Sunday food links – 9 October 2016

I have a suspicion that these will not be the last things I buy because my daughter suggested it #notsorry #yellow

This week has confirmed that October is the month where proper autumn turns up. My kitchen thoughts start to turn to slowly cooked tomato sauce, pasta bakes and risottos, apple cake and crumble. I should start thinking about making Christmas cake as well, although I’m not quite ready for that. I’m still clinging on, if not to summer, then to the warmth of early autumn, partly by buying yellow shoes…

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Beef stir fry with broccoli and runner beans
  • Butternut squash risotto
  • As promised last week, a vegetable tart using leftover olive oil pastry
  • And a bakewell tart traybake with Nigella’s butter biscuit dough as the base.
  • Meatballs from the freezer, with tomato sauce and pasta
  • Apple crumble, using the most damaged apples from our tree

Reading:

Finally finished The Essex Serpent – oof, it’s good. In fact, I’m quite tempted to go straight back to the start and read it again. So many brilliant turns of phrase. It has nuanced, human characters – men and women, and a way of writing sections that feel like they hover over the characters, telling you what everyone is doing at that moment in time, that felt very Under Milk Wood. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Victorian novel, go and seek it out now.

On a more practical note:

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Transforming Onions – raw, cooked, pickled and more

 

A brown onion

It’s taken me years to appreciate onions. I thought of them as just something to chop when you were making a stew or spag bol. Then they were for chicken stock – above all, good stock needs the flavour of alliums.

We made a five onion soup at culinary school, pale green with leeks, garlic, onions, spring onions and shallots, and thickened with potato – an exaggerated leek and potato soup, both sweet and savoury – and I started to appreciate the flavour of onions in their own right.

Over time I started to detect when onions were missing, to choose to add them in to keep things balanced. I learnt that I could tolerate raw onions if they were first soaked in vinegar, to remove some of the harshness. In the last couple of weeks I have added extra onions to recipes that didn’t call for them – a carrot filling for an Estonian pie and a Nigel Slater pilaf. An onion sweated in butter is a guarantee of savoury richness for both of these.

Sliced leeks

Onions, and all their brethren, are amazing and versatile ingredients. They have those pungent, tear-inducing chemicals in them that flood out when you cut into them, but when those dissipate, you also get a lot of sweetness and savoury flavour, which make them the most versatile vegetable you can have with you in the kitchen. If you’ve only ever used them when making soups or stews, or if you’re put off by raw onions (as I am), then you’ve got a treat in store.

Behind the recipes – why do we need onions?

Onions are sweet, sugary vegetables, disguised behind a sulphurous attack-force. Cutting or crushing an onion or garlic releases several sulphurous compounds, through the action of an enzyme, that make your eyes water and your breath smell. This process can be slowed down by chilling, the compounds can be washed away, or the enzyme can be deactivated through acid or through cooking. Once these sulphur compounds are out of the way, the sugars in the onion come through, and can create caramelisation with the right cooking. Not all of the onion family have the same compounds in them. The harshest, that cause your eyes to water, are found only in the onions, shallots, leeks and chives. Shallots, red onions, chives and spring onions are all milder in taste than yellow onions and garlic. Spring onions and leeks have more ‘green’ flavours, from the leaves.

Red onions

Ways to prepare onions

Here are some of the ways you can transform onions in the kitchen:

  • Raw – not my preference, although I like the Thomas Keller trick of pouring boiling water over them in a sieve to remove the harshest, oniony notes first.
  • Acidulated – not true pickling, just soaking the raw bits in some vinegar or lime juice keeps the crunch but leaches away some of the eye-watering compounds, making a much nicer salad onion. Bonus: soaking red onion slices in vinegar turns them all pink and lovely. I do this often to add to a Greek salad or a salsa for tacos.
  • Softened/sweated – for a stew or soup, you want to remove the harshest notes, and bring some sweetness, but not too much sugar. Translucency is what you want, and softness to help the flavours fade into the background and form the base flavours. Keep the heat low and stir fairly often. A good puddle of fat helps too.
  • Browned – not the same as caramelised, browned onions are cooked fast and hot, and are good for curries or making a tarka to go on top of dal. To get really nice crispy onions or shallots, good for garnishing Thai salads and many other things, slice very thinly, toss in a little rice flour, and fry in hot oil.
  • Caramelised – these such a useful thing to have around. Their extra sweetness gives a strong base to stand up to other strong flavours: the thick savoury flavour of beef stock in a proper onion soup; a strong cheese in a caramelised onion tart; a counter to the acid in a tomato sauce. Proper caramelisation takes *ages*. Allow 45 minutes to an hour to get them there, and you don’t need to add sugar. But make them in bulk and you can freeze in little portions. Momofuku’s David Chang, via Lucky Peach, has a good method for making them in a large frying pan. I like to use my slow cooker and leave them in there all day.
  • Baked – an underrated vegetable, and one I don’t often think of, is whole onions wrapped in bacon and baked, perhaps with a bit of cream. A brilliant accompaniment to roast chicken.

