All this Kungfusion

Hot here, so very hot and humid. A drenching, mind-sapping heat. No sun, just thick treacle-like sultriness. The sort of closeness that wears you down, strips all motivation away, renders you virtually immobile and sees you gasping for air, any air. It is with heavy fingers and my last ounces of willpower I sit down to write.

My sister, famous in these pages as sender of magical spices, came up with the idea I should write posts based around the various different vegetables and other produce mostly native to these shores. It is a good idea, especially since I am aware I have barely acknowledged the culinary culture of this country in these posts. To be honest, I am somewhat indifferent to many of the dishes here. There is an unappealing habit that everything has to be saturated in oil, second-hand oil sometimes, and often nothing seems to taste of anything. There are notable exceptions of course.

韭菜,that’s jiu cai (pronounced gee-o tsy), is an ever-present in dumplings, chopped finely, and also makes a very successful appearance at barbecues where it is grilled in strips then smothered with a spicy paste of chillies and cumin seeds. It tends to be translated variously as ‘garlic chives’, ‘leek chives’ and ‘Chinese chives’ and I prefer the first option because there is a definite alliaceous tang to the allium, as well as, I think, a slight citrus note in the finish. In Chinese medicine apparently it is used to ‘tonify the Yang,’ perfect then for people lacking some sunshine in their lives, literally and metaphorically.

First I had to find some. My local unfriendly greengrocer didn’t have any and eventually I located some in the fridge compartment of a nearby supermarket. I rather had the idea of cycling home with the herb fronds flapping from a paper bag but in the end I had to be content with walking back over a bridge with the chives sealed inside a plastic container.

What to do with them. As well as a dumpling filling they are also added to pancakes and, in general, they go well with many egg dishes. I can see them being involved in a late night scramble at some point. But I wanted them to feature a little more prominently, to add an extra kick to something else. I thought of the risottos made in the Spring with wild garlic pulled from banks by the side of the road and decided the jiu cai could do the same job just as well and perhaps even better.

So, base of white onion and celery – the obsession continues – softened in butter and rice stirred in. Stock, already prepared and defrosted, simmering in a pan and doled into the rice mixture when the previous ladling had evaporated. Low heat and a steady stir with a wooden spoon. I considered blanching the chives but in the end didn’t think it was necessary, and besides I only have two hobs, right? I would chop them finely and add with the last ladling. That’s what I did.

A very pleasing finish to the dish with the creaminess offset by the specks of chives. The risotto was lifted, much in the way lemon zest will add zing to a big beefy stew. A soothing, slippery rice dish with the added tang of garlic chives. A winner. And now I feel better. IMG_1564

POSTSCRIPT: As is customary I made enough food for two meals but, returning to the risotto the next day I discovered the chives had soured somehow, giving the dish a very unpleasant bitter taste. Nothing to be done with that, no way to salvage it. If I repeat the dish I will just make a basic risotto and add the chives, possibly slightly blanched, for each serving. 

So it goes

 

 

 

What have I gone and done? Even after proselytising just the other day about the necessity for sticking to the script when it comes to certain dishes I am now guilty of messing things up, of free-associating, of going all stream-of-consciousness – on a salad, of all things.

It’s not just a salad either. Gloria wouldn’t like me calling it that, neither would she appreciate it if I left out cucumber from the recipe, despite my naive incredulity at its traditional presence as a key ingredient. I’m talking about panzanella, of course – the keen-eyed of you will have noticed the pictorial clues –  although given my experimentation I’m tempted to rename it as ‘canzanella’ for reasons which will become apparent.

Sitting at work I was, where I am wont to mull over the food preparation for the evening, a multi-stranded thought process encompassing the presence or otherwise of required ingredients in my store cupboard (singular), following that the detail of where I can purchase those items which, as I scan, are absent from my shelves. That detail involves a mental geographical assimilation of the city: the likely routes I am to take, which means of transport will be most favourable in each case, whether I go home first, how far I can totter on an overloaded bicycle, why there isn’t a magic shop very near to where I live where all the things I need are always available.

But half the fun is finding everything. I like a mini-adventure, a quest if you will. I knew that at home I had half a stale ciabatta, I want to say loafing about, getting staler. But I wasn’t sure if it had got to the point where even a douse of red-wine vinegar and oil wouldn’t revive it. That’s when, mid-afternoon, the clock ticking, I decided to augment the ‘salad’ with beans. Yes. Cannellini, borlotti. That kind.

