Five New Things

I was going to do another dishes of the year post (it is Listmas, after all), but looking back at last year’s I realise that I haven’t eaten anything like as well. Apart from St John’s bone marrow, mullet at Lyle’s, smoked pork fillet at Morito, sausage and radicchio in Naples, snail-and-trotter-stuffed potato at the Poule D’Or, rabbit at the Walnut Tree, pig’s head and potato pie at St John, again (Bread and Wine, this time), the patty melt from Patty & Bun, cuttlefish at Taberna do Mercado, and perhaps a few other things I’ve forgotten, nothing really stands out. I just haven’t had the time for extravagant meals; I’ve been too busy working.

 

Luckily, all of this working means I’ve had plenty of time to experiment (mess around) with various new-to-me ingredients and techniques, many of which have found a permanent place in my repetoire. So, since it is the season, here are five things which have revolutionised the way I cook this year. None of them are new – quite the opposite really – and all are fairly simple. I call them techniques, but none are very technical. The point is flavour.

 

BRINING

Everyone who brines their meat is absolutely evangelical about it – and rightly so. The difference it makes is astounding. It’s only this year that I feel I’ve really got to grips with it – I used to brine EVERYTHING, quite heavily, but I’ve got more selective. Pork belly, for example, I don’t think wants it; brined pork just tastes of sausage (not necessarily a bad thing, but not always what you want), while brining pigeon does weird things to the flesh. Chicken, rabbit, tongue, anything you are going to smoke, most things you are going to poach. Most things, really. Following St Fergus, I use a pretty strong brine of 125g salt and 80g sugar per litre, plus spices as appropriate; I generally boil the dry stuff with half the water, then add the rest as ice when it’s ready, but that’s because I’m impatient.

 

FERMENTATION

Specifically, the fermentation of tomatoes. I’ve been pickling things for a while now, but this was a breakthrough. A recipe from Ukrainian chef Olia Hercules, it’s really simple; a weak brine (35g salt/ 35g sugar/ 1l water), a few cloves, peppercorns and juniper berries; a jarful of nice, underripe tomatoes; pour the one over the other, and leave for a couple of weeks. The tomatoes are great, but the resulting liquor is the secret weapon. I’ve cooked mussels in it, pickled other things in it, and used it as the base for a squidgut sauce. I now ferment almost all things.

 

SALT-BAKING

Salt has definitely been my most-used ingredient this year. For most things, but especially salt-baking, I use the coarse Cornish sea salt; Maldon’s is far, far too expensive. Salt-baking whole fish is something I’ve been aware of but never bothered with; when Stephen Harris tells you to do something, though, you sit up and listen. Like him, I’ve always found gurnard a challenge; obviously, it is cheap and good to eat, but I’ve often ended up chucking it into stews. Salt-baking it, though, gives you really moist, juicy and well-seasoned flesh. I serve it with a tomato-infused fish stock, and let everything sing.

 

RAISING

Not so much a new technique as a different point of view. After being obsessed with sourdough and all the obscure, manly practices which go with it, the Violet Bakery Cookbook reminded me that baking could be easy and fun. Claire Ptak is pragmatic. She doesn’t have the space, she says, for yeasted baking, so develops recipes, inspired by mid-century American cooking, using baking powder and sodas. Her cinnamon bun recipe is a thing of excellence and perfection.

 

EMULSION

You know how decent recipes always tell you to save the pasta water and add a bit to the sauce? Just do that. It’s magic.

 

Inappropriate Pun About A Tart


I don’t really do festive cooking. The feast itself is kept under the iron control of my mother, who adheres to a timetable developed over 40 or more Christmases, not to mention Eves and Boxing Days; I help with little jobs, the blanketing of pigs and the cross-hatching of sprouts, but the real meat of the matter, the planning, execution and seasoning, is all hers.

 

Professionally, I’ve been lucky, in recent years, to work in places that don’t really do festive cooking either; certainly not in a turkey-and-cranberry-and-mincemeat-and-stuffing-and-bread-sauce sort of a way. My first job was in a hotel which VERY MUCH did Christmas, with large work parties several times a day (turkey, smoked salmon & port everywhere). It was, I remember distinctly, hell.

 

Still, it’s nice to give a nod to the season, in the form of nuts and dried fruits and spices. There’s bugger all else to bake with, for one thing, at least until the orange season really kicks in. Hence this tart, with flavours from somewhere between Turkey and Ukraine, and a texture and taste blending mincemeat, treacle, and bakewell – snap, squidge, crunch.

 

SOUR CHERRY AND WALNUT TART

Makes 1 tart.

PASTRY

250g plain flour

50g light muscovado sugar

125g cold, cubed butter

1 egg

pinch of salt

splash of milk

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Blitz, rub or cut the flour together with the sugar, butter and salt. When it looks like fine breadcrumbs, mix in the egg and a tiny splash of milk, then form into a ball and stick in the freezer while you make the filling.

 

FILLING

60g caster sugar

60 soft butter

1 egg

60g walnuts

1 tbsp plain flour

100g dried sour cherries

Grind the walnuts with the flour into a fine crumb. Cream the sugar with the butter until almost white and really fluffy. Beat in the egg and then fold in the walnut mix.

Roll the pastry out thinly to line a buttered and floured tart tin (you’ll have too much pastry, which is infinitely preferable to not enough). Trim off the excess, and spread in the filling. Sprinkle the cherries evenly over the top (they’ll gradually sink, which is fine), then bake for about an hour until the filling is set and the pastry is a nice brown. Meanwhile, make the topping.

