Spice of life

Recently my sister sent me a box of spices. It arrived neatly packaged, six jars, all in their separate compartments. I resolved to construct six dishes featuring at least one of the aromatics playing a central role. So far I’ve managed two, one of which I will proceed to document here, the other at a future uncertain time.

One of the spices, or to be more accurate, spice blend, was ras-el-hanout. Perhaps appropriate she should send me a Moroccan mix as we visited this country together when she was still at University and myself a callow youth of fifteen or so. I remember basically nothing about what we ate. We must have eaten something. I do know that I wore the same clothes, unchanged, for four consecutive days.

The trip was memorable for many reasons. Firstly there was the nightmarish crossing from the southern tip of Spain, in a rolling wooden tub of a ferry with water sloshing through the cabins and the sea reaching up and over the portholes at which we were sitting, transfixed with terror, the fear allaying any possible seasickness. Then there was the midnight arrival in Tangiers and the way we allowed ourselves, weary from the journey, to be hustled by a chap who took us to eat and then found us a hostel of some kind. I remember the ornate, high ceilings and the sounds of doors opening and closing through the night, the sound of women giggling. Then there was the English fellow, tall I recall with a moustache, who’d latched onto our party (with us were three of my sister’s Uni friends) on the ferry. John? Peter? Anyway, he became something of a pest, always showing up somehow and dogging us. When we left Tangiers for Fez we lost him – but I also lost my Walkman on that train, snatched by a dashing child as we pulled away from a station. The song playing at the time was this. There wasn’t any time (or money) to get to Marrakesh as we’d planned and we rushed back to Tangiers to find our return vessel a rather more luxurious liner. Hungry, broke, bewildered, the captain took pity on us in his cabin, feeding us fruit.

Also included in the package was something called Perfect Salt, a bird’s eye of which I include below, the idea perhaps to make the mineral even more ‘perfect’ by adding things to it. In the image you can spot flecks of pepper and mixed herbs of which marjoram and oregano are the most fragrant. So far I’ve used it to season virtually everything.

Apparently the word kofta is the noun form of the verb meaning to grind, or pound. So ground meat, made into a meatball. It’s not hip though to talk of lamb meatballs, never mind rissoles…..It’s always lamb kofta. In any case, whatever you want to call them, these are what I made this time. The ras el hanout would go into the aubergine accompaniment.

There’s something wonderful about the way one has to mix the lamb mixture together then toss it into jelly-like balls which then sit in a momentary state of quiver. I combined lamb mince with one beaten egg, chopped coriander, zest of a lime and a rather delicious gently fry of onions and crushed cumin seeds, as well as the aforementioned sodium compound –  all played from hand to hand until spherical then left to cool in the fridge.

Meanwhile the aubergines were chunked and given a very generous dousing of the spice blend (almost too generous, as it happened). On another day I might have salted the veg first to get rid of excess moisture but I was planning a hot treatment for them this time. Into the sizzling pan they went, spitting and greedily hoovering up the oil. Fabulous aroma. Once they’d coloured almost to the point of burning I turned the heat down and threw in a few chopped cherry-like tomatoes, leaving the two things to create a kind of wonderful North African garden fusion.

In the other pan the kofta were sputtering peacefully. As with frittata, it pays I think to set the heat quite low to ensure a gooey, sticky seal on the meat, turning the globules only once. This way meant about 12-15 minutes on either side although I paid no attention at all to how long anything took to cook.

To finish I baked another flatbread – different recipe this with fennel and coriander seeds, and that slightly citrus tang came through – and mixed up some Greek-style yoghurt with a squeeze of lime. I’d been hoping to buy some mint at Twin’s shop but they only had parsley – which came in handy as a sprinkling over the aubergine mixture – and thyme, and something else, neither of which I needed this time.

Probably the best thing I’ve made for a long time. Full of flavour – helped no doubt by the different condiments, the salt being, indeed, a perfect seasoning, although the zest was lost (not that it mattered) – and just as good cold the next day when I ate lunch in front of the kitchen window in the midday sun, straight from the pan with a can or two of Japanese lager.

As for my memory of the holiday, I can look back with fondness, through sunset eyes perhaps. It was my first time outside Europe, first proper adventure abroad, first glimpse of what can be done given the right attitude. It’s taken me quite a long time to let myself go in this respect, to give myself up to new experiences without worrying if I was doing the right thing, whatever that is….When I got back to the UK, my mother picked me up from the airport. At that time I was aloof as a teenager, backward in coming forward, but she said for the entire journey from London to Somerset I talked non-stop, out of excitement from the experience. Here, finally, that narrative continues.

I Am The Hero

Leaving tomorrow for ten days so a quick inventory of my fridge’s contents: a potato; some old celery; herbs – dried bay, thyme, rosemary; palmful of button mushrooms; half a large onion; a third of a stale-ish baguette; one egg; block of cheddar cheese.

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Nothing much to do with the egg unless I make a large potato cake and have a fried egg on top. There’s the issue then of keeping it for when I return. It seems to me that it won’t freeze well and, anyway, I don’t much fancy a big potato tablet today. The egg can wait.

