Monday 31 March 2014

Spiced lamb & lentils

This is basically this Nigel Slater recipe. Although with a different ratio of lentils to meat. I'm not sure why they called the recipe "spiced", when it didn't have any spice in it, until you got to the suggested variations, but I thought spices sounded like a good idea. I added grated ginger and some cumin, coriander and turmeric to the lentils. I didn't have cream but I did have coconut cream, so I added a 50g sachet of that towards the end with some garam masala. A very low-effort and delicious meal.

Friday 28 March 2014

Chilli salted caramel popcorn

My very successful maple bacon popcorn gave me a taste for the sweet and salty snack combination. We were, however, going to dinner with friends who don't eat bacon, so I needed to come up with an alternative. This version is, I think, even better. It has more caramel and a nice warm bite from the chilli.

Chilli Salted Caramel Popcorn

1tbs vegetable oil
100g popping corn
1/2tsp chilli flakes (I used chile de arbol)
1/2tsp Maldon salt (i.e good quality seasalt)
50g salted butter
75ml maple syrup
75ml golden syrup

Heat the oil in a large saucepan with a lid, and add the popping corn. Cover, and shake until the corn has popped, then pour into a large, heat-proof bowl or tray, holding back any unpopped kernels if possible.

Combine the chilli flakes and salt in a little eggcup or ramekin or something, for ease of access when the syrup is done. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the butter, maple syrup and golden syrup over a medium heat, and swirl gently as it comes to the boil. Boil rapidly for a couple of minutes, or until it starts to change colour to a darker brown.

Take the caramel off the heat and tip the chilli and salt quickly into it. Keeping your fingers well clear, give it a stir with a silicon spatula and pour the caramel evenly over the popcorn. Stir it through. It won't coat all of the popcorn. Allow it to cools and set before eating. I suspect a handful of roasted peanuts combined with the popcorn before adding the caramel would also be welcome. That's for next time.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

British Turkey and a schnitzel with piquant sauce

I recently attended an event at Westminster Kingsway College, organised by British Turkey to try to raise the profile of turkey meat outside Christmas time. A gang of turkey professionals welcomed food bloggers and writers with copious quantities of prosecco before a demonstration by Phil Vickery (the chef not the rugby player) and a grand turkey dinner.

Turkey does have some image problems in this country, I think. If it isn't Jamie Oliver demonising Turkey Twizzlers, or accounts of gross animal cruelty coming out of some of the factory farms, then it is an endless parade of TV chefs explaining contradictory ways to avoid dryness in the Christmas bird.

Then, having mortgaged the house to buy the ethically sound, gently-nurtured rare breed turkey, consulted Delia, Nigella, Jamie, Hugh and a few cooks who need a surname, and ended up too overwrought to eat the bloody thing, your British home cook doesn't want to see or hear the word turkey again until she has to book her Christmas Ocado delivery next October.

It's not exactly a new problem. In 1955 Elizabeth David wrote "A young turkey weighing 7-9lb, roasted in butter with a fresh herb stuffing, makes a delightful change both from the more usual roast chicken and from the 25lb monsters which are such a tyranny to cook at Christmas time. Turkey breeders have been experimenting for some time in England with the supplying of small birds all the year round, and they are becoming more plentiful on the market".

There have been some improvements - a couple of years ago large increases in consumption were being reported - but I seemed to be one of the few bloggers at this event who cooks turkey reasonably frequently. Possibly because I don't usually do one at Christmas and I refuse to be intimidated by a bird. It is harder to find high-welfare turkey meat than high-welfare chicken, but most of the supermarkets do carry free-range turkey products year round.
I was a little disappointed by the ideas Phil demonstrated - I was hoping to see some different cuts utilised (since I personally favour dark meat), but it was all pieces of breast fillet. What he did do, which got people excited, was velvet the meat before cooking to maintain the texture and moisture. It's an extremely common Chinese technique, but I guess that greater exposure to Asian cooking is one of the advantages of being Australian.

The main thrust of the demonstration was the way turkey takes flavours. He did a tropical fruity one of mango and pineapple with lime and mint, which was delicious although I would have preferred those flavours without the turkey and with quite a lot of rum and ice. He did one with Indian spices. He did one with three colours of bell pepper, garlic, soy sauce and lemongrass. The one that was a real revelation to me was how well turkey matches with seafood - he stir-fried the velveted turkey with prawns and a bit of oyster sauce. The seafood flavours worked so well that I think a small roast turkey with a crayfish sauce, or possibly larded with anchovies like a gigot of lamb, may turn up on my table for Easter.

