Saturday 22 December 2007

Falling towards Christmas.....

Christmas appears these days to have become largely about food - or at least, food is a significant manifestation of the general excess that surrounds the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps it was always so......but I suspect not. If it had been, then a good deal more food-based traditions would have sprung up around it than have done, and the raft of recipe books which focus exclusively on Christmas would have more to talk about than they patently manage to do. Every year, more appear in the bookshops, falsely promising the answer to the perennial challenge of what to cook for an entire household 'at celebration' for a period of ten days or so.... and a skim of their contents is enough to show them for what they are: shams!
Oh, they include enough recipes to get you through the period alright, but there's nothing particularly Christmassy about them, as they desperately grapple with the fact that traditional Christmas fare is effectively limited to three or four things: Turkey (we always have Goose...); Christmas Pudding; Mince Pies; and Christmas Cake. Beyond that, it's pretty much a free-for-all.......and inevitably the writers of the books substitute 'luxury' as a stand-in for 'celebratory' and the resulting onslaught of references to sturgeon, and smoked salmon, and caviar, and aspic, and crystallised ginger, and preserved fruits is enough to make your liver take fright merely at the thought of such unashamed binging.

Elizabeth David's 'Christmas', though is quite another matter - as you'd expect. She manages to avoid a bah-humbug approach, and at the same time doesn't fall into the slightly hysterical nuances of 'surviving' the experience that have become an accepted norm these days for dealing with complicated social devoirs....('How to survive the family holiday...', or 'How to survive your Mother-in- Law coming to stay', or other equally silly themes, when the sensible response to such situations if they fill you with such dread must be 'Don't have one', and 'Don't ask her'!).

ED's approach to Christmas is exactly the no-nonsense practical one that you would expect. The reader is left with the strong suspicion the David doesn't have much time for Christmas, but recognises that there isn't much opportunity for ignoring it unless one chooses to become a complete hermit. Despite the fact that she refers to most Christmas food as 'cloying', the book nevertheless provides methods for dealing appropriately with Turkey and Goose, as well as suggestions concerning Beef, Pork, and Duck, Pheasant and Tongue, for those who've had enough of the afore-mentioned. She hasn't made Christmas Pudding in thirty-five years, and hopes 'never to have to do so again', but nevertheless includes two different versions, both of which come with the David guarantee of quality. Likewise, Mincemeat, Brandy Butter, and Stuffing......... And all interspersed with the usual pithy bonmots that make her take on life so crisply refreshing (well, at least for those of us who have reached grumpy-old-person time of life, at any rate....)

ED's particular opinion of Christmas fare, though, is probably best summed up by her aside that one of the most positive thoughts about Christmas is that 'when Christmas morning dawns, for four whole days there won't be any shopping to do....'coupled with her statement that 'if I had my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening!' Which strikes a chord.

And I can't finish without quoting in full her wonderfully jaundiced put-down of those nattily creative ideas for dealing with leftovers that have graced every 'Golden Hands for Cookery' publication practically since Christmas began: '...if any of those marauding bands of persons who apparently roam the countryside calling themselves unexpected guests appear at my door - well, they'll have to make do with an omelette and a glass of wine to help them on their way to their next victims. I think I'd feel less nervous anyway offering them this sort of food than I would if I'd made a lot of little surprises with names like Pantry Shelf Fishbits and Fantastic Belgian Meatballs and Festa Turkey Nut-Logs. I didn't make them up, I swear I didn't, I read about them in a desperately sad American cookery book all about leftovers'.

Read it! I promise, you'll laugh out loud at least once every three pages, and smile wryly in agreement at least once in between.

Tonight's (still resolutely unfestive) menu:

Funghi Trifolati.

Baked Bream, with Anchovy sauce. Endive wilted in Butter.

Cherry Tarts

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Recipe: Foie Gras Cured in Salt.....

Definitely something for this time of year, and one of the most unashamedly self-indulgent aspects of Christmas. In years gone by, when we generally spent Christmas on the windswept bleakness of the Larzac plateau, one fixed item in the seasonal timetable was a foray to the market in Millau to get - amongst many, many other things - a Foie Gras, to be prepared from scratch. Never forgotten, forgiven or excused sufficiently was the year when we had a stock on the go in the kitchen which was the rich result of the previous week's consumption of Duck, Goose, and Guineau Fowl, and the cooks decided that this would be a wonderful vehicle for poaching our splendid, succulent, and newly-purchased Foie Gras. So, into the simmering stock it went, and it poached, and it poached and it poached.........until no amount of fishing around in the stock could find anything solid at all, and eventually we had to conclude ruefully that we'd managed to poach it away to nothing. Much to general irritation amongst the waiting diners......The following year, a much more reliable strategy was adopted, and I remember feasting on the thing for days on end, washed down with glasses of Blanquette de Cassis.......Perfect!

This following treatment is unusual, and entirely foolproof. Originally, I got it from the Chef at the Café des Artistes in Key West - Andrew Berman - and have subsequently verified it against various sources in France. The method allows you to shape your Foie Gras into a size which will work perfectly for its intended use. Generally, I use a Foie Gras of around 800 grammes weight - but, as you'll see, the treatment isn't quantity-specific.


1. The first step is to remove unsightly and undesirable veins within the liver: Bring the foie gras completely to room temperature. If the liver is too cold, it will break rather than bend. Remove any coarse membrane or veins, but disturb the liver as little as possible. The coarsest veins lie between the two lobes and you can get at them by gently easing the two lobes apart. When the liver is at room temperature the lobes can be eased apart without breaking or damaging the structure.

The level of perfection required in this task is proportional to the event - there is no need to be over scrupulous unless you are in charge of a 5 * restaurant. A little bit of red within the foie gras is normal and acceptable at most tables.

