dimanche 3 novembre 2013

On lobster

I have a sneaking suspicion Toby won't like this post. I anticipate that I may shortly be lambasted for use of unrealistic ingredients or some such culinary crime. But when someone gives you three lobsters, it would be churlish would it not, to fail to rise to the challenge?

I should be clear from the outset that these crustaceans were not killed by my own fair hand (sorry Tobes, I am a cheat as well as a terrific food snob). My friendly fishmonger Guy (whom you may recall from earlier episodes) displayed his not-so-friendly side and did the dastardly deed. So for the purposes of this recipe, let's just say that you should ask your fishmonger to bring an end to the lobsters' days and cut them in two, straight down the backbone so to speak.

Now as I had never cooked lobster before, there was much hesitation as what would happen to the claws if I grilled them as I was planning to do with the meaty central bits. In the end, the big claws were removed, cooked separately for ten minutes in boiling water and left to cool. It worked perfectly, as did the hammer...

In the meantime I crushed a clove of garlic and chopped a handful of parsley which I then mixed into some salted butter. Remembering some long-ago learned professional kitchen trick, I rolled this in cling film to create a perfect cylinder of butter which could then be sliced and laid on top of the lobster halves as below. They then met their end for a second time, under the grill for ten minutes at its highest temperature.

The end result was quite spectacular. I had always been more of a fan of crab with a good mayonnaise and some brown bread, eschewing lobster as overpriced fare for fools. I now have to admit that these fools may have a point... And try as I might, Guy has not shown any signs of wanting to make me a present of any more of his best Britanny lobsters. He's no fool that man, no fool at all.

Kate, Paris, November 2nd

On authenticity

So, after my grizzling that I can’t get the authentic biscuits to make my legendary tiramisu just the same as I learned in a Florentine basement kitchen twenty years ago, here I am with a box of Linguine di Gatto... The first I have held in a decade.  I would love to claim that a devoted Italian reader had sent them, but a friend went there and brought them back... I must bang on about their availability quite a lot. Perhaps too much. Anyway...

This got me thinking a bit; is the result made with these really going to be that much better? And will anyone else know? I mean, wouldn’t someone else eating the desert have to have had the same experience as me to recognise the difference?

There are lots of good ways to prepare spaghetti carbonara. I have been going to an Italian restaurant in England my whole life, and theirs is delicious; just nothing like anything I have ever had in Italy, but I have been loving it since I was a kid.  I like to make it too, in a variety of ways. Every now and again I’ll get some Pecorino, which is the authentic cheese, and I have to admit, it is different, better even.  The cheese taste is more astringent than with Parmesan, contrasting more with the eggs perhaps. There’s definitely a smug satisfaction from doing the  classics properly, and of course, they are classics because people like to eat them, so they must be delicious.

So here are my musings. In one sense the pursuit of authenticity in recipes is akin to nostalgia, that warm cuddly feeling of comfort and memories. There is that community aspect to this as well, not just the personal memory. Cooking in tradition connects you with all those who have eaten this way before and maybe even the cultures the food comes from. Much like the shared consciousness we get from books and arts.

Unfortunately, like so much with food, authenticity also fuels the showing off. Now I’m not against a bit of showing off now and again, as you might have noticed, but ever insisting that dishes must only be made one way, or ingredients can only be prepared one way, well that’s likely to be rather boorish and result in very dull dinner parties.

Italy is the best, and the worst, place for this.  On the one hand, that people eat regionally and are happy to have a massive rumble about whether thin and crispy Roman or Neapolitan pie is the real pizza is a proper joy.  As an outsider, I can enjoy the endless variety, but thank heavens we’re not so set in our ways here. We may always be tourists as far as food is concerned, but that means a lot more variety, and if you want to make Bolognese with spaghetti, you go right ahead. Just don’t tell anyone from Bologna.

Toby, Hampshire, July 31st

dimanche 21 juillet 2013

The holy grail

Or how to make mayonnaise. Which I can't. At all. Ever. No matter how hard I try. So I have delegated this particular culinary episode to two of the most important men in my life (with apologies to Toby - no idea if you can make mayonnaise - and my father - who makes a mean mayonnaise but didn't happen to be present last Sunday evening): my husband Emmanuel and Paul Bocuse.

