Agonda

When you walk down the narrow strip of road dividing the beach in Agonda, Goa from the inland, there are various signs crudely affixed to posts and sides of shops advertising cooking classes. Sometimes there are detailed directions, email addresses and telephone numbers. Others, however, merely have an arrow. This was the one I followed, down an alley beside a wine shop. It led me to a simple house where a couple of Indian ladies were sitting outside. Seeing me one of them shouted something and shortly a sari-clad lady appeared who would turn out to be my teacher for the following evening; her name was Shami.

It was what I’d been looking for. Home-style Indian cookery with no frills. Something I could replicate at home, but also a different type of culinary challenge. The big takeaway I’ve got so far from my mostly plant-based diet has, not, as I’d perhaps feared, been its limitations but rather a horizon as wide and glorious as the one I could see from my beach hut. My cupboards and fridge are filled with a lot of new – to me – and exciting ingredients that a year ago I would never dreamed of having at home. I plan a separate post on that in the near future.

Meanwhile I showed up at 5 o’clock (‘any later the mosquitoes come’ she’d warned me) and met my cooking companions, a young Swiss couple who were travelling around Asia. Shami was assisted by her brother, Rafiq. We were to make several dishes: masala chai, aubergine masala, an okra side, cheese and garlic naan breads, coconut chutney, aloo gobi and of course Goan fish curry. It panned out that chef Shami did most of the cooking while we helped with the preparation,  the chopping and dicing, the rolling and some stirring. At the same time I made scribbled notes and took photos.

Labour-intensive yes, but very satisfying in that respect. I’m very fond of cooking that requires a lot of prior prep so that when the cooking is underway everything is ready to be added. I was fascinated by the cooking implements: the flat-iron tawa used to cook the naans, the rolling pin and raised board, the little contraption Shami sat on – a wooden block with a projecting serrated blade – which doubled as a fish slicer and coconut flesh extractor. I liked the way everything was designed especially for this type of cookery. It was a real slice of Goan home life, the kitchen half inside half outside.

 

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Back in Beijing I tried to recreate some of that southern Indian flavour in my own kitchen. The sun came out although the view across the road was not Agonda beach with the Arabian sea rolling in and cows lolling about the sand but rather a grubby and grey six-floor building used in part as a delivery depot. What I did have that was authentic were the correct ingredients. I’d spent time in a Mumbai market being gently ripped off by several storekeepers but what I brought back – garam masala, black mustard seeds, cardamom pods and, most excitingly, fresh tamarind – was still cheaper than anything I could have bought here, even if I had found it.

In all truthfulness my efforts were not so successful largely because, like a child with a new toy, I was rather over-eager with the tamarind and put in more than I should have to both dishes. It is a delicious ingredient but has a tendency to overpower. Lesson learnt. Still, I can testify to the tastiness of the food as I was there and will always remember how it was, there, in Shami’s inside-outside kitchen next to the beach in Agonda, Goa.

I took the fish out of the curry and used cooked squash instead.

To make Goan curry, Shami style:

  • flesh of half a coconut (I used 200ml of coconut milk and about a tablespoon of desiccated coconut)
  • two dry red chillies (I substituted fresh ones, deseeded)
  • 1 tbsp coriander powder
  • 1 tbsp tamarind
  • ten (yes!) cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • fresh coriander
  • sunflower oil
  • half a medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt

Blend the first eight ingredients with a cup of water until you get a smooth paste. Stick blender worked best for me. In a pan heat the oil then add the onion. Interestingly, I was taught to put the salt in next as it both takes the moisture from the onion and cooks it quicker. It works. When the onion is softened add the tomato, cook for a minute or so then dole in the spice paste, using water to make sure all the sauce is recovered. Bring to the boil then add your protein or vegetables and cook away on a medium heat for ten minutes until ready. This is a mellow, soothing curry although up the chilli ratio if you want a spicier hit.

Aubergine masala:

  • 1 large aubergine
  • 2 dry red chillies (again, I used fresh ones and kept most of the seeds this time)
  • six black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • thumb of ginger, chopped
  • half a medium onion
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp tamarind
  • espresso cupful of white wine vinegar (I substituted cider vinegar)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tomato, sliced
  • half a medium onion, chopped

Blend everything apart from the aubergine, tomato, salt and onion until you get a smooth paste. Chop the aubergine into large chunks and soak in water. Heat sunflower oil in a pan then add onion, salt and tomato as per the recipe above. After softening put in the aubergine, drained, then half a cup of water and cover. Cook until everything has amalgamated and the aubergine has lost its toughness. Spoon in the spice blend and a bit more water if necessary. Bring everything to a bubble. The result should be tangy, sweet and sour, deep with different flavours.

