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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.