The route home was made, as ever, by way of Twin’s where I was able to get the aforementioned vinegar as well as sundry other items. But then, arriving home, I realised I had no red onions and so a visit to the unfriendly greengrocer’s had to be made. The woman grunted at me as usual and by now our conversation exists entirely of my nervous half-smile and her throaty non-committance. I know my onions here, that’s for sure.

The bread was salvageable and, indeed, ideal. I soused it and left it to soak, before halving tomatoes, letting them macerate with salt, pepper and oil. I love the word macerate, it seems so violent-sounding for what is in fact an exercise in softening. A mix of lacerate and massacre. Meanwhile I cooked the beans – the horror, the horror – having decided that I wanted a more substantial dish than the original version affords. These I cooked gently with the onion so the flavours combined. Everything else could just be jumbled in together: the cucumber – yes – skinned and chopped, capers, torn basil leaves, all combined with the bread and tomatoes, both oozing delectable juices. I left the beans to cool before chucking those in too. In the end they didn’t really add anything except a little more bulk.

Probably the jury’s out on canzanella. Typing the word into a popular search engine reveals its popularity as a surname. There is also a B&B in Naples named so – the city I can vouch for, the establishment not – which makes me think that I haven’t just coined a word but merely appropriated it from some other context. Possible derivation from ‘canzone’ which means song, and so I get an image, ludicrously, of the old stereotypes of the moustachioed mandolin player at the window of some local Lollobrigida, the cicadas humming in the olive groves and everybody blissfully uncaring of economic meltdown, social deprivation and political corruption. Eppur si muove.

There is a way.

In China when they ask me what I like to cook, and I don’t respond with ‘Chinese food’, I receive a kind of incredulous stare and barely suppressed snort of laughter. ‘You cook English food then?’ Because there cannot be an alternative. Describing that cooking is not totally about culturally- accepted and well-known dishes and more about putting together ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other, is, it seems, conceptually too difficult to grasp. If it doesn’t have a name, it isn’t worth bothering with. I could say, ‘Italian food’ and then there are the sighs of approval, the knowing looks: ‘Ah yes, pizza and pasta.’ It’s really not that simple….

Yet in Italy too there exists a similar culinary snobbery. There is a way of making things. There is a way, and there is no argument. On my recent trip I stayed in Arezzo with some friends and, on the first night, Gloria, a feisty Florentine, made us caponata. A Sicilian dish, yes, but the way I was invited to watch the procedure left me in no doubt this was the correct cooking method.

‘You should always blanch the celery first. Shouldn’t you.’ She was not asking for my approval.

Over the nine days I spent in the Beautiful Country I ate cappellacci di zucca in Ferrara, cacio e pepe in Rome and many delicious seafood antipasti in Pescara but that caponata, the mingling of the sweet and sour, was the one that tingled my tastebuds the most. Even better when we had it cold as part of a picnic lunch high in the Tuscan hills the following day.

So it was the first meal I made when I came back. Sourcing the ingredients was not difficult, a cycle down to Twin’s was sufficient and pop to the greengrocer’s. And what I wanted most of all, was craving actually, was to have celery as the star. Controversial, perhaps, as the vegetable gets a poor press, relegated to a support act in various sauce bases and derided usually for its lack of flavour. However I noticed that, on the Adriatic coast, as a motif through many of the fish dishes, from insalata di mare to the stock for the mussels, little ridged pieces of celery came to prominence.

In my recreation of the Sicilian speciality I stuck as close as I could to how I remembered Gloria go about it. The tedious woman in the newspaper put chocolate in hers, and I wasn’t going to do that. There is a way, after all.

First job was to cook the aubergine. I could only find one of the large round varieties, but I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as the veg is cut up into bite-sized chunks and salted for at least half an hour then patted dry.  Did it in batches, frying the pieces until brown in very hot oil – I used a shallow pan – before removing. At the same time the celery, chopped up into similar-sized briquettes, was blanched in boiling water for about thirty seconds.

