Tuesday, 29 December 2009


Freakin' spheroidal pancakes. Big deal. How does this novelty dish from your local Danish Culture Heritage Society make it into the hallowed pages of Frangykitchen? Well, it's like this.

A few months ago, my sister gave me some chokecherry syrup, which was given to her by Jim, her ex-boyfriend from when they were in their 20s. The jar was dated 2006 and it was one of the last jars put away by Jim's mom before she died. I remember tagging along as the little brother and visiting with Jim's family in Montana and picking baskets of wild chokecherries, which are astringent and scarcely edible when picked but can become indescribably transcendent as preserves—jam, compote, and syrup. "Can become" is the key here because not all chokecherry preserves are so great. Patsy tells me that Jim sends her chokecherry jams every once in a while (he still lives in Billings), but his are nowhere near as good as his mom's. [Don't tell Jim, though, and I'm counting on the dilution factor of one tiny post in the entirety of the blogosphere to keep this our little secret.] And so this is how I came to possess a very special half-pint jar of seemingly irreproducible delicacy. Maybe someday I'll make it my mission to rediscover the secrets of producing good chokecherry syrup, but for now I just need a worthy means of consuming it. That's part one.

Last week, my mom has me and a couple of friends over for a session of hard labor—moving around furniture, cleaning, etc. and we come across an old box with a nearly brand-spanking new cast-iron ebelskiver pan. Apparently Mom picked it up on one of their trips to Solvang, which is apparently something that my family used to do before I was born. Sure enough, Patsy remembers this, but I don't. No big—I've been to Solvang and know that I didn't miss out on much. I'm not a culture nut and never have been. Mom says that she used the pan exactly twice before putting it into storage. I asked if I could borrow it, and she said I could have it. It looked brand new. There's no way that this pan could have produced decent anything. With no seasoning of the bare metal, any food would stick like crazy.

Cast iron is my favorite cookware for many kinds of foods. Properly seasoned, it browns foods forming a beautiful crust that will generally detach nicely from the surface. So it is relatively non-stick, though in order to achieve this property you need to use adequate fat, the pan needs to be hot, and the cook must be patient, allowing enough time for the crust-forming to occur before moving the food. After cooking and while the pan is still hot, a quick wipe-down is all the cleaning that should occur, and if there is anything sticking to the pan, a bit of hot water can be used to loosen the little crusties before wiping them out. Under no circumstances should this pan be scrubbed with detergent, as this will remove the seasoning.

So what exactly is this seasoning? And faced with a brand-new, bare metal pan, how does one put on this seasoning? In my understanding, the coating is derived mostly from fats from the previous several cookings, chemically altered with heat and exposure to the iron surface so that it bonds with the metal and also thickens and semi-hardens to coat the metal. It's kind of a dynamic coating—each time you cook, a little bit of the fats gets incorporated into the coating while a little bit of the coating is lost by burning off.

To season a new pan, there are several methods, and you can find all of them on the Internet. The one that I have used involves washing the pan very well, coating it with oil and baking it, then letting it cool and repeating the process a few times. The result is a very attractive, shiny, orange-brown coating that in my experience has a tendency to peel at real cast-iron cooking temperatures, and is therefore little better (if not worse) than no coating at all.

My philosophy is that you have to develop the seasoning with use. In the case of the ebelskiver pan, I used a little extra oil in both the pan and the batter, and I just accepted that the first batch would stick until it became over-brown (i.e. burnt, but the dogs didn't mind). The second batch would be a little better. And by the time I put on the third batch of ebelskiver the result would be somewhat edible, which is a good thing because the dogs were getting rather sick of them.

After a week of daily use, the pan is finally seasoned and is making pretty nice ebelskiver. For a really good batter recipe, go to Karen's post on pancakes and follow the instructions, but add a generous tablespoon of melted butter for every 2/3 cup of batter, which should be on the thick side. The pan must be pre-heated over a low fire—hot, though not smoking—and about half a teaspoon of oil in each of the cups should be swirled around before adding the batter.

The trick to cooking ebelskiver is the all-important quarter-turn. Once the batter has had a crusted to a light golden color, I use a wooden skewer to help detach the 'skivers from the pan before giving them a partial turn. The cooked hemispheres should now be vertical with one lip straight up and the other at the bottom of the cup. In the meantime the loose batter should run out to fill the half of the cup that was vacated. At this point they kind of look like three-D pac-men. Once you have a nice crust on the bottom of the pac-men, give them another partial turn so that their mouths are straight down. Once crusted and golden all over, they are finally ready to take on the syrup made by the now-deceased mother of my sister's ex-boyfriend.

Thursday, 24 December 2009


* The foie gras recipe is listed under an older posting, which you can look up on the search engine


*this post is dedicated to the memory of Carmen Chavez, who not only made the best tamales in the world, she also shared all her methods with my mom, who imparted them to me.

As much as fried foods are drenched in Hanukkah tradition (see my previous post), no food speaks out the "reason for the Xmas season" as boldly as the tamale. Maybe it's just me. Being neither Jewish nor Christian, maybe I find myself looking for a meaningful anchor in the holiday season other than a baby in a pig trough unknowingly destined to becoming the most insidious icon of zombie worship in human history. Whatever. I just like good tamales, and truly good tamales are practically impossible to come by unless you make them yourself.

A tamale (and I shall use "tamale" for the singular rather than the more proper "tamal," just because) consists of an inedible skin of some kind—I will use corn husk, or hoja, but I've seen banana leaves used to great effect as well as parchment—wrapped around a cylinder of corn-based dough, the masa, which is filled with something truly tasty. There are no constraints on what one can use as tamale filling. Karen's froggy readers may be tempted to incorporate lardons and duck confit, while those in Kiwiland will want to try a lamb concoction or perhaps chopped-up pavlova for a dessert tamale. While I have no problems with innovation, the pork-and-red-chile mixture is both classic and (to me) the best. For anyone crazy enough to jump into the culture of tamale-making from having read just this post, I strongly recommend starting by mastering the red chile tamales. Later on you can do your cherry and foie gras tamale wrapped in fig leaf (which I think could be delicious!).

There are three parts to the process of tamale-making: preparation of the masa, preparation of the filling, and assembly/cooking. Not one of them is particularly easy, although short cuts are available.

"Masa regular" is dough made from corn, water and lye and is available at most Mexican supermarkets (especially during the holiday season) as well as at your local tortilleria. This is what you use to make your own corn tortillas at home—take a ball of the stuff right from the package (it's the consistency of Play-Doh), smash it flat in your tortilla press and cook on a hot comal (I use a cast iron skillet). But for tamales, the cooked masa needs to be soft and fluffy rather than sturdy and chewy (which are desirable qualities in corn tortillas), and so we need a transubstantiation even more profound than the Roman Catholic conversion of communion crackers into the body of the boy in the pig trough. No mysticism is required here, though. This transformation takes place with the addition of prodigious quantities of lard (which is said to work in mysterious ways. Mm hmm.)

Ten pounds of masa to three pounds of lard comes out about right. I'll add a handful of sea salt as well, and then start to mix. This part is a lot of work unless you have some kind of giant machine doing it for you (I don't). You have to mix it really well, and even then the masa isn't quite finished yet—a bit of juice from the roast pork will be added to soften the masa just before the assembly step.

I mentioned that there are short cuts, and the one that might make some sense is to purchase the masa pre-mixed with lard and water, ready-to-use for tamale-making. Personally, I don't go for this, as I want better control over the mixture. I find that the pre-mixed masa cooks up too dry (not enough lard), too salty, and flavorless because they use plain water instead of jus from a roast to soften the dough. Taste just the masa from any large-scale tamale production (even the "home-made" tamale sellers) and you'll know what I mean.

The filling requires a lot of roasted pork and a chile base. I start by cutting a large pork shoulder into slabs and sprinkling the meat liberally with kosher salt and dry rub consisting of cayenne, garlic powder and onion powder. Into a roasting pan and into the oven at 350°F for a couple of hours, turning every so often. When it's kinda brown and has had a chance to braise a bit in its own juices, pull the meat out of the oven and put the meat pieces onto a plate to cool and strain the pan juices—you'll need this to finish the masa.