TOPPING

80g walnuts

30g caster sugar

a pinch of salt

1/2 tsp caraway seeds

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

knob of butter

Put the walnuts in a small frying pan with the sugar, salt and spices, and toss and heat gently until the sugar melts and darkens into a caramel. Melt in the butter, then tip the lot onto a piece of baking parchment. Leave to cool, then smash or roughly blitz.

When the tart’s hour is up, sprinkle the topping over it and put back in the oven for 10 minutes or so. Leave to mostly cool, then turn out of the tin and serve with fresh cream.

 

 

Al Dente

It’s that time of the year when everyone starts arguing about sprouts. In one corner, the unapologetic sprout-lovers, for whom the smell of ancient, boiled socks goes hand-in-hand with Christmas like peaches and cream; in the other, the genetically superior brassicaphobic, who cherish and guard their ability to taste that hint of queasy bitterness which lurks at the back of every cabbage. In the middle, calling for reason, are those who understand that said bitterness is only activated by the preparation which the French are pleased to call a la Anglais; the long demolition of vegetables. A well-raised sprout, on the other hand, cooked until it is cooked, is edible to all, and capable, as most things are, of deliciousness.

The cooking of things until they are cooked, sadly, is a dying art, having lost significant ground on both sides, to the aforementioned English vice as well as to the tyranny of al dente. The latter phrase, you are probably aware, is Italian for ‘to the tooth’ or ‘to the bite’, and refers to the raw snap they prize at the core of pasta; I don’t think an Italian cook would apply it to a green vegetable, which tend, in my limited experience of Southern Italy, to be cooked until they are cooked, dressed heavily in good, bitter oil, and left to sit at room temperature – an excellent preparation for any bean or brassica. No – I think the blame here can be set squarely on the French, or at least on a certain kind of quasi-French cooking, which prizes colour, texture and structure above things like taste. In a thousand hotel kitchens across Europe, chefs are blanching beans, broccoli and spinach until a fixed dark green, shocking them immediately in iced water, and then reheating to order in a little emulsion of water and butter or, if pressed for time, in a microwave. Somewhere in this process most of the actual, distinct taste of the vegetable is lost.

Worse, when applied to certain things – cabbages, mainly – the process renders them actively unpleasant to eat. Having lost the crunch of rawness but not fully cooked through, they become chewy and curiously resistant to the eating. I had some ‘braised’ red cabbage the other day which just wasn’t – half-cooked, it had lost all its own flavour without anything to replace it, and I found it, really, a chore. Either cook it or don’t cook it; don’t mess around in the middle. I like my steaks cooked medium rare, just warm and giving in the centre; I love steak tartare with a fierce, barbaric passion. I don’t want great slabs of charred, mostly uncooked muscle. If the meat is good enough to stand up to that, give it to me raw and I will tear at it. There is a current fashion for raw fish, often salted or pickled, which is then singed with a blowtorch. Apart from the obvious pleasure of playing with a blowtorch, I can’t see any merit in this. Either cook it until it is cooked, or leave it alone. And please, please stop serving lentils al dente.

Blackest Ever Black

I made a very good custard tart the other day. Sweet shortcrust, a layer of soaked and mashed dates, then eggs and cream, beaten with maple syrup instead of sugar, and spiced with cinnamon and black pepper; baked in a very low oven for an hour until just wobbling in the middle, it made a lovely dessert, vaguely festive without bowing to the tyranny of port and mincemeat which dominates this month.

 

Very nice of course, but not a particularly interesting recipe; in fact, I just gave it to you. Figure out the amounts for yourself – that’s what I did, and as I didn’t write them down, any more formal recipe would be a lie. Anyway, there are enough festive desserts knocking around the internet, and that’s not the only thing December is for. Traditionally, this would be a time of preservation, of careful stockpiling against the coming cold – specifically, for pig-killing. A fine traditional folkway, in which the whole village collaborates in turning a breathing animal into charcuterie. Unfortunately, I don’t have a pig.

 

What I do have is a lot of jars and a certain amount of free time, and so, when Rene Redzepi tweeted a recipe for squid garum, my interest was piqued. Garum, you may be aware, was the near-universal seasoning beloved of ancient Rome; made of the run-off from fermenting salted anchovies, it would have been very like a south-east Asian fish sauce, providing a similar whack of umami to all savoury dishes. Now, I’ve never been particularly fussed by fish sauce, but I love making things, especially things which involve fermentation AND entrails. So here we are.

 

I had to adapt Redzepi’s recipe to what I had to hand; he uses barley koji, which, basically, is steamed grain impregnated with bacteria. Used in the fermentation of miso and so forth, the idea (I assumed) is to colonise the sauce with good bacteria, and to give them something to feed on, as a prophylactic against the bad kind. I replaced it with a mixture of fermented tomato brine and flour, and I’m not dead yet. Any unpasteurised fermented brine SHOULD work, if I’m right. However, I make no claims for the edibility or otherwise of this sauce. As with any home-cured protein, you follow your nose and take your chances.

 

GARUM

500g squid or mackerel bits, including guts (& ink), head, and any trim

120g sea salt

100g flour

100g fermented tomato brine

400g water

Blitz the fish bits to a paste. If you don’t have a food processor, then good luck to you. Mix everything together and leave to ferment at 60°C for 5-10 weeks. (I’m currently trying a load at room temperature, to see if that works; I’ll get back to you). When ready, it should smell deeply savoury and not really fishy. Bottle and use as you would anchovies or, obviously, fish sauce. The terror of death gives it piquancy.