Monday, 17 March 2008

Holy smoke, duck!

I really enjoy cooking with duck. Granted it is not the most versatile of meats, certainly not as pliable or easy to match with flavours as chicken, but what it lacks in versatility it makes up for in sheer tasty indulgence. I think it is something to do with the richness of the meat, the deep purple colour and the thick layering of cream coloured fat which serves to add a mouth-watering taste as well as a delicious moisture. It isn’t a cheap meat and I doubt it is a luxury I will be able to afford for much longer but before I go crashing head first into the real world next week I felt it right to have a final dalliance with decadence.

I usually serve duck fillets with the skin on, crisped up in a hot pan and most of the fat rendered out of it, with a rich sauce made from reduced stock and wine or port and sweetened with whatever berries or fruits are suitable: blackberries, red currants and cherries have all featured with duck on more than one occasion. I’ve also made Thai duck curries and once a quite delicious Asian style broth made with stock flavoured with vanilla, made hearty and filling with the addition of noodles and a selection of seasonal vegetables. It comes highly recommended. But with my brain firing ideas at me from all sides and a desire to start really pushing the boundaries I decided to get out the trusty wok and wood chips and smoke it.

I’ve had smoked duck a number of times and always found it delicious. It might sound like a slightly strange flavour marriage but if you think about the smoky notes in a Chinese duck and pancakes dish then it should make more sense. Also, foods with a high fat content tend to smoke particularly well – oily fish (such as kippers, eel and salmon), pork (bacon, ham) and even cheese all smoke terrifically and create some of the most delicious morsels I can think of. I’ve theorised about why smoked food tastes so good before so won’t run into too much detail but my personal view is that it returns us, albeit briefly, to our deep ancestry, to an earlier time when all food eaten had the taste of the primordial fire. The same holds true for barbecues, by the way.

After scoring the fat of the duck and seasoning with a generous amount of salt and a turn of pepper I laid the duck breasts onto a roasting rack in the wok. Beneath was a sheet of foil to catch the fat and prevent it from dripping onto the wood dust and green tea in a neat foil packet nestled in the base of the wok. The whole lot was sealed with more foil to keep in the smoke and then placed onto the heat. As this is a hot smoke, the duck needs little more than half an hour on the heat and then a further half hour to rest in the residual smoke, taking on the delicate flavours and allowing the juices to settle.

I was unsure what to expect when I tore open the foil but the smell was incredible. Sweet but with a deep, outdoor bonfire finish. There was still a significant layer of fat on the duck so I seared the breasts skin down in a hot pan to render some of it out. They were cooked pink, were mouth-wateringly juicy and sliced thinly lengthways before being arranged on the plate. Served with a leek puree and leek spaghetti with a reduced port and balsamic glaze, the final dish was more of a warm salad but was wonderfully tasty and satisfying in that way that only food cooked in such a primitive way can be.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

I'm a little short (part two)

Shortbread should be easy to make. It was the first foodstuff I was ever taught how to create in my very first home economics lesson at school and is a very basic combination of butter, flour and sugar with optional assorted flavourings. After some web-based research I found so many conflicting recipes that I just decided to try and use my intuition and spend a couple of days trying different ratios and different ingredients. I chose to ignore all recipes I’d seen and leave out the sugar as I wanted a savoury biscuit and opted for a pasta flour to keep it as light as possible. So, shortbread v. 1.0 consisted of little more than flour, butter, salt and finely chopped rosemary.

It mixed together nicely and formed a reasonably workable dough sausage which I left in the freezer to harden up. And then forgot about it. It emerged an hour later (when I say ‘it emerged’, I don’t mean it managed to extricate itself from the freezer by itself, obviously I removed it) looking and feeling like a pebble so I used a knife to cut a few of bite-sized discs from it which I baked gently. They were brittle and quite tasty but not quite right so I took advice from Heston Blumenthal and added an egg yolk into the remaining dough mix. I had confidence in Heston’s recipe and cut the new dough sausage into about 15 small discs ready to bake. Surely these would be delicious? Crumbly, crunchy, buttery yet meltingly delicious in the mouth with a hint of woody rosemary – the perfect foil to the sweet fig and onion and sharp, creamy goats’ cheese? They baked slowly and once they were ready my excitement grew at the possibility of trying one. When they were cool enough to handle I popped one in my mouth. And promptly spat it out again in the manner of a small child eating mud that they thought was chocolate.

