Thursday, 23 October 2008

Fruit Wine Update

Yesterday I began siphoning my fruit wines into clean demijohns. I have two batches on the go at the moment - this is my first year of home winemaking, and I started small.

I have three demijohns, and I have been meaning to start a new batch of wine, beer, or maybe mead for some time. I realised, the most logical course of action would be to siphon batch one into the empty demijohn, batch two into the newly-empty (and cleaned) demijohn that contained the first batch, and start my new batch in the one that held batch two. So, yesterday I started the process, which isn't terribly complicated, but needs a little care.

I cleaned the empty demijohn by scrubbing with hot water and washing up liquid inside and out (I have a bottle brush for the interior), then filling with warm water into which are crumbled a few Campden tablets, which disinfect the glass. Then, this is siphoned off, and the wine is siphoned in.

Today, I did the second batch. The motivation, other than a feeling of achievement, is that you get to taste the wines as you siphon them into their new home.

Both batches are of blackberry wine. My back garden has gradually been overgrown with brambles over the past few years, despite periodic attempts at clearing. The upside is that a huge quantity of free fruit is produced each year. Last year I made a fruit liqueur with some of the blackberries, boiling the fruit with sugar, straining, and mixing with Armagnac (you could use any spirit). Unfortunately, due to excessive pectin, it took on the appearance of clotted blood - lumpy crimson goo. It was, however, delicious, and remained pleasurable to drink for almost a year.

This summer, my grandparents leant me a couple of home winemaking books. My grandad has made his own wines and liqueurs for decades, although he doesn't any more. I saw the blackberry wine recipe, and decided it would be an excellent way to use up a few kilos of bramble fruit.

He leant me his two demijohns, and I bought the rest (another demijohn, a siphon, Campden tablets and wine yeast, the bottle brush, and a hygrometer) from Wilkinson, which sells a wonderful range of home brewing equipment. I picked enough fruit, followed the recipe (which involves steeping the fruit with boiling water and sugar, sieving, and fermenting with yeast for several months).

The first batch was made from fruit harvested in early August. Some of it was a little under-ripe, so it is lighter in colour and lower in natural sugars. The second batch, harvested a week or two later, contained much riper fruit, indeed some which was probably already fermenting on the plant. It's darker, and in theory, richer.

The first batch tasted yesterday as it did a few weeks ago - balanced, quite rich, still quite sweet, effervescent, and yeasty. Surprisingly, the second batch, a glass of which I have in front of me, is much drier. The colour is a wonderful bright ruby, and the smell and taste are much more redolent of the fruit it is made from. I suppose it is a little jammy, it's certainly less yeasty (still slightly fizzy, though - it's still fermenting quite vigorously), but has a tannic edge that might put some people off. I'm actually glad they are different - I decided not to blend the two batches, but rather to bottle them separately, not long after I started them off, to see which style I preferred, and to demonstrate that fruit wine can be complex too.

So, the two batches, once siphoned, are topped-up with boiled water that has been allowed to cool (so as not to kill the yeast), and re-sealed with airlocks. I don't know if they will be ready in time for Christmas, which was my hope, but my new project should hopefully fill the gap in the meantime. And that is? Well, not a fruit wine, but a beer - pumpkin beer, to be precise. But more on that in my next entry.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Pizza II: Toppings

I guess you can put whatever you want on top of a pizza, provided it doesn't need much cooking. Below are a few suggestions, based on the past few weeks.

For a start, I always put tomato on. To me, it isn't pizza without it. Use passata (sieved tomatoes), because it has the best balance of taste and texture - purée is too concentrated and thick, and tinned tomatoes are too watery and bland, unless you cook them down. Passata is cheap, and a carton at around 80p will do a good ten large pizzas (don't drown them!). Pour a little on, then spread with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Garlic- and/or herb-flavoured passata can be bought, or you can add a little dried oregano or basil. If you want fresh herbs, tear them over the pizza after you've cooked it, or the herbs will scorch and their essential oils will evaporate, defeating the object.

Next, onion. I like onion, and I think it's almost as important as the tomato (ditto for burgers, unless you use relish...). Red onion is that little bit milder, and looks nicer too. Slice thinly, and break the slices into rings, then sprinkle over the passata base.

