Monday, 29 June 2009

What's in a name?

Prepare to be confused.

Confusion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I remember vividly the first time I watched a David Lynch movie. Trying to unravel that particular puzzle noir was a complicated but ultimately rewarding experience.

But food and drink labelling is a different beast entirely.

Much hoo-hah has been made of the provenance of so-called British pork pies, with the Conservative party dedicating an entire viral campaign around the misleading labelling (pork from the continent assembled into pie form on these fair shores) of this particular snack.

These little culinary wolves in sheep’s clothing seem to be in other places too, hiding out waiting to pounce on the unwitting consumer at less than a moment’s notice. Even in wine bottles.

It was in such a state of blissful ignorance that we bought three bottles of Three Mills – one red, one white, one rose – from the supermarket.

At two quid a bottle it seemed silly not to take the chance. Having spent three years at university imbibing wine of dubious origin and questionable quality, it seemed logical to think that the contents would at least be drinkable. And if not then there was always the option of cooking with it.

What really swung it for us, though, was the proud wording on the label: British Wine. Six pounds to help the fledging wine industry of Great Britain? Well worth the money.

How wrong we were. On all counts.

The wine itself was undrinkable. Cloying. Sweet and with all the depth of a dried up puddle. It sat limply in the glass and at a mere 8% alcohol wasn’t even worth drinking with the sole purpose of getting merry.

To cook with it would be a crime against food. I shuddered at the prospect of ruining a glorious free range chicken or beef short rib by sluicing it with this vile concoction. It went some way to proving the maxim that one shouldn’t cook with wine one isn’t prepared to drink. In fact, it went all the way, proving beyond all reasonable doubt that if you wouldn’t put it in a glass, don’t put it in the pot.

But at least it was British. Right? Wrong. It transpired that we had been the victim of a cruel marketing sleight of hand.

British wine is a very different beast to English wine which is made with grapes actually grown in this country by people who actually know what they are doing and who actually take pride in what they do.

We had been fooled into buying three bottles made with imported grape juice somehow turned into something that resembled wine in the same way Frankenstein’s Monster resembled a fully functioning human being.

It had been made with the sort of contempt that a nefarious character from Grimms’ Fairy Tales might show an innocent stepchild standing in the way of a vast inheritance.

To call Three Mills ‘wine’ is questionable, at best. To call it ‘British’ is downright duplicitous. Even at two pounds a bottle we were left feeling conned, and without wine. Not a combination leading to satisfactory happiness.

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Friday, 26 June 2009

Assiette de Tete de Porc or ‘How to turn a hog’s head into a delicate trio of starters’

[Scroll down for recipes]

Carnivorous detachment is something many of us are guilty of.

By that I mean there is a deliberate and tangible epistemic distance between product and animal. It’s one that we gloss over. Choose to ignore, and prefer to exist in a state of happy ignorance about where meat comes from.

Of course, when it really comes down to it we know that something, some thing, died so that we can consume the animal protein on our plate but there is a vast chasm between the casual awareness of this and the genuine hands on reality.

A few weeks back I went to a slaughterhouse. It was clean and quiet and had been shut down for the day. But the pervading atmosphere was one of death.

It was discernable not only in the smell, but in the walls, the floors, the shape of the pens and the grim actuality of the chains, hooks and instruments required to turn a cow (or in this case a water buffalo) into something the consumer is happy to eat.

There was no slaughter that day. But it wasn’t necessary to see it in order to have beliefs affirmed: that, for me, eating meat comes with a responsibility to appreciate the reality of husbandry, slaughter and butchery.

I’m not here to proselytise. Merely explain the position I’ve chosen to take and hopefully use that as a springboard for what follows.

Naturally there was a culinary dimension to cooking a pig’s head. It’s a challenge. A gastronomic gauntlet. A badge of honour, almost. But it also represents the face-to-face dimension of being a carnivore. Literally.

Where one can cook a steak with little thought to animal from which it came, a head doesn’t offer this luxury. It is clearly an animal, and one that we are familiar with. Looking at the apparent smile that seems to spread across the face of a dead pig one can’t help but think it is in a state of blissful ignorance as to its fate: the dinner plate.

I’d set myself the task of cooking a rather ambitious menu and then serving it up to brave diners who had kindly volunteered to accompany me on this little culinary journey. As a perfectionist, though, this wasn’t going to happen without a practice run.

The brain dish wasn’t a winner and certainly not worth the effort of cleaving open the head – a task which took close to three quarters of an hour. But the rest had potential.

So, here it is. A first draft anyway. Complete with recipes

Trio of Pig’s Head

[NB – The only element of this I had help with was asking the butcher to remove the eyes. I have a funny thing with eyes. I was 21 before I could consider the possibility of getting contact lenses.]

For this you will need one pig’s head. Remove the eyes and discard. Remove the ears close to the head and wash well. Use a boning knife to remove as much of the cheek meat as possible, cut into inch long pieces and set aside.

Cut off about an inch and a half to two inches of the snout and discard (a large saw is probably the best piece of equipment for this).

Place the head and ears into a large stockpot with a crude mirepoix of carrots, onion, celery, leeks and garlic. Cover the whole lot with water and bring it to a gentle boil. Let it simmer for half an hour, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. After thirty minutes reduce the heat and let it bubble away very gently for three hours.

To confit the cheeks, finely chop some rosemary and bay leaf. Salt the cheeks and sprinkle over the herbs. Put the whole lot into a roasting tray and add enough duck or goose fat to come halfway up the cheek pieces. Cook in a cool oven – about 125 degrees C – for three hours. Turn the pieces every half hour or so. Once cooked leave to cool.

Remove the ears and head from the stock pot and let them cool. Strain the stock through a sieve and then a muslin cloth, bring it back to the boil and reduce it by about half. Remove about 250ml from the pot and add it to another saucepan. Reduce that by half. This will make the setting jelly for the brawn pâté. The rest of the stock can be used to make soup.

