Thursday, 28 February 2008

Med in England

Considering the number of risottos (risotti? Risottums?) I’ve made and the variations thereof, I was slightly surprised by the realisation that I’d never made a paella. Not surprised in the conventional sense, as it can be rather difficult to be taken back by something of one’s own creation, rather I was surprised in the manner by which you may react to finding a long forgotten boiled sweet in the pocket of a jacket you haven’t worn since last winter. It wasn’t through any conscious decision, I’d not written paella off my culinary repertoire in the same sense that I shall never, ever cook a nut roast or use Quorn (or any meat substitute manufactured in a laboratory, for that matter) but it was just one of those dishes that hadn’t been on my radar for so long that it remained forgotten and neglected like a copy of Descartes’ Mediations on the Beckhams’ bookshelf. But my memory was triggered by the discovery of a bag of Spanish paella rice waiting patiently in the back of the cupboard and my curiosity nodules were aroused to a degree that warranted further investigation.

Aside from tapas, paella is probably Spain’s most famous contribution to global cuisine. Much like its Italian counterpart, risotto, it was originally a dish created to use up leftovers and make an edible meal on a tight budget (rice is cheap and filling). It has since risen above such lowly origins and additions such as prawns, mussels, squid and rabbit can turn it from peasant food into a real treat.

After some diligent research I found a recipe that claimed to follow an authentic Valencian method although I am almost certain that paella is one of those dishes, much like bouillabaisse or minestrone, that has as many variations as there are people willing to cook it and no such definitive recipe shall ever exist (personally, I think that this is one of the most exciting things about cooking a dish such as paella: there are no rules and you can experiment as much or as little as you wish allowing the finished article to evolve and change as it must have done over the last few hundred years). The key ingredients are rice and stock. Nothing more. From this point on feel free to go off-road, take a few chances and do as you wish. Go on, you know you want to.

For me, as a first-timer I wanted to keep it as simple as possible to try and allow each specific flavour to shine. I simmered the fish stock with some chopped garlic and two generous pinches of saffron whilst softening a couple of finely diced shallots and more garlic in plenty of olive oil (any large frying pan will be fine, this is a two pot dish, tops). A handful of finely chopped cherry tomatoes then went into the mix to cook off slightly just before the addition of a teaspoon of paprika and the rice which can be liberally scattered over the onion, garlic and tomato mixture. A stir at this point would be wise but this is one meal that should have the minimum amount of fuss lavished upon it because excess movement will break up the rice creating a soupy mess rather than a mass of tasty individual grains, each ready to burst in the mouth and release a barrage of flavour. Finally I added about ¾ of the stock, holding some back in case the pan needed topping up with liquid before the rice was cooked. I cheated with the seafood and bought a frozen cocktail of mussels, prawns and squid which I defrosted and fried off in a little olive oil, lemon juice and garlic before adding to the finished paella along with a couple of handfuls of steamed sugar snap peas and a squeeze of lemon. For a meal that required minimum effort, the result was superb and certainly one to do again – the perfumed saffron was subtle but added a vibrant deep yellow colour, the rice retained a nice amount of bite and the taste was readily reminiscent of the warmer climes of a Mediterranean summer as opposed to the cold damp of north-west England in February.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Pan(ettone) Perdu

W. Somerset Maugham once quipped that to eat well in England, you should have breakfast three times a day. I am assuming that he was referring to the Full English rather than a bowl of muesli, half a grapefruit and a glass of broccoli and garlic juice or whatever is de rigeur at the moment. I am also assuming that he was quipping in an era when obesity, coronary heart disease, type two diabetes and other such ailments were viewed as aspirational conditions rather than with the scorn lavished upon them today. Or perhaps they just didn’t exist. Either way, I don’t think that eating two fried eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomato, black pudding, baked beans, hash browns and fried bread three times a day is the most balanced diet, nor am I willing to attempt this in a very British version of ‘Supersize Me’. I just don’t think eating all my meals at the Little Chef will have the same impact as Morgan Spurlock managed with his Herculean McDonalds effort, although the prospect of a documentary called ‘Olympic Alex’ does have marginal appeal (the Little Chef’s largest offering is called, somewhat amusingly, The Olympic Breakfast but despite this I’m not sure it will be the official meal of the 2012 games, given that it contains enough calories to power a coxless four for a week). Nor will it do much for my arteries, health, weight or general well being (unless Channel Five wish to make a documentary about it in which case I might consider it). Also, why is he called the ‘Little Chef’ when he is clearly a couple of burgers short of being morbidly obese? Anyway, I digress.