After the (somewhat hurried, with technical difficulties) demonstration we moved into the Escoffier Room for dinner. I believe this, the college's fine dining restaurant, is entirely staffed by students. Both the service and the food were considerably more accomplished than my food photography.
The dinner certainly furthered the cause of showing how versatile turkey can be. It began with consommé with a smoked turkey raviolo, savoy cabbage and wild mushrooms. The raviolo itself could have been cooked just a fraction longer, it was a little too al dente for my taste, but the woodsy combination of chestnut, smoked turkey and the various mushrooms in impeccably clear broth was my dish of the night.
The main course was a little bit less successful. The turkey breast was beautifully moist and tender, but whatever the gelatinous skin it was wrapped in was, it didn't taste of anything and had a slightly offputting texture. The foam added nothing, and the two cubes of different coloured heritage carrot were too hard to cut without flicking them off the plate and too large to eat in one bite. I would happily have made a meal entirely of the confit leg meat, tender spinach and delicious buttery potato, though.
Chocolate desserts are never my first choice, but the mousse was better than the overwrought presentation suggests. I haven't seen gel blobs like that on a dessert plate in years, and I can't say I have missed them.
A selection of excellent petits fours ended the dinner. I didn't try all of them, but the ones I did taste were very good. Even the marshmallow.

Dinner being over, I gave some thought to a dish of my own using British turkey. I'll often use it instead of chicken in a stir-fry. Both this chicken with cannellini beans and this tamarind chicken work extremely well with turkey. I've also made turkey parmigiana, turkey chilli, Swedish-style meatballs and turkey cannelloni. But after my very successful pork katsu, Paul has the taste for crumbed scallops of meat, so it had to be a turkey schnitzel.

A bit of sharpness works so well with turkey, and with crumbed meats, so I decided to make what Elizabeth David refers to as a sauce piquante à la crème - which is not at all like a Cajun sauce piquant. You reduce white wine vinegar down with chopped shallots, juniper berries and bayleaves, then strain it and use that essence, along with some rich stock, to make a lightly roux-thickened sauce. Then you enrich it with a slosh of cream. It sounds much more complicated than it is. The combination of cream and acidity was perfect with the rosemary-crumbed breast escallops, and we had them with some potatoes and steamed cabbage (so it was all very pallid and I didn't take a picture of the finished plate).

Saturday 22 March 2014

Suffragette Fish Pie

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a bag of Purple Majesty potatoes. And then had a bit of a freak out because I couldn't actually bring myself to make purple mash.

Fortunately my sense of whimsy got the better of me, and I decided to use them to make a fish pie to honour the Suffragettes. The Women's Social and Political Union adopted the colours purple (for dignity), white (for purity) and green (for hope) in 1908, and used it on their campaign materials and in commemorative jewellery. Apparently it is only a myth that green, white and violet stood for "give women the vote", but it is a myth that I like. 

So - my Suffragette fish pie - a layer of spinach with spring onions mixed through, well-seasoned with nutmeg and pepper, a layer of smoked haddock and white "I don't need to label this, I will remember what it is" in a thick white sauce, made from the fish poaching liquor (milk and white wine, with bay leaves and pepper corns) and a top layer of purple mashed potato.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Maple bacon popcorn for Twain's Feast: cook the books

"In the winter of 1879, Mark Twain paused during a tour of Europe to compose a fantasy menu of the American dishes he missed the most. He was desperately sick of European hotel cooking, and his menu, made up of some eighty regional specialties, was a true love letter to American food...

When food writer Andrew Beahrs first read Twain's menu in the classic work A Tramp Abroad, he noticed the dishes were regional in the truest sense of the word-drawn fresh from grasslands, woods, and waters... In Twain's Feast, Beahrs sets out to discover whether eight of these forgotten regional specialties can still be found on American tables, tracing Twain's footsteps as he goes

Twain's Feast, this month's Cook the Books Club selection (this round hosted by Simona at Briciole) was not what I expected. I was vaguely aware of Samuel Clemens, but back when I studied Huckleberry Finn at school, we didn't go in for authorial intent so we never really looked at the lives of the authors. I thought of him as a wild-haired steamboat captain and never thought beyond that. The picture that emerges of him through this book is much more complex and bittersweet. A man with a passion for adventure and a huge capacity for joie de vivre, he also experienced bouts of depression and times of extraordinary grief and loss.

