Thursday, 9 December 2010

The (Latest) Device

It occurred to me tonight that I haven't mentioned my latest kitchen gadget. Actually, "gadget" implies something gimmicky, which is unfair - this is something found in many homes and businesses: a juicer.

I had a juicer years ago - a combined centrifugal machine/blender. It was okay, and I learned the basics with it (like, I love carrot and apple juice). It was what you'd expect for a few tens of pounds - pretty basic, but reasonably reliable, if a bit messy. It died a while ago, and although I've not yet disposed of it, I think it can't be resurrected.

Back in 2005, I was into (apologies in advance) Gillian McK*ith (asterisk to prevent her coming up in searches - she's hopelessly litigious). I enjoyed her early shows, which seemed to preach the virtues of fruit and veg, fish and lean proteins, as opposed to processed sugars, starches, and excess fat. And her diet programmes seemed to work - the people (admittedly obese) lost a lot of weight. Someone in my family (I suspect my mother) bought the accompanying book, and I took it to university after the Easter holiday.

It was dire. The first day was a "detox", which involved such delights as hot water with lemon juice, hot water with flax seeds, and the most amazing of all - various root vegetables (turnip, mostly) boiled; you didn't eat them, you drank the water they'd been cooked in: wasteful.

Anyhow, the only thing I took away from that, ahem, experience, was that there are two kinds of juicer (in fact there are at least three), and the best is something called a "masticating juicer" (again, not strictly true). I knew that if I ever got another machine, that would be the one for me.

I came into some money recently - a combination of inheritance and tax rebate. It coincided with my first home cider making, thanks to a tree in my friend's garden. The house her partner inherited from his grandmother has the remnants of a small orchard, with plums, apples, pears and blackcurrants. This year only the apples produced much (or at least, we missed the blackcurrants), but there was a large tree laden with fruit. No idea what variety, or even if it was a cooker or an eater (her boyfriend thought the former). We picked, at my behest, as she would otherwise have left them for lack of inspiration. I said I'd make cider, and give her some when it was done.

Anyway, trying to juice 13.5kg of apples with a blender and a sheet of muslin is not fun by any means. After the first few kilos, I decided to put some of my spare cash to good use and get a juicer to speed up the process. I read into the subject for over a week, weighed up all the options, and plumped for the best masticating/augur machine I could get for the budget (I paid just over £200).

Since then I have juiced a good 40+ kinds of fruit and vegetable, and almost all of them have been great. Soft things don't go through any juicer so well, so figs, pears, and overripe guavas won't be tried again. Conversely, the hardest stuff juices best - think carrots, hard apples, beetroot. Some surprising combinations, especially apple with cabbage, and apple with yellow pepper, as well as many mixed beetroot and fruit juices, work very well. I'm yet to be convinced on sweet potato - the juice it yields is strangely creamy.

Anyway, I am currently experimenting with the next level of juicing - namely, clarified juices. I ran across perhaps the best food blog I've ever read (on which more soon), which introduced me to two techniques: agar clarification, and enzyme clarification. As I happened to have both dry agar and pectolase in my kitchen (the former from curiosity, the latter for the cidermaking project), I have tried both - and the results are very exciting. A few days ago I transformed apples into a cinnamon and apple syrup that was sensational with premium bourbon. Lime juice clarified with agar was even better, and has a bright future in my kitchen (please excuse the pun).

Much more on clarification in the near future, I hope...

Monday, 6 December 2010

Continuing the Odyssey

The quest for exotic spices didn't end with my first order from Steenberg's. I knew I wanted more, and after confirming I wasn't bankrupt, I put together another shopping list - of even more exciting things.

However, before this, I needed cloves. I'd previously ordered orris root powder as I'd decided to make pomanders (oranges studded with cloves to me), and traditional recipes all called for this ingredient in order to fix the scent, along with powdered cinnamon (I guess the latter is for extra fragrance). However, I quickly ran out of cloves, and I wasn't prepared to buy them at full price. I had an inkling that there were a few ethnic grocers (mostly South Asian and African) on a road not far from my house. The trip was eventful - light snow the night before had frozen, and the first step I took sent me crashing to the floor, smacking my head on the driveway, and cracking my back, hip and pulling my stomach muscles (it's taken a few days to recover). But I was determined not to be beaten, and I was rewarded - I found a spartan, but spice-filled grocer, who sold cloves for 99p per 50g bag (not bad).