Thankfully, things have improved greatly on the gastronomic front since Somerset Maugham made his astute observation but breakfasts in this fashion remain a uniquely Western concept popular solely in Britain, Ireland and America whilst the majority of Europe seems to get by on little more than a swift coffee and cigarette. Admittedly, few of us now have the time to create such lavish and heart stopping starts to the day, and even if we did the collective health consciousness of the nation would prevent most of us from indulging in such a fashion. However, there are occasions when breakfast can be a real treat as opposed to a hastily burnt piece of toast eaten on the bus. Sundays lend themselves particularly well to this sort of fayre as do national holidays and New Year’s Day was no exception.

I know the turn of the year seems like a while ago, but I remembered this particular treat only yesterday and felt I had to share it with you. Plus I’ve cooked nothing of repute recently and this is one way of climbing out of a self-induced culinary chasm. French toast, or pain perdu as it is called in France, is a fairly light in terms of the amount of work involved. It’s also a great way of using up bread that would otherwise be thrown away (or lost, hence the French term – ‘lost bread’). With a little imagination it can also become a luxurious treat: dusted with a little cinnamon and icing sugar and served with a hot chocolate is one option. Another, and the one we went for on New Year’s Day was to substitute the bread for thick slices of Italian panettone which, when dipped in beaten egg and fried in butter, goes supremely well with thick strawberry jam and steaming hot, black coffee. It may not have been the healthiest start to 2008 but it was a great way to see in the year.

Please see it's got some photos and other such treats.

Friday, 22 February 2008


Making the perfect sandwich is an activity fraught with difficulty. Sure, it is easy enough to place a couple of slices of ham between two thin pieces of plastic bread or cut open a roll and spread with a liberal layer of mayonnaise before adding a hastily cut tomato and some tasteless cheddar but this is mere sustenance rather than the gastronomic perfection that a sandwich can offer. And I’m sure you know me well enough by now to know that a basic butty would not be enough to satisfy.

The beauty of a sandwich lies in its inherent simplicity but that simplicity can also be its downfall: if each element is not perfect then the whole thing disappoints and serves to stave off hunger rather than create a perfect food moment. And before I go any further I’d like to point out that it really isn’t about cost, I’m not snobby about these things and there are times when a stack of watery wafer thin ham and three Kraft cheese singles wedged between two slices of Warbutons bread can hit the spot like nothing else. To go even further, a few minutes under the grill or in a Breville and you’ve got the food of the gods. But it wouldn’t be right to do this in rye bread, for example and this is at the heart of what I am trying to say: the elements have to fit. A burger wouldn’t be right in a bagel, a toastie in a teacake is just plain wrong and smoked salmon and cream cheese just wouldn’t taste right in cornbread. A hot dog should be served in a fluffy white roll, brie belongs on a baguette and a chip barm cake could come in nothing other than, well, a barm cake.

The origins of the sandwich are often attributed to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich and is one of the more famous stories in food history. The legend has it that he enjoyed eating meat between two slices of bread because it allowed him to continue playing cribbage without getting the cards greasy. Although the Earl may have popularised the eating of sandwiches, and gave his name to the snack, they have been around in various forms since the first century BCE and no doubt prior to that as well. What hasn’t changed is the convenience and the speed with which they can be created and eaten. It takes very little skill to create a butty worthy of consumption but perhaps a little more to craft a memorable one. The £85 sandwich on sale at Selfridges, for example, probably contains a bit more than the ubiquitous ham and cheese as it was, until recently the most expensive sandwich in the world, an honour that now belongs to a £100 creation available at Cliveden House, Berkshire and containing Iberico Ham, white truffles and quails’ eggs.