Once the head is cool enough to handle strip it of its meat, of which there should be plenty – about 300-400g. Set to one side and discard the bones.

Take a deep breath. You’re almost there.

Confit of pig’s cheek

Remove the meat from the duck or goose fat and slice off the skin (which can be used to make pork scratchings – bake ina moderate oven for about 20 minutes). Use two forks to shred it roughly, a little like making rillettes. Heat the leftover fat and strain through a sieve.

Season the meat with salt and black pepper then stuff it tightly into a sterilised jar. Pour over the liquid fat, screw on the lid and let it cool. This should keep for weeks and is great served with cornichons and fresh, crusty bread.

Brawn pâté

Brawn is a rough and ready item of charcuterie usually made with the entire head with chunks of meat set into jelly. This is a more delicate, refined version, much more similar to a pâté or rough sausage. The jelly is almost indiscernible and is used predominantly as a binding agent.

Finely chop the meat. Season it with salt and pepper then add some chopped sage, about six or seven leaves. In a mixing bowl add about 50ml of the reduced stock to the meat until it starts to come together then turn out onto a square of cling film or tin foil.

Roll the meat into a tight sausage and leave in the fridge overnight. Once set, slice the meat into circles, fry in a little olive oil for thirty seconds each side and serve with salad leaves.

Crispy fried pig’s ears

These are delicious. Not just passable or ‘OK. For an ear’, but really tasty. A little like calamari but slightly tougher.

Thinly slice the ear and coat in seasoned flour. Make up a batter (I used the ginger beer batter again – it works really well) and deep fry the battered ears for about two minutes. Drain on kitchen paper and serve with sea salt, a little lemon juice and some mayonnaise or sweet chilli sauce.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Nose to Tail Tuesday (N3T) - Brains

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single foodstuff in possession of good batter can be rendered not just palatable, but delicious through the simple action of deep-frying.

So said Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice.

I think. Or something along those lines anyway.

But it is a fair argument. Golden batter can hide a multitude of sins, provide a satisfying crunch to an otherwise flabby ingredient and even impart its own magical flavours.

It’s a culinary sleight of hand used the world over from the feather-light tempura of Japan to the more, ahem, heavyweight Scottish offerings (deep-fried kebab meat pizza, anyone? And is it wrong that I find that slightly alluring?).

My old boss once told me of a dinner he enjoyed after a long day’s trek through a mountainous region of the States. In the mood for seafood, he ordered a large plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters.

They arrived not on the half shell as expected, but a steaming mound of golden brown delights, fresh from the deep fat fryer, just the right size to pop into the mouth.

It was only after eating half the portion that his colleague informed him they were not the salty molluscs he thought, but rather the inevitable leftovers of the messy business of cattle castration.

‘Quite tasty,’ he relayed to me, almost romantically.

It was this approach I thought best when contemplating the prospect of eating, for the first time, brain.

The menu tete de porc is gradually taking shape. It needs some work, some gentle refining before it is unleashed upon intrepid diners but it is mostly good.

One course, however, will not make it onto the final bill of fayre.

Removing the brain from the head of a pig is a chore of such magnitude that the final result would have to be rapturously delicious and close to orgasmic in order to make the task worthwhile. It is far from being either of these things. About as far away as it is possible to be.

After stripping the head of the cheeks, ears and snout you are left with something that resembles a science project. What then follows is an hour of finely tuned sawing, cleaving, chipping and brute force in order to remove its contents.

Which are surprisingly small. A disappointing fact at first sight but one that I grew grateful of very quickly when eating time came around.

A pig’s brain is about the size of a large duck egg. Before eating it must be soaked in water for at least 24 hours and then gently poached for about ten minutes. You can use plain old water with a splash of vinegar but we used chicken stock.

What emerges is something that looks like, well, it looks like a brain. There is no getting away from that fact: those familiar little lobes with the swirling labyrinthine pattern twisting across their pale surface.

Each hemisphere was sliced into three, dipped into batter (made with plain flour and ginger beer seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne) and then deep fried in sunflower oil and suet for about two minutes.

They looked great. Appetising little nibbles whose true origins had been thoroughly and carefully disguised.

My dining partner on this occasion was a chef, also in possession of an adventurous and willing palate. ‘Batter looks good,’ he mused in an attempt to distract us both from its contents.

The small portion was taken outside along with some homemade mayonnaise, plenty of water and a pinch of bravado.

Sitting opposite each other in unintentional gladiatorial style, we each picked up a piece of battered brain and took a bite.

It is not necessary for something to taste actively bad in order to be unpleasant. Texture plays a major role in how we enjoy food. Few westerners enjoy the sticky, glutinous quality of many Asian delicacies such as Natto, made from fermented soybeans.

In that respect brain is unpleasant. Deeply so. What little flavour there is, is not nice. Faintly eggy but not strong enough in of itself to warrant being labelled disgusting.

But the texture of brain is what made us wince. Hard to pin down we tried to find a foodstuff with which to compare it to. The uncooked top of an inadequately fried egg. The slight ickiness of a cloying curdled milk product. Yoghurt that has gone flying far, far beyond its best before date.

It’s somewhere ethereal beyond liquid but stopping short of being solid and it disappeared in the mouth in an alarming fashion, almost flooding the palate with its bizarre nature. The brief respite of the batter only accentuated the downright unpleasantness of what was inside.

We ate another, with slightly more mayonnaise and slightly less gusto in order to galvanise our findings hoping that having removed the shock and awe factor, our second taste wouldn’t be clouded with prejudice. But prejudice merely gave way to knowledge and expectation. I’m not sure if it was better or worse. There was certainly no pride.

The remaining two nuggets were dissected and picked apart in order to pin down what the texture was like but we were still left without an adequate comparison.

A truth universally acknowledged? There is an exception that proves every rule and brain is the one.

Verdict? Brain has made the list. The. List. The list of foods I will happily go a lifetime without tasting again. It has happy company along with tinned tuna and hundred year egg. Don’t try this at home.