For red-chile tamale filling the only kind of chile is the kind from New Mexico. Other varieties—California included—are more prone to discoloration and can result in a tamale filling that is more brown than red, which is a visual disappointment. I start by popping the stem end off of the chile, checking for mold, and shaking out most of the seeds—no need to be anal about this. Then a quick toast on each side in a smoking hot iron skillet, and then into a pot with a head's worth of garlic cloves. Just enough water to cover, then simmer for about half an hour, pushing the chiles under continually—the point here is to rehydrate them.

Now fish the chiles out with tongs, letting the water drain back into the pan. Throw out the water, which should have a good bit of dirt that came off the chiles. Blend the chiles with some clean water, the garlic (fished out from the chile water) until fairly smooth. Run this through a food mill to get rid of all those nasty bits of skin as well as any remaining seeds. What you should have now is a chile puree that is thick and beautifully bright red. Put this into a large sauté pan or wok with a slug of lard, and "fry" the sauce for a bit. Add ground cumin and ground oregano (not a lot of either, but about twice as much cumin as oregano) and salt to taste. The flavor should be brilliant.

Back to the pigmeat. I'm assuming it's cooked and cooled by this point. Separate the muscle from the fat, and throw the fat out. Cut the meat into cubes and with your bare hands crush the cubes to separate out the muscle fibers and break the pieces into smaller bits—remember that you can't use gigantic hunks of meat in tamales—and drop the meat into the red chile. Mix it all well and taste it. Add seasonings to make it perfect.

If you're like me, you are dead tired after all this, and so you put off the last (and most time-consuming) step for the day after. Before retiring, however, you should do a final mix on a bit of masa—just enough to make one tamale (complete with filling and hoja) and cook it. There's going to be a lot of time invested into these tamales, and if further adjustment is necessary, now is the time to find out (as opposed to after having made a few dozen). This is also a good time to take the hojas out of their packaging for an overnight soak in hot tap water.

The hojas need to be cleaned of debris, such as dried corn silk, under running water. Toss out any leaves that are mildewy, ripped, holy (I meant as in "with holes," but you can throw out any Holy leaves you find as well) or otherwise defective. Frugal people will try to make use of all the leaves, but hell these things are cheap. Buy an extra bag and throw out the cheesy ones. Put the clean hojas vertically to drain—just make sure to use them before they dry out.

Put some of the masa you worked so hard to mix into a bowl. Add a bit of the meat juice—it helps if you warm this up some—and mix. The idea here is to soften the masa into a more workable consistency so that it's easier to spread onto the hoja. Should be about like a heavy hummus. Or if you do work around the house, like a nice spreadable plaster.

The actual making of the tamale is the part where this whole entire project finally has some meaning. It takes some skill—think of this as a warm-up for the sushi rolls I'll eventually be posting here. You have to spread the right amount and right thickness of masa to completely enclose the filling, allowing for the small amount of oozing that will occur in both directions once you start to shape the roll into a cylinder. After the rolling is complete, put the "seam" up and tuck the tapered side of the hoja under, leaving no airspace between the fold and the masa.

The first ones may come out with too much masa or uneven filling—that's okay. Just steam them up right away and take them to your neighbors, who will be flabbergasted by your industry and generosity. With any luck this may buy you an extra two weeks before they start complaining again about the dogs barking.

Oh—and another thing about the tamale assembly, and this is very important. Don't invite or even allow anyone to help you. It's way more work to oversee someone else's tamale-making than it is to make several dozen on your own. After a brief learning curve, your tamales will become perfectly cylindrical, consistent in size, and beautiful reflections of the person who has had a hand in every step of their creation, unlike what you would get from some last-minute interloper who is joining the party just when it becomes fun. So yeah, humbug, I guess. Ignore this advice at your own peril.

For as long as the masa is raw, the tamales should be kept in a more or less vertical pose. They should also be steamed with the open side up—about 50 minutes—but you can place them horizontally after they are cooked and the masa is set. Tamales are at their best moments after they come from the pot. If you make very large tamales (mine are definitely on the thin side with relatively more filling and less masa than what is typical), additional cooking time may be necessary. Uncooked masa is just gross-tasting. If you're not sure about cooking time, throw in an extra tamale or two to pull out as a tester—be aware that right out of the steamer, fully cooked masa will be softer than what you might expect, but it will still taste cooked.

Uncooked tamales freeze very nicely. Share generously with people you care about, and put away a bunch for later. Steaming hot tamales will be delightful for those days when the weather outside is frightful.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Yet another lunch with Sophie ...

Well, Margo was off in Lyon yesterday and today, so after Carrefour (where, with great restraint, I refrained from killing any of the silly old cows who run over your feet with their shopping trolleys) and the market (where I also managed to avoid doing too much damage, despite the presence of people in festive costumes trying to hand out messages of good cheer to all and sundry) I headed off to Sophie's, where we started off the day with a seriously good Bordeaux, looking out at the wannabe snow that was plooshing sullenly from the clouds about three meters above our heads.

Bloody miserable weather, in fact: cold, grey, damp and dismal. Sort of thing that makes me want to eat a good boeuf bourguignon or fluffy pork croquettes in gravy - unfortunately these are things that you really need to do ahead of time, and it's been fine and sunny all week. Until now, of course. So all I had about my person was a couple of slices of fillet and some veal chops.

Now Sophie's always protested that she doesn't really like red meat: in fact, what she doesn't like is raw red meat. Which means that she's oblivious to the delights of a rare steak, which is rather sad really. On the other hand, she is a Bressane, which means that she's accustomed to vast quantities of cream, so it was a bit of a no-brainer: I decided that the obvious thing to do was re-offend with filet de boeuf Woronoff where, as I've told you before in rather more detail, the meat gets poached in cream. (And other things, but that's beside the point.)

So that was lunch for the adults decided on, now just needed to decide on something for the two walking midden pits (or adolescents, as some call them). Having veal chops, cream and an apple to hand, the answer was pretty clear: côtes de veau Normande.

This is another of those appallingly simple recipes that really don't deserve the name, which is rather embarrassing but here goes anyway.

First of all, turn the oven on. You'll need it for the meat, and you might as well peel some potatoes, cut them into chunks and roll them around in hot oil before sticking them in to roast. If, that is, you prefer that to the more traditional (read "boring") accompaniment of rice or plain noodles. Whatever. Now, get out your trusty frying pan and heat it up: stick in a good chunk of butter and when that's sizzling, brown the veal chops on both sides.

I would strongly suggest that you not use a non-stick pan for this. Nice as they are, they do have one major defect: nothing sticks to them, so there'll be no caramelised sucs (brown crispy bits, if you prefer) to be incorporated into the sauce. Which would be a shame.

When the chops are nicely golden, slosh some calva over and flambé them. Calvados, incidentally, is the Norman apple brandy: if you can't get that ordinary cognac will do, or scotch if you prefer. In any case, and whatever your taste in alcohol, once that's done you should remove the chops from the pan and put them in a baking dish just large enough to hold them comfortably. Then pour about 20 cl of cream into the pan and bring it to a simmer, scraping up all the brown crispy bits with a spatula so that they dissolve. The cream should start to thicken a bit, so slosh in another shot-glass of calva, stir it well and then pour the whole lot over the chops. Cover the dish with tinfoil and bung it in the oven: it'll be ready in about 30 minutes.

Now give the pan to an adolescent, along with a chunk of bread: this will clean it, ready for the next step. Which is where you core and peel an apple (Granny Smith or something similar) and cut it into 5mm slices. Then get some more butter bubbling in the pan and fry the apple slices until they too go golden, at which point you should sprinkle them with sugar on both sides and carry on cooking gently until that caramelises.

When that's done - hopefully about 5 minutes before you plan on eating - remove the chops from the oven and stick a couple of apple slices on each one. Notice how the cream sauce has thickened nicely? Anyway, put the foil back on top and put the whole lot back in the oven (which you can probably turn off now) until you're ready to go. And just before you serve it, it would be a good idea to sprinkle it with heaps of chopped parsley.

Between the beef and the veal we had serious amounts of cream sauce, not that I need have worried. It's rare to see the stuff disappear so quickly, even with the help of a couple of baguettes. And Sophie swore she loved the meat, and for a fact she wasn't sharing with anyone.

And for dessert? Can't do better than a tarte tatin, can you? Especially if you have some cream left over to go with it.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Frying Fun

Tonight is the start of Hanukkah, and one continent + one ocean away, my friend Karen is frying latkes already, because it is evening over where she is (the nether regions of hell), and her original plans of verdure in pastella were scuttled by an absence of decent produce on a December morning in Frangy. I had my fried veggies last night in the mixed tempura at our local izakaya (okay, with a couple of bits of treyf as tasty add-ons), in anticipation of this greasiest of culinary holidays, the festival of fried foods.

