Friday 9 February 2007

Essential Equipment: Microplane Graters.

I have a low boredom threshold and a poor attention span. I dislike fiddly and repetitive tasks, and one of the more mundane and tedious chores in the kitchen that has always been a black-spot for me is grating cheese. The old-fashioned way is both boring and slow, and because of these facts is additionally dangerous, since I stop concentrating and have a tendency to carry on grating until the tips of my fingers have also been incorporated into the process. Since I additionally have a low pain threshold, the discovery of the Microplane was a revelation. The manufacturers claim a revolutionary method of producing the blades that makes the cutting edges of the grater significantly sharper than all other graters - I have no idea whether or not the claim is true, but I do know that the chore has suddenly gone from the task, as it gets completed so incredibly quickly!
I first came across the product in Filenes on, I think, Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan (I might have got the street wrong, but it was definitely somewhere around there). By the time I realised what a wonderful discovery it was, I was looking for a second one (for the italian kitchen) at GTC in Sloane Square, and discovered I was in second mortgage territory. No matter - the next time friends were in NY, they had strict instructions to bring one back......which they did, along with two more longer and narrower versions (which are better for harder cheese such as parmesan, and for zesting citrus fruit) They also supplied themselves with more of the same for their own kitchens, having heard from me how wonderful these things are....and they too have been converted.

For zesting citrus fruit, the long, narrow-bladed Microplane is incomparable. It removes the top skin that contains all the oil and flavour, and leaves behind the bitter white pith. And it does it in a matter of seconds for a large orange or lemon, or a decent sized lime. This means no longer having to blanch zest in order to remove the bitterness, and producing in seconds a wave of tiny little citrus flakes that can be incorporated directly into whatever your recipe might be.

I think Microplane products are reasonably widely available these days, but since Microplane has its own website, then tracking down a stockist shouldn't be too difficult.

Tonight's Menu:

Tartes aux Moules.

Roast Pork Loin, with a poultice of butter, Thyme and Dijon Mustard. Served with Ratatouille.

Fresh Strawberries with Almond Cream, garnished with toasted Almonds.

Recipe: Strawberry Souffle.

For Four.
Ingredients: 3/4 pint Strawberries; 6 Eggs; 1/2 cup Sugar; juice of half a Lemon; 1 tablespoon Creme de Framboise (preferably Vedrenne).

1. Stem and hull the Strawberries, then reduce them to a puree in an electric blender.

2. Pour the puree into a bowl, and mix in the Egg yolks, Lemon Juice, half of the Sugar, and the Framboise. Mix well to blend.

3. Beat the Egg whites with the remainder of the Sugar. Fold this into the strawberry mixture, and then divide between four greased individual ramekins.

4. Bake 7 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 225 degrees C, and then reduce the temperature to 220 degrees C and bake for a further 7 minutes.

Dredge with Icing Sugar to serve.

Wednesday 7 February 2007

The Ultimate Sauce Book....

...was written by James Peterson and first published in 1991. I can remember sitting in the kitchen of an Amsterdam Canal House one grey November afternoon, about fifteen years ago, completely absorbed in Peterson's fascinating description of how emulsions work, and why they do what they do. This book is a deeply impressive exploration of the science and mechanics of sauce-making, and I emerged from reading it with a sense of understanding of sauces that I doubt I would ever have acquired otherwise. The degree of sophistication with which Peterson goes into his subject is wildly more advanced than any cook needs to know - but having scaled his lofty heights, the practical business of actually making sauces on a daily basis takes on a whole new dimension. I was reminded of the book yesterday evening, when a discussion took place over dinner about whether the sauce for the salmon fillets was or wasn't a beurre blanc. I thought it wasn't, not having commenced with a vinegar reduction - although I conceded it did have vermouth in it, so maybe.....The opposing opinion thought it was by virtue of being thickened by the addition of butter, and with no egg or flour included. Recourse was had to Alan Davidson - who, surprisingly, didn't even mention Beurre Blanc - and then to Larousse Gastronomique, and finally to Mr Peterson. As I flicked through the pages, I was reminded of the pleasure of reading him all those years ago, and decided the book was long overdue for a re-read.......