Friday, 19 June 2009

In Over My Head?

As the old adage goes, you learn something new everyday.

Yesterday I learnt three things. Did you know, for instance, that the greyhound accelerates to 45 miles per hour in a single second from a standing start? Zero to forty five in a second? Amazing. It is the second fastest land mammal on earth.

The other two factoids I gleaned through empirical, hands-on research and part of me wishes I was still in a happy cloud of blissful ignorance. Here we go: the brain of a pig is surprisingly small. Tiny, in fact. About the size of a duck’s egg.

['Two squeaks, or not two squeaks? That is the question']

The second? There is a wonderful nugget of meat that sits just below the eye socket behind the cheek bone, only accessible with an adventurous finger after the head of a pig has been simmered long and slow. It falls away in a rather satisfactory fashion, a neat little piece of tasty pork.

I know this because of Project Napoleon.

Project Napoleon, named after the Stalin-esque character in Animal Farm, began quite by accident.

I’d had a request to cook (and eat) brain for the Nose to Tail Tuesday feature (thanks for that). With calves’ and lambs’ brain still illegal, it was up to the reliable old porker to provide the means by which this terrifying prospect could be realised.

I put in a reluctant request with my butcher and received a phone call on Wednesday: ‘I’ve got a pig’s head here for you? Do you want the whole thing or just the brain?’

The question was a no-brainer (ha ha ha – sorry). The head is a culinary challenge I’ve been keen to take on for quite some time: a real test that separates those who merely profess a predilection for the holistic approach and those with genuine gastronomic fortitude.

Why does the head divide the cooking fraternity so? It’s about emoting. As humans we have evolved to read faces, to try and glean as much information as possible from them. The slightest movement can give away a secret, a feeling or an emotion.

Presented with the head of an animal, there is a near certainty that we will lean towards anthropomorphosis. And pigs, even deceased and decapitated ones, look like they are smiling. They look content. Happy even. So turning it into food is difficult.

Once this hurdle has been leapt over, the rest is easy.

One option for turning this insanely cheap meat (this one cost just under three pounds) into a viable foodstuff is to make a tête de fromage, not a uniquely male medical condition but a rustic pâté also known as brawn.

Here the entire head is simmered gently for three hours in water and stock vegetables. Once cooled, the meat, fat and skin is stripped from the skull, the stock strained, reduced and turned into a jelly into which the meat is set.


Or not.

I wanted something more refined. I’ve always believed that true culinary skill lies in turning the ridiculous into the sublime. The drab into the delicious. Here was a challenge.

Driving home from the butcher’s I started putting a menu together, one that would showcase this unusual ingredient to its full potential.

Head Over Heels

So, here is the plan – to be served to adventurous dinner guests, just as soon as we find some. Any takers?

Pre dinner drinks with pork scratchings and ears Ste Menehould

Deep fried brain on toast with champagne

Sour Apple amuse

Pea & Bacon Soup made with ‘head stock’ with homemade bread

Refined brawn pâté with sage

Confit cheek with apple jelly, candied bacon and summer leaves


Cheese and port

Let’s see just what this head can do…

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The End of the Line?

Pay attention because these may be the three most important words you could learn this year.

They are in the form of a question, are easy to remember and will no doubt facilitate further conversation.


Is. It. Sustainable?

Every time you buy fish be sure to say these words out loud.

I already knew the situation regarding dwindling fish stocks was perilous but the true extent to which so many species are in danger was brought into terrifying immediacy last week when I went to see The End of the Line, a new documentary based on the book written by journalist Charles Glover.

The conclusion of the film, full of serious looking scientists and graphs with a ubiquitous downward trend, is that stocks of many of the fish we know and love will have crashed sometime shortly before 2050.

When fish stocks crash, I learnt, it means their number has re-treated to below a level from which it can recover. Population sizes get too small and, ultimately, species die out. By 2048, Ted Danson surmises gravely over various swooping shots of the Deep Blue, the oceans may be full of little more than algae and jellyfish.

I don’t fancy jellyfish fingers. Crab sticks are bad enough.

Cod, marlin, skate and others receive their moment in the spotlight but the poster boy for the campaign is without doubt the bluefin tuna, now seemingly endangered to the same extent as the orang-utan or giant panda.

Fished predominantly in the warm waters of the Med, the bluefin is a beautiful creature – no doubt supremely tasty – but one that none of us should be eating. Indeed, many restaurateurs have taken the fish off their menus with barely a few notable exceptions (Nobu being the most famous, and currently stubborn).

Coming under the jurisdiction of the EU fisheries committee, quotas (if properly enforced) could help halt the rapid decline in the fish’s population. Scientists advise a maximum catch of 10,000 tons of blue fin, a figure that would just allow the stocks to start recovering. In a frustrating piece of footage, the quota is set at six times this amount with many boats simply ignoring it entirely and shipping illegally caught blue fin to the Far East.

Despite its grim predictions the film ends on an up-beat. It suggests that in this case, change must come from below. We haven’t yet reached tipping point but the revolution must be consumer led. The individual can, it says, make a difference.

Perhaps they can. Roberto Mielgo, one of the film’s heroes, is merely a lone gun. A former fisherman himself, he travels the world amidst a dense fug of Marlboro smoke compiling evidence against the worst offenders and putting together dossiers packed with information. A latter day Sam Spade for the oceans.

But for every David there is a Goliath and there are few bigger giants than the Mitsubishi Corporation who appear to be stockpiling bluefin in enormous frozen warehouses hoping, Glover argues, to cash in when the stocks begin to disappear.

It’s here I find the conclusion, that the consumer can make the difference, incongruous with the body of evidence as just presented. The shady worlds of international politics and global big business dominate the oceans and have a monopoly on its contents. The bottom line is the bottom line and whilst that is the case, I fear that there is little we can do.

That’s not to say we should give up and chow down plates of oturo seven nights a week – we do need to find other sources of piscine protein.