Hanukkah eats rival the faire of county fairs in the U.S. in terms of oil-soaked deliciousness. Sufganyiot, bumuelos, and latkes fit right in alongside things like funnel cake and deep-fried avocados. There is some sort of significance of oil in the origins of the holiday, but nowadays it's really just about the frying. Here are a couple of faves from my house.

Wonton. This is crazy good stuff and incredibly easy. Pick up some skins at any market carrying asian stuff, and make ravioloni with pretty much whatever filling you want—anything you pick will taste pretty good inside a fried wonton skin. (I used a filling that was based on ground pork. No, not too kosher.)

Poofy chips. These start out like smallish, plastic-y discs or rectangles of mostly dehydrated rice paste, but when they hit the oil, they curl up and then unfurl into enormous, feather-light crisps of crunchy fried air. Eaten immediately after frying, the moisture content is so low that they crackle when they hit the moisture of the tongue. I've got shrimp-flavored and tempeh-blended ones in the pics.

So whip out the gallon jugs of oil. Now. 'Tis the season to be frying!

Latkas - potato pancakes

Happy Hanukkah!
For those who may not already know this, Hanukkah is an 8 day festival of feasting. Tonight is the first night, and a Sabbath, and I've got my stepdaughters, so obviously I'm making latkas. Every year we have a latkafest: tons of latkas, served with sour cream & homemade apple sauce, accompanied by a green salad.
Latkas are simple to make, although there is a certain art to it. Some people like them soft, some crispy in consistency. Others like them mashed or shredded in texture. Plain or with onions & herbs? Mine are crispy, shredded, chocked with onion & sprinkled with herbs.

Tips: As I write, I'm frying up the latkas, since I actually want to spend time with the family, not in the kitchen frying at the last minute. They can be made ahead of time, then reheated in an oven, even refrigerated or frozen.
Use the following as a guideline. Much depends on the starchyness of the potatoes, so add flour as necessary. For a main course for 6 people I use about 3 lbs of potatoes.

1 lb potatoes
1 onion
1 egg
2 tbs flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
salt & pepper
pinch nutmeg
herbs to taste: parsely, rosemary, thyme, sage...
oil for frying

Shred potatoes. Press into a colander, squeezing out as much water as possible (I do it by hand).
Add thinly sliced onion and all the rest of the ingredients.
Let sit while heating oil in a large pan.
With a slotted spoon, scoop out mixture, trying to drain any excess liquid (this is inevitable: if too liquid, add some flour, but not so much to make the latkas crunchy). Oil should be hot!
Place in oil, pressing gently (remember hot oil tends to bubble!) on the mixture. When edges brown, turn over with the aid of two utensils.
Place fried latkas on a dish lined with paper towels or brown bags to absorb excess oil.
Serve with condiments.

To reheat, place on a cookie sheet in warm oven.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

French-style Chinese rubber chicken ...

Well, this is one I haven't done for a long time. Don't even know why it popped into my head this morning after all these years, if it wasn't that all the chickens I could see as I prowled around Carrefour seemed to be rubber ones.

And what the hell was I doing roaming in a hypermarket in the lead-up to Christmas? A bloody good question, which I shall ignore. Well, actually, not. The parent-teacher meeting at Jeremy's lycée took all morning (and despite arriving on time I still didn't get to meet a single one of his teachers) so I missed the market and was consequently obliged to buy things elsewhere. Which gave me no pleasure, but there you are. The things we do for our kids.

Anyway, I didn't want turkey, nor goose, nor duck, and the only alternative seemed to be these flaccid-looking corpses that seemed vaguely related to chickens, doubtless forking off the family tree a few million years ago - whatever, the sight triggered one of the few remaining neurons in the back left of what we shall charitably call my brain, which duly obliged by bringing forth the memory of what follows. Which is not, let it be said, too foul - and if all you happen to have is, in fact, rubber chicken, it will at least be edible.

I am assuming that you have a large, sharp knife; you will want this to cut the birdbeast up. Like, take the legs off and then cut them in two at the joint, remove the wings with a decent bit of breast meat still attached, then slice the carcasse in two horizontally (giving you back and breast), fling out the back (or turn it into stock if that turns you on) and cut the breast into four chunks.

So far so good, and now would be a good time to get the marinade ready. Luckily this is not difficult, involving as it does no more than mixing together 1 tsp cornflour, 4 tbsp lemon juice, 4 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp honey, and as much garlic, ginger, five-spice powder and Tabasco sauce as you feel up to. Pour all that over the chicken pieces (which I hope for your sake are in a bowl and not still sitting on the chopping board) and set aside for half an hour or so.

During which you're pretty much on your own. Personally, I went down to the garden and poured a bit of diesel down the chimney pipes from the woodburner in the kitchen and set fire to it: not only is it fun (flames everywhere!) but it doubtless contributes to global warming (I would like to actually see some of that, please), increases my carbon footprint, and burns off the accumulated tar which would otherwise cause a chimney fire. Which you don't want, believe me.

Whatever you get up to, and quite frankly I don't want to know, once done it's time to get the meat in the oven. But just before you do that, get some vegetables ready. Some leeks, sliced thinly, would be good, as would be sliced brussels sprouts with scallion and red pepper. Add some broccoli flowerets, why not? And bring out a tin of bean sprouts from the pantry.

This is going to be cooked en papillotte - in this case, in paper. So you're going to need a large plate, and enough grease-proof paper to enclose the chicken bits. After which it's simple enough. Put the paper on the plate and put the chicken pieces on top. Spread the vegetables over and pour the marinade on top, then flip the other half of the paper over to cover, fold the edges over to seal (don't be ashamed to use a stapler. I do) and stick it the oven for an hour.

Despite having started off with something with no flavour and the texture of a six-month's dead otter, the end-result is more or less guaranteed to be delicious. Tender, subtly-spiced, and a vague taste of something that brings chicken to mind. Plain steamed rice with it is perfect, why try to complicate things?

Sunday, 29 November 2009


This started out as a caciucco alla livornese, a hearty fish stew from Livorno, but then I realized that I've never actually eaten caciucco or even been to Livorno, though I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted this stew to taste like. I have had triglie alla livornese—red mullet stewed in a tomato base—which I liked a lot, and my very Swiss-Milanese grandmother-in-law noted to me that while the triglie were good, the little bony dudes were a lot of work, and the caciucco was something that she liked a lot more. She was not known for liking to work very hard for anything.

So although Adri is a hard worker, she somehow inherited Nonna Elsa's appreciation for boneless seafood, and although I actually doubt that any real caciucco has ever been so carefully relieved of bones, this is the way it would need to be for tonight's meal. Oh, and Adri really likes clams, too, so I'm buying some of them as well. [Weather and tides won't let me go looking for wild ones today.]

The impetus for this little idea was a brace of scorfani (scorpionfish) that I brought home from a wintertime fishing trip. Lo scorfano basically cries out "make soup," and it isn't just me who thinks this. There's no ingredient more indispensible for any European-style fish stew (from zuppa di pesce to bouillabaisse) than some kind of scorpionfish or poisson rouge. The flesh is excellent on its own, but the stock made from the bones and head is simply the very best fish stock possible.

I began by gutting and thoroughly rinsing the three scorfani (plus one treefish—a bonus catch), from which I then cut completely boneless fillets. Clean heads, bones, and skin went into a pot and the fillets into the fridge. To the fish in the pot, I added cold water, salt, a handful of slightly smooshed garlic cloves, and put this on gentle heat to simmer for about an hour. After that, I strained out the stock through a colander, and then through a fine-mesh strainer.

This fish base is enriched with a tomato mixture, which started as a sofrito (I use the Spanish spelling of this word, just to frustrate my spouse) of olive oil, onions, garlic and a small potato that's been diced, to which I added a box of diced tomatoes and let reduce for a bit, then added it to the fish stock and then blended things somewhat with my new wand-type blender. Tasted it—rich but a bit tame, so I added a teaspoon of a paste made from peperoncini from Calabria—this is basically a sambal oelek with an Italian and not Asian flavor. At this point I've got a red stew base that is rich in flavor and somewhat thickened by the potatoes in the sofrito. But more potatoes are needed for the stew, so a couple more are cut into bite-sized chunks and simmered in the pot for a few minutes.