Roasted onions

  • Roasted – throw wedges around a roasting chicken or joint to create a delicious vegetable, and to massively improve the gravy made from the juices. I can’t remember where I got the idea, but I always roast beef on a layer of thick onion slices, protecting the juices from burning on the bottom during the initial sizzle, and creating deeply caramelised onions which make unbelievable gravy.
  • Pickled – I never think to buy commercial pickled onions – they are always too strong for me. But I have a favourite homemade version from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Their red onion pickles are a bit on the syrupy side, but delicious, and such a beautiful pink colour. Very good on a burger.

If you want a mild onion flavour, use spring onions, shallots or red onions. Or take some of the sting out of the onion by pouring hot water over the chopped onion, or by steeping briefly in vinegar (this works particularly well for sliced red onions, whose colour bleeds out to stain the whole slices fuschia-pink).

When you don’t have time to chop and sweat an onion, use spring onions, scissored into pieces if that’s easier for you than a knife. (And then practice your knife skills on onions when you get a chance – onions are cheap).

How to chop an onion

Chopping onions

First, top and tail the onion, and halve it from top to bottom. When peeling onions, if that outer brown layer will only come away in little shreds, take another layer off the onion. Life is too short, and onions are too cheap, to waste your time chipping off fragments of brown skin.

If you want little squares of onion, take each peeled half and slice in three different directions: start with horizontal slices, parallel to the chopping board. Then vertical slices from stem to root, almost but not quite cutting through. Finally, slice across to create squares.

Sliced red onion

For strips of onion (this is often my preferred cut, if only because it’s so quick to prepare), remove the root end in a wedge from each half. Slice the remainder of the half along the lines from stem to root, starting at an angle to the board, and gradually moving the knife around to be vertical. These slices separate more easily than half-moons cut across the onion, and are a good cut for starting a curry, a stew, or a soup that will be blended later.

Sunday food links – 8 May 2016

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Today is my gran’s 104th Birthday. Here she is, fourth from left, on a sunny holiday in Jersey with her sister. She says she felt ‘set free’. And here she is when she turned 100:

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It’s hard to remember how remarkable she is, as she’s still so much herself, the Gran I’ve always known her as. She had brothers who fought in the first World War (she was the youngest of nine). Her husband spent most of the second World War in India, while she brought up their son at home. Before she married, she helped run the office for the family business. She cajoled one of the employees into teaching her to drive on the firm van! She has seen the arrival of television, microwaves, video recorders, the internet. We often use FaceTime so that she can see Ellie playing and say hello. She still lives on her own (albeit with lots of support from my mum and dad), cooks a little for herself, and reads voraciously.

Where do you even start with celebrating a 104th birthday? It gets harder every year to think of presents. But what she really appreciates is seeing us all, so we all came down to Somerset to celebrate, with food and cake, and E insisted on adding balloons too. She’s pretty clear that birthdays are all about balloons. She also insisted in opening all her cards and presents on my Gran’s behalf – she’s helpful like that. It was lovely to spend time all together, and for her to see some more of E in person: she’s changing so fast at the moment. I hope she remembers her Granny May, but even if she doesn’t we will have so many stories to tell her.

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Supermarket pizza
  • Oven fish and chips
  • Steak sandwiches, with chutney and cornichons
  • Pasta with beef ragu, roasted tomatoes
  • Baked chicken with fennel, lemon, garlic and potatoes

Reading:

 

Friday food links – 18 March 2016

Following Tamar Adler's advice and doing a batch of veg roasting and sautéing. Very satisfying.

I recently started reading Tamar Adler’s Everlasting Meal. If you’ve seen her extracts in the Guardian Cook supplement, you’ll have an idea of her tone. The language can feel a bit unexpected for food writing, but I think her ambition to imitate the approach of MFK Fisher is at least partly successful (and that’s a high bar). Among the digressions, there is a lot of practical advice.