After the screening a Q&A was held with two representatives from the British Antarctic Survey, to field questions regarding the scientific aspects of what we had seen, and two from supermarket chain Waitrose to offer advice about fishy alternatives that are sustainable.

Top of that list is a tropical freshwater fish called tilapia. It has a meaty white flesh with a taste not dissimilar to cod. Having never tried it I was offered a piece to cook, free of charge, from my local Waitrose (another of the good guys - they don't stock any fish unless it is MSC certified)

Tilapia is something of a blank canvas. Like many white fishes it can hold its own with a variety of flavours. Many recipes call for fragrant Thai additions such as chilli and lemongrass.

But I wanted to know if it was possible to use it in the all time test: re-creating the British classic of fish and chips.

NB – I was too hungry to bother taking pictures.

Tilapia in ginger beer batter

This is good. Really, really good. The fish is moist and yielding and remains tender inside its little house of batter made from ginger beer. It might sound strange but please, run with me on this one. I guarantee you won’t regret it. It was the best battered fish I have had in a long time. Serves two.

Two tilapia fillets, each cut into four pieces
75g plain flour, plus a little extra
100ml ginger beer
a pinch of cayenne pepper
a pinch of baking powder
salt and pepper
oil for deep frying (I used a mixture of sunflower and rendered lamb suet)

Dry the fish well and sprinkle a little flour into a shallow plate. Season it with salt and pepper.
Mix the flour in a small bowl and pour in the ginger beer. Whisk well until it is lump free and smooth. Add the baking powder and season with the cayenne, salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a saucepan over a moderately high heat (it should be about 175 degrees. Test it by dropping in a small cube of bread – if it is hot enough the bread will brown within sixty seconds).

Cover the tilapia with flour and shake off any excess. Drop into the batter then deep fry them for about two minutes until the batter has turned golden brown.

Serve with a mound of well salted chips and a little too much mayonnaise.

Is there a downside to this wunder-fisch? Naturally. It’s from Zimbabwe a country a long, long way away with a more than dubious human rights record. This is a decision you’re going to have to make alone but before you do, go and see the film. Immediately.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Eating New York: Bagels in the Park (+recipe)

Sundays need barely a few elements to combine in simple cohesion in order to create delicious perfection.

Gone are the days when it signalled ‘weekend over, back to school tomorrow. Time to knuckle down and finish that essay you were set a fortnight ago.’

Now, Sunday is the most sacrosanct day of the week, although not through any religious conviction. It’s a day when it is equally acceptable to do nothing under the proviso of doing something or vice versa.

And it is near effortless to craft these idyllic days thanks to the fluidity of the composite elements. The first drink could be a cool glass of orange juice, a steaming black coffee, a bloody mary or even a pint of water complete with an energetically fizzy 1000mg vitamin C tablet, depending on the previous night’s excesses.

Breakfast might be a bacon sandwich, softly scrambled eggs or even a bowl of Bircher muesli.

For activity sometimes a walk will suffice, or a run if energy levels permit. Other weekends might present gardening opportunities or lazy afternoons in the pub.

Food rolls in and out of Sundays too, paying little regard to any rules or regulations. Barbecues, slow cooked braises or Sunday roasts are all equally welcome. Cake, too, can be an excellent addition.

But there is one unwavering rule: there must be a newspaper. At least one.

Even though we were a few thousand miles from home, we obeyed this single commandment with near military precision. And everyone knows that newspapers are at their best when enjoyed over breakfast.

It was warm, despite the early hour. We ambled towards the port, through Hell’s Kitchen, in search of H&H Bagels, a baker's that appears to have a near legendary reputation. On the way we met a parade of street hawkers trudging their carts through the early morning sun towards their pitches where they would spend the next 12 hours selling hot dogs, kebabs and other assorted snacks to hungry passers-by.

The bakery itself is an unassuming, industrial looking building. Fridges filled with juice, iced tea, butter and cream cheese line one wall and in front is a counter topped with a Plexiglas cabinet crammed full of bagels.

We picked out some cream cheese, a carton of Tropicana and ordered three at the counter.

On the way to Central Park we picked up a copy of the New York Times, weighty with its supplements, and two large iced coffees. Once there we ambled gently towards the centre, picked out a quiet, shaded spot and proceeded to consume what was in front of us.

Two hours later, full of dough, cream cheese and media, we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down and allowed the remainder of the weekend to carry us along. Sunday, brilliant Sunday.

Bagels: The recipe

Before I even took my first bite of a genuine New York bagel, my girlfriend said to me: ‘This will ruin all future bagels for you, you know? I hope you’re prepared for that.’

She was right. To a certain extent.

Soon after we got back, I bought a stack from the supermarket. Lacking the firm chewiness of those we’d had in Central Park a few days earlier, they were thin, floppy and light with a processed taste and texture. The Paris Hilton of the bread world.

What I wanted was something with more resistance, more pull. And a more flavour.

Searching for recipes I came across two that appeared to tick the necessary boxes: this one via Slate (no eggs) and another from Shaun Hill (two eggs), he of Merchant House fame. Gaining confidence in my baking abilities, I chose to combine the two and split the difference hoping it would create some sort of super-bagel.

It did. I can safely say, without any degree or hyperbole, that these are the best bagels I’ve ever tasted. Ever.

Makes 10 generously sized bagels.

500g + 50-100g white bread flour
two teaspoons of dried yeast
one teaspoon of salt
50g caster sugar
two eggs (one for the mixture and one for glazing)
450ml of warm water

For the water bath:
3 litres of water
2 tablespoons of sugar

Whatever toppings your little heart desires

Mix together 500g of flour, the yeast, the salt and 50g of sugar in a large mixing bowl, preferably one you can clip into a mixer with a dough hook, unless you want to knead a sticky dough.

Pour in the water and stir until it is worked in. Add the egg. Add a further 50g of flour and start the mixer on a low speed. Let it run for five minutes then check the consistency of the dough. If it looks too sticky then add a little more flour until it just combines into a workable dough.

