Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nigella's fries

You may have seen, in the first episode of Nigellissima! on Monday night (24 September), that Nigella Lawson cooked her chips by immersing them in cold oil, and then heating them. It seems eccentric, but really is based on the same theory that informs the double- and triple-cooking methods: boiling the chips first in moderately hot oil or water, before browning them at high heat.

I usually adopt a method half way between single- and double-cooking: starting the potatoes in moderately hot oil, and then simply turning up the heat. It works fine. Would Nigella’s method – I have met her a few times, but somehow wouldn’t feel presumptuous in using her first name even if I hadn’t, as one doesn’t with Delia or Jamie – work just as well? Or would it work only for the waxy potatoes she specifies at the BBC website, and not for the Maris Pipers I used?

I didn’t bother about chopping off the rounded ends of the potatoes. I sliced them horizontally – they were of medium size – before chipping them, and placing them in a pan of sunflower oil. I put the pan on a back, medium ring of my hob, and set the flame at medium to high.

Perhaps because I was cooking only a single, albeit generous, portion, I found that the oil was soon bubbling. At this point, I lost my nerve, and turned down the flame to low for about seven minutes, to allow the potatoes to cook through. Then I turned up the flame again, to brown them. I stirred them, carefully, from time to time. The entire process took about 20 minutes.

In the end, this technique differed only slightly from my usual one. It works so well that I would never be tempted to go through the much more laborious triple method, for what could be, at best, only a marginal improvement.

Nigella’s Tuscan fries

Sceptical Cook: Chips

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bacon hock 2

I see from my previous post on this subject that I recommended simmering bacon hock in a heavy, uncovered pan, so that only a bubble or two rose to the surface of the liquid. The theory is that this sub-boiling temperature is quite sufficient to tenderise the meat, whereas a faster boil might dry it out.

That is the theory. But yesterday, I simmered a bacon hock for two hours in water that showed scarcely any activity, and discovered when it was on the plate that it was not as tender as I had hoped. I suspect that, despite the science, a covered pan would have produced a more pleasing result.

I covered the hock with several cms to spare, so that I could ladle off some of the liquid for cooking lentils. I had soaked the lentils (Puy; 100g, for 2) for two hours – they cook more readily after this treatment, I find. I barely covered them with the stock, and simmered them, with an unpeeled garlic clove, in a covered pan, topping up the liquid when they threatened to dry out. Meanwhile, I softened an onion with a clove of chopped garlic in olive oil. When the lentils were soft (after about 30 minutes), I tipped them on to the onion, allowing them to simmer further until there remained just enough liquid to moisten them. I squeezed the garlic from its skin, and stirred it in. Because of the saltiness of the bacon, the lentils needed only a little salt, but benefited from several grindings of pepper.

Bacon hock

Friday, September 14, 2012

Brining pork chops

In my last entry, I wrote about my unsatisfactory experiment with brining chicken. But I have had much more joy from brining pork chops.

This time, I took my advice from Matthew Fort, who in turn was indebted to Heston Blumenthal in recommending a 5% solution. My brine consisted of 1 litre of water, 50g table salt, 25g caster sugar, and about 10 black peppercorns and 10 juniper berries, the latter lightly crushed. I put three chops in an oven dish, poured over the brine, covered the dish with cling film, and refrigerated it for 4 hours.

My mistake was to fail to dry the chops thoroughly. I put my heavy, shallow oven dish over a medium heat on the hob, waited for it to get hot, poured in a little sunflower oil, and fried the chops. But because of their moisture, they failed to brown. So I had to turn up the heat to maximum. The result was that there were lots of charred patches on the dish by the time the chops were browned. So I had to clean the pan before making the sauce, sacrificing a good deal of flavoursome material.

I put the chops in a low oven while I softened four sliced shallots, along with four bashed cloves of garlic (to flavour the sauce, rather than to be eaten with it), in a little butter. Then I added a tbsp of white wine vinegar, boiled it hard to evaporate it, and poured in 150ml of chicken stock, boiling it until it thickened slightly. Last, away from the heat, I stirred in a knob of butter.