This week, when the veg box arrived on Tuesday, I followed her advice to do a big batch of preparation all at once. So I roasted a butternut squash and a leftover sweet potato with a little chilli. I sliced and roasted a lurking fennel bulb. And I sliced and roasted cherry tomatoes, leaving them in with the oven turned off to get all ‘sunblush’ texture. Then I shredded the huge heap of cavolo nero and cooked it slowly on the stove with a little onion. This all made it easier to stick extra vegetables on the table this week.

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • No-knead bread
  • Fish pie – with prepared ahead roast squash and garlicky sautéed leftover broccoli

Reading:

Life-changing pasta advice

Did as I was told with the pasta tonight, following @rachelaliceroddy instructions on all the ways to get it wrong.

Advice on pasta? Really? It’s not that hard. No, it’s not, and really, I’m quite happy with the pasta I already make. Well, everyone eats it, don’t they? And what could I be missing? I know how to boil water, add salt, taste it to see if it’s cooked. What could a cookbook possibly teach me about cooking pasta?

I was browsing through Rachel Roddy’s excellent Roman cookbook ‘Five Quarters’, one of my Christmas books, and came across the inevitable chapter on pasta. Just as I was considering, as I often do, why I don’t make fresh pasta that often, and trying to remember where in the kitchen the pasta maker will clamp to the counter, I saw a page about cooking pasta where she confesses that her husband thought she was making pasta all wrong, and insisted on giving her some pointers.
I thought I knew what I was talking about when it came to pasta, at least as much as the next non-Italian, but then so did she. So I paused to read the directions, and then I put them straight to work.

The advice she repeats is likely things you have heard before, but I think it makes a real difference to actually follow them. So for once I weighed out the pasta, (200g for the two of us) and then measured the water into the pan (2 litres, using the marks on the inside of the pan) and then weighed out the salt (20g). That’s quite a lot more salt than I was expecting. I know that the water is supposed to be well seasoned, but somehow I was never tempted to take a sip of the rapidly boiling water, and made do with a generous shake of the Saxa. I turned out to have the amount of water about right, but needed probably twice as much salt – about a tablespoon for a two litre pan of water.

Then I cooked the pasta until the chalky centre had gone (go any further and my husband can’t tolerate it – something I attribute to his being taught to like pasta by a Roman). I saved a ramekin of pasta water – something I do sometimes, but not consistently. I warmed serving bowls and a large bowl, to mix the pasta in. I added grated parmesan to the pasta first, followed by the ragu, and a dribble of pasta water. Then I tossed the whole thing together and served it.

I find it hard to dislike pasta with homemade ragu, but I do think that this one had a more rounded flavour, and was better for following these directions.

Even when you think you know all there is to know about even simple cooking directions, someone can persuade you to think again, and bring something new to the party.

Starting as I mean to go on with @rachelaliceroddy 's broccoli pasta. Lick-the-bowl-clean good.

Why does this advice work?

When you cook dried pasta, water is absorbed into the pasta and swells and softens the starch. At the same time, some of the surface starch lifts off and dissolves into the water. When you boil pasta in too little water, it takes a long time to come back to the boil (as the cold pasta drops the temperature of the water a long way), and the concentration of the starch in the water is quite high. The starch isn’t really a problem: after all, restaurant kitchens reuse their pasta water for many servings of pasta at a time. But the real problem is that the pasta doesn’t have enough room to move about and can start to stick together in the pan as it cooks. This can mean it cooks unevenly.

Undersalting often makes the difference between good restaurant food and home cooking. It’s easy to assume that a recipe isn’t good, or that something is just a bit underwhelming, when a bit of salt can make all the difference. Because the pasta absorbs a lot of water, properly salting the water allows the pasta itself to be seasoned well, and tossing it with parmesan before the sauce also helps this process. When each bite of pasta is salted well, the taste is very different.

Finally, much has been written about using pasta water in the sauce. The starch left in the water helps add some gloss to the sauce. The extra liquid dilutes the sauce a little and helps it to cling to every groove and ridge on the pasta, something that’s particularly important when you’re using good pasta, made with bronze dies so it has a good craggy edge to it.

Finally, Harold McGee has tried breaking all the rules and cooking pasta in too little cold water – it sort-of works, but is not approved by Italian cooks!

Are recipe boxes the answer to easy weeknight cooking?