While the second round of potatoes are cooking, I wrestled with the clams. I got littlenecks, which are pretty large clams, and my plan was to open them and put them in at the last minute with the fish. But damned, these things were clammed shut, and I couldn't get my knife in between the valves. Only one thing to do—cook them until the adductor muscles detached from one of the shells and the clams started to open. This added time to the prep, but this is still better than having the clams with their massive shells in the caciucco. Anyways, once I got the clams out of their shells and added them and the scorfano fillets to the stew, the potatoes were very tender.

After about four minutes (the time it took to set the table and call in the spouse for dinner) the soup was ready.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

What kind of pie?

Corn on the cob and sweet potatoes—two foods that most European-types I know don't love (my spouse is an exception). My father-in-law calls both "pig fodder," but then again he will eat polenta no prob, but then again he is from Milan so I guess eating swine chow is okay if it's dried and milled. I'm also pretty sure that it's dried corn that they pump through the feeding tubes (calorie-bongs?) used in fattening waterfowl livers for foie gras, and so the French are consumers of lots of corn as well, if somewhat less directly than the Milanese. But fresh sweet corn is a wonderful thing, and if the Europeans aren't eating it, then fine—there's more for us. This is exactly what Karen said when I told her that a post on sweet potato pie would not be of much interest to her yankee-expat followers who are cooking for European spouses and their families.

As far as flavor is concerned, I don't think it really matters which variety of sweet potato gets used, but the kind that is bright orange is the classic. A sweet potato pie made from a white- or yellow- flesh variety would look pretty non-traditional. Since these potatoes come in some pretty irregular shapes (usually very thick in the middle, tapering to narrow ends), I start by cutting them into uniform sized pieces that will cook in the same amount of time. I drop them into boiling, salted water and simmer them until they're done—about 15 minutes, depending on how big the pieces are. Then I drain them in a colander, and while they're hot, I remove the skins and run them through a potato ricer. This will leave a small amount of fiber-y stuff in the mash, which I prefer to eliminate by running it through a food mill (this can be done after the mash has cooled).

A classic American pie crust is your basic short crust with the difference that the butter is not quite fully incorporated into the flour. The tiny chunks of butter flatten out between the flattened bits of dough, and this is what makes a flaky (rather than crumbly) crust. I make mine with about two sticks of cold butter (roughly 400 grams, salted of course) which I cut into a good measure of flour (three cups? Sounds about right.) with a pastry knife (which is really a sort of round-bottom potato masher) until the butter is almost but not quite fully blended with the flour. Then I mix in some really cold water (about a quarter-cup) with a wooden spoon just until the moisture is uniformly distributed and the dough actually resembles a dough. Then I wrap the dough in plastic and throw it in the fridge for a couple of hours. Then I roll out a huge circle of dough—there's much more than what's needed for one pie, so I cut off all but a generous inch of overhang after putting it in the pie tin. The rest can go back in the fridge for some other creation. The overhang gets rolled and crimped and I prick the bottom a few times with a fork. Then this gets covered with plastic again and thrown in the fridge. I know that this sounds pretty complicated and pie crusts can be pretty intimidating at first, but you just have to make it a few times and then it's not such a big deal.

My pie filling is a can of sweetened condensed milk (I think the standard size in the U.S. is about 7 or 8 ounces), three eggs, a bit of ground ginger (the dried stuff, not the fresh stuff), a bit of nutmeg, and about two cups of the cooled sweet potato mash. After homogenizing all this you'll need to add sugar—how much is needed will depend on how sweet the potatoes were (and there's quite a lot of variation in sugar content) and how sweet you like your pie. I like using superfine (baker's) sugar for this, but I suppose regular granulated would work, too. Need a rough estimate for starters? Maybe about half a cup. I typically add a bit more sugar than what tastes right when I'm making the filling, since I find that the final product usually ends up not sweet enough when I add sugar just to taste.

The filling should now be thick but pourable. Remove the crust from the fridge, fill and bake at 350°F (175°C) for about 45 minutes to an hour until the crust is golden and the filling is puffing up but not quite browning. If you have extra filling, I suggest filling a couple of ramekins and baking them along with the pie—this makes a nice pudding—but the cooking time may be a little different from the pie.

This is a pie that should be thoroughly cooled before serving (otherwise the spices you added may be overpowering), so making this pie the day before the big dinner is both wise and gets one more dessert out of the way.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Cream puffs

Those of you who grew up with me (yes, that includes grad school friends, let's face it) will probably remember the killer cream puffs. So here's the recipe (happy now, you who shall remain nameless????!!!!):

1 stick of butter (real butter, no substitutes!)
1 cup water
1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
4 eggs

1. It's essential to use precise measurements & follow directions scrupulously or these will be cement puffs

Preheat oven to a high-medium heat.
Melt butter in water. DO NOT BOIL.
Take pot off heat, add the flour with salt ALL AT ONCE. With wooden spoon quickly mix & form into a ball.
Let mixture cool 10 minutes.
Beat in eggs ONE AT A TIME.
Spoon onto a cookie sheet, leaving an inch between.
Place in oven. DO NOT OPEN DOOR!
After 20 minutes, turn heat down to medium.
When pastry is golden remove from oven and place puffs on a cooling rack.
If hermetically sealed, the puffs will keep up to 5 days.

Fillings: whipped cream, custard, ice cream.....
Glaze: sugar, caramel, chocolate.....

Thanksgiving turkey & stuffing

Although my kids were raised here in France, Thanksgiving is a tradition in our family (celebrated the following Sunday, as obviously it is not a holiday here). Here the turkey has to be ordered ahead of time from the butcher or producer, which means it's really fresh and PC. Usually we celebrate with another expat family, which means I share the cooking, but this year it's just us (8-10, not counting the dogs).

So the following is my traditional menu:
-Chestnut stuffing
-Cranberry sauce with orange
-Oven baked yams
-Pumpkin pie

Side dishes depend on whatever fresh produce is available.

The day before I rub garlic-herb butter under the skin of the turkey, then put it covered in the fridge. Just chop up fresh herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, etc) and blend into room temperature salted butter, along with about 4 crushed cloves of garlic.
Take the turkey out of the fridge about an hour before cooking. Add stuffing.
Preheat oven to high. Calculate cooking time to 20 minutes/lb + 20 min
Massage salt & pepper into the skin of the turkey. Splash some olive oil or melted butter with white wine on it & place in oven.
Baste the turkey with its juices about every 20 minutes. Add more wine as necessary.
After about 30-40 minutes (depending on the size of the turkey), turn the heat down to medium.
Continue basting! If the turkey seems to dry, cover with foil until the last 30-40 minutes.
For browning, turn the oven back on high for the last 10-20 minutes. Then turn off heat & let sit 5-10 minutes before serving.

Chestnut stuffing
For the stuffing I toast dried bread as if making croutons. Just cut it in chunks and grill. I chop the chestnuts into large chunks as well. Modify according to taste!
Tip: the stuffing can be made ahead of time. In which case, add the egg just before inserting into the turkey.

1 lb cooked chestnuts or chestnut purée
1 large onion
1/2 loaf of dried bread or 2 cups bread crumbs
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 egg for binding
(livers & other meats may be added to the recipe)

In a large saucepan sautée onion and celery. Add chestnuts & splash of wine. Add parsely & season according to taste. Add bread. Turn off heat and let cool.
Add beaten egg, then proceed to stuff the turkey.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

If it quacks like a duck ...

Today I am not a happy camper. I have spent two hours on the phone trying to get France Telecom to send the bills for the home phone/internet to the office, and getting the actual billing account details changed to the business account. As was supposed to have been done when I took the contracts out, back in June.

This means I have spent two hours variously on hold, being shuttled between the "professional" and "particuliers" services (because apparently a professional account cannot be tied to a domestic phone, godnose how I managed to get the contracts set up but it didn't seem to worry them at the time), being cut off just as I'm to be transferred to someone who might be able to help ...

I would really like to kill someone. Preferably rather slowly, and it would probably involve roasting in my huge oven and perhaps some of the less-used kitchen implements around here. (I'm thinking maybe the butter curler, and perhaps the peculiar Device for removing the strings from celery stalks.) Best, perhaps, not to dream, and just say WTF. Which, as David Lebovitz pointed out, does not mean what you think. It's just the acronym for "Welcome To France", which just about says it all.