What's amazing is how my home town has changed so much in just a decade. When I was growing up here, it was around 98% white British, the only significant "outsider" community being Scottish. Now, we have numerous Polish grocers, a couple of West African stores, and a handful of South/Southeast/East Asian shops too. For someone looking to cook all sorts of exotic dishes, this is a boon.

A case in point is black cardamom. A month ago, I'd only read about this spice, and expected never to see it. In London, I snapped it up from the Borough Market (very classy, quite expensive), then again at a Turkish minimarket in South London (cheaper). But to see it here, a few hundred metres from my house! Amazing. Anyhow, I didn't need to buy any this time, but I'm glad to know I can. I did, however, get two other spices, just as exotic, and similarly fabled to be (in that I've read about them, seen pictures of them, but never expected to encournter them in real life): ajwain (ajowan) and black cumin.

I was going to order ajwain from Steenberg's anyhow, but I got it much cheaper from the grocer's, so I was pleased. And black cumin is even rarer - I'd only seen it on Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages (my spice bible, the best website I know on the subject). I tried the ajwain in a tomato sauce (see previous post), where it added a rich fragrance of thyme, but I've yet to experiment with the (apparently less appealing) black cumin. Anyhow, I need to go back to the shop for more cloves - and to explore their vast range of dhal, and maybe the bizarre fish they had in the freezer.

So my online spice order consisted of: sahlab (salep), which is a ground orchid root, used in Turkey to make a milky drink, but even more excitingly, a stretchy ice cream; mastic, a tree-derived gum from the island of Chios in the Aegean, also used in this ice cream, but also in a few baked goods from those parts; Tonka beans, a vanilla-scented South American seed, slightly controversial due to the presence of toxic coumarin; ground sumac, a sour powdered fruit from the Eastern Mediterranean; and furikake, a Japanese mix of seaweed and sesame, for sprinkling on rice. Additionally, though not strictly spices, I chose frankincense and myrrh, partly out of curiosity (there can't be many people in the Western world who haven't heard of these, but how many have seen them for real, or even know what they are?), and partly because I've been getting back into incense as the nights have lengthened and the weather turned sub-Arctic.

And yet, there are still many more spices I want to try! After Christmas perhaps...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Tomato Sauce

I make basic tomato sauces on a regular basis, mostly for pasta and pizza. In fact, I made one just over an hour ago, so I thought I'd explain how to turn a very few ingredients, that most people probably have in their cupboards, into something that tastes wonderful (and which costs a whole lot less than store-bought sauces).

Essential Ingredients
Onion, finely chopped
Olive oil (extra virgin offers the most complex flavour, but virgin or light will do)
Black Pepper
Wine vinegar/Balsamic vinegar

Optional Ingredients
Red chilli - fresh, dried, whole or flaked, or Tabasco
Red/orange or yellow pepper, chopped quite fine.

Heat the oil in a pan. Add the onion, cook until slightly softened. Add the garlic and chilli, if using, fry another minute or two. Add the tomatoes, and peppers if using. Season with salt and black pepper, a pinch of sugar and a dash of vinegar. Stir, and taste - adjust the last four ingredients to taste. Cook on a low heat until everything is breaking up and the sauce is thickened. Add water if it gets too dry. Blitz in a food processor/blender if you want a smooth sauce.

You can use fresh tomatoes of any size, if they are really ripe and full of flavour. Out of season, I would opt for tinned, either chopped of whole. A squirt of tomato purée adds extra intensity, and can make up for insipid fresh tomatoes (don't use too much though, as it can make the sauce taste too much like neat tomato purée). Passata is possible, but it tends to be more expensive.

Great herbs to use are copious amounts of basil, generous quantities of oregano or sage, a couple of sprigs of thyme or one of rosemary, a small quantity of lovage (all fresh), or one or two bay leaves (fresh or dried). The basil after cooking but before puréeing (as basil loses its fragrance if cooked), the others would be added with the tomatoes.