Peterson subsequently produced an equally impressive volume on Fish and Shellfish, and became firmly fixed in my mind as an authority. When I saw he'd written a tome on Vegetables, I ordered it straightaway. What a disappointment! Anodyne, at best.......Maybe Jane Grigson hadn't left anything interesting for him to say? In any event, he fell off my wish-list after that, and I see now that he seems to have gone the coffee-table route, churning out volumes dedicated to Duck, and Salmon (I suspect largely culled from his earlier and exhaustive Fish oeuvre) and even one exclusively about Soup. Words fail me - Soup!!

And was the Beurre Blanc issue ever resolved? Well, no, not really......I still had my doubts, on the basis of half a cup of Walnut Oil....and my purist stance remained resolutely lined up against the butter-liaison school of thought. Ultimately, though, who cares? It was delicious!

Tonight's Menu:

Moules Marinieres a la Creme, with a Watercress infusion.

Cod Steaks and Basil, sauteed in Parma Ham, over a ragout of peppers, garlic and Rosemary.

Hot Strawberry Souffles.

Tuesday 6 February 2007

Recipe: Salmon Fillet in Walnut Oil

For Two.
Ingredients: 2 Salmon Fillets; half a cup of Walnut Oil; 4 tablespoons of mixed chopped Herbs ( Parsley, Chives, Tarragon, Chervil....); 3 tablespoons Dry White Vermouth; Salt & pepper; 1 clove Garlic, minced; small head of Celery, trimmed and cut into julienne; 3 tablespoons Double Cream; 2 oz Butter.


1. Make a marinade with the Oil, Wine, Garlic, chopped Herbs, and seasoning. Mix vigorously to emulsify, and marinate the Salmon Fillets for about an hour.

2. Blanch the Celery julienne 5 minutes in boiling salted water.

3. Bake the marinated fillets for five minutes on the bed of blanched julienne, in an oven pre-heated to 250 degree s C.

4. Meanwhile, heat the marinade in a small saucepan with the cream, and whisk the butter into the cream in pieces.

Serve the Salmon on the Celery julienne, and spoon the sauce over the top.

Monday 5 February 2007

Musing: The Pear....

On occasion, I find myself playing the 'food' version of Desert Island Discs, where, instead of eight pieces of music, you have to choose eight ingredients as a basis for subsistence during a long-term enforced stay on a desert island. It's the sort of game that normally erupts at the end of a bibulous dinner, and is inevitably played by a group of loud and enthusiastically opinionated friends. And it never finishes.

I always get bogged down in trying to be too clever - for instance, if I choose as my one allowed luxury a flock of chickens, then I'd have a supply of eggs, as well as chickens to roast, fricassee and saute, as well as bones for stock......but then, maybe I get Eggs as one of my standard replacements for Shakespeare and The Bible? In which case, I'd be wasting my luxury on chickens, and so maybe a herd of Freisians would be a better bet. Or should I just not bother being clever and have a never-ending supply of truffles, instead (but, then......white or black?). It isn't easy....

One thing which I would definitely have on my list of eight, though, would be pears. Pears, in my opinion, are unlike any other fruit, and have a rare character that makes them stand out amongst foodstuffs in general. In a way, pears have a kind of primordial quality. Nothing else we eat is quite like a pear. The taste is unmistakable and unique. The texture is unlike anything else. When you isolate and consider the characteristics of the Pear, it ends up as one of nature's fundamental building blocks. And much unsung, at that. It never receives the focus that we lavish on peaches or strawberries or asparagus or steak or champagne. But in fact, in its own subtle and quietly complicated fashion, the Pear is quite simply exquisite.

How do I use pears - if not merely biting in and letting the juice run in rivulets down my chin? The list goes on and on:

      • Pear and Chocolate Tart.
  • Poached Pears - in Vin Santo, if we're in Italy, and in Port, if we're in London.
  • Pear Clafouti.
  • Caramalised Pears with Rum, inside Crepes.
  • Pears with Muscovado Sugar, baked with Marsala.
  • Pear & Ginger Pudding (thanks Liz!)
  • Tartine Perigordine - slices of fresh Pear, with Stilton or Gorgonzola
  • Pear Sorbet, with Lime.
  • Pear Souffle, with Apricot Sauce.
  • Pear Compote, with Figs and Raspberries.
  • Tarte aux Poires, with a Cognac-flavoured Creme Patissiere.....