It’ll be another soup then and, to this end, I have augmented my solid if unspectacular set of fridge-bottom staples with a leek from the greengrocer’s around the corner and a large clove of garlic from beside the stove. My one reservation in making soup is the lack of any handy stock. One of the reasons why my previous effort was so successful was the chicken broth used; I had the foresight to use the bones of a roast I had made for that purpose. I have learned how to make a scratch chicken stock, and I’ll include the features of that in a future post, but for now it will be a reliance on the flavours I already have, some careful seasoning and judicious use of a stock cube.

All this weighing up of what I have to hand, working out what it can be used for, puts me in mind of one thing, and then another.

At the beginning of many fantasy role-play gamebook series, most notably Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy line and the Lone Wolf sequence, the protagonist, the YOU, is given a run-down of what possessions he/she already has and what others, within certain and changing limitations, might be added at the outset of any particular quest as suitable supplements determined by their potential usefulness.

Typically, at least in the early Fighting Fantasy books, it was along the lines of ‘leather armour, sword and backpack’, plus provisions, and the adventurer got to choose one of three potions for boosting either of the Luck, Skill or Stamina values which made up YOUR profile. As the series grew, and different authors involved, so elements such as spells and other special features were included, depending on the type of adventure about to take place and the hero profile required. Early example of adventure sheet below, something of a blank canvas:

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Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf was different in that the protagonist was always the same character, the titular hero no less, and so a progression through the books, which followed a linear narrative of sorts, meant a gradual acquisition (and therefore casting off) of various pieces of equipment, items, disciplines and skills. The books differed also in the sense they specified where the various pieces of equipment and items could be carried: in the hand, in the belt-pouch, in the backpack, and so on.

Cooking is a kind of journey, as is this blog, and it’s natural before embarking on any meal preparation to take stock of firstly, what one has, and, then, what one needs. Sometimes I wear an apron, and I carry a wooden spoon in one hand, knife to chop and slice in the other. Like today I size up what is available and make a dish on that basis, adding as appropriate.

This moreover is a new adventure, a new quest. In the recent past I might have been tempted to look contemptuously at the contents of my fridge and decide there was nothing worth using, or nothing I could be bothered to use. I may well have gone shopping, purchasing sundry other ingredients – the point is, this conglomeration of objects is what I have, so I should make the best of them. Just as I possess various skills and disciplines of my own that, in the past, I have not fully appreciated or utilised. In the gamebooks you learn to use what you have wisely, whether it be in your hand, in your belt-pouch, or even in your head; such care and respect does not necessarily mean a positive outcome, because some things are out of your control – the dice rolls against you, for instance – but, by arming yourself in the best way possible, by recognising what you have, you are at least better able to deal with things.

In the past few years interest in the Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy series, to name but two, has been resurgent, leading to reprints, greater discussion (especially online), electronic versions of the books for iOS and android, and much more. Joe Dever allowed almost the entire back catalogue of Lone Wolf to be republished online, here, to create a ‘lasting legacy.’ For Fighting Fantasy there have been various print runs, containing some, but not all, of the original set. The most recent seems to be dumbing down slightly, especially in terms of the artwork (an index of the original artists can be found here), and in if you have a mind it is worth scouring charity bookshops across the UK for the original series, some editions of which fetch a pretty penny.

Failing that there are now quite a few blogs dedicated to playthroughs of one or both series, of which the most readable and dedicated can be found here, here and here.

But I was making soup. To maximise flavour I make sure to give each ingredient enough cooking time before adding anything else. So I cook the potatoes, seasoned, gently in olive oil to brown slightly, then every other component in turn: the leeks and celery, washed and rinsed; onion and mushrooms, coarsely chopped; rosemary and thyme, finely: bay leaves, cast in. Water to cover with half a chicken stock cube crumbled in. I simmer until the potatoes have more or less dissolved then blend, before cooking down potentially to thicken more.

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As in many of my attempts at the role-play adventures, I make a mistake, in this case forgetting to remove the bay before blending. This error has not led to instant death, I am pleased to say, and the results would have been worse had the herb been of the fresh variety, yet I am concerned the soup will be overpowered by its taste nonetheless.

The result is a light green and grey, gently bay-flavoured mellow soup which, jazzed up by some quickly-fried croutons and a grating of cheddar makes a more than satisfactory meal. The absence of proper stock is evident, as the overall savour is mild rather than robust. What I started with appeared a meagre selection yet, with some dedication and care, I was able to transform the ingredients into a tasty and hearty soup. Lunch made and a lesson learned (and barely a flicker of meat). Also, the day drab, an atmosphere more befitting to the making.

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an egg is not an oeuf

I have, I think, become quite adept at one-pot or one-pan dishes. The kind of thing where everything gets gradually added to the same receptacle thus allowing levels of flavour to amalgamate and intensify. Ideally, the process is a relatively lengthy one with much simmering and reducing – a favourite method of mine, as I explained in the previous post – and the ingredients are always on hand, prepared in their own way, either chopped, diced, sliced or measured out. These dishes are invariably stove-top affairs, principally so I can monitor progress and augment and adjust as appropriate.