I think the original recipe calls for shallots, and now I remember Gloria used a leek, but I had an onion and so that’s what I used. Diced and gently sautéed in the same oil with the celery. Then I basically jumbled most of the other ingredients in, the olives – green, which I hate on their own, but seem to enjoy in things these days – capers (Gloria said to only use the ones in salt as the vinegar-soaked variety have little flavour – but, again, I didn’t have/couldn’t find any of those), raisins and finally the passata which I made myself by combining a tin of chopped tomatoes with some olive oil, salt and pepper and reducing for about fifteen minutes. I was salivating. Then the aubergines got their welcome return, the lid was closed and I walked away to watch an episode of this, leaving the – what would you call it – the stew, I suppose, on a low heat to combine in a heavenly way.

My friend from Firenze bemoaned slightly the lack of a vinegary finish to her dish, and perhaps she was right. I had something on hand to add if necessary. But first, the caponata was ready and I toasted some pine nuts and tore up basil leaves as a garnish. Tasting, I realised that a little acidity was needed to offset the agrodolce. Splash of apple cider vinegar and the dish was ready.

And I have some left. Those Tuscan hills are only memories now though.

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Assembly line

As the days get sunnier, the evenings warmer, I find I am less inclined to stand at the kitchen stove, stirring and ruminating. Much more likely to be sitting outside somewhere, watching the world go by.

Any cooking I have done recently has been of the quick and necessary variety: a swift dish of aglio e oglio perhaps, that failsafe combination of spaghetti, garlic, oil, parmesan, chilli flakes and, in my version, chopped parsley: steak or chicken breasts, grilled with seasoning and herbs and served with a salad. Indeed, it has become less about cooking and more about assembling. Jumbling things together that require little or no actual stove-time but just some judicious chopping, slicing and adding of condiments.

In an effort to ween myself off my diet of lunchtime sandwiches at work I’ve spent some evenings preparing large and fairly elaborate salads which serve not only as an effortless supper option but a ready-made lunchbox the next day. I took a leaf from the good people at Leon and adapted their Original Superfood Salad to something that I could replicate with what was at hand. I found some asparagus and mange-tout, walnuts, pine-nuts, feta, chicken and bundles of fresh herbs – basil, mint and parsley. The chicken I lathered in ras-el-hanout and fried until golden and sticky. The nuts I chopped and toasted lightly. The whole lot I threw into a bowl and mixed with oil and lemon juice. Turned out to be pretty good.

Next time I was a bit more ambitious and, to that end, possibly less successful.  Went for a meatball-based melange this time, with spiced aubergines, tomatoes and cucumber as well as those nuts and herbs. I used beef and meant to run some chermoula through it, though I forgot. Result was a little dry due I think to the predominance of lean to fat in the mince. Still it was a worthy and fairly tasty affair and the feeling of being able to produce it at lunch – look what I made – made up for what might have been lacking in flavour.

Oh, and I also made pesto. Quite a good vibrant one with plenty of salty cheese, the way I like it. I ate it over four days with gnocchi and nothing else. I didn’t make my own pasta because I couldn’t be bothered although I feel sure, as the days darken, you will find me once again hunched over the metal worktop, head in the simmer, mind on the boil. I think I will use these warmer months to experiment a little more, to post some more abstract pieces and I’m also preparing something musical which, I hope, should emerge soon….

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Two Thai

Two recent cooking explorations have been influenced by Thai cooking and encouraged by an inclusion in my sister’s spice send of a Thai spice rub. I don’t make any claim to authenticity here and there is no attempt to recreate any kind of dish I found on my recent travels there. Both dishes were concoctions I’d had a hankering for and so set out to make – from where that impulse comes I do not know and am less willing to analyse; that it exists is, I think, enough to make me want to follow.

I had a stick of lemongrass in the fridge I’d included in my luggage when I returned home here after the Christmas holidays. The best before date claimed a time around January but numbers can be deceptive and I’d rather judge things on how they look, smell and taste. Indeed, this particular aromatic showed no signs of having lost too much in the way of freshness. The rest of the staples were relatively easy to obtain: fresh herbs  – mint, basil, coriander – and coconut milk from Twin’s as well as red chillies (which, I have found, keep for ever if left in the freezer), ginger and garlic from the greengrocer’s next door. The owner of which greets me with a slightly sardonic ‘Halloooo!’ whenever I show up. It is the only word of English he knows I think.