Anyway, I annoyed Sophie a week back by turning up at midday on Saturday and getting a perfect roast chicken ready. Well, annoyed is perhaps not the word (in fact, fâchée is, at least in Frog), more gênée, or embarassed. OK, she was in fact fâchée because she'd told me not to do anything (in my defense, let it be said that it was more of a recommendation than an outright order), and gênée because she worries what people might think - a semi-divorced woman being catered for by a married man! Shock, horror. I did point out that, if ever pressed on the matter, she could claim that the food was crap and therefore didn't count - not entirely successful as arguments go, but as she polished off the second drumstick we agreed to speak no more of the matter.

And in future, I will not turn up with unannounced food. Not even a chicken, which requires sod-all in the way of preparation and attention to become an object of desire. Just rubbing a decent spice mix onto the flesh under the skin and then into the oven for an hour or so ... bliss. Add some roast potatoes and a good salad and I'm yours. Especially if there's a Côtes de Languedoc to go with it.

Be that as it may, she did say that she wouldn't mind trying a bit of duck one day. Which is a rather treacherous admission coming from a Bressane (that would be someone from the Bresse region) where the chicken is king. Along with cream. One of these days, I'll get Sophie to give me her grandmother's recipe for poulet de Bresse à la crême and just maybe I'll share it.

Whatever, maybe I've corrupted her but she's getting these urges for red meat, and duck's a good way to get into that. And one of the best ways to have duck would have to be cuisses de canard confites, aka ducks legs cooked in their own fat until they fall apart.

One of the best recipes I've ever come across for this sort of thing comes from Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman. I'm not going to give it to you because I actually bought a copy with my very own money and you can damn well go and do the same, but I will tell you that it involves a brief salting with orange peel, cinnamon and star anise before the actual act of confiture ... I can see you dribble, you know.

On the down-side you do need to start it about three days in advance, which is not always an option. But a simple confit takes only a couple of hours (OK, maybe three) and is quite excellent.

Basically, all you need is some ducks legs. And a bottle of wine, or maybe two. A Côtes du Rhône, or a decent something from the Gers. Some potatoes and a few leeks would be good too.

First of all, put a good solid frying pan on the heat and open the first bottle of wine. None needs to be reserved for the actual cooking, so serve yourself liberally. When the pan's good and hot, turn the heat down and fling in the duck legs, skin side down. They will probably spit: so would you, under the circumstances. Give them half an hour or so like that: at the end of this time the skin should be crispy-brown and there'll be about a half-inch of duck fat in the pan. So turn the heat down as low as it goes and turn the legs over.

After another half-hour (during which I hope you've been paying attention to the wine) the meat will be well-cooked but will not as yet have achieved confit. So turn it over again, put a lid on top (or tinfoil, if you've no lid), and leave it for an hour. During which you could definitely drink, discuss whatever comes to mind, or maybe get a dessert ready. Up to you.

After an hour's steaming whilst simultaneously bathing in grease, the ducks legs are getting ready. Now would be a good time to peel a couple of potatoes and cut them into cubes, and slice a few leeks into half-inch slices. (The leeks are optional, use onions if you prefer.)

Now remove the legs from their fat and add the potato cubes in their place: raise the heat a bit and stir them around, covering them with fat, for ten minutes or so. Then add the leeks and carry on stirring for another five minutes. You will notice that the fat is magically disappearing: an as-yet unexplained mystery. There will be no cholesterol in the finished dish.

Sprinkle with salt and some herbes de Provence, then put the legs back in, skin-side down again, and cover once more. After 15 minutes the potatoes should be well and truly done: remove the lid, turn the heat up high to crisp the duck skin (this will take a couple of minutes) and serve.

Personally I would not go overboard on the side dishes. In the Gers you might find this accompanied with white beans cooked with tomatoes (getting perilously close to cassoulet) and the whole lot may well be preceded by foie gras: I would not turn down the foie gras but I'd settle for a salad with the duck. And there's that second bottle of wine, of course.

Oh, I finally did get the phone billing sorted out. Until the next time. I just had to pretend not to know anything about the business number (because otherwise I'd've been transferred to the commercial service, which doesn't want to know about domestic numbers) and sob. A lot. At the end, that was quite easy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The nights are drawing in, you can see your breath in the mornings, the air smells of woodsmoke. I’m wearing pyjamas to bed. The fruit bowl is laden with clementines. In short, the time of salad and quasi-vegetarianism is well and truly over. It is time to eat meat.

It’s also, in these recessionary times, time to find creative ways to make the more costly ingredients go further. With this in mind, I decide to make a big batch of white beans. When I find them I splurge on the extraordinary ‘haricots de Tarbais’, a type of bean so truly delicious that it is ‘appellation contrôlée’, in other words, awarded a certificate of authenticity. Only then can they be labelled with the magic word ‘Tarbais’, after the area where they are grown, Tarbes, in the Hautes Pyrenées in south western France near the Spanish border. Tarbais beans have an exceptionally thin skin and a particularly luscious texture; apparently they can only be harvested by hand, which explains why the last kilo bag I bought set me back €15.

Feeling unusually flush, I tried to buy some more the other day from my nearest gourmet épicerie, but apparently there’s a current shortage, and so I am forced to use a dusty bag of beans that’s been in the cupboard quite some time, and comes, I would guess from the Arabic writing on the label, from North Africa. Still, properly prepared these unpromising-looking dingy little pebbles prove perfectly tasty.

Pour a cup of dried white beans into a pan, cover with water by about an inch. Pop a whole carrot, cut into chunks, a peeled and halved onion and a couple of bay leaves in and bring to the boil. If you remember you can skim off the foam at this point, but honestly, I don’t think it makes any difference. Turn down to the lowest possible simmer and cook, covered, until the beans are tender, which might take 45 minutes and might take 2 ½ hours. Check that the beans are covered by water and top up occasionally as necessary.

When the beans are totally tender – make sure they have gone past the chalky point – salt the water generously and add a big glug of olive oil. To check that they are salted to your liking, taste the water, rather than a bean, since the beans themselves take time to absorb the salt.

You can and probably should leave them for a couple of days; the longer you leave them the more flavoursome they become and the liquid they were cooked in becomes delightfully silky. But that requires some forward thinking, which I don’t really go in for, so of course I use them the very night they are prepared, for a lovely end of autumn fish stew, a version of a recipe from the Zuni Café cookbook.

Cut a fennel bulb into eight wedges and brown on all sides in some olive oil. When they are beginning to caramelise at the edges, add a couple of chopped white onions and a few chopped garlic cloves and gently sauté, but don’t let the garlic brown. Add a chopped dried chilli and a slug of ouzo or pastis, raise the heat briefly to boil the alcohol off, then tip in a  can of tomatoes and a glass of white wine. Taste for seasoning, then tip in a cup of cooked white beans. When you’re ready to eat, simply tip the tomato and bean stew into a casserole dish that can go on the stovetop, nestle four pieces of fish (cod, halibut, monkfish, anything with nice big chunks that won’t fall apart as it cooks) inside and poach until the fish is done. This is incredibly delicious with aioli, homemade or at a pinch a scoop of Hellman’s with a couple of crushed up cloves of garlic stirred in.

Now you’ll find yourself with quite a lot of beans left over. Of course you could just toss them with a chopped shallot and some vinaigrette and even a can of tuna, but your family will love you more if you make use of the leftover confit de canard from dinner last week. (I just open a large tin, scoop out the pieces and stick them in the oven at maximum temperature until the skin crisps up so that you need a hammer to break it, but if you’re Karen you make it from scratch – I’ll leave her to tell you how.) Because if you have some leftover confit, some perfectly cooked haricots de Tarbais or de anywhere else, an onion, some sausages and some leftover bread - you have the makings of what’s known in our house as a Cheat’s Cassoulet. Do not dismiss it until you’ve tried it. It’s really very good indeed.

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees. Chop a couple of onions, a carrot and three cloves of garlic and soften in a little olive oil. Add some chopped bacon, raise the heat a little, and fry till the bacon crisps. Throw in a can of chopped tomatoes, a cup of white wine and 1 1/2 cups of chicken stock (I use a cube, noone’s going to notice), along with some chopped sage and thyme. Meanwhile, in another pan, brown some sausages (pork is obviously traditional, but actually I made it last time with veal sausages and they were absolutely delicious) and then add them to the stew. Simmer, uncovered, for fifteen minutes, so that the sauce thickens. Add the remaining beans and some salt and pepper. It should be quite soupy, since it will thicken up quite a lot in the oven as it bakes; if it seems a bit thick, slacken it with a ladleful of bean liquor.