Theory and Substitutions
The idea is to make a rich, balanced, and versatile sauce, without spending much money. The sugar and vinegar enhance the natural sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes, and the salt works with its savouriness - but you can leave it out if you are trying to avoid it. I find it best to use an unprocessed cane sugar, or a golden sugar, rather than white sugar, because the latter lacks complexity and tends not to integrate as well, but use whatever you have to hand. Note also, that bell peppers make the sauce sweeter, especially if you purée it. It may be better to make a big batch of plain sauce, and then add garlic, or chilli, or herbs, to each batch when using. It will keep in the fridge for a few days, and freezes well. If using for pizza, it is probably best to purée the sauce for ease of spreading.
I try to vary the recipe every time I make it, just to see what works. Today, for example, I used ajwain (a South Asian seed with the intense fragrance of thyme) instead of herbs, and Tasmanian mountain pepper instead of black pepper, as I'm trying to find uses for it. Paprika can be added in addition to or instead of chilli. Different colours of tomato can lead to wildly different coloured sauces (from pale gold to orange and purple). A cup of dry red or white wine can be added with the tomatoes, in which case be careful with the vinegar and sugar (they may not be necessary, depending on the wine).

Depending on the type of tomatoes you use, the cost per batch (say, 750ml finished sauce) can be as little as £1. If you grow your own, it will cost a few tens of pence. Either way, it's a great standby to have in your fridge or freezer - and making it in large batches should work out a bit cheaper.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

An Ingredient Odyssey

I went to London recently. I used to live there, with my brother, and I took advantage at the time of the opportunities to buy exotic ingredients. I am now much better educated with regard to fruits, vegetables, and spices in particular, and was hoping to get a few bits in between painting my brother's new flat.

I did well. I took my mother to the Borough Market, an old favourite of mine, and although I was mostly there as a guide, and to soak up the atmosphere before it's swept away by future redevelopment, I did see some great spices. At a stall I've not seen before, I got grains of paradise, cubeb, long pepper, black cardamom - all things I've only ever read about - and really cheap cinnamon sticks.

The next day I went to Waitrose - a supermarket that hasn't made it this far north. Although we have a similar establishment, Booths, I still saw some things I wanted: rennet, Israeli (giant/pearl) couscous, Kashmiri chillies, and dried borlotti beans. A couple of days later I popped into a fairly large Sainsbury's - a supermarket we do have here, but too far for me to get to on foot. I spotted barley couscous - something I've had before, and enjoy as an alternative to the wheat-based variety. Finally, I went to an awesome Turkish minimarket (in fact, it sells food from several cultures), and got more black cardamom (even cheaper), pomegranate molasses, citric acid, carob pods, coconut oil and something so exotic I couldn't identify it - it turned out to be terebinth, which is used by the Turks (who call it menengiç, although it was labelled "melengiç") to make a coffee-like beverage, at least according to Wikipedia. As an aside, I saw raw, untreated olives for the first time in a grocer's - goodness knows how you use them.

And today, I ordered some even more obscure spices from an online supplier - I'd only intended to get orris root (for making pomanders for the festive season), but also chose anise, Habanero chillies, Tasmanian mountain pepper leaves and berries, Madagascan wild pepper, and grains of Selim. Now the difficult but exciting task of finding recipes to incorporate them! :)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


Here is a dish I have come to via my brother. This is pretty unusual, as he's only become comfortable expanding his culinary horizons in the past few years. His girlfriend's mother is the origin of this dish, which she brought from her native Philippines. There are many variations, as a cursory glance across the internet or oriental cookery books will show, but this is adobo at its most pared-down. It is, nonetheless, balanced, pure, intense, and delicious - all essential aspects of my favourite recipes.

Tough and/or fatty meat - for preference, pork (such as belly)
White wine or sherry vinegar
Bay leaves
Black pepper

Cut the meat into roughly 1.5cm chunks. Finely chop the garlic. Combine the meat, garlic, a few bay leaves, salt and pepper, and enough vinegar to coat the meat in a bowl, but only just (say, no more than 200ml for 1kg meat). Leave to marinate for 45 minutes. Heat a pan, add the meat and juices. Simmer very gently for up to 1 1/2 hours, covered for the first hour. If the liquid boils dry, add a little water to keep it moist. Serve with rice.