Also compartmentalised in the frozen cabinet were salmon steaks and thin slabs of beef skirt, both of which I’d bought at some earlier time with no clear plan of how to use them. With the arrival of the Thai rub I had ideas.

I tackled the fish first. I smothered it in the spice mix, knowing that on previous occasions my lack of liberal generosity had resulted in dishes that were lacking in flavour and intensity. Then I fried it skin-side in a wok, gently, only to crisp up the skin. Removing the fish I tipped out most of the oil and wiped the wok down before pouring in the coconut milk – in the event only three-quarters of the tin – and adding the sliced and chopped aromatics. The idea was to poach the fish in this liquid until pink and falling apart, the flesh taking on the subtle but pungent flavours therein.

Meanwhile I had the rice on. A long time ago a Sri Lankan colleague in the bookshop where I worked taught me the perfect way to cook rice on the hob. A gas flame is essential as is a bold approach to a minuscule amount of it. How much water to rice? The eternal question. Soak the rice first, put it in the saucepan then add the water. The liquid level above the grains should be equivalent to the length of your thumb. Bring it to the boil, add a pinch of salt then after a quick stir turn the heat down to the lowest level possible and cover. Leave it for ten minutes then turn the heat off. Leave it a further ten minutes and then, finally, remove the lid. Result should be fluffy rice and all the water evaporated. Mine turned out more or less like that and I am grateful for that conversation I had next to the Mind, Body and Spirit book section some fourteen years ago.

The dish itself was a success although I think I could have been even more daring still with the spicing. The fish can stand it.

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Note artful attempt at posh presentation; I didn’t have one of those rice rings you see on cookery programmes. At one point I considered a coiled belt.

The second dish involved fewer processes and was essentially about jumbling together things that harmonise naturally. Beef, tomatoes, the usual Thai aromatics, fresh herbs, cucumber, peanuts, lime. The cooking method used to amalgamate all the flavour was stir-fry and before attempting the dish I watched a brief video featuring Ken Hom explaining the rudiments. If I’ve had a problem with this methodology in the past it’s because I’ve been sceptical about frying off the garlic and ginger first in the hot oil; in my experience they’ve just ended up burning really quickly, tainting the oil and therefore the entire dish. But when I watched Hom he didn’t seem to have that problem (dress sense apart, brown does not age well) and I realised that I’d missed a fundamental aspect of the method. The clue is in the name. Stir-fry.

Rather than moving the ingredients around the pan I had simply added them and watched them toast and blacken. So this time I stirred. Another essential is to have every ingredient chopped and ready so there is no danger of any burning. Bigger things get added first and I did not forget to keep things on the move: rotating the pan, thrusting with the spoon, generally getting shaky with it all. I’d marinated the beef with the spice rub and it cooked in no time at all. All the things added at the end gave the dish a zing my head needed.

 

 

Busy with risi

 

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I lived in Italy for nearly ten years but not necessarily in regions where rice dishes cause a big stir. But risotto is in many ways the quintessential meal of this blog. A mostly one-pot affair with plenty of wooden spoon action and time for rumination needed as the stock is absorbed by the grains. The joy of adding things to impart more flavour and texture. Music on, glass in hand, it is perhaps the perfect contemplatory supper.

I don’t remember exactly when I received this cookbook, either a birthday or a Christmas  present, but it must have been in the mid ’90s, around 1996, when I left University and, twenties, clumsy and shy, I went to London and tried.

Perhaps I’d shown some small glimmer of enthusiasm for stovetop shenanigans, although I can’t recall it, because my mother thought it was a good idea to make sure that, on the first step on the road to so-called independence (which led initially to Balham), I carried with me at least one volume of recipes. Actually I think I had a Delia Smith book too, and perhaps one other.

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Yep, Will, your ghost probably passed me at some point. Not a totally joyous eighteen months in England’s capital. I did start cooking though, for the first time in my life.

The risotto recipe was one of the first I really remember enjoying doing. I can’t link to it here but it was a creamy affair with a roast chicken substance. I remember Slater, considerably less hirsute in those days, pointing out his disfavour with the popular addition of white wine to the process, due to the alcohol’s tendency to linger unpleasantly on the palate. This is a rule I have followed since and frankly do not feel like discontinuing. Besides, if a bottle of wine is to be opened just for a soupçon then, my friends, that bottle is not going to stand idly by while I stand, stare and stir.

