Thursday, 25 February 2010

Steamed Quick Duck Confit

Confit is one of France’s finest gifts to humanity. Tough pieces of meat cooked long and slow in a thick jacuzzi of fat until it is meltingly tender and supremely tasty? Hand it over. Immediately.

Traditionally a method of preservation, the meat would sit quite happily in its fatty suspension for months on end – the surrounding lard preventing bacteria from scuttling in and spoiling the delicious meat within.

Not the most practical thing to do at home, especially in small quantities, confit duck is something I eat only rarely which is why I was intrigued by an alternative method discussed over port and candied fish.

Not only does it require a fraction of the amount of fat but reportedly yields results on a par with the traditional method. Some even go so far as to say superior. Everything that is good about confit in a neat domestic kitchen friendly method. A challenge too tempting to pass over.

Quick Duck Confit

Buy a whole duck. Seriously. Don’t bother faffing about with legs and breasts. Just buy the entire bird and get busy with a sharp knife. It’s much cheaper and you can then render your own fat from the leftover bits and bobs.

[Steamed bum-plings, anyone? Dim Bum?]

Sprinkle the legs with a little salt then put them in a steamer over a pan of water into which you’ve dropped some aromatics – cinnamon, star anise, chillies, peppercorns. Whatever takes your fancy. Bring to the boil and steam gently for 50-60 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool.

Bag the legs and refrigerate them for at least 12 hours. Freeze them if necessary but they should keep for 3-4 days in the fridge.

When you’re feeling peckish liberally spread a teaspoon or so of duck fat over the legs , sprinkle with a little salt and roast for 8-10 minutes. If you want crispy skin – and I can only assume you really do – then pop them under the grill for two minutes each side.

The results? Crispy, salty skin. Sweet, juicy tender meat. The merest hint of warmth from the spices. As close to food nirvana as it is possible to get. Whatever your menu plans tonight, change them immediately and do this. You won’t regret it.

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Monday, 22 February 2010

Japanese Sugar Coated Fish

You read that right. There are no typos or Monday induced mistakes. These really are candied fish.

Despite proclivities to slam two disparate ingredients together in new and interesting ways, this was not one I dreamt up. A tart made with lemon and chilli, perhaps. Tiny shrimp, needlefish and whitebait dried then dipped in sugar syrup? Not one from my brain, nor even from this country.

Japanese through and through, these were brought over by a friend currently plying his trade in Tokyo. ‘They’re good,’ he reassured me before suffixing it with ‘if they are what I think they are.’

Three, four, five bottles of something down and drawing close to 3am, happy on port and still full of steak, the box was opened.

Expecting a dock-like stench, aching under the niff of a thousand trawler decks each with rotting nets, it was a pleasant surprise to find the odour was subtle. Faintly fishy, of course, but no more.

There were tiny pink commas of shrimp, near translucent they were so small. Next to them skewers of larger fish, threaded onto cocktail sticks in order of size. Brown and grey needlefish were piled up in the centre of the tray and another hierarchy, this time of prawns, completed the set.

Everything was glossy, shining under a neat coating of lightly caramelised sugar like Poseidon’s homage to St. Valentine. A cross-cultural melding of something possibly lost in translation.

Knowing the largest fish were the inevitable dénouement of this whole episode, itself threatening to turn into an exercise in extreme eating machismo, we began with the smallest offerings – the tiny needlefish and the small pink shrimp.

The flavour was oddly pleasant. Texturally there was a little crunch, the whole shellfish offering a bite of resistance before yielding and giving up their sweet-savoury contents.

There was an unmistakable flavour of the sea, slightly fermented with the pungent intensity that only comes from preserved specimens but it was neatly countered by the caramel exterior.

Finding our stride we went back for more gathering pace and gusto with each mouthful until we ended with the largest complete fishes clamped between chopsticks. Heads, tails and guts in they went to be chewed up and chewed over. Savoured and swallowed. Sweet, bitter, salty – was this the elusive umami flavour neatly captured in a single morsel?

We didn’t finish the entire tray. It remains in the fridge but not for reasons of disgust. On the contrary – they were very pleasant indeed and would make the ideal companion to a few chilled beers and a bowl of steaming, salty edamame beans. I’m just waiting for the right occasion.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Sourdough for Dummies

There is an air of mystique surrounding the making of sourdough bread.

Any fool can knock together a simple loaf using bought yeast cultures but it takes a special type of fool to attempt catching and nurturing these teeny organisms then harnessing their unique power to create a loaf of bread.