In fact, you don't have to remove the veins any more than you do if you are frying a slice of cal'sf liver. You can leave them in place and if when you slice the foie gras you see anything that looks amiss - remove it before serving. If your knife is not razor sharp, the foie gras will slice like butter, but a tough vein will tend to pull out of the slice as you cut.
The problem with digging out the veins in advance is that it necessarily divides the liver into several separate pieces. If you were to cook the liver, as for a classic terrine, these pieces would be welded together again by the melted fat. But if the liver is salt-cured - as here - the pieces remain separate and the eventual slices are more likely to fall apart.
Also since the slices at both ends are the least attractive, I start by cutting the roll in half, and then slice portions starting from each cut face.  The two ends are usually leftovers for another day.

2. Seasoning the liver before you re-form it: You can season your foie gras with a little pepper, or with anything you fancy. A few drops of Armagnac, for example, and any number of spices is also a possibility. My personal preference is for a plain approach, with perhaps just a few grindings of fresh pepper.

3. Reform the liver into a cylindrical shape. Roll it in a cling film and twist the free ends of the film tightly so that it forms a tight cylinder. You will be slicing the cylinder into serving portions, so the cylinder diameter will determine your portion size. Put it in the refrigerator to firm. About an hour, or until the liver is hard and will retain its shape.

4. Remove the cling film, then wrap the fois gras in a single layer of muslin before burying the cylinder in salt. If you have a long thin pate mould or a similar shaped bread tin, this works well. Place the container in the fridge.

5. For a 450gram liver formed into a 2-3" diameter cylinder, 24 hours in salt in the refrigerator followed by 24 hours more in the refrigerator after the salt has been removed salt should be enough. When you remove the salt, disgard the muslin and wrap the foie gras in clingfilm. Like this, the fois gras will keep a week in the 'fridge.

6. To serve, remove the clingilm. Keep cold and covered until needed. Slice and serve with toasted brioche. (For slicing, a thin knife dipped in hot water does the neatest job.) Alternatively, fry the slices to colour each side. It helps if the slices are very cold so you have time to colour the outside before the middle gets too hot and starts to melt.

At this stage, it would be normal to say 'Serve', or 'Enjoy'. With this kind of thing though, I think the appropriate exhortation has to be 'Luxuriate'!

*You can freeze the liver at this stage and it will keep well - most fats have a long shelf life if they are very cold and away from other smells. Eventually they all oxidise and taste 'off'. Defrost and serve as above.

Sunday 16 December 2007

I was fascinated.... see that the sub-title for A.A.Gill's latest book 'Table Talk' is 'Sweet and Sour, Salt and Bitter....' Entirely coincidentally, this has been the subject of much conversation across the dinner table over the past few weeks, in the context of Umami..... and Mr Gill's well-chosen words were a sharp reminder of quite how central this is to the theme of what makes good food good.

I've always been interested in why we respond as we do to particular flavours and smells: frying bacon, toast under the grill, garlic, fresh bread, shavings of truffle.........Do we respond as we do to them merely by association, or is it something more fundamental, like inherited memory, or a kind of physiological process at work within our brains? For ages, until I actually got round to reading it, I was hopeful that Brillat Savarin's book about the Physiology of Taste might address that very subject - but, no: great title, interesting book, but essentially nothing more than a genial romp round the food on offer in Paris in the mid Nineteenth Century.

And then, in following up on Umami, a lot of the answers seem to be provided....

In brief, traditionally, in the West, we've categorised flavours in four groups, viz: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. But the Japanese have identified a fifth one, which they call Umami - which is what we have to call it too, since there seems to be no translation from the Japanese. To quote from the 'What is Umami' website: "Although there is no English word for it, umami is a savoury taste imparted by glutamate and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. The taste of umami itself is subtle. It blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavours. Most people don’t recognise umami when they encounter it, but it can be detected when eating ripe tomatoes, parmesan cheese, cured ham, mushrooms, meat and fish......."

........Which is a useful short-cut, since I don't really fancy following recipes which feature 150 grammes of glutamate, and half a cup of ribonucleotide, infused with a teaspoon of inosinate!

And they sum up by stating that: "Umami plays an important role making food taste delicious."

There's more, though! Edmund Rolls, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, has explained how brain scans are being used to show what happens in our brain as we eat different foods. It appears that eating glutamate activates our taste centres in a way that no other substance does. "Whereas most foods activate a part of the brain called the secondary cortex, glutamate also activates another part of the brain, the left lateral orbifrontal cortex," he says. "Could this be why it seems to act on a second level, giving people an emotional feeling of well-being?"

But, enough of the science! In plain food-speak, I think we're talking about a particular kind of wow-factor, and an interesting process in terms of identifying that rather elusive quality that so many food-stuffs seem to have. Cloves, for instance - a smell I find quite wonderful whenever I unscrew the lid on the jar - could it be that that complicated and deeply old-fashioned smell is Umami? And what about freshly-ground coffee? Or anchovies....? Or Saffron...? Once you start the Umami game, it can be quite difficult to stop: I commented disparagingly the other day to the Technical Department that Coca Cola (which I loathe) represents everything that is not Umami, to which the response was that actually, beneath that horrible two-dimensional sweetness, is a complicated mingling of flavours which is probably Umami with knobs on! Hence its otherwise inexplicable success......

Gin! Now, does that have Umami? I'm not at all certain, and it may be that further research is in order......

In fact, it could be that the entire Christmas break becomes an extended and broadly-based scientific experiment!

Tonight's attempt to stimulate the left lateral orbifrontal cortex:

Individual Haddock Soufflés.
Oxtail, cooked to death in Port, with aromatic vegetables.
Ginger & Lime Cheescake, with fresh Raspberries.