Saturday 11 August 2007

Ok.....So What IS 'Cooking'?......

Not for the first time, I was prompted to ponder this point most recently by something I heard on the radio. Glyn Christian was extolling the virtues of microwave ovens on the basis that they are healthier than conventional ovens - since they cook vegetables without losing any of the goodness - and that they're better for elderly knees, since they cut down the amount of time spent standing up in the process of preparing a meal. Lindsay Bareham in response was trying and failing miserably to articulate the point that notwithstanding these unarguable benefits, the thing about microwaves is that......they just aren't anything to do with cooking!

Which begs the question. What is cooking? And then trails in its wake the subsidiary question as to why cooking is a good thing, and why not-cooking is therefore not a good thing...

I don't have a thesis on this. It isn't an issue on which I have achieved clarity in my thinking.

The easiest thing is to start off with what cooking is NOT. It isn't:
  • Re-heating supermarket ready-meals, disinterred from their packing......
  • Pouring boiling water into instant soup, or Pot Noodles....
  • Adding an Egg to a Betty Crocker cake mix.......
  • Sandwiches.....or
  • Microwaves!

Difficult, though. Where does that leave, say, making ice cream but with a pre-prepared custard? Or using a stock-cube for Gravy? (Or indeed the concept of 'gravy' itself - a substance for which no other language appears to have a direct translation!)

Perhaps cooking is more a state of mind than a series of physical actions - or at any rate, a particular state of mind is part of the process? For instance, cooking must surely involve an interest in food as more than merely a means of keeping body and soul together. Yup - I think we can tick that one. For me, I think it also has to have an element of "Home & Hearth' about it, but I readily accept that's a personal criterion (there isn't much 'Home & Hearth' about Gordon Ramsay, but I wouldn't deny his credentials as a Cook.....) and I think there has to be a degree of passion in the process (which - again personally - leaves Delia the wrong side of the line; her approach has always seemed to me to be based on the idea that as long as food isn't positively inedible then that's ok. What on earth do you make of somebody who's most fulsome word of praise appears to be 'Nice'???)

Working from basic raw materials has to be somewhere in the definition, as does a readiness to roll up your sleeves and get up-close with whatever it is you're pummelling, or chopping, or boning ......

Wine is definitely in there, too. Do teetotallers ever make good cooks? (It's a question, not a statement - before I get shot down in flames!)

Ok. Far too complicated a subject to have begun at this time of evening, as I have to go and commit culinary in order to get dinner on the table. (It got me nicely through a bellini, and a small plate of of paprika-roasted almonds, though........). So, I guess I'll just have to leave it hanging. No answers..........but I think I instinctively know what I mean. I may not be able to present an articulate definition of what cooking is, but I can sure as hell recognise it when presented with an example of what it isn't!

Tonight's Dinner:

Steamed Vongole with Eggs and Soy Sauce.

Sole Meuniere. Fresh Borlotti.

Ricotta & Praline Cream, with Strawberries.

Thursday 9 August 2007

Recipe: Risotto with Yellow Pepper & Green Beans

This is for 'Passionate Palate', along with the NB that the fagiolini for this recipe are runner beans, and not cannelini or borlotti or anything akin to them in shape or size. This is one of my favourite risotto recipes - although this is a statement constantly in danger of getting old, as I seem to come across new and delicious variations for risotto practically on a weekly basis. In this instance, I confess I only ever make this particular risotto in Italy, where the flavour and quality of the pepper and beans ensures the dish is always a success. I can't say the same for London vegetables, and so don't bother trying it there......Oh, and whatever you do, don't succumb to the temptation to substitute red or green pepper if you can't get yellow. The taste of the latter is soft and sweet and subtle, whereas green or red pepper will simply swamp the entire dish!

For four.

Ingredients: a generous handful of Runner Beans; half a large Yellow Pepper; 2 tablespoons of Olive Oil; half a medium sized Onion; 1 pint of Chicken Broth; 1 glass of dry White Wine; 4/3 cup of Carnaroli Rice (1/3 per person); 1 oz Butter; half a cup of grated Parmesan. Salt & Pepper.


1. Bring the stock to the boil, and then keep at a gentle simmer.

2. Top and tail the Beans, chop into2" lengths, and blanch for a minute or so in a pan of boiling salted water, then drain.

3. Finely dice the Onion, and cook in the Oil over medium-to-high heat until the Onion has softened; meanwhile cut the Pepper into dice slightly smaller than half an inch, and add to the pan once the Onion has collapsed. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes until the Pepper has also softened, then add the blanched Beans, and mix altogether.