Sourdough appeals due to its infinite variety: the special combination of flavours, textures and smells that results from the singular terroir of an area. As pretentious as that sounds its true – the airborne yeast cultures, the flour and the water are all unique. Sourdough bread made in Paris will be noticeably different to one made in San Francisco.

Previous efforts have invariably resulted in failure. Flat, puddle like breads that spread out over trays like an overly ripe cheese. Bitter tasting efforts with dense centres more suitable for constructing buildings than contributing to breakfast.

But, by Jove, I think I’ve cracked it.

After two days relentless study and nearly a month of stirring, waiting, mixing, kneading, waiting and baking here is a completely foolproof, day-by-day guide to making that most magical of breads.

Sourdough Bread

This is undoubtedly slow food. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

Sourdough is made in three stages: first you create a starter dough. The starter dough is then used to make a sponge and the sponge used to make a loaf with a little held back as the next starter.

Beautifully and simply cyclical.

All you need to do is remember the following ratios:

That is to say, the starter should be half flour and half water. The sponge 60% flour and 40% water and the final loaf around 70% flour to 30% water.

Other than that the only ingredient is salt.

Salt performs two functions. Firstly it adds flavour to the bread but more importantly it inhibits the growth of bacteria which can quickly spoil a starter dough.

You’ll also need a largish jar with a lid.

Day One – mix together equal parts of white bread flour and water. Stir and pour into the jar. Leave the lid off for a few hours then loosely close it. Let it stand overnight in a warm place – between 16 and 18°C

Day Two – Pour off half the mixture and discard. Stir in equal parts flour and water, a little salt, close the lid and leave in the fridge. Why? Bacteria struggle to multiply at lower temperatures whereas yeasts flourish.

Day Three – repeat as day two but add some rye flour to the mix. Rye flour is high in natural yeast cultures. The mix should be bubbling away now and giving off a slightly acidic smell. This is good. If you fancy speeding up the process, leave the jar out of the fridge for a few hours to accelerate the fermentation.

Days Four, Five and Six – Repeat as above.

Day Seven – After a week your starter dough should be nicely fermented with a healthy ‘sour’ niff. It might even smell faintly boozy. Give it a stir then tip into a mixing bowl to make the sponge. Add flour and water to a ratio of 60:40 (go for about 180g flour – a mixture of white, wheat and rye if you wish – and 120g water) and a sprinkle of salt. Stir well and cover with plastic wrap. Leave in a warm place for 12-24 hours.

Day Eight – Pour half the sponge back into your (now clean) starter jar, stir in a 50:50 mix of flour and water and pop it back into the fridge. This only needs refreshing once every few days now.

Add flour and water in a ratio of roughly 70:30 (for a large loaf or two small ones you will probably need 420g flour and 180g water) and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine and then turn out onto a floured surface. The dough should be quite wet. Knead and add more flour as necessary to create a dough that doesn’t stick to the surface but retains its lax and slouchy feel. Knead well for 15 minutes or so then return to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave to double in size. This could take anything up to three or four hours.

After the volume has doubled, turn the dough back out onto the floured surface, swiftly knock the air out of it and shape your loaf or loaves onto a baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops liberally with flour and cover with a slightly damp tea towel. Leave to rise for another hour.

Preheat the oven to full whack and put a bowl of water on the bottom shelf. Slash the top of the loaf to allow the bread to rise properly in the oven (a phenomenon known as ‘oven spring’ as the gas bubbles inside the loaf quickly expand due to heat) and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 120°C and give it another 15-20 minutes. It’s ready when it sounds hollow when tapped on the base

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Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Lemon and Chilli Tart

Lemon tart is the dessert for people who don’t do desserts.

There is a neat dichotomy in the world. For some the very word ‘gateaux’ is enough to bring on excitement bordering on the erotic.

The prospect of a delicately crafted assiette complete with tuiles, spun sugar sculptures of the Sydney Opera House and eight hundred garnishes can weaken the knees and moisten the brow.

For dessert fans, the starter and main course are but palate readiers for the sweet treats to follow be they frozen, baked, chilled, fried or covered in chocolate. In many cases all of the above.

Pud-heads pay homage to the goddess of sugar, offer sacrifices to the sprits of the saccharine and prostrate themselves at the altar of pastry.

And then there are those like my dad. The dessert menu is briefly perused before being dismissed with a request to move directly to coffee. Do not pass Gü. Do not put on two hundred pounds.