“Quick cooking rarely comes from a recipe so much as it does from intuition built over the course of hours and hours mucking around in a kitchen.”

Elizabeth G Dunn, ‘The Myth of Easy Cooking’, The Atlantic, Nov 2015

Last year, a piece appeared in the Atlantic called ‘The Myth of Easy Cooking‘. I recognised a lot of the emotions in the article, and the idea that ‘easy’ recipes are often anything but. It was thinking about how to make weeknight meals easier and yet more interesting that led me to try out ‘Hello Fresh’ a couple of weeks ago.

I have been curious about this model of cooking for a while. Some time back, I tried out the Riverford recipe boxes, which are based on a similar idea: deliver recipes, along with all the ingredients to cook them, in the exact sizes needed, so there is no wasted food. Hello Fresh have been conducting a very intensive marketing campaign, so that I can’t seem to open a magazine, a parcel, a newspaper or a browser tab without seeing a promotion from them. Finally, I succumbed and redeemed one of their vouchers to see what it was all about.

The three recipes I chose for this week (with their Classic box, you can choose three from five recipes – the others have no choice, but you can change boxes or pause a box) were Firecracker prawns with chinese leaf, butterflied chicken with leeks and feta, and a Jamie Oliver recipe for stir-fried steak with broccoli and noodles.

My experience with the recipes themselves was not bad. The cooking times given were generally accurate, and the results were mostly good, although not that interesting. It was useful to have things like chili bean paste premeasured and in a small portion, when normally that’s the sort of thing that ends up with yet another jar taking up space in the fridge.

However, far from making cooking easier, I feel like these sorts of meals are more effort than I normally make on a weeknight. They generally involved 25-30 minutes of continuous cooking. I think that if you bought these as a novice cook, and followed along, it might give you confidence that you could follow other recipes. But it also might give the impression that an ‘easy’ evening meal should involve 25 minutes of non-stop work. And I don’t think that’s fair.

Most of my evening meals require much less intensive effort than that. Perhaps it’s the same amount of preparation and cooking time, but with long periods of things being left unattended in the slow cooker or the oven.

I don’t think that cooking has to be this hard. As a way of trying out new ingredients and cuisines, without having to invest in lots of new bottles and jars, it seems like a good approach. But for someone who cooks fairly regularly, this just makes my dinner preparation more frantic, not less, and gives me lots of individually portioned things that I generally already have in the kitchen.

So if recipe boxes might not be the answer, what are some other strategies for weeknight meals?

Batch cooking at the weekends

Dinner tonight: meatballs, rice and spring greens. I've been thinking about what 'easy' weeknight cooking looks like. This fits the bill for me: meatballs made last night and finished in the oven this evening. A microwave pack of brown rice. Spring greens

There is no shortage of advice on this tactic, especially from American food blogs, where giant freezers seem to invite this sort of approach. Take a look at pinterest, and you will see lots of examples of recipes you can make in advance. More generally, this approach works well for any soups, stews and pasta sauces, especially those that you can dress up in different ways with different side dishes and accompaniments. I tend to find a degree of boredom sets in if I stash too much of the same thing away, making me reluctant to get it back out again. What does work well is to freeze curry, bolognese, meatballs and soup.

Weekly ingredients prep

Lunch prep

This is what Tracy at Shutterbean calls ‘meal prep’. Not quite preparing all the meals, but doing a lot of the chopping, cooking some grains or pulses, and boxing up snacks and salads for the week ahead. This gives a lot more flexibility than traditional meal planning, and boxing up snacks is a good move for kids. Some things that are easy to prepare in advance in this way: burrito bowls, big salads, soup and roasted vegetables.

Slow Cooker

White chili from the slow cooker ready for dinner - both baby's and ours.

The thing about slow cooker food is that it doesn’t often look pretty…

When I bought my slow cooker, I thought there was a risk it wouldn’t earn its place on the worktop. I am very happy to have been proved wrong here. It is invaluable for hands-off cooking, and the ability to have hot food ready as soon as I get in from picking up E at nursery is brilliant. Things that work best are large pieces of slow-cooking meat: pork shoulder, beef shin – and pulses. I’ve found it’s not necessary to brown things in advance in most cases. Depending on the amount of liquid you add, you can get some browning in the pot, and things like mince or bolognese don’t seem to suffer much from not having the meat browned, especially if you use pre-caramelised onions (which can also be prepared in the slow cooker!). I do sometimes chop onions, and get out ingredients the night before, to minimise the time needed in the morning. Even having a few cans and tins set out on the chopping board can remind me of what I need to do before leaving the house.