My budget doesn’t quite stretch to that, at least not yet (and even if it did I am uncertain as to whether I could part with £100 for bread and filling) but I still enjoy creating and eating the humble sandwich especially with some unusual ingredients which arrived in the form of Serrano ham and Manchego cheese, a gift from my parents brought back from their recent trip to Majorca. Freshly baked wholemeal bread, homemade mayonnaise, a generous wedge of the cheese, a slightly decadent number of slices of the ham, some thinly sliced Spanish tomato (I have no idea how they managed to get that back on the plane without it exploding into a red mush in a suitcase) and a handful of baby spinach. OK, it might just have been a ham and cheese sandwich but that didn’t stop it from being damned tasty.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Warning: Smoking Thrills

For the first time in about a year I smoked in my kitchen last night. I didn’t even bother to go outside. I just stood in my kitchen, smoked away and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience filling the house with the rich, woody aroma of delicious hot smoked salmon. You didn’t seriously think I was talking about cigarettes did you? Come on.

I’d got two pieces of salmon fillet from the fishmonger a couple of days before and they were reaching the end of their natural life, any longer and they would have quickly transformed from the delicious to the inedible stinking the fridge to high heaven in the process. Salmon is one of the easiest fishes to cook. It is robust and large enough to give the chef enough leeway either side unlike something delicate like sole which can overcook in a matter of nanoseconds. It is hearty with a meaty enough texture to tempt even the most ardent carnivore and also has a whole host of related health benefits.

The sort of smoked salmon we are all familiar with is known as ‘cold-smoked’ and whilst the good examples of this delicacy are delicious it can be a withering, soggy disappointment, not to mention very difficult to achieve at home without a large smoking room (I immediately think of shelves lined with leather bound books, rich mahogany furniture and darkened red leather sofas in front of a log fire whenever I hear this term but alas, in this context it has a quite different meaning) and I wasn’t sure I had the time or energy to convert my garden shed into an outdoor smokery so I had to settle with the hot smoked variety. Whereas cold-smoked salmon only reaches a temperature of around 80 degrees which creates more of a cure (similar to gravadlax) rather than a cooking, hot smoking, on the other hand, raises the temperature of the fish to something approaching 150 degrees thus cooking the salmon in the process. For this reason the process is much quicker and easily achievable in the domestic kitchen with a few simple ingredients.

For one night only my trusty cast iron wok took on the role of a home-smoker, a little kitchen foil layered in the bottom with a handful of smoking powder nestling happily in the base (if you try this make sure you don’t forget the foil as the burning wood could easily ruin your precious wok) and a roasting rack over the top. The salmon was dried, rubbed with a little olive oil, the merest dribble of lemon juice and half a turn of the salt mill before being placed onto the waiting rack. The whole lot was then tightly covered with more foil and placed over a high heat directly on the hob. Easy hey? Well, it gets marginally trickier here, but only slightly. Because there is very little to see, hear or even smell, cooking in this fashion takes a bit of guesswork and trial and error to get the process perfect but the results are well worth it.
Between five and ten minutes should get the wood powder nice and hot, smoking a sufficient amount to flavour and cook the salmon, after which you can simply take the wok off the heat and let the sweet smoke work its tasty magic. When you take the foil off twenty minutes later you should be met by two pieces of perfectly cooking salmon with a rich smoky smell and a hint of deep colour on the flesh. If not then curse the idiot what wrote this, replace the foil and cook it a bit longer. Unless it is overdone in which case curse the idiot what wrote this and plough on with the eating remembering to leave a strongly worded message on the website.

Luckily I didn’t have to chastise myself as the salmon was barely cooked, still slightly translucent in the middle and moist throughout. Not to everyone’s taste but just the way I like it. I served it with some steamed sugar snap peas, boiled new potatoes tossed in butter and finely chopped garlic and plenty of quivering mayonnaise.