The only other essential is cheese. Mozzarella is classic, of course, but rather bland. If using, go for pizza cheese, in blocks, rather than mozzarella di buffala campana, which comes in balls packed in tubs of water. The latter is too nice for pizza, and too moist - they'll make the base soggy (but use only this for dishes like insalata caprese, which I will no doubt discuss in a future entry). Pre-grated mozzarella is very convenient. Otherwise, you can use any mild- to medium-strength cheese that will go fairly elastic when melted, or a mixture. Emmenthal and gruyère work very well. I disapprove of cheddar, however, on two grounds: it is too strong, and it doesn't melt correctly (it tends to separate and go oily). Some people prefer very strong cheese, but in this case, the balance of flavours, and the texture of the cheese, is more important.

Beyond this, you can experiment a great deal. Olives are great - indeed, I only came to enjoy black olives a few weeks ago thanks to experimenting with toppings available cheaply from a local convenience store. Slice them. Green olives would be okay, I suppose. Salami is classic, but don't use anything too nice, or too lean. I find chorizo doesn't have the fat content to work here - it just goes dry. Also, it's best to buy the salami thinly sliced - it should go a little crisp during cooking. Bottled peppers are good, adding some sweetness and colour; drain them well, and chop fairly small (beware the liquid, which can make the pizza soggy).

Soft goat cheese, crumbled, or something special like taleggio, or even gorgonzola, would be nice for a special occasion. Pine nuts add crunch. Smoked salmon is, in my opinion, too intense and salty for a pizza, but if you used it sparingly, paired with a cream cheese such as ricotta, it could be successful. Fresh red chilli, or dried chilli flakes, can be fun if you like a bit of heat. Bottled artichokes or other antipasti are good if well-drained. A little spinach adds colour, although I find the stringy cooked texture a little annoying in this context. Finally, I love to drizzle a little garlic-infused olive oil on top. Basil oil or chilli oil would also do - use before or after cooking, or both.

Essentially, the only rules are: make sure the ingredients require only minimal cooking - no raw poultry, for example. Second, add fresh herbs at the end (the same would apply to flowers or lettuce, in the unlikely event you were using them), ditto rocket (arugula).

Preheat the oven to gas 9, or as high as it will go. I remember seeing a tv programme where Heston Blumenthal tried to create the perfect pizza, and the one point I took from it is the temperature. Traditional pizza ovens are really hot, far hotter than conventional domestic ovens, so to get anything near the right temperature, you have to push it to the max. The idea is to cook the pizza as quickly as possible, giving a nice crispness without burning. That's my attitude, anyway.

They don't take long - rather than timing them, I just keep checking until the toppings are cooked (e.g., the cheese should have melted and started going golden and slightly crispy, but nothing should be brown or black), as the bases will also be cooked by this point, if they are thin. Thicker bases take longer, so I guess maybe turn the oven down once the topping is done, and leave 5-10 minutes longer, just to be sure. If in doubt, don't put too much stuff on top, especially moist ingredients, because they will slow down the crisping-up of the bases. As with all recipes, the more you make, the better you'll be - it's more of an intuition for me now.

They can be eaten immediately, left to cool, or reheated.

And as for cost, the sky is the limit of course (you can go for foie gras and gold leaf if you feel like it), but for people on a budget like me, the biggest factors are the cheese and the meat. A bag of pre-grated mozzarella that will do 4-6 pizzas costs around £1.30-1.50, and a pack of salami will set you back £1-2. On this basis, a red onion, olive, cheese, and tomato pizza could cost (including the base) around 90p (roughly calculated), and one with salami but no olives maybe 10-20p more. One reason why I have eaten so many of these recently is that very few other home-cooked dishes are so satisfying at such a low price.

Pizza I: Dough

Early this August, I went with my mother to stay with my sister and her family, who live in the Midlands. My sister shares my mother's and my fascination with cookery books, and incidentally is in her final year of training to be a dietician (i.e. a medical nutritionist - not some phoney qualification, but rather a 4-year degree, including hospital placements). She also shares my dream of a rural house, big kitchen, a garden in which to grow as much of our own produce as possible, and a assortment of animals. In fact, although she lives in the suburbs, she has kept chickens on and off for some years, and grows a small range of vegetables and fruits, rather more conscientiously than me. But I digress.