Maybe Richard Dawkins should append a special chapter to The Selfish Gene, giving weight to Pears as a primordial force within nature. While he ponders it, I can consider whether or not I'm having Potatoes or Salt Cod as one of my remaining eight!

Tonight's dinner:

Alsatian Onion Tart: Phyllo shells, piled with an onion and egg cream and baked. Another old Pomiane favourite. How is it that something so simple and cheap can turn into something so unctuous and luxurious?

Boeuf Bourguinon.

Fresh Raspberries and Clotted Cream. About the only soft fruit that tastes almost as good in Winter as it does at its proper time of year.....Maybe it too will make it into the eight (But then, where does that leave Aubergines...........? Or Celeriac...? It's all too complicated....!)

Recipe: Chocolate and Hazelnut Mousse

For Four.
Ingredients: 100g dark chocolate (Felchlin, by preference); 3 Eggs; 5 fl oz Double Cream; 1 teaspoon Pistachio Paste; 1 tablespoon Cognac; 100g toasted chopped Hazelnuts.

1. Melt the Chocolate in a zimmertopf. While it melts, put the Pistachio Paste in a small bowl along with the Cognac, to dissolve, and separate the Egg yolks and whites into two separate bowls. Put the cream into a third bowl.

2. Stir the Paste and Cognac together to amalgamate. Beat the egg yolks for 2-3 minutes, then add the cognac mixture to this and beat again. Once the Chocolate has melted, let it rest for a minute in the zimmertopf, but with the heat turned off underneath, then stir it into the egg yolk mixture (NB. if you stir it in when it is still too hot it will become granular and gritty on the tongue).

3. Using an electric beater, whisk first the egg whites and then the cream until both are stiff. If you beat them in this order, then there is no need to clean the beaters between the two jobs; if you do it the other way round then the beaters will have to be thoroughly cleaned after you have beaten the cream, as the presence of cream on them will prevent the egg white from consolidating properly.

4. Add the egg yolk/Chocolate mixture to the beaten cream and lightly whisk it in.

5. Stir a quarter of the beaten egg white into the Cream/Chocolate mixture, and then fold in the rest. Add the chopped and toasted Hazelnuts at the same time as you add the beaten Egg White, and fold everything in together.

6. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least three hours. If you wish, divide the Mousse between four serving bowls before you refrigerate it.

Excellent served with fresh raspberries!

Sunday 4 February 2007

Kingfisher Days......

When we lived in the Cyclades, I remember there was invariably a period of glorious calm at the start of February, when there was a respite for a few days from winter storms, with the sun shining, the sky penetratingly clear, and it was suddenly and upliftingly summer in the middle of winter gloom. The locals used to refer to this brief period as the 'kingfisher days', or alkionides meres in Greek - which is where we get the English phrase 'Halcyon Days' from. A small taste of crystal-clear perfection.....

Anyway, that's what we appear to be having at the moment - our own Italian version of Kingfisher Days. The sun is shining gloriously, and it was warm enough this morning to bask in shirtsleeves on the terrace, enjoying my first coffee of the day. The garden has been fooled into thinking spring has arrived, and not only are the lemon trees heavy with fruit, but the narcissus are breaking into flower, to join the pure white blossoms of the Camellia Japonica, and the thick tresses of Urophylla blossoms, which festoon the trellis at the end of the Lily Pond.

In fact, it's been so mild all the way through this winter - so far - that the water hawthorn in the pond have not only clung on throughout, but are even flowering boldly now, at the start of February. Last year, I remember, the temperature was about ten degrees colder, and at this time the water hawthorn were resolutely in hibernation beneath the surface of the pond.

Having said all of which, and in keeping with the floral theme, I'm afraid it's a question of 'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.....', since I note from Tempo Italia that the temperature is due to plummet on Tuesday, with a return to dark and thunderous rainclouds for the remainder of the week.

Oh, well. There's always comfort eating, I guess!

Tonight's Menu:

Ravioli, stuffed with Prawns and Zuccini.

Shoulder of Lamb, butterflied, then marinated in Cumin and Paprika, before being flash fried and finished in the oven.

Chocolate and Hazelnut Mousse, flavoured with Pistachio Paste and Rum. The basic recipe came from Carrier, I think, but the addition of toasted, chopped hazelnuts is pure Pomiane...another whole dimension in flavour and texture.