After the midwinter break I returned to my apartment carrying a suitcase filled with the kind of goods difficult – or, as far as I know, impossible – to find here. These included packets of diced chorizo and smoked pancetta, a jar of zingy za’tar, and, perhaps unnecessarily, a couple of those ready-vacuum-packed portions of smoked mackerel found in every supermarket across the UK. I’d decided wasn’t getting enough omega 3.

So far I’ve made two meals using the delicious fish. One light, healthy and flavoursome and the other, indeed the first of the new year, quite indulgent with a good rough sprinkling of grated cheddar and plenty of butter in the bargain. This one is intensely savoury, the kind of thing that goes very well with very cold beer or a chilled glass of wine or two. Sweet things ain’t my thing, really, and I rarely have the desire to make cakes, puddings or desserts. Pass me the salt please.

To make a good frittata two things are essential: courage to keep that gas flame as low as possible, so that it is a mere shiver, fragile in the invisible breezes; the other is a pan that will not stick – you want that egg-thing to slither out deliciously onto the plate.

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It started, as ever, with an onion. I used half a golden one, which I sliced and tipped into the pan with some dried bay leaves. More about this herb another time I think, but suffice to say I have always have some – something irresistible in their mellowness and their hue which always reminds me of autumn in England. I cooked everything down on a low heat with a big knob of butter until the onions were practically melting. No hurry here. I had the eggs – six – already beaten with the cheese, flaked mackerel and black pepper. I removed the bay and tipped in the egg mixture, moving the pan about to neatly accommodate it all. Then, I left it, although careful to keep an eye on that flickering flame.

Another who likes to be watchful, and likes his eggs, is Chief Inspector Maigret. Probably my second-favourite literary detective. He is a man who has hunches he does not question and instincts he follows, based on his vast experience in the work he does and his keen understanding of human nature:

‘”The evening before last,” he said, “I didn’t know yet that she was dead, or that she was your sister-in-law, and yet I was already interested in her.”‘

That’s from Maigret On Holiday. In another episode, based in a dreary coastal hotel, he fixes very early for no apparent reason on the sullen waitress, an inkling which proves decisive:

‘What was she watching for, with her restless glance?’

Essentially Maigret trusts his own intuition and he sees all his cases through with a dogged and, for the guilty parties, infuriating determination. Patience is a virtue indeed. I enjoy the books by Simenon especially, usually no more than a hundred-odd pages yet rich in subtle character observation and atmosphere – lighter in tone than his superlative romans durs, yet written in the same clipped and mannered prose which, like the hero, says always just enough.

I happened to watch a recent TV adaptation and found Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal wholly unlike the character I admire: physically, of course, bearing no resemblance yet it was the method of investigation which veered most I thought from the written original. There was too much confidence with his wife and colleagues, although I acknowledge allowances have to be made for the viewing public in order Maigret’s thought processes be made more explicit. Atkinson was also too morose (and one can say Michael Gambon over-jocular), too wearied by the job almost. By another name it would simply have been another good continental detective series but, as an adaptation of a classic, not in my mind cutting the moutarde. 

While I digressed, the frittata had been firming. I tend not to go for exact times and measurements, more on look, feel and taste. An exploratory prod revealed the sponge beneath the surface indicating its readiness. Flashed under a preheated grill and it was ready. In the end I had enough for two meals (it will keep in the fridge for a day or so) and consumed it with nothing other than a dollop of brown sauce.

Take an onion

It all begins with an onion. A stovetop stew with a melting heart or a chalk-white risotto, diced onions cooked slowly until translucent. An onion forms the base for curries too, perhaps a frittata. Chef and food writer Simon Hopkinson posits this as idea for an entire cookery book, so frequently we reach for the slippery bulb of gold, white or red.

You have to start somewhere. This is where I’m beginning. I’m going to start chopping without a clear idea what I’m making, This way ideas emerge.

There is a way to chop an onion without causing tears to flow. It is this: 1. Take your standard globular allium and peel. 2. Chop in half, on the horizontal 3. Take one segment and begin chopping, not too finely, from the side. The onion should crunch satisfactorily. 4. While chopping the onion hold it as intact as possible so it retains its semi-globular aspect. You will need to move your fingersor risk a bloody encounter. 5. You should now have half an onion divvied up into slices. Swivel this 90 degrees and begin chopping again, from the side up towards the middle. Onion may try to fall apart but persevere with firm grip. 6.  Once completed the onion will crumble into dice ready for its meeting with oil and/ or butter. If using, repeat with other segment.

 

 

Carrots, celery and other vegetables have their own rules, and their own time. I am only concerned with getting started. Getting what started? The process.

There are many days when all I want to do is to be standing by the stove, stirring something, a glass of something livening nearby and music or the radio playing. It is not uncommon for me to deliberately elongate the process of cooking so that I can savour it further. In a way, it seems, I am less interested in the end product, especially as I am often cooking for one.

To cook is to be in a delicious state. Absorbing and meditative and from it comes other thoughts, unbidden until now, given an abstract percussive rhythm by the tap of the wooden spoon, clink of glass, bubble of boiling water and scrape of the carving knife. So often, as now, it starts with an onion. Let us see what will emerge.