Monday, 17 June 2019

Vegan starter: crispy tofu with marinated courgettes and cucumber gel.

Pretty dish
I wanted this to be light, fresh, packed with flavour and varying textures. I'd already signed up to the crispy tofu challenge, so what to put with it? Contrasting the sweet and savoury flavours of soy and mirin with citrus seemed obvious so I used my marinated courgette ribbon recipe that I've previously paired with salmon.

I think I originated this. I'm rather proud of it. It's fun watching guests do the "I don't really like cour.... oh my God, that's delicious". The citrus here is Yuzu, a fragrant fruit used in China, Korea and Japan, which complements the Asian flavours in the tofu glaze. Yuzu is similar to the mandarin but fearsomely expensive. You can buy tiny bottles of the juice in larger supermarkets. They cost about a fiver.

You'll also need to make a cucumber gel. Take a look at the recipe. if it's too cheffy, just use batons of cucumber. But try and make the effort. The gel is intensely flavoursome and brightly coloured. It's not difficult to do and is a handy kitchen skill to learn.

First we need to talk about tofu.

It tastes of almost nothing when raw. Broad beans would easily win in a brouhaha. A memory of a mushroom, maybe. Perhaps a cod fillet caught your eye? Let's agree on 'subtle'. 

There are many forms of this soya bean curd, usually categorised by texture: silken, soft, firm, etc. Here I'm using extra firm, allowing me to cut cheese like chunks that will withstand deep frying. A 450g block like this will serve four people as a starter.

"First catch your hare." as famed cookery writer Hannah Glasse once said*. Well here Ocado already has my 'extra firm' so the instruction start with "first press your tofu - a couple of days before you plan on eating it". Tofu is wet and it's stored in water. Water is not flavoursome. We want the water out. Wrap your tofu in some baking paper, place in a baking tin and put a heavy weight on top. Leave in the fridge for a day.

You'll find a pleasing amount of water in the tin. Discard this. Put the tofu in a plastic bag and freeze overnight. This forces out more water and gives the tofu a more friable texture.

Pressing tofu. The coconut milk was for dessert.
Ta dah. 24 hours later.
Post squeezing. Post freezing. A change of texture.
I did a few test runs and the most important tip I have is to season your tofu early and well. No surprises here as I do the same with fish and meat. Cut the tofu into slices, salt well and leave for an hour at least.

I also discovered that browning tofu in oil takes an astonishingly long time. Much longer than say potatoes. I'm guessing because it's still too wet and there are too few sugars to caramelise. I addressed both these issues by rolling the slices a couple of times in a mixture of approx 80% cornstarch, 15% sugar and 5% salt.

Ready for the fryer.
Using a deep fat fryer at 200°C or a fat pan and a sugar thermometer, deep fry the slices until golden and crispy. You could try shallow frying. Good luck. The crust should actually stay crisp even after you apply the glaze. Set aside.

Test fry. The left just cornflower and salt.
The right slice has the added sugar also.
The glaze can be whisked up in minutes in a glass or jam jar. Make too much and drizzle on chicken, salmon or chargrilled halloumi later. Mix together equal measures of soy and white wine or rice vinegar. Start with a tablespoon of each. Then add more to taste. This is a the holy trinity of salty, sweet and savoury.

Finely grate in a thumb of fresh ginger to taste - a microplane is useful here. Add honey or agave syrup (depending on just how vegan you are). A dash (steady!) of toasted sesame oil for smoky depth and silky mouth feel. Finally, a hit of cayenne, or not.

You'll have a sticky, rich, dark glaze. Taste. Adjust. It'll probably stand a little more ginger. Be bold. Set aside.