The fantasy menu that inspired Beahrs was more about how Clemens had felt eating those foods than the specific foods themselves, calling back wistfully to times and places when he was happy (and not living in cheap European hotels). Beahrs' exploration of those foods also tends to the wistful, with a side dish of Big Yellow Taxi. Wanton destruction of the environment, animals driven close to extinction and a lack of respect for natural resources emerge again and again as he traces what has become of those delicacies. He shows the devastating impact of white settlement on North America as a death march of deforestation, erosion and the exceptionally short-sighted civil projects of the Corps of Engineers.

It isn't all bad news, fortunately. Along the way Beahrs meets with several Native American groups who are working to rehabilitate or maintain their ancestral lands and educate others about the environment. He talks to farmers, environmentalists and fishermen trying to restore species. He also strives to pass on his own appreciation for the natural environment to his son, giving some hope for the next generation.

The most interesting part of the book for me, aside from Twain's own lyrical descriptions, were the investigations of the history of some of the foodstuffs. As an anthropologist, Beahrs seems most comfortable exploring the cultural milieu Twain was writing in. I'd never really appreciated the role African slave cooks played in creating what we now think of as Southern food, or the difference between the first Thanksgiving/harvest celebrations and what I now see on food blogs in November.

I wanted to make something from corn. One of the foods white settlers were introduced to by the Native Americans, it has also been the cause of massive losses of topsoil and polluted waterways. It has been suggested that growing corn, particularly for biofuels, is contributing to climate change. And the infiltration of corn into all parts of the modern American diet has been connected to the rise of obesity and type 2 diabetes. So that's nice. I did contemplate making cornbread, but since Twain was so scathing of Northern attempts (and I do identify as Northern, even though I was raised further South than he would have imagined) I thought it was better not.

I also wanted to use maple syrup. Another food indigenous to North America and, apparently, one of the few mostly wild foods still popularly consumed. It was championed by abolitionists who were unwilling to eat sugar produced by slaves in the Caribbean. And it's something that I find absolutely magic - the notion of going out into a snowy wood, holding a bucket up to a tree and collecting sap, then boiling it to rich, sticky syrup is so amazing to me. The fact that Beahrs' nursery school had its own little sugaring shack was beyond astounding.

And, of course, bacon. After all, it is the internet. Plus I have noticed that bacon is something that Americans abroad really miss.
Maple candied bacon
Corn, maple syrup and bacon. These added up to a completely indulgent snack.

Maple Bacon Popcorn

3 rashers streaky bacon
2tbs maple syrup
1tbs vegetable oil
100g popping corn
1/2tsp hot pimenton or chilli flakes (optional)
1/2tsp salt
30g salted butter
75ml maple syrup, extra

Preheat oven to 200C. Line a tray with baking parchment. Place the bacon on the lined tray and drizzle with the maple syrup. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until completely crisp and caramelised. Remove the bacon from the tray and cool completely on a plate.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan with a lid, and add the popping corn. Cover, and shake until the corn has popped, then pour into a large, heat-proof bowl, holding back any unpopped kernels if possible. Sprinkle with the salt and pimenton. Crumble the slices of caramelised bacon over the top and give a little shake to distribute.

Shut children and pets out of the kitchen and ignore the telephone. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the butter and maple syrup over a medium heat, and swirl gently as it comes to the boil. Boil rapidly for a couple of minutes, or until it starts to change colour to a darker brown. Keeping your fingers well clear of it, pour the maple caramel quickly over the popcorn, using a silicon spatula to stir it through. It won't coat all of the popcorn, but try to get a fairly even distribution before it cools and sets. Eat in sweet, salty, spicy handfuls.

Friday 14 March 2014

Yakitori and tonkatsu and cherry blossom and spring

Cherry bonsai, Japanese quince and hazel
The spring-like weather has continued, and the little cherry bonsai has put out some more blossoms, so we have indulged in a couple more Japanese meals.
We've been watching the Hairy Bikers in Asia. Other than the cringe-inducing bits where they sing, I like their jovial approach, their enthusiasm and even their willingness to show a bit of scepticism sometimes. Anyway, last week they were in Japan and made pork tonkatsu. And Paul, somewhat predictably, asked me why I'd never made it for him. So I did. The sauce is a bizarre substance, strangely compelling. I'm not sure I would make it again, but I am not sure what I would serve on the pork if it wasn't that.
The tonkatsu was a pretty straightforward weeknight meal (if any dish requiring the mess of applying breadcrumbs can be said to be straightforward) but I was determined to take advantage of the weather to do a long leisurely Sunday lunch of yakitori. Sitting in the garden, sipping beer and occasionally grilling a skewer or two to perfection.
As a plan, it was pretty hard to beat. I gave the bamboo skewers a long soak (although the barbecue did laugh in the face of my soaking) and skewered pork belly pieces, chicken thighs alternating with spring onions, and mushrooms alternating with small pieces of the pork. I made a salad of leaves & edamame, with a sesame, soy and ginger dressing. I made a yakitori tare - a sauce of soy and mirin that the hot skewers get basted in when they come off the grill.
We nibbled, we sipped, we relished the sun.