Now, as hard as it may seem to imagine this, there is a strong bond linking these two unlikely souls. Paul Bocuse gave a signed copy of his classic book "dans votre cuisine" to Emmanuel's mother in 1982 and this chef d'oeuvre has somehow found its way into Emmanuel's hands and hence, into our kitchen. He mainly uses if for crêpe making but last week we had an everso large bag of prawns from our friend Guy (see my previous adventures in linguine alle vongole land) which necessitated fresh mayonnaise. Knowing that any attempts on my part to turn an egg and some oil into anything vaguely edible were unlikely to meet with success, Emmanuel stepped up to the challenge. Masterfully.

When I asked him how he had conjured up what was quite frankly the best mayonnaise I have ever eaten on his first attempt, he looked at me rather oddly. Beginner's luck was his first thought; following the recipe his second. I would add patience to this list of culinary virtues, not least because it is something I have none of which might explain why my mayonnaise always resembles curdled vinaigrette... So, without further ado, here is my faithfully translated and transcribed recipe for mayonnaise, according to Paul Bocuse.

Preparation time: 15 minutes
2 glasses of olive or groundnut oil
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
2 soup spoons of wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

At least one hour prior to commencing the preparation of your mayonnaise, ensure that any refrigerated ingredients have been removed from the fridge so as to be at room temperature.

Place the egg yolk in a bowl, add the mustard and half a spoon of vinegar. Mix with a metal whisk or a wooden spoon. Add the oil in a constant stream whilst whisking. If the mayonnaise becomes too thick, add a little more vinegar and continue to whisk in the oil until there is none left. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Beware! The mayonnaise should not be prepared in advance nor placed in the fridge. So there.

Kate, Paris, July

dimanche 30 juin 2013

Linguine alle vongole

I have a problem with this food blogging lark. Don't whoop with joy Toby, I'm not giving up. It's just that I start out with the very best intentions, commence cooking and then forget to take the pictures. As you may have noticed, this is not a problem Toby suffers from... I am starting to wonder if he has a photographer discreetly concealed in his kitchen.

So here are my linguine alle vongole. Heavy on the clams. Light on the pictures.

On Friday evening I had a desperate desire to be on holiday. And holiday for me means Italy, the sea, ice cold white wine or a bright orange aperol spritz, fresh anchovies, sunbathing on a rocky beach, and linguine with clams. Their glossy olive oily, winey juices are the stuff that my holiday dreams are made of.

Yes, I know it's Spanish, but it was the best I could do...

First stop, chez Guy, Paris' best fishmonger. His shop, on the rue Montorgueil in the 2nd is actually called Soguisa if you are looking for it. But he is Guy, so to me chez Guy it is. I am actually convinced that he is my best friend (sorry Tobes...).  It's a bit like Audrey Hepburn explaining that nothing bad could ever happen to you at Tiffanys. To me, nothing bad could ever happen chez Guy. Although I am starting to think his affections are wavering. Last week he gave his phone number to my mother...

Anyway, I digress. Chez Guy I buy a huge bag of clams, plucked that morning from the Normandy waters. When I ask if they were fished that morning, Guy replies "affirmative Bébé." He calls me Bébé. Don't ask.

In italian they are vongole, in French palourdes and in English, well just make sure they are the big, fat ones, not the tiny winkle variety. Other ingredients: De Cecco Linguine or Spaghetti, dried red chilli (practically the most important thing in my condiment's cupboard - sorry, I don't really have a condiment's cupboard), garlic, flat leaf parsley, white wine (or white vermouth - handy for a concurrent martini if you fancy) and olive oil.

As soon as you get home, plunge the clams into a bowl of cold water. Every five minutes or so, drain them and start again. Do this about five times to get rid of any sand.

Boil a large quantity of salted water in your biggest pan. When it is heaving like the Med on a stormy day, add the linguine. Simultaneously, fry finely sliced garlic and a pinch of dried chill in a large frying pan. When the garlic is golden, add the drained clams, sloosh a large glass if white wine over them and clamp on the lid so that the steam can't escape. Steam them open for about 5 minutes. When you lift off the lid, you will be in Positano, I promise.

