Thursday 1 November 2007

The interpretation of Recipes....

...from recipe books is a process every cook needs to learn, if they want to work to good effect and with optimal efficiency. The fact is that all published cooks - without exception - when they commit recipes to paper, do so with a specific set of circumstances in mind, and more often than not those aren't the same circumstances that apply for the cook-hopeful who is reading the recipes at some later date.
In many instances, the disparity is because the writer comes from the environment of a restaurant kitchen, and so includes steps in their recipes which are irrelevant for domestic cooks: even Bruno Loubet is guilty of this on occasion, when, for instance, he will needlessly include directions for laboriously making italian meringue as part of a particular dessert - a good idea in a commercial kitchen when the dish has to sit around for half a day before being cooked, but completely unnecessary for a domestic dinner party, when the same effect is achieved by merely whisking egg whites and incorporating them at the last minute, just before baking.

Or, sometimes the unnecessary step is a reflection of the age of the recipe book - for instance, the fact that Julia Child carefully protects all of her custards with a film of melted butter is for the simple reason that when she was writing those recipes Cling-film hadn't yet been invented! Other steps that can be filtered out as part of the interpretation process are often a reflection of the received wisdom from the period when the recipe writer learned their trade, but which subsequent analysis has shown to be entirely without basis or value - marinating meat, is a good example of this (see below for more on this subject).

And then, finally, there are those steps in a recipe that should be excised from the process on the basis that rational analysis clearly indicates that they are completely bonkers: Stephen Bull, in his otherwise generally excellent book 'Classic Bull' is occasionally guilty of this where, for example, he wraps haddock fillets in cling film along with a couple of slices of lemon (the latter to be discarded before cooking) or again where he 'marinates' salmon fillets with orange peel for half a day in the vain hope that the fish will take on any of the scent of the fruit, before he then chucks away the orange and cooks the salmon.......Madness!

Very, very rarely is it the case these days that I find myself following a new recipe exactly as written (Bruce Weinstein on Ice Cream being a definite exception; this man knows his stuff!). More normally, the course I follow is the result of a process of rigorous interrogation, and ruthless editing, of what is on the page even before I've begun.

The following are some pointers where there are generally opportunities to save time and trouble when addressing a new recipe for the first time:

Italian meringue. Typically made by drizzling hot sugar syrup at 116°C into well beaten egg whites. This meringue while raw keeps its volume for hours and so it is ideal if you think you may need some meringue in, say, 6 hours time. Perfect for a dessert chef who may, or may not, be required to produce a Grand Marnier souffle at short notice 15 minutes before the end of his shift, but no earthly use to a home cook who can make French meringue by beating egg whites and sugar as and when needed.

Repeated Reductions. It is very common to come across recipes for sauces where something is reduced by 1/3 and something is added and then reduced again by 50% and something is added and then reduced again. Who can tell by eye if it is reduced by a third anyway? Of course this is all totally dotty unless each step is separate and the intermediate result stored for future use over the next few days, as is the case with, say, shallots cooked in wine, or stock reduced to demi glaze, or other sauce components. If you are just making a single sauce then just ignore the steps, fry what has to be fried, add all the remaining ingredients and reduce until the end volume is correct. It makes no difference if the water is boiled off at the start, in the middle or at the finish. Remember 2-3 tablespoons of sauce per person is enough.

Marination. Another complete waste of time and irritating too since it usually means one should have started the recipe two days previously. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his book 'Meat' has exposed the simple truth that soaking meat in wine or vinegar can only toughen it, thus the main reason for the process is at best unwise. The secondary reason - imparting flavour - is also somewhat dubious because the uncooked vegetables and herbs don't lose much if any of their flavour to the completely cold liquid, let alone pass it on to the equally cold raw meat. The truth is that the process, which was traditionally used for game such as venison or boar, was firstly, before refrigeration, to protect the freshly killed meat as it relaxed and aged a bit, and secondly to make sure that any external bacteria or - worse - infestation was drowned in a mildly acidic dunk. Bathing perfectly hung beef in a vinegar solution for a day or two can only ruin it.