Indeed, the word ‘meh’ could have been coined for this very situation.

But the one exception that proves the rule is the lemon tart. It is the non-pudding lovers’ pudding. The sweet richness of the filling is tempered by the bracing acidity of the citrus fruit and despite the vast quantities of butter, sugar and eggs needed to make most incarnations, it is a surprisingly light end to a meal.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the Cambridge Chilli Farm. Amongst their many artisanal products is the intriguing Lemon Drop Sauce made with aji lemon chillies. It was recommended as an addition to seafood or chicken but by that point the cogs of invention were chugging into place.

I’ve long been fascinated with the Thai approach to flavour balance – the careful interplay between the sour, the spicy, the sweet and the salty is a great basis for a culinary philosophy and I wondered if it would work with desserts too.

This presented the ideal opportunity to try.

After consulting innumerable sources (none of which had a recipe for lemon tart flavoured with chilli) I created the following recipe combining elements of Larousse, Stephane Renaud and the Almighty himself, Mr Thomas Keller.

It is by no means a classic lemon tart – the filling cooked over a bain marie, hollandaise style, before being poured into the prebaked tart casing. But the resultant dish is a thing of beauty. The balance between sweet and sour, so essential for a lemon tart, is there but the chilli brings something new. The heat comes late and readies the palate for the next mouthful making each bite as tasty and as satisfying as the first.

But from what I can tell it is a genuine original. Would you look at that? I think I’ve created a signature dish.

Lemon and Aji Lemon Chilli Tart

This uses a basic pâte sablée or sweet short crust for the pastry case. Feel free to pep it up with some grated lemon zest or even a smidgeon of dried chilli flakes.

250g plain flour
125g butter, at room tempterature
70g caster sugar
1 egg

Beat the butter and egg together until light and fluffy then add the sugar. Sift in the flour and use your hands to make a dough. Try to handle it as little as possible, just incorporate the flour then wrap it in cling film and put it in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Once chilled roll out the pastry – I find it helpful to do so between two sheets of greaseproof paper – to a thickness of about half a centimetre and line a loose bottomed tart case with it. Press the pastry into the corners (corners? It’s round - you know what I mean – ridges?) of the tart case and trim off a little of the excess pastry.

Make a cartouche of baking paper and place over the pastry. Fill it with baking beans or coins and bake at 180 degrees for at least fifteen minutes until the base as well as the edges are starting to turn that delicious pale tan colour. Think healthy glow as opposed to Jodie Marsh.

Once cooked remove the baking paper along with the coins and leave to cool whilst you prepare the filling.

For the filling you will need:
Three eggs
100g caster sugar
four lemons, zested and juiced, juice sieved to remove pips and pith
80g butter cubed into neat little dice (about 2cm squared)
2 teaspoons lemon drop sauce

Add an inch or so of water to a saucepan and bring to a boil over a moderate heat. Crack the eggs into a heatproof bowl – make sure you choose one that’s slightly smaller than the pan you are using - and add the lemon zest and sugar and whisk for a couple of minutes until the colour begins to turn pale.

Place the bowl over the pan of simmering water. Make sure the base of the bowl is not touching the water so that the eggs are being cooked by the gentle heat of the steam. Continue whisking the mixture until the eggs begin to thicken then add a third of the lemon juice. The mixture will thin. Keep whisking until it begins to thicken again. Add another third of the lemon juice. Whisk until thick and repeat the process with the remaining lemon juice.

Keep the heat low and keep whisking well throughout - you don’t want scrambled eggs stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

The whole process should take 8-10 minutes. You’ll know when it’s ready. Promise.

Remove the bowl from the heat and whisk in the butter a cube at a time then add the aji lemon sauce. Taste all the way through to make sure the balance of sweet/sour/hot is right. The chilli flavour shouldn’t be immediately noticeable but creep up on you gradually.

Once you’re happy, pour the mixture into the tart case. It should set at room temperature within 15-20 minutes. Serve with any ice cream you see fit and maybe a glass of limoncello.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

A Week (and a bit) of Chilli

On Monday we were invited out to dinner.

After surviving on Chilli con carne in various guises for the previous week, it was a relief to be out of the kitchen and away from the Mexican ragu which had finally been finished off spooned over a bowl of nachos and laden with vaguely luminescent cheese.

The Le Creuset was washed down, the crusted edges scraped clean and we left it drying on the rack beside the sink as we drove the half hour towards Bedfordshire.