Knead for a further 5-10 minutes (NB here is where my Kenwood made a loud ‘snap’ noise and started farting a nasty grey smoke from its rear end. Cue panic tinged with excitement at the prospect of having to use the mini fire extinguisher for the first time).

Once the dough is ready, transfer it to an oiled bowl, cover and leave for an hour or so to prove and double in size.

Use this time wisely. Perhaps call your Grandma, draw a pretty picture or tweak your CV.

After the well-used sixty minutes, turn out the dough onto a floured surface (it’s another sticky one) and knock out the air, sprinkling flour over where necessary. Cut the dough into ten to twelve equal sized pieces and shape each one into a vague round shape. Leave for another ten minutes.

Flatten each one with the palm of your hand then poke a finger, it doesn’t matter which – I used my index finger, into the middle of each roll thus creating a bagel. Wiggle it around a little and neaten up the shape. Leave for another ten minutes. Yawn.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan full of water to the boil. Add the sugar and turn down the heat to a gentle simmer. Boil the bagels two or three at a time for about a minute. Flip them after half that time so they cook evenly on each side.

Lift them out and put them onto a waiting towel to dry off. Transfer to a tray, brush with beaten egg and cook for 15 minutes at 200 degrees C, or until they are golden brown and delicious looking.

Eat as soon as you can handle one without doing a little dance and going ‘ooo, ah, shit, that hurts’.

For more refined floury treats, follow me on twitter.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Eating New York: Momofuku Steamed Pork Buns

When you are recommended the same place by four separate individuals, it is sensible to see what the fuss is about.

When one of those individuals is a professional – and well-respected – food critic for a national newspaper, it would be bordering on the insane not to sample its wares.

And so we found ourselves at Momofuku Noodle Bar on 1st Avenue, a teeming and intimate dimly lit ramen bar that seems to have become something of an institution since opening in 2003.

This isn’t a restaurant review so I’ll skip over the finer details (empty water glasses were filled with swift proficiency, service was friendly, atmosphere was buzzy) and move onto the food.

We’d been recommended the apparently famous steamed pork buns as well as the ramen – deep bowlfuls of tasty broth complete with pork shoulder, slow cooked belly, a poached egg and enough noodles for two people.

Considering you can gorge on a near identical menu in Chinatown for around five dollars, the prices at Momofuku seem steep. In the region of ‘This had better be the best effing steamed bun and bowl of noodles I’ve ever tasted’ steep.

And, OK. They were. The buns are light, gently sweetened and filled with two slices of slow cooked pork belly complete with a slick of hoi-sin sauce. Fresh cucumber and spring onions cut through the richness.

Whilst clearly Japanese in inspiration, the ramen noodles have been deliberately Westernized with the choice of meat: two cuts of pig that I’d happily have eaten entire platefuls of: rich porky flavours that can only arise from well sourced meat cooked long and slow.

We walked home happy and sated, slept off the last of the jet lag and woke on Sunday feeling refreshed and ready to take on the City.

Or, at least I did. The GF had other ideas which mainly involved feeling desperately ill for the next two days and being unable to leave the hotel room.

Was it the noodles? Unlikely – I ate exactly the same menu and felt fine but when I mentioned the idea of re-creating that steaming bowl of deliciousness a couple of days ago she turned a worrying shade of green.

‘I’m sorry, I think it’s too soon. I’ll happily eat the pork buns but I need to wait a while before I try to face noodles and broth.’

So, here is how to cook steamed pork buns. Momofuku style. In your very own kitchen (but not ramen. Not yet.)

Momofuku Steamed Buns with Pork.
(Makes 12)

Brine a 400g piece of belly pork overnight (to make a brine, just dissolve 200g of salt and 200g of sugar in warm water. Let it cool before covering your belly with it).

The next day, drain the meat and place in a roasting tray with 250ml of chicken stock. Cook in a warm oven (about 125 degrees C) for two hours. If the liquid dries up, just replace with a little more water. Towards the end of cooking crank up the heat to crisp up the skin. Keep an eye on it though because it can burn really quickly.

For the buns, I adapted this recipe, courtesy of David Chang, chef/proprietor of Momofuku. Mix one and a half teaspoons of dried yeast with 250ml of warm water. Add a tablespoon of rendered pork fat. Mix well.

In a food mixer, combine 90g of plain flour, 275g of white bread flour, a teaspoon of salt and 40g of caster sugar.

Slowly pour in the water, yeast and fat mixture. Use a dough hook to knead it for about 15 minutes. It will be quite wet and sticky. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp tea towel and leave it to rise for a couple of hours.

Once the dough has doubled in size, knock it back down and start rolling it into a long sausage shape. If it is too sticky, use a little more flour.

Cut it into twelve even sized pieces and leave to rise for another forty minutes on a sheet of baking paper.

In the mean time, cut out 12 squares of baking paper, each about four inches square.

Slice the pork belly into thin pieces and leave to rest in the cooking liquid. They’ll mop up the flavours beautifully.

Roll each ball of dough into an oval shape, about the size of your hand and fold it in half, placing it onto the square of baking paper. Again, leave them to rise for about thirty minutes.

Set a bamboo steamer over a pan of boiling water and steam the buns for about eight minutes until they puff up.

Once cooked, slice them open, spread a little hoi sin sauce over the bread, add some finely sliced cucumber and spring onion and then stuff them with as many slices of pork belly as you can.

Eat these little pillows of deliciousness whilst they are still warm and another batch is steaming away. Satisfying and summery in the best possible way. Serve to hungry guests with bottles of cold, cold beer, preferably just as the sun is starting to dip down past the horizon.

For more porcine treats, follow me on Twitter

BLT From Scratch

Michael Ruhlman (yes, that Michael Ruhlman,) has issued a challenge over on his blog: to make a BLT sandwich from scratch.