I baked a fair bit while I was there - she was working at the hospital, whereas I stayed home with my mother to look after one or both of the kids (hyperactive youngsters). My sister showed me a new bread book she had acquired, and I worked from it, mostly making rolls, which must have been at least edible, as I baked up to a dozen a day (making dough at 7am on occasion, the resultant virtuous feelings not quite making up for the utter exhaustion later on).

In fact, it was she who started me off on the bread path a good few years ago. My sister discovered a few years ago that she has an intolerance to wheat gluten, and although she enjoys bread very much, she decided to avoid it as much as possible. She had a wonderful book, the World Encyclopedia of Bread and Breadmaking, which belongs to a series of equally good books covering subjects such as coffee, cheese, and potatoes, but gave it to me, since she would henceforth have little use for it. So I took it to university, and started baking, and my life (or at least, my attitude to bread) has never been quite the same since.

What does this have to do with pizza? Ah, well, although we don't tend to think of it as such, pizza is just a special kind of bread. For some reason, even in Italian cookery books, it is often treated separately to those other, similar, breads, such as foccacia - but the line between a foccacia, topped with oil, cheese, olives, and herbs, and a pizza, is slim. (I'm glad to see that the Wikipedia article on foccacia is 'part of a series on pizza', however). Well, my sister decided to make pizza, and as if to highlight its bready nature, made a standard batch of dough. She then simply flattened it out and covered it with appropriate toppings. It was delicious.

When I came home, I decided to replicate this, and since the end of August, I must have made pizza a dozen times or more. The case for pizza is strong: they're very cheap (see the end of the article below), very tasty, fairly quick, and very adaptable (the only case against is that I did get a bit sick of them after three days of pizza in a row one week). Here's how I make them:

First, the dough. The primary recipe for dough I've used is one I brought back from my sister, from her new book. The book is Dough, by Richard Bertinet, and although I don't totally agree with everything he says, I do very much like his simple white bread recipe:

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 350g water
  • 10g yeast
  • 10g salt

The first thing that stands out about this recipe is that the water is weighed, rather than measured by volume. This is actually quite revolutionary, and absolutely brilliant. It is, as he states, far more accurate (a standard measuring jug works in maybe 25ml gradients, or even as much as 100ml, and it's very difficult to be accurate even to tens of millilitres), but it is also less messy - you just weigh everything in the same bowl. The previous statement is dependent on the yeast, of course. I must admit, I have never used fresh yeast, although I very much want to, if only from curiosity. I accidentally bought yeast granules a few weeks ago - they look like tiny bobbles. This was a mistake, as they must be dissolved in (warm) water before using, or they won't mix fully into the dough. The best type of yeast, for everyday use, is the fine, 'powdered' type (it looks like tiny cylinders, the shape of hundreds-and-thousands, but much smaller, and remind me of bacilli). This can be mixed straight into the flour, and works straight away. If you use this, you only need the one bowl.

Okay, anyway, so you mix the four ingredients together, work the dough together with your hands, and knead with extra flour, until it forms a smooth ball that won't stick readily to your hands. The more you work the dough, the better, but I am lazy and generally mess around with it for about 5 minutes. Oil the bowl (extra virgin olive oil is my preference), cover either with cling film or a damp towel, and leave somewhere warm until it has doubled in volume. Then, break into pieces, flatten and stretch them on a non-stick or oiled baking sheet, and then add the toppings.

At this point, I should mention a few things. First, strong wholemeal flour can be substituted into the recipe, although I would caution against using 100% wholemeal, as the texture would not be 'pizza-like' enough, but it's a matter of taste, I suppose. The white flour can be '0' or even '00', which is usually reserved for pasta making; it will give a smoother result. Second, the thickness of the pizza base can be varied - another great advantage of making from it scratch. I prefer thin, so when you stretch the dough out, you don't leave it to rise again, and the above amount of dough will make four large, or perhaps six smaller bases. If you want a thicker base, you might only get two large pizzas from this quantity of dough, and you'd do well to leave it to rise a second time, until it reaches the desired thickness. In this case, cover again and place somewhere warm. Finally, if you want to flavour the dough, you could add a little cheese, something like parmesan that is strong but won't alter the texture of the dough too much, or paprika, basil, or maybe even a little pesto. To be honest, though, I don't think it's noticeable, especially if there's plenty of topping.