Tray bakes

 https://flic.kr/p/DgGf8o

You don’t have to do a lot of preparation in advance to cook a hands-off dinner. One easy strategy is to put everything onto a large baking tray and cook it all together in the oven. Start with the protein if you’re using meat – a couple of chicken breasts or thighs, maybe sausages. Then add vegetables, tossed with some oil and vinegar and seasoning. Add leafy vegetables towards the end, and fish or prawns will just take a short time. Some variations on this theme: broccoli and prawns; fish and sliced potatoes; chicken with potatoes, rocket and yoghurt sauce; sweet roasted courgettes with crispy chickpeas.

One pan pasta

Starting as I mean to go on with @rachelaliceroddy 's broccoli pasta. Lick-the-bowl-clean good.

By the same token, you can cook vegetables and pasta in the same water and drain it all together. This works spectacularly well with broccoli, but you can also use an absorption method of cooking to put all the pasta sauce ingredients into a pan with the pasta and just enough water to cook it, and heat the whole thing until the water is absorbed and the pasta cooked through. This requires more attention than the other methods, as you need to keep stirring as the water reduces, to stop it sticking. Martha Stewart’s One Pan Pasta is the most famous/pinned version. Food52 have a range of variations, as well as the story behind the Martha Stewart version.

 

Braising a blade roast of beef

Beef into the liquid

I like to braise a big piece of meat at the weekends. The smell of braising meat makes the kitchen a welcoming place to hang out, and it generates the sort of leftovers that can be very easily turned into quick after-work meals.

I love Jenny Rosenstrach’s Pork Shoulder Ragu, but this weekend I decided to do beef for a change. I asked the butcher for brisket, but they suggested it was probably too fatty for braising and proposed blade instead. And that was a great suggestion. (I bought my blade roast from the superb HG Walter in Barons Court – just the sort of place that will give you helpful advice about a good cut for braising.)

The blade roast – although I wasn’t sure when I bought it – is a cut from the shoulder. You will sometimes see beef braising meat as ‘chuck and blade’ – chuck being the other part of the shoulder. The really distinctive thing about the blade, also called the feather blade, is a central vein of connective tissue, from which radiates veins of fat, looking like a feather running through the centre of the meat. You can cut either side of this tough central vein to create flatiron steaks, or cut across for feather blade steaks. I didn’t take a picture of the meat before I started cooking, but you can see photos of what the blade steaks look like here.

Or you can do as I did, and as advised by the many, many website recipes I visited on the way home, and pot roast it until that central vein dissolves into unctuous jelly.

(I particularly liked the look of Molly Steven’s recipe for beef braised in Zinfandel).

The braising liquid could have been wine, or just stock, but I chose a dark ale – a Bath Ale stout – along with beef stock. I could also have added tomatoes to the sauce to create a more pasta-like ragu in the end, but wanted to keep the flavours cleaner, and didn’t think that the bitter of the stout plus the acid of the tomatoes would work well together.

For the stock, I used a puck of concentrated beef stock from the freezer, that I’d made when I bought beef bones last, and added to it the concentrated chicken stock that was leftover in the fridge.

Lastly, I made a couple of short videos of some the key steps – it’s a bit of an experiment.

http://cinemagr.am/show/122493631

Braised blade of beef

  • 1 blade roast of beef (or other beef shoulder joint), about 1.8kg
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
  • 1 leek, washed, halved lengthwise and chopped into thick slices
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • (a stick of celery, chopped, if you have it)
  • 500ml dark ale or stout
  • 500ml beef stock
  • about 1 tsp each of thyme, rosemary and sage
  • 2 bay leaves

Tie up the beef – putting three strings around it to keep it neat and together, make it easier to turn while browning, and help it to fit into the pot. Then sprinkle with coarse salt to get a good bit of seasoning.

Heat a casserole dish big enough to take the beef – I used my 7 litre oval Le Creuset – and add a few teaspoons of olive oil. I didn’t add much more, as the beef already had a cap of fat on the top of the meat. Place the beef (fat side down) into the hot pot and let it sit and brown in the pot while you prepare the veg. You want to leave it for at least three or four minutes on a high heat for each side, to make sure you get a good brown crust. That will create lots of flavour in the final dish.