Bacon. Lettuce. Tomato. Mayo. All wedged between two doorstop sized slices of bread.

Count me in.

Fancy taking part? You have until August 28th. Plenty of time to grow the necessary items, cure the bacon and nail that bread recipe.

For more information, see Michael’s (rather excellent) blog.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Top Ten Kitchen 'Gadgets'

When it comes down to it, I mean really comes down to it, how many ‘essential’ gadgets or pieces of kit do you have in your kitchen?

The reason I ask is because a recent piece in Economist Intelligent Life got me thinking.

It suggested that men’s love of technology stretches far beyond the garden shed or whatever hobby is the current past-time du jour and well into that domain commonly known as the kitchen.

Those of us with a ‘y’ chromosome, it suggests, can resist a new contraption (with barely one specific purpose) no more than we can resist a cold lager, staring at that specific place where a girl’s knickers ride up above their jeans or any other sweeping generalisation you would care to mention.

I’ll admit I found the piece slightly clichéd and playing up to easy stereotypes but it did crank the cogs into gear and cause some deep whirring somewhere about what items in my culinary arsenal I would regard as essential.

I’ve bought the occasional ‘dud’ – I used to work in a cookware shop for goodness’ sake, I was surrounded by extraneous kitchen paraphernalia – but have never been tempted by a mango stoner, avocado scoop or small rubber tube used to remove the skin from garlic cloves (is it honestly that difficult a job? Come on…).

But mostly what I have is very simple. And cherished. Slightly too much in some cases.

In no particular order, here are the ten most useful items any cook could hope to have in their kitchen (NB – no disclosures necessary, no payments, samples or freebies here):

1. A decent frying pan

This is a 20cm De Buyer Blue Steel (not joking) frying pan. Although it isn’t non-stick, over the last five years it has developed a glorious patina making it better than any Teflon coated pan I’ve ever had the displeasure of using. The metal handle means it can go straight into the oven – perfect for browning then roasting meats. I just need a bigger one now…

2. A good knife (or two...)

The chef’s knife is the workhorse of the kitchen, a handheld food processor. A decent hunk of German steel might just outlive you. Depending on your sword skills, they come in sizes varying from about 12cm to 24cm (and beyond). After putting it off for years and muddling on with some lightweight cheapo blades, I finally gave in a couple of months ago and invested in a Henckels. It makes me happy.

3. A steel

If your willing to spend a three figure sum on a knife, it might be a good idea to buy something to keep it sharp. Despite the numerous gadgets on the market that claim to be up to the job, nothing comes close to a traditional steel. And once a year take your knives to your friendly neighbourhood butcher, ask nicely and he’ll grind a razor sharp edge back onto them for you.

4. Tongs

Nearly anything that needs turning can be turned with these. They are like a go-go gadget arm extension.

5. Palette knife

Ideal for flipping the four per cent of things that can’t be flipped with tongs.

6. Sieve

From draining rice, pasta and vegetables to straining stocka and sauces and making smooth purees, the sieve is one of the best kitchen investments it is possible to make.

7. Wooden Spoon

My guess is that this is possibly the oldest utensil in existence (I mean in general, not this specific spoon). That is reason enough for me. It has numerous uses, is almost indestructible and can be replaced for mere pennies

8. Microplane grater

Renders all other graters redundant. Turns Parmesan cheese into billowing clouds of deliciousness and decimates carrots in seconds.

9. Le Creuset Casserole

It boils, it sears, it slow cooks like a dream. These guys have been around almost 100 years, they probably know what they are doing. If your knife doesn’t last longer than you, your Le Creuset certainly will.

10. iSi Cream Whipper

OK, OK, it’s a gadget, it’s virtually pointless and is liable to go wrong at nearly every opportunity. But I am a man and this is my one concession to the article that spawned this list. Not only will it whip cream but also allows you to create a whole raft of elBulli inspired foams, mousses, airs and other such frippery. Enormous fun.

Hark, I hear the faint rumblings of dissent. Are they deserving of a place on The List? Where is the sushi rolling mat? How could I possibly forget cake mould? No baking sheet? How is one to de-stone cherries or de-bone fish?

Put me right and join the debate. What would you rescue first from your kitchen?

Friday, 5 June 2009

Eating New York: Pizza

Arriving in a new city, at night, can be an unpleasant experience.

Body clocks askew, deprived of sleep and crippled with the sort of grumpiness that can only ever be the result of being folded into an economy class seat on a long haul flight can test the mettle of even the most Zen individual.

The tiniest frustrations can cause eruptions of Pompeii-esque proportions and anger threatens to be vented on those who neither expect nor deserve it. Total strangers usually.

Even if that wicked combination doesn’t result in explosion, hunger can prove a willing and fiery catalyst.

As such, it is a good idea to find sustenance at the earliest possible opportunity. Sustenance of a homely and hearty nature. Pizza with its winning combination of dough and cheese is an excellent option.

So it was that we found ourselves on 8th Avenue close to 46th Street munching on large slices of, what at the time, tasted like, the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.

There is a persistent rumour that New York pizza is so good because of the water. Indeed, I have heard stories of West Coast Italian restaurants having water shipped over from the city in a vain attempt to re-create the characteristic dough.

With good reason. Somehow managing to tread that fine line between cracker thin Neapolitan style pizza and the thick, claggy, doughy deep crust nastiness that characterises so many bastardized versions of this classic dish, New York pizza has a light base that holds up against its own weight.

The tomato sauce has a vague sweetness that cuts through the classic garlic/oregano flavour combination. And the cheese comes in an artery-furring layer of stringy decadence that sits heavily in the stomach in the best possible way.

A dream filled sleep came quickly.

Having made pizza before, I was looking forward to the task of attempting to make this particular slice of NYC in my own kitchen.

Not only was recreating the firm, chewy texture of the base going to present difficulties, the lack of an oven that goes beyond 250 degrees C was also going to prevent me from attaining those searing temperatures required to cook the pizza in only a few minutes.

