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. 

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