Putting egg into shortbread is disgusting. Don’t try it. v.1.2 was a disaster fit only for the compost heap.

The kitchen was slowly becoming littered with the corpses of failed shortbread and I was fast losing the will to bake. Perhaps there is something in tradition. I should know by now that baking relies on strict principles laid down by generations of housewives and only the foolhardy or those very, very good at science should attempt to re-write the rulebook (for the record, I am not very good at science). The last resort was to relent and add sugar to the mix. With a heavy head and aching fingers (the ‘rubbing method’ can be hard work) I began to craft v.1.3, tipping quantities of flour and butter and sugar and salt and rosemary into a bowl with reckless abandon. With trepidation I worked the resultant dough into the now mandatory sausage and trimmed off a succession of little shortbread rounds which went into the oven at about one o’clock…

…And came out half an hour later looking and smelling exactly like I expected rosemary shortbread to look and smell. They were brittle but able to sustain a hefty quantity of fig and onion jam as well as a generous amount of cheese. But most importantly they were terrifically tasty, which you’d expect after a mere four days of trying. Now all that remained was to decide what to have for lunch.

I'm a little short (part one)

There are certain times in life when one does not wish to be wracked with indecision: moments when you’d rather be able to make a choice and stick with it with the tenacity of, well, of someone who has absolute faith in their base convictions. I imagine that waiting at the end of the aisle is not a place to have an internal dialogue with the two opposing forces in one’s head, nor would it be wise to have second thoughts when halfway across a rapidly flowing, dangerous-creature filled river thus rendering you unable to head to either bank, instead flailing like a spider caught in the whirlpool of an emptying bath. As a general rule I’d class myself ‘not bad’ at making decisions although I do tend to be a bit erratic, if it were a subject at school I think my report would say something along the lines of ‘not bad at making decisions, tends to be a bit erratic. C+’.

For example, I have been known to agonise for far too long over what to drink in a pub and the inevitable appearance of a waiter at my table can send me into a flustered panic but I guess all those minor ums and ahs have been cancelled out by the quitting of job (about 0.4 seconds to decision made, or DM) and buying of cottage with girlfriend (similar DM). See? Erratic.

Anyway, this brings me neatly on to what I wanted to say about food and cooking (there is always a point to my clunkingly ponderous meanderings even if it is not immediately obvious). Last Monday I received a call from a researcher at the production company behind a well-known BBC food series in which members of public compete to become the master of all things cheffy (I’m not sure how much I am meant to say, so I’ll keep it vaguely cryptic). After a telephone interview I was invited to the casting day and was asked to bring myself as well as a dish that could be eaten cold, ‘most people bring desserts because it’s a bit easier,’ I was told. Cue four sleepless nights deciding what to cook and how to cook it. Every time I tried to close my eyes I had possibilities running through my mind like a cinema screen onto which a demonic projectionist was displaying a visual representation of food Tourette’s. One moment I’d be staring at a piece of pork pie, the next it would be a slab of Valrhona cheesecake rapidly followed by a butter poached langoustine, venison loin with blueberry sauce and hundreds of meals I didn’t even recognise. I felt less like Alex, me Alex, and more like Alex from A Clockwork Orange Alex, only marginally less keen on milk.