Monday 10 March 2014

Bacon, banana and chilli pizza

I may never be allowed back into Italy after this...

A great many years ago, when I was living in Brisbane, I'd sometimes get pizza from the Kookaburra Cafe. You must understand, it was the mid-90s, when "innovative" and "fusion" pizza toppings were really taking off. You could hardly move for kangaroo, Peking duck or Mexican chilli pizzas. So after looking at it sideways a few times, I eventually gave their famous (and still on their menu) bacon, banana and chilli pizza a go. It was delicious.

I'm not sure why, but that unlikely-sounding combination has come up in conversation a couple of times recently. I thought it was probably time to revisit it. I know my palate has changed on a few things in the last twenty years (rarer meat, enjoyment of whisky, greater appreciation of proper Italian pizzas) so there was a chance I wouldn't find it as enjoyable as I did then. Putting it in front of Paul was going to be the big challenge though - he's not a fan of meat with fruit. I made a bacon and mushroom pizza as well, so he couldn't whinge too much.

I started with a bought base. I smeared it with slightly too much chipotle paste, then topped it with smoked streaky bacon, slices of quite firm banana and mozzarella. I added a sprinkle of grated parmesan and put it in a hot oven for 10 minutes.

Other than it being a little too hot from the chilli (next time I'd mix the chilli with a little olive oil) it was just as good as I remembered. The salty, smoky bacon, sweet banana and creamy cheese are just delicious with the bite of the chilli. Paul, however, declared that it "was a bit odd", and was grateful for the bacon and mushroom pizza that followed. Maybe it is a taste best developed in your twenties? This one is definitely going to be kept as a private pleasure.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Sushi and gyoza and cherry blossom and Spring

Not 100% sure what this is. Paul thinks blackthorn.
This is actually the bonsai, but the picture was cunningly taken outdoors.
It's been a while since our last cherry blossom dinner. The bonsai that Paul was working on, (prunus incisa 'kojo-no-mai') died unexpectedly a couple of years ago, and it wasn't until the end of the cherry blossom season last year that we bought a replacement. This is a different cultivar, prunus incisa "oshidori", and to be honest conditions haven't been perfect for it. Cherries need about 1200 chill hours - below 7C - to set buds properly and with the mild winter we've had things didn't get quite cold enough. But it still put on enough of a display for me to decide to welcome the spring with some Japanese food.
I'd wanted to have a go at sushi for a while, so I decided that this was as good an opportunity as any to bust out the bamboo rolling mat and get stuck in. I made some salmon and avocado maki, and some spicy crab and cucumber uramaki. I was surprised how easy it was - the uramaki shed a few sesame seeds but the rolls stayed nice and tight and were good little mouthfuls.

We needed something else on the plate for a satisfying supper so I made some prawn and ginger gyoza. I realised that I wouldn't be able to get the wrappers thin enough with a rolling pin, so I used the pasta machine to roll the flour and water dough, and they were just about perfect.
We didn't have any gari, so we just had a few shreds of beni shoga - less sweet, and saltier, but still a nice gingery palate cleanser between bites of sushi. And Paul is particularly fond of the dipping sauce I make for dim sum, which is crushed dried chillies in oil, with black rice vinegar and soy sauce, so I made some of that to go with the gyoza.
When we had this meal I didn't know that Japanese cuisine had been included in UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. And I don't think this quite has the elegance and refinement that is implied by that. But it was very nice!

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Yorkshire pudding

I'm not posting about pancakes today. I know - bad blogger! We did have pancakes over the weekend, baked with a delicious savoury four cheese and spinach filling. Unfortunately they didn't look appetising in the dish, and when served looked slightly pre-digested.

But, in the spirit of getting behind the egg-and-milk-using-up nature of Shrove Tuesday, I thought I'd show you the progress I am making with Yorkshire puddings. This is to Felicity Cloake's recipe, and is definitely an improvement on the last time I made them! I think the dripping could have been a little hotter before I started. It did sizzle when the batter hit it, but only a little bit.

There is more work to be done! But these were not bad at all.


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