Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas things - salt cod, barley pudding, sprouts, chestnuts

I have done an encore in the New Statesman (where I used to write a food column): a piece about Christmas food. It includes a couple of recipes. The first is a brandade of salt cod (it's a rather luxurious way of eating something associated with asceticism on Christmas Eve); the second, an Armenian pudding consisting of sweetened pearl barley.

A brandade is a good deal easier to make now we have food processors. I had a culinary disaster when I tried to follow Richard Olney's recipe in his otherwise marvellous Simple French Food, beating the fish with olive oil in a saucepan over high heat. All that happened was that the flesh firmed up and fried.

Two further Christmas tips.


Perhaps one wants sprouts with the Christmas dinner simply to be steamed or boiled, and tossed in a little butter. But, if the rest of the meal were not so rich, I should recommend steaming (or boiling) them for just a couple of minutes, slicing them, and sauteing them in sunflower oil, with garlic. Stir in a little soy sauce at the end. Some people say that you should not cook them in water at all, but simply shred and fry them.


Peeling chestnuts is a bit fiddly, but manageable, and worth it - the flavour beats that of chestnut puree. Slit the shells with a knife, and drop the chestnuts in boiling water; turn off the heat, cover, and leave for five minutes. Remove the chestnuts and peel them one-by-one - they will not be impossible to handle. Yesterday, I stuffed some cabbage leaves with sausage meat mixed with chestnuts whizzed with a clove of garlic, and the grated zest of a lemon.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Crackling at high heat

My first entry on this blog, back in 2006, boasted about how I had achieved the perfect combination of tender belly pork and crisp crackling. I should have been mindful that cookery is like tennis or golf: claiming that you have perfected some technique is foolhardy, and likely to be punished. My record with crackling since then has been patchy.

Two recent Guardian recipes have offered conflicting advice. Yotam Ottolenghi's suggests cooking your pork belly at the highest oven temperature for an hour, before turning down the dial. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's, for shoulder of pork, tells you to wrap the meat in foil and to cook it slowly, before slicing off the crackling and crisping it at a high temperature. It is the Fearnley-Whittingstall method that has usually gone wrong for me: the crackling goes from rubbery to burned, without passing through an intermediate stage of crunchiness.

So I decided to try Ottolenghi's advice, though nervous of cooking meat at such a high temperature (and puzzled that he should surround it with liquid - surely the steam will compromise the crackling?) I had prepared the crackling by leaving out the pork, uncovered, for several hours before cooking; and by sprinkling it with salt, allowing it to sweat, and patting it dry with a paper towel.

My piece of pork was a kilo smaller than his, and was very brown on top after 45 minutes; that was when I turned down the dial, to gas mark 1/150C, and cooked the joint for a further hour and a quarter.

The crackling was not quite crisp. I sliced it off, and returned it to the oven (meanwhile resting the meat, which I covered in foil), at gas mark 7/220C, for another 30 minutes.

It worked very well. The belly pork, being a forgiving cut, remained tender in spite of the blasting; and the crackling was crisp. Perhaps it is the first phase of cooking that is crucial.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cannellini beans, onion, and harissa

Recipes usually tell you to drain and rinse tinned beans before cooking them; but that seems a bit fussy. You might as well warm them in their briny, slightly slimy liquid, and drain them when warm.

Last night, making a side dish to go with sausages, I gently fried an onion and a chopped clove of garlic in some olive oil and butter. Meanwhile, I warmed through a tin of cannellini beans in their liquid. When the onions were golden, I drained the beans, and stirred them into the onions with a tsp of harissa. (It's easier to warm the beans in liquid than to drain them first and then cook them, dry, with the onions.)

Nigella Lawson's idea, of adding lemon zest to the beans, is probably good. They need a vivid flavour to perk them up.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Cottage pie

As I have mentioned, I am not using much flour in my cooking at the moment. I find that it is quite possible - indeed, an improvement - to leave flour out of many recipes, including ones for which it is often considered indispensable. For example, in Shepherd's (or cottage) pie, in which it is supposed to help the sauce and mince cohere; as in a Bolognese, well-cooked vegetables (in this case, onions) and a slow reduction of the liquid do the job just as well. And the bonus is that you're dispensing with a flavour-deadening ingredient.

For 3 to 4.

200g pork mince
200g beef mince
2 medium onions, chopped
Sunflower oil, butter
2 bay leaves
150ml chicken stock (I used half a stock cube and water)
1tbsp tomato ketchup
Few shakes soy sauce
5 medium potatoes
35g butter

In a heavy pan, and over a gentle heat, fry the onions in just enough oil and butter to prevent their catching, stirring occasionally. Let them become golden brown. This may take 30 to 40 minutes.

The easiest way to brown the mince is to form it into patties (about eight), and to cook them on a hot grill pan for about a minute each side. Transfer to a bowl. Pour some of the stock into the pan, let it bubble and take up the sediments, and pour it into the bowl with the mince.

When the onions are ready, tip in the mince and juice, and add the bay, ketchup and soy. Bring to a very gentle simmer, breaking up the patties with a wooden spoon. Cook, uncovered, until the stew is thickened - moist, but not runny. Check the seasoning.

Meanwhile, peel the potatoes, cut them up (you could cut a medium potato into eight pieces), cover them with cold, lightly salted water, and simmer until soft. Drain, and allow them to dry, perhaps in the hot pan. Mash. If they seem too powdery, add a little warm milk (according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the Guardian recently, cold milk causes mash to turn gluey) - just enough to cause them to cohere.

Tip the mince into a warm oven dish. Spread the potato on top. Rather than mixing the potato with the butter, you can cut the butter into slivers and scatter it over the surface, to brown.

Cook at gas mark 6/200C for 30 minutes, or until brown on top.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Schama's Bolognese

Here is Simon Schama's article from the Guardian about the perfect Bolognese sauce. There are two questionable details: Schama tells you to add the wine after the stock, a procedure that might result in too winey a sauce; and he does not tell you whether to leave the pan covered or not. The Elizabeth David version, at the foot of the piece, tells you to cover the pan: I think that her sauce will be too runny. I like Marcella Hazan's, immediately below the Schama piece: you add milk, and let it evaporate; then wine, and let that evaporate; and then tomatoes, and let the sauce reduce again (with the pan uncovered all the while).

On Saturday, Hugh Feanley-Whittingstall's sauce, to be included in a lasagne, was similar to the Hazan version.