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.