Browning the beef

Meanwhile prepare the vegetables, and gather the herbs, pausing to check the meat every now and then. These are all stock vegetables, there to flavour the braising liquid and to provide a trivet to keep the beef off the bottom of the pot. Once the cooking is done, most of the flavour will have come out and into the liquid, so the veg can be discarded. So don’t spend too long getting the pieces neat and pretty.

Chopped vegetables and stout

Once everything is browned nicely, the beef comes out onto a plate, and the veg go into the pot and start to soften.

Showing the blade

As the water comes out of the veg, it will, along with some judicious scraping, start to dissolve the sticky meaty juices on the bottom of the pot that are crucial to the flavour. After stirring veg around a little, put the lid on the pot for a few minutes to encourage more of the juices from the vegetables and to make sure that all of the sticky meat lifts from the base of the pot. (Giving the vegetables time to soften and cook a little in the fat has another benefit – it produces different flavours than you create by submerging the veg directly into the liquid. It allows sugars and other compounds to be generated in the high-heat possible by cooking in a little fat. As soon as we add the liquid, the maximum temperature will drop right down to 100C or thereabouts.)

Once you’ve developed lots of good flavours on the beef and the vegetables, it’s time to add the liquid and the rest of the flavours. First, add the stout or ale to the vegetables, stir to get up any last sticky parts, and then simmer until it’s reduced by about a third. This boils off a bit of the alcohol, and concentrates the flavours a bit.

Add the beef back to the pot, along with any juices from the plate, and finally add in the herbs and the stock, and a good bit of seasoning (if your stock wasn’t seasoned, you’ll probably need at least a couple of teaspoons of salt – taste to check).

Cover the pot with greaseproof paper (which helps to seal the pot and also makes it easier to clean up the lid afterwards!) and put into a 140C oven for 4 hours. After 30 minutes to an hour, check on the dish, and if it’s bubbling very rapidly, turn it down another 10 degrees. When done, the meat should pull apart with a fork.

After braising

Remove from the oven and leave to cool for an hour or so in the liquid. This allows the meat to rest and reabsorb some of the juices. Remove the meat into a dish to be carved. Strain the liquid to remove the vegetables and herbs, and skim off the fat (I like to use a fat-separating jug for this. Reheat the liquid and taste for seasoning. Serve thick slices of the braised meat with the strained braising liquid.

Shreds falling apart

Bonus leftovers tip: Reheat chunks of the cold meat with a couple of spoonfuls of the braising liquid (which will form a jelly in the fridge) and a splash of tomato sauce for an almost-instant beef ragu sauce for pasta.

Stock that’s clear

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It’s very seldom that you achieve the platonic ideal of stock. There is an idea of a clear, golden liquid that conveys many layered savoury depths, and brings a touch of magic wherever you use it,

Reams of cookery writers have written hymns to the power of stock. Anyone trained in the traditions of French cooking, from Joel Robuchon to Michael Ruhlman, will have learnt all about stock as the absolute foundation of French cuisine, the essential component of all meat cookery at least. But even home cooks like Nigella Lawson are converts to this idea.

I fall somewhere in between. I hate food waste, so the idea of extracting every last drop of flavour and nourishment from a chicken carcass really appeals to me. I follow Nigella’s suggestion of freezing chicken bones, and when I have two or three chickens worth, I put them all in a large pot of cold water, bring it to the boil, simmer for about an hour and a half, then add chopped onions, carrots, a stick or two of celery, a few peppercorns and bits of thyme and parsley if I have them around, and simmer for a further hour.

What this produces is fairly flavourful and good for soups and risottos. But it’s not what you think of as beautiful stock – the clear, golden liquid you might see in a consomme or tortellini in brodo.

I know that you should keep stock bubbling very slowly, but the importance of how slow this should be didn’t really sink in until I made ham stock for Heston’s pea and ham soup, using the recipe in Heston Blumenthal at Home. The recipe suggests that you cover the ham with water, add onions, carrots and leeks, bring to a simmer, then place in an 85C oven for 5 hours. This very slow, long cooking produces a liquid that stays well below boiling for the entire duration but still extracts deep flavours.

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When I took the ham out of the oven after this 5 hour stint, the liquid was so clear I could see all the way to the bottom of the pot. It helped that, to ensure the gammon wasn’t too salty, I had brought it to the boil, poured the water away, and then cover it with fresh water to make the stock. This helped remove the scum and bits of floating protein that will always accumulate when you boil raw meat.