Cheese and garlic naan breads (recipe makes about ten naan breads):

  • 200g wheat flour
  • half tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 100g cheese (if using, a crumbly one is a good option here)
  • finely chopped garlic, as much as you like

In a large bowl and with floury hands mix the flour, salt and oil together with cold water until a dough forms. Then add the cheese and garlic. Rest the dough in the bowl for at least ten minutes, or even longer. Divide the dough into balls about the size of large marbles.

When ready to eat, heat a flat-bottomed pan on a high heat. I bought my own tawa but anything like your favourite pancake pan will do here. On a clean and dry dough-dusted surface roll out each marble into a flat circle, not too thinly. Fold each circle in half and then again so you get a pocket shape. Re-flour then roll out into a flat triangle. Dot the hot pan with melted butter or ghee (no point messing around here) and gently lower in the raw naan. Press down on it while cooking and brush the other side with more butter. Flip over and add more butter. Whole cooking time should not be more than about thirty seconds and both sides of the bread should be slightly puffed and golden brown.

 

Crispy spiced cauliflower and chick peas

I think this dish might become my fall-back failsafe lunch or supper. I adapted it from a Waitrose magazine recipe – one of my Christmas cuttings – which I’ve included in this post further down. As the whole thing is cooked on a single oven tray there is scope for additions, different textures and tastes.

To the original basic cauliflower and chickpea foundation I decided to include a few chunky croutons – to help soak up any last drops of the delicious spiced oil in the tray – as well as some halved cherry tomatoes for an extra burst of moisture and flavour. I didn’t have any ground coriander although I realise I could have thrown in some seeds for a last minute citrus hit

. I used a squeeze of lemon instead. The following serving is for one person.

  • about half a medium cauliflower, stalks roughly sliced
  • three-quarters of a tin of chick peas (I’ll use the rest for something else, hummous perhaps)
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • two ends of a baguette, cut into chunks (any bread going stale will be perfect too)
  • handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil, a generous drizzle

Gather together the cauliflower and chick peas in a bowl, sprinkle the spices and pour over the oil. Massage everything together. Jumble the cauliflower and pulses on a roasting tray so you create a kind of vegetable forest with the odd small clearing. Put in a preheated oven on 200ºC and roast away for a good thirty minutes. There should be wonderful smells in the kitchen.

The chick peas and cauliflower should have crisped up nicely by now, should maybe even be catching slightly and show signs of charring. Now’s the time to add the bread and tomatoes, grind in some salt and pepper, once more mixing everything up, and cook for another five minutes. Add a little more oil if it looks too dry. The tomatoes will have softened slightly and the bread have a slight crunch to it.

As I said I just finished this with a squeeze of lemon although a coriander yoghurt, as per the original recipe, would also go down a treat.

Other things to potentially do:

  • carrots or parsnips (or both) cut on the diagonal and roasted together with the cauliflower (or instead of it)
  • sliced onions, added about halfway through the cooking
  • broccoli florets instead of the cauliflower, briefly blanched in boiling water before putting in the oven then finished with toasted sesame seeds

 

Chickpea and carrot tagine with homemade harissa

 

Some recipes for harissa call for peppers, others do not. I used one for mine simply because I had one. Other ingredients were:

  • coriander seeds
  • cumin seeds
  • tomato puree (I used Hunt’s paste)
  • two small red chillies
  • bunch of coriander
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • two cloves of garlic

First I got the skin off the pepper by blackening it on the hob flame then flaking off the burnt bits and getting rid of the seeds and pith so that only the flesh remained. I dry-roasted the seeds over a short flame before pounding them up in a pestle and mortar. To a container I added the chillies, garlic and coriander, all chopped, as well as a good dollop of tomato puree, the pepper, seasoning and seed powder, before glugging in some olive oil. Then it was a simple matter of whizzing it all up with a stick blender until smooth, I had an empty and sterilised jam jar ready and after I had spooned in the harissa I topped it up with olive oil. This should be done after each use to exclude the air and will ensure the paste lasts at least a month in the fridge.