Enter a new piece of kitchen kit:

Ah, masonry – the saviour of all aspiring Italian cooks. The theory being that the scorching hot stone cooks the pizza from below as well as drying out the base – essential if you don’t want to experience the frustrating phenomenon known as ‘cheesy floppy end’. If you’ll pardon the expression.

I acquired mine from a reclamation yard for a mere seven pounds, about a third of the price of a dedicated ‘pizza stone.’

I felt quite manly asking for ‘an unglazed quarry tile’ – a phrase I’d repeated to myself for at least ten minutes before feeling confident enough to utter it out loud to a tradesman.

‘What size?’ he asked. Uh oh, rumbled. Quick say something that sounds about right. How big is a pizza?

‘Erm, twelve by twelve, if you have any.’ Phew. Situation recovered.

‘The only thing we have is (insert unintelligible building phrase here). That going to be OK.’

‘Uh-huh,’ I replied, veneer of confidence diminishing by the nano-second.

‘What colour you after?’

Oh god, I don’t know. It’s not like I’m going to be paving any driveways with it. ‘Terracotta?’

‘Think you might be out of luck. I’ll show you what we got and see if they’re OK.’

I duly followed. ‘There you go, how’s that?’

‘Perfect,’ I said confidently, not anticipating the next question.

‘How many do you need?’

Shit. Rumbled. ‘Just one,’ I said, rather pathetically going on to explain that rather than being a skilled manual labourer, I was, in fact a fraud: an amateur chef keen to replicate the tasty morsels of pizza I’d eaten too many of on a recent fact-finding trip.

‘Oh you’re a chef? I used to be a chef. In fact my sister was the pastry chef at La Gavroche.’

Halle-freaking-lujah. No more words mumbled in a voice slightly deeper than my natural one – we had something in common. Enter a little bit of banter about food and off I went on my merry way, new toy in hand (or two – it was quite heavy).

The Dough

Step one done, it was time to tackle the dough. Here I am indebted to Jeff Varasano’s rather excellent (and comprehensive) website detailing his efforts to recreate that elusive NY slice.

Taking inspiration from this I bought some high gluten flour and started by making a poolish – a mini starter dough before making a full batch.

Add a teaspoon of dried yeast, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of sugar to 70g of warm water (I used bottled) and stir in 70g of flour. Cover it with a tea towel and leave to bubble away over night.

The following morning add this to 500g of high-gluten flour and 300g of water (again, I used bottled). If you have the wrists, knead it enthusiastically for about 20 minutes or use a food mixer complete with dough hook attachment.

What should emerge is a highly elastic, quite wet, dough that should be stretchy enough to read print through (the ‘windowpane’ test). This is due to the elasticity of the gluten.

Let it rest for 15 minutes then turn out onto a floured surface and knead into a large ball. Divide it into three or four smaller balls of equal size (depending on how big you want your pizzas and how thick you like your base) and place each one into a lightly oiled container with a loosely fitting lid.

These can be kept in the fridge for anything up to a week and will improve in flavour as time goes on.

The sauce

The fresh dampness of an uncooked tomato sauce on pizza is not something I like. As such this one is cooked for about 20 minutes before making its way onto the pizza.

Drain and sieve two tins of plum tomatoes and add them to a saucepan along with a little olive oil, two cloves of garlic (finely chopped), salt, pepper and a small handful of oregano. I also added a scant teaspoon of sugar to help develop the sweetness that seemed to be so characteristic of a genuine New York Slice.

Let it simmer away and then break up the tomatoes using a wooden spoon or hand held blender if you require a smoother finish.

To cook

Crank your oven up as high as it will go. Put the slab of tile onto the rack close to the top of the oven, remembering to leave room for a rising pizza crust.

It needs to heat up for at least half an hour although I’d leave it an hour before you even think of cooking on it.

In the mean time, start to work that little ball of elastic dough into something resembling a pizza base.

This is harder than it looks as it can frustratingly spring back into shape when you least expect it. Just keep going. Avoid the temptation to use a rolling pin and don’t forget to form a slightly thicker lip around the outside of the circle.

Once the oven – and stone – is hot enough spread a generous smear of tomato sauce over the base, add a few basil leaves and sprinkle over a disgusting amount of cheese (I used a mozzarella/cheddar/parmesan combination). A few turns of the pepper mill and it’s ready to go.

Hmmm. How does one get it from its current location to the screaming hot stone without a pizza paddle? Improvise, of course.

Just make sure your pizza isn’t too big to fit on a foil-covered spade (cue ten expletive filled minutes and a comment from the GF: 'Why not just make it smaller?')

In a regular oven the pizza should take no more than six or seven minutes. About twice as long as it would in a commercial furnace but, eh, whatchoo gonna do?

And neither should you care.

Because the final result is so good.

A solid base with firm, chewy texture. A slightly sweet, garlicky sauce. And a guilty slick of salty cheese. Exactly how an authentic slice should be.

And as proof? Well, here’s the money shot.

For more of the same, why not follow me on Twitter?

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Barbecued Beef Short Ribs

[Project ‘Recreate New York Food’ to commence shortly. This is just shameless filler whilst body clocks return to normal and things like mountains of washing get done].

Forget everything you think you know about the rules of the kitchen. For just a few minutes.

This is just plain wrong. It shouldn’t work. Nearly every bodily fibre was screaming, shouting, balling at me to stop and obey the bloody rules. This method flies in the face of conventional cooking methods and tickles the scrotum of classical cuisine before running away and hanging out with the cool kids.

There are some cuts of meat that are user-friendly. They are fast, boneless and easy. The chicken breast. The fillet steak. The pork loin. A sprinkling of seasoning and a quick searing over a high heat and you have a tasty morsel ready for consumption.

Then there are those that need a little more care and attention. And time. Lots and lots of time. In general these are the cuts that I cherish (secretly I think most cooks do, at least those that really love their food).