A few days later, I rescued the bones from two especially fat pheasants we ate pot-roasted for New Year’s Eve from the freezer, and made stock from them. After the ham experience, I took the lid off, and after bringing it to the boil, kept the heat as low as possible. You can see the cooking in the (rather noisy) video below. It was barely possible to see a single bubble over the course of a minute. The reward for this was a beautiful, clear golden stock. I think this calls for a risotto.

Using stock

To really show off your stock, make risotto – this really captures the flavour you’ve painstakingly brought in. It also makes great soups (although water will almost always do, especially for vegetable soups), provides liquid for curries, gravy, bolognese sauces. If you’re going to make stock regularly (and if you eat roast chicken, it’s not difficult), don’t be precious about it. Use it whenever you see the opportunity. It’s silly to wait for a perfect risotto to use your stock, when you could use it to improve things, even just a little, throughout the week.

Making good stock

  • You don’t need the very best ingredients, but neither should you use only compost materials. Make sure the vegetables are clean, and that most of the skin and fat have been removed from the bones.
  • Stock is all about long and slow. Doing this in the oven is easier, but requires you to have an ovenproof pot with a lid big enough to make this work. Chicken bones want at least two hours, preferably three.
  • Either keep the vegetables in large pieces, and add them at the start, or chop them into chunks and add to the pot with an hour to go.
  • Strain through a fine sieve, or layer of damp cheesecloth to remove any particles. This also means you can add herbs and peppercorns straight to the pot without tieing them into a bundle.
  • Don’t season your stock. You might want to reduce it, so only add salt when you use the stock, not when you make it.
  • Reducing the stock will concentrate the flavour and make it easier to store. After you have strained it, pour back into a clean pot and boil fast to drive off water.
  • Stock freezes really well – it’s the best way to store it. Use either strong freezer bags, or rigid takeaway soup containers. With freezer bags, you can easily get small holes once the bag is frozen, so be sure to defrost it in a container, in case the bag leaks.

Using miso

Shiro miso

Miso is a fermented paste that is an essential part of Japanese cooking, but has also started to show up in recipes for everything from roast pork to soup to butterscotch sauce. I started reading about miso, and then picked up the bag of shiro (white) miso in the picture from The Japan Centre.  If you’ve had miso soup from somewhere like Wagamama, or even Pret, you have an idea of the sort of savoury flavour that comes from miso.

Making miso

While reading up about soy sauce, I came across this interesting idea:

“soy sauce and miso paste were originally the same
preparation, but the liquid became soy sauce, and the solids
left behind became miso”

Miso and soy sauce are both produced by fermentation. Miso can be produced by many different grains, but the most popular types are produced by soybeans with rice and/or barley, and some rice colonised by an Aspergillus fungus, called Koji.

Miso is has both savoury and sweet aspects. Both of these elements come about because the fermentation creates enzymes that break down both the starches and proteins in the soy and rice grains. Breaking down starch produces sugars, (starch is just the name for a long chain of sugar molecules joined together). Breaking down proteins produces amino acids for the same reason. Glutamate is the amino acid which creates the taste of umami.

Cooking with miso

Shiro miso paste

As I read more and more about miso, it became clear that there are a huge number of different types of miso, all with different characteristics. Still, the ones you are most likely to find easily in the UK are shiro miso, or white miso – a pale, fairly sweet miso; and aka miso or red miso, a more savoury and stronger paste. Both of these can be used to make miso soup, by combining them with dashi, a savoury stock made from dried kelp and dried bonito (tuna) flakes.

However, the sweet-savoury nature of miso makes it much more versatile. The current issue of Lucky Peach, an American food quarterly, includes a recipe for burnt miso butterscotch sauce and for miso mayonnaise. (You have to love a magazine that entitles an article on different types of miso paste ‘Miso Horny’. And if you don’t love that, then Lucky Peach is probably not the publication for you.)

You can use it to enhance the flavour of soup, to glaze steak or pork, to marinade salmon, or in salad dressing. It’s a flavour enhancer, which makes it very versatile. I’ll be trying to use more of it this year.

The recipe I started with was Smitten Kitchen’s Carrot and Miso soup. You can head over to her site for the details, but a summary of what I did is below. This is a great way to introduce yourself to miso. The carrot soup is fine without the miso, but with it you get a rounder flavour that brings together the sweet and vegetal tastes of the carrots.