I have on occasion used a second recipe. This is a bit fussier, and to be honest isn't appreciably better, but it is more authentic, and if I wanted to impress, I'd probably go for this one. It's from Carluccio's Complete Italian Food:

  • 400g '00' flour (superfine, sometimes labelled 'pastry flour')
  • a pinch of salt
  • 35g fresh (he says brewer's) yeast
  • enough lukewarm water to make a soft dough

Now, obviously, I would subsitute in powdered yeast, probably a couple of teaspoons (I don't find you have to measure fast-acting yeast too carefully, once you get the hang of it). As for the water, just add some, and mix, then add more if you need to. The rest of the process is as above.

The biggest difference is the smoothness of the base, and the amount you can stretch it. The finer the flour, the more elastic the dough, and therefore the crispier you can make your bases. However, '0' and '00' flours are a little more expensive than standard strong flour, and you can't really mix in wholemeal as successfully, as the roughness of the latter will stand out more from the white in this case.

So that's the dough made, and shaped into bases. One last thing: I mentioned the cheapness of pizza as an advantage. Just talking about the bases, which are pretty much constant; a 1.5kg bag of flour can be bought for as little as 50-70p. From that, you can make 3 batches of 4 large, thin-based pizzas. One of these will probably satisfy a normal person (I tend to have two), especially served with salad, or as part of a larger meal. So, one large pizza base can cost as little as 6 pence, including the yeast, salt, and a tiny drizzle of oil.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Journey So Far...

This entry does not set the tone for what is to follow. Read it, don't read it - it's much more about me than food in general, and may be very boring. There are no recipes here!

I want to be clear, right from the start - I was not born a foodie. If, indeed, that's what I am now - I wouldn't use that word unselfconsciously, as I think it infers a snobbery that I do not espouse. In fact, I come from a very (gastronomically) humble, I might even hazard, typical, background. I grew up in the 80s, a time before (at least in my homeland) an understanding of 'foreign', 'modern', or 'ethical' food had spread to the masses, i.e. people like my family. We happily ate fried food, deep-frozen food (as we called it - is there a difference between 'deep-frozen' and just plain frozen?), ready-prepared food (though not so much ready meals, as we would call them now, chilled versions of popular dishes that you reheat - we didn't have a microwave back then), and lots of full-sugar fizzy drinks, with no sense of guilt or irony. Olive oil was still mostly sold in chemists' shops for treating ear wax, garlic was still exotic, and the only kind of vinegar you used was malt, sprinkled liberally over chips (served with battered fish). I am barely exaggerating.

Without wanting to overemphasise this contrast, I can't think back (just 20 years) to my childhood without boggling at the change in habits and attitudes when it comes to food. Much has been written by far cooks far more knowledgable than me about this phenomenon, but the point here is, my love of food, or at least, of good food, and my fascination with what might still be considered arcane aspects of gastronomy, have developed much more recently - and more important still, this means that anyone, however indifferent towards, inept at, or ill-at-ease with, cooking, can change. I don't expect everyone to devote as much time and effort, and indeed, money, to food and drink as I do, but on the other hand, even if the closest you've ever come to cooking is ordering a pizza, all is not lost. Times change, and people change too. Food, I guess, can be a bewildering subject - but the more I cook, and the more I read about cooking, the more I believe that it needn't be. It's a matter of taking a few things, and combining them, maybe adding heat, and enjoying the consequences. Clearly, something like a soufflé is a bit trickier, but the vast majority of dishes most people would eat day-to-day can be simple, cheap, healthy, and delicious. I'm not polemical about this, though - if you like, your food can be complicated, expensive, and terribly fattening - so long as it's delicious and, hopefully, worth the effort of making, then it's just as good.

So, when I was young, we ate a very limited range of foods, most of which were processed, and not prepared at home. My mother can cook, so we didn't always eat Findus Crispy Pancakes, or those slabs of unidentifiable meat, slathered in barbecue sauce, we knew as "spare ribs" (no bones, but plenty of gristle). In fact, my parents even opened a restaurant, and my mum ended up cooking half the food herself. Still, there was rather a fixed idea of what food should be - a main meal consisted of meat, or rarely fish, with some starch (potato, rice, rarely pasta), and maybe a vegetable. Freshness was not important, seasonality ditto, and nobody had heard of 'organic' food, let alone food miles.

