Friday 14 March 2008

The Egg-White Mountain...

May soon become a thing of the past, in this household!

As any regular reader here will know, the egg-white imbalance is a given, here. Always, in the fridge, can be found lurking a plastic pot, generally impressively full of egg-whites, which have accumulated over time as the result of a series of yolk-only sauces and custards, crèmes and mayonnaise. If I'm particularly lax about reducing the EWM, then I occasionally find myself separating eggs and merely letting the whites slide down the drain - which really goes against the grain.......but it's either that, or else starting a second pot in the fridge. And that would be a Very Bad Idea. (Yes, I know they freeze wonderfully well, too, but ditto; already the elephants' graveyard approach towards use of the deep freeze means regular archaeological expeditions with an ice-pick, and I have no intention of adding ice-cubes of frozen egg-white to the existing Polar Challenge!)

The search for uses for Egg-White has been ongoing for many years. Generally, default mode for dealing with the Mountain is either egg-white-only cheese soufflé, or else its chocolate equivalent. In summer, when one's mind turns to those things, there are certain sorbets which use only egg-white: Pear is particularly good, as is grapefruit - but they tend to fall from mind as soon as we get into autumn, and the idea of refreshing sorbets goes into hibernation until the following summer. There are some desserts which call for more egg-white than yolk - the best of which that I can think of being the triple Chocolate Terrine, which is an excellent (if slightly time-consuming way) of making inroads. But the fact remains that supply outpaces demand, and I still find myself occasionally and guiltily just chucking egg-whites away. I once tried egg-white frittata - about which the least said the better - and I've recently been researching almond biscuits, which use only egg-white......for which both Anne Willan and Jane Grigson have methods, quite different from each other, which both seem worth trying. Except that I'm not really a great maker of biscuits, as a rule.

However, on the egg-white front, there's been a breakthrough! Meringues, which have been off the list for years now, on the basis of their stratospheric calorie and carbohydrate content - and thus inimical to the waistline - have suddenly made an unexpected re-appearance. All due to some research on the the use of Splenda, in place of sugar. I first started using the stuff three or four years ago, on the basis that - unlike other artificial sweeteners - it retained its sweetness during cooking. It works perfectly well for general baking. The problem is, that it doesn't replicate the texture of Sugar in the way it behaves under heat, and so is completely hopeless for things where this matters, like sugar syrups (for making sorbets) and custards (for making ice-cream), and particularly meringues. Made with Splenda they are a complete disaster, and just end up a chalky gooey mess!

Taking a lead from the manufacturers of Splenda, however, who have come up with a commercial half-and-half version which is 50% Splenda and 50% sugar, I made my own half-and-half and tried this in Meringues the other day......Success! Obviously, the texture requirement for meringues is satisfied with less than the full amount of the sugar specified in the recipe, and Splenda then makes up for the shortfall in sweetness. Even at 50% the normal amount of sugar, though, the dietary soundness is still a bit iffy for very regular use, so I will experiment in future with further reducing the amount of sugar actually needed within the 'half-and-half' combination that will still react in the way I want it to.....

But, as it stands, the prospect of being able to get rid of say, another eight egg whites once a week or so, looks to me like light at the end of the tunnel!

And before I get accused of doing a Delia and shamelessly promoting branded products, I'd be happy if somebody could name another artificial sweetener that can be used in this way. Until there's another similar product around, it looks like Splenda has the field to itself....

If you're tempted to try it for yourself, I found that in practice it was necessary to prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon during cooking in order for the meringues to dry properly, and I also left them in there for almost twice as long as I would have normally thought necessary. The end result, though, was perfect!

Tonight's Dinner:

Chicken & Herb Salad.

Pork Belly, slow-roast with Garlic & Star-Anise; roast Celeriac.

White Chocolate & Raspberry Tart, in a dark chocolate crust.

Thursday 13 March 2008

Recipe: Fried Pasta

Leftovers. There's much to be said for them. In part, it's associational, I'm sure - childhood memories of treasure trove to be discovered in the fridge the morning after parental dinner parties - and in part, I won't deny, there's a sense of satisfaction in having no wastage and in making sure that every last scrap gets used up somehow (I don't have Scots blood for nothing!)

