Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Rocket and Brazil Nut Pesto

We waited weeks for the truly good growing conditions to arrive. A late frost gave us cause for concern and we thought for a few days that we’d lost the entire crop of potatoes - not to mention numerous salads.

Thankfully the sad looking leaves survived and thrived into lush green offerings. The rows of potatoes now stand tall and proud, a thick carpet of the distinctive green leaves cover half the garden like a layer of cloud.

Two lines of lettuce look perky and happy and we’ve already devoured three or four, one with a simple roast chicken with warm bread, some runny mayonnaise and freshly chopped lemon thyme.

The rocket is looking healthy as well: too healthy in fact. We returned after a couple of days away to find it reaching skyward in a manner that would please NASA. Thinking quickly we harvested as many of the oversize leaves as we could and pounded them along with some basil into a fresh, summery pesto.

Stirred into spaghetti it made a wonderful and very quick supper: fresh, peppery, warm with garlic and zingy with lemon. Sometimes a glut is a wonderful thing.

Spaghetti with rocket and brazil nut pesto

Although usually made with pine nuts, the Brazil nuts we found in the back of the cupboard proved to be an excellent substitute. The slightly creamy texture added a slight richness to the pesto.

Two large handfuls of rocket leaves, washed and dried
One handful of basil leaves
9-10 Brazil nuts
2 cloves of garlic
One lemon, zested and juiced
Olive oil
20g Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese, grated
Salt and pepper

Chop the rocket and basil leaves enough to make them fit into a pestle and mortar. Pound the Brazil nuts into a coarse powder then add the garlic and a pinch of sea salt and pound some more. Add the lemon zest then the rocket and basil leaves and continue mashing with the pestle until it begins to look like pesto. Add the olive oil until it is a certifiable sauce then stir in the grated cheese.

Season with sea salt, black pepper and lemon juice and stir through warm spaghetti.

Photographs by @photolotte (flickr)

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Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Phad Thai and Cooking Like a Pro

Professional chefs work differently to home cooks. This is a lesson you learn very early on in a restaurant kitchen.

Working a successful service relies on a number of key practices but chief amongst these is doing one’s meez before the first ticket comes in.

Meez , short for mise en place, a French term for ‘putting in place’, means getting everything ready to go so you aren’t faffing around chopping vegetables when you should really be concentrating on cooking that sea bass for table 14.

It is getting everything how you want it, where you want it so when the time comes all you have to do is cook.

Whilst this is good working practice for a professional environment, it is a lesson I’ve brought home with me as well. I approach cooking differently, first doing any peeling or butchery then moving onto chopping and the like.

Only when everything is ready to go, do I start cooking. This actually cuts down the time spent in the kitchen and means that hands on cooking is as swift and smooth as possible.

More importantly it means there isn’t a mountain of washing up to do after dinner because all the clearing up is done as you go along – another lesson you learn very quickly in professional kitchens.

A chef friend of mine put it rather more succinctly. ‘The six Ps,’ he said when we were talking about cooking for paying customers. I looked at him blankly. ‘Proper preparation prevents poor performance.’

‘That’s only five,’ I replied. ‘Five Ps.’

‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘I gave you the clean version. Commis chefs get the six P chat. Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.’

And he’s right.

One dish that really benefits from this approach is a stir-fry when you have a matter of just a few minutes to actually cook everything and Phad Thai is a real favourite. Last time I visited the family, my sister asked me the best way to cook this. I gave her a little lesson but neglected to write down the recipe so, Ellen – this one’s for you.

Ellen’s Phad Thai
The key flavourings are palm sugar (although you could sub in brown sugar) for sweetness, tamarind and lime for sourness, fish sauce and soy for saltiness and chillies for heat.

The core philosophy of Thai food is ensuring these are balanced so feel free to play with quantities as you see fit: There are no rules – it is a dish from the streets of Bangkok. It is fast, filling and very tasty indeed.

Ingredients are listed in the order they should be cooked

Per person:
Cooking oil (2-3 tablespoons)
½ carrot, sliced into thin strips
½ onion, finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
Tablespoon of pickled radish or pickled turnip (you should find this in your friendly local Chinese supermarket)
Fresh red chillies, finely sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced

10-15g palm sugar
2 tablespoons of tamarind
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce

100g rice noodles, cooked in boiling water

1 egg, beaten

Tablespoon of peanuts, roasted and roughly ground
Tablespoon of dried shrimp

To finish
Bean sprouts
Finely shredded spring onion
Finely shredded red chillies
Roasted and ground peanuts
Lime wedges

Once the first ingredient goes into the hot oil this dish is about two minutes away from the plate so you have to work quickly. Get all your ingredients ready to go and set up in order – this is your mise en place. Congratulations, you are now a chef.

Heat up a wok so it is good and scorching. Add the oil then tip in the onion, garlic, carrot, chillies and pickled radish (or turnip). Move around the wok then add the flavourings: tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce and soy stir well then add the cooked noodles. Coat with the sauce then make a well in the centre and add the egg. Let it cook, scramble it and incorporate it into the dish.

Sprinkle in the dried shrimp and peanuts, stir one last time and spoon into bowls. Garnish with bean sprouts, spring onions, chillies and peanuts then feel free to go crazy with the seasonings to pep up the dish to your own personal tastes. Finely chopped bird’s eye chillies in fish sauce is a real favourite that always brings back the memory of Thailand.

Who needs a takeaway?

Friday, 4 June 2010


Confession time. I’m cheating on my beloved.