There was, in my hometown that now boasts a large Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Booths (a regional chain, similar to Waitrose), and Morrisons, just one supermarket - which belonged to the Co-operative group (this being Northern England), and we got a lot of our shopping from a much smaller establishment round the corner from our house. The range of food, especially fresh produce, available was far smaller than today, and our family budget was much less, too. I was not brought up to cook, with the honourable exception of baking - which is still a great thing to do with young children. My mother sold cakes for a while, which probably explains the amount of sponge I helped make, but in any case, apart from buns (I'll use the term 'cup cakes' from now on, to prevent confusion - as the word 'bun' can be rather imprecise), I cooked very little. I suppose, essentially, I was born too late to have enjoyed 'home cooking', such as the wartime generation experienced, too early for the reawakening of British cuisine, and in too urban and poor a community to have known farmers' markets and the like.

We were taught cookery at school, for a while, but it seemed impractical to do that sort of thing every week, let alone every day. By then, Italian, Indian, and Chinese food had become more or less mainstream, and choice had broadened in the shops. Still, I didn't do much cooking that didn't take the formula "pasta + sauce = meal".

In fact, it was only at university that I was exposed to cooking, or perhaps more importantly, it was only once I was looking after myself that I felt the need and then the desire to cook, and to vary what I made. In the first year we were catered for every day, but in the second year I moved into a house with seven friends, and there began a great adventure - the one I'm still embarked upon.

Dinner parties! The idea of this was strange, but I soon learned that the more people you were catering for, the more interesting and expensive the food that could be served. We budgeted £2 per head, which for one person limits you to a largely vegetarian diet, but when cooking for a dozen or more (as I was occasionally lucky enough to do), you could stretch the ingredients and justify much more elaborate dishes.

It helped that many of my housemates were interested in food, though we all had our foibles. In fact, we had a list above the fireplace in our sitting room, detailing what each person liked and hated, in order that meals could be prepared that pleased everyone. Don't imagine it was tightly structured - we didn't have a rota, or anything like that. If somebody wanted to cook, however, they would see who was interested, and come up with something. Inviting friends would inevitably bring gifts of wine, which was all the more reason to make the effort.

It was there that I first tasted mussels - in fact, that was the first shellfish I ever had. At the age of 20! That should tell you something about my upbringing. My sister gave me a book on bread, and that sent me into a spiral of baking - I spent the whole Christmas holiday systematically trying one recipe after another, and made myself quite ill in the process (one day I prepared and ate a whole pan of onion soup, a loaf of cheese and onion bread, and goodness knows how many bread rolls - I'm a glutton, remember). I developed an interest in Indian food, bought a book, stocked up on spices, and made some interesting discoveries. There, too, I started on the path to oenophilia - I'd always drunk wine, but only then did I start to care what wine I drank, although it was a few years yet before I started noting it down.

Since then, my love of food and drink has grown exponentially - a cliché, but true. Buying books, trying recipes, improvising, entertaining, and above all learning - that's been a big part of my life, and I can't see it changing any time soon. I've made sushi from scratch, scones, countless risottos, casseroles, cocktails, and too many others to name. I've also consciously tried to like everything. Here's something that has set me apart from my friends and family, many of whom also like food and take an interest in it. On that list back at university, I was more conscientious than most about my loved and hated foodstuffs, and that earned me a reputation for fussiness. Since then, I have treated this as a list of things to conquer - in order to master myself, and to maximise my flexibility. I was always concerned that my dislike of coffee and beer, my squeamishness about seafood, and so on, could prevent me from fully enjoying my life ('fancy a coffee?', 'let's go for a beer', etc), and so I have tackled each of these things. Last year, I got it down to three particular dislikes - avocado, fresh coriander, and celery. Now the only foods I do not eat are ones I have intellectual reservations about (like insects and offal). This, too, I feel is a valuable self-taught lesson I can tell people about - no matter how much you dislike a food, you can learn to love it. And that's the important thing - I haven't just done this as a test of will. As I incorporated formerly-hated things into my regular cuisine, I realised that it was often the case that something I recently couldn't stand was the one thing I craved. Possibly, this is a consequence of novelty, but I would hate to live without coffee, or prawns, or the occasional lager - and this drives me on. Who knows, maybe in a decade, I will feel the same way about liver, or maybe wasps? Never say never, at least in theory...