Many leftovers are just that and no more, and they tend merely to be boxed up and disappear into the freezer to be unearthed and consumed at some future date, exactly as they were the first time around. Other ways of dealing with recycled food, though, are so good in their own right that it's worth making double the amount to start with, solely in order to be able to make the 'leftovers' dish in the subsequent days. Tartes aux Moules following on from Moules Marinières, is a prime example, and seared Salmon fillet as a precursor, several days later, to Salmon fishcakes. There are a number of recipes available for dealing with leftover risotto - none of which I find at all persuasive, and so I just ensure that I never have any leftover risotto in the first place - but the best, the absolute best recipe of all for leftovers is Fried Pasta. It is always worth cooking extra Pasta, just to be able to have it fried in the day or so afterwards......

Nowhere have I ever come across any reference to this method of serving Pasta, either in print or from anybody else talking about it. I've even quizzed Italians about it, and have drawn a complete blank - the closest they come is a pasta frittata, which isn't the same thing at all. The method came from Piero Aversa, who regularly produced it for lunch in his kitchen in Florida in the eighties - he grew up in Rome during the War, so perhaps it harks back to that time, when every last bit of food had to count.

I hesitate to call this a recipe, so much as a 'method'. There aren't any stages, merely an instruction. But, here goes:

Ingredients: Leftover cooked Pasta, in sauce - sufficient for however many people you intend to feed. Any kind of Pasta can be used - although this works best with Pasta which has quite a lot of surface area to go crisp as it cooks - so, for instance, papardelle works better than spaghetti; Oil, for cooking; chopped Parsley, for garnish.


1. Pour a generous amount (say three or four tablespoons) of Oil into a large, non-stick frying pan. Heat over quite a high flame, before you add the pasta - you want there to be a quite noticeable sizzle when the Pasta first makes contact with the hot Oil.

2. Stirriing continuously - the Pasta has a terrible tendency to stick to the pan if you don't - keep the heat high for 8-10 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium, and continue for a further ten minutes or so. When the Pasta is ready, the outside will be noticeably crisp.

3. Serve, garnished with finely chopped Parsley.

The Pasta will be a combination of textures: crunchy on the outside, and quite firm - almost leathery - within. The flavours of whatever the original sauce was will have concentrated in being re-heated, and overall you'll be left wondering whether in fact the leftovers version isn't actually better than it was first time round. This isn't an elegant dish, and wouldn't ever make it to a dinner-party menu - but, by God, it's delicious!

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Vegetarians - Don'tcha Love 'em?!?


I have to choose my words carefully here, since for some inexplicable reason, I can number one or two of the breed amongst my nearest and dearest - a fact I can only ascribe to some kind of defect from the other side of their genetic inheritance. The fact is, for the most part, I don't have a lot of time for the concept, or indeed for its practitioners (for as long as they're practicing it, at any rate).

Oscar Wilde once said something along the lines that "Good People are responsible for an awful lot of bad things in this World - chief amongst which is the degree of importance they impart to Bad People". In saying which, Wilde was placing himself firmly amongst the fun-loving Bad People - where most us of would prefer to be, keeping him company, than breathing the rarified atmosphere of the moral high ground in the company of The Good. And the same distinction applies to the vegetarians and the omnivores - the rest of us. The vegetarians have firmly seized the moral high ground, from where they can look down upon the rest of us as we indulge in orgies of self-indulgent slaughter of fluffy, cuddly things, merely in order to satisfy our depraved appetites. And, significantly, we allow them to get away with this. We fall over ourselves to respect their opinions, and get out of the way of their implicit moral crusade, whilst we tie ourselves in knots re-thinking our dinner party menus just in order to accommodate them - and we shouldn't!

The fact underlying all of this is that, frankly, Vegetarians just Don't Like Food. There isn't any hardship involved in what they do. It's easy for them. When was the last time you heard a vegetarian bemoaning the fact that their principles forbade them from tucking into a wonderfully juicy entrecôte, or that their dream was a triple-decker bacon sandwich, but that they would nevertheless continue the struggle against temptation? Never! They aren't interested in the stuff, and it's about time that we stopped tiptoeing round their compromised palates in the mistaken belief that their position is worthy of a respectful silence.

And there's another thing. Apparently, there are approximately 20,000 different species of edible plant on the planet....and in fact 90% of our food consumption relies on only twenty of them. Twenty! I can't even be bothered to do the percentages on that one - but it clearly argues that the vegetarians just aren't interested to vary their choices any further than they already are. Yum! Sesame Toast (hold the Prawn) for the seventeenth consecutive veggie Chinese banquet in a row!