Carrot and miso soup

Carrot and miso soup

  • Chop two small onions, a couple of garlic cloves and about 10 medium carrots.
  • Cook gently in olive oil until the onion is translucent.
  • Add a thumb-sized piece of ginger, chopped finely. Submerge everything in about a litre of Marigold vegetable bouillon (made weak so it’s not too salty). Simmer until the carrots are soft.
  • Blend in the pan with an immersion blender.
  • Take a ladleful of the pureed soup out into a small bowl, and mix in a couple of tablespoons of white miso. As soon as you mix the miso with the hot soup, you get a burst of that miso soup smell. Mix the soup back in and taste. If it needs more miso, repeat this procedure.
  • Serve with a few dots of toasted sesame oil on top.

Eating the soup

Fresh Spring Rolls

from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey

Fresh spring rolls

I first came across fresh spring rolls, also known as summer rolls, at a Vietnamese restaurant in Palo Alto. I’d eaten fried Chinese spring rolls many times, so ordered them thinking I would be familiar with them. But what arrived was a very different thing. These were light and springy, full of fresh mint and basil, and came with a thin, sharp dipping sauce instead of a gloopy sweet one. I was very excited when we covered Vietnamese cuisine briefly at cooking school, and I got to make some of these spring rolls. It was then that I discovered how hard they can be to get right. Like rolling burritos, there is a lot of practice needed to get the rolls tight enough to hold together.

Since then, I haven’t often had the chance to taste them. But when I started marking up Rick Stein’s book Far Eastern Odyssey to decide which recipes I would make, this was a must-have. Spring rolls aren’t an everyday dish, but you can prepare most of the ingredients in advance, and then assemble them with a little help in a few minutes. And as they are served cold, this is a really useful, fresh starter or canape to have on hand.

Making spring rolls, like making your own pizzas, is a production line job. You need to prepare all the ingredients ahead, and lots of chopping and slicing needs to be done. This means it makes more sense to make them for a crowd than just for yourself. It probably took me about an hour to put together 8 spring rolls for myself, but I could have made three times as many with just a little more time. Once you have all the pieces prepared, actually making and filling the rolls is fairly quick. This also means that having helpers to do some of the preparation would make things much easier too. You can see (just) in the photo below, my setup for making the rolls:

Set up for making spring rolls

The critical ingredients for fresh spring rolls are:
– rice paper wrappers
– fine rice noodles or mung bean (glass) noodles, briefly boiled or soaked in hot water (according to the packet instructions), then drained and rinsed with cold water.
– herbs – traditionally mint, thai basil and garlic chives. I used mint leaves, Italian basil and spring onions. The spring onions were sliced thin to go into the roll, but the herbs were left whole or in large pieces, to make the rolls more attractive. As rice paper wrappers are so thin, you can see through them, so the layout of the contents affects the appearance.
– vegetables – I used carrot, cucumber and lettuce, but beansprouts are often added. All these were chopped into long, thin strips. The lettuce was torn into small pieces.

Lettuce and pork for spring rolls

– cooked protein – in this case, cooked prawns, and cooked pork. I simmered some slices of belly pork in salted water, then left them to cool, removed the skin and surface fat, and sliced them thinly. The prawns were steamed and then cooled, and sliced in half.

Mint, basil, spring onions

The rice paper wrappers are very thin, and usually have marks on them a little like galvanised drain covers, from the bamboo mats that they dry on. They need to be soaked for about a minute in cold water until they become just pliable.

Then you can pile on just a little of all of the ingredients, starting with the prawns and herbs face down, to give an attractive appearance. Add the other ingredients on top, and roll it up, tucking in the sides to hold everything together. As the rice paper wrapper is slightly springy, you can stretch it a little around the filling, and that will help to hold the roll tight. It will take a bit of practice to get the right tension, so that you stretch but don’t break the wrapper. Some of these are neater than others, but you can see where the prawns show through.

Fresh spring roll

Vietnamese spring rolls are served with a dipping sauce common in Vietnamese cooking, nuoc cham. This is made of fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and chopped chilli, ginger and garlic: all the essential Vietnamese flavours in one sauce. Vietnamese food is all about balancing the key flavours of salty, sour, hot and sweet. The fish sauce is salty, the lime juice sour, the sugar balances with sweetness, and the chilli and ginger provide heat (although very little in this dish). Make sure you dip in a little lettuce and taste the dipping sauce – you want it to taste balanced to you, so adjust the quantities if you think it is too salty, sour or sweet.

Fresh spring rolls