Pour the stew into a wide flat dish. Nestle the sausages and the cooked duck confit (I have even made this with leftover pieces of roast chicken, which is probably going too far if you still want to consider this a cassoulet, however bastardised) into the beany mess, and sprinkle the whole lot generously with coarse fresh breadcrumbs (this is one thing I insist on. Don’t bother with breadcrumbs if they aren’t freshly made from a loaf of sourdough or at the very least a decent day-old baguette) tossed with two or three finely-chopped cloves of garlic and a fistful of chopped flat-leaf parsley. Drizzle with olive oil and stick it in the oven till the breadcrumbs are a deep, crispy golden colour, for at least forty minutes. Longer won’t harm it and in fact it will probably improve it. Serve with a green salad and some more good bread to sop up the juices. 




Monday, 9 November 2009

Guilt-free dinner parties ...

A red-letter day last Tuesday, when Sophie actually cooked me dinner! Well, I should say "us", as Margo, Jerry and I all got invited.

Now let's be quite clear on this, Sophie does actually know how to cook. But she tends not to, as like most French-persons getting dinner ready is usually a matter of microwaving some frozen crap. So although the main course was unfortunately unmemorable, (I like my curries a bit spicier) and I'd brought along a pastis aux poires - which you know about, and is also one of the few sweets Sophie actually likes (not to say adores) - for dessert, I really did enjoy the entrée.

Which was remarkably simple: a feuilleté au chèvre et aux pommes, served on top of salad with a simple balsamic vinegar dressing. All you need to do is mash up some chèvre - or maybe rocquefort, that'd be good too - with a bit of sour cream, and use the resulting mortar to reassemble thin slices of something like a Granny Smith into a half-apple. Then wrap the lot in flaky pastry, brush with egg-wash, and into the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden and steaming. Absolutely delicious.

Sadly, the evening saw the last bottle of 1994 Givry 1er cru I had down in the cellar disappear - a shame but the stuff is made for drinking, after all. And it was quite sublime. Shame Margo was driving that night.

The weekend after it was our turn to have people round for dinner, and after careful consideration and thinking about how lazy I was feeling, I went for pig braised in milk (and beer). Aristo alla maiale is, I think, the Italian name - whatever, it's not half bad.

To do this, you will - evidently - need some pork. A nice rolled rôti d'echine is perfect (that's pork shoulder to you) as it will be nicely marbled with a bit of fat and come out sumptuously tender: don't be tempted to use the côtes filet as they will be inevitably dry and disappointing. Anyway, brown it (or them, there were ten of us, four of them being adolescents) all over in a cocotte just big enough to hold it, and when that's done remove it and slosh in a decent amount of beer.

This is not traditional, but I had the beer (hand-knitted in some little brewery around Grenoble) sitting in the fridge and was wondering desperately how to get rid of it, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Turn the heat up high, fling in some garlic, thyme, sage and crushed juniper berries, and reduce hell out of it un til it starts to go a bit syrupy.

At which point it would be a good idea to return the pork to the dish, roll it around in the beery slop to coat and pour over a couple of glasses of milk. Then cover the cocotte and let it continue to simmer - either over a low flame on the stove-top or in a low oven - for about two and a half hours. At the end of which time the meat will be very tender and the juices will look disgusting. So now you need to fish the meat out again and either strain the juices or haul the curdled milky bits out with a spoon - your choice - before reducing them to thicken. During which time you could usefully carve the pork, stick it onto a serving dish and keep it warm until you're ready to pour the juice over and serve.

This goes really well with heaps of crispy roast potatoes and goldenrod broccoli, which is not a variety but a reference to the sauce. Who knows, you might even get your kids to eat the stuff. Basically, you steam broccoli - while that's going on make up a thick bechamel to which you add a good dose of worcester sauce, grated cheese, chives and the chopped white of a hard-boiled egg. Having drained the broccoli and put it in a dish, pour the sauce over the top, sieve the egg-yolk over the lot so it looks pretty, and stick it under the grill for five minutes or so.

That is just so easy, I think perhaps I should go lie down and feel smug.

After all that you could do as I did and make apple cinnamon swirl. Which is, in fact, a bread, but don't panic. On the other hand, you will need a 10" diameter, 3-4" high round cake mould, so if you don't have one forget about it. If you have one with a removeable base use that (but do butter it well), if not line the base with well-buttered paper (me, I use the paper that our salted butter comes wrapped in. Saves bother.) Sprinkle that with cinnamon sugar and put it aside for later.

Now it's time to make the bread dough. Three cups of flour, 80gm of sugar, 80gm of butter, two eggs, grated orange peel (or use orange-flower water - or use both) and a packet of yeast that you've rescuscitated in warm milk. Mix the lot together and knead shit out of it. Or do it all in the Kenwood Chef, or whatever you happen to have. The dough should be soft and buttery, but not sloppy - if it is, add more flour. I'm not a particularly precise cook, in case you hadn't noticed. Then set it aside to rise for a while - I cheat, and stick it in the microwave on Really Low for a minute or so, to get the internal temperature of the dough-lump up to around 35°, which is perfect.

Go open a bottle, have a drink or two, then cream together 100gm butter, ditto brown sugar, and as much cinnamon as you feel like. More is better. Peel a couple of Granny Smiths, cut one into thin slices and chop the other one. Arrange the slices on the base of the cake tin (no, I hadn't forgotten about it) to your taste, then go roll out the bread dough into a rectangle about 1cm thick.

Now just spread the creamed butter/sugar mixture evenly over the dough, sprinkle with raisins and the chopped apple, and roll up along the long edge. Slice the resulting log into 2-3" chunks and put them on top of the sliced apples in the cake tin - doesn't matter if the chunks don't touch. They will. Then put it away somewhere warm for half an hour, so it can finish rising.

Finally, into the oven - also for half an hour or so. At the end of which you should have something that looks as though a crowd of Chelsea buns have got together for a wifeswapping party and forgotten the condoms but never mind that, turn it out onto a plate (this is where the buttered paper on the base will save you from looking a complete and utter idiot) and eat. Do that quickly - around here at least it doesn't last long. Bloody kids.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

CHOWDER and heat

There's a lot of people who are surprised to find that in many—maybe most—of the countries of Latin America the local cuisine does not make heavy use of spicy heat. This preconception is probably the result of general familiarity in the U.S. with Mexican food (in its various good and taco-hell forms), where hot chiles really do loom large. Truth is, the Cubans I know are perfectly milquetoast when it comes to tolerance of spice, and the one Panamanian that I knew was a physician--psychiatrist, actually--who insisted that spicy foods would cause long-term gastrointestinal problems. And while my Brazilian friend Rogerio is a bit better at getting spicy food down, his preference is strongly bent towards the mild.

So I don't know what made Roge plant his vegetable garden with so many hot peppers this year, but it worked out well for me. On a recent visit I came home with a bag half-filled with hot serranos and yellow wax peppers…and a plan: to make a fish chowder that would be hot, and I mean ridiculous, flames-out-of-the-ears hot, pushing the limits of my spice tolerance by virtue of the sheer volume of hot peppers in its base.

Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, why not?! Ask yourself why it is that people rarely make a very spicy stew or chowder. Generally the reasoning goes like this. Chowders usually get put together in fairly large quantities with the intention of serving several eaters. And some people don't like spicy (damn them!) and those who do can very well add their own heat after the fact. Well, dammit, I like fiery heat in my chowder, and it's just not the same to use a "death sauce" additive to a no-heat soup. I wanted the hot built-in to the foundation of the chowder, and this means starting with a sofrito based on some hotter peppers.

Now serranos and waxy yellows are not among the "ultra-hot" varieties, as they are only in the 5,000-15,000 Scoville units range—just a little hotter than jalapeños and nowhere close to Scotch Bonnets (100,000-350,000 Scoville units). Fine. I'll just use a lot of them, a gigantic mountain of diced green and yellow, cooked down in vegetable oil (not olive) with some onion and garlic, and to which I add some quartered small potatoes and raw sweet corn cut directly off of a couple ears.