Normally, I'd have a sense of nagging doubt when going into print against such a particularly well-defined constituency. But not this time; for the simple reason that I can be perfectly confident that my words will go unseen by anybody likely to be offended , since no vegetarian is ever likely to read what I'm writing( except, possibly, for the occasional member of my family, I suppose - if sufficiently bored). I'm writing about food; vegetarians aren't interested in food; vegetarians won't be interested to read what I write....Phew - safe!

So, what I really ought to be saying is that next time you have one of these people round to dinner, don't bother giving them a moment's special thought. Carry on serving up that wonderful Daube, rich and unctuous and aromatic, and blithely tell them to leave the bits they don't like, or if they just want to have the carrots on their own, then they just have to say so. They won't mind; they really won't care - they don't actually like food anyway.

Except, sadly, it doesn't work like that. Good manners dictates that we carry on tiptoeing around their preferences and bending over backwards to accommodate them. We'd feel bad about ourselves if we didn't.'s hard-wired in. The same basis on which the Just get wet, as the unJust waltz off through the downpour with the umbrellas they've borrowed and never returned.....

It's a thought, you know: maybe the Good People aren't actually quite so........ Good.... after all? Have you ever considered that?

Tonight's Dinner:

Squid, stewed with Tomatoes and Peas.

Bistecchie di Maiale; Lampacioni fritti.

Plum and Almond Tarts. (V)

Monday 10 March 2008

Recipe: Lampacioni in Agrodolce

And so.....the taste test!

Lampacioni have a unique taste: assertive, earthy, and intensely bitter. The flavour is somehow broad and flat on the palate, and reminded me strongly of both Belgian Endive and - surprisingly - Brussels Sprouts. I'd never before realised quite how alike in flavour those two things are ..

Like all vegetables, Lampacioni can be cooked pretty much anyway you like - however there are several tradional recipes which reflect both their history and their regionality. Molinari lists a few options from Puglia. In most of these, the peeled and soaked Lampacioni are first cooked in water and thereafter finished with either vinaigrette, or in a sweet and sour dressing, or in a little tomato sauce, or else dipped in flour and beaten-egg and then fried. There's a famous frittata recipe for them, as well, and a way to cook them beside the fire in an earthenware casserole, where the unpeeled Lampacioni are put in the covered pot with a covering of plenty of damp straw and allowed to steam gently in their skins for a couple of hours until completely tender.

The problem, of course, isn't so much how to cook the Lampacioni, as how to find them in the first place. They're still popular - and therefore, available - in Puglia and in Morocco, and like all bulbs they store well. So, any you might find on your travels are worth buying and transporting home for future use. Once par-cooked, they can either be frozen or else preserved in oil. As far as I know they only grow wild, so - sadly - , the supply is at risk and the chance to experience this unique ancient vegetable is dwindling. There is a supplier who sells them bottled - which I haven't tried, but I imagine they would stand up to the preserving method as well as, say, baby artichoke hearts.

Anyway, enough blather. The following is the recipe for Lampacioni in Agrodolce, which we ate last night along with a rich and strongly-flavoured Spezzatino of beef.
The most practical approach in doing this recipe is to leave the Garlic heating in the Oil as you serve the first course, and then quickly go through the rest of the recipe after the first course has been cleared.

For Six.

Ingredients: 500 grs peeled Lampacioni; Olive Oil; 1 clove Garlic (crushed with the back of a knife, but left whole); 15 g Capers; 1 tbsp Sugar; 1 tbsp Wine Vinegar; 1 tbsp chopped Parsley; Salt and Pepper.

1. Cut a cross in the root end of each bulb, as for Brussels Sprouts, and soak them for at least 8 hours: overnight is better. Like beans, Lampacioni are indigestible unless soaked.

2. Cook them like potatoes, in plenty of salted boiling water until done, about 20-25 minutes depending on the size - but don't let them collapse. Drain, and refresh in cold water if not using at once.

3. Gently sweat the crushed garlic in the oil for 15 minutes to draw out the flavour, then remove the Garlic and add the Lampacioni to the pan. Stir over moderate heat until warmed through; add the other ingredients, and cook for a further minute or two, stirring.