I became fixed on the idea of cooking pigeon but was unsure whether it would benefit from begin served cold. The resultant dish (pan-fried pigeon breast with a savoury pigeon baklava, (similar to a pastilla) was tasty but lacked the depth of flavour I was after and so I returned to the drawing board, attempting to delve into the depths of my imagination to come up with a suitable dish that fulfilled the necessary criteria. I was loathe to do a dessert partly due to my ineptitude at most things pasty related and partly because I felt that doing something savoury would put me into the minority. After much head-scratching and discussion, I eventually settled on a canapĂ© type morsel consisting of rosemary shortbread, fig and onion jam, goats’ cheese, and rosemary infused honey.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Hardcore Prawn

There are some sentences that are nothing short of delightful to say. ‘Coffee and croissants’ are but three simple words that serve to evoke sublime thoughts, tastes, smells and sensations and awake an appetite at any time of the day. ‘The prickly hedgehog burst the fluffy bubble’ is positively delicious as it rolls round the mouth and lips in its wonderfully onomatopoeic way. ‘Mika has decided to give up his career as a musician and instead decided to join a free-diving team’ would be a tremendous sentence were it true, alas it is not. At least not yet. ‘I’ve never had food poisoning’ is also a vastly underappreciated little snippet of syntax and one, that until this weekend, I would have been able to say with absolute confidence in its truth. I suppose it is one of those sentences that would rarely surface as it is not a particularly common subject for polite conversation: “Did you see Celebrity Wife Swap last night? Aren’t house prices ridiculous round here? I’ve never had food poisoning, you know? Oh, did we mention that Mikey has been offered the role of Mr. Mistoffelees in the school production of Cats?” You see, it just doesn’t crop up in generic chitchat which is why it is heard so rarely. Anyway, had I been aware what a blessing it is never to have suffered from any sort of gastric ailment (aside from the inevitable dodgy belly whenever one is lucky enough to venture to climes any further afield than Dorset) I would have made a daily proclamation to this extent, exclaiming from the rooftops that as of this moment in time I have never been rendered a pathetic shivering wreck due to a rogue bit of seafood having its last gasp revenge at being wrenched from its cosy shell and devoured whole.

Actually, this isn’t entirely true. As a wet-behind-the-ears nine-year-old Cub Scout I once represented my pack in the District Hike which consisted of a number of tasks each marked out of ten by an Akela from a rival troop (therein lies the first problem – these slightly odd, beardy men are worryingly competitive). Once our team of four inexperienced pre-adolescents had worked out which way round to hold the map and argued about how a compass worked we finally managed to negotiate our way to the designated camp site where we had to gather kindling and firewood and transform it from a pile of damp sticks into a roaring inferno over which we were to cook our sausages. Being at least an hour behind each of the other teams meant that all available firewood had since been collected and turned to ash leaving only a collection of well-fed Cubs ready to attack the afternoon’s portion of the hike. We were not aided by a kindly senior, nor we were advised that just because sausages have turned a vaguely beige colour on the outside, it is not necessarily an indication that the inside is sufficiently hot as to be considered cooked or safe for consumption. The result was that not only did we come a resounding last place (with a massive total of 14/60, if memory serves correctly), all four of us were promptly sick when we finally made it back to the scout hut.

I genuinely do not know what the point of that little digression into my childhood was but I think it was a nice little anecdote. I think the point I was trying to make was that despite eating a virtually raw pork sausage, one little chunder was enough to purge my body of the offending article so I don’t believe that it was a sufficiently violent enough episode to be considered a full blown food poisoning. Which leads me neatly onto the assertion I made at the start of this rambling piece, id est, I’ve never before had food poisoning.

I am well aware that it is one of those ailments that gets bandied around in rather wanton fashion, much like ‘flu’ but I can confidently say that on Saturday I was safely hit for six by a vengeful, malevolent little prawn after eating at a well-known noodle bar in Manchester. The food was delicious which is why I am loathe to name the eatery but after an hour and precisely ¾ of a pint of lager the nausea hit hard. I was informed that I had turned a quite scary shade of grey and made swift movements to leave the pub as fast as was humanly possible. I’ll spare you the finer details but it was not, repeat not, pretty and had I auditioned for a part in the remake of The Exorcist at any point over the weekend I am positive I would have been given the part.