket with hummus, veg, chilli etc. You don't really need me to tell you how to eat a pitta though do you?

The first recipe is for the basic dough. There are four ingredients.

Basic flat bread

Allowing around 50g of flour per bread mix flour in a bowl with a big pinch of salt and enough water and a couple of plugs of oil to bring it together into a dough. You can use pretty much any oil but bear in mind that it will flavour the mix. Knead the dough a little until smooth and elastic... or you know what... don't. It really doesn't matter what you do. So long as you manage to get flour wet, roll in into a ball and fry or grill it, it will be very pleasant. A worked dough will develop more gluten, resulting in a bread like texture. An unworked dough will be more cake like. Think of soda bread.

In these pictures, I mixed 300g plain flour with salt, some water and about 50ml of groundnut oil. The dough was kneaded for a few minutes and then split into seven  equal balls. Flatten the balls and, on a floured surface, roll them out or simply squash flat with your fingers. place the rounds in a very hot pan, wiped with a little oil and cook for about three minutes on each side. Pile the cooked breads on top of each other and wrap in foil in a very low oven to keep warm until your need them. 
You can roll the rounds thin for a tortilla/chapati style or leave it thicker. Thick doughs may need a couple of turns in the pan.

You can also grill the dough. This results in a dryer bread I find but no less edible.

Does look tasty doesn't it?
Once you're comfortable with the mix-roll-fry gig it's time to try a leavened flat bread. Yes it is a contradiction but take it up with the nomenclature people. Examples of leavened flat breads include the wildly popular pitta, the naan and Irish soda bread. 

A leavening agent changes the texture dramatically. Your bread will be softer, less chewy and, naturally, less dense.

I'm going to detail my naan recipe. You could argue that it's only a naan if it's made on the inside walls of an ultra hot tandoor oven. I would be inclined to agree with you. But unless you have room in your kitchen for a five foot earthenware pot, encased in sand and bricks and with a temperature approaching 500°C, we'll have to make do with a frying pan. 

Naan in pan.

Yeast leavened flat bread with nigella seeds (naan)
Makes six small rounds.

Mix 7g (or one pouch) of dried yeast and a teaspoon of sugar with 300g bread flour. Add: 150ml of warm water, 50g melted butter (or the more traditional ghee), three big tablespoons of natural yogurt, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of nigella seeds. The mixture should be sticky but not unmanageable. Balance with more water (careful!) or a little more flour.

Beat with a food mixer (that's what I do) or knead it on a floured surface for five minutes until slightly less sticky.

Once mixed, scoop up the dough, place in a bowl, brush with some oil to stop side sticking later, cover with cling film and leave for a couple of hours in a warm place. Or leave it in a cold place for longer. Doesn't really matter. Just allow the dough to swell to twice it's size. Although I've never quite worked out how to properly estimate that.

Once risen, divide the dough into six. It will sink of course but worry not: a kitchen miracle awaits. Roll each ball into a flat round.

Now: heat. You need a hot pan. I mean left on your biggest burner for five minutes. A whacking great cast iron job is your friend here. Ideally  you should be  looking to make the more nervous household members to come rushing in, asking if anything is burning. Once really hot, lubricate the pan with some oil. Not much.

Place the rounds in the pan and watch the magic happen. The intense heat makes the micro bubbles balloon. I can't get enough of this. I call the family down to watch. Admittedly they don't always come. Flip once, twice maybe, until there's no doughy bit left.  brush with some melted butter (or not). And then again with the foil-low oven trick.

Monday 8 February 2016

Colours in the kitchen

Basil oil in a glass bowl.

My friend Bee bewails brown. Both a prodigious baker of fine product and a very excellent photographer, she likes to combine her skills... to produce a portfolio of delicious cakes, bread, biscuits, buns. BUT tan and taupe all. I understand her woe. One of the challenges of putting together a plate is to ensure a range of colour; not just for aesthetics either. We all know now that colour is the key to a varied nutrition. Eat the rainbow, as they might say. Trouble is, before you eat it, you have to prepare it and applying heat often removes hue: that raw vivid red, purple, green, orange turns to battleship, dishcloth and civil service.

Funny that so much of our go-to foods are shades of beige: pasta, bread, batter, cake, coffee, tea, chocolate, toffee and almost everything deep fried. Maybe it's the link to starch and sugar? Comfort it seems, is not colourful. But it can be found and we all know instinctively what to look for. How else do you explain the (usually gratuitous) green garnish found atop everything from pies to ice cream? The salad fig-leaf that covers your carbohydrate orgy?

So here's my celebration of kitchen colour.

Tomatoes after a slow roasting, about to be pulped for soup (link soon).

Crimson ringed radishes, fine sliced for colour and texture.

Cubes of orange butternut squash, doused with oil before roasting. These were served on my new fennel flatbreads.

Brilliant pink pancetta about to accompany the background beans in our warm winter salad.

Let's call it gold? OK, it's a push but baked cauliflowers do look fantastic.

Flowers are an obvious - if now overused - burst of colour. These are rose petals about to be frosted.

A garnet gradation. Sugar meets red wine vinegar as the base of my sweet and sour red cabbage.

Said cabbage with pink peppercorns and caraway seeds.
Notice how the vinegar changes the cabbage from purple to a vivid pink.

Pea green puree of green peas. To maintain this colour you must blanch your peas, shock in ice water and then blend. When you reheat, don't boil, as this will change the mix from garden bright to a tired dun.

If you must go brown, go glossy too. This is a deep caramel, the sugar taken to a hair breadth off burnt. This is essential to capture the bittersweet complexity of a real caramel.

Peppers look like they are factory made, so perfect and pure is their colour.
Here a spiced red pepper puree is stirred into a curried squash soup

More red and yellow. This time, autumn plums shine in a  poaching pan.

I'm increasingly replacing olive oil with good quality British  rape seed.
The grassy notes replaced with a mellow nutty and sometimes herbaceous flavour. And look at that colour.