4. Add the Rice to the Pan; stir rapidly, and let the Rice take up some of the cooking juices and slightly cook for a minute or two in the heat of the pan before you add any liquid. Then add the White Wine, and stir as the Rice absorbs this liquid. Once it has done so, start to add the simmering stock, a ladleful at a time and continue doing so until the rice has cooked (see the Risotto post under techniques for detailed instruction on making risotto.) Once the Rice is cooked, turn off the heat and add the Butter and grated Parmesan, stirring it in as it melts in the heat of the Rice.

Check and add seasoning before you serve.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

A Discovery.......

Lavender! I've always - in the back of my mind - been aware that lavender has culinary applications, but I've never really taken them seriously. I've read about, but never been tempted by, combinations of bitter chocolate with lavender ( and, I confess, I'm still a little iffy about that one - there are very, very few arguments for adulterating chocolate!)....and I recall on one occasion eating some lavender ice cream at the Downderry Lavender farm, near Tonbridge. It was....pleasant. But it didn't particularly have any Wow! factor......just.....pleasant.

We grow lavender. In fairly large quantities. Actually, I have to qualify that. We have been trying to grow lavender in fairly large quantities for the past few years. Increasingly pitiful crops of flowers year-on-year have resulted in deep gloom, and eventually in research as to where we've gone wrong. It was at Chelsea, earlier this year, that we were finally put right, by a lavender expert from the Isle of Wight. Soil far too rich. Lavender loves impoverished soil! (How perverse is that!?!). And so, the lavender plants have now been consigned to death row, and this autumn will be ripped up, in order that the soil can be mixed with 70% gravel, and a new crop planted in their place......The process provokes thought.

In any event, the evening before last, I was pondering the menu for dinner, and more specifically, what to serve as an accompaniment to Fig Ice Cream. I had some nectarines, and decided to try poaching them with some lavender heads. My expectation wasn't high - I thought the result might be vaguely interesting, but no more. I made a sugar syrup, and added the rind and juice of a lemon to it, before submerging the stoned and quartered nectarines. Then I chucked in half a dozen fresh lavender heads - of the few that have actually deigned to appear this year - and wandered off to get on with something else, as I left the fruit gently poaching away. Ten minutes later, wandering past the kitchen french windows I was absolutely stopped in my tracks. The smell was intoxicating! Unbelievable.... And the fruit when chilled and later served was a revelation!

The remaining fruit and syrup will be used this evening for a lavender-nectarine sorbet...but I'm now racking my brains to think what other uses I can find for lavender. I wonder if it would go with Pork?

Tonight's Dinner:

Risotto of Yellow Pepper and Fagiolini

Grilled Tuna Steaks, with a sauce of Mint, Green Olives, Sultanas and Capers - served with Celery, peeled and sauteed in Butter

Sorbetti of Raspberry and Lavender-scented Nectarine

Monday 6 August 2007

Recipe: Fig Ice Cream

Elizabeth David would have reduced this recipe to the following pithy two-liner: "make a vanilla custard, add a tablespoon of rum and half a dozen peeled figs, and churn in the normal way". Although in general a fan of brevity, I'm not convinced that La David didn't intimidate as much as encourage budding cooks by this kind of sweeping, rather grande-dame approach - for some people, she managed to make of the word 'normal' a complete no-go area!
In this instance, though, she'd be largely correct; the recipe really is as simple as that. Herewith the pithy two-liner slightly teased out.......

Ingredients: 1.5 cups of Milk; 0.75 cup of Cream; 0.5 teaspoon of Vanilla Essence; 0.5 tablespoon of Dark Rum; 3 Egg Yolks; 0.5 cup of Sugar; 0.5 lb of Fresh Figs.


1. Place Milk, Cream, Vanilla Essence and Rum in a zimmertopf or double boiler, and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, whisk the Egg Yolks with the Sugar until they 'form the ribbon' as the mixture falls back on itself in the bowl. Pour the simmering liquid over the Egg/Sugar mixture and whisk briefly to incorporate, then return this mixture to the zimmertopf or double boiler and heat, stirring occasionally for ten minutes or so until it has noticeably thickened.

2. Meanwhile, peel the figs, removing the outer skin and the pith beneath, and roughly chop them. The flesh should be soft enough that it will get broken up by the paddle of the ice cream machine and will end up distributed evenly throughout the ice cream.

3. Once the custard has thickened slightly, add it to the figs and stir to mix thoroughly. Leave to cool, and then churn in the ice cream machine. It will be quite soft when finished, and so should be stored for several hours in the freezer to firm-up before serving