Wednesday 30 March 2016

Orecchiette with broccoli, proscuitto and cavolo nero

"My grandfather, who preferred bread dunked in wine - which he had regularly for breakfast until his eighty-eighth year, when he died prematurely of snakebite - sought to console me on such occasions by telling me what he had had to eat when he was a boy. The sermon was his version of the familiar one which has left grandchildren grumbling since the first grandfather mumbled it in his beard" - Angelo Pellegrini

Funny and ferociously opinionated, Pellegrini's 1948 book The Unprejudiced Palate is the current Cook the Books choice, picked by Simona. I read it and made a dish inspired by it in really good time, but I've had a blank blog post staring at me, trying to come up with something to say about it and now the deadline is tomorrow.

It's a curious book. It seems both to be extremely contemporary and from such an ancient past as to be completely alien. His writing is very dated, with a verbosity that most food writers wouldn't get away with now, but his concerns for eating fresh food, locally obtained and simply prepared are bang up to date. His bisection of humanity into civilised people and barbarians based on whether they ate macaroni salad would cause a twitter storm today that would only be eclipsed by his taste for eating songbirds.

I'm currently reading Judith Jones's memoir, The Tenth Muse, which has coincidentally been an excellent companion piece, providing an interesting background to Pellegrini's concerns. Her memories of the good but very plain and utterly garlicless food in her parents' house would have been startling to an immigrant from a different tradition. And her struggles to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to print suggest that Pellegrini's view of mid-century American housewives was not completely baseless. Many then, as now, found cooking stressful and unrewarding but without the options we have to not cook. The trends were towards labour saving and processed foods with a background of puritanism and a degree of shame in the idea of finding food pleasurable. Anathema to Pellegrini.

The recipes Pellegrini included were impenetrable to me. I just couldn't be bothered reading them carefully enough to make sense of them and actually attempt cooking them. And while his wine recipe was fascinating I don't think my landlord would tolerate me digging a basement big enough for the vat.

One thing that did stand out to me - which actually made me question all of his recipes - was his assertion that pasta needs to be cooked for about 20 minutes to be al dente. Now, maybe the pasta of his day was much thicker than we get now, but orecchiette is the only pasta I've ever had that can tolerate boiling for that long. So that was a start. And his love for bitter greens showed me the rest of the way. I sauteed tiny cubes of proscuitto with loads of garlic, shredded cavolo nero and chopped broccoli then cooked it slowly with a little chicken stock until the vegetables were soft. As much as I love a tender crisp vegetable, cavolo nero needs to be cooked to buggery to be palatable. I added some halved cherry tomatoes and let them just soften, and stirred it through the cooked orecchiette, with a little of the starchy cooking water to help the sauce emulsify. None of it was local produce, but it tasted good.

Saturday 26 March 2016

Apricot, ginger and coconut energy balls

I wouldn't usually be suggesting "energy" balls over Easter. Most of us have enough chocolate, hot cross buns and other sugary treats to keep us bouncing off the walls long after the bank holidays have passed. Tomorrow, however, I have 4 hours of dance workshops, and on Easter Monday we're going to Havergate Island to take pictures of birds and hares, so portable, sustaining snacks are on the agenda for this Easter.

These couldn't be simpler - and they let me use the mincer attachment for my stand mixer, which always makes me happy. If you have a robust food processor you could use that instead. The ginger is quite subtle. Add more if you want more heat.
Minced apricots and ginger
I used that American sweetened, moist shredded coconut, so everything clings together with its own tackiness. If you don't have access to that or are horrified (with reason) by the E-numbers in it, just use desiccated but you might need to add a bit of honey or something as glue.

Apricot, ginger and coconut energy balls (makes about 25)

300g soft dried apricots
20g crystallised ginger
100g sweetened shredded coconut
Desiccated coconut for coating

Mince together the apricots and ginger. Stir through the coconut. Roll into walnut-sized balls and toss through the desiccated coconut.

Thursday 3 March 2016

Cabbage leaves stuffed with pork and mushrooms

I'm really not sure why I was thinking of stuffed cabbage. I don't think I have seen or read anything about it recently, but it was on my mind, and it seemed like a warming sort of seasonal supper dish. Even though it's March and the days are getting longer, it's not really warming up yet!

There are lots of different ways to go about stuffing a cabbage. One of my mother's old cookbooks had a very impressive step by step guide to stuffing a whole cabbage - boiling, peeling back the leaves, painting each with forcemeat and reshaping before boiling again. Grand, but quite a lot more food than two people need. Forming each leaf into a little cigar around the stuffing seems to be the more common way. I took an approach inspired by Richard Turner's book Hog, making pork and stuffing parcels.

It looks and sounds quite time consuming but unless you have a really big family and are scaling up the recipe a lot it doesn't take too long. But it isn't a dish to start cooking when you get home late from work.

Stuffed cabbage leaves (makes 4 - 1 or 2 per serve depending on what is to precede, accompany or follow)
25ml brandy
5g dried porcini, broken into small pieces
12 savoy cabbage leaves
250g minced pork
1 egg
1 shallot, minced
Big handful of fresh breadcrumbs (maybe 1/2 cup)
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp paprika
Salt, pepper
olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
vermouth (optional)
salt & pepper (extra)
Sour cream (optional)

Pour the brandy over the mushrooms to soften.

Carefully break off 12 cabbage leaves, and make 4 piles of 3 leaves each, aiming for a big, medium and smaller leaf in each pile. I basically dealt them into the piles as I broke them off, so they naturally decreased in size as I went around.

Cut the chunkiest bit of the spine out of each leaf, but try not to tear them.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil, and using tongs, dunk each pile of cabbage leaves in the boiling water for 2 minutes until supple but not mushy and then drain in a colander.

Place the minced pork, egg, mushrooms (with any remaining brandy but trying to avoid any grit at the bottom of the bowl), shallot, breadcrumbs, thyme and paprika in a bowl and season well with salt and pepper. Combine well with your hands. Divide the mixture into 12 equal-sized portions.

Working with one pile of leaves at a time, wrap a ball of stuffing mixture in the smallest leaf of a pile, then spread another ball of stuffing onto the middling sized leaf and place the smallest, stuffed leaf on that. Then repeat for the largest leaf. Repeat for the other three piles of cabbage leaves.

Place, seam-side down in an oven proof dish that will hold the parcels snuggly.

In a sauté pan, warm a splash of olive oil gently and soften the garlic cloves in it. Before they burn, add a tin of chopped tomatoes. Swish the tin out with a slosh of vermouth or water and add to the pan. Season with a little salt and pepper and simmer until thick.

If you are going to cook the stuffed cabbage immediately, pour the tomato sauce on, cover the dish with foil and bake at 180C for an hour. If you are stuffing the cabbage ahead of time, don't pour the hot sauce onto the cold, raw meat... either cool the sauce completely before pouring it on, or make the sauce just before you intend to bake them.

After 45 minutes take off the foil, and allow the sauce to thicken for the final 15 minutes of cooking time. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. Mashed potatoes would be a good side dish.


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