Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Valentines for psychopaths

The lamb heart weighs heavy in my hand, nearly filling my palm with cold, wet meat. On the cutting board I quarter it, and finding a droplet of blood in a ventricle, give this to the cat. I am not a butcher. I am not even hungry, which is a relief, as this is a meal that will take hours. The heart is a muscle, suitable for slow braising, and patience is required for this.

In a hot pan, butter swirls, darkening. The quarters of heart and pieces of oxtail sizzle, their proteins browning and seizing. The Maillard reaction; caramelisation of protein, creating burnt, complex, sulfurous aromas. Think of barbeque. Think of searing steak. Think of carbon.

Chunks of onion, garlic, carrots and bay leaves follow the bronzed meat, and half a bottle of Tempranillo bubbles to life in the pan, its acid pulling the stuck and browned protein away from the edges. I do this without thinking; the excitement of trying a new food tempered by the waiting time, by the wine flushing my white cheeks hot, by the aroma set to awaken slumbering bellies. It's not time to eat yet. The slowest burner on the lowest flame cradles the crockery; hot lid tilted at a jaunty angle to release the steam. There might be enough time for a nap.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Michel Roux's Beef en Croute

What Christmas dinner would be complete without attempting to cook something new or interesting? The last few Christmases have involved learning to make Yorkshire puddings, cooking enough duck for 12, making latkes (fried potato pancakes typically eaten in honour of Hanukkah, which often occurs simultaneously with Christmas) and most recently Beef Wellington.

Beef Wellington is not a dish for every day. It involves a number of components; pastry, crepes, duxelle of mushrooms, blanched spinach and quite a lot of beef. It is both time and labour intensive, costly, and fairly rich due to the beef, cream and quite a significant amount of butter. For a holiday it is perfectly acceptable to be somewhat gluttonous as long as the result is impressive and delicious. With this in mind, making a beef Wellington to feed ten people seemed appropriate.  

Many top chefs have contributed their own version of this classic dish with a variety of components. Most suggest using puff pastry or rough puff to wrap and seal the meat; Michel Roux uses a soft brioche dough, rich with eggs and butter and faintly sweet. Inside the pastry, pancakes or crepes line it and prevent the juices from making the pastry soggy and limp. Michel Roux's herbed crepes were thin and flavoursome, good enough to be eaten on their own or with most savoury fillings. Inside the crepes was a layer of blanched spinach leaves, which contributed colour and some flavour. Some chefs suggest parma ham or proscuitto which might overpower the beef. The innermost layer was a delicate duxelle of finely chopped chestnut mushrooms, softened in butter and just tender enough to cradle the 1.5 kilogram fillet of beef that was the centrepiece of the project. The meat was seared in butter and roasted for 6 minutes; just long enough to keep the middle completely rare and juicy whilst cooking it enough to eat. Once the entire package was wrapped, it was only cooked for 25 minutes, or long enough to heat it through and cook all the layers; the beef remained quite pink. 

The only dilemma in this dish (aside from the serious amount of prep, cost of ingredients and potential disappointment at the result) was the softness of the brioche pastry. It was recommended to chill the dough, but due to space constraints (and having an entire dinner for ten squeezed into a tiny kitchen) it was unable to be. This made it extremely soft and difficult to work with. Under the best conditions, rolling something the length of a lady's forearm and twice the diameter would be a challenge, but getting the sticky brioche pastry off the parchment and around the beef was a cliff-edge moment. Thankfully it was managed, and while not a thing of beauty as in the pictures, once baked, became a face that everyone, not just a mother, could love. Once it was tasted, the proof was in the perfectly cooked beef and the delicious components. It's a good thing that Christmas only comes once a year, because this recipe is certainly not for every day. 

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Malt'n'Copper Whisky Tasting

The word whisky conjures up images of leather chairs and luxury, fireplaces and amber glow in crystal glasses, gentlemen and secret societies. Single malt scotch is the epitome of class in many places in the world, but whisky is certainly not limited to single malts. Whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Canadia, the United States made from barley, corn, rye and wheat are all notable and contribute to a wide variety of respected styles and tastes.

Traditional Scotch is made from malted barley and not blended with any other whisky or grain alcohol. Scotch is also not made using new casks, unlike bourbon, and so has less of an oak flavour.