‘We thought about getting a curry tonight,’ he said as a cold lager was passed towards me ‘but the Indian is closed on a Monday. So we’ve cooked a chilli instead.’

The giggles were stifled until the GF and I were alone in the dining room when we simply had to embrace the irony and laugh silently and uncontrollably, resigned politely to enjoy just one more, like the erstwhile butler James in the magnificent Dinner For One.

But it was a very good chilli. Even after the following incarnations

Monday - Burritos

I won’t patronise by offering a recipe for chilli con carne. You have one. I know that much and it would be foolish to think you would change it in any way. It matters not whether it is a genuine Texan number with chuck steak or a basic ragu pepped up with kidney beans and spices.

A burrito should be aching at the seams, the contents desperate for liberation, hence the need to employ a foil girdle. The meat sauce sits atop a layer of Mexican style rice and is piled high with grated cheese, chopped salad, sour cream, guacamole, salsa and as much hot sauce as you can handle.

Tuesday – Enchiladas

The chilli was stuffed into toasted tortilla wraps, rolled and topped with a reduced passata pepped up with a little garlic and chilli pepper. The whole lot was then baked for 25 minutes until steaming hot to the core. Sliced avocado was the ideal accessory.

Wednesday – Keeping it simple…

We got drunk. Accidentally. Returning home with the munchies we ladled the sauce and leftover burrito rice into a bowl, put the microwave on high and shovelled it into our mouths in an effort to soak up excess cheap white wine. It was nigh on perfect. There is no photo.

Thursday – Chilli and Cornbread

Cornbread is one of those items that has a shiny stars and stripes mystique. A hallowed national dish from across the pond that until last week remained a mystery, like a sloppy Joes or Jambalaya or grits.

It was with caution I tipped the recommended amount of baking powder into the batter mix (cornbread is more of a cake than a standard loaf) and as expected it was the overriding flavour to a deeply unpleasant degree. Such excitement, such expectation, such disappointment. Sorry, America, I remain unconvinced on this one.

Friday – Nachos

What better way to end the week than with that Brit pub/diner classic/lazy fallback of last decade, nachos?

Clearly the best part of this dish is the slew of lurid orange cheese that seeps between the crispy tortilla chips and covers the fingers with a layer of tasty grease. But the cooling elements of guacamole, salsa and sour cream and chives were a welcome addition too.

A satisfying and fun experiment in thrift. The cost of the chilli itself? No more than £4, the sundry additions another fiver. Two of us ate for a week (including lunches comprised of the previous night’s leftovers) for about ten pounds.

Now to get some bloody steak…

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Thursday, 4 February 2010

There's something living in the fridge

It’s been a week since the moment of conception. The flour and water gametes fused a full seven days ago and since then I’ve been feeding, nurturing and growing a starter dough.

It was slow to begin with. Tiny bubbles appearing on the surface and the emulsion like paste beginning to take on a faintly acidic and not unpleasant aroma.

As advised by Harold McGee (not personally) I kept it in the fridge, spooned off half the bubbly mass each day and replenished it with fresh flour and water before putting it back into the cold – a temperature where yeasts can thrive but bacteria cannot.

Only yesterday I neglected to return it to the fridge. After stirring in flour and water I left it on the side whilst I took a seat by the back door to spend a happy half hour plucking the last two game birds of the season.

That’s not a euphemism. They were partridges.

By the time I’d finished, the sourdough had seemingly gained awareness and was unhappy with the restrictive confines of the glass jar…

Bread is but a day away.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Thai Rice Pudding

4pm must have been a magical time for my mother.

Once my brother and I arrived home from school the tranquillity of the empty house dissipated so rapidly she could be forgiven for thinking it had been mere reverie.

Gasping through the hormonal fug of both early and mid adolescence – there are four years between us – we were mostly unpleasant both to each other and, regretfully, to her, by association. I have no idea how she put up with it and am not surprised that the occasional outburst came our way.

The debilitating and damning effects of the chemical surge were exasperated by hunger (probably because lunch had gone uneaten) and on entering the house the first question was always ‘What’s for tea?’ quickly followed by ‘When?’

Whatever the answer, we would head to the cereal cupboard to sate the hunger brought on by double Chemistry last thing in the afternoon or French lessons with the formidable Mrs. Losse (thanks to whom I will never, ever forget how to conjugate etre and avoir).

Cereal was our go-to, our emergency, our stop gap.

But not always.