Next the marinated courgettes

First make your marinade. Key to this is vinegar. I use a fantastic lemon, basil, bay and juniper vinegar from Wormersley. You probably won't have this and it's not readily available in the shops. Ether give Rupert a ring and order some (you'll thank me if you do) or substitute a good quality white wine or cider vinegar, combined with some lemon juice and a few gratings of lemon zest. You want equal amounts of vinegar and mirin, about 70ml and half that of yuzu juice. I say 'about' because I never do this by weight or volume. Aways by eye and taste. I put the liquids in a click lock, watertight plastic box that I'll use to marinade the ribbons, shake and taste. Now add a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of freshly crushed coriander seeds. Don't even think of substituting with coriander powder. Add a drizzle of honey or agave syrup. It should be sweet, sour and citrus fresh and should smell deeply aromatic.

Take three medium, green courgettes. If you can find yellow too so much the better. Top and tail the veg with a knife. Using a vegetable peeler take off three or four ribbons from each side. Different peelers give different thicknesses. You want something worthwhile. Opaque. It has to sit in an acidic marinade for hours and anything too thin will disintegrate. Discard the first slice that's mainly skin. You want the next few: smooth, creamy white with a pleasing edge of green. Stop when you hit the seedy interior. Don't go there.

My courgette peeler of choice
Layer the ribbons in the click lock box and place in the fridge. Turn the box every few hours to ensure all the ribbons are immersed. Note that 24 hours is too long; the slices start to disintegrate, so I normally do this on the morning of the meal.

These ribbons work on their own as a side and especially well with cooked salmon or spicy chicken - should you be that way inclined. Vegetrians may wish to consider a nice salty feta.


To finish the dish I serve some finely diced apple and cucumber. In both cases, avoid the seeds. Keep the dice covered in the fridge tossed in a little olive oil and white wine vinegar.

To assemble. 
The amounts above will serve four people.

Remove from the fridge and have ready your tofu, glaze, cucumber gel, diced apple and cucumber, marinated courgettes and some interesting salad leave or micro herbs.

Refresh your tofu in hot oil for a few minutes to crisp and warm. On a tray, drizzle the warm pieces with the glaze.

In the middle of the plate loop up some ribbons, making sure you don't bring too much marinade with them. 

Around the edge of the plate make pretty with the dice, some salad leaves and the cucumber gel. Get creative. If you have some purple salad elements, so much the better.

Finally put your crispy tofu slice on the ribbons, drizzle a little more of the glaze and garnish with a salad leaf of distinction. 

*She probably didn't.

A vegan dinner party menu

My attitude to vegan food is fast changing. We need to eat less meat. Without doubt, a plant based diet is better for us and better for the planet. Would I applaud you to for going vegan? Yes. Will I be giving up meat? Not a chance. Actually it's butter I'd struggle to replace. There is no vegan equivalent for flavour and cooking qualities. Brown butter - beuure noisette - is possibly my most favourite aroma. I'd splash it on like aftershave if it didn't mean third degree burns. Also cheese. Vegan cheese is an abomination. Oh... and a world without dippy eggs and soldiers. Damn. No. Not yet. Selfish Jason. Yup.

Elena sounded hesitant when she called. It was her birthday. She wanted a meal with eight friends. Was it fair to make it meatless and dairy free. I thought so. Anyway, I can't do a carne/vegan split. It would virtually mean two separate dinners, with a high degree of cross contamination: the absent minded stir.

Restrictions are often a pathway to creativity, certainly has been in my TV writing. The sudden absence of a character, a sick actor, a lost location forces you to think tangentially; peeling apart possibilities. I was once told, days from filming, that my episode of Casualty which revolved around an armed robbery and hostage situation in an ambulance, could no longer feature a gun. Get thinking.
I wanted to use tofu, for no reason other than I've never cooked with it. I've only tasted it when very drunk too, probably in one of the slightly suspect Lisle Street Chinese restaurants that are still open at 5am. Tofu has a rep for being tasteless and rubbery so I wanted to tackle both issues. After some research I decided to deep fry some 'extra-firm' tofu to a satisfying crunch and serve it with a flavoursome sauce.

Which brings me to my major issue with vegan cooking. At least, vegan cooking in the UK. I try to use local and seasonal ingredients where possible (Lemons! Busted). In warm countries flavoursome ingredients are available all year round. Not so in the UK. What does local, English vegan fare look like in the frozen heart of February? Pickled turnip all round? My starter ended up looking eastwards, with ginger, soy, mirin and yuzu whereas dessert went West, to Caribbean pineapple and coconut so I was determined that my mains would be an all British affair.