After adding some fish stock—if you make it yourself it turns to jelly in the fridge but it returns to liquid with the slightest application of heat—the veggies can cook to doneness in a beautiful soupy simmer. Then after adding the fish and shrimp, I let this cook a bit, then add some heavy cream and salt to taste. I used some bass fillets from the last fishing trip and some wild-caught shrimp I picked up at the store. This could really be any kind of seafood, but realize that if you use farm-raised crap (like tilapia or non-wild salmon), your chowder will have the flavor of crap, no matter how many peppers you add.

The surprise was already evident from the first taste: it was a only a bit spicier than a typical (mild) chowder. Somehow either the capsacin wasn't there to begin with or it became less active through the cooking, or it became diluted with the addition of all the other ingredients. I suspect it was the first of these possibilities, since I hadn't noticed any burning in my fingers or eyes after having cut the big mountain of chiles. Ah well, it was still very good.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

A cholesterol-free meal (almost) ...

Margo came home yesterday with a reblochon (they were on special at the local supermarket) and as Jeremy is home today she thought that perhaps a tartiflette would be a good idea. It would also go well with the weather, given that the temperatures have plummetted by about 10° in the last week, so we're waking up to 1° in the moaning ...

You may be wondering what these things are and, if you're not familiar with the Savoie, you have every right to be. Rather than making you google the words I shall, for once, explain.

Reblochon is a cheese. A soft one. It comes in discs about an inch thick, maybe a bit more, and in diameter anything from 6 to 8 inches. Should have a good clean smell and not too runny in the middle (although there are some that like them runny, I'm not one of them).

According to the story, it got the name because at one time the farmers (who were for the most part what we'd call sharemilkers, who owned neither the land nor, necessarily, the animals) had to pay the landowner depending on milk production. So, like the tight-fisted Savoyard peasants that they were, they would actually do two milkings: the production from the first would go off to be sold and they'd pay a percentage of that to the owner, and the milk from the second milking (which I imagine would be lower in fat and generally nastier) would be used to make cheese for themselves.

Being Savoyards, they also couldn't bring themselves to speak French (in which the word for milking is "traire") - oh no, they used the local patois, in which the word was "blocher". Hence "reblochon", the cheese from when you "rebloche" the poor cow.

That's the story, anyway, and I'm sure that there are parts of it that are nearly true. Whatever, it's come quite a way from its early days and was deemed good enough to get AOC status in 1958.

As for tartiflette, that's a dish made with tartiffes. Obvious, really. The tartiffe is a small member of the rodent family, closely related to the shrew, which hibernates in winter and provided one of the few sources of protein available during that season (apart from the miserable cheese, of course). So they were fair game.

Now, if you're a French peasant (or a Savoyard one) the first question you'd ask yourself would be "can I eat it?". Once you've come to the conclusion that yes, you can eat it, and it probably won't poison you too much and even if it does who cares, average life expectancy is in the mid-40s so we're not actually doing long-term planning here, the second question that springs to mind is "how can I make it edible - or at least not actually vomit-worthy?" Which is where the cheese comes in.

Once you've got the answer to the second question, the third is, obviously enough, "Hey! Where do I get more of these suckers?" Mind you, when times were hard, the first question might be dispensed with on the grounds that you were going to die of hunger anyway if you didn't eat them, and the order of the other two might well be inversed.

The invention of the toasted sandwich-maker being still some centuries away, our benighted peasants had to make do with the technology of the time. Which involved spreading out the ingredients in a dish, putting half a reblochon on top (no great loss, back then, as noted above, it was probably pretty crap) and then baking it.

Finding small shrew-like rodents at your supermarket might be a bit tricky, so I'd suggest that you do like most Savoyards do and use potatoes. For which the word, in patois, is in fact "tartiffe". I'm sorry, I've been lying to you. But it's so much fun.

Okay, back to the real world. To make a tartiflette you will need a reblochon and as many potatoes as you think people will eat. I would personally go for at least 200-300gm per person and it doesn't hurt to make more, the leftovers are good. You will also need bacon, an onion or two, and cream.

The actual making is simple enough. Peel the potatoes and the onions, chop the potatoes into smallish chunks and the onions finely. Chop the bacon into little chunks (but don't bother to peel it). Mix everything together. Now stick the mixture into a large earthenware dish, spread it out and pour 20cl (at least) of cream over the top before bunging it in the oven at about 210° for half an hour.

This gives you the time to go down to the cellar and check out the red wine situation. Forget about Bordeaux, leave the Burgundy for another day (or at the limit, you could always open a bottle just to warm up, as it were) - go for a Côtes du Rhône; a youngish Chateauneuf du Pâpe would be good. Unless by some miracle you happen to have a bottle of Mondeuse down there, which would surprise me immensely (as most miracles do).

Mondeuse is the Savoyard wine par excellence: when made traditionally it's often green, tannic, and virtually undrinkable unless you're used to it, which goes a long way to explaining why it's not easy to find outside the region. And if it were always like that, there'd be no reason to look for it. When properly made, it's excellent.

At which point I shall digress, and recount the story of a visit to old Perrin, down in the village. It was many years back, and we had friends from NZ over to stay, we had a party that evening, and I promised John that we'd go down and get some wine. So off we trundled to see old Perrin, who welcomed us into his kitchen, where the pride of place was taken by the 1960's pure Formica/chrome buffet, groaning under the weight of a 1950's TV (70kg and an 8" screen).

He set out three jam-jars on the table, and filled each to the brim from an unlabelled bottle of white that just happened to be sitting around (nowadays, I can identify that as Jacquères). We emptied them. He filled them again. And we emptied them.

This could have gone on for some time, but he decided it was time to get on to the red, so we headed out of the kitchen and into the cave. Where he started to fill a jug from one of the big stainless-steel fermenting vats, just to get us started.

Then, without even a pause to rinse the jam-jars, he started opening bottles. All unlabelled, hence untaxed (for personal use, you understand). After the second or third, we were starting to feel quite mellow.

We finally managed to escape around 3pm, walking home with a dozen bottles each under our arms. Don't know how we made it to the party, nor how we made it back.

Anyway, the half-hour being over, you now need to slice the reblochon in half, to give you two discs. Put them, cut side down, on top of the tartiffes and sling it all back in the oven for another half-hour. At the end of which the potatoes should be tender and the cheese all melted in and achieved unity with it.

Opinions differ on what to to with the crispy cheese rind. Some chuck it, so they'll probably burn in hell. Right-minded people eat it - it's crispy, right? That's a basic food group.

This is peasant food and quite frankly, apart from putting lipstick and maybe a bit of eye-liner on it there's not much you can do to make it look pretty, so I wouldn't bother, myself. Just eat it. But not, please, in mid-summer - you'd regret that.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Rude pork bottom parts ...

Good day today - it was my birthday yesterday (51st, if you really want to know or would like to send an appropriate present, preferably cash), my laptop went titsup with the rather ominous warning that NTOSKRNL was missing or corrupt, and I'm off to Sophie's 48th birthday party tonight.

Which means that before I go up to Paris on Sunday I have to get my laptop working again, and get food ready for Jerry and Rémi, who happens to be Sophie's youngest and who's spending the night at our place. Rather atypically from a Frog-person, he quite likes exotic cuisine, and it fact it was he who asked for what our kids used to call (back in the days before they'd completely mastered the art of the consonant) "steamed pork bums".

Which are not as rude as they may sound. What you need is about 400gm of left-over barbecued pork (or a mix of pork and beef is nice), finely minced. Personally, every time I barbecue a bit of rouelle de jambon (which is just a 2 or 3-inch thick slice from the poor animal's leg) there's always heaps left over (unless of course we've got a pile of friends around) so I just cut the meat off the bone, chop it into chunks and stick them in the good old Kitchen Whiz, then stick the resulting mince into the freezer until I need it.

Once that's thawed out you need to make the sauce. Peel and finely chop a good chunk of ginger, ditto a clove or two of garlic, and fry them up gently in a little oil for a minute. Then add, in no particular order, 2 tbsp hoi sin sauce, 2 tbsp oyster sauce, 2 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp sesame oil and, if you're that way inclined, a dose of hot chili sauce. Let that cook for a little, then add 3 tsp cornflour mixed up in a little water, bring to the boil and let it get good and thick. At which point take it off the heat, stir in the mince well so it's all nicely mixed, and let it cool.