Pork chops are so often dry and tough. These were tender and delicious.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Brining chicken revisited

One of the most visited posts on this blog is Heston’s Roast Chicken (link below). In it, I express scepticism about the process of brining a chicken before roasting it. But some cooks continue to swear by brining, both for chicken and - as popularised by Nigella Lawson - turkey.

When I came across “Perfect roast chicken” in America’s Test Kitchen (a book I introduced in the previous post, on Skillet lasagne), I decided to give the method another go - particularly because this brining lasts for just one hour. It produces “maximum juiciness and well-seasoned meat”, the Test Kitchen authors assert.

The brine recipe (translated from US measurements) is: 4 litres of water; 150g salt; 100g caster sugar. Some writers instruct you to boil the mixture, allowing it to cool before dunking the meat; but you should find that table salt will dissolve readily in cold water.

Submerge the chicken in the brine in a non-reactive container. After an hour, remove the chicken, pat it dry with paper towels, rub the chicken with a little oil, and insert some butter between the skin and the breast.

The book advises you to cook the chicken at 200C/gas mark 6, turning it several times. I prefer to start at this temperature, and to dial it down to 170C/gas mark 3, or lower (depending on progress), after 30 minutes. I also ignored the advice about turning the chicken, because I usually find that this causes the skin to tear.

I remain a sceptic. The breast meat of a brined chicken may be moister, but it seems to me to have a consistency that evokes blotting paper. If the only alternative is dry and tough, I’d still prefer it.

Pork chops, though, are another matter. I’ll write about them next week.

Heston's roast chicken

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Skillet lasagne

As the title, and indeed the entire concept suggests, this is an American recipe. It comes from The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, accompanying a show that, having been through 12 seasons, has spawned a tie-in that weighs 28 kilos. It is quite American, with a Stepford Wives-ish flavour and chapter headings such as “Who wants pasta?”, “The Flair of the French”, and “It’s grill time!”, but it has lots of valuable advice on why the recipes work, and on what methods the team discarded before coming up with their final versions. I may become slightly obsessed with it.

My recipe is an adaptation, in part because I was cooking for a different number of people.

The only ricotta in my corner shop was Cypriot, and turned out to be quite unlike the real thing: as you can see in the picture above, slices of it remained intact when warmed.

Serves 3 to 4

Olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
Dried chillis to taste, finely chopped (in a coffee grinder or small electric mill)
200g minced beef
200g minced pork

1 bay leaf
300g lasagne sheets (the variety that does not need pre-cooking)
500g carton passata
Water or stock
200g ricotta
4tbsp Parmesan, grated

Warm a tbsp or 2 of olive oil over a low to medium heat in a 28cm frying pan, if you have one with a lid. (I used a shallow casserole dish.) Throw in the onion, garlic, and chillis (if using), and cook, stirring, until softened – about five minutes. Regulate the heat, and/or add more oil, if the onion threatens to catch.

Add the pork and beef mince, along with salt to taste and the bay leaf, and continue to cook until the meat is broken up and is no longer pink. (The book does not suggest that you need to brown the mince, and is in line with other recipes in giving this advice – see previous entries on Bolognese and moussaka.)

Turn the heat to its lowest. Break each lasagne sheet into four or five pieces, and lay the pieces on top of the meat. Pour over the passata, along with enough water or stock to cover the lasagne pieces.

Turn up the flame slightly to bring the contents of the pan to a simmer, then turn it down again, and put on the lid.

Stir the meat and lasagne mixture after five minutes. Try to separate the lasagne pieces, which may stick together. Put the lid back on, but keep stirring the dish regularly.

This kind of lasagne absorbs a good deal of liquid. You may find that you have to add more water or stock, particularly because the thickened mixture may threaten to stick to the pan.

The lasagne should be tender after 20 to 25 minutes. Take it off the heat, and stir in 2tbsp of Parmesan. Dot the surface with dollops of ricotta, cover again, and leave to stand for five minutes.

Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan, and serve.

I missed the b├ęchamel. But this version was very nice in its own right.

Browning mince