In many dishes meat is just a texture that can easily be replaced. Here I used carrot and sweet potato, keeping the slices large. Here’s the list:

  • harissa paste (see above)
  • two large carrots
  • one sweet potato
  • one can of chick peas, drained
  • half an onion
  • one small bunch of both coriander and parsley, chopped roughly
  • two cloves of garlic
  • one tsp of turmeric
  • one tsp of smoked paprika
  • honey
  • bunch of greens – I used a type of Chinese spinach
  • quarters of lemon to serve

Slice the onion and garlic and gently fry in olive oil until soft. Meanwhile chop the carrots and sweet potato on the diagonal so that you end up with thick wedges. Add the turmeric to the onions and let it amalgamate for ten seconds. Do the same with the smoked paprika. Pour in a tablespoonful of honey. Then stir in a generous spoonful of the harissa and stand back to appreciate the wonderful spiced aroma in the kitchen. Next add the carrots and sweet potato, making sure they are caked in the sauce, then pour in enough water to half cover everything. Cook with a lid on a gentle heat for about 15 minutes. Add the chick peas, a pinch of salt and a little more water if necessary, put the lid back on and cook for a further 10 minutes or so. Chop up the rinsed greens and stir into the stew. When they have softened put in the herbs, turn off the heat and let it sit for a minute. The result should be colourful and inviting.

Bread can be used to soak up the delicious liquor and a squeeze of lemon will lift the whole dish. Keep the harissa handy in case you want an extra heat hit.

On the pulse, with the grain.

One of the key things I’ve learnt about getting creative in the kitchen is that the process of making starts with what is absent. If I had a large, fully equipped kitchen and a well-stocked larder at my disposal I daresay I would never have started this blog.

Limited preparation space and minimal cooking facilities. The unavailability of many familiar ingredients. The effort it takes to source a fresh bunch of thyme. Into this mix I am now stirring the challenge to cut out as many carbohydrates as possible from my diet. It’s a weight-loss thing. I figured on this with a combination of regular exercise and less alcohol.

At least two of those are going pretty well. Where I have to get creative is to think of alternatives to the usual sauce-moppers and solid textures. No longer will my fall-back be a rustling portion of fried potatoes, glistening with salt. Same goes for that lunchtime convenience of two thick slices of bread filled with whatever I can fashion from the fridge contents. No takeaway pizza. Rice and noodles are also out, which excludes me from about eighty percent of the dishes in this country. I’m making an exception, as a once-weekly treat, of pasta, although I haven’t been as tempted as I thought I would be.

Creamed white beans

An inspiration which crept on at me one morning at work and which possessed me for the rest of the day until I could not wait to get on with it. It provided the base for slices of medium-rare sirloin and kale.

  • tin of white beans (eg. cannellini)
  • half a medium onion
  • palmful of thyme leaves, chopped
  • grain mustard, spoonful of
  • stock – I crumbled in about half a vegetable cube to a jug of hot water
  • cider vinegar, splash
  • cream, about 50ml
  • salt and pepper

It was the soothing prospect of this which had me salivating. The vinegar provided a nice sour note, cutting through the richness, although I guess white wine would have done too. I added the chopped onion to a hot pan lubricated with a little oil and then after a few minutes, added the thyme and mustard. Vinegar sloshed in next with the heat turned up to let it boil. Back on the simmer I poured in the beans, well-drained to get rid of that cat-food tin smell. The stock covered the beans and basically I let it bubble away for about fifteen minutes while the rest of the meal was prepared. Near the end the addition of the cream and another couple of minutes’ cooking thickened the dish deliciously. I could probably just be happy with a bowl of this some other time.

Spiced lentil soup

A good late-season warmer. At least a hand-held blender is necessary for the final emulsification.  I eventually made enough for about five separate servings.

  • green lentils – I weighed in about four generous handfuls.
  • chilli flakes, a pinch
  • more stock, enough to more than cover all the ingredients – again, I generally just use cubes
  • one big onion, diced
  • garam masala, a good spoonful of
  • one squash, cut up into chunks
  • spinach or similar, thick bunch of
  • cream, about 100ml

There might have been some other ingredients, but this was essentially it. Always starts with the onion frying in oil until soft. I threw in the spices and chilli fairly early on in the process. Then the lentils and squash were introduced and allowed to take on all the pan flavours. The spinach was wonderfully cold when I washed it under the tap. In it went. Then the stock, up to the boil, cook till everything was soft and in with the cream and, after a bit of amalgamation, the B L E N D. This was my lunch out of a thermos for the next three days.

Chickpea stew

Not meant to stand alone this one although I daresay it could. In this case it was the base for a couple of pollack fillets which originally I’d planned to cook separately but in the end just bunged in with everything else. This recipe is the bastard child of an Aldo Zilli creation. The appropriation is, as ever, my own.