For tasting, a small amount of room temperature water can "unlock" flavours and oils. Factors to notice are colour, palate, finish, and nose, which can be described with six notes; woody, winey, cereal, fruity, floral, peaty and fenty.

Malt'n'Copper are a Whisky Society local to Brighton, started by a former wine trader gone rogue. They organise tasting events and share whisky notes within their community. This tasting was focussed on Highland Park scotches and involved six whiskies.

The first, a new make spirit, was completely clear and unaged. It was extremely strong and at 50% ABV, highly alcoholic, similar to the Eastern European spirit Slivovice (a plum brandy) but once water was added, sweet honey notes and a smoky finish were detectable. It is useful to have an unaged spirit at a tasting for comparison.

Next we tasted a 12-year old Scotch that had been aged in a Spanish Oak Sherry Cask. It's quite popular to age Whisky in Sherry casks, and it contributed to the floral smell and buttery pecan notes. 

Third up was a 15 year old, aged in American White Oak, which had a strong oak and coconut scent. This was a very sweet whisky, with honey and caramel notes.

The 18 year old Highland Park was awarded "best spirit in the world" by Paul Pacult. It was aged in bourbon casks and very complex. It had spicy notes of cinnamon, cocoa and cayenne, but overall left the impression of maple syrup and pancakes; mostly sweet but containing undertones of sulfur or pleasantly burnt batter. It was indeed a praise-worthy drink. 

The fifth whisky came from a single cask and was less sweet than the others. At this point in the tasting it must be noted that the whisky began to unlock the poetic flavours of the tasters. Tasting is always somewhat subjective, especially when tasting for pleasure rather than for purchase. Impressions of the Single Cask were that it tasted of a "savage city skyline", with the creosote and wood of train tracks underlying floral notes, Earl Grey tea and airing laundry. 

The final Scotch was a 24 year old Gordon and MacPhail single cask. It aged in a former bourbon cask and the length of time gave it an extremely smooth quality with popcorn and cherry notes. 

Overall, tasting so many whiskies together was both productive and a little wasteful. With the exception of the un-aged whisky, any of these Scotches would have been a pleasure and a treat to drink. Trying such similar drinks (and because of the water and environment, whiskies from a single distillery will have certain similarities) encouraged the tasters to look for the nuances. A guided tasting like this is appropriate for anyone looking to educate themselves and experience new aspects of a drink they already enjoy.

Maclean, C. (2008). Whisky. Dorling Kindersley Limited: London.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


The fifth, most recently defined taste is umami, which is loosely the "savoury" taste. Humans taste sweet, salty, bitter and sour flavours. Umami, which is dominant in parmesan cheese, cooked tomatoes, miso and seaweed, means "delicious" in Japanese (Krulwich, 2007). It is certainly a valid flavour profile, and has been recognised since 2002. Chemically, umami exists as L-glutamate, which can be found in its purest form as MSG or monosodium glutamate. 

Following this awareness of umami, it seemed appropriate to add seaweed to some mushroom stock to make a Pie from tempeh, butternut squash and mushrooms. Tempeh is an Indonesian fermented soybean cake, which is much tastier than it sounds. It is made by inoculating cooked soybeans with a spore from the mycoprotein Rhizopus Oligosporus, similar to the spore used to grow the popular meat substitute Quorn. The tempeh added to the deep mushroom element of the dish, while the butternut squash provided a sweet counterpoint. The soy sauce and seaweed-based stock combined to create an umami-rich flavour base. 

Tempeh, mushroom and butternut pie

2 portobello or field mushrooms, chopped (reserve the stems to make stock)
1 punnet of chestnut mushroom, sliced
1 onion, chopped finely
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 knob of butter, approximately 25 grams
1 piece of fresh seaweed, rinse (or dried rehydrated seaweed)
1 pound cake of tempeh, cubed
Soy sauce
Red wine
Thyme and rosemary, removed from stems and chopped

1 Block Puff Pastry

Combine the mushroom stems, seaweed and about 400mL water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. 
Sweat onion and garlic in butter until they begin to colour. Add mushrooms and cook for two more minutes. Add tempeh and cook for about four minutes. Deglaze the pan with soy sauce and red wine, a healthy splash of each. Add half the stock and turn down the heat. Add thyme and rosemary. Continue to simmer and add stock as needed, until the sauce is fairly thick and the mushrooms are soft. The tempeh will break apart but that is normal. Taste and check seasoning. 