We’ve been together since 2003 so I suppose it could be the famed ‘seven year itch’. Only this is more serious. This isn’t just an illicit fumble in the stationery cupboard. This is more. This is love.

Since I began nurturing my love of coffee I’ve tried every method under the sun to attain the perfect cup of Joe. For a while the Cafetiere was enough to see me through the mornings, heaping coarsely pre-ground beans into the warmed jug. The resultant sludge was passable but there was no panache, merely the niggling shadow of 1980s dinner parties and After Eight mints.

The trusty Moka Express came next – ‘every Italian home has one’ came the re-assuring sales pitch and sure enough it proved to make a cup up from the workmanlike brew that spewed forth from the Cafetiere.

Getting the brewing time right was difficult though – too fast and the coffee scorched becoming bitter as the final drops puttered through the spout and the bottom pot boiled dry. Too slow and it took an age for the coffee to appear. It was also a pain to clean and more often than not remained sullied with wet grinds for longer than was suitable.

There was also a frustrating lack of crema – the nutty caramel coloured layer that adorns the finest of espressos, a drink that was becoming my coffee of choice whenever away from home.

For a while I gave into my Swedish heritage and enjoyed the simple delights of filter coffee. Smooth and strong without being overly bitter, it was a coffee to drink throughout the day but it lacked that specific oomph and I never got excited about it in the same way I did about a really good shot of expertly made espresso.

There was only one course of action: to admit that I was a fully-fledged coffee nerd and invest in a machine that would allow making of exquisitely crafted espresso at home.

After much research I chose the La Pavoni Europiccola machine – as much a piece of iconic design as an espresso maker. I was dazzled by its classic lines, its manual mechanics and its apparent simplicity. It was a thing of shiny beauty – curvier than Marilyn Monroe and heavy with brass fittings, I adored it from the moment I bought it.

The love affair lasted quite some time. It had quirks that made it impossible for anyone other than myself to make it work. It was high-maintenance in the extreme, needing constant tweaking. There was no temperature or pressure gauge meaning a sustained period of trial and error before the two were in sync to yield a perfect shot of dark espresso with a satisfying crema.

The boiler itself was small – once enough water had been drawn through the machine to heat all the components there was barely enough left for a couple of coffees. It would have to be re-filled – a task that only the bravest of baristas would dare to undertake.

Tea-towels had to be wrapped around hands to avoid being scalded by the burst of steam that spewed, volcano like, from the boiler as the lid was unscrewed. More waiting, more releasing the pressure from the steam wand, more failed coffees if any aspect was amiss.

Drawing the perfect espresso is a hard task – if one single element is out of kilter, it drags the whole process down with it. Freshness of beans, size of grind, temperature of water, latent heat in machine, pressure, speed of extraction. All these had to be perfect before the Europiccola would even consider emitting a good espresso.

I grew to think of my machine as a well-bred, hot blooded Italian lady: happy to comply on rare occasions but unwilling to compromise and prone to increasingly lengthy bouts of sulking where compliance was NEFC (not-even-fucking-considered).

But those rare occasions when the planets aligned, they made me forget about all those failed shots poured down the sink. Those sleepy hungover Sundays when all I wanted was a simple coffee and instead what I got was violent steaming temper tantrum from an apparently inanimate object. The time I’d spent making coffees for more than two people. The red raw hands scalded from the steam. All those went ignored when I sipped the one 1% of shots that passed muster.

Inevitably though I grew tired of the tantrums. Frustrated by La Pavoni’s increasingly erratic behaviour, I sought solace in the simple pleasures of others.

Telling myself it was just a temporary measure, that I would have my machine serviced and the love would blossom again, I dabbled and toyed and conducted electric affairs with as many coffee makers as I could, desperate to find that spark.

Everything from the Aeropress, a plunge device made by a company famed for their flying rings to futuristic handheld gadgets powered by nitrous oxide. I tried them all desperate to rekindle that spark I’d once felt for the shiny silver elephant now in the corner of the kitchen.

But each brief encounter brought a growing realisation that the relationship with my Italian diva was over. The reality was that most of the methods I was now using made better coffee than the Europiccola ever did. I was just blinded by adoration, rendered incapable by its gorgeous curves and flawless design.

Heartbroken, I resolved never to love again.

And then my brother went travelling. ‘You can babysit the Gaggia, if you want,’ he said. I agreed, thinking it would serve a purpose but nothing more.

In the month since it has been resident in the kitchen, this wonderful machine, this glorious piece of modernist design, all square edges and simple function, has become as much a part of the household as the cats.

We’ve called him Gary. Gary the Gaggia. He sits next to the grinder, taking up more than his fair share of the space in our tiny kitchen but we don’t care. He tells us when he is ready, he never overheats, his pressure is so well maintained I think he may be on statins and he steams milk to textured perfection.

Once the coffee is ground and tamped into place, a simple push of a button is enough to have glorious espresso dribbling through the portafilter. Crema is inevitable and even the GF – who never dared go near the Pavoni – is happy to make coffees now. It is a thing of perfection.

The only problem is, at some point I’m going to have to give him back. Adam – if you’re reading this I might have to look after Gary a little longer…

So – how do you get your coffee fix? Is it a matter of anything goes as long as it is fast and caffeine jacked or are you more of a perfectionist? Share your thoughts below and there may even be some sort of coffee based prize in the offing.

Speaking of coffee, I will be putting my expertise to good use as part of the judging panel for the World Aeropress Coffee Championships at Caffe Culture, Kensington Olympia on June 25th. Come and say hello.