  • tin of chick peas
  • medium onion, chopped
  • capers, spoonful of
  • chilli flakes, sprinkle
  • stock, as for the beans
  • one carrot, diced into small pieces
  • bunch of coriander, chopped

Pretty sure Zilli uses sun-dried tomatoes in his dish. I compensated for the lack of those with the capers – the piquancy is needed in some way. The process remains the same. Onion and carrot, spice, chick peas, capers, stock, coriander, in that order. Cooked until most of the stock reduced to a thin flavoursome gravy. Particularly delicious contrast between the nutty pulses, still with a bite, the sweetened onion and carrot and the hint of spice.

No pictures for this post. How could I visually recreate the sensation of my splayed palm over the pan as it heats, or the squeak the spinach makes when the knife slices through it? How to replicate the rattle of pulses in the colander or the magical mingling of spices in the air? What photo can do justice to the longing I had for a dish of beans or the impatience over a pan of nearly-boiling water?

With toaster

One of the main stimuli for starting this blog was to see what culinary explorations I could make in the limited confines of my kitchen. As the title indicates I was possessed of only two hobs, a toaster and scanty preparation space. In past posts I’ve demonstrated quite effectively how one of my cupboards can act as a kind of proving drawer, something I will be turning to again as the weather starts to get colder over the next month or so. I have an oven too – a portable thing that sits on my fridge, replacing the microwave that came with the apartment and which is now in a bedroom cabinet, under towels. Best place for it.

This week I was to have my meagre equipment tested to its capacity as the hobs were put out of action by the chance discovery of a gas leak. With the kitchen effectively out-of-bounds and my hands restless to prepare some kind of meal I turned to the oven, to see what kind of supper I could fashion. I could bake. I could roast. Roast on toast? I had to do better than that.

My aim was to cook everything together so that it would all do evenly and to this end I decided to wrap it all in foil. Not sure what the science is behind this but I thought that by encasing the temperature would be contained moreover the combination of ingredients would meld into each other and at the end there would be a nice naturally made sauce.

I chose fish. Fillets of frozen tilapia I found at Twin’s. Never cooked with this fish before although I had eaten a much larger specimen at this restaurant in Chiang Mai and knew therefore it could handle some big flavours. I have also subsequently read an article listing the benefits and dangers of this fish, something I should perhaps have taken on board before buying it here. Well, I don’t have to buy it again.

So along with the fish in the foil I added:

  • half of one onion, sliced
  • handful of sun-dried tomatoes (with their juice), chopped
  • scattering of capers
  • twigs of thyme
  • dustings on the fish of smoked paprika and ras el hanout
  • yellow and green courgettes, half of one each, cubed
  • salt and pepper
  • drizzling of olive oil

I fancied a sweet-sour-savoury combination and also to see which flavours punched through the most. The fish lay on the bed of onions with the courgettes casually slung about over the top, thus:

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What would I do about accompaniments? I could roast some potatoes on a separate drawer, but I doubted the machine’s capacity to cope with all of that and in any case I wanted to be a little bit more imaginative. What could I make that didn’t require any hob-or oven-work?

Couscous. I always forget about couscous. Silly when it’s such a super easy thing to prepare and also extremely versatile. I started to think what I could add to the grains once they’d soaked up the hot water. Something with some crunch. I decided I would sprinkle some seeds and pine-nuts on the bottom drawer of the oven, for literally ten seconds. Parsley could also be chopped in, then there would be a squeeze or two of lemon with a knob of butter and a little oil to lubricate. I’d thought about throwing in some sultanas too, but in the end forgot about them.

After about thirty minutes at about 190 – I am nothing if not imprecise – I unwrapped the foil. Coming on lovely, but I decided to uncover it for a ten-minute blast on a higher heat just to get a bit more colour going. Turned out nice. The onions hadn’t quite cooked through and in any case they were one of the more extraneous elements in the mix. If I do this again I wouldn’t bother with them, or else use shallots. The ras el hanout had also got lost; probably next time one not both of the spices or else experiementation with something else. But the courgettes still had a nice bite to them, the fish was meaty and juicy and, as I’d hoped, a delicious sauce had formed from the mingling spices,

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Served on top of the couscous the plate had a very colourful, appealing aspect to it. The aromas were rich in different fragrances and it ate very well. As is my wont, I’d made enough for at least three meals and I can attest to its being equally good out of Tupperware off my knees in a crowded staff break area. Next time no tilapia though: what other fish could I use? I put it to you, dear reader.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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