So now it's time to make the dough. You can buy special bun flour from most Asian grocers, or you can use standard flour, or I like a half and half mix of normal flour and rice flour, which gives a lovely silky texture but, due to the lack of gluten (or something) makes a very fragile dough. Be warned. Whatever. You'll need two cups of that, about 70 gms of pork dripping and 1 tbsp of sugar - stick the lot in the whizzer and give it a good pulse to mix in the dripping.

You've two options at this point: use baking powder or yeast. If you're using baking powder, put a teaspoon in with the flour and add a tbsp of vinegar to the water; if yeast, it's be a good time to mix up a sachet of instant yeast with about 100ml of warm water and a bit of sugar to let it froth. I use yeast, myself, but it's up to you.

Whichever you prefer, put the food processor onto slooow and add the yeasty mixture (or vinegar/water): you will definitely need to add more than the 100ml but do it slowly, especially if you've used rice flour, as the line between dry and sloppy is a fine one. Once you've got a soft (but not too soft) dough, set it aside and let it rise. Which'll take about an hour. I used that time to do a few quick searches and recreate my BOOT.INI file, which at least got me to the point where my laptop was booting (and then hanging). Progress, of a sort. Still hadn't got anything ready for Sophie.

When all that's done, roll the dough out into a log and slice that into chunks. You will need to roll each chunk out into a 9cm diameter circle, so make them the right size for that. As you may have guessed, you must roll them out. Then place a heaped spoonfull of the meaty mixture on each circle of dough, fold the dough over and pinch the edges together to seal - just like Cornish pasties, really.

Except that these ones get steamed. I do that in the wok: I have a big one, with a big domed lid, and a cake tray which just fits in; it works for me. About ten minutes steaming per batch should do the trick. When you want to eat them just stick them in the microwave to reheat and serve with the dipping sauce(s) of your choice (sweet chili sauce is a must around here, but garlic/vinegar or whatever else takes your fancy is good). The little buggers freeze really well too, so freeze any leftovers for one of those days when you really can't be arsed cooking.

At around this time I managed to get my laptop back to the land of the living, after replacing a couple of files (thank god for Linux distros on a bootable USB key) so it was time to think of dessert for Sophie. And as we had three or four ripe pears lurking in the fridge that wasn't too difficult - a pastis aux poires.

In this case, pastis has nowt to do with the quintessential (and absolutely disgusting, as far as I'm concerned) provençal alcohol flavoured with aniseed: it is in fact a corruption of pastilla, which is an Algerian/Moroccan pie made with meat (often pigeon), sugar, almonds, spices and godnose what else.

I found it on Clotilde Dussolier's excellent Chocolate & Zuchini blog yonks back, and it's become a favourite. You need to start, fairly obviously, with some pears. About four would be good. Peel them, core them, and cut them into cubes, then fry them very gently in butter until they're smelling of pear heaven. At which point you should add a good handful of raisins, 1 tbsp of sugar, maybe some cinnamon, a dash of the poison of your choice and, if it looks dry (which it shouldn't) a bit of water, then cover and let simmer for 10 minutes.

During which time you can get the pastry ready. This is just the bog-standard phyllo you've come to know (and, I hope, love) - brush a sheet of phyllo with melted butter, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, line pie dish with it - then repeat two or three times. Old history.

Scoop the pears and raisins out of their juice and into the pie dish, fold the floppy pastry edges over the top and brush them with melted butter as well while the pear juices reduce like mad over a really hot flame. When all that's nicely syrupy dribble it over the tart and bung it in the oven for twenty minutes or so.

This is nice the next day if you happen to have any leftovers, but you really do need to give it 5 minutes or so in the oven. Otherwise the pastry is all soggy, which is not so good. But at least my computer is good to go, so I'm fine for Paris.

And, in case you're interested, the birthday party was really good. First time in years I've seen Sophie in a dress. Got elegantly wasted, as usual, but at least it was with a 98 Burgundy that I'd had lurking in the cellar for years. And those Frog-persons really do have natural rhythm when it comes to dancing.


Inspired by a recent movie about a famous television cook, my friends decided to have a duck party, and of course they scheduled it for the one day on which my social calendar had something on it. Go figure.

I wasn't totally left out of the festivities, however. One of the dishes planned was some kind of canard-en-croute thing requiring a de-boned bird stuffed with a veal/pork/truffle mixture. Here's where I came in. Not only do I own the only trussing needle in town, I was also the one person around here who was practiced in the art of pulling the skeletons out of various beasts (specifically poultry, but I also do fish) and leaving the rest (flesh and skin) in more or less one piece.

In exchange for my assistance in prepping the ducks, I got to take home two whole black truffles, allegedly from France, which came out of a tin procured by one of the cooks. They were surprisingly not-too-aromatic for truffles. I was expecting the house to be filled with truffle perfumes the second we cracked the tube, but that didn't happen. In fact it took a full-on nose-in-the-can to catch the faintest whiff of something earthy and good. Maybe that's just the way of conserved black truffles—and this to me seems rather low on the value scale, considering how much a tin of the stuff costs.

Whiny, ungrateful complaints aside, I had two nice-sized truffles, and the only thing I could think to do was scrambled eggs.

With a mandoline you can get about a million slices off of a ping-pong ball-sized truffle, so I had plenty from which to select a fistful to use as a garnish. The rest (two million slices, minus a fistful) got chopped up and tossed into a mix containing five organic, free-range eggs (so I splurged—if I won't do this for truffles, when else might I be encouraged to pay $2 more for a dozen eggs?), some cream, several small chunks of butter, salt, pepper. Mixed well with a fork…

…(reverie/personal reflection) I'm almost 100% certain that scrambled eggs was the first thing I ever cooked… two eggs and Mom had me add a dollop (no measuring needed) of milk, salt, and pepper, and I whipped it into a froth with a fork while tilting the bowl…(daydream over)

Scrambling eggs is very basic and rather forgiving, but still you need to be mindful of the little things. How much butter and cream will the eggs absorb? Heat is lower than for an omelette, and once introduced to the pan the eggs move around the whole time. The result must be dense and moist, completely cooked yet not browning in the least.

The truffles were actually noticeable in this dish, maybe because the gentle heat brought out the aromatics. Or maybe it's just that I used a stupid amount of the stuff for a dish serving two people.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Welcome to my other kitchen

There are still places where you can go. Park your truck by a stream or on the shore of a lake and not see anyone for hours, days, maybe weeks. If you so desire, you can choose to take the sparest of supplies--a pan, a camp stove, and a few other cooking needs—with the plan to supply the bulk of calories via catch of the day. Worst case scenario is that you'll not eat, and maybe you'll find atonement during your involuntary fast. Better days will see you filling the belly with lovely fish.

Pack wisely and boldly. No side dishes. No back-up plan. If you don't catch, you don't eat. Period. Maybe some oil is okay. And breading—some flour pre-mixed with a dry rub seasoning, salt, and bread crumbs. Don't forget a good knife and a cutting board.

If you're feeling really cocky, you might go somewhere that doesn't allow you to kill any fish under a given size standard (like 18 inches). So unless you're willing to break the law, you might need to release fish after fish before you get one big enough. Not hard enough just to have to provide your own groceries? Neandertals didn't have to deal with size limits. [But they didn't have the benefit of graphite fly rods and personal fishing vessels either!]

The dinner bell doesn't ring until your net is around a keeper. After that, the kitchen help will watch attentively, cheering wildly with every bit of mess you ask them to clean up.

An 18-inch trout, having fed upon natural lake foods (bugs) for the better part of two years, develops a flesh with the deepest ruby tones of sockeye salmon. Fillets should be relieved of the larger (rib and fin) bones and cut into four pieces before dredging them in the breading mix.

Note that fish cooked within minutes of death "responds" to the heat of cooking as live muscle. The fish will contract fiercely on the skin side, and so it's best to start sautéing with the skin side up. It will still flex , but a lot slower, giving the flesh a chance to cook before you flip it over. It's really hard getting the pavé to cook evenly if the thing curls into a tube. It is seriously frustrating to cook fish this fresh if you're not expecting this small detail of the live muscle response.

The result is generally spectacular and made to seem even more so by your previous hours of fasting. A cold beer or two should be on hand to make the celebration complete.

How long to go on? A few days? Until the beer runs out? Until you're chased out of the site by unfriendly weather and abandoned by your kitchen staff?