The fattiness of the meat ensures it is moist - chicken breast ends up very dry, but thighs might work. If cooked long enough, fat and skin can become melting. Tougher meat is ideal, as the acidity tenderises it. Tomato purée or passata might work as an addition, mostly for colour and moisture. Don't worry about the quantity of vinegar - the finished dish is intensely savoury, but balanced, and in no way sour - but if it is not to your taste, a dash of sugar might help. Other possible additions are annatto and monosodium glutamate (which are fairly traditional, and add colour and savouriness respectively). If you like lots of sauce, do not allow to boil too dry.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

New Arrivals

So, my oven arrived, along with a fancy tap and some kitchen cupboard doors. When they will be installed is another matter...

I also got another kitchen gadget recently that I only recently realised I coveted: a mandolin. This is essentially a very sharp blade attached to a board with a narrow gap, along which you slide vegetables and fruit to cut them into thin, even slices. This one is a Benriner, a Japanese brand I've seen recommended by a good many people, and comes with three attachments that make juliennes of various thicknesses.

Everyone I told said "watch your fingers", which of course I did. But inevitably, I've injured myself - I accept this as part of the danger of using sharp blades. It was pretty spectacular; I was slicing a lime, not using the finger guard which isn't much use for most things, and I sliced about a third of the way through my forefingertip. Ouch. In leaping back in great pain, I must've caught my middle finger, which is missing the very tip. I bleed quite freely anyway, and this was no exception - I had bandages and toilet paper wrapped around my fingers for hours, and indeed even now, a couple of days later, my wounds are still leaking (plasters don't last long when you wash up as much as I do). Sadly, I'm much more wary of the thing now - not necessarily a bad thing, but I don't want to go from blasé to timid.

On a more positive note, one of the greatest successes of the mandolin so far is my quite faithful rendition of this salad, which is probably the tastiest mixture of raw vegetables I've ever tasted.

Monday, 18 January 2010

What I've been cooking 1

I've realised that one of the things that has prevented me from writing a lot on here until now has been my insistence on trying a recipe at least three times before I post it. I still think it's a good idea, partly to avoid this blog becoming a list of other people's recipes (the first attempt is usually the most faithful to the source, whereas by the third time, I've often tweaked it a bit), and partly so I knew the recipe was reproducible - not just beginner's luck. However, it's not often that I cook the same dish more than a couple of times before I move on to something else, so not much ends up on here. So, I've decided to post (roughly) weekly lists of what I've been cooking, just to give an impression of what I'm up to - and to remind myself when I have cooked something before, so I can create a post for it later.

This week I'm still on a 1200 calorie diet. I was inspired by a show on Channel 4 that finished last week, and by the fact I've gradually put weight on over the past 18 months. Counting calories isn't the healthiest way to lose weight in the long term, but it can be useful to knock off a few pounds to kick-start a better programme later on. So, some of my choices may seem a bit frugal - I won't be cooking much in the way of full-blown recipes until I finish.

Monday 18th: low-fat babaganoush (char-grilled aubergines, puréed with garlic, cumin, coriander seed, salt, pepper, and a little tahini), served with leftover home-made French bread.
Tuesday 19th: due to commitments, I was out from 7am until mid-afternoon, and then as I'd not slept the night before, I went straight to bed - so no cooking at all! (This is very unusual for me).
Wednesday 20th: my first try of shirataki (konjac noodles), stir-fried with leek, carrot, fish sauce and dashinomoto - not gourmet, but very low-calorie, if rather salty!
Thursday 21st: I marinated a salmon fillet in shiromiso ("white" miso) and sherry, then cooked udon noodles with soy sauce, wasabi and honey, then added the salmon, and some leaves.
Friday 22nd: a day off the diet, so I cooked pasta and made a creamy-cheesy salmon and pea sauce, then later had a creamy-cheesy smoked haddock and pea rice concoction (you guessed it - I was trying to use up some cheese and cream)
Saturday 23rd: A low-fat kedgeree, with smoked haddock, rice, peas, lashings of home-made garam masala, and eggs which I'd slow-cooked at 60ºC for an hour.
Sunday 24th: Beef meatballs poached in stock, with rice noodles and miso.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

A Taste of Things to Come

My beautiful new combination steam oven, arriving soon.