Serve, sprinkled with chopped Parsley.

Sunday 9 March 2008

Time Travel......

Much of the history of Food is one of change. Sometimes this has been merely the result of fashion - but often it is a function of the way markets work and of the sustainability of the supply. For example, some ingredients which are expensive today were dirt-cheap a hundred years ago. An American turn of the (last) century recipe for ketchup comes to mind, for example, which blithely called for the addition of a couple of lobsters as seasoning! Or Carème nonchalantly specified in one recipe Dover sole two feet in length ...'or thereabouts' (I can't remember when I last even saw a sole this size in the fishmongers, let alone decided the budget would stand the cost). Molinari, in his 'Grande Libro della Cucina Italiana' suggests using a couple of black truffles, just to add a bit of interest to a simple little braised pigeon dish!
Dream on......

Sadly we have already eaten many of these ingredients out of reach and into scarcity: who
knows how long it will be before they follow the fabled Sylphium - über spice of the Ancient Greeks and Romans - into a final oblivion? And as they disappear, so too do all the dishes that depend on them - or at least in their original versions - leaving us with a substitute which is apparently 'nearly as good'. Sure, you can substitute monkfish for lobster, truffle-flavouring for the real thing, flounder for sole......... but it is only ever going to be a thin echo of the glories of the original.

And it isn't only the grand ingredients which are under threat.

The other morning, at the Amantea Man's shop in Via San Francesco (so-called because once, years ago, he had a supply of the nearly unfindable Ovoli mushroom Amantea Caesarea - the mushroom of the King) the Technical Dept. spotted a large basket of bulbs which looked not unlike those of a narcissus. These things were labelled 'Lampicione'. Obviously nothing horticultural, since that isn't what the Amantea man sells, these things had to be something for the kitchen - but what? A search on Google - where would we be without Google? - drew a complete blank. Not a single mention in the Googlesphere....... zilch. I assumed the TD had remembered the name wrongly, and so went off to check. But, no: 'Lampicione' they definitely were. Further research in Molinari unlocked the puzzle. Either the Amantea Man can't spell, or else using his strangled and slurred Pisano Italian, one vowel sounds pretty much like any other, and so presumably might just as well be written that way. They are actually called LampAcione or Lampascione or Lampasciune or even Lampone (which unhelpfully, is also the word for raspberry. Go figure....).
In fact, they are the bulbs of the Grape Hyacinth,
Muscari Comosum.

Lampacione look similar to a small onion and are used in much the same way - more likely than not they pre-date the onion because, so I am told, onions in the wild do not form fat bulbs at all - this only occurs as a result of cultivation. The clincher on this is that in Greek and Latin lampac
ione are called simply Volvi (βολβοί ) and Bulbi - i.e. 'bulbs'. Since it's the first on the scene that gets to use the 'word' - shades here of the Sacher Torte dispute with Demel -. and the first plant to be called 'bulb' was this one, the word 'bulb' actually refers to this kind of foodstuff. All the rest - the tulip bulbs, the daffodil bulbs, the light bulbs and even the bulbous noses, are an echo of this simple ancient vegetable which could be gathered in the woods and kept well, if stored in a basket like that at the Amantea man's shop. For me, the etymological and historical connections in the whole subject are compellingly charming. Ovid, by the way, refers to them as an aphrodisiac...which suggests that what Catullus made of them is probably completely unprintable!

In Apicius, there are recipes for Bulbi which read exactly like Onions à la Grecque. And in fact it is not uncommon to find the Greek word Volvi used now for little pickling onions or in salads such as 'Volvi me Ladoxido', which are little onions in vinaigrette. Real Volvi look like onions, they are crunchy like onions, but they taste completely different - much earthier and more intensely bitter than the relative sweetness of cultivated onions.

While the Amantea Man still indulges in the occasional basket of Lampacione, the connection remains - but I'm afraid I don't hold out great hopes for the future.
So, yesterday - while it's still possible to do so - I bought a kilo of the things, and this evening we'll turn the clock back a few millennia and cook them in agrodolce. A recipe that even Homer might have recognised.....

Tonight's Dinner:

Tartes aux Moules

Spezzatino alla Fiorentina; Lampacione in agrodolce

Roast Pineapple and Vanilla, in a Banana Caramel Sauce