Blanching. True blanching - the whitening of meat or the par cooking of vegetables to mute the flavour - is almost never necessary. Sweetbreads, if you ever cook them, can be blanched if you like, the principle advantage is to be able to press them to a useful thickness as they cool by placing a heavy weight, such as a large brick, on top. As for vegetables, par cooking them for a few minutes doesn't mute the flavour: why would it?
This is different of course from par or completely cooking vegetables in advance so that they can be quickly reheated when needed. In fact there is a lot to be said for doing this, particularly for green vegetables, and it is best done just after they have been bought since they don't improve through storage, rather the reverse.

Rubs, insertions or stuffings. If left for a couple of hours or so, none of these change the taste of the meat or fish one jot, although they might flavour any juice which runs out. The flavours don't infuse the flesh at all. Nine times out of ten it is all just a fiddly waste of time. Better to save the flavourings to make a sauce or just to sprinkle on the dish when cooked. If you want garlic lamb it is better to make a garlic flavoured juice to pour over the freshly sliced meat than to abuse the guiltless beast by stabbing it all over and pushing garlic cloves into the open wounds.

Sealing meat. This is really a misnomer rather than a mis-step. Frying meat all over doesn't stop juice falling out of it and makes not the tiniest difference to the juiciness, or not, of the end result. Nothing is being sealed. Frying meat does develop some useful flavour by 'caramelising' the outside and can give the joint an attractive colour. However, usually the real flavour hit comes from the sauce which is often made of much more than just the cooking juices. If you want juicy meat, buy well and let it cool down a lot before you cut it.

Soaking Vegetables in water. This is a favourite of Giuliano Bugialli for whom I have a lot of respect, but every time I read 'soak the beans/carrots/etc for 30 minutes in cold water' I ignore it. Yes, give them a rinse but frankly the soaking does absolutely nothing, sorry Mr B. If you are worried they are impregnated with a vile insecticide then throw them all away and shop for your vegetables somewhere else!

Tonight's Dinner:

Terrine of Chicken Livers and Veal

Fricasée of Rabbit, with Yellow peppers and Chili

Oranges in Caramel

Wednesday 31 October 2007

Recipe: Lentil Soup

Well, it's happened - autumn is upon us with a vengeance, the garden furniture has gone into winter storage , and the days when we do have clear skies and bright sunshine are spent clearing the terrace and the paths of yet more leaf-drifts. On the pomegranate tree the leaves have turned an intense yellow, and those on the persimmon are just beginning to be tinged with orange - there's always one moment in November when they both display full autumn plumage, and the effect, looking at both across the garden, is spectacular.

And so, the days of lanquid summer lunches are over - for the moment anyway - and it's time for plates of Sergio's melt-in-the-mouth parma ham, or Caprese Salad, or Bresaola heaped on mounds of arugula and diced tomato to give way to more substantial fare. Hence, this soup. The smell as it simmers on the stove is quintessentially home-and-hearth, and the flavour of the finished product presses every button you could hope for. It also improves over time, and there's a clear argument for making enough to eat over several days - perfect after a morning's invigorating work in a cold garden!

Ingredients: 1 Carrot; 1 stick of Celery; 1 medium Onion; 1 oz of Butter; 4 tablespoons of Olive Oil; 1 400g can of Tomatoes; 250g dried Lentils; 1 litre of Chicken Stock; 1 cup of freshly grated Parmesan (or, if I have one, the last inch or so of a piece of Parmesan, which I chuck into the soup to melt, rind and all); Salt & Pepper.


1. Melt the Butter with the Oil in a large saucepan, over medium heat.

2. Peel the Carrot, then finely dice it, along with the Celery and Onion, and put everything into the pan, to cook down for ten minutes or so. Stir from time to time. The vegetables should quite definitely have collapsed by the end of this process.

3. Add the Tomatoes, stir briefly, and leave to cook over a low heat for 25 minutes, partially covered.

4. Add the Lentils. Stir to mix them in, and cook over the heat for a minute or two, then add the Chicken Stock, and leave to simmer over medium heat for fifty minutes. If using the end of a block of Parmesan, add this half way through, to allow it to melt into the soup; if using grated cheese, simply add it at the end and stir it in.

5. Check seasoning and adjust as necessary.

Better on day two, and even better on day three......if you can make it last that long!

Sunday 28 October 2007

An Outing..... the foothills of Fiesole. To Harold Acton's Villa La Pietra, to be precise, and a glorious day on which to do it - which was doubly splendid after the week of sturm und drang we've just had, when it began to seem as if autumn had passed us by entirely, and we were plunged straight into winter already!