So I got a call a couple of days ago to tell me the kitchen parts (oven, cabinet doors, fancy tap) are being delivered in just over three weeks. That's sooner than I'd expected, because my very good friend, who I cook for and with on a regular basis, ordered her new kitchen before us, and hers won't be ready before the end of February. If I wasn't preoccupied with other things right now, I'd be even more excited than I already am!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Tomato and Parsley Sauce

Here is what has unexpectedly become one of my all-time favourite ways to serve pasta. It's so simple and low-fat, yet it packs a flavour punch that satisfies even my monstrous appetite. The recipe is Nigella's, from Forever Summer, although I've simplified it a little (as if it could be made any simpler), and below I provide a Thermomix version too.

You will need:
  • olive oil (preferably extra virgin)
  • garlic
  • tinned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes, or even passata
  • stock (one vegetable stock cube, or possibly chicken)
  • parsley

I tend not to bother with quantities in my own cooking, so I haven't included any here (but see below for a rough guide). If you make too much sauce, it will keep in the fridge for a few days, and I expect it would freeze well too.

How to make it (normal):
Peel the garlic (as much as you like). Chop, put into a pan with a little pre-heated oil. Fry gently, but take care not to burn it. Add the tomatoes (3-4 large, or half a tin/carton per person) and a crumbled stock cube, and simmer for a while. Roughly chop the parsley, around a handful per person, and add to the sauce. Stir to combine, and pour over the pasta of your choice.

How to make it (Thermomix):
Peel the garlic, add to the bowl with a little oil. Speed 4-5 for a few seconds to chop and combine. Fry 1-2 minutes at 100ºC, speed 1. Add the tomatoes and a stock cube, and cook for 5-8 minutes, Varoma temperature. Add a handful of parsley per person and blitz, speed 6, for a few seconds, until chopped and combined. Stir into pasta.

The combination of flavours is just excellent - although some people might regard the use of instant stock as cheating. Health-wise, the only added fat is the olive oil, and the rest is very low-calorie vegetables (though it's not low in salt, given the stock). Anyway, the main reason for eating this is simply that it tastes so good! It's a great example of a vegetarian dish that really doesn't need any meat added.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Changes Coming

A quick post to say, I'm getting a new kitchen soon! This should revolutionise my life, as I've been making do with half an old, broken, decrepit one for too long. It means I shall begin posting more frequently, and including photographs with my recipes, too.

Asian Improvisation

I selected a few recipes to make in the first half of this month, mostly from Delicious magazine back-issues and my new Rick Stein book (Far Eastern Odyssey). I stocked up on meat, some vegetables, spices and SE Asian speciality ingredients, and then promptly ignored half the recipes.

So I had a chicken, and decided to create my own Asian broth rather than follow a recipe. It's a first attempt, and therefore somewhat less polished than my normal posts, but it's good enough for me to want to record it here for future reference.

1 medium chicken
1 stick celery, chopped
2 sprigs fresh green peppercorns
2-3 star anise
2 large lemongrass stems, peeled, topped and tailed, and chopped
2 large cloves garlic, squashed but not peeled
4-5 cloves
2cm stick cinnamon, crushed
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 large bay leaf
3-4cm root ginger, peeled and chopped
2-3 lesser galangal roots, chopped but not peeled
1 tbsp dried shrimp
2 limes
1 hot chilli (I used Scotch bonnet), halved
fish sauce
chestnut or shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1/4 white cabbage (or pak choi, water spinach or other bland leafy vegetable), thinly sliced
1/2 packet rice noodles (I used pad thai)
2-3 spring onions, finely chopped
palm sugar or light brown sugar
sweet chilli sauce to serve

Put the chicken into a large pan. Add the celery, green and black pepper, spices, lemongrass, garlic, bay leaf, ginger and galangal, and dried shrimp, but not the chilli (unless you want it to be very hot). Add enough cold water to cover the chicken.

Bring to the boil, cover the pan and simmer for 1-1/2 hours, until the chicken meat starts to fall off the bone.

Remove the chicken carefully, set aside. Strain the soup, return to the pan. Add the chilli, continue simmering. Taste regularly, and when it has reached the desired level of hotness, remove the chilli.

Meanwhile, remove the meat from the chicken and shred with forks. Season the soup with fish sauce, the juice of the limes, and the sugar, to taste. Add the cabbage and mushrooms, and return the shredded meat to the pan. Simmer until the cabbage is almost tender, then add the noodles.

Serve when the noodles are tender, sprinkled with spring onion and chilli sauce.