This is also another process which I think is made easier with a gas cooker. That flickering wisp of flame needs a steady hand and eye because, during the stock-pouring procedure, it is important the liquid doesn’t over-boil. One needs a solid simmer so that everything comes together properly. And anyway it is a pleasure to watch it all happening in its own time.

The stock I made last time round was defrosted, arborio rice ready – the packet nicely weighted in my right hand – the cold roast chicken unsealed from its temporary home of clingfilm and brought back to room temperature. There were also some button mushrooms knocking around I might have bought with something else in mind but, hey, nothing like over-egging the pudding. I had parmesan and parsley from Twin’s, a cold beer to hand and music playing, probably this.

The practice is so pleasurable I was almost sad when I realised the last ladleful was approaching and that, after a few minutes and a sprinkle of seasoning, the dish would be ready. Making risotto basically just consists of standing over the hob, doling in the stock when any liquid currently in the pan is almost evaporated, making sure the rice doesn’t get stuck. To say that the grains have to be al dente is to add another question to Sybil Fawlty’s round on Mastermind.

Apart from the parsley and parmesan I added, suddenly nostalgic for Italy, some chopped sun-dried tomatoes if only to recreate the colours of the bandiera italiana.

Here’s some more nostalgia to enjoy with your risotto. Here, here, and here. Un abbraccio forte a tutti I miei amici italiani. Spero di rivedervi presto x

Taking stock

Once again at the kitchen confessional. This is my tenth post. Where have I been and where am I now?

I have a habit of starting things but not seeing them through, so that they end unsatisfactorily,  sort of limp to a finish. A failure to commit leads to an unnatural death perhaps.  This shortcoming, as I see it, stems from an ingrained notion of self-doubt, a lack of faith in my own ability. It also comes from a desire to seek others’ approval and a focus on their potential expectations, as I imagine them. So a reason, maybe the main one, for doing this blog is to explore both of those things. Publishing online raises the stakes. There is an audience so I am aware my writing and my ideas are being scrutinised. It’s been interesting to notice how, as I publish, I am concerned (or not) with wanting to please anybody who might be reading, looking at that desire to somehow satisfy a vague and vast collective (and possibly extending my readership at the same time).

Yet the spectators remain, somewhere. I should take care with my prose, and write as well as I can, while remaining true to the ethos of this project which is to be creative using cooking as a springboard. To see where I go and enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing.

During the week or thereabouts between posts ideas simmer away on a low bubble. Last time I mentioned my spice project and what I got up to this time can be an extension of it. I have to follow my instincts and go with my gut. The body rules the mind in my case anyway.

I reckon no self-respecting home kitchen cook can be without a decent stock, freshly-made or ready to defrost. This I found out to my cost recently when I attempted a chermoula-inspired chicken dish which had all the promise of full flavour but was let down by an insipid liquid finish. I used water (bottled – tap water is a no-no here) with a stock cube crumbled in. And while the finished dish looked appetising, rich in red pepper, sweet potato and tomato (judge for yourselves below) all the taste had actually been washed away.

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Appearances can deceive. This was not a delicious dish.

So on Thursday I did things properly. I bought four chunky chicken legs which I roasted in my little oven with lavish slatherings of lemon, chermoula, perfect salt, thyme and rosemary. Once these were cooked I removed all the flesh to use in the next two days’ cooking and put the bones along with shreds of skin and meat and of course all the fragrant, lemon, herb and spice rich juices from the roasting pan into a saucepan. I added a carrot, celery and an onion, filled to the brim with water and let the whole thing putter away for a couple of hours on a low heat. The apartment was filled with its aroma all day and I felt better for having done this.

Some of the meat I have already used. Once, in a curry which I ate with my last flatbread, then, the next day in a well-stuffed sandwich which I took to work. I had intended to make a mayonnaise to accompany the chicken in its bread-cased heaven and yet, having followed this simple video for instructions, I managed only to make a yellowy and ultimately tasteless liquid. A case perhaps of over-frothing the eggs and/or getting the oil-egg ratio wrong. Anyway a lesson learnt.

This evening the last of the chicken will go into a risotto and, yes, that stock will play a major role.

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That stock, looking stocky, ready for its chance to simmer and shine