They are the ones that are left on the bone, that need to be braised in liquid (wine is good. Always) until they are meltingly tender and rich, delicious and unctuous. Or roasted s.l.o.w.l.y.

But they are winter meats.

Now that the sun is here why would you want a hearty stew or daube Provençal?

As such, I thought the short ribs I have would have to remain in the freezer until the clouds roll in, the temperature drops and the desire for rich sauces and mashed potatoes returns once more.

Not so.

I picked up a copy of Gourmet magazine at JFK airport (‘The Grill Issue').

In it was a wonderful photo essay about a Mexican barbecue supper complete with recipes for a multitude of tasty treats. But one in particular stood out because it made me scratch my noggin and mutter: ‘There’s no way that could work. It goes against everything I know and cheekily tickles the scrotum of classical cuisine.’

Beef short ribs. Unmarinated. Unbraised. Unadorned. Just seasoned with salt and pepper then cooked over hot coals and torn apart by enthusiastic teeth. How could you not want to try that?

One of the best things about barbecue cookery is the purity of it. It’s as close most of us get to recreating the ancestral methods that live on in the collective memory. It’s just you and the fire, the ideal conditions for letting your inner Neanderthal out for an hour or two.

Which is great. And I’m all for delicately spiced fish wrapped in banana leaves or long marinated pork chops or skewers of vegetables drizzled in olive oil. But to really get to the heart of the purity of outdoor cooking all you need is a great hunk of meat.

If you’re going to do this, you might as well go all the way and release the caveman.

Enter the beef. Bones and all.

Seasoned in advance (ignore the hokum about only seasoning meat milliseconds before you are about to cook it), they were left at room temperature until the barbecue was seriously hot (hold your hand the coals about five inches up – if you have to move within 1-2 seconds, you’re at the right heat). Then it was time to cook them.

Where American short ribs tend to be cut across the rib, the English butcher them differently, giving single bones rather than a series of them dotted through the meat, much like the equivalent cut on a pig. It matters not. They need about three or four minutes on each side to really get that tasty browning before they can be moved to a cooler part of the barbecue to cook through.

Leave them for about fifteen minutes, turning occasionally. You have a lot of leeway with these bad boys. A steak can overcook in just a couple of minutes. These butch fellas can take it, begging for more. It’s like watching the cast of High School Musical take on a team of Jack Bauers (oh, I would give a minor appendage to witness that).

Once cooked leave them to rest for 10-15 minutes (absolutely freaking essential) – just the right time to dish up whatever it is you would like to accompany your feast. Salad? Perhaps not the best option. I’d go for beer. And maybe a mound of potatoes. Concessionary veg optional.

Season the meat again – just a little turn of black pepper and some sea salt and dig in. This isn’t dainty food. Use of hands is not just recommended, it is mandatory. The taste is incredible. I’ve never had a steak that tasted as good as these. Honestly. Not a single steak has ever come close. The flavour is intensely meaty, packed full of umami and downright deliciousness.

If you’re used to meat that is so tender it may as well have been pre-chewed then these will come as a shock. They offer up some resistance (hardly surprising considering they are the Jack Bauer of the food world) but in a really satisfying way.

I don’t want my food to fall apart in my mouth. My incisors and molars evolved for a purpose. Precisely this purpose: for tearing off mouthfuls of completely delicious beef, still on the bone and tasting exactly like beef should.

Naturally, I cooked too much. The rest were left over night then sliced thinly, still pink, to go into wraps the following day with some spicy beans, spinach, guacamole and chillis.

Anthony Bourdain has a term for food like this: It’s the sort of food that you would only serve to friends, and people you already know you are going to like. Put your inner sceptic to sleep for just one night, invite over some people you know will appreciate this (vegetarians need not apply) and make a long, long evening of it.

For more meaty mouthfuls, follow me on Twitter

Monday, 1 June 2009

New York - Where to begin?

Times Sq. New York, New York – May 27th 2009

This is the greatest smear of humanity I’ve ever seen.

All around me is a barrage of illumination. Colour. Smells. Flavours. Noises. So many noises. A bottomless orchestral attack.

Fading chalk drawings cover tyre treads. Light bulb fireworks explode from ground to sky. Wide-eyed photographers catch single moments. Smoke from streetcart barbecues drifts over the road. Leaflets passed from hand to hand find their way quickly to the floor. ‘Cheap tickets. Broadway tickets.’ ‘You like stand-up comedy? Wanna see a show?’ ‘Happy hour all day, all cocktails half price, all day today.’

I’m sat on a plastic chair, on Broadway, in the middle of Times Square. This section of the road has been closed to cars for 48 hours. Around me is the greatest multi-sensory onslaught I’ve ever experienced.

This rich palate of humanity shifting through a single space dedicated solely to consumption. In all its forms. I find it fitting that this was once the city’s red light district – a better metaphor than I could ever have come up with.

It’s my last few minutes trying to get an understanding of this place before we have to take the Subway in the vague direction of JFK airport. And I can’t. There is no unified whole. No single defining factor. No culture nor cuisine unique to here. Just here.

And I love it. Because that is how to define New York: by its impossibility. By its vast richness. By its indefinability.

Normally over five days you’re able to begin the process of unravelling a city. I’m delighted I haven’t been able to.

The delicious variety of New York stretches to the food too. It is elusive, obvious, effusive and subtle. Characterised by nothing more than its globally disparate origins. This is a true food-loving city in every sense where you can eat your way around the world around the clock.

So that’s what I did.

But rather than relay a tired list full of information yet devoid of flavour, I’m going to take a slightly different approach.

In an effort to pin down what really characterises the cuisine of the Big Apple, I’m going to try and recreate each glorious food moment in words and in the kitchen. Burgers, fries, pizzas, knish, pork buns and all.

And it would be an honour if you would join me on this little adventure through Central Park, Little Italy, The Village, SoHo, NoHo all the way down to the Lower East Side. Come on, it’ll be fun. We might even have time for a hot dog.

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