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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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.

 

 

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.