By this time, your linguine should be cooked al dente. Drain, add a sloosh of olive oil, a pinch of salt, a handful of chopped parsley and the clams. Their juices should suffice to coat the pasta and provide that glossy olive oily, winey sauce that this dish is famed for.

Kate, Positano, Paris, June 2013

Dinner parties

So how best to dazzle at a dinner party? Ingredients? Place settings? Cocktails? Well actually cocktails do go down a treat, but I think the best way to show off is to make it all appear effortless, and that means little or no last minute prep.  I won’t be found making soufflés or frying individual steaks or steaming fish.  My basic, and if I may so, flawless, rule is only ever have one time critical component in a dinner.  This menu has none, so I’m not reliant on cooking devices, skills or guests for the timings all going smoothly, which means being relaxed and actually enjoying the whole process.  I fed eight here I think, with about an hour of prep and two hours of cooking before anyone else turned up.

Cured ham, honeyed figs and bits

This is a simple assembly, but a careful tease of flavours and textures. A really rich, greasy Palm style ham is needed – mine was a thick cut Serrano, but that was because I had been in Spain.  To contrast with the charcuterie, the figs get a light roasting after being brushed with reduced honey – just a hint of sweetness is required.  A soft texture and savoury note is provided by a very soft goat’s cheese and hazlenuts add crunch. The leaves get dressed with the syrup from cooking the figs cut with a little lemon juice, but I think they’re really just dressing.  As are the borage flowers – although they are surprisingly nice with the cheese.

It’s really a great starter.  These sort of things should not be fridge cold, so can be assembled well ahead of the off.  In a few mouthfuls you get a wide variety of strong and precise flavours from savoury to sweet and textures from soft to crunchy.  So that’s pretty much all of them then. I don’t doubt Kate would serve this on one of her cheerful dive-in-and-help-yourself-platters…but can guests really be relied upon to get the balances just so?

Italian Roast Lamb

So, here’s the graft part, but it’s really not that difficult and produces massive wows…
To tunnel bone the leg (not butterfly it and truss it up again like most butchers do), you work a paring knife carefully around the bone from the exposed knuckle. The meat will come away, and eventually you get to the knuckle with the shank bone, which you can then work around until you can cut it free…
I stuffed this one with some spinach, herbs, garlic, anchovies and pine nuts for a very traditional Italian feel.  It will retain its shape…

Lamb and anchovies? Yes! Just do it.  To finish, insert slivers of garlic, rosemary and more anchovies into the lamb flesh and season lots. 

It needs cooking to an Italian finish because of the stuffing, which is more well-done than usual.  I cook it slow and with half of bottle of white in there, some onions and more garlic.  Cook for about two hours in a medium oven I guess.

This can rest for ages, so I get it out before dealing with guests, maybe an hour before I want to serve.  The liquor from the pan gets reduced a bit, and then into it loads of beans, oven dried tomatoes and parsley.  That’s one instant side dish!  This time Cannellini beans, but other beans are available.
The other side dishes are equally straightforward; roast new potatoes and fennel, simply tossed in olive oil and baked… The work pays off at the table, easy, fast carving and maximum show off points!

 Tira Mi Su

Well.  It’s the signature dish, so I had to do it (and I know Kate has nothing to live with this), but on the other hand I really don’t want to give it away.  I know this going to sound pretentious, but it’s true (and maybe I am anyway – writing this stuff at all is pretty self-indulgent)…anyway, so I learned this in a basement in Florence twenty years ago…There, said it.  This is really nothing like how you get it in restaurants even in Italy - it won’t stand up and you can’t cut it with a cake slice, and there are no sponge fingers in it.

I can’t get the biscuits we had in Florence, so I’m using Langue du Chat ones here.  They taste almondy like Savoiardi sponge fingers but are hardy and much thinner.  In the end result, they will leave very little texture, but a strong taste of what they have been dipped in. 

So, the cream.  Separate five eggs.  Beat the yolks with 50g of caster sugar and then fold 500g of mascarpone into that.  Whip the 5 egg whites until stiffish and fold the two mixtures together. The result is an airy cream that is pourable.