I decided to blog the menu as a whole because while looking, it becomes obvious that not many people do this. I'll list the entire menu below and link to various older recipes and new blogs.

The New River Dining Vegan Menu #1
I'll be adding the recipes over the next few days.

No changes to the bread. Substitute walnut oil for the brown butter in the nut recipe.

Roasted cauliflower soup with toasted hazelnuts.

Tarts of sweet onion, roasted celariac and smoked beetroot pure√© with dill oil. Served with crushed peas in a mint vinaigrette, sweet and sour red cabbage.

Spice and citrus roasted pineapple. Served with coconut ice cream, rum and coconut cream and a salted peanut praline.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Roast shallot and sherry jam

This is deceptive stuff. It tastes like hours slaved but you could knock it up while you stand wowing guests with wine and wit. It works well with cold meats and cheese. It will last for weeks in the fridge. I often use it to make a starter bruschetta of toasted walnut bread with goats cheese.

If you're a stranger to sherry, I'd suggest you stay away from the sweet. The dry, nutty, toasty flavours of Manzanilla or Amontillado are what I use. Decent sherry is about £15 a bottle. We only need a third or so here. Anything will work, even the almost full bottle of Cockburn's that sat in your cupboard for years, next to the unopened jar of 'relish' gifted to you anonymously at that work's secret Santa. The sherry is a key flavour component here though.

Roast shallot and sherry jam. Makes one pot of indeterminate size.

My thumb
Backlit for drama
Generously butter a medium sized baking tray. Lightly sprinkle this with salt and sugar. Slice in half about 14 good sized echalion shallots - the long ones, also known as banana shallots. Now, what do I mean by 'good sized'? Bigger than my thumb but smaller than a pencil case. There's an obvious flaw here, of course, in that your thumb maybe bigger or smaller than mine... so here's a picture for comparison. Worst comes to the worst, you could pop round to mine to check before you go shopping.

If you can, avoid the pre-packaged bags because they contain all sizes. Some supermarkets have the shallots loose so you can pick similarly sized. Obviously a variety in size will roast differently and we're after consistency here.

That proclivity of supermarkets to bundle together wildly varying fruit and veg is most annoying. This is entirely for their convenience not ours. When I'm roasting, especially beetroot, I don't want a bunch that consist of four marbles and a football. I tend to, ahem, construct my own bunch in the shop.

Anyway, shop rebellion or none, place the shallots unpeeled, on the buttery tray and bake at 160°C for about 40 minutes. Do check though. You want the shallots to be soft and squishy but with a deeply caramelised cut surface. Remember to scrape up sticky bits off the tray too. It's all about flavour. Anything dark is fine so long as it's shiny. Avoid black and crusty though, that's a burn too far. Allow to cool.

At this stage you could just serve the roast shallots with roast beef or lamb. Or chop them up and reduce with some stock and redcurrant jelly to make a decent gravy for sausages.

Doesn't that look tasty. The very essence of savoury.

Scrape out the soft, golden insides onto a board and chop roughly. I use a little hand blender to make this even faster. Taste.

Pile the chopped roasted shallots in a small pan and heat through, stirring to ensure nothing sticks. Add a little more butter maybe or some nutty rapeseed or olive oil if that's your thing. Cook over a medium heat, until you have a deep golden or brown colour (maybe ten minutes). Now add about 200ml of sherry and 'deglaze' the pan. Bring to the boil and reduce the liquid until you have a gooey, sticky mess with a very pleasing shine. Don't let this catch. Taste. Is that what you were expecting? It might need more sugar. It will need salt and pepper. If you used a sweet sherry it could probably benefit from a little lemon juice to balance. I like to finish with a good glug (sorry, can't be more precise) of a decent balsamic vinegar but that's up to you.

Served on walnut bread toast with goats cheese, cheese mousse and a salad of walnuts and balsamic.