An interesting day. To step within the hallowed portals of the western world's self-proclaimed aesthete par excellence, and to have a glimpse of his gilded existence, apparently left untouched since he bequeathed the whole thing to New York University when he moved on to greater things - presumably now giving God a few tips about how best to arrange the furniture - about fifteen years ago. I've always been slightly in awe of my great friend Charles's story of having been invited to lunch with Acton sometime in the seventies, when La Pietra was in full swing - except that the main element in that tale was actually C's realisation on arrival that he was wearing odd socks, and the lengths he went to for the next two hours not to expose the fact. The 'art' seemed not to get much of a look-in on that occasion.

La Pietra is not that easy to get into, and on this occasion we were guests of the Lega di Chianti, a social group (not unlike the Rotary Club, or Round Table) who are somewhat right-wing in positioning, but they do have the entrée to a number of surprisingly good addresses across Tuscany - with the only downside being that to join you have to process through the streets of Florence from time to time dressed in an outfit that suggests that Bilbo Baggins has joined the Ku Klux Klan (except kitted out in gold lamé rather than in surplus bedlinen)

The story is that Acton offered La Pietra in turn both to Eton and to Christchurch - both of whom politely declined (I think the detail that Christchurch didn't actually get around to opening the letter can be dismissed as apocryphal...) and so he ended up leaving it all to New York University, with the proviso that although they can use bits of the estate for 'furthering the interests of academia' the main house and garden must be preserved entirely as he left them. And so, amidst excited reports that the bequest, including Acton's fabulous collection, was worth either US$300 million or US$500 million - depending upon who you believed - NYU set to, and have been throwing money at the project ever since!

Our visit was well-staged. In order to protect the precious works of art from the depredations of daylight and burglars, the shutters in all of the rooms at La Pietra are kept firmly bolted at all times, and a tour of the house takes place in conditions of subterranean gloom - which, if nothing else, adds a touch of drama to the affair (not lessened by the silent presence at all times of an armed guard in our wake). And so, in hushed tones, we were shown the 'possibly by' Vasari, and the 'Tuscan School of the fifteenth century', and the 'follower of' Giotto, interspersed with some very iffy bits from the early nineteenth century, about which nothing was said as we were hurried past, and ended up in the Drawing Room, amidst affectionately signed photographs of late members of the house of Windsor, highlights of which were a glamorous early shot of Princess Margaret, and a stiffly-posed photograph of Charles and Diana, in which she looked like an over-groomed afghan hound. And that was it.....

The fact is, I think NYU was had! There are some very nice pieces on the walls of La Pietra - to quite a few of which I'd be happy to give house-room - but I'm afraid that 'loosely attributed to' doesn't cut much ice in a sale room catalogue, and were Sotheby's in Milan to have the whole lot dumped on them for disposal, then I suspect they would be seriously underwhelmed. Somehow, I think HA knew exactly what he had, and I can readily imagine him chortling with Nancy Mitford over a negroni or two in the Chinese Salon, as they considered the delicious joke of the 'priceless' Acton collection. If you ask me, both Eton and Christchurch knew their onions all too well......

Our tour was followed by the offer of lunch in the limonaia, to reach which it was necessary to cross the most perfect kitchen garden you could imagine. Huge, and surrounded by high, lichen-covered walls, surmounted with bits of eighteenth century statuary, the serried ranks of Cavolo Nero and Lettuces and Onions and Cardoons were all coralled within trim box hedges, between gravelled paths, and dotted throughout this vegetable parterre were lemon trees in their pots, not yet quite ready to be taken indoors for the winter. Unlike the rest of the garden, which has been 'restored' to a disappointingly institutional standard and feels rather lifeless, the kitchen garden, resplendent in autumn sunlight, was rich and colourful and charming. Which was more than could be said for the lunch: corporate catering at its most uninspired. And since the curl of the tremezzani di tonno on offer was more than matched by that of our own lips, we beat a hasty retreat, summoned a taxi, and within ten minutes were firmly ensconced at our favourite table in Cammillo, in Via S.Jacopo. Not a 'loosely attributed to' in sight, as we tucked into tagliatelle con tartufo bianco, and refreshed ourselves with a carafe of genuine, honest-to-goodness house white.....Now, there's Art!

Tonight's Dinner:

Tartes aux Moules
Fiorentina, con parmeggiano e rucola
Pear Soufflés