So there you have it – hot smoked salmon in the comfort of your own home and an entire piece free from puns. Incredible. There was strong evidence to suggest it may happen, but no smoking pun.

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Thursday, 7 February 2008

It's Spelt S-O-D-A-B-R-E-A-D

I’d like to say that my bread making efforts have been something of a failure. I’d like to say that but it would be akin to calling the Peloponnesian War a minor fracas or saying that standing on a upturned plug ‘stings a little bit’. It is an ongoing fiasco that has been well documented upon these pages and I hope has caused some minor ripples of amusement in the face of my own ineptitude. I’ve tried and failed with sourdough so many times that it has become rather a millstone around my neck. Give me a bit of something that used to be alive and I can cope more than adequately. However, faced with something that didn’t used to have a face yet has managed to establish its own sentience independently of any discernable source and it throws me a bit. Flour? Check. Water? Check. I wonder what will happen if we mix these two together and leave it for a while. Good god – it has managed to take on a life of its own and is now rapidly expanding towards my shocked looking face. Suffice to say it has been a while since I bothered trying it given that I have been a little short on time over the last few months, what with having a job and all. I’d just resigned myself to the fact that I will simply never be a baker. Cook maybe yes, baker certainly not. I expect ingredients to act as they should (invariably this is rarely the case) and the addition of an unknown quantity such as yeast throws me off track a touch. Plus there is no room for manoeuvring – the rules are there for a reason and quantities matter and even the slightest, teeniest, tiniest, littlest bit of improvisation puts the stoppers on the whole project – and as a cook who positively revels in manoeuvring I had shelved ‘baking’ alongside other pursuits I didn’t think were for me (catalogued somewhere between ‘Ancient battle re-enactment’ and ‘calligraphy’).

And then I had a glorious, spectacular road-to-Damascus like moment. I discovered that there were breads that didn’t need the accuracy of a microbiologist or the patience of a matchstick model maker. There were breads that didn’t need yeast, didn’t need a starter dough and, wait for it, didn’t even need to be left to rise. It was like I’d been told, after years safely ensconced in the knowledge that he wasn’t real, that Santa Claus actually did exist. Even more amazing was that these little loaves of leavened loveliness were amongst my favourite types of bread in the entire whole world. Sodabread, oh spectacular sodabread. How could I have not known? I can make a mayonnaise from scratch, I can confit a duck, spatchcock a poussin, deftly shuck an oyster and even inject flavour into a packet of Super Noodles but I hadn’t known that there was a bread within my fragile grasp. There was no time to waste.

Except predictably, sighingly, frustratingly, there was the inevitable hurdle. ‘Add 125ml of buttermilk.’ Eh? Whut? Buttermilk? Wassat? Had it not been for the internet I would probably have given up at this point, however, the mighty Wikipedia told me all I needed to know (milk soured with a little yoghurt, lemon juice or vinegar) and I was once again in the fast lane on the way to Sodabread City after a brief stop on the hard shoulder to check the map. And after that it was a very easy journey indeed. For reference purposes I was using Fergus Henderson’s recipe from Beyond Nose to Tail but was even confident enough to use spelt flour in place of the suggested wholemeal. Spelt is an ancient Roman flour with a lovely full and slightly malty taste and I thought it would inject a little bit of a punch to the bread as well as making the resultant loaf slightly healthier. Flour, buttermilk, salt, sugar, water and the all-important baking powder were the only ingredients and it was with hope and trepidation that I slid it into the oven.

There are few things as tempting as a loaf of bread fresh from the oven, steam still rising in soft curls into the air and a scent rapidly filling the kitchen and thankfully this was no exception. It had risen in the oven and a crisp looking crust had set over the whole loaf. The knife crunched through and into the soft, doughy centre and I was greeted with a smell that is incomparable. The only way to eat bread this fresh is to spread on a little too much butter and get stuck in. So that is exactly what I did. Crunchy, soft, warm, a hint of salty sweetness and then the cool butter rapidly melting into the bread. Simple, joyous perfection. It’s official: I’m a baker.