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?