Having got your display bowl of choice, put a glass of Marsala wine on a plate, and espresso coffee in another once cool (makes handling much easier).  In Florence, we used Vin Santo, in any event, no fruity liquers. Dip biscuits in the booze and make a layer in a bottom of the bowl.  Cover this in half the cream and then lay biscuits dipped in coffee on top, and top that layer with the rest of the cream.  Refrigerate (the longer the better). Dust with best quality coco powder and serve (by spooning generously).

I can’t believe I’ve given this away…

Toby, Hampshire, June 2013

mercredi 19 juin 2013

190 miles from shore

Maybe I've had a bit too much time on my hands, and certainly haven't done a whole lot of sophisticated catering but I've been thinking about two important things about food while spending five days sailing, including crossing the Bay of Biscay.

First off, on this sort of trip one can of course try and live on ham cheese and biscuits.  It's a lot easier  than dealing with a hot pan and boiling water while being thrown around by the ocean, so why bother trying to make decent food?

Well, there's nutrition  I suppose, but we were hardly likely to get scurvy in this time away. No, it's more about community, the team. Making food for each other (in turns) is an expression of care and respect I think, and isn't that the essence of hospitality, and what we do every time we offer to feed someone. In this crew experience, where the three of us really are putting our lives in each others hands, that communion is all the more significant.

So every day one of us would wrestle with the challenges of one pot one knife cooking (should have bought a chopping board), handling boiling water while bobbing around and discovering we have no salt (my fault, but thank heaven for the seasoning qualities of chorizo).  So we would have dinner together every evening, and afternoon tea with a selection of Portugese delicacies every afternoon. And, largely because of where we were no doubt, it was all terrific.

The Italians and French might get all excited about their terroirs and DOCs, but the experience of consumption is just as important to the experience... A bitter shandy after a bike ride, a sausage on a beach (previously stated BBQ rules don't apply), a backpack sweated sandwich at the top of a just hiked hill. These are all things that I know are always intensely memorable to me, but I'm pretty confident I'm not alone in having these sensation triggers.  Holidays too of course, and hasn't everyone experienced that surprise that your favourite local wine seems to lose quite a bit in being transported home?

Eating is a sensation about more than food, it's about people and the experience. No deli can sell you the intense, uniqueness of these fleeting moments. So, a sort of recipe - baked white beans, fried  chorizo, rocket, drizzle of lemon, scattered with croutons (yes, I made croutons). Serve 190 miles from shore, winds 25mph from the South West, Sea State Moderate. Delicious.

Toby, somewhere 190 miles from shore, sometime in June

vendredi 14 juin 2013

Friday night Italian

Ok, so clearly I had better up my game. Toby has moved into fully fledged food photographer mode whilst I have nothing to show for my last few week's culinary efforts.

Until now... Friday night Italian (with a little help from the French - I couldn't find an Italian to pose with the linguine but I found a handy Frenchman to fill in instead).

A little salad of nectarines, mozzarella, rocket, Parma ham and pine nuts to start.

This is construction cooking at its best. There is no real cooking to speak of at all in fact. If you really insist you can toast the pine nuts in a frying pan. Beware ! They "turn" very quickly and before you know it your teeny bag of fearfully expensive pignoli may be a lot darker than you intended. As for the rest, a small amount of slicing, a bit of scattering, some slooshing (of your best olive oil and balsamic vinegar) and you're all done and ready to move onto the next course : crab linguine.

The ingredients' list is gloriously short: linguine (De Cecco or similar), a pinch of dried chilli, one clove of garlic, a tin of crabmeat, a handful of rocket or flat leaf parsley and one lemon.

Boil masses of salted water in your biggest pan. (I lived in Italy for a while and was always amazed to see pans that I would have only used for a stew for ten being hauled out on a nightly basis for spaghetti for two.) Whilst the linguine is cooking, slice the garlic finely and add it with a pinch of dried chill to a hot frying pan with some olive oil. When it's golden, add the crabmeat, some finely chopped lemon rind, the juice of the lemon and warm gently. When the spaghetti is cooked drain it, keeping about a tea-cup full of the cooking water. In your huge pan mix together the linguine, the rocket, a good sloosh of olive oil and of the cooking water, plenty of salt and pepper and your warmed crab mixture.

Eat whilst drinking the crispest, coldest white you can find and listening to Italian pop music. Or at least that's what I do...

Kate, Paris, 14th June