Pour tempeh mixture into an oven-proof casserole. Roll the puff pastry out and cut to size. The top can be decorated with slashes and leaves, and if desired, can be glazed with an egg yolk before baking. Bake for about 40 minutes at 190 C. 

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Pumpkin Tofu Laksa

Laksa is a noodle soup found in Malaysia and Singapore. To my unknowing mind it seemed a cross between a pho and Thai curry, but nonetheless a successful, filling, warming autumn dish.

250 g peeled de-seeded butternut squash or pumpkin cut into 1cm cubes
300 g tofu, dried and cut into large triangles
800ml Coconut milk (I used 400 ml coc. milk and 400ml soy milk)
4 tbsp light Soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
150g rice noodles (vermicelli style)

150g bean sprouts
1 medium tomato, cut into wedges
1/4 cucumber, quartered and sliced
mint leaves

Spice Paste
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 red chillies, deseeded and coarsely chopped
5cm ginger, peeled and grated
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
4 kaffir lime leaves, chopped

1. Make the spice paste by putting the ingredients into a blender with a few teaspoons of water and blending until very smooth
2. Put the squash into a saucepan with 500ml salted water and boil for about 10 minutes (until tender). Save the water!
3. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a wok or deep frying pan and fry the tofu until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper.
4. Add the spice paste to the pan and fry for two minutes. Add the sugar and soy sauce, followed by the coconut milk and squash water.
5. Bring to a boil and add the tofu and pumpkin. Simmer for 10 minutes.
6. Meanwhile put the rice noodles in a heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over them. Rest for 5 minutes, then drain.
7. To serve, Each bowl should get a handful of noodles, 2 big triangles of tofu, and squash in broth to cover. Add garnishes to your own taste at the table.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Anglo Dahl

I love this dahl; the acid of the tomatoes as a counterpoint to the creaminess of coconut milk. It's never been to India in it's life, though it probably was tasted Madhur Jaffrey's wonderfulness at some point. It is not too spicy, so if you prefer hot, add some chili flakes, fresh hot pepper or cayenne to your taste.

1 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped in half-circles
1 tablespoon each cumin and mustard seeds
about 1 cup red lentils
half a 400mL/16oz can of coconut milk
garam masala
4 small tomatoes, cubed
fresh coriander, chopped

1 cup basmati rice
1 3/4 cups boiling water
1 stock cube
1 tablespoon of coconut milk

Start the onion, carrot and cumin and mustard seeds in the oil. After the onion is soft, add the red lentils, a healthy sprinkle of curry and garam masala, the coconut milk and a splash of water. Let cook, covered. Meanwhile, put the rice, boiling water, coconut milk and stock cube in a separate pot and cook, covered, about 20 minutes. When the rice is done, check the lentils for tenderness. If all is soft, add the tomatoes and cook just until warm. Season to taste and serve sprinkled with coriander over the rice. 

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Apple cider soup

Ahh, Autumn! It is the perfect time to be freshly living in a new country, especially when that country grows apples. Don't get me wrong, I love American Apples; some Fujis or Honeycrisp, even the tiny Czech apples are scrumptious at this time, but I've stumbled onto some serious Apples here. Hopefully this isn't a fluke. The English also make cider, which features in this soup. I've made apple soup before, but with curry. Curry and apples are fine friends, but this soup is so tangy and warm (and who could complain about having to drink the leftover cider) that I may be a convert.

35 grams butter
3 onions, sliced
2 apples, peeled and sliced
splash balsamic vinegar
6 small (2 large) potatoes, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
1 liter vegetable stock (either fresh stock or stock cube)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme
salt and pepper
150 ml cider

1. Saute the onion and apple in the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot until soft and slightly browned, adding a splash of balsamic vinegar midway through the cooking process.
2. Add the potatoes and carrots and cook for a few minutes
3. Pour in the cider and bay leaves and bring to a boil
4. Add the stock, thyme, and simmer at a low heat 45 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
5. Season with salt and pepper and serve with cheese toast.