There were a few occasions every month, more often in the winter when the weather made us more receptive to it, when a fresh rice pudding would have been slowly cooking in the oven. The soul-fulfilling smell of rice, milk and nutmeg was a great welcome home. Piled into bowls and topped with cinnamon and brown sugar or honey.

On those days we left the fighting until at least five o’clock.

An hour’s peace in exchange for rice pudding? Sounds like a good deal.

Thai Rice Pudding

This is a Thai-rice pudding as opposed to a Thai rice-pudding. The grains are of the fragrant jasmine variety which lends an extra level or warmth to the dish. They are particularly glutinous and sticky as well making for a hearty and satisfying dish just as good last thing at night as it is for breakfast with a cup of coffee.

One part Thai rice
Three/Four parts milk depending on how runny you like your rice pudding
Brown sugar

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the rice, stir the grains until they are coated with the butter then add the milk. Bring to an easy simmer, stir in as much or as little sugar as you like and a fine dusting of nutmeg (whenever I use mutmeg I always think of Anthony Bourdain’s advice, namely ‘go easy’).

Cook for 45 minutes in a pre-heated oven at about 130 degrees C by which point the rice should be cooked. Check halfway through – add more liquid if it needs it. This is an instinctive dish – you’ll know if it’s too dry.

It keeps in the fridge for about a week – great for spooning out and reheating at opportune moments to be topped with a dollop of strawberry jam or nuts and seeds if you are feeling virtuous.

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Monday, 1 February 2010

Retro Cookbooks and a week of Chilli

T.S. Eliot was wrong. February is the cruellest month.

With the day:night ratio still brutally weighted towards darkness and the good intentions of January ending in frustration or failure there is little to cheer come month number two.

What’s more, financially imposed restraint withers the bud of any frivolous relief: one must pay for midwinter exuberance at some point and that is usually about 30 days into the year. There shall be no steaks or fine wines in February.

But it presents the enthusiastic cook with a challenge. With budgets slashed more brutally than an American teenager in a bad horror movie, the cogs of invention begin to splutter and whirr into gear in an attempt to answer the age-old question: how does one eat well – cheaply?

I found the answer in the 1980s.

When we moved in together, the GF and I inevitably meshed media collections. This explains why Destiny’s Child now cosy up to The Dears and how Badly Drawn Boy ended up in such close proximity to Band of Horses (the alphabetisation is all me, sadly).

The cookbook collection was also enriched by this collision. In addition to the Nigels and Nigellas were some fabulous items from the mid 1980s which 20-some years on have managed to recapture their appeal, if only for kitsch value.

The Austrialian Women’s Weekly Dinner Party Cookbook No.2, its cover adorned with a domed fruit jelly, whipped cream piped around the perimeter, is a particular favourite. How to Make Good Curries is another I adore, chiefly because of the modest ambitions of its title.

The good folks at the Aussie Women’s Weekly are also responsible for The Barbecue Cookbook including – I kid you not – a section on a barbecued wedding breakfast.

But our favourite discovery, and one that caused much mirth when we were going through our new collection is a small undated pamphlet issued by the British Sausage Bureau entitled A Month of Sausages.

I think that warrants some thought.

Firstly, it is both commendable and highly amusing that such an organisation existed given that it sounds like something dreamt up by Edmund Blackadder or the writers of The Thick Of It. An entire (government funded) organisation dedicated solely to the advancement of the sausage. Magnificent.

But what’s more surprising and sadly archaic is the notion that a tentacle of the government would recommend eating sausages – albeit in various guises – every day. For a month.

In an era of five-a-day, low-sodium, low-fat, no-butter, no booze, no fags, no eggs, no cream, no bacon – the very idea that a publicly funded body could recommend eating processed pork for thirty straight days like some sort of inverse Lent is anathema to modern health proclamations.

Towards the end of the booklet they seem to be getting a little short on ideas (sausage kebabs – a sausage on a stick, Welsh Sausage Supper – sausages fried with leeks) but one has to admire the sentiment even if the execution is a little suspect.

However, despite my adoration of pork, I fear that a month of sausages is a challenge beyond even my capabilities but I was tickled by the notion and it chimed with the rather timely need for thrift.

For the next week we shall be eating chilli con carne. But we won’t be eating the same meal twice. The chilli shall serve as inspiration and base but the format shall vary.

At the moment it is bubbling away slowly in the oven and has been for four hours. The total cost of the ingredients was under a fiver and I’m as yet unsure where to go beyond chilli with rice and enchiladas but we’ll get there.

It might not be a month of sausages but a week